Review: Sony NEX-FS100 “Super35” LSS AVCHD Camcorder
An interchangeable-lens large-single-sensor NXCAM with a unique design.
By Adam Wilt | February 27, 2012
Sony's follow-on to the consumer-oriented, 1080/60i NEX-VG10 is the more professional NEX-FS100, an E-Mount AVCHD camcorder listing for US$5850, or $6550 with an 18-200mm lens. It shares the same sensor as the considerably more expensive PMW-F3, but nothing else—including its design. The FS100 abandons the problematic "overweight Handycam" form factor in favor of a compact, lightweight box-camera layout that works nicely on a tripod and readily enables cine-style customization and flexible lens choices. It's a bold departure from the status quo and one that, with only a couple of quibbles, pays off handsomely.
The FS100 sits firmly in the NXCAM camp: entry-level professional camcorders capturing HD to Memory Sticks and SDHC cards using AVCHD, an 8-bit, 4:2:0, long-GOP, h.264 codec. Most of its options, settings and camera tweaks will be familiar to shooters using Sony's NXCAM and pro HDV camcorders, those with HVR- and HXR- prefixes. The FS100 adds seven S&Q (Slow & Quick, a.k.a. variable frame rate) speeds from 1-60fps (1-50fps for the "PAL" version), as well as a 28 Mbps 1080p60 recording mode. And, of course, it has E-mount: a shallow-flange-depth lens mount allowing the use of Sony's own lenses or, with the appropriate adapter, almost any stills or cine lens available:
NEX-FS100 with the Sony E-Mount 18-200mm kit lens.
NEX-FS100 with Sony E-Mount 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss.
NEX-FS100 with Sony Alpha 16-35mm f/2.8 Zeiss, via Sony LA-EA1 adapter.
NEX-FS100 with Nikon 17-55 f/2.8, via Rainbowimaging/Fotasy adapter.
NEX-FS100 with Arri/Zeiss 32mm T1.9 Ultra Prime, via Hot Rod Cameras adapter.
NEX-FS100 with RED 18-85mm T2.9 cine zoom, via Hot Rod Cameras adapter.
At the same time, the FS100 gives up dual card slots and relay recording, though it accepts the HXR-FMU128 Flash Memory Unit for 11+ hours of continuous recording. It also lacks SDI, settling for HDMI, analog component, and composite outputs instead.
Imagine a short, stubby brick with a Dixie cup glued to one end, and you've got the body of the FS100. Cut a lens mount into the end of the Dixie cup; add a tilting and swiveling LCD to the top of the brick; liberally festoon the exterior with buttons, switches, connectors, and attachment points; and throw a carrying handle, side grip, microphone, and viewfinder tube into the box, too. The result is the FS100U, and it costs about $5000 (US street price, February 2012). Add in the Sony E-Mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 optically stabilized zoom, and you'll spend about $600 more for the FS100UK package. (The "U" suffix indicates the US model; European and Asian models use "E" and "P" suffixes.)
Lens controls sit on the rounded "Dixie cup" just aft of the lens mount. These controls only work with compatible lenses, such as native E-mount lenses, Sony Alpha lenses with the appropriate Sony adapter, or Canon lenses with the Conurus/Metabones EF-to-NEX adapter (and depending on the adapter, some functions, like auto-iris, may still not be available).
The IRIS button toggles between auto and manual iris. A thumbwheel lets you adjust the iris in manual mode. IRIS PUSH AUTO gives you a momentary auto-iris setting while in manual mode.
An EXPANDED FOCUS button enlarges the center of the image "about 2x" on the LCD for precise focusing; this button works even while recording and regardless of the lens attached.
An AUTO/MAN slide switch set the focus mode for E-Mount lenses, and a PUSH AUTO button gives you momentary autofocus when manually focusing those same lenses.
(Nowhere, I should note, do you see an ND filter switch: the FS100 does not have internal ND filters. Shooters planning to use cine lenses with the FS100 should plan on a complement of ND filters for the matte box; those using stills lenses may want to consider variable NDs.)
