Sony F3 camera finds wide appeal

25 October, 2011 by IF

Press release from Sony

The Sony PMW-F3 Super 35mm digital cinematography camcorder, the company’s first professional handheld digital production camera with a Super 35mm imager has been rapidly adopted by Australian camera operators for a wide variety of roles.


The F3 camera was introduced in February 2011, in both a body-only version and also with an affordable PL lens kit of 35/50/85mm T2.0 prime lenses.

Three of those kits were bought on the recommendation of Laszlo Baranyai ACS/HSC, a seasoned DOP currently leading a crew shooting the family drama series “Conspiracy 365” in Victoria.

With a full spectrum of feature, documentary and series projects behind him, Baranyai was well qualified to judge the new camera for the demanding arena of television series production.

“When I first met the producers we discussed the six month shoot and I recommended using small, high quality cameras. The Sony F3 was very new at the time so I rented one from Videocraft to test and we all loved it,” said Baranyai.

“In the middle of the night I went to a shopping strip to test available light – I was blown away because you can use this camera with 12db gain with low lighting. I thought I wouldn’t get anything but it delivered a very good quality image. I have worked with Red cameras before and they were not even close to what the F3 can produce. In an emergency you can go up to 18db gain and the picture is still useable – it’s a bit grainy with some texture but it’s better than nothing and if you record in 4:2:2 at 10-bit there is plenty of room to grade with.”

In a move that reflects the F3‘s competitive sub $16k pricing (without lenses), the production team took the unusual step of buying the cameras when research revealed the six month hire cost would be three times the cameras’ purchase price.

“We had to make a quick decision because we were in pre-production when the Japanese earthquake and tsunami struck so the F3’s were in short supply. Luckily Videocraft Melbourne had three on the shelf so we bought them.

Selection criteria
“There were three reasons I selected the F3 for this project – first of all it was its size. It’s a reasonably small package so we were not having to deal with the so-called professional digital cameras that imitate 35 film cameras and are huge and bulky.

“The second reason was the it has the same size sensor as 35mm film cameras which allows the camera to see a lot of detail in low light conditions. 

“My third and favourite reason is that the F3 is the first small sized camera that uses similar lenses as 35mm film cameras. I grew up on those cameras so I just love the way can can now control depth of field just as we used to with film. We also bought a set of Zeiss Compact Prime lenses which work very well the with camera and because Sony fitted the camera with a PL lens mount, it is easy to use my eleven Nikon lenses with the F3 via an adaptor. Between the three cameras we have almost 20 lenses including the Nikon macro and fish eyes so we are covered for almost everything.” 

Meeting production demands
Conspiracy 365 is shot primarily on location with the F3s used for everything including remote control crane, Steadicam and hand-held shots.

External 7” monitors on each camera include waveform displays for exposure and lighting detail. AJA Ki Pro Mini flash disk recorders mounted on the back of the cameras deliver 4:2:2 10-bit recordings in the Apple ProRes codec to match post-production workflow requirements.

“We are doing 70-80 setups a day so we have to move fast and there is no time for computers, hard drives, data wranglers and bulky gear on set,” explained Baranyai. “In the end when you use the F3 carefully, the results are close to the bigger, more expensive cameras even though you are using a much smaller and less expensive package. There are trade offs to be considered but sometimes the other considerations of budget, size, and mobility have priorities in the selection of cameras.”

Lifting the look for TVC success
Pieter de Vries’ (ACS) first foray into digital formats was with the introduction of Sony’s Digital Betacam and his DVW-970 camcorder is still in use today. However he began looking for a new camera late last year amid a lot of interest in large sensor cinematography.

“Most cinematographers have been waiting for large sensor cameras to come along so they can work the same way they did with 35mm film – we are used to that level of production value and the cinematic look we got,” said de Vries. “DSLR cameras have helped turn the tide in favour of this as they can process the large amounts of data the chips generate.

“I wanted to avoid any interim developments and was after something that was more expandable and practical than some of the camera systems out then. When the F3 arrived I looked at it quite closely because it seemed to nail all my requirements in a very practical camera.”

Practical benefits
de Vries points to the benefits of the F3 where, unlike many smaller cameras, the camera body is big enough to have sensible spacing between its operating buttons and can accept a multitude of fittings.

“The F3 has enough real estate so the buttons are easy to find and use. What that means is that you can pick it out of the box and go out and shoot – I was right at home with the menu system because it is a very familiar XDCAM EX structure.

“While it has enough mass and weight to use on a tripod it can easily be configured for handheld work with an external viewfinder, shoulder rest and some ballast on the back. And there is so much you can do to modify the camera. The accessory market is so huge now it is easy to find what you need for the F3 to work in whatever configuration is required. I’m particularly impressed with the Australian-made Griptech Quick Release Plate which clips into the Sony VCT-U14 tripod adaptor. I can safely and conveniently put a lot of accessories on the camera using this plate.

