The Sony PMW F3 and NEX FS100 represent a radical new direction for Sony’s professional cameras in the entry level to mid-range segments. Sony Australia’s Nick Buchner provided us with demo units of both cameras when they became available a couple of months apart to do a comparison review. We were intrigued by what we found.
The F3 and FS100 come from two separate design teams within Sony and they reflect two surprisingly different philosophies on what a large sensor, pro video camera should be like in 2011.
The F3 has been grown out of the popular XDCAM EX series cameras and has been nicknamed by some as the “EX-35″. The newly developed image sensor is similar to the size of the Super 35mm film frame and is a single CMOS type chip in Sony’s very good EXMOR variant of the CMOS format.
The processing and on board recording have a lot in common with the EX1 & EX3, using the MPEG-2 based XDCAM EX format recording to Sony’s SxS professional grade flash memory cards. This codec is surprisingly solid for 35 mbps of MPEG-2 and responds well to manipulation in post with very little artefacting.
Where the F3 is completely different to it’s EX stable-mates is at the front end. In front of the Super 35 chip is a new type of Sony lens mount but the camera is supplied with an adaptor to the PL Mount .
There is actually quite a bit of confusion about what different “35mm” sized image sensors are equivalent to. In the stills world 35mm SLR’s used the film running horizontally with 8 film perforations to each frame. When people talk about “full frame” cameras like the 5D-II, this is the same as the motion picture format known as VistaVision, originally intended as an alternative to 70mm, but since the 1960’s used mainly for visual effects.
The smaller sensor cameras such as the 7D are much closer to normal 35mm motion picture film. The Super-35 format uses the full width between the perforations and has become popular since the introduction of the Digital Intermediate.
This opens up a massive collection of lens options from standard zooms and primes to speciality lenses like snorkel, swing tilt and macro lenses to mention just a few. The lenses that come with the kit version of the F3 are three Sony built, standard primes in 35, 50 & 85mm focal lengths. These are quite substantial lenses with size and weight more like a Zeiss Master Prime or Cooke S4 than a video or SLR lens. They have big, cine-style markings, T-Stops and film standard pitch focus and iris gears with no iris steps. Looking at the front element, it is apparent that the optics are probably based on SLR lenses with a relatively small piece of glass nestled into the big housing.
It’s actually quite a good compromise, no one is pretending that they would match the optical performance of the top end film lenses but they are an easy fit for the workflow of any focus puller used to working with 35mm gear and a comfortable match to standard film accessories. The optical performance is very decent for lenses in this price range and they are nicely sharp and contrasty even at the wide open T1.8 where most of these lenses will spend most of their time.
These lenses are fully manual… all the time. This is where the big barrel comes into it’s own, making smooth, subtle and precise focus pulls and iris adjustments possible and practical. If you’re used to Master Primes etc. then there will certainly be a difference, but these are certainly more modern pro cinematography lenses than even something like the classic Superspeeds.
Many directors and cinematographers are rediscovering the virtues of Prime Lenses since the DSLR revolution has happened. Primes are optically less complex than zooms and tend to have better image quality, for their size or cost. I also find that working with primes makes me more conscious of the meaning of my choice of focal length rather than giving in to the temptation to just wind the zoom in and out until the framing looks ok.
Another welcome improvement from the EX’s is the return (from XDCAM-HD) of a dedicated virtual daylight (#85) filter. On the EX’s I’ve used different Picture Profiles to create presets for Daylight and Tungsten, but this is not necessary on the F3 because of the Daylight switch, freeing the profiles for more look variations.
The big surprise with the F3 is some of the high end options and features that have trickled down from the F35. Most notable is the dual HD-SDI outputs and although it’s a paid upgrade to activate the dual stream output, it then provides an uncompressed, 10-bit 4:4:4 RGB signal. The same upgrade also adds the Sony S-Log gamma, which matches the log outputs of the F35.
This gives the F3 an output for variety number of external recording options that would would be comparable to just about anything out there for picture quality in a package that’s a fraction of the cost of most of the alternatives.
For our tests we used the F3 in it’s out-of-the-box configuration, recording to the internal cards and using mostly the Sony primes with minimal other accessories. The menu structure and options are so similar to the EX series that I had the camera configured to my liking, with customised picture profiles and ready to shoot within twenty minutes of opening the box.
F3 Test Shoot
To test the F3 we decided to shoot a promo for a food series we’re developing. The premise is that the longest and most intimate relationship we ever have is with food. The images needed to be lush, inviting and surprising. Although the quality of Sony primes was excellent, we quickly realised that we needed closer focussing for the food shots. The F3 immediately came into its own, with a quick phone call to Richard Lee at Lemac, I had a Zeiss 100mm macro lens on the front of the camera delivering exactly the results we were after.
All of the presenter pieces were shot on either the 50mm or 85mm Sony lenses and the shot of the presenter crossing the road was the first thing shot after picking up the F3 and having only the 20 minutes prep time.
