Episode 2: Approach the Sony FS7 with Respect – Or Fuggedaboud It

by Hugh Brownstone4 Comments

In this second installment of our five-part series entitled “Is the Sony FS7 the Last Video Camera You’ll Need?” we approach the FS7 warily, like a boxer taking a measure of his opponent.

If you’re not intimately familiar with the XD-CAM series of Sony cameras, this is a pretty good way to start.

I’ll keep this simple: the FS7 is complex, and you can make it even more so.

In either case, you'll need help.

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Prepping to shoot a couple of still life focus pulls (and no focus controller)

Invest in Doug Jensen’s FS7 Master Class

First: buy, watch and take notes on Doug Jensen’s FS7 Master Class tutorials before you even open the FS7 box.

Really (I don’t get any compensation for writing this).

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I can’t recall how I first came across Doug Jensen’s 26-part video tutorial on the FS7 and related workflow, but I do recall seeing his name mentioned a number of times on the web by a number of highly qualified folks. I reached out to Doug who was gracious enough to give me access to the entire series.

Already fearful after my first brush with the FS7 over a too-short weekend late last year, I promptly binge-watched Doug’s tutorials for more than six hours. I’ve been on this earth for more than five decades, and I have never been as apprehensive about a camera as this one (see my reference to the Williams race car in this series' first installment).

I kept returning to them as I finally got the camera and its components assembled.

Doug is a very seasoned DP and long-time Sony XD-CAM user. He knows his stuff. What is unique, in my experience, is that he doesn’t take you linearly through the menu like most training. Instead, he begins with what he asserts – and I now know enough to agree – is the single most important decision for you to make when you first turn on the camera: setting it to “Custom” or “Cine/EI.”

And works outward from there.

I’m going to leave the rest to your curiosity and commitment, because Doug’s work is stellar in its pragmatism. It is worth – and he deserves — every penny of the purchase price. His tutorials were instrumental in getting me up and running, including availing myself of the three profiles he freely provides to anyone who purchases his program. I used one of them to start shooting, with great results.

Watch Sony's PXW-FS7 Official Tutorials with Alister Chapman

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Sony has come to realize that the FS7 demands video instruction, so they’ve enlisted the help of another highly regarded DP very familiar with the Sony XD-CAM line, Alister Chapman. I was quite taken with Alister’s review of the Sony FS5; I think Sony made a good call in bringing Alister on board. These videos began appearing only in September, and as of the writing of this post, they had just published video #6, “CineEI Mode and S-log2/S-Log3.”

While Alister knows his stuff – and like Doug his videos are broken into digestible 5-10 minute chunks – it’s only in this sixth tutorial that Alister takes on what Doug (correctly, I think) discusses in his very first tutorial.

My take-away? Both are good and if all you can afford is free, Alister is definitely worth watching.

But with this written, I’d urge you to invest in Doug’s series. At $85, it’s probably the highest return on investment education series I’ve ever seen.

Get Big, Fast External Storage Like OWC’s ThunderBay 4 RAID 5

If you’re buying the FS7 for 4K (you are!) and you haven’t already done so, you’ll to need upgrade to very big and very fast external drives. Do that BEFORE you start shooting.

I’ll cut to the chase on this one, too.

If you’re a Mac user (I don’t know about Windows), get something like an OWC Thunderbay IV with RAID 5  [B&H|Amazon] and at least 8TB of 7200rpm disk. Partition two volumes: one TB’s worth of RAID 0 for ultimate speed on projects you’re editing, the other as RAID 5 for an optimal combination of performance and redundancy for archiving. I don’t think you really need SSDs, but they will be even faster. I like OWC's SSDs  [B&H|Amazon]  as well. I use a 1T OWC SSD as my boot drive.

The next real issue will become processor (especially graphics) bottlenecks when rendering. But there are options for that like proxy files or recording in ProRes. I don’t really like proxy media, but ProRes chews up LOTS of storage.

