Shooting Video With the a7S II in an Abandoned Power Plant

For years, videographers shooting in dark situations frequently ran into the issue of a ton of noise in darks and shadows that would oftentimes make some footage difficult or impossible to use. Many have heralded the release of the a7S II with applause due to its power for video in low-light situations and even to record bursts of high frame rates in HD, so we took one into the deep recesses of an abandoned power plant in New Orleans to see how it did.

When most people think of going to New Orleans, they think Bourbon Street, Hand Grenades (the drinks!), the Quarter, beignets, and seafood. However, my intrepid colleagues and I, were about to enter into a power plant that had been decommissioned in the 70s and left to decay at its own rate — which in New Orleans means, rain, humidity, and in a few instances recently, hurricanes. Our purpose for this trip was to document the workings of Kevin R Whitley, the amazing landscape and urban exploration photographer that we had previously interviewed on the Nino Batista's, The Backyard. Normally for video work we would turn to our trusty Canon DSLRs, ranging from a 5D, a couple of 7Ds, and a couple of 6Ds, or I’d break out the big guns and get out the FS700, which is a large and bulky setup, which you’ll see below. Photos courtesy of Syed Hasan.

Setting up the Sony FS700 on the final day of recording while in New Orleans.

Bring on the Sony a7S II

Our alternative for this particular trip, was to look into getting our hands on a Sony a7S II and pairing it with a good lens, which we were able to do through a local rental company here in Houston. The lens we got was a Zeiss Distagon 35mm 1.4 ZA, a phenomenal lens that was easy to use and interestingly enough, featured a manual aperture ring built onto the lens itself, which lent very well to adjusting exposure on the fly such as walking in or out of different rooms with different lighting conditions. We knew/assumed that we’d be walking into some areas of extremely, or potentially no light that would still be important to document. Thinking ahead, we thought this would be an ideal setup and also would provide a good scenario to give the camera a good field test. To capture the audio, we rounded out the ensemble with a Rode microphone, not wanting to leave to chance, gambling on the built-in microphone on the camera. I only had few days with this camera but what I discovered is it's an amazing tool.

Handholding the a7S II proved to be most practical in this instance, especially in regards to fitting into some of the tight spaces on this project.

This is the point where many articles will go into a lot of the in-depth techno jargon describing the various nuances and subtleties and listing every feature available on the camera, in case you can’t read the description on the box or the retailer’s website. Here’s what you really need to know about the Sony a7S II: It works. Now let me clarify exactly what I mean by that.

Shooting Stills

For stills, it’s a great camera; it has amazing dynamic range and fantastic clarity. The live preview capability is a nice tool to have for shooting on the fly, or even on projects just using natural light. The low megapixel count is not a detriment to the picture quality, but you will certainly not capture as much detail as a full-frame 5D Mark III, or in a more extreme comparison, its pixel big brother, the a7R II. However stills are far from why I wanted to use this camera, and as such be considered a footnote in this camera’s capabilities.

Syed Hasan, one of my companions on this adventure of ours, helped document the entire experience and is a critical part of our team. He doesn't always look so serious though. Photo taken on the a7S II.

Shooting Video

Where this camera shines is in video. Bright sun to almost pitch black, this camera could do it, crystal clear, with very little heavy noise until you really start to push it into the upper sensitivity levels (ISO). I would assume that due to some compression, when filming in 1080 there’s a little more noise in shadows and darks than filming in 4K, but even then, it’s hardly noticeable unless you're really looking for it. Especially if you take advantage of Sony’s flat Slog profiles, Slog2 or, available on this camera, Slog3, which after color correcting for those that are so inclined, produces an amazingly dynamic and crisp image.

Steady Hands

Now, one thing that this camera advertises vehemently is its 5-axis internal stabilization, and for good reason. It works really well for simple corrections. For stills, it definitely is a powerful tool for slower exposures, even at extended focal lengths, and for video it works great for handheld motion and simple pans but for quicker movements or even brisk walking a stabilizer of any sort would be beneficial, especially if you’re going for a very commercial smooth look.

