Camera Review: Sony A7s

Samuel B. Dodd

Professor Donald Vincent

WR-121-38

25 January 2016

Camera Review: Sony A7s

After graduating high school, my parents wanted to buy me a DSLR camera in preparation for my acceptance as a film production major at Emerson College. I needed a compact camera that could last me throughout college and some years after at an affordable price. I originally planned to purchase the infamous Canon EOS 5D Mark iii (5D3) $2,500. My friends however, cautioned me to spend my money on a new breed of camera, Sony’s mirror-less Alpha 7s (A7s) $2,500.

Despite all the technical aspects of the camera they tried seducing me with, it was a video posted by Philip Bloom, cinematographer for Lucasfilm, CNN, Sky, and BBC that really opened my eyes. Bloom’s video, “Now I See”, demonstrated the camera’s revolutionary low-light capabilities. Link to video: https://vimeo.com/99893160

Currently, the average maximum ISO amongst all major competing brands of cameras by Nikon, Canon, Black Magic, and Fuji is 3200 ISO. The Sony A7s’s minimum ISO starts at 3200 ISO and goes up to 102,400 ISO while still being able to provide a quality image that isn’t overly distorted by digital noise/grain. While this is a remarkable feature of the camera, the fact that it cannot shoot below 3200 ISO means that one would have to buy an abundance of ND filters to shoot in bright daylight and other situations in which the source light of the frame is too bright and the shooter can’t control it.

As for the camera’s maximum ISO, it reaches all the way up to an unbelievable 409,600 ISO. Now, shooting at 409,600 ISO makes for a hideous image, but for a run-and-gun journalists, street shooters, documentarians, it’s better to capture the content despite the quality of the image.

To this day the A7s is still known as the “Low-light King.” Not only does it create opportunities for industry professionals to shoot in low-light conditions while maintaining an acceptable image, but it also enables broke college students, such as myself, to light their scenes at a more affordable cost.

Besides cameras and lenses, the 2nd most expensive and possibly most important element of filmmaking is the lights used to shape the image a camera will later capture. Without light, a camera much like the human eye wouldn’t be able to capture or see anything other than darkness. With the A7s’s low-light capabilities, I no longer needed to worry about purchasing a $100,000 light kit that I could never afford in the 1st place. Needless to say however, this didn’t mean that I didn’t need any light at all to light my scenes for the camera to capture an image, it simply meant that I didn’t need as expensive professional lighting equipment to achieve a similar image to that of Hollywood movies today. For an independent, nature, and or student filmmaker, the camera’s low-light capabilities saves you thousands of dollars on lighting equipment.

Surprisingly though, the camera’s low-light capability isn’t its only revolutionary feature. In addition to this, the Sony A7s is the first mirror-less full frame camera to offer external UHD 4K resolution recording via HDMI + a 4K external recorder for less than $5,000. Given that 4K, 4.6K, 6K, 8K, and 9K resolutions are soon to replace Full HD 1080p as the film industry’s professional standard, the Sony A7s proves itself “future-proof” in the sense that with the additional purchase of an external recorder after graduating college, a film student wouldn’t have to purchase a whole new camera to compete in the professional 4K film industry. Given that cameras of this quality are usually valued at a minimum of $5,000, it would be more cost effective to purchase a $1,000 external recorder to add to the camera you already own rather than spending an extra $4,000+ on another future camera that does all the same things the Sony A7s does minus internal 4K recording.

On the note of using an external recorder to record 4K from the Sony A7s, I’d actually like to point out a flaw the Sony A7s has in this field. While the camera’s compact lightweight build makes it easily portable, handling becomes very awkward when you have a bulky 6 pound 7 inch wide monitor sitting on top of a 2 pound 4.5 inch camera. It almost feels as though the camera will collapse under the monitor’s weight. All in all, it’s a sturdy camera given its size, but a cage and rigging system is definitely required to comfortably shoot 4K.

Considering the Sony A7s and the Canon 5D mark iii were both listed at the same price at $2,500 and that the Sony A7s could do more regarding its technological advantages of future-proof specifications, I finally abandoned my Canon bias and purchased the Sony A7s. By the end of March 2015, a package arrived and inside was the Sony A7s.

The next thing that I came to learn, was that learning how to use the A7s, was nearly impossible. While no camera brand offers an instruction manual for a camera, Sony should seriously consider including a piece of paper in the package that lists a step-by-step process of how the A7s works and how to use it best in different lighting situations. Sony’s customer support website doesn’t even offer a solution to this problem. It took me 3 weeks of frustration before I finally found video tutorials and articles posted and published on the personal blogs of industry professionals such as Alister Chapman, Wolfcrow, and Philip Bloom, who have all shot feature length films for Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, and other film companies that did in-depth explanations on how to use the camera at its fullest potential. Links to blogs:

http://www.xdcam-user.com/2014/08/exposing-and-using-slog2-on-the-sony-a7s-part-one-gamma-and-exposure/

http://wolfcrow.com/blog/how-to-expose-and-grade-s-log2-for-the-sony-a7s/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeX-eZXaRtw

Despite this camera’s steep learning curve, a determined filmmaker can achieve astounding images if they take the time to learn how the A7s is properly used. With that being said, no other camera, including the 5D3 can compete with the Sony A7s when it comes to an affordable, future-proof, cinema capable camera making it the number one option for student and independent filmmakers.

Work Cited:

“Now I See.” Vimeo. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

“Exposing and Using S-Log2 on the Sony A7s. Part One: Gamma and Exposure.” XDCAMUSERCOM. 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

BHPhotoVideoProAudio. “Philip Bloom A7S Seminar.” YouTube. YouTube, 2014. Web.  30 Mar. 2016.

“How to Expose and Grade S-Log2 for the Sony A7s.” Wolfcrow. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

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