A Second Look at the Sony NEX-FS700.

The Sony NEX-FS700 with kit lens

I have just spent a couple of days with 3 of Sony’s latest offerings. The new compact XDCAM camcorder, the PMW100, the diminutive NXCAM HXR-NX30 and the NEX-FS700. If you’ve managed to miss all the noise, the FS700 is yet another camcorder with a Super 35mm sensor, this one recording to AVCHD and very,very similar to the Sony FS100. I have not been paid or commissioned to write this review. I requested the loan of the cameras from my contacts with Sony so that I could asses them for myself. Yes, I am a fan of Sony gear and I do run workshops for Sony in my capacity as a Sony ICE (Independent Certified Expert). But the views here are my own views and I try to be as objective as possible in my reviews.

Despite being similar to the FS100 and a higher model number, the FS700 is not a replacement for the FS100 nor an upgrade model. The FS700 is a separate model with it’s own feature set.

So what are those new features? Well out of the box the coolest feature is that the FS700 can shoot at up to 960 frames per second. Now there are already quite a few cameras out there that can do this, but most of them are considerably more expensive and specialised. Above 240 frames per second the resolution of the FS700’s video is reduced, but when you get down to 240 fps and below the FS700 shoots at full 1920 x 1080 resolution. The nearest competition that can do this is Red’s Epic which will set you back around 8 times the price of the FS700 for a fully usable shooting package and Epic crops into the sensor for it’s high speed modes making getting wide angle slow-mo tricky.

Front view of the FS700 showing the fatter lens body to accommodate the ND filter wheel.

The next feature won’t be available right away, but the FS700 has a 4K sensor (11.6 Mega Pixel) and in the future Sony will bring out an update that will allow the camera to output 4K RAW data from the sensor over the cameras 3G HDSDi output. What is not known at the moment is when this option will become available, how much it will cost for the camera upgrade. It could be free or it could be a paid upgrade and what the recording options will be. Being completely realistic the 4K option is likely to end up costing a fair amount of money, possibly close to the cost of the camera body. You have to remember that any device capable of recording 4K RAW will need to have a very high data throughput, it will need to have a 3G Sdi connection and it will need to use some very fast recording media. SSD’s are one option, another possibility might be Sony’s new SR Memory, but those are damn expensive. looking at what’s already available to record 4K RAW there is the soon to be released AJA KiPro Quad which has a target price of about $4k. Add in a couple of fast SSD’s, some form of mounting system and your looking at $5k. That assumes that Sony go with a third party for the RAW support. If it’s an in house Sony product it could end up more expensive.
So, my advice right now, is not to buy the FS700 purely because of the future 4K RAW option. Wait until we hear more from Sony about how this will work before buying just for 4K. In the mean time, think of it as a bonus feature on this great camera.

The rear end of the FS700

As mentioned above the FS700 has 3G Sdi. As the FS700 shares the same video processing as the FS100, once again the output is limited to 8 bit even in 3G mode. With all the hype and talk of 10 bit recording or more, how big a deal is this? Well it depends on what you want to do do with the camera. 8 bit recording has been used for decades to produce TV programmes, many excellent works have been produced using 8 bit. Canon’s C300 is 8 bit, there is nothing wrong with 8 bit for most normal TV production. However these days it is becoming normal to do more and more grading and colour correction in post production and this is where larger bit depths help. It also helps to have more bits if trying to record much larger dynamic ranges as the more stops you want to record the more grey shades (or bits) you want to avoid banding. See here for a more in depth explanation. If your not doing aggressive grading or post work then 8 bit is just fine with standard gammas if handled carefully.

The 4 way ND selector with positions for clear, (1/4) 2 stop, (1/16) 4 stop and (1/64) 6 stop ND's

Probably the biggest complaint about the FS100 is it’s lack of ND filters. Sony blame this on the very short flange back (distance from lens mount to sensor) of the E Mount that the camera is fitted with. This short flange back is great as because it is very short it makes it possible to adapt to just about every other lens mount on the market including PL, Nikon and even Canon. The new Metabones E to EF mount even provides electronic control of the Iris as well as image stabilisation on Canon lenses. For the FS700 Sony have found some new ultra thin ND filters that can be squeezed into the narrow space between the sensor and mount. As a result the FS700 has one clear position and 3 stages of ND filtration. Apparently the filter design was “borrowed” from the flagship 8K Sony F65. The addition of the ND filter wheel inside the camera does mean that the area around the lens mount is longer and fatter on the FS700 than the FS100.

