Sony FS100 Prime lens vs Zoom lens

FS100 Sensor

I already know that prime lenses can be sharper than zoom lenses but I wanted to see for myself just how much of a difference a prime lens would make, specifically on the Sony NEX-FS100 Super35mm video camera.  My hypothesis going into this, my third round of lens testing on the FS100, was that because the Super35mm sensor that Sony developed is similar in size to an APSC photo DSLR sensor but only has 2464×1394 active photo receptor pixels  (3.43M pixels or 2.5K), it doesn’t require lenses with as high a resolving power in order to produce sharp video images.  Sony claims that the individual photo receptors on the Exmor Super35 CMOS sensor are four times larger than the receptors on a DSLR.

The FS100 sensor has a low resolution, relative to its size, which results in photo site receptors that are four times larger than on a typical DSLR

In my previous tests I compared parfocal zoom lenses to parfocal zoom lenses in three ranges: wide zoom, normal zoom, and telephoto zoom.  I didn’t notice much difference in sharpness between modern professional Nikon and Canon lenses, older Minolta autofocus A-mount, and much older manual MD mount lenses.  So for this round of lens testing, I decided to do away with the apples-to-apples test of zoom lenses versus zoom lenses and do a more apples-to-oranges type of test and compare a zoom lens to a prime lens.

The test video that I shot and discussion of the test is at the end of the article in case you want to skip ahead – but first, some background information that will fill you in on my video camera and lens background and requirements.


Boring, Exciting, and Game-changing Video Sensors

I own two Sony NEX-FS100 video cameras. I love the noise free and true HD resolution that the Super35mm sensor allows. Traditional professional SD video cameras have a trio of square pixel sensors but the move to HD required more resolution, although the sensor sizes didn’t increase.  As a result, the photo receptors got smaller and new methods of signal processing were required as there was just not enough room on those small sensors to fit all the photo receptors required for HD resolution.  My previous video camera, a 3×1/3″ CMOS sensor Sony HVR-Z7U was capable of outputting a 1920×1080 30P video signal but the sensors weren’t really HD and in order to output an HD signal, a lot of interpolation was required. Sony famously turned the pixels on their side (ala Shreddies cereal when they advertised the “New-Exciting!” diamond shape) and used a lot of fancy algorithms (and probably lots of guess work too) in order to resolve a square pixel 1080P video signal. Ironically, the video was then converted once again when it was recorded using the lossy anamorphic 1440×1080 HDV codec.

Sony video camera CMOS sensor in diamond pattern

Sony video camera Exmor CMOS sensor with 45 degree pixel shift layout

This pixel trickery, combined with a puny-by-DSLR-standards sensor, whose tiny photosites resolved a low signal to noise ratio, and the lossy HDV codec, resulted in a very noisy image and a horrible video recording compared to what you saw on the LCD and what new large sensor video cameras are able to produce.

1920x1080 = 1440x1080 with a PAR of 1.33

1920x1080 HD video recorded to 1440x1080 HDV has a pixel aspect ratio of 1.33

DSLRs changed the paradigm of what was possible for a proper professional video camera when you switched from three puny sensors to one massive one that had enough resolution to resolve HD video.  In this regard, the FS100 and the slightly smaller sensor-ed Panasonic AF100 are game changers because they combine the professional features a video producer requires (professional audio connections, long record time, clean HDMI output, false colour peaking, etc) with a large sensor that the DSLR pioneered but got wrong (the photo site receptors were too small and there were too many of them so only a fraction were sampled – 1/3 on the Canon 5D MKII), resulting in moiré and aliasing problems.


FS100 ownership

The problem with owning two interchangeable lens video cameras is that you need to purchase two sets of lenses, which can get expensive very quickly.

