by Kevin McRoberts (Jump to his video.)
What is a "Quick Kit?" It’s a simple, semi-universal concept… a box o’ stuff to grab at a moment’s notice, yet contain most of the elements needed to satisfy the technical and aesthetic needs of most jobs. It’s suited to air travel, low profile, or low budget work. It will inevitably vary by shooter, budget, and available technology.
Like many, much of my work centers around small-scale mobile documentary, corporate, and commercial production with a minimum of time, budget, or crew. Requests for video + photo are increasingly common, making a solid DSLM essential. The last decade of shooting video with DSLR/DSLM cameras has often been an exercise in compromise, necessitating a variety of add-on gear for any serious work. This, gradually, is becoming less the case.
WHY THE A7RIV?
On paper, Sony’s new Megapickle-Monster A7RIV seems like complete overkill for shooters like me. Why would I choose the photographer-focused A7RIV over other cameras that might deliver better codecs, frame rates, cheaper price, or other vital paper specs for video shooters? Glad you asked…
While some have griped about the lack of this or that video feature when it was announced, the A7RIV simply looks good. Since the A7III/A7RIII, Sony has refined its stock out-of-camera color to negate any need to ‘un-Sonyfy’ things in post. Moreover, there’s the usual wide selection of Picture Profiles to dial in a variety of looks or match almost any camera family. In my usual work, ‘only 8-bit’ isn’t a hindrance… so long as focus and exposure are nailed, post-tweakage need is minimal (if there’s even time or budget for that). If necessary, dynamic range of up to 15 stops (depending on picture profile) gives more than enough latitude.
Outlandish resolution traditionally means mucho noise at high ISO. Sony has somehow controlled it with a 61MP sensor. Within the range of ISO values I’d ever realistically shoot within - about 12800 or below - it’s solid. Should I get a gig in a coal mine, I’ll consider temporary rentals with higher sensitivity… but for the majority of everything else, this’ll do.
And of course, for jobs requiring photo work… 61 freaking megapixels. Nuff said.
IT KEEPS ON ROLLING
Interviews. I shoot a lot of them. Nothing kills a long interview like breaking to restart a clip or change a battery every half hour. The R4 finally pairs a 3+ hour battery and unlimited record times with their full-frame sensor, making it perfect for interviews, presentations, feature-length one-shot pretentious art films, or anything else where you just need to keep on rolling.
TWO SLOTS OF INEXPENSIVE MEDIA
Despite complaints about the R4’s lack of higher-speed media, two UHS-II slots is just about perfect for the gig shooter. Compatible media is your nearest box store away. Done with a shoot and have to catch a plane? “Here’s a copy of the entire day’s media on this duplicate SD card… it’s cheap, I include it in my day rate.”
STABILITY WITH ANY LENS
I know gimbals. Gimbals are a friend of mine. IBIS is no gimbal… but in Sony’s implementation, it’s close. Gone are the telltale micro-jitters of hand-held DSLM work. Even a monopod can be more hindrance than help. However, despite the larger A7RIV grip, full-frame lenses make it a front-heavy challenge for stable b-roll. A decent, compact, form-fitting cage with a few extra grip options is one of the few things this camera really needs (and, hey, Zacuto has you covered there… more on that below).
TRUSTWORTHY IN-CAMERA MONITORING
Monitoring aids, especially shooting full-frame 4K, have become a fact of professional life - doubly so as I push into my mid-forties. While the R4’s LCD display is fairly standard in its class, the new 5.76M dot UXGA OLED EVF is flat out the best camera EVF I’ve ever pressed to my glasses. Combined with an array of in-camera focus aids such as peaking, focus magnification, and touch-tracking autofocus, I can leave one more bit of weight and wires out of the quick kit… without sacrificing results. Speaking of the last focus aid mentioned…
ABSURDLY GOOD AUTOFOCUS
Autofocus on a pro video camera, on a pro job. I used to scoff at the very thought... I still scoff, depending on the camera or situation… but the video AF on this, with a good native lens, is flat out better than me at nailing focus on a properly framed subject. It’s pure sorcery. I compose shots and the part that I want to see in focus... IS. f8, f4, f2.8, doesn't matter. It’s stupidly freeing. Lock on to an eye, and I don’t need to babysit the monitor to make sure the camera doesn’t go full-squirrel on something in the background while conducting an interview (even at f1.8 with a cheap 50mm).
So long as I have a notion of my frame, I can jib the camera up on a monopod, sling it ground-level, or orbit around subjects of interest and TRUST that the AF probably didn’t ruin it. On a recent event shoot for a NASCAR sponsor, with over 269 clips, there was NOT A SINGLE MUFFED TAKE due to blown focus. Bad framing, timing, etc… sure, but not focus. That’s just... eesh. If this is the future, I welcome our robot overlords and will whistle as I toil in their silicon mines.
Now, standard disclaimer and truthiness: It can and does get confused once you start introducing foreground elements, so you have to help it along with touch-tracking or simply going manual from time to time. That said, with the right lenses, a follow focus becomes one less “essential” item to weigh down the Quick Kit.
The A7RIV needs comparatively little accoutrement to yield strong results in an interview, run & gun, b-roll, and similar common shooting situations. What it does need is decent lenses, accessory fitting points, handles, lights, audio, and a tripod.
To get the most of the R4’s capabilities, good native lenses are essential. I primarily use Sony’s 24-70/2.8 GM lens, a zoom that doesn’t lack in IQ vs. available primes within its range. Multiple Sony, Sigma, and Tamron zoom and prime lenses can fill needs in the ultra-wide to telephoto ranges as jobs dictate.
On the rigging front, Zacuto’s A7RIV cage is a solid, form-fitting solution peppered with 1/4-20 threads and flush-fitting Z-rails. It’s compact enough to live on the camera forever. A top and side handle make the package delightfully easy to sling about while remaining light on the spine. Should the occasional job demand, it fits easily into whatever configuration enables ideal handling.
Stabilization systems can likewise be kept compact. One tripod bag holds a small tripod, slider, a pair of light stands, and a few handy grip components.
Lighting duties can be fulfilled by a combination of small LED lights (for battery operability) and the unbeatable punch-per-pound of some venerable tungsten fixtures, like Lowel’s antediluvian 650W V-light. It can be bounced, diffused through a compact umbrella, or just blasted through a CTB gel. Sure, it gets hot as Hades, but the quantity and quality of light in a package of its size is, as of this writing, still unbeatable.
Lastly, some jobs require plugging in the old Rode VMP and Sennheiser wireless and running audio solo. The A7RIV features fairly decent pre-amps compared to some other DSLMs, and can be substantially upgraded with the upcoming K3M XLR module or URX-P03D/SMAD-P3D systems.
EMBRACING OUR ROBOT OVERLORDS
Sony is proud of its autofocus technology refinements, and in a corporate oddity, is mostly on-point. The A7RIV won’t press record for you, order you a beer, or keep you warm at night… but it will let you concentrate on moments, composition, and story, and slightly less on buttons, switches, dials, and the ongoing challenge of lugging around tons of “essential” gear. It’s a convincing and worthwhile upgrade to my mobile loadout.