The Sony Venice – Can Handle Any Standard You Want To Throw At It

Full frame cinematography is being talked about as the next big thing and all of the the main manufacturers have made their offerings for Sony – it’s the VENICE. This camera is a major upgrade from the F55 ticking a lot of boxes on paper, but I’m always more interested in seeing what a camera actually does in the flesh.

Being a DOP and also the Technical Director for London based equipment and crewing hire company Shift 4, means that as soon as a new piece of equipment arrives, whether it’s a new camera or a new set of anamorphic lenses, I get to test it. Wearing my dual hats I have a good idea about what to look for – how to get the best pictures out of it and how to make it work for the field. This then allows me to pass my experience and expertise onto clients who want to use it. So as soon as Shift 4’s very own VENICE came through the door, I was able to take it through its paces.

When testing cameras for Shift 4 there’s a few things I look at, operation, tech specs, but most importantly, what do the pictures look like.
The lenses I used were a set of Zeiss CP.3 Primes as they cover full frame and I wanted to mainly test the camera in 6K full frame mode. I used an X-Rite Video Colour Checker for the controlled tests as it has colours that correspond properly to Vectorscope points. I chose a pub location to do interior tests as it was mainly dark wood which would create a high contrast environment and finally shot in a park for exterior testing on a sunny day. I’ve produced a series of videos for Shift 4 reviewing the various aspects of the VENICE, which can be found on Shift 4’s website, but here is a summary of my opinions.

The blue sky out of the window between the trees was reading as T64. That’s 7 stops above mid grey and when trying to recover the information, I was unsuccessful as the sky had clipped to white. However, the light bulbs on the walls were reading around T45 (6 stops above mid grey) and they are just retaining their warm orange colour.

At the other end of the scale, under the table in this shot the exposure was reading 6-7 stops below mid grey at around T0.7. The camera is easily handling 6-7 stops below mid grey producing clean shadows with almost no noise visible.

The sensor can capture very saturated colours well beyond Rec2020, perfect for any 4K production. This characteristic combined with the S709 look creates very pleasant colour replication across the board. A good balance has been found between saturation and subtlety. Colours, particularly reds, are kept punchy but never harsh, and consistently throughout the exposure range. Colours hold up and down into the shadows as well as around the mid tones, especially skin tones.

Sony describes the VENICE as aspect ratio agnostic, meaning that it can handle any standard that you want to throw at it. This is mainly due to their choice of a resolution of 6K for their full frame sensor as well as opting for the 3:2 aspect ratio usually employed by stills photography. With 6K resolution at full frame, means the sensor is still using a photosite count of 4K when cropped down to Super35 coverage. This maintains 4K recordings whether you shoot full frame or Super35 standards.
The other advantage to a full frame sensor over Super35 is the use of 2x anamorphic lenses. Full frame is larger than the 4 perf standard meant for 2x anamorphics. Because of this Sony offers both 4:3, which is the standard aspect ratio for 2x anamorphics, and 6:5, which is a slightly taller version that doesn’t need any cropping to 2.39:1 when de-squeezed. This results in a larger field of view and no loss of sensor or lens resolution. As the sensor is 6K full frame this means the 4:3 and 6:5 anamorphic settings are 4K resolution.

Another key advantage to a full frame sensor for 2.39:1 cinematography, is shooting with spherical lenses. With Super35 digital cameras, when the image is letter boxed to achieve 2.39:1, both sensor size and resolution is sacrificed. When full frame is letterboxed to 2.39:1, the resulting frame uses a greater sensor size that even a full Super35 sensor uses a wider field of view than normal which is normally the aesthetic idea of choosing to shoot 2.39:1.

The VENICE is clearly built primarily for 4K production in mind. The recording option offered in the camera are 6 and 4K Raw (depending on the sensor size used) and 4K XAVC for internal recording. The only HD options in the camera are intended as proxy recordings for their RAW counterparts, including ProRes422 codecs and the classic Mpeg2. The VENICE offers both flavours of 4K XAVC, Class 300 and Class 480, which record 4:2:2 colour sampling with 10bit colour depth. Unfortunately, there’s no offering of a 4:4:4 codec to record internally to SxS Pro+ cards. This is a bit of an oversight on Sony’s part as codecs such as ProRes 4444 are a perfect middle ground for high quality recordings for grades without having to go full RAW. This choice is most likely down to how efficient the RAW codecs are for the VENICE. With Sony’s R7 recorder attached to the back, the two main RAW options are X-OCN ST (Standard) and LT (Light), and with the V3 firmware scheduled for Feb ’19, X-OCN XT. These are all 16 bit linear RAW codecs that record information from the sensor with apparently visually loses compression. Nothing is burnt in, such as exposure index, white balance or gamma curve. The data rates are also surprisingly small. X-OCN ST is smaller than recording ProRes4444 and X-OCN LT is the same as shooting XAVC Class 480. X-OCN XT is the same size as the original RAW codec designed for the F55/F5, but using the efficiency of the X-OCN codecs offers even greater quality. Also, even with the largest data rate of the RAW codecs, it is still smaller than shooting ProRes 4444.

