This is a much discussed topic right now, so as I promised in my last article about this, I have put together a video. Unfortunately YouTube’s compression masks many of the differences between the UHD XAVC and the ProRes Raw, but you can still see them, especially on the waveform scopes.
To really appreciate the difference you should watch the video on a large screen at at high quality, preferably 4K.
Normally when I travel up to arctic Norway for my annual Northern Lights expeditions I take a large sensor video camera. Last year it was the Sony FS5, which performed very well and gave me some great results. But this year I decided to down size and instead of taking a bulky camera I chose to take a pre-production sample of Sony’s diminutive new PXW-Z90 camcorder.
On the outside the Z90 looks almost exactly the same as the older PXW-X70 camcorder. I’ve shot several videos with the X70 and it’s a great little camcorder that produces a very good image considering it’s small size. Being a new model I expected the Z90 to offer some small improvements over the X70, but what I didn’t expect was the very big improvements that the Z90 brings.
The Z90 is the first camcorder from Sony to incorporate a new design of sensor. It’s a 1″ type sensor, so like the X70, bigger than you used to find on small handycams, but not as big as the super 35mm sensor found in the FS5, FS7 etc. This is a nice size for this type of camera as it makes it possible to obtain a shallow depth of field by using the cameras built in ND filters (yes- it really does have ND filters built in) and a large aperture. Or if you need a deeper depth of field for easier focussing or run and gun then you can use a smaller aperture by switching out the ND filters. The maximum aperture of the zoom lens is f2.8 but it does stop down to f4 towards the telephoto end.
This new sensor uses a new construction method that allows it to have several layers of electronics immediately below the imager pixels. The “stacked” sensor can as a result incorporate more image processing and a large memory area right under the pixels. This means that the sensor can be read out much more quickly than is normal for this type of camera and as a result rolling shutter is hugely reduced (I didn’t notice any in any of my footage).
As well as a reduction in rolling shutter compared to other similar sensors, the ability to do more on chip image processing appears to bring other advantages as the noise levels from this camera are very low indeed.
The low noise levels mean that this camera performs surprisingly well in low light. Adding in +6dB was not a problem if needed. Even with +15dB of gin the images hold together very well. Clearly the camera is doing a fair bit of electronic noise reduction at higher gain levels and there is a slight increase in image smear as a result. Plus in certain circumstances the noise levels do rise, especially if you have large dark areas amongst in an otherwise brighter scene. In my sample footage during the night time snow scooter ride, which was shot at +15dB gain, you don’t see and noise over the snow, but you can see some grainy noise over the dark jacket of the snow scooter driver (see the frame grab above). The fact that you can push the camera up to +15dB and in most cases get a pretty good image is very nice.
On top of good sensitivity you also have great dynamic range, more than the X70 and enough to make direct HDR shooting and log shooting possible with this tiny hand held camcorder. It doesn’t quite have the dynamic range of an FS5 or FS7, but there is still plenty of range to help deal with challenging lighting situations.
As well as bringing a nice improvement in image quality over the X70 (which is pretty good already) the new sensor brings a vastly improved autofocus system. There are 273 focus detection points which are combined with faster readout, faster on sensor processing and the same AF processing technology as used in the flagship Sony A9 stills camera. This brings a really remarkable autofocus system to this camera. The AF system is a newly developed hybrid system that combines phase detection AF with new algorithms created specifically for video rather than stills photography. At last this is an autofocus system that really works for a video camera. It is intelligent and responsive. There is no hunting for focus, it just seems to get on with the job.
Just about every aspect of the autofocus system can be customised in the camera menu. You can choose between using focus zones, the full image width or selectable focus spot areas. The cameras LCD screen is a touch screen so you tap the screen where you want to focus.
You can also tailor the AF’s response speed, you can adjust the size of the tracking range, using a wide range for occasions when you want the AF to follow an object through the shot, or use a narrow range to restrict the focus depth range.
You can customise how quickly the AF will move from one object to another, from staying locked on to a faster more responsive setting.
In addition it has that wonderful Sony face detection system that allows you to choose one face out of a crowd of people using the thumb stick on the hand grip or the touch screen. Once selected the camera will stay locked to that face.
While I was up in Norway it was between -24c and -30c. In those temperatures you really don’t want to take your mittens off for more than a minute or so. Being able to rely on the cameras autofocus allowed me to keep my fingers warm. Not one shot out of all my rushes from the trip has incorrect focus. That is truly remarkable and made shooting with this camera a real pleasure. I’m not saying that you should always use autofocus. When possible I love to be able to pick and choose how I focus. But in many situations or for less experienced shooters this autofocus system will be a game changer.