Get LOTS of XQD Cards or a Couple of Big SSD’s for Recording

The loaner came with a 32GB Sony XQD card  [B&H|Amazon] and I knew instantly this wasn’t going to be enough. Fortunately, I also happened to be testing the new Atomos Ninja Assassin  [B&H|Amazon] and had an extra 128G OWC SSD  [B&H|Amazon]  lying around.

Even with the Assassin and the 128G SSD, I got less than an hour at 24p using ProRes 422 (Atomos quotes 3 hours on a 1T SSD; you should also check their list of approved drives here). I've shared with them that the OWC works well, and I believe they'll be updating to include it.

But let me repeat that recording time: less than an hour at 24p.

Think about that.

If you’re shooting lengthy interviews and don’t want to run the risk of missing the authentic off-the-cuff moments, you’re talking a minimum of half a dozen 128G XQD cards and/or a dedicated media tech on site with laptop and dedicated reader. A Sony G series 128GB card running 400MB/s will cost you $549.95 [B&H|Amazon] a pop; the card reader will set you back another $37.95 [B&H|Amazon] (I never managed to get the USB port on the FS7 to work properly, but I absolutely chalk that up to me). Nominally faster Lexar cards cost less, but they’re still pricey around $383 for 128G [B&H|Amazon].

By the way: the FS7 sports just one slot for the high-performance XQD card, with a second slot for a regular SD card. This second slot is useful for things like storing custom profiles. I believe custom profiles are CRITICAL (especially when you’re working with more than one FS7), though the camera also has a number of internal memory storage locations for said profiles – without custom profiles, the FS7 will not give you out-of-the-box results you’ll love).

This whole internal card thing is one reason why the Assassin is so appealing (more on this in another installment): it takes SSDs like the OWC 1TB Mercury Electra, which at under $400 [B&H|Amazon] is something like one sixth the price per gigabyte of the XQD cards.

Then again, when you want to run and gun, you don’t want an external recorder and extra battery on your shoulder.

This is yet another reason why I don’t really consider this camera ideal for run and gun.

OK: with that out of the way, let’s dive deeper into the FS7 itself.

The Camera Body — and a First Look at How Everything Plays Together

Like any dedicated video camera, the FS7 is an anti-DSLR. It doesn’t have the size or form factor of a DSLR or ILC mirrorless because it is designed from the ground up for video, not stills. No pentaprism, no faux pentaprism…you know this.

  • It means that the most frequently used video controls are usually knobs and buttons rather than software, and this is great: you don’t have to drop down into menus nearly as often (good thing, too, because to a newbie-to-dedicated-cams like me they are anything but obvious).

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Real buttons and switches!

  • It means that you don’t have to purchase and mount a separate audio recorder nor contend with micro-HDMI ports. The FS7 already comes with a pair of XLR jacks, a pair of SDI ports, and a single full-sized HDMI port in the body itself.

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Two SDI ports, one full-sized HDMI port, two XLR mic ports

  • It means built-in neutral density filters (this is a BIG deal in my book).
  • It means you have a highly maneuverable, focus peaking, zebra-sporting LCD panel and EVF (in this case, the same thing courtesy of a decent magnifying loupe which can be moved up and out of the way while attached or removed altogether – I found the combo quite usable, much more to my liking than the C100 and C300 setups).
  • In this case it also means Sony designed this as an ENG-style, on the shoulder camera. Kind of. Hold that thought – though I'll get to the punch line now: the grip and the grip arm definitely need version 2 re-thinks, and when you weigh the camera down with options, moving the camera further back on the shoulder makes access to some of the buttons tricky.
  • As I wrote yesterday, the FS7 is built like a tank. When you add a cine zoom lens, monitor/recorder, rods, appropriate quick release plate, V-mount battery, and wireless receiver or shotgun mic, it weighs like one, too.