This is a huge advantage as both the current RAW options give the advantage of RAW in post-production but without the massive file sizes. This means it does make sense to record X-OCN instead of a 444 codec. The only downside is that edit friendly counterparts will need to be made, whether by transcoding or recording proxies internally, meaning more storage space is required for two copies which isn’t always needed for a 444 codec. When comparing X-OCN ST and LT, the main difference in quality is a slightly better renditioning of fine detail in the ST codec. The LT looks a little more fuzzy in very fine detail, however it still has more clarity than shooting either XAVC codecs.
Finally, touching on frame rate options, which are currently limited in the VENICE, only 4:3 and Super35 sensor options offer high speed recording of up to 60 fps. However, the next firmware upgrade V3 will include 6K RAW up to 60fps, 4K up to 90 fps and 120 fps in a 2K sensor crop.

The VENICE’s design and layout looks like what you’d get if you crossed an F55 with an Alexa Classic. The build feels very robust and solid, which can also be felt in the weight of the camera. It’s heavier than it’s predecessors, the F55 and F5, but not too heavy for hand held operation. The VENICE has various options for accessories available from the main manufacturers. For example, Shift 4 supply the VENICE with the Vocas Universal Shoulder Plate. The advantage of this is the plate can be adjusted to get perfect balance on the shoulder, much like the ARRI Amira. When paired with this the camera can feel lighter than smaller cameras with poor form factors.
With the R7 recorder attached to the back for RAW recording, the camera is longer than most and would make it difficult to use on a gimbal other than the ARRI Trinity. A neat trick up VENICE’s sleeve is the ability to remove the sensor block from the camera. This is due for release along with the V3 firmware update scheduled for Feb ’19. When paired with the ambilocal chord, the sensor block can be positioned in places the whole camera body can’t go. For example, tight spaces, smaller grips needed for a car rig or even using smaller cranes by running the ambilocal chord down to the rest of the body while retaining the full quality and functionality of the VENICE.

The controls are the same as the F55/F5 although this time the main operation screen is positioned on the assistants side, much like the Alexa Classic. This includes quick access to major functions like frame rate, shutter speed and white balance. With white balance both kelvin and plus/minus green can be customised, which is a marked improvement over the F55/F5 which offer 3 presets in Cine EI mode. However, by far the biggest triumph of the VENICE operationally is the internal ND filters. It includes 8 stops in 1 stop increments from 0.3 up to 2.4ND, all of which are completely colour neutral. No external IRND’s are required, which saves lots of time on set, as different ND levels can be switched instantly with the touch of a button by the operator/DoP. This is done by a smaller control panel on the operator’s side including control of main image functions so any changes don’t always need to be executed by the assistant.

The VENICE as standard comes with a PL mount attached to the front complete with pins for lens communication, allowing the camera to record lens information as metadata from compatible lenses. The VENICE can also accommodate other lens mounts, if the 6 screws from the PL mount are removed, underneath it is an E-mount built into the VENICE meaning it’s actually natively E-mount. This can be adapted in the same way as other E-mount lenses, with a Metabones E to EF which is useful because of vintage glass. Most vintage glass was made for super35 coverage, which means if users want to shoot full frame they are very much pushed in the direction of modern glass. So, in my opinion more vintage stills lenses will start to be used for full frame cinematography for that vintage feel. Lenses like Canon FDs, Leica Rs, Zeiss Contax are all easily adapted to EF and will cover full frame. Other mounts are due for release for major lenses, such as the LPL mount for ARRI Full Frame Signature primes.

The newly designed OLED viewfinder has a nice sized image, which appears sharp and with accurate brightness and colour as a trust worthy reference. What it doesn’t offer is a flip out option, so when operating from the hip for example, there’s no way of viewing the image. This will make an onboard monitor essential with this camera, which is pretty much standard practice for cameras of this type anyway.

Full Frame vs Super35
The other big question concerning Full Frame, is when users compare it to it’s equivalent aspect ratio in Super35. What’s the difference between 16:9 in full frame and 16:9 in Super35? Mainly depth of field. When shooting full frame, to get the same frame to super35, longer focal lengths are needed. For example, if users framed a shot with a 35mm on super35, they would need to use something like a 50mm on full frame to get the same angle of view. Using longer focal lengths results in shallower depths of field when at the same T stop and this can have two effects on the way users might shoot with full frame.

Naturally users expect a wide shot will have quite deep focus. However, some full frame lenses have T stops of up to 1.5 when shooting at a T stop like this on a wider shot, more separation between the subject and background can be achieved compared to super35.

The VENICE overall is a huge leap forward for Sony compared to their offerings in the past. It seems they stepped back, looked at what everyone else was offering and took all the best bits to put into the camera. Multiple resolutions and aspect ratios from RED cameras, dual ISO from Panasonic’s Varicams, the form factor and more importantly, filmic colour science of ARRI. Apparently designed in conjunction with several top western cinematographers, the S709 look was designed to be as film like in it’s characteristics as possible, and it has paid off. It is truly the biggest triumph of this camera, well that and the internal NDs! This is the thing that surprised me the most about the Sony VENICE. Not the NDs, but the fact that everything I like most about the camera is independent of the Full Frame sensor which is easily it’s most obvious selling point. However, the light weight high quality RAW files and the NDs are just as good whether you’re shooting full frame, anamorphic or Super35. It’s just a damn good camera.