Demystifying Video in Sony Mirrorless Cameras

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Video is a part of modern life. It just is. Many photographers, like you, understand this and have even been flipping over to their camera’s video mode to start learning and shooting. If you did this and are starting from square one, you likely found a bunch of terms and settings that are almost a foreign language, especially if you consider that companies like Sony have loaded up their mirrorless cameras with features once reserved for traditional cinema cameras. Having trouble understanding the video options in your Sony Alpha mirrorless camera? Find out all the core information right here.

The Essentials: Resolutions, Frame Rates & Codecs

There is certainly a lot we could get into as the first step, but I like making sure you know how to capture the best quality possible. The image quality settings for video are similar to when you adjust your still image settings and choose a resolution (in megapixels) and between raw (compressed or uncompressed) and various JPEG flavors.

Resolution is still straightforward here—bigger numbers are better—but it doesn’t follow the same megapixel terminology. There are some standards to know here, and one is that UHD 4K is currently your go-to resolution for best quality. This refers to a 3840 x 2160 image size with 16:9 aspect ratio that is very much at home on your average TV or display. Full HD 1080p is still available and can reach higher frame rates for slow motion or simply save space for less critical work. With the Sony a1, you capture UHD 8K at 7680 x 4230, which is massive and amazing if you can work with it.

Next we’ll touch on frame rates. There are a few standard options:

  • 24p: Cinematic look, technically 23.976 fps for easier conversion to standard television formats

  • 30p: Standard video option, technically 29.97 fps for NTSC television standards (e.g., USA)

  • 25p: Alternate standard for PAL television standards (e.g., Europe)

Going beyond these core options, you have some ability to double, triple, or even quadruple the frame rate. For some use cases, such as sports, you might want the crisper look of 50/60p recording. However, for most people these options will be reserved for slow-motion capture.

The last bit is going to be the most confusing: codecs. This refers to how footage is compressed when you read and write the video files. It can have a somewhat dramatic impact on things like storage space, required card speeds, and true image quality. It’s a balancing act between compression/file size, how easy it is to work with, and image quality where you usually have to give somewhere if you want to get more of something else.

Sony uses some of its own custom formats, although those are, fortunately, based on more common standards. Nowadays, if you are using a Sony camera, you’ll be looking at a variety of flavors of XAVC. More specifically, it is a consumer-focused XAVC S—it’s a good codec, so don’t worry.

Breaking it down for ease of understanding here is a simple list where the codecs are compared:

  • XAVC HS: High compression HEVC (small files), hard on older computers, excellent image quality

  • XAVC S-I: Lower compression H.264 intraframe(large files), easy to edit, excellent image quality

  • XAVC S: Moderate compression H.264 interframe, easy to edit, medium image quality

In some instances, to get best quality you will need to choose a particular codec. For example, getting 8K from the Sony a1 requires the use of XAVC HS, since you need a little more compression to really get a reasonable file. My personal favorite is XAVC S-I, since it is super easy on the computer, but it eats up storage space. If you want to save space with top quality, XAVC HS is the best option, but only newer computers are optimized to handle it well and, even then, you might not get peak performance. Finally, for maximum compatibility with editing software and a middle-of-the-road pick, the reliable XAVC S will get the job done without worry.

Combined with the codec selection is also a number. This refers to the bitrate, labeled as Mb/s. Luckily, this is super easy to understand because it is going to be the amount of data saved to the video file. A higher number means that more data is saved to the file, which results in larger files and better image quality. You will have fewer artifacts with higher data rates, though you will use up storage more quickly. You’ll have to make your decision here on the fly, so keep in mind that the amount of detail in the scene will affect how much data you need. A sit-down interview is likely fine with a lower bitrate, while a detailed landscape would benefit from a higher rate. Bigger bitrate = better quality.

There you go for the setting selection. My go-to (even if I was using the a1), would be to stick with XAVC S-I 4K at 24p because this offers excellent image quality that is still easy to work with and that is a good combination for most.

Next Steps: Picture Profiles and Stabilization

This is where we start getting into the more complex options available to Sony shooters, and you really shouldn’t start with this unless you have the basics of shooting, exposure, and editing down, because you can easily ruin your footage with incorrect methodology. Consider this a primer into what the different options are and which you might want to explore more in the future.

Picture Profiles can transform your footage and make it so that in editing you can get the best image quality you could possibly imagine. It changes how your image is recorded by making it squeeze more data into the limited space that is a digital video file. However, when you do this, the footage is no longer ready for immediately watching and requires some care in your NLE of choice to make it look “correct.”

There is a ton of options here, but I’ll focus on the most popular and the ones that are considered to be among the best for achieving maximum image quality. These will be the Log options.

Log gamma profiles, which Sony offers in S-Log2 and S-Log3 flavors, take the data from the sensor and create an extremely flat image—squeezing the widest possible dynamic range into the file. Then, you take this image into your NLE and apply the needed saturation and contrast to make it sing. Both operate in very similar ways, so I’m going to oversimplify the options available to you dramatically. S-Log2 performs better with more limited 8-bit recordings (a7 III, a6000 series) while S-Log3 is optimal for newer cameras with 10-bit recording (a1, a7S III).