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The full monty, moments before the crash. FS7 with 28-125 F/4, Atomos Ninja Assassin, Zacuto Gratical-X, XDCA extension, V-mount battery, Edelkrone FOCUSONE PRO

  • On the one hand, the FS7’s is modular in a way most DSLRs aren’t (the Panasonic GH4  [B&H|Amazon] with its YAGH 4K Audio-video interface is a limited exception), giving you the ability to grow the system as you and your needs evolve from an expanding list of third party players.  Sony’s XDCA extension unit adds V-mount battery; enables 12 bit RAW 4K output to an external recorder (but as I mentioned yesterday, this still has a bug); timecode; and transcodes so that 1080p ProRes 422 can be captured inside the camera on the XQD card.  You can remove the top handle altogether.
  • On the other hand, the FS7 is modular in some of the same bad ways that a Windows PC is modular — and that means while the choices are many, the choices that fit really well together are fewer.
  • I found it impossible, for example, to mount the CAME-TV Wireless Follow Focus on the Zacuto Recoil Rig’s rails when using a Veydra Mini-Prime. This is NOT a problem with the Veydra: because the Vedra is so compact (a good thing!) the VCT QR Plate foot creates too narrow a clearance between it and the 15mm rods to allow the wireless unit to get close enough to the focus ring).

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CAME-TV Wireless Focus Controller uses a spacer to get down to 15mm. It needs a second pivot point to work here, which it doesn't have.

 

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Edelkrone FOCUSONE Pro clears footer of VCT Baseplate without problem

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Recoil Rig upper left, Sony Rod Support System lower right

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Curious: gearing on FE PZ 28-135 doesn't synch with Edelkrone FOCUSEONE Pro nor CAME-TV Wireless 

  • The shotgun mic holder that is part of the Sony handle was much too wide to secure my go-to shotgun, the RODE NTG4+  [B&H|Amazon].

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RØDE NTG4+ too thin for FS7 mic clamp

The Sensor: Smooth

The overarching point is this: with a highly modular camera body containing a Sony Super35 sensor capable of 10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC-I 4K recording internally and ProRes, DNG or 4K raw externally with the XDCA at up to 15 stops of dynamic range, capture is simply not going to be an issue for anyone short of a Hollywood blockbuster or major TV mini-series DP, and maybe not even then.

Unless, of course, it turns out that there’s a bug in the software, as the good folks at Cinema5D have recently discovered.

You may argue that Sony’s color science is not quite as good as Canon’s. You may argue that the FS7 employs pixel binning and its low light performance is not as good as Sony’s own a7s II  [B&H|Amazon] . You may argue that it only does 180fps in 1080p and is limited to 60fps in 4K. You may argue that the FS7 is therefore not the absolute state-of-the-art.

I might be inclined to agree with you, though one Canon C100 DP is swapping out his three C100s for the FS7’s little brother the FS5  [B&H|Amazon] . He concedes the Canon’s color balance outdoors, but says the FS5 is better inside.

I say: so what? If you can’t get magnificent imagery out of the FS7 that will stand the test of time well beyond whatever comes down the pike even after 4K (CASABLANCA in black & white which holds up extraordinarily well today, even as Canon and Panasonic are working on 8K cameras!), if you can’t color grade to get exactly what you want – dude! The problem is you or your colorist.

I know whereof I speak (I am my own problem).

With this written, if you’re looking for a detailed discussion of things like S-Log2 vs S-Log3 or mLUTs vs. regular LUTS, I can’t help you much – yet.

I’m just telling you my experience with my own eyes.

What I can also tell anyone thinking of moving up to the FS7 from a DSLR or a mirrorless ILC is this: the FS7 is the kind of equipment you buy and learn from through osmosis because people much more experienced and thoughtful than you or I have poured their collective wisdom into it – and keep updating it through firmware and a growing third party ecosystem.

This is all done at a very aggressive price point pretty well unmatched by other high volume vendors, even if $8K before add-ons is a lot of dosh (yes, the RED RAVEN is coming at $6K bare bones and the Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K is coming at $5K bare bones – we’ll have to see about those!)

The Lens: Fantastic

Sony shipped the FS7 loaner to me with their image stabilizing, autofocusing-but-wait-for-the-surprise FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS cinema lens. It’s the full frame equivalent of a 42 – 202.5 mm f/6.4, but to my surprise (this is not the big one) I will write: don’t let that far-from-impressive-maximum aperture turn you off. You can still get shallow depth of field under the right circumstances (frankly, I’d be more concerned with the short end of the focal length – there’s really no wide angle here).

