User Review: Sony PXW FX9 Camera & Vocas Shoulder Rig
Posted on Mar 20, 2020 by Definition Magazine
Sony continues its full-frame professional video camera line with the new PXW-FX9, a replacement for the bestselling FS7 MKIIand not the more cinematic F55
Words & Pictures Ash Connaughton
The team at Vocas kindly sent me a Sony FX9 camera along with the shoulder kit and PL mount to take a look at. Sadly, I didn’t have the camera for that long, so couldn’t go too in-depth,
The FX9 looks and feels very similar to its predecessor; its form factor and body design are very similar, and it shares the same top handle and monitor set-up. Although the new monitor is a sharper 720p panel, it is sadly not touchscreen and I feel touch functionality would have been a nice addition. The FX9 also has a very similar but slightly redesigned handgrip, albeit with a new connector. It’s nice to see that, like the FS7, the FX9 still uses XQD cards, which is great for those who already own the FS7, meaning you don’t need to purchase new media should you choose to upgrade. There are, however, some key differences between the two cameras.
The first is price. The FS7 MKII is available brand new, body only for around £6775 excluding VAT, whereas the FX9 body only comes in at £9300 excluding VAT, giving a price difference of around £2500. So, is it worth it? First, let’s delve into the technical details. One huge difference is that the FX9 has a newly developed full-frame 17×9, 6K sensor, measuring in at 35.7×18.8mm. This new sensor has 15+ stops of dynamic range, which is an improvement over the FS7’s quoted 14 stops. The FX9 also has fantastic new colour science, similar to that which can be found on the flagship Venice camera. There’s also the S-Cinetone colour profile, which promises better skin tones and a more ‘cinematic’ look.
During my short testing period with the camera I didn’t test S-Cinetone. Rather, I shot exclusively in S-Log S-Gamut3.Cine, as I wanted to compare the look of S-Log to my experience with it on the FS7, and even in S-Log3 there is a noticeable improvement in colour.
One major advantage the FX9 has over the FS7 is that the new sensor has a dual native ISO of 800 and 4000. The camera doesn’t automatically change over after a certain ISO to its higher base setting – unfortunately, users must instead set their native ISO in the menu, choosing between the 800 and 4000 options. The latter provides more usable stops below middle grey, giving shooters the edge in low-light conditions. The highest ISO this new sensor is capable of is 12,800.
The fx9 has a newly developed full-frame 6k sensor
The FX9 also has a redesigned built-in ND filter to cover its full-frame sensor. The ND has three customisable presets that can be cycled between using the ND plus/minus buttons or can be used as a full variable ND using the scroll wheel on the body.
6K but no 6K
While the sensor is a 6K sensor, you can’t actually record in 6K. The camera takes the 6K full-frame read-out and downsamples it to a full-frame 3840×2160 recording. At launch, only 16×9 resolutions are available and the highest frame rate when shooting 4K using the full-frame read-out is 30p (at the time of review). If you want to shoot 4K UHD 60fps, then the FX9 also has a Super 35 window mode. When using this window mode, you can also shoot 120fps, but only in 1920×1080.
So, what about codecs? The FX9 shares the same XAVC-I and XAVC-L codecs from the FS7, with the data rate for 4K 50p option topping out at 500Mbps. Sony has promised that in future firmware updates (expected summer 2020, but not confirmed) the following resolutions and frame rates will be made available: full-frame 4K DCI up to 60p, 2K DCI and then a 5K 60p crop mode (which will downsample to 4K). As well as 180fps in NTSC and 150fps in PAL, both in 1920×1080 Super 35 crop. And finally, 100fps and 120fps in 4K UHD Super 35. This firmware release will improve the currently limited off-speed performance of the FX9.
In terms of the camera body, what’s new? Aside from the obvious ‘Venice grey’ colouring, Sony has made a few tweaks and improvements. As I mentioned earlier, the ND plus/minus button is a great example. Another big change is that, instead of the scroll wheel for navigating the menus as per the FS7, the FX9 has four directional keys with a centre ‘selection’ button. These buttons feel a lot more tactile and easier to use at speed compared to the ‘mushy’ feeling wheel on the FS7. While the menus on the FX9 still look and feel similar to those of its predecessor, having this new faster and more accurate method of navigation makes the menu experience nicer overall and was a pleasant surprise when I first picked it up.