Arri Rosette on right side of FS700 for new hand grip.

Another change over the FS100 is that the removable hand grip is now attached to the camera body via an Arri rosette. This means that not only can you mount the hand grip at almost any angle, but if you are using a 3rd party shoulder rig that also uses Arri rosettes you can mount the Sony hand grip on the rig so that you can start and stop the camera with the grip. The new hand grip has another couple of new features, one of which is a dedicated button that magnifies the image in the viewfinder for easier focussing as well as a zoom rocker.

New hand grip with zoom rocker and expanded focus button.

Currently there are no lenses that can take advantage of the zoom rocker, but I think we can probably expect to see a servo zoom for the FS700 some time in the future, Sony won’t have added that rocker for nothing.
Just like the FS100 the FS700 has an abundance of 1/4″ mounting points for accessories, in addition to plenty of 1/4″ and 3/8″ tripod mounting points. There are now two 1/4″ mounting points for the removable handle adding increased stability and security. I have to say that I’m not a fan of the stock handle. It serves it’s purpose giving you a way to carry the camera but I think I’d like to have something a little bigger that extends further back, above the viewfinder. At least you can change the handle or remove it all together if you want. The rear part of the FS700 is almost exactly the same as the FS100, again it’s covered in buttons and control knobs. Some like this, others don’t. Personally I like it. I like having dedicated buttons and switches for all the commonly used camera functions. I had a camera recently that lacked switches for some key functions and as a result that camera had to go! I don’t like having to go into the menu’s to change stuff on a shoot. A lot of what I shoot (bad weather and natural extremes) happen suddenly and unpredictably so if I can just hit one button to change a setting rather than delving into the menu’s that makes me happy and allows me to work faster. Having said that some of the buttons are very small, so operating then with gloves on will be quite tricky, but that’s one of the prices you pay for having ever smaller camera bodies. And if you think this one is fiddly, try operating the multifunction control knob on the tiny NX30!

Frame Grab from FS700. Standard Gamma

Frame Grab from FS700, CineGamma1

Picture Quality:

So that’s the outside of the camera, what about the pictures it produces. I was lucky enough to play with an FS700 at NAB back in April and it impressed me then. Now I have spent a bit more time with one I’m still very impressed. The pictures are very rich with very high contrast. Dynamic range is very good too and highlight performance is much improved over the original FS100 thanks to the addition of  new Cinegammas in the picture profiles. The FS700’s Cinegammas 1 and 2 are comparable to Cinegammas 1 & 2 in the PMW-F3. The cinegammas on the FS100 are unique and different to the cinegammas in the FS700 and F3.

You do need to remember however that the FS700 has more pixels than the FS100 on a similar sized sensor. Normally you would expect this to mean lower sensitivity and lower dynamic range, but in practice the difference is barely noticeable. There is a tiny bit more noise than the FS100 but it is of very fine grain, quite reminiscent of film grain and even at higher gain/ISO levels is not too objectionable. I’d be quite happy to use the FS700 at up to 1600 ISO for just about any production and maybe 3200 at a push and I am very fussy about noisy pictures. This is very good performance, especially considering the 4K sensor. The dynamic range is comparable to the FS100 and I suspect the sensor is actually capturing a far greater dynamic range than the standard or cinegammas can comfortably deliver which bodes well for the future RAW option.

FS700 Standard Gamma

FS700 CineGamma 1

The two frame grabs above show the difference in the way the FS700 handles highlights between the standard settings and CineGamma 1. The bright highlight on the top rear of the car is handled well in both cases, but the CineGamma has a slightly more pleasing and more natural look. The light blue garage door on the far left is starting to wash out with the standard gamma but the CineGamma is showing slightly better highlight handling. In addition the raised shadow details in the CineGamma shot show increased dynamic range. I could have probably exposed slightly lower using the cinegamma which would have helped the highlights still further.  I estimate the dynamic range to be about 11.5 stops, about the same as the FS100, possibly a touch more with CineGamma 1 and very good for conventional gammas.

