Challenges to using the Sony PMW-F55 in 2022
The other day I picked up a used Sony PMW-F55 off eBay thanks to a video posted by CVP. It was a rather convincing video. Below I talk about why I went with the F55 over the FX6 and C70, what challenges I faced, and why I might move on and get a different camera.
Why the F55 over the others
I had been looking for a 4K-capable camera for a while and was split on getting the FX6 or the Canon C70. Both of those cameras have their pros and cons and they are often discussed in YouTube videos and in forums everywhere.
The FX6 has great autofocus and a lightweight, shoulder-ready body. The C70 does a flavor of internal Canon Raw, shoots to SD cards, and looks/operates much like a large DSLR. The FX6 has XLR ports but they stuck them in the handle! The C70 only has one HDMI port!
I could go on.
Thing is, these cameras are great for their price in today's lineup of great cinema cameras. We've got low end cameras such as the BMPCC4K/6K that have a fantastic image; mid-tier cameras such as the Komodo, Z Cam E2 F6, FX6,and C70 that offer more functionality; and upper tier cameras such as the Canon C300 III, RED series, Sony Venice, and of course Arri Alexa. There's no point to listing them all out. I merely include a few to indicate that there are tiers to the lineup of cameras. Those tiers are by design.
Manufacturers prevent cannibalization of sales by limiting features to specific tiers of cameras. Those lower tier cameras often have somewhat arbitrary hardware and software limitations. Could Sony have placed the XLR ports on the FX6 somewhere else, perhaps integrated into the body like on the FS7? Of course. But that's a feature reserved for the FX9. There are many ways in which manufacturers reserve features to specific tiers. It's how they make a profit and it makes total sense that they do this.
To be clear: this is not the same idea as "camera crippling," which is an idea that's floated around for a while.
The thing about the Sony F55 is that way back in 2013, it was top end. The only camera to beat it in Sony's lineup was the F65, and that camera was less popular than the F55 simply because it wasn't as easy to operate (and heavy). The F55 combined the best of everything that Sony had implemented into cameras to date. They put every feature they had into that camera without reservation and priced it at $30k for the base package.
In no particular order:
Global shutter with internal true 4K 60fps at 480mbps intra XAVC codec
Modular body with optional external recorders to 16-bit linear RAW
Four SDI outputs
Two XLR ports on the body
Two hi-rose power outputs
Indicator lights on buttons
Dual memory recording
Built-in V Mount battery adapter
Shoulder mountable form factor and a lightweight body
6-button style menu navigation
Internal ND filters
FZ mount for loads of lens mounts
Wireless camera control via its own internal WiFi network
These features convinced me to buy. At around half the price of an FX6 for a used F55 body, at least before the CVP video came out, I got what I initially thought was a very good deal.
I got most of the features of the FX6 and an additional set of SDI ports at the cost of weight and age.
Challenges to the F55
But, not all is easy with this camera. Particularly with pricing. Since this camera was top-of-the-line and because it's modular format is still compatible with components that fit the Sony Venice and Venice 2, it's accessories remain at a top-of-the-line price.
First off, media. SXS cards are $600 for 64GB. I could get two 160GB Type A cards for the FX6 for that price, heck get six 64 GB v90 SD cards with money to spare. And if you're looking to get one of the RAW recording units that slap onto the back of the F55 for 16-bit linear RAW recording, you'll be looking at over $4k for just a 1TB stick of AXS memory that will last you minutes, not hours. And to read that AXS memory? Good luck finding one for sale. If you do, it'll be over $3k.
So, media is expensive. If you're lucky like me, you can find several XQD to SXS adapters from Sony that enable internal recording to the more reasonably priced XQD memory type.
The F55 has just a more clunky OS to operate than the FX6. I can navigate the menus faster, no doubt, than either the FX6 or C70, but the process of doing so feels... so 2013. The navigation has heavy latency. Menu items pop up in countable order as they load. Some of the settings require a 20-second reboot! Despite the slowness of the OS, the numerous buttons surrounding it's main 6-button panel speed up navigation. Without diving into menus, I can format cards, change LUT types, change output resolution, and swap cards. Nearly all of the settings in the camera can be adjusted via the 6-button panel on the side and most do not block the display.
There is also something to be said about its weight. The body alone is more than twice the weight of the FX6 (4.88 lb vs 2.00 lb). Fully loaded with accessories and a small prime lens, you're looking at an EasyRig-mandatory 15-pound rig. The FX6 can be rigged up under 10 pounds.
Side bar: just this afternoon, I needed to output a signal to a laptop, send a wireless feed to a transmitter, and use an on-camera monitor. All of this was possible with the SDI ports on the side. With the FX6, I would have been stuck coming up a with a solution.
Why I might move on
For all the features that the F55 offers, I'm still drawn toward the lighter weight and autofocus capabilities of the newer cameras. I can get an image out of the F55 that is every bit as good as those other cameras, but I have to work harder physically to get it there and often need to bring multiple people into the mix to make the F55 produce the images that its known for.
I enjoy using the autofocus on the C70 and FX6 because it frees up my mind for framing a shot. With the FX6, the auto eND also allows me to think about framing and action when moving between two different lighting scenarios.
With weight, it's no question. Lugging around a 15-pound brick vs carrying a lightweight hybrid DSLR is the difference between hiking with camping gear and going for a walk in the park. It's less of a challenge. It's more enjoyable. I don't have to ice my back at the end of the day.
The images produced by the camera are what matters, in the end. Regardless of the camera, it's what you do with it that matters. The F55 produces nice images that are just as clean and clear as those newer ones. Will I upgrade to save on weight and have more fun with the autofocus capabilities of newer cameras? Yes... but I'm holding out for Blackmagic Design to come out with a cube camera that does it all.
I'll leave it at that.