Sony FS5 tested at anti-war protests: real world, low light, broadcast quality results

I’ve been putting the Sony FS5 through its paces this week and one of the things I really wanted to test was how it performs in low light on a real news story.

As luck would have it there was the perfect opportunity in London at the Stop the War demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament. Protesters gathered during voting on the Prime Minister David Cameron’s motion to commit British warplanes to bombing missions against ISIS targets in Syria.

The FS5 kit used comprised a Sigma 18-35mm f1.8, 50-150mm f2.8, Rodelink and Aladdin Piccolo LED light.
The FS5 kit used comprised a Sigma 18-35mm f1.8, 50-150mm f2.8, Rodelink and Aladdin Piccolo LED light

News events like this are usually covered with handheld cameras, not big rigs and tripods. I took a very basic FS5 kit consisting of the body, Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 ART lens with adapter, Sigma 50-150mm f2.8 (which I didn’t use in the end) and an E-mount SLR Magic 50mm f1.1 prototype lens. I also had a GoPro Hero4+ which I used to get the aerial shots. All the shots were handheld without any form or rig or other add-on.

It was very dark outside and most of the shots were with the camera set at 3200 ISO with the 18-35mm wide open at f1.8. I chose to shoot in Cine gamma in Cinema colour mode, rather than S-Log. I also decided to shoot in 1080P HD instead of 4K, so I could make use of the 4:2:2 10-bit colour. For broadcast use I imagine this is how I would set up the camera 99 per cent of the time – right now none of the major news networks want or need 4K footage from an event like this.

Shooting with the FS5 at the London anti-war protests (Photo by Peter Nicholls)
Shooting with the FS5 at the London anti-war protests (Photo by Peter Nicholls)

I found that using the FS5 in the hand was a pleasure. I could either cradle it in my arms and use the built-in screen to compose, or put the camera to my eye and use the EVF. Both worked really well. The big difference between the FS5 and cameras like the C100 mkII or JVC LS300 is that its screen is placed further forward, instead of to the mid or rear of the body. It is therefore much easier to see with the camera held close to your body. Having the magnification button at your fingertips on the handgrip is also essential. I found I was using this for practically every shot both before and during recording.

Most of the shots were at 3200 ISO
Most of the shots were at 3200 ISO

The results impressed me greatly. At 3200 ISO most shots still looked sharp and had quite natural colour considering the mixed artificial lighting. Using the Cine gamma there was still quite a lot of room to grade it. I simply used FilmConvert to make the footage look very neutral, which is my preference for this kind of work. If you wanted you could boost saturation levels and crush the blacks quite a bit more.

The image might not be quite as good as I would have achieved using an a7S II. But the FS5’s handling inspires a lot more confidence in this particular situation – I could go from shooting from the hip to holding the camera up high within seconds, so getting a variety of shots in quick succession was a hell of a lot easier. The results were very usable and I don’t think there would have been any complaints from a broadcaster had I been working for one.

A couple of the shots were quite underexposed even at 3200 ISO – the dog barking in the car in particular. I was able to quickly pull it back in post and you can see the noise as a result in the graded version of the video. The grain is evident but I think the shot is still just about usable, I’m guessing that in 8-bit 4K it might have looked worse.

After spending the night shooting and reviewing footage I am now totally sold on the FS5 for this kind of work. No other camera is as well balanced in the hand, lightweight, compact and still fully featured with pro video features like ND and XLR audio. I would prefer it to Sony’s sister FS7 for running around, although for more controlled work and interviews the larger camera still has advantages.

The FS5 alongside the Canon C300 Mk II
The FS5 alongside the Canon C300 Mk II

If I had unlimited budget the only other camera that I would perhaps prefer for in this kind of shooting situation is the Canon C300 mkII. It has Canon’s colour science, the benefit of really good autofocus and a higher bitrate internal recording with 12-bit HD in 4:4:4, or 10-bit 4K in 4:2:2. It too is a delight to use, but at almost three times the price of the FS5 it will be a hard sell to many documentary and news shooters who perhaps wouldn’t see the benefit of some of the higher specs.

I didn’t really see the need for the FS5, given that I have an FS7 and other cameras – but now I’ve tried it out for real world shooting I just wish I could add it to my kit. I’ll be sad to see it go when I have to send it back to Sony next week.

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