For my test shoot in Norway I mostly used Picture Profile number 10 which gives an instant HDR workflow thanks to the use of Hybrid Log Gamma. Using HLG you can shoot as you would do with any other conventional camera. Then take the footage and play it back in HDR on an HDR TV without any grading or other post production work. I also shot at a couple of locations using S-Log2 to test how that worked (I was shooting in UHD and the camera is 8 bit in UHD. For 8 bit I prefer S-Log2 over S-Log3). The Z90 has 10 picture profiles that allow you to tailor how the image looks, including a crunchy DSLR type look. Some filmic looks using Sony’s cinegammas as well as profiles for shooting S-Log2, S-Log3 and Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG).
The Z90 has Sony’s XAVC-L codec. This high quality codec offers 10 bit 4:2:2 broadcast quality recordings in HD and 8 bit 4:2:0 recordings in UHD (3840 x 2160). The camera records to SDXC cards, so media costs are very low. There are two card slots and you can record to each slot singly, record to one card after the other or dual record on to both cards at the same time for redundancy and an instant back. You can even use each of the cameras two record buttons to control the records on each card independently should you wish.
The Z90 is a small camcorder and like all small camcorders this doesn’t leave much room for large buttons and switches. The menu system and many of the cameras functions can be controlled via the touch screen LCD or the small joystick/thumb stick on the hand grip. Iris, shutter speed and gain each have a dedicated access button that selects the function.
Then you use the thumb stick to select the value you want, or you can set each item to Auto. In addition there is a switch to put the camera into full auto on the rear of the camera. Just below the full auto switch is the control switch for the ND filters.
The lens is a Zeiss 12x optical zoom with built in optical image stabilisation. It is controlled by a single ring around the barrel of the lens which can be switched between focus control or zoom control. In addition there is the usual zoom rocker on the handgrip as well as a small zoom switch on the top handle. In addition to the optical stabilisation the camera also has Sony’s electronic “super steadyshot” stabilisation that can be used in addition to the optical stabilisation. Another very handy function is “Clear Image Zoom”. This is a form of electronic zoom function that makes use of a database of textures and object types. When using clear image zoom the camera uses this database to apply just the right amount of image processing during the electronic zoom process. In most cases you can’t see any degradation of the image when using clear image zoom. I left it on for all of the Norway shoot as it turns the 12x zoom into a very handy 18x zoom.
After doing so much shooting on large sensor cameras with restricted zoom ranges getting back to a small camera with a big zoom range was fun. For future Norway trips I am very tempted to switch to a camera like the Z90.
The Z90 body is almost exactly the same as the X70. The cameras top handle has 2x XLR connectors with the audio controls for the two channels on the opposite side of the handle.
If you want to make the camera more compact the handle can be removed, but when you do this you will no longer have any XLR connectors. Instead you will have an MI shoe on the top of the camera body that can be used to connect a Sony UWP-D radio mic or a n XLR adapter. There is also a stereo microphone built into the main body of the camera, so even with the hand grip removed there are plenty of audio options.
The flip out LCD panel acts as the cameras main viewfinder. Opening and closing the LCD screen turns the camera on and off. It starts up and shuts down very quickly. The resolution of the LCD is similar to most other modern camera LCD’s. It’s adequate for this type of camera, but it isn’t the highest resolution screen in the world. To check focus you have a button on the top of the hand grip to activate the image magnification function and the camera has a coloured peaking system to help pick out what is, and what is not in focus. I suspect that with this particular camera, many users will take advantage of the cameras excellent auto focus system and there is a lot of feedback to the user of how this is working including coloured boxes that indicate exactly what the camera is focussing on.
As well as the side LCD panel there is also a small OLED electronic viewfinder on the rear of the camera. This is very useful for use in very bright sunlight, but it is rather small.
The cameras gain, shutter and iris functions each have a dedicated button on the side of the camera. One push of the appropriate button enables that function to be controlled by a small dial wheel just under the front of the lens.
Press the shutter button and the wheel controls the shutter. Press the gain button and the wheel controls the gain. Overall this system works well, but I would still prefer a separate gain switch and a shutter speed up/down switch. On the rear of the hand grip there is a small joystick that sits under your thumb. You can use this thumb-stick to set many of the cameras settings and to navigate through the cameras menu system. In addition you can use the LCD touchscreen to navigate through the menu as well as select your autofocus points etc.
