Is the Sony FS7 the Last Camera You’ll Ever Need, Episode 4: Enter the Ninja Assassin and Gratical-X

by Hugh Brownstone2 Comments

In this fourth installment of our five part-series entitled “Is the Sony FS7 the Last Camera You’ll Ever Need?” we swap out the already very usable internal 4K recording of the FS7 with its equally usable combo EVF/LCD for Atomos’ latest 4K recorder/7″ monitor, the Ninja Assassin — and Zacuto’s Gratical-X OLED EVF.

We Need Help

There’s just no way around it: we need more help with focusing, exposure and composition while filming than when taking still photographs.

This is one of the big reasons mirrorless cameras with their built-in electronic viewfinders are making such inroads into the marketspace formerly owned exclusively by DSLRs: manufacturers haven’t yet figured out how to build these kind of assists as overlays to traditional pentaprism designs.

But with small rear LCDs and viewfinders which rarely tilt (Panasonic's GX8  [B&H|Amazon] being a fascinating new exception), external viewfinders and monitors become even more important.

And 4K plus higher bit rates can chew up a tremendous amount of storage on- and off-camera.

“Fair enough,” you might say, “but why would we need third party viewfinders and monitors with a purpose-built video camera like the FS7? And doesn't the FS7 have enough on-board storage for my needs?”

Glad you asked. Let's work backwards from storage.

Storage

The FS7 comes with not one (as I erroneously asserted earlier in this series), but two XQD slots.  For the moment, each XQD card is limited to a maximum of 128G. When you're shooting 4K in XAVC-I, that's much less time than you might imagine. It's certainly sufficient for individual takes, but especially when you're doing can't-miss-the-random-awesomeness documentary work, being constrained to 120 minutes across both cards is sub-optimal. Of course you can hot swap, but be forewarned: each Sony 128G XQD card will set you back $549.95 (Lexar's 128G card will set you back about $440) — and you may want an on-site media tech to do it.

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Recording times provided by Sony.

A hard- or solid state drive-based external recorder like the Assassin can take advantage of much less expensive media – a one terabyte SSD from OWC, for example,  costs just $375.

But they don't record XAVC. External recorders typically record with Apple Pro Res, Avid's DNxHD or DNxHR format or RAW.

Still, the differences in media costs and recording times can — depending on which format you choose — favor an external recorder. One hour of UHD at 24p recording in Apple ProRes (HQ) will take about 360G, according to AJA's free data calculator . That OWC SSD will therefore provide about 3 hour's recording time to a format that will be much easier for your computer to digest during edit. In this instance longer recording time, less strain on your editing suite, and a cost of $125/hr vs. at least $440 make a compelling case for an external recorder.

Of course, you've got the cost of the recorder to amortize, too.

Focus, Exposure and Composition

Fortunately, the FS7 is a real video camera.  The factory LCD is surprisingly readable and maneuverable, and the magnifying loupe that attaches to it works well. Flexible focus peaking and exposure assists are right there.

I felt comfortable with both of them.

Still, I regard  a 7″ external monitor as a must-have.

And if the nature of your assignments has you switching from one camera brand to another on a regular basis, I can see the value of having a single EVF with one manual of arms. The  Sony EVF/Loupe combo is only for Sony cameras. It’s a bit like wireless mics: I’ve settled on the RØDELink Filmmaker Kit for all my lav audio, irrespective of camera. It’s one less thing for me to worry about at a shoot.

I can't think of better reasons for testing the combo recorder/monitor Ninja Assassin and the Gratical-X.

Let's take those in reverse order, too.

To the Rescue, Part 1: The Zacuto Gratical-X

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In addition to their Recoil Rig for the FS7, Zacuto was kind enough to loan us their lower-entry-price-but-same-technology-as-the-original Gratical X. Zacuto was smart: they were able to drop the entry price dramatically (from $2,525 for the Gratical HD to $1,650 for the Gratical-X) by unbundling the software and essentially creating their own mini-app store. You want false color? No problem to add it. Focus peaking? Buy it and download it, too.

The FS7 Recoil Rig also comes with their FS7 Axis Mini, a super-adjustable and robust articulating arm to mount a monitor – especially their own Gratical-X.

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While my first impression was “why?” I quickly  became a fan of the Axis Mini. It allowed me to position the Gratical-X more comfortably relative to my face and the optimal balance point of the camera than the standard EVF. It oozes engineering. The Axis Mini isn’t cheap – none of the Zacuto stuff is – but to me the value was compelling and the engineering apparent everywhere.

The Gratical-X itself demonstrates just how far Zacuto has come since its original Z-Finder Pro and EVF. It’s beautifully designed and built, with easily accessible with just-right weighted buttons and switches, SDI and HDMI in/out, and battery well for the ubiquitous Canon LP. The 1280×1024 (1280×720 in HD) display is lovely – bright and crisp. You can position it effortlessly in any direction at any angle, with confidence. The downloadable components performed flawlessly. I loved the display especially when working with false color or blue only.

Again, if I were a hardcore camera operator shooting on whatever camera the project required of me and that brand changed often, I can well imagine wanting one less set of things to learn or remember, and the Gratical-X would be at the top of my list. It is a pleasure to use.

It also worked flawlessly with the Atomos Ninja Assassin [B&H|Amazon] in our set-up.

