The Super-35mm sensor Sony FS100 video camera has been out on the market for several weeks now and yet there still seems to be confusion and a lack of good hands-on material. Probably because those that have the camera are having so much fun shooting with it that they haven’t made time to sit down and type up their thoughts and experiences! Certainly since the FS100 showed up around here we have been very busy shooting work or feature film footage — and enjoying almost every minute of it!

What It Is:

A great replacement for the Sony EX1/EX3 and any DSLR for filmmaking. Like the offspring of the EX3 and the Canon 7D, with the ability to use most any lens you might have access to. A camera with a real workflow for shooting. A true 1080/60p device. A low-light rock star.

What It Isn’t:

A DSLR killer (although it is pretty close). The Arri Alexa Mini or the RED Epic Mini. Why? Read on…

Why The FS100:

I loved shooting on my Sony EX3 camera but was always striving, even since my DVX100 days, to have more cinematic images. This led to the Letus Elite and Canon FD 35mm lenses, which I used to great success on my first feature film TRIUMPH67. But this rig was a beast in terms of weight and size and wasn’t convenient to set up or tear down. Plus, no matter what anybody says, the motorized adapter was noisy (audible) in close quarters.

This led to adoption of the Canon DSLR cameras for the film look on some projects, but I grew to despise the dual workflow of video AND audio and the problems inherent in the capture due to aliasing and moire — which was so damn ugly to my eye. And the short focus throw of the lenses was highly frustrating. You shoot with DLSRs and love it? Great. I do too… When I shoot people or scenes with depth of field. But sometimes clients just want you to get the shot of the person or the business or the architecture and they might actually want to see the details in sharp focus. Guess what? It can look like sh*t — with aliasing and moire all over the place, no matter what you do. This isn’t acceptable to me. I do not like that, even if you use a filter in post to minimize the effect.

When I heard the news about the new Sony F3 and the FS100, I was very excited. The minute there was a demo in town, I was over there sliding my sweaty hands all over the cameras and testing their quality (I brought one of my own SxS cards and captured some footage to load up at home). They were very promising and stunning, with depth of field, usable size, quiet operation and full video camera features! (Yeah, DLSR boys, things like zebras and peaking and audio meters and XLR inputs, things we used to have but gave up to get an eyelash in shallow focus). I ordered one as soon as I could sell my EX3 to somebody who needed it (which didn’t take long, it is still a rockin’ camera system).

The day after I received the FS100 was my first shoot with it. After staying up late loading custom picture profiles (thanks AbelCine!) and tweaking the settings (very much similar to the EX3), I was off and running. I thought the form factor of the cube would be annoying, but it isn’t. The SDHC cards are just fine. The stock lens isn’t half bad. The LCD is sharp and bright. And having full audio controls is a true joy again. In the past couple weeks I’ve shot something like 60 hours on it and loved it!

The things that are not cool are the following:

  • Design (supposedly) influenced by DLSR shooters. Not perfect. The LCD on the top? Stupid. No reason they could not have put it on the left side like any other cam. Some button locations? Stupid.
  • The 18-200mm kit lens. Sure, the image is nice and sharp and the autofocus DOES work surprisingly well, but the infinite focus ring BLOWS. Ugh, I hate it. And it is velocity sensitive so it is either really slow or really fast. Trying to repeat a focus pull will be frustrating!
  • The hand grip works fine but feels a bit wimpy. Plus, it attaches with a mini plug! Ugly and stupid. And it only has a a start/stop button. Which brings me to…
  • The Expanded Focus button is in the wrong spot entirely! It should be on the right hand like on the EX3 so you can pop it on and off while focusing with your left hand! Ugh. So lame.
  • You cannot rename your Picture Profiles. Really?! On the EX3 I had them named something simple, like “Daylight” or “Night” or “Wedding” so it was OBVIOUS what they were for. Now I have to remember that “PP3” means… well… something I set up… for some reason… Bright Daylight? Kids? Broccoli?
  • No Sony software on OS X, like the XDCAM Browser. Hey Sony! Wake up. If you can’t make custom software, then at least add AVCHD support to the XDCAM software you already have. We need to view, copy, move, save stills and the like without always having to work inside our NLE!
  • You shoot outdoors in daylight? You will NEED an ND filter like the Fader ND or the Genus or in your matte box. Absolutely. Don’t even try to shoot without one.

What I love about the FS100:

  • Impressive image quality and depth of field. The huge sensor means great shots are within easy reach.
  • The shallow flange depth. Don’t know what flange depth is? Doesn’t matter. What it means is that you can use most ANY existing lens (Sony, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Leica, PL, etc, etc) and make beautiful imagery. The Novoflex Nikon adapter is particularly nice as it de-clicks the lens.
  • The batteries can literally last all darn day.
  • Discreet size. Shooting downtown on a busy street is no big deal.
  • Multiple mounting points on top and bottom, for stuff like the Berkey System plates and rigs (get ’em, they are great!).
  • The video looks amazing! Did I mention that already?
  • The low light performance is jaw-dropping good and makes the cats in my neighborhood feel inadequate. I can capture more light at 30db with a custom profile THAN I CAN SEE WITH OWN EYES. Somehow they put feline visual technology into the FS100 sensor. This is amazing for run-and-gun or documentary shooting.
  • Full 1080/60p

In Summary:

Sure, I have some strong opinions about this camera (and the dSLRs), but only because they are actually so good (and could be even better). The Sony FS100 is, all-in-all, a huge winner that I can highly recommend. It isn’t a DSLR killer because of the cost factor (pro stills shooters will already have investments in the bodies and lenses). It isn’t a mini-Alexa or mini-RED because it lacks ProRES and only goes to 60p. But, If you are tired of dual-system capture or quality issues with DSLR cameras, you’ll love the Sony FS100. If you are an indie filmmaker and can’t afford the F3, RED or Alexa, you’ll love the Sony FS100. If you want great low-light performance, you’ll love the Sony FS100. If you already have DSLR accessories (external monitors, shoulder braces, follow focus, etc) you’ll be pleased to know that much of it will work just fine with the FS100. Now get shooting!