Embrace Photography’s Limits, Perhaps even Make Some

Street Comedian

Street Comedian – San Francisco, CA

In recent years with the advent of digital photography we have seen the limitations of photography expanded at an amazing rate.  The tech-geek in me is thrilled with the new possibilities and I use many of these capabilities in my work flow such as HDR and cameras with expanded ISO and dynamic range.  At the same time I think it is important to draw attention to the fact that much of what makes photography creative is embracing its limitations for artistic expression.  Many photographers including myself will choose to render some or all their image in black and white, limit the images dynamic range or shoot with a fixed lens.  While other photographer go so far as to shoot with retro cameras and film to express their artistic expression.  Why would a photographer want to work within a restrictive environment to produce their art?

One of the challenges of photography is to focus the viewer’s attention on the subject of the photograph, this is often achieved by removing the distractive elements or focusing on aspects of the image that emphasize the subject or point of the image.  This might be the color pallet, tonal range or place in space that the subject occupies.  This is not always accomplished by showing everything in the scene just the way it was. We must make up for the fact that the camera, by itself, cannot isolate a subject the way the eye and brain can.  And a viewer of a two dimensional photograph cannot either without help.

Lisa and the Bear - Burning Man 2012

Lisa and the Bear – Burning Man 2012

Some generas of photography, such as street photography, were shot in black and white long after color became popular and are still often processed in black and white to this day.  This is done to remove an unnecessary element (color) from the image that may distract from the subject. Since the street photographer has little control of the scene, by processing in black and white they make sure the red car or the blue sign do not distract from the subject of the image dressed in drab colors walking down the street.  Black and white is the limitation that can make the picture work.  Portraits are often shot with a very limited depth of field and sometimes soften with a soft focus effect to boot.  Again this is in an effort to remove unnecessary distractions from the photograph.  Sometimes in this world of hyper realistic, color statured imagery an image with low saturation will stand out and be more effective, emphasizing your subject and at the same time implying the color pallet without screaming it.  This can engage the view’s brain in a way an HDR image cannot or set a mood that would be hard to imply otherwise.  In other photos it makes sense to let the shadows go black so they do not distract from the subject.  The same goes with highlight detail, as with shadows, we often go out of our way to shoot RAW format to protect them or spend huge amounts of cash on cameras that have a large dynamic range so that we can capture them, but at times some images benefits from letting the highlights blow out and not play a major role in the image.

I recently purchased a new camera and my first lens for it was a 35mm fix lens (not a zoom), the only lens I had for the camera for several weeks.  It has been a long time since I had a camera with only one focal length.  I was reminded how fun and creative it is to take out just a fix focus lens camera.  It allows you to see the world in that focal length, think in that focal length and compose in that focal length, something that is hard to do when you shoot zooms.  You will find previsualizing images becomes much easier as you learn what subject to frame relationships work best for that lens.  The end results can often surprise you.

Climb - San Francisco, CA

Climb – San Francisco, CA

So, believe it or not you may find that limiting the capabilities of your camera, either at the time of capture or in post, might actually increase your creativity and quality of your final results.  As I am often told by my significant other, ‘Less is More’.

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Sony A7r – Full Frame Goodness Just Arrived – Part 3 and Final Part

This is the third part of a three part series on my first impressions of the Sony A7r Full Frame Mirrorless Camera.

Part 1 can be found here

Part 2 here

Sony A7r

Top down view of the Sony A7r.

One complaint many had with the NEX 7 was the menu system.  Over time I got use to it and was able to make it work for me, but it was not very good. The menu system on the A7r, I have heard resembles the Alpha series, is a great improvement.  I found a few things in odd spots, but for the most part it is well laid out and usable. Once I learn the layout, it should be easy to go to the tab and page and get to the function I want.  The fact that you can bring many of your most used functions out to custom buttons and dials on the interface make it even better.

Sony A7r Menu

The menu of the A7r is a more traditional tab and number pages layout with no endless scrolling menus, which NEX users will appreciate.

In the field the camera is comfortable and usable.  I have quickly adapted to the changes in the user interface and even started taking advantage of some of the new features.  I have yet to get into customizing all of the options, there are a lot, but as I find myself wishing for easy access to something, I will work it out to the custom buttons .  I have already noticed when I pick up the 5D that I miss features of the A7r and miss the cool OLED viewfinder.

It should be noted that a 36-megapixel image is big – upload times, processing times and hard disk space will all feel the impact of this.  You should really consider these things as you consider the price of this new camera.  You will want the fastest computer that you can lay your hands on and want a nice big drive array to store all your beautiful 36-megapixel images, which run about 36 megabytes for a RAW ARW file.  Although you probably will be able to get by with what you have, just know that it will have an impact.   And, do not forget about backups.

I am a RAW shooter as are most people shooting this level of camera. Lightroom (my main image processing software) has a prerelease of the raw processor for the A7r (it is now in its final release, Lightroom version 5.3), so the final version should be out soon.  Lightroom seems to do an amazing job with these files.  They hold together much better than the files from the NEX 7, and perform much more like I have learned to expect from full frame images.

Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8

Yesterday, the day before I was to post this last installment to my review, I received the Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8. Only a week and a half before I expected it. So, how good is it? ISO 100, f2.8, 1/125 of a second.

Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8

It is so good you can read the paper in the photo… despite the dirty glass. This is a 100% crop of the picture above.