On the "brick" part of the body there are two rows of three assignable buttons, labeled 1-6 in bright white print. Default functions are shown in darker gray print, and the defaults are eminently sensible, so you may not need to change them except in unusual conditions.
Three oblong buttons toggle manual control of gain, white balance, and shutter. Below these are a pushbutton to invoke S&Q (Slow and Quick, or variable-speed) recording, a three-position gain switch, a three-position white-balance switch (A/B/PRESET), a white-balance-setting pushbutton, and a multi-purpose thumbwheel. The thumbwheel sets shutter speeds, frame rates, auto-exposure adjustments, and traverses menus, depending on which button was last pressed.
Above the SONY logo there's a slot for threading a carrying strap. Below the logo, a slide switch toggles the camera's general operation between fully AUTO and selectable MANUAL controls. MENU displays the camera's menus, while PICTURE PROFILE brings up a selection of six picture profiles (custom presets) letting you fine-tune image parameters like gamma, matrix, detail, and knee. A DISPLAY button toggles the data readouts on the LCD (and the output connections, if you've configured the camera to do so), while the STATUS CHECK button cycles through a set of LCD overlays with detailed information on the camera's status and configuration.
At the very bottom there's a push-in BATTery RELEASE button, and at the back, there's a flip-open door for the MS/SDHC card slot, with a card-access LED above it. The LED glows red when the card is being written to or read from: a stoplight letting you know when it's not safe to pop the card out.
Starting at the top, there's a narrow window for the IR remote control, with a tally-lamp LED embedded in it. A channel-selection switch for the headphones lets you choose Ch. 1, Ch. 2, or a stereo mix; it sits beside the 1/8" / 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, which lurks behind a tethered rubber cap. Also on the same tether is a cap over the REMOTE jack, a LANC port compatible with the full-featured RM-1000BP controller.
Just above the cavernous battery well, the XLR jack for input 2 resides behind a flip-out rubber cap on the left. On the right, a flip-up door reveals a full-sized HDMI port.
On the left, again, we see the card slot door; on the right another door hides RCAs for composite video and stereo audio output, as well as a Sony-proprietary D-shell jack for an analog component video cable, included, which terminates in three RCA plugs.
The right side has another carrying-strap lug, and a cable clip for wrangling the cables from the included microphone and the removable handgrip. XLR input 1 has its own rubber cover, as does the USB port below it.
The bulk of the right side is occupied by a pop-out blank. Flip its release lever forwards and pop the blank out, and you can pop in the same HXR-FMU128 memory unit used on the HXR-NX5.
The 128 Mbyte, $670 (street price) memory unit records 11 hours of 24 Mbps AVCHD, enough (perhaps) for even the most long-winded interview.
At the front there's a 1/4" mounting socket and a guide hole, normally used to affix the removable, rotating handgrip, but available for any 1/4" accessory you might choose to mount there. Below that mounting point, in the front of the "brick", there's a START/STOP trigger button.
There's a focus hook on the right, up front at the sensor plane, so that 1st ACs can attach tape measures to get their marks. There's also an accessory shoe with a 1/4" socket; the removable carry handle normally mounts there.
Two more 1/4" sockets lurk in the top of the "brick", just in front of the LCD mount; you can attach cine accessories directly to them, but doing so restricts how far the LCD can open and swivel. Several third-party cheese plates / top mounts use these sockets as anchor points, providing their own accessory mounting sockets farther forward and letting the LCD have a greater range of motion.
The camera's LCD sits amidships on a tilt-and-swivel mount. A thumbwheel to its right adjusts tilt friction, necessary when using the long and heavy viewfinder tube.
The rear half of the top has an inset well for the folded-down LCD; this well is chock-full of controls.
Along the left side are the usual audio controls: LINE/MIC/+48v selectors for both XLRs; input-to-channel routing switches, AUTO/MANual gain switches, and rotary controls for audio level.