I decided that I would start by outfitting my FS100s with parfocal zoom lenses to begin with and then afterwards look into prime lenses. Parfocal lenses are lenses that hold their focus when you zoom out from telephoto to wide, which is more important for manual focus video cameras than it is for autofocus still cameras. Some video producers don’t need to change focal length at all (they move the camera to frame their subject) or cringe at the thought of changing focal length during a shot (again, they would rather move the camera with a slider or a dolly).  But I don’t make movies or film actors who move to preset marks – I’m a corporate and event videographer and I need the ability to change focal length quickly between shots and often times, mid-shot.  Probably the two types of productions that I film that dictate my video camera requirements are conferences and dance recitals – so sharpness is important because it makes manually focusing easier and looks better, but being video, I don’t require the ability to pixel peep and enlarge images in the same manner a still photographer would.  For these reasons, zoom lenses are more important in my workflow than are prime lenses.

Shawn’s FS100 lens reviews

As I’ve previously mentioned, I have already written two articles about parfocal zoom lenses for the Sony NEX-FS100.  The first was an eleven lens FS100 shootout and the article was published in the EventDV Live e-magazine Winter Edition.  The article tops 6,000 words and it includes footage from each of the tested lenses:

The Sony NEX-FS100 and the first ever FS100 lens shootout

That initial article covered normal and telephoto zoom lenses but I wasn’t able to get enough wide zoom lens options for my shootout.  I tested a few after the fact and when I found one that I loved, I wrote a second article, a blog post, and shot some video comparing the new Sony SAL1650 16-50mm f/2.8 lens to two normal zoom lenses.
Sony FS100 wide angle zoom lens review


Current FS100 Lens Line-up

Let me quickly review my current lens situation before moving onto the whole point of this blog post, which is to compare the image from a great prime lens to that of a great zoom lens – both at 50mm.

Overall I’m very happy with the Sony 16-50mm f/2.8 for my wide angle zoom lens.  I find it a tad sharper than any of my older used lenses and for this reason it is my go-to lens when I don’t need a long telephoto.

I don’t have the same appreciation for my normal zoom lenses.  The Nikon mount Tokina ATX-Pro 28-75mm f/2.6-2.8 that I tested in my EventDV Live shootout had a focus issue so I bought a second copy, this time an A-mount copy.  Unfortunately the lens design is really prone to ghosting and over-dramatic lens flare so that lens doesn’t see much action.

My Konica Minolta 28-75 f/2.8 lens returns a slightly yellow image, which can be colour-corrected in post or with a manual white balance, but it bothers me enough that it too doesn’t get used much.  That leaves me with a Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 lens that works beautifully but it is only a 2x lens and slightly slower than the other options.

I’ll probably end-up getting the $800 Sony SAL2875 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM lens for when I need more than 50mm and less than 70mm.  I previously tested a used copy and it is parfocal but its build quality is below that of the SAL1650 and the zoom is not as smooth either.

I’m very happy with my Minolta 70-210 f/4.0 beercan lens as a telephoto lens.  So much so that I’m going to get a 2nd copy for when I need both my cameras to have that range but I might look into the newer and much more expensive 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses again at a later date.  I know f/4.0 is a whole stop slower than f/2.8  but  my used beercan cost me 1/10 the price of a new or used Sony 70-200 f/2.8 lens (and the second beercan seller is only asking $50) and the FS100 handles gain very well its Super35mm sensor, with its large photo receptors, has a high signal to noise ratio.

So at this point you’re mostly caught-up on my lenses.  I have several more but they aren’t noteworthy and are going back on Craigslist.

Let me get you caught-up on the adapters I’m using as well.  I have several fotodiox adapters and the Sony LA-EA1 adapter but am waiting for new FS100 firmware (03/12 target release) as it will allow me to use the newer Sony LA-EA2 adapter, which has autofocus and smooth iris changes.  This adapter, with its ability to autofocus when needed, is one of the main reasons I’m going with A-mount lenses, rather than Nikon lenses.  Cost is the other.

Zoom Lens versus Prime Lens

OK – on to the test.  Professional photographers want the sharpest lenses they can afford.  The main reason is that you can really see the difference with full frame photography at resolutions exceeding 20 megapixels and larger than life prints.

Cinematographers have similar needs when it comes to shooting with the sharpest lenses because when viewed on a movie screen, you can see the difference.

