Dubai-based DoP Stephen Moro explores the various features of Sony PXW-FX9 XDCAM 6K full-frame camera system and whether it lives up to expectations.
By Stephen Moro
The Sony PXW-FX9 XDCAM 6K full-frame camera system seems to combine the popular FX7 with some of the upgraded technology from the manufacturer’s Venice and Alpha camera lines. In this review, we explore the various features of the new camera and whether it lives up to expectations
When it comes to broadcast, Sony has been my go-to camera for the last 15 years. From humble beginnings with the DVCAM (DSR-450 and 570), to the HDCAM and the XDCAM (such as the PMW-500), and then the Super 35 sensor cameras such as the F3, F5/55 and FS7, I have always found something I like from the Sony stable.
The XDCAM-500 was one of my favourite cameras, but one of the biggest game-changers was the FS7, one of the most popular cameras in recent years due to its many features and affordable price point compared to the F5/55. With a Super 35 sensor for better depth of field over 2/3-inch CCDs, the ability to shoot S-Log for greater dynamic range, Rec709 for quick turnaround, internal ND, audio controls, 10-bit 422 recordings in HD and 4K, it ticked all the boxes for local and international production companies.
So how do you improve on an already popular camera system? Well, for Sony, it was logical: retain all the principal aspects that made the FS7 so popular while beefing up its capabilities with a larger full-frame sensor, higher resolution and dynamic range, plus introducing the cinematic colour science of its flagship Sony Venice camera. This is the new Sony FX9.
It feels like a full-frame evolution of the FX7, a workhorse camera the firm has come to depend on, with the welcome additions of improved low-light and autofocus performance.
The newly developed sensor from Sony is a 6K full-frame CMOS sensor providing more than 15 stops of dynamic range that allows oversampled 10-bit 422 recording in 4K DCI, 4K UHD and HD.
But why would Sony have a 6K sensor and downsample to 4K? According to the manufacturer, around a third of the camera’s resolution is lost in the processing of the image. By having a 6K sensor and downsampling to 4K, you effectively get the characteristics of 6K resolution without any waste in data size. I believe this makes for a more efficient camera. and I think we’ll see this approach integrated by other camera manufacturers in the near future.
But it isn’t just the colour science that has been carried from the Sony Venice, it’s also the Dual Base ISO technology. It can record both 800 and 4,000 Base ISOs in Cine-EI mode. This means you can shoot at a lower 800 EI for day scenes in bright sunlight conditions (saving ND), then transition to 4,000 EI for low-light scenes. The result is a cleaner image in a variety of different lighting conditions, compared to its predecessor.
Sony has also implemented a new gamma curve for the FX9’s custom mode, called S-Cinetone. This provides virtually the same cinematic look as the Venice and produces a more accurate colour gamut and skin tones over Sony’s traditional Rec709 gamma. For quick turnaround work, S-Cinetone gives users the ability to shoot out-of-the-box cinematic images without post-production grading. The legacy Rec709 gamma is still available, but I can see my clients opting for S-Cinetone once they see the results.
There’s no real change regarding codecs, with XAVC-I (100mbps), XAVC-L (50mbps & 35mbps) and MPEG-HD 422 still available, but Sony has discontinued ProRes recording. 16-bit RAW will be available with the XDCA-FX9 V-lock extension unit in the near future.
Sony has obviously listened to user feedback and has implemented numerous improvements to the overall design of the camera. The FX9 is similar in size to the FS7 but feels more solid and well-built. Gone is the brightness knob from the side of the viewfinder, which was easy to knock unintentionally, changing the VF brightness. The headphone volume adjustments have moved to the side of the camera body from the menu, which is an obvious benefit, and the plastic cap protecting the V-Lock extension unit pins at the rear of the camera have been replaced by a more sturdy robust cap held in place with screws.
The FS7 didn’t have a Time Code IN/OUT on the camera body for syncing multi-cam and sound. For this functionality, users needed to add Sony’s V-Lock extension unit at a cost of $2,000. It was an unnecessary additional expense and made the camera unit heavier, so it’s nice to see Sony include both TC and Genlock IN/OUT as standard for the FX9.
Looking back, the FS7 Mk1 had a traditional ND knob (up to 1/64 ND). The FS7 Mk2 made progress with a mixture of traditional ND knob (up to 1/128) and the option to switch to Variable ND. Now, the FX9 has completely done away with the traditional ND knob, replacing it with three user presets. You can select any of the three presets from ¼ through 1/128, with the ability to switch to variable ND if you prefer access to more exact increments/variants in between.
