Sony FS7K – the new breed of video camera that can use photo lenses

Take all the usability of a pro-style camcorder and mix it with the benefits of a large-sensor DSLR for cinematic shooting – all in a package that is a bit of a bargain compared to its rivals – then you’d have the recipe for a potentially game-changing camera. That’s what Sony has attempted to do with its FS7 camcorder. And it many ways, they’ve pulled it off – as proven by the frenzy to buy the camera at launch and months of waiting lists which have only just now cleared.

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It’s not quite two cameras in one – but gets pretty close to it, and at a price that can’t be matched. The sensor is the industry-standard cinematic Super35 size. So it’s not quite as big as a full-frame 35mm sensor in something like a Canon EOS 5DMkIII, but a slight crop. But a relatively big sensor and ability to mount different lenses such as very fast primes means the FS7 can do very shallow depth of field effects so loved by creative cinematographers and is very good at controlling noise.

_D817169But while those who use DSLR-based systems have limited control over lots of video and audio functions, the FS7 offers amazing control and adjustability that you’d expect from a pro-level camcorder. Plus, of course, a form that is made for video use with decent ergonomics – pretty much right out of the box. In fact, it’s the small physical size and large sensor that are pretty much the only positives for DSLRs now. And when you start to make them useable for pro video use, by adding rigs, monitors, mics, viewfinders, ND filters, separate audio recorders and more, then the size and price benefit suddenly doesn’t seem quite so attractive any more.

Most DSLRs can’t match the FS7’s internal 4K recording and huge 14 stops of dynamic range. The Sony uses the same sensor as in the £12,000 F5 so you know it’s good. And no DSLRs can get close to the super slow-motion that the FS7 captures in real time – recorded without any buffering as in some cameras like the Sony FS700. For NTSC regions this is 180fps but for PAL it’s reduced to 150fps, which is a bit of a shame. But 150fps is still plenty fast. It will shoot in 240fps but you need an external recorder for that.

So loaded with lots of technology including internal 4k and the potential to record Raw files, too, the Sony FS7 is a camera that’s easy to like.

If you are used to handling pro-spec video cameras like large-sensor Sony or even Arris, you’ll be right at home with the FS7. Although it does have some unique features – some good, some not so.

The camera comes with a 15mm rod at the front of the grab handle that the separate monitor clamps on to. An optical viewfinder clips onto this, but can be swivelled out of the way of you want to see the screen – which is a decent screen that has adjustable peaking, zebra and contrast controls. The loupe-style viewfinder has an adjustable dioptre slider, so you can change it to your own eyesight.

The whole viewfinder plugs into a separate VF input so can be removed, or the whole thing repositioned towards the back of the camera if it’s being used on a tripod.

The screen works well, although some more picky users have swopped theirs for a Zacuto Gratical which is better, but pricey. As a first step you could change the optical loupe for a superior one, like a Zacuto, but then you lose the option to just push a button and swivel it out of the way. It’s easy to knock the standard loupe off, though, as it attaches via a coupe of spring clips. In standard form, the viewfinder works perfectly adequately, certainly for a camera at this price.

The most unusual feature for a standard camera is the FS7 comes with a grip handle that fits onto an Arri standard rosette on the right side. This means you can fit lots of industry-standard grips, but the standard one is very good and has so much more to offer than just being a convenient grip. It’s adjustable in length and angle, and the grip itself moves too. As well as a start/ stop record button, the grip has a zoom feature when a compatible lens is fitted, a scroll wheel to navigate through menus, a joypad to do the same and three user-assignable buttons that you can programme in to access various functions. There’s also a Focus Mag button that immediately expands the viewfinder image to allow you to check focus. You can even do this during recording as it’s a feature of the viewfinder, and doesn’t affect recording.

With a decent-size shoulder pad, the grip and the optical viewfinder, the camera really does become a broadcast-quality, gun-and-run ENG style camera. Especially if you equip the camera with the Sony 28-135mm f4 G FE lens.

The camera is available as body only for around £5800 or with this lens as a kit – called the FS7K – for £7300. The lens itself is about £1600 if bought separately, so you’re making a saving.

This lens transforms the camera, as it is Sony’s first FE-mount lens designed for video with all the bonuses of video lenses that people who exclusively use DSLR lenses just don’t get. Such as the option of click-free iris adjustment, large manual focus throw designed to take a follow-focus mechanism, no focus breathing when focal length is changed, no discernable change in aperture or focal length as focus distance is altered and a power zoom feature as well as in-lens stabilisation and a proper video-style lens hood. Shame it only comes supplied with a flimsy plastic lens cap that looks like the top off a takeaway coffee cup. Best of all though, its autofocus really works.

Now that may seem like sacrilege to serious film-makers, but having AF that can actually be used in some circumstances is a huge bonus – if you know when and where to use it, and recognise its limitations. We shot motocross bikes in action and as long as they were near the centre of the frame, it worked flawlessly. Of course, you can always go to manual.

