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Sony α7R; a Second Look

In May, I did a brief “review” of my new, Sony α7R camera, after some limited use during my recent Ireland Trip. I noted there, that I have made a rather complete changeover from Nikon DSLR gear to the Sony mirrorless system. This is a bit like jumping off a cliff and I am still in “free fall, at the moment.” There were really two components to this change. I have, for years, carried at least 2 camera bodies, for different reasons. In the film days, it was common for me to carry both bodies, each loaded with a different film for different uses. I would also often have different lenses mounted on each so I could “react” to situations.

I am still in “Free Fall”

As my photography got more streamlined and deliberate, and as I moved into digital, I was less likely to carry the two “locked and loaded,” so-to-speak, and usually just had a “backup” along in case of an emergency. Because of the considerable cost of owning more than one DSLR body, I often had a “mix and match” of a DSLR and a Point and Shoot, or a FF DSLR and an APS backup, or something similar. And, I often found that the backup became a dust-gathering door stop (i.e., when I carried the D800 and a D7000 backup – the D7000 was a wonderful camera that, unfortunately, didn’t get much use). So part of the changeover involved the first step of acquiring (in lieu of the D7000) a Sony mirrorless camera that was nearly Point and Shoot size, but would – in a pinch – accommodate my Nikkor lenses (albeit without their AF capability). With that change, I was right at the edge of the cliff. I used it and loved it and before long, I was jumping.

I used it and loved it and before long, I was jumping

But back to the “free fall.” I sold the D800 and “pro” zoom lenses and “traded” for the Sony α7R “full frame” mirrorless, and a pair of “pro-quality” zooms to nearly match the Nikkor lenses. I don’t use “nearly” qualitatively – it is simply that there is no way to make the proverbial “apples—to—apples” comparison. I would expect the Zeiss designed 24-70 to be at least the equivalent of the Nikkor in terms of image quality.  I don’t have enough experience with the Sony “pro” quality lenses to know, but one would hope that they have gained from their experience working with Zeiss.  My comparison was more the “range” of these lenses.  And, of courses, it is difficult to favorably compare f4 lenses with f2.8 lenses.

At the time of this writing, I still haven’t really had a chance to give the α7R an intensive “workout.” That happens, more often than not, when I make a dedicated trip to one of my favorite, and familiar photo destinations and have a little “alone time,” with the gear. But in the meantime, I continue to study and experiment with the camera. One of the things I really miss in our “digital” world is the ability to go to a bookstore camera section and browse the “about” books. I really miss the Magic Lantern Series. There are now 3 books on the α7/α7R series written in English (and 2 more – one each in German and Japanese). But they don’t really measure up to the old Magic Lantern books, which were kind of like an annotated and clarified “manual.” Of the current books, 2 are more of a photography “how to” series with the A7 model kind of “grafted” into the series. The detail about the camera is generally superficial – “same old, same old.” I recently reviewed the third one here. But from it, I did learn some new things, and have some of the unique advantages of the Sony mirrorless bodies underscored. I will also be reviewing the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom soon, so stay tuned for both of those future blogs.

I would love to have a “raw” only version of this camera, without a lot of the menu and processor “bloat” that comes with these “gee-whiz” features

I wanted to touch on a few things I am really growing to like about the α7 body here, however.

All of the new digital cameras are amazingly customizable. And most of them have added a lot of “computer” functions internally. They can be set to do traditional “post-processing” in-camera and do HDR, panoramic stitching, and many other impressive technological things. But there is a rub: This is, for the most part, only available if you choose to shoot in a format other than raw (even if you shoot raw+jpg, most of these “processing-like” features are disabled). I am sure it is as much my curmudgeonly personality as anything, but I have resolutely refused to capture anything other than raw images on my camera (unless by accident or by specific, limited design). So I don’t get much from them. While I am sure that incremental cost of adding in these features is small, and the demand for them is fairly high, I would love to have a “raw” only version of this camera, without a lot of the menu and processor “bloat” that comes with these “gee-whiz” features. But there are some new tech features I really love.

The EVF on the A7 series is impressive

EVF

The first is its rather remarkable Electronic Viewfinder (“EVF”). My first serious point and shoot digital camera was the Canon G-series. I owned 2 of them over time, with the last being the G-12. They had optical viewfinders, much like the rangefinder cameras of old, replete with parallax issues and frame coverage calculations. I did have an opportunity to play around with a couple of the early-issue electronic viewfinders, however. They were often black and white, sluggish to respond and just not really receptive to my style of photography. I have always been an SLR/DSLR user, and my innate shooting style involves an eye-level viewfinder. It may be a “rut” that I need to get myself out of (my friend, mentor and consummate pro photographer, James Moore, commented to me once that a large percentage – perhaps majority – of great landscape images were taken from a waist-level point of view. Based on that observation, before I sold my DSLR gear, I had begun working with a waist-level finder. But it still was attached to the optical viewfinder on the camera). These days I have been to experiment more with the rear LCD as a compositional tool.

