“Is The Sony FS7 the Last Camera You’ll Ever Need,” Episode 5: The Answer

by Hugh Brownstone1 Comment

In this last installment of our five-part series “Is the Sony FS7 the Last Camera You’ll Ever Need,” we finally end the suspense and answer the question from the perspective of a DSLR/ILC user thinking of moving up to a dedicated video camera. You may be surprised by the answer.

How We Got Here

Our review of the Sony FS7 really began last November when I got my hands on a new FS7 over a weekend. On paper, I thought it had everything to carry me through many years before I’d have to upgrade – if ever.

In the metal, it was big, heavy and frighteningly complex — at least from the perspective of a DSLR/ILC shooter.

It was awesome.

Fast forward to early this summer, when Sony Professional reached out and asked if I wanted to have a go at an FS7 for an extended evaluation.

Yes, please!

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 9.06.08 PM

But much had changed.

Blackmagic Design had announced the dramatically downsized URSA Mini 4K and URSA Min 4.6K. Canon had announced the C300 Mk II. ARRI had announced the Alexa Mini. The AJA Cion was on the map.

Things had changed back in my little corner of the world, too.

I’d downsized again, this time from a pair of Canon Rebel SL1s  [B&H|Amazon]  to Sony’s even smaller a6000  [B&H|Amazon], a vastly superior camera with which I was happily shooting gear reviews and corporate web videos. I was using an iPhone 6 to record interviews for planet5D (OK, I was also using a TASCAM DR-70D  [B&H|Amazon] and RODElink wireless lavs for audio). I was enjoying the freedom to focus on the people rather than the gear.

I was by now firmly in the camp of “less is more,” choosing to forego even cameras like the Panasonic GH4  [B&H|Amazon] and Sony a7s. Yes: I thought the a6000 was that good and that well-matched to my needs. I even named it camera of the year.

But an extended period of time to explore the FS7 would allow me a learning opportunity which I couldn’t refuse.

A Recap of “…Last Camera You’ll Ever Need?” Episodes 1 Through 4

Just in case you haven’t been following our journey (we encourage you to go back to the individual episodes for more details, footage and images) here are the highlights:

Episode 1: Beginning at The End

Just before I finished my time with the FS7 and was doing final beauty shots, one of the legs on my Cartoni Focus tripod slipped under the weight of the fully tricked out camera sending the whole thing crashing to the floor.

Other than a destroyed lens hood and a chipped hood bayonet mount, however, everything continued to work flawlessly – including the Zacuto Gratical-X and the Atomos Ninja Assassin.

The FS7 and the gear designed for it proved that they were made of much sterner stuff than any camera gear I’ve ever had (with the possible exceptions of the original Canon 1D and Leica M8). I thought this a fitting way to start the series. It was not going to be another DSLR or ILC review: this was a bigger, heavier, more complicated, and costlier beast.

Heck, all you had to do was compare the size of Zacuto’s VCT Universal Baseplate — which we used as the standard on the FS7 – to the Cartoni Quick Release plate which until the moment of the crash I’d regarded as over-engineered and expensive (to be fair, this is NOT a video baseplate).

NO comparison.

Best to proceed with caution.

Episode 2: All About Prep

“Proceed with caution” I did.

I binge-watched more than six hours of training videos because unless you already know Sony XD-CAMs very, very well, you’re going to be hosed – the menus are different and more complicated than what you’d be used to if coming from the DSLR/ILC world.

I recommended getting fast RAID storage for 4K editing and buying a pile of XQD cards or SSDs for 4K recording.

I put the various components together to see how they fit – and learned early that when a camera is this customizable and has a vibrant after-market, not everything will work well together.

I discovered that while the standard lens for the FS7  (the Sony FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS) was a bit magical, it had at least one curious design decision for what is ostensibly a cine lens. I learned that Zacuto’s reputation for engineering and robustness is well deserved, but its stuff wasn’t perfect either.

The most important lesson coming out of episode 2 was that the cost for the incredibly spec’d and priced FS7 was really meh ergonomics both in terms of industrial design and menu system. While the specs are a joy to behold, it’s fair to write that for people like me the camera inspires no such thing when shooting with it.

Episode 3: First Footage

Finally, we got down to it: footage.

This is precisely where my “small is beautiful” mantra began to break down.

I thought the results were spectacular. I didn’t need to pixel peep to recognize the difference. I know this sounds strange, but it’s true: not only could I see the differences between FS7 and a6000 footage beyond the obvious 4K vs 1080p – I could feel them. It was an organic thing, especially when seeing footage of early morning and late afternoon. The FS7 captured nuance and smoothness that made the a6000 feel sterile by comparison.

