I was lucky enough to get a chance to go out and shoot with a pre-production PXW-FS7 in Amsterdam during IBC. Guess what? It makes some very nice pictures!
In case you’ve had your head in the sand the last couple of weeks the PXW-FS7 is a new super35mm camcorder from Sony. It uses the same sensor as the Sony PMW-F5 and a lot of the camera is, I am sure, shared with the F5. Even the menu’s are almost exactly the same. It can record 4K internally on XQD cards using Sony’s XAVC codec. When the cameras start shipping next month you will be able to record 3840×2160 UHD/QuadHD as well as HD. Next year there will be an update to add 4096×2160 at up to 60fps.
The XAVC codec options are great. You can choose between I frame for easy editing or long GoP which gives a smaller file size but needs more processing power to decode. The 10 bit 422 image quality is very similar in both cases, so choose which to use based on how much recording media you have and how powerful your edit machine is. If you still need the legacy HD XDCAM Mpeg codec then you have that too.
By adding the optional extension box to the rear of the camera you can even record ProRes HQ to the XQD cards (after a firmware update early next year). The extension box also adds the raw output needed to record raw to an external recorder such as The Odyssey 7Q or Sony R5 recorder. On top of that you also gain Timecode in and out plus genlock. To power all of this (and the camera) the extension box has a V-Mount battery plate on it’s rear. When not using the extension box the camera runs off BP-U type batteries, the same 12V batteries as used by an EX1 or PMW200 etc.
The FS7 has two different shooting modes. In custom mode the camera behaves pretty much like any other conventional camera where what you see in the viewfinder is what’s recorded on the cards. You can alter the cameras gamma curve, matrix and other settings, but basically what you see is what you get. The other mode is the CineEI mode (just like an F5 or F55) and in this mode the camera records using SGamut3.cine and S-Log3. The aim being to capture the maximum possible dynamic range and in this mode the cameras sensitivity is locked to it’s native ISO of 2000. As S-Log3 results in a very flat picture (that’s great for grading and post work) the camera includes the ability to add a range of Look Up Tables (LUT’s) to the viewfinder or HDSDI output. LUT’s help you better judge exposure and give a more pleasing image prior to grading. You can even generate your own LUT’s in software such as Resolve and load them in to the camera. For exposure assistance the camera has a range of tools including a waveform, vectorscope or histogram display as well as zebras.
Ergonomically the camera is very interesting. It has Sony’s E-Mount lens mount so you can use just about any lens you want simply by adding a lens adapter. Using a metabones or Commlite adapter you can use Canon EF lenses with ease. Likewise PL or Nikon lenses with the appropriate adapters.
Designed to sit on the front of your shoulder and supplied with a handgrip on an adjustable arm (attached via a standard Arri type rosette) the camera is easy to use. There are a couple of assignable buttons on the hand grip as well as a small joystick for navigating through the cameras menu system. A large zoom rocker will control any E-Mount zoom lenses used such as the new 28-135mm f4 lens and a further assignable dial wheel can be used to control the lenses aperture or other functions. The hand grip uses the LanC protcol so it should be possible to use other LanC devices with this camera.
The camera is a little front heavy as it sits on the front of your shoulder. When you add the extension box and a V-mount battery the balance is much better as the weight is now set much further back. With a 3rd party shoulder mount such as the new Vocas one or the dedicated Sony VCT-FS7 mount the camera can be turned into a true shoulder mount camera.
The LCD viewfinder is mounted on a thin arm that gives it forwards and backwards adjustment as well as up and down adjustment, but there is no left right adjustment.
Overall I think the viewfinder is the weakest part of this camera. The images in the VF are quite reasonable (its 940×560 resolution) but the mounting mechanism and loupe are not the best. Maybe this will be improved before the camera ships. I made a lot of use of one of the hand grip assignable buttons to provide focus magnification while shooting to ensure focus was spot on and it’s nice to have the focus mag function so easily accessible.
One issue I did find with the arm for the hand grip was that unless you fold it up out of the way you can’t slide the camera on and off a tripod. If you are using a base plate this is less of a problem but with a bare camera it’s a bit of a pain.
I found the operation of the camera almost identical to the PMW-F5. There are some differences however. The FS7 does not have a 2K center scan mode for the sensor. This is used on the F5/F55 to eliminate aliasing problems when shooting above 60fps where the 4K sensor is read out as a 2K sensor. On the F5/F55 if you don’t want to use the 2K center scan mode you can fit a special 2K low pass optical filter to eliminate aliasing above 60fps, but again this is not possible on the FS7.
Another thing the FS7 doesn’t have is the large side display of the F5 and F55. For conventional shooting this is not really a big deal. But if you are using the CineEI mode where you may be using LUT’s on different outputs not having this information clearly displayed is a bit of a nuisance. In fact during the shoot with the FS7 at one point I though I was shooting with a LUT when in fact I was not. The only way to be sure of how everything is set is to go into the cameras menu system.
But what about the image quality? Frankly it’s amazing! For the money the images this camera produces are remarkable. It is using the F5’s sensor and it does have 14 stops of dynamic range. S-log3 is a great gamma curve and the camera is very low noise, even at it’s native 2000 ISO. It was hard to tell as most of the shooting took place at night, but initially it doesn’t look like there is any difference between the quality of the footage from the FS7 and the PMW-F5. Great colours, low noise, high dynamic range with very pleasing roll off what more can you want? One area where there will be a difference is with raw. The PMW-F5 takes the Sony R5 directly docked on it’s back. The raw form the F5 is 16 bit while the raw from the FS7 is going to be recorded on an external recorder at only 12 bits. 12 bit linear raw is really pushing the limits of what is needed for linear raw. However we do already know that the 12 bit raw from Sony’s FS700 works well, so this should be no different.
Where this camera will be really good is when combined with the new 28-135mm f4 servo zoom lens. Typically par-focal lenses with this kind aperture and zoom ratio cost in excess of $30K. This lens will be around $2.7K. Being able to zoom in and out on a large sensor camera smoothly really increases the cameras flexibility making it much easier to use in run and gun type situations. The lens is never going to be an incredible performer at this price and when wide open I did find it a little soft, but for shear ease of use it’s really remarkable. The FS7 combined with this lens will be a killer combination and that’s why I have ordered one. It’s NOT replacing my F5, I love my F5 and I think that the F5 is a much better camera for drama or studio type shoots. But the FS7 will be very handy for fast and fluid productions. In addition, for the money this camera is an absolute bargain.