Shooting with the FS7 Mk1, to achieve the exact aperture I always had to carry additional 0.3 and 0.6 NDs when shooting in bright environments or interview set-ups. This new feature solves this problem and I doubt I’ll ever have to carry additional NDs moving forward. I would, however, like to see Sony add more than just three presets.
The biggest noticeable improvement to the design and functionality of the FX9 is the sharpness of vision within the new viewfinder. It’s almost double the resolution of the FS7 Mk2, advancing from 1,560K to 2,760K dot resolution, and it certainly shows. I think users will be pleasantly surprised by the new level of detail and clarity.
Of all of FX9’s developments, Sony is most excited about the new hybrid autofocus system, a vast improvement on its Alpha mirrorless cameras. Sony says its new 561-point phase-detection autofocus sensor covers approximately 94% width and 96% height of the imaging area and allows consistently accurate AF tracking, even with fast-moving objects at wide or open apertures.
Adjustments can now be made to transition speeds and sensitivity, while the face detection functionality intelligently recognises and locks onto human faces. The autofocus has been designed to work with Sony’s E-mount lenses, including Sony’s new Cinema Lens series, and can also work with lenses from other manufacturers, with varied results.
Personally, I’ve never taken advantage of the autofocus as I prefer to have full control. I have found autofocus very handy with the FX9, especially when shooting low angles or cradling the camera where your eye isn’t directly against the VF. I’m sure it’s a feature I will use more over time.
One of the biggest challenges I faced when using the FS7 was the loss of the Rec709 View Finder LUT in CineEI S&Q mode, so it’s nice to see that Sony has added a Rec709 Gamma Assist Function to the FX9 when output LUTs are disabled.
The FX9 continues to use the same XQD cards and BP-U batteries as the FS7, so existing media and battery packs don’t need to be replaced. You can also record to both XQD cards simultaneously, as well as record proxy files in 3, 6 and 9mbps. This is a huge advantage when you need to transfer files for offline or transcription.
The FX9 will eventually be able to record up to 60fps in 4K UHD or DCI and 180fps in HD, though the camera’s current V1.00 firmware is limited to 30p in UHD 4K and 120fps in FF HD mode. 4K DCI (4,096 x 2,160) recording is yet to be supported, but one thing worth noting is that the scanning area for the future S&Q mode (up to 60fps in 4K FF) will be cropped to around 83%.
Sony hasn’t provided a timeline for when the new features will be available, but I’d estimate rollout within the next few months, with 4K DCI and 4K S&Q up to 60p being the updates I’m most looking forward to.
In my opinion, the most important element to consider when upgrading to the FX9 is the larger FF sensor. The camera uses at least twice as much power as the FS7 even with HDI and HDMI outputs turned off, so be mindful to either stock additional BP batteries or go for larger V-Lock batteries with the XDCA-FX9 extension unit. For accessories, I recommend the Shape FX9 remote extension unit ($249) and Shape FX9 top plate ($99).
In summary, the FX9 is the first camera to come out with a sensor that has the look and feel of the Sony Venice. Sony is no doubt currently working on incorporating many of these features into the rest of its line, such as the FS5 and the eagerly awaited A7S Mk3.
Overall, the FX9 is a major step up from the FS7 with its larger sensor, greater resolution, dynamic range, low-light capabilities and incredible autofocus. Mixed with the Venice colour science and S-Cinetone for standard non-grading work, the FX9 has already proven itself to be a very popular camera in a short timeframe.
At $11,000, the FX9 is affordable and sits comfortably in the mid-range between the Sony FS7Mk2 and Canon C300 Mk2 and higher-end cinema cameras such as ARRI Alexa or the Venice. Its competitors are the more cost-effective Black Magic URSA Mini Pro G2 and the more expensive Canon C500 Mk2. Which camera is right for you really depends on your clients’ needs and your own personal workflow.
Sony has pushed the capabilities of the FX9 to the limit, resulting in a camera with a cinematic look and feel that has the ability to shoot both broadcast and cinema environments. From news, sport and documentary to TVC and corporate, the FX9 is an all-round workhorse. It’s a logical decision for me to upgrade, as it will hands-down offer my clients a better image with the same post-production workflow as the FS7.
The FS7 far exceeded my expectations and those of many others. I look forward to seeing what will be achieved with the FX9.
Stephen Moro is an Australian DoP based in Dubai with more than 15 years’ experience in the industry.