SONY’s F55 Camera - User Review

DoP STEVE LAWES was chosen by Sony to test their 4K camera the F55. Steve wasn’t interested in doing timelapses or gentle pans across beautiful scenery but decided to shoot a drama, DIG.

DoP Steve Lawes with a very early Sony F55 4K camera but he managed to shoot in RAW.

DoP Steve Lawes with a very early Sony F55 4K camera but he managed to shoot in RAW.

Sony approached me at the beginning of October. Ever since I shot the first season of Sherlock on the Sony f35 I’ve had a relationship with Sony and they’ve asked me to test up and coming products for them especially cameras. They mentioned there was a couple of new cameras coming out, the F5 and F55, and wanted to see if I would shoot a test film for them, pretty much anything I wanted to do. It was kind of a corporate gig really. I’d previously done something called Convergence with a director friend of mine called Martin Scanlan. We basically walked around for a couple of days with two actors and came up with this short film which was shot on the Sony f3. One of the things that I’d always said when I watch a camera test or  any footage from a new camera - I don’t just want to watch a load of timelapses and GVs as it doesn’t really tell me that much about a camera. I would normally use a camera in drama in television or film. Sony were after something about five minutes long and maybe something similar to what I had come up with before. So I asked Martin whether he would be interested in getting involved with the project and then asked him to write a draft of the script. Sony were quite keen on something that didn’t have any dialogue and would be something like a silent film so they didn’t get in to any border problems with sub titles. There were F5 films being made in the US and France and this was to be the F55 film. 

 The script was a two hander which they liked and I went ahead and found the services of a producer and sorted out the details. We were going to do a three day shoot down in Wales so we could get access to the producer we were working with as she had access to locations at a more favourable rate than we would have got in London as she was part of the BBC’s Being Human programme. It was kind of intentional that the script had interiors, exteriors, low light, night exteriors, car interiors, it’s a kind of rattle bag situations that you’d want to see this camera in. What we wanted to do was to make a bit of a story and use the camera in anger like we normally would and would give people an idea of what the camera would do in a situation where you’ve not got a quarter of a million pounds to throw at it and all the lights in the world. It was quite a scaled down crew, there were only 15 people but it would be a great example of what the camera, at this very moment, could do, something which I’m sure lots of people are interested in. 

After the camera was launched on October 30 I got hold of two cameras which I took to Take 2 Films and proceeded to do some testing on them. One thing I would say at this point was the physical camera is pretty much as it will be when available in February but the software is very much pre-production. Lots of things didn’t work on the camera, like the display on the side didn’t work. My experience of it was a slightly handicapped one with the software that it was using. We were restricted to using only 23.98fps because it was the only frame rate that would work, we shot in 4k RAW to the R5 recorder. We were presented with a software version that meant the camera wouldn’t record sound just picture to the R5 recorder. It would record at 1600ISO, when you recorded RAW you put it into a ‘Cine AI’ mode and what happens when you put it in to that mode is that it locks out certain features like Gain, locks the ISO to 1600 so it’s almost like having a film stock that does 1600ISO. 

The Sony F55 fully loaded with recorder and the latest Sony batteries.

The Sony F55 fully loaded with recorder and the latest Sony batteries.

We didn’t use the internal card recording, we just used the RAW recorder with the new media inside which looks very similar to SR memory but is a bit smaller. 

One of the issues when we spoke to Sony at the launch was that there was literally no support post-wise for the RAW files so one of my concerns was that as soon as I got hold of the camera was to create some RAW files and to make sure we had a post work flow. When we shot the test that wasn’t available but Dado at My Therapy who we were using for post has a very good relationship with Blackmagic Design. He sent some of the RAW files over to the DaVinci development team at Blackmagic and within 48 hours they had managed to turn around a beta version of Resolve that would work with the F55 RAW. The only other way we had a chance to view the RAW files was using an Alpha version of the Sony F65 RAW viewer which basically meant you could ingest the files on to a MacBook and look at it within that viewing software. It kind of lets you know that there’s an image there but that’s about all it can do.

