Crooked Path Films’ Online Guide to the Sony NEX-FS100

 A Little Background…

As a DSLR user and author of the Online Guide to 5dMkII Cinematography, I’ve been waiting for video camera companies to adopt the large sensor and interchangeable lens into a fully functional cinema camera based on the overwhelming popularity of  DSLRs.  I went to NAB and spent hours researching the large sensor cameras. The things I was looking for are in a camera: 1) The detail, resolution, and “look” as good or better than a 5dMkII, 2) Can it match or outperform the 5d’s low light capability? 3) Can I shoot in a flatter profile to maximize grading? 4) Does it record to a decent codec and/or offer uncompressed output? 4) is it under my kit camera limit of $10k? (Anything more and I will rent, not buy)

That leaves the Panasonic AF100 and the brand new Sony FS100 as my options. I walked up to the Panasonic booth first and checked out the AF100. It has some nice features…but failed on 1 and 2 immediately. I was astonished how noisy this camera is AND how easily the highlights clipped. Looks a little soft and reminded me of the uprezzed look that my HVX200 had. I moved onto the Sony booth.

The Wow Factor…

After attending the Sony F3/FS100 seminar by Doug Jensen of Vortex Media and talking with him in depth at the FS100 display…I came to realize that this camera was something special, and I was at “confidence high” in terms of finding my next camera. It passed all my tests, and also gave me a few WOW moments. Here’s what’s awesome about the FS100:

  1. Low Light Capability. At NAB they have brightly lit “sets” with all their camera offerings pointed at it. Doug turned the camera around and pointed it at areas of the Sony booth that I would say represented near candlelight exposure. This camera not only resolved these areas set to +32db gain (16,000 ISO equivalent), but with remarkably low noise. If that wasn’t wow enough…I noted how great the little noise looked. It looked grainy and organic…not patterned and videoey.
  2. The Sensor. Canon DSLRs are famous for having a very cinematic look. I don’t want to get a camera that looks like video…I want to retain this filmic look. The FS100’s sensor is the exact same sensor as in the $14k Sony Cinealta F3. It is an advanced sensor made for cinematic uses. The FS100 not only had better resolution than the 5d, it seemed to retain the colors and contrast falloff that I want in a camera.
  3. Overcranking. It’s surprising to me that this camera has features that the F3 does not. One of them that made my eyes widen was the ability to overcrank to 60 frames per second at FULL 1080P. Most cameras drop to 720p (like the F3) or revert to interlaced frames to be able to do this.
  4. Uncompressed 4:4:4 HDMI Output. That’s right. This camera does what no other camera on the market does, full uncompressed 4:4:4 colorspace via the HDMI output. As of the date of this post…there is not currently an HDMI recorder that can record 4:4:4 (only 4:2:2). But I’m sure that will change within a couple months. This camera does NOT have HDSDI outputs.
  5. Small Form Factor. The camera does not look like a video camera. That’s a good thing. It is setup as a prosumer cinema camera. It comes with top and side mounted handles and has the ablity to take on rod systems with follow focus and mattebox. BUT…all that stuff can be stripped off (including the supplied handles) turning it into the size of two 7d’s stuck together.

Setting Up the Camera…

So I pre-bought the camera to ensure I got it immediately after release. Couldn’t be happier. Here are some tips to make it easier to setup your FS100.

Picture Styles

I did many tests on various settings in the picture profiles. I used scopes to determine latitude and adjusted the knee and black levels to optimize for post color grading. I also based these off this PDF file that explains all the settings and what exactly they do to the gamma curve. (Granted it’s for another NEX camera…but it’s a great guide nonetheless as I’m sure Sony hasn’t made any alterations to these settings for the FS100) This video from Abel Cine is also very useful:

From all this information and testing I came up with a great picture profile that is optimized for grading.  If you are wanting to match this camera to a Canon DSLR “B” camera, this profile closely matches the Technicolor “Cine Style” picture style for Canon cameras.

Black Level: +8
Gamma: Standard
Black Gamma: Middle, +7
Knee: Manual, 85%, 0 slope
Color Mode: Cinematone 1
Color Level: 0
Color Phase: 0
Color Depth: All 0

NOTE: This profile is not intended for a “look” right out of the camera, but rather the best latitude for post grading optimization.

