One Year With My Sony FS700
As much as I’d love it to be a true ‘One Year With My FS700’… it’s actually more like 13 months now – but there’s an extra month’s worth of recap in there!
On August 2nd 2012 a large box was delivered to my flat, containing one Sony NEX-FS700E video camera. I’ve always promised myself and various people that I’d do an in-depth review of it, but I’ve failed to find the time to give an accurate account of it’s features & my experience using it. I’ve spent the past
year 13 months predominantly shooting tour documentaries with bands, with a few other event/festival/corporates projects of my own and a number of days as camera op/DOP thrown in too. So what better time to look back than now…
The first photo I uploaded online after receiving the camera.
To give a bit of background, I started shooting video in early 2010 on a Nikon D5000 with old M42 mount prime lenses. Later that year I moved to a 7D after shooting this on a rented body. That video has over 1 million views across the web now which is pretty mental!
At the time £1000 was a lot for me to spend on a camera body. Would it bring any work? Would I earn the cost back? These and many other questions frequented my mind like I’m sure they (should!) do many other aspiring film-makers.
I shot 95% of my projects on that very camera for the following 2 years aside from rented or borrowed 5D’s for a couple of music video shoots. I did a lot of tour documentary work for While She Sleeps, Architects & Your Demise through the early part of 2012 solely on the 7D – I should have had a second body but I didn’t, and it never failed me once. That camera did me very well and I must have shot hundreds upon hundreds of hours on it; it facilitated me travelling around Europe multiple times, meeting some amazing people and really kickstarted my desire for a longer-term video career. I can categorically say it was the best £1000 I’ve ever spent!
7D on the Glidecam, shooting Your Demise UK/Euro Tour – Leeds, May 2012
Fast forward to 2012… 2 summers later I’ve become a bit of a camera geek, obsessed with reading blogs & watching reviews and following all these big & cool filmmakers online. I’ve come so close to buying a 5D2 on multiple occasions, but moreso because I felt I should upgrade, a pressure I’m sure is felt by many – but not because I actually needed too. Through my reading I became aware of a new Sony camera called the ‘NEX-FS700’. I watch news of it trickle in through the blogs, word of ‘4K ready… super slow motion…’ wetting my appetite, eagerly watching Philip Bloom’s FS700 review and his ‘Brighton 240’ short.
I was hooked. The 5D2 upgrade path never had enough incentive for me. Yes – full frame, yes – image quality, but it didn’t warrant the money in my book. 5D3 looked great, but it’s £3000, I rented it and didn’t love it. Everything still looked ‘DSLR’. It shot the same frame rates as my 7D. It was nice but I wanted to take a bigger step up. Earlier that year I’d decided to no longer consider doing stills and focus 100% on video, with most of my work being live music the low light capability from the FS100 made perfect sense, coupled with the FS700 slow motion in these high-energy environments made it very attractive. ‘4K ready’ made sense for the years to come. The price made me go holy shit… but everything else made sense. I eventually got over that holy shit and through some saving & cost-cutting made it a possibility.
Spending that kind of money on one bit of kit is a big thing. I’ve always been relatively ‘frugal’ with gear. I won’t buy a £1500 shoulder support when I know I can get £150 eBay chinese option that will do enough of a good job for the hours I might use it. I know I should spend more on the higher quality product but it’s all relevant – I very much appreciate good quality gear, but dependant on budget and what/how often you use it for, the top-spec stuff doesn’t always make sense. No point spending £1000+ on a rig straight off if you’re shooting style doesn’t suit it. In addition, the music industry has suffered in the past years for video budgets so many of us working in it are using relatively basic DSLR rigs for most jobs, and doing a great job with them.
The real joy in buying the FS700 was unlocking creative limitations. I was fed up of having my ideas constricted by my equipment – mid-way through a treatment I’d hit the deliberation that we needed better low-light, 1080/50p, super slow motion. I was fed up of trying to EQ poor DSLR audio for tour documentaries. Working as a director/dop/producer/editor (and whilst many of those roles are glorified in smaller projects) the fact was I spent alot of time worrying about how to get hold of gear, borrowing, renting, credit card deposits and such. It’s all a bit of a nightmare and my time could be spent better shooting or editing. Many industry folk say “I’d never buy a camera, only ever rent” but for nearly all my projects owning is really the only option.
