Since the beginning of the DSLR craze and the rapid camera evolutions that ensued, we have become accustomed to making a lot of compromises for a nice sensor. In the case of DSLRs, we are compromising on all but the quality of the image. Audio is a nightmare and the form factor is ludicrous, forcing shooters to buy complex and expensive rigs just to use the camera efficiently. This current camera environment is leaving ENG shooters and DPs nostalgic for the days of shoulder cameras with ND filters, XLR inputs and a plethora of on-camera buttons. Sony answered our cries for an out-of-the-box functional camera in a way Blackmagic Design, Canon and Panasonic have not. The Sony FS7 is the most uncompromising camera available, at a price tag that does not compromise your wallet.
The Sony PXW-FS7 – XDCAM is the best camera on the market for your money. Not only it is loaded with tons high end features, great ergonomics and internal 4K, but this is a camera that is very easy to fall in love with.
Lets start with the specs. The FS7 does record 4K video internally with a super 35mm Exmor CMOS sensor, giving the image a nice film look with beautiful depth of field. The actual resolution in camera is UHD (3840 x 2160), not quite full 4K — for that you need an external recorder. In UHD you have your choice of two different codecs, 10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC-I or 8-bit 4:2:0 XAVC-L. The difference between XAVC-I (intra) and XAVC-l (long) other than colorspace is about 450mbps; XAVC-I tops out at 600mbps while XAVC-L reaches just 150mbps. They are great formats, but the UHD can bog down a slower to mid-range workstation, and Premiere CS6 does not support the format, though it works beautifully in Premiere CC. This camera eats memory cards in UHD, especially in XAVC-I where a 32GB card gets about 24 minutes. With XAVC-L you get about double, and HD recording will go a long while. The plus side is that the FS7 uses XQD cards, which are relatively inexpensive when compared to other media. A 64GB card will run about $315. There are two slots, which will allow you to record simultaneously or relay record.
The FS7 CMOS sensor delivers an image with 14 stops dynamic range in S-Log3. That is astounding — almost as good as the cinematographer favorite, ARRI ALEXA. The footage out of this camera has tons of latitude, and you can take the image any way you want. We shot a lot in bright daylight with direct sun and shadows without issue, but don’t be lazy. A camera with lots of latitude is not an excuse not to light. Like all cameras, the FS7 excels when the subject is properly lit. This camera does exceptionally well in low light, though nothing like its baby brother the Sony a7S — then again nothing does low light like the a7S.
There is a plethora of frame rate options as well. In UHD, you have your choice of 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 23.98p and 25p. In HD, you have the same options but with the added ability to overcrank at a rate or your choice up to 180 fps. The FS7 has the ability to switch quickly between your standard frame rate and a second rate of your choosing. This is called S&Q function, for slow and quick. There is a button on the side of the camera that you just push to switch modes, careful though, it is easy to hit when not paying attention and being that it’s true in camera slow motion there will be no audio recording. On two occasions, I accidently hit that button without realizing it, and while it looked great, I had no audio when I needed it. You can set it from one frame per second to undercrank or up to 180 frame per second for overcranking. There is a catch though, in UHD the max frame rate is 60 fps, so you must switch to HD from that sweet, sexy 180 fps. Switching between codecs and resolutions is not quick or easy, the option is buried in the menu and the camera has to restart, while restarting isn’t as slow as a RED, it’s not fast either.
The image out of the FS7 is fantastic and looks very cinematic. In the coming years, this camera will be used successfully on tons of independent films and probably some larger ones. The indie hit “Safety Not Guaranteed” was shot on the Sony F3, the precursor to the FS7. While the F3 has a great image its nothing in comparison to the FS7. The quality of the image, the texture and the overall tone is very film like on the FS7 — even the grain does not look digital. When this camera debuted at NAB last year many people, but especially Sony F55 owners, were turning their heads with frustration and jealousy; this camera, minus a few features is essentially an F55. The image between the two is indistinguishable.
The form factor of this camera is unique in today’s environment but is clearly inspired by the ARRI SR2 and other handheld super 16mm cameras. It even has an ARRI standard rosette on the front right side of the camera where the handle attaches, but because it’s standard, there are decades worth of handles, grips and arms that can be attached. The handle and arm that come with the camera are not perfect but still work really well. The grip is very much styled like the wooden grips of those old cameras and fits into the hand well. The grip has a coiled cable that attaches to the side of the FS7 enabling control of the camera through the grip. Controls includes record, a zoom rocker (which will only work on servo zoom lenses), menu navigation and two custom function buttons. This addition makes the camera very easy to use handheld and works perfectly straight out of the box. This cannot be said enough, the Sony FS7 is tons of fun to use handheld because of its surprising ergonomics.
The body of the FS7 is made out of magnesium, keeping the weight down and the durability up. The camera weighs in at under five pounds without a lens, which is crazy-light especially when you consider nothing has to be added to this camera to use it handheld. While the body is durable, it’s not as tough as Sony leads people to believe. Like all your equipment, handle your FS7 with love and care.
The FS7 has a well built and sturdy top handle that feels very strong. On the top handle is the mic holder, hot shoe and monitor mount. The mic holder is nothing special, but the hot shoe is very cool, it allows you to attach and communicate with Sony’s new wireless microphone system, meaning no external wires. The monitor setup up is nice, yet at the same time odd — nice in that it utilizes standard 15mm rails to mount and position the monitor, odd in that they are plastic.
