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Mirrorless and Powerful: How the Sony α7S Is Redefining DSLR Video

Three cinematographers delve into their experiences with the ultra-sensitive camera.

“People are saying you can overexpose total darkness with the Sony α7S,” says Mark Weir, senior technology manager for Sony’s Digital Imaging Group when describing Sony’s new mirrorless interchangeable lens camera’s low-light capability. In fact, variations of the concept of “seeing in the dark” have popped up in early review blogs online.

As Weir describes it, “The Sony α7S’s incredible, automatically selectable ISO range of 100 to 102,00 can be manually dialed all the way to its native limit of 409,600.” (The “S” in the product name stands for “sensitivity.”)

“The Sony α7S is a consumer interchangeable lens digital camera,” Weir says. “Although it has found a lot of appeal in the professional cinema creation community, it is not being marketed as a pro video camera, nor is it managed by our Professional Cinema Camera Group. The Sony α7S is priced at $2,500.”

The α7S joins the α7 and α7R in Sony’s α7 Series full-frame interchangeable lens camera family. The α7S features a 12.2 effective megapixel 35mm Exmor CMOS sensor and Sony’s native E-mount lens mount.

In video mode, the α7S can output 4K video at QFHD (3840 x 2160 pixels) to an optional third-party 4K recorder, and can record full HD (1920 x 1080) at frame rates of 60p, 60i, 30p and 24p directly to a compatible memory card. Video modes can be changed from full-frame to APS-C (Super 35mm equivalent); in this crop mode the camera can support 120 fps shooting at standard HD resolution (1280 x 720p).

Chris Burkard

Among full-frame cameras offering full pixel readout without pre-processing pixel binning during movie shooting, the Sony α7S is the only one that utilizes the entire width of the image sensor while shooting 4K without cropping or line skipping.

“The Sony α7S’s purpose is to provide extraordinarily high levels of dynamic range and sensitivity through the use of a unique image sensor,” Weir says. “It looks like a small DSLR but provides the performance of much larger cameras, with features including S-Log2 gamma to expand the dynamic range up to 1,300 percent, and the ability to internally record HD in the XAVC S format in addition to AVCHD and MP4 codecs.”

To ease your workflow, the Sony α7S can record XAVC S footage and an MP4 proxy (1280 x 720 @30p) at the same time and on the same card; the proxy recording can be transferred via Wi-Fi to a smartphone or tablet computer for uploading into post systems. Wi-Fi functionality even lets you control and monitor the Sony α7S from a smartphone.

Chris Burkard

Burkard shot this scene with a Sony α7

DP and director Chris Burkard is quite familiar with Sony’s α7 and α7R, so he recognizes the advantages offered by the α7S. “Its great strengths are its portability and functionality,” he explains. “I’ve been blown away by the camera’s capabilities.” He adds that he’d like to see “a dedicated autofocus button on the rear, which is very handy for action sports.”

Burkard appreciates that Sony eschewed the throwback engraved number style of button controls many other cameras have implemented. He feels the intuitive scrolling control system of the α7S lets the videographer keep his eyes on the subject in a run-and-gun shoot.

The small form factor of this mirrorless DSLR lets Burkard take it into more intimate photographic situations. “In terms of size and portability, you are going to experience more ‘found’ moments than with other cameras,” he says. “We’ve chosen the Sony α7S for out next video project specifically because it is so light and intimate. And, frankly, because shooting with it is so much fun.”

Jeff Berlin

Jeff Berlin

Jeff Berlin is a videographer and independent filmmaker who shot the indie feature The Locksmith (directed by Ryan Miningham) with a Sony F55 in 4K raw last year. Berlin recognizes that the α7S is not exactly a digital cinema camera, but even in the short time he’s had one he’s enjoyed exploring its capabilities.

Since the camera works as well as a still photography camera as a video one, he’s been using it on photo shoots for what he calls “cine photography,” where he shoots 4K video and pulls stills from the video files. He says he’s waiting to take advantage of the α7S’s full 4K capabilities until Atomos brings out its 4K HDMI recorder. The Atomos Shogun monitor/recorder is due out later this year.

Berlin has used the Sony α7S on various music videos for Destani Wolf and a shoot for Shape magazine. “The 12 megapixel image from the Sony α7S is perfectly suitable for magazines,” he says. “Since I do all my cropping in-camera, I can also take advantage of the professional features of the camera, like SMPTE timecode. I can also set the zebra for whatever percentage I choose and access focus peaking. But what is really great is the excellent 1.3 cm XGA OLED electronic viewfinder.”

Sony α7S at a Jeff Berlin shoot

When it comes to lenses, Berlin has learned that adapters for the camera’s E mount let him use any glass from Canon to Zeiss and still get the full functionality of the lens.

He finds that the camera’s rechargeable NP-FW50 battery pack gives him a reliable shooting run of 50 minutes to an hour.

“There are some ergonomic challenges to the camera, but that is a small tradeoff compared to the terrific image quality and wide dynamic range the sensor is capable of producing,” Berlin says.

On the subject of ergonomic improvements, Berlin explains, “One example is the placement of the video record button. It’s in a great spot to avoid inadvertent activation, but perhaps making the C2 button on the rear of the body assignable for record functions would be more convenient and ergonomically friendly to those of us who regularly shoot video with the Sony α7S.”

David McLain

David McLain takes the α7S for a spin

Early adopters have used the Sony α7S on various projects as far afield as the FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Up in Portland, Maine, David McLain had been test-driving a Sony α7S for about a month when we spoke. While he is both a freelance still photographer and a videographer, most of his experiences with the α7S have involved video. For the past two years McLain has been shooting a feature-length documentary called Bounce, for which he and his team are traveling the world to learn why people play ball. (Bounce is produced by Merge.)

Most of Bounce was shot with a RED EPIC camera, but when Sony asked him to take the α7S to Brazil to shoot some stills, he jumped at the chance to assess the vaunted low-light capabilities of the α7S.

David McLain with α7S setup

With the help of several Blackmagic Design converters, McLain’s crew developed a workaround to record 4K onto an AJA Ki Pro Quad recorder. “It was remarkably stable,” McLain recalls, “although we found out that shooting S-Log2 only begins at 3200 ISO and above.”

Sony had given McLain’s team credentials to the World Cup games and he used the camera to shoot the match between the United States and Ghana, which he planned to incorporate into Bounce.

“For a DSLR, this is a terrific camera for the price,” McLain says. “It lives up to its low-light promises, has a great OLED viewfinder, and that S-Log2 capability let us cover what we were down there for. That included lots of footage of the basic craziness around the games and the kids who bring football (soccer) to the streets.”

Sony has earned its reputation for producing innovative digital cameras, and the α7S is a proud addition to the line. One warning, though. With the Sony α7S’s incredible low-light capability, be careful where you park it. After all, it can see in the dark.