First Look: Sony PMW-F3

Since its announcement, the majority of camcorder bloggers have been referring to the new Sony PMW-F3 as the newest “RED Killer.” The latest in the line of Sony’s popular XDCAM EX series, the PMW-F3 is a compact camcorder that contains a Super 35mm-sized sensor and offers professional features that cinematographers have been looking for in a run-and-gun camera. At first glance, the F3’s body doesn’t look much bigger than some of Sony’s compact camcorders, like the EX1 or the NX5U, but the specs of this camera far outweigh any camera in those classes.

The F3 is based on the XDCAM EX workflow and uses Sony’s proprietary SxS media cards. Because the camera uses a Super 35mm CMOS sensor specifically designed for motion (23.6×13.3mm—approximately the same size as most APS-C sensors in DSLRs), the camera delivers cinematic shallow depth of field and can capture footage at low light levels since it’s rated at ISO 800. Before you compare the F3 to Panasonic’s new AG-AF100, the F3’s sensor is over 24% larger than the AF100’s micro 4/3″ sensor and uses far less compression. Although it’s smaller in size, the F3’s sensor also trumps the Canon EOS 5D Mark II’s full-frame sensor. Because the 5D Mark II is a still camera with a weaker processor, the camera has to employ line-skipping, where it only records one out of every three lines, which essentially dumps key detail and color information. Due to Sony’s Exmor technology, the pixels are four times larger than a DSLR’s pixels, hence no line-skipping because the camera is using the entire sensor. Also, with bigger pixels come greater dynamic range and a higher signal-to-noise ratio to shoot in low light or challenging lighting scenarios.

Along with the new sensor, the other exciting feature is that the F3 offers a PL mount, which allows cinematographers to employ cinema-style lenses from high-end lens manufacturers like Cooke and Zeiss, as well as recording Cooke /i and ARRI LDS metadata. Since most indie shooters can’t afford to buy /i lenses or Master Primes, Sony also will offer its own low-cost PL lens kit currently under development, which will include 35mm, 50mm and 85mm T2.0 prime lenses. The F3’s native mount is a ruggedized EX3-style mount that allows you to use DSLR lenses with adapters from MTF and others.

In terms of workflow, one aspect the F3 shares with others in the EX line is that it can capture to SxS cards. The files recorded to SxS are wrapped as MP4 files at 35 Mb/s, 4:2:0 MPEG-2 Long GOP, and you can edit natively in all the major NLE systems, including Final Cut Pro, which previously made you transcode all of your MP4 files to an intermediate codec like ProRes. By downloading a plug-in called cinémon ($100 for MP4 cinémon; the full version has frame chasing and other advanced capabilities, and costs around $800), you can drag and drop your files directly from the SxS cards onto a Final Cut Pro timeline and immediately begin cutting. You can download cinémon at www.sony.com/cinemon.

"Sony also will offer its own low-cost PL lens kit currently under development, which will include 35mm, 50mm and 85mm T2.0 prime lenses."

Including dual SxS slots, the F3 has all the outputs and links a pro filmmaker needs, including 12 VDC 4-pin XLR, HD-SDI dual-link Out, HDMI Out, Composite Video Out, 2x USB ports, 700 Remote Control Port and 3D Link. Through its HD-SDI dual-link output, the F3 also can capture 10-bit, 4:2:2 S-Log (kind of like Sony’s version of a RAW file or digital negative), which enables you to seamlessly intercut your F3 footage with Sony F35 or SRW-9000PL footage. You also can simultaneously record S-Log while recording to SxS with a LUT baked in your MP4 files for offline editing. Since 3D is now in the mainstream, even for indie filmmakers, the F3 allows you to do 3D stereoscopic recording with 3D Link, which can connect two F3s and record both left and right cameras onto a single memory card. Pretty impressive.

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