Two rows of transport-control and data-display buttons fill the top right. Below that, there's a four-way rocker for menu navigation with a center EXECute pushbutton. Two important buttons sit to its right, VISUAL INDEX and MENU. VISUAL INDEX is the inaptly-named button you push to toggle between "camera" and "playback" modes (this nomenclature is so nonintuitive that I was actually forced, in total desperation, to consult the manual to suss out how to play back a clip!). MENU is a second menu button, handily placed so that if you're involved in playback operations, you needn't detour to the side of the camera to call up the menus.
At the rear edge, alongside the audio pots, there's the master power switch (with a green pushbutton lock to reduce inadvertent actuation), a START/STOP trigger, and a headphone volume rocker switch. This entire row of important-while-shooting controls is accessible even with the LCD folded down.
The bottom of the camera has two 1/4" and two 3/8" tripod sockets along the centerline, with an anti-rotation pin locating hole between the two 1/4" mounts, and four more 1/4" sockets to the sides.
The 1/4" sockets are all about 8-9mm deep, but the 3/8" sockets are only about 6mm deep. These were too shallow for two 3/8" tripod plates I tried to use, a Manfrotto and a Vinten; the attachment screws bottomed out in the sockets before the camera was snugged down to the plate. I wound up using a Manfrotto 394 quick-release plate (using one of the 1/4" sockets) or the Hot Rod Cameras FS100 riser plate (using all four non-centerline 1/4" sockets!) to adapt the camera to a 3/8" mount.
On the lower left of the brick (facing the camera), there's the previously-mentioned START/STOP trigger. A red tally-lamp LED sits opposite it on the upper right corner.
The lens release is on the lower left edge of the lens mount, opposite the white alignment dot for E-mount lenses. In the center, of course, is the sensor itself.
The camera's single display is a 3.5" (8.8cm) LCD, mounted atop the camera on a tilt-and-swivel pivot. The LCD can be spun completely around to face forwards; spun 90 degrees in the other direction to face the right side of the camera; flipped up 150 degrees for low-angle viewing, or spun around and folded flat for looking straight down at, like the groundglass on a Hasselblad. It can also be folded flat, face-down, for protection during transportation.
The LCD resolves about 400 TVl/ph horizontally, maybe 500 lines vertically (put another way, details on a resolution chart can be seen to those limits, inclusive of aliasing). It is bright, contrasty, and perfectly usable outdoors, even in direct sunlight.
EXPANDED FOCUS magnifies the image "about 2.0 times" (that's literally what it says in the manual) and, thankfully, it can be used while recording. There's also digital peaking available, in white, red, or yellow (but not green or blue), with three levels of edge sensitivity. Peaking and expanded focus can be used together. EXPANDED FOCUS is a hardwired button and peaking can be assigned to a button (it's button 4 by default), so it's fairly quick to set or check focus using these aids, though it would be even better if tweaking the peaking level didn't require diving into the menus—large sensors are very demanding when it comes to focusing, and the poor operator needs all the help she can get.
The FS100 offers typical Sony data readouts and status displays, with a few extra tweaks for good measure:
Full display: battery charge in percent; zoom setting from 00-99; recording to MS/SDHC media but currently in standby; timecode are showing user bits (synced to GPS time); 66 minutes left on this card at this data rate. Shooting 1080/24p HD in FX mode. GPS reception is good; zebra set at 90%; peaking on (that's the red stuff). Histogram shows a yellow line at the peaking level, a gray line at 100%, and has a black background from 100-109%. Manual focus; Picture Profile 1 in use; aperture is f/11; 0dB gain; 1/48 second shutter, currently being controlled by the side thumbwheel, since it's on a white background. Outdoor white balance with 0 blue/red offset; manual control of audio channel 2; recording linear PCM audio. Level meters clearly indicate where 0dBfs is, and that we haven't hit it! All exposure controls are manually set, since we don't see an "A" in a white arrow beside any of them.