The PXW-Z90 is a small camera that packs a very big punch. It’s never going to give the fine degree of image control that you get with most large sensor cameras and it won’t quite deliver the same image quality either (although it’s really, really close). If you need a small, discrete camera, perhaps you travel a lot, or you just need a “B” camera, then the Z90 offers a possible solution. I haven’t even touched on all the streaming, ftp and wifi capabilities of this camera. The auto focus system is a delight to use and it’s the best AF system I’ve ever come across on a video camera. The new sensor in the Z90 is clearly a fairly large step forwards from the sensor in the previous similar model the X70, it has more dynamic range, a lot less rolling shutter (not that it’s a big problem on the X70) and the final images look better as a result. I might just have to add one to my camera collection.
If you would like to join me on one of my adventures to arctic Norway please see take a look at this page. I’ve been running these trips for 11 years and EVERY tour has seen the Northern Lights. This year was no exception and we got to see some really great Auroras and had a great time dog sledding, ice fishing and exploring the Finnmarksvidda.
One of THE most common complaints I hear, day in, day out, is: There is banding in my footage.
Before you start complaining about banding or other image artefacts ask yourself one very simply, but very important question: Do I know EXACTLY what is happening to my footage within my computer or playback system? As an example, editing on a computer your footage will be starting of at it’s native bit depth. It might then be converted to a different bit depth by the edit or grading software for manipulation. Then that new bit depth signal is passed to the computers graphic card to be displayed. At this point it will possibly be converted to another bit depth as it passes through the GPU and then it will be converted to the bit depth of the computers desktop display. From there you might be passing it down an HDMI cable where another bit depth change might be needed before it finally arrives at your monitor at goodness knows what bit depth.
The two images below are very telling. The first is a photo of a high end TV connected to my MacBook ProRetina via HDMI playing back a 10 bit ProRes file in HD. The bottom picture is exactly the same file being played back out of an Atomos Shogun via HDMI to exactly the same TV. The difference is striking to say the least. Same file, same TV, same resolution. The only difference is the top one is playing back off the computer, the lower from a proper video player. I also know from experience that if I plug in a proper video output device such as a Blackmagic Mini-monitor to the laptops Thunderbolt port I will not see the same artefacts as I do when using the computers built in HDMI.
And this is a not just a quirk of my laptop, my grading suite is exactly the same. If I use the PC’s built in HDMI the pictures suck. Lots of banding and other unwanted artefacts. Play back the same clip via a dedicated, made for video, internal PCI card such as a Decklink card and almost always all of the problems go away. If you use SDI rather than HDMI things tend to be even better.
So don’t skimp on your monitoring path if you really want to know what your footage looks like. Get a proper video card, don’t rely on the computers GPU. Get a decent monitor with an SDI input and try to avoid HDMI for any critical monitoring.
Sony’s raw viewer is an application that has just quietly rumbled away in the background. It’s never been a headline app, just one of those useful tools for viewing or transcoding Sony’s raw material. I’m quite sure that the majority of users of Sony’s raw material do their raw grading and processing in something other than raw viewer.
But this new version (2.3) really needs to be taken very seriously.
Better Quality Images.
For a start Sony have always had the best de-bayer algorithms for their raw content. If you de-bayer Sony raw in Resolve and compare it to the output from previous versions of Raw Viewer, the raw viewer content always looked just that little bit cleaner. The latest versions of Raw Viewer are even better as new and improved algorithms have been included! It might not render as fast, but it does look very nice and can certainly be worth using for any “problem” footage.
Class 480 XAVC and X-OCN.
Raw Viewer version 2.3 adds new export formats and support for Sony’s X-OCN files. You can now export to both XAVC class 480 and class 300, 10 or 12bit ProRes (HD only unfortunately), DPX and SStP. XAVC Class 480 is a new higher quality version of XAVC-I that could be used as a ProResHQ replacement in many instances.
Improved Image Processing.
Color grading is now easier than ever thanks to support for Tangent Wave tracker ball control panels along with new grading tools such as Tone Curve control. There is support for EDL’s and batch processing with all kind of process queue options allowing you to prioritise your renders. Although Raw Viewer doesn’t have the power of a full grading package it is very useful for dealing with problem shots as the higher quality de-bayer provides a cleaner image with fewer artefacts. You can always take advantage of this by transcoding from raw to 16 bit DPX or Open EXR so that the high quality de-bayer takes place in Raw Viewer and then do the actual grading in your chosen grading software.