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Screen capture of  uncorrected and ungraded footage straight from the cam with Sony FE PZ 28-135mm f/4.0 wide open using Doug Jensen profile

Sure, with a 95 mm filter thread, a length of 6.5”, width of 4” and weight of almost 2  lbs, this is a big lens. On the other hand, Canon’s EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM weighs in at an even heftier 3.28 lbs, and though the Canon is _ an inch narrower – allowing it get by with a 77mm filter thread — it’s about an inch longer.

No matter – I loved this Sony lens, even as I wished it would go down to 15mm for a full frame equivalent of 24mm.

If you could only carry two lenses with you to cover every scenario, this FE PZ 28-135mm f/4.0 would be one of them, full-on (oh – and now that Sony is updating the firmware to allow for a 2K center scan, that focal range just got MORE flexible).

If you have this lens but want to go wider, there are a number of fascinating native E-mount choices like the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 or Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 15mm/T2.9; the upcoming native e-mount Voigtlander Super Wide (15mm f/4.5), Ultra Wide (12mm f/5.6) and Hyper Wide (10mm f/5.6) Heliars; and the adaptable PL or Canon EF mount Schneider-Kreuznach T2.2/18mm.

My new personal favorite at 24 or 25mm for cine? Upstart company Veydra’s 25mm T/2.2 in Sony E-Mount Mini-Prime (more on this in another installment – stay tuned).

Why do I like this zoom lens when I’ve fallen back in love with primes?

Because while it is autofocus, it also has (here’s the big surprise) a switchable, beautifully dampened, auto/manual focus ring with just the right amount of travel that is the best I’ve ever touched, full stop – and at the level of simply eye-balling the 4K footage coming out of the FS7 through this lens on a 27” Thunderbolt Cinema monitor, the results seem to have some magical combination of sharp and creamy.

Beautiful bokeh. Smooth, smooth manual twist and go focus pulls.

Hubba-hubba.

It makes my imagery from my little Sony a6000 shooting 1080p cinematic.

Sorry, no MTF or pMPix here. There are other folks who do a much better job of bench testing than me. I’ll simply tell you that I was really surprised by how much I loved the footage. I didn’t bother pixel peeping because I simply lost all curiosity: I loved it as it was.

A word about the autofocus: it worked for me – better than I expected, with virtually no hunting with native Sony glass — but you can’t say that I stress-tested it with either fast-moving subjects or low light. Final word will have to wait for another day or another reviewer.

The Ergos: Feh

As I've already alluded, if there is one downside to the FS7 (and every camera has them), it's the camera's ergonomics.

The Menu System? Time to Build a Great App Instead

There are plenty of people who don't like Sony's menu system, but until I engaged with the FS7, I'd never regarded this as an issue.  With the FS7, the menu system is  — for someone like me, unfamiliar with the XD-CAM series — very, very tough. 'nuff said: go watch the tutorials.

The good news is — if Sony so desires — they can change the menu system.

My advice to Sony?

Skip revamping the menus and accelerate the development of a really good app — something none of the camera manufacturers seem to be particularly adept at doing — and put it up in the Apple and Android app stores. Just make sure to include Bluetooth on all your cams.

This is a big deal.

There's simply no way to make any menu system really great inside ANY of these cameras.  You like Canon's system better? OK, that's fine. But a vastly superior user experience would be had if it were poured into an app, where 1) data entry would be immeasurably easier; 2) the entire thing could be much more intuitive and flexible; and 3) revisions could — and should — come furiously, eventually bundling menu combinations into shooting scenarios, analogous to what quadcopter manufacturers DJI and 3DR are doing with their Intelligent Flight Mode and Smart Shots, respectively.

The apps put out by Sony and Canon today are still in their infancy.

Industrial Design? Not So Much

This is the big one.

What can I say? The FS7 isn't remotely in the league of my 1970's era Braun Nizo S56 for industrial design (to be fair, the Nizo was designed from the ground up as a consumer device).