The only issue with the lens is the focal length, as at 28mm at the wide end it’s not particularly wide, thanks to the crop factor of the Super35 sensor. So you’d need something wider, and Sony doesn’t yet have a video-spec lens that wide. So you can either fit Sony’s FE range of primes or zooms designed primarily for stills cameras, or use an adapter as the Sony can take all the popular lens fitments such as Canon, Nikon, Leica and PL. We used some Nikon glass with a Metabones speed booster which worked fantastically. The speed booster works in the opposite way to a teleconverter – it reduces focal length but gives an effective increase in maximum aperture. So a 300mm Nikon f4 lens, with the speed booster, actually gives the image of a true 300mm lens even though the sensor is a cropped one. And it’s faster than f4, too. Of course, you do lose any autofocus with the vast majority of adapters.

Features

The camera feels rugged as it has a magnesium body. There is a solid top handle with a mic holder, intelligent hotshoe, a second threaded adapter for fitting accessories and the monitor mount. The front hotshoe allows you to attach Sony’s new wireless microphone system without the use of any external wires. The handle bolts on, allowing you to unbolt it and fit other handles or top plates to take even more accessories.

Just like a pro camera, the FS7 has lots of connections like two SDI outs, HDMI out, two XLR inputs, power supply, headphone jack, USB and a mini jack for the remote.

Most of the control buttons are on the left side panel, including shutter, iris, ISO/ gain and white balance control, as well as the audio level adjuster wheels for two channels of the four audio channels. The two XLR inputs can take line, mic or mic +48v for mics that don’t have their own power source. The left side has all the menu buttons, user-settable menus, slots for the two XQD cards and the big adjustment know for the built-in ND filters. These are proper optical ND filters to allow you to change aperture to control depth of field, rather than some in-camera electronic NDs. The buttons are are all logically named and reasonably easy to use, although some can be a bit fiddly. The camera also has six user-assignable buttons too. And the button for taking a custom white balance reading is on the front of the camera in a typical camcorder position.

Despite having lots of quick-access buttons, you’ll often find yourself diving into the menus which is where the camera is a bit slow and clunky. If you’re used to Sony video cameras then it’ll be very familiar, which is to say it hasn’t really evolved through the years.

It’s slow to navigate and many features are deep within submenus. It’s definitely worthwhile setting up your own User Menu, which includes all of your most-used menu settings that you change. Then by pushing the User Menu button on the lefty side of the camera, you’re instantly given access to your most-used settings. There’s also a “status” button to give an instant readout of all the parameters you’ve set, plus a way of increasing the size of, say, the audio waveform so you can see what’s going on.

The most important part is the CMOS sensor and the recording options, the highlight of which is the 4K video recorded internally. The actual resolution in camera is UHD which is 3840 x 2160, so not quite full 4K — for that you need an external recorder. You can record Raw out, but for this you need the external recorder, too. One option is Sony’s R5 recorder and the FS7 XDCA extension unit which is huge and pricey. Or you could use something like an Odyssey 7Q+ which is still around £2000. That’s the price you have to pay if you want to record real full 4k, Raw or get the 240fps the camera is really capable of.

Without any of that kit, 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 XAVC-I is 600mbps while XAVC-L is just 150mbps. Most people record with the higher-quality XAVC-I as it works in most editing packages even though it creates big file sizes – about twice the size of XAVC-L. In XAVC-I mode, a 32GB card will be full in about 24 minutes.

The camera has two card slots for Sony’s XQD memory cards, but it needs the latest-generation version of them. At around £220 for a single 64GB card, users of cameras like RED or high-sped Sony units will be jumping with joy at just how cheap these are compared to SXS-style cards or RED’s viciously expensive storage media. On the other hand, people moving up from DSLRs will faint at the price of £220 for 64GB when an SD card can be bought for a fraction of that.

The XQD cards are fast and robust, and two card slots mean you can set one card up to be an instant backup of the other. Alternatively, you can set the camera so when one card is full, the other kicks in seamlessly. You don’t even drop a frame. You can eve hot-swap card as you use them, so you can be downloading one while shooting on another, then wipe it and put it back in if you really must.

Performance

When you set up the camera, there is one key decision to make and that’s to set the shooting mode as it really affects the final output. The two modes are Custom or Cine EI. Custom mode lets you set custom white balance but doesn’t output in Raw, gives no monitor LUTs and no S-log options. The FS7 is capable of recording an image with 14 stops of dynamic range when you use S-Log3. That is an incredible range, and one that many users would lust after.

To use any of the S-log2 or 3 settings, you need to select Cine EI mode. This, however, disables auto white balance, auto gain, auto shutter speed, auto iris and auto exposure. There are no custom white balance option, and no suppression of moiré or noise, and the ISO is locked to the camera’s base of 2000.

Essentially, this means Cine EI gives the best quality, but you need a post-shoot workflow that’s far more involved to get a good result. If you’re shooting for ultimate quality and have the workflow capability, it’s the one to go for. If not, then Custom is probably the best choice.

