Sony FR7. Versatility in more than three aspects.

 

We find for the first time ever a series of elements that had never been present together in the same camera, all of them familiar to us, and whose benefits are projected in many more areas than we had first imagined.

By Luis Pavía

 

Introduced a few weeks ago and probably available by the time when these lines see the light, its statement has already aroused a lot of interest and curiosity: “SONY ILME-FR7: Cinema camera, with full-frame sensor and interchangeable optics, in a PTZ structure”. Each of these features, separately, would result in just another camera to analyze by assessing its performance, results and possibilities.

But all of them together in the same piece of equipment are something completely innovative and unknown until now. Yes, we insist: unknown until now. Because this camera is more than a PTZ camera with a large sensor and an excellent image quality. It is more than a cinema camera mounted on a robotic head. It is more than a camcorder with a full-frame sensor. And it’s more than a studio camera with RCP controls.

We don’t know of any camera that brings together all these features in a single body. Because to all these big headlines a few more features must be added. It has SDI, HDMI, and Ethernet outputs, being able to work as a studio camera in SDI and carry out streaming. It comes with a genlock and time code input to get synchronized in multi-camera broadcast environments. It laso includes a variable neutral density filter. Allows internal recording on memory cards. It can be powered via PoE++ Ethernet, or by a power supply. The body is extremely compact, as a large part of the electronics is housed in the fixed base. And a few more features that we will explain in more detail here.

To do this, we are going to make a clear distinction of our content in two parts, a first one in which we will carry out a description and analysis of all the functionalities of a technical nature, and a second part in which we will look for all areas of application and new uses in which it seems to us that this camera can show outstanding performance.

 

Part one. Technical analysis.

Let us begin by clarifying what a PTZ camera is, in case someone is still unfamiliar with the term. PTZ is the acronym for Pan-Tilt-Zoom (horizontal rotation – vertical inclination – change of focal distance) that generically comprises the cameras that integrate the movement system and the control of the optics within the same body. They are the ones that are commonly and frequently used in fixed installations for auditoriums, videoconferencing rooms, etc.

On this occasion, the technical analysis of the camera part can be summed up in two words, literally: Sony FX6. Indeed, the body of our FR7 has the sensor, electronics, processing and practically everything related to image generation -including cinema modes, gamma curves, etc.- identical to those of an FX6. Which also includes its extraordinary autofocus capabilities with facial recognition and eye tracking.

Going into more detail, as for numbers we begin with a backlit full-frame 4K HDR Exmor-R CMOS sensor of 12.9 Mpixels (10.3 effective), BIONZ XR processor, interchangeable optics with E mount, filter of variable neutral density from 1/4 to 1/128, equivalent to a continuous range between 2 and 7 f-stops.

That the sensor, in addition to being large, has comparatively few megapixels, contributes to increase the sensitivity and avoid a rolling shutter, due to the lesser amount of information to convey in the recording process.

Recording up to DCI 4K (4096×2160 at 60p, plus UHD and HD) with a whole range of frame rates up to 120fps in 4K and 240fps in HD, allows slow motions up to 5x in the 4K 120p mode, for example. Managing bit rates of up to 600Mbps. It features a list of formats, frame rates and bit rates combinations that would fill up an entire page.

It is also important to note that while it does not allow internal RAW recording, it does provide this 16-bit signal to be recorded on external devices, such as certain Atom models, via the SDI-12G port. As we already know, this limitation by a large number of cameras from multiple manufacturers, is not caused by a technical limitation, but a legal one.

With more than 15 latitude stops, double ISO 800 and 12,800 base sensitivity -expandable up to 409,600-, support for S-Log3/S-Gamut3, Cinema EI modes with S-Cinetone and HDR in Hybrid Log Gamma, 627 focus and AF tracking points with facial recognition and eye tracking, there is no doubt that we have here a true Sony Cinema Line range camera, a label reserved for those that meet the highest image quality standards.

Although at the same time, it can provide high efficiency of use. Remember that the S-Cinetone curve allows a simple approach to what would be a post-production color grading in order to be able to broadcast live or make very fast edits of content that already have a quality well above what could be achieved without this workflow.

Selecting conventional video modes and working with gains instead of ISO values, we have a control range from -3 to +30db, white balance from 2,000ºK to 15,000ºK in addition to automatic, as well as SDR and 709 color modes among others.

If we take into account that the ND variable filter supports auto function, to control exposure levels without altering iris, speed or ISO -that is, without altering basic elements in the visual narrative-, we reach a list of features which more than cover the needs for use in cinema and first-class productions. But no, it’s not a VENICE. Although it is an FX6, with all the benefits that this implies.

