In the Field: Sony NEX-FS100 Super 35mm Camcorder
Posted Aug 26, 2011

Sony NEX-FS100If you've heard about the Sony NEX-FS100, you've probably heard it described as one of two things: a game changer or an expensive DSLR. Which is it? Neither. Sony calls this new model a "motion picture camcorder." I'll bet the company spent a lot of time trying to decide how to name this new piece of equipment, and I think it made a good call. The FS100 does not take stills, and it is not really designed for event filmmakers, but with a few minor modifications, it does a fabulous job. I first started working with the old EIAJ video format in 1973. I've owned a lot of equipment since then and have filmed more than 2,000 events in 10 countries. As a business owner, I know what I want my equipment to do: have a great return on investment while facilitating my run-and-gun style of event coverage. It was based on these criteria that I evaluated the FS100.

DSLR or FS100?
I've filmed all over North America with DSLRs and love the picture quality they provide. But there are tools missing on DSLRs that I depend on when producing video. I've been to several DSLR video seminars where the instructors stated that they just "eyeball" the exposure and focus. I do too, but only to a point. Ideally, I want to work with more control over the footage I'm capturing.

The FS100 combines the superior image quality of DSLR video with a standard set of professional video tools. For example, I totally rely on my zebra function set at 80 IRE to let me know when my subjects are approaching overexposure. Seeing little red dots across my subject when peaking is enabled assures me of good focus. And yes, I'll admit to using autofocus during wedding receptions and processionals. I've found it to be very reliable and smooth on this camera.

Having two XLR audio inputs with selectable level input and phantom power is something else DSLRs don't provide. I need to manually set levels and monitor audio with headphones, which is something you just can't do with a DSLR without an external recording device. We've all seen fabulous films produced using DSLR video, so there is no debate that it's possible. The difference is that we've found ways to make DSLRs work for what we do, while the Sony FS100 just works.

Sony NEX-FS100

Picture Quality
Quality is king, and the FS100 is the new big gun. If you consider a consumer 1/3" single-chip camcorder a sling shot, then an HDV 1/3" three-chip camera is a 30-caliber rifle, and the Sony FS100 and the Canon 5D are cannons.

The NEX-FS100's Super 35mm Sensor also features the optimum number of effective pixels for filming in high definition. At 60 fps, images are recorded with less color aliasing, jaggedness, and rolling shutter effects than DSLR cameras.

Low-Light Performance
The FS100's minimum illumination of 0.28 lux is nothing short of amazing. The absence of noise while introducing gain will really make you smile. It is capable of 30 db gain, which is equal to 16,000 ISO. I read a review prior to using the camera that reported that the 30 db setting was actually usable. I experimented with a bride and groom outside at night, and they looked absolutely stunning on the camera's LCD screen. I even showed the image to the photographer. That said, I won't be showing the recorded image to anybody else-it was horrible on a real monitor.

The rotating 3.5" XtraFine LCD is beautiful and can even be viewed in daylight, but it does not show video noise. Further testing revealed that the maximum level I feel comfortable with is 21 db or 6,400 ISO. Much of the same-day edit that you see below was shot at 21 db gain in a dark room, and it looks pretty good to us.

Same Day Edit at a Birthday Party with the Sony FS100 from Godfather Films on Vimeo.

What Were They Thinking?
Grass Valley consulted with me before releasing the last two versions of the EDIUS NLE and took my advice on everything except changing the name to something cool. I've been using Sony products longer than most of the company's employees have been eating solid food. If they had asked for my advice on the FS100, I would have told them not to place the LCD screen top center. Here's why: When covering a live event, a filmmaker will add interest by using a variety of angles, from ground level to way over their heads. You need to have a tilt/swivel LCD on the side of the camera to get those shots.

Sony NEX-FS100

I'm more than 6' tall, and I carry a 6' monopod. If I raise my hands more than 2' over my head, I can incorporate shots from the floor to 14' in the air and use the flip-screen monitor to compose them. I hold the monopod upside down for floor-level shots and flip the image in post. I use this variety of angles during every wedding couple's first dance. The unfortunate placement of the LCD screen on the FS100 reduces the monopod vertical shooting range from 14' to 2' and my maximum tripod height to 5'. Hey, Sony, my number is listed ... call me next time.

Sony NEX-FS100

Modifications
When we became aware of the potential and the limitations of the FS100, we immediately set about modifying it to make it fit our needs. The first thing we did was to take the useless handgrip off and screw in a tripod plate, where I attached wireless receivers with unbreakable black rubber bands that I buy at a local beauty supply.

Then I needed to address the vertical restriction caused by Sony placing the LCD screen top center. I took one of my 2.5" LCD monitors and attached it to the bottom of the FS100. Now I can compose my shot when I hold the camera over my head or flip it upside down for low angles. Next, I am going to mount a LANC-controlled start/stop button on the grip of my monopod.

Sony NEX-FS100 and DP Slider

Workflow
After being tape-based since 1973 and having produced corporate pieces that included more than 200 tapes to log and warehouse, I find that filming simultaneously to SDHC cards and the optional 128GB hard drive is a huge timesaver and storage saver. I can record 150 minutes to a 32GB card and about 11 hours to the optional hard drive. Transfer time to a computer's hard drive is quick. With the FS100, an 8GB card with 39 minutes of video transfers to our hard drive using a built-in card reader in 5 minutes. We drop the AVCHD files onto our EDIUS 6 timeline and have instant real-time editing capabilities without converting. Using the FS100 in a same-day edit in our first week of ownership was a breeze.

