San Francisco-based freelance filmmaker and photographer Matt Maniego recently had the opportunity to see how the new Sony FS7 would stand up to the standard of his professional shooting needs. His films have been featured by the three major Bay Area professional sports teams and his requirements are high quality RAW recording and relatively lightweight rigs for his run-and-gun shooting style. Here he breaks down why the Sony FS7 may be the camera he’s been waiting for…but is perhaps not perfect yet! Read our review to see if the the Sony FS7 is the camera for you.
3 Things That Are Annoying About The Sony FS7
by Matt Maniego
I’ve shot on many cameras before, including the Canon 5D Mark III, Canon C300, Sony FS700, RED Scarlet/Dragon, Black Magic Cinema/4K Production. You name it, I’ve probably shot on it. But none of them had all of the features I wanted at an appealing price point…until now.
When I was hired to document the Golden State Warriors championship run I wanted a camera that was lightweight, easy to use, and shot 4K/SlowMo internally. BlueHillco suggested I try the Sony FS7. I had read many great reviews about it and it did suit my needs well. The good outweigh the bad, so I’ll start with what I really liked about shooting with the Sony FS7.
Benefit 1: SLog3
This alone is probably the best part about shooting on the Sony FS7. The ability to capture so much detail on a compressed codec is amazing! The camera captures plenty of detail in highlights and shadows that’s on par with much more expensive cameras. It’s definitely not RAW, but it’s also not a bajillion gigabytes per minute (if any of you have shot on RED, you’ll know that footage can eat up Terabytes upon Terabytes no matter the content). The latitude that the codec gives you is amazing given that the file size is relatively small. Footage is sharp, especially if you capture in 4K and master in 1080p. You’ll be able to get away with shooting on two 64GB cards, although I do recommend higher capacity cards if you plan on shooting slow-mo and, trust me, shooting in slow-mo can be VERY ADDICTING. Speaking of slow-mo, that brings me to my second point.
Benefit 2: Internal SlowMo at 4K and 1080p
The ability to shoot in 60p at 4K internally is really awesome! Sure it’s not 150 FPS at 4K like a RED Epic, but it’s a very good compromise. Although it is a compressed codec, it doesn’t look blocky like the old Sony FS700 slow-mo did. The sensor on this is from the Sony F5, so everything is sampled at 4K and looks much cleaner. You even have the ability to shoot at a max of 180 FPS; the caveat being that it’s only available in 1080p. This is fine for now because, at the moment, most clients master in 1080p or 720p. The footage captured at 180 FPS is downsampled from 4K and looks spectacular. Images are sharp and clean and, again, that SLog3 makes it easy to manipulate color in post. You can also shoot up to 240 FPS at 1080p if you record to an external recorder. I found this unnecessary because most of my shoots were “run-and-gun” style.
Benefit 3: Run-and-Gun Capable
Because this camera is so lightweight (even with the rear attachment and battery) it’s a great run-and-gun camera. The ability to transition from shoulder-mounted to ground level, to mounting on sticks, makes this an extremely versatile camera. It’s even light enough to raise above my head with one hand – just make sure you have a good grip on it! For those transitioning from a DSLR setup, you’ll find that this is not much heavier than a Canon 5D Mark III on a shoulder rig with EVF and other attachments. However, it’s cleaner and easier to use because everything is integrated in such a small package right down to the audio inputs.
Benefit 4: Dual Audio XLR Inputs
Everyone who has shot on a DSLR knows how much of a struggle it is to sync audio in post. Even with software like Plural Eyes, it’s still not perfect. With the FS7’s dual XLR inputs, you’re able to record great sound from lavaliers and other external sources. Of course, if you want perfect sound you should probably have a sound pro there recording to a field recorder for you. But having the ability to sync up with that sound pro automatically saves so much time and headache! And that’s what good tools do – they help you save time and allow you to do your job more efficiently.
Now, onto the 3 things that are annoying about the FS7…
Annoying Thing 1: The Menu System
With all the awesome features built into this camera, it seemed that the menu system was an afterthought. Why couldn’t Sony take a hint from Canon or RED and make the user interface more user friendly? This is also something the Sony Alpha DSLR cameras suffer from, but that’s another blog post.