On this model, I actually prefer it to my old, bright, DSLR optical finder

The EVF on these modern cameras (and particularly on the A7) are pretty impressive. On this model, I actually prefer it to my old, bright, optical finder on the D800. The technology has advanced to the point that I am unable to discern a difference between the optical and electronic view finder, in terms of its “real time” presentation of the scene in front of me.

One of the most impressive features is the viewfinder’s ability to tell me what the lens is “seeing.” By setting the camera to its “Aperture Priority” setting, as I open and close the aperture, the viewfinder brightens and darkens as the lens will see. But maybe more importantly, it also gives you a very accurate approximation of the depth of field of a given aperture. It is – in effect – a “real time” DOF preview! If you don’t like that, it is possible to override that and the A7 cameras’ have a traditional DOF preview button. The same behavior gives you a great indication of the brightness of the resulting capture. It is – in my view – an intuitive way of shooting—especially in a more active, handheld shooting situation.

It is – in effect – a “real time” DOF preview

Another thing the “digital” nature of the EVF does, is allows you to customize what you see in that viewfinder. Unlike the Optical view finder, which can have certain fixed items (such as the aperture, etc.), you can have a superimposed item, such as a real-time histogram, or the electronic level indicator in the EFV. I use the level indicator all the time (and, like the bubble levels I use when tripod mounted—it is a constant reminder that I have a “cockeyed” natural view of things 🙂 ).

Finally, these viewfinders make 100% viewfinder coverage possible with a much smaller footprint and cost. The α7R is 100%, which makes composition easier, in my view.

The A7r viewfinder is 100%

Sony 36mp Sensor

An update on the Sensor. Although I had read some “rumors” about the sensor, it has been widely speculated that (since Sony manufactures the sensors for many Nikon cameras, including the D800/800e) that the 36 megapixel, sans low pass filter, sensor in this camera was the identical sensor Nikon puts in the D800e. I have recently read that although there can be some expected similarities, this sensor was actually newly developed by Sony for the A7r and is purported to be slightly newer and therefore “better.” I am not sure anyone other than a very specialized user, or an extreme “pixel peeper,” is really going to be able to tell the difference in real life usage. I can only say that I have been pretty impressed with the IQ (particularly in low light and higher ISO examples) of all of the Sony Sensors in my recent experience (Nikon D700, D800 and D7000 and both the Sony NEX-6 and the α7R).

Customizable Settings

Third, there are some really thoughtful digital feature settings on these cameras. These digital wonders are amazingly customizable. One feature I use all the time is the electronic level (which I have set to show on both the rear LCD and the viewfinder). It is also possible to set a real-time histogram on either the viewfinder or the LCD or both (as customizable as they are, some of these features will be set to the exclusion of others – for example, I do not believe it is possible to have both the level and the histogram on at the same time). I find the histogram distracting, so I have it set as a “go to” feature that I can turn on and off as desired. But it is a matter of making some useful tools available for easy reference and making how you use them a matter of how you wish to shoot.

These digital wonders are amazingly customizable

Another really cool feature (which I have admittedly yet to use in the field – but have experimented with around the house), is the camera’s “shot-result preview” feature. This feature is a “preview” feature that will give you a preview of what blurring will look like in a slower exposure (remember, it is a digital approximation, and therefore cannot give you discerning results between say, a ½ second and a 2 second exposure). It is, admittedly, a bit of a gimmick, but it might give you the idea of whether intentional blurring is even a viable option.

α7R “shutter shake”

I cannot leave out this somewhat controversial issue. I haven’t had opportunity to test and observe yet. I do know that I was aware of it while using the α7R/Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 combo while in Ireland. I had not done any in-depth research and so, was trying to be careful to shoot with a relative fast shutter speed. I don’t like that because it puts a limit on my creativity in terms of my own style of shooting and seeing. I later learned that most do not perceive it to be a serious problem for that focal range, particularly when shooting hand-held. It apparently is not a serious problem with that focal range when the camera body itself is mounted on a tripod (though there are some differing opinions).

