Does hype sell you on stuff? Sony spends a lot of money making sure. Just this past week, they paid off the Associated Press to go all Sony, all the time, crossing an ethical line in journalism (besides simply looking tacky). And we see how most every hyper-enthused “vlogger” about cameras and lenses — ogling maximum view counts with rapid cuts flailing around — is in the bag for Sony. How many videos have we endured, watching them get flown out to expensive cities, hotel stays, and gang-bang shoots of waif models for camera launches? “This is an independent review and I was not paid by Sony!” Sure, whatever. Maybe this year, cuz ‘rona.
Today is the same old stuff. You need to scrub the ‘net hard to find any nuance on Sony, while they’re launching the new a7S III (in large part, a GH5 with a full-frame sensor — and that $1.3k camera launched just yesterday, or was it way back in January 2017?). Sony has summoned their entire army to raise fists in the air, calling it unanimously “uh-ma-zing.” The phenomenon actually creeps me out. Imagine going to Rotten Tomatoes for movie reviews, and finding some mediocre movie that everyone only loved or hated — no diversity. Suspicious?
I pledged my allegiance to Sony a long time ago (and I’m still cheering for them); it started with the NEX-VG10 and just kept getting better from there, on to the NEX-FS100, then the a7S II, and currently, the a7 III. That last camera remains my go-to for flying on gimbals, because the auto-focus nails it pretty much always. (When I can stay locked down, though, it’s Blackmagic and Z CAM all day long.) Sony has had zero competition in full-frame cinematography for many years, too. So yeah, when this sort of thing happens, you get stuck: I bought tons of active E-mount lenses, and now what? They don’t attach to anything but Sony. (Not so for EF mount — because of flange distance — which is practically on its deathbed now that RF mount is taking over. My order of the new Canon R5 is arriving any day now…)
So I was among those schmucks anxiously awaiting the arrival of the a7S III, and Sony dragged their feet for almost half a decade. Now that it’s finally arrived: how does it feel?
First, we need to pull it into focus. I’ll try. From here on, instead of dense essay style, best to simply make a list. Beyond that, it doesn’t deserve much of our time, because the a7S III has turned out to be an overpriced meh.
- Resolution: Yes, UHD-4k is enough for a lot of things, but not everything. Final output resolution, exporting from a full editing workflow, isn’t the issue at all. The ability to punch/crop/reframe into video footage, that’s really something. And Blackmagic taught a huge lesson last week (John Brawley, one of those rare writers about camera tech who’s not gullible, explains this fully): their new custom-built sensor is less revolutionary for its 12k resolution, but instead, literally how that image looks, because of how the sensor gathers light, bayers the image, allocates pixels, and integrates with BRAW efficiency which is by far the best RAW codec in the world (more on that later). Point being, for a major, long-awaited, over-hyped product launch, Sony’s mere 4K (still incapable of even actual 4K/DCI) is a drag, especially for what the a7S III costs, which leads to…
- Pricing: Sony has devolved into a multinational corporation run by its accounting/marketing department; every time they launch a “G Master” lens, their paid-off vlogger army drools and pretends that they’d have enough money to buy one, let alone the whole product line, instead of only getting temporary loans. (A delicious sidebar to that, is how Tamron — ironically part-owned by Sony themselves — is beating out even G Master lenses in lab tests, at one-third or less the prices.) Simply put, the a7S III costs too damn much, even if other cameras cost more (because they do, too). The last time their comptrollers finally behaved smartly, was when they priced the a7 III as one of the best bargains in hybrid camera history, and it still is — much like Blackmagic priced the BMPCC4K stunningly low. That wasn’t long ago, and the interim volume of sales spoke for itself: when you price something smartly, lots of people buy it. But insult them with price gouging, and they don’t.
- CF-express Type A: In a throwback to Memory Stick stubbornness and greed (remember those blue sticks of gum?), Sony wants you to buy their new kind of flash memory card. It’s capable of up to 700 megabytes per second of write speed, which is the only spec that matters (read speed is irrelevant and always higher). However, the a7S III is designed with slots that can also take UHS-II cards, having extra rows of contacts for faster speed. I have a few V90 cards that I used in the BMPCC6K, and that spec means they can guarantee sustained minimum write speeds of at least 90 megabytes per second, which is the same as 720 megabits per second. The fastest speed of any internal recording in the a7S III is the new XAVS S-I at 600 megabits per second, well below that 720 megabits per second headroom in a solid UHS-II V90 SD card. Meantime, guess how much CF-express Type A cards will cost? For the tiny 80 GB card, hilariously $200, and for the whopping 160 GB card, $400. Meantime, other cameras are almost universally accommodating USB-C docking of solid state drives, that offer terrabytes of storage at equivalent speeds, costing dozens of times less per gigabyte.
