Continuing Education: Vortex Media's Mastering the NEX-FS100 Camcorder Training DVD
I used to read the instruction manuals for all my new gear cover to cover-usually at least twice. My wife used to poke fun at me for this, especially when the manuals became bedtime reading, but that never bothered me. Mastery of my field is not something I take casually. In manuals, I find there is always additional functionality I am able to unlock, while at the same time, I gained an understanding of the equipment's or software's limitations. This all changed in 2008, when I was learning to master my new-at-the-time Sony HVR-Z7U. I was introduced to the work of Vortex Media's Doug Jensen, who produced the Z7U training DVD (Mastering the Sony HVR-Z7U) that I reviewed in September 2008. What I realized after viewing Jensen's Z7U training DVD was that even after multiple readings of the instruction manual and actively using the Z7 for 6 months, I really wasn't operating the Z7 at its true potential. Jensen's DVD showed me how to do so. So when I purchased my Sony FS100, I decided that I would try something a bit different—I wouldn't start by reading the manual. Instead, I would watch Jensen's new FS100 training DVD and participate in online FS100 forums such as DV Info and DVXuser. Even as I write this review, I'm finding that the online forums with FS100 threads are, for the most part, still nascent in breadth and scope. As with every new product, I don't find that the learning and sharing really gets moving until there are sufficient product reviews, user experience stories, and training DVDs to serve as benchmarks to ground the forum conversations.
When my two-disc DVD set arrived, I couldn't wait to hear what Jensen had to say and see the images he was able to produce. Part of the reason we buy training DVDs is to help us avoid the buyer's remorse that often comes with large purchases, especially with breakthrough products that are ahead of their time and expensive and that have a whole slew of features that we might not use or know how to use.
I appreciate that Jensen opens his training DVD with points that reinforce my belief that I made a great decision in purchasing the FS100. He explains some of the great features that the FS100 boasts, along with the benefits for the end user. His DVD is filled with great visuals of the camera, its menu system, video shot on the FS100, and graphics to demonstrate key concepts such as a scale comparison of the Super 35 sensor to 4/3", 2/3", 1/2", and 1/3" sensors. Jensen's visuals also illustrate how the 1:1 pixel mapping on the FS100 sensor is superior for video use, as there is no scaling or sampling, and it doesn't introduce artifacts like moiré and aliasing that afflict DSLR video.
One of the things that Jensen does so effectively is address the needs of the professional user with advanced topics while also serving less-experienced users. He discusses topics such as the camera's stock lens and auto features, in case you wanted to use them, and then factually explains why you don't want to use them anyway. A great example is his discussion of the Sony E-mount 18–200 f3.5–6.3 kit lens. Jensen says it's too slow, and he explains that a slow lens is not able to achieve a shallow depth of field and is bad in low light, both of which are key reasons why you'd want to buy an FS100. This is the same reasoning I used when I decided to purchase my FS100 body-only.
Jensen then directs you to the chapter where he deals with lenses for more advanced discussion on lenses and adapters. His entire training DVD is replete with cross-references, which facilitates a more interactive and nonlinear viewing experience, which is great for subsequent viewings.
Manual Operation and Settings
My favorite quote in the video appears when Jensen, in his warm-toned and Boston-accented voice, discusses the use of auto features: "Obviously, to an experienced professional or anyone who really cares about the quality of their work," Jensen says, "full auto is not a good idea, and I sincerely hope that, after watching this training video, you never want to use it [full auto]."
Jensen's opinions might be strong and subjective, but he qualifies them all and is consistent in his approach. He wants his viewers to master their cameras so that they can be operated at their potential, which is not how they operate with Sony's out-of-the-box factory settings.
With each chapter, the viewer becomes more and more comfortable with the FS100. Jensen is thorough in his coverage of the labyrinth of external button controls and menu settings. Part of the reason I enjoy Jensen's training DVDs so much is that he shares his opinions on optimal settings. Sony does a great job of allowing the user to control dozens of settings but doesn't always do the best job of explaining when and why you want to use certain settings.
