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Review: Sony PXW-FS5

I've waited 5 years to write this review, about a new camera model that delivers everything I'm looking for in a professional video camera: Sony's large-sensor, interchangeable-lens, 4K-capable PXW-FS5 XDCAM Super35.

I’ve waited five years to write this article—a review about love, video cameras, working through issues, and negotiating tradeoffs. I waited to write this article until I found love again. The object of my affection is the Sony PXW-FS5.

Every veteran professional video camera operator has a favorite video camera. What makes one video camera better than another is a topic often debated in online forums and at professional video association meetings. Some requirements of video camera love are specific to the evolving requirements of an individual camera operator, and the type of work that they produce. These needs progress along with the operator’s professional career, so it’s often unfair to the newer video cameras as they are being asked to do more that the old favorites ever had to.

Some requirements aren’t negotiable features or technical requirements, while some of the reasons why an old video camera is favored over newer models can be boiled down to familiarity and sentimentality. Regardless, this video camera sets the standard by which all other video cameras are judged, regardless of whether the old favorite can keep up with the newer model from a technological standpoint.

The Sony Z7U and My Search for its Successor

When I look back at my old favorite, the Sony Z7U (Figure 1, below), there was a lot to love. Ergonomically, it felt great in my hands. I loved the 12x Zeiss lens that held its own against professional ENG lenses, and with its integrated CF recorder, it allowed me to break the 60-minute MiniDV tape barrier without having to pair it with a DV/HDV tape deck, and it even let me film with a true 30p frame rate. We produced a lot of great video together during a time when my professional career and personal life blossomed—hence my silly sentimental attachment.

Figure 1. My old favorite, the Sony Z7U, with its traditional side-mounted LCD screen

There were issues, though. The internal HDV codec left a lot to be desired. I worked through that issue by pairing it with a new-at-the-time Atomos Ninja. Recording the uncompressed HDMI output enabled the Z7U to hold its own against the internal codecs of newer models. But as much as I loved my Sony Z7U, I still wanted a better internal recording codec, and even though I paired it with a Sony Z5U for when I needed a 20x zoom lens, irrationally I sold both the Z7U and the Z5U. Their replacement was supposed to be a pair of NX5Us with internal AVCHD recording on SD cards, but I ended up buying a pair of Sony FS100s.

I chose video quality over both ergonomics and a great lens. This was a challenging transition for me, coming from the ergonomics-centric camcorder world. In my hands, the Sony FS100 (and later FS700) video cameras had all the elegance and design of a block of modeling clay that was supposed to be modeled into something beautiful and practical but comically was mistaken for a finished concept. I know this isn’t true. In 2011, Sony proudly devoted three pages on its website to how they designed the FS100, referring to it as a “cylinder + box theme” and stating that, with the addition of the eyepiece, it took on a symbolic shape overall with video signals “funneled” from a cylindrical lens into a box-like body in the middle and then funneled out through the cylindrical eyepiece. Essentially, Sony designed the FS100 to compete against the design and ergonomics of DSLRs and threw out all the lessons they learned from the successes of their Handycams.

Fast forward to late 2015 and I still had not found the video camera love I had once enjoyed. I appreciated the PXW-FS7 for its improved ergonomics, thanks to its SmartGrip and an LCD that I could actually see when the camera was at or above eye level (Figure 2). But I hesitated because of the investment required. I would have needed to re-invest in Sony BP batteries, and the FS7 required XQD cards. The current XQD V2 cards cost $350–380 for a single 128GB card, compared to $45, at the time of this writing, for Sony 128GB U3 Class 10 SDXC cards. The total package for the FS7 with 28-135mm f/4 PowerZoom lens was priced at $10,499. Once you added a minimal amount of batteries, memory cards, and an XQD card reader, you were into the $12,000 range. I didn’t fall in love enough with the FS7 to spend that much money.