The Sony FS5 Real World Field Report and Review

WARNING: What follows is a blog post in which someone (me) decides to be brave and talk about why they chose a particular camera platform for a project. It’s digital kindling for the camera debate bonfire, so I’ll make a few things clear:

• I’m by no means saying “X” camera is the best camera. I’m just giving a case study of a particular project where I selected a camera, and it worked out nicely.

• There are many ways to use the tools that I’m outlining in this article. You might use the same tools very differently, and that’s awesome! I’d love to chat about it in the comments, so long as we promise to keep it friendly. Deal?

• I’m super brave for doing this. So. Very. Brave.

In January, I was hired to shoot a documentary project in Moulton, AL. We were all set for a week-long shoot and the time came to select our camera platform for the project. Production ultimately decided to avoid 4K, which meant that we had a pretty wide selection in terms of camera platform. As a C100 owner for many years, I’ve come to know that sensor pretty well. I know where and how to push it. It’s become a camera that I feel extremely comfortable using in any scenario – especially for documentary work. Paired with an Atomos Ninja Blade, that little thing becomes a pretty useful little 1080-acquiring package. Why, then, would I ultimately decide that we should shoot this project on the Sony FS5? It came down to three main principles: flexibility, size, and family.

FS5 Flexibility: Maximum Information for Grading in Post, Filters, and More

As we were planning to finish in 1080p, this meant that we would be able to take advantage of the 10-bit internal recording of the FS5. This was a big deal for me because I also opted to shoot S-Log 3. I’ll get into my experience and recommendations for exposing SLog-3 footage later on. But if you’re unaware of what that picture profile offers to cinematographers, it all comes down to dynamic range. It gives you a ton of range from highlight to shadow detail. The 10-bit codec gives you a respectable amount of color information once you move into grading. I knew that I’d be grading this project myself, so I was more than happy to acquire as much information as possible.

Here are a few lightly-graded shots from the shoot. Typically I’d be afraid of shooting under a porch in direct sunlight, but the FS5 was up to the task.

As a point of comparison, my C100 is only able to shoot 8-bit. Canon Log (while very solid) has less range than S-Log 3. Those specs are nothing to sneeze at, but we were planning to shoot in a wide variety of uncontrolled locations, and with uncontrolled locations comes mixed lighting, icky color temperatures and wildly diverse exposures. I could have worked around the C100’s limitations, but the FS5 just offered more flexibility when it came to image capture.

Perhaps the single biggest feature that’s germane to the discussion of flexibility is the FS5’s electronic variable ND filter. We had a tiny crew of two people for camera/audio, so we certainly weren’t going to be able to do much in terms of shaping or modifying the world’s most finicky light source: the sun. The electronic variable ND filter on the FS5 is far and away my favorite feature of the camera. It allows for unbelievably precise control of exposure, which is absolutely critical for S-Log 3 shooting. More on this in a bit.

The FS5’s Size Advantage

There’s no getting around it: the FS5 is tiny. And light. Like…so light that it almost feels like you’re holding a 3D-printed model of a future camera. Even though I often ended up negating this quality of the camera by strapping a lens, monitor and other goodies onto the body, it was important to me that we had a camera that was tiny. Our plan was often to just walk up to a location, ask for permission, and start rolling. While we didn’t end up needing to do this, I wanted to make sure that we had a camera that we could strip down into something that was completely unassuming. I never got the chance to hide the thing in a pile of Beanie Babies, but it was nice to know that I probably could have if the shoot called for it.

Clandestine filming aside, I was also trying to be mindful of the stamina of myself and our other camera operator. Our shoot days were long, and while I opted to use an EasyRig fairly frequently, the second camera was typically on a tripod or monopod. 12 hours of lugging a heavy camera package around can be draining, especially for 7 consecutive days. Picking something lightweight like the FS5 did wonders for both of our backs.

Family First: Benefits of Maintaining the Same Brand Across Cameras

Documentary filmmaking is just like the Fast and the Furious franchise in that (camera) family is everything. In addition to my C100, I own a Sony a7S, which we were planning to use to create promotional stills and portraits of our interview subjects. Since the a7S is also a fairly capable video camera, I thought it made sense to choose an “A” camera that was in the Sony family. While they don’t have the same sensor, the a7S and FS5 are at the very least closer to each other than either one of them is to the C100 when it comes to how the images look. I didn’t know how much we would use the a7S as a video camera. But I wanted to save myself a bit of headache in post-production. The FS5 was like a pre-emptive ibuprofen.

A Whole Bunch of Stuff About S-Log

If you Google (or Bing – I have no brand loyalty) “Sony S-Log 3”, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with opinions. These range from “S-Log 3 has as much range as the Alexa!” to “S-Log 3 is unusable and it punched my grandma in the face.” I’ve worked with S-Log 3 footage often, on both the FS7 and FS5. I’ve found it to be a great picture profile so long as you’re careful with how you expose your images. Most people recommend that you overexpose your image by about 1.5 to 2 stops. I think that’s a good rule of thumb. However, in a documentary environment, I often found that I didn’t quite have the time to be that precise. Instead, I relied heavily on a great feature of recent Atomos recorders: AtomHDR.

