So I’m sure you are by now aware that Sony have just launched a new camera, the PXW-FX9. I’m not going to repeat all the information that’s already in the press release or on the Sony website here.
But instead I’m going to reflect a bit on what it’s actually like to work with, having been privileged enough to have spent a fair bit of time with various pre-production FX9’s (originally it was going to be all black and not the metallic grey that the production units will be).
Let’s be quite clear. The FX9 is not a souped up FS7 II. Although on the outside it may look similar, under the hood it is very, very different. For a start the full frame 6K sensor in the FX9 is completely new, designed specifically for this camera. What I find interesting about the sensor is that although the camera can’t do anamorphic and can only currently do 16:9 UHD (17:9 4K DCI will come in a later firmware update) it is a full height 4:3 sensor and it isn’t masked. So just maybe, anamorphic or other aspect ratios will be possible in the future. Talking to the engineers, anamorphic isn’t on the official road map, but it’s not a closed door.
My first thought was that the decision down sample from the full frame 6K to UHD and later 4K DCI is a little disappointing, as I am sure we would all love to have the ability to record in 6K as an option. But on the other, the way the down sampling helps to clean up the sensor output, reducing noise is very welcome.
You also have to remember that a camera like the FS7 that uses a 4K bayer sensor will not be producing an image with 4K resolution. Because of the way bayer sensors work, a 4K bayer sensor will result in a recording with luma resolution around 3K depending on what you are shooting. The chrom resolution will be even less than that. But start with a 6K sensor and the 4K recordings will actually be 4K resolution with better color resolution than possible form a 4K sensor. So the images from the FX9 do look sharper and have greater clarity than those from an FS7 because they are higher resolution. But the file size is exactly the same. No need to change your workflow, no need to store bigger files, but you have more recorded resolution and better color. Great for chroma key etc.
Perhaps one of the most striking differences in image quality between the FS7 and the FX9 is the lack of noise. When shooting S-Log3 the FX9 has much less noise at 4000 ISO than the FS7 at 2000 ISO. At 800 ISO the FX9 is just a little bit better again. There is less fixed pattern noise and less noise in the shadow areas. In practice what this means is that there is no need to offset the exposure when shooting log with the FX9 as there often is with the FS7. Like any camera using log you never want to be under exposed, but the FX9 works great at either of its base ISO for log producing clean largely noise free images.
This is a big deal because the FX9 also has a huge dynamic range, I’ve measured well over 14 stops using a DSC Xyla test chart and am not going to argue with Sony’s 15+ stop claim. I counted 16 steps on the chart from the FX9, but how useable the bottom 2 are is open to some debate. The FS7 only exhibited 14 steps when we measured the two cameras side by side and the difference between the 2 was clear to see, including all the extra noise in the FS7 images. In practice the combination of this huge dynamic range and low noise level means you get a greater usable highlight range than the FS7, FS5 or F5/F55 and you still retain an amazing shadow range. There’s no S-Log2 in the FX9 as S-Log2 can’t capture the cameras full dynamic range.
With the camera dealing so well with very big brightness and contrast ranges, what about color? While it’s possible to make almost any log camera look almost any way you wish, the question becomes – how easy is it to make it look nice? I’ve shoot quite a few short films with Sony’s Venice camera over the last 18 months and the footage from Venice is easy to work with, it’s hard to get it wrong with Venice. The FX9 is very, very similar. Straight out of the camera skin tones look good and contain lots of subtle texture and detail. When you use the s709 LUT highlights roll off in a pleasing, smooth manner. If you are given a choice between an FS7 and FX9 it will be an easy decision because the FX9 material is easier to work with in the grading suite. Take footage from the FX9 into ACES and it looks beautiful without any LUT or other correction.
One thing that really helps this is the ability to dial in any white balance you want, along with a tint shift, in the CineEI mode.
