Sony PXW-FS7, Long Term Review
This camera has been out since late 2014, and since then has established itself as a work horse camera across a wide variety of the production industry - and it's no wonder, it offers that super 35 sensor look, various slow motion frame rates, 4k filming, all in a compact package at a reasonable price. But I thought it might be useful to to post a long term review. At this price point, the camera has many rivals - but how does it stack up now compared to newer cameras, and how is the camera to live with on a day to day basis? I've previously worked for a company with a fleet of 3, used daily, and i've seen them used in all kinds of shoots and conditions, so I should have a good frame of reference.
They’ve been exceptionally reliable. Gradual firmware updates continue to improve what is already a great camera. I've used this camera in the heat of India, the humidity of Singapore, and covering rainy triathlons in the UK. It doesn't overheat, it doesn't crash or freeze up and it doesn't have a loud fan. It just works, every single day.
The compact form factor makes it great to travel with. It’s small enough to get into tight spaces with, but bulky enough to make for good on-the-shoulder work. You can strip it down and mount it to a car bonnet, or rig it up with cine lenses and wireless FIZ
Built in ND filters. The FS7 is a hybrid style camera - it’s half a cinema style camera, half an ENG style camera - and having built in ND’s really helps speed up shooting. Ideal for documentary, but also useful in the studio environment too. I know, I know - you don't always NEED built in ND's - you can use a matte box and filters. Built in a documentary or other fast paced shoot, having built in NDs can mean the different between getting a shot and not.
It can take any lens. (with the right adaptor). One minute you can be using a speed booster and an EF mount zoom lens, for a full frame look on a budget, and the next you can be using high quality cine lenses with a PL adapter. The ability to use canon EF glass one minute, and cinema glass the next, just adds to this cameras versatility. However this strength is also a weakness…..more about that in the 'bad' section…
(Photos: Versatile Camera - left, An FS7 rigged with a long photography lens for filming some motorsport, on the right rigged with cinema lenses for my studio shoot for NOW TV)
It still makes a great image. Great dynamic range, super slow motion, and that large sensor look. It’s hard to beat at this price point. It’s been out for a while, but there’s little to touch the FS7’s specs at its price point. I'm still pleasantly surprised by the images we get from our FS7s - when it's used right, and graded well.
The video codec - its a great balance between quality and file size, for 4k work. It won't take aggressive grading in the way RAW can from a Red, black magic or Alexa. But its not designed too - I've found the XQD cards are also very fast and very reliable. I've only known one issue of someone with a corrupt card, and even then, the data was recovered.
Battery life is phenomenal. I don't think i’ve used another 4k camera that's so efficient. Just 3 Sony BPU batteries, and it’ll work all day. Give it a V-Lock adapter and a big V-Lock battery, and you may not even need to change a battery on your shoot.
The not so good
The paint is very thin. - On both the body and the camera itself. The original handle’s paint specifically, is very soft. In no time at all, the black paint around the main thumbscrew, had rubbed off.
As standard, there’s too many bits on the camera that need tools to adjust. The top handle needs allen keys to undo (these could have been thumbscrews). The viewfinder / Mic horizontal bar has an allen key to adjust when it comes loose and the main handle needs a screw driver to adjust. These are minor, but over a day with many setups, little things like this loose you time. A lot of FS7 operators find little solutions to these niggles, like the replacement arm made by Shape, that allows it to be adjusted which a quick release button - much better.
The E mount. Because the native lens mount is so close to the sensor, you can attach almost any type of lens with the right adapter - which is fanatic. B ut this comes at a cost - it means you are forever reliant on swapping lens adapters, and they can cause a bit of wobble in the way the lens is mounted. With Arri cameras and Red, when you swap mounts you bolt right into the camera chassis. - But with Sony's arrangement, the adapters are going from the Sony E mount, which is quite a lightweight mount design itself. Flex is inevitable, especially when using heavier cine lenses.
(Photo: Lens adapter. Even when not using long lenses, i’d always recommend
some kind of lens support to prevent wobble)
That Sony menu system. Sony - please see Arri and Black magic and take some notes. The Sony menus are bloated, slow and unresponsive, and a bit unintuitive. - Keep it simple, keep it responsive. If you're an owner, configuring the user definable buttons can help get everything at your finger tips. While i'm on buttons - it's far too easy to mash buttons accidentally when the camera is on your shoulder - but this to me is an acceptable trade off - you have to put buttons somewhere on this small body - and this camera is designed for a single op, so it makes sense to still have them on the left.
Viewfinder and Mic holder. The viewfinder is ok to live with - a lot of people replace the way it mounts, but I don't mind- its simple and it does work although I’d prefer something that moves on a clutch mechanism. However the mic holder is a quite a simple design. It's attached in a very loose, flimsy way. I've seen many FS7s where the mic holder has fallen off. It just cant cope with the weight of a small top mic, and repeated rigging, de-rigging and going in and out of bags daily. However, as the mic holder is attached to the end of a 15mm rod, it’s possible to rig a new mic holder onto that rod end, very easily. Sennheiser make a very simple, inexpensive shoe mount for top mics.
(Photo: Mic holder. This shows the rod, where the original sony used to be until it fell off)
So how does the FS7 stack up against the competition? There are many cameras around this price point - but not many offering the same specs. There are many smaller chip cameras, with built in lenses. Great tools, but they offer a different kind of look. The main rivals to the FS7, to me, are; the Black magic Ursa, and the Canon C300 mkii and Sony's own FS5.
Compared to the Black Magic Ursa - The black magic is a great camera, but with no built in NDs, and battery consumption a little higher, it feels more suited to promo work and commercials. The image from the camera is superb, and with the ability to shoot raw, is very gradeable. You also have to choose your lens mount - PL or EF. Where as the FS7, to me, is the more flexible camera - the ability to use any lens, the good battery life, the built in NDs, make it equally suited for high end promo work or as a cinematic documentary camera. The Ursa also appears cheaper on paper, but it's sold bare bones - whereas the FS7 comes fully useable out of the box. The Ursa is a great, great camera, and i'd consider it for a lot of shoots. To me, the FS7 is just slightly more versatile.
Compared to the Canon C300 mkii - The C300 used to be the cinematic documentary camera of choice - and it's replacement is just as suitable for that type of filming. I've never personally been a big fan of the form factor (with no built in shoulder pad, it encourages lazy ops to film all day from the hip, producing a documentary looking up peoples noses...) but the camera itself makes a great organic looking images, and the menu system is very easy to use. Like the Ursa, you have to choose your lens mount (PL or EF), so the FS7 is more flexible in that regard. While the FS7 may have stolen the C300s crown as 'go to camera' for cine docs, that doesn't stop the mkii being a superb camera.
Compared to the Sony FS5 - Perhaps the FS7's biggest rival is its little brother. The FS5, is smaller, lighter, and has a vari-ND which is very useful. (I can see this becoming standard feature for Sonys in the future.). However, the FS5 only records in an 8 bit codec, so if you need to use an extended dynamic range mode, like slog3, you're out of luck unless you use an external recorder. Whether or not the compromise is worth it, depends on what you plan to shoot.
How lucky we are to be spoilt at the moment, with so many great film making tools. The FS7 was a great step in the right direction for Sony - Finally a hybrid super 35 camera with a good form factor, equally at home on a documentary, an advert, a drama or a high end promo. To me, it's a sign that camera technology may finally have plateaued for now - and thats a good thing. Its nice to live in a time where there technology isnt out of date every five minutes. I can see this camera continuing to be a work horse camera for many more years - and thats why I've just bought one!