Over the years I have been fortunate to have used some very nice pro cameras and have learned that there are reasons you use pro cameras to do commercial work.  They are more reliable, rugged, fast and accurate.   You learn to trust the camera and find that your final product is more consistent and your hit rate is higher.  The question is, is the Sony A7r a Pro camera?  Initially I will have to answer no, but it is well on its way to being close.

For starters, the camera has a solid magnesium alloy body, the camera and lenses are weather sealed, there are those fantastic Zeiss lenses, and then there is that spectacular image quality.  So, the A7r as a great start to being a pro body, but its weaknesses will make some pro photographers hesitant to adapt this as their only camera.

I do not have experience with Sony’s Alpha line of cameras.  I know some feel they are respectable cameras and use them professionally, but I have found the NEX 7 a great walk around camera, travel camera and snap shot camera, but it is far from a pro level camera.  I have used images from it for commercial and stock work, but when I am doing work, generally my current go to camera is the Canon 5D Mark III, which is not REALLY a pro camera either, falls more in the pro-sumer category.  It is very good, but not as good as my older 1Ds Mark II from a performance stand point.  It is just that the 5DIII has better image quality then its predecessors, a compromise I can deal with. Although some pros need top level performance from their cameras, a missed shot is a missed job.   Because of the design of the A7r, the camera is targeting a specific niche, a small high quality image camera. It is obviously not built around speed and Sony had had to make further concession in its auto-focus speed and accuracy.  It too will be a camera that compromises will have to be made, especially if I intend to use it for pro work.  Some of the compromises that Sony has made to hit their target make it not ideal for pro use, but at the same time what they gained by those compromises (size and weight) are exactly what some pros need.

Reno

Downtown Reno. Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8, ISO 200, f8, 1/60 sec.

For starters the focusing is better than the NEX 7, but not on par with pro level cameras I have used.  What I have noticed is that with the 35mm f2.8 it is fast, but it still misses from time to time, something that has frustrated me with the NEX 7.  I think this is a limit of the current technology with contrast detection focusing. I have also found when shooting in low light, low contrast areas that it is a bit hard to find something the camera will lock on to.  This is true of all cameras to some degree.  I have also found that the spot focusing can be a bit hard to focus on a small foreground element such as a twig or leaf, this is something that the pro level focusing in Canon cameras have no problem with.  Although I just found that the camera has three sizes of focusing spot and I had been using the medium size, so perhaps, this will improve things for me.  My initial impression is that the A7r is indeed better in all focusing situations then the NEX 7, but still fall short of the 5D III or Canon 1 series.   I have initially set the camera to focus in the center as I am used to doing the focus and recompose the method of shooting.  I will experiment with the other modes soon.

Motel Signs

Motel Signs on West Street, Reno, NV. Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8, ISO 160, f10, 1/60 sec.

So far I have been pretty impressed with the metering, if anything it has a slight tenancy to under expose.  The snow can really through it off, although not sure there is a camera that will not do that.  The other place that I have found the camera seems to perform well is Auto White Balance.  I have noticed it going a bit cool in evening light with a lot of snow, but this too is not unusual or undesirable.  I tend not to worry too much about this since I shoot RAW and tend to do some finally adjustments in post.  This is not to say accurate white balance is not important, it can really make or break a shot.  And if you are an event photographer you probably do not want to make fine tune adjustments to white balance for 500 images.  I think you will find the A7r will do well and you will find little or no adjustment in white balance will be needed in normal shooting conditions.

White Balance Test

This is a case where I tried to intentinally fool the white balance by taking a photo of this copper door. The top was set to auto white balance the bottom was set to daylight. As you can see there is some difference, but overall the camera did well in an almost impossible situation.

Sony claims the camera is dust and weather sealed.  I have not tested this, although I saw video review by funny man Kai (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUJc83wV6iA) where he poured water over the camera as he shot photos… It survived.  This is an area where the NEX 7 did particularly poor for me and the Canon Pro line has always done well.  I had to send my NEX 7 back to Sony to get the dust out of it after some shooting in a particularly hostile environment.

A7r Shutter

This GIF shows the way the shutter must close, reopen for the exposure, then close, rearm and reopen again for the Live View. This is a slow motion shot of a 1/2 second exposure.

The shutter may be the biggest fail from a professional standpoint.  Sony for whatever reason had to add a physical first curtain shutter to this camera, something the other Sony mirrorless cameras have not needed, due to the use of a silent electronic first curtain shutter.  The idea is that when focusing and composing, the shutter is open and the sensor is exposed for live view.  When you press the shutter release the exposure starts.  This can be handled in two ways, the shutter can close and then open to start the exposure or as with the NEX and A7 cameras they can do this electronically making for a silent very fast shutter release, and only use the physical trailing curtain shutter to complete the exposure.  Well for some reason, the 36 mp sensor that Sony used is unable to perform this little magic and must use the physical first curtain shutter as described.  This makes for a somewhat lethargic, long and a slightly noisy sounding shutter release (see video).  The question is, where in this whole sound does the exposure take place, how much lag is there.  Pro cameras stand out because they have very little shutter lag.  For my kind of shooting this is not a deal breaker, but if you shoot weddings, or fast motion objects, this might not be ideal.  This, along with the fact that it can only do a leisurely 4 frames per second in continuous fire mode, may make it a poor fit for some photographers.  In my case I don’t use continues mode very often.  I use it so infrequently I had to look up what the 5D III would do, and it is 6 fps, not much faster when you consider some pro cameras are doing 10 fps and more.

