Sony NEX FS700 Hands on Review

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Introduction & Features

The Sony NEX FS700 is a fascinating follow on from the FS100. The basic premise of these cameras is taking a big Super35 sensor with Sony’s short flange E-mount lens system, giving it an AVCHD recording system and putting it all in a compact and very modular body with a lot of pro functionality.

On location with the Sony NEX FS700 for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter test shoot. Photo by Reinhold Habeler.

The first thing that grabs your attention with the FS700 is the Super Slow Motion capability. While the FS100 took some steps in this direction, the quality loss at high speeds made it of limited practical use. Not so on the FS700 which has full HD at up to 240 fps (or 200 fps if you’re working at a base rate of 25p). This is quite an addition for a camera in this price and size range and it works remarkably well.

In my mind equally important is the addition of internal Neutral Density (ND) filters. A big disappointment in the FS100 was that the shallowness of the E-Mount didn’t allow for the normal pro ND filters behind the lens. Somehow the Sony engineers have figured out a way to solve this on the FS700. This is a crucial improvement for the sort of work that’s a good fit these cameras and a very clear distinction DSLRS and the ND filters work well and allow for quick outdoor shooting and good control of depth of field, both a must for our test project.

While the basic physical design is very similar to the FS100, there have been a few noticeable improvements, particularly an improved handgrip and the addition of a rugged top handle.

The other big news on the feature list is the image sensor itself. Although the camera only records at 1080p resolution internally, the Super 35 sensor is actually 4K resolution and 4K output is planned to be added in the future. How big a deal is 4K recording? It’s very easy to get caught up in counting pixels and forget that resolution is only one aspect of our perception of quality. What I have noticed with the FS700 is that I get a distinct impression that there are quality benefits from so massively oversampling and Sony have done a very good job with the down-rez processing in this camera. It will be interesting to see what sort of difference it will make to have direct access to all those pixels. It is also rumoured that the 4K output will be in a 12 bit RAW format and will be accepted by a new Sony recorder.

 

Operation

Another good step forward in the FS700 is the option of using ISO settings rather than video gain in dB. I found that setting exposure by light meter based on the indicated ISO resulted in a very good balance between highlight and shadow detail and in Cine Gamma 1, puts a Kodak Grey Card very close (or right on) the 39% specified for S-Log.

This was a welcome surprise, because makes it very easy to work with a light meter and set the ISO without having to constantly calculate an offset. The ISO was also consistent with the use of the ND filters, although it would have been another great step forward if the ND filters were labeled in f-stops as well as fractions.

I’ve been converting between the two for well over a decade now and it still confuses me occasionally – how many stops is 1/64th? (that’s 6-stops in case you don’t want do the math)

Perhaps this is something that could be added to the on-screen display options in a future firmware update.

 

FS700 with Viewfinder Attachment, Metabones Adaptor, Canon 50mm and Arri Mattebox. From Photo by Martin McGrevy.

FS700 with Viewfinder Attachment, Metabones Adaptor, Canon 50mm and Arri Mattebox. From Photo by Martin McGrevy.

 

Exposure Response

To familiarise myself with the exposure response I took the data from the excellent dynamic range tests done by Andy Shipsides at Abel Cine and put them into a log exposure curve graph, like the ones that have traditionally been done by Kodak for new film stocks. I find that this gives me a very useful, visual overview of how a given camera and combination of settings responds throughout it’s dynamic range.

FS700 Exposure Curve CG1

Log exposure curve of Cine Gamma 1

After testing these settings, I added a bit of an upward kick to the Black level and Black Gamma in the Picture Profile to allow more subtle control of the shadows in grading. This didn’t really affect the dynamic range, it was really just a control issue. The good news is that I didn’t any significant increase in noise or any compression artefacting, which are genuine risks when fiddling with that end of the dynamic range.

Another step forward is the option of controlling and displaying the shutter speed as a shutter angle rather than fractions of a second. This is something that comes from the physical functioning of film cameras and has found a valuable place in the digital world. In progressive scan video, the look we recognise as “normal” or “filmic” is a product of the film camera needing to close it’s shutter while the next frame is pulled into place. This shutter is traditionally semi-circular, ie. 180°. The great thing about this is when you’re doing off-speed shooting or what Sony almost quaintly calls “Slow & Quick Motion” the relationship of the shutter speed is relative to the action and the playback speed not the shooting speed. So, if you shoot at 24 fps it’s 1/48th of a second, at 50 fps it’s 1/100th but the motion blur looks the same.

Unfortunately the shutter angle control in the FS700 is only halfway there. While you can see and set the shutter speed by angle, when you change the frame rate the camera attempts to maintain the shutter speed rather than shutter angle as the constant. This means that when you change from, say 25 fps to 50 fps the shutter angle changes from 180° to 360° resulting in double motion blur since the shutter speed has remained at 1/50th.

