Sony FS5 review: Super 35 on the run

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Christina Fox
Acquisition
May 5th 2016 at 10:31AM : By

The Sony PXW-FS5 is a good camera for 4K run and gun shooting. Christina Fox runs it through its paces

Way back at IBC2014, Sony launched the PXW-FS7 and had a winner on its hands. Then last year, at IBC2015, it launched the PXW-FS5 - a cheaper, smaller version of the FS7. The FS5 offers 100Mbps Ultra HD (3840x2160) for around £3,600 (+VAT - body only) with a Super 35 Exmor sensor using Sony XAVC (Long GoP) compression recording.

On the FS5 website Sony urges you to: “Grab and shoot with handheld Super 35”; and certainly the first thing you notice about the FS5 is how small and light it is. The camera body is only 830g. In comparison the new Canon C300 Mark 11 (body only) is 1.7kg. Sony is deliberately aiming this camera at the run and gun shooter. But drone and gimbal users should find its light weight a bonus too.

FS5 joystick

With the 18-105mm lens Sony provided for the review, the camera is evenly balanced. The body has a rounded bottom that nicely tucks in to your chest. The rotatable side grip handle is nicely moulded and easy to adjust with a thumb-operated release. The grip comes with three assignable buttons and an assignable dial, joystick and record button. But what is clever is the function button on the handgrip, when used with the joystick it gives you full control of iris, ISO, shutter, AE shift, ND filter value, white balance and focus. Your right thumb can now control all the essential functions of the camera.

The top handle is firmly attached to the body using two screws. On the base of the handle is an electronic interface connecting the camera to a zoom controller, record button and a single XLR socket. The second XLR socket for input one is located at the back on the camera body, so if you want to work pared down without the handle you can still plug in a microphone. If you do remove the handle there is a protective cap to reduce the risk of damage to the exposed electronics.

Assignable functions

There are six assignable buttons on the camera with 32 functions to choose from, including smartphone connect, streaming and FTP transfer. Yes Sony is betting that you need to connect and upload your pictures at, well, the press of a button.

I liked the assignable dial on the grip. Even though the movement is stepped, the adjustments seemed very smooth. You can assign focus or exposure controls to the dial. I’m not sure I would use it for focus as I’d prefer to have a second point of contact (ie my hand on the lens) to add extra stability.

Sony FS5 controls

Some auto focuses I’ve seen seem to hunt around like a demented squirrel. The FS5’s autofocus felt slow, but in a good, thoughtful way. If you stay in autofocus you get to use face detection. I know some people still think it is a gimmick, but I’m a big fan especially when the talent insists on a walking piece to camera. If the camera detects more than one face in the frame a double orange box appears around what it thinks is the primary face and a single orange box around the secondary faces. Using the selection dial you can select who is the primary face.

It was a bit of a surprise to find that the LCD screen really is an LCD screen and not OLED. That said, it was a decent enough size (8.8cm) and can be positioned at varying angles around four rotation points, making positioning it very precise. The LCD screen feels flimsy compared to the camera body, which feels robust. The screen will need to be removed or have some protection when in transit as it doesn't have a protective parking place on the camera (although it can be fixed in several places). It is also (like all LCD screens) difficult to use in bright sunlight so I would definitely recommend you buy a sunshade for it. If you don't, you’ll need to use the eyepiece, but don't forget to attach the large eyecup to keep out the light.

Sony FS5 LCD screen peaking

I like to use peaking to help me with focusing, but found the peaking to be poorly executed on this camera. I could see it on wide shots but it would often not appear at all in close-up. I tried turning it from middle to high, but that didn't really help. You may find it more useful to use the magnification option to check focus. But if you record with the screen magnification on, you aren’t getting a close up, so be sure you turn it off to see the correctly framed shot. I found the Push Auto focus button useful to help me with the focus in bright sunlight.

The 1cm eyepiece was a bit small, but it is an OLED and so a better, more contrasty option in bright sunlight. There is an option in the menu (VF/LCD PANEL) that, when turned to LCD, ensures the video is sent to the LCD screen only. However set to AUTO it will automatically turn off the LCD screen as you put your eye to the eyepiece. Or, as I found out, when you put the eyepiece to your chest when hand held. At one point I looked at a blank LCD screen and waited for what for what seemed like ages for the camera to turn on, only to find it was on and I was just standing too close to the eyepiece. The option is there to try and extend the life of the battery, but I found it very annoying, and as with other cameras that have it, you should be able to have both on and buy another battery.

Variable ND

FS5 ND filter

The FS5, along with most pro cameras, has a neutral density filter dial with four positions: Clear, 1/4ND, 1/16ND and 1/64 ND. However, you can assign a different ND value to any of those positions (except clear). This is an innovative way of extending your ND filter capabilities. But it gets better. There is also an option to select Variable ND. You can then adjust the ND from ¼ to 1/128. The transition is very smooth. If your main reason for buying this camera is its shallow depth of field this will be a killer feature. You can set your aperture to the shallowest DoF and then use the variable ND to ensure perfect exposure. The execution of the variable ND is something Sony should be proud of. I’m sure others will want to copy it.

The 18-105mm Sony E mount kit lens has a constant aperture at f4 throughout the zoom. The camera does have the option to use Sony’s Clear Image Zoom, which is not your bog standard digital zoom found on holiday camcorders. It is pretty much undetectable as you move from optical to digital zoom. It gives 2x magnification in HD and 1.5x in 4K. It is probably just enough to help out a news camera operator who physically can’t get closer to the action – but not so much that it degrades picture quality. 

If you are considering this as a B roll camera, you should note that there is no time code in and out, so syncing with another camera or audio will require a clapper.

The camera comes with all the usual options of 60Hz and 50Hz recording in HD so that you should be able to make it backward compatible with an older camera. I hate to say you can future proof yourself with any camera (because once the future arrives your camera is old and there is usually something even better available), but, it does offer 50p (60p) in HD and of course 4K/UHD (24/25/30p) for when clients start to ask for it.

While HD recording formats are 4:2:2, UHD at 100Mbps is 8-bit 4:2:0, which will put some people off. It is worth noting that the SDI socket can only output HD, but the HDMI output can do 4K. Also upgrades are in the pipeline, including UHD Raw output.

The compression used is XAVC L, which is a long GoP codec. The FS7 uses I-frame encoding. Bear that in mind if you intend to mix and match.

The camera will record onto SD cards if you are happy with AVCHD recording, but you will need SDXC (U3) cards (around £42 +VAT for 64GB) if you intend to use the camera at 100Mbps and for Slow and Quick motion.

The FS5 can record eight-second bursts at 240 frames per second (or 16 seconds at 120fps) in full HD XAVC 10-bit 4:2:2, so, if your project plays at 24p, you can achieve 10x slow motion action.

The camera does offer S-log 2 and S-log 3 with a boast of 14 stops of dynamic range. But according to Alister Chapman (DoP and Sony certified expert) you really need to know what you’re doing with your exposure as there is very little latitude for error with 8-bit S-log. Using S-log in HD is slightly less exacting as it will be 10-bit 4:2:2. The viewfinder does have an S-log look-up table, but it will only change the contrast of the viewed image – the colours will still have that flat washed out look.

Sony FS5

Conclusion

The FS7 is a very popular camera and some will think of the FS5 as a great B-roll camera option. But, for those on a smaller budget it would make a good A-roll camera for the run and gun shooter. If you have no money for grading then the 8-bit recording probably won’t concern you, but I’d suggest you buy a good monitor (with its own built-in peaking) to ensure those UHD images are as pin sharp as possible.