In Cine EI mode, the dynamic range is vast. So if you shoot in bright sunshine which gives deep shadows, then there’s still lots of detail there that can be found in post processing. In Custom mode, the dynamic range is also excellent but does not quite give the exposure latitude of Cine EI.

And when it comes to low-light shooting, the performance is excellent in both modes. The Custom mode does have in-built suppression of moiré and noise so the results look good out of camera. Cine EI mode files need work afterwards.

Whatever you choose, the image quality is just amazing and gives the very cinematic look most people want, especially when using wide apertures to give a shallow depth of field. The look is very film-like and not very “digital”.

For some users, the real deal-maker for the FS7 is the high frame rate which, unlike some cameras like the 240fps Sony FS700, records in real time without any buffering. As well as all the cinematic frame rates, the high rate at 150 fps – inexplicably lower than the 180fps if you set the camera to US-style NTSC recording – gives a fantastic super slow-motion effect. But it only records in HD, not UHD, at fast rates.

To change from standard frame rates to super-fast or super-slow rates, Sony has a “S&Q” button on the side of the camera which flicks it over into slow or fast frame rate mode. Autofocus and audio are disabled in this mode, though. You can even set it to as low as one frame per second for real creative effects, ideal for shooting lights trails of traffic at night.

A camera is only as good as the lenses you put on it, and in that way the Sony can perform well as it can take so many different types of lenses via adapters.

But using the FS7K with Sony’s new FE 28-135mm f4 G OSS lens gives fantastic results. Although only f4, it handles like a real cinema lens and can be zoomed and focused well during recording, if you really want to. But the 28mm lens isn’t really wide enough so you should budget for something wider. We had great luck with a range of Nikon lenses using a Metabones speed booster.

In terms of usage time, the FS7 takes the standard Sony BP-U series of batteries, which last a long time and are small and fast to charge. The BP-U90 gives about three hours worth of recording time, and cheaper non-Sony copies are available if you don’t mind risking reliability. There’s an accessory clip-on extension pack you can buy that allows you to fit very powerful and long-lasting V-lock batteries which can even power video lights.

The camera also comes supplied with a plug-in wifi unit which then can communicate with a smartphone or tablet. Despite the initially slightly techy way you have to connect by keying-in an IP address, it works well. You can control lots of the function of the camera from up to 30 feet away, but you can’t stream video. If that’s important, you have to buy an extra plug-in unit which costs around £1000. But that’s the beauty of a pro-spec camera – just about anything you want to control can be bought as an add-on if you can afford it. You’re buying into a real system camera.

Check out some image grabs from some of the videos I’ve shot.

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Specs:

Sensor: Super 35mm Single-Chip Exmor CMOS

Video Format: XAVC-I, XAVC-L, MPEG2
Resolution and frame rate: 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 150 in 1920X1080 for PAL, 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 E
Included Lens: 28-135mm F4G FE lens in FS7K kit, no lens FS7
Audio In: XLR-type 3-pin (female) (x2), line/mic/mic +48 V selectable Mic , 4-channel

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 1/9000sec
ISO Range: 100-16,000 (native base of 2000)
Shot Assist: Zebra, Peaking
Battery: BP-U series

Built-in optical filters1/4, 1/16, 1/64 ND.

Body size: 156 x 239 x 247mm

Weight: 2kg body only, 4.5Kg with viewfinder, eyepiece, grip, BP-U30 battery, XQD card.

Street price: FS7 £5800, FS7K £7300.

How it rates/verdict

A proper broadcast-quality professional video camera, that can be used just like a gun-and-run ENG camera or used as a cinema-style camera due to its large sensor and interchangeble lenses, sounds like a winner. Especially when you throw in internal 4K recording with a Super35 sensor, huge dynamic range and super slow-motion with very fast frame rates without buffering.

Check out a video I shot on the FS-7K (with a little additional drone footage from my DJI Phantom 3 Pro). And the second video was me and another FS7 operator shooting Elliott Banks-Browne for MOTO magazine.


Not only that, it has very good pro-style ergonomics and features right out of the box. You don’t need to start buying ND filters, viewfinders, XLR-input audio recorders or rigs to make it into a useable camera. Running on relatively inexpensive XQD cards and BP-U batteries, and proving a sensor the same as the £12,000 Sony F5, this camera is a winner. Especially when you figure in the £5800 body-only price. There is nothing that comes close to offering the results or features at anything like the price.

OK, it’s not perfect. The menus are fiddly and the LCD monitor and its optical viewfinder is not fantastic, but in relative terms these are small complaints. And the viewfinder issue can be cured by buying pro-quality replacements if you really feel the need. Same story for the mic mount which is not the best – but there are already higher-quality replacements out there if you want to upgrade.

But what Sony have done is create a fantastically capable, multi-use, large-sensor camera that works right out of the box, at a fantastic price that’s thoroughly recommended.

  • First published in Pro Moviemaker magazine, winter 2015