Just as important than all those technical specs & camera geekery was the investment in equipment and what this meant for my business, rates and clients. I’ll come to this later on.
I originally pre-ordered the FS700E body only + Metabones EF > E (more on this later) from CVP in the UK. Due to high demand & continually delayed shipping I had to look elsewhere. I think original delivery was supposed to be end of June, but by early August I took things into my own hands and managed to find one at WTS Broadcast in London. I had various projects over the summer I hoped/expected to shoot on FS700 and had to go DSLR instead as I couldn’t even nail down renting one. They were pretty hard to come-by around the time of release – not BMCC hard, but relatively tricky!
Looking back, it was really crucial that I put those issues to one side and got on with the summer projects in question – I had to get quite a nudge from some friends to stop worrying about my delivery date and concentrate on the project details. I’ve seen others do the same waiting for new cameras, thinking ‘I’ll just wait until my new camera arrives’ or ‘I’ll shoot that when I get my new lens’… Truth of the matter is we’ll always tell ourselves we can shoot something better with more equipment, if it’s ordered or just fantasy. Could you shoot a great short if you had a RED Dragon & set of Cinema Primes? How would it be different than shooting it with your 5D? Visually it might be better, but there’s many other aspects to not lose sight of.
I learnt it’s important to draw your head away from that frame of thinking and concentrate on the project in hand & your client, who probably doesn’t care which camera you want – they just want their video!
Anyway, the camera arrived the day before I was due to shoot Belladrum Festival – but what hit me straight away was how the hell do I use this thing!?. I’d always shot on DSLR and never really operated a ‘proper’ videocamera so all was new to me. An afternoon of pressing buttons and flicking through the manual got me off to a basic start. I shot some classic girlfriend “hey would you mind doing this?” slow motion test footage the first day and got to grips with the basics of the camera.
Evidently content shootng my first job with it…
Let’s skip a few months, At the start of September I left for the Architects’ World Tour and shot all day, every day for almost 3 months. There really is no better learning experience or tutorial than being forced to shoot on the job, in difficult scenarios 7 days a week. Often people ask me how they can improve at shooting, technique and such – the simple answer is to just do it every day – for pleasure, practice or commercially and learn from your mistakes & successes.
By the end of 2012 I felt I had a pretty good hold of operating the FS’ – I’d shot across Asia, Australia & Europe in vastly different scenarios. I’d probably got the camera hotter & sweatier than it should have done on occaasion, it took a few knocks & scuffs along the way but the main thing for me is I was using it as it deserved; not babying it, but it was under my arm (more on that later!) 18 hours a day.
The Great Wall Of China
Architects live in Australia
So, somewhat of a review…
THE GOOD BITS
It’s a videocamera!!
First off, it has all these cool things that videocameras do, that if you’ve only shot with DSLRs will excite you massively. 2 XLR inputs & a decent pre-amp! Being able to shoot an interview with 2 mic’s on 2 channels and getting the best quality without an external audio recorder is great, and how cameras should be.
Record Times: I’ve shot test clips upwards of 3+ hrs without any complaints from the FS. Very annoying to shoot on my 7D with file length limits & overheating issues.
AUTO Mode: I admit, sometimes I flick it to auto. It shoots smooth, useable transitions from dark indoor scenes > bright outdoor using auto ISO/shutter. Not ideal but it’s better than clicking down that shutter wheel on a DSLR.
Built in ND’s: Any lens, wide aperture in daylight, choice of 3x ND. I massively miss the ND’s shooting on other DSLRs now but when almost every lens I own has a differ filter size, buying variable ND’s for each is not top of my list of things to do.
Image Quality: At standard frame rates I’ve found the image quality to be much superior to any (regular resolution) DLSR, inlcuding 5D3. There’s much less aliasing and moire, still a bit of rolling shutter standard with today’s CMOS sensors. Everytime I cut it next to DSLR footage I feel like I’m working with a much superior product.
It does have a bit of a digital look but I’m very happy with the footage I get from it. Low-light is good, not as good as the 5D3 though, hopefully we’ll see an improvement to that with the new firmware (more on that later) – it’s junior the FS100 is actually better in low light due to it’s native 1080p sensor, rather than the FS700’s 4k… more pixels = more noise in this case.
