The Sony A7S and the modern video journalist

So we all know that the Sony a7S is great little camera that is capable of creating lovely images, but I’ve now replaced my entire documentary filming kit with one and I wanted to share the journey with you.

I’ve been shooting news and documentary for fifteen years as a traditional cameraman using shoulder mounted cameras like the Sony PMW 500. But in the last two years I’ve been working more and more as a video journalist. Based in Johannesburg I was given a tiny budget to purchase kit (£4000) and was keen to keep it as light weight as possible while still being practical enough to shoot features and hard news.

After a lot of research on the net and after speaking to many other shooters I decided on the Sony A7S as my camera of choice as I was looking for something I could shoot high quality video on while still being discrete and able to move fast. There are many similar cameras on the market but a lot of shooters I respect have the A7S and convinced me to go for it. (this was purely my decision based on the type of work I do and is not an “officially” endorsed choice by my employer).

A peek inside my bag. . .
A peek inside my bag. . .

My full kit list is below. All of it fits into a businessman’s roll on travel bag (except the tripod of course).

– Sony a7S with Movcam cage and Black Rapid strap

– Sony 18–200mm Power zoom (this is for the APS-C size sensor and works great on the a7S which can switch sensor size automatically)

– Samyang 50mm f1.5 lens

– Sony XLR-K1M XLR Box and Microphone Kit (this is the XLR adaptor that allows me to attach two “pro” mics directly into the A7S)

– Sony a5100 camera with the 16–50mm kit lens (this is a great little “B” camera)

– Sony UWP-D11 Wireless Package (cheap as chips radio mic kit. . .Seems Ok so far but I haven’t had to test it in a challenging environment)

– A Rode Reporter mic

– A leatherman

– A 5m long XLR cable

– Mic stand

– 2x Sony Battery chargers

– 7x batteries (the same batteries work for both of my cameras)

– Manfrotto MVH500AH tripod

– Variable ND filters for all lenses

– Notebook and a fist full of cheap pens

I also have a laptop bag with three small LED lights and a couple of stands in it. My edit kit lives in a photographers rucksack.

The first thing you may want to know is why did I choose the Sony 18–200 power zoom lens? Well, it is a lens built for APSC size sensors and therefore is cheaper and lighter. To be honest I was willing to sacrifice the ultra shallow depth of field look in favour of versatility and less rolling shutter (which I’m told can be more of an issue on the A7S in full frame mode). So far I’ve found the lens really good, its width and image stabilisation allows a lot of hand held movement which suits my style perfectly. The power zoom on it though is incredibly slow so I’ve taken to using it in manual zoom mode. At the long end of the lens I have noticed some rolling shutter while reframing but frankly who cares? I never understand people moaning about rolling shutter in tests while whip panning, how often do you use a whip pan or a reframe in your films? One other negative I’ve noticed is that when working at the long end of the lens while using variable ND it is hard to focus properly and the image doesn’t look as nice.

I often use the 18–200 in autofocus and have found it brilliant, it tracks faces excellently though at times it can drift if the person you are filming looks away. I’ve also brought the 50mm Samyang prime which is lovely for interviews and tripod work but has no stabilisation and the image is very wobbly when the camera is hand held.

Picture profile is the next thing. I would love to shoot S-log 2 but there are two main reasons why I don’t (so far). Firstly much of my work is quick turn around and I don’t want the pain of having to grade all of my pics. Secondly I’m now working in the African sunshine and often at 200 ISO. For Log I’m told the lowest ISO you can use is 3200 which kills it as an option for me.

I’m currently using Picture Profile 1 with Gamma at Cine 3 and colour mode as Pro. To be honest I’ve found it looks great indoors and in low light but I’m not totally happy with my colours and blacks outdoors, especially in the sunshine. In most of my films I have to lush and crush a bit in FCPX (i.e bring down the blacks and add a bit of saturation). I would love any advice about settings that you think would be best for me working in bright sunshine.

If you want to see how my pictures look I’ve posted two of my recent films below. . .Be sure to watch in HD

For sound I’m switching between the camera’s internal microphone for simple GV’s or discrete/undercover shooting and then adding the sony XLR-K1M adaptor with radio mics for interviews etc. I found this rig fairly decent though I had to play with the settings on my mics a lot before I could get rid of the hiss I was getting. I still sometimes have to use a bit of background noise reduction in FCPX. I also have a simple Sony radio mic adaptor that allows me to plug a receiver straight into the camera’s hot shoe, this is actually lovely and for many interviews is all I need. Some people ask why I went with the XLR-K1M and not the K2M, the reason is that it fits better with the Movcam cage.

I’ve now shot around fifteen films with this kit and so far I’m incredibly happy. It’s so light to carry around, I can be discrete and still get images at least on par with my old PMW500. For features I would say this is close to my perfect kit though if you are looking for something with which to shoot hard news I would warn against the A7S — or any similar camera. Nothing beats the versatility of traditional ENG cameras: the built in XLR inputs and ND filters, the range you can get in the zoom lenses and the ability to plug into a live truck or similar are all incredibly important. So would I swap back? Hell no. . .I never want to go back to lugging five Peli cases of gear through an airport and spending hours dealing with customs officers. The future is small, it’s light and it is changing the news business completely.

10 thoughts on “The Sony A7S and the modern video journalist

  1. Hi Christian,
    I am a 15 years old video journalist from Germany. It was very interesting for me to read about your equipment. Now I have some questions on your shootings with the A7S:
    1. As I know, many broadcasters want the film material in 422 10bit. But the a7s does NOT record internally in 422 10. So, do you record with a HDMI recorder or do you deliver your shoots “as it is”?
    Do broadcasters accept the shoots without 422 10?
    2. What about some “drama” in your shoots? I mean some DOF, some lightening effects, etc.? Do you grade your shoots generally or only when shooting longer documentaries/stories?
    Bestb regards,

    1. HI there David, annoyingly I’ve lost it. ..But FYI it’s a very cheap nasty kit of three LED lights purchased off Amazon for around £30 a piece. I probably use a light about once every six months at the mo!

  2. Hi Christian, great review. I am also having troubles with hiss on the UWP-D11 wireless mics on the A7S. Could you share what settings you used to eradicate this? Thanks.

  3. That would be great. Funnily enough I used the A7s and uwpd11 with the xlr k2m on a paid shoot last night and although there was a bit of hiss when monitoring through the camera it isn’t nearly as bad when played back in camera. But if you do have any further tips I would be very appreciative.

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