The Sony PXW-FS5: a new compromise

So, the new Sony camera is out & has already generated a marketer’s dream amount of buzz on the interweb. I finally got my hands on one this week thanks to WTS Broadcast, and here’s my first impressions. 

Sony PXW FS5 camera

The FS5 at Sony Pinewood Studios, 2nd Dec. 2015

  The FS5 is a very small camera. Without lens it’s just 830 grams, a pathetic mass by any reckoning, which of course means the camera is very easy to hand hold, but with less weight come less inertia & stability. One of the chief complaints and signs of DSLR footage is the shake, which is the natural shaking in the operators hands without heavy enough pressure to smooth it out. The FS5 I think will definitely experience this without using Sony glass with their inbuilt stabilisers, so don’t expect to pop your MasterPrimes on this & go handholding with any amount of stability in your pictures. 
   Adding Sony E-mount OSS lenses to the FS5 body opens up a great amount of handholding options though. From the hugely useful 18-200s to the the super sharp 28-135 & primes, the excellent image stabilisers in the Sony lenses make the FS5 into a different beast for documentary, weddings & second camera shooting – not to mention on the slopes! 

  There are a lot of compromises in the FS5, not just in the weight. Primary among these for me are the lack of true 4K (despite the badge on the side), it’s UHD (properly QFHD) only, the 16:9 version of the wider 17:9 4K DCI image. Then there’s the lack of XAVC-I, just L, which gives smaller files at the expense of picture quality and required computing power to edit. Another compromise is the slow motion, which functions the same way the FS700 does, using an 8 second cache recording rather than the continuous slomo on the FS7. 

   The high frame rate recording is not the only hangover from the FS700 however. Back is the Picture Profile button, and almost entirely the same menu system from the FS700, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact I prefer my FS700 menus to my FS7s, but it does give you the sense that this is more an upgraded FS700 than a smaller, lighter FS7, despite the exterior design similarities. In fact I’d go so far as to say this should be called the NEX-FS500 rather than PXW-FS5. 

  Audio is a slightly weird on the FS5. There’s one XLR on the camera body, and one on the detachable handle. Also on the handle is its internal microphone, so if you remove the handle to sit on a drone or gimbal, you lose the internal mic completely & have only the option of one XLR input for all your sound! Very annoying if you want a guide track without the handle attached. Also, the FS5 shares the awkwardly placed audio controls of the FS7, rather than the nice, easy, complete set of the FS700. You need to go through the menus to change some things which you don’t on the FS700. 

  The screen I do like. It seems just as sharp as the FS7’s and very usefully can be mounted either at the front or rear of the camera, with enough cable to allow placement on your gimbal handle even. Another thing I like is the EVF on the body, so when operating in stealth mode without the handle or when you want the extra stability of another point of contact with your body you can hold it to your eye. The grip rotates so this is a very comfortable way of shooting, as you would with an old palmcorder. The grip itself is smaller than the FS7’s,and actually more comfortable I found. The sleeker profile fits more nicely into your hand and doesn’t push your arm out as far as the sometimes awkward FS7. 

   Married to the stock lens the FS5 is a highly capable HD camcorder, with the added bonus of fairly good QFHD. The drawback being that your exposure is actually more critical than the FS7 because the footage is XAVC-L & more compressed, therefore giving less latitude in the picture information. 

Sony PXW-FS5 review by John E Fry 

   A major plus point feature on the FS5 that I haven’t mentioned yet is the superlative Variable ND Filter. Basically this is a constant change of ND in minute steps, allowing you to control exposure not just by shutter and aperture, but by ND in a much much more useful way than ever before. In the real world this means you can step from indoor to outside, coping with the change of exposure using the variable ND instead of aperture – so your lovely shallow depth of field look is retained even through substantial exposure changes! Just set your shutter AND iris for the look you want, but continue to control exposure using the variable ND. It’s very clever and very useful in retaining a consistent depth of field. 

   The FS5 shoots to SDHC cards, which is a blessing and a curse. It cannot do full 4K because the bitrate is too high, but it does do symultaneous recording and even (firmware updates abounding next year) symultaneous HD and QFHD internally. So if you are a broadcaster mastering in HD you’ve got the 50mbps format to go immediately to edit, but can also keep a QFHD copy for future proof high res backup, which is quite snazzy. 

   I can see the FS5 as a brilliant camera to use for skiing, purely because it is so small and ergonomic. Matching an FS700 in HD only should be very easy, especially if you are used to the way the 700 does slomo & picture profiles. Matching an FS7 I think may actually be more difficult, because although the two cameras share codecs, the way they set up and handle colour & gamma is quite different, operationally. You couldn’t just swap from an FS7 to an Fas5 & expect to be able to set the same looks the same way – but you could between it and an FS700. 
   So, would I buy one? Not right now, and here’s why. I already have an FS700, which does slow motion the same way as the FS5, but also has full 4K RAW output & has better, or at least easier audio & various other manual controls. I also have an FS7, which is all I ever wanted a camera to offer for handheld large sensor 4K shooting. The FS5 feels like a poor compromise of both cameras, sharing many of their weaknesses but only a few advantages. For the money you would be as well if not better served by an FS700 for slow motion & general shooting, and if you do mostly handheld or need proper 4K stump up a bit more for an FS7. 

   If size & weight are your only concerns then this might be the camera for you, but I have to say apart from the size, weight & variable ND (which is a stroke of genius – IF they can make it work on automatic) there really is nothing at all new or better here than the other two current FS cameras. Often bigger really is better, & I have to say that’s how I feel about the FS5, small size at the cost of features. For certain applications, such as use on a gimbal or drone, or indeed for covering adventurous persuits like skiing or travel journalism, it’s size and features make it a great contender, but for the vast majority of first and even second camera applications it’s abilities & controls are just not up to par with Sony’s other current FS models. 

   Overall, I would call this a lighter, easier to use FS700, rather than a cheaper, smaller FS7 – but with compromised benefits of both. If it was cheaper it would be a great camera, but for the money I’d probably get another FS700. If you’re after a small & light large sensor camera for excellent 50mbps HD broadcast with the stepping stone internal QFHD recording included, this is a realistic option. 

About John E Fry

John is a highly experienced professional cameraman, Steadicam Operator and ski film maker from Wiltshire, UK. He has filmed for all the major UK TV broadcasters and many global corporations, as well as a host of private clients, businesses, and production companies. As a Steadicam operator he has worked for TV, feature films, outside broadcasts and more. As a CSIA ski instructor John is one of very few professional cameramen with a recognised snowsport qualification in the UK.

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