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Sony PXW-FS5 First Look: Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

Sony’s PXW-FS5 is light and ready to fight.

At IBC in September, Sony announced the expansion of its professional 4K camera line with the PXW-FS5, whose feature set places it roughly between the FS7 and FS700. The FS5 is a petite, lightweight Super 35mm camcorder with native E mount lens type built for applications including unscripted television, documentary and independent filmmaking, and content acquisition for online delivery.

The FS5 is shipping now, with a suggested list price of $6,699 (without lens) or $7,299 (with SELP18105G zoom lens).

PXW-FS5K at left, with PXW-FS7K

Sony describes the camera as a “radical reimagining of the FS7” and a “grab and shoot” handheld that delivers high-quality, entry-level 4K imagery. Weighing less than 2 pounds (and less than 5 pounds with lens, eyecup, LCD viewfinder, handle and grip), the FS5 is ergonomically designed for handheld shooting.

The camera’s rotatable grip allows operation from a variety of shooting angles. Its 3.5-inch LCD screen is similarly flexible; it can be mounted in nine different spots on the camera body or handle to accommodate different shooting styles.

Its Super 35 Exmor CMOS image sensor incorporates 11.6 million pixels (8.3 million effective pixels) and provides 14 stops of dynamic range.

The body-only weight of the FS5 is 1 lb., 13.2 oz., less than half that of the FS7.

The FS5 offers onboard 4K recording. It is able to shoot 100 Mb/s QFHD (3840 x 2160) using Sony’s XAVC (Long GOP) recording system. Sony says that a future update will provide an option to record raw externally. Another planned firmware upgrade will add 4K (4096 x 2160) output, though pricing and timing have not been announced.

The camera also offers high frame rate (HFR) cache recording at Full HD (1920 x 1080) 10-bit 4:2:2 image quality and a frame rate of up to 240 fps. That’s without sensor cropping.

The camera’s interfaces include 3G-SDI, 4K HDMI output, two XLR connectors (one on camera body, one on detachable handle), LANC remote control, MI shoe and dual SD card slots. Equipped with Wi-Fi and a wired LAN terminal, the FS5 features enhanced network functions such as file transfer and streaming transmission. There are no timecode or genlock inputs or outputs.

First Look

I actually had my first look at the Sony PXW-FS5 in a confidential press briefing several weeks before the announcement at IBC 2015. With each subsequent interaction I had with it, the camera only appeared better.

The FS5 and its sibling FS7 share an Aaton-like body configuration, though the FS5 is considerably more compact. (Its body-only dimensions are about 4.5” x 5.1” x 6.9” WDH.) While it can be rigged for shoulder-mounted operation, Sony’s intent is that the FS5 be used handheld in front of the operator or, of course, mounted on a tripod. Its small size and weight also make it ideal for use on unmanned aerial vehicles or gimbals.

The FS5 is built for handheld operation. The well balanced chassis is easily configured to shoot from high or low angles thanks to a flexible, rotatable grip and an LCD viewfinder that may be mounted in several locations on the camera body or handle.

The PXW-FS5 is equipped with the same sensor as the run-and-gun 4K FS7, but the FS5 has a native ISO of 3200 (compared to the FS7’s 2000 ISO). That would seem rather high for outdoor shooting in bright sunlight, but the FS5’s high ISO is more than compensated for by the camera’s continuously variable ND filter, which ranges from 1/4 ND to 1/128 ND. That translates to seven stops of ND attenuation. The camera also has the traditional four-position ND wheel (clear plus three settings), whose presets may be configured in the menu structure.

The variable ND becomes yet another useful feature for setting exposure or using in conjunction with aperture to achieve shallow depth of field. The electronic mechanism produces no artifacts, and I found it impossible to differentiate between the electronic variable ND and conventional ND filtration.

Like the Sony F5, F55 and FS7 cameras, the FS5 offers a Center Scan Mode. Note that this is not center crop; the Center Scan selectively outputs a 2K image (2160 x 1080) from the sensor’s center. With the use of an appropriate adapter, the Center Scan function enables the use of either Super 16 cine lenses or B4 ENG lenses without vignetting. Center Scan Mode also offers a 2x Digital Extender zoom, effectively doubling your range for HD content.