Dang.

On the other hand, the PZ mounted quite naturally (if disproportionally) to the little a6000. It was just as smooth and creamy on the little guy.

My inner scientific calculator helped me realize that:

1) For what I do and for where I distribute it (corporate and non-profit videos, gear reviews and interviews on the web) the FS7 nuance wasn’t critical.
2) Something as mundane as the absence of an internal neutral density filter in the a6000 — or a screw-in variable ND filter big enough for the PZ lens – contributed mightily to the resulting discrepancy between the two cameras’ footage in one of the tests.
3) 8-bit 4:2:0 really does make it harder to recover blown highlights.
4) My own lack of skill and knowledge were the weakest links of all.

I pushed onward.

Episode 4: A Play on Words and Iconic Bruce Lee Film ENTER THE DRAGON, as We Enter the Atomos Ninja Assassin and Zacuto Gratical-X

We expanded our survey of the FS7 by going deeper into the ecosystem built around it – after all, this is a primary reason to get big.

We swapped Sony’s perfectly reasonable internal 4K recording on XQD cards for the Atomos Ninja Assassin HDMI HDD/SSD Recorder/7″ Monitor, and then swapped Sony’s perfectly reasonable combo LCD/magnifying loupe for Zacuto’s new, lower cost Gratical-X OLED EVF.

And shot more footage.

We respected the Gratical-X and loved the Atomos Ninja Assassin, but also realized – duh – that when the shoot is more tightly controlled, the incremental value of this kind of high-end gear  is diminished. Static, well-lit  subjects can still reveal a difference between 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 recorded to ProRes vs 1080p XAVC-S 8-bit 4:2:0, but most viewers will be hard-pressed to see it, especially when watched on a mobile device.

The a6000 with Sony’s E 50mm f/1.8 was – as it has been – a stellar value. All of which led me to ponder the extent to which I could close the gap between it and the FS7 by being more skilled. Again.

But we still had a couple of surprises coming. On to the conclusion of  “Is the Sony FS7 the Last Camera You’ll Ever Need?”

We Go a Little Nuts by Putting Veydra Mini-Primes on the Sony a6000

As I wrote above, we learned in Episode 2 that not all components fit well together.

This was most notable with what I thought would be an outstanding combination:

· Veydra’s Mini-Primes in E-mount driven by
· CAME-TV’s Wireless Follow Focus Controller attached to the rods of
· Zacuto’s Recoil Rig seen through the
· Atomos Ninja Assassin.

The problem?

I couldn’t get the follow focus far enough back on the rails to engage the gearing on the lens!

This was NOT a design flaw with the Veydras. Rather, they are so beautifully small that they illuminated unintended consequences of design choices made by Zacuto and CAME-TV:

1) The CAME-TV wireless focus controller has an 18mm clamp that comes with an adapter for 15mm rods, but the only pivot point is the clamp – making it a relatively thick and inflexible attachment point with little room for adjustment.
2) The Zacuto VCT Universal baseplate has a footer which extends underneath the first couple of inches of the rods, strengthening an already  robust contact point at the expense of making the rods less accessible to attachments there.

I had no such trouble with my own Edelkrone FOCUSONE PRO (it has multiple pivot points and a thinner, 15mm-only clamp). It worked perfectly with the Veydras.

The Veydras were beautifully dampened and sharp; bokeh was pleasant; and I saw little evidence of focus breathing.

Which was about what I expected.

What I hadn’t expected is that the Veydras also have the heft and precision of much more expensive lenses. I would put the dramatically less expensive Veydra 25mm T/2.2 up against the Canon CN-E 24mm t/1.5 L F Cine any time – as long as I didn’t absolutely need the extra speed and shallower depth of field.   The Veydra trio set including 25mm, 35mm and 50mm (all T/2.2, bundled with a Pelican style case) comes in at $2,849.00, which is about half the price of the one Canon lens alone.

I started thinking again about my other new favorite lens as a result of this testing, the Sony FE PZ 28-135 f/4.

The Veydra trio replicate a focal range covered by the PZ (though only covering Super35, while the PZ covers full frame). I didn’t see a significant optical difference between the primes and the zoom, other than the obvious gains of the wider maximum aperture of the primes and the longer reach of the zoom.

On the other hand the PZ doesn’t have the cine gearing on the lens barrel that the Veydras do: it has gearing, but insofar as they’re softer rubber and more widely spaced than normal cine gear rings, I think it’s designed not as a cine lens so much as a documentary lens. I think this is why it has such a brilliant manual focus capability: it is designed to give you get great results simply by twisting the focus ring with your hand.

