First off, let me preface this review by saying nothing brings me more joy than getting a camera to try out and review. Some of the cameras I get are good and others are (in my mind) fantastic, great and all that. The Sony FS7II falls squarely in the second category. The second and maybe the more important set of questions are simple. I always ask myself, what would make me want to buy this camera? Secondly, what would compel you to want to go out and buy this camera? Lastly, when it is all said and done, does it fit into what I am doing production-wise?
As is with other reviews, I like to look at what the camera/lens physical set up is all about first. If you are wondering why, here it is — I do a lot of going back and forth between handheld and tripods (and other devices) so it's really important how the camera and I mesh. Yes I know, weird and subjective, and certainly not technical, but hey how does it feel to operate? Not just for a few minutes, but for an extended period of time. If you are not “comfortable” with your setup then I really believe your shots will suffer.
Living Big with the Sony FS7II
Right away I knew this was going to be a fun shoot/review. The Sony FS7II had good balance and heft without being too heavy. The body weighed in at 4lbs. 7 oz., which was good for me. Not too heavy but very manageable. Solid, sturdy and well built. Then when I started adding in the lens, extended control arm, shoulder mount, viewfinder and a full Anton Bauer brick (which lasted forever), I felt ready to go. This created one complete, nicely done and well thought out package without having to cobble everything together.
Old School Feel, New School Features
Let's start with just the physical control elements and features of the camera body itself. I have to admit I really like the tactile feel and control functions and NOT always having to jump into a menu or submenu to make something happen with the camera. What can I say, it's how I like to roll?. These are some of those controls and features that I found to be important from an operational point. I think you would too...
Electronic Variable ND Filter
There are 2 to 7 stops ND either with the front wheel or dial on the operator's side and Auto ND also replaces auto iris. However, using the turret knob allow for four ND presets - a very nice touch. ND is selectable in 1/3 stop steps within the range. When shooting in a variety of conditions I found the ability to either flex the ND or just use the presets, allowed me to focus on other things. Either way, the ability to use the variable ND when you are on the run or the presets when you have time, are both a win-win.
Auto Push Focus (more on that in a minute)
I used to swear that I would NEVER use autofocus. Only non-pros use autofocus, right? That’s what I was taught anyways. So much for that, I have found that with such an improvement in cameras i.e. 4K and such beautiful lenses, I need to use the autofocus on occasion. Not all the time, but when I am questioning where I am on focus with really one-off or critical shots I’m going to use it. I might still change the focus, but when I don’t have a big honkn’ monitor like an Atomos Sumo to check. I might just start with auto first and go from there.
Here are some controls that I would say are nice and easy to get to:
10 Configurable buttons 7 on the camera 3 on the handgrip
Next on the operational list? - The XQD card slots.
The slots were upgraded to stick out more with the FS7II. This allows the operator or assistant to actually be able to quickly remove the cards. Why is this important? Have you ever been in the middle of a shoot and can’t switch a card out in a hurry? Try it. No fun at all.
Lock and Rock!
Besides the viewfinder (more on that in a minute) the idea that one can have an E mount with a locking collar was just some solid engineering. With the beautiful glass I was using (provided by Sony) I was (as usual) skeptical that I wouldn't be comfortable with that particular feature, which actually turned out to be one of the best. I sat down and “collared” that lens. It locked on and I never gave it a second thought. It's beautiful for when you have rentals or if you are like me and sometimes “borrow” a lens. I am confident at the end of the day your set up will be all in one piece. The viewfinder was so easy too. Easy to set up, and easy to operate. The images were very sharp and crisp with the eyecup or if you were just using it as a mini monitor. Personally? The eyecup really worked with my style of shooting, so it was nice to be able to go with that choice.
Bump In the Road?
I will get to some of the great specs of the Sony FS7II in a minute I promise but as with any product, in my opinion, there is always room for improvement. What is it? No not the smart grip itself, that was fine. It was the telescoping arm. Thought it was good that no tools were needed, but I could just couldn't get comfortable. Remember I said that earlier about being/getting comfortable? Seriously. I tried several different configurations like adjusting the length of the telescoping arm or changing the pivot point on the smart grip. No go. So
I did shoot some handheld, but I would say overall I shot more on a tripod.
