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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.

Internal/External 4K Recording

Although the FS5 is a relatively new camera, with shipments starting in late November 2015, it has already received one free firmware update, which shows Sony is committed to fixing issues and adding functionality to its newest FS camera. Currently, there is a known issue when recording in UHD 4K that—thanks to user feedback—Sony was able to isolate and plans on fixing in a later firmware update.

One of the somewhat surprising early limitations of the FS5 with its original firmware is that when you are recording internally in QHD, you could not output a signal from either the HDMI or HD-SDI at the same time (Figure 5, below). As it is, the FS5 limits you to only one live output from either the HDMI or HD-SDI output, regardless of the resolution. In QHD mode, you can output a 2160 30P signal from the HDMI, but only if you don’t record internally at the same time. HD-SDI is limited to a 3G HD-SDI signal, so it can only output a maximum resolution and frame rate of 1080 60P regardless of the internal recording resolution. In QHD mode, HD-SDI output is limited to 1080p30, matching the max 2160p30 QHD frame rate.

Figure 5. When recording 4K QHD internally,  you are limited to either an LCD or viewfinder signal, or a 4K or lower HDMI signal, or an HD or lower HD-SDI signal. Click the image to see it at full size.

The first firmware update did offer the ability to utilize both internal QHD recording and either external QHD from the HDMI or HD from the HD-SDI at the same time, but at the expense of a live video feed on the LCD and viewfinder.

I have heard many early and potential FS5 owners complain about the simultaneous internal and external QHD limitation. Those who are complaining haven’t thought through real-world workflow considerations. This is because they may not understand that the HD-SDI signal is limited to HD only, and that they haven’t fully considered the HDMI QHD connections.

As I mentioned earlier, if you were to use the new firmware’s ability to send a QHD HDMI signal, while recording 4K internally, you would not have a signal on the LCD screen or viewfinder. If you really needed to send a QHD signal to a video switcher, you could send only a clean signal, without the camera data that operators rely on. As a camera operator you would need to see what you were filming, so you would either take a return feed from the switcher to an external monitor or first take the signal to your monitor and send a pass-through to the video switcher, albeit without the camera data. Although filming while monitoring with only a clean video signal isn’t exactly like filming blind, camera data is important to have.

Ultimately, this limitation isn’t a deal-breaker. You can’t reliably send an HDMI signal over a long distance anyway, so if you do need to send a 4K UHD signal to a video switcher (or projector directly), you would first convert the 4K HDMI signal to a 6G HD-SDI signal, capable of carrying this 4K signal over longer distances. The easiest way to do this conversion is to use a $1,495 Atomos Shogun external 4K recorder and monitor that can cross convert a 4K UHD 30P HDMI signal to a 6G 4K UHD 30P signal. As a recorder, the Atomos Shogun can record the UHD 4K in the arguably superior ProRes HQ codec, which negates the need to record internally in the FS5. Now that the FS5 internal recording at 4K isn’t needed, you can use the LCD or viewfinder to display your camera data, while the HDMI output signal is a clean signal to your monitor and video switcher, via the Atomos Shogun.

I would still like to have the ability to record 4K internally and externally at the same time because I like the safety of a backup recording, and I try to avoid having to use the consumer HDMI connection for anything mission-critical, but the FS7 cannot output 4K over HD-SDI either, and so the FS5 4K workflow is not a big limitation for me.

RAW Output

The FS700 firmware 3.0, a paid upgrade, added SLOG2 and REC709 (800) gammas, in addition to FS RAW for 4K UHD output. The FS7 also has these features. The FS5 currently lacks the FS RAW output but Sony is committed to add this support in a later firmware update. Although the FS5 lacks the ability to load-in custom LUTs, it does have a Gamma Display Assist that previews in Rec709, SLOG2 and SLOG3 gammas on the LCD or viewfinder.

Variable ND

One new feature on the FS5 that is new to the FS line, and was first seen on the Sony X180, is variable ND. It used to be that you either had to add ND glass to the front of the lens (in the case of the FS100) or were limited to three levels of ND shading on the FS700 from internal ND filters that slid in behind the lens.

The FS5’s variable ND allows up to seven stops of ND filtering and you can smoothly adjust the degree of ND shading while filming. The ability to adjust the ND filter to maintain exposure means that you can set your F-stop and the accompanying depth-of-field look, and maintain it, regardless of any changes to your lighting situation. The traditional solution was to increase the shutter speed but this affected the way the camera handled the image; adjusting the ND is the better way to go.

Zoom Rocker and SmartGrip

The zoom rocker on the FS5 is not a new feature in the FS line. The FS700 launched with a zoom rocker that did absolutely nothing until a firmware update enabled it and Sony launched supported PowerZoom lenses. Even then the most desired of the early PZ lenses could not be paired with the FS700 until a later firmware release.

Unlike the older NEX line of E-mount cameras (now confusingly a part of the α line that formerly only included A-mount cameras), the FS700 did not support the required geometric, chromatic aberration, and shading corrections to pair this particular lens to the FS700. The big issue was that the Sony 18-105 f/4 PZ lens suffered from horrible pin-cushion distortion and was designed to only be used with geometric correction to straighten the image. The geometric correction works very well and allows Sony to produce lower-cost lenses that focus on image sharpness instead of curvature.

What is new on the FS5 is the design of the detachable and rotatable SmartGrip (Figure 6, below). Although it doesn’t extend like the grip on the FS7 does, it doesn’t need to because it’s lighter and was designed to be held more like a camcorder than a hybrid shouldermount. It does have a flexible architecture: If you want to replace the handle or add an extension arm, the FS5 accepts a standard Hirth-Tooth rosette (often referred to as an “ARRI” rosette). Adding an extension allows continued access to the useful magnification, Rec Start/Stop button, joystick for menu control and selection, and the custom assignable buttons, albeit from a different position.