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Sony F3 / Cinedeck Extreme / Zeiss Compact Primes Review: Part 1 of 3

In Equipment and Technique on July 21, 2011 at 11:27 pm
Recently I had the good fortune to shoot on the new Sony F3 accessorized by the Cinedeck Extreme external recorder and a set of the Zeiss Compact Primes.  This post is a review of the F3 from an operational, ergonomic and economic point of view.  I will be reviewing the Cinedeck Extreme and Compact Primes in subsequent posts.
Thanks very much to the kind folks at Genesis Matrixfor their help and support in supplying the camera equipment for our shoot.On a general level I was happy shooting with the F3.  It is a good size, light, and seems quite stable and reliable.  It is small enough to fit into some tight corners, but not so small it is difficult to maneuver when operating.  The battery life was very good, and we didn’t experience any technical glitches with the camera.  Ergonomically it is acceptable.  The image quality is very good.  It doesn’t seem to suffer the same disastrous aliasing problems of the DSLRs and the rolling shutter effect is minimal.  My one quibble is with the eyepiece.  The built-in view screen that flips out of the left side of the camera, much as one might expect from any of the recent Sony cameras, is quite good.  It is bright, sharp and a good size, but the built-in viewfinder is not nearly as helpful.  It is mounted at the back of the camera also as one would expect on a video camera, which makes it tough to use when the camera is backed into a corner, low to the ground or high in the air.  It would be better to have a separate view finder on a telescoping arm that one could position in a variety of locations and positions.  If you, the reader, have a recommendation please let me know.

The camera is natively 800 ISO, and exhibits low noise at 1600 ISO.  There is some noise at the camera’s max 3200 ISO, but it is quite low and generally acceptable in a low light situation (though that would have to be a really low light situation!).  1080 is the camera’s max resolution, and above 30fps the resolution drops to 720P with the frame rate maxing out at 60FPS.

Existentially, the Sony F3 is an interesting animal.  Not entirely video camera, nor cine-style digital camera, it occupies a liminal position.  I think that Canon, with the release of the 5D Mark II and subsequent DSLR cameras, has forced other manufactures like Sony and Panasonic to respond with a series of cameras that compete in terms of sensor size, but that up the ante in their image quality and ease of use in a production environment.  This puts Sony in a somewhat awkward position because to produce a good quality camera with a larger sensor size like the F3 creates competition for both of Sony’s lines of pro-sumer smaller chipped cameras in the $5000 price range, and the F35 (though the F35 will soon be replaced by the F65, which is a different animal entirely), Sony’s professional level digital cine camera.  The main competition for this camera will come from the Red Epic or Scarlet (when or if they’re ever released) and any new DSLR cameras that come out in the near future.  This is where the pricing and functionality of the F3 comes into play.  The camera sells for about $14,000 (body only) last time I checked.  Where that the price of the complete package I’d say that it is a great deal, but Sony has effectively forced the filmmaker looking for professional quality into a compromised position of needing to upgrade the camera and record to an external recorder in order to achieve the highest image quality.

I’ll explain; the F3 comes with a similar set of gamma curves and colour matrix settings as one would find on the EX3.  Sony has also included the option to purchase an S-Log upgrade, Sony’s professional gamma curve designed to allow the camera to output the greatest dynamic range possible with the current sensor, as an add-on.  The stock settings built-in don’t get the job done for a camera of this type.  If you’re thinking of spending $14,000 on a camera with a large sensor you’re not looking to make family movies at the beach.  You may be looking to fold it into a wedding video business, but it is a little physically large for that endevour, I imagine.  Really, if you’re looking at this camera you’re likely looking at it for use in a narrative film production environment, on indie films or as a crash camera or back-up body on a show shooting with the F35.  In any of these cases, speaking as a DoP, one is looking to capture the best image possible, which requires the S-Log upgrade.  Now, the upgrade costs a whopping $3,300!  $3,300 for a minor firmware upgrade.  Sounds extreme, I know, but it is a necessary upgrade which extends the usefulness of the camera and increases the quality substantially.  So, keep that calculator close by:  $14,000 + $3,300 = $17,300.

