Why did I give up my Canon 7D for the Sony FS100?

By Sam Morgan Moore

I have been living the ‘DSLR’ dream since the D90 hit the streets in 2009. What is that dream? It’s got to be different for everyone…

Mine is about being able to make nice little films, bringing my photographic eye and a certain fleetness of foot that anyone who has worked taking stills for the papers knows well.

Press photographers are great at making instant decisions – especially those who come from an era when wiring a picture was a long and complex process. Probably that decisiveness is what we can bring to the ‘movie making game’, which seems to me a little overblown on occasion.

I have really enjoyed filming on my 5DmkII. For me, a sweet little combination has been using it with Canon 24-105mm f4L and 50mm f1.4 lenses, a Rode videomic, LCDVF loupe and my little HalfInchRails RnG rig (disclosure: I make these). It’s great for making fun little films where I am the director and there is no pressure. But as I picked up a few paid gigs, the goal posts started to move. I needed sound, run times, long battery life and a repeatable control of focus. The days of  ‘fun with a 50mm’ were over.

I built a Canon 7D rig up to create a production machine gaining big batteries, a really nice sound recorder and a decent monitor to view my images. But the DSLR-based production monster never really worked, mainly due to a couple of simple little things: HDMI cables wobbling loose and having to use sync sound.

To me these things just seemed too risky to do in a ‘paid for’ environment, when I am suggesting people pay me rather than the regular crew with a Sony EX1 they have been using for years. Those of us with a background in press expect to get it right on the first go  – there may not be a second and that creates a slight obsession with battery life and other such details, such as the camera rolling when you press the record button(s). Failure is not an option to the press photographer or the small businessman cutting into a new market sector. So really my 7D production machine was – in my eyes – a failure: just too fiddly and not reliable enough.

My FS100 rig with Sony 18-200 lens, Small HD monitor and V-lock battery plate

So, roll on the Sony FS100. It has some killer apps:

– If you pull the HDMI lead out it keeps rolling.
– It has onboard monitorable sound that is synced to the image.
– No crazy moire on brick walls – yes, I shoot for architects !
– Solid mount points on the body to work against follow focus tensions

Those things make it a production tool that I can lay my reputation on. Of course, unlike my EX1 it has the DSLR/S35 large chip look too and can take my still photo lenses.

I picked it over the Panasonic AF100 because I thought I would use but not actually enjoy the camera thanks to the slightly smaller chip and apparent weakness in low light. The AF100 also has the unnecessary baggage of a top handle and internal EVF. Of course, it does have onboard neutral density (ND) filters and that is the major omission of the Sony.

My solution for the FS100 is to buy a heap of cheap ND filters from SRB-Griturn for about £20 and step up filter rings to suit all my differing lenses. Using step up rings, 90% of my lenses now have an effective front element size of 77 or 62mm. I feel it is better to invest in a few cheap NDs than one expensive Vari-ND filter. Say I am swapping between my 35mm f2 and my 85mm f2 (manual Nikkor lenses). I have ND for both of them so a swap is simple. I’m not doing the matte box thing because it seems to open too many issues for fast lens changes – and anyway flare can be cool. One lens I don’t have worked out yet is my ultrawide 14mm Nikkor – I have no ND solution yet thanks to it’s bulbous front element.

I also have the Sony 18-200mm NEX kit lens. I seriously recommend buying this thing. The auto focus is pretty cool and so is the image stabilisation, not to mention the zoom range and the price: about the same as a regular 18mm prime lens for the camera. The lowlight performance of the camera makes up for the F6.3, the base ISO of the FS100 is said to be 800ASA.  It’s a great ‘grab a shot’ lens, but the less-than-responsive fly by wire focus and aperture adjustment, make it inappropriate for my finer cinematography moments – those are when I pull out one of my little Nikkor primes.

Sony FS100 50p and Motorbikes from Sam Morgan Moore on Vimeo.

Beyond lenses I have a Small HD DP6 monitor – I prefer this to an EVF because evaluation of focus is finer and I want to be able to see my image when the camera is placed on the ground or suchlike. I also like the SmallHD sunshade.

I have a Hawk-Woods breakout box and V-Lok batteries to power the monitor and the camera via a dummy battery adaptor. I also have a Sanken CS2 mic on a Rycote mount and a Sony lavalier system. The whole package is mounted on a rig I have created with bits from my HalfInchRails parts bin and a few little extras. I’m reconfiguring the rig every day – building it like an ENG camera. I am also looking into lighter batteries. There is no point in having 10 hours of battery life on a camera package you can only carry for five hours.

So I now have a full, client-pleasing production machine that I trust and also my 5D rig for fun days out for shooting with no client pressure or using as a B-cam for the shots where (lack of) size matters.

I have shot two pressured commercial jobs so far – I’m afraid they are not yet in the public domain – and am happy.

A review of the FS100 in short:
– Lowlight – great
– Moire – none
– Sharpness – reasonable
– Roll off to white – NOT as good as a Canon
– Menus – annoying
– Buttons – all in the wrong place
– Side handle – in the bin
– Sony’s Chimney pot LCD loupe – in the bin
– Sound – a bit tinny compared to my lovely Sound Devices 702 audio recorder – but then so is everything

In spite of some of those drawbacks, I don’t feel I will be buying another camera for a while. I’m not actually a gear fiend: I just want the light to go on when the time to roll comes. I now have that –  and the cine look when I want it. You can check out my image comparisons between the FS100 and 7D here.

About Sam Morgan Moore:
Sam Morgan Moore is a video and stills shooter based in the UK. He is also the creator of www.halfinchrails.com camera support systems

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