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Big Sensor, Small Camera, Smaller Price: Surveying the Features and Functions of Sony’s PXW-FS7

Last August, several weeks before the 2014 IBC show, Sony gave me an advance press briefing about its PXW-FS7 camera. The FS7 grabbed my attention as a camera versatile enough to accommodate the diverse projects I shoot.

As soon as Sony began accepting orders, I placed one for the FS7 + lens combo (PXW-FS7K includes a Sony 28-135mm lens) and the XDCA-FS7 Extension Unit. While FS7 cameras began shipping in October, it wasn’t until the end of December that the package with the kit lens became available. I received my camera the first week in January, with the Extension Unit following a week or so later.

Sony’s initial publicity described it a cinema vérité camera ideal for handheld long-form shooting such as documentary production, magazine shows, reality television and unscripted TV, and a companion camera for its F5 and F55 CineAlta cameras.

The FS7 is equipped with a shoulder pad for stable shoulder-style shooting.

The FS7 boasts the same sensor as Sony’s F5 and shares much but not all of the F5’s post-processing electronics. The camera supports two formats: XAVC and MPEG-2 HD. Two XAVC compression systems (intraframe and Long GOP) are provided through an H.264/MPEG-4 AVC codec. It shoots XAVC-I and XAVC-L up to 59.94p in both UHD and HD resolutions and MPEG-2 HD 422 up to 59.94 in HD resolutions. Via a soon-to-be-released free firmware update, the camera will be able to record 4K (4096 x 2160) internally to XQD cards. It’s currently capable of outputting full DCI 10-bit 4K footage via HDMI to a compatible device. For slow motion, the FS7 can shoot Full HD XAVC Intra at frame rates up to 180 fps.

Another feature enabled by the forthcoming free firmware update is internal recording to XQD media of Apple ProRes 422 HQ 1920 x 1080 footage. ProRes recording will require the optional Extension Unit ($1,999), as does the ability to output 4K or 2K raw to the Sony HXR-IFR5/AXS-R5 combination or to a compatible third-party raw recorder. Frame rates at 2K raw can reach a continuous 240 fps. Currently, the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q/7Q+ can record raw. Atomos has promised this feature in its Shogun in 2015.

Internal recording is to XQD media. The camera’s two XQD media slots support simultaneous and relay recording. XQD media is available in 32, 64 and 128 GB capacities.

The modular nature of the kit adds to its versatility. The camera body weighs a little over 4 pounds and is shaped in a manner reminiscent of an Aaton Super 16 camera. Its incorporated shoulder pad and unique extensible control arm and hand grip allow flexibility to suit the shooting style of the user. I find the integrated shoulder pad difficult for long handheld shots and have been testing the camera with the Chrosziel FS7 baseplate.

The sculpted telescoping hand grip includes a zoom button, record start/stop and several programmable buttons.

FS7 with optional XDCA-FS7 Extension Unit and battery.

The top handle is completely removable, allowing for the addition of a third-party top plate or a bare-bones camera configuration suitable for jib or gimbal mounting. Attaching the XDCA-FS7 adds another pound but allows the use of V mount batteries. In addition to its internal ProRes 422 HQ recording and raw encoding capabilities, the Extension Unit adds DC in/out, as well as genlock, ref, and timecode in/out for multicamera productions.

The FS7 operates in two base settings: Cine EI mode and Custom mode. This is the same nomenclature as on the CineAlta F5 and F55 cameras, and the modes function in the same way.

In Custom mode, the FS7 behaves like a traditional video camera in that what appears in the viewfinder is what’s recorded. The user can change settings in Custom mode including ISO gain, white balance and gamma. In low-light situations, I have been shooting HyperGamma 7 or 8 with very clean images at ISO 3200 and with noise just beginning to enter at ISO 6400.

Cine EI mode disables most of the camera’s internal image processing so that color temperature, exposure and other aspects of the image can be manipulated in post. Cine EI mode on the F5/55 was originally available only for the outboard raw recorder, but firmware updates made it possible to use Cine EI mode for internal recording, as well as to load custom 3D LUTs. Essentially, the camera now operates as a film camera. In Cine EI mode, the FS7 is always shooting the native ISO of the sensor, ISO 2000.

FS7 with Chrosziel FS7 baseplate.

In Cine EI mode, the camera supports S-Gamut3/S-Log3 and S-Gamut3.Cine/S-Log3 for flexibility of postproduction options. (Support for S-Log2, which is popular among cinematographers and videographers, is expected to be provided in a firmware update early this year.) I have been sticking with S-Log3 gamma, S-Gamut3.Cine/S-Log3 color gamut, except when outputting raw to the Odyssey 7Q+. Convergent Design recommends setting the camera to the S-Gamut3/S-Log3 option.

Shooters who have not used Sony’s F5 or F55 may not have had experience with Cine EI mode. Most users will want to shoot with a LUT enabled, but doing so on the FS7 prevents using the waveform or histogram, which is a disservice. Zebras or even simply exposing by eye are the best exposure tools with a LUT. The camera supports both LUTs (1D LUTs) and Looks (3D LUTs, which can be augmented by user-created LUTs or Looks loaded via the camera’s SD card slot).

The camera has 14 stops of dynamic range, with a certain number of stops both over and under middle gray. With the LUT enabled, set an exposure index using the three-position gain switch (having previously configured the three options assigned to the switch). Or, using the included Wi-Fi dongle, connect to a mobile device and set exposure.

