The Sony FS5 is a camera I've had my eye on since they announced it. For the type of projects I generally gravitate to, its just about perfect (at least on paper), and as I've been saying for a while now - if I had a project that justified it, I'd buy one in a heartbeat. Well, I haven't bought it, but a couple weeks ago we (TPC) rented a couple FS5s for a project we were shooting for Bloomberg. Of course I also took the time to learn the camera a little ahead of time and shot some test footage down in Galveston.
Disclaimer: these are my thoughts after having my hands on the camera for about 3 and a half days of shooting, and then quickly running my test footage through post. While it gave me a good idea of the camera's capabilities, its by no means completely comprehensive. I always tell anyone who asks, never just buy a camera you've never used - find an excuse to rent it for a few days and shoot some tests. LensProToGo has them available to rent at a great price.
That out of the way, here's what I've learned - we'll start with the how it performed in the setting we rented the cameras for, and move on to the fun stuff in a minute, so if you came here for slow-motion and beachfront off-roading, just scroll on down past the news gathering.
This picture shows the space we had for the Bloomberg location production for most of the project. TPC decided to rent the cameras because our main cameras (the Sony F3s and Ex3) that we have in the studio were going to be in use right up to the point that we had to be shooting the interviews. There just wouldn't have been time to get the cameras from the studio in Greenway Plaza, to Downtown Houston. And, as you can see above, there wasn't much space to work in. The F3 isn't a particularly large camera, but I would't call it small either - even if they had been available, it would have been a little awkward to work with under the circumstances, the Fs5 is really small in comparison, closer in size to the Canon C300's, and many of the buttons are re-mappable, so you can put all the controls you want on whichever side of the camera you have access to.
I've read reviews of the FS5 that sum it up by saying "its a pretty good 4K camera, but its a great HD camera" and it lived up to that during this shoot. It looked great for the interviews (granted, we had really good lighting!), and then later there was some extra stuff shot after dark that looked pretty great in the ambient light of downtown Houston.
For anyone wondering about what size card they need for the camera: Shooting HD, we had a 128GB card in each camera and they gave us a total of 288 minutes of record time, which was more than enough for this project, when I was playing with the camera in 4K, it estimated something closer to 160 minutes if memory serves. And of course that changes based on your settings, of which there are plenty.
I've gotten so used to shooting with the F3 and EX3 at work that we have pre-set for most of our needs, and of course my A7s which really doesn't have that many settings options, that using the FS5 felt like there was a setting for just about any need I had. I could turn on zebras and peaking from either side of the camera, and when you go into the settings you see just how many features can be set to anyone of the 6 or 7 function keys. Of course expended focus is a must. Using a combination of the optical zoom on the lens, the clear zoom feature (I'll go into that later) and the expanded focus zoom, I was able to punch in on the talent's eyes to verify perfect focus. We shot all of that at 800 iso, which I believe is the camera's "native" setting (the A7s on the other hand is native at 3200 ISO) and the video we shot looked pretty great.
Of course, no camera is perfect for every scenario, and this is no different. While I believe the camera really could be a perfect fit just about any project I plan on shooting in the near future, most of my projects are either "run & gun" indie filmmaking style, or documentary projects. I don't normally think in terms of bigger agency projects or news gathering, and of course we did find where it falls a little short.
For starters, even though the camera has 2 video output connections (Well 3 if you count the proprietary Sony connection for the viewfinder that looks suspiciously like an old Apple 30 pin connector) - 1 HDMI and 1 SDI, you can only feed to 1 at a time. So I only either output video via HDMI or SDI. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. Even on a larger scale project - you'd either feed the camera direct back to the "video village" where they can split it however many ways you want, and if you're using an external recorder, you'd feed the output of the camera to the recorder and then that output back to the client monitors. However, in this case we were feeding the footage back to New York in realtime via LiveU. This meant that we had to plug the cameras directly into the Live U units so that New York could record a clean feed. And since the Live U unit doesn't have a loop through, the producer wasn't able to see both cameras during the interview. Without the live component, this wouldn't have been an issue.
