Hands On With The Sony NEX-FS100U

I first saw the Sony NEX-FS100U on a press excursion last year in Japan a week before the earthquake and tsunami hit. Although Sony did show us the prototype of the new 4K F65, the camera journalists literally were climbing over tables to get their first glimpse of the large-sensor video camera targeted toward indie filmmakers. The FS100U is a compact camcorder that contains a Super 35mm-sized CMOS sensor and Sony’s proprietary E-lens mount. With a list price of $6,550 (street price is approximately $5K), the FS100U has been built from the ground up as a true motion-capture camera. What sets the FS100U apart from other cameras in this class is its CMOS sensor, which is essentially the same sensor that’s used in its big brother, the Sony PMW-F3. It’s also worth noting that the FS100U’s sensor is 40% larger than the Panasonic AG-AF100’s Micro Four Thirds sensor, which gives you less of a lens crop (1.5x vs. 2x) when compared to a full-frame sensor.

Sony’s LA-EA2 adapter lets you mount A-mount lenses to the FS100U’s E-mount.

Similar to other cameras in its class, the FS100U captures 8-bit AVCHD to SD cards. With the FS100U, you also can output either 8-bit 4:2:2 or RGB to an external recorder like the AJA Ki Pro Mini, Convergent Design Nano Flash or Atomos Ninja via HDMI 1.4. If you’re working on a more professional project that may end up on the big screen, it’s best to go with this workflow since the camera’s native H.264 bit rate is only 24 Mbps.

As many of you know, Log is the new buzz word in the digital camera world. Unfortunately, the FS100U works in the Rec. 709 space, unlike the F3’s S-Log or the new C300’s Canon Log gamma setting, in which both systems’ log functions give you more latitude to work with in post. But we must remember that the F3, C300 and new RED Scarlet X are almost triple the price of an FS100U.

Although the FS100U isn’t an F3, it definitely shouldn’t be compared to a DSLR. The camera’s CMOS sensor and Exmor processor have been specifically designed for motion capture. And when you think about buying a $3,000 DSLR like the new Nikon D800, you still need to purchase a separate audio recorder and probably an external EVF if you want to make films; so there goes the money you planned on saving. Also, with its Exmor imaging processor, the FS100U doesn’t employ line-skipping technology found in DSLRs. For this reason, you won’t get as much artifacting, flash banding or jello effects as you would get from a DSLR.

LENSES

The Sony E-mount lens system is the other big difference between the FS100U and its big brother, the F3, which uses a unique FZ mount and includes an FZ-to-PL adapter. As the NEX line of digital cameras grows, more and more E-mount lenses will become available, but at the present time, the line is a little incomplete. What will help is that Sony has opened the E-mount to third-party lens manufacturers like Cosina, Sigma, Tamron and Zeiss, who have or will release a wider variety of lenses. At the present time, the zooms are all variable aperture, and in terms of primes or fixed focal lengths, there’s nothing longer than a 50mm. One lens I did get to test was the new Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm ƒ/1.8 ZA, and it performed extremely well—perhaps the signature lens of the E-mount class. (The lens was designed by Zeiss, but ground by Sony.) The kit 18-200mm is a fine lens, but at ƒ/3.5-6.3, it’s a little slow, especially if you’re shooting indoors.

One of the great things about the E-mount system is the fast autofocus capability. Yes, I know most cinematographers would never use autofocus, but for many indie shooters with a skeleton crew or no crew at all, Sony’s Contrast AF is a solid feature and can save you in a pinch when shooting a moving subject with a long lens. Also with E-mount lenses, you do have optical stabilization or SteadyShot. For manual focus, the E-mount lenses don’t have focus marks on the lens nor hard stops, so you have to get a feel for the lenses before using them on a project.

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