All of the food was lit with a Lowell kit and the main source was the Rifa soft-light.
The process was very much like shooting 35mm except that it was 500 ASA with no grain and we were able to immediately start editing. In 8 years of shooting HD together this was the first HD shoot I’ve ever done with director Clara Chong where she hasn’t asked for shallower depth of field at any point! Although the shot of the presenter crossing the road was softened around the edges a little in post for dramatic effect.
Even without extra add-ons, the F3 and the three lens kit is more substantial to carry around than you would guess from the pictures. The body is actually not that much smaller than the body of a Panaflex (without a mag). The lenses are many times the size and weight of equivalent SLR lenses. This is by no means a criticism, I think Sony have hit exactly the right notes here in making this package something distinctly different from the other offerings out there. If you want a lightweight, run-&-gun camera, there’s still the EX’s that do that job brilliantly and give you half a chance of staying in focus.
The F3 is a camera that really want’s to be used to set up creative, controlled shots and in that capacity, it excels. With the S-Log upgrade, you can think of it a bit like a Super-35mm camera, lab & film scanner that doesn’t need film and is all smaller than a watermelon!
The FS100 owes it’s identity to a mix of the NEX compact consumers cameras and the long line of Sony cameras that take consumer components and design elements and then adds key professional requirements like pro audio connections and controls. Among this line are the DV, DVCAM and HDV cameras that have become workhorses for many parts of the industry. Unlike most of those cameras, the physical design of the FS100 is a new design and reflects the trend for large sensor pro video cameras to have what my friend Pieter de Vries describes as having the form factor of a shoe box!
Like the F3 (and the Red One and many others) the body of the FS100 is essentially a box, although the functionality and layout of the controls is all it’s own. With lots of user-assignable buttons and lots of direct controls, the FS100 will have operators spending much less time wading through menus to access everyday functions than they would with a DSLR or consumer camera. That, I think really gets to the heart of the thought process behind the FS100… how much of what people like about DLSR’s can you keep, while fixing most of what they don’t like?
The answer appears to be quite a bit of both. The body is a little bigger than a DSLR but similar to a medium format stills camera. Audio is the first thing that sets the FS100 apart from DSLR’s by adding two XLR balanced audio inputs with phantom power and proper, usable manual controls.
The menus, image controls monitoring options and viewfinder displays are all designed for moving pictures rather than still photos and in terms of workflow and control these make a big difference.
True to it’s NEX name, the FS100 has the Sony E-type lens mount. The NEX range has really stirred things up in the consumer side of the DSLR world by designing cameras around the reality that most people clutching their beloved DSLR will hardly, if ever, look through the optical viewfinder. By removing the reflex viewfinder in the NEX series, Sony got rid of the large and heavy mirror shutter and viewfinder prism and this allowed them to build a range of extremely compact camera bodies that still have interchangeable lenses. To keep these cameras as compact as possible Sony created the “E Mount” that has a very shallow Flange Focal DIstance. Sony and a number of other manufacturers have created lenses with the native lens mount and Sony produce and adaptor to their Alpha mount, opening up a huge range of prime and zoom lens options. Noteworthy amongst these is Carl Zeiss who have released an E-Mount version of their Compact Primes.
One frustrating outcome from the use of the E-Mount is that there is no room behind the lens for an ND filter wheel. This is of little consequence on consumer or stills cameras, where shutter speed can be used effectively to help control exposure levels. On a pro video camera it means relying on ND filters mounted either directly on the lens or in a matte box to have any hope of controlling depth of field in daylight. On the subject of shutter speed, the FS100 doesn’t adjust shutter speed with frame rate like the F3 and EX cameras do. So if you’re shooting 25p and have the shutter set to 1/50th of a sec. for a normal, film-like image and then you take advantage of the camera’s excellent slow motion by using the S&Q function to record at 50 fps, you also need to manually change the shutter speed to 1/100th to maintain a normal look. Not a big deal, but something to be aware of if you’re used film and/or other cameras that use shutter angle to control shutter speed automatically for slo-mo. Not adjusting this will give double the amount of motion blur to what we are used to seeing. The other side of this is that it can be used at any frame rate to gain an extra stop of exposure without introducing any noise. This was used to notable effect on the night exteriors in Michael Mann’s Collateral.
The FS100 takes the idea of modular design and runs with it! Even the handgrip is detachable and the camera can be easily dressed-up with a large viewfinder, top handle, shotgun mic etc. or stripped right down to a simple box with an LCD screen on top. The camera also has numerous tripod mounting points on various sides of the body which also allow for directly attaching accessories.
Interestingly, while we’re tending to see the F3 dressed up in full production mode and the FS100 in a more simple “videographer” configuration, the FS100 is probably the camera that benefits most from the cine-kit treatment because of the lack of internal ND’s.
The image processing options are a little more limited than on the F3. For example, there are two Cine-Gamma options instead of the F3’s four and some options (like detail) don’t have quite the same scope for adjustment, but the actual image quality compares very well.
