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a7s II Review: The Journey into the woods

A real world report after 1 week in Olympic National Park.

In October I was hired to shoot a short film style commercial. This wasn’t just a shoot. It was a week long hike through Olympic National Park where size and weight would be big restrictions. I was chosen because I had the right style and because I would actually do a shoot like this where I am sleeping in a freezing tent in the wilderness and building shots with the gear I can carry.

The production company liked what I was getting out of the A7rII and that was the planned camera for this production. They sent me some sample images and described the look so I put together a gear list and built some LUTs to translate S-Log2 into their desired result. The day before we left I stated to see people with A7sII bodies on twitter. So I found the only one available in my state and brought it home for a night of testing before I left. I loved it! So lets jump right into the pros and cons on this project.

Pro – S-Log3 (S-Gamut3.cine)

The biggest thing this camera has going for it over the A7rII and many other cameras is the S-Gamut3.cine color space that is part of S-Log3. This was originally added to the F5 and F55 so Sony could copy the look of Arri’s Alexa. The original inspiration for this commercial was an Alexa Mini promotion called The Journey. This added to my desire to jump to the A7sII since I could start off with a closer color gamut and log curve.

In order to get this Alexa look out of the A7sII I built a LUT that translated the Sony S-Log3 files into Rec709 using Arri’s setting for the Alexa. You can download it here to try it out. It will give a wide dynamic range image that is very forgiving of exposure adjustments made pre-LUT to balance shot to shot.

Pro – In Body Stabilization and Autofocus

The first shots were in the Seattle airport. I have used the A7rII on a gimbal and wasn’t sure the A7sII would perform as well. You can see below a long take going from the baggage claim area, winding through the airport and then back out to the garage. We did this a few times and the autofocus worked perfectly for a setup like this. I used the Flexible Spot autofocus mode set to medium or large. This allowed me to have a nice big target on screen to frame my talent on the long takes and did a great job at focusing on his body and pack.

Shot on the Sony FE 28mm at f/4.

The in body stabilization combined with the gimbal made for a powerful combination. After I got deeper in the forest and the temperatures were closer to freezing the gimbal got a little tremor and in body stabilization completely canceled it out. I was also able to hand hold shots with perfectly smooth results.

Pro – Low Light and Dynamic Range are Amazing

The second location on the way out of Seattle was a ferry ride, about an hour before dawn. Since most of this project would be shot outside in various types of forest I decided early on that I would keep the white balance at 5000K so the couple artificially lit parts would contrast and stand out that much more from the magic hour outside shots. This predawn ferry ride was the darkest part of the shoot. Even some later fire lit slow motion was brighter.

Both of these shots show the beauty in S-Gamut3.cine and the low light performance of the A7sII. Overexposing the puke yellow lights in the walkway and the dark blue of the predawn sky allow the brightest spots to go towards white. This comes from the Alexa emulation that decreases saturation of bright objects so highlights always clip at white but darker objects like his dark red jacket can stay true to their color. I shot most of this piece quite a bit over exposed to play into the LUT’s advantages. The dynamic range and cleanliness of the high iso image allows this type of pushed exposure.

Con – Battery Life and The Cold

Shooting in 30 F to 50 F degree temperatures, the batteries don’t last very long. Normally it is maybe an hour but these got down to about 45 minutes. In the forest I carried 14 and some days was glad I had them all. For a star timelapse I used a USB battery pack to keep the camera powered for 4 hours.

Pro – Lenses

I figured the Sony/Zeiss lenses would be great and they are. The stand out was the 55mm f1.8. It has an in focus 3D pop that is outstanding. Some of the shots look almost unreal, like they are green screen composites. The Sony lenses are great too. The 90 macro was used for a lot of close face shots and the 28mm was used for a lot of gimbal work. It was the real surprise for $1000 cheaper than some of these lenses. I loved it. I just took a break from writing and ordered one because this reminded me how great it is.

Con? – 8 Bit and Data Rate

People complain about 8 bit in these cameras and how S-Log2 and especially S-Log3 need 10 bits or more to get the best image but in real world use it doesn’t usually cause any issues. Sometimes there might be banding in the sky or in a super out of focus object but out of 1018 clips totaling over 12 hours of content I never saw anything that ruined a shot or even felt noticeable. 10 bits is better. 8 is fine. 100 Mbps is fine. This camera also shoots 4K/60 Mbps and it is also fine. You can fit a lot of great video on a cheap memory card. Don’t worry about it.

Pro – sort of – Gamma Display Assist

The camera can preview, during recording or playback, S-Log2/3 with a log to 709(800%) semi-LUT. For normal shooting this looks pretty great and is very helpful for white balance and showing clients S-Log footage. But like I keep pointing out, I like to push the exposure brighter and sometimes a lot brighter to get the image way above the noise and push the highlights to the max. This gives a Gamma Display Assist image that looks super bright. So this is a helpful feature but isn’t really working the way I want.

Sum it all up

The original A7s and the FS7 both shook up the camera market in 2014. Just 1 year later we have the A7sII with the color science from Sony’s high end CineAlta cameras in such a small camera body that has a full frame sensor, great low light, in body stabilization, clean 120 fps slow motion and 4K recording. The cons like battery life don’t seem that important.

Equipment List

  • Sony A7sII
  • CAME-TV Mini 2 Gimbal
  • Small HD 502 Monitor (with my LUT loaded for previewing)
  • Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 lens
  • Sony FE 16-35 f/4 lens
  • Sony FE 28mm f/2 lens
  • Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 lens
  • Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 lens
  • 3DR Solo Drone

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