Camera Review: Sony a7S
In 2014, Sony announced their new a7S product: a full-frame, mirrorless camera that supports high-definition video recording. We purchased one as soon as it was released, and with a year of use under our belt, we thought we’d sum up how the a7S has helped our freelance cameramen capture some truly beautiful video content.
When we purchase new camera gear, we always do due diligence on what the gear will bring to our shooting. We primarily shoot on two Sony FS-100s, and when we consider new cameras, we always ask ourselves, “what can this camera give us that we don’t already have?”
We were excited by what the a7S promised. It had a huge feature list, and generated a sizeable buzz when it was announced. As freelance cameramen, it had a range of assets that we found alluring, such as:
- An expanded ISO range, starting at 100, and going all the way up to an obscene 102400 (!), that would help us record in low-light;
- A 12.2MP full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor, that promised crisp and clear images;
- As well as a new recording format, XAVC S, which promised an even higher quality of recorded video.
We’ll cover these attributes in more depth below. But first, I’d like to talk about our number one reason for buying this camera: its spectacular low-light capabilities.
The after-hours specialist
As a freelance cameraman, I spend a lot of time covering events, product launches and training videos in less-than-ideal lighting situations. Don’t get me wrong, we have a range of Kino Diva-Lites, Dedos, and red-heads that help us light beautiful looking interviews and cutaways – but what I was looking for in the a7S was something that could help me run-and-gun when lighting was at a premium.
I want to tell you a short story here that best illustrates how helpful this can be. I was shooting a set of cutaways at Monash University, for their Materials and Research Department. Some of those cutaways were in a dark lab, with absolutely no room. I could barely squeeze my camera and tripod in, and there was no space for anything other than a tiny L.E.D. light.
I kept the house-lights on to give me a bit of extra light, and pumped up the L.E.D. light, but it was still reasonably dark. The house lights were causing noticeable flicker, so I had to set a high shutter-speed that stopped them from appearing in the video.
Luckily, the a7S’ ISO came to the rescue. At ISO 3200 it recorded clean, clear, crisp images of the microscope in action. With any other camera, in that space, with that lighting, it would have been a real struggle for any cameraman to capture the footage our a7S got with no problems.
But perhaps the aspect of this we find most valuable is the ability to shoot at a reasonable aperture.
Is F/4.0 the new F/1.2?
Previously when shooting at low-light, with our Canon DSLRs and our FS100s, we typically shot wide-open. Wielding a 70-200mm F/2.8? Get it open! A 50mm F/1.4? All the way, please! This was a necessary evil; although it allowed us to shoot in low-light grain-free, we had to trade-off with how difficult it was to keep focus in those situations.
Now, with the a7S’ ability to handle higher ISOs, we can shoot at much more reasonable aperture. I tend to favour F4.0, or F.4.5, to ensure that whilst the background is blurry, what needs to be in focus is sharp as nails. It really takes the pressure off having to get focus millimetre perfect, when your subject is moving and it’s pitch-black!
And speaking of aperture, the a7S’ value is increased by how many lenses are now compatible with its Sony E-Mount.
When we first invested in Sony E-Mount lenses several years ago, there was a limited selection on offer. When we first purchased our Sony FS100s, they came with 18-200mm F3.5/6.3 lenses, and we also purchased a Sony Zeiss 24mm F1.8 lens. These aren’t bad lenses by any stretch, but there wasn’t too much variety on offer to really buy some killer glass.
That has all changed now. Rokinon offers a series of great E-Mount cine lenses – we own their 35mm and 85mm F1.5 lenses and love their clear, sharp look. We also use a Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm F0.95 that is both sharp and fast – with a depth of field more like a macro lens than a conventional 50mm. But the lenses we get the most use out of on this body are our selection of Canon lenses, which we attach with our Metabones Canon EF to Sony NEX Speed Booster.
The Speed Booster is an adapter that allows for a full frame lens to be mounted on mirrorless cameras. It also increases the lens’s speed by a stop; what this means is, our Canon 70-200mm F2.8 becomes an F2.0 camera. Again, as a freelance cameraman, this allows me to operate and shoot in low light. And all of this is contained within a tiny package.