E-Mount + Metabones
The exceptionally short flange distance of the E-Mount mean it’s possible to fit pretty much any lens from any manufacture out there to the FS700 with an adapter. Not only could I use all my existing Canon glass, but the door was open to pretty much any new or vintage glass paired on adapters. This is great as very low cost (~£10) ‘dumb’ adapters are available online to fix vintage glass to the E-mount. The ‘smart’ adapters – those with electronics to control the iris/support IS of modern Canon glass are much more expensive, but worth the money in my opinion. There’s some ok Sony glass out there but the Canon L optics really are some of the best of the bunch in terms of affordable low aperture zooms with IS.
What made this whole system even more exciting was the introduction of the Metabones Speedbooster – a Canon EOS > Sony E mount with additional optical element, widening the field of view & adding an extra F stop. This essentially doubled my lens collection, and that extra F stop per lens easily warrants the $600 price tag. As camera nerds we live in a really exciting age that there are companies like Metabones in existent, hugely widening our creative options, thankyou Metabones! Sony actually ran a promotion this summer to include a free standard Metabones adapter with purchase of an FS100/FS700, good to see them supporting 3rd party accessories in this way.
The FS700 (as you’re probably aware) shoots great quality 240fps – even in low(ish) light. It shoots good quality 480fps with the right ingredients – lots of light, a simple image & clean non-textured background. All in a package no bigger than a standard videocamera body, operable easily by a single person. This is what really makes me love it, operating almost always a single person camera crew.
While She Sleeps 2013 Promo
My favourite part of the slow motion feature is End Trigger mode. As the camera only shoots bursts of 8/16 seconds (dependant on 120/240/480 fps) slow motion, picking your timing is key. With end trigger mode the camera continually buffers the slowmo footage to it’s internal memory – once you’ve captured the shot, hit the record button and the last 8/16 seconds are written to the card. For documentary work this really is exceptional; when shooting event work & live music I will continually be scanning for that perfect shot or happening, often for up to 5-10 minutes without recording, but as soon as it happens and I’ve captured it to the buffer I can hit the end trigger and write to the card, rather than having to keep cancelling the card write (which takes around 45 seconds) using start trigger mode.
A much less shouted-about feature of the FS700 is it’s Slow & Quick mode, allowing recording from 1fps up to 50fps – but recorded at a standard 25/50fps. What this means is you can shoot timelapse in-camera – 25 seconds of real-time equals one second of recording. What’s also really cool is it allows you to drag the shutter – dialling down to 1/3 shutter speed to really get some nice motion blur/light trails. Here’s a couple of examples I’ve shot:
The day > night stuff needs some post-work as it requires manually stepping down ISO/shutter/ND at intervals – nevertheless the workflow is still much much quicker than shooting photos, and when producing fast-turnaround tour episodes that really matters to me. It’s even better combined with motion, such as a basic motor rail.
Sold yet? I was!
THE OK BITS
Codec & File Management
The AVCHD codec is relatively compressed – it shoots at around 24mbps but by all accounts has decent dynamic range for the spec. I’ve got along with it very well – and for most of my work it’s well suited. I often shoot fast turnaround projects or don’t have the budget for intensive post work and 20x hard drives. RAW is great but in real world shooting is very difficult for single/small person crews. I often shoot for weeks on end with my clients for a single deliverable, not just an hour or 2 in a day such as a corporate/short. I can’t afford to think about file size limits and having to say ‘no’ if I’m asked to shoot something of length – such as 40 minutes of guitar tracking. That’s a lot of GB (and relative storage £!) in RAW.
I love that it shoots to SD cards. They’re cheap & plentiful, and in 13 months I’ve never had a single data corruption/loss. I shoot only to Sandisk Ultra/Extreme cards, and usually run a single 64gb card through a day’s filming. I love that I can put this straight into my Macbook Pro’s built-in SD slot – no cables or card readers necessary.
In an ideal world I would love the files to be 2.5k resolution and a slightly higher bitrate codec, but at the expense of no more than 50% larger file sizes. Hopefully that will come at some point.
Running 2x Lacie 1TB daisychained, velcro’d to my Macbook lid nearer the end of the Architects World Tour
THE BAD BITS
The Hand Grip
It’s not really the handgrip itself I have issues with – I enjoy using it, but it’s connection cable is my least favourite thing about the camera. Sony decided to trail a cable all the way round the body with a tiny 2.5mm LANC phono jack. It’s protruding placement out the back of the camera means it’s quite sensitive to contact, and I’ve damaged a few of them mid-tour.