This certainly made from some awkward fiddling with the shutter controls whilst hanging out of a helicopter on out test shoot! Even on solid ground this can be a nuisance, especially since the slow motion goes off when the camera is powered down and up again. This lead me to leave the power on more than I would normally do, luckily the long battery life and apparently low power drain of the camera meant that this didn’t cause any power problems on our test shoot.

The shutter angle issue is something that works well on many other Sony cameras, so hopefully this issue can be fixed with firmware too.

Shooting handheld with the NEX FS700. Photo by Reinhold Habeler.

Despite this the combination of good ISO ratings and shutter angle display makes it practical to light and set exposure by light meter with the FS700. I’ve long been an advocate using a light meter with digital cameras and my belief in this has only become stronger with time.

There are definitely projects and situations where it is less practical or necessary, like when your hanging out the side of a helicopter! But to get consistent, filmic results using a light meter has many advantages. It allows you to be setting the light accurately before the camera is set up or powered on. It means that lighting and exposure can be repeated consistently and it also means that waveforms, histograms and zebra markers can be a safety net rather than the first and only line of defence.

Plus, it adds some of the mystery and cool back into the process, instead of just looking at a monitor!

The viewfinder is essentially a large loupe that attaches to the top mounted LCD exactly as it does on the FS100. I know a lot of people don’t like this arrangement and it does have a limitation in not being able to tilt down for high angle shots, something that the EX & F3 cameras for example do very well. Despite this, I’m not totally against the design.

I find that standing directly behind the camera & lens has some ergonomic advantages for extended shooting in not having to twist your neck the way you do with a traditional broadcast camera. It kind of reminds me of operating with an extension viewfinder on an Arriflerx or Panaflex film camera where you operate more behind rather than beside the camera itself.

As Phillip Bloom has pointed out in his review, the picture doesn’t hold up brilliantly when the viewfinder is attached but on a camera in this price range I think the viewfinder is a good compromise. The thing that does bother me more is that while there a control to add tension to the up and down angle, the viewfinder is relatively unstable on the sideways angle axis.

This makes the viewfinder a bit more of a challenge to use handheld and I would not even attempt using the viewfinder loupe in the helicopter. However working on a tripod in bright sunlight I was very pleased to be able to have a viewfinder rather than struggling with light on the LCD screen. Through our test shoot I was regularly adding and removing the loupe, which is luckily a very quick and simple operation.

 

 

FS700 with Handgrip & Viewfinder removed.

FS700 with Handgrip & Viewfinder removed. Photo by Tim Cant.

Performance

ISO & Low Light

I found that the low light performance of the camera was excellent. If I needed to I would be comfortable going up to 2000 ISO but for most work I would try to keep to 500 or 1000 ISO as I found this performed a little better in the colour grading. At the higher ISO’s there was a bit of noise creeping into dark colours in the frame that can get accentuated with a bit of pushing around in the grade. Having said all of that, the FS700 is easily a strong low-light camera.

 

Resolution & Sharpness

While I haven’t done any res charts, from looking at the images I’m confident in saying the level of image detail is impressive. I think this is where the over-sampling of the 4K sensor is really paying off. Although the camera has less options for detail control than I would have hoped for (like the FS100) the difference here is that at the default settings I’m seeing all the sharpness and detail but without the harshness that can creep into digital images.

 

Compression

Changing memory cards on location.

Changing memory cards on location.

The FS700’s AVCHD recording format is a variant of the MPEG4/h.264 common standard and the camera runs it at up to 28 megabits per second. I read those kind of specs and expect pictures that look great a first but then fall apart with a bit of colour grading. I did make a couple pictures start to show banding and blocking in tests but I had to push them to real extremes to get any compression issues damaging the image significantly.

In practice the codec holds up to a level of manipulation that is well beyond what’s required in normal use and way beyond what the spec’s suggest. I don’t know what sort of special sauce Sony is using on their h.264… but it’s working.

 

Colour Response

With the Cine Gamma settings the colour response is quite neutral across the spectrum and a good basis for grading. The little spike around primary red that many Sony cameras have had over the years and seemed to have made it’s return in the FS100 does not appear to be present in the FS700. Personally I think that’s a good thing. The big surprise here was how maleable the footage is and how well it responds to grading. With 28 Mbps of 8 bit HD I was not expecting to have quite the level colour subtlety I found. Like tiny differences in the shading of skin tones that were still there after significant grading. Equally, it was easy to make very small grading changes without the spectrum “jumping around” for want of a better term. This definitely helped by using DaVinci Resolve 9 and I’ll talk more about that in our case study articles coming on Sept 15th. I suspect the oversampling of the 4K chip may be helping here as well.