The annoying thing here is, if it were possible to have video out from both outputs, the LiveU units have an HDMI input that we could have used, while feeding the SDI to the monitor.
One of the other things that came up was that the ISO increments felt a little off. There were moments where we felt like there should be an inbetween setting. Of course, I didn't have the time to chase through the menu to make sure we weren't missing something, so this could be a non-issue.
And finally, the form factor of the camera doesn't exactly lend itself to traditional "walk with a reporter" news shooting, but of course the simple solution would have been to put it on a shoulder rig, we just didn't have one in the field with us.
In a nutshell, that's probably why I'm not a huge fan of "news" shooting - I've gotten pretty good at it in my limited experience with the format, but things can change quite quickly and you have to adapt. And while the camera did a great job of keeping up with our needs on that front, I prefer knowing what I need to have in the car before we get on location. There are other ENG style news cameras that are built to just be plopped down on your shoulder so you can run and shoot that way.
But, all the complaints we had aside, it worked very well for this shoot. Now, lets move on to the fun stuff:
First - I chose to shoot in S-log 3 because I wanted to play with it in post, but it was also the right choice because of how bright everything was on a sunny day on the beach. Shooting normally, I can almost guarantee you that I would have had to choose between detail in the sky, and detail in the shadows. It makes a little more work for you in post, but as you can see, I was able to make Galveston look pretty good, and DaVinci Resolve took the footage direct from the camera with no problem, and really I only spent a couple hours on the color correction. A trained colorist could do wonders with what this camera shoots, and could tell you so much more about the pros and cons of shooting this way with this camera. I know that the feature works, and roughly how to shoot with it and correct it in post, beyond that the tech is a little beyond my understanding. That said, as I mentioned above - if you're using this camera I wouldn't advise shooting "full auto" and s-log 3 with an ND filter at the same time.
Speaking of - lets talk about the ND filter. The FS5 has this really nifty trick where Sony put an electronic variable ND filter in the camera, so you have options of various levels of "dark" to dial in with it, rather than the default "1, 2, or 3" that most cameras with a built in filter have. It can also automatically swing through the settings as go from a lighter to a darker environment. I love the variable ND that I normally put on my rokinon lens, so having this feature built into the camera was awesome. Of course, being on the beach on a partly cloudy/clear day, I pretty much just used the highest setting for the ND and left it there for most of the shoot. But, having this feature allowed me to get that cinematic shallow depth of field with a lens that I don't have an ND filter for.
The FS5 (and the FS7) use the same lens mount as my A7s, which is another reason I like this camera, there's just a huge number of lenses available for it.
That day, I chose to shoot everything through my 28-70mm kit lens, which means - if my math is correct - that it was effectively functioning as a 42-105mm, since the FS5 is a "Super 35mm" chip, rather than a full frame 35mm chip like the A7s.
I chose that lens for 2 reasons. First, its the only Sony lens I have, which means its the only lens I could put on that camera that has auto-focus, which I decided I wanted to have as an option while using a camera I'm not familiar with. If all else fails, at least 90% of what you've shot will be in focus. Secondly, its also the cheapest "good" lens I have so if something stupid had happened, say 1 in a million chance of one of those Toyotas kicking up a shell from the beach, its wouldn't have been as bad as if I was using one of my nicer lenses. That said, I did play with some of my Canon lenses at home and yes, the camera talks to the lens just fine through the metabones adapter that I have. The downside to this lens is that its not as super-crisp as most of what I normally shoot, but this camera is so sharp already, it made do just fine.
Also, most of the zooms you see in the video are not in me zooming the camera in manually, but done with Sony's nifty-voodoo magic called "Clear zoom" which basically allows you to zoom into to 1.5-2X digitally, without loosing any detail. I have no idea how it works nor will I pretend to, but its a neat tool to have in your pocket, especially if shooting on a prime lens, its pretty cool stuff.