I’m not sure why Sony didn’t just run a much shorter cable into a socket tucked away near the dovetail plate connecting the grip > camera, but they didn’t.
The first time it got damaged I ended up shipping the part from Sony Professional Australia back to the UK (I was in Aus, but the part wouldn’t arrive in time) – after a few mildy succesfuly mid-tour soldering jobs my solution is this – replacing the 2.5mm right angle input straight off the camera witha straight 3.5mm, which goes into a female 3.5mm end to a right angle 2.5mm into the camera.
These end sections can be gotten incredibly cheaply from eBay and I always keep a couple with the camera meaning if the end gets knocked and broken, it’s a 10 second job to replace it rather than opening up the grip and soldering a new connector. It looks a little bulky but actually the connecting part tucks up neatly above the Flash Memory Unit space (top right of photo).
Standard Microphone & Mount
The standard microphone supplied isn’t anything special. But much worse is the mount supplied with it. I managed to break mine within a month or so. I’m sure many are still running theirs fine, but through touring & travelling in close quarters, it took a few too many knocks and the plastic hot shoe mount snapped. This kind of thing happening mid-tour is incredibly frustrating and I survived with a predominantly duct tape solution for a couple of weeks – lesson learned, always carry spares for anything that could break through wear + tear.
The replacement part is £115 delivered (just for the shoe part!) so instead I opted for the RØDE mount, with either a RØDE NTG-1 or NTG-2 (the same mic, but the ‘2 has an AA battery slot incase you don’t have Phantom power) – the ‘1 sits much nicer atop the camera. In all, it’s just a much better microphone & cradle.
Belladrum Festival – Scotland, August 2013
You Me At Six Album 4 Documentary – Los Angeles, July/August 2013
Build & Ergonomics
Numerous reviews have commented about the camera feeling cheap/plasticky – which to a degree I would agree with. It doesn’t have the feel of a aluminium-bodied pro DSLR or RED body. The buttons don’t feel all that high quality, and have an annoying press sound. All things considered though, I’ve not managed to seriously mark, damage or wear away any of the finish from the camera, I’m impressed at how well it’s stood up to relatively hard work.
As far as ergonomics go, I am actually a big fan of it’s shape & size – I naturally shoot with it similarly to an old TLR, pressed against my chest, one hand on the grip, the other on the lens. I have no desire to shoulder mount it and add an EVF and extra accessories – it just wouldn’t suit how i work. I like to shoot from the chest or lower, not always from eyeline.
Beijing, China – September 2012
Formal Event, Edinburgh – March 2013. I knew I didn’t need any sound in this edit so no RØDE mic, just the standard & some tape for as smaller footprint as possible, sometimes I wish they’d included an internal mic on the cam for these situations where all you need is reference audio.
Pittsburgh, USA – April 2013. Feeling crazy with no handgrip, I’m triggering the backup record button on the camera body with my right hand.
I love how I can slot it quickly onto my Glidecam ready-balanced and shoot, without stripping down any parts of it. Changing setups quickly is really crucial to me – for live shooting I will often change between Glidecam + wide-angle to handheld + 50mm mid-song, so being able to do this in 10-15 seconds is really benefficial to not missing important/impromptu moments of a set.
I get on pretty well with the built-in screen – it’d help if it was bigger but it’s not really possible on the body. It’s placement right on top can be a little annoying sometimes, especially as I’m not particularly tall! But I can deal with it. An additional EVF isn’t really my style and would throw off my on>off Glidecam balance & convenience.
The supplied standard loupe is pretty rubbish and comical in it’s original size. One of the first things I did was shortened it as per James Miller’s instructions – which made it much more user friendly, I’d recommend doing the same to other owners. I got on with it ok although unless I was shooting in bright sunlight or with a long lens (which needed an additional point of contact for stabilisation) I rarely used the thing. With the loupe flipped up it’s awkward in almost every other position than right infront of your eyes on sticks.