So far I have only been working with the class 300 XAVC files from the FX9. As many of my readers will know I am a big fan of 16 bit raw. So I am very excited about what this camera will be capable of delivering in the future when the 16 bit raw output is implemented. I think there is a bit of a question over “can you really call 6K down sampled to 4K raw – raw”? But, I think that provided it is still essentially the same data as produced by the sensor, just re-scaled, then yes, it is a kind of raw and it should bring amazing post production flexibility, provided it can be recorded in such a way that the file sizes remain manageable. Atomos have already announced that their Neon image processor is capable of handling the 16 bit raw at 4K and 120fps. So my guess would be that by the time the firmware updated needed to enable the raw becomes available there will be an affordable Shogun Neon recorder. Some have asked – what about using the R7 and X-OCN? Well that would be cool, but how many FX9 buyers want to spend $14K for an R7 with a couple of cards and a reader? Oh – hurry up Sony and Atomos – I want 16 bit, Full Frame, 120fps 4K now, not next year 🙂
One small down side of having to read out almost twice as many pixels when reading the sensor at 6K instead of 4K is that there is a bit more rolling shutter when using the 6K full frame mode. Of course nobody likes or wants this, me included. It isn’t terrible, the camera is still very usable in 6K, but you should be aware of it for any rapid pans or large amounts of horizontal motion. In the 4K super 35mm mode the rolling shutter is similar to the current FS7/F5 etc. The other restriction is the upper limit of 30fps in the 6K full frame mode. To address this, in a later firmware update, a 5K mode which uses 83% of the full frame sensor, half way between super 35mm and full frame, will be added. This will go up to 60fps when recording to UHD. I do like the fact that you can use the full frame readout for HD at up to 120fps. There is some pixel binning when in S&Q, but it looks like it’s being done really well and I’ve only really noticed artifacts on very bright specular highlights (and this is on pre-production cameras). More testing will be needed to see just how good this is. It certainly isn’t grainy like the FS7 is in S&Q.
Once again we see Sony’s variable ND filter system. This is the biggest variable filter they have done. When the ND filter isn’t engaged there is now an extra optical flat glass included between the lens and sensor to maintain a completely constant back focus distance. Because the sensor is attached to the variable ND filter system and fitted with a heatsink to maintain a constant temperature it isn’t possible to use IBIS as the assembly would be too heavy to move fast enough to compensate for motion. Instead The FX9 has a metadata system that will use the cameras built in motion sensors to record the cameras motion. Then you will be able to use this metadata to stabilise your footage in post production. This will work in Catalyst Browse from the day the camera becomes available for sale and Sony are working with Adobe etc to have plugins available for the major NLE’s soon after.
Even though the post production stabilization (which will be variable) needs to zoom into the image a bit, again it’s worth noting that because the full frame mode results in a recording with 4K higher resolution than say an F5 or FS7, even after the zoom in, the image still has higher resolution and better detail than most 4K bayer can deliver.
Talking of Catalyst Browse, there will also be a new version of Content Browser mobile for the FX9 that will allow you to remotely control the camera over wifi, better still the camera will provide a live video feed over the wifi link for monitoring on your phone or tablet. The latency isn’t terrible, around 4 frames. The camera body has wifi built in, no more need to add a dongle. If you want to stream over 4G or 5G then the new extension unit has a pair of USB ports for 2 mobile network dongles.
Ergonomically there have been some big improvements over the FS7. There are now many different ways to control the menu system (which is now laid out more like the Venice camera than the FS7). There is the joystick on the handgrip (which is now shaped more like the FS5 handgrip). There is a set of up/down, left/right, select push buttons on the side of the camera as well as my favourite which is a big jog dial knob that protrudes slightly from the front of the camera (ENG cameras used to have a knob like this and ot was great on them). This is just about big enough to be operated when wearing gloves.
Another improvement is the use of illuminated buttons for the buttons that select the various auto modes. When you select an auto function, such as auto gain, a light comes on to let you know it’s set to auto. Furthermore, you now have to press the button for a about 3 seconds to get it to switch into auto. This should help prevent accidental button bumps from putting the camera into a mode you don’t want to be in.
There’s no shortage of user assignable buttons on the FX9. Perhaps too many? The camera really is covered in buttons! But that does mean you can do some nice things like assign the high/low ISO range change to one of the buttons to switch instantly between base ISO’s.
