I was lucky enough to get some hands on time with a prototype FS5 in Amsterdam at IBC. In case you haven’t heard about it, the PXW-FS5 is a compact interchangeable lens, super 35mm camcorder from Sony that can record in HD or UHD 4K. It shares many of the features of the already incredibly popular PXW-FS7 but in a much smaller body. As well as being similar to the FS7 it also has many similarities with the lower cost FS700, more on that later.
SMALL AND VERY LIGHT.
The first thing that struck me about this camera is just how small and light it is. The top handle and handgrip can be removed making it even smaller and the body alone weighs just 800 grams. It really is very small and very light, so perfect for drones, gimbals or simply for those of us that want something compact for travel.
On the right side of the camera there is a chunky handgrip with a host of assignable buttons, a zoom rocker, an assignable dial (ideal for exposure control) and a joystick for navigating through the cameras menus and controlling various functions. The handgrip is comfortable to hold and gives you a very secure grip of the camera. It can be rotated and locked into an wide range of positions so you can adjust it to suit your shooting style and how you’re using the camera. My only criticism of the hand grip is that for me and my big hands the record button was a little too recessed and could be tricky to press. Perhaps before the cameras are released this may be addressed. The handgrip can be quickly detached via a quick release mechanism. The mounting system is very secure and I couldn’t find any play or wobble. Like the handgrip on the FS7 it uses the LANC protocol to control the camera and is connected via a 2.5mm plug. So this means that the majority of other existing LANC controllers can be used with the camera for remote control. Once the handgrip has been removed you can add a standard Arri rosette (not supplied, but available from Sony as a spare part) to attach the arm and controller from the FS7 or any other arms or attachments that use the Arri rosette standard.
THE LEFT SIDE AND BUILD QUALITY
The left side of the camera is like a miniaturised FS7. There are several assignable buttons as well as the always familiar ENG style switches for gain and white balance. Above the switches there are push buttons for iris, shutter and gain control. There’s a dial and buttons for navigating the menu system (similar menu structure to FS700) and two large dials for setting the audio recording levels. On top of all that there is a large dial to control the iris/aperture or the electronic variable ND filter. Yes, that’s right an electronic variable ND… more on that later.
This camera is incredibly well built, it even has both 1/4″ and 3/8″ threads on the base as well as eight 1/4″ threads on the top of the body for multiple mounting options on tripods as well as for attaching accessories such as lights or monitors. The body is lightweight magnesium alloy and to me it feels extremely well constructed. When I shot with it in Amsterdam it was raining heavily and it did get quite wet but that didn’t cause any problems. I would always recommend a rain cover, but sometimes you do get caught in unexpected rain showers.
POWER AND CONNECTIVITY, WIFI AND LAN
This is a 12v camera so for power the camera uses the now common BP-U type batteries as used on the EX1, PMW-200 etc. Or you can power it via a DC socket on the rear of the camera. Thanks to the low power electronics (approx 12 watts) a BP-U60 will run the camera for an incredible 4 hours. That’s almost double the run time of the already low powered FS7. So with one battery in the camera and a spare in your pocket you should have enough power for a full day of shooting. Connectivity is very good, there are two XLR audio inputs, one on the rear of the camera body and one on the right side of the removable handle. So even when you remove the top handle you can still attach an external XLR mic to the camera. On the top handle there is Sony’s MI shoe so you can add a radio mic or further XLR input box if you wish without extra wires or cables (the handle also includes a GPS receiver for adding your location to the footage metadata). On the back of the camera there is an HDSDI output and HDMI output. The SDI is HD only and the HDMI can be HD or 4K (UHD 8 bit, 4:2:2, 3840×2160) depending on the cameras shooting mode (Currently the HDMI/SDI output is not available when recording 4K internally. However a firmware update, version 1.1, will enable the HDMI/SDI while recording internally at a later date). It’s worth noting that there are no timecode or genlock inputs or outputs. In the future there will be a firmware option to add a raw output to the camera for the best possible image quality (there may or may not be a charge for this upgrade and I don’t know when it will be available). As well as the traditional video connections there is also a full size LAN port. The camera has wifi too, so you can connect to the internet or a network via either WiFi or a LAN cable and then use it’s built in streaming capability to stream your footage live or upload it via ftp at a later time. This is going to be great for breaking news or to stream corporate events for clients. Next year I’m going to try to stream the Northern Lights live from Norway.
