Sony a6300 video shooting experience

by Richard Butler

The development process

'I don't care about video' is an opinion I see expressed fairly often in our comments, and it's one that always leaves me a little disheartened. There's nothing wrong with focusing on what you love, but there's also a lot to be said for trying something new. I very much consider myself an amateur photographer first and foremost, but the need to test cameras' video features, along with the enthusiasm of my more video-savvy colleagues has encouraged me to learn about and experiment more with video.

My chosen video setup on this occasion. The mic did a great job of recording ambient sounds but having to leave the side door open probably doesn't do much for the weather sealing.

Although I've got a pretty solid understanding of photographic theory and know my way around most modern digital cameras, there's still a lot to learn as you start to think about taking 24 or more photos per second. Like learning photography, the challenges are both technical (what is 180 degree shutter angle? how do I use zebras?) and aesthetic (planning the motion through each shot adds another element to the challenge of composition.) But challenges are a good thing. Challenges are interesting. Trying to get better is at the heart of what I enjoy about photography, so why not try expand my experience?

Video has the same requirements of managing light and exposure as stills photography, but it adds its own complexities: you don't have to just worry about keeping the camera steady for that one fraction of a second, you're much more limited in your choice of shutter speeds and, in most cases, you're probably having to work with limited bit-depth footage. It also takes time. The shoot, the edit, the kicking yourself for not giving enough thought to audio. It all takes time.

The a6300's 4K doesn't lack for detail, whether you plan to use it at full resolution, crop in or down-sample to 1080.

As a result, I have to have some confidence in the equipment I'm using before I commit myself to a video project. The a6300 seemed to have all the elements in place: high bitrate 4K video, a promising sensor and a solid-looking list of support tools to help me get the shots I wanted. I needed to get some footage for the review, so I thought it'd be a good time to set myself a project: a chance to see what I've learned from testing the likes of the Panasonic GH4 and from looking closely at the cuts and camera movements I've found myself noticing in TV and movies.

My chosen subject? Beer. It was always going to be either that or cycling, but it's hard to ride and shoot at the same time and it's March in Seattle, so it's raining most of the time. I asked my favorite craft brewery whether they'd let me shoot a video: they agreed, so long as I was willing to help them pick some stinging nettles.

And... Action

The a6300 not only offers 100Mbps 4K video but also 1080p at up to 120 fps, extensive phase-detection autofocus coverage and a dizzying array of 'Picture Profiles' designed to capture video that can be graded to give a professional-looking result. I planned my project to make sure I covered all these. I packed the camera, a 16-70mm F4 OSS lens, the Sigma 30mm F1.4, a tripod, a couple of mics and a handful of batteries.

The first concern I encountered was with the camera's weather sealing. As forecast by both my calendar and map apps, it started raining as soon as I turned up at the brewery. The a6300 is meant to be environmentally sealed, but the port door doesn't have much in the way of gasketing and I'm not sure it would be very effective, anyway,  when the door's held open by the external mic lead I had connected. Still, the bright-but-overcast nature of the weather presented a great opportunity to use the 'S-Log2' gamma curve: a very flat tone curve designed to squeeze a wide range of tones into the limited dynamic range of a video file. The a6300 also offers the still-flatter S-Log3 option but I had very little faith in my ability to 'grade' it back into punchy footage, given my lack of skill with the tools available in Final Cut Pro.

While this S-Log2 shot has captured most of the dynamic range I wanted, the loss of saturation and hints of posterization in the face made it difficult to grade, as an inexperienced editor.

I have no doubt that professional shooters have much to gain through the use of the S-Log options, especially for higher contrast scenes, but I was glad of my decision to switch to a less-extreme gamma curve designed to fit the ITU 709 standard, mid-shoot: it doesn't capture as much dynamic range as S-Log2, but it's much easier for a beginner like me to make use of. My inexperience plus S-Log2 didn't end up being a great combination.

Throughout this process, I used the camera's zebra highlight warnings to set exposure. With shutter speed held at 1/50th, this left me with aperture and ISO as the means of controlling exposure. Only at the end of the day did I discover the option to set a lower threshold for zebras, so found myself using an unfamiliar system where the camera indicated only the region of brightness around the specified brightness level. This prompted me to set zebras to 95% and ensure that only the very brightest tones in each shot were flashing, which would help me minimize clipping. With the exception of that one S-Log2 example, this approach seemed to work pretty well (though I look forward to more experienced videographers pointing out that this approach is idiotic.)

Pulling things into focus

We've been very impressed with the a6300's autofocus for stills work, so far, and my experience on the movie side was fairly positive. In many respects it did extremely well: it only offers AF-C or manual focus modes but autofocus was very good at concluding that it was in focus and consequently deciding it didn't need to wobble focus or re-check. This is fortunate, since you can't use AF Lock to prevent the camera refocusing.

The Center Lock-on AF system isn't as sophisticated as the lock-on options in stills mode and the need to engage the mode, point the middle of your frame at your target then confirm the selection is time-consuming. This was made even worse by my choice of a stills tilt/pan tripod head, as I has to frame my shot, set the exposure, then loosen the tripod head, recompose and press the buttons to tell the camera what to lock on before re-positioning the tripod head and tightening it down again, before I could  hit REC. The system could be easier but using a dedicated video head would have helped, too.

The results, though, are pretty impressive. The camera was very good at following moving subjects and again it tended to err on the side of staying still, rather than panicking and wobbling focus around if the subject moved.

