For the past few years, the practice of hacking a camera's firmware in order to increase the feature-set of said camera has been commonplace and quite popular, especially in the case of the original GH2 hack and, of course, Magic Lantern with Canon DSLRs. However, up to this point, we haven't really seen or heard about folks hacking higher-end cameras in order to increase performance. Until now, that is. Paul Ream, a working cinematographer, recently figured out how to hack the Sony F5 so that it enables the camera to shoot 4K internally, a task which significantly closes the performance gap between the F5 and its much more expensive big brother, the F55. Furthermore, this hack raises some interesting questions about the ethics of companies limiting the functionality of their products in superficial ways.
So what exactly did Ream do to his camera in order to coax internal 4K from his F5? He shared the technique in the most recent version of the ExtraShot podcast. You can skip ahead to the 11:10 mark in the podcast to get directly to the conversation about the F5, and to about 18:20 to get to the part about the technical process behind hacking the camera.
Now that you've heard about F5 hack, here's a bit of a primer on why this is so significant. The Sony F5, which comes in at roughly $16,500 for the body only, is a 4K enabled camera, but only when the proprietary R5 recorder is attached. That device will set you back another $5500. By comparison, the Sony F55, which comes in at $29,000, has the ability to shoot 4K internally to Sony's XAVC codec. There are a few other differences between the two cameras, primarily the fact that the F55 has a global shutter sensor, more HFR options, and an improved color gamut.
This all seems well and good, especially considering that both cameras are highly capable production cameras, with the F55 having a few distinct advantages. Where people have been taking issue, however, is with the claim that the F5 is fully capable of internal 4k, but that Sony has very deliberately disabled that functionality for the purpose of creating more discernible differences between the two cameras.
Ream also shared the following video, which can be downloaded directly from Vimeo in the original 4K resolution.
It should be noted that this "hack" from Ream is not actually a firmware hack or some kind of tampering with the camera's physical hardware. Instead, Ream figured out that the F5 saves its internal preferences to a simple unprotected .txt file, a file that can be edited to include 4K resolution, saved, and then loaded back into the camera. Essentially, each line in this .txt file controls a different aspect of the camera's preferences, and line 150 is the one that controls resolution. By replacing that line (from the F5 preferences) with the resolution settings line from the F55, you can trick the F5 into recording internal 4K. Pretty cool, right?
Now let's talk a little bit about the implications of this little hack. On the surface it definitely seems like Sony is restricting the capability of the F5 in order to create marketable differences between it and the F55. Sony is positioning these cameras (and restricting feature-sets) in a way that is most profitable to them. That's nothing new in the business world. In another sense, however, it makes you wonder about the price difference between the F5 and the F55. As far as I know, the global shutter sensor is the only significant hardware difference between the two cameras (and to go along with that, a wider gamut color filter over the sensor). Even if there are more hardware differences than just the sensor, the hack is showing us that the F5 is capable of performance similar to the F55, which begs the question: is the F55 worth the over-$12,000 price difference?
We're waiting to see how Sony will respond to this new hack, considering that if it's allowed to continue, it could very well affect F55 sales. My guess is that a firmware update is in the works that will restrict access to the preferences file that allows the F5 to be hacked. If you're an owner of the F5 and you're interested in implementing the hack, it's a safe bet to say that you will have to hold on to the current firmware version to ensure that it continues to work. We also don't know for sure if all cameras will react the same way, so keep in mind if you do try it on your own camera, you are doing it at your own risk.
What do you guys think about this hack and the fact that the F5 is capable of more, but Sony has disabled these features? Is it ethical for them to do so, or do they have to make back their research and development costs somehow?