SENSOR AND SENSITIVITY
The sensor appears to be the same sensor as the PXW-FS7 and PMW-F5, so it’s a dedicated 4K video sensor. This means that compared to most DSLR’s and many other large sensor cameras it has minimal image skew and low levels of rolling shutter. When I shot with it I didn’t find any shots that were noticeably effected by rolling shutter even though I shot a lot of footage from a moving boat. Noise levels are well controlled even though the native ISO is 3200 ISOin S-Log and 1000 ISO in other gammas! It looks like the image processing in this camera is really rather good at reducing noise. In low light and the dark the pictures from this camera look very good. My understanding is that in order to keep the power consumption down and to keep heat levels low this camera uses different processing to the FS7.
This makes sense as this camera does not have some of the more advanced functions of the FS7, like the CineEI mode, but on a camera like this the simpler menu structure and less complicated shooting modes really come in to their own as it helps make it a very easy camera to use. And for me, this was one of the best surprises with this camera. It’s very easy to use!
EASY TO SHOOT WITH
I had the 18-105mm power zoom lens which is available with the camera in the PXW-FS5K “kit”. It has to be said that this isn’t a high end cinema lens. It’s a low cost DSLR type lens with a powered zoom function. It’s a constant f4 throughout the zoom range but still small and compact. The camera includes electronic lens compensation that helps reduce some of the distortions and vignetting that would otherwise be visible (this does work in both HD and 4K with this camera). In addition with a Sony lens you can choose via the menu which direction the focus ring operates in. When paired together like this it’s almost like having an ENG handycam camera like the EX1 or PMW-200 again. You get a smooth power zoom that tracks focus reasonably well in a very compact package. OK, so it’s only a 6x optical zoom and the focus ring is one of those uncalibrated round and round servo jobs, but you know what, it works and it works pretty well. The camera even has Sony’s clear image zoom function that electronically increases the zoom range with virtually no image degradation. Apparently this can even be used with a prime lens to make it into a short zoom, although I was unable to test this clever feature out for myself. Once the production cameras come out I’ll be sure to try this!
The autofocus is pretty good too! The camera has Sony’s face tracking auto focus which is great for shooting people on the go as it locks on to faces and will ignore the background etc. Turn off the face tracking and you have a smooth and accurate autofocus system. Add in image stabilisation as well and for run and gun this really starts to make a compelling package that could be handed off to an assistant or less experienced operator for some B roll.
LIMITATIONS COMPARED TO THE FS7
What about the limitations? Compared to the FS7 there are a few limitations. The codec options are all long GOP. You can choose between AVCHD or XAVC-L. There is no option for XAVC-I and in part that’s because this camera records to SD cards (SDXC for XAVC-L). There are two card slots so you can have either relay (one card after the other) or simultaneous recording to provide an instant backup. It’s nice to be able to use such cheap media, provided you remember that this is low cost consumer media, not really designed for professional applications. SD cards are normally very reliable provided you buy good quality cards from a reputable source.
Each card slot can be independently controlled by the hand grip rec button, the top handle rec button or body rec button if you wish. Back to the codec…. XAVC-L is a great codec. In HD it’s 10 bit 422 at up to 50Mb/s so offers full broadcast quality recording. In UHD (4K, 3840×2160) it is only 8 bit 4:2:0 at 100Mb/s so a little more restricted. But don’t panic! The 8 bit UHD recordings look beautiful. They are packed with detail and have rich well balanced color. I think it’s also worth remembering that like most 4K cameras this uses a bayer sensor, so you never have a true full chroma resolution equivalent of a 444 or even 422 signal off the sensor to record anyway. One small but important point to consider is that a Long GOP codec needs a more powerful computer to decode than an I Frame codec. So to edit the 4K (UHD only, no DCI 4K in the FS5) from this camera you will need an up to date and reasonably high spec computer. My retina MacBook Pro will play back and edit a single stream without issue, but start trying to use multiple layers or grading and adding filters and it will start to drop frames. One further limitation of the FS5 is that the highest base frame rate in 4K is 30fps. So you can shoot at 24, 25 or 30fps in 4K at 100Mb/s or 24, 25, 30, 50 or 60fps in HD at 50 or 35 Mb/s XAVC-L or AVCHD (1920×1080 @ 17/24/28 Mb/s, plus 1280×720 @ 9/17/24Mb/s) or an AVCHD proxy for ftp or streaming at (it’s a multi-region camera).
