Hands-On Review: Sony PXW-FX9 Digital Cinema Camera

Sony PXW-FX9

One thing Sony tends to do better than many of its competitors in the pro cinema camera market is to read and respond to market segment demand. I know because I’ve owned several Sony cinema cameras over the years and watched how the company has reacted to new technologies and format changes. It’s why Sony has become a powerhouse in the market segment of event, corporate and reality shooting with two models—Sony’s PXW-FS7 and FS7 MKII.

But just as times change, so does the technology. For at least the past year or so, the digital cinema camera market has become obsessed with full-frame sensors and using them to record a full-frame image using a 6K or 8K raster, which raises the question: Does anyone really need 6K or 8K acquisition? In my view, no, or at least, very few do. But like it or not, the digital cinema camera business has turned into a sensor- and raster-size arms race.

Sony’s answer to this entirely new obsession with sensor size is the new PXW-FX9 digital cinema camera, one of its latest XDCAMs, which Sony says is the first featuring “an advanced 6K full-frame sensor and Fast Hybrid Auto Focus (AF) system.” But taking a look at the FX9’s design, layout and feature set, it’s hard to not see it as the heir apparent to the Sony’s PXW-FS7 and FS7 MKII.

Sony PXW-FX9
A screencap from footage I shot with the FX9 paired with the Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 OSS G lens using the setting sun as a backlit source for the surfers in the foreground.

Of course, it’s too early to tell if the FX9 will actually replace the FS7 and FS7 MKII, or merely provide a full-frame 6K-resolution alternative to these two S35 cameras in the Sony lineup. As a point of reference, here’s how the models compare resolution- and size-wise: The FS7 models use a 4K native S35 sensor, which measures 24.0mm x 12.7mm. The FX9 uses the physically larger 6K native full-frame sensor, which measures 35.7mm x 18.8mm.

However, it’s very important to point out that at press time, the FX9 doesn’t record in 6K resolution. Its highest setting is in UHD (3840 x 2160) at 16:9. There’s a possibility that it might in the future, but it’s uncertain if Sony will ever offer an upgrade for the FX9 to capture 6K resolution video.

Features, Features, Features

Sony PXW-FX9
The FX9 gives you several options for windowing the 6K full-frame sensor.

I won’t go in-depth on every feature and specification available on the FX9, but here are some of the headline features and what’s significant about them:

Sony’s Exmor R CMOS Sensor Full-Frame Sensor: In actual use, the extra light-gathering ability of the FF sensor was handy when using the FE PZ 28-135mm f/4.0 G OSS lens for interiors and interviews. For these shots, the noise level of the FF sensor was great, even at the high base ISO of 4000.

When shooting surfers at a distance on a bright day, the ability to easily narrow the wider FF FOV to a S35 FOV helped me maximize the focal length of the FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G OSS zoom for a bit of extra reach. In FF 4K mode, the FX9 maxes out at 30 fps. So you’ll have to switch to S35 FOV to obtain 4K 60p recording.

Many of us would like to shoot sports and action using 4K 60p, so it’s good that the FX9 can accommodate this, but I was surprised that Sony couldn’t raise the bar a bit to give us 80-90 fps in 4K S35 mode and 60 fps with the FF sensor. Even with these limitations, I never thought I’d say it, but overall, the FF sensor is a distinct advantage over only having a S35 sensor. 

Sony PXW-FX9
The Sony PXW-FX9 Exmor R CMOS sensor is a brand-new variant that is closer in color science to the Venice than the FS7 MKII.

6K, 4K, HD And Frame Rates: Although a headline feature, 6K isn’t really the showstopper you would think it might be with the FX9. As I mentioned earlier, as of today, it only records a 6K image but downsamples it to 4K (UHD). Now, I’m happy to say it gives the 4K footage tremendous detail and looks very good. But it’s not 6K. As of today, the FX9 only records in two raster sizes: FHD (1920×1080) and UHD (3840×2160).

What’s more is that the FX9 only shoots higher frame rates if you window the sensor down to S35 size. (The max 6K full-frame rate is 30p.) If you window the sensor to S35 size, you can shoot up to 59.94 fps, but you have to go down to HD resolution to achieve the camera’s maximum frame rate of 120 fps. (Note: 180 fps should be coming in the FX9 V2.0 firmware sometime in 2020.)

Dual ISO: Since the FX9 has dual base ISOs of 800 and 4000, I tested grain and noise by shooting ISO 800 base for exteriors and ISO base of 4000 for interiors. The lenses I used were fairly slow zooms—the FE PZ 28-135mm f/4.0 G OSS and the FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS. I was impressed, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how clean and low-noise the ISO 4000 looks, particularly if you only have S35 camera experience with ISO 4000, whether with a dual ISO base camera or with just a fixed ISO camera with the gain turned up.