“Sony has also really nailed its focus assists tools and lenses. In my opinion no other camera can match the focus assist tools for peaking and expanded focus which gives you a lot of confidence. The Sony lens kit is also punching well above its weight in terms of optical quality – they are fast and sharp. They have a very large girth so a full range of focus ring distance marks are possible – they really are great value for the price. I don’t hesitate to use them together with well known brands like Zeiss or Cooke.”

He believes the use of PL-mount lenses are an integral part of the appeal of large sensor systems as creatives are now thinking about using focal length and aperture to create images and motion as a way of storytelling – tools that were not available when working with small digital cameras. 

“These days a cinematic look is required to give products and ideas the credibility needed to get cut through. Audiences have seen video that looks much nicer than what it used to look and while they are not sure what the exact difference is, they like it so you really have to shoot material almost like a movie. While you can do a lot in post the production bed needs to be on a very solid and good looking format. It is especially critical today when everyone wants to shoot wide open and most clients and audiences are watching close on large high resolution monitors.”

From taking delivery in March, the F3 camera has been well received by de Vries’ corporate clients. Production clients have welcomed its familiar XDCAM EX format that is well integrated into their workflow systems, while directors have made the most of its low light sensitivity.

de Vries is currently directing and shooting a series of 14 promos for Phase One, a Danish company which manufactures high end, medium format still cameras, digital backs and lenses.

“It’s an ultimate still camera so I needed to shoot with a camera that was going to do the Phase One justice. The first four instalments were on Hamilton Island, the rest in a Sydney studio – I’m getting some beautiful results with the F3 and the Phase One looks absolutely gorgeous,” said de Vries.

He has used the F3 to capture several other commercial shoots including Sharp photocopiers and Fisher Price toys.

Bigger sensor delivers lush looks
Melbourne-based director/editor Will Horne is representative of a new breed of image makers who have moved up to the F3 via the DLSR path. 

Having started out as a Final Cut Pro editor who began shooting his own material, he has made the most of digital cameras to quickly gain recognition in the very competitive advertising industry. His recent work for Myer has attracted a lot of industry attention for its lush, cinematic look.

“I started shooting using handycams but bought a Nikon D90 DLSR while travelling overseas, then used a Canon 5D for online content when I got a job with an advertising agency,” said Horne.

He then moved to his current job with ONE20 creative services and photographic studio and was given the task of going on location to shoot behind the scenes for the 2010 Myer Spring/Summer campaign.

“I shot that with the Sony PMW-EX1 which had previously been used for online content and everyone loved it. Our TV work was expanding so I suggested we needed a better quality camera and Videocraft Melbourne suggested the Sony F3 would be a good option. It was a more expensive camera than what we had used before but I convinced my boss it was worth it.

“We went with the three lens kit because we have every still lens you can imagine for the 5D. We looked at Zeiss compacts but we spoke with a few people who said the Sony lenses are just as good quality and for what we required it wasn’t worth spending an extra 14 grand on other lenses. We do a lot of interviews so they are perfect for the three primes – they are sharp and look great.”

His first major project with the F3 was this year’s Myer campaign and to capture the fast-moving action he rented an Angenieux Optimo 28-76 zoom lens for the shoot which was in sand hills in Western Australia.

“The camera was pretty bare shooting with the single lens and a Nano Flash strapped to the back but the pictures, even the ungraded rushes, looked amazing,” enthused Horne. “The pictures looked so nice, everyone was instantly impressed with the results. We have since used it for a couple of pitch videos and won TVC business as a result, with the quality of the picture being a major contributor. 

“Basically we were running and gunning with the F3 where we would quickly set up, shoot and instantly we had beautiful looking pictures – it’s sometimes hard to take credit for the shots. Every time I shoot with the F3 I think can this camera get any better? 

“The F3 has definitely won us business – the pictures look amazing and enhance the overall quality of the work I produce. I will probably never get to shoot with film so to be able to work with a camera like this is fantastic.” 

F3 kit grows 

Sony is continuing to expand its range of options and lenses for the PMW-F3. A RGB and S-LOG Gamma output option, the CBK-RGB01 is now available to deliver uncompressed 10-bit RGB 4:4:4 1080p, over industry-standard Dual-Link or 3G HD-SDI. This signal can be recorded on units such as Sony's SRW-1 HDCAM-SR recorder or the SR-R1 SRMaster recorder due in December – both are capable of up to visually lossless 880 Megabits per second image capture. 

From November the SCL-Z18X140, 18-252mm, 14x power zoom lens and the CBK-3DL01 3D Link option will be available. The 3D option enables users to operate two PMW-F3 cameras at the same time via one camera remote controller. 

January 2012 will see the arrival of the SCL-P11X15, an 11-16mm 1.5x wide angle zoom lens.