Filming behind the scenes as Kevin Whitely sets up his next shot on one of the upper levels of the plant.

How Small Is It?

Now another thing that many people have praised it for is its compact nature, and it is very compact, which is fantastic, and terrible, all in one handheld device. To its advantage, it is very small and light, which means that it is easy to carry, and easy to maneuver, whether handheld or even on a gimbal. I was even part of a production very recently where we had one strapped to the hood of a C6 Corvette as we zoomed around a track (more info on that experiment at a later date). Its small size and light weight make this camera one to contend with. However, those same advantages also bring about a few disadvantages as well. If you’re anything like me, over six feet, chances are you have bigger hands, which means a small device with a myriad of small controls will be awkward using until you get a feel for the buttons, or until you get the custom function buttons dialed in to your liking, which I highly recommend, as I’m not a huge fan of where they placed the record button.

Small Things Also Come In Small Packages

Additionally, the small space required a compromise on power, in the form of smaller batteries, which means less charge, and less time to record. The unit I was using was a rental unit, and the rental company was kind enough to provide two batteries. However, as I soon found out these would definitely not last the course of the full day of filming we had originally planned, I was forced to find power sources to alternate batteries during the course of the day. We also borrowed an additional battery from Whitley himself, who was using the a7R II which conveniently uses the same batteries as the a7S II. So for extended filming, definitely be mindful to turn the camera off while not recording to conserve batteries, and stock up on as many batteries as you might think you'll need.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, the a7S II is a great tool for professional and aspiring filmmakers alike. Priced at just a tick under $3,000, it's within reach and a much less expensive option than some of the other 4K-ready cameras on the market. Its small size and compact design make it ideal for mounting on camera rigs and for filmmakers who have a premium on space in their kit, and require something that can fit into their carry-on baggage. It has its disadvantages, but overall I think the advantages definitely overshadow them substantially with the possibilities and capabilities this camera brings to the table. Will this camera take the place of cameras like the RED series? No, of course not, but at a fifth of the price for some of the less expensive RED cameras, I'd definitely say it's worth its weight. Additionally, stay tuned for the final video from that adventure in New Orleans, it'll be dropping soon enough!

Ryan Pramik's picture

Fstoppers Staff Writer, Ryan Pramik is a professional photographer and videographer that specializes in automotive work but crosses the line into other genres for work or for personal projects. Has several publications under his belt for automotive work as well as event coverage for the automotive genre as well as others.

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I worked along side a filmmaker/producer that owns a Sony a7S II and I love everything about the camera, The low light capability mostly. He had point out a few issues with the camera though. regardless, I still want one!

You're not alone! Haha it is a great camera there is no doubt of that and there are a few issues with them in my opinion, but definitely overall solid! Thanks for reading and your feedback!

I've shot with the a7sii a bit, love the 4k it produces-just wish it could output 10bit

That would definitely be a huge bump in quality but even so with how it sits it's still a very capable system. Most of this project wasn't even filmed in 4k and I was still floored by the quality footage it produced. Thanks for reading!

That's a nifty little gizmo, that.

It's shiny. Haha

Ryan, for the power issue, the Sony A7S II can use USB power packs while shooting and to recharge, similar to recharging iPhones on the go.

I knew you could charge from the USB port but I wasn't 100% if you could actually run it off that cable. That's definitely good to know though when we start doing some of the testing on a few projects coming up! Thanks!

I must be missing something here! This is newsworthy why?

I wish Sony (or somebody) made a camera with a sensor/processor combo like this in a traditional video/cinematography format camera. I know there is a large cottage industry that turns DSLRs and mirrorless cameras into functional movie-making cameras, but why not just make the real McCoy in the first place?

Like the Canon Cinema series or sony fs5?

No, full sized sensors. I want to be able to use my full frame lenses at their normal field of view.