When I went to bed that night, I was excited and I frustrated: I felt that I’d learned something new, but I hadn’t learned how to make better footage.

How could I use the Veydras to yield better footage?

The next morning, I hopped out of bed, threw the Veydra 50mm onto my a6000, mounted the combo to an Arca Swiss ballhead atop a Gitzo tripod, and took the whole thing with me into the kitchen while I made coffee.

I’ll give you half of the punch line up front.

Ready?

Wow, my kitchen is filthy. And yes, I can see noise if I want to find it (this footage is straight from the camera, no grading or noise reduction — post limited to cuts and audio only). But to my eye the Veydra 50 elevated the footage coming out of the a6000.

Test Footage: Veydra Mini-Prime 50mm T/2.2 on Sony a6000 in “Morning Coffee”

But here’s the second half of the punch line: the FS7 is the better camera for the Veydras for one reason beyond the other obvious ones.

The a6000 isn't designed to handle the torque required to rack focus with proper cine lenses.

As in: the camera is so small, light and shallow that when I applied torque to the lens via a follow focus, the tripod socket actually flexed within the base of the camera. This was true with the CAME-TV wireless follow focus and the manual Edelkrone PROFOCUS ONE. Look what happened when I set the CAME-TV to auto-calibrate.

I don’t think of this as a design flaw in the a6000. I think of it as an appropriate compromise, suited to the a6000’s intended purpose as a consumer camera that just happens to punch way above its weight class.

Just look at how thin this little guy really is. What is the old saying? One's greatest strength is often one's greatest weakness.

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I have found an absolute limit of my beloved a6000.

It also pushed back our full review of CAME-TV Wireless Follow Focus Controller. By the time we got our hands on a V-mount battery for it, I’d already sent the FS7 back and only had the a6000 available. Like the Veydras, CAME-TV’s unit requires and deserves the right gear. We’re working on it.

I feel the winds of upgrade in the air as my needs have evolved.

I was, however, able to conduct a limited rack focus test on the a6000 using the Edelkrone FOCUSONE PRO very, very gingerly — and using my other hand to stabilize the camera.

This allowed me to imperfectly compare the Veydra 50 against the Sony E 50mm f/1.8, which I regard as an exceptional lens at the price, even if it’s a fly-by-wire autofocus lens first, second and third (I attached an Edelkrone gear ring to the Sony lens).

Again, here’s the punch line up front:

  • optically they’re very, very close, though there is a pronounced color shift between the two;
  • if I take into consideration the little guy's flex, I think there's little focus breathing (but I'm not sure and will want to retest at some point); and
  • a fly-by-wire autofocus lens like the Sony, as most of you already know, is just about impossible to use for consistent rack focus.

If I changed the speed of the focus pull on the Sony, the lens changed the amount of “throw.” It was incredibly frustrating. To be fair, the lenses are not designed to do manual focus pulls, but other cameras use touch sensitive screens to set A and B focus points for their autofocus lenses.

I’d love to see Sony address this a number of possible ways:

1) After my experience with the PZ, I want ALL my lenses to work the way it does. Or, since fly-by-wire lenses are electronically controlled, what about putting in a software switch and logic which allow constant focus throw when set to manual?
2) Have a touch screen in the next version of all its ILC cameras that brings it current with best of breed in this regard.
3) Build a superb smartphone app that allows even more control of focus point selection, speed, and ramping.

Bottom line: while the Sony is great at what it does and is a tremendous value, so are the Veydra Mini-Primes.

They do different things.

The Veydras deserve a body capable of providing the stability they – like all cine lenses – require.

The FS7 is one of those bodies, the a6000 is not.

Another go at this is on my list.

Downside of the Veydras?

I only found one, and it’s not a biggie: there is no communication with the camera body, ergo no EXIF data in the viewfinder or in the file. I asked Ryan Avery at Veydra about this, and his answer was simple: the cost of adding electronics into each lens would be prohibitive given multiple mounts, and would change both the price point and the value proposition of the lens.

Fair enough.

We Go a Little Nuts by Comparing Footage Shot on a 4K iPhone 6S Plus

Those of you who’ve read me over the past year or so know that I think the iPhone (and smartphones more generally) are the next video revolution. I even wrote an eBook about it that planet5D has been giving away free when you subscribe to the planet5D mailing list.

Oh – about that: if you want a free copy, you only have until the end of the month. After that, you’ll have to buy it same as everyone else on Amazon!