If this is your first time playing with Log, I highly recommend sticking with the default options. To monitor on-camera, many of the current Sony cameras offer a setting called “Gamma Display Assist” that applies a LUT (Look-Up Table) to the ultra-flat footage so that what you are seeing on the back of the camera will look decent. It can do this while still recording the original file in the flat profile so you can have the best image quality while still being able to see what happens.

Another note on Log is that they require a minimum ISO, usually referred to as the native or base ISO. This varies between cameras, but it means that when using Log you will be limited to ISOs of at least 640-1600 generally. Important to realize before you head out at noon and realize everything is too bright—make sure to pack an ND filter.

Going beyond this, there is one native HDR option called HLG. Hybrid-Log Gamma was designed to work with current television standards and updated HDR standards without completely breaking the playback. It also is a way to get “Instant HDR.” What HLG does is record a baked-in HDR image with the standard contrast and saturation you would expect. If you want to go straight from camera to publish HDR footage without the advanced color grading of Log, than HLG is a good choice.

Finally, the last option on the list is recent to the a7S III, a1, and FX3, although I hope future cameras also incorporate it: S-Cinetone. This is brought down from Sony’s true cinema cameras and is designed to provide excellent color, especially with skin tones, straight out of the camera. Consider this a ready-to-publish look. S-Cinetone is ideal for quick turnarounds and when you just want something good without the extra work on the back end. Highly recommended you try it out, and keep in mind that if you aren’t in a place where you need to push the dynamic range, like a studio setting, using a ready-to-go profile like S-Cinetone could be the better option.

That’s a quick rundown, so now for a quick note on stabilization.

Many Sony mirrorless cameras now have in-body image stabilization. This is an amazing system that gives you smooth footage no matter the lens, and I highly recommend it for handheld work at all times. If you pair it with a Sony lens equipped with its own stabilizers, the in-body SteadyShot will work with the lens system to make it even better. Just keep it all on all the time if you can, since there isn’t a negative impact on image quality.

Newer cameras will offer some digital stabilization, as well, referred to as SteadyShot Active. This is useful in a pinch but, to perform digital stabilization, the camera will need to crop in on the sensor about 10%. This is because it needs some space to cut off and correct the shake. Not a huge loss on most cameras since they have greater than 4K sensor resolutions, but still a slight loss of detail. This is extremely helpful if you expect to have more shakes or bumps than usual and can help produce a video that is more stable than you could’ve otherwise gotten.

Finally, newer cameras, like the a7S III, also offer a new form of gyroscopic stabilization that requires the use of Sony’s Catalyst software. I would call this an advanced option. It works by turning off all in-camera stabilization and then recording all the movements via sensors in the camera. Then, you take this footage into Sony’s software and it can read the data and perform precise digital stabilization in post to create ultra-smooth-looking footage. It’s a cool option, but please try it before relying on it for a shoot.

If you can, stick with standard SteadyShot modes and pop on Active for the bumpiest rides. Gyroscopic stabilization is a neat trick and I hope it expands in the future, but the workflow is honestly a bit too much unless you really think you can benefit from it—the results from post stabilization are impressive versus in-body digital options though.

Extra Pieces: Audio and Accessories

Finally, to make the most out of your camera, you’ll want to add a few extra pieces. This section could be its own article at this point, so I’ll just run through some of the best options.

Audio is incredibly important, and nobody has made a camera with amazing built-in mics. There are, fortunately, microphone inputs on Sony mirrorless cameras so you can quickly plug one in. If you want something easy for everyday shooting, the RØDE VideoMic slides right into the hot shoe and then connects to the mic input, providing a huge upgrade in audio quality. For interviews or talking heads, a wireless audio system like the RØDE Wireless GO will do wonders and allow you or your subject to walk away from the camera without any loss of quality.

You will want to watch your levels in-camera. Auto does a good job for the most part, but using manual controls and checking levels is a good way to make sure you don’t accidentally lose some data by peaking a bit too loud or even recording too quiet. Looking at the bars on the screen, the recommendation is to keep the peaking (where the audio gets the loudest) to fall between -12 and -6 dB. This gives you a little headroom while recording at a good enough volume with which to work.

More advanced users looking to hook up a professional shotgun mic or wireless system will need something with XLRs and phantom power. Sony’s Multi Interface Shoe has a neat trick for data transmission, so the XLR-K3M XLR Adapter can be popped on and almost transforms your mirrorless camera into a feature-rich camcorder.

With audio basically covered, I’m just going to give a quick list of some other accessories to check out:

  • Variable ND Filters: Stick to the 180-degree shutter rule (have the shutter speed be 1/[2 x the frame rate]) for cinematic-quality footage in bright conditions

  • On-Camera Monitor: Upgrade from the camera’s rear LCD; an option like the Atomos Ninja V will even record raw video from supported cameras (a1, a7S III)

  • Extra batteries

  • Camera Cage: When you start adding more and more accessories, you’ll want to mount them more easily, and a cage gives you all those mounting points

This article could go on and on and on and I still feel like we haven’t covered it all. If you have any questions, something else you want to learn more about, or any other thoughts, please jump into the Comments, below, and let me know!

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