SUPER SLOW MOTION
You can however shoot at up to 960fps by using the S&Q motion mode. This mode operates in almost exactly the same way as the FS700. It’s HD only. Up to 60fps the camera can record continuously, there is no sound however. Above 60 fps the camera uses an internal memory buffer to cache the super slow motion content. This means that at 240 fps, which is the fastest full HD speed, the camera can record up to 8 seconds of action. You have a choice of a start trigger which starts the 8 second record period when you press the rec button or an end trigger. If you use the end trigger you can wait for the action to happen, then press the rec button and the 8 seconds prior to pressing rec is then transferred to the SD cards. At 240fps 8 seconds of action becomes an 80 second clip. At 480 fps the sensor is read at half HD vertical resolution, at 960 fps the resolution is about 1/4 HD and it gets pretty grainy looking.
PICTURE PROFILES, S-LOG AND GAMUT
The PXW-FS5 includes picture profiles that have a number of preset “looks” straight from the factory. But you can go in to each of these picture profiles and change the gamma, colorspace, matrix and many other image quality settings. The FS5 has Cinegammas and S-Log2, S-Log3 as well as S-Gamut, S-Gamut3 and S-Gamut3.cine (some of these options may not be in the camera at launch, maybe only S-Log3/S-Gamut3.cine, the others added later). The Cinegammas are great for projects that won’t be graded or only have minimal grading. S-Log2/3 are fantastic for film projects or other higher end work that will be graded as it allows the full dynamic range (14 stops) of the camera to be captured. In HD the 10 bit recordings are going to be fantastic with S-log3 or S-Log2. In UHD the 8 bit recordings will be a bit more restrictive when it comes to heavy grading or post production work. S-Log2 is better than S-log3 when you only have 8 bit data as it uses all of the data available. But as a test I decided to record some S-Log3 with the FS5 and then grade it to see how it holds up. I was really very pleasantly surprised. Get the exposure right and it works well and can produce a beautiful image provided you don’t push the grade too far. When shooting in S-Log you can add a gamma assist LUT to the viewfinder to make exposure assessment easier. At the moment there is only one LUT which is the 709(800) LUT. This corrects the gamma in the viewfinder to a much more normal looking image to make getting your exposure right much simpler. I noticed that the cameras Histogram always measures the recorded signal. I think this LUT is going to be the key way of getting good log exposure with this camera, but it’s also very simple to use and that’s what you need for run and gun. Add the LUT and if it looks right, it is right, it really is that simple. The camera will feature an enhanced zebra function that will operate over the full brightness range of 9 to 109 IRE and when the histogram is used you can include a marker line at the zebra level, so if you want to use a grey card or white card to set your log exposure this will be possible (this feature wasn’t working on the review sample so I have not tested it yet). There is no CineEI mode in the FS5.
The images from the PXW-FS5 really are very nice indeed. They contain lots of very fine detail and nice rich colors. The camera I had was a pre-production prototype, so there will be some tweaking of the image before launch, but I really hope that Sony don’t change it too much as it really looks great already. There is a little noise at 3200 ISO but the noise has a very fine grain and is not at all unpleasant. You can use a lower ISO if you want, even when shooting in S-log. Once the production cameras are available I will investigate the best ways to get the most out of the standard gammas and log gammas.
CENTER SCAN MODE
FS5 has a center scan mode that uses just the center super 16mm sized part of the sensor. This mode is only available when shooting in HD, but the really nice thing is that you can assign the center scan mode to one of the assignable buttons and it switches instantly between full scan and center scan. This can be useful for extending your focal length electronically, in effect acting as a 2x extender. It means that if using the 18-105 lens for example you can get the equivalent of a 36 to 210 focal length by using the center scan mode. Another possibility is being able to use super 16mm lenses or even some 2/3″ ENG B4 zoom lenses. Super 16 is slightly larger than 2/3″ so not all 2/3″ lenses will be suitable, but many will be fine and won’t need an optical adapter, just a mount adapter.
