Those of you who know me will remember that I’ve drooled over the Sony a7S II and again over the a7R II, yet my favorite camera these days is Sony’s a6300. I put an a6300 in my bag as I headed to Oaks, PA last month, part of a team covering a Bernie Sanders event (this is not a political post, don’t worry). I got some great footage with it. But the camera I chose as my primary was Sony’s FS5 with the kit lens, the Sony E PZ 18-105mm f/4 G OSS lens . Here’s why.
First Blush with Sony's Pro Cameras
My first foray into Sony’s dedicated pro video camera line was the FS7 [B&H|Amazon] . It was so intimidating for this DSLR/mirrorless shooter that I was able to do little more than stare at it over a weekend, try to figure out how to turn it on and then import the resultant files into Final Cut Pro X.
Epic fail. But I still loved it.
My next brush with the FS7 was an extended hands-on review in December 2015, a five-part series in planet5D in which I finally came to understand just what the camera could do, even if I still thought it was very heavy, didn’t love the grip, and still found it daunting – even after six and a half hours of Doug Jensen’s outstanding Master Class tutorial.
But oh, that 10-bit 4K XAVC-I footage!
Still, it was the FS5 [B&H|Amazon] that really caught my eye when I was first able to go hands on with it for a few minutes at a Sony event in October. This was the camera, I mused, that might be the best move-up path for DSLR/mirrorless hybrid shooters like myself.
Much smaller and several thousand dollars less expensive than the FS7 with a form factor more to my liking with a bit better ergos, the 4K recording, slow-mo capable FS5 with novel built-in electronic neutral density filter simply crushes the Canon C100 Mk II on specs and offers a number of reasons why it would make sense to move to a dedicated video camera.
It tied with the FS7 for our 2015 Video Camera of the Year.
I started to pay more attention to saving money. I was thinking I might blow right past the a7S II [B&H|Amazon] and a7R II [B&H|Amazon]– both monstrously good cameras for thousands less than the FS5 (albeit with slightly titchy ergos) – to spend the extra money for the FS5 anyway.
Even so, I quickly began to understand – as did the rest of the market and even Sony itself – the very real limitations of the FS5. The 4K recording was limited to 8-bit 4:2:0 using the XAVC-L codec with no option to output at higher specs, and I could see (without pixel peeping) the superiority of the FS7 footage. There was no in-body image stabilization like the a7X II twins. It didn’t have the low light performance of the twins, either.
Oh – and you couldn’t drive the viewfinder, the LCD panel and an external monitor/recorder simultaneously.
The 10-bit 4:2:2 1080p of the FS5 using XAVC-L? Nice to have -- and something the a7X II twins and a6300 don't have --but not necessary for me unless I were shooting at dawn or dusk and intended to distribute outside of the horrible compression of the web.
I re-evaluated my plans, projects and budget, put thoughts of the FS5 out of my head, willed myself to ignore the a7S II and a7R II, and decided to see what the Sony a6300 would bring.
Enter the Dragon-Slayer: Sony’s Own a6300
When I first got my hands on an a6300 [B&H|Amazon], I was stunned by how good it was. No, it didn’t have in-body image stabilization. But the little guy was now solid enough to mount geared cine lenses; its low light performance went toe-to-toe with an a7R II up to 25,600 ISO; it offered very clean 4K footage downsampled without pixel binning or line skipping from a 24 megapixel sensor; and even went to 120fps – something the a7R II couldn’t do. In fact, I found the a6300 and FS5 essentially indistinguishable from each other when shooting 120fps in 1080p. Of course, not everyone agreed with me (though curiously there were just as many people who thought the a6300 was better as did folks who thought the FS5 was better).
I compared all three in my Goldilocks review, and meant it when I said each was fit for purpose depending on one’s needs. I saw the merits and limitations of every one of them. But the distance between the FS5 and the FS7 was curious: although $2,400 steeper, heavier and more complicated, the FS7 made more sense to me if one were contemplating a jump from hybirds.
Me? I thought of the a6300 as not below the a7X II twins so much as splitting the difference between them for thousands less, an arbitrage opportunity in the camera body market. The FS5 receded further from my mind’s eye.
This is where things stood just before I got the call confirming the Bernie Sanders event.
I was happy as a pig in poop with a brand new a6300 forming the backbone of my kit. I also had a TASCAM DR70-D audio recorder [B&H|Amazon], a pair of RØDElink Filmmaker Kit wireless lavs, a pair of RØDE NTGs (2 and 4+) which I rarely used, a Sony UWP-D11 wireless lav kit [B&H|Amazon] with SMAD-P3 MI Shoe Adapter [B&H|Amazon] that was rapidly becoming my favorite (though I wasn't happy about the inability to control the gain manually when using the SMAD-P3 without cable), and a pile of extraordinary native E-mount glass (the Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 E [B&H|Amazon], Sony FE 28mm f/2.8 [B&H|Amazon], Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS [B&H|Amazon], and Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS [B&H|Amazon]).
All contributed mightily to my pig in poop level of satisfaction.