Turning to connectivity, SDI video outputs up to 12G and HDMI support 4K 60p, UHD 120p and HD 240p, in 10-bit 4:2:2. We have Genlock connectors, time code input (TC In) and a specific one for options in RJ45 format, in addition to the Ethernet LAN that allows, for example, to share the signal of the tally light with external devices.

As we said, the Ethernet network connection has its own connector, thus allowing remote control of all PTZ functions, remote control of all RCP functions and IP video output. Furthermore, there is an additional socket for optional SFP+ type fiber optic network adapters.

In streaming mode, RTSP distributes the signal to up to 5 recipients simultaneously, while the SRT allows broadcasting over less stable networks. It is also possible to use the NDI/HX protocol to connect to mixers and servers, although for this we must obtain an optional license. The range of supported protocols is truly wide, and compatible with TCP, UDP, ARP, ICMP, HTTP, HTTPS, DHCP, DNS, mDNS, RTP/RTCP, RTSP, VISCA-IP, SRT, NDI HX, FTP, and FTPS on IPv4. And most of them, but not all, on IPv6.

As for audio, we find a 5-pin XLR connector, to allow the input of two audio channels, that can be configured as line, micro or micro input with power supply.

If we consider that all this connectivity is in the fixed part of the body, which supports installation both in floor/tripod/column and inverted in roof mode, coupled with the fact that the 2 two-tone tally lights are arranged in such a way that they are always visible from the optical axis line, it turns out that the camera is not only suitable for conventional PTZ installations, but it also integrates in broadcast environments with all ease and excellent performance.

The power is obtained by an adapter that supplies 19.5V CC, the type used for most camcorders. Too bad it’s not the same 14.4V CC that supplies power to a lot of cameras. Although probably the most interesting option in a significant number of cases will be to use the PoE++ power supply. In this way in a great deal of situations we will have the IP video output, all the PTZ and RCP controls and the power supply in a single Ethernet cable.

And while it does not have a specific socket for batteries, it would be possible to use some of the existing systems on the market that provide power from batteries to a camera connector. And this detail is important because, at least with this firmware version, it is not possible to record to internal memory cards while using PoE++ power supply.

We continue to analyze novel features in the PTZ environment, considering the two A-type SDXC/CFexpress memory card slots that allow the usual modes: simultaneous and relay. They record in XAVC format, both intra and long, and allow internal recording up to 4:2:2 at 10 bits, the same signal available on the outputs.

Naturally, depending on various parameters, such as resolution and data rate among others, the available capacity varies enormously. To give us an idea of the extremes that can be reached, on a 160Gb card we can store from 30 minutes of 4K at 59.94p DCI video in 600 Mbps XAVC-I, up to 430 minutes of Full HD video at 29.97p in 35 Mbps XAVC-L. If we go down even further to 9 Mbps proxy quality, we will almost quadruple the time available for recording.

Without further elaboration, it is clear that this set of features, combined with the possibility of full remote control, will allow us to lplace the camera in really complicated locations.

And on this occasion, we cannot finish the camera part without including the features of the mechanical part of the moving head.

With an E-frame, the range of optics is really wide. Although for smaller ones it is unnecessary, to properly handle the larger and heavier ones, the camera has two standard 15mm bars. Its mission is fundamentally of mechanical support, since all the parameters of the optics would be handled by the remote control. But it also opens the possibility of using optics without own servos using these supports for all types of standard 15mm accessories.

As for its angles of movement, they are within the same ranges that can be found in most PTZ cameras: -170º/+170º of horizontal rotation, -30º/+195º of vertical tilt in normal position, inverting the vertical values if mounted in an inverted position. On either axis the speed of rotation ranges from a fairly fast 60º/s to a very slow and precise speed of 0.02º/s. This means that a 90° turn could be completed between 1.5 seconds and 75 minutes! Between these extremes, we have a scale of 50 speed levels to adjust the movement.

 

 

If appropriate, there is the possibility of establishing limits to the angles of movement to facilitate the operator’s task and also that the operating ranges move within the limits of the installation or project in which we are working.

From both an RM-IP500 and the control application itself, we have 100 framing presets at our fingertips to store position and zoom. And not only this, as in most of these types of cameras, but also the speed at which each movement is desired can be saved, regardless of the value set for general use.

With the firmware version 1.0 that we have had the opportunity to test, the “trace memory” option that remembers all the movements and intermediate steps to go from one frame to another is not yet available, but according to Sony sources, it is expected to be one of the improvements for the next update foreseen within a few months, although still pending an official release date.

