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Cameras, Codecs, Cards, CineAlta: A First Look at Sony’s Expanded and Evolved F Series

After weeks of teasing, Sony finally revealed its expanded F Series ecosystem of products at the end of October. Sony’s expanded CineAlta ecosystem centers around two new 4K cameras, the PMW-F5 and the PMW-F55. They share an identical modular form factor differentiated only by the silver PL locking ring on the F55. The shape of the cameras very much resembles an Aaton film camera or even an ARRI Alexa, except smaller, shorter and lighter.

Sony’s PMW-F5 and PMW-F55

The F5 is configured with a 4K 11.6-megapixel sensor whose specifications seem to be very similar to the NEX-FS700’s chip. The F55 features the same color filter array as the F65, allowing a significantly wider color gamut. The F55 adds a global electronic shutter, a first for 4K CMOS, eliminating the rolling shutter effect common to CMOS cameras.

The need to navigate levels of menus is eliminated by a side LCD display with logical control buttons. Codec, shutter speed, timecode and other information are clearly displayed, greatly simplifying settings adjustments.

The top handle is removable and bolts securely to the camera. Sony will offer an optional shoulder mount with 15mm rod sockets, under-camera shoulder pad and rosettes.

Dynamic range of the cameras increases to 14 stops with the change to S-Log2 gamma.

Lens mount is Sony FX with supplied PL adapter.

The cameras are modular, a major advantage when size and weight are primary concerns.

Both cameras offer multi-codec support: Sony’s new XAVC MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 format, the SR codec (MPEG-4 SStP) and the XDCAM 50 Mb/s 4:2:2 codec. In-camera recording is to Sony’s new SxS Pro+ memory card media.

The F5 is able to record HD and 2K internally, plus 2K and 4K 16-bit raw externally.

The F55 records HD, 2K and 4K internally, with external 2K and 4K 16-bit raw output. The F55 also offers 4K monitoring via 3G-SDI ports. The F55 4K is of two flavors: QFHD for 4K television aspect ratio and true 4096 x 2160 pixels for theatrical projection.

The F55 offers quad 3G-SDI for 4K 60p output plus HDMI 4K 4:2:0 8-bit up to 30p. Both cameras have four SDI out, genlock and remote connectors. The removable XLR audio input module can be swapped for analog two-channel or AES modules. Initial support will be for two-channel analog, with four-channel AES to follow.

Power consumption of both is just 25 watts, camera only. Weight is 4.8 lb. Somewhat disappointing, the cameras offer only two levels of ND: 0.9 and 1.8. The F5 sensor is rated at ISO 2000, while the F55 sensor with global shutter is rated ISO 1250. Wi-Fi remote modules will be available at a later date.

“These two models join a family of Sony large-sensor cameras and deliver powerful new capabilities to professionals working at every level of production,” says Rob Willox, director of marketing for large-image-sensor cameras at Sony Electronics. “They fill a critical gap in large-sensor acquisition between Sony’s PMW-F3 camcorder and F65 digital motion picture camera, and give content creators new levels of flexibility and creative options for acquisition and production in HD, 2K, 4K and beyond. The total lineup, with our new accessories, further underscores Sony’s commitment to supporting every aspect of the highest-quality workflows.”


DVF-EL100 OLED viewfinder

Users have been critical of the lack of “real viewfinders” for the PMW-F3. Sony offers three options for the modular F5/F55 cameras. The DVF-EL100 is a 0.7” 1280 x 720 OLED viewfinder with focus magnification. The DVF-L350 is a 960 x 540 3.5” LCD viewfinder, which comes with a flip-up eyepiece magnifier. Finally, the DVF-L700 is a full 1920 x 1080 7” LCD monitor/viewfinder, also with flip-up eyepiece, optimized for HD, 2K and 4K monitoring in a 1920 x 1080 canvas using HD-SDI output from the cameras.

Multiple Codecs
In keeping with updates to Sony EX Series cameras, internal XDCAM codec is now 50 Mb/s 4:2:2 8-bit wrapped in MXF. For the first time in cameras in this range, Sony includes SR codec 220 Mb/s 10-bit 4:2:2. A free firmware upgrade is promised that will increase this to SR 440 Mb/s 4:4:4 RGB.

Sony’s new XAVC codec employs MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 level 5.2 encoding. It is 10-bit I-frame with data rates that range from 80 Mb/s for HD 24p material and 100 Mb/s for HD 29.97/30 fps all the way to 600 Mb/s for in-camera 4K 60p.

Sony has announced support for XAVC from some 14 NLE, finishing, dailies and grading apps including Adobe CS6 with Rovi Total Code plug-in, Avid, Apple Final Cut Pro X, Grass Valley, Quantel and Sony Creative Software Vegas.

The efficiency of the XAVC codec allows high frame rate recording, which will be available following a future free firmware update. In the F5, HD and 2K up to 120 fps can be recorded internally to XAVC and externally at 120 fps 16-bit raw to the external recorder.

