TCSTV Sony FS7 Review

  By Jordan Drake

 

One of the great things about making TCSTV is having access to any camera we want to shoot every episode. There have been several I’ve used a lot, but the camera we’ve used the most in the entire run is the Sony FS700, an incredibly well rounded camera. The first episode we used the FS700 for was the Leica Monochrom Test, which is still one of my favourite episodes and one that set the tone for the last couple years of TCSTV. I think the best testimony for a great camera is that it makes you work harder to get results the camera is capable of, and the FS700 certainly fit that bill. Technology moves on though, and I was starting find myself dealing with the inconveniences of the Sony A7S, F5 and the Panasonic GH4, because in a number of situations they produced a better image. I wanted a portable cinema camera that gave me 4K, better low light performance and more dynamic range. Then Sony announced the FS7.

The Sony PXW-FS7 basically ticks every box I was was looking at, and the new form factor is truly wonderful. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Canon’s Cinema cameras, but I always loved the handling. The new handgrip and much more usable EVF of the FS7 puts it in line with Canon’s C300, but with much more modern specs. The slow motion capture, while not quite reaching the 240FPS of the FS700, gives you great colour and flexibility in post, while recording to capacity of the card.

Without giving the manual a single look, I went out and used it on the Sony A7II review. That proved to be a bit of a mistake, as I couldn’t enable the waveforms or histograms, and I really didn’t know how to expose for SLOG3. Of course, as soon as I returned with the footage, Sony released a firmware update enabling the waveforms. Too late, I had already underexposed more than necessary to protect my highlights, and had noisy shadow detail I needed to retain. Lesson learned, I’ll do some tests on a complicated cinema camera first before using it on a real project.

Since then, I’ve used the FS7 extensively, and really learned to love what the camera is capable of. One thing that was holding me back though was the SLOG3 flat profile. I loved the dynamic range, and I’d been working with SLOG 2 for years, but this new version was a different beast altogether. Fortunately, it was around this time I started experimenting with SpeedLooks LUTs, which gave me great results and only required some minor tweaking to get the shot where I wanted it. I was thrilled to find out that LookLabs was based in Calgary, and Jeff August offered to give his thoughts on the FS7 footage.

If you want to try out SpeedLooks, at looklabs.net you can use the coupon code ‘camerastorelin’ for 20% off SpeedLooks Linear, and ‘camerastorelog’ for 25% off SpeedLooks Log. That code is good until March 31, 2015.We needed to shoot some footage for the FS7 review, and I didn’t want to half-ass it, so we scheduled two shoot days. One would be to record some slow-motion tobogganing footage at night, to really test the low light performance. The other test would be a short film shoot, since the FS7 is technically a cinema camera.

The tobogganing shoot was done on an uncharacteristically warm winter night, and several TCS staff came out to help. The one person I needed there was Stephen Lemmer, who’s flowing mane was built from the scalp up for slow-motion. We lit the hill with a single LumaHawk 900AVL LED light. The major issue we ran into was that even though were no streetlights right by the hill, you could still see them cycling in the footage. We did our best to keep them out of frame, but you can still see some flickering in a few shots. We used a Metabones Speedbooster to mount the Sigma 35mm F1.4, Canon 24mm F1.4, Zeiss ZE 85mm F1.4 and Canon 135mm F2. Even with these bright lenses, I still struggled to keep the sledders from falling into the shadows. As expected, the slow motion shadows are noisier than in regular speed recording, so it took some careful post processing to get good results. The testament to the quality of the FS7 sensor though, is that while we may have been fighting noise in the shadows and clothes, the skin tones were brilliant, even underexposed at 4000 ISO.

For the next test, I had a simple concept to illustrate how the flexibility of the FS7 footage could make similar footage look warm and inviting or spooky. We were lucky to have the crazy talented photographer and occasional TCSTV co-host Nathan Elson come out to light the shoot. I’ve been a huge fan of his studio lighting for years, and he wanted to try his hand at cinematography, so it was a great opportunity. For a location, I wanted something that could be beautiful and spooky. My good friend and yet another TCSTV co-host, Kyle Marquardt (http://www.kylefoto.com) had a family cabin out by Waterton that fit the bill perfectly. Chris and his girlfriend Erin Thomson were good enough to agree to be the talent and suddenly all the pieces were falling into place.

I really wanted to focus on operating the camera, to keep an eye out for quirks or issues. That’s why I was endlessly appreciative that Levi Holwell was able to come out and help with lighting, grip, directing the actors and offering great suggestions. If you haven’t checked out Levi’s recent short film Heights do it immediately! It let me focus on handling the camera, and how to expose for the best results. The shoot was an enormous amount of work, mostly owing to the cabin being snowed in. This required us trudging huge amounts of gear repeatedly up what would be called a mountain anywhere else in the world, but we Albertans have to call a large hill. We also had winds in excess of 100 kmph screwing with our audio. Several lines had to be re-recorded in editing to address this.

The shoot was lit with a K5600 Joker 800 and 400, Fiilex P360, Lumahawk 900 AVL, and two small Lumahawk 312AS LEDs. Despite his limited experience with video lights, Nathan did a great job getting a natural, but distinctive look. We used a full set of Zeiss ZE lenses, with a 28mm T2.1 for focus pulls.

Getting the footage graded with Jeff August at Jump Studios was a huge treat. While I’d been using the SpeedLooks for a couple months, it was great to see how a pro used them to quickly get different narrative feels. I’ve also been a huge fan of how Nathan Elson processes his stills, so it was fascinating to hear these two artists discuss colour together. While I was supposed to be documenting the grading process, I often found myself getting caught up in the process and forgetting to hit ‘record’. With the image finished and the sound largely screwed up from the wind, I went to work on the sound design. Jeff had already added some very moody OmiNoise to the short, so I worked to accent that. Alongside doing ADR (re-recording the dialogue), I added all the sound effects and used some great music from BeatSuite.com for the opening ‘happy’ sequences. It reminded me of Battle At F-Stop Ridge in that the sound design really made the short feel much more finished.

After it all, how do I feel about the FS7? Despite the time it’s taken to come to grips with SLOG3, I really can’t see going back to the god old FS700. It’s not without issues though. The sluggish response from the menus is a real bummer, and the waveforms and histograms really need to be visible when using LUTs. I’d also really like to be able to move my zoomed-in view across the frame. The nice thing is, these are all correctable in software and Sony is always listening to my requests. Right Sony?

Go to http://www.looklabs.net and use the coupon code ‘camerastorelin’ for 20% off SpeedLooks Linear, and ‘camerastorelog’ for 25% off SpeedLooks Log. That code is good until March 31, 2015.

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