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Dieter Rams, designer of the Nizo, has said that Apple is one of the few companies that follow his principles. Duh.

And the FS7 really isn't in the same league as Canon's Cinema EOS series from an aesthetic perspective, either.

Which ultimately doesn't matter that much to a pro.

But there are functional problems in the FS7's design — at least for me.

Your mileage may vary.

By far the biggest issue is the grip. It looks good, but in practice it was…awful.  Again: for me. Whereas I've got 40+ years of working dials and levers on stills cameras without removing my eye from the viewfinder — and I understand that video cameras are much more complicated, as are still cameras today compared to just ten years ago — within seconds I realized the FS7 grip would lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Seriously. To the extent that I and my physique are not statistical outliers (in this one case I don't think they are), the grip needs to be redesigned.

But it's not just the grip.

The grip extension needs to be tool-less! If you want to use the FS7 for run ‘n gun, that extension arm is a critical component — yet it requires you to loosen and then tighten two screws with a flat blade screwdriver to change its length.

You can argue that this was a compromise to get the FS7 to market faster, and ought to be considered the nature of a minimum viable product — and I could agree with you.

But now that the camera's out, this should be addressed.

Finally, as I've now mentioned a couple of times, the camera's weight balance isn't ideal – especially when you begin to add equipment to fully exploit the FS7's capabilities. Even if the grip and grip extension are redesigned, in its present form it feels — once more, to me — like the left/right weight balance isn't ideal. I couldn't adjust the grip and extension to find a position where I didn't feel undue strain on my wrist.

Time out for a small nit: with the XDCA extension unit on, the HDMI out port gets a little tight.

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HDMI cable rubs up against XDCA Extension Unit

Back to that weight balance — this time front/back — and the implications it has for the camera's left side buttons…

With the 28-135mm lens — or pretty much any Canon or Zeiss Cine Prime (let alone zoom lenses), plus rods and follow focus — the FS7 is very, very front-heavy. I prefer the Zacuto Recoil Rig to Sony's Lightweight Rod Support System (LRSS) because it:

  1. operates as one piece
  2. doesn't require you to remove the standard shoulder pad first as the LRSS does
  3. allows you to move the camera further back on your shoulder

But: the problems with the Recoil Rig are that:

  1. when you DO move the camera further back on your shoulder, all of the left side controls get closer to your face.  I'm sure this not an issue for an experienced FS7 camera operator, but it gave me pause as I found myself at times hitting my (rather large) nose; and
  2.  as I wrote above, the VCT plate's foot gets in the way of some follow focus add-ons if the gear rings on the lens are too close to the body.

Day 2 Summary

We're two days in, and I haven't gotten into image quality in any detail (you already know I love it). But what you can also tell is that — like every other piece of gear ever made — the FS7 and ancillary components represent a series of tradeoffs. I really like some of them; others are problematic. Even with those problems, however, I think the FS7 is a staggeringly capable tool — when it's the appropriate one (hold that thought).

As always, your mileage may vary.

There is so much to cover and I’ve got so much more to say about this camera and its ecosystem that we’re going to take a breather before pushing on. Stay tuned as we get deeper into footage, other lenses and other accessories.

All photos by Hugh Brownstone

(cover photo credit: snap from Hugh Brownstone)

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is the founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions. He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
Hugh Brownstone

Comments

  1. “By the way: the http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1082825-REG/sony_pxw_fs7_compact_4k_xdcam_with.html/BI/20176/KBID/14252/SID/p5Dp sports just one slot for the high-performance XQD card, ” WRONG.  The FS7 has 2 x XQD card slots…..

  2. I have owned the fs7 for almost a year now and just love it. Handgrip and weight balance issues are minor things in my opinion. Doug Jensens fs7 class was great, especially on Cine EI, slog2/3 and exposure of those. What he misses out are that any flavour of slog are not always best, as many thinks. Steen Knarberg

  3. sknarberg Of course, to each his own! Glad you’re loving FS7 – it’s a great cam. And – again, of course — I think Doug’s class is great, too.

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