When the camera works as it should the idea is that you will be able to record RAW to the recorder and the proxies to an SxS card so effectively get your off line at the same time as your online. But when we shot we got everything on to RAW, downloaded all of it on to RAID drives as we went using a MacBook Pro on the back of the camera truck, backed everything up and at the end of the shoot all the rushes went back to My Therapy. Over the first weekend the ProRes proxies were created from the RAW files via Resolve. The offline was done using FCP 7. We then created an XML which went back in to Resolve and then what Dado managed to do was to build a new machine to be able to handle 4K resolution in real time so we managed to grade the whole thing in Resolve. We haven’t used a look up table or anything, we’ve literally been working straight off the RAW which has been fantastic.

Sony’s new F55 camera with on-board recorder and new batteries.

Sony’s new F55 camera with on-board recorder and new batteries.

What’s really interesting is when you shoot with the camera, I was monitoring in SLog 2, I found the cameras has Rec 709 and a hypergamma setting but it was basically very off-putting if you set an exposure with SLog 2 and then put a Rec 709 LUT on it, it was just so over exposed that you ended up switching it off as it was distracting. So I exposed the whole three days using my light meter and basically metering on Slog 2 and every evening I would look at some files within the RAW viewer software to get an idea if the exposure was correct.  I was working on the basis that when I did the over and under tests I did actually believe it was 1600ASA maybe a third of a stop under that but pretty much bang on 1600. 

What was also interesting was when we were shooting on the HD output of the camera there was  quite a bit of noise in the image. There were quite a lot of questions whether the noise was there or in the RAW file. Was it coming from the chip of just on the monitoring? So its been a bit of wait to see the end result in the grade and know whether that noise was going to be there or not. I’m glad to say that in the current software version there is some low level noise in the video output which isn’t there in the actual RAW file. I’m sure it won’t be there on the finished result but obviously you’re aware of it when you’re shooting. 

Unfortunately there isn’t any 4k monitoring at the moment, Sony have got a 4k panel but it’s not the kind of thing you can have on set.  Effectively you are viewing an HD proxy on a 25 inch or seven inch OLED. I’ve shot with the f65 and the output you get with the camera seems to be very accurate to what you’re getting on the RAW file, all I could tell with this is while we were shooting in low light situations I could look at the monitor, and I use OLEDs all the time and find that I can trust them, if I see an image on an OLED at its black level I can go to a grading suite and it can be pretty much spot on. My conclusion was that there is very little or no noise whatsoever in it. I think it’s a software issue that Sony needs to work on so you get a reliable output out  of the camera. 

The F55 is much smaller form factor than the f65 and it might be that the bit of processing that it does between the chip and the proxy output isn’t as good as the f65 which you would kind of expect because of the price difference. Having spoken to the Japanese engineers I’m sure its a processing issue that is going to get sorted out. 

What is interested having sat through two days of grading is realising how good the image is that comes out the camera. I actually watched it projected in 4K this morning, we created a DCP overnight and sat in the Mayfair theatre this morning and did a review and for that size of camera and the kind of price point it is rumoured to be at it is pretty amazing. If I was going to shoot a low budget film in 4K I would want to grab hold of that camera for sure. 

I’m now going in to a shoot for a television doc and the producers are saying we are going to shoot on an Alexa, its basically a done deal. I think the Alexa has established itself really well from all ends of the market from Skyfall all the way down to Casualty. I think the F55 does offer up stiff competition for the Alexa, obviously in terms of it 4K ability which the Alexa hasn’t got at the moment. I think in terms of its form factor it is really quite small, so much so that you could use in situations that you would want to use an Alexa M to get it a car. I did  some shots in a car and once I had taken everything off and just had the front end and the recorder its quite compact. You can take the battery off and plug it into the 4-pin socket on the side of the recorder, compared with an Alexa with a battery on the back it’s still considerably shorter. Its also lighter with its composite body as opposed to the metal of the Alexa. The viewfinder was interesting, for me it was an improvement on the F35/F65 viewfinder although I think the real icing on the cake will be the OLED model. The current viewfinder is quite big and is still a mirrored image. In terms of colour rendition what’s interesting about the look of it is in my mind it’s very close to the F65, it has a very clean look. I would say it has quite a natural aesthetic to it. 

