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A Comparison; DSLR / Mirrorless

What can I say? I am in a “gear” mode these days. I know this isn’t the first time someone has compared the two.  But mine might be more like a rambling muse 🙂  (again, you might want to look at my page describing my gear reviews to see how I come at this. I leave the heavy lifting to the pros).

I have had some “back and forth” discussion with several of my friends over the past few weeks, about my switch from Nikon DSLR to Sony MIL gear (Sony also “plays” in the DSLR world, but in my view, doesn’t offer any reason for a “seasoned” non-Sony DSLR user/owner to consider a change from their current gear).

The seed was planted that maybe we could achieve “pro” results in a small, light package

The “world-changing” event came through Sony’s mirrorless interchangeable lens system (MILS) bodies. They were not the first to the table. Olympus has made a pretty big splash with its 4/3 system; well-made stuff and great glass. Nikon has its own proprietary size sensor MIL system (which has always left me scratching my head). Fuji has a nice system (using an APS sized sensor) and is probably the closest “apples/apples” competitor to the Sony System (Leica offers an APS sized MILS system, also, but its — well — Leica). My draw to Sony’s system was probably logical enough. Sony manufactured (perhaps still does) the sensors Nikon used in its DSLR lineup. Sony also offered the ability (primarily through 3rd-party adapters) to use my Nikkor lenses on the body (albeit as MF only lenses); and as I “grew” into the system, the availability of glass manufactured either directly by Zeiss Optical, or in a partnership between Sony and Zeiss, which created “Zeiss-quality” glass and more importantly look and feel (there is no doubt some debate about whether the partnered lenses — which are built by Sony — are as good as the pure Zeiss.  I owned and used both on my NEX-6 and I couldn’t see a difference).

2012.  Sony’s early offerings were their “NEX” line of cameras, using APS – size sensors (Sony has discontinued the name “NEX” in favor of what they deem their more consistent “Alpha” naming scheme.  The newest available iterations are basically the same body style, with some “improvements” – more later). Ironically, the Sony NEX-6 which I first acquired in 2012 (and still own and use regularly) had the same Sony-manufactured APS-size sensor as the very good Nikon D7000 DSLR I owned at the time as a backup.  I traded it and for a time, I carried the NEX-6 as an all purpose travel and walk-around camera and backup to my Nikon DSLR system. I kept the Nikon D800 and glass for my “more serious” shooting.

I fell in love with the Sony-Zeiss 24mm 1.8’s buttery bokeh

As I began to experiment with some of the fixed focal length glass offerings for the NEX, I fell in love with the Sony-Zeiss f1.8 24mm lens and its buttery bokeh.  The seed was planted that maybe one could achieve “pro” results in a small, light package like this (it is a thought almost “retro” to the old rangefinder cameras used by some pretty amazing pro photographers years ago).

2013. Along came the a7 “full frame” series. The a7 sports a 24mp 24 x 36 “full frame” sensor, and the a7R, features the same 36mp 24 x 36 “full frame” sensor (including the lack of AA filter) that resided in the top-of-the-world, Nikon D800e! All in a small (it turns out, “smallish”) mirrorless body which was reputed to be pro-like in build quality. How could we resist?

It Begs a number of Questions

And it begs the question.  It actually begs several of them. Some of them have been asked and answered. How many megapixels do we need? I have come to the conclusion that 36 is overkill for most of us. Do we need “full frame?” In my view, that may be the real question. And, the burning question: can we have a full frame, DSLR-equivalent shooting experience in a smaller, more portable (and possibly less expensive) package? Lets try to answer a couple of them — Not necessarily in the order asked.

1.  Can Mirrorless Full Frame Compete with DSLR Full Frame?

Lets start with the big one. Following the lead of a couple of my friends, I did some “quick and dirty” comparative research. This is not scientific. I used B&H pricing and the specifications published on their catalog site. I rounded. But I don’t think the rounding error will be significant enough to skew the result. I will use my “default” “kit” (as the Europeans like to call it). I carried (for the most part) a Nikon D800 body with a 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8, and a large enough tripod and head to support that gear. The camera and lenses will cost you $7,600. An equivalent A7r, 24-70 and 70-200 setup will cost you $6,800. That $700 would buy a pretty nice tripod, or another piece of glass.