Another omission that most pros like is a PC port for driving a flash system; sadly the A7r is missing this too, although it is probably possible to drive this with the hot shoe adapter on top.  Speaking of flashes, this camera does not have a built in flash like the rest of the NEX series.  Not a big problem for most pros, but to be honest I occasionally flipped it up for fill flash on the NEX 7. I will probably have to purchase one of Sony’s dedicated flashes. It should also be noted that manual flash sync speed is a slow 1/160 of a second.  The Sony flashes do have a High-Speed Sync mode that will allow shutter speeds much faster. On the positive side, the A7r will use Sony’s Multi port shutter release – Yah! The NEX line has only worked with IR remotes.  So in summery on the pro issue, the A7r in my humble opinion does not live up to the expectations of many pro photographers as a primary pro camera, but I bet a lot of pros will use it, it is the best in class in my opinion.  The image quality and size will make many overlook its few annoyances and use it for some types of shooting.  I do not think Sony was specifically targeting the pro shooter as a primary camera, but I think it makes an outstanding secondary camera.

Great Dynamic Range

The dynamic range of this camera feel really good, it seems to continue to exceed my expectation in what it can do. In this images I was pretty sure I blew the sky out, but with little effort in Lightroom I was able to keep a little color in the sky and get nice light on the people in the shadows. A7r, Zeiss 55mm f1.8, ISO 125, f8, 1/100 sec.

After my first two outings with this camera I pulled images up on the screen and I must say they were impressive.  Both outings were in by no means the best lighting situation.  The first was Downtown Reno after picking up the camera at UPS around 10:15 pm.  It was about 10 degrees f out and… dark.  I attached the Zeiss 35mm f2.8, threw a battery in and a card, figured out how to set the camera on RAW+JPG and went out and shot.  The second outing was just after sunset, up in Hunter Creek to shoot the snow and ice. As it happens the weather has not been good since I picked up the camera, so in both cases the conditions were far from ideal.  Despite this the camera did admirably well.  I brought the RAW files up in Lightroom 5.3 RC (a release candidate that has the RAW converter for the A7 and A7r) and was really impressed.  The sharpness and detail are evident on the screen.  Enlarging an image to 100% yields an image that looks great, unlike many high pixel count cameras, they are sharp and contrasty. The pixel level detail of this camera with the Zeiss 35mm is amazing.  I could post a 100% crop on the Internet and I think you would be hard pressed to tell it was not a full frame image.  Very little sharpening is necessary, color quality and contrast are great and the camera seems to control noise at a pixel level as good or better than the 5D III (more tests will need to be done here – this is a first impression).  For web output you can get OK results at 25,600 ISO, mainly because you have so much data to work with.  I think this will also work well for some print.  The camera’s auto ISO (yes I use auto ISO at times) goes to 6400 and that is a large range that produces amazing results. Putting this camera in aperture priority and auto ISO is a joy to shoot, you can really rely on the camera to keep up with almost anything.  I am not really reviewing the lens, but the Zeiss 35mm lives up to my memories of Zeiss optics, and is the easy rival of my Canon Prime L glass.

Weddings and Tattoos

As I took the A7r out to do some street photography today I was very aware of how loud it is, especially after do my tests for the video. Not really loud, maybe not even louder then my other camera, just a long distinct shutter sound that feels like it would draw attention. You are probably not going to sneak many street photography shots with this camera. A7r, Zeiss 55mm f1.8, ISO 125, f8, 1/125 sec.

In summary, you will NOT be seeing this camera on eBay anytime soon. It is a keeper.  I am sure I will overcome most of the user interface dislikes and I am finding I am already liking many of its features. Every camera I have owned has had some challenging things I do not like, but with the possible exception of the menu button, I think I will come to grips with most of the issues I have with the A7r.  I am used to the focusing limitations with the NEX 7 and its contrast detection focusing  and already know I can live with it, although I welcome improvements that the A7r are already showing.   I will be watching reviews of the A7 and its phase detection focusing to hear if it lives up to what people are hoping for, a more DSLR speed focusing.  I hope this will be in my next mirrorless.  In the mean time, for most of my shooting this will work.

A7r vs 5D III Test Shot

This is a test shot I set up for the Sony A7r with the Zeiss 55mm f1.8 and Canon 5D III with the 50mm f1.2L . I move the Canon up a bit to compensate for the slightly wider lens. Exposure was f11, 1/3 second, ISO 100 on a tripod.

These are 100% crops of the test image above from the Canon 5D III with 50mm f1.2L on the right and Sony A7r with Zeiss 55mm f1.8 on the left.  You can see that the Sony with the Zeiss lens is sharper on a smaller portion of the image because of the more resolution of the camera. The cheaper camera with the cheaper lens wins.

These are 100% crops of the test image above from the Canon 5D III with 50mm f1.2L on the right and Sony A7r with Zeiss 55mm f1.8 on the left. You can see that the Sony with the Zeiss lens is sharper on a smaller portion of the image because of the more resolution of the camera. The cheaper camera with the cheaper lens wins.

This camera is ALL about image quality and size. The image quality is the best I have ever seen from a camera I have owned, and I have owned some nice cameras. I am looking forward to shooting more with this camera to see what its strengths and limits are.  So, as a secondary camera, a walk around camera or a travel camera I can recommend the Sony A7r with little or no reservations as long as you are comfortable with its limitations, price and the price of the lenses needed to make it perform.  Do wait for those lenses to come out if you do not own NEX E-Mount lenses or some classic legacy glass.  I can recommend this as a primary camera if you are aware of its limits and you’re sure it will work with your shooting style, such as landscape photography.  I think if you shoot a lot of action and motion, and need an accurate fast camera, you will be disappointed.  But if you are primarily a landscape photographer, street photographer or shooting things that don’t move too fast, you should be pretty happy with this camera.  If you are like me and hike, backpack, travel or just want a light high performance camera, this is a brilliant solution, I really do not think it gets much better.