Regarding the RM-IP500 control unit already mentioned, it will be necessary to make a couple of small changes to the units already in service: on the one hand, update their firmware to version 2.20 in order to have all the new functions; and on the other hand, overlay the new template with the new and correct assignment of functions to the buttons that are being updated. In the new models these innovations will already be implemented from factory.

From the IR remote control supplied with the camera, the basic setting can be controlled, including the positioning and balancing auto-calibration, with the only limitation of having access to just 3 preset positions.

In addition to setting the speed of movement, the result achieved by activating the start and stop smoothing of the movements is very pleasant.

According to information provided by Sony, the largest optical combination recommended for use in this body without mobility limitations is FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II, along with the FE 2x focal duplicator. Although there is a mechanical locking system that would allow the use of larger optics, this would be achieved at the cost of losing its ability to move.

And of course, it’s also time to talk about control. In terms of positioning, you the well-known RM-IP500 remote control from Sony can be used, which offers all the possibilities in terms of movement and some options for image control, but the option that has been clearly more interesting to us is the new app developed for this camera.

It is a Web App that offers us a fully featured interface, with the controls that we expect to find in a camera and image remote control, those for movement and position memories of a PTZ control and also a monitor that allows us to see the image and the menu on top at will.

Since this video monitoring is done via IP video, the potential delay will be conditional to the network linking the camera and the control device. Through remote monitoring on an Ethernet local network, with direct connection between both computers on the same switch, image delay is imperceptible.

Now, if we intend to have remote control from low bandwidth locations or huge physical distances, we will need to do our field tests to be sure, as performance will depend more on the network and on its multiple intermediate systems

Most interestingly, the camera is accessed via any internet browser from any operating system, including iOS and Android. In this way, no specific hardware is needed, and access can be gained from a laptop, a tablet or even a mobile phone.

It is not necessary to have access to the Internet since the camera generates its own access, or it is possible to achieve access by creating an isolated network with our own router, thus attaining maximum security as it is not possible to gain access from outside our network. The connection is achieved by directly reading the QR code printed on the inner cover of the memory cards, or by accessing a web address with a series of parameters, one of them being the camera’s serial number. Naturally, it will then have to be validated by means of a username and a password.

The system allows access to the same camera itself from multiple devices simultaneously to facilitate distributed control and vice versa, controlling multiple cameras from a single device.

We have seen that the computer allows saving an admin profile and up to 9 user profiles, although we have not had the opportunity to personally test the scope or possibilities of these profiles.

The interface offers three main sections than can be selected on the top: Live, with the live signal and the video monitor from which we control the camera and positioning functions; Playback, which contains all the functions related to the playback of the contents recorded on the memory cards; and Settings, where we find all the settings for configuring the camera.

The same top bar shows the name given to the camera, which is key if we operate several cameras from a single interface; the on/off switch; and access to notifications, status information and a useful lock control to prevent accidental actions.

On the Live panel, built, as it is logical, around the viewfinder, we find on one side the presets, position memories represented by an icon of the image take, where we adjust the custom speed parameter if desired. In the viewfinder we will see the information available on the HDMI output, with overlapping menus or not depending on the setup assigned. In addition to futher information on status outside the viewfinder itself and a possible green or red frame consistent with the tally status if we are using this functionality.

As for information displayed on the viewfinder, we will only give one piece of data: 35 distinct sections are thoroughly described in the user manual. Fortunately enough, it can be configured, and we can decide what to display and what not.

Below the viewfinder is the panel with basic configuration information such as FPS, ISO/gain, shutter, Iris, ND, WB, etc… and a couple of options to enable/disable the camera information displayed on the image viewfinder and the tracking AF. Below this, there is still room for another panel with all the customizable functions for assignable buttons.

Finally, already on the right side of the interface, we find the large red start/stop recording button. The camera’s control panel has tabs to access different parameters such as AF, audio or streaming among others, with two sliders that control the assigned functions: speed, zoom, iris, etc. The interesting thing is that, although there are only two, simply by displaying the name the change of function is instantaneous, thus making it easy to gather in a small space the most important operating functions.

Finally, at the bottom, there is a panel with two tabs: the first for the PTZ control with all the functions associated with the operation of the positioning system; although before use this requires us to install the optics and launch the position auto calibration. And the graphic interface, whose purpose is to display the menu buttons, cursors, back and OK, thus allowing us to access and manage the internal menu of the camera functions as if we had it in our own hands.

Moving now on to the Playback dashboard, the features are reduced and simplified. We continue to have the large viewfinder that takes up the center of the interface. Below it, the camera settings panel is replaced by the playback control panel. In this panel we find the Thumbnail button to have an icon-mode view of all the recorded content. And on the right-hand side we only have the interface to access the camera menu and functions related to the clips.