Look how long it is… silly really
Earlier this summer in California I picked up a Hoodman from Filmtools LA. There’s much, much more sun out there than the UK so the unshielded screen was a massive issue. Turns out I love using the Hoodman even in lower light – I feel like I’m concentrating more on the image whenever I look down it and for the cost (~$30) I would encourage any other owners to get one for their kit bag.
Oh, one more thing…
When Sony introduced the camera, it was billed as ‘4K Ready’ – with the 4K sensor we would see a 4K output in the near future with a firmware upgrade & external recorder. Anyone from a DSLR background regards an external recorder as something similar to a PIX240 or Samurai, nice and small and easily mountable on-camera. So when Sony showed it’s recorder option for the FS700, a lot of people (including myself) were quite annoyed.
Source: No Film School
In essence, it’s the external recorder from the Sony F5/F55, with an additional interface unit for it to work with the FS700. Did someone say afterthought? It felt like Sony forgot they promised the recorder and put all energies into the F5/F55 development, only remembering at 4:45pm on the Friday afternoon that they needed to cater for all us FS700 customers too.
Luckily, Sony have also been working with Convergent Design to allow their fantastic looking Odyssey 7Q monitor/recorder to work with the FS700. What makes this a much more awesome solution than the official Sony one is it’s…
B) Much smaller
C) Also a great monitor
D) Works with other cameras (Canon, RED, Arri…)
This looks like the upgrade path I will likely take toward the end of this year. As well as allowing 4K, we get RAW and other un-compressed codec options, and much more freedom with slowmotion including RAW 2K 240fps with unlimited record time. Yippee. It feels like it’s taken longer than it should have to come to fruition but I’m very excited to start seeing what this sensor is really capable of.
Before all this can happen the camera body needs to go to Sony for the v3.0 firmware upgrade to allow the 2K/4K recording and interaction with external recorders. At £500 it’s not been my favourite thing to pay for recently, but it comes with the addition of SLOG2, a new picture profile which more-importantly to me makes the high ISO of the camera much more useable, apparently even at 10,000. Really looking forward to testing that when it arrives back.
So that’s it… what I like & what I don’t. I’ve used the camera almost every week – required to shoot, maintain and edit the footage – often every day of the week save for a couple of short breaks I’ve had.
The Great Wall Of China, Architects World Tour – September 2012
Real world alternatives? A few of these are obvious, but here’s a few points why they wouldn’t work for me.
C300 – Great image quality, EOS mount, no real slow-motion facility (720p is a no-go after shooting solely 1080 for the past year!) Decent rent-to-buy option – very popular in that respect. Would still chose it for some projects that it’d suit more than FS700. Great high ISO.
5D3 – Good if you shoot stills commercially and can only stretch to a single body. Really great at high ISO. In every other respect inferior to C-series & FS-series. You’ll spend more money making it shoot video ‘properly’ with audio kit, monitoring, grip & variable ND filters. Buy a second hand C100/FS100 kit instead for cheaper. I won’t comment on similar Nikon DSLRs as I don’t have the knowledge but many of the same DSLR arguments will apply.
BMCC – A very attractive system considering the recently lowered price, with a 2.5k BMCC + Pocket cam coming in under that of a 5D3 body. It wouldn’t suit much of what I’ve been shooting this year down to file sizes & handling that data easily – I wrote a bit about that in my ‘You Me At Six Album 4 Documentary‘ blog but the camera system continues to tempt me. It does however require pretty much a whole new lens + grip (+ probably computer!) system, I really feel like the MFT mount is a more sensible option because of sensor size, rather than the EF as you just lose so much of the projected image and depth of field. I might take the plunge in one later in the year, I have a couple of shorter projects that would suit and for the relative low-cost of body only, it could make sense to buy rather than rent for 2+ weeks.
In conclusion… I love the FS700. I wouldn’t swap it out for anything in the same price-range, and nothing can do what it does in the same package. It suits my deliverables & my clients and that’s what counts at the end of the day. As far as the camera goes, that’s the end of the review, the most important part is next.
BUSINESS AS USUAL?
What buying this camera actually did to me was raise all sorts of questions about my business, my clients and the relative investment in my equipment.
