Reviews

Fit for purpose

Harvey Glen.
Harvey Glen with the Sony PXW- FS7.

Dubai-based cinematographer Harvey Glen road tests the newly released Sony PXW-FS7 while filming CrossFit athlete coach Carlo Milo at the Smart Fitness gym

The Sony PXW-FS7 delivers long-form recording capabilities with 4K resolution in a compact, handheld design. It shoots codec XAVC-I with a maximum resolution of 3840×2160, from 1 to 60 frames (59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 23.98p, 25p). Once you drop the camera down to 1920×1080, you can shoot high speed, up to 180fps in NTSC mode and 150fps in PAL. It records 10bit 422.

So far so good! The camera can also record in XAVC-L and MPEG, should you require it.

The sensor is a Super 35mm Exmor CMOS sensor, so you can easily shoot with a shallow depth of field and keep backgrounds defocused.

Sony claims it has a wide dynamic range of 14 stops, which is a vast amount of exposure latitude.

As advertised, it does also have the ability to record RAW, but to do this, you need an additional recorder. RAW recording ability is a feature that you could argue, does future-proof your invest, but only with further investment.

The native ISO is 2000, which is incredibly high. Anyone who remembers 35mm film will know that when 500T stock came out, people were amazed at such a fast stock and low-light capability. The RED’s and Alexa’s native ISO is 800, and a similarly priced camera to the Sony FS7, the Canon’s C300, is 850, so the camera promises a lot in low light. It would be interesting to test them all against each other and really see if the ISOs do marry up.

With such a high native ISO, for day shooting, especially in bright conditions like in the Middle East, you’ll definitely need a neutral density filter (ND). It’s a good thing the FS7 has built-in NDs: 2 stops, 4 stops and 6 stops.

Media

The SD and SXS cards are gone; the recording medium is Sony’s latest XQD card. The camera can record a range of regular gammas, along with S-Gamut3/S-Log3 and S-Gamut3, Cine/S-Log3. Cine/S-Log3 is a great advantage for images that have much more scope in grading. Once you shoot in S-Log3 Cinemode, the ISO is locked to 2000.

This camera has very similar specs to the F5, but for a much cheaper price, approximately $8,000.

So now we’re all geeked up on the specs. How are the ergonomics?

The Sony PXW-FS7 comes straight out of the box with an adjustable hard grip. Coming from a deep-rooted background of shooting documentaries with traditional broadcast cameras from Sony that are well-balanced and ergonomic, the hand-grip is welcome. One of my absolute pet hates with smaller camera units like the RED Epic, Canon 5D and Canon C300 is that you need third-party shoulder rigs. They quickly become Frankensteined – bulky and unbalanced, making traditional speedy operating somewhat slow.

The FS7 has looked back in time on how cameras used to be and thought about the person behind the lens. The handgrip is completely adjustable, and within a few minutes of playing around, I was able to set it for comfortable operating.

For this review, I was shooting at the Smart Fitness Gym. I wanted it to look organic, so I knew I’d need to shoot handheld. I also knew I would have to react quickly, as I wouldn’t be directing the athlete too much as I was documenting his actual CrossFit training session.

I needed to be able to move freely and quickly from shoulder-mounted position to under-slung. The handgrip and the lightness of the camera really helped.

I was shooting mostly in available light and needed to adjust the Iris on the fly. Normally, I like to use a real lens with the iris on the barrel. For my set-up, I had Canon EF lenses mounted using the Metabones speed adaptor. I realised, I could adjust the stop using a wheel positioned perfectly for easy access with my right hand on the handgrip. Being able to adjust the iris with my right hand allowed me to keep the camera steady and my left hand on the focus or supporting the camera, instead of fumbling around near my left cheek, like you have to on other cameras.

Pulling iris is still a little clunky and not ideal for on-shot changes, but that’s down to the digital nature of the lens. The location is also a vast improvement. You can also set up custom user buttons on the handgrip including the ability to magnify the image. This is a real help to check focus on the fly, while remaining comfortable and keeping the camera steady.

When moving on to a tripod, you might have to move the handgrip up to the base plate, depending on its position. This can be a little frustrating, but it’s a small price to pay.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is on adjustable rods, so you can easily move it forwards and backwards and up and down, allowing the operator to get it into a comfortable position.