Finally, the settings panel allows us to access a series of functions that are very similar to those on the camera menu, many of them shared, but in a more graphic way. Including those related to motion functions. Any user accustomed to Sony menus, will be completely familiar with this.

While the camera’s own menu can be seen over the video signal, this only happens if this functionality is enabled in the HDMI output settings. But remember that even if the menu is not visible on the screen, it is still active and functional, so it would be possible to accidentally modify camera parameters. To prevent this, the lock button will be of great use to us. And we will always be able to access the configuration parameters knowing what we touch through the settings menu.

This form of integrated/distributed control from an application, by which from a single remote device you have access to all camera functionalities, combined with the possibility of having more than one device to be accessing the same camera, provides versatility of use beyond what we are used to, and even more so in a camera of this type.

So many strengths, but any weaknesses? We must say yes, of course. For example, it is not an ENG hand or shoulder camera. And should we ask for more, add gyroscopic stabilization compensations. But in an ENG damera, the pan-tilt-zoom and grip are elements provided by operators.

In line with this idea, we miss the possibility of a direct power supply system with conventional camera batteries. Not for ENG, but just to be able to place it absolutely autonomously nearly anywhere. While there are packs that perform this function and provide the necessary autonomous power and given that with a Wi-Fi network it is possible to carry out the remote control, it is not only something feasible, but we have already seen shootings using this way of working.

 

 

Part two. Uses.

If so far no one has developed a product like this, it would seem natural to ask: will it not be a new technological invention, something attractive but unnecessary? And we answer to ourselves by means of a set of questions from the points of view of different user profiles:

Can I have a ‘cinema’ image quality on a robotic head of a small size? Does the ability to operate the remote of the robotic head and RCP simultaneously from a computer, tablet or mobile make up for the time and work involved? and what about several cameras simultaneously? Would I like to have a full-frame sensor in my PTZ camera? Or change the optics of my PTZ for different uses? Can I mix content from my PTZ camera with high-end cameras?

If we want to answer ‘yes’ to all these questions, this new invention -apart from being technological and attractive- will turn out more than necessary.

If we look at it from the point of view of a top-level film director, someone used to the traditional systems of cranes, hot heads and large cameras and with extremely high budgets, it can be quite a hit to have new ways of telling stories, relying on completely innovative camera positions and angles.

If we look at it from the perspective of a producer, where profitability prevails, the discovery naturally emerges when the cost of a camera equipment, hot head, gimball, servosystems, remote controls, monitors, etc. is compared to that f such a fast and effective unit. It is also true that the camera can be limited by the scope of the optics available, but in return allows to be mounted on a light crane to increase its versatility and potential.

We do not see it as the main camera in the production of the Olympics or at a large stadium with tens of thousands of spectators, but as an auxiliary piece of equipment at a very affordable cost in order to have ancillary cameras with remote operators in the most unsuspected places.

We think it can be the dream of many broadcasters, often managing productions that require great flexibility in the assemblies and agility in the response. Thinking for example of reality shows, esports or in all those positions where it is necessary a camera capable of following the action, doing it while keeping the focus at the precise point, with the versatility of one or several remote operators each with their specific role and in spaces where large telephoto lenses are not necessary, this tool seems the ideal one.

In the same way that it still seems to us an excellent tool as the size or budget for productions decreases while trying not to compromise the quality of the final product; even being able to do a multi-camera operation with a reduced amount of equipment. Even those professionals who have to take assignments without the possibility expand the human team, now have the possibility of making a multi-camera operation tremendously affordable.

Finally, if we look at it from the point of view of a regular user of PTZ cameras, our FR7 provides improved operation in every way and an image quality that had not yet be found in this product line. In this case, the only limitation would be that, due to the size of the sensor, the zoom range does not reach what can be found in other PTZ cameras equipped with small sensors. But the good side of this is that image quality is something that is far beyond what we dared to dream of until now.

 

Conclusion

Insisting on what we have said so many times: there is no perfect tool, but the right tool. It is our responsibility to know what the market offers so that, within the allocated budget, we can choose the most appropriate equipment for each situation.

Starting from the very different visions from which any audiovisual creation can be tackled today, we are convinced that this new concept really provides novel creative and narrative possibilities in very diverse fields and very different production environments.

And it also already has a planned growth path: apart from the points already mentioned, such as the projections for the new firmware version, we will also find the possibility of color control with studio RCP and MSP for master setup, making it even more interesting for the broadcast environment.

So you can evaluate for yourselves, here are the links to a demo shooting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDSpimutUPU and the official presentation video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKObteRkfVI.

Now, enjoy creating!

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