The difficult thing is it’s not just a camera body. Almost every other piece of equipment needs to be upgraded from shooting DSLR. I moved to a Glidecam 4000 from the 2000 because of the extra weight. None of my older, cheaper grip equipment worked properly any more. My DSLR mics didn’t work with the new camera body. Don’t get me wrong; I was happy to be upgrading this equipment to a better standard, but it all came at a cost. The body might by £6k but it becomes a £10k system quite quickly after extra batteries, high capacity cards, lens adapters, audio, grip, accessories. Insurance costs more. You need new bags/peli cases to transport everything. Once you’ve spent so much it’s a shame to scrimp on the finer details.
Before all this, I was shooting quite happily for numerous clients on my 7D. I had no more than £3k in my complete camera kit. Everyone liked my work; commissioners, viewers… No-one asked me to buy a new camera. No-one really questioned the quality of the 7D/5D. I saw faults myself but I never once had a complaint from a client. Of course, they should be the last ones to tell you to upgrade equipment – but looking back I certainly made up my own mind I needed to upgrade.
What this meant is that quite quickly I accumulated much more gear, and I needed to (in-directly) pay for it all. I couldn’t keep charging most clients what I was charging because there was a couple of very expensive peli cases in my flat and I still needed to pay all the necessary overheads I paid before. This is really where it comes down to the crux of being (mostly) a one-person crew and owning your own equipment. So (so, so) much of what I make goes into equipment. What it all comes down to is your C.O.D.B. – read this, it’s important!
Before I bought the FS700 I’d mentioned to some of my clients about it and the things we could do – some were excited, some didn’t care – they were happy with my current product. Did anyone want to pay me any more? Not really. No-one asked for a bigger/better camera system, or had to have this cool slow motion or any of the other features of the camera. It made my production easier but to them, their end product was still very similar. I lost a couple of clients but I gained new ones too.
It’s unrealistic to expect to stay with an identical client base if you’re going to throw so much into your own equipment. There’s no point in doing it if there’s not a higher return – that’s how business works! Luckily I have some great clients and haven’t had any major issues with losing work. I think this is important – buying a better camera does not equal immediately getting paid more, or making better content.
Here’s a couple of example conversations, none that I’ve had in the same words myself, but know of friends/fellow shooters who definitely have…
YOU: “I just upgraded to a FS700, it shoots super slow motion”
CORPORATE CLIENT: “Super slow what? All we need are talking heads & cutaways…”
YOU: “So here’s my revised quote with new rate to reflect this…”
CORPORATE CLIENT: “We were happy before, why have you changed anything?”
BAND MANAGER: “These are the dates for the next tour…”
YOU: “Ok great, here’s my quote”
BAND MANAGER: “Why has your rate gone up?”
YOU: “So I bought this amazing new camera which does X, Y & Z”
BAND MANAGER: “Ok cool but you stuff looked great before, we loved it”
YOU: “Yeah but I saw all these reviews & blogs online and I wanted to make it better”
BAND MANAGER: “Well we only have budget for what we paid you last time, so that’s what we can offer…”
In both of these cases, what do you do? take the work at a lower rate than what you want? or say no? Is it better to not have any work or work for less than your worth?
I’d thoroughly recommend this Photo Brigade podcast featuring (again) Vincent La Foret which goes through this in more depth.
I stupidly did a couple of very cheap FS700 hire + camera op jobs in the early days of owning it, because the work was there, I was home from tour and it was better than sitting there not doing nothing. What it’s crucial to understand is this devalues you for future jobs. They came back with offers of the same rate and I told them no and why.
I think it’s a very important aspect to consider before taking a step up in equipment investment as a freelance photographer/videographer/media guy. I’ve been lucky enough to combine investing in and getting good results from a camera I enjoy using while getting a handle on the the respective step up my business has to take.
I really hope this aspect is of some use if you are thinking about buying this camera or something similar, and it’s potentially made you more aware about the step up you might have to make elsewhere in your business.
Here’s a few leftover photos to round it up….
You Me At Six Tour Bus – Spring Fever USA Tour, April 2012
FS700 meets Kangaroo – Australia, October 2012
Trio Beach – Hong Kong, September 2012
While She Sleeps @ Brixton Academy – London, January 2012
Wellington – New Zealand, September 2012
Los Angeles, May 2013
Shielding from the snow – Slovenia, October 2012
Shooting ‘PBR Fever‘ – North Carolina, May 2012
It was a nice feeling looking back through all these photos. What a year it has been. A huge thanks to everyone for their support and especially everyone who reads my blog. I hope this post has been interesting for some!