HDR and Rec.2100
If you are producing HDR content version 2.3 also adds support for the PQ and HLG gamma curves and Rec.2100 It also now includes HDR waveform displays. You can use Raw Viewer to create HDR LUT’s too.
So all-in-all Raw Viewer has become a very powerful tool for Sony’s raw and XOCN content that can bring a noticeable improvement in image quality compared to de-bayering in many of the more commonly used grading packages.
If you are running the latest Mac Sierra OS the recent Pro Video Formats update, version 2.0.5 adds the ability to play back MXF OP1a files in Quick Time Player without the need to transcode.
You can also preview MXF files in the finder window directly! This is a big deal and very welcome, finally you don’t need special software to play back files wrapped in one of the most commonly used professional media wrappers. Of course you must have the codec installed on your computer, it won’t play a file you don’t have the codec for, but XAVC, ProRes and many other pro codecs are include in the update.
At the moment I am able to play back most MXF files including most XAVC and ProRes MXF’s. However some of my XAVC MXF’s are showing up as audio only files. I can still play back these files with 3rd party software, there is no change there. But for some reason I can’t play back every XAVC MXF file directly in Quicktime Player, so play as audio only. I’m not sure why some files are fine and others are not, but this is certainly a step in the right direction. Why it’s taken so long to make this possible I don’t really know, although I suspect it is now possible due to changes in the core Quicktime components of OS Sierra. You can apply this same Video Formats update to earlier OS’s but don’t gain the MXF playback.
By the time you get to read this you may already know almost everything there is to know about the PXW-FS7 II as it has been leaked and rumoured all over the internet. But I’m under a Sony NDA, so have had to keep quiet until now.
And I’ve been told off for calling it a MKII, the correct name is PXW-FS7 II. Sorry Mr Sony, but if you call it FS7 II, most people will think the “II” means MKII.
The FS7 camera is a mature product. By that I mean that the early bugs have been resolved. The camera has proven itself to by reliable, cost effective (amazing bang for the buck really). To produce great images and 4K files that are not too big. It can do slow-mo, 4K, 2K, HD and raw via an adapter and external recorder. As a result the FS7 is now one of the top choices for many broadcasters and production companies. It has become an industry standard.
The first and most important thing to understand about the FS7 II is that it does not replace the existing FS7. I would have preferred it if Sony had called this new camera the “FS7 Plus”. The “II” designation (which I take to mean MKII) implies a replacement model, replacing the MKI. This is not the case. The FS7 II is in fact a slightly upgraded version of the standard FS7 with a few hardware improvements. The upgrades make the MKII quite a lot more expensive (approx 10K Euros), but don’t worry. If you don’t need them, you can stick with the cheaper FS7 MK1 which remains a current model. In terms of image quality there is no real difference, the sensor and image processing in the cameras is the same.
So what are the changes?
The most obvious perhaps is the use of a square rod to support the viewfinder. This eliminates the all too common FS7 problem of sagging viewfinders. As well as switching to a square rod each of the adjustments for the viewfinder mounting system now has a dedicated clamp. Before if you wanted to slide the viewfinder forwards or backwards you undid a clamp that not only freed off the sliding motion but also controlled the tilt of the screen. So it was impossible to have the fore-aft adjustment slack for quick adjustments without the viewfinder sagging and drooping.
With the MkII you can have a slack fore-aft adjuster without the VF drooping. Overall the changes to the VF mounting system are extremely welcome. The VF mount on the Mk1 is a bit of a disaster, but there are plenty of 3rd party solutions to this. So you can fix the problems on a MKI without having to replace the camera. In addition, if you really wanted you could buy the FS7 II parts as spare parts and fit them to a MKI.
The Lens Mount.
The next obvious change is to the lens mount. The FS7 MK1 has a normal Sony E-Mount where you insert the lens and then twist it to lock it in to place. The FS7 II mount is still an E-Mount but now it has a locking collar like a PL or B4 mount. This means that you have to insert the lens at the correct angle and then you turn a locking ring to secure the lens. The lens does not rotate and once locked in place cannot twist or turn and has no play or wobble. This is great for those that use a follow focus or heavier lenses. BUT the new locking system is fiddly and really needs 2 hands to operate. In practice you have to be really careful when you mount the lens. It’s vital that you align the white dot on the lens with the white dot on the mount before you twist the locking ring.
As you rotate the locking ring a small release catch drops into place to prevent the ring from coming undone. But if the lens isn’t correctly aligned when you insert it, the lens can rotate with the locking ring, the catch clicks into place, but the lens will just drop out of the mount. When inserted correctly this mount is great, but if you are not careful it is quite easy to think the lens is correctly attached when in fact it is not.
