So I made the jump. Well, two jumps, actually. I bought an FS7, and two weeks after picking it up, moved to the Philippines from Vancouver for three months to try to make a feature film. (A discussion for another day. Blog post coming soon!)
I did take the camera through a few paces before leaving, and I’ve been shooting on it for about a month now, so I feel like it’s time to give it my two cents.
But to have a better understanding of how I view the camera, you have to know where I came from. During the last 16 months I’ve been to Liberia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and New York (x3) on various projects, mostly doing promotional docs for NGO’s and passion projects on the side, like this one, shot on the trusty GH3 with a Voigtlander Nokton 25mm.
I loved having the ability to throw my camera, accessories, and lenses in one backpack, strap a light manfrotto tripod on the side, and hitch a ride on a motorcycle to just about anywhere. If you watch the video, you’ll get an idea what I mean by just about anywhere.
When the GH4 came out, I got it right away, and loved some of the new features available, like focus peaking, 96fps, 4k video (even sharper than the 1080 on the GH3, which is still tack sharp), and the continued versatility of being light and having long battery life. But I still felt like a bit of an amateur showing up for more corporate style shoots with a tiny dslr, and started craving the more cinematic, less DSLR-y style of the higher end true video cameras.
So I saved up some pennies, read every review online and got the FS7. Am I happy I did?
At this point, I can truthfully say, ‘kinda.’
With every camera there is good and bad, so I’ll try to give it to you straight.
On my first shoot, I showed up at Grouse Mountain in Vancouver to take the tram up to the top to get some moving fog shots. Foolishly, (I suppose), I had the camera in hand rather than my Nanuk case. The attendant asked me to wait for 30 minutes to talk to their marketing department, assuming I was working for a news TV station. It took another 15 to explain that I had no affiliations, just wanted to try out my new camera. The pitfalls of looking like a professional, I guess! This camera will certainly get you noticed, and definitely isn’t as useful for sneaking shots as my dslr’s, so lesson learned, I guess.
But when you really want your stuff to look professional, and are willing to pay the (monetary and practical) price, this camera is certainly a step up from the GH series. The FS7 is even sharper in 4k mode than the GH4, which runs from higher data rates of course, and punching in looks much sharper than on the GH4.
The image responds amazingly well to grading, as it’s data and dynamic range is far superior to any DSLR that I’ve shot on. Just way more flexible if you under or overexpose, and I’m sure will respond better to more intricate color grades. So that’s a plus. But let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the weird in a few more areas besides the general quality of the image. These categories are arbitrarily chosen because they are probably the most important to me and highlight the differences between the two camera styles.
The Good: Just like the GH4, you can over or under crank the fps from 1 – 180, meaning the video will automatically be converted to 24 frames, and thus no post re-timing is necessary. So you can shoot timelapses or slo-mo: your choice. There is also a button to switch on the change of motion (called S + Q) and back to regular old 24 fps. If shooting at 180 fps, it automatically changes the shutter speed to the minimum of 1/192, which I find is pretty smooth for not going by the general rule of shooting at twice the frame rate (also, no 360 option here). However, if I want to change it to 1/400 or higher for the slo-mo, it stays that frame rate for the regular 24 fps mode, so I have to click the shutter button and change it back, which is easy, but a tad tedious. It’s many things like this that are bugging me about the FS7 – basically, I can’t just choose a few custom shooting modes and quickly change between them, like I can on the GH4 with it’s C1, C2, C3 options. So we come to
The bad: To change from 4k to 1080 for slo mo is at least a 30 second job. Not the worst thing in the world, but when you have to move as fast as I do on a documentary job, and are doing an interview in 4k, but want to quickly catch an eagle that’s flying by in slo-mo, good luck. Also, when you change from 1080 to 4k, then back, your S + Q setting is reset to 60fps away from your chosen 180 fps (I mean, who would shoot in 60 when they can shoot in 180??). So you have to find the right menu, scroll around, and it’s another 30-45 second job to change it back. Pretty annoying compared to the run and gun useability of the GH4.
I have to say though, the image quality (again, coming back to this) of the slo mo is WAY better than that on the GH4, not to mention way slower! I got some very useable shots shooting out of the window on many bumpy bus rides here in the Philippines thanks to the great slo mo that I wouldn’t have been able to get with simply 96fps. Driving around is a very efficient way to grab a ton of b-roll when you have slo mo like this! (Will show off some of these shots soon).