Lens Adapters

The FS100 uses Sony’s E Mount which has an extremely short flange distance (18mm from sensor to back element of the lens), the E Mount is well suited for adaption to just about ANY other lens.  There are many “dumb” adapters available that do not allow for lens iris control via the camera.  Many Canon DSLR users want to be able to control their EF lenses, however only “dumb” adapters exist for this combination until Birger releases their EOS adapter.  Lenses like the Canon FD series will make a comeback because they can be used with the appropriate adapter, there are many available on sites like Ebay, and they are reasonably priced because of their near obsolescence.  PL lenses can be used with this adapter from Hot Rod.

NOTE:  With a dumb adapter you need to be sure the corresponding lens has full manual capability.  For example, the iris on my 17-35mm Canon is NOT manual, therefore if I use it on the FS100, the iris is locked open with no way to close it.  My Leica R-series lenses are perfect, as they have full manual control.

SD Cards

The manual recommends a Class 10 card or better. I ordered 4 eight gig cards here and so far they’ve been great. I don’t recommend using the proprietary Sony Memory Sticks. I also got one of these cases to keep them safe and sound. Warning: There are reports that SANDISK brand sd cards will create a small beep on recorded audio in one-second intervals.

Batteries

The camera comes with one Sony NP-770.  These batteries are great because compared to a DSLR, they last more than a few hours.  If you don’t want to spend a ton of dough, you can get this generic brand that work just fine.  You can also get larger capacity versions that last alot longer.  BEWARE the knock-offs from Ebay, alot of the L series Sony generic brands from here have had a history of being faulty.

Design

Sony changed up the typical handycam shape and made this into a box.  Literally.  There is a detachable handgrip that comes with the camera that you fix onto the right side, but I always hated velcro straps on cameras and never use them anyway…so mine is detached and in a box somewhere.  Sony instead designed this as a modular camera…made for the typical rod-system support.  This is the way to go with this camera.  Rods, follow focus, mattebox, and handles at the very least.  The modular film-camera ideology Sony seems to be pushing this camera toward is also evident in the numerous 1/4″ female screws all over the place.  This is awesome for additional monitors and other accessories.  They also left out a popular video-camera feature, internal ND filters, which is also what is lacking in a higher end cinema camera like a RED or Alexa.  They are pushing this as a digital cinema camera, not a video camera.

There isn’t a traditional viewfinder, instead a loupe attached to the LCD screen located at the top.  A separate monitor is still recommended as it’s impossible to use this if the camera is higher than the operator.  But otherwise the monitor is awesome…and it’s touchscreen too.

Accessories

Oh my oh my there are a TON of accessories you can get for this camera, made available in plethora thanks to the the DSLR revolution.  Rod systems, follow focuses, matteboxes, monitors, etc. etc.  They certainly aren’t hard to find.  I recommend at the very least, the rod support, follow focus, handlegrips, and mattebox.  Because of the 500 minumim ISO that the camera shoots in, you’ll need Neutral Density filters otherwise you WILL NOT be able to take advantage of shallow depth of field in bright sunshine.  I got 1.8 and 0.9 filters…which is a great start.  (The rule is, divide this number by 0.3 and you’ll get the number of stops it will drop the exposure)

I recommend Zacuto brand stuff for the most part.  Seems to be the best quality and they have a lifetime guarantee on their stuff.  Redrock makes good stuff too…and their mattebox is the best around without spending a small fortune.  Cheaper places like Cine City (India) make this stuff too but it’s pretty flimsy.  I’ve purchased stuff from them before and some stuff is pretty solid while others is a waste of money.  Your mileage may vary.  There’s a bunch more places, just do your research and you’ll find what works best for your budget.

Media Files / Codec

AVCHD was created by Sony and Panasonic based of the popular H.264 codec.  The codec is a more efficient way of encoding than, say, a Canon DSLR…and is therefore better for video use.  The files are much smaller than a Canon file and the encoding writes more information.  The codec definitely holds up better in post production.  We are limited in the amount we can push contrast in post with an 8-bit codec such as this, but it can handle grading fantastically.  Smooth gradients, low noise (also thanks to the sensor), less artifacting, and maintains sharpness.  I’ve used XDcam and DVCpro for several years and I’m actually impressed with AVCHD.

