By Daniel Rodriguez
At a press event in New York City a couple of weeks ago, Sony unveiled the long-rumored follow-up to its extremely successful Sony PXW FS7 — the Sony PXW-FS7 II. With the new FS7 II, Sony dives deeper in the mid-level cinematographer/ videographer market that it firmly established with the FS100, FS700, FS7 and the more recent Sony FS5.
Knowing they are competing with cameras of other similarly priced brands, Sony has built upon a line that fulfills most technical and ergonomic needs. Sony prides itself on listening to videographers and cinematographers who make requests and suggestions from first-hand field experience, and it’s clear that they’ve continued to listen.
The Sony FS7 II might be the first camera where you can feel the deep care and consideration from Sony for those who have used the FS7 extensively, in regards to improvements. Although the body and overall design might seem nearly identical to the original FS7, the FS7 II has made subtle but important ergonomic improvements to the camera’s design.
Improving on their E-mount design, Sony has introduced a lever locking mechanism much how a PL mount functions. Unlike the PL mount, the new lever lock rotates counter-clockwise but provides a massive amount of support, especially since there is a secondary latch that prevents you from accidentally turning the lever back. The mount has been tested to support the same weight as traditional PL mounts, and larger cinema zooms can be easily mounted without the need of a lens support. Due to its short flange distance, Sony’s E-mount has become very popular with users for adapting almost all stills and cinema lenses to Sony cameras, and with this added support there is reduced risk and concern when adding lens adapters.
The camera body’s corners and edges have all been rounded out, allowing users to have a much more comfortable control of the camera. This is especially helpful for handheld use when the camera might be pressed up against someone’s body or under their arm. Considering things like operating below the underarm and at the waist, Sony has redesigned the arm grip, and most of the body, to be tool-less. The arm grip no longer requires tools to be adjusted and now uses two knobs to allow easy adjustments. This saves much needed time and maximizes comfort.
The viewfinder can now be extended further in either direction with a longer rod, which benefits left-eye dominant operators. The microphone holder is no longer permanently attached to the other side of the rod so it can either be adapted to the left side of camera to allow viewing the monitor to the right of the camera or it could be removed altogether. Sony has also made the viewfinder collapsible for those who’d rather just view the monitor. The viewfinder rod is now square shaped to allow uniform horizontal aligning in the framing in relation to the cameras balancing. This stemmed from operators confusing their framing by believing framing was crooked due to how the viewfinder was aligned, even if the camera was perfectly balanced.
Sony really kept the smaller suggestions in mind by making the memory card slots protrude more than on the original FS7. This allows for loaders to more easily access the memory card should they be wearing something that inhibits their grip, like gloves. Compatibility with the newer G-series XQD cards, which boast an impressive 440MBps write and 400MBps read speed, allowing FS7 II users to quickly dump their footage on the field without the worry of running out of useable memory cards.
Coming straight out the box is the FS7 II’s ability to do internal 4K DCI (4096×2160) without the need for upgrades or HDMI output. This 4K can be captured in nearly every codec, whether in XAVC, ProRes 422HQ, or RAW, with the option of HyperGammas, Slog-3 or basic 709. RAW output will be available to the camera, but like its siblings, an external recorder will still be required to do so. The FS7 II will also be capable of recording Sony’s version of compressed RAW, XOCN, which allows 16-bit 3:1 recording to an external recorder. Custom 3D LUTs will still be available to be uploaded into the camera. This allows more of a cinematographer’s touch when using a custom LUT, rather than factory presets.
Electronic Internal Variable ND
The most exciting feature of the Sony FS7 II — and the one that really separates this camera from the FS7 — is the introduction of an Electronic Internal Variable ND. Introduced originally in the FS5, the new options that the FS7 II has over the FS5 with this new Electronic Variable ND makes this a very promising camera and an improvement over its older sibling.
Oftentimes with similarly priced cameras, or ones that offer the same options, there is either a lack of internal NDs or a limited amount of internal ND control, which is either too much or not enough when it comes to exposure control. The term Variable ND is also approached with caution from videographers/cinematographers with concerns of color shifts and infrared pollution, but Sony has taken care of these precautions by having an IR cut filter over the sensor. This way, no level of ND will introduce any color shifts or infrared pollution. It’s also often easy to break the bank buying IR NDs to prevent infrared pollution, and the constant swapping of ND filters might prove a disadvantage when it comes to being time-efficient, which could also lead you to open or close your F-stop to compensate.
Compromising your F-stop is often an unfortunate reality when shooting — indoors or outdoors — and it’s extremely exciting to have a feature that allows you to adjust your exposure flawlessly without worrying about having the right ND level or adjusting your F-stop to compensate. It’s also exciting to know that you can adjust the ND filter without having to see a literal filter rotate in front of your image. The Electronic Variable ND can be adjusted from the grip as well, so you can essentially ride the iris without having to touch your F-stop and risk your depth of field being inconsistent.
As with most modern-day lenses that lack manual exposure, riding the iris is simply out of the question due to mechanical “clicked” irises and the very obvious exposure shift when changing the F-stop on one of these lenses. This is eliminated by letting the Variable ND do all the work and allowing you to leave your F-stop untouched. The Electronic Variable ND on manual mode allows you to smoothly transition between 0.6ND to 2.1ND in one-third increments.
Recording in BT
Another exciting new addition to the FS7 II is the ability to record in BT. 2020 (more commonly known as Rec. 2020) internally in UHD. While this might seem excessive to some, considering this camera is still a step below its siblings the F55 and F65 as far as use in productions where HDR deliverables are required, providing the option to shoot Rec. 2020 futureproofs this camera for years to come especially when Rec. 2020 monitoring and projection becomes the norm. Companies like Netflix usually request an HDR deliverable for their original programs so despite the FS7 II not being on the same level as the F55/F65, it shows it can deliver the same level of quality.