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Sony A7r – Full Frame Goodness Just Arrived – Part 2

Part 1 is here

Part 3 is here

This is part 2 of a 3 part article on my first impressions of the Sony A7r Mirrorless Full Frame Camera.

I am not in love this this camera's looks, but looks are not everything.

I am not in love this this camera’s looks, but looks are not everything.

Can you judge a book by its cover? The brutal honesty is that when SonyAlphaRumors.com first started posting the rumored design (which they nailed) of the new full-framed NEX 9 (they did not nail the name), I was not impressed.  I did not like the sharp edges or the fake pentaprism viewfinder… in the middle of the camera no less!  Was that an attempt to be retro designed?  I had grown pretty fond of the progressive designed NEX 7, including its left oriented viewfinder and TriNavi three-wheel control.  I felt the new camera had none of this!  I must admit that the left oriented viewfinder was not ideal for everyone.  My significant other is a left eye dominate person and it took a bit of getting use to how to hold the camera.   Furthermore the TriNavi is not so much gone, as reconfigured.  The A7r has plenty of nobs, dials and buttons to make it theoretically usable… the trick will be if I can find a configuration that I can feel comfortable with, after all, this is what is important.  As I take it out of the box siting in Downtown Reno, I still am not in love with its looks.  This does not bother me much.  Beyond the self-esteem boost of holding Canon 1 series with a nice long white L lens looking like a rock star, a cameras looks don’t help you take better pictures.  This is something that I think Nikon is going to find out with their new light on feature, expensive, 16 mp, but stylish retro Nikon Df.

This was taken at ISO 6400 f5.6 1/50 sec with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8.  The camera performs very well, on par with my Canon 5D Mark III in low light.

This was taken at ISO 6400 f5.6 1/50 sec with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8. The camera performs very well, on par with my Canon 5D Mark III in low light.

With the goal of having the perfect carry around camera, the NEX 7 still has one big advantage – price.  The NEX 7 is about $1000 cheaper.  One of my criteria for having a carry around camera is that if I were to lose it, it gets stolen or I drop it into the _____ (fill in the blank – Ocean, lake, Grand Canyon…) I will not be destitute. This actually happened a while back with my NEX 7 when someone smashed our car window and snatched my camera bag (NEX 7 and three lenses) and my iPad right in front of a Denny’s on a road trip.  This hurt, but was survivable, even more so since insurance helped out.  But if this had been an A7r and three Zeiss Lenses, I might not have been so… calm.  So, the price issue is a BIG issue and one I have not entirely come to grips with in how the A7r is going to fit into my camera needs and usage. I am considering keeping my NEX 7, which has me owning more cameras than I probably need and might be a bit confusing when I go to grab a camera for a trip.  I am guessing this will work its self out as I figure out which camera is not being used. It should be noted on the other hand, that when the A7r is compared to the Nikon D800, D800e and Canon 5D Mark III, it’s priced very well, especially considering it has unique offerings in this category of cameras.

A7r has arguably the best sensor in a camera (along with the D800e) for under $10,000 and the only 36-megapixel pro level sensor in a camera that nearly fits in your pocket.  That coupled with Sony Zeiss and Sony G lenses, should equal image quality that is hard to match at any price.  The saying, ‘The best camera, is the one you have with you’ has a much better outcome when that camera is an A7r over an iPhone.    The question is, if I choose to shelf the price issue (at least for now) can I use this camera to make good photographs?  It takes more than a great sensor to make great images.

ISO 200, f5.0 1/10 sec with the Zeiss SonnarT* FE 35mm f2.8.  This lens and sensor combo create some spectacular detail if you us good camera techniques.

ISO 200, f5.0 1/10 sec with the Zeiss SonnarT* FE 35mm f2.8. This lens and sensor combo create some spectacular detail if you us good camera techniques.

Since I broached the subject of lenses, let’s dive in.  The A7r/A7 are E-Mount cameras, same mount as the NEX line. But, the current NEX lenses for the most part, only produce an image large enough to cover an APS size sensor, the sensor in the NEX 3, 5, 6 and 7.  So for the A7 series Sony is releasing E-Mount FE lenses that covers the full frame of the sensor.  Currently there are only two out, the Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm f2.8 ZA (the one I am using) and the Sony 28-70mm f3.5-5.6.  The 28-70mm zoom is being released as a kit lens for the A7, but most reports warn not to use it on the A7r, because it does not have the resolution for the sensor, or at least it will not take full advantage of the sensor.  A 55mm Zeiss lens is due within the month and early next year a Zeiss 24-70mm f4 zoom is expected.  The Canon 24-70mm f2.8 II is my most used lens, so I am really looking forward to this Zeiss version, it will really start making this body usable for me.  Sony is reported to have an aggressive release schedule in the works to get lenses out for these cameras.  But that does not help much if you have an A7r body now. The compromise is that you can put the older APS NEX lenses on your A7r, and use them in a cropped mode (using only the APS size of the sensor) producing a 15 mp image (4800×3200 pixels) or in a full frame mode that creates an image circle with most of these lenses that you can crop in post as you see fit.  In initial tests the crop mode worked flawlessly and from a functionality point of view you really don’t feel like you put an APS lens on the camera.  But, if you do not own NEX lenses, you might want to wait on the sidelines a little, until enough lenses come out that meet your needs.  I’m not saying the 35mm isn’t nice lens, as a matter of fact, it’s AMAZING, just maybe a bit limiting for some.