Round Two: Going Deep with the FS5
Shortly before the Pennsylvania primary – and before I knew I’d be covering it -- an FS5 loaner showed up on my door with the kit lens. Given the rocky start the camera had (to Sony’s credit, they quickly addressed firmware issues), I wanted to see it for myself.
Once again I was ready, having already watched Doug Jensen’s new Master Class Series on the FS5 and knowing which segments to watch multiple times. Like his FS7 Master Class before it, I’m convinced that his videos should be the very first stop on your way to buying either of these cameras. At $85 for the entire FS5 class, it’s money incredibly well spent (no, I don't get a dime for making this recommendation).
I much preferred the FS5’s size and weight to the FS7’s. I much preferred the viewfinder and LCD panel on the FS5 to the FS7. The menu system was less complicated than that of the FS7. Yes, I loved the 120fps 1080p footage. The continuously variable, internal neutral density filter was very, very cool.
I thought (though I loved Sony’s FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 lens [B&H|Amazon] with its superior manual focus and much larger maximum aperture) that the Sony E PZ 18-105 f/4 [B&H|Amazon] was a much more appropriate choice for a Super35 at this price: much more compact, a more appropriate field of view, and a quarter of the price. I also realized that for what I do, the FS7’s 10-bit 4:2:2 4K XAVC-I recording was a nice-to-have, not need to have. And I could easily live without the higher frame rates of which both were capable (especially the FS5).
Finally, since I’m not a log shooter, the differences in log format and gamma wouldn't matter to me -- at least, not for years.
Even so, the FS5 suffers by comparison to the little a6300 in basic math: there's a $4,500 difference between the two, and that buys a LOT of the kind of glass I love for the hybrid video/stills work I do. My videos are short corporate and non-profit web pieces – and of course gear reviews -- where I have time to set up the shots (or go stealthy: a big camera can get in the way). I do have a passion project in pre-pro, but it will also be distributed exclusively on the web. I do portraits, architecture, gear, and travel photography where the FS5 is a non sequitir.
And Then a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Or, in this case, the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks.
The moment the shoot was a “go,” I knew the FS5 would be my primary tool -- even with virtually no time on the machine.
That’s a pretty dangerous thing to conclude. I was going to a once-in-a-lifetime event in which other people were depending on me to capture footage and turn it around within an hour of shooting the final clip. No log shooting, no grading afterward. Final footage – or damned close to it -- had to be captured in camera.
But the FS5 made complete sense.
The shoot was going to be a live event. It was going to be long. I would be filming indoors and outdoors during the day and then at night with no meaningful ability to alter the light. It was going to be noisy, with no time to hook people up to lavs. It was going to be fast, so no time to swap lenses. I didn’t know what to expect as I’d never been to the venue before (we had to show up about 6 hours before the Senator arrived, where press were subjected to pat downs and bomb-sniffing dogs). I knew I would be roaming, shooting primarily B-roll with some interviews, while recording the Senator’s speech through a patch from the sound system directly into the separately mounted TASCAM.
What I needed was:
- Long battery life
- A built-in ND filter
- The ability to hang a good shot gun mic like the RØDE NTG4+ off the camera
- A decent built-in audio recorder, preferably with XLR connectors
- A viewfinder distinct from an LCD panel so I could see what I was shooting in bright daylight
- Something light enough that I could carry with me for hours, mountable on a light weight monopod (a tripod would be too slow and heavy; IBIS would be nice)
- A stabilized zoom lens with a wide enough aperture and appropriate focal range so I could use just one lens
- The ability to switch quickly between manual and autofocus -- because no autofocus system is perfect – with excellent assists
- The ability to shoot slow-mo should the opportunity present itself
- Good 1080p with a codec optimized for relatively static subjects (4K would have chewed up card space and slowed down our editor, as would have XAVC-I, XAVC-L or RAW*; this was going up on Facebook) [by the way, I was completely wrong about static subjects, but even so I didn't notice compression artifacts -- Sony's long-GOP XAVC-L worked just fine]
- Real, physical buttons if I DID need to change anything
What I didn’t need was:
- Futzing with learning curve
- Futzing with batteries
- Futzing with cables and external devices
- Futzing with lenses
- Futzing with settings
- Futzing with filters
- Futzing with menus
- Futzing with anything more than what I actually needed for final delivery
In other words: NO FUTZING.
I needed something that just plain worked under a variety of high pressure scenarios and a very short deadline.
Then again, there was no way I was going to leave the a6300 home.
The FS5 (and Me) in Action
Once I arrived, a set up the TASCAM on a light stand, plugged into the sound board and took a level.
I white balanced both cameras (fortunately for me, the entire venue was lit by 5000K LEDs, and setting the white balance on the FS5 was dead easy).
Then I wandered off, FS5 in hand mounted to a Benro video monopod [B&H|Amazon] with S2 video head [B&H|Amazon]. The a6300 with Zeiss Touit 12mm hung around my neck for much (though not all) of the time. I eventually set the a6300 aside.
The FS5 was the right tool. It performed brilliantly. To be fair, so did the little a6300 for the short time I used it.
I cannot say the same of myself.