Choosing Format Options
I agree with Jensen that the 11 combinations of resolution, frame rate, and scan options Sony offers for HD video on the FS100 are confusing and unintuitive. In fact, the first time I used my FS100 on a shoot, I accidentally used the 17Mbps FH mode instead of the 24Mbps FX mode. The problem, as Jensen points out, is that Sony uses unintuitive two-letter codes instead of just showing the bitrate. Jensen then goes on to eliminate nine of the 11 resolution options so that the user is left with FX 30p and FX 24p modes for most shooting situations. I was a bit surprised that Jensen eliminated the highest frame rate and bitrate mode (28Mbps/60p PS) for most shooting situations, but his explanation made sense to me (although you'll have to watch the training DVD to find out why). I still want to do some of my own testing to see how I feel about this; part of me doesn't want to let go of the claim that 24Mbps at 30p is better than 28Mbps at 60p.
Jensen's coverage is very balanced. In some places, he praises Sony for the FS100's design and features (headphones monitor switch, expanded focus that works while recording, and peaking as an effective focus tool), but he is not afraid to dig in a little when something is not user-friendly. His explanation of the user impact is effective, especially concerning the file naming system that always starts at 00000.mts (meaning duplicate file names on every shoot) and the inability of the optional FMU-128 hard drive to record S+Q (Sony's name for over- and undercrank), meaning that the file names on the FMU and SD or Memory Stick may not always match.
Lenses and Picture Profiles
The sections I was the most eager to learn from were the lens chapter and the picture profile chapter. The picture profile chapter was important for me because Sony removed the preset names that I was familiar with on my Z7: the ability to name the individual profiles and-most importantly-the ability to copy and share profiles on removable memory. Jensen gives examples of each of the presets profile and included formulas for two that he designed and uses on the two customizable presets.
I have mixed feelings on Jensen's lens chapter. He has a great collection of really expensive primes that he demonstrates on the DVD, but these have limited use for my applications/budget. He did demonstrate how he uses his collection of Nikon SLR lenses with a Nikon-to-E-mount adapter, but I feel he didn't spend enough time discussing the limitations and advantages of the various combinations of the big three SLR lens options for the FS100: Canon, Nikon, and Minolta AF/Sony Alpha (hereafter referred to as Sony Alpha or A-mount).
One of the big limitations with using anything other than an E-mount lens is the loss of iris control, auto focus, and image stabilization. Most Nikon lenses (except for the G series) have click-stop aperture rings and the NOVOFLEX adapter that Jensen demonstrates add iris control functionality to the G series lenses through an aperture ring on the adapter. Unfortunately, Jensen doesn't discuss or demonstrate the pros and cons of using the two different aperture ring options, nor does he answer the obvious question, "Is the aperture ring smooth enough that it can be used while recording?"
There is not much to discuss yet on the Canon front, since companies such as Birger Engineering, Inc., which are promising smart adapters that control Canon lenses, have not started shipping products. The story is a bit different on the Sony A-mount front: Sony has already released the LA-EA1, an Alpha-to-E-mount adapter that allows iris control of the entire arsenal of Alpha lenses through the on-camera iris wheel. I would have appreciated knowing that the iris control clicks in full-stop increments but cannot be used while recording, due to the nature of the Alpha lens design, where the iris opens or closes beyond the hard stop momentarily with every click. I wish I would have known this before buying an EA1 adapter of my own, but I have an inexpensive Fotodiox, Inc. A-mount-to-E-mount adapter on the way that features a smooth aperture ring. There are also rumors that Sony will be announcing the LA-EA2 adapter for Alpha lenses that's designed to allow autofocus, but I don't believe it will improve on the current EA1's unusable-when-live autofocus problem.
Overall, I feel that Jensen's FS100 Training DVD and a little bit of my own lens research have prepared me to incorporate the FS100 into productions. This is a good thing, since my Z7U sold in only 5 hours, which is days faster than I thought it would, leaving me with an immediate need for a camera I can use. Throughout the DVD, Jensen delves into what might seem at first to be unimportant small details, but time and again he demonstrates why the details are so important to mastering the FS100. This training DVD has saved me a lot of time and the pain of learning from trial and error-so much time that now I might even get around to reading the manual.
Shawn Lam (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005–2009 and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07. He won a Silver Creative Excellence Award at WEVA Expo 2008, a Bronze CEA at WEVA Expo 2010, and an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award at Video 08.