This is the A7r and the NEX 7 right next to each other, you can see that mount is the same, but the sensors are very much different.  What do you think, do you think Sony planned to put a FF sensor in the E-Mount?  Looks pretty tight.

This is the A7r and the NEX 7 right next to each other, you can see that mount is the same, but the sensors are very much different. What do you think, do you think Sony planned to put a FF sensor in the E-Mount? Looks pretty tight. The A7r distinguishes it FE mount by making the outside red.

If you turn the crop mode off when you mount an APS NEX lens on the A7r you can see the resulting image circles. Here are three examples, the two on the left are from the Sony 10-18mm, which can be made to almost fill out the full frame in the middle focal lengths. The 28-200mm I does a little less spectacularly. But they both work great in cropped mode producing a good 15 mp image.

If you turn the crop mode off when you mount an APS NEX lens on the A7r you can see the resulting image circles. Here are three examples, the two on the left are from the Sony 10-18mm, which can be made to almost fill out the full frame in the middle focal lengths. The 28-200mm I does a little less spectacularly. But they both work great in cropped mode producing a good 15 mp image.

The final options is lenses from other systems. Because the A7r has such a short distance from the mount to the sensor you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in what you mount on it.  There is plenty of room to mount an adapter for almost any kind of lens including much cherished Leica rangefinder lenses. This, if you wish to go down this path, opens up a wide range of options and experience.  I will state right from the start that I really am not drawn to this path as my goal with this camera is a walk around, travel and hiking camera. And I am looking for size, weight and convenience (i.e. auto focus) in this type of camera.  With that said I have experimented with Canon FD and EOS lenses on the NEX and they should work on the A7r even better since they are full frame lenses.  Most of these adapters put the lens completely in manual mode, so you will have to set the aperture and focus and the camera can set the shutter speed or work it completely in manual mode.  The A7r has a few tricks up it sleeve for helping with focusing.  It has an auto zoom mode that will zoom the view finder in as it sense you are focusing the lens, this is great help in focusing on your subject.  The second trick is a thing called Focus Peak.  This is a tool that highlights what is in focus with red, white or yellow color.  The combination can help in allowing you to focus manual focus lenses surprisingly fast.

This is the Canon EOS 16-35 f2.8L on the Sony A7r with the Metabones adapter.  This is actually and old adapter for the NEX, but it gives you and idea of size and that it does work.

This is the Canon EOS 16-35 f2.8L II on the Sony A7r with the Metabones adapter. This is actually and old adapter for the NEX, but it gives you and idea of size and that it does work.

The two exceptions to the manual focus limitation are the Sony A-mount adapters that will drive Sony  lenses for their DSLR line completely, aperture and autofocus.  Metabones also has an EOS adapter that will mount Canon EOS EF lenses on the A7r in full frame mode and also work the aperture, image stabilization and in some cases autofocus (it is warned on the web site that the autofocus is slow).  Although this is novel and I am not saying I won’t try it, it is not my first plane.  For starters Canon full frame lenses with an adapter become pretty big.  Although, I was a bit tempted when I heard Gordon Laing of Cameralabs.com talking about using a Nikon 14-24mm on it.  For the most part I am looking forward to the Sony e-mount FE lenses. This should make for a very portable high quality shooting machine.

The image quality this camera can produce keeps impressing me.  This was taken in shadow late after noon sun with the camera held out in front of me at arms length.   ISO 320, f16, 1/60.

The image quality this camera can produce keeps impressing me. This was taken in shadow late after noon sun with the camera held out in front of me at arms length. ISO 320, f16, 1/60.

One negative comment I’ve seen repeated is on the price of the FE lenses.  Many have said they are expensive.  It is true, they are expensive when compared to consumer lenses for Micro 4/3 or less expensive Nikon or Canon lenses for APS sensor cameras, but they are on the affordable side of the pro level full frame lenses like Canon’s L lenses or Zeiss’s line of lenses for 35mm.  The thing to keep in mind is that many people who purchased the Nikon 36 mp D800 have found their lenses can’t keep up with the sensor.  I have heard more than one person say they will now need to buy all new glass for that camera.  For Sony to put out a 36 megapixel camera they are going to have to put out top notch lenses that resolve with enough resolution to take advantage of the sensor and make it look good.  I can tell you from my experience in the film days when I shot Contax and Hasselblad, Zeiss makes some incredible lenses.  And Sony’s G lenses are well thought of also.   These lenses will be expensive but should be top quality, and you would want nothing less or you might as well buy a less expensive lower resolution system.

This was actually an HDR processed with the HDRSofts Merge To 32Bit and processed in Lightroom.  The added detail takes a bit longer, but looks stunning in the final image.

This was actually an HDR processed with the HDRSofts Merge To 32Bit and processed in Lightroom. The added detail takes a bit longer, but looks stunning in the final image.