The a7S is incredibly compact. Without a lens, it fits in your pocket like your regular wallet.
This is both a blessing, and a curse. For high-intensity cameramen jobs, where we might be moving quickly on a monopod, running around with a slider, or setting up our jib, it is perfect to run-and-gun with. It’s size, and light weight, make it the perfect weapon for quick-moving cameramen. But this can come at a cost, as it doesn’t look like a professional, high-definition video camera.
One example of where this is perfect is when one of our freelance cameramen had to film training video footage for The Good Guys.
Whilst our clients, on the whole, are becoming desensitised to great-looking video being shot on DSLRs, the a7S looks out of place on a high-end corporate shoot. To address this, we have purchased an a7S cage to set our camera up.
We purchased a Movcam a7s cage, and it is perfect for our use. There are so many great cage options for the a7S, which not only make the camera appear bigger – great for looking like a badass! – but also add functionality, such as making it easier to operate hand-held, mount audio adapters, and attach external video recorders.
And speaking of adapters: there’s a whole range of additional technology available that’ll turn your mirrorless DSLR in to a fully-fledge broadcast camera.
Adapters, adapters, adapters
I’ve already spoken about the range of lense adapters you can purchase. You can add to this:
- Audio adapters that allow you to record XLR audio into your a7S;
- External video recorders that allow you to capture 4K footage straight out of your camera;
- And expanded battery packs that help tackle any issues with tiny DSLR batteries.
What I’m saying is that, no matter your needs or applications, you can build a Sony a7S rig that will help you deliver the footage you need. But there are some less-than-ideal features.
My Three Best Tips for Sony a7S cameramen
#1: Purchase the right SD cards
In order to maximise the performance of your a7S, you need to purchase the right recording media. A good place to start is by buying high-speed, class ten cards. Sandisk is a reliable manufacturer who we regularly purchase from.
It’s good to remember that your camera is only as good as what it is recording to!
#2: Familiarise yourself with S-Log before you use it in the field
A current trend I’ve noticed amongst videographers is that shooting ultra-flat is in vogue. No matter the camera, or the job, or the client – the desire to shoot as flat as possible, to give as much latitude in the grade as possible, is one that videographers can’t fight.
One of the big ticks for the Sony a7S is that it offers S-Log. And yes, it gives clear, clean, and flat results. But it is so important to remember that it shoots at a native ISO of 3200. As Andrew Reid, an experienced videographer, posted:
The Sony A7S continues to amaze me with the creative opportunities it is allowing for during a shoot. Clean at ISO 3200 in S-LOG most of the shots here were so softly lit for effect that I frequently needed to shoot at ISO 12,800 just to get an exposure.
Exposing S-LOG is still tricky, I am leaning more and more towards over exposure with it and applying the correct exposure with my grade. In that sense it is a bit like raw.
#3: Use the viewfinder
This is the best piece of advice I can offer. Seriously. Don’t raise your eyebrow before you’ve let me explain!
DSLRs lept to prominence in the mid-noughties, and with them, LED camera screens. Picking focus and setting exposure using the LED screen could be picky, even when you digitally zoomed in and used the in-built light meter.
The Sony a7S has a huge, detailed LED screen which looks great. But the best part is the viewfinder. Move your eye up to it, and it turns on. It works like an eye-cup that gives you a perfect view of what you’re shooting, along with the option to digitally zoom in and check focus. I cannot overstate how many times I’ve used the viewfinder in direct sunlight, in the middle of the night, or in difficult lighting conditions – and it has helped me capture the footage perfectly. As Dan Seifert from The Verge writes:
…the A7’s viewfinder is an absolute gem, with a big, bright, high-resolution display… I still found myself shooting with the viewfinder more often than not just because it is so nice to look at (especially outdoors in bright light, where it can be difficult to see the rear LCD).
So, do you have hands-on experience with an a7S? What has it brought to how you shoot and record video? I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can contact me here, or send me a tweet with your a7S impressions.