Chainsaws, fire, snow, and dogs are a few elements we dragged the FX3 through. How did the new Sony hold up?
If you had the new ultra-compact Sony FX3 for a Sunday afternoon, what would you shoot?
Well, I tried to test this camera in some of the most challenging production scenarios: no operator, bad lighting, reluctant subjects, and rocky terrain.
Grab a cup of coffee, have a watch, and read the takeaways about what worked (and what didn’t) with some overall thoughts on the type of filmmaker this camera was made for.
Autofocus: never use your eyeballs again
Honestly, there are three reasons to love the Sony FX3: autofocus, autofocus, and autofocus. The two modes of autofocus on the FX3 are Tracking and Spot Focus. Tracking AF will track, from foreground to background and wherever in between, and follow the person/object you have tapped on.
As you saw in the footage above, the tracking AF is almost flawless with zero operator intervention. There is one moment where you can notice the focus adjust as I come back to the log with the chainsaw. I had transition speed set to 5. In a different setting, this focus shift might disappear altogether. You can set the AF Transition Speed from 1 -7, and the AF Subject Shift Sensitivity from 1 - 5.
Obviously, unless you are doing how-to videos or acting in your own film, you won’t need to purely rely on the autofocus. However, when you are following your subject, being sure that your camera can keep the person in focus while you change exposure, audio, or locations is clutch.
You can also see Tracking AF at work big time in the IBIS test with the dogs who stay miraculously in focus. What’s great is that the FX3 focus menu can be set from Human Eye to Animal Eye, which is much appreciated.
Of course, for times when you don’t need tracking to a single object/subject, Spot Focus handles quite nicely. If you have multiple subjects that you want to rack between, you can just tap on them using the touchscreen.
The one area where autofocus has a hiccup is in low light conditions. AF on the FX3 performs very well in low light, but it does reach a breaking point. Here’s a little more footage of Spot AF at work. In the shade, it is perfection. But it's not able to keep up when followed by more extreme environments like bonfire light reflecting onto a black dog.
So when it gets this dark, you'll have to switch back to manual focus. Obviously, that's easy enough to do, and with peaking set to white, it's easy to see in the dark.
One note, AF is for compatible lenses only. Don’t expect to use Metabones or other adapters with your off-brand or vintage lenses of different mounts and have these functionalities. Be sure to check if the adapter supports autofocus and what lenses it's compatible with.
Learning the curve of Picture Profiles
I do really like the look of S-Cinetone over the graded S-Log3. But if you’re used to shooting in S-Log3/2 or another camera’s Log mode, it will be a bit of a learning curve. I’m not familiar with Sony Picture Profiles, and I didn’t account for how S-Cinetone would react with different, or too much, exposure. But I still think it looks much better on skin tones than the S-Log3 footage graded with Sony LUT.
The FX3 does not allow for user LUTS, so you will have to learn the Picture Profiles for yourself. I’m hoping to share some different footage that can take you through the color space of the FX3 in the next test shoot once I’ve had time to experiment a little more.
Look, Ma, no gimbal!
Sony’s 5-Axis IBIS performs really well. Chasing after my dogs at full speed across rocky ground would be pretty garbage on any other small body without a gimbal. And honestly, if you’re familiar with running full speed with a gimbal, it’s not going to save your ass completely in this scenario either.
On the FX3, you can shoot without any stabilization at all, and the camera will still record the metadata that can then be used by the Sony application Catalyst Browse to smooth it out. It’s like Warp in Premiere Pro but better because it uses gyroscopic data. But what’s better, you can set to standard or active mode and skip that trip in post.
As it does on the a7s III, active mode will introduce a slight crop (10%), but it’s hardly noticeable. As you can see, in active mode, I’m able to run around with a tiny handheld camera, and it’s very usable. I consider this pretty exciting, and maybe crucial if you’re going to choose a small body like this for handheld.
A tale of two grips: thoughts on choosing between FX3 handheld options
A weird dilemma came up for me when shooting—which way to hold it.
There are two ways to operate the FX3: hold the body right-handed or grab the audio handle. Grabbing the camera right-handed is clearly the operation that the FX3 was designed for. As I mentioned in my first impressions, the placement of the top buttons is exactly what a filmmaker would want, and definitely commendable.
However, it’s only natural to gravitate toward the audio grip when you have it on. Ergonomically, even though it is pretty short for a handle, it is lighter on the wrist and allows you to point the camera with smoother motions. But once you start using the audio handle, button placement starts to get a little less ideal.
