Sony PMW-F3

I’ll be up front. I like this camera. I find it strange that the F3 is overshadowed by the C300 in a lot of film reviews and blogs — at least that’s the impression I get from my RSS feed. To some extent, I’d attribute this to the fact that so many people are already invested in Canon EF glass, dictating what modern “DSLR-killer” seems most appealing.

After 2 days of shooting with the F3, I can safely say I prefer it to any other “DSLR killing” camera I’ve used (By this I mean any camera that’s not a DSLR, that was released after the rise of the 5D mark 2, that is not a RED/Alexa/F65, that was created to satiate our voracious need for relatively affordable large-sensor cameras that aren’t as freaking annoying as DSLRs).

The AF100 did not impress me. Its clumsy menu interface seemed to be borrowed from a Nintendo DS and strange colours would appear in parts of the image that were just about to clip. The C300 was a very likeable camera — extremely portable, comfortable to hold, with incredible low light sensitivity and pleasing grain. But something about the F3 feels more “serious” to me. The C300 feels like a rushed attempt at creating a mutant DSLR-camcorder hybrid, borrowing 8-bit architecture from the XF300 camcorders and failing to provide 1080/60p capability. To me it seems like a quick fix. Others love the broadcast-ready 4:2:2 50mbit internal codec, and criticise the F3’s internal 4:2:0 35mbit offering as inadequate. I can understand both arguments. For news, events and live coverage, the quality of the internal codec is paramount. For films, ads, music videos, and so on, you’re typically going to harness the increased quality and codec robustness of recording all I-frames to an external recorder of some sort — Well actually you’re probably shooting on RED.. But let’s pretend you’re not—  and the internal long GOP codec starts to lose importance. It’s here that the F3 shines, especially with the Dual link RGB 4:4:4 Log upgrade (which I did not have)

The F3 is a big “chunk” of a camera. Much wider than I’d expected based on deceptively slimming photos. Despite the excess girth, the plastic exterior keeps the F3 nice and light. I can’t complain about the button layout — very similar to an Ex3 — so far I think every camera review on this blog has involved me saying “this camera should be more like an Ex3”. One thing I’ll complain about are the ND filters. There are only 2 ND settings, and so the exposure change between them is extremely dramatic. It’s great for radical lighting changes but if you want to cut down on light by just a stop or two, don’t look at the ND filters for help. By contrast I think the C300 has 3 strengths of in-built ND.

My other complaint is that manually dialling in white balance settings on this camera is a frustrating process at best. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, a shortcut or something. But do I really need to delve into my picture profile menus to change the preset white balance? It would be great if I could specify colour temperatures for Preset, A and B separately, on both Blue/Orange and Green/Magenta spectrums. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to do this (or at least no easy way of doing this). I can specify the temperature of “Preset” and possibly “A” by going into the picture profile settings, but I never found a way of manually controlling the colour balance of “B”. I guess “A” and “B” are designed for you to actually get a white card, hit the “WB” button and let the camera do its thing. But I feel like there should be a way to override this so that you can quickly switch between three predetermined colour balances, for instance 3200K, 4300K and 5600K.

Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about resolution or colour rendering or noise patterns between the F3 and the C300 or any other camera, that’s too messy for me to handle here. Go to Pro Video Coalition for all that good stuff. But the Prores 422HQ files coming out of the Pix240 were brilliantly sharp and handled intensely saturated colour well. (much of the shoot took place in a club with powerful blue lights pumped into rotating disco balls). The camera was not S-log enabled, so I shot with Cine3 gamma, Matrix at -5, and everything else left at factory preset. Cine3 provided a boost to midtones, which will need to be pulled down slightly in post (making the colour much richer — the footage is so much more malleable than what I’m used to on a 7D).

I do think there’s a tendency for F3 footage to clip out suddenly rather than gradually roll into the highlights.. it probably doesn’t look as automatically “organic” as some other cameras can. But for a punchy club music video I don’t think that this harshness in the highlights was too detrimental. (I’ve read in a few places that Cinegamma 4 handles highlights in the smoothest fashion)

The background lighting conditions in the club were pretty extreme, and definitely pushed the camera somewhat. Some thick colour fringing was present in shots where the subjects were strongly silhouetted with clipped white light against a heavily saturated background. Here’s a screengrab:

And a 100% crop: 

Ouch. Not pretty. But these are tough conditions for any digital camera, I’m not too surprised at these results.

Ok, a couple of other quick notes. I used my own Redrock Micro baseplate, and the rest of my usual 7D rig (including Nikon primes and Redrock Blue FF) to kit up the camera, and there was only one small complication. Because the F3 is so wide, it was difficult to lock the slide plate onto the Redrock baseplate because the wingnut would hit against the bottom of the camera. You can pull the wingnut outwards to adjust its position, but it’s still tricky to lock. And secondly, I know this is common sense really, but don’t try and record out via the HDMI port unless you really, really can’t help it. It’s just too risky. We lost a few handheld takes because the HDMI cable was slightly loose, and we had no BNC alternative. It’s quite dangerous, as the Pix240 can display an image that looks perfectly fine, but upon closer inspection on a computer monitor you can see all sorts of weird visual glitches.. from dancing speckles that look like dead pixels, to colour phasing shifts, to thin dark lines of corrupt image flashing on and off.. awful stuff. So yes, I’m an idiot and left the rental house without insisting on getting a BNC cable, and lost some shots because of it. We even lost of a couple of locked off tripod shots as well because the strong breeze was enough to move the HDMI cable around. That’s what I get. To be honest, I’m now a lot less inclined to shoot with an FS100, (or D800 for that matter) since HDMI out is the only option.

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