But what about when you are “only” shooting video at 1920×1080 and displaying infrequently on 60″ HDTVs or projecting on 100″ projection screens and more frequently on computer monitors?  Can you really see the difference, especially seeing that the Sony FS100 has massive photosites that are 4x larger than those on a typical DSLR sensor and as a result, doesn’t require as high a lens resolving power?  Or will it be like putting high octane gas into an economy car where if there are any returns, they are hardly discernible and unnecessarily expensive – not that the FS100 is an economy video camera as it has a premium engine with its Super35mm sensor.

One of the big reasons I’m taking the bold move of comparing a zoom lens to a prime lens is that in my initial shootout I had a very hard time discerning a difference between the video quality and sharpness between $1,800 modern professional lenses and a used 33 year old one that I paid $20 for at a thrift store.  Part of the reason was that I was using live models as my subjects and people don’t have hard edges that make lens sharpness differences obvious.

For my Prime lens versus Zoom lens test I filmed a simple fruit bowl and set my focus manually to the word “banana” on the sticker.  I didn’t want to pass-up on the opportunity to pay tribute to my favourite hockey player, Teemu Selanne, and his December 17th return to Winnipeg for an NHL hockey game for the first time in 15 years – his Winnipeg Jets figurine also made it into the shot.  The long absence is because Winnipeg lost its franchise to Phoenix (now the Coyotes) in 1996, Selanne now plays for the Anaheim Ducks, and Winnipeg bought the Atlanta Thrashers franchise.  The Jets beat Anaheim by a score of 5-3 and Selanne picked-up two assists.

My test lenses are the Minolta MD Rokkor-X 50mm f/1.4 prime lens and the Sony SAL1650 DT 16-50mm f/2.8 wide angle zoom lens.

Make sure to watch the video in full screen – it is 1920×1080.  I’m using Wistia to host this video, which will auto-adjust to the highest resolution your bandwidth will allow, so you don’t need to look for an HD button.  Also check-out the Wistia “video stats” – they’re pretty cool.


What did you see?

I saw a very slight advantage for the prime lens at f/2.8 in both sharpness and contrast but not much of a difference afterwards.  The prime was also a bit more consistent when it came to light transmission across the different exposures.  I was also interested to see the depth of field differences at the various f-stops.

Obviously an 50mm f/1.4 lens enjoys a two-stop low light advantage and shooting at f/1.4 creates an incredibly shallow depth of field but it isn’t always practical or desired to shoot with a large iris.

So unless I’m trying to achieve an f/1.4 look, or absolutely need the extra two stops for low light situations, I’m not going to bother switching to the prime for interviews because the extra sharpness would likely be lost on a moving subject and I lose the ability to change focal length without physically moving the video camera.  I will, however, pull it out for establishing, decor, and architectural shots when I am able to move around and don’t need the adjustable focal range of a zoom lens.  By the way, I paid $45 for my Minolta MD Rokkor-X 50mm f/1.4 lens on Kijiji, so it was definitely worth the money, but I wouldn’t bother if I had to pay a few hundred or even a thousand dollars for an equivalent lens.

The next prime lenses on my wish-list are these old manual Minolta primes that have larger-than-f/2.8 irises:

Minolta MC or MD Rokkor-X 85mm f/1.7 or MD 85mm f/2.0
Minolta MD Rokkor-X 35mm f/1.8.

Ok – that’s it for this third lens review for the Sony FS100.  Please leave your questions and comments below & feel free to Like, Tweet, or G+ this article and follow me on Twitter @shawnlamvideo.  And let me know what other tests you would like to see me conduct for the Sony NEX-FS100.

About the Author

Shawn Lam, MPVis a professionally accredited videographer and owner of Shawn Lam Video Inc., a Vancouver video production company. Shawn has been recognized with four major video production awards and is a recognized video industry writer and product reviewer who has published over 50 video production articles and is a contributing author of two Adobe Premiere Pro CC training books.View all posts by Shawn Lam, MPV →

  1. Gerry Fraiberg01-03-2012

    Thanks for this informative review. I own a Z5U and am very impressed with the beautiful image the NEX-FS-100 produces. I have four Nikkor prime lenses that I bought in 1986. I would like to use them with the Novoflex adapter. Can you tell me if they will work at their focal length or is there a crop factor involved? The lenses I have are:
    24mm f 2.8
    35mm f2.8
    50mm f1.8
    85mm f2.0

