The a7S is a marvel that seems to defy the
laws of physics. It can literally see in the
dark—a trick I use to amaze everyone who
comes to my house after sunset.
Video at ISO 51,200 on the a7S looks
like ISO 6400 on other current full-frame
cameras, such as the Sony a7 II and Nikon’s
D810 (at 1080p), and the GH4 (at 4K). To
put that three-stop jump in perspective,
digital picture quality has only improved
about 1. 5 stops in the entire 12-year history
of consumer digital cameras, according to
The a7S has a brilliant design for a still
camera, but a lousy design for a video
camera. Without a touch screen, all
adjustments require turning dials that will
definitely shake the camera visibly while
filming. The tilt screen is useful, but an
articulating screen that flipped out from the
side would make using a shoulder-mounted
rig much easier. The a7S with the Shogun
weighs about 3 pounds without a lens.
Sony currently offers eight native full-frame E-mount lenses compared to the
hundreds of lenses available for Canon,
Nikon, and Micro Four Thirds cameras.
However, the E-mount a7S is a mirrorless,
full-frame camera, allowing you to adapt
almost any full-frame SLR lens. You’ll give
up usable autofocus, but most filmmakers
prefer manual focusing anyway. With
your Canon EF and Sony A-mount lenses,
adapters support aperture control and
While third-party lens manufacturers
haven’t yet released autofocus E-mount
lenses, Mitakon/Zhongyi, Rokinon and
SLR Magic are producing manual primes
designed for video. They’re inexpensive,
sharp and fast.
WHAT WE LIKED
Every photographer who’s switched from
JPEG to RAW appreciates the ability to
recover highlights and shadows. On most
cameras, you lose that ability when you record
video. Bright skies will be overexposed.
Shadow detail will be forever lost.
While the a7S does not support RAW
video, it supports S-Log2, which squeezes in
about 12 stops of dynamic range (according
to Cinema5D). That’s almost as much as the
ARRI AMIRA, which costs about as much to
rent for a week as the a7S does to purchase.
The GH4 tested at only 10. 8 stops of
dynamic range (according to Cinema5D),
meaning the a7S can recover detail that
would be completely lost with the GH4.
Upgrading to the a7S means bright clouds
once again have texture and an exposure
mistake doesn’t always require a reshoot.
WHAT WE DIDN’T LIKE
Those of us behind the camera need to
get perfect focus, color and exposure
while producers and on-camera talent wait
impatiently. Compared to similarly priced
camcorders, the a7S has awful usability,
with a form-factor optimized for still
images, a tiny screen that lacks touch-to-focus, and no vectorscope, waveform or
Connecting the Atomos Shogun
field recorder solves many of those
problems. The Shogun’s 7.1-inch, 1920
x 1200 screen is easier to see (though
it requires a shade in bright light),
provides much more accurate focusing,
and gives you every bit of information you
need to nail the exposure and color. The
Shogun even allows you to see what your
S-Log2 video will look like after grading.
With dual XLR inputs, the Shogun can
also replace your external audio recorder,
though audio delay makes monitoring the
Unfortunately, attaching a field recorder
introduces several new potential points
of failure that can ruin a single take or
an entire shoot. Though we eventually
mastered the Shogun, several shoots were
interrupted by loose cables, weak mounts
and dead batteries.
HOW IT COMPARES
This camera’s quality and versatility don’t
come cheap. The a7S commonly sells new
versions for $2,500, though you can find
used copies for under $2,000. To record
4K, you’ll need to buy the Atomos Shogun
and a Solid State Drive (SSD). Before lenses,
you’re out $5,000, more than three times
the cost of a new GH4.
If you’re budgeting $5,000 for 4K video,
you need to compare it against more
traditional camcorders with easier-to-use form factors and less rolling shutter,
• Panasonic HC-X1000 ($3,500 with
lens). While it can’t match the video
quality of the a7S, the fixed lens
provides smooth zooming in a format
more usable for video.
• Sony PXW-Z100 ($5,500 with lens).
Capable of recording 4K at 60 fps, the
Z100 gives you noticeably smoother
video or the ability to do slow motion.
The 1/2.3-inch sensor gathers a tiny
fraction of the light available to the a7S,
and can’t match it at higher ISOs.
• Blackmagic Design URSA ($5,995
without lens). With RAW video recording,
XLR inputs, a built-in 10.1-inch monitor,
and two 5-inch touch screens, the URSA
beats the a7S in almost every way.
Unfortunately, its Super 35 sensor has
a 1.7x crop factor, reducing low-light
capabilities and your ability to blur the
background. (Read a full URSA review
starting on page 62).
Is the a7S the right 4K camera for you?
That depends on certain factors. Casual
videographers will be happier with the
Panasonic GH4’s internally recording 4K
and articulating touch screen. Serious
filmmakers will get the job done more
efficiently with a proper camcorder. But
for those of us filming at night, needing
high dynamic range or want full-frame
background blur, the Sony a7S and Atomos
Shogun fill a unique niche that would
otherwise cost over $50,000 to fulfill.
ABOVE: The a7S seems to defy the laws of
physics with its ability to capture in low-light