The AXS-R5 raw recorder snaps to the back of the camera.

The F55 will ultimately shoot up to 60 fps XAVC internal 4K and up to 180 fps XAVC internal HD/2K. With external recording, it can shoot up to 240 fps 2K 16-bit raw.

The Recorder
The AXS-R5 recorder snaps to the back of the camera and records 16-bit linear 2K or 4K. It will offer HD-SDI monitoring in 10-bit 4:2:2 real time debayered.

The AXS-R5 is also the 4K raw recorder for Sony’s NEX-FS700U camcorder via the new HXR-IFR5 interface adapter.

With the AXS-R5, Sony introduces the AXSM Access Memory System for 2K/4K raw recording. The AXSM memory card has a capacity of 512 GB. Users will be able to record 4K raw data up to 60 fps and 2K raw data up to 240 fps on the F55 (up to 120 fps on F5), with a 300 MB/s sustained transfer speed. Accompanying the AXSM card is a USB 3.0 card reader.

No pricing is being announced at this point, but a Sony source assured me that pricing would be in line with comparable products.

New SxS Pro+
In order to handle the bandwidth requirements of 4K, Sony has introduced SxS Pro+ cards in 64 GB and 128 GB capacities. Original SxS cards will also work in the cameras, but not at 2K/4K resolutions or high frame rates. (Original SxS cards record XDCAM 50 Mb/s.)

Both cameras will be able to dual record in a number of different configurations based on codec and whether using the optional AXS-R5 raw recorder. Combinations will include recording in parallel to a single SxS Pro+ card, to both SxS slots with the same or different codecs, and recording to SxS at the same time as to the AXS-R5 in raw.

More Power Options
The camera introduction provided the opportunity to introduce a new battery technology. Sony’s BP-FL75 battery pack uses olivine-type lithium iron phosphate battery technology instead of lithium ion cathodes, resulting in increased charge-discharge cycles. Sony’s BC-L90 quick charger enables two times higher-speed charging and a maximum of 150 minutes consecutive shooting.

The high-resolution status display confirms major settings for confident operation. Six soft keys above and below the display are context-sensitive and give you direct access to key shooting parameters.

Other characteristics of this technology include low emissions and lower heat generation. All V mount (and Gold mount with third-party adapter) batteries can attach as well.

Many buyers of the original F3 lens kit were critical both of lens construction and available focal lengths. Sony has overhauled the lenses with glass certified for 4K, a nine-blade iris, 240° focus ring and a consistent T2 aperture across all lenses. Optional PL mount prime lens kits will include either a six-lens or three-lens set. The six-lens kit includes 20mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm glass. The three-lens set includes 20mm, 25mm and 135mm.

And a Monitor
No 4K ecosystem would be complete without a monitor. Sony’s PVM-X300 is a 30” 4096 x 2160 resolution monitor for support of 4K production in the field. The monitor incorporates a 10-bit RGB panel. Interfaces include four 3G/HD-SDI inputs with monitor out, four HDMI v1.4a inputs and two DisplayPort inputs. Quad 3G/HD-SDI ports allow live monitoring of the PMW-F55 at 4096 x 2160 up to 60p. The monitor offers modes for 4K, Quad View, 2K and HD zoom. To take advantage of the windowing capacity of 4K, there are five different selectable zones with a zoom up to 200 percent.

Impressions and Availability
Sony anticipates February 2013 availability for the F5 and F55. Pricing will be announced soon, but it can be assumed that these cameras would be positioned between the F3 and F65 and priced competitively with comparable cameras from other vendors.

Sony PMW-F5 CineAlta 4K camera

Also available in February are the PVM-X300 4K monitor and SxS PRO+ cards (SBP-64B and SBP-128B). The HXR-IFR5 interface unit, which will allow the NEX-FS700 camcorder to capture 4K raw footage in combination with the Sony AXS-R5 RAW recorder, is planned to be available after the 2013 NAB Show for around $2,000.

First impressions of the cameras are positive. Sony has clearly listened to its CineAlta user base and has built on the strengths of the F3, which remains part of the product line. Sony wisely offers two cameras, allowing users to choose based on desired features. Dynamic range to 14 stops via S-Log2 makes the F5 and F55 extraordinarily powerful tools for digital cinema creation.

The specs are impressive, the form factor and modular design even more so. We expect to offer hands-on impressions of the product line as cameras become available for review.  

Choice of Recording Formats
When it comes to production, one recording mode does not fit all. That’s why the F55 gives you not one but four recording formats. All four are recorded internally, onto Sony’s SxS media. (The F5 offers the first three formats, also recorded internally onto SxS media.)

* Expected as a future upgrade
** Compared to previous professional AVC Intra-frame only encoding.

Read an interview with Sony’s Juan Martinez and Rob Willox here.