The Sony F5 is not a newly announced cinema camera. It was introduced back in late 2012 and has been on the market for almost two years now. Sony has positioned this camera squarely into the C300/500 market along with its bigger brother, the F55, designed to take on the RED Epic and Alexa cinema cameras. Up until this point, I’ve paid little attention to Sony’s efforts in the digital cinema space. I tried their F3 a few years back but came away wholly unimpressed. Since the introduction of the Canon C300, most of my smaller to mid budget jobs have been using it; an industry go-to camera for almost every application you can think of. If I wasn’t faced with a recent problem that only the F5 could solve, I’m pretty sure I would never have discovered this gem. So here’s my account of how I came to discover the F5 and why it left me with such a great first impression.
I was asked to shoot a series of spots for Canadian Tire’s ‘Eliminator’ brand vehicle batteries in which the batteries are subjected to torture tests under heat, cold, impact, etc., to prove the batteries would still work after being punished under such extreme conditions. The look and feel of the spots needed to look dramatic with lots of slow motion at around 240fps. Right off the bat, the C300 failed to qualify because of its 60fps ceiling. We also needed two cameras because we had to shoot four separate spots in one day which presented a whole other set of challenges. But two cameras would at least give us a fighting chance to get everything we needed and yet, there was still the problem of budget that didn’t allow for two fully equipped RED Epics that could have managed up to 300fps. Instead, it was suggested that we use Sony FS700 prosumer high speed cameras. After some investigation, I decided these cameras weren’t up to the task, even though they fit the budget nicely. The Alexa was obviously way too expensive and could only shoot up to 120fps so it didn’t even get mentioned in the discussion. What to do?
Enter the F5, a digital cinema camera slotted in the same rental pricing tier as the C300. It can shoot up to 240fps with an external Sony R5 Raw recorder module. This module is not some scary frankenstein piece of hardware hanging off the side like so many other rigs out there. The R5 is a cleverly and superbly integrated module that attaches seamlessly to the back that elongates the camera body another four inches or so. This speaks to the modularity of the camera. You can opt not to have the R5 recorder and go with a cheaper package. You can also choose between OLED or LCD viewfinders. We decided to use two F5’s both equipped with R5 recorders to handle the 240fps and outfitted them with Ziess high speed 1.3T PL mount prime lenses. I had no time to test the cameras before the job so I admit I was going in a bit cold. Fortunately, 1st AC Rafi Mishan was able to do a full camera prep and get both cameras dialled in before the shoot.
Ergonomically speaking, Sony is infamously known for some tricky, bloated menu trees and not a whole lot has been improved with the F5/F55 in this regard. Fortunately, the key functions are mapped to dedicated buttons like ISO, shutter angle, white balance and FPS settings. Changing into high speed and back requires a separate internal menu action but I can’t knock Sony for this since all cameras (for the moment) have their own protocol for high speed mode. The menu tree does seem to be an improvement in the right direction and maybe on par with a RED camera in terms of operability but still nowhere near the simplicity of an Alexa. Camera assists will dread using the access control panel because it is on the operator’s side. I can get over this, somewhat begrudgingly however, because if the assists have a tougher time on set, it directly translates into lost time for me. To Sony’s credit however, they must have known this going in and have come up with a software control panel solution that runs on a mobile device and connects with the dedicated wifi module that comes with the F5/55 at no additional costs. Over the holidays I was able to test this software and confirm that it mirrors the menu for full accessibility which makes for less obtrusive interaction. I would feel perfectly comfortable and safe having an assistant managing the inner workings of the camera this way.
What is ultimately important to me (in this scenario) is how the camera performs and what its characteristic signature looks like. The first thing that immediately impressed me was how incredibly sensitive this camera is in low light. The camera’s base sensitivity is ISO 1250, about 1/2 stop faster than an Alexa. This doesn’t sound like much, but in real world practice it feels like it is much, much more than that. At 800 base ISO, part of the Alexa’s appeal is the inclusion of organic ‘grain’ that you can easily see, for better or worse, depending on your application. I like the grainy look for certain things but dislike it when I have to shoot close-up, table top work where I prefer more resolution and less ‘noise’. In these situations, I often dial the Alexa back to 400 ASA for reduced grain at the expense of losing some dynamic range. With the F5, I didn’t have to worry about this. I really depended on the F5’s low light capabilities because I had to light at really low levels for two reasons. One, my crew size and lighting budget were not huge, and two, the look was supposed to feel a bit more moody. When shooting 240fps in lower light, I needed to crank both cameras up to 5000 ISO and the noise registered zero, even in the blacks where noise usually rears its ugly head. When I saw this, I knew I was dealing with something different and knew right then and there this was a good camera I could go to war with.
The F5/55 is a low light-champion (check out the A7S mirror-less SLR if you want to measure Sony’s low-light technical prowess) but what about the other side of the spectrum; the highlights? I like to quantify this by making subjective comparisons between other cameras I use on a regular basis instead of talking about waveform monitors and numbers that don’t provide much context. I will point out though that the sensor in the F5/55 has 14 stops of dynamic range (when shooting in S-log) This pummels the canon C300 and squeezes out a 1/2 stop more than even a RED Epic. Remarkably, next to the Alexa, the F5 only falls short by a 1/2 stop of dynamic range. While highlights don’t behave, or ‘roll off’ quite as nicely as say the Alexa, they are indeed darn close and not far off enough to quibble about. In my opinion, the F5/55 handles highlights far more gracefully than both the RED or Canon sensors by a long shot. The F5 truly is a testament to Sony’s sensor technology and they clearly mean business here. Oh, did I mention the sensor in these cameras is 4K? Bam!
A quick recap is in order. No one camera is perfect, each with its own pluses and minuses, but when weighing bang-for-buck, the F5 is arguably the best deal out there. A 4K sensor with 14 stops of dynamic range and low light (signal to noise) superiority besting the Alexa at 4X the cost. The 240 fps exceeds both the Alexa and Canon but falls short of the Red Epic. As a nice bonus you have the ability to record RAW with the R5 recorder too. If you are planning on F5 ownership, you get all this for about 5K more than a C300, not chump change mind you, but you do get a lot more. If you are planning on renting this camera, it’s a no-brainer because it is the same price as a C300.