Whenever possible, I would expose my images as brightly as I could without clipping my highlights. This is very easy to do with a base ISO of 3200 at the time. I would use the AtomHDR feature of my Ninja Blade to essentially adjust the brightness and contrast of the monitor until it reached a much more viewable level. On the camera’s LCD, I would turn off any view-assist features and occasionally turn on Zebras (set to 100). That way, I always had a “clean” view of what I was recording. I also had a “corrected” view on my Ninja Blade that was much more usable for actual operating. I would also occasionally use the magnification feature of the FS5 to get a closer look at the shadow detail of the image and look for heavy noise. This was a helpful method to ensure that my exposure was set in such a way that I wasn’t getting much noise in important parts of the image like skin tone.

Here’s a look at my monitor with AtomHDR engaged. Check it out! Color and contrast!

I spoke with the folks at Atomos to confirm that the way I was using AtomHDR isn’t a misuse of the feature. They assured me that I (arguably accidentally) was using it correctly. If you’re using something like the Shogun Inferno or Ninja Inferno, this method will work even better due to the high brightness of those displays. The monitor on the Ninja Blade isn’t a high-bright display. So when AtomHDR was engaged it would dim the image considerably. I only found this to be a problem once or twice in bright sunlight. More importantly, using this feature helped me to (almost) never miss my exposure with the FS5.

I say “miss” exposure here because of the relatively high base ISO of the FS5. At the time of production, we were stuck at 3200 ISO in S-Log 3. This meant that a slightly underexposed image could produce some serious noise in the shadow areas. Granted, the deep shadows of the image would likely be crushed in a grade anyway. But there were several circumstances where skin tones could end up in a noisy region if I wasn’t careful. Luckily, a high base ISO meant that it was frequently easy to expose the image bright enough, even indoors, to avoid this issue.

Aside from exposure, S-Log is also a useful profile for capturing as much color information as possible. This saved our backsides a couple of times on this shoot. Still, there was one location in particular that really pushed what the camera was capable of capturing. Early on in the shoot, we made our way into a popular fast food chain early in the morning. We opted to shoot a 7-person discussion with one camera (oof), and we weren’t able to light anything. The table was flanked on two sides by huge windows, which were partially covered by semi-transparent signage. On top of that, we had overhead lighting in the restaurant itself. At the very least we’re dealing with the following color temperatures:

  1. Daylight.
  2. Daylight through a reddish-yellow sign.
  3. Tungsten (sorta) overhead.
  4. Yellow bounce from some unseen force that wants to see me suffer.

So, from an exposure and color point of view there was…a lot going on. It was a circumstance where all I could do was set my color balance to 4400K and prepare myself for a lot of color work later on. If you take a look at the following couple of side-by-side comparisons, you can see what I’m talking about.

In this first triptych, you’ve got the S-Log 3 image on the left, followed by a basic contrast and saturation adjustment to get it looking more “normal”. On the far right is the final, graded image. You can see in the middle image that there’s a fair amount of yellow spill on his left cheek, which isn’t particularly flattering. Luckily, the 10-bit color of the FS5 (paired with S-Log 3) gives us a good amount of room to push the image around. In DaVinci Resolve, I was able to isolate the yellow spill on his face and push it closer to his natural skin tone. You can also do this in Adobe Premiere in the “Color” panel.

Looking at this second example, you can see even more color cast. The middle image, which just has a basic contrast and saturation adjustment, is just a wash of yellow. In this case, I did a more global adjustment, pushing the midtones and shadows to a more magenta/pink range. The combo of 10-bit color and S-Log 3 afforded me much more fine control over this adjustment without pushing the entire image into a magenta wash. Since I was able to correct for all those crazy colors, I can focus on what’s most important: the fact that that stupid white pickup truck pulled into frame right when we started rolling, blowing out the background! Oh…also the story is important, I guess.

If S-Log 3 is a bit intimidating, or if you just don’t want to bother with heavily grading your footage, I’ve recently had some great results with another picture profile. I found that diving into Picture Profile 8, changing the Gamma to “Cine4” and Color Mode to “Pro” will do a few nice things for you. Most importantly, it will bring your minimum ISO down to 800, which is a much more comfortable ISO to work with. I’ve found that this setting gives me really nice dynamic range, paired with solid colors and contrast in-camera. It’s still a very gradable image, but it doesn’t require a lot of work in the way that S-Log does. On top of that, it’s also much easier to monitor your image with this profile, so if you’re looking for more of a “what you see is what you get” experience, this is the way to go.

The image below is straight out of camera and shot with this modified profile. A shot like this can be tricky when it comes to dynamic range and color, but the camera handled it very well.

After shooting over a terabyte of footage with this little camera, I can confidently say that we made the right call for this project. The camera was lightweight, made a robust image, and was generally easy to use. It’s important to keep in mind that the FS5 was a great camera for this project but it might not be a great camera for your project. The good news is that BorrowLenses is a great place for you to try gear out before making a decision! Picking a camera for a project is a lot like picking a tattoo: you should probably give it a trial run before committing. Otherwise you might have to explain to your grandmother why you’ve got “bokeh is bae” on your lower back.

But really, bokeh is bae.

The Sony FS5 is available to rent here.

Sean Meehan is a Director and Cinematographer based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's made cool stuff (mostly videos) for folks like Comedy Central, Al-Jazeera English, and Medisafe.

1 Comment

  • Mark I. Scott

    Great article with real world examples.
    Thanks for the share

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