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FS5’s Auto ND put to test by Philip White

“Being able to move freely with two hands on the gimbal, knowing that the camera’s automatic ND would take care of the exposure was a very attractive prospect.”

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Just a few weeks before NAB 2016, Sony asked if I would be interesting in shooting with the PXW-FS5 using a key new feature. 

In late 2015, the FS5 was launched as the ‘world’s first Super35mm camcorder with a built-in electronic variable Neutral Density (ND) filter’. Unlike conventional optical filters, the FS5’s ND Filter can be controlled from 1/4ND to 1/128ND linearly – making it easier to keep depth of field under control during variable lighting conditions.  

V2 firmware promised to take this even further with a fully automatic mode.  As a live event filmmaker, I’ve learnt to be skeptical about anything automatic, but this could be very useful. If it worked…

Test conditions

As the feature was still in BETA, I didn’t want risk using it a real event. Instead, we set up a dummy wedding, hiring a venue, some newlyweds, hair and make-up team and a photographer.

I also asked industry colleagues how they might use Auto ND in their work. The overwhelming response was that Auto ND would be incredible for film makers who use gimbals. Being able to move freely with two hands on the gimbal, knowing that the camera’s automatic ND would take care of the exposure was a very attractive prospect. 

Philip White operates an FS5 on tripod while a colleague shoots using a gimbal.

With this in mind, I brought in an experienced Steadicam operative to take care of the testing from that perspective. Whilst he would operate the PXW-FS5 permanently attached to a gimbal, I would operate the camera from a tripod. To obtain a very clear understanding of how well Auto ND feature worked in every environment, we decided to film with the feature permanently turned on.


As the Auto ND feature was part of a new firmware update, none of us had any previous experience of enabling the feature in camera. It was simple. Within two or three menu clicks we had it up and running. We also assigned the Auto ND feature to one of the FS5’s custom buttons, located conveniently next to the existing Variable ND controls. Once assigned, we could turn Auto ND off, if needed, with just one press. 

Throughout the day we staged different scenes in a variety of different, and rather difficult, lighting conditions. 

Smooth results


A luxury hotel helped test Auto ND’s performance with variable lighting.

“Every scene that we filmed produced realistic results that were almost exactly how I would expose the scene if I were controlling the camera in full manual mode.”

What surprised me about the auto ND feature was how well it adapted and kept a correct exposure. My past experience with anything ‘automatic’ told me that it wouldn’t be perfect and that I would need to make my own manual adjustments. I was expecting mixed results. I was wrong. Every scene that we filmed produced realistic results that were almost exactly how I would expose the scene if I were controlling the camera in full manual mode.

On about a dozen occasions throughout the day we tested how well the Auto ND feature would work in changing light conditions. Again, my previous experience of automatic exposure control led me to expect jumps in exposure as the light changed. This wasn’t the case. Whether we moved from inside to outside or vice versa, or even when we circled our subjects in direct sunlight, the results were consistently smooth. The camera simply adapted without any noticeable jumps.
 

Morecambe Bay provided an attractive setting for the closing scenes.

As a live event film maker I understand more than most the importance of being able to move freely with a camera. There’s no shame in using an automatic setting on a camera if it gains you the ability to shoot quickly and with freedom. The PXW-FS5 is perfect for this and with the addition of such an innovative new feature like Auto ND, it shows me that Sony are completely on our wavelength as filmmakers.

Additional information

Philip White is one of the world’s leading event and wedding videographers whose work has taken him across the globe creating destination weddings videos throughout Europe, Asia and America. His clients include royalty, stars of film and television, Oscar winners and international sports stars. In 2012, Philip won the prestigious Wedding Industry Award as England’s Best Wedding Videographer and has won subsequent regional Wedding Industry Awards for four consecutive years. In 2014 Philip was awarded the title of Master Videographer by the Italian National Association of Videographers.

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