Are the F5 and F55 going to be game-changers?

PMW-F55 fully configured.

I was going to call this: “There’s never been a better time to buy a camera”, but then the more I thought about it the more I realised that actually in some respects, right now it’s really difficult to make the right camera choice due to the large number of very capable cameras on the market. At one extreme you have the Black Magic Cinema camera offering raw HD for just $3K and at the other end there is the Sony F65 with it’s 8k sensor and 16 bit raw high speed recording. Confusing the issue is the fact that both the $3K BMCC and the $100K F65 both shoot raw, what is it that makes a $97,000 difference between these cameras? Obviously there are many differences, but even so, will the audience be able to tell in the finished film, in a lot of cases perhaps not?

So what your paying for is after sales support, ergonomics, reliability and usability. This is where I think the F5 and F55 may be game changers. If Sony have put together these camera packages as well as it appears, then it looks like the F5 and F55 tick all the right boxes. Lets look at each of those 4 factors in more detail.

After Sales Support: Sony has a world wide network of repair and service centres. While not always cheap, if you need support you can get it almost anywhere in the world. The Sony ICE program (of which I am a member) is being expanded, the idea is that experienced and competent users will be able to help new users with getting the most from their equipment. This is often in the form of free workshops and seminars. This allows users to get up to speed fast, to avoid costly mistakes and to maximise on their investment.

The LCD control panel on the side of the F5/F55

Ergonomics:The PMW-F5 and PMW-F55 are evolutions of the PMW-F3, but gone is the now common place integral LCD monitor, replaced instead by a large clear multi function LCD control panel surrounded by 6 large buttons whose functions change depending on the mode you are in. The LCD menu panel is on the camera operators side of the camera. There are 4 modes, Camera, File, Timecode and View. In Camera mode these give you control over frame rate, shutter speed, colour temperature, exposure index or gain, gamma and look up tables. These really are the 6 key camera functions that you need rapid access to when shooting and the corresponding setting are clearly displayed on the LCD screen. There are perhaps fewer assignable buttons (4) than on previous cameras but this helps keep the camera un-cluttered. The built in ND filters (3 stop and 6 stop) are controlled via a rotary knob which I much prefer over the slide switches on some other cameras.

BNC HDSDI and XLR audio modules on the F55

On the other side of the camera body are all the connectors. Sony have been quite clever here in that they have made the XLR connectors and timecode connectors removable. While most users will probably never remove these connector modules what it does do is allow them to be taken off for 3D applications where camera width can be critical. The cameras also feature spare 12 volt 1.8 amp power outputs for accessories. Although the camera body is very box like which may not at first glance appear very ergonomic there is a shoulder mount system complete with arri rosettes designed specifically for the cameras along with a detachable top handle. The top handle on it’s front has the very same viewfinder mount as found on almost every Sony shoulder mount camera.

The F5/F55’s modular make-up.

On to this mount you can attach one of three viewfinders. The entry level viewfinder is a 3.5″ LCD finder very similar to the viewfinder used on the PMW-350 or PMW-500. The DVF-L350 3.5-inch LCD viewfinder has a new high resolution 960 x 540 LCD panel with better contrast than previous panels. The resolution is exactly half full HD (interestingly this is a remarkably similar spec to the new Alphatron and Cineroid EVF’s). There is also a very nice sounding the DVF-EL100 OLED EVF. This 0.7-inch viewfinder is 1280 x 720 resolution and will have the lovely true blacks that only OLED or CRT offers. If you want a big viewfinder then there is the DVF-L700 compact 7-inch ultra high resolution LCD view finder which gives pixel-for-pixel 1920 x 1080 HD images and is really aimed at those shooting 2K and 4K.

Adding either the DVF-L350 or DVF-EL100 along with the shoulder mount will turn the PMW-F5 or F55 into a true shoulder mount camera, designed to be shoulder mounted from day one, no dodgy lashed together rigs needed with these cameras. Of course your not tied to a Sony viewfinder. The HDMI out as well as one pair of the 4 HDSDI outputs can be set to carry the cameras overlays and menu information, so you should be able to use almost any viewfinder you want.

So, ergonomically it looks like Sony really have got it right. Not too big, not too small, shoulder mount or handheld, big buttons for the primary functions and a clear multifunction display.

Reliability: These are Sony cameras. Both the F5 and F55 share the same body and I suspect most of the innards are the same (we do know the sensors are different). As the PMW-F55 is going to be a mid range model, it should come with the kind of reliability that you get with cameras like the PMW-500 or PDW-700, cameras that are workhorses of the broadcast world. One issue that can sometimes let the F3 down is dust sealing around the ND filter slide switch. Hopefully the new rotary knob for the ND filters will eliminate this issue. I fully expect these to be solid, reliable cameras with high quality connectors etc that will withstand the rigours of life on location.