THE LCD AND VIEWFINDER
For monitoring you have two options. There is a nice 3.5″ LCD panel (same panel as the FS7 perhaps) that can be attached to either the right, left, front or the rear of the hand grip. The LCD is plugged in to the side of the camera using the same connector as the FS7 viewfinder. The LCD can be rotated into a wide range of different positions for viewing from the rear, front or side of the camera. The attachment system and mount is well thought out and much better that the FS7’s viewfinder mounting system. The resolution is approx 1/4HD (960 x 540) which appears to be the norm for this size of LCD panel. On the back of the camera there is a small electronic viewfinder (EVF). This little EVF is actually rather good. It’s OLED so has great contrast and has a resolution very similar to the larger LCD panel. It is however quite small and you do need to get your eye nice and close to the EVF to get the best from it. I used it a lot for my shoot in Amsterdam.
VARIABLE ND FILTER
I’ve saved one of the best bits about this camera to last. It has an electronic variable ND filter. On the front of the camera there is a traditional looking filter wheel knob with 4 positions. In addition on the side of the camera there is an exposure adjustment wheel that can be used to control the iris or the ND filter! When the front ND filter wheel knob is set to clear the ND filter system is removed from the optical path. But in the other 3 positions the variable ND is placed between the lens and the sensor. It’s very important to understand that this is not a polarising ND filter as often used on the front of camera lenses. It is a special crystal that darkens when a voltage is applied to it that does not polarise the light. When the ND filter is in place it can be controlled either via the ND knob or the exposure dial. If controlled by the ND knob you can set the 3 selectable ND levels via the menu, so you can choose just how much ND you get at each of the 3 ND knob positions. If you use the wheel the you get smooth control of the ND from dark to near clear over what I believe is a 7 stop range. In the future there will be a firmware update to allow automatic control of the ND filter.
The FS5 uses what we know as Sony’s E-Mount (although Sony actually call the lens system the Alpha system). Because the sensor is very close to the lens mount it’s very easy to adapt from E-Mount to almost anything else, such as PL-Mount or Canon EF. As anyone that’s used a Canon EF lens or camera will know, the aperture on the Canon lenses operates in steps. This means that you can’t make a smooth exposure change mid shot. The variable ND filter on the FS5 gets around this problem very nicely as you can set you exposure with the aperture as you would normally and then use the ND filter for any mid shot exposure changes. The other nice thing about a variable ND is that it allows you to make exposure changes without altering your depth of field. It’s very clever technology that first appeared on the PXW-X180.
I think Sony really have a winner on their hands. The current FS7 is a great camera, but can be a bit bulky for run and gun, it’s a shoulder cam. The FS7 is a great digital cinema camera with 10 bit 422 4K DCI and UHD and full LUT and EI capabilities. The new PXW-FS5, while a little more limited as a digital cinema camera is much smaller and I think much easier to use for run and gun. The combination of the FS5 with the 18-105mm lens with it’s power zoom, effective autofocus, variable ND and really great handheld ergonomics make this a really easy camera to shoot with on the move. It really does remind me of the EX1 when that was launched. At that time to get really good quality images you almost always had to use a shoulder mounted camera, but the EX1 changed that forever. Now we have broadcast quality handycams such as the PXW-X200 that are used day in, day out for news and documentary production. To me the FS5 is similar. Up to now the majority of high quality super 35mm cameras have been shoulder mounted or bulky. The Fs5 brings really exceptionally good image quality combined with ease of use into a truly useable handheld package for the first time. While there are other small options such as the new Sony A7s2 they are not as ergonomic as the FS5 for video work, they don’t have XLR audio without the use of adapters, they don’t have conveniently located zoom rockers etc.
The FS5 is sure to be a hit. I have one on order.
Please remember that my review is based on a pre-production prototype camera. Some features and functions may change between now and release and options may or may not be added in later firmware updates. I have tried to be as accurate as possible and believe that everything is true and accurate, but things do change!
NORTHERN LIGHTS 2016.
Don’t forget I run storm chasing and Northern Lights expeditions every year. I still have some places on the second Northern Lights tour in Feb 2016. These are amazing expeditions by snowmobile up on to the Finnmarksvidda. We go ice fishing, dog sledding, exploring, cook a meal in a tent and enjoy traditional Norwegian saunas.