The other big difference between the two cameras is the recording format. The Fs100 records to high speed SD (Class 10) cards which are low cost and readily available. It records in the AVCHD format that is a variant of MPEG-4/h.264 codec at 24 mbps. It’s not just the difference in data rate, (24 or 35 mbps) but the AVCHD is a very different way of encoding video. Although more efficient thanks to the h.264 processing, the AVCHD is a lot more aggressive in it’s compression. This results in pleasing pictures on playback at the lower data rate, that have a little less room to move in colour grading when compared to the XDCAM EX codec. The Cine Gammas in the FS100 handle this efficiently by making the gamma curve a little closer to a finished image with denser shadows and with a bit sharper curve in the midtone to highlight range.
While the FS100 is can be supplied in a kit with an 18-200mm E-Mount zoom, the camera really came alive for me once I started experimenting with Alpha series lenses using the EA1 adaptor. There are a few issues to be aware of. Iris changes in shot aren’t practical because the adaptor causes the iris to step through the changes. That didn’t bother me in the slightest because of the beautiful results I was getting with the Alpha lenses. Some of the standout lenses on the FS100 included the 16-35mm f2.8 Zeiss which produces amazingly clean vivid images throughout the zoom range, even when wide open. The G-Series 35mm f1.4 and the low-cost 50mm f1.4 were also impressive and practical lenses for cinematography. The lenses both produced stunning results and at f1.4 delivered on every bit of the shallow depth of field that is so sought after.
FS100 Test Shoot
To test the FS100 we decided to try it on a fashion promo for the Australian designer Tarvydas. We were going for a look that was striking and dramatic. Think 1920’s Paris boudoir meets 1950’s Hollywood. The promo was shot entirely with the Alpha lenses, including the 16-35mm Zeiss and mostly on the 50mm f1.4. Lighting was with the same lightweight Lowell kit used for the F3 test shoot.
One thing to be conscious of with the FS100 is that the positioning of the viewfinder/LCD screen means that it can’t be angled very far down for high angle shots. Changing lenses with EA1 adaptor is quick and easy and the vast number of user asignable buttons makes it easy to customise the controls even though I found the default layout a little disorienting!
In tight spaces the flexibility of the viewfinder/LCD in every direction (other than down) is great. You can even use it in viewfinder mode at right angles to the lens or in LCD mode have it folded flat down onto the camera body, which makes it possible to operate successfully with the back of the camera tucked close into your own body. For beauty shots in a small space on the test shoot, this made a real difference.
The other advantage of operating this way is that it uses your whole body as a stabilising force for the handheld camera. This can be seen in action on the close up of the hand running along the coat hangers and the girl picking up the dress.
The main word that comes to mind after using the FS100 is flexibility. It is a uniquely adaptable design that contrasts nicely with the F3’s more traditional approach.
Test shoot Behind the Scenes shot by Ella Gibbins:
Head to head
When these two cameras were announced, I was basically expecting and PMW-EX3 with the big chip (F3) and a consumer NEX-VG10 with audio inputs attached (FS100). Instead Sony seems to have done some long, hard thinking about how to make a big statement with both of these cameras.
While both cameras can be dressed up or down for different roles, they each have some clear strengths and weaknesses that differentiate them. For me, the FS100 is the camera you go for when you want the DSLR look but also want proper controls, audio, monitoring and a lot of the other features the go into making a good video camera. Like DSLR’s it opens up a world of low to medium price lenses the likes of which were never available to electronic shooters before DLSR’s. It has a lot of options to be configured for different types of shooting and has much less rolling shutter (or jello-cam) effect than DSLR’s. It is lighter and smaller than the F3 and gives easy access to a lot of lenses that are lighter and smaller. I could fit the FS100 and a good selection of lenses into a single Lowepro backpack and that was simply not possible with the F3.
But the F3, it turns out, is well named. Rather than being just a big brother to the EX3, the F3 also belongs very much in the same stable as the heavy hitting F35. It is a serious production camera with great processing controls and a design that is just begging for an experienced crew to gather round, plug in and attach everything they need to start shooting. Despite the similar boxy appearance, the F3 is a decent chunk of camera, solidly built with well laid out professional controls.
If I was shooting a commercial or drama where I was working with an experienced focus puller, the F3 with PL lenses would have a lot of advantages over the FS100. But for anyone wanting to move up from DSLR’s without sacrificing a lot of the advantages they offer, particularly when it comes to a variety of low-cost, lightweight lenses then the FS100 is an obvious choice.
It’s great to see Sony so enthusiastically taking up the challenge posed by both the DSLR’s and higher end cameras like the Red. True to their history, Sony has again delivered cameras that work and work smoothly throughout the production pipeline. They might be playing a little bit of catch-up with these two offerings, but I would argue it was well worth the wait.
Special thanks to camera assistants Meredith Calthorpe & Ella Gibbins.
Test footage colour graded with The Grading Sweet™