15 Stops Of Dynamic Range: In real-world shooting, most of us are satisfied with cameras that can record 12 stops of DR and up. Sony rates the FX9 at 15 stops, the same as the Canon C200 when shooting Cinema RAW Light in Clog 2. I believe that the Canon and this Sony are likely seeing about 13.5 usable stops, rather than the claimed 15 stops, but regardless of that, I did see a nice distribution of DR and latitude when I pushed the FX9 as hard as I possibly could shooting a couple of sunset scenes. Overall, I think you’ll find the DR of the FX9 to be very good, especially keeping in mind this an $11k camera, not a $50k or $80K digital cinema camera.

Sony PXW-FX9
The Electronic Variable ND system on the FX9 is easy to use and works incredibly well.

Autofocus: The FX9’s AF was exceptional when tracking faces in interviews. It was also very good when shooting b-roll, landscapes and scenery. Additionally, I tried shooting one of the most difficult subjects for auto focus—birds in flight—shooting some brown pelicans dive bombing from about 100 feet up into the water. The FX9 AF held the pelicans isolated against a gray, featureless sky in sharp focus—a very high keeper rate.

I also found the FX9’s Face Detect feature flawless: When shooting three different interviews in three different lighting setups and locations, including a couple that appeared in a low-contrast, moody type of lighting, the FX9 nailed focus on the constantly moving subjects every time. 

Variable ND Filter System: Sony implemented an electronic variable ND filter into the FS7 MKII, and that same feature carries into the FX9. I found it is by far the best, most innovative ND system in any pro digital cinema camera, rendering other competitors’ ND systems rather limited and primitive feeling, with clunky fixed stops and often not enough ND at just six stops. Contrast this with the Sony, where you can dial in all of your shutter, ISO and aperture settings and then dial in the exact amount of the ND needed. Then, you can also set the ND to track the exposure and keep your same ISO, depth of field, etc. 

S-Cinetone And SOOC Colors: In the past, clients have asked me to shoot with the SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) colors in mind. So, what I shoot is what they get. But I’ve never been satisfied with the color science of the FS7 and FS7 MKII straight out of camera. To my eyes, skin tones in particular on both cameras have a specific blue/cyan quality, straight out of camera, that looks unflattering to me. But on the FX9, you’ll find a new gamma and look called S-Cinetone, which is straight out of camera, and its color that is supposedly profiled to resemble the color science from the Sony Venice, which produces very nice, accurate, flattering skin tones.

Sony PXW-FX9
The Sony PXW-FX9 utilizes the same Sony XQD card format as the FS7 and FS7 MKII.

My verdict? I shot three interviews with the FX9—and all were very flattering, SOOC. If felt the footage looked wonderful with saturated colors that look appealing without appearing cartoon-like.

How The Sony PXW-FX9 Handled Challenging Shoots

To test the FX9, I decided to shoot with it in the field as much as possible instead of spending time shooting test charts and taking measurements. It’s generally how I can tell how these cameras behave on real-world shoots in paying, high pressure, one-take situations. Here are the results of my shoots:

Shoot Number One–Santa Rose Trail: I’ve recently been in production on a project that has a spectacular sunset in the script, which gave me an opportunity to see how portable the FX9 is.

For this shoot, I needed to hike to the top of some nearby cliffs, which, for me, wasn’t that far a hike, distance-wise. It was roughly 2.5 miles from the parking lot to the spot I chose. Now, I have hiked this trail dozens of times, and it’s pretty easy for me (since I’m an avid hiker). But that’s not when I am not carrying an 18-pound camera in one hand, a 22-pound tripod on the opposite shoulder and a 15-pound backpack on my back. So, by the time I made it to the top of the cliffs, I had had a pretty good workout and needed to rest a couple of times.

Sony PXW-FX9
In real-world shooting conditions, I found the FX9 to be a solid performer. It was predictable and ergonomically sound, and, most importantly, my clients found the footage to be great for their needs.

It was a somewhat strenuous trek, but I was rewarded by a spectacular sunset, and the FX9 was a joy to shoot with. Technically speaking, the variable ND was extremely useful, since I could pan on and off the incredibly bright sun and some rock formations surrounding it, and the Variable ND on the FX9 would smoothly ramp up the exposure so I could keep the same f/stop, ISO and shutter speed.

Shoot Number Two–Interview Day: I shot three different interviews—all set in different locations of an LA library—for director Robert Bader. For this shoot, it was the first time I had a chance to use the FX9’s face detect/auto focus, and the results were impressive. The AF box tracked the talent like glue and never wavered even once.

On the same shoot, I switched the camera from Slog3.Cine gamma to the S-Cinetone gamma—the producer requested that I achieve a usable look straight out of camera—and we both were happy with how the FX9 rendered skin tones on our talent.