I like to operate from the viewfinder. It allows me to be the ‘world’ I’m filming, and bright sunlight doesn’t cause any viewing issues.

The viewfinder resolution is 940×560, decent enough to see what you are recording, but it’s not OLED (organic light-emitting diode). In future models, I’m sure further improvements will be made.

You can also remove the tube, which makes the viewfinder like a flip-out monitor. This is an advantage for shooting from the hip and viewing from difficult angles.

Similar to traditional broadcast cameras, the FS7 has the peaking and zebra function and a contrast knob on the side of the viewfinder. I like to turn peaking and zebra on and off when physically recording, just to double-check focus and exposure. The FS7 allows you to do this very easily, again without fumbling around near your left cheek, whereas on other cameras you can accidentally change something you didn’t intend and cause instability with operating.

Another handy function in the viewfinder is a horizon level, something I’ve only seen on the Alexa, when using an external monitor. One of my other biggest pet hates with cameras like the C300 is that when operating handheld, you are sometimes not 100% sure the camera is straight, due to the ever-changing level on the LCD screen.

When I was shooting a drama in Cape Town, South Africa, I was forever asking the second AC to tighten the LCD and ensure its horizontal level was correct. For handheld work, we even mounted a small bubble level on the camera so we could double-check the horizon.

The internal digital level of the FS7 was a surprise for me, and even when the viewfinder was off angle, I could continue to shoot with confidence.

Sony has clearly been talking with end users, something that, in the race for resolution, many camera manufactures have forgotten to do.

Set-up

The menu is very similar to all of its Sony predecessors. I have heard other DoPs and end users complain it is too complicated and lengthy. Personally, I find the menu relatively simple to navigate, but that’s due to growing up with Sony’s menu system. Back in the day, I used to painstakingly manually set up every aspect of the camera each time I hired one for a shoot. If you’ve been through it several times, you learn there’s nothing to be scared of, just some details not to adjust unless you are a qualified engineer.

You get to know where the features you want to change are and how to easily access them. For instance, you need the Paint menu to dial in your preferred Kelvins for colour temperature.

Overall, shooting on the Sony FS7 was efficient, comfortable and easy. So how do the images look?

Well, the answer is: pretty good! The footage holds highlights very well, and if shot in S-Log, it grades up very well too. I’m sure many people will be very excited by its slow-motion capabilities. From my perspective, for a $7,999 price tag, it’s a bargain, as it’s such a versatile camera.

Editor and Director Acen Razvi shares his thoughts on on how the PXW-FS7 footage fares in post.

“The post production workflow with the FS7 is a very smooth process, especially with FCPX and Premiere Pro. I personally like to use FCPX, it’s as simple as selecting File Import and you are ready to cut natively within seconds (depending how much footage you are ingesting, of course).

“When it comes to grading, I like to use Da Vinci Resolve and LUTs such as Film Convert or Vision Colour to grade the footage, and there is a whole host out there now for S-Log 2 and 3. There is also Sony’s own post solution with Catalyst Browse, a free clip-management tool specifically designed for Sony camcorders and decks and includes cameras like the FS7.

Catalyst Browser offers the following:

• Browse – Quickly browse the files on your device using a thumbnail view or detailed list.

• View – See the details of each clip, check focus, mark in and out points, adjust colours and edit metadata.

• Fast Copy – Copy all clips on the media, a subset, or only the desired portion of a clip to save time and space.

• Ultra Wide Colour Gamut – Review with confidence the full range of colour captured by your S-Log and RAW Sony cameras.

• Clip Lists – Create, import and export Sony Professional Disc clip lists for quick play-out needs.

• Transcode and Cloud Upload – Transcode clips to the most popular video production formats.

• OpenCL GPU accelerated video engine for smooth playback and fast rendering.

• Precise colour engine featuring ultra-wide colour gamut and large dynamic range capabilities for previewing and adjusting S-Log, S-Log2, S-Log3, RAW and Rec.709 source footage.

• Comprehensive format support for all the Sony Professional cameras.

“I downloaded the software and found a very intuitive clip browser with the ability to grade S-log footage; it’ actually quite a powerful tool where you can recover over-exposure with great results. Built into the programme is also the ability to do basic colour correction and have split screen views. You can apply basic colour correction and then export clips for editing, probably a good solution for on-set shoots and not dissimilar to Red’s REDCINE-X.”