One thing to note, however, is that post work with this codec is very graphics intensive.  Your system is going to work HARD to edit and especially color these files.  If you don’t have a fast system and end up having some trouble with these files, you may be better off converting to Cineform (for PC users) or Quicktime (MAC).  Of course if you use Final Cut Pro 7 and below, you transcode to a different codec right from the start, so you’re all set.  Premiere CS5 users: The AVCHD codec may have some stuttering occur if your resolution is set to anything LESS than full.  Seems contrary to what you might think, but full resolution playback solves the problem.  If you upgrade to CS5.5, however, they made improvements in the way the software handles AVCHD so you’ll be in the clear.

ISO / Color Temp

If you want to set the white balance like any other video camera, you can certainly do this.  But the camera also has a color temperature adjustment if you prefer to do it this way.  The camera does not have an ISO setting, but rather a GAIN setting.  If you are like me and prefer to go off ISO, here’s a simple conversion list:

Gain db Level ISO Rating
0 db 500 ISO
+3 db 800 ISO
+6 db 1000 ISO
+9 db 1600 ISO
+12 db 2000 ISO
+15 db 3200 ISO
+18 db 4000 ISO
+21 db 6400 ISO
+24 db 8000 ISO
+27 db 12800 ISO
+30 db 16000 ISO

I am ABSOLUTELY IMPRESSED with this camera’s ability to shoot at the crazy level of 16000 ISO (+30db).  Though anything above 4000 ISO seems to be a little too noisy, the fact that I can even go that high is unbelievable.  Another thing about the noise from someone who’s used to the Canon DSLR’s weird grid-patterned noise, is that the FS100’s noise looks decent, almost like grain.  If I had to see a little bit of noise it’s wouldn’t really bug me all that much like the Canons did.

Audio

As a DSLR user, I’m glad to have this back.  I’m used to using dual sound and then using Dual Eyes to sync in post, but it’s nice to have this option back.  The FS100 does NOT have an internal mic, you need to plug in the XLR mic that came with the camera or one of your own.  When you DO use a dual system with the FS100, I recommend you still take advantage of having XLR inputs and send an audio feed from your sound engineer/boom op to the input on the camera.  No need to level it and all that as Dual Eyes just uses it as a reference to sync with the REAL sound recorded by your pro on set.  Dual Eyes is a MUST if you’re using a sync sound system.

External Recorders

The FS100 sends out a 4:4:4 or 4:2:2 8-bit video signal out the HDMI.  This allows for uncompressed capture of the video.  There is alot of debate going around whether it’s really much of a difference recording uncompressed versus to the compressed AVCHD codec.  I personally think that if you don’t plan on grading or keying very much then recording  to AVCHD is perfectly fine.  As soon as you start grading and keying the material, uncompressed will likely not result in the unwanted enhancement of compression artifacts that may pop up.  In my tests the AVCHD codec actually holds up nicely in post grading…surprisingly so.  Your mileage may vary.  Currently there aren’t any HDMI recorders capable of recording 4:4:4, but here’s some recorders that you may be interested in that record 4:2:2.

    1. Atomos Ninja Accepts HDMI and records to Apple ProRes. A 4.3″ touch screen, simple user interface, and is powered by the same Sony “L” batteries as the FS100.  $1000
    2. Ki Pro Mini: Accepts HD-SDI and HDMI inputs and records in Apple ProRes.  $2000
    3. Convergent Design nanoFlash: Accepts HD-SDI, SDI and HDMI inputs and records in MPEG2.  $3000 (bundle)

Resources

Sony’s NEX-FS100 Manual

The Complete SONY Seminar from NAB (A MUST watch if you are buying this camera!  I attending this seminar and it helped push me closer to owning the FS100)

Cinema5d FS100/Large Sensor Camera Forum

DVXuser FS100 Forum

Crooked Path Films Facebook Group

As always, questions/comments are welcome!  If you have any useful information that you would like to contribute to this guide, please comment.  This guide will continue to grow as more accessories, online literature, improvements, and testing becomes available.  Thanks for reading!

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