By Rob Scribner
Owner, Sky Tower Films
As a DP specializing in documentaries, Rob Scribner knows that finding the right balance between capability and portability is crucial. He’s shot with Sony’s FS100 and now counts the FS7 as his primary camera, so he has experience with Sony’s compact large sensor cameras. Now the new FS5 is opening new possibilities for his work, with its combination of size and performance. For documentary filmmakers, event videographers, and anyone else with a grab ‘n go, run-and-gun shooting style, Sony’s FS5 camcorder packs pro performance and features into a tiny package. Scribner talks about his first impressions of the FS5:
Rob Scribner: I learned my trade using a Sony FS100, so I have a deep appreciation of the possibilities of the Super 35. Many of my contemporaries cut their teeth on DSLR filmmaking, taking a camera body and piling on the extras to make it video-worthy. But the FS100’s Super 35 sensor delivers the same depth-of-field prized by cinematographers in a real-deal, full-featured camcorder.
Of course, the FS7 takes the Super 35 format to a new level. Since launching Sky Tower Films, it has become my “A” camera. Now that I’ve added its 4K imaging and super slow motion to my creative palette, I don’t know how I ever managed without them. But the added capabilities come at a cost. While far from bulky, the FS7 still has some heft. The body weighs in at 4.4 pounds, compared to the FS100’s 2.3 pounds.
That’s not an issue on a tripod in the studio. Still, it gets to feeling heavy when handheld over the course of a long day’s shoot. Now, Sony has addressed that by filling out its FS lineup with the FS5.
I used the FS5 to shoot “Zion,” a portrait of Zion Warne, a master glass blower in Boise, Idaho. I wanted to capture a portrait of the artisan at work. With only three days to familiarize myself with the new camera before the shoot, I needed to master it — quickly. I couldn’t tell Zion to stop and redo anything. No retakes. I had to be on top of my game. I had to know where the buttons are, and know how the codecs worked.
Fortunately, coming from the FS100 and the FS7, this was easy since the FS5’s camera operation is almost completely interchangeable.
For this shoot, I mostly used Sony’s standard E-mount PZ 18-105mm F4 G OSS lens wide-open at F4, and sometimes at F5.6. I’m also a big fan of manual Zeiss primes and, like with Sony’s other E-mount cameras, the ability to use them here with an adapter really makes the most of my existing investment in glass.
When I pulled the FS5 out of the box, I could hardly believe its size. The core weighs in at less than two pounds! This let me move around faster, essential for capturing Zion at his craft in his workshop. The camera’s great handling with an incredible center-of-balance, too, became immediately apparent. The small size paid off using it on a slider. With it, I’m moving left and right, basically doing dolly moves. I’m panning, tiling, focusing all at the same time. What I was able to do with the FS5 looks like I had a three-person crew working it. I can’t pull that off with the FS7 due to the sheer size of the larger camera.
I wanted a dark, high contrast look for “Zion.” Much of it is shot in low light. I wanted to capture his passion and emotion, show the molten glass and the red-hot furnace, and communicate the feeling of heat and sweat that goes with glassblowing. It was a run-and-gun shoot, working mostly with natural lighting augmented occasionally with an LED panel. Working under these conditions really tested the sensor’s low-light sensitivity, its dynamic range as well as the quality of the camera’s codecs.
I shot in picture profile #9, which seemed to be the flattest, using the camera’s full 14-stops of dynamic range. What I didn’t know at the time was the FS5’s native ISO setting is 3200. I was impressed with how beautiful the shots turned out, how little noise showed up in the low light. In post, I found the XAVC L codec offered a lot of flexibility. Even if I was a 1/2 stop off for a shot, we had plenty of wiggle room. I could push the footage hard without blowing out the highlights.
The FS5’s XAVC L codec is a huge compression-saver compared to the FS7’s XAVC I. What are the tradeoffs? Shooting in 4K, I saw precious little difference. Then, going for super slow motion in full HD, I found I could shoot at up to 240fps at 4:2:2 with no loss in quality. At 480fps, I started to see some, but it was hardly noticeable to anyone but the most critical. 960fps had considerable tradeoffs, but it’s nice to have it if you really need it.
Part of how the FS5 manages to match the FS7 is by shooting super slow motion in burst mode instead of providing continual shooting. You don’t have the duration, but in most instances you don’t need it.
One of the big advantages of using XAVC L and burst mode is the ability to use high-speed SD cards in-camera for the 100mbps 4K recording. Most of us in the business have a bunch of SD cards floating around at this point. Being able to repurpose them for the FS5 beats having to invest in new ones.
Another standout for this camera is the new variable ND filter. You have the usual presets, but can switch to variable to set it exactly where you want to be without compromising shutter, ISO or exposure. This turned out to be very helpful getting just the right exposure in low light. Also, the histogram and peak focus features helped keep me dialed in exactly for focus and exposure.
How did the FS5 footage stand up against the FS7’s? The two cameras are designed to work well together with S-Log3, S-Log2 and S-Gamut3. In most shots, what came out of them looked identical. I found it easy to match up and cut between them as long as I did my job of framing and exposing shots right.
The FS5 is the perfect complement to the FS7, but stands on its own, too. It is perfect for wedding videographers, documentary and independent filmmakers as well as anyone looking to move up from DSLRs into the pro world. After shooting “Zion,” I do have one regret about it – I wish I had one when I got started in the business.