The camera’s exposure is always at ISO 2000. EI is just where you set the midpoint and note the number of stops above and below that midpoint. It is counterintuitive. In a brightly-lit scenario, for example, I might shoot at an EI of 3200 to protect the highlights, while in low light I might shoot as low as ISO 500.

Other tools I use include the Hi/Lo Key. This feature (which I’ve assigned to one of the assignable buttons) shows high and low levels, allowing me to see areas outside of the 14-stop dynamic range of the LUT and EI chosen. LUTs can be set to the viewfinder only or burned into footage recorded internally or to an outboard recorder.

The FS7 has dual XQD card slots for onboard recording.

Log footage can then be graded in Sony’s new Catalyst Browse, Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve or a similar application. The free Catalyst Browse, a cross-platform viewing and logging tool that supports all Sony pro formats, will add back a Rec. 709 LUT, allows basic color correction and can transcode to the codec of your choice. It reads the metadata and understands if you shoot a given scene with an EI of 3200, another scene native and yet another with EI 800.

I prefer to work in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve, either applying a Sony LUT or just manually adjusting curves to de-log footage. I tend to de-log first and then grade.

The FS7 features an MI (multi-interface) hot shoe atop the handle that supports connection to wireless microphone packages and lights. Removing the handle or replacing with a third-party handle negates the feature, so I choose to use only the Sony handle. It mates perfectly with my Sony UWP series wireless mic system. Mount the dual-diversity receiver in the SMAD-P3 MI shoe mount adapter (sold separately) and the receiver can send audio input to either of the two audio channels of the camera without a cable. The MI shoe can also provide power to the receiver, eliminating the weight of two AA batteries.

The feature set and the effective range convinced me to switch from Sennheiser’s G3 series to Sony’s UWP mic system. If you are investing in the FS7, I would strongly advise pairing it with the UWP 11 or UWP 16 wireless systems. I’ll have more to say about the wireless mic package in future reports.

The MI shoe may also be used to power the $600 Sony HVL-LBPC LED light. When connected to the shoe, the Sony light can be turned on and off from the camera.

The camera is constructed of lightweight magnesium. Sony maintains that the unit is sealed tightly against dust and the elements. I have yet to shoot in a dusty environment but I have heard no reports thus far of body integrity problems.

The extensible handgrip has raised some concerns. I believe it to be too short and have tried extending it with a rosette extender. That makes for much more comfortable holding of the camera, allowing the operator’s right hand to form a right angle held closely to the body. The rosette bolt does not have a proper washer and virtually every user, me included, reports that it scratches the anodized black arm. It is merely a cosmetic problem, but Sony really should have caught this one.

The LED viewfinder is sharp and its loupe can be flipped up or removed. It is connected to the camera by a dedicated cable. I think the viewfinder rod is a bit short—I’d prefer an 8-inch rod. Focus assist is achieved by peaking and two-level electronic magnification.

Lens choices are numerous owing to the adaptability of the native E mount. While the 28-135mm lens is constrained by its maximum f/4 aperture, I find it remarkably sharp and with excellent contrast. The E mount system’s short flange-back distance (the distance from the lens-mounting surface to the image sensor) enables use of A mount lenses via adapter. As a full-frame lens, it will pair admirably with the Sony Alpha A7 series cameras. The iris can be set to hard stops or clickless and image stabilization is excellent.

It is in lenses, though, that I see a weakness in the FS7 system. Sony is working on expanding its E mount lens offerings at this time. The line needs two things: wider and faster. When set to its default iris, the assignable wheel on the handgrip requires numerous turns to change aperture. In part this is due to the construction of Sony E lenses—they adjust aperture in small increments and were in fact designed to be still lenses. The 28-135, with its manual iris ring, breaks this mold.

Canon EF lenses can communicate with the camera electronics via adapters. Sony USA offers a Metabones Mark IV Smart Adapter (Canon EF lens to Sony NEX) as a rebate. While awaiting the Metabones rebate, I purchased and used a Commlite mount adapter, which is available online for about $100, a fraction of the price of the Metabones adapter. Canon and other EF mount lenses can be finicky with either adapter. Metabones publishes a compatibility list. The EF implementation is not totally satisfactory, with numerous dial or wheel turns to adjust iris, some lenses supporting auto features and others not, among other issues.

E mount adapters are offered for Nikon, Leica, Contax-Yashica and PL lenses. None of these carry electronics, but I prefer an entirely manual system anyway.

The bottom line: Sony has done amazing things with a camera in the sub-$10,000 price range. It is hard to fathom that one small and reasonably priced device can shoot run-and-gun docs or reality TV or be kitted out to shoot high-production-value work. Productions will soon require 4K/UHD, making the PXW-FS7 a camera both for the present and the intermediate future by virtue of firmware updates. It is a product I recommend highly.  

Product:Sony PXW-FS7

Score:

Pros: A well priced, fully featured UHD/4K camera with solid construction and excellent ergonomics. Features ability to shoot in two log modes as well as video modes. Offers raw recording with Extension Unit and external recorder.

Cons: Slow iris adjustment for automatic lenses. Few Sony fast, wide lenses. Finicky third-party lens adapters. Handgrip too short, viewfinder rod could be longer. Scopes are disabled when using LUTs.

Bottom Line: Little can beat this camera for the money. FS7 is a camera system that an owner-operator can amortize easily with tremendous ability to utilize both Sony and third-party components. A big winner for Sony and a big winner for users.

MSRP: PXW-FS7 $9,599, PXW-FS7K with 28-135mm kit lens $12,599. Accessories: XDCA-FS7 Extension Unit $1,999, HXR-IFR5 interface $2,500, AXS-R5 recorder $6,294

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