Of special note is the histogram, showing both the superwhite area above 100% (the bit with the darker background at the right side) and the current zebra setting (the yellow line). The zebra-level line remains on the histogram whether zebra is being used or not, though it can be turned off in the menus if you find it distracting. There's only one small inconsistency; while the zebra can be set at any 5% interval from 70% to 100%, or for "100%+", the histogram shows the 100%+ zebra setting in the same place as the 100% zebra, making the line less useful as a current-setting indicator.
While the histogram obeys the DISPLAY button, it can also be toggled independently (subject to the overall DISPLAY mode) with its own button, as can the zebra and peaking displays (by default, assignable buttons 2, 1, and 4 respectively).
(In the image above and the one below, zebra is on; it doesn't show up very clearly due to the subject matter and my still camera's 1/10 second shutter speed, but it's the dark smudges on the bright parts of the branches and the background foliage.)
Partially decluttered: only information necessary for immediate control remains. Manual white balance set to 5600K.
Pressing DISPLAY once removes ancillary information, leaving only data related to exposing and monitoring the current shot.
Fully decluttered, with zebra and peaking also turned off.
Pressing DISPLAY again removes everything other than the record/standby indicator and the current-medium icon, which shows the card (MS or SDHC), the Flash Memory Unit, or both.
Markers turned on: center cross, rule-of-thirds, 80% safe area, and 4x3 aspect ratio.
Markers are handled separately from other displays. By default, they're toggled on and off with assignable button 5. Any of a variety of markers can be enabled or disabled through the menus; all are displayed or removed at the push of a single button.
All marker types are shown enabled above; other choices for aspect ratio are 13x9, 14x9, and 15x9, while the safety zone can be at either 80% or 90%.
There's one oddity associated with markers: if MARKER is on, the HDMI output loses all data displays other than timecode, even though markers and data displays coexist happily on the built-in LCD.
If all that isn't enough, the STATUS CHECK button brings up six pages of detailed information, selectable using the side thumbwheel:
- Audio levels, routing, and input configuration.
- Output signal format and downconversion options (e.g., squeeze / letterbox / center-cut).
- Assignable button settings.
- Camera settings.
- Recording media info.
- Battery info.
Audio setup screen.
Recording media information, with a 16 GB SDHC card and no Flash Memory Unit.
Menus display over picture using a semitransparent gray background, separating the menu from the picture without entirely obscuring it; you can usually see the results of your changes on the image without having to exit the menus.
Setting the preset white balance color temperature in the camera section of the main menu.
Selecting the B/W balance of the edge-enhancement signal, in the manual DETAIL settings of a Picture Preset menu.
Viewing GPS reception information in the main menu's "others" section.
Yes, there's a GPS receiver built in, about which more will be said later. For now, note the large X in the upper left: The FS100's LCD is a touchscreen, and this camera-mode screen, plus most of the playback-mode screens, and navigable by direct touch as well as through the thumbwheel and four-way rocker control.
Thumbnail screen, showing HD clips on the SDHC card.
This screen is entirely navigable by touch, or by using the four-way rocker to select a button or thumbnail and the EXEC key to activate the chosen selection.
Clip playback screen.
Pressing the DATA CODE button on the camera toggles the onscreen info between time/date stamps, timecode data, and GPS positioning info. Pressing the DISPLAY button declutters the screen, removing the overlays.
Handle and Handgrip
The camera's top handle assembly slides into the front accessory shoe and screws down into its socket. The handle itself slides back and forth through a collar on its riser, and is fixed in the desired location with a setscrew. The collar has its own accessory shoe, and the handle has 3/8" threaded accessory sockets on top, and 1/4" threaded sockets on the sides, both fore and aft; the sockets that are exposed depends on the position of the handle.
Top handle moved to the rear, exposing rear mounting points.