The great news for those that shoot using CineEI and log is that LUT’s are available in S&Q when recording UHD up to 60fps. The bad news is that above 60fps, when you have to record at HD you can’t separate the LUT between monitor LUT and baking it in. However all is not lost because the camera has viewfinder gamma assist. This applies a vanilla Rec-709 LUT to the viewfinder. It’s only going to be on the viewfinder and it doesn’t change of you change the EI, but at least you don’t have to look at the S-Log image, you can still look at a correct 709 image. Given that because of it’s much lower noise levels I don’t feel that this camera needs the exposure offsets that the FS7 needs, this is not too bad a compromise. Most of the time you will be able to shoot at 800ISO/800EI or 4000ISO/4000EI, so the viewfinder gamma assist LUT will do the job – look in the viewfinder – if it looks right, it probably is right. Oh – and in addition, the S&Q HFR is much less noisy than from the FS7.
Another thing that will make S-Log3 shooters very happy is the ability to change the white balance beyond the 3 built in presets. You can dial in whatever white balance you want including a tint adjustment, just like Venice. You can also use a white or grey card to automatically set the white balance when shooting log. So getting rid of a green cast from dodgy LED lights will be much easier.
Then there’s the autofocus.
Damn you Sony – now I’m going to have to buy some new lenses! I have to admit, I have always looked down on autofocus as an inferior way to focus a video camera. Largely because I have never had a camera where the autofocus has worked as well as I would like. Sony’s little PXW-Z90 does have a very impressive autofocus system, but with a smaller sensor that is easier to do. Canon have pretty good autofocus on some of their cameras too. But the FX9 has me rethinking how I will approach focus for many shoots. It really is incredibly impressive. It is a hybrid phase and contrast based system that has phase detection sites across almost the entire sensor. It has been designed specifically for video. It has eye detection and face recognition, so you can tell exactly which face in a crowd you want it to focus on. It doesn’t hunt, it just locks on and holds focus. It’s also fully programmable so you can adjust the hold and release sensitivity as well as the focus shift speed. This allows you to make the way the auto focus works look like it’s being done by a human. Often autofocus is too fast, too snappy. You can have that too if you want, but having the ability to slow it down a touch really helps it feel much more natural.
For so many applications this amazing autofocus system is going to be a godsend. Gimbal and Stedicam users will benefit for a start. Anyone shooting fast moving people will benefit. I can see it being a huge help for me when shooting up in the arctic with bulky gloves and mittens or a fogged up and frozen viewfinder! I can see the FX9 finding a place on big budget movie shoots for shots where conventional focus method would otherwise prove challenging. But, you will need Sony E-Mount lenses to get the very best out of it, hence in part why Sony are also releasing new E-mount cine style lenses.
One more note: The camera does have genlock and timecode in/out – on the camera body. You don’t need the extension unit for TC in and out.
In case you haven’t realised by now, I am quite excited by the FX9. It ticks a lot of boxes. You get a state of the art full frame sensor with 15 stops of dynamic range. You have dual base ISO’s of 800 and 4000. You get Venice like color science. So the images look beautiful right out of the camera. Less noise means no need to offset your exposure so you can record more highlight information and shooting is easier. You retain E-Mount versatility, once again you can put just about any lens you want on the camera via low cost adapters. But now in addition you also get an amazing, truly useful autofocus system.
No change on the codec front or media, so that keeps life simple. But 16 bit raw in the future for what should be amazing image quality and post production flexibility (you will need the new XDCA FX9 extension unit for raw). I don’t need to buy new base plates as existing FS7 plates will fit, as will most top plates. There is a small change on the top of the camera as every opening now has water and dust sealing gaskets around it – the FX9 is very well sealed against bad weather and dust. So some FS7 top plates may not fit around the hole where the handle plugs in.
It takes the same BP-U batteries, so I don’t need to buy different batteries. But it does use more power, around twice as much as the FS7. The penalty you have to pay for a bigger sensor with more pixels and more processing power for LUT’s in more modes.
The viewfinder is much improved. It still has the same square rods as the FS7 MkII, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the display is now sharper and that makes focussing much easier. The new screen is 720P (the FS7 is 540P I think). So it’s already clearer and sharper. But on top of that the peaking has been improved and better still the focus mag is now very good. Zoom in and it doesn’t go all blocky and muddy, it remains clear and sharp.
There isn’t much not to like about the FX9 when you consider the price. If my clients could afford it I would love to have a Venice. But the reality is few of them can afford Venice. Besides, Venice is big and heavy. For my travels and adventures I think the FX9 is going to be a perfect fit and I can’t wait to shoot some more with one.