Sometimes we shot scenes with just one tiny light source and the footage was unbelievable – you gotta see it to believe it…
The Sony a7s is a game changer for film and TV production. In this interview we talk about the various aspects of the Sony a7s that made it a killer camera to use on long form narrative production. We used the Sony a7s for the first time on a TV pilot and were blown away by the efficiency of workflow especially with its low light prowess. At the end of the video is a short trailer for our action-thriller pilot that demonstrates how well the footage turned out with minimal light.
Why use the Sony a7s?
Since corporate video production days we’ve always preferred using DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. The form factor was familiar to us and we liked interchangeable lenses. We also had a preference for older legacy lenses which often gave a different look and feel to the shots. There was basically more artistic choice than having a very sharp zoom lens on the end of a video camera. Of course, nowadays there are many “video cameras” that have interchangeable lenses but we’ve stayed with the mirrorless form factor mainly because of its compact size. There are many competing mirrorless and DSLR cameras that are available for indie filmmakers – so why the Sony a7s?
Low Light Sensitivity
We had been users of the Panasonic GH series for awhile and they served us very well but when the Sony a7s came out we were blown away by its ability to capture images in the dark. To see this in action check out our Sony a7s Low Light Sensitivity Test. One of the pain points in the past has been lighting. We never had enough light – so we were always carrying large LED banks with huge V mount batteries and multiple large light stands with the accompanying crew. Sets ups of course then take much longer – sometimes 30-40mins to get the lighting right. People forget that once you turn on a big light from one direction you then have to turn on other big lights to cover shadows created by the first light. You’re often chasing your tail with any lighting setup. Then you have to cut or shape lights to make sure there’s not too much light in certain areas and this required flags with their own stands. All this added multiple stands/ tripods to the scene that actors and camera operators had to work around. When you’re making an indie production you often have small spaces and limited time – so efficiency of lighting was an area we always wanted to improve.
With the Sony a7s we discovered that we could easily shoot up to 40 000 ISO without much noise. We couldn’t believe our eyes the first time we did this – the camera could literally see beyond our eyes – but not only that, it could capture footage that was noiseless enough to use! Suddenly the game changed. We reduced our lighting setups to just two single LED lights and 2 or 3 tiny palm sized Z96 LED panels. Our entire lighting kit fit into one backpack! As we shot our action-thriller pilot we discovered that many scenes required just a few lights – sometimes just one LED source. We were simply amazed by the low noise footage we got. Sometimes we shot scenes with just one tiny light source and the footage was unbelievable – you gotta see it to believe it. Check out the video above to see examples of our 40 000 ISO footage with just available light.
The low light sensitivity was the single most powerful game changing aspect of the Sony a7s. Our efficiency increased by 3-4x and we could power through a day shooting at speeds we’d never imagined were possible.
Ability to Shoot at Higher Apertures
Because of the low light sensitivity of the Sony a7s we were able to shoot at f4. This is important since, in the past, in low light situations we were often limited to shooting at f2 or lower to get enough light. This meant our actors were unable to move very much or our camera operators had to desperately follow focus which is always difficult. At f4.0 or above we’re able to keep moving actors in focus much more easily and once again this increases efficiency.
The audio in the Sony a7s works perfectly. We tested audio using various configurations in this Sony a7s audio test and we found that even the onboard amplifier was perfectly usable to certain levels. The ability to record audio into camera it is always a major concern for us since this affects efficiency. If we can record perfect audio into camera why would we record separate audio outside the camera? We found out early on that recording audio into camera was perfectly fine especially with dialogue. This meant that we didn’t have to sync audio afterwards which was always tedious and time consuming. We have had two shows sold to broadcasters and both met all audio guidelines – in fact we’ve been nominated for a sound design award. Hence, we will only use a camera that has good sound recording internally. Nevertheless, we do use a JuicedLink as a pre-amp with Sony a7s Audio since it is a very nice professional grade low noise pre-amp and allows us to have up to 3 XLR inputs into camera.
Accepts All Lenses
Since the Sony a7s is a full frame mirrorless camera it will accept all lenses ever made. We used two lenses by Sony extensively through our pilot shoot: the Sony 24-70mm f4 zoom and the 70-200mm f4 zoom. Both are sharp and have optical stabilisation which is great for hand held work. However, we also have legacy primes that we love. One is the Konica-Hexanon 40mm pancake which was a famous prime lens decades ago and can now be found on ebay for about US$150 or less. We love the look of this lens and find that it’s a go-to lens for us on many occasions. The 85mm Samyang cine-lens is another go-to lens for us particularly for mid shots or closeups. The focus range is perfect for handheld shooting without a focus puller – one operator can pull focus easily. You will find that some cine-style lenses have a very long focus range built specifically for focus pulling rigs. Personally I don’t like this because it means you have to have a focus pulling rig of sorts and often another focus puller. It’s very difficult for one camera operator to use these lenses whilst having to pull focus throughout a scene.
If you want to use prime lenses developed for micro 4/3 cameras – you can! As long as it’s a manual prime. Just set the Sony a7s to APS-C mode and the camera will simply record the pixels within a smaller 35mm frame size. This APS-C mode also means on every lens you have two focal lengths!
Without doubt the Sony a7s is a game changer for film and TV production. We were able to shoot in lighting conditions that would have been impossible in the past.Being able to shoot with available light or sometimes just one lighting source was amazing and meant that our shoot moved at almost 2-3x the pace. Our only reservation was that the batteries wouldn’t last through a night of shooting. We’d often use 2-3 batteries per camera on a 8-10 hour shoot. However, it wasn’t as bad as we’d expected since the batteries charge very quickly – sometimes in 30-45 mins. We had bought external batteries in anticipation of this problem but on our shoot we never used them. It was always quicker and easier to use internal batteries since it added no additional weight or components to the camera. We like a slick workflow with minimal external add ons. Hope you enjoy the video above and do ask us anything if you have queries about our workflow or let us know your opinion of this camera.