Usability: There is some cross-over here with ergonomics, which I’ve already covered but the F5 and PMW-F55 have some great features that make them really flexible and versatile. They use the same lens mounting system as the PMW-F3. The FZ lens mount mount with it’s very shallow flange back makes it so easy to adapt to other lens mounts. The cameras will be supplied with a PL mount adapter and third party adapters are already available for everything from Canon and Nikon DSLR lenses through to B4 2/3″ broadcast lenses. The sensors are full size Super 35mm sensors, no odd sizes here so no problems finding lenses to fit. If you don’t need or want raw recording and the very large file sizes that come hand in hand with raw then you have lots of options. For a start the raw recorder the ASX-R5 is optional.

Sony ASX-R5 raw recorder.

It docks to either camera via a clever quick release mechanism. When mounted it appears to be part of the camera and works seamlessly with the camera. As it is a separate recorder it brings the possibility of dual mode recording, shooting in both 16 bit raw and compressed video simultaneously. If you don’t need raw then you can shoot with a wide range of modes and codecs.

Internally both the F5 and F55 can record 8 bit XDCAM HD 422 at 50Mb/s. This would be the ideal proxy format for those shooting in raw. If you need better quality then there is the new XAVC codec, which is based on AVCHD (level 5.2 of H.264/MPEG-4 AVC) and is highly expandable. It will allow for HD,2K and 4k compressed recording at up to 60p and Sony are inviting 3rd parties to help develop applications that make use of the codec. The F5 will record XAVC at up to 2K and the F55 will record compressed 4k. If that isn’t enough then both cameras will also be able to record using the HDCAM SR codec,  SStP. To cope with all this data Sony are also introducing a new SxS card. The SxS Pro+ cards are plenty fast enough to deal with recording 4k compressed. Standard SxS cards can be used for XDCAM.

If all that isn’t enough these cameras can shoot at high speeds. The F5 will go up to 120fps and the F55 up to 240fps both compressed and raw, although shooting raw at 120fps or 240fps raw will generate scary amounts of data. Unlike the FS700 your not limited to short bursts, these cameras can roll continuously at the high frame rates, provide you have sufficient space on your SxS Pro+ or ASXM media cards.

When shooting compressed you have a choice of using conventional gammas and Hypergammas and there will be 6 Hypergammas on the F5/F55 (HG1, HG2, HG3, HG4, HG7 and HG8). For even greater dynamic range you have the option to use S-Log2. S-Log2 is similar to Sony’s original S-Log but extends the dynamic range to 14 stops. The beauty of the S-Log2 workflow will be the ability to capture the sensors full dynamic range but without the need to do all the time consuming file and data processing needed with raw.

The big question that still remains with these cameras and the ASX-R5 recorder (which will also work with the FS700 via the $2k HXR-IFR5 adapter) is what will the costs be?

My guess and this is a guess, given that the F3 will continue to be a current model is that the PMW-F5 will be in the region of $18k – $24k for the body only. The F55 with it’s extra features and global shutter $32k to $40k. I guess the ASX-R5 will be around $8k – $10k and the DVF-L350 about $3k-$4k.

Now, given my pricing estimates, what do I think? Well I hope they are cheaper, but I’m not sure that they will be as they need to be priced above the F3 and the F55 needs to be expensive enough to keep the F65 as a viable 4k proposition. But the flexibility that these cameras offer is truly incredible. If you are a news shooter you can stick a 2/3″ B4 lens without an optical adapter, flip in the 2x extender, shoot in compressed 4k on the F55 and then extract an HD image by cropping in to the center of the frame. You would have deep DoF so focus would not be as critical as when using the full super 35mm sensor. Shooting a documentary, then you can shoot compressed, shooting a movie then shoot 4k raw. The very thought of 16 bit raw with 14 stops of dynamic range is making me drool, these cameras will seriously encroach on F65 territory and give the Arri Alexa a very hard time indeed, heck even the F5 will give the Alexa a very hard time. A clear sign of just how significant these cameras are is the way Red have slashed the prices of their Epic and Scarlet cameras. It really is a great time to be a film maker, the tools available now are incredible and the prices equally amazing. If nothing else, if I find my price guess is way off and the F5 unaffordable, they have put a fully configured Scarlet in my price range! So to answer my initial question, yes I think these are game changers. They have a large element of future proofing. They will work now as high quality compressed HD/2K cameras, add the R5 and you have 16 bit 4k linear raw. Shoulder mount, handheld, 3D these cameras can do it all.

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