This guy ended up on the virtual cutting room floor but, having captured him in 4K, I had the option to crop-in closer or perform a Ken Burns virtual zoom in on a subject I couldn't get any closer to: an option I wouldn't have had with a 1080 camera.

Overall I found the slightly fussy Center Lock-on AF mode was my best choice. Without a touchscreen the camera requires several potentially footage-rocking button presses to manually move the AF point around the screen. A couple of occasions where the camera seemingly decided not to re-focus to the newly chosen point left me less than confident about trying to use autofocus to pull focus, but when it does work there's a menu setting to define how quickly the transition is made and the results are pretty good.

Even with these shortcomings, AF focus-pulls proved more successful than me attempts to do it manually. The E-mount's speed-sensitive focus-by-wire system meant I couldn't be sure of how far I'd need to turn the focus ring to smoothly shift focus from one depth to another. Focus peaking will let you know when you've reached your target but if you turn the focus ring too slowly, there's a risk that the pull you're trying to perform will require more of a rotation than you can make without stopping to reposition your hands. I may be wrong, but I'd have thought a linear focus response would be useful when shooting video.

I was able to set the camera to autofocus (AF-C being the only option) with confidence that the focus wouldn't wobble around unless the subject moved: something you can't be sure of with contrast-detection based systems.

The other disappointment I experienced was with the 16-70mm F4's 'Optical Steady Shot' stabilization system. Having been really impressed by the Olympus E-M5 II's tripod-like image stabilization, it was a shock to use a system that simply softened the intensity of camera shake, rather than fully stabilizing it. There's a chance that I've been spoiled by the Olympus system, however: there are enough gimbals and video-specific tripod heads on the market to suggest that I shouldn't just expect a camera to take shake out of the equation.

I am not an audio engineer

One area where photographic experience won't help you is one of the aspects your audience will intuitively notice: audio. The a6300 gains a mic input, and on-screen levels monitors can be engaged to help you set things up. For this shoot I used a Røde shotgun mic for all of the ambient noise associated with each clip, then switched to a small lavalier mic to record the voice-over. The shotgun mic proved very effective and I'm generally pleased with the results it got, but without a headphone socket to monitor the audio capture, I fell into a classic trap when recording the voice-over. Having mic'd-up my interviewee, I asked him to talk about his favorite football team for a moment, so that I could set the recording level.

My reluctant interviewee became more animated once the camera started rolling. The lav mic on his collar was set too loud, resulting in slight clipping and background noise being picked up.

As soon as I started rolling, though, my subject started worrying about what he was saying and began enunciating more clearly. And more loudly. The result is audio that occasionally 'clips' and the capture of slightly more background noise than I'd expected. If you notice these in the final video, take them as a reminder of the importance of getting your audio right.

It's a wrap

Although I've described a series of challenges and frustrations with the a6300, my overall experience was very positive. I said at the start that I wanted to be fairly confident in the kit I was using before spending a day collecting footage and committing myself to further hours of editing and grading, and I don't regret choosing the a6300 at all. It gave me the bulk of the tools I needed, let me have some fun with features such as 120 fps slow-mo and left me with over an hour's worth of footage to produce a sample video from. In most cases I'm confident that the shortcomings of this video are down to my own inexperience, rather than any lack of technical capability which, when you're learning, is all you can really ask for.

I had to spend a little more time worrying about battery life than I would have liked, but generally the camera was very well behaved. And, for this project at least, I had no problems with the much talked-about overheating. The longest single shot I took was the 9 minutes it took a train to trundle past (something I wanted to use to suggest time passing). After this I immediately took the camera back indoors and kept shooting. Which I'm not suggesting this one experience gives the camera a clean bill-of-health, it does suggest that, for certain types of videography at least, the sky isn't falling.

Earlier in the article I said that the a6300 provided the tools to shoot professional-looking footage. I didn't claim that it would magically give you pro-looking footage but, given where I am in my video development, I'm pretty pleased with what the a6300 allowed me to do. Certainly there are few cameras I've encountered at DPReview that would have served me as well. And to those who say they don't care about the video features on their camera: you don't know what you're missing.

My chosen setup:

Here's how I set the a6300 for video shooting:

Button  Function  Rationale
C1 [REC] I found the position of the C1 button more convenient to start recording and, for hand-held shots it avoids rolling the camera at the start of every clip
AF/MF Focus magnification  For fine-tuning manual focus
AEL Center Lock-on AF To reduce by one button-press the amount of time it took to select and engage Center Lock-on AF

I also added a variety of video-centric options to the Fn menu. Although a couple of them (ISO and Center Lock-on AF) ended up being redundant, I found I needed access to so many functions that I'd need to consider re-programming the menu before I can go back to shooting stills.

I ended up populating most of the Fn menu with video-related functions, to ensure I had them to-hand as I was shooting. In hindsight I didn't need the Center Lock-on AF option (since I later assigned that to the AEL button) and could probably live without the AF Area, Exposure Mode and Gamma Disp. Assist options but that still doesn't free up enough spaces to allow me to configure a menu that works well for both stills and movie shooting.

This is the challenge faced by all cameras that try to provide an extensive range of video tools as well as stills capabilities. Short of defining different Fn menus for still and video shooting (which I find it hard to imagine many people doing,) or saving the Fn menu setups in the custom memory settings, it's not clear how this problem can be solved.