There's a reason why the TASCAM offers a dual recording mode (a second copy is recorded at a lower level to recover from distorted takes). I found out that taking levels from a guy who says "check, check, 1,2,3" hours before the main event isn't the same as a candidate for president connecting with his crowd.
Then again, if the CNN guy hadn't taken pity on me, I might not have gotten the signal at all (I didn't plug into the right port on the board). The recording turned out fine because at least I'd had the foresight to set limiters.
I felt pretty stupid when I realized I shouldn’t have left the eye cup at home. I felt just as stupid when I realized that I'd forgotten more than once to switch on the internal battery powered NTG4+ instead of just relying on phantom power (though to be fair, I thought it was a rather clever way of extending the life of the one battery that came with the loaner).
Still, I love the final video (I should add that the original footage is of course much sharper and artifact-free).
At 1 minute and 44 seconds long, it was edited together from over 200 clips shot across at least four cameras by three shooters on two different occasions. Virtually all of the B-roll -- about twenty seconds' worth -- came from my FS5, with another two seconds or so from the a6300. The cameras' footage blended seamlessly.
But writing that I still have much to learn or that the FS5 performed beautifully is not the same thing as writing that the FS5 is perfect.
Nits (Not the Brightness Kind - Mostly)
The FS5's grip is an evolution of the grip on the FS7, and it is an improvement. It was much easier for me to alter the angle of the grip on the FS5 in the midst of shooting with the relocated and angled grip release button.
But Sony still has a way to go before everything falls to hand. The buttons and grip angles for one's fingers just aren't quite right. Biggest culprit ? The record button itself.
Next: I had to jury-rig a spacer so that the RØDE NTG4+ would fit properly inside the mic clamp attached to the handle (amazing what a few thick rubber bands and a piece of tape will do, but still, note to Sony: how about a couple of different thickness mic sleeves as part of the kit, or better yet making the mic clamp more adjustable?)
Futzing with the eyepiece once I returned home, I have to write that with my big nose, light still would have leaked in from the side closest to my it. Do any of you have a solution for that, short of cosmetic surgery for me? Now that we have HDR monitors with 1500 nits of brightness, how about upgrading the small LCD panel?
On the other hand, I loved the variable angle viewfinder itself. Not as nice as what are on the hybrid cameras, but the fact that it can be tilted? In my book, every one of Sony's cameras should be able to do this.
While the a6300 snapped to focus every time, the FS5 did hunt on multiple occasions, leading me to switch to manual (good thing the FS5 has focus peaking and auto-magnification). Then again, the a6300 had the advantage of operating with a much wider, brighter lens.
I didn't expect a different outcome.
What I'm not going to complain about (much) are the buttons on the side of the camera body. Yes, I think Sony can and should do much better. But with this written, I have to acknowledge the fact that I felt emboldened to go out and shoot with so little hands-on practice -- and came back with the footage. This is an implicit recognition that those button shapes and location are serviceable. With practice, I suspect they'd be fine.
I wish I'd had a bigger battery (they are available): the smaller one that came with it had me sweating a couple of hours in. But compared to the Pez batteries of the a6300, a7S II and a7R II? Revelatory.
You Know How I Say "Yeah, It's About the Gear, But It's Not About the Gear?
You know what was most important of all?
He was fantastic.
Pricing and Value
The essence of what I concluded in my Goldilocks review a few months ago is that each camera -- the FS5, the a7R II, a7S II, a6300, the FS7 -- has a role to play, but as one moves from the lowest priced a6300 to the highest priced FS7, the relative cost per unit of incremental functionality rises.
Put differently: the higher up you go, the less you get for your last dollar.
Which is true of most things, from guitars to luxury SUVs and more.
But here’s the difference after shooting this event, at least for me: maybe I got it wrong.
Or at least only partially right.
Because when you’re shooting at times like this, the value of peace of mind borders on the incalculable.
The FS5, in this instance, was incredible.
"Yeah, yeah," you might be complaining, "but the FS5 got away cheap - you didn't shoot 4k."
Nope, I didn't. I didn't need it and the editor didn't want it. Still, you'd have a point: as I wrote above, the FS5 only offers 8-bit 4:2:0 4K with XAVC-L, not -I. This is little different from the a7X II twins (and the a6300, for that matter) primarily in the fact that while theoretically superior to XAVC-S (both are long GOP, but the higher bit rate of -L might lead to fewer artifacts), that higher bit rate will be tougher for your machine during edit.
Then again, even the a7X II twins and the a6300 had the same codec, only the FS5 has active onboard cooling (i.e., a fan) and no 30 minute limitation.
And with Sony's announcement of a $500 ($600?) firmware upgrade for the FS5 allowing 12-bit RAW out via SDI, well -- we have to play with that ASAP, don't we? That's coming up soon.
So are low light tests, rolling shutter tests, and a comparison of wireless controller apps.
I also have a Sony RX10 III, a Cinegears wireless follow focus controller, and a CAME-TV Argo 3-axis gimbal in the house; a Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 on the way; Blackmagic goodies in the queue -- and that's just the beginning.
*for a nice explanation of the three XAVC variants, see this video by ProAV
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