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Sony PMW-F3 review

Size and shape

I’ve grown used to the fact that the new raft of large-sensor cameras are shaped like shoe boxes. There are a lot of electronics to pack inside and the circuit boards being rectangular have to fit in an orderly manner.

The shape of the body on the other hand is well suited to an equally orderly layout of the controls that, like on most digital video cameras, seem to be clustered all over the body. In this regard, the size of the F3 leaves decent space between each button and control knob to make if quite easy to use even for large fingers.

The two volume level controls are exposed and according to sound recordist James Nowiczewski, are prone to being accidentally turned up or down in the rough and tumble of a shoot. Gaffer tape covering these controls will not be a thing of the past I’m afraid and it's a shame that Sony does not think about little things like this. A small cover over the knobs could have easily taken care of it.

Small budget, small crew, small kit

It is not a shoulder mounted design so the F3 is not a comfortable hand-held camera for any long period of time. However it is still compact and light enough to hold while moving and gliding around. I found no limitation on my shorter stint handheld capabilities except for long sessions which I predict will be tricky. In my opinion it’s just not great for shoots where the camera may have to be handheld for up to half an hour at a time. For this work, a camera support like the Milide ShouldeRig would do the job.

An aspect that I came to appreciate, is that the size and form factor of the camera with lenses and mattebox attached is perfect for tripod work. It has sufficient mass which meant it always felt smooth while panning and tilting on my Miller 55.

I liked the fact that I could take the F3 out of the box, charge a compact battery, mount a lens and just go out and shoot - F3 in one hand, tripod in the other. I could shoot an entire documentary on this camera. Another use for the F3 could be where dramatic re-construction segments are inserted into footage shot on other video formats. 

Lenses and the PL mount

The native lens mount is what is known as the F3 mount and a PL (Positive Lock) is attached out of the box. The front of the camera body is cast from metal alloy and forms a robust design to support the large diameter Arri PL mount. This gives the F3 an even more serious feel.

The optional Sony prime lenses that were supplied with my F3 were pre-production models. The focus and aperture rings were not smooth as I would have expected, particularly the focus ring. However I have recently had a chance to play with the first production lenses and these rings feel a lot smoother.

Each lens – the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm have a maximum aperture of T2. They can focus to short minimum distances - less than 30cm in the case of the 35mm. The large diameter of the lens barrels is a little overwhelming, however this large diameter allows for fine focus distance increments to be marked on the barrel. This is essential if you are serious about shooting with the accurate control required for cinematography at this level. Aperture and focus gear rings are standard, so interfacing with the top notch follow-focus units and servo motors is a straight forward.

My only wish is for a wider lens or wide zoom to be offered as part of the optional lens kit. For a recent F3 shoot I had to hire an 18mm to get my wide shots - sweet as it is, the angle of view on the 35mm is just not wide enough for most shoots. A zoom lens will be essential for doco work and I understand that something will be available soon.

The images

Nice, right out of the box. I’d be happy recording straight to the dual SxS cards for the majority of the time. OTOH, I’d also be thinking about a nanoFLASH and recording at 4:2:2 at higher transfer rates for the more demanding post production treatments. At last, a lens, imager and image processor combination that is so good, it's actually worth using these higher recording specs.

To be honest, I’m interested in seeing if and when I could use the F3 for my work. Numbers mean little to me and the images that I take are everything, but I’m a fast worker and working quickly at 35mm level is not for the faint hearted – just ask any current DSLR user.

Accurate focus and correct exposure are always close to my heart and the F3 is an easy camera to do hold accurate focus. No thoughts of using an external monitor or attaching other accessories for that matter, this camera is up to speed within seconds. The prime lenses and LCD panel with its edge peaking and expanded focus ensured that I could work fast and accurately. As is the case with the XDCAM 's, you need to be aware of any blown-out highlights and a small degree of under exposure is usually enough to bring the highlights with in range.

For someone who enjoys using a video camera to respond spontaneously to beautiful light or to locations that beg thoughtful composition, I reckon the F3 is right on the money. I will soon be posting a short that I recently shot on the PMW-F3. In the meantime Sony Australia has a Microsite with some great examples.

Thanks to Nick Buchner at Sony Australia for allowing me to evaluate this camera.