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Sony PMW-F3 Review: First and lasting impressions

Views 74047 Votes 0 2011.01.31 13:00:16

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Posted by: Squirrel - Thursday 30th December 2010

Sony PMW-F3 Review:  First and lasting impressions

 

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It's all about the sensor

The PMW-F3 is the first 'low cost' camera to feature a Super-35mm sized CMOS image sensor designed specifically for HD video acquisition.  As such the sensor's effective resolution is 1920 x 1080, meaning that no optical filtering or electronic scaling is required because each pixel on the sensor maps directly to its corresponding pixel in the recording. Less filtering and scaling translates to better pictures with lower noise and because this is a large sensor with only the necessary 2.07M active pixels, the pixels themselves are each relatively big and receive plenty of light - This enables the F3 to deliver excellent low light sensitivity. Sony claim a native sensitivity of ISO800, however that's apparently after a LUT (look-up-table) is applied in post. Reckon on about ISO640 in-camera. Impressive stuff nonetheless.

Lens mount & options

The PMW-F3 will be supplied as either the PMW-F3L (a body only camcorder) or the PMW-F3K with 3 Sony branded low cost PL mount prime lenses of 35, 50 and 85mm respectively.  (I would have liked to try out the Sony branded glass, however at the time of this review all I had been shown was a photograph of some rather crude and bulky looking prototype lenses (each about 50% larger than a Zeiss Compact Prime).  A few people have been supplied sample Sony lenses for evaluation and have reported good performance, however the sheer bulkiness of them would put me off. In addition to this, the Sony lenses are all different physical sizes too: This means that with the Sony lenses you'd have to adjust your follow focus and matte box position / light exclusion ring size whenever you need to swap lenses, whereas because Zeiss CP.2's all feature identical physical dimensions and focus / aperture ring positions / diameters you can change lens without having to perform any adjustments...

One of the major attractions of the F3 is to be able to use standardised PL mount cine lenses because should you in the future change camera you don't have to re-invest in new glass. Whilst the Sony F3 doesn't have a native PL mount, you can use the camera with PL mount cine lenses by fitting the supplied PL mount adaptor (Which I found to fit very firmly and be free from any play).

Instead of a PL mount the F3 incorporates Sony's proprietary 'F3' mount which appears to be similar to the EX mount on the PMW-EX3. Sony have announced that they will soon be launching a range of relatively low cost 'F3' mount ENG style servo zoom lenses for use on the F3, expanding the range of applications for which the F3 is suitable...

Remember, when you decide to invest in a camera like this you need excellent optics in order to allow the camera to perform to its full potential, so I would urge users who are previously used to buying a camera which comes bundled with a lens to adopt a new way of thinking:

"A lens is for life, not just the F3"

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This basically translates to 'buy the best lenses you can afford on the basis that you'll be using them for many years to come...'

For the test I had the luxury of access to a full set of Zeiss CP.2 prime lenses, a Zeiss lightweight zoom 15.5-45mm and an Angenieux 16-42mm DP zoom.

I hoped to try all of these, however play was well and truly interrupted by a deluge of snow, so rather than slow myself down by switching primes whenever a different focal length was required I slipped on the beautifully engineered Angenieux 16-42mm Optimo DP zoom.  The Angenieux has a good T2.8 aperture.throughout its zoom range and there is negligible 'breathing' when pulling focus even from infinity to the M.O.D. (minimum object distance).  The F3's resolution is Full HD 1920x1080 (Just under 2K) and Angenieux officially rate their DP zooms as 4K ready, however I have been unoficially told that they are actually produced to 8K standards.  This means that a DP zoom should be good for many years of camera upgrades...  The unique feature of the Angenieux 16-42 is that it has a partner lens with 30-80mm range, meaning that with just 2 lenses the entire 16-80mm range can be covered.

Pimping up the F3

The F3 is ergonomically very similar to the Panasonic AF101, albeit in a slightly bigger chassis.  As such it is ergonomically far better than any HD DSLR straight from the box and it's perfectly feasible to simply add a lens, battery and media card and get straight down to shooting, however if you want to get the most form the F3 you're going to have to do some serious 'pimping'. This is because the F3 is too big to be a compact handheld camcorder, yet it doesn't feature any form of shoulder support.