There’s been such rapid developments with sensor size, resolution etc. etc. over the last few years, it’s only when I look closely at a camera like the FS700 that I’m reminded how much progress is still being made in the sciences of colour and compression despite there being little about them that you can put in headlines.

 

Manually pulling focus at f2 and 200 fps!

Manually pulling focus at f2 and 200 fps! Photo by Tim Cant.

Super Slow Mo

200 fps Recording from the buffer.

200 fps Recording from the buffer.

Speaking of headlines, with the FS700 there’s been a lot about the slow motion capabilities of the camera. In standard slow mo the FS700 goes to 50 fps on a base of 25p (or 60 fps in 60 Hz world) at full 1080p with non stop recording. In Super Slow Motion you get two speed options, 100 and 200 in 25p land or 120 and 240 in 24p or 30p.

Because we’re a 50Hz country here in Australia, I’ll talk in those terms, but everything applies with the relative numbers for 60Hz. If you’re prepared to give up lots of resolution then you can go as high as 960 fps but since I didn’t want to have trouble intercutting with normal footage, i’ve stuck to the full HD frame rates.

;

At 100 fps the camera records for 19 seconds of real time into a buffer that then automatically plays back in slow mo as the buffered recording is compressed and recorded to the memory card. From then on it behaves like any other clip, except it’s very cool. At 200 fps you get 9 seconds of real time and both speeds takes the roughly a minute and a quarter to record from the buffer to the card but during this time you do get to see the clip play through in slow mo. I’ve been told that while this is happening you can also record it uncompressed to an external recorder via HDMI or SDI.

It’s worth noting the 72-76 seconds is a long time on shoot where the producer and director want to roll, so it’s worth preparing them in advance that it’s just the price of the beautiful slow motion pictures.

With Director Clara Chong and Producer Reinhold Habeler while Super Slow Mo records from the buffer.  Photo by Tim Cant.

With Director Clara Chong and Producer Reinhold Habeler while Super Slow Mo records from the buffer. Photo by Tim Cant.

 

 

Metabones Lens Mount Adaptor

Changing lenses on the FS700 with the Metabones adaptor. Photo by Tim Cant.

Sony’s Nick Buchner also supplied us with the Metabones adaptor for Canon lenses. With a bunch of familiar Canon lenses I was very pleased with how easily and effectively the adaptor worked and allowed me to get exactly the results I was expecting from glass I knew well.

The Metabones is quite solid and rugged in it’s construction and looks very much at home on the front of the FS700. It also gave me direct electronic control over the aperture, which is crucial with DSLR style lenses that have no physical aperture control on the barrel. Changing the aperture worked the same as it did with the Sony E mount lens and the the accurate f-stop was instantly displayed in the camera’s viewfinder.

Once the adaptor was mounted, changing lenses was very simple and helped in part by the release for the camera’s E mount and the Metabones EF mount being on opposite sides of the barrel, virtually eliminating the risk of taking the adaptor off with the lens unless you consciously decide to do so.

While I suspect most people would buy or rent the camera with the 18-200mm kit lens, because the cost difference is so small, I would have no hesitation about doing a whole project with just the Metabones and a bunch of Canon lenses or the

LA-EA2 adaptor and a bunch of Sony Alpha DSLR lenses.

 

Clara Chong checks the framing on the NEX FS700

Clara Chong checks the framing on the NEX FS700. Photo by Reinhold Habeler.

Summary

FS700 without Viewfinder Loupe and with Metabones, Canon 24-105mm, Arri Mattebox on Miller DS10 tripod.

FS700 without Viewfinder Loupe and with Metabones, Canon 24-105mm, Arri Mattebox on Miller DS10 tripod. Photo by Martin McGrevy.

The NEX FS700 has really surprised me. Having used the FS100 and F3 and having become very familiar with the Sony pro cameras and their design trajectories over the years, I really thought I knew what to expect. On some levels I did, the camera feels very much like an FS100 that had a lot for lunch! But it’s more than that on a lot of levels that count.

The 4k sensor is contributing a lot more to the 1080p picture quality than I would ever have guessed and the maturity of the image processing and recording is a killer combination. Add to that the internal ND filters and the flexibility of the “E” lens mount and you’ve got a camera that is going to work well in a very wide range of applications.

It’s not the greatest handheld camera, but it’s not bad and it has a few minor quirks.

For people stepping up from a DSLR, the real pro video functionality will be well very welcome and equally anyone familiar with cameras like any of the XDCAM variants will like having the big Super 35 chip without losing proper video controls.

Of course the Super Slow Mo is the icing on the cake.

 

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