Audio was excellent, too: I ran a Schoeps CMC641 Supercardioid boom mic into channel one and a TRAM TR50B wired lavalier into channel two. I liked how the FX9 supported four audio channels, allowing me to duplicate my two inputs to channels three and four, and offset them to -10dB lower as my safety channels. Since I was handling the audio myself as well, I was happy the FX9 made that task easy.   

Shoot Number Three–Interview Day: For our interview with a film restoration artist, we set up shop in the screening room at Post Haste Digital in Los Angeles, which would be a good test of the FX9’s dynamic range. Here’s why: We needed to achieve a flattering image, but it would have to be a low-light level on the talent, since we needed to project images and footage from her work on various film projects, all from the silent film era, in back of her.

Sony PXW-FX9
An interview with a subject in a sunroom. Note the windows behind him, which were not tinted or ND gelled. The FX9’s 15 stops of DR allowed me to hold a decent amount of detail in the windows while illuminating the subject with only two small LED panels and a diffusion disc.

Most projection systems aren’t very bright, especially in comparison to the lighting output you’ll use to light your talent. It means the camera needs to be able to handle a decent amount of dynamic range to expose the talent and the projection behind them evenly.

Here again, I used the FX9’s high ISO base of 4000, which looked good, even though I was using the relatively slow Sony FE 28-135mm f/4.0 OSS G lens. And I even tested the camera’s gain at +6dB, and I was pleasantly surprised at how little grain was visible running the camera at ISO 4000 and adding gain.

And once again, the face detect/auto focus behaved flawlessly, even under low lighting levels.

Shoot Number Four–Harbor Shoot: For my last day with the FX9, I decided to capture windsurfers. However, I was disappointed, since the weather and conditions just didn’t cooperate. I even drove more than 100 miles up and down the Southern California coast at several spots that are popular with windsurfers. On the first day, we had light rain and no wind, and on the second day, the sky brightened up, but there was still no wind. So we didn’t see any regular surfers. I decided to take the camera to the harbor to shoot footage of whatever I could find there. Fortunately, I saw a class of lifeguards on the beach, running in and out of the water and up and down the beach. It allowed me to capture subjects with movement.

Sony PXW-FX9
I was impressed at the painterly look I was able to achieve shooting this sunset on a local trail using the FX9’s Variable ND feature that allowed me to pan on and off the sunset while holding a similar overall exposure with smooth ramping of the ND to compensate.

I positioned myself at the mouth of the harbor, up on a breakwater, where I also photographed pelicans, herons feeding, and boats entering and exiting the harbor.

I used the Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 OSS G telephoto zoom lens, selecting a variety of frame rates and sensor sizes, and even shot some 120 fps footage of the subjects. In my opinion, the footage looked good, and the FX9 behaved well in these extremely bright, contrast-filled conditions.

I did make one discovery while shooting: When you shoot S&Q (slow and quick) frame-rate footage, the FX9 is manual focus only, a challenge when shooting moving subjects at a 400m focal length. Overall, though, the FX9 behaved well, and the images are great.

Sony PXW-FX9
The FX9 S-Cinetone Gamma setting helped me to easily and quickly dial in an image straight out of camera that looks really good, like this interview shot at a post house screening room with a film restoration expert.

Sony’s XDCA Extension And Shooting RAW

If you want to capture RAW video, you may be disappointed to learn that the FX9 doesn’t (and probably never will) have the ability to record RAW internally. There’s an external solution, but it’s pricey: You’ll need Sony’s optional XDCA-FX9 extension unit, which costs $2,498 extra. It has a 16-bit RAW output on it via a BNC connector. You then need to buy additional hardware: A future RAW-recording solution will likely require a separate third-party device, for an additional $1,500 to $2,500, to actually record the 16-bit output of the XDCA-FX9 back.

Aside from the expense, this hardware adds significant weight and cable clutter to the FX9, as well. What this means is that if RAW recording capability is important to you, the PXW-FX9 may not be the right choice. However, I look at this issue a little differently and like what Sony has done with RAW and the FX9. The market segment that buys and uses the FS7 and FS7 MKII rarely would ever need RAW recording. With the FX9, Sony provides a potential option for RAW capture.

Sony PXW-FX9
I walked away from a week of shooting with the FX9 impressed by its performance.

The Bottom Line

The Sony PXW-FX9 is a very intelligently updated version of the FS7 MKII. In doing so, they’ve produced an excellent camera with a very capable full-frame 6K sensor package. Also, I was impressed with Sony’s AF technology, which is probably the best in the business. The FX9 isn’t the best camera for every user and application, but it’s a very good, solid, all-around, versatile digital cinema camera.

Also, for $11,000, it has a lot of quality and a robust feature set. And while it’s not a perfect cinema camera, when you go down its list of headline features, there is a lot to get excited about. In its segment, I think the FX9 is going to be hard to beat for working pros in the corporate, event and reality markets. If you are in the market for this type of camera, you should borrow, rent or evaluate it because I think the FX9 will be a relevant camera in our extremely fast-changing market for years to come. 

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