The viewfinder is straight from an EX1 and as such it's simply not high enough resolution to allow critical determination of focus.  It's also in the wrong place for shoulder-mount use...

So before even powering up the camera I decided that I'd create a shoulder-mountable rig incorporating all of the features I need when shooting cine-style: A Matte Box, Follow Focus, Sony VCT-14 quick release tripod plate, comfortable shoulder pad and hand grips, a great camera-top light, a V-mount battery conversion and an offset high resolution EVF.  

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Enter the CVP shoulder-mount rig which I am proud to say transforms an F3 into a camera that handles better than any cine rig I have ever encountered...  Super-comfortable on the shoulder and quick to tripod mount too.  Note the position of the handgrips which allow left handed focusing whilst handheld and don't get in the way when resting the camera on the ground to grab a low angle shot...

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(CVP will be offering this bespoke F3 rig for sale early in 2011).

One of the nice things about the F3 is that there are several 1/4" female threads - 2 on the handle and 1 coincidentally right where you want to mount an offset viewfinder.  I took the opportunity to mount a Cineroid EVF-4 which has (mini) HDMI input and offers a range of excellent focus assist functions. When testing the EVF I encountered what will perhaps be one of the most annoying shortfalls of the F3 - You get SDI output terminals and an HDMI connector BUT you can't enable them both simultaneously, so in order to run the EVF and an external monitor (as virtually everyone will want to do) or third party device you need to add a Blackmagic Design SDI to HDMI mini converter to the rig.  Luckily there's space for this on the battery mount plate and the converter can then be powered from the V-mount battery pack too, but Sony should know that all outputs need to be available simultaneously if required.

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The Cineroid EVF-4 is clearly aimed primarily at the huge DSLR market and is supplied with a battery, charger and short mini HDMI to mini HDMI cable plus a soft carry case.  

All professional level video cameras I've encounteredwith HDMI have full size connectors, so it's a pity Cineroid don't supply a couple of full size HDMI adaptors in their kit as well...  In fact for the F3 what is really needed is a right-angled adaptor or cable as the connectors on the EVF are in a poor location for mounting on video cameras.

The EVF-4 uses NP-F550 type batteries and is supplied with a solitary unbranded copy of questionable quality.I had some genuine Sony NP-F570 batteries to hand but I had great difficulty getting the Sony battery to fit - It was so tight that I had to prize it off with a screwdriver!  Not ideal.  These 2 gripes aside, the EVF-4 is a very worthwhile (in fact essential) accessory for an F3 or AF101, representing a huge improvement over the standard viewfinder.

Getting back to the F3 rig, I was very relieved to discover that the whole rig including matte box fitted snugly into a Kata xxxx bag, leaving it ready for deployment in an instant!

On location with the F3

I set the F3 to record 1080p at 25fps with a 180 degree shutter (That's 1/50s in video speak), recording at the maximum 35Mb/s onto a 64GB SxS pro card.  All other settings were left unchanged in order to make sure that our shots were as raw as possible.

For our test shoot we'd been granted access to the RAF museum at Cosford.  We'd planned to spend a whole day in a bustling museum but thanks to the snowfall the museum was closed to the public and our access was reduced from a day to an hour (a big thanks to Pete Bunting for getting us in at all), so right at the moment when we needed to be taking our time to set up and review each shot carefully I was forced to adopt a very brisk ENG shooting style.  Thank heavens I'd opted for the Angenieux 16-42 and pre-assembled the rig!

Badger reluctantly canned 75% of his carefully devised pieces to camera whilst I stood in despair, devoid of virtually any inspiration in a hangar crammed full of old prototype jet aircraft sitting idle under awful mercury vapour lighting fixtures.  This was a disaster taking shape right before our very eyes...

