Sony's FS7 is an important and innovative 4K camera. RedShark Technical Editor Phil Rhodes puts it through its paces.
It's been difficult to write about cameras recently. Many similar designs, aiming at similar slices of the market, make differentiation difficult. Firmly bucking this trend is Sony's PXW-FS7, a device that is genuinely interesting for a few different reasons. Its layout is a refreshingly clean-sheet design. Picture-wise, it's a 14-stop sensor and an entry-level way to get access to the sort of log workflows popular with F5 and F55 users. Yes, it has XLR audio inputs and GPS and auto iris and so on, but with a camera at this level, those are minutiae. The usefulness of this camera is predicated mainly on two things: whether the rather daring layout works and how easy it's been made to effectively shoot log - we'll concentrate mainly on those aspects of the camera.
The FS7 seems patterned after the 16mm documentary cameras of decades past and is impressively small and light - around 2 kilos (4.4lb) body only. Given the deep battery bay, it's clear that the electronics are packed into a cuboid only a few inches on a side, but the camera hasn't been made so small it's difficult to handle.
Sony supplied the review FS7 with the XDCA-FS7, which it calls an "extension unit," and I must admit it lived on the camera for most of the review period.
It provides V-lock battery mounting and some studio-oriented genlock connectivity, along with the raw output to feed an HXR-IFR5 recorder (as used with F5, F55, FS700, etc), although the company promises that upcoming firmware will allow the extra electronics in this device to produce Prores files in-camera.
Add this to the convenience of long running times with V-lock batteries and the handling benefits of balancing the camera out with all this rear-mounted hardware, and it'll seem a pity to pick up an FS7 without one. The cost is not tiny, pushing £1700, and that's before we consider the V-mount battery kit for it which could easily go another £1000. At that point, you're looking at a five-figure camera, but with the right lens it would make a very nice package.
Another particular innovation of the FS7 is that articulated handgrip.
From a purely ENG-experienced standpoint, this is perhaps slightly less successful inasmuch as it makes the camera difficult to put down on a flat surface and can never quite duplicate the feel of a lens-mounted grip. Putting the grip on the lens, as with broadcast zooms, places it as close to the centre of gravity as it can possibly be without getting in the way of the photons. If you need to work with a variety of lenses, though, the FS7's approach is more or less the only way to go, recalling the documentary set-ups commonly used with Aaton 16mm cameras, and what's been done here is a good solution to the handling problems of, say, stills lenses.
The viewfinder is really very good. There are complaints that it's bulky, which it is, presumably to keep the sun off the 960x540 TFT, but it's very configurable and not too hard to get out of the way, unless you're using a large mattebox on a short lens. The resolution of viewfinders in general is a sore point, but this is competitive with the best currently-available technology. The real point of interest, though, is the mounting system, which adopts essentially the DSLR-rig approach of a single 15mm rod and clamps.
I can find only one minor issue in that moving the viewfinder far enough forward for comfortable viewing on the shoulder, where the extension unit is balanced, begs a bit more range. The beauty of this situation, though, is that if your circumstances require other configurations, it's just a 15mm rod and easily exchanged with another. Overall, it's very convenient and the company should be applauded for its willingness to adopt a practical approach, which stems quite clearly from the problem-solving world of DSLR rigs.
The FS7 takes E-mount lenses, following the trend for camera mounts with short flange distances as a general-purpose base from which to adapt to other things.
Sony have often shown the FS7 with the 28-135mm ENG-styled lens they call, catchily, SELP28135G, which makes a lot of sense, given the shoulder-mount design. The review model was supplied with a SEL18200 F3.5-6.3 zoom, which is a shame, as it's really a stills lens and made it difficult to form a comprehensive impression of handling. In an ideal world, this camera demands a proper ENG zoom, but the big chip would require something expensive, like a Fuji Cabrio or Canon CN series. So, the 28-135, at about £2400, may well have a place and I hope we can look at it on an FS7 soon.