Where the problem apparently arises is with longer focal length (telephoto and telephoto zooms) lenses, mounted on a tripod, with a dedicated tripod-foot mount. I need to experiment with this.

The problem seems to be that the front curtain of the camera’s focal plane shutter is so “aggressive” when opening that it creates a vibration. At fast speeds (apparently faster than 1/125 second is safe) it is not noticeable, and very slow speeds (slower than 1/15), there is enough time for the vibration to dissipate.

The fixes seem to vary. Some shooters say just “hand-bracing” the lens works. While I have shot using that technique, it seems counter intuitive that the human body which moves constantly (it is biology 101) cannot translate movement into the setup. Another view is to hang something heavy on the tripod. However, the shutter shake phenomena is an internal issue, so some say that isn’t sufficient.

One fix that seems to have gotten some traction is to hang a counterweight on the camera. I am in the process of designing and building one that will clamp onto my L-bracket. More on that later.

It’s a Moving Target

As many readers know, I started seriously shooting in 1976. In those days, a camera was a “light-fast box” which had a film wind and transport mechanism, a shutter, and a lens. The SLR allowed for interchangeable lenses and an optical, “what you see is what you get,” (sort of – in all but the most expensive “pro” bodies, the coverage was less than 100% and you had to take that into consideration in composing the image – a phenomena that has continued with the DSLR bodies) viewfinder. The primary media was the film, and you could really affect the look and feel of your imagery by simply changing film. The 35mm roll film was standardized to virtually all SLR bodies, so you could use any number of “boxes” to obtain similar results. Of course we can argue that the glass was a huge influence – but that hasn’t really changed and is not really my point here. So where am I going with this?

film camera bodies tended to be enduring; digital cameras no longer endure

Because of the nature of things, the SLR mechanical camera bodies did not change as often. And, while innovation was estimable and often “sexy,” you could still shoot (particularly as a landscape and still shooter) with a very old body, but with newer film emulsions. So, film camera bodies tended to be enduring. I once carried a “whiz bang” electronically sophisticated (for its time) Nikon N6006 and an old Nikon F-2 as a primary backup. For the most part, in my style of shooting, either worked the same. When I sold it the F-2, I got exactly what I paid for it. Today, it would be a “doorstop.” But unfortunately, the same holds true for the newest digital body. Digital cameras no longer endure. They are now computers. They still work for a long time for the user, but the market demonstrates the difference. For fun, I looked on two popular places to buy and sell gear today (KEH and eBay). KEH will give me about 1/3 of what I paid for the α7R less than a year ago! Ebay looks to be a bit better, but it’s not a sure thing until “Pez-Boy” clicks the buy button.

At the same time, I find the choices made by the major manufacturers sometimes bewildering. The α7 series now has 3 U.S. iterations: The 24mp α7; the 36MP α7R; and the newest 12mp α7S. The α7S is the most expensive of the three!  Huh, Sony??? Personally, I would like to see Sony address some of the shortcomings of the α7R (like the shutter issue) before moving on to yet another offering.

It’s a moving target

Another bewildering choice: The newest “APS” offering from Sony is a “refresh” of my NEX-6, the new α6000 . There seem to be few differences. The primary ones are a larger, 24mp sensor, a new processor, and many more AF sites, and much faster AF and capture speeds. Presumably, as new sensors are developed they incorporate the advances Sony has made and I would expect it to do a better job of low light/high ISO capture (though the NEX-6’s 16mp sensor is pretty incredible already – in my view). All indicators are that this is a major improvement on the NEX-6.   But then, inexplicably, they decided to leave out the electronic level (how much can they have saved on this already proven technology; and go with a much lower-end viewfinder.  Again, huh, Sony?

Time will tell where we go with this stuff, and I’ll be sure to be here, reporting and ranting 🙂

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2 Responses

  1. Sony typically repairs camera issues — as long as they are issues to enough people — with software updates. They fixed a couple of huge problems on the NEX7 that way. Just don’t lose your Sony USB cable. As far as the “S” model goes, it’s designed for low light video production. It’s very inexpensive by comparison to the usual video components. OTH, they are way behind on lenses. That f4 70-200? Meh. Most of that Zeiss/Sony glass? The folks who really know lenses, not to be confused with “pixel peepers” say they are way overpriced for the quality, especially at the edges… where I like to live. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Ray. Insightful and informative as always. Hoping Sony finds a way to deal with whatever “shutter slap” is out there.

    Anyone reading here and wondering about the Sony gear, should go to Ray’s site(s) and see his “real world” results. If you do,you will be very tempted to look at the Sony lineup.

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