It’s not apples/apples

However, its not apples/apples here. First, the “equivalent” lenses are maximum f4, against the f2.8 apertures of the pro DSLR lenses. Is the added bokeh worth $350 a lens? Maybe. It’s pretty important.  I have to say that I was “wowed” by the difference between f2.8 and f1.8 when I first shot the NEX lenses.  Also, I have compared the two 70-200 copies. They are not “equivalent.” The Nikkor IQ is palpably better, in my view in that lens. With the 24-70 (Zeiss quality glass), the two are virtually indistinguishable (again, not a pixel peeping, scientific comparison – just my “feel”), but the Nikkor can produce slightly nicer bokeh in many cases, with its maximum f2.8 aperture.

And there is a non-lens comparison issue that for some is huge (for me, not so much). According to Nikon, its digital camera engines produce a true 14 bit “lossless” raw file. The Sony cameras do not! The raw file from the Sony “engine” is apparently partially processed – presumably to save some size? It can, in some cases, produce artifacts which Nikon and Canon’s raw files are said not to have. At least at the pixel peeping level, for the serious bits and bytes squashers out there, this just might be a deal breaker. Seems like it is easily enough addressed by Sony, if they choose to (and in my view, they should).

There is a perhaps, more apt comparison. The newer Nikon D610 sports the same “full frame” 24 x 36 24mp sensor as the Sony a7. Trade out the D800 for the D610 and your total cost goes to $5,000 for the Nikon rig. Trade out the a7 for the a7r and your total Sony cost is $3900. Is the $1,100 difference worth it? Is it really $1,100 (what if you “live” with the 24mp D610 and the Nikkor glass and now have a less expensive setup than the “best” Sony?). Some of this goes back to my first question above. Do you need 36mp? I think that for the vast majority of us, the answer is no.

The Nikon rig weighs a total of about 7.5 lbs. The Sony rig: about 3 3/4 lbs

Here’s where it gets interesting. My “premiere” Nikon rig weighs a total of about 7.5 lbs. The Sony rig: about 3 3/4 lbs. And that does not take into consideration that you can probably go with a smaller, lighter tripod with the smaller, lighter gear. And there is also a difference in overall size. The body is smaller and the lens barrels shorter and slightly smaller in diameter. As I write this, the a7 and 24-700 sit next to me on the desk and I am struck by how similar in size it is to the old, familiar Nikkormat camera with a 50mm lens attached that I shot for many years.

So, does size really matter? I think the answer is no different than it has always been, when the issue has been about gear: It really depends on your intended use, and your travel parameters. I have noted on other blog posts that the Sony setup I use is very suitable for general purpose use; as I use it. Travel, stills, landscape and the like all lend themselves to this rig. For wildlife, sports, etc., I do not think it is there. If I were going to do bird or wildlife shooting, or sports shooting, I would probably lean in the direction of the D610 (or better) setup above. I do think that except for very exacting specification shooting, 24mp is more than adequate and for reasons I will discuss below, probably preferable to the 36mp sensors. But if you shoot like I do, and size and weight are a real factor, then less than 1/2 the weight, and noticeably smaller in size to make it very attractive.

2.  How many Megapixels Do You Need?

As the digital revolution has now passed us by, so, too probably have “Megapixel Wars.” My first DSLR (the D100) was a mere 6mp.  Yet, I have 24 x 36 prints that are pretty impressive, from shots taken with that “dinosaur.”  But as with all “bigger is better” kind of things, there comes a logical point of no return. I think the digicam industry has taken us there, and we are coming back to the field.

Before we can really address the “right” number of megapixels, I think we need to put “size” into perspective. Megapixels is just a number. In an oversimplified way, it is just a measure of the number of photosites on a given camera sensor. If I put 36 megapixels on a 24 x 36 chip, I am going to get a far different result than if I put 24 on there. In the latter case, if 36 sites fit on it, I will either have significant gaps with the 24 example, or I will have to make the 24mp photosites bigger themselves, to fit the space. Of course, it is the latter that is the case, and in terms of every measure except perhaps detail, these bigger photosites are actually going to yield a more pleasing result. This is because of physics and electronics way above my pay grade. But for these reasons, under most circumstances, I believe the 24mp will yield cleaner, more noise free results. The advantage: better low light imagery, and probably just overall cleaner images.

I think 36 megapixels is overkill

Even more important for general use; this will be a more “forgiving” sensor. Because the 36mp chip in the D800 and a7R is capable of resolving significant detail over “smaller” sensors, it will also show more of your “warts.” If your glass is not very high quality, the result is likely to be “highlighted” weaknesses of the glass. If your shooting technique is lazy or poor, your weaknesses will show up in a magnified way. In that sense, the 36mp sensor is really best suited for a painstaking professional with high quality lenses, painstaking and expert technique (read: locked down on a steady tripod, remote release, good technique and mechanics to avoid movement and vibration, etc.). For general purpose, it will