The disruptive impact of the RED One 4K digital cinema camera when it was introduced in 2007 can’t be overstated. After a few of years of denial that 4K was even necessary and thousands of RED camera sales, broadcast giants Sony began to get their act together and move toward 4K image capture. The stunning F5 and F55 cameras are the culmination of those efforts and more interestingly, an indication of a complete, and necessary, change of attitude at Sony.

While the cosy Sony/Panasonic broadcast camera duopoly was coming under threat from "prosumer" compact camcorders and digital SLR’s from Canon, JVC and indeed Sony and Panasonic themselves, RED released a camera designed to replace Arri and Panavision 35 mm film cameras at a price that made the merely Hi Def broadcast tools of the time look grossly overpriced. RED also vehemently made the point that the future of television itself is 4K.

While RED’s latest Epic camera has been embraced by indy filmmakers and industry titans alike – the latest blockbuster “the Hobbit” is all RED – broadcast TV has been more circumspect in adopting RED’s "digital negative" post production workflow. Paradoxically, film camera experts Arri have a hit in TV-land with their Alexa camera. HD only but with gorgeous,edit-ready picture files straight out of the box. The F5/55 is Sony’s attempt to replace both the RED and Alexa; and they are deadly serious about it.

You can tell they are serious because any trace of proprietary, monopolistic, “only invented here” attitude is gone. After two years and 500 engineers, the resultant modular form-factor is pure RED Epic, and the operational style pure Arri Alexa. Astonishing.

The F5 and F55 are identical 5 lb. (2.3 kg) rectangular bricks – to distinguish them the F55’s lens mount is silver rather than black – but their technical capabilities are different. The base camera bodies feature 4K (4,096 x 2,160 pixel) super 35 mm sized sensors with 14 stops of exposure latitude that can shoot 2K and HD to two internal SxS Flash memory card slots using various MPEG2 and MPEG4 compression codecs. The F55 can also store compressed 4K to the internal cards. Both cameras can shoot 4K uncompressed RAW (film-style digital negative) to the latching modular AXS-R5 recorder that uses new AXS solid state drive cards.

The big workflow enhancer is that both HD and 4K images can be captured simultaneously, allowing for the rough editing of material using the HD proxies while the 4K RAW files are archived, color-corrected etc. This is a very attractive feature for producers and directors on busy sets.

Additionally the F55 possesses an electronic frame shutter (often called a "global shutter") that completely removes the wobbly effect that can be seen when fast panning a camera with a progressive CMOS sensor chip. The F55 can output 4K through its connectors and can shoot HD up to 180 frames per second for slow-mo effects. The F55 also utilizes a more "filmic" color filter array over its sensor than the cheaper F5.

The lens mount is interesting. As standard it’s the Sony FZ, but the design allows for the included industry-standard PL mount to be fitted with both Cooke and Arri electronic meta-data connection pins. These connections allow lens information – aperture, zoom, focus, etc – to be recorded for every frame. To have both connections available is unique and they can provide power to broadcast-style zoom lenses for over-the-shoulder ENG shooting. As well as the PL mount there will be 3rd party adapters available for many other lens types – Nikon F, Canon FD, Canon EOS EF, Leica M, Leica R, Sony E, etc.

Viewfinders include the large 3.5 in Sony quarter-HD LCD seen on other cameras, plus a new, compact 1,280 x 720 pixel OLED that should be spectacular. To complete the system at launch is a new high capacity "Oviline" crystal battery module.

The cameras won’t be available until February 2013, many features will require (free) firmware updates throughout the year and prices are not yet announced, though are estimated at US$35,000 and $20,000 for the F55 and F5 respectively.

For the first time ever Sony is actively encouraging a third party ecosystem of accessories and many companies will presumably be looking to enhance what is likely to become a very popular camera.

UPDATE (Nov. 29/12): Prices have now been announced.

  • PMW-F5 CineAlta 4K Camera $19,400

  • PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K Camera $34,900
  • AXR-R5 RAW Recorder $6,300
  • AXS-512S24 512Gb Memory Card $2,100
  • AXS-CR1 card reader $660
  • DVF-EL100 OLED Viewfinder $5,800
  • DVF-F350 3.5” LCD Viewfinder $3,800
  • DVF-L700 LCD viewfinder $5,000
  • SCL-PK6/F PL mount six lens package $24,600
  • SCL-PK3/F PL mount three lens package $13,600
  • View gallery - 40 images