Badger requested a dozen or so 'nice' general shots.  Normally I'd spend at least 15 minutes setting up every shot, but we had 3 at best.  Our supplementary lighting was restricted to a couple of Datavision LED-900's as we weren't allowed to use any mains equipment in the hangar. The LED-900's were almost ineffectual in such a vast cavern but I did use them to add a hint of sparkle in a few close-up shots. Ambient light levels gave us F4 at 0dB and I decided to live with that as I didn't want to use an electronic shutter or ND filters.  This of course meant that the DoF would not be as narrow as possible.  We'd hoped to get some movement into our shots with the use of a track and dolly, however our Microdolly system had to stay in its bag as there was no time for even the fastest track system! This was the cinematic equivalent of a smash and grab raid.

Focus is critical for everything HD, even more so on large sensor cameras such as the F3 as the DoF is further diminished, so despite the rush I carefully checked focus for every shot on a Sony PVM-740 7.4" OLED monitor (which is quite simply the best field monitor I have ever used), however even this monitor is not full HD resolution, so I also used peaking on the camera's flip-out LCD panel in order to accurately determine focus. The peaking feature is superb and provided the best indication of focus, even when pulling focus.  

As far as I am concerned the ability to determine focus is of primary importance - There's no point having a great camera and lens only to shoot everything out of focus. I've recently been using a Sony HDVF-20A monochrome CRT viewfinder on a Sony PMW-500 and for what it's worth I would want a viewfinder of at least this quality on an F3. Even better would be the superb HDVF-C30WR... To see the image of a C30WR is to want one, they're that good.

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My rig incorporated the Arri mini follow focus drive MFF-1 to which I added a crank handle so that I could effect fast focus-pulls.  

The MFF-1 is beautifully engineered and has a double hinged mount so that you can position the wheel to precisely the angle you need.  Its rail mount is also quick to attach and release without having to remove the matte box assembly.  Best of all, it has a very useful end-stop which you can position to define a very accurate end point.  Fantastic and really essential with cine style lenses.

Squirt, Squirt, Squirt. Wrap. Then a 60+ minute drive back to the Badger Sett for a post-mortem of the rushes.

All the way back I was stressing. What a waste of time the day appeared to have been. We really didn't have enough time to do justice to either ourselves or the F3 and I was sure the footage would be mediocre at best.  The F3 had to be back with Sony the very next morning, so as a contingency plan I proposed that I could dash in to central London to shoot the traditional sights at night.

Not ideal, but better than nothing.

 When we arrived at the Sett, Badger commenced the transfer of our the footage to his FCP system via the XDCAM transfer utility.  Whilst this was happening he served me his signature platter:  Salmon Pate on Toast, topped with a warm mince pie, a dollop of brandy butter and a cookie.  Badgerlicious.

Then it was time to view the rushes.  I prepared myself for the worst.

As soon as the first shot popped up onto the HD display we laughed out loud.  What had we been worrying for? Despite the undoubtedly challenging conditions the F3's images were stunning.  No visible noise.  No visible chromatic aberration. No aliasing. Plenty of detail but without any hint of artificial enhancement.  Subtle shallow DoF effects.  Lovely colours.  And all this at 35Mb/s... That Angenieux lens is fabulous.

On reflection the circumstances of our test shoot had forced us to shoot under genuinely imperfect real-world conditions.  If the pictures delivered are impressive under these conditions then you could shoot pretty much anything from documentary to a feature film with an F3 and be virtually guaranteed impressive results.

To summarise:

It really is all about the sensor and the F3's is a stunner which enables it to deliver sublime images with excellent sensitivity at a breakthrough price point.

Because that price point is three times the price of a Panasonic AF101 and about six times the price of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II the F3 simply can't be considered a DSLR or AF101 competitor.  As you'd expect for the money it surpasses both when it comes to video performance - If you can afford an F3 you simply must have one, it's that good.

Please do note that if you earn your crust in the world of news and current affairs then the F3 is not the most appropriate tool for the job, look at the Sony PMW-500 or Panasonic HPX3100 and an HJ22x7.6 lens instead.

Our complete F3 rig with Angenieux Optimo DP Zoom lens comes in at under £35k - That's a complete cinema grade camera rig for less than HDCAM money. WOW.

 SQUIRREL sony_f3_pimped_lhs_890px.jpg


 

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