I’ve been told Sony’s A7S is the new king of small format ‘DSLR’ shooting. I’ve read how extraordinary it’s low light capabilities are. I’ve heard the rumour that says it blows away the 5D mark III and the Canon 1DC. Bold claims indeed but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Sony is to never underestimate them. I’ve been looking for a smaller format solution to accompany larger A-cam duties and for smaller projects in general. The A7S if a full frame 35mm sensor that records a constant 50mb/s bit rate which puts it toe-to-toe with Canon’s crazy popular C-300. It’s bit rate already surpasses smaller cameras in its class like the C100 and it outguns the variable bit rate recording of the 5D Mark III. It even has dedicated S-log gamma curves for flat cine-style recording straight out of the box, but it’s claim to fame has to be that is can shoot 4K, albeit to a small external recorder. Not bad for something that can literally fit into the palm of your hand.
When I test cameras I like to test them under real world settings and situations where things are more unpredictable and changing on the fly. Setting up a camera on a tripod and running through settings only takes you so far. So, I’ve been on the look out for a project where I could run this little baby through its paces and I finally found the perfect opportunity to do so. Recently, I was working on a short film that had many night exterior scenes. We finished principal photography using an Alexa XT but we did have one pick up day scheduled with a skeleton crew shooting night exteriors around the city of Toronto. We needed to be fast, light, and non-conspicuous because we didn’t have permits for our-pick up day. Apparently permitting at night in Toronto is a real PITA. Essentially, our day consisted of about a dozen shots of our main character hanging out in some seedier areas of town in very low light conditions. These locations were deserted ballparks, alley ways, under expressways and beneath decrepit bridges; essentially places with scant available light. I thought this would be the perfect test for a camera boasting King of high ISO shooting. We had no extra lighting with us and had to rely strictly on street ambient in very dark locations. I should also point out the weather was overcast and there was no additional natural ambient light reflected off the moon. Our lenses were not the fastest on the block either. I chose standard Canon L-series 2.8 zooms all around for convenience and speed of use. I used a Metabones adapter mount to allow the Canon EF lenses to work with the Sony E-mount and fortunately, the electronics and aperture readout and control translate perfectly through the adapter to the body. Thank you Metabones for building an actual functional adapter. On a side note, this camera also takes an adapter to PL mount cine lenses. Super cool.
Regardless of how many wicked features or black holes I could shoot in, no camera is worth anything to me if the usability and ergonomics are poor. Sony is absolutely infamous for their horrendously designed menu trees in every camera they’ve ever built since the beginning of time, including their flagship F55 cinema camera. I’ve watched veteran camera assists ‘menu dive’ for minutes inside the menu trees of an F55 only to have directors question what they were doing because they were spending so much time menu diving. Sadly, the A7S is no different in this regard. Sigh. You should have seen me googling “how do I set a,b,c, d in the A7S” because I couldn’t find anything in those infernal menus. It’s maddening and unbelievable at the same time that Sony can’t get this right. It’s not all bad news though. Once you have everything set up, you don’t have to go back in the menus again because the four most important things; aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance options are readily available as separate dials on the body of the A7S. What a huge relief. I found working with the Sony to be faster and far more intuitive than both a C300 EF or 5D. The Sony is better by a long shot. I can only think of one thing these two cameras do better from a usability perspective and that is a dedicated zoom key for focus assisting. With the Sony you have to assign a function button for focus assist and it seemed to respond a little slower than i would have liked.
Interestingly, the auto white balance does an impressive job at interpreting colour balance under heavily mixed lighting situations. I shot auto white all night under a myriad of city light sources that included, orange sodium, blue metal halide, green neon, all in the same frame. On most cameras I’d set the white balance to 3200 or 4300 and let the chips fall where they may, but with the A7S, auto white was the most pleasing in my opinion. I did detect some roll bar strobing under one light source that I couldn’t dial out by changing shutter speed or frame rate.Variable shutter angle is something found in much more expensive cameras so I really can’t expect too much here. The Sony S-Log 2 gamma offered a surprisingly wide, flat capture that appeared to be the same as the Sony F55 which I liked. Regarding the camera’s famed low light sensitivity… yeah, it’s truly remarkable. I’ve dubbed it the Price of Darkness. I ended up shooting everything in the city at 2.8 between 12800 and 25600 ISO. I believe those settings to be clean as a whistle in video mode. (stills are different) No other camera could have achieved the same signal to noise ratio as the A7S under those conditions. I’ve attached a link of someone who did some formal low light testing that really illustrates how phenomenal this camera is in low light. My testing was real world in a working environment on the streets of Toronto under available light at night and it proved capable both technically and in operation. I’d like to get the A7S out again so I can look at a few things more closely, like highlights and dynamic range. In the end, this camera impressed me enough to write something about it. I’d also like to try some 4K to a recorder at a much higher bit rate and then we might just be in business.
You can watch this video in 4K. Make sure to watch full screen to see how detailed the 4K recording is.