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The Sony PMW-F55, Can It Give Arri’s Alexa A Run For The Money?

For a couple of years now, in the world of high end video production the Arri Alexa has reigned supreme. The Alexa is a fantastic camera of that there is no doubt, but a new kid is about to arrive on the block, the Sony F55. Can Sony’s F55 steal the Alexa’s thunder?
So what makes a great camera, is it picture resolution, dynamic range, ergonomics or something else? Well I think it’s a combination of all of these. The best cameras in my opinion are those that produce visually pleasing images through the right balance of picture attributes. Great cameras are also cameras that are simple and easy to use, comfortable to hold and above all else reliable.
Arri’s did a very good job when they designed the Alexa. They used their decades of camera expertise to create a well balanced, reliable, HD camera, but it is “only” HD and 2K capable. Perhaps designing and creating a 2K/HD camera at a time when 4K cameras were already available for film and movie production was a brave move. But I think what Arri realised was that resolution is only one small part of the image quality equation. The thing that makes the pictures from the Alexa really stand out from the crowd is the way it handles those all important skin tones and mid range textures. In simple terms, the pictures just look nice! On paper at least the Sony F55 and it’s lower cost brother the F5 are engineering masterpieces. They offer the ability to shoot and record HD using a variety of codec’s from the popular broadcast ready 50Mb/s 422 XDCAM codec up through to a new high quality version of AVC that Sony are calling XAVC, all the way to HDCAM SR. The PMW-F55 can even record 4K compressed video internally. In addition via a neat dockable recorder no bigger than a couple of packs of playing cards both the F55 and F5 can record 4K raw. Ergonomically these new Sony cameras look to be very good. Simple, uncluttered boxes with a large clear LCD displaying the camera status, to which you attach your choice of viewfinder or monitor. There is also a fully adjustable shoulder mount with ironically “Arri” style rosettes as well as rails for matte boxes etc. When I got to play with a pre-production F55 at the recent BVE North show I was very impressed, the cameras are well balanced and easy to operate. Sony’s really killer feature though is the price. A fully configured F55 is a fraction of the price of the Arri Alexa and on paper at least, the F55’s specifications are quite amazing including things like a global shutter that eliminates the dreaded rolling shutter artefacts of most CMOS cameras (Some Alexa models are available with a mechanical shutter). Of course price and spec sheets alone don’t sell cameras. RED’s Epic has always been cheaper than the Arri Alexa, and on paper the Epic looks to be the Alexa’s equal, yet Alexa is the current camera of choice for many movie and drama productions. If you ask many cinematographers why they would choose an Alexa over an Epic or perhaps any other camera, the answer will often simply be image quality, even though the Alexa is “only” a 2K/HD camera, arguably the image looks nicer.
So can the Sony PMW-F5 and F55 take on the mighty Arri Alexa? Judging by the recently released demo reels I think they can. The quality of the online videos is quite breathtaking. Of course these are demo reels, so every effort has been made to make them look good, but look good they do. They show incredible detail and beautifully rendered colours. Faces and skin tones look excellent and overall it looks like the cameras produce well rounded and visually pleasing images.
It’s never been a better time to be a film maker. The quality of the images coming from today’s modern video cameras is quite remarkable and the prices are lower than ever, giving a broader range of users access to high end, high quality production tools that rival and maybe even better film cameras.
The F5 and F55 (like the Alexa and Red cameras) have the ability to record raw sensor data. This is a big step forwards. Traditional video cameras use video gamma to compress highlight information. This is done to minimise the amount of data needed to record the video signal. The problem with this system is that it makes exposure critical. If you over expose by even just a little bit the mid tones, things like faces can end up in the compressed part of the exposure range and this can make them look un-natural, even after grading. If you record the raw linear data straight from the sensor you don’t have this issue and as a result your exposure is a little less critical. As a result the whole system is much more forgiving of any over exposure. Of course you still need to expose correctly, but the way the camera responds to light is much more like film and this gives the bous and girls in the grading suites and post production much more to play with.
I’m really looking forward to the arrival of Sony’s F5 and F55 camera’s, perhaps Arri won’t be quite so keen.
shied away from Avid, as admittedly it +isn’t as accessible as FCP but that’s where training comes in. Soho Editors have a series of Avid authorised courses ranging from beginner to advanced.
And knowing both Avid and Final Cut Pro opens up a whole new range of opportunities for editing in the broadcast market.
So dare I say it I’m slowly becoming an Avid fan, something I’d never thought I’d say a few years back. It’s sad to see what’s happening to the company because their software is really very good. So all I can say is get your act together Avid, because if you go your software might go with you and that’s a real shame.
Alister Chapman is cameraman/DiT, he runs the web site
Solidmate Ltd Memory Card Hire London

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