It’s now been over a year that I’ve spent with Sony’s curvy camera, so what better time than to reflect on how it’s performed and how it fits in today’s ever changing market.
Initial reports suggested that it’s an exceptionally well specced camera for it’s price point. Utilising the exact same sensor from it’s bigger (and more expensive) brother, the F5, it’s not hard to see why production models were hard to come by in the first few months. Having placed my order with one company and waiting several weeks with still no indication of how much longer, I cancelled and gave my money to Top-Teks instead, who just happened to have one readily available.
Ergonomics and Accessories
Despite designed to be an ergonomic camera for ‘one-man-band’ shooters, early reviews and my own experience say that the shoulder pad, viewfinder bracket and arm/grip could be improved. They’re perfectly functional, though they just don’t seem big enough. Given that's pretty much the only camera that is ready to shoot straight out of the box, this is a minor criticism. And of course almost immediately upon release, several manufacturers were offering various improved solutions.
I bought the Arri baseplate and top plate kit. The baseplate offers not only 15mm rod support but a brilliant lens adapter support too. The top plate is riddled with 3/8” and 1/4” mounting points and I have had no problem attaching monitors, microphones and other gizmos all over. The Arri CCH-2 top handle is sturdy as a rock and I have had no problems lifting and carrying the camera with larger setups such as with heavy lenses - something I’d certainly be wary of doing with the original plastic handle. The viewfinder bracket is also a big improvement over Sony’s. The baseplate is the only area where I can see room for improvement; whilst the integrated VCT support is useful, the shoulder pad itself isn’t much more comfortable than the original. If only it were more akin to the lovely shoulder pads Arri produce for the Amira for instance!
Sony have been kind enough to continually update the firmware since its release, and we now have many features users have been requesting. I for one, am very pleased to see the addition of a 172.8º shutter angle and, recently announced at NAB this year, a true 24p mode.
Whilst marketed as a ‘one-man-band’ style camera, it is perfectly capable as a fully featured cinema camera - something that I predominantly use it as. Capable of up to 60fps at full DCI 4K resolution in 10bit 4:2:2, shooting 14 stops of dynamic range with SLog3, all bundled in an excellent XAVC-I codec, it is capable of some excellent images ready for the big screen.
The downside to it being designed for single operators is that there are no controls on the right hand side of the camera for an assistant. Having replaced the top handle with an Arri one, I’ve lost a record button on the top of the camera. And not often using the grip, I lose use of not only another record button but three additional user assignable buttons. To combat this, I commissioned a bespoke ‘control box’ to be made. It plugs in and is powered by the 3.5mm jack that the grip usually uses and screws on anywhere with a 3/8” or ¼” screw. It has a record button plus the three extra user assignable buttons and is completely weather sealed. In extreme weather, I’ve bagged the whole camera up and just the control box is exposed - either myself or my ACs can operate the camera using just this box with my most frequently used functions (S&Q, focus mag and hi/low key). Furthermore, it has a rec tally and low battery LEDs.
Lenses and mounts
One of the main appeals to this camera for me was the Sony E mount. With a flange distance of only 18mm, it can be adapted to almost any lens. Whilst there were fewer a year ago, there is now a fast growing range of E mount lenses from a number of manufacturers. I bought the camera without the kit zoom, as I already had a number of Canon EF mount lenses. I use these with a Metabones EF-E Smart Adapter VI. Initially, people were reporting difficulties with this Metabones adapters: the aperture would ‘flash’ (open up wide open and then stop down to selected aperture for a split second) as it was stopped down. A fix was quickly discovered - booting the adapter into ‘advanced mode’ by holding down the button on the adapter as it’s mounted and the camera turned on. Metabones are constantly updating the firmware in their adapters and I believe the problem has since been rectified. Either way, I’ve not had this problem since using Advanced mode - and even so, use fully manual lenses for 90% of my shooting. Whilst I do not have one personally, the Metabones Speedbooster is another option - imitating a full frame field of view on the Super 35 sensor, plus granting an extra stop of light. This is something that can’t be done on a native EF mount camera such as the C300.
Over the past year I’ve also used PL glass a number of times with the camera, after getting tired of repeatedly hiring a Vocas PL adapter, I finally gave in and bought a Metabones PL mount. Both are as good as each other, though I chose Metabones for a few reasons. Firstly, it was nearly half the price of the Vocas, and crucially, it has a 1/4” thread in it’s foot for lens adapter support. The Arri LAS-1 takes all the weight off the (admittedly, less than rugged) E mount and the Vocas mount does not have this thread. Instead, it uses it’s own lens support (at an additional cost) and mounts straight onto 15mm rods. The Arri baseplate extends forward of the camera, preventing the use of this, plus with the Metabones and the LAS-1, I have lens adapter support when I do not need or want to use 15 rods. Other cameras can only be purchased in either EF or PL or must be sent back to the manufacturer to be retrofitted. The flexibility in lens choice with the FS7 is invaluable. I've been able to choose the most appropriate glass for any given project and have not been restricted by what mount they are.
Survivability and Longevity
The camera itself is designed to be ‘splash and dustproof’, I believe the official terminology is. Very soon after getting my hands on the camera, I tested this quite thoroughly when taking a boat out to the Farne Islands to film the puffin population and exposing it to the North Sea. I’ve trekked for miles and shot in below zero conditions all around Scotland too and I’m pleased to report that it’s never missed a beat and has run flawlessly since delivery up to the present day. It’s important to be able to rely on a camera and the FS7 has never let me down.
The FS7 was, considered to many, the successor to the very popular C300 from Canon - both are versatile, high performance cameras at accessible price points. When the C300mkII was announced, I wondered how it would compare. Both are extremely capable, and without getting in to a brand war, both are largely comparable. There are some specs or features that the Canon trumps the Sony, and there are some that the Sony is still better equipped. But crucially, the Canon is twice the price. Even now, I still feel the Sony was the right choice for me.
A year on and I couldn’t be happier with the FS7. At it’s price point, I really believe that it’s the best camera per pound (or dollar) you can buy. In many ways, it’s arguably on par with the Red One in terms of specs and performance (with a raw recorder) - the Red of course once being the pinnacle of digital cinema. I foresee the FS7 being both relevant and competitive for a number of years yet and I look forward to whatever I might end up filming next with it.