    • Shawn Lam01-03-2012

      Hi Gerry,
      Thanks for your feedback and glad you found my review informative. That looks like a nice set of fast prime lenses! The crop factor is determined by the size of the camera’s sensor and not by the adapter. On the Sony NEX-FS100, the crop factor for 35mm SLR lenses is 1.5x, meaning your 24mm lens will appear like a 36mm lens. Full frame DSLRs or traditional 35mm film SLR cameras have no crop factor but every other size of camera sensor has a crop factor with SLR lenses.

      It get’s pretty nuts when you have a smaller sensor, like the 1/3″ sensor on the Z5U. While it has a fixed lens, the Z7U that uses the same sensor does allow interchangeable lenses with an adapter. Because the sensor is so small the crop factor is 7x. So your 24mm prime would act like a 168mm prime.

  2. blake peterson01-30-2012

    Hey Shawn,

    Love your articles. Quick question about the Sal 16-50 & 28-70………are iris pulls clicked?…….or can u do cine like iris pulls?

    • Shawn Lam01-30-2012

      Thanks Blake. With the LA-EA1 the iris changes are more than clicked – they go three steps one way and then two back. LA-EA2 requires new firmware before you can change the iris. I’ve also tested on the FotoDiox A to E-mount adapter and there is a little click initially but otherwise smooth. I can’t remember if the MTF adapter had an initial click or not but now that I think of it, I was only able to test a Nikon to e-mount adapter locally.

      • blake peterson01-30-2012

        thanks Shawn, seems everyone is waiting on this new firmware 4 one reason or another, lol

  3. Oren Arieli02-08-2012

    Thanks for your lens tests. I especially thank you for pointing out the parfocal lenses. That information is often hard to find. I’ve got some ‘legacy’ Nikon glass, but have recently beefed up my kit with a variety of inexpensive lenses that have served me well for corporate shoots (haven’t used the FS-100 on a wedding yet).
    I picked up a Nikkor-S 55mm f1.2, which is soft wide open, but gives a very nice look for interviews. Another great find was an Accura Diamatic 105mm f2.5. Great for MCU interviews in larger rooms. My 85mm f1.4 Rokinon just arrived today, and is a bargain priced fast lens.
    Have you tried out the Yashica 70-210 f3.5? I’m hoping it’s parfocal. Otherwise, I might have to get the ‘beercan’.

    • Shawn Lam02-09-2012

      I have not tried the Yashica 70-210 f/3.5 but I bet you the beercan is much nicer for video use. In fact, it has the smoothest zoom off all the dozens of lenses I have tested. I wouldn’t bother trying to gain an extra .5 on the f-stop as it won’t make much difference with a larges sensor camera like the FS100 that has such an impressive exposure lattitude and noise-fee gain.

      There really isn’t much information out there on SLR zoom lenses for large sensor video cameras and there are even fewer options that fit all the criteria that shooters require. It is much easier to find great prime lenses but we can’t shoot everything with primes.

      I was just filming a dance recital last weekend and a two camera shoot requires one normal range 3x zoom (24-70 or 28-75) and one 3x long telephoto zoom (70-210). I filmed everything at f/5.0 instead of a faster f-stop in order to increase the depth of field so that the dancers would be in focus regardless of where they were on stage. A one camera shoot really wants a 4 or 5x lens so for that the Canon 24-105mm f/4.0 (which is parfocal) is a great choice. Minolta also has a similar 28-135mm f/4.0-4.5 lens known as the “secret handshake” that might be a goot fit on the Alpha mount, as long as it is parfocal. I haven’t tested one yet but because it is an older Minolta AF lens and it is almost a fixed-aperture lens, it is more likely to be parfocal than a newer lens that stops-down more.

  4. David Forrester11-19-2012

    I have always wondered that myself. I pay big dollars to acquire Zeiss optics with an almost fanaticism and asking myself: Why? For the same reasons you point out – lower resolving power of a sensor makes this unneccessary. – or does it?