The front of the handle holds a crosspiece terminating in a microphone holder. The crosspiece is held in a rubber bushing; flipping up the front of the handle releases pressure on the bushing, so you can slide the crosspiece sideways or rotate the mike holder. The mike holder has a flip clamp to secure the supplied ECM-XM1 microphone.
Top handle moved forwards, exposing forward mounting points; handgrip at 45-degree angle.
The FS100 comes with a detachable, rotatable handgrip with a padded strap. The grip is fairly plain and simply curved; it's not contoured to conform to the palm or fingers of the human hand. It has its own START/STOP trigger, and a thin external cable carrying the trigger signal to the REMOTE port on the back of the camera. The handgrip is affixed using a captive screw which not only attaches the handgrip to the body, but snugs it down against its internal rotation-locking mechanism.
The handgrip's locking screw has is own flip-up handle.
This attachment is a bit fiddly; it needs to be loosened quite a bit before you can rotate the handle, but if you loosen it just a bit more, the grip comes off in your hand. Once you've selected a grip angle, the screw needs to be tightened firmly, its own handle folded down, and its cover popped on before you can slide you hand through the strap to test the angle.
The camera is supplied with a "viewfinder tube" converting the LCD to an EVF of sorts. It clips onto the LCD with two spring clips, and extends about 7.5" back, with an adjustable eyepiece lens and a rubber eyecup. The tube provides a big, eye-filling image, large enough to see fine detail but not so large that your eye can't take in the whole scene for composition. It's just slightly smaller than the scene presented by the Panasonic DMC-GH2's EVF (one of the best EVFs available); it's equivalent to the view of a 42" monitor from 6 feet away.
The EVF tube can even be used with the LCD in the folded-flat position.
The tube has a flip-up hinge allowing it to be opened, so that the LCD can be viewed from a distance without removing the tube. The chunk of the tube attached to the LCD acts as a hood, shielding the LCD from incident light; while the LCD itself is daylight viewable (and one of the best and brightest I've used in full sunlight), using the tube as a hood is helpful when shooting outdoors.
Flipping the tube up leaves a shielding "hood" around the LCD.
The SEL18200 zoom supplied with the FS100UK package is an 11:1 kit lens designed for Sony's NEX line of compact system still cameras. It has 67mm filter threads and a "petal" style lens hood. The lens body is finished in bright, polished aluminum, with black rubber zoom and focus rings.
The lens ranges from 18mm to 200mm; in 35mm still camera terms that's the equivalent of 28.8mm to 320mm. In 35mm cine camera terms, well, it's an 18-200mm zoom!
The zoom is a directly-coupled mechanical zoom; it's most compact at 18mm, and extends considerably at 200mm, doubling the length of the lens.
It has a LOCK switch to keep it at 18mm; superzooms of this sort, carried lens-down on still cameras, have a tendency to self-extend. The zoom turns in the "wrong" direction, like the zoom on a Nikon lens; it's the reverse of the normal direction for cine and video lenses. It has a short throw of about 90 degrees, and focal lengths are marked on the barrel in white.
The focus control is a free-spinning servo ring, with rate-sensitive gain: turn it slowly and it'll take at least 180 degrees of travel to focus from 0.3m to infinity. Turn it quickly, and that same focal range is traversed in 90 degrees or less. The focus ring turns in the right direction, the same as cine and video lenses. The ring is entirely inoperative in autofocus mode; there's no ability to just grab it and reset focus as many fixed-lens camcorders allow.
There are, for obvious reasons, no focal-distance markings on the lens itself, but there is a distance readout on the LCD when the lens is being manually focused, though only within three seconds of actual focusing activity. The readout is in tenths of meters out to 10m, then in whole meters.
There's no aperture control on the lens; the body-mounted IRIS control is used instead. The lens incorporates Sony's OSS (Optical SteadyShot), similarly controlled using the camera's menus. This lens offers both normal and "active" SteadyShot; the latter has a more tranquilizing effect on the image, more like the strong optical stabilization in many of Canon's camcorders.
Next: Features and Functions...
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