But back to the body, one feature I absolutely love is the addition of three buttons near the front of the camera, located just above the gain/white-balance preset switches, that allow you to change your ISO, shutter speed and white-balance on the fly! Pressing one of these buttons highlights the chosen setting on the viewfinder and you can cycle through the FX9’s full range of ISO, shutter speeds or colour temps and choose the desired setting without ever diving into the menus, making changing these important settings easier and faster than on the FS7.
The FX9’s AF performance out of the box blew me away
Lenses & autofocus
The FX9’s E-mount is also improved over the mount on the FS7, as it’s a locking E-mount, giving you a much more secure mounting system when working with heavier E-mount or PL lenses (via an adapter such as the one Vocas supplied to me).
Sony has also added both time code and genlock sync to the body itself rather than via an extension as was the case with the FS7, but Sony will have an extension backpack for the FX9 called the XDCA external mount module, which will offer the following connections: V-Mount battery support, DTap power, a DWX slot for wireless audio, dual link streaming and RJ45 Ethernet.
One thing I’m yet to touch on, but is certainly a fantastic part of what the FX9 has to offer, is its new Fast Hybrid Autofocus system. I’ve tested the AF with the supplied 28-135 F4 (SELP28135G) lens, so can’t confirm how well it would work with an adapted EF lens, as was a popular choice with the FS7. The FX9’s AF performance out of the box blew me away. I simply enabled AF on the lens and the camera tracked my subject’s face perfectly as he approached, even holding focus at 135mm wide open when he was within a foot or so of the camera and about to leave the frame. The autofocus is ‘hybrid’ and is contrast-based, but also uses phase detection, meaning the response is both fast and smooth, and it can reliably and precisely track subjects.
Now on to the Vocas Shoulder kit and PL mount that was supplied to me alongside the camera. The shoulder pad is the USBP-15 with soft shoulder pad and features 15mm rod holes on both the front and back, a very comfortable but stable shoulder pad and then a custom sliding plate designed specifically for the FX9. One thing I like about this plate is how it attaches to the camera. As well as multiple 0.25-inch and 0.75-inch threads, there are three small allen key screws on the back of the plate that screw into three holes on the bottom of the FX9 body, giving the plate a very solid and reliable five-point attachment to the camera. This baseplate then slides into the shoulder pad and locks into place very securely.
Vocas also supplied its viewfinder bracket kit, wooden handgrip and top cheese plate. The viewfinder bracket is sturdy and well built. I much prefer this to the standard FX9 viewfinder mount, as it provides a sturdier attachment, but also more adjustability and I could get the screen a more comfortable distance from my face easily. Both the handgrip and cheese plate work very well – the cheese plate fits comfortably around the FX9’s standard top handle and provides a wealth of threaded attachment points. I’m a big fan of wooden handgrips generally, with this one from Vocas being nicely sized and very comfortable.
Last, let’s talk about the PL mount, which came with a 15mm rod support bracket designed for use with heavier lenses. Both the mount and the support are solidly built and the mount locked into the camera nicely. It felt very solid and its locking ring felt smooth but sturdy and, with the added support, I’d have no hesitation to use some of the heavier PL zoom lenses on the FX9 with this mount.
The colour science is fantastic and I much prefer the useability
Worth the upgrade?
So overall, is the FX9 a worthy successor to the FS7, which is one of the bestselling Super 35 cameras in history? Is it worth upgrading? That really depends on how much you value the improved colour science, vastly better low-light performance and the changes to the ergonomics and added buttons that make changing certain settings much faster and – of course – the ‘full-frame look’. It’s also worth bearing in mind that promised firmware will offer 4K Super 35 100fps, among other resolutions, and frame rate improvements, so the camera’s current off-speed limitations will hopefully be lifted.
One thing is for sure: it’s a great time to pick up a used FS7 and throw a speed booster on it as a cheaper option, providing you can live with its more fiddly controls, and much weaker colour science and low-light performance. The FS7 still remains a solid option. But personally I’d choose the FX9 over it all day, every day. The colour science is fantastic and I much prefer the useability. Everything about the FX9 feels nicer and while its images don’t put the same smile on my face that shooting on something like an Alexa Mini, they certainly leave me a lot more satisfied than any image I’ve produced using an FS7.
My take is, if you are an FS7 user and can afford to upgrade, then you should at the very least consider it. The Sony FX9 does everything the FS7 does, just better. It still gives you relatively small but high-quality files that are great for documentary shooting, it has fantastic audio controls, great built-in ND filters and it is capable of producing much nicer-looking footage. The FX9 is one of Sony’s best offerings for years – perhaps since the original FS7.