THE SONY FS100: A LIVED IN REVIEW
Some footage from my Indian Ocean shoots.
Reviews are a funny thing. People are given access to a camera, they then invariably shoot tests with it, after which they draw conclusions based on previous experiences, good or bad. The camera is then marked out of ten. Or five. Or given stars, or funky little camera icons, or a pros and cons list, or… and so on. Recently we were treated to a review that was just a lot more creative than is normal and in so doing the perpetrator Jonathan Yi incurred the admiration of us film folk, and the ire of the establishment. I tend to believe that you can’t really honestly give a proper opinion of any piece of kit until you’ve lived with it for a while, dealing with its eccentricities on a regular basis, solving problems, learning to appreciate its good qualities. Any standard review of the video making capabilities of a DSLR should, rightly, lambast them for being utterly ludicrous. But, live with a DSLR and the bonkers, ergo-chronic charm will inevitably work its magic on you. Technology needs time. And so it is with this review. Hence: ‘lived-in’.
In the time since I bought my FS100, the C300 has arrived, and so too has the Scarlet. Both cameras capable of minor miracles. Both cameras capable of pissing everyone off, total unjustifiably. I find myself constantly aping the guy from the Grolsch adverts: ‘Schtop schtop schtop, this camera isn’t ready yet…’ Actually, to be honest, it’s we who aren’t ready yet. We’re not ready to consider the camera a convenient translation of thought into image. We still consider it a magic box in which mutton becomes lamb, baser metals turn to gold, mortals become gods. In fact, the magic box is the one we carry around with us every day, nestled in the complex cortical structures of our brains.
And so to the review. I’ve already written a brace of articles with ten reasons to love and hate the FS100 which caused a spat when I wrote them. ‘Schtop schtop…’ etc. Those reasons still stand and there’s really no point making them again. It really is that kind of camera, on the one hand infuriating, on the other hand, just brilliant. Funnily enough though, all those reasons that bugged the hell out of me when I first got the camera, don’t bother me at all now. I’ve just got used to them, the same way we all did with those posed by DSLRs. You find solutions to the problems, and while they’re not always the most elegant, they get you through.
This camera is so sensitive you really need to be on top of your ND filters… arghhh. Shooting with a matte box is annoying but the best results I’ve had out of the camera have been with Contax Zeiss primes and proper drop-in ND filters. With a variable ND I know I’m always just sullying the image so much in bright light. I’ve been shooting almost exclusively in the bright sun of Mauritius and the Maldives and this has been a massive problem. Stop down and you lose the shallow depth of field that brings so much magic to large sensor work. I’ve got a dummy adapter for EOS lenses and there’s no doubt that a 24-70 just loves the S35 sensor on the FS100. But there’s no chance you can use it in bright daylight. Shame. Smart adapters are on their way, but they all look clumsy and annoying. So, it’s the kit lens for those situations. It’s not brilliant, but it’s not terrible and the IS is very handy. Be prepared to compromise and you’ll be okay.
The build quality has been a major bone of contention for many and I can confirm that it’s really not brilliant. The top handle mounted to the cold shoe is a really weak point and everything’s just a bit loose and shabby. Again, you just accept it and get on with it. Similarly, I’ve seen many complaining that it’s tough to use handheld without additional bits. I have to say that it’s actually perfectly useable. The ‘snorkel’-like viewfinder attachment is a bit wobbly but again, you just learn to live with it. After months getting hauled around the world, smashed against rocks climbing up mountains, hanging out of helicopters and being exposed to sand and sea relentlessly, the plastics are starting to show their quality. But I expected that.
And that’s really it for the major negatives.
Again, most of the main ones are covered in the 10 reasons to love post, but the stand out ones are important. It’s tiny. You can just throw it in a back pack and go where you need to, and you can shoot with it like an EX1. This is important to me as I often have to work at high speed and there’s no second chances. Alternatively, you can build it up nicely into a cinema rig and it’s still nicely compact. On-board audio takes away one of my biggest issues with DSLR work, and that has just made my post production way faster. 1080 slow mo is, surprisingly, a killer feature for this camera. The C300 doesn’t have it, nor does the F3 and that makes the FS100 very very attractive. Sure, it doesn’t carry those other frame rates action folk might need but on its own this has really made the camera worth the money I paid for it. Moiré is practically non-existent. You don’t even worry about it anymore. Rolling shutter is still there sure, but none of that jelly wobble. Again, it’s really something you don’t worry about. Use any lens you like. Sure, manual is better, but I still use the 24-70 a lot when shooting in doors, controlling the exposure with either ND or the shutter and the footage is gorgeous. The Contax Zeiss fit beautifully and give me that high-quality micro contrast and proper manual control. Nice. The shallow flange of the camera is a real bonus. Latitude… out of the box this camera clips highlights, and clips them quite badly. James Miller developed a nicely flat profile which we shot with almost exclusively while out in the Indian Ocean and while the raw footage looked like crap it was highly gradeable and the detail in the highlights was frankly shocking. Push the profile too far and it gets ugly fast but the magic all happens in camera so it’s worth digging for a profile that works for you.
I’ve done a lot of shooting now with the 5D and the FS100 side by side and when you blow them up big side by side it becomes abundantly clear what a mess the 5D footage actually is. The FS100 is just so much cleaner, so much more stable and therefore much more gradeable. Again, don’t expect miracles from the on-board codec, but with an outboard recorder it’ll work beautifully for higher end applications.
I’m clearly biased towards this camera since I own it, but that’s normal. I will say this: I don’t love it, but I do turn to the FS before the 5D and that never used to be the case. I just trust it way more. The lack of a coherent EF lens mount with aperture control is really the biggest hurdle to the wholesale adoption of this camera and this I fully understand. It’s frustrating because L series glass in particular really does look good on the FS. The reason I bought the camera in the first place was really because it was the only camera capable of doing what I needed at the time. Strangely, despite the C300 and Scarlet turning up, it’s still the only camera that can do that. If you were investing in a new set of lenses, then the Sony Alphas are now very much within reach with