The Evolution of a NonFiction Workhorse
In a crowded field of umpteen large-format camcorders, Sony’s 4K PXW-FS7 has emerged in the last few years as a very popular choice for a wide range of non-theatrical programs. From weddings and corporate fare to run-and-gun documentaries and reality TV, the FS7 has more than proved its mettle as a rugged, high-performance middle-market workhorse.
That’s not to say the FS7 can do everything for everyone. The lack of timecode input capability makes the camera unnecessarily awkward to work with in multi-camera applications. Frustrating omissions in the feature set, like the lack of external headphone level control, also limit the camcorder’s usefulness across a range of programming.
In its latest incarnation, the FS7 II sports notable new features that are mostly operational in nature. The electronic variable neutral density (VND) filter is a significant enhancement that allows shooters to maintain a constant exposure (within limits) at their preferred working f-stop. For interiors and close ups like talking-head interviews, controlling exposure via the VND can provide some aesthetic and practical advantages. Many shooters, including myself, prefer working at a constant stop whenever possible. I know that f2.8 works well for most interiors, as it offers a useful and flattering depth of field. At the same time, it exploits a shared tendency among lenses to exhibit their maximum sharpness and contrast, free of distortion and chromatic aberrations, at f2.8, the equivalent of one stop down from wide open in many pro-level prime lenses fitted to S35mm camcorders.
The technology used in Sony’s VND light-extinguishing valve is still in its infancy, however, and doesn’t quite achieve the degree of attenuation required in bright daylight conditions. Thus we still need the camera’s built-in optical presets (or supplemental ND glass filters) for practical shooting out of doors, at slow shutter speeds or frame rates, and for time-lapse, given the relatively high (ISO 2000) sensitivity of the FS7.
Of course my one-stop-down f2.8 proviso does not apply to Sony’s latest G-type package zooms with a maximum aperture of f4. While some shooters will regard the f4 stop as potentially problematic in low light, the modest f4 speed is maintained with no significant loss of contrast and sharpness throughout the zoom range, a remarkable achievement in what are, after all, very economical lenses. Suffice it to say, given the FS7 II’s high working ISO and noise-free gain up to +9dB, the practical impact of the f4 optics is mitigated by the 2.5 stops of additional exposure.
Sony’s 28–135mm and 18–110mm servo zooms will appeal mostly to nonfiction and documentary shooters, for whom the f4 maximum aperture is less of an issue. Indeed, the narrower stop can actually prove helpful in run-and-gun documentaries and reality TV, where the extra depth of field is welcomed by harried operators who struggle to maintain critical focus in a large-format 4K camcorder.
The Sony zooms also feature an E-mount configuration designed from the outset for professional video. The E mount is inherently more rugged than the EF-type, which, owing to its vintage still-camera roots, is prone to developing slight mechanical play during rough-and-tumble use.
Improving upon the basic E mount found in the original FS7 model, the FS7 II now features a more rugged implementation with a secure rotating and locking collar. While the new version E mount is certainly more robust, the practical act of securing of the lens to the camera body, in my experience, is not intuitive and prone to fumbling.
The FS7 II also features the ability to record ITU-R BT.2020. Contrary to the popular hype, the revolution in camcorders and broadcast is not 4K (or 8K) but HDR. In this regard, the FS7 II will no doubt find many applications going forward in broadcast and cable documentaries, owing to its ability to record in log and capture images in the expanded (BT-2020) color space. The camera lacks, however, a Hyper Log Gamma (HLG) recording/output option — a drawback, perhaps, for broadcasters who increasingly require HLG for compatibility with the millions of legacy SDR TVs still in use. No doubt a future version of the FS7 will include an HLG recording/output option. Let’s hope so.
For some reason, ergonomics has been a challenge for manufacturers coming to grips (so to speak) with middle-market camcorders. Thinking about Sony specifically, one has just to look at the devilishly lop-sided EX1 or the unwieldy FS700 square box.
To its credit, the FS7, in its latest incarnation, has significantly improved handling and operational characteristics. The FS7 II offers a range of enhancements like a pop-up viewfinder hood and a more versatile adjustable arm and grip. Documentary shooters are constantly swinging the camera up and around, up and down, so we need fast and easy repositioning of the camera and finder. The FS7 II provides that enhanced capability, with the camera’s shape, balance, and profile all working together to stay out of the way.
No doubt, the FS7 will continue to dominate the non-fiction and documentary fields for the next few years. There’s a big reason for this, as we shooters demand a practical, no-nonsense workhorse with refinements that reflect the way we really work.