Sony FS 700 Review

bnnotess —  August 3, 2012 — Leave a comment

2010 was a pivotal year for Fat Head Media. For years, we had been shooting video on the trusty Sony PD150, a prosumer work-horse of SD video shot on a tiny sensor. I lusted after the cinematic look of cameras well out of our price range and fervently researched absurd mods like depth of field adapters, but there had already been rumblings. The game was changing*.

Since the 2008 release of the Canon 5D Mk II (a camera Canon never expected a video professional to purchase) and the subsequent release of the Canon 7D we had all been drooling of positively salacious amounts of bokeh (shallow depth of field) in this rapidly breeding genre.

Then, sometime in March 2010, we got our first 7D body, and quite honestly, with little to no exaggeration, our lives changed.

The past 2 years of filmmaking have been exceptional. A period of unparalleled expansion and refinement of our craft.

It has also been a wild time for the world of digital video.

To sum up; despite their extremely economic image-quality to cost ratio, there comes a point in every DSLR shooter’s life where they long for something more. Specifically, higher bit-rates, lower crop ratio (for the 7D), quality on camera audio just to name a few.

Enter the FS700, a camera for grown-ups. A camera that is shockingly good at shooting video because that is what it’s designed to do (unlike DSLRS).

This review is NOT a comparison of the FS700 to its competitors, it is one camera operators impressions a few significant details about using the FS700 as opposed to DSLR shooting. Some are obvious. Some are more subtle.

size

Weight
The camera is heavier; 3.12 lbs as opposed to the 1.8lbs of the 7D body. It sounds insignificant but it isn’t. It could be the increased size of the camera but it feels much bigger. Also an additional pound and a half make a big difference on your fluid tripod head.

The weight has not been a big issue for our transition to shooting on the FS700 other than changing tripod heads. the Manfrotto 503HDV specs say it can counterbalance 8.8 lbs, but the FS700 and lens clearly pushes its limits. The Vinten Vision Blue seems to handle the camera, monitor and lens just fine.

Controls
Camera controls are what they are; confusing and unfriendly. The FS700’s are no different. Even so, having accessible buttons for peaking, switches for white balance and ISO, and on camera audio level controls are a big improvement over DSLR shooting.

controls1

Focus Peaking
If you are unfamiliar with the focus peaking feature on video, get familiar. For those of us DSLR shooters who despaired in edits because shots we thought were in focus weren’t. Peaking on an external monitor was a huge help.

The built in focus peaking on the FS700 is a small feature that works great and is extremely helpful, especially when shooting shallow DOF.

peaking

Neutral Density
On camera ND filters are a feature that was sorely missed in my days of shooting DSLR. It was even a feature we enjoyed on the PD-170. Reunited and it feels so good.

nd

Battery Life
I haven’t done official comparisons, but I can shoot on the FS700 for 4-5 hours on a single battery. I believe this is better than DSLR shooting, but I am not sure.

Lenses
We don’t own any sony E-Mount lenses, therefore have to use an adapter (or two) to mount the same lenses we were using on our DSLRs.

There is one obvious caveat: Canon EOS lenses (of which we have a few) have their aperture controlled through the camera. There is nothing on the lens that lets you adjust. Therefore, if you do not buy an adapter that has built in aperture control for EOS (like the Metabones adapter), you will have to remove your EOS lens from the FS700 and put it on canon body to check/adjust your aperture. This is, frankly, a pain.

The solution: Either you could pony up $400 for a metabones adapter, or buy non EOS lenses (like Nikons) that have manual aperture control on the lens. Eventually, I think we will buy a better adapter, but for now have been keeping a Canon camera body close by for aperture checks. It honestly hasn’t been too cumbersome.

Audio
Getting good audio has been the bane of every DSLR shooter’s existence at some point or another. This is because DSLRs are (surprise) stills cameras that aren’t meant to really shoot film.

The FS700, like most other pro-level video cameras, has two built in XLR inputs with independently adjustable controls built right onto the panel. Really, this shouldn’t be a big deal, but for someone who has had to reshoot things because someone else forgot to press record on a separate device, it’s freaking amazing.

audio

Now onto the good stuff.

Low light
The DSLR camera performance in low light was one of the two HUGE reasons people chose to make movies with them. You can shoot the equivalent film ISO of 1600 and still have usable footage.

The FS700 retains this huge benefit of DSLR shooting. The base ISO of the camera is 500 and you can set it up to a ridiculous 160000 (but I haven’t tried it). How this camera compares to DSLRs and its video competitors in low light performance and the aesthetic of its image noise are nuanced topics detailed in other places. What matters to me is that I get to carry over the incredible flexibility of lighting I enjoyed on my 7D.

Depth of Field
Shallow depth of field is the feature (if it can be called a feature) that I hold directly responsible for the meteoric rise of the DSLR video. It frankly sent REAL video cameras into a mad dash to compete with this, previously exclusive, aesthetic.

Since the FS700 is a Super 35 sensor which actually means it’s JUST slightly smaller than motion picture film. Even though it does have a crop factor of 1.5 (the angle of view of your 35mm lenses is multiplied ) you are essentially working with the same depth of field as a cinema film camera. Again, the bottom line is that one of the favorite aesthetics of DSLR shooting carries over to the FS700. This is almost a must have feature of any video camera competing in the pro-sumer market.

Slow Motion
Slow motion has been, and continues to be a gigantic selling point for this camera. It boasts up to 960 frames per second video recording.

DSLRs could, generally shoot 60fps at 720p, which is nice and equates out to about a 50% reduction in speed. At 960fps, the FS700 can play your footage back at 2.5% of real time. That is insanely slow.

Before you get too excited though, the footage at 960 is such low resolution, it’s almost unusable.

However, at 240fps, you can shoot 1080p footage which is pretty amazing. Check out Philip Bloom’s review to see just how great 240 looks.

WAIT! Before you get too excited and start shooting everything at 240fps there are a few things you need to worry about. Well one thing.

Light:

1.) You will need more of it. At 240fps your digital shutter speed is actually 1/250 which is much faster than 1/50 (the usual shutter speed for 24fps). Faster shutter speed means a darker image which means more light.

2.) You will get AC current flicker. In North America, AC power cycles on and off at 60hz. Since you are capturing a frame every 1/240th of a second and your lights are powered on for 1/60th of a second, they will flicker because sometimes you capture them when they are cycled on, and sometimes when they are cycled on.

The latter issue was one we hadn’t experienced before and was a bit perplexing. The solutions are easy enough. You can either shoot at 120fps (this bypasses any flicker), you can use an anti flicker plugin (many are available) OR you can shoot outside. The sun, thankfully does not power on and off. At least as far as I know.

Video Quality
This aspect deserves its own entire post, but suffice it to say, the quality of the FS700 video is much “better”. That is to say, it is a much lower compression codec with a much higher data rate. However, as Stu Maschwitz says, movies are made with people, not resolution charts so it’s a slightly nuanced issue.

Summary
The FS700 is a video camera and the Canon 7D is a stills camera so a comparison of the two is irrelevant. At $8000 you could buy a few 7Ds or a 5D or two for the price of one FS700. So is it worth the switch?

It depends. If you are a video professional (you make money making videos) then there are a lot of drawbacks to DSLR shooting. The FS700 eliminates those drawbacks WITHOUT sacrificing the cinematic aesthetic we all know and love. Add to that the bonus of full HD slow motion and I can see a lot of video professionals opting to shoot on an actual video camera.

I bet that’s the most obvious statement you’ll hear all day.

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