One point of note is that for the review I used the supplied Sony 18-200mm E mount lens for a lot of my testing. I’m not a fan of this lens. It’s not fast at f3.5 – f6.3 and the focus ring has no calibrated scale of any description as it’s one of those round and round servo focus systems with no end stops and no repeatability. The manual focus is sluggish and un-responsive which makes nailing focus tricky. The iris is controlled either automatically or via a small thumbwheel on the side of the camera. While I don’t really want to make a direct reference to the Canon C300 as it may sound like I’m somehow putting down the Canon, after all it is a good a camera, when I had my Canon C300 the iris on that (with the Canon EF lenses) was also control by a wheel on the camera body. On both cameras the electronically controlled iris operates in steps. The steps on the Canon were in my opinion too coarse to allow you to make unnoticeable iris changes mid shot. The steps on the FS700 with the kit lens appear much smaller and are small enough to go unnoticed in many cases. In addition the autofocus on the FS700 was quite effective and the new face tracking firmware helps keep people and faces in focus rather than simply focusing on the background as many cameras do. If you do have Canon lenses, you can use them very easily on the FS700 by using the new Metabones adapter which allows any Sony E-Mount camera to control the Canon lenses electronic isis and additionally makes any optical stabilisation work. The other alternative is the MTF Canon adaptor for E Mount with it’s external iris control box. In either case when using a Canon lens the iris steps are still larger than with the Sony lenses, so I guess it is a lens limitation rather than a limitation of the camera body.

FS700 DSC Chroma Du Monde Chart reproduction, standard settings.

FS700 DSC Chroma Du Monde Chart reproduction, CineGamma1.

As you can see from the DSC Chroma Du Monde charts above. The FS700’s colourimetry is very good with no obvious rogue colours. As is typical of a Sony camera the colour reproduction is very true to life. Sometimes this is not always ideal, if you consider the way Canon’s very red colorimetry makes for pretty looking pictures, Sony’s can sometimes appear a little un-interesting. However Sony’s very accurate look gives you a fantastic neutral starting point that can be graded to give your desired finish. Of course you can always use the FS700’s picture profiles to modify the cameras colour matrix to create the look you want and I’ll be releasing some custom picture profiles once the camera is released.

High Contrast:

One thing that caught my eye was the way the camera reproduced very fine details. It has really nice contrast levels at high frequencies, something that is almost certainly down to the use of a 4K sensor and electronic sub sampling. In a traditional camera an optical filter is placed in front of the sensor to limit the amount of fine detail passed to the sensor to prevent aliasing and other artefacts. These optical filters don’t have particularly sharp cut-offs, so there is some reduction in fine detail contrast close to the resolution limits of the camera. If you use a 4K sensor and then down convert electronically the optical filter is operating well above HD frequencies and the electronic low pass filtering can be much sharper than an optical filter. The end result is better contrast in HD at high frequencies. The almost inevitable downside however is that it’s near impossible to eliminate all moire and aliasing in the down-converted signal. As a result the FS700 does exhibit a little more moire and aliasing than the FS100 on very fine repeating patterns and textures. This is still very well controlled and not something that I am particularly concerned about. The camera that I had for this most recent test appeared to have slightly improved aliasing performance than the camera I used at NAB.

Ultra Versatile:

Th Sony NEX-FS700

The FS700 really is an extremely versatile camera, ignoring the future 4K option for a moment, you still get a very capable camera that can switch between NTSC and PAL regions. It can use a massive range of lenses. It can shoot at not only 23.98p, 25p, 30p, 50i and 60i but also at 50p and 60p both internally and to an external recorder via HDMI or 3G HDSDi. Wan’t to go faster? Well you can, in fact you can go all the way up to 940 fps. Using Sony’s new NEX-FS700 to shoot slow motion is simplicity itself. To enter the super slow mo mode, you simply press a switch marked S&Q on the left side of the camera. First press of the button puts the camera into S&Q motion where it will shoot full resolution HD at up to 60fps. In this mode you just shoot as you would normally, only now at a higher speed than normal. Press the S&Q button again and the camera enters super slow motion mode.