The monitor on the other hand is nothing special; it glares easily and is not real helpful when trying to pull focus. Sony tries to amend this with a cheap eyepiece attachment. While it’s completely functional, it feels cheap and out of place with this camera. After some use, you will likely find yourself eventually having to tape it to the monitor.
The Sony FS7 has a ton of connections, further separating it from much of its competition in this price point. You get 2X SDI outs, HDMI out, 2X XLR, power supply, ? headphone jack, USB and a mini jack for the remote. The whole left side of the camera is covered in buttons, including six programmable custom buttons. You also have shutter, iris and white balance control. The aperture control is not perfect; it’s a bit slow and not very smooth. An odd feature with this camera is that when shooting in S-Log3, you only have three white balance settings: 3200K, 4300K and 5500K. If you're using a color card or grey card getting, perfect white balance in post won’t be that much of a problem. You also have three ISO preset settings on the side, which are completely customisable. Otherwise you have to dive into the menu. This camera also has full audio control to go along with the two XLR inputs with two volume dials on the side of the camera.
By far, the worst thing about this camera is its menu system. It’s slow, slow, slow with many features buried within. If there is a setting that needs to be changed and it’s in the menu, don’t count on getting to it in a hurry. Part of it is there are so many menus and submenus along with the actual load time of menus, which is very slow.
One of the best features of this camera is a three stage ND filter dial on the front of the camera. No more using screw on ND filter when shooting outside just so you can shoot at anything under F8. I found myself shooting often at 2.8 in the bright sun without having to go crazy with the shutter speed. This has been something missing on many cameras and is a very welcome addition to the FS7.
The lens mount on the Sony FS7 is Sony NEX, same as the a7S and FS700, which which is fantastic, and with an adapter you can use your Canon, Nikon or Leica lenses with the FS7 without problem. Our tests were done mainly with Canon L series glass using a metabones adapter that worked without incident. Metabones makes a great product that works really well with the FS7. Because the sensor is a Super 35mm sensor and not a full frame, you could use a Metabones speedbooster to get that full frame look and an extra stop in exposure. The Canon lenses worked great, and aperture and autofocus worked relatively smoothly. The images we got from using the Canon glass were superb. We also did some testing with Sony’s new ENG style lens, the FE 28-135mm f/4 G OSS and, surprisingly, it was really fun. That lens transforms the FS7 into an real ENG camera. While the lens is not that fast at f/4, the quality of the image was great and having an aperture ring was wonderful. The only restriction with using that lens with the FS7 is the lens is not quite wide enough for real run and gun ENG work.
The FS7 takes the standard Sony U series batteries, which are fantastic and last a long time. The BP-U90 give you about three hours worth of recording time. These batteries aren’t cheap but they are not prohibitively expensive either and have a proven track record of durability, reliability and longevity.
This Sony FS7 is a really interesting camera; it’s a camera that tries to live in two worlds, both ENG and cinema, and it does this surprisingly well. This camera can and will be used by news agencies and documentarians for years to come. The image looks cinematic while having the functionality of a real ENG camera. Beyond the superb 4K recording, this camera very much feels like a cinema camera. It cannot be said enough: This is a camera that is closest to being perfect right out of the box that we have seen. Beyond lenses and batteries, this camera is fully functional the moment it’s taken out of the box with an image that is reflective of much higher-end cameras. The FS7 is a camera where it is very easy to forget the minimal complaints and real inconveniences because this camera really grows on you. While this review may seen like a love letter to Sony, it’s deservingly so. Sony clearly listened to the frustration of shooters and made something we all want to use. If only it had a better menu system — but I guess we can’t have everything.
- Internal 4K recording with a super 35mm sensor
- 14 stops dynamic range in S-Log3.
- Superb ergonomics
- fully operational out of the box.
- Records from 1 to 180 frames per second.
- Very Poor menu design and functionality.
- The LCD monitor is mounted with cheap plastic
- eyepiece adapter is even cheaper.
Sensor Size & Type: Super 35mm Single-Chip Exmor CMOS
Effective Megapixels (DSLR Only): N/A
Video Format: XAVC-I, XAVC-L, MPEG2
Resolution & Framerate: 4096 X 2160 3840 X 2160, 1280 X 720, 1920×1080 (59.94p, 59.94i, 50i, 50p, 29.97p, 23.98p, 25p) S&Q (1 to 180 in 1920X1080, 1 to 60 in 3840 X 2160)
Recording Media: 2 x XQD
Display Size and Resolution: 3.5" / 8.8 cm, Approx: 1.56M dots LCD
Lens Mount: Sony NEX
Included Lens: N/A
Audio In: XLR-type 3-pin (female) (x2), line/mic/mic +48 V selectable Mic Reference: -40, -50, -60dBu
Audio Out: Stereo mini jack 1/8"
Video Out: HDMI, 2 x BNC HD/3G-SDI
Other Interface: USB, LANC,
Shutter Rage: 1/3 to 1/9000 of a sec
ISO Range: 100-16,000 (native base of 2000)
Shot Assist: Zebra, Peaking
Battery: BP-U series
Jason Miller is a professional filmmaker, editor and visual effects artist whose work
can be been seen in feature films and national marketing campaigns