Accompanying the Center Scan Mode is Sony’s Clear Image Zoom technology. Once the camera’s servo zoom lens reaches its optical limit, Clear Image Zoom can enlarge the image by an additional 2x in HD and 1.5x in QFHD resolutions with virtually no degradation of the image. Clear Image Zoom is compatible with fixed focal length lenses as well, essentially adding a 2x (or 1.5x) zoom to prime lenses.

In my initial test with a pre-release camera, the zoom was not continuous, pausing slightly when the lens hit its optical limit before engaging the Clear Image Zoom. Effective focal length can be extended even further by switching to Center Scan Mode and then using Clear Image Zoom.

The FS5 features dual media slots with independent record control. Relay mode automatically switches recording to the other memory card when the first becomes full, while simultaneous mode permits simultaneous recording on both cards. The FS5’s two start/stop buttons (one on the grip and one on the camcorder body) can independently start and stop recording on different memory cards while recording in simultaneous mode.

The camera can record AVCHD footage of varying bit rates, but more significant for a camera in this price range is the fact that it offers onboard XAVC-L recording. While this is Long GOP, not I-frame, XAVC-L is still a more powerful codec than the XAVC-S found on lower-end cameras and Sony mirrorless cameras.

In XAVC QFHD, it records up to 3840 x 2160 at frame rates up to 30p. In XAVC HD, it can record in 25, 35 and 50 Mb/s bit rates up to 60p. It is important to note that the XAVC QFHD is 4:2:0 8-bit but the XAVC HD recordings are 4:2:2 10-bit.

The FS5 has HDMI and SDI outputs on the rear. The SDI is HD only. The HDMI can output HD or QFHD footage, depending on the shooting mode. It is important to note that currently there is no SDI or HDMI output when the camera is recording in QFHD mode. This precludes the use of external 4K recorders. It remains to be seen if Sony will remedy this in the first firmware update, as has been intimated.

Sony includes the ability to record in S-Log2 and S-Log3 gammas, in addition to its video and HyperGamma settings. There are limitations to the amount of grading 8-bit 4:2:0 QFHD footage shot log can tolerate before the image breaks down, but with basic de-log and correction, the image holds up surprisingly well.

Other notable features on the FS5 include a moveable LCD viewfinder that can be attached in up to nine different locations—three on the handle and another six on the camera body. The grip handle is greatly improved over the FS7 and offers an adjustable mounting angle. With a bayonet connection, it is easy to detach the grip.

The camera’s high frame rate (HFR) recording is also a powerful feature. The FS5 offers HFR cache recording at Full HD 10-bit 4:2:2 image quality and a frame rate of up to 240 fps (8 second burst). Higher frame rates (480 and 960 fps) are available at significantly reduced resolutions.

Like the FS7, the FS5 relies on the Sony E mount lens system for native Sony E glass. The E mount system’s short flange-back distance (distance from the lens-mounting surface to the image sensor) enables the use of A mount lenses via LA-EA4 or LA-EA3 lens adapter, as well as various other lenses via third-party adapters.

Sony sells the FS7 as a kit (PXW-FS5K) with the compact power zoom PZ 18-105mm F4 G OSS lens (SELP18105G). Weighing just short of 1 pound, the kit lens has a 6x power zoom controlled by a zoom lever on the camera’s grip handle. Maximum aperture is a constant f/4 from 18mm to 105mm. A lever and ring on the lens barrel allow zoom speed to be freely adjusted as needed. The 18-105 is a credible zoom and adequate as a kit lens.

Dual XLR inputs and the Sony MI shoe for wireless microphones or lights round out the professional feature set of the camera.

We hope in a future issue to take a more in-depth look at the FS5, detailing these and other features. Meanwhile, Sony has a true winning camera on its hands and one that is eminently useful for documentary, indie, run and gun and event work. Our first look is indeed a very favorable one.