Super Slow-Mo:

In super slow mo the FS-700 will shoot at 120fps or 240fps at full 1920×1080 resolution. You can also shoot at 480fps and 960fps at reduced resolutions. When shooting at 100/120fps you are limited to a recording burst of 16 seconds and at 200/240fps the burst period is 8 seconds.
There are two ways to trigger the recording burst. You can trigger recording immediately after the press of the record button or you can set the camera to record the burst period prior to pressing the record button. If using the trigger at start mode, on pressing the record button a message saying “buffering” appears in the viewfinder. After 8 (or 16 secs) the camera starts to write the recording to the SD card (or FMU) and you see a slightly slowed preview (50/60 fps) of the recording of what you have just shot. This takes between 2 and 4 times the record time to write the file and during this period you cannot shoot anything else. Pressing the record button during the write process, stops it at that point, keeping the written file to that point and the camera goes back to standby ready to record another shot.
In trigger at end mode, you point the camera at the scene you want to capture and immediately after the thing you want to record happens you press the record button and the camera then starts to write the previous 8(16) seconds to the SD card, again you see a 50/60fps playback or 1/2 to quarter speed playback of the clip as it is written to the card.

During the buffering period, what actually appears to be happening is that the video stored in the cameras frame buffer is getting written to an AVCHD file at 50/60 fps. This 50/60 fps AVCHD clip is then flagged to play back at the base rate the camera was set to before you pressed the S&Q button resulting in super smooth, super slow motion. The fact that the buffering from the cameras frame buffer to AVCHD happens at 50/60P does open up the possibility of recording that stream via the HDMI or 3G HDSDi to an external recorder at higher quality than AVCHD. I didn’t have time to fully explore this, but will do so as soon as I can.

The fact that you can’t shoot anything else during the write process is a little frustrating, but it’s a small price to pay for the ability to shoot at 240fps, although it does mean you can’t really use the FS-700 to shoot long duration events without big gaps in the super slow mo. The great thing is that as all the processing is done in the camera. Playback of the clips is no different to playing any other AVCHD clip. 8 seconds at 240fps results in an 80 second clip at 24fps. I could have really done with the trigger at end mode on a recent shoot I was doing with Red Epics where we were shooting pyrotechnic and special effects events that often took some time to trigger, but only lasted fractions of a couple of seconds. With the Epic’s we often ended up with several minutes of footage prior to the action we wanted, wasting storage space and making more footage for the editor to go through.

The sample slow-mo clips below were shot over a single evening. The first clip was shot at 480fps. At 480 fps the resolution is 1920×540, half the vertical resolution of full HD. This results in a lot of extra aliasing. I think you would have to be very careful about how and when you use the rate or indeed the even higher 960 fps rate where the resolution is even lower. The rest of the shots were done at 240 fps at full HD resolution and these look simply fantastic.

But what about the 4K RAW. Well all the signs are that the sensor in the FS700 is a good one. Clearly purpose designed for video production. The low noise and high sensitivity that you can see in the HD footage hints that once the RAW option is enabled the FS700 will be able to compete head to head with cameras like Red’s Epic or Canon’s C500. The ability to fit such a massive range of lenses to the FS700 is a great selling point as are the built in ND filters, something that I’m sure many Red users wish they had. I don’t think the question is whether it will be any good, but rather just how good will it be, I’m sure it will be very good indeed, but until the option is unlocked we won’t know for sure. That’s why I say anyone buying one now should consider the 4K RAW as a bonus feature and not a primary reason for buying one right now. For me the FS700’s killer feature is the slow motion capabilities. Expect to see slow motion everywhere from June onwards, it’s going to be the new time-lapse.

As soon as I heard the specs of the FS700 I placed an order for one. I’ve been looking for a Slow-mo camera for some time now. Red’s Epic was beyond my reach and the Red workflow doesn’t suit the kinds of productions I’m normally involved in. I’m really looking forward to taking delivery of mine some time next month. These are exciting times, the average film maker now has access to some incredible tools that in the past were prohibitively expensive. Tornadoes, volcanoes and extreme storms in super slo-mo, rock on!

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14 Responses to A Second Look at the Sony NEX-FS700.

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