    However there are a few caveats as Hollywood has even more fanaticism than we do – so there must be something in it that needs to be explored further. My thoughts:

    Hollywood will still use film and when compared pixels to film, the resolving power of a normal 35mm stills film (I am assuming the best negative film possible using dyes and not grains) to sensors ranges from 8-25 Mpx depending on who you are talking to. An image from the S35 is cropped by 1.5X thus making 5-20 mpx needed. Now a 4k imager is 8 Mpx where HD is 2 Mpx (if you could get all of that 2 mpx out of it). So why the fuss when you can use a standard camera lens – why pay Zeiss and Canon $20,000 for their new zooms lenses when a Minolta beer can is more than adequate for $100? or the f2.8 is used for $1,000. Tough question.

    My take on it has to do with color or glass consistency between lenses, no breathing when focusing, made for the field toughness, hyper resolving power to get that last bit of clarity and contrast, built in gears in places that don’t move for and aft and the fact that very few are going to be made thus making them costly -yet why the anal precision?

    I also use my lenses for still work and with the 5D, it needs every bit for that great image and sharpness. When checking out the tests by labs, the 16-50 is good, not a run away winner for the pixel peepers. It has barrel distortion at the wide end and is soft in the corners with CA fringing as well. But that is at high magnification of 40x. However, on a silver screen it is the ultimate in high magnification!! But will it work well for the 4k cameras and for stills? Does anyone care about the barrel distortion? will they see CA if taken at f2.8 at 16mm? are they too caught up in the story to really care about lens imperfections? . Hell, the original Micheal Todd epic “Around the World in 80 Days” used a fish-eye effect lens for many shots and there is barrel distortion!! Does perfection really needed to be had to this degree?

    Here is where it becomes a no-brainer. When so desired, the SAL 1650 offers auto follow focus with that wonderful LA Ea2; auto iris; Image stabilization and 3.1 zoom! and sometime, electronic zoom in the future. The tough part is that is won’t fit on a full frame camera like my Canon 5D and has been optimized for the APSC sensor. For still work, I just might have to switch to the Sony A99! And then, it might be a tougher decision.

    I would think however, that the greater concern at this time to be fair, is to find a way to get the resolving power of the FS100 above the 780-800 lines somehow – closer to the magic 1080 pixel thresh hold. That is what is really driving me now. Bypassing the compressed AVCHD codec and going right to a KiPro mini where it cranks out in Proress 422 or DNxHD at 10 bit 422 both at 3-4 degrees of quality – if it truly makes a difference. (It does in post processing work and action stuff). That is the real issue here. I want every bit of that 1080 lines possible. Somewhere, we have lost 300 lines and that is just too much to take. I have seen the F3 images and they are razor sharp. The trick is to approach that if possible.

    Back to the lens? I think – be safe, get the best damn glass you can afford and need for your purposes. If it is only on HD circuit, then these are great and perhaps no lens will outperform it in the real world. If you want stills performance as well, it is not the ultimate – very good, but not tops.

    So complicated, eh?


    If a lens will give any hint of an improvement, then I am in.

    • Shawn Lam11-19-2012

      Great post, David. One small note of corrections: The LA-EA2 adapter does not allow Image Stabilization unless this is built-into the lens, which only a few third party lenses do.

      I agree that if you also want to use your lenses on a full frame camera that a DT or crop sensor lens won’t cut it but the other thing I look at is if the lens is parfocal as I need this for quick focal length changes without having to refocus. For me, I’m not comparing what my lens and FS100 combination can do compared to more expensive video camera and film but to what I used to use, namely camcorders with small 1/3″, 1/2″ and even 2/3″ sensors. The difference is huge and knowing that my stuff will likely never be viewed on screen larger than 70″ (which is huge), I don’t need to resolve it as if it was going on a two story cinema screen.

  5. Nick06-17-2013

    I just stumbled upon this article and it is very useful. Thanks for sharing this info with us. Quick question for you: which Minolta to NEX adapter are you using? I ask because there are several adapters out there, but not all of them are perfectly flanged to allow the Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 to be parfocal.

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