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Super 35 size me

Sometimes bigger can actually mean better.

By The Sony Tech Guy | January 27, 2011


Next month marks the debut of Sony's first handheld Super 35mm model for professionals: the PMW-F3. It's also Sony's first such camera with XDCAM EX recording and first with CMOS technology. And the F3 starts at just $16,000 MSRP. The new camera is beginning to make a name for itself after some sweet pre-production tests and first-on-the-block Vimeo posts. In this article, we'll take a look at the new camera's Super 35mm image sensor, and see exactly what Sony means by "Super 35."

Sensor dimensions are more than specsmanship. Larger sensors help photographers limit depth of field. As you learned in Photography 101, shallow depth of field enables you to direct audience attention toward in-focus subjects and away from out-of-focus foregrounds and backgrounds. Simply changing focus over the course of a shot can help tell the story, for example revealing a relationship between one person in the foreground and another in the background.

In addition, the sensor size has a direct effect on the lens field of view. Smaller sensors impose a crop factor that pushes any given lens toward telephoto. And other things being equal, sensor size has additional effects on image noise, dynamic range, resolution and freedom from diffraction-induced blur. For all these reasons, we devoted a previous article simply to cataloging sensor sizes.


The Super 35mm image sensor of the PMW-F3 is enormous in comparison to the 2/3-inch type sensor that is popular for documentaries, natural history and many other genres. (Note: All the diagrams in this article are on the same scale with the exception of the diagram that shows 35mm Full Frame versus 35mm Motion Picture frame.)

The Super 35mm image sensor of the Sony PMW-F3 has an effective area that measures 23.6 mm wide x 13.3 mm high-essentially the same size as the Super 35mm CCDs of the Sony F35 and SRW-9000PL, cameras that have become mainstays of high-end production in narrative features, episodic television, commercials and music videos. The dimensions are also very close to Sony APS-C class DSLR sensors. But the new sensor is not taken from Sony's DSLR parts bin. It was developed from the ground up for motion pictures. As a result, the individual photosites-the micron-scale diodes that do the actual work of converting light into electric charge-are a honking four times the size of the photosites on Sony Alpha DSLR sensors.

To put the PMW-F3 sensor into perspective, we'll compare it to 35mm motion picture film.

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Disclosure, to comply with the FTC’s rules 16 CFR Part 255 This article was either written by Sony employees or for Sony by an outside contractor. It is intended for the Sony Channel on ProVideo Coalition, which Sony sponsors.


Charles Angus: | January, 27, 2011

From everything I’ve seen, the chip in the F3 looks pretty good.

It’s too bad Sony put it in that awful brick of a camera body…

Burn-E: | January, 29, 2011

“By way of comparison, a recently announced camcorder with a Micro Four Thirds™ sensor…” - I hate this corporate crap. Why a laundry detergent manufacturer can directly compare its stuff with stuff from another company, explicitly saying its name, but Sony cannot compare the F3 explicitly with the AF100? This is exactly how Sony compared its progressive-scan HDV camcorders to Canon camcorders, saying that “native progressive recording has been called 24F/25F/30F in some camcorders, which actually use interlaced CCD imagers.” Huh? Canon did not even use the term “native progressive”. There are/were only three manufacturers of HDV camcorders, of which JVC used 720p. This leaves Sony and Canon. How stupid is that? Why the readers should do this idiotic mental gymnastic to understand direction of Sony’s jabs? Pitiful. Sony should be ashamed of its PR department.

Nick WB: | January, 30, 2011

Sorry, ‘Only’ $16,000? At this point in time, that is a high price for a camera that can only shoot 4:2:0 @ 35Mbs

Overall, I find the specs very underwhelming: the chip is bigger than the ‘101’, but the camera is les capable. 1080p at 30fps is a little ‘old hat’ in this day and age, especially with REDs on the way. 

It does have interchangeable lenses, but within 3 months, so will every other major brand. They will also have 4:2:2 capability out of the box, possibly RAW, certainly with non-proprietary media, and at lower cost.

The Sony Tech Guy: | February, 01, 2011


Thanks for your comment.  The camcorder is designed for handheld use with lightweight, compact lenses such as the three Sony primes that will be offered in the PWM-F3K kit.  Big lenses will obviously change the center of gravity, which may well bring users to third-party brackets and grips.

The Sony Tech Guy: | February, 01, 2011


Thank you for your comments.  Many of the points you make actually anticipate features of the F3. 