Variable ND Filter.
Behind the lens mount is perhaps the most significant upgrade. The FS7 II does away with the rotating filter wheel and replaces it with the variable ND filter system from the FS5. I have to say I absolutely love the variable ND on the FS5. It is so flexible and versatile. You still have a 4 position filter wheel knob. At the clear position the ND filter system is removed from the optical path. Select the 1, 2 or 3 positions and the electronically controlled ND filter is moved into position in front of the sensor. You then have 3 preset levels of ND (the level of which can be set in the camera menu) or the ability to smoothly control the level of ND from a dial on the side of the camera. Furthermore you can let the camera take care of the ND filter level automatically. The real beauty of the variable ND s that it allows you to adjust your exposure without having to alter the aperture (which changes the depth of field) or shutter (which alters the flicker/cadence). It’s also a great way to control exposure when using Canon lenses as the large aperture steps on the Canon lenses can be seen in the shot.
Another physical change to the camera is the use of a new arm for the handgrip. The new arm has a simple wing-nut for length adjustment, much better than the two screws in the original arm. In addition you can now use the adjuster wing-nut to attach the arm to the camera body and this brings the hand grip very close to the body for hand held use. This is a simple but effective improvement, but again 3rd party handgrip arms are available for the base model FS7.
The viewfinder loupe has seen some attention too. The standard FS7 loupe has two fiddly wire clips that have to be done up to secure the loupe to the viewfinder. The MK2 loupe has a fixed hook that slips over the top lug on the viewfinder so that you now only need to do up a single catch on the bottom of the loupe. It is easier and much less fiddly to fit the new loupe, but the optics and overall form and function of the loupe remain unchanged.
As well as the loupe the FS7 II will be supplied with a clip on collapsable sunshade for the viewfinder. This is a welcome addition and hand held shooters will no doubt find it useful. When not in use the sunshade folds down flat and covers the LCD screen to protect it from damage.
The number of assignable buttons on the FS7 II is increased to 10. There are 4 new assignable button on the camera body where the iris controls are on the original FS7. The Iris controls are now on the side of the camera just below the ND filter wheel along with the other ND filter controls. These buttons are textured to make them easier to find by touch and are a very welcome addition, provided you can remember which functions you have allocated to them. It’s still a long way from the wonderful side panel LCD of the PMW-F5/PMW-F55 with it’s 6 hotkeys and informative display of how the camera is configured.
Tucked under the side of the camera and just above the power switch there is now a small green power LED. The original FS7 has no power light so it can be hard to tell if it’s turned on or not. This little green light will let you know.
The last hardware change is to the card slots. The XQD card slots have been modified to make it easier to get hold of the cards when removing them. It’s a small change, but again most welcome as it can be quite fiddly to get the cards of an FS7.
A further change with the FS7 II is the addition of Rec-2020 colorspace in custom mode. So now with the FS7 II as well as Rec-709 colorspace you can also shoot in Rec-2020. I’m really not sure how important this really is. If Sony were to also add Hybrid Log Gamma or PQ gamma for HDR then this would be quite useful. But standard gammas + Rec2020 color doesn’t really make a huge amount of sense. If you really want to capture a big range you will probably shoot S-Log2/3 and S-Gamut/S-Gamut3.
So – the big question – is it worth the extra?
Frankly, I don’t think so. Yes, the upgrades are nice, especially the variable ND filter and for some people it might be worth it just for that. But most of the other hardware changes can be achieved via 3rd party accessories for less than the price difference between the cameras.
With all the financial turmoil going on in many countries right now I think we can expect to see the cost of most cameras start to rise, including the original (but still current) FS7. This may narrow the price gap between the FS7 MKI and FS7 MK2 a little. But an extra 3000 Euros seems a high price to pay for a variable ND filter.
In some respects this is good news as it does mean that those that have already invested in an FS7 MKI won’t see that investment diminished, the MK1 is to remain a current model alongside the souped up MK2 version. Now you have a choice, the lower cost workhorse FS7 MK1 or the MK2 with it’s variable ND filter and revised lens mount.
Has anyone else noticed that Adobe now include XAVC Class 480 in the codec options for exporting XAVC from Adobe Premiere via Media Encoder?
In case you don’t know what it is, class 480 is the 480Mb/s version of 4K XAVC. This gives a bit rate of…… drum roll……. 480Mb/s at 24/25/30fps. At 50 and 60fps it runs at a whopping 960Mb/s, this is the top limit for XAVC in it’s current form.