While the camera can’t boast a global shutter like its bigger sibling, the F55, the FS7 does show very capable rolling shutter with little to no skewing effects. In the FS7 II’s case it is preferable to retain rolling shutter over global because as a camera that leans slightly toward the commercial/videography spectrum of cinematography, it is preferable to retain a native ISO of 2000 and the full 14 stops over global shutter, which is easy to overlook and use cost much-needed dynamic range.
This exclusion of global shutter retains the native ISO of the FS7II at 2000 ISO, which is the same as the previous FS7. Retaining this native ISO puts the FS7 II above many similar priced video cameras whose native ISOs usually sit at 800. While the FS7 II may not be a low-light beast like the Sony a7s/a7sii, the ability to do internal 4K DCI, higher frame rates and record 10-bit 422HQ (and even RAW) greatly outweigh this loss in exposure.
The SELP18110G 18-110 F4.0 Servo Zoom
Alongside the Sony FS7 II, Sony has announced a new zoom lens to be released alongside the camera. Building off what they have introduced before with the Sony FE PZ 28-135 F4 G, the 18-110 F4 is a very powerful lens optically and the perfect companion to the FS7 II. The lens is sharp to the edges; doesn’t drop focus while zooming in and out; has no breathing whatsoever; has a quiet internal zoom, iris, and focus control; internal stabilization; and a 90-second zoom crawl from end to end. The lens covers Super 35mm and APSC-sized sensors and retains a constant f4 throughout each focal length.
It’s multi-coating allows for high contrast and low flaring with circular bokeh to give truly cinematic images. Despite its size, the lens only weighs 2.4 pounds, a weight easily supported by the FS7 II’s lever-locking E mount. Though it isn’t an extremely fast lens, paired with a camera like the FS7 II, which has a native ISO of 2000, the 18-110 F4 should prove to be a very useable lens on the field and as well in narrative work.
This camera is very specifically designed for camerapersons who either have a very small camera team or shoot as individuals. Many of the new features, big and small, are great additions for making any project go down smoothly and nearly effortlessly. While its bigger siblings the F55 and F65 will still dominate major motion picture production and commercial work, this camera has all its corners covered to fill the freelance videographer/cinematographer’s needs.
Indie films, short films, smaller commercial and videography work will no doubt find this camera to be hugely beneficial and give as few headaches as possible. Speed and efficiency are often the biggest advantage on smaller productions and this camera easily handles and facilitates the most overlooked aspects of video production.
The specs are hard to pass up when discussing the Sony FS7 II. Hearing of a camera that does internal 4K DCI with the option of high frame rates at 10-bit 422HQ with 14 stops of dynamic range and the option to shoot in Slog3 or one of the many HyperGammas for faster deliverables should immediately excite any videographer/cinematographer. Many cinematographers making feature or short films have grown accustomed to shooting RAW, and unless they rent the external recorder, or buy it, they will be unable to do so with this camera. But with the high write speeds of the internal codecs, it’s difficult to argue that, despite a few minor features being lost, the internal video will retain a massive amount of information.
This camera truly delivers on providing nearly any ergonomic and technical need, and by anticipating future display formats with Rec.2020, this shows that Sony is very conscious of future-proofing this camera. The physical improvements on the camera have shown that Sony is very open and eager to hear suggestions and first-hand experiences from FS7 users, and no doubt any suggestions on the FS7 II will be taken into mind.
The Electronic Variable ND is easily the best feature of the camera since so much time in the field will be saved by not having to swap NDs, and the ability to shift through increments between the standard ND levels will be hugely beneficial to get your exposure right. Being able to adjust exposure mid shot without having filters come between the image will be a great feature to those shooting outdoors or working events where the lighting is uneven. Speed cannot be emphasized enough, and by having such a massively advantageous feature you are just cutting more and more time from whatever production you’re working.
Pairing up the camera with the new 18-110 F4 will make a great camera package for location shooting since you will be covered for nearly every focal length and have a sharp lens that has servo zooming, internal stabilization and low flaring. The lens might be off-putting to some narrative filmmakers, since it only opens to a F4.0 and isn’t fast by other lens standards, but with the quality and attention to optic performance the lens should be considered seriously alongside other lenses that aren’t quite cinema lenses but have been used heavily so far in the narrative world. With the native ISO of 2000, one should be able to shoot comfortably wide open or closed down with proper lighting and for films done mostly in natural light this lens should be highly considered.
Oftentimes when choosing a camera, the biggest question isn’t what the camera has but what it will cost. Since Sony isn’t discontinuing the original FS7, the FS7 II will be more expensive, and when considering BP-U60 batteries and XQD cards the price will only climb. I think despite these shortcomings, one must always consider the price of storage and power when upgrading your camera system. More powerful cameras will no doubt require faster cards and bigger power supplies, so these costs must be seen as investments.
While XQD cards might be considered pricey to some, especially those who are more familiar with buying and using SD cards, I consider jumping into the XQD card world a necessary step to develop your video capabilities. CFast cards are becoming the norm in higher-end digital cinema, especially when the FS7 II is being heavily considered.
Compromise is often expected in any level of production, be it technically, logistically or artistically. After getting an impression of what the FS7 II can provide and facilitate in any production scenario I feel this is one of the few cameras that will take away feelings of compromise from what you as a user can provide.
The FS7 II will be available in January 2017 for an estimated street price of $10,000 (body only) and $13,000 for the camcorder with 18-110mm power zoom lens kit.
Daniel Rodriguez is cinematographer and photographer living in New York City. Check out his work here. Dan took many of the pictures featured in this article.