The Good: Ok, so pretty much everything is a disappointment when compared with the stuff the a7s is producing, but I gotta say, even when maxed out at it’s limit 8000 iso, the image on the FS7 is useable. When you push the GH4 past 1600, it becomes way too noisy to use, so I often found myself shooting at 0.95 aperture during night scenes to compensate, which made it virtually impossible to nail focus on run and gun shoots like on my Andrew Judah music video. (Haven’t heard of him? He did the Matthew Mcconaughey Lincoln commercial soundtrack. The night time drive one. NBD.)
On the FS7, certainly the shadows have some noise, but I’d say it doesn’t make the image unuseable, and when a LUT is applied to darken the shadows, the image is still pretty great. Light years from any DSLR iso noise I’ve ever shot with.
The Good: I chose the FS7 because it was described as the most run-and-gun friendly style in it’s class, which is very important to me. The most important question, in face, is this: can it fit into my backpack? (I know what you’re thinking — why put a 10-g’s camera in a backpack in the first place?)
But when I’m trekking into the mountains, I just can’t be lugging pelicans everywhere like Philip Bloom. So what was the answer? Kinda. By kinda, I mean, yes!
When stripped to it’s barest bones. I find that the viewfinder is more of a bonus, and not necessary, kind of like the hand grip, which are both removeable. So they stayed behind in favor of sunscreen and an extra battery. When the screen is tucked inside, there is actually room for my tascam recorder as well! It’s a tight fit, but the Case Logic backpack is holding up (highly recommended, it’s a beast!). I’ve successfully carried it onto a few flights like this, even though I can hardly fit anything else and only 2 lenses max. This is definitely an area I miss the GH4, and probably the reason I’ll keep it around, because when you’re heading into the mountains for a few days, weight and size are definitely big considerations. Still, I’m quite happy I’m able to pull this off, as there’s just no way I could do it with an F5 or Red. It also doesn’t need all the extra accessories like rods, an external monitor, or MOVI, which are nice, but I find give me too much to worry about with all the cables, extra batteries, weight and what not. Too much to get through customs!
I also find the camera, while way heavier than a dslr, isn’t back breaking at around 5-6 pounds with a lens attached, whether I’m holding it against my chest (which I have to do as a tall guy shooting interviews with Philippinos) or on my shoulder, which works quite well. (Though I haven’t done it for 12 hours straight yet.) The ergonomics with the included grip and rounded back are nice, and the accessibility of many options on the side of the camera (including mic gain) make for quick and easy changes. The handle on top makes it easy to carry and get low shots as well, with a convenient record button on top. Also the weight makes for good shaky cam, useable hand held even when walking, not the jittery kind you get on a DSLR shooting hand held.
The bad: It’s still way more cumbersome than a GH4, so I’m getting used to it. Especially with the extra grip and viewfinder — getting these all plus 3 lenses into a nanuk in a tidy manner, let alone a backpack, is near impossible. (By the way, for travelling, I recommend the Nanuk 935, along with the case logic backpack. You can get a ton of gear into your carry on this way, especially if you remove the padding from the case and just use clothes as padding!) Also, I wish I could remove the microphone holder (late sidenote, I did! post coming soon), as it’s too big for my Seinheiser shogun mic, which sits loosely inside, and which I’d rather stick on the hotshoe with a mount. It also sticks out to make packing more difficult. I tried to remove it, but to no avail. Even with all the screws taken out, it won’t budge! Not sure why this was seen as a ‘must have’ accessory so much so that it’s permanently fastened to the camera.
I think that’s enough of my thoughts for now. Perhaps more will come as I get used to it. I think at this point, it is certainly more of a headache getting this thing around than a tiny dslr, but once you do, it’s worth it. My biggest complaint though is that I can’t mount my favorite lens, the Voigtlander, to it! The Rokinon’s are holding up well though.
Videos from the Philippines to come soon, and a blog post on my various projects as well!
Ok so the fs7 isn’t perfect. Here are some more complaints, in case any Sony reps are reading this: not sure if anyone else is experiencing this, but the peaking color stays white no matter what option I choose (yellow, red, blue) and is relatively hard to see. Also, when I hit play on a thumbnail to preview the image, it doesn’t work, and basically freezes the camera so I have to remove the battery to restart. Finally, I wish there was a ‘take a still’ option, as I would like to be able to get a higher res image sometimes than just pulling a screengrab. I also would love a false color option on the monitor to check exposure, but maybe that’s asking too much. Sony reps, any thoughts?