Functionally, the camera is very much like using a beefy EX3.  Similar buttons arrangement and menu structure.  It is unlike any sort of film camera.  There is a tendency with video cameras to pack in as many features as possible.  I tend to dislike all of the options.  The more film-like and simple the camera the easier it is to operate and the lower the chance of making an error by either hitting a button (turning the shutter on/off or hitting the gain toggle switch is a common problem with all video cameras) or missing a menu setting.  When you’re shooting S-Log several of the regularly adjustable settings are greyed out, meaning the camera get’s simpler.  Simple = good.OK, so let’s say you actually want to record some footage with the camera.  Internally, the camera uses a long GOP XDCam codec at a max. of 35mb/sec, or thereabouts.  What this means is that the images you’re recording in camera are quite compressed, and generally unacceptable for VFX work (i.e. pulling a matte from a green screen shot is difficult due to artifacts, etc.), and the images won’t hold up as well in colour timing, especially if you are recording S-Log.  By not including a better quality native recording mechanism Sony has essentially forced the consumer to purchase an external recorder of some sort.  Why?  I’m sure cost is a big part of the reason.  To include a high quality recorder in the camera would increase the cost substantially, and this doesn’t seem like the direction Sony wants to go with this camera.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  There is a high quality 4:4:4 uncompressed image signal coming out of the back of the camera, and the consumer gets to decide how to record it.  These days there are various options; different recorders that are capable of recording in a myriad of codecs and compression settings.  The option to choose is great, and I think reflects how cameras will continue to evolve.  I imagine that as digital cinema matures, and the technology reaches such a high level of quality that improvements are in small steps instead of great leaps (which may be happening with the Alexa, Epic, and F65) the camera bodies will remain the same, and  we will swap components out individually.  Sensor chips will/are being designed to be swapped out, as will the camera’s processors.  We will record on some sort of external device or accessory that mounts on the camera.  I think it is useful to consider the interior of the camera like a desktop computer.  Open the side of the desktop tower and you have access to the interior components.  Want more memory, add some.  Need to import or export high quality video, upgrade the video card.  Cameras will be the same, sold in components rather than all-in-one packages.  This will allow for many configurations and for the consumer to customize and upgrade the components they feel necessary.  So, I certainly support Sony’s decision to not include a built-in high quality recording device, but the consumer must be aware that he/she will need to spend some additional money on such a recorder.  They can cost anywhere from $1000 and up.  The one we were using, the Cinedeck Extreme is about $9,000. $17,300 + $9,000 = $26,300.

So, in the end you’ve got a $20,000 – $26,000 capital expense if you want to capture the camera’s highest quality image.

My conclusions:  The camera is good, solid, and reasonably easy to use, especially if you’re familiar with Sony’s menu layout.  If you are looking to produce HD content at 1080P and don’t need slow motion or higher resolutions you may have found the perfect camera at a reasonable cost.  My concern is the price is too high for many consumers – too high to compete for the pro-sumer market, and too high (once  the consumer factors the S-Log and external recorder options in) to entice the consumer interested in an Epic camera, which has much better high speed and image resolution capabilities, to take a cut in features for a less expensive camera.  This is the ‘in between’ zone Sony’s trying to occupy, and I’m not convinced there is a large enough market there.  Would I buy one.  Not currently.  I can’t justify the $26,000 expense when there are other/better options available for in the same price ballpark.  Flexibility is too important.  Would I recommend it for rental on another show.  Absolutely.  I enjoyed shooting with it look forward to shooting with it again when the conditions warrant.

Questions and comments are more than welcome.

My next post will review the Cinedeck Extreme external recorder.

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Summer 2011 Update

In Updates on July 14, 2011 at 12:45 am

I have just posted my Summer 2011 DoP Update.  Please take a moment to view it here.  Or, simply visit my website to see what’s new.