review of the Sony FS5, in action in India.

Hands-on review: Sony FS5 on location in India

Being a one-man crew is difficult. Being a one-man crew in the cacophony and madness of India is even more so. Recently I was asked to travel to India and capture stories and b-roll for Bajalia (www.bajalia.com) that would be aired as part of their primetime broadcast on The Home Shopping Network (www.hsn.com) for International Women’s Day. For this assignment I called on the Sony FS5.

If you’ve ever traveled to rural parts of India, you’ll know that inside village homes, lighting can be a real challenge. I thought about using the Sony A7s due to its excellent low light capabilities. But because of it’s form factor, lack of built in ND filters and it’s DSLR-style audio recording/monitoring, I decided an actual video camera would be much better. The FS7 was just too big to lug around by myself, so I went with the smaller and lighter FS5.

I had virtually no time to test the capabilities of the camera. I literally picked up the camera from The Lens Depot (www.thelensdepot.com) on my way to the Orlando airport. While sitting at the gate waiting for my 14 hour flight to Dubai, I drilled down the menu to set up the camera. To test the camera, I shot a few of the other passengers waiting for their plane (I’d recommend never to say this out loud at an airport).

Overall, I love this camera! It has great low light capabilities. It’s very small and light and is very easy to hand hold. The articulating LCD screen’s design is brilliant and VERY easy to adjust on the fly. The adjustable handle on the right side is nearly perfect and is the most functional hand grip on a camera that I’ve ever used. It’s auto-exposure does a very good job of keeping my image exposed as I move from bright outdoor conditions, to deep shade, to indoors.

The camera is not perfect and there are a few things to dislike, such as some awkward, seemingly random placement of buttons, poor placement of the headphone jack, and an awkward menu structure.

The size and weight is really great. I can literally hold this camera for hours and not get fatigued. It’s small enough that I can use it in a car or in tight spaces and it doesn’t draw the attention that a bigger camera draws. Because we were on the move so much, I often was using the camera hand held, even for some interviews. I know that my fanny pack won’t win me style points, but not only did it keep extra lenses and batteries, but it served as a place to rest the camera while getting mid-level shots. I remember Zach Zamboni (the DP for Anthony Bourdain) talking about a similar device. So if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

My small camera draws very little attention.
My small camera draws very little attention.

The articulating LCD screen is a brilliantly engineered component. It attaches to the camera in one of several places. And with the quick twist of one knob, it will move up, down or around. In a matter of 2 seconds I was able to twist and fold the screen in a downward position to put into the car or into the bag. Then, in 2 more seconds, I was able to flip the screen up. Then in 2 more seconds, I was able to turn the screen down to hold the camera above my head.

LCD screen in the lower position.
LCD screen in the lower position.
Just a couple of seconds later, LCD screen in the highest position.
Just a couple of seconds later, LCD screen in the highest position.

The right side handle is one of the other brilliantly designed components of the camera. It’s similar to the original rotatable handle of the EX1. But the handle of the FS5 can be moved with a simple pull on the thumb button. You literally never have to take your hand off the handle to make adjustments. You want the camera near your waist, pull on your thumb and move the handle. Now you want the camera at eye level, just pull again and twist. The handle feels so nice in my hand. It’s as if they took a mold of my hand to make the handle. On top of its adjustability, there are several controls on the handle. There is an exposure dial for your index finger, three programmable buttons, and a menu joystick. Pressing button 4 activates the focus assist (zoom in on the image) and then moving the joystick changes where I am zoomed into. Having so many controls available to one hand is fabulous and frees up my left hand to control zoom, focus or whatever else.

Handle twisted down, to hold the camera low.
Handle twisted down, to hold the camera low.
Handle twisted up, to hold the camera over your head.
Handle twisted up, to hold the camera over your head.
Nearly perfect ergonomics w/ fantastic placement of useful buttons, including the handle release button (to left of thumb).
Nearly perfect ergonomics w/ fantastic placement of useful buttons, including the handle release button (to left of thumb).

The auto-exposure of the camera did a very good job of exposing the image. I’d lock down the aperture and put the camera on auto ISO or auto shutter speed and most of the time it’d find the perfect exposure. For my whole career I’ve been leery of auto-anything. But in some of my run and gun situations, going auto was my best choice and I was impressed with the results. So I kept using it.

Speaking of ISO, I was very impressed with the clean image this camera gave, even at high ISOs. The lowest setting is 1000, which threw me off a bit. But I occasionally went up to 20000 or 32000 and the image was usable. However, I wouldn’t say 32000 is “clean.” I found that 8000 or 10000 still gave me a very clean image.

Now to some of the things that I didn’t like. Let’s start with the menu structure. I found the menu structure to be a bit strange and at times unintuitive. Changing ISO, shutter and aperture on the fly was a bit strange. Partly because there seemed to be several ways of making those changes and alternating between manual mode and auto mode for each. It’s a good thing the auto exposure worked so well. I’m sure with practice, one could figure out the menus and quickly make necessary adjustments.

The FS5 has a special feature they call auto EVF. The idea is that when your eye is against the EVF, the EVF turns on and the LCD screen turns off. Then when you remove your eye, the EVF turns off and the LCD turns on. Seems like a good battery saver, right? The problem is that if anything passes in front of the EVF, like say your arm or an XLR cable or even your chest, then the LCD screen turns off. That’s not a good thing because if you’re eye isn’t against the EVF, then you actually need the LCD to stay on. So even though it’s a great concept, in actual use, it isn’t very practical.

I really dislike the location of the headphone jack. It’s on the back of the camera sticking straight back. However, a hand held camera like this is often held against my body as support. Having that jack in that orientation prevents me from holding the camera against my body. At least, not without putting stress against the fragile jack. One solution is a small 90 degree elbow adapter, so the headphones can plug in and then bend down. But that’s one more small thing to keep track of in your bag. It’s a good thing I actually own one (and brought) that little guy on this trip.

Get yourself a 90-degree elbow for your headphone jack.
Get yourself a 90-degree elbow for your headphone jack.

One of the XLR jacks is also on the back of the camera. Again, preventing the camera from being held tightly against my body. I would have preferred the jack to stick out sideways, but that might cause problems with the rotating handle.

The last thing I didn’t like was the battery life. I got about two, maybe two and a half hours of “on” time from each battery. I had two batteries and never ran out for the day, but I certainly came very close and found myself taking a lot of effort to conserve batteries.

Overall this was a great piece of equipment. Obviously in this review I don’t talk about the technical aspects of the camera, it’s 4K capability, nor it’s ability to shoot Slog 2 and Slog 3 and so many other great aspects of the camera. I’ll let someone smarter than me talk about all that. Meanwhile, I’ve got a plane to catch.

Trevor F. Ward is an award-winning documentary film maker based in Orlando, Florida. In addition to independently produced films, his production company, Red Eye Film Company, produces compelling video content for large companies, small businesses and non-profits around the globe.