For example, there are many producers and DPs who appreciate the practicality and picture quality of the MPEG-2 Long GOP codec with 4:2:0 @ 35 Mbps recording.  But not even Sony would suggest that one size fits all.  That’s why the camera is fitted with uncompressed HD-SDI 4:2:2 output for external recording, as well as dual-link HD-SDI output (4:2:2 1080 50/59.94P as standard; and RGB 1080 23.98/25/29.97PsF as an option).  So you’re not restricted either to 4:2:0, or 30 fps at 1080P or even Y/Cb/Cr.  And if you prefer on-board recording, you’re not limited to SxS cards.  The camera will accept adaptors for recording onto Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo HX series cards and SDHC consumer cards as “emergency” recording options.  (It’s no free lunch.  For example, overcranking is not supported.) 

As is so often the case, the issue of price is relative.  Compared to a Sony F35, SRW-9000 and some others, the F3 is indeed “just $16,000.”  Compared to DSLRs, the F3 is more money, but doesn’t require some of the pricey accessories that some photographers feel DSLRs need to be a workable alternative for motion pictures or jumping through hoops to make the workflow usable.  The F3 is based on the EX platform so it fits seamlessly into the well established EX workflow.  For applications where price is a major concern, DPs may want to consider Sony’s NXCAM Super 35mm camcorder, which is slated for release later this year for “around $6,000 MSRP.” 

This article deals with only the image sensor (and only two aspects of the sensor at that).  But the F3 has a big bag of tricks.  Many of these have been detailed by Jon Fauer’s Film and Digital Times  You can check out links to other press reports at

Burn-E: | February, 01, 2011

The XF100 has 4:2:2 @ 50 Mbit/s priced at $3,000. Leaving out this mode on the F3 is not a technical issue, it is purely a marketing issue. Sadly, this will work because Canon has no large-chip camera with removable lenses. Yet.

Anyway, dear Sony Tech Guy, could you explain why Sony switched from MXF container used in optical disc-based XDCAM camcorders to MP4 container for XDCAM EX? This is not a trick question, I am genuinely interested, considering that MXF is supposed to be an industry standard, and is supported by Panasonic, Ikegami, Canon and others. Thank you.

Nick WB: | February, 01, 2011

Indeed, the BBC here in the UK have recently purchased large quantities of XF305 cameras for one reason: 50Mbs in 4:2:2 colour.

I realise you are doing your best to justify the specs, but actually they simply don’t match the price tag. This is not a heavy duty, pro spec camera, it is a camcorder with interchangeable lenses.

The images are nice, but the fact is that to get broadcast spec footage, it is horribly close to $20,000. Price it at half of that and it will fly out of the door, but $16k + Nano / KiPro?  It is a pity.

The Sony Tech Guy: | February, 02, 2011


Sony’s lineup demonstrates what some have called biodiversity.  The company offers a range of recording media, a range of codecs, a range of sensor types, a range of sensor sizes, a range of lens mounts and a range of recorded bitrates from 5 to 880 Mbps with more on the way.  This diversity is nothing new; it was also evident in the days of standard def.  So it’s not a total surprise that Sony supports more than one type of file wrapper.  We joined with other companies to create MXF and we helped to establish MXF as an industry standard.  Today we support MXF in XDCAM and XDCAM HD recording and in HDCAM-SR-to-file-based conversion in the SRW-5800/2 studio deck.  But we’re not about to force-fit MXF into every application.  While the MXF wrapper plays well in broadcast environments, the MP4 wrapper is particularly well supported in IT consumer and professional environments.

The Sony Tech Guy: | February, 02, 2011

Nick WB:

A quick trip to my beat-up copy of Paul A. Samuelson’s Economics, 8th Edition confirms that if Sony offered the PMW-F3 at half the price, we could indeed sell more of them.  Ultimately what matters is whether DPs see the value of the F3.  We’re optimistic.

Burn-E: | February, 02, 2011

The Sony Tech Guy, thank you for reply. Could you highlight differences between MXF and MP4 wrappers? What is lost in the MP4 wrapper compared to MXF? I have an XDCAM EX camcorder (not a Sony model, but from, um, “another company”) and I noticed little niceties when importing MP4 clips into Sony Vegas, like there is no time lost on building peaks, there is information on clip breaks when recording spawns several files, timecode, etc. This is different to HDV or AVCHD editing, these files offer pretty much no metadata. On another hand, Vegas is fully capable of MXF editing. So I am not sure how exactly MP4 wrapper in XDCAM EX is better. This might be a topic for another article of yours, in which you could explain technical and marketing reasons for choosing this or that wrapper or codec.

In the meantime, this statement of yours grabbed my attention: “While the MXF wrapper plays well in broadcast environments, the MP4 wrapper is particularly well supported in IT consumer and professional environments.” Are you implying that MP4 is more “consumerish” format than MXF?

What do you make of Canon’s decision to use MXF for its XF series? Apparently, most popular NLEs like Avid, Edius, FCP, Premiere and of course, Vegas, can handle MXF with no problems, with or without additional plug-ins.

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