I have also heard complaints that the initial planned lens offerings, (which are for the most part f2.8 to f4 lenses) are not very fast.  The critics on one side who are saying the lenses are expensive also want faster lenses.  It should be noted that fast lenses are even more expensive and are also big and heavy.  And for a fast lens to cover a full frame sensor, it would have to be almost as big as DSLR lenses.  My Canon 50mm f1.2L is a large heavy lens and would totally destroy most of the size/weight advantage the A7r camera has.  Sony is obviously making an effort to walk a thin line of price, size, quality and functionality, at least with its initial offerings.  You can bitch all you want, but they have produced a camera that is so unique and hits that mark, as a result it will probably be the benchmark for this kind of camera for years to come.  For me personally I like to shoot zooms. Yes, I can hear you cringe, but for my shooting style and subject, I find that high quality zooms work best for much of my shooting.  This is not to say I do not have primes, I do.  I use them and I do enjoy their superior quality.  I’m looking forward to the Zeiss 24-70mm f4, 70-200mm G and the rumored wide zoom.  Especially with a carry around camera, zooms allow me to get the most range coverage in the smallest bag.  With that said the Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f2.8 that I have now with this camera may be the sharpest lens I own.

This is the Canon 5D Mark III with the 50mm f1.2L compared t the Sony A7r with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8.

This is the Canon 5D Mark III with the 50mm f1.2L compared t the Sony A7r with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8.

The size of the A7r did not strike me like it did some others because I have been using the NEX 7 for some time.  The A7r is just a smidgen bigger than the NEX 7 and substantially smaller than the 5DIII.  But it must be said, this is an incredibly small camera for what it has packed into it.  It is also light when compared to a pro-sumer DSLR.  This is another place that Sony walked a very thin line – The camera is small and light, but feels substantial.  The A7r with the Zeiss 35mm weighs in at 1.3 lbs. (545 g). The A7r has much more magnesium used in the body than the A7 making the camera a bit heavier and stiffer… and I hope more rugged.  It is very comfortable to wear around my neck.  Sony has a new thinker neck strap for the A7r over the thin NEX strap, which is good.   One disappointment I have is that the NEX 5 hung lens down, it was how they positioned the neck strap lugs.  I really liked this, it made carrying and hiking with the NEX 5 really nice.  But Sony did not follow through with this on the NEX 7 or now the A7 series so it is back to the lens sticking out in front of you.  Bummer!  For some reason I also find the next strap flipping over the viewfinder on both the A7r and the NEX 7. This was not a problem I recall having with my Canon cameras.

This shows some examples of weight - The A7r with 35mm at 1.2 lbs, Canon 5D III with 50mm f1.2 (admittedly a heavy lens) at 3.5 lbs, and the NEX 7 with Kit lens at 1.2 lbs.

This shows some examples of weight – The A7r with 35mm at 1.2 lbs, Canon 5D III with 50mm f1.2 (admittedly a heavy lens) at 3.5 lbs, and the NEX 7 with Kit lens at 1.2 lbs.

 

I have medium size hands and find that the camera and its grip fit adequately.   My fingers and thumb can find the appropriate buttons and dials with a little or no effort, it is much easier to use when the camera is supported with the other hand.  Some of the controls were almost intuitive, especially after using the NEX, while others take some time to find with my eye at the viewfinder.  I feel that someone with big hands might find this camera a bit of a challenge to use, but small to medium handed people will probably find this a good fit.

I was pretty concerned about the control layout.  As I said, I really liked the NEX 7 layout or at least I thought I did.  The A7r has changed quite a few control elements, but after looking at the manual for a while I have come to the conclusion that they have everything covered if not more so.  In this case, more might not be better, although it might make the camera fit different styles of shooting.  The problem seems as though the camera was designed by committee and might have fallen victim to a few committee level compromises.  I think the best example of this might be exposure compensation.  There is actually a multitude of places you can set exposure compensation including a dedicated dial on the right side of the camera.  Besides the dial, you can set the front or back dial to do exposure composition and you can also do it from the LCD interface on the back in a few different ways.  Besides all of the options there are a few idiosyncrasies to this.  For one, the dedicated dial on the camera only goes from -3 to +3 stops, and these are marked on the dial and have a tick to set it to.  This can make it interesting if you have the dial set to plus 1, but then start using a soft dial (non-marked) or the back interface to change exposure compensation… The dedicated dial then might not reflect how the camera is actually exposing the image.  To make it even more interesting the electronic interface allows for -5 to +5 confusing the -3 to +3 on the dial.  There is also a menu item that allows you to make the changes to the exposure compensation add up or reset when you change the dedicated dial… I chose the reset method.  I am a bit concerned that I might make a mistake here and I think I will have to give my procedures a real thinking.  Other than this and some duplicated functionality, I found the camera fairly intuitive and configurable over all, although, I have not determined a final configuration – it has two configurable dials (front and back) and three configurable buttons along with the down position on the back control wheel.  This allows you to pull a lot of functionality forward so that you do not have to dig through the menus.  This was one of the saving graces for the NEX 7.

Almost all the controls on the camera are on the right side.  The is now a front and rear control dial along with a dedicated exposure compensation and mode dial.  The rear of the camera has the same multi-directional dial as the NEXs used.

Almost all the controls on the camera are on the right side. The is now a front and rear control dial along with a dedicated exposure compensation and mode dial. The rear of the camera has the same multi-directional dial as the NEXs used.