It would be nice to persuade producers to shoot 4K and then produce a 2k master knowing you had a 4K digital negative whenever you need one. I know you do that already with RED but my experience is that people don’t like the workflow of the RED certainly in post and also the massive data you deal with. For our shoot in terms of data it was half the amount of data of an F65 in terms of the RAW format which is an 8k camera. We used the new Sony batteries that seemed very interesting. I had full support from Take 2 Films so used their Cook S4s and two Alura zooms - in fact I set up a kit that I would normally use for a TV drama or film and then put the F55 in it.

It had a couple of issues like the silver box we used to try and get the optical axis of the lens the correct height for an Arri Matte box, so there will be a metal plate on the bottom of it to raise it up. Also having the display on the side of the camera is a huge benefit, I still had to change a lot of the menu items through the viewfinder because the side panel wasn’t operating properly with that software. But in terms of the layout of it, the soft button approach with anything you would want to change quickly like colour temperature, gain and ISO you could do so there and then.

When I went to Sony initially to have the first conversations about this camera they had a picture of it which I saw after signing a NDA. As soon as I saw the picture I was kind of relieved to see that they had been looking at what people like about the Alexa. I was quite happy thinking it wasn’t another F35 kind of film derived package that is not particularly ergonomic. I straightaway saw the display panel on the side and the whole form factor and thought it was quite interesting. When I received all the spec details on it, I thought that Sony had been listening quite a lot and taken a bit of a change in direction. 

It does show that camera design is maturing somewhat. I remember a few years ago before even RED happened when people were still shooting on cameras like the Sony 900. I used to have conversations about wanting a brain or a box, coming from film we thought we wanted a digital mag that you could put on the back of a film camera so you could carry on with an optical viewfinder and all the same things you were used to. Its not a million miles away from that. When I shoot a drama I don’t really want to play around with menus I just want to record in the best possible way, gather the most latitude as possible and the most information. I’ll put filters in front of the camera and change lenses to change the aesthetic that way. Like a film camera I just want the stock to do one thing, to get as much information as possible. 

So for me the idea of going in to a menu and changing things apart from shutter angles, colour temperature or gain and ISO is wrong. Those are the things I want to change. To have a camera that is moving towards that, like the Alexa is great. You switch it on, put it in a mode, go from exterior to interior, change it from 3.2 to 5.6 or whatever it’s just very straightforward. That is the way we approach things in the higher end of drama and film making. The moment the RED One came out there was a big change in the direction that camera design was going in, economical as well as physically. We are seeing the results of that now with the F55.

I think one of the things that Sony has gone for with this camera is the fact that you can shoot HD, you can shoot 2K and you can shoot an SR codec at 240fps. It’s got lots of features. For rental companies like Take 2 its of great interest as it ticks lots of boxes and also not everybody likes the Alexa. There are a lot of people who like the Sony products. The F65 was never ever going to fall in to that TV market, I  think what they will have with the F55 is something that has much more wide ranging appeal. From someone who coming from a low budget basis to someone who is at the higher end. I think they have got their competition cut out with the Alexa because it’s been around for two years and has established itself. But for me its always down to the pictures, as long as the price point is good and the post support is there. As long as it records proxies at the same time as the raw files that’s all stuff that is a big benefit. 

We are now at ISO levels that let you do some very interesting things when you shoot. A film like Drive is a great example of how high ISO ratings is actually changing cinematography. It’s enabling us to go out and shoot things in a different way where we can have a much smaller lighting kit not only in terms of a production point of views but in terms  of the aesthetic you’re trying to attain. If you wanted a night exterior that looks like it’s lit by street lights you can now whereas before when you were restricted to 500 ASA film you’d always tend to put a back light in to try and get some more shape in to the image. Now you can go in to a room and look at it and switch the camera on and point it at the scene before you’ve even lit it and see some interesting things like the way the light is falling through the window and get something quite different rather than having to get an18k  light through the window otherwise you wouldn’t get exposure and end up lighting it in a much more classical way. I really think the higher ISO cameras, 800, 1600, is making a difference to cinematography in different ways. Some people might think that you don’t need lights anymore, you don’t need big lights or a crew of sparks. You still need to create shadow and depth and contrast with light but it does open up opportunities for you to do things at lower light levels. 

Posted on January 24, 2013 and filed under 4k, cinematography.