Give yourself some time to learn the menus because it will most likely take at least a day to understand it all. From navigating to knowing how to press the joystick down correctly, frustrations can escalate quickly if you’re learning on set. DO NOT LEARN ON SET. I repeat, DO NOT LEARN ON SET. Learning on set will make your day stressful and it won’t look good to the client. You don’t want to look like an ameture to your client, especially if they are professional sports teams! BlueHillco is cool in that they allow custom rental periods, so tack on some time to your rental to learn the menus. Go out and practice switching back and forth from real time to slow-mo and back again. Believe me, it’s not that quick. Here is a quick start guide that I found on YouTube that helped me out. I didn’t purchase the remainder of the course, but it gives you a good enough intro to the camera setup.
Annoying Thing 2: Balance
Again, another feature Sony left off their priority list. This camera, out of the box, is unbalanced. The center of gravity for the camera is way too far in front for the built-in shoulder pad to even matter. In these images I am using it in its barebones setup during a Warrior’s game.
Because the camera is so front heavy it caused my shoulder and right arm to fatigue unusually fast. The BPU-60 batteries were not heavy enough to offset the weight of the heavy lenses I had up front.
To solve this I thought I should maybe add some weight. I opted for the Zacuto Shoulder Mounted System thinking it would help but it did not. It seemed cool to have two EVFs and I even set it up so that my producer could have a view of what I was looking at while I was recording. Everything looked great until I picked it up. This rig made the setup much heavier than I desired. The counterweight did offset the weight of the lens but it also made the whole rig heavier. Maybe I should have worked out more to use this setup? I typically shoot for 3-4 hours straight at gigs and lugging this thing around was a pain. Mid-shoot I took it off the shoulder mount and used it as I did before.
I then looked for another option and the video staff at BlueHillco recommended I get the FS7 extension unit. I tried it out and it worked like a charm. The built-in shoulder pad still wasn’t helpful, so my shoulder sat between the pad and the extension unit – not ideal. It’s a little heavier than the stock setup but it’s so much more balanced and lighter than using the Zacuto rig.
Annoying Thing 3: Bugs and the Metabones SpeedBooster Adapter
I own a lot of Canon glass and didn’t want to carry another set of lenses while using this camera. This is why I chose to shoot with the Metabones SpeedBooster. The SpeedBooster also allowed me to have a full frame look, gain a stop in light, and increase focal range on the Super 35 sensor. I no longer had to multiply by a crop factor when choosing lenses.
The annoyance? It’s buggy to the point where setting the aperture is a gamble. Sometimes the camera would communicate with the lens and sometimes it didn’t. It does what it feels like at the moment. Metabones are the makers of the best adapters and speedboosters and it’s been nearly a year since the release of the Sony FS7. You’d think Sony would have addressed the issue by now. I know this isn’t entirely Sony’s fault but it’s still annoying. I could have solved this problem using cinema glass with manual aperture control, or even opting for manual Nikon lenses, but traveling as light as possible was a priority and that meant using the lenses I already owned.
Because I was not able to change apertures on the fly, I had to shoot wide open most of the time. That is why I am very thankful that this camera has built in ND filters. It also helped that I shot a lot of footage in slow-mo (shooting at faster shutter speeds helps your exposure a stop or two). I shot on zoom lenses that have a max aperture of f/2.8 but if I did need the extra light, I opted for an f/1.4 or f/1.2 prime. This was really for rare occasions when I was shooting in controlled environments, like for interviews. My go-to lenses were the 24-70 f/2.8 L II or the 70-300 f/4-5.6 L because they are both relatively fast for their focal lengths.
Why did I stick to this camera despite these annoyances? Because of the quality of the footage! The images are beautiful and there is plenty of latitude in the S.Log3 color space. It’s like (like, not exactly like) shooting on RED but without the “weight” of those RAW files. The turnaround for my client, the Golden State Warriors, is pretty fast so they needed footage that was ready to go in an instant. They typically don’t have time to ingest and convert RAW files and that is why I opted to use this tool for this job.
The pros definitely outweighed the cons with the Sony FS7. I’m pretty sure the annoyances will get fixed in firmware upgrades and that gives me hope that this will eventually be the perfect camera (until the Sony FS8 comes out). In the run-and-gun environment of shooting the Warriors championship run, I was able to work around the caveats and still produce content that was perfect for my client.