As I began to use the A7r I realized that I often did have a problem distinguishing the two dials on the back of the NEX 7 without looking.  The front back dial positions on the A7r is actually better.  Most of the other little things I have written off to the fact that I will need to get use to them. Although one button is in an odd spot and I have already decided I do not like its position and that is the Menu button.  It is the only control on the camera that is on the left side of the camera (where the viewfinder SHOULD have been).  I just find it odd and not intuitive.  Since you can control most of the interface on the camera with your thumb or finger on the right hand, you have to use your other hand or move your hand to hit the menu button when you wish to back out of something.  Perhaps I will get use to this.  I have also come to the conclusion I like the physical mode dial.  It allows you to quickly see what mode the camera is in and quickly change it.

One new great addition is the two configurable mode positions.  Canon and Nikon have done this and I know many have hoped it would make its way to the NEX line.  This allows you to program the camera in a specific way and save it to be accessed when you move the mode dial to ‘1’ or ‘2’.  I have used this to quickly set up HDR bracketing and long exposure self-timer.

Sony has changed up the feel of the dials, which is another feature that has pluses and minuses.  The NEX 7 was easy to use since the dials were very easy to turn, but the challenge came when I often turned a dial without intending it and only realized it after I ruined an image or two.  The dials on the A7r are much stiffer and will reduce this problem, but at the same time it makes the camera a little harder to use.  I was out the other day in near freezing temperatures and had gloves on.  The dials were a challenge, but almost any camera becomes harder to use with gloves.  I feel I will get use to them and know I will appreciate the fact they will not get unintentionally changed quite so easy.

The SD Card Slot is in a more traditional place and it is much easier to get the card in and out then in the NEX's battery compartment.

The SD Card Slot is in a more traditional place and it is much easier to get the card in and out then in the NEX’s battery compartment.

Thankfully Sony moved the SD card slot to its own little compartment just below you’re right palm.  This is a welcome change over the cramped space it was in next to the battery in the NEX 7.  Since I mentioned battery, it should be noted that the battery is the same one used in the NEX 7 and my initial sense tells me that it does not quite last as long.  I felt that NEX 7 was at the minimum of acceptable battery life getting in about 400 images; the A7r seems to be closer to the 300 mark.  Don’t leave home without a spare battery.  I should mention that I have been using the camera in sub-freezing temperatures, which is brutal on Lithium Ion batteries, so this might improve.

The new location to the movie button is welcome.  The button on the NEX 7 was always being hit and the new firmware that turns it off is only a half solutions.  So far I have yet to accidentally hit the movie button on the A7r.  The A7r also has a dedicated movie mode and you can configure the movie button to work only in this mode, which sounds good, but I have yet to try it.

I have found after looking at several outings of images that the dynamic range appears to be very good.  I am using Lightroom 5.3 with RAW support for the A7r and it seems to pull in detail in highlights and shadows the NEX could not and might be as good if not better than the 5D.

I have found after looking at several outings of images that the dynamic range appears to be very good. I am using Lightroom 5.3 with RAW support for the A7r and it seems to pull in detail in highlights and shadows the NEX could not and might be as good if not better than the 5D. ISO 500, f11, 1/60 with Zeiss 35mm.

The following two items are things I am surprised to find myself writing – first I find that I can use the LCD as a viewfinder, and at times, find the tilt viewfinder very handy (same tilt as the NEX).  I often use it on a tripod when the camera is in an awkward position.  The A7r, so far, appears to have a bright enough LCD to use in the daylight and by tilting the LCD you can reduce the glare, but there is also a sunny day mode that can be activated on a custom button.  The second thing I REALLY like is the OLED viewfinder in the A7r.  I think we might be at a point that the benefits of the electric viewfinder might outweigh the disadvantages.  The A7r’s viewfinder is really good.  And that along with all the things you can make it do really makes it a contender with optical viewfinders.  Just for starters, the What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) can be a lifesaver.  You see your exposure and if you want you can add zebra stripes to the blowout areas.  You can add a histogram, level, exposure info and more.  You can make the viewfinder zoom when manually focusing and you can have it show, with peak focus, what is in focus, something that people who shoot legacy lenses have raved about.  And finally, you can see depth of field.  Not the dark squinty eye DOF of the DOF preview on a SLR, but real depth of field on a properly exposed image.  Where the OLED viewfinder becomes less fun is in really low light situations, although I have found in this case that the A7r’s viewfinder does better than the NEX 7.  This is going to take more testing, but I might be an electric viewfinder convert.

The tiltable LCD screen is bight and contrasty and works very well for both review and shooting.

The tiltable LCD screen is bight and contrasty and works very well for both review and shooting.

Part Three

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Sony A7r – Full Frame Goodness Just Arrived – Part 1

This is part one of a three part article.

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

The A7r is the second camera in a row that I have been excited to buy that Sony has put out.  In some ways I half expected Canon or Nikon to lure me back to their camp by now with some magically better version of a small form factory camera, but neither seems to have figured out what photographers want in a small camera. Keep in mind Canon, Zeiss and Leica did well in providing film versions of these small cameras in the past.   And now Canon and Nikon have only offered us interchangeable lens point and shoots, in my opinion.  The mistake is that Canon and Nikon are still under the impression (or want to believe) that the mirrorless cameras are for the photographer that wants to step up from point and shoot and all real photographers want big DSLRs.  But in my humble opinion it is more for the serious photographer that wants a walk around, travel or lighter camera.   I can voice this by saying that I had been waiting for the camera that is small enough and affordable enough to carry around with me all the time, but with a minimal sacrifice to image quality or functionality.  If I get the opportunity for the photo of a lifetime, I do not want the cameras functionality or image quality to be the limiting factor.  Its value is increased for me as you consider that I like to hike, backpack and travel. Many speculate that Canon and Nikon are in fear of cutting into their DSLR sales by producing a high quality mirrorless camera, but if they don’t, Sony looks all too willing to take it.