Lets move on to the slow motion:
So the "super slow motion" feature of this camera is pretty great, that said, it's not the perfect camera for slow mo, but in the price range, its pretty great. One of the ways the camera can be set up, it buffers the shot into the camera and you hit your record button after the action has been completed. This allows you to make sure you got what you wanted, but in the heat of the moment its hard to say "3, 2, 1 go!" and then not hit record for a few seconds haha.
The FS5 doesn't shoot 4K slow mo. You have to be in a 1080 capture mode to shoot it. For some this is an issue, however if you watch the video main video with the color graded footage on a 4K monitor, it up-rezes pretty well, and all I did was scale it up in DaVinci. If you needed the slow mo to match a 4K sequence, and you shot it "clean" enough, you could easily make it match using a tool like the "detail preserving upscale" that After Effects has, and really, at the end of the day most audience members won't care if the awesome slow mo shot isn't quite as crisp as the rest of the video.
It does an awesome job of capturing the slow mo at 1080, but you have to have almost no added gain in the shot to make it work. This wouldn't have been an issue if I had thought to turn off s-log and dialed down the iso, which is part of why the image looks so grainy and generally awful.
The other thing about shooting 960 vs one of the "faster" settings like 240 is that at 960 fps, the camera crops the sensor from 4K to 1080 (even though all the slow mo is only recorded at 1080, it uses the full view of the sensor). So above, the wide shot was impossible to capture at 960. In the manual for the FS5, Sony says, "When ,  ... is selected...the image quality is deteriorated compared with the image with normal recording." So basically, yes the camera can shoot at 960 frames per second, but its not going to look good unless you can really light the scene right and make sure the gain/iso is set as low as possible.
Finally, one more "gotcha" with the slow mo setting - its not as simple as flipping a switch and hitting the button. You have to know you're going to be shooting slow motion before the action happens. First you switch the camera from 4K to 1080, then you hit the "super slow motion" button, and then the camera starts building the buffer, and you can't shoot the slow mo until its done that. All in all you're looking at about 30-45 seconds of downtime before you can shoot. Not awful, but it feels like forever when the action you want to slow down started without you.
All that said, I loved the way the shots I got at 240 frames per second turned out, and it looks infinitely better than the 120fps that the A7s shoots.
One last thing - I didn't have my Atomos out there with me, and the camera didn't come with the sun-hood for the monitor, so I ended up shooting most of this through the viewfinder on the back. Usually, I'm not a fan of these little view-finders that Sony puts on these cameras. There's one on the F3 we have at work that feels pretty much useless. This one was actually very usable (once I figured out which switch enabled it), and in the harsh direct sunlight of the day, worked very well, even with my glasses on.
Final thoughts, cons first:
Multi-camera live transmission news gathering isn't really its thing. It can't send video to multiple destinations at the same time without packing in a DA, whereas our F3s can send video to a monitor and elsewhere without any extra gear. There's no timecode or genlock in or outs, and the form-factor doesn't naturally lend itself to shooting news on-the-go with a reporter. And of course, like most cameras in its price range, its got a rolling shutter rather than a global shutter. (Which means if you pan too quickly you get a little "jello" effect. Not nearly as bad as the A7s' rolling shutter though, and really I don't think the A7s is as bad about it as people say, you just need to make sure you don't have a lot of vertical lines in your quick moving shots)
All that said, I still stand by my feeling that this is pretty much the perfect camera for most of what I have planned to shoot in the near future. Its light weight enough to go on the Ronin-M, it uses all the lenses I already have. It can shoot 4K internally and s-log 3 really does give you a little more range than S-log2 on the A7s. Beyond that, with a software upgrade this camera can send cinema DNG-raw to an external recorder. It really could be the right camera for a lot of commercials and small indie film productions, as well as a primary or secondary camera for documentary film-making, and I feel that it could probably even handle a low-budget feature depending on how complex it is.
Anyway, that's it for this week's post, I know it was a longer one.
As always, thank you for reading - if you have any questions about something I didn't cover in this post, please let me know in the comments below. I could probably talk about the camera all day, but then no one would read it, and I wouldn't get anything else done.
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Until next time.
Thomas Meek is an independent filmmaker living and working in Houston, TX