Disclaimer, I will say I have very, very long arms. Maybe for most “normal” size people, the telescoping arm would be just fine. Maybe I’ll just say I’m not a normal size? Either way, it was not a deal breaker by any means, but if you are going to shoot a lot of handheld? Make sure the telescoping arm is right for you.
Now for the specs
So what does the Sony FS7II deliver? Turns out to be more on the upside. I will add some info on the extension kit too since it expands recording options. I, however, recorded on available media provided by Sony and was quite pleased but wanted to include all the options as not to shut anyone out.
Here are some specs:
- The camera can capture footage to optional on-board XQD media cards in either DCI 4K (4096 x 2160) or UHD 4K (3840 x 2160) at up to 59.94 fps or HD at up to 180 fps.
- The camera records in your choice of XAVC-I, XAVC-L, or MPEG-2.
- However, MPEG-2 recording does not support the high data rates the camera is capable of generating when shooting in UHD, and is limited to recording HD video only.
- Sensor - The 4K Super 35 EXMOR sensor features 14 Stops of latitude and a wide color gamut. It offers a choice of XAVC or MPEG-2 codecs.
- The XAVC codec can be used for 4K and HD recording, while MPEG-2 is limited to HD recording. XAVC comes in two flavors, XAVC INTRA, and XAVC Long, allowing you to encode from HD to UHD using Intra-Frame or Long GOP compression with 10-bit 4:2:2 for HD and the choice of 10-bit 4:2:2 or 8-bit 4:2:0 for UHD.
- XAVC intra compression is very efficient; recording at modest bit rates and XAVC Long also substantially extends the recording time while attaining very high quality and low noise.
- Signal Processing - The Camera supports two signal processing modes; Cine-EI and Custom. Cine-EI offers three color grading spaces for electronic cinematography production. The Custom mode supports Rec-709 and Rec BT-2020 at UHD 3840 x 2160 with Y, Cb, Cr color subsampling. You can set the PXW-FS7M2 to record onboard and monitor on a BT 2020 compliant monitors via HDMI 10-bit 4:2:2 or SDI at 10-bit 4:2:2 with a 709 monitor LUT applied.
- Internal Recording - The PXW-FS7M2 records internally in both DCI 4K and UHD 4K at up to 59.94 fps, and in HD up to 180 fps using XAVC-I or up to 120 fps with XAVC-L. DCI 4K (4096 x 2160) can be recorded internally without the need of an external recorder.
- Media Card Slots - The camera features two XQD media slots that support simultaneous or relay recording. The XQD card slots are shallower on the PXW-FS7M2 compared to the FS7, making inserting and removing media cards easier. Genlock and Timecode Genlock and timecode breakout is available with an optional XDCA-FS7, this also allows for raw and ProRes recording with optional recorders.
- Sony XDCA-FS7 Extension Unit - The Sony XDCA-FS7 Extension Unit attaches to the back of your PXW-FS7 or PXW-FS7M2 via a MultiPin connector, adding additional I/O and enabling RAW data output for recording 12-bit 4K/2K RAW footage to compatible external recorders. The unit also features built-in Apple ProRes encoding for recording 1080p ProRes 422 video to an XQD card in the camera. Additionally, the Extension Unit adds Timecode and Genlock connectors for multi-camera operation, as well as a V-Mount battery connector. A 4-pin XLR DC power input and 4-pin Hirose DC power output are also provided.
Note: RAW recording requires the HXR-IFR5 Interface Unit and a compatible recorder.
Making Pretty Pictures
Now I know a slew of shooters that swear by their trusty F5s and original F7s. That's cool and I get it. But dollar for dollar? I would really check out the Sony FS7II. Sony has a great reputation for reliability. I cannot ever recall a Sony camera failure and I don’t see one happening here. The camera itself was very robust and that's what I need on my shoots. I would figure out how to deal the telescoping arm and get used to the idea of recording RAW with the add-on external recorder, but for most of my stuff recording to the internally would be cool. The improvements are noticeable. The Variable ND, Locking Lens collar and the option of using the viewfinder are how I would ultimately drive any purchase decision. Of course, as I’ve said before on many occasions, you have to decide what is right for you based on client demands and what you can afford. If you are in the market for a new camera you would be crazy not to give the Sony FS7II some serious consideration. Good shooting and we’ll talk again soon.