Anyway.

Before we sat down to film an interview for ENID’S PREOCCUPATIONS (clips of which you saw in Episode 4), we went out for lunch.

As you can imagine, I didn’t bring the FS7 with me. But I did have my iPhone 6s Plus on me as I always do, and as the conversation unfurled I pulled it out and started filming.

You may disagree with me, but I don’t care: I think the footage fits the story perfectly and would be perfectly acceptable even on the big screen as part of a documentary.

The audio is another matter.

But I’m working on a fix for that (likely the RØDE Videomic Me).

Yes: my cell phone allowed me to capture footage that I couldn’t get with the FS7. Full stop.

So: Is the FS7 the Last Camera You’ll Ever Need?

I’d assert that the FS7 is indeed the last camera you’ll ever need when used for its intended purpose.

Dem’s is not weasel words. They are a carefully considered conclusion.

The Camera

Let’s start with the strong points of the camera itself (at this point, I know I’m going to miss something, so consider this a partial list):

1) The sensor is very capable, and when used in conjunction with all of the camera’s other capabilities can match film for all but the most discerning viewer under the most stringent viewing conditions.
2) It offers almost limitless customization capabilities from codecs to frame rates, LUTS, focus and exposure assists, physical handling, gamma, color space options, and more.
3) It has exceptional dynamic range (you can argue about how to measure dynamic range, but it was clear enough to my naked eye that it is superior to Sony’s and Canon’s APS-C sensors outdoors).
4) It records full 4K internally at 10-bit 4:2:2 with an excellent codec, XAVC-I – while sending signal to as many peripherals as you're ever likely to need.
5) It is a monster HD cam as well, with frame rates as high as 180 fps.
6) It can record HD in ProRes internally using the XDCA extension unit, which also allows RAW recording at 12-bits out to an external recorder that can handle it (though Sony is working on a bug fix for this).
7) Alternatively, it can send 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 to an external recorder like the Ninja Assassin or Shogun, where it can be captured in ProRes and DNxHR.
8) The E-mount gives you incredible lens selection including the entire Canon, Nikon, and Leica catalog courtesy of Metabones; compatible third party lenses like SigmaSony’s rapidly expanding and truly excellent E-mount primes; and native e-mount glass from Zeiss, Schneider-Kreuznach, Veydra, and others. Just don't count on incredible autofocus speeds with non-native lenses.
9) The built-in mic is perfect for synching, and in a pinch will do as a primary audio source.
10) It also has two XLR inputs and a solid on-board audio recorder so you can add high end mics without an external recorder.
11) With two SDI connectors and a full-sized HDMI port in addition the XDCA extension unit, it’s about as expandable as you can get.
12) Its over-the-shoulder design allows it to be used as an ENG style camera, but it’s easy to use on a tripod as well.
13) The top handle and side handle can be removed for additional mounting flexibility.
14) It’s bigger than what I’m used to, but still smaller and lighter than some of its competitors.
15) It is – as we noted at the beginning of this series – built like a tank.
16) And it won’t overheat.

On the other hand, the FS7 doesn't have a global shutter and doesn't offer high frame rates in 4K.  If you're going to need those now, then the FS7 is already the wrong camera for you.

Then again, you're going to have to pay a LOT more money to get both of these things with an internal ND filter. Don't be so piggy!

Competitors

With dedicated 4K video camera competitors ranging from the Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K and AJA Cion at the low end through the RED Raven, Canon’s C300 Mk II, and Sony’s own F5 and F55, to the higher end REDs and the new ARRI Alexa Mini, I think you enter the realm of trade-offs and personal preferences rather than outright superiority.

You may disagree.

But I think that the FS7 is an all-rounder very, very hard to beat in the hands of a deeply skilled and experienced FS7 operator for anything other than highest-end Hollywood films or the most demanding indie films. Maybe not even then.

Especially when films like those will have outstanding colorists waiting in the wings to take that footage and elevate it to something else entirely.

Then again, I’ve spent oh, let me think…zero time with these other cameras, drawing this conclusion from reading everything from spec sheets to guys who’ve actually been there and done that.

I could well be wrong. I’d love to have planet5D readers weigh in through the comments section below.

Distribution

Assuming you’re not Emmanuel Lubezki, I’m betting that 12-bit 4K RAW with 14 stops of dynamic range will be sufficient for all but those scenes demanding slow motion at that resolution until some number of years after 8K is common place in theaters. As we heard from Canon’s own Chuck Westfall, that’s where the big guys see 8K playing, as they must find new reasons to bring people into theaters.