- RAW: Starting with some facetious background, Atomos is like that last hook-up at the bar who hasn’t scored again, and just before closing, goes home with someone. It needs the business, somehow, in a post-Atomos age. They did have a bromance years ago with Panasonic, when they were the only way to record 10-bit 4:2:2 from the GH4 — but when they tried to hook up with Sony for the a7S II, it turned out disappointing, because that camera only output 8-bit. These days, they’ve put their eggs in the ProRes RAW basket, which might have been alright if Blackmagic hadn’t revolutionized RAW(-ish) technology with BRAW. You can read more about it (too much to explain here), but the issue for the a7S III is that to record RAW, you’re spending a ton of extra money and adding bulk to your rig that completely defeats the purpose of a portable mirrorless camera fundamentally designed for video capture in the first place. The best that the new camera can do internally, is just another variant of CPU-taxing HEVC/H.265 compression, compared to — let’s face it — the perfection found in BRAW for smallest file sizes, fastest editing performance on all workstations, and internal recording. (Also enough for a whole separate write-up is this, in a nutshell: Sony has been litigation-averse since the surfer dudes at R3D Corporation magically scored a rad patent claiming that any compressed internal RAW recording is theirs forever — like, literally the whole concept of that, and no one else can ever do it. By not fighting that frivolous patent, despite deep pockets, Sony forces you to hook a huge recorder onto your “portable” camera. And the recorder doesn’t even exist yet.)
- Audio: It’s just a freaking 1/8″ stereo jack giving a bad-impedance, interference-prone, consumer-level microphone input. Still. And just like the RAW dilemma, hooking up to their comically waiting-to-crack XLR-K3M at the hotshoe (leaving no room for a RAW recorder too) is embarrassingly nothing more than a Salvador Dali surrealist painting of a pricey contraption held up by a toothpick.
- Stills: 12 megapixels is your mother’s purse camera, and your cellphone last century. Next!
- SteadyShot: This one was a nail-biter. If they ditched internal image stabilization via the sensor, like Panasonic did for the GH5S, you would have seen two armies line up and face each other down: the vintage old-timey self-appointed “A.S.C.” wannabes who say I.S. doesn’t matter, versus those of us tired of vomiting in the movie theater every time a hipster lenser says “whatever” to camera stabilization (cuz shaky iz cool). Meantime, stingy Sony has been systematically removing lens stabilization across the board, to shave pennies off costs for maximum profits, pointing their fingers at I.B.I.S. as the patsy. Now thankfully, the a7S III keeps sensor I.B.I.S., though it’s widely known as the very worst, even in the full-frame sensor world that has lot more mass to jiggle than crop sensors. But here’s the thing: yet another red herring is their so-called “SteadyShot Active” mode, and it assumes you’re just as gullible as GoPro customers. It uses the same gyroscopic sensors in your cellphone (to play driving games or whatever), recording position and relative movement metadata for further digital stabilization only in post-production that’s already cropping into your image by about 10%. This is a fool’s errand, and any good cinematographer knows why: the 180-degree shutter rule is a real thing, and it’s not debatable. You need proper motion blur on every single frozen frame of video footage, and it needs to blur in the right direction (like, literally how things happen in the world). What digital stabilization does, is respond with exact opposite force, smearing the motion blur against itself. It’s noticeable, and it’s wrong, and it’s fake. What’s more, this “SteadyShot Active” process is a whole generation’s loss of extra encoding, since you need to churn through your footage using a proprietary, separate encoding application, to come up with a digitally stabilized source file. It’s not lossless like Adobe Warp.
- S-Cinetone-ish: This is a sneaky way of saying, if you’re too lazy to drop a free LUT onto properly captured log footage (which dates back to the earliest days of cinema), this is the best Sony can do, so far. S-Cinetone is not a log format; it’s just REC.709 (standard video color space) that looks decent. It started with the VENICE, continued in the FX9, and Sony wants you to think it’s incredibly generous for them to put a version of it into this little spy cam instead of charging thousands of dollars for a firmware update. But the S-Cinetone improvements (really, bug fixes from historically awful Sony color science) are absent in S-Log2 and S-Log3. Anyone spending this much money on a camera, shouldn’t lower their standards by reducing dynamic range and skipping log formats, so S-Cinetone is irrelevant. And no matter what mode you’re in, “the low light king” (even so, just barely more sensitive compared to competing dual-ISO cameras) is only for a worst-case scenario: color rendition is terrible because of low light physically, so you shouldn’t be shooting in the dark unless you absolutely have to. Just examine the sample footage yourself: a7S III color looks much worse at the highest ISOs.
- Minimum ISO: Speaking of log, they always say, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. So I do have one nice thing to say about the a7S III: Sony finally came to their senses (read: finally ignored angry Alister) and lowered the minimum ISO in log mode from sometimes thousands, down to 640 and even 160 in an “extended” mode. Hooray. We’ve actually had that on other cameras for years (e.g., Blackmagic). It has a huge impact on controlling depth of field and shallow focus, avoiding ND filtration at top limits that severely compromise quality.
Even in quarantine, I’ve done a poor job writing posts routinely here, but among some more “recent” ones (on building an editing workstation), a big theme was how Intel got its asses handed to them by AMD who are now killing it in the CPU world with their 7nm process (no matter what Puget Systems tells you), and Intel is still years away from catching up. As a parting thought: this is exactly what’s happening to Sony. Like Intel, they ruled the world for a while, but got cocky, and greedy. This whole rant has taken a renegade tone simply because it’s too noisy out there. Caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) has never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve to get hurt. Make up your own minds, and ignore the noise. Ultimately, it comes down to how good you are behind the camera, and whether you can see the difference in A-B testing between this new thing, and the last thing.
P.S.: Remember when Sony’s loyal army of vloggers defiantly insisted that overheating Sony cameras was a non-issue, because real filmmakers never keep shots running that long? My, how the tide turns, when the holy dictate needs to come up with something to boast about…