Sony A7r – Full Fame Mirrorless Camera

After I spent years of researching, testing and waiting for a great walk around camera, Sony was listening and came out with the NEX line.  I started with the NEX 5, which was good, but I could not deal with the lack of viewfinder and was hoping for more from the sensor. It did not quite meet my quality needs.  Sony then announced the NEX 7.  This was the camera I was waiting for.  Its size, weight, price and image quality fit my need ideally.  It still is an amazing camera and in most ways still meets these needs.  Also, in the past few years the Sony line has filled out with some nice glass, making it an even better solution.  Little did I know that Sony would be tempting me again with a new offering, and so soon.  Like myself, many Sony fans were expecting and NEX 7 II (or ‘r’ or something) with an APS size senor, and what we got was beyond most of our dreams.  The A7r, on paper, is a camera that fits almost all of the requirements of a dream walk around camera, but with a sensor that is not just good for a walk around camera, but in almost all cases exceeds the quality of the best DSLRs that are currently being offered.

I am not going to list all the specs of this camera here or do a full exhaustive review, I assume if you are reading this you have at least heard of the camera – a full list of specifications can be found here – http://www.dpreview.com/products/sony/slrs/sony_a7r/specifications.  I will talk about the features that I think are significant.  It should also be noted, I am not one to do strict scientific tests; I am using the camera and seeing how it works for me and have done some simple test to show things that I think are noteworthy.  There are plenty of people with the equipment, skill and patience for doing the full on testing.  For me what is important is how the camera works for the type of shooting and routine I have.  It is also important how images look to me and work for my final output.  I am much less concerned that DxO says it has 14.2 Evs of dynamic range, than how the images look after I process them.  My goal is to make a very down to earth view of this camera. I will also draw some comparisons between it and my other two cameras, the NEX 7 and the Canon 5D Mark III.

Here is a size comparison of the Canon 5D Mark III with a 50mm f1.2L, Sony A7r with Zeiss 35mm f2.8 and the Sony NEX 7 with 18-55mm kit lens.

As you probably know Sony released two A7 series cameras, the A7r (36 mp FF) and the A7 (24 mp FF).  I chose the A7r because it had the 36 megapixel sensor that many believed was the same or at least very similar to the senor in the Nikon D800e (which is believed to be made by Sony), a camera I know from friends who own it and from many reviews that say it is a great sensor.  The 24 megapixel A7 is close enough in resolution to my current NEX 7 and 5D III that I was hoping for something a bit more in my next camera, although, like I said above, I thought it would come from Canon.  In addition Sony’s past 24 megapixel sensors did not have the hoopla that their (Nikon’s) 36 mp sensor received.  My logic might have been flawed and I simply might have gone with the false lure of megapixels, but as the first tests have been coming out, it appears I made the right decision. The primary difference in the two cameras for me in the specs, other than the sensor, that might have shifted me to the A7 over the A7r was the on sensor phase detection focusing, which in theory would make for faster more accurate focusing, more like DSLR level focusing. This is important and a gripe I have with the NEX 7, with which the contrast detection focusing leaves a bit to be desired.  Although many first hand reports have seen that both cameras are a step up from the NEX 7 and only seem to have a modest if any difference in focus speed between the two.  Nothing I have read has said it was a huge difference.  I would have liked to see Phase Detection focusing on the A7r, but if I had to choose, I will go with the sensor.  The second thing would be hi-ISO noise control.  The lower 24 mp full frame sensor should on paper do better since it has more room for the individual photo sites, but the 36 mp give post processing noise reduction more to work with.  The A7r’s sensor also has gapless pixel lenses, which will offset some of the A7’s advantage. I think, as has been stated by other first hand reports, it is probably a wash with a little advantage going to the A7 at the highest ISOs.  Again, I will have to side with the 36 megapixel sensor.  With these two things out of the way, I would prefer the beauty of 36 mp when shooting in normal situations.  The higher resolution for me is flexibility, especially if it comes at little or no cost of image quality.   So for now, you can see I went with the resolution and we will see in time if that was the right choice.  This article is on the A7r, I do not have an A7 to compare it with and again, there are several side-by-side comparisons out there.

I picked up my A7r this past Thursday evening only a month and a half after being announced; much better than the NEX 7 which took Sony nearly 6 months to get in people’s hands. I know many others are waiting to see if this camera can possibly live up to our expectations.  My experience with the NEX 7 allowed me to order this camera without hesitation.  As a matter of fact I ordered it within 10 minutes of its official announcement, staying up till midnight to do it.  Many of my thoughts and feelings about this camera have already been thought out before I ordered it, due to the fact that I have been reading about and studying this camera from the point it was rumored over nine months ago.  So this article is a lot about seeing if this camera lives up to my expectations.

Part II

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Martin Evening’s The Lightroom Catalog

Martin Evening is a writer and photographer that wrote one of the first Lightroom books I ever read and is the author of The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Book, which I can personally recommend. He just posted a good article on DPReview.com about the Lightroom Catalog and compared it to file browser based image viewers such as Bridge.  The article goes on to cover metadata such as keywords and EXIF data.  He finishes off with more information about the Lightroom Catalog file.  This is a really good read for anyone that uses or is thinking about using Adobe Lightroom. http://www.dpreview.com/articles/2252058931/the-lightroom-catalog/2

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