With the audio handle in your right hand, you have to cross your body with your left hand to fiddle with the exposure buttons. Luckily, there are two record buttons, and one is on the left side under the lens, which is really useful when using the audio grip handle.
You know what would be really cool in case the feature ever became possible? A record button on the handle.
Highs and lows of the articulating screen
The articulating screen is cool. It flips in nearly any direction.
This makes for easy viewing of shots that require unusual setups. For example, the overhead shot of my coffee percolator where normally you’d have to get a chair or apple boxes to get your eye up to the screen. Instead, you just flip the screen.
One of the issues I hinted at before is that like the majority of screens, it’s really hard to see them in broad daylight. And if you’ve been tapping away on the screen to focus, leaving big fat fingerprints all across, it’s even more of a challenge.
High frame rates and S&Q Mode
On the FX3, there are two ways to control the frames per second.
The first is from the movie menu, where you can choose between 24, 60, and 120. You get a slightly higher bitrate this way. The only drawback is you don’t get to play back your footage in slow motion until you interpret it in your editing software. If you are shooting 120fps for a true Gemini Man HFR-style experiment, then no worries of course.
The second method is to switch to Slow and Quick Motion (S&Q Motion) which allows you to shoot at frame rates from 1 frame per second to 120 frames per second. Whether you were looking to shoot your Charlie Chaplin sequence, time-lapse, or slow motion, you can do that from S&Q. When you shoot in S&Q mode, you can play back and watch in slow motion.
No one is exactly dropping jaws at 120fps, but it’s great to have the capability at 4K. And did I mention you can shoot at 240fps in UHD?
For reference, the Blackmagic Pocket 6K Pro tops out at 60fps in 4K, and even the 4K DCI capable FX6 will only currently give you 120fps in QFHD resolution.
Low Light Sensitivity
I was able to capture our bonfire from start to finish without maxing out the ISO. Only when switching to an ISO above 12,800 did the image start to pick up noticeable noise. Above are screenshots of the bonfire footage.
On the left, a still from the footage I included in the test video. It looks fantastic, and 3200 ISO is more than enough to capture the fire.
On the right is a still of footage shot with the ISO at 40,000. When you take a closer look below you can definitely see the noise creeping in. Of course, that is a huge leeway and gives you a lot to work with compared to other small cinema cameras, so I can’t complain.
What about 4K DCI?
One of the first frustrations we’re hearing from No Film School readers is that the FX3 shoots full-frame at 4K UHD and not 4K DCI.
What’s the difference? About 0.5 million pixels. DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) has a resolution of 4096x2160 pixels, whereas QFHD (Quad Full High Definition) has a resolution of 3840x2160 pixels.
Does this matter?
It depends largely on the project and final deliverable. The only reason you’d ever have to shoot 4K DCI really is if it’s required by your client or distributor. But if you plan to deliver anywhere from YouTube, broadcast, or streaming services like Netflix, at the moment, you don't need 4K DCI. Honestly, the majority of producers around me are only shooting in 4K UHD to have the option to reframe in post for 1080p delivery.
Workflow: Sony proxies are your friend
With 4K footage in general and the H.265 codec in particular, it can come with a lot of playback headaches in post if you don't have a powerful enough machine. One nice feature about the FX3 is that it will create proxy files for you instantly as you record. This allows you to skip the step of creating proxies in your editing software.
Who is the Sony FX3 best suited for?
There’s one big reason to make a cine-style camera this small: unpredictable production environments. In my opinion, small is ultimately better for single-shooters in these challenging environments. However, the catch is that these small bodies must have easy focus and workhorse IBIS for them to be practical. And there hasn’t been a body that has combined those two quite as well as the FX3.
Especially for documentary work. I shoot solo all the time, following documentary subjects through important moments in their lives. I handle focus, exposure, camera movement, and audio levels, all while staying present and following the person’s story. I’ve also shot climbing footage and backcountry treks that required gear to share equal space with tents, ropes, water, and stoves.
You want a compact camera to be your reliable friend.
When it comes to narrative, especially with modest budgets and guerilla sets, you don’t necessarily need a small camera. But you do need a camera that gives you a good image without a lot of time on setups. And that leaves some room for user error that inevitably occurs on these kinds of productions.
Wouldn’t it be great if one camera could handle all these shooting scenarios? I attempted to address these kinds of shooting environments in my test footage to see how the FX3 handles. So far it really stands up for shooters like me. I’m not sure I can go back to other small body AF or IBIS after seeing how well the FX3 performs.
What do you think of the Sony FX3? Let us know in the comments below.