I bet it will be years before the mass market infrastructure will be capable– let alone achieve critical scale and adaption — of 12-bit 4K RAW without compression artifacts.

I bet it will be years after 8K reaches critical mass in theaters that web infrastructure will be capable of streaming it.

In any event, I bet there is virtually no audience who will notice the difference on a smartphone, phablet or laptop.

But I’m not sure distribution infrastructure is the biggest hurdle to the FS7 being the last camera you’ll ever need.

Scenarios

The FS7 can’t capture spontaneous footage like the street scene in ENID’s PREOCCUPATION like an iPhone 6s Plus can because it was a spontaneous moment. If you want to capture spontaneous moments like that, the FS7 is too big and complicated. Smartphones are far from perfect – but they are already good enough when spontaneity is the first priority, and the rate at which they continue to evolve is staggering.

The FS7 can’t capture low light footage the way the Sony a7s II can.

The FS7 can’t capture virtual reality, period.

And perhaps it’s this last scenario – VR – that will upend your sense of what you need over the coming decades. YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Google, and Samsung are all VR-capable operating on top of current web infrastructure; they along with many others including GoPro have a vested interest in seeing this take off. I think VR may be what drives people into theaters: they can offer patrons the kind of immersive experience including temperature and smells that Star Trek’s holodeck envisions. And it may take that much to get people into theaters in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, you can pick up a Google Cardboard for $20 or less and use it with your smartphone for VR as it is today.

Summary

If you’re my age (old-fart territory) and intend to remain focused on character-driven, traditionally scripted linear storytelling – or documentaries — using the distribution channels over the foreseeable future, I think the FS7 makes a strong case for itself that it could be the last camera you’ll ever need. Even if you’re a bit younger, I think the same holds true.

But if you’re much younger – or irrespective of your age are seeking other ways to communicate different things and/or at dramatically higher image quality not yet in production – the FS7 is no more the last camera you’ll ever need than an ARRI Alexa SXT. Forty or fifty years is a long time.

To put it differently: if  you see yourself doing the same kind of work forever and the FS7 is the right tool for it, the FS7 really can be the last camera you'll ever need.

Just don't get too caught up in any of this.

Shocker, right?

And GREAT movie!

Me? The FS7 has changed my view of the tools at my disposal. I see it as a new tool to add to my arsenal. But I'm not giving up the iPhone 6S Plus.  Or the a6000.

Make no mistake: I want the FS7 – just smaller, simpler and less expensive.  Hmm…that sounds an awful lot like the new FS5. Maybe.

Then again, I still haven't tried the a7r II.

Shout Outs

I can tell you that the experience of reviewing the FS7 has made me a better filmmaker. You could say that the FS7 has made me better through osmosis and the people I’ve met along the way because of it.

That is so very, very cool.

This series is the biggest hands-on evaluation of gear I’ve ever done with the most advanced gear I’ve ever used. I know it is incomplete, limited, and wrong – I just don’t which, where.

But this also made it the perfect Three Blind Men and An Elephant project. It it allowed me to see the FS7 from many different angles and thus get a little closer to some kind of objective truth not just about one camera, but the entire endeavor of filmmaking.

I want to offer a very public thank you to everyone who helped make it happen beginning with Allison Mandara of Sony Professional. She’s the one who got the ball rolling. It’s been a pleasure, Allison, to work with you and the Sony team.

For Zacuto: Kim Hutchinson and Rachel Kenton, thanks for being so easy to work with on the Gratical-X and Recoil Rig for the FS7. As always, your gear was industrial strength and elegant.

For Atomos: Troy Trent, thanks for getting the ball rolling on a Ninja Assassin eval unit. Tess Reddy, you made it no fuss, no muss – thank you! The Assassin is a great piece of kit and on my short list for 2016.

For Veydra: Ryan Avery, I know it’s not easy for a small company to make loaners available. I appreciate you giving me the time to get to know the Veydras and for sharing your thinking about the E-mount versions. Cole Houdek, thanks for your operational support. The Veydra team has created something exceptional.

For CAME-TV: Frank, thanks for getting the Wireless Follow Focus Controller to us. We promise to get a full review out as soon as we've got the gear it deserves in-house.

And to all, a happy/health/merry!

(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. Did you try adjusting the rod height or even flipping the Zacuto rod clamp riser upside down to get some more clearance between the QR plate foot and the 15mm rods? Or does this still leave the wireless follow focus too far from the Veydra prime lenses’ focus rings? While the QR plate does kind of get in the way, the rod height is fairly adjustable.

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