Still, I found a few things which surprised me:

  1. The display resolution allows Zacuto to use a more finely detailed font, but I actually found myself preferring something bolder. It was easier for me to read the text on the Sony LCD/magnifying loupe.
  2. I had more difficulty dialing in the correct diopter adjustment on the Gratical-X than I did with the Sony magnifying loupe (I’m a little near-sighted and have astigmatism). Of course, when I put my glasses on this was not a problem – though I could have used additional eye relief.
  3. Finally, the cost for that flexibility is to make the FS7 a little more imbalanced left to right and front to back.

This may indeed be an instance when I am a statistical outlier, but there’s the rub: for me the Gratical-X  is a beautifully conceived and executed piece of kit which nonetheless highlights my own personal physiological failings.

Getting old sucks.

As always, your mileage may vary.

To the Rescue, Part 2: Atomos Ninja Assassin

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I’ve reviewed other Atomos products before — the Ninja 2 [B&H|Amazon] and Ninja Star [B&H|Amazon]. In those cases I appreciated the design and engineering of each, but I also recognized the distance between my needs and their capabilities — both could do more than I required.

Still, I wished the Star had a display instead of buttons and indicator lights, and I wished the Ninja 2 had a bigger, higher resolution display (the Ninja Blade  [B&H|Amazon] addressed the Star’s lack of a screen and the 2’s resolution, upping the screen from a touch-sensitive 800 x 480 to a capacitive-touch 1280 x 720.

With the arrival of the Sony a7s  [B&H|Amazon] and Panasonic GH4  [B&H|Amazon], it was the 4K, 7.1” 1920 x 1200 IPS capacitive touch screen, HDD or SSD recording Shogun  [B&H|Amazon], however, that really caught my attention.

The thing of it is the Shogun offered more than either of these mirrorless hybrids could use, including SDI connections, higher frame rate support, and in the case of the A7s 10-bit 4:2:2 recording. Although the GH4 could output 4K at 10-bit 4:2:2, the Shogun was more expensive than the camera itself.

It seemed a better match for the FS7, able to take advantage of the more secure SDI connectors and the FS7’s output specs.

No matter. I deferred going 4K, and that was that.

But when the FS7 became available for a long-term review, we asked Atomos to lend us the Ninja Assassin [B&H|Amazon].  At $1,295 (stripped of the SDI connections and other goodies including RAW) it is $700 less than the original and essentially identical Shogun. While still perfectly capable of handling the FS7 outputs via HDMI, the Assassin is priced more in line with mirrorless ILCs – or FS7 shooters on a tight budget.

This time, no qualification: I think the Ninja Assassin is a fantastic combo product. If you're shooting 4K and don't already have a high calibre monitor or external recorder – and don't require SDI (heck, even if you do) — look no further.

That 7” screen is gorgeous. The touch screen menus and gestures are clean, intuitive and work well (I especially liked the combination of outline assist and blue only) . Functionality including false color and LUTs is complete. The SSDs are much less expensive than XQD cards. There are jacks for a remote and DC power. With audio capture and recording through the HDMI cable to the camera or via separate input jack – and a headphone jack as well for monitoring — the Assassin is a complete, high spec and easy-to-use piece of kit.

The $1,295 price point makes it compelling.

Yes, it has playback, and it works.

I relied on the Assassin for an interview in my passion project, ENID’S PREOCCUPATIONS.   I loved how the big screen helped me frame up the shot. I loved the assists. I actually prefer it to the excellent monitor-only smallHD AC7 OLED I tested last October, which on the other hand is $400 less.

Bottom line? It is an outstanding monitor on its own merits AND a recorder on its own merits.

Let’s take a look at some footage recorded on the Assassin in ProRes 422, shot at UHD 10-bit 4:2:2 on the FS7 with the FE PZ 28-135mm f/4.

I can tell you that the Sony a6000  with a Sony E 50mm f/1.8 acquitted itself well,  but still: I’ll never view a6000 footage quite the same way again. 10-bit 4:2:2 footage coming off of the FS7 sensor is just…smoother.

Unless, of course, I learn how to coax every last bit out of the a6000. Hold that thought.

Nits?

Three:

  1. I wish the Assassin’s focus peaking lines could be made thicker via a slider, just like peaking color.
  2. Sometimes there was a small delay between tapping the icon and the screen changing. I hope that can be eliminated with a firmware upgrade.
  3. I wish it recorded XAVC-I.

Really, that’s it.

Summary

After all the words, this is heading toward a pretty simple conclusion: the FS7 is a professional camera and warrants professional accessories. Period. It’s not an enthusiast camera and it is not a prosumer camera.

It allows you to do things you can’t with those cameras, but it extracts a price in terms of ease of use, weight and complexity.

Zacuto’s FS7 Recoil Rig and Gratical-X and Atomos’ Ninja Assassin are examples of the ecosystem around the FS7 that really takes the nature, capacity and process of filmmaking to another level.

The footage coming out of this system can be spectacular, and there is so much I haven’t even touched upon.

But here’s the thing: all of this capability only makes sense if your project is worthy and in need of what this system can offer — and you don't ask it to do things which would be better handled not so much by another camera as another kind of camera.

Hold that thought, too.

Stay tuned for the final episode in our series, when I show you exactly what I mean and offer closing thoughts on my journey with the FS7 .

(cover photo credit: snap from the video)

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. Thanks for the article.  I’m not fully grasping what you’re saying about the a6000 but I’m glad I bought one.  It’s an amazing still camera and the video out of it is really good!

  2. John Brune John, the a6000 is indeed an amazing camera.  But I asked things of it I never have, and I found its limits. Stay tuned for episode 5, final one in this series!

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