Testing the Sony F3 – Video production around London

Marlin PR, technology relations for Sony UK, recently contacted us to ask if we’d be interested in test-driving the new Sony PMW-F3 Super-35mm camera for a week. Obviously, we jumped at the chance! We had a few production jobs planned for the week and also had a few afternoons free to take the camera through it’s paces. A very exciting prospect, since we’d recently tested the Panasonic AF101 and it would be interesting to see how the Sony compared.

Just before writing this article, I read a great blog post by filmmaker Danny Lacey who also recently test-drove the F3 and my post is written from a similar perspective; it’s not the most technical report you’ll ever read, but I hope to convey what it’s actually like to operate the camera in a day-to-day, guerilla environment.

Sample Movies:


 

First impressions:

I think any new piece of kit can tell you a lot about it’s potential before even powering it up. Upon first glance, the F3 looks exciting. It looks like an entirely new breed of camera, not just an improvement on a previous model. Sure, buttons and dials are where you’d expect them to be, but there’s something undeniably appealing about the form of the camera.

Upon firing up the F3 it was gratifying to see how simple and accessible the menu functions are. High-level operations are all easy to find and more complex customisations are intuitively stacked below. Eight user-definable buttons dotted around the body of the camera make it easy to assign most-used functions exactly where you need them.

Video and timecode inputs and outputs are well represented, with 2x HD SDI (for S-Log 10bit RGB 4:4:4 uncompressed output), SDI, HDMI and HDV/DV sockets positioned at the back of the camera.

Basic operations:

I found the F3 to be straight-forward and intuitive to shoot with – the histogram positioned in the viewfinder and LCD screen made accurately exposing shots easy. The well-located Expanded Focus control enabled me to focus when not using an external monitor or measured distances.

The LCD monitor provides a lovely high-resolution image, although I found the default brightness setting a bit on the light side. The colour viewfinder wasn’t so good – I found it very difficult to use comfortably and the diopter setting was annoyingly pushed out of place very easily.

VTR mode was easily accessed by simply hitting the play button on the top of the unit (very useful for reviewing the last clip shot) – a thumbnail index view was quickly rendered on-screen and clip access was, as expected, almost instant.

I found the battery life of the standard Sony cells to be disappointing. A full charge would only yield shooting time of around 70 minutes. I guess if you wanted to power any external devices off the camera power, you’d need to invest in much more serious, long-life batteries (or tap out of an Anton Bauer-style unit). The on-screen battery indicator, however, proved pretty accurate, providing a segmented graphic and minute countdown.

Shooting:

Supplied with the demo package were 3 lenses – 35, 50 and 85mm Sony primes. Not ideal for the average day’s shooting we undertake, but it was a good experience to be forced to consider shooting order (i.e. wides, then mids, then closeups) and framing. It made me appreciate how much I take the flexibility of a zoom lens for granted!

Although the optical quality of the lenses was superb, I found them a bit fiddly to operate without a follow-focus; the focus and aperture rings were rather close together and the aperture was easily knocked up or down when adjusting focus.

The light sensitivity and colour reproduction of the Exmor sensor was nothing short of breathtaking. The camera really excelled in low-light situations; I couldn’t actually believe how glorious the camera made the most dull, mundane of shots appear. It was like viewing scenes through rose-tinted glasses. A good example of this is the artist’s studio in the demo video above – shot only with natural light and some awful overhead fluorescent tubes. The shots of Regents Street at dusk in the main showreel also look amazing.

On more than one occasion I found i’d accidentally flicked the gain switch to bring in 18dB of gain. Amazingly it was barely noticeable on the LCD monitor; how often would you say that when using a broadcast camera or Z1?! This adds so much flexibility when working in very low light situations; in some instances it allowed me to stop down the aperture to allow for sharper landscape images – a powerful tool for the nighttime shooting enthusiast.

Shooting in bright daylight was a bit problematic; the high light-sensitivity caused highlights in clouds to blow-out very easily and it was difficult to achieve a shallow depth-of-field as the aperture was often stopped right down even with the highest ND filter engaged. I think you’d need to consider additional ND filters or slower lenses to achieve more flexibility.

I found the picture profile menus very useful, allowing the user to program in scene information for rapid recall. 10 presets can be saved and the level of customisation is superb, such as manual matrix configurations, custom white balances and in-depth gamma and detail adjustments.

Frame-rate cranking was very easy to access – simply pressing the S&Q dial on the side of the camera allowed any frame rate from 1-50 to be entered. The only issue was the loss of resolution to 720p when over-cranking; a bit of a disappointment since it meant you were mixing frame sizes on your edit timeline (although, the up-scaled footage was not easily detectable to the untrained eye).

Post-production:

The Sony F3 shoots natively on SxS card in a variety of formats; we shot all footage in 1920x1080p25 XDCAM 35Mbps 4:2:0. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to test it with an external recorder, but there are plenty of comparison videos on Vimeo to reference.

Importing in Final Cut Pro was not as straight-forward as i’d have liked. Unbelievably the Sony website hosting the XDCAM Transfer application was down for maintenance for a full 2 weeks with no alternative download locations supplied. Very annoying if you’re in a rush and need to get footage into an edit! Once I eventually got hold of the application it had problems rendering clip thumbnails and required me to click continue 180 times before I was allowed to select import. The whole import process appeared really clunky and I don’t like the addition of a 3rd party application running in-between the camera and FCP. The Log and Transfer function used with P2 cameras is so much easier and self-contained.

Moaning over, once the footage was on the timeline (native playback, no rendering, very smooth) the picture quality was breathtaking. The detail, dynamic range and exposure latitude were stunning. There was room to shift highlights and recover over-exposed areas of footage even with the low bit-rate XDCAM codec. Once agin, the colour reproduction was stunning; almost ultra life-like.

Conclusion:

I loved using the F3; it felt so different from shooting on broadcast cameras we own. Comparing F3 and Panasonic HPX500 footage side-by-side was like comparing Hollywood film footage to that produced by a £150 camcorder. How far things have progressed in just 5 years or so!

The Sony F3 is certainly a camera aimed at the serious digital filmmaker, and not really at those wanting to upgrade their DSLR shooting kit. It’s clear to me now where the Panasonic AF101 sits in my mind; somewhere between DSLR shooter and feature filmmaker. The 101 is perfect for low-mid budget promo/interview/music video/EPK jobs that require film-like imagery whereas the F3 has the potential to deliver professional cinematic results right up to mid-full budget productions.

It was an interesting test to swap out our usual ENG workhorse camera for the F3 in a quick-turnaround interview situation; the camera held up well and the intuitive and easily accessible audio controls made it simple to handle on a one-man shoot.

I’d certainly not think twice before using the F3 for music videos, interviews or short films; the quality to price ratio is unrivaled.

 

Shout out to Will Savage @ Nonsense London for his help in producing some of the test footage.

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