After each shoot, we download the cards to an editor's hard drive and back up to our 11TB Drobo external hard drive.

Sony NEX-FS100

1920x1080 i or p—Should You Care?
The FS100 records in 1080p/60 and 1080i/60, and it's one of your few choices for 1080p/60. In 1080i, each frame of video is displayed in alternating fields. The fields in 1080i are composed of 540 lines of pixels running from the top to the bottom of the screen, with the odd fields displayed first and the even fields displayed second. Together, both fields create a full frame, made up of all 1,080 pixel rows or lines, every 30th of a second. Thirty frames per second are actually 60 fields with 540 lines each.

In 1080p, each frame of video is displayed progressively. All 1,080 pixel lines that make up the full frame are displayed together. This results in a smoother-looking image, with fewer motion artifacts and jagged edges. HDV 1080i is actually 1440x1080i.

A week after producing our first FS100 same-day edit, we got the Satechi Cyclone Media Player and had a client consultation the same day; we played the SDE for the prospective client. It was the first time we had filmed, edited, and displayed a film shot in 1920x1080p. The client said she was on the fence about a wedding film until she saw the quality. She added that she didn't know the image quality could be this amazing. I thought, "Neither did I," as I swiped her credit card.

So since you asked—yes, you should care about 1920x1080p.

Ergonomics, Schmergonomics
One of the complaints I've heard about the FS100 is that the design is too boxy and does not lend itself to handheld shooting. I shoot 90% on a monopod and the rest on a tripod or slider, so I don't care about the lack of handheld ergonomics.

I think the boxy design is what makes all the controls so easy to access. There are six easy-to-reach shortcut buttons that I have set to toggle on and off peaking, zebra display, lens stabilizer, slow-motion record, activate last-scene playback, and alternate indoor/outdoor white balance settings. You can customize these buttons with 14 different options, including histogram.

Cool Features
The FS100 has way too many cool features to list in one article, but here are my favorites (in no particular order):

• It offers built-in variable speed recording with settings from 1 fps to 120 fps.
• It features full-time autofocus with the two available Sony E lenses.
• It has the best auto white balance I have ever seen. Our first daytime test included carrying the camera from an outdoor shot to indoors. We were blown away at how well the full auto handled the transition. That is probably the only benefit of not having a built-in neutral density filter.
• Its LCD screen will constantly display remaining recording time in minutes for both the card and the hard drive. It also correctly displays the percentage of
battery charge remaining-at last, a number that means something. I no longer have cameras lying to me with useless information, such as telling me the battery has 868 minutes of recording time remaining, reporting that it has 302 minutes remaining 45 minutes later, and dying 45 minutes after that.
• The camera's touchscreen LCD and HDMI output, along with an icon and time/date display for each file, makes it easy to quickly access and play back any scene for review.
• It enables you to use Expanded Focus while recording. This magnifies the image, allowing you to better adjust focus.
• It can maintain accurate time by acquiring time information using the built-in GPS system.
• It lets you adjust white balance 100 Kelvins at a time by turning the wheel.

Camera Sensor Size Comparison Chart

What's Missing
Some industry pundits have expressed shock that Sony did not include a built-in neutral density filter with the FS100. There's a simple workaround: You can make the stock 18-200mm ƒ3.5-6.3 work in bright sun by using a small iris and a faster shutter speed. That could be a problem with fast-action sports shooting, but it's not a big issue for the comparatively slow action of an outdoor wedding ceremony.

I filmed a wedding in bright sunlight and used a screw-on ND filter. That allowed me to obtain a shallow depth of field and film at 60 fps. It was a simple solution. I think a better solution-and one I hope Sony can incorporate into a firmware update-is a negative gain setting. It would be great to just dial in an outdoor white balance setting, 60 fps, and a negative 6 db gain using one of the six picture profiles.

There is a really cool interface that allows you to connect a portable hard drive to the camera's USB connector and transfer files on location without a laptop. That would have been fantastic a year ago, but now we're halfway through 2011, and Sony used a USB 2.0 connector when the company could have provided six times the download speed with USB 3.0. They can't fix this with a firmware update.

I use the Sony E-Mount SEL16F28 16mm ƒ2.8 wide-angle lens for my coverage during receptions, which is better in low light than the stock lens and still has all the full auto functions. I then add the Sony VCL-ECF1 Fisheye Conversion Lens to the front of the 16mm for my room and dress shots. The huge apparatus you have to mount to the camera for the stock microphone cannot be used when shooting with the fisheye because it extends into the shot. Every once in a while there will be audio you want to capture while using the fisheye, so where is the built-in microphone? It doesn't have to be great quality. It doesn't have to take up much space. The DSLRs have them built into the camera body. I think Sony just forgot. Again ... Sony, call me. I can help.

The Bottom Line
All in all, after several shoots with the FS100, I'm thrilled with my acquisition. I think the picture quality and low-light performance are amazing. I prefer it to my DSLRs because of the superior picture and audio quality along with the built-in video tools. I definitely will be buying more. I just wish I had a coupon.

John Goolsby (john at godfatherfilms.com) has been shooting event and corporate films around the world since 1973. A winner of multiple WEVA CEAs, a featured speaker at every WEVA Expo, and a presenter at IN[FOCUS] 2011, he was elected to the first three EventDV 25 All-Star teams before accepting the role of EventDV 25 commissioner to certify the voting. He regrets to inform readers that he has not been compensated nor received any equipment or incentives from Sony for this review.