Mirrorless, Around the World — Travel Filmmaking with Sony a7S II: Part 3. Camera Setup

Five months through 15 countries, here’s what I learned.

Camera Setup

Real talk: you bought a camera designed for taking photos, that can also shoot video. Your first clue is the ridiculous placement of the record button.

It’s right there, recessed into the grip, located exactly halfway between your thumb and forefinger; using it feels awkward and uncomfortable.

By God’s saving grace the a7S II can be customized to make video its primary purpose. You’ve got two sets of tools at your disposal: Custom Buttons and Function Menu Items.

Custom Buttons

Navigating the menus on the a7S II is a confusing and frustrating experience. There are six main pages of settings, each with their own subpages, for a staggering 162 individual menu items.

All 162 menu items, in one gif.

Thankfully, some of these menu items can be set to the six customizable buttons on the camera’s body. I recommend the following settings for MAXIMUM VIDEO EFFICIENCY!

Control Wheel: ISO — While shooting, ISO is one of the most frequently adjusted settings. You can now get to it without entering a menu; simply rotate the Control Wheel with your right thumb.

Custom Button 1: Focus Magnifier — Pressing this once zooms the monitor/viewfinder to 8x, twice: 10x. allowing you to quickly check focus.

Custom Button 2: Focus Peaking — It’s a contrast based system that highlights the edges in your shot, another way to help keep your focus in check.

Custom Button 3: MOVIE — AKA the record button, now located where your thumb naturally rests when holding the camera.

Custom Button 4: SteadyS. Focal Len. — In Pt. 4 I’ll talk about SteadyShot in detail. This is a shortcut to input the lens focal length so SteadyShot can work its magic. If you’re using native Sony lenses, you won’t be needing this input.

Center Button: Bright Monitoring — In Pt. 4, I go into detail about shooting S-Log picture profile, but one of the downsides is that you must overexpose your image while shooting. This setting adjusts the brightness of a shot on screen, whether it’s over or underexposure, making it much easier to see. It doesn’t impact what you record, it actually shuts off when you hit the record button but it is a useful tool for composing any low contrast shot, especially when viewing the screen in direct sunlight.

Function Menu Items

Your function menu, accessable by pressing the “Fn” button on the back of your camera the quick menu that will allow you to avoid digging through those 162 menu items. In the image above you can see what the video related functions I’ve chosen. Sadly there are still some often-accessed functioned that can’t be added to this menu. For example when switching from 4k to 120fps 1080p, you still have to enter the main menu.

Picture Profile

Picture Profiles settings can be a complex topic, and much of it is beyond the scope of this post. Two things are important to understand: One, the settings in this menu will have a huge impact on the look of your footage. Two, you’ll need to make a choice between a nice looking image in-camera with a limited ability for post correction. Or a really unattractive image in-camera but much larger latitude in post.

Left: In-camera, super flat image. Right: Color Corrected image.

Here are some of the settings I used:

Gamma: S-Log3— Here Gamma is referring to luminance. By selecting S-Log3, your camera will capture the highest amount of dynamic range (or luminance) possible.

Color Mode: S-Gamut3 — The term “gamut” here means the scope or range. This setting defines the range of colors that will be captured. From the choices, the S-Gamut3 color space has the widest range.

Detail level: -5 — It may seem counterintuitive, but for the sharpest shot after post production, you’ll need to turn the in-camera sharpening down.

I would strongly suggest you research this topic in greater detail, here are some links to get you started:

File Format

This one’s pretty simple — You’ll be shooting MP4s with a XAVC S Codec and you can choose between 60 and 100Mbps, the bigger the better in this case.

Frame Rate

First you’ll need to decide if your project will be shot at 24 or 30fps. In either of those modes, as you know, you’ll be shooting in glorious 4k. When you want slow motion you’ll frantically page through the menus and select Shooting Menu>Record Settings 120p, because no, there’s no way to give it a custom button shortcut. In 120fps you’re now shooting at slightly less glorious 1080p — this is the trade off.

Often I was torn between wanting the extra frames vs. the extra resolution. I usually chose 120fps when shooting people because I wanted the ability to stretch out moments of emotion in the edit. For any wide shots, transitional elements, anything I knew would look better in real time it was 30fps at 4k.

Next up: Part 4. Shooting Tips for the Real World

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