Sony’s PMW-F5/F55 and the FS7 currently record XAVC using Class 300 which is up to 300Mb/s at 24/25/30fps or 600Mb/s at 50/60p. So as you can see Class 480 has the potential to improve the compressed image quality from these cameras still further should it ever make it into a camera. Looking at what the cameras can currently do I’m not sure that this is possible with existing SxS or XQD media. 960Mb/s is the same data rate as Sonys 16 bit 24fps raw and it’s not possible to record that to SxS cards.
Coming back to Premier: Some interesting things happen in Premiere if you try to export an XAVC originated project out using Class 480. If the clips in your timeline are not adjusted in any way, in other words; exactly as shot, then if you export and choose Class 480 nothing happens to the footage. Premiere will “smart” export them exactly as they are as Class 300. This means that there will be absolutely no loss of image quality as the clip is not re-compressed. However if the original clip has been adjusted, for example graded, re-sized, a caption added etc then the clip will be encoded at 480Mb/s. From what I can tell where you have a mix of treated and untreated clips in a project Premiere is smart enough to pass through the untreated clips while bumping up any treated clips to 480.
Class 480 is seen as a mastering format by Sony. The extra data and lower compression makes it particularly suited to HDR productions.
The main thrust of this update appears to be to include MXF support in quicktime, including native support for XAVC in FCP7 and Quicktime7! I honestly never thought this would happen so I’m somewhat surprised by this. But it’s good news for FCP7 users and XAVC shooters in general. It does beg the question now as to whether you need the ProRes options for the FS7 or F5/F55.
Using Quicktime Player 7 you can play back XAVC MXF’s on a Mac computer, even in 4K, so VLC may no longer be required and the playback is smooth even with 4K clips. I’m not sure why but Quicktime Player 10 does not recognise 4K XAVC clips at all and HD XAVC clips get transcoded to .mov first. So download and install QT Player 7 for XAVC playback.
Currently it looks like the support is mainly for XAVC-I.
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.
Want to shoot slow motion? That’s no problem as the camera can go up to 180fps internally in HD and if you add an external raw recorder you can stretch that out to 240fps.
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.
As an owner of both the A7s and AX100 and as someone that has shot with the PXW-X70, if I had to choose one which would it be? That’s tough because although they really are very different cameras they both have strengths that are nice to have. The A7s produces a prettier picture and can be used run and gun, with limitations. I use the kit 28-70mm f3.5-f5.6 and it works well, good auto focus, smooth aperture changes etc. BUT and it is a very big BUT you need a really good set of ND’s or a strong ND fader to use it outdoors due to the extreme sensitivity. Add to that the minimal 3x zoom and it’s pretty restrictive as to what you can shoot without switching lenses and fiddling around. Sure you can add something like the new Tamron 16-300mm f3.5-f6.3 but the autofocus tends to hunt a lot more, manual focus is fiddly and you still need to mess around with ND’s. I think you need to be a fairly competent cameraman and need to be very careful over lens choices etc to use the A7s for run and gun successfully. Plus don’t forget the cost of all the extra lenses, filters etc adds up and makes the kit bulkier.
The AX100 (or PXW-X70) on the other hand really is a grab and go camera. Easy to use, great zoom range, built in ND’s. It’s quick and easy to use and may get you shots that you will miss with the A7s. But the pictures are not as pretty, primarily they lack the dynamic range of the A7s. But they are very easy to use, so well suited to those that are full auto shooters or rely heavily on auto functions to keep life simple. The X70 has much better ergonomics than the AX100 but is a bit more expensive. Both are very compact packages and as you don’t need to buy extra lenses or filters work out substantially cheaper than an A7s kit with a set of lenses to cover the same focal lengths at reasonable apertures.
Anyway, if I had to give up one of mine (A7s or AX100), for me it would be the AX100 that would go. I would be prepared to sacrifice the ease of use of the AX100 for the better images from the A7s. But I normally shoot manually anyway. I’m used to swapping lenses, working with ND filters etc. If you not used to shooting manually then the AX100 may be the better choice. Great images are of course important, but the best camera to own is a camera you will use. It’s all very well having fancy pictures and the ability to swap lenses etc. But if fiddling around means you don’t use it very often, then there is no point in having it. You would be better off with a camera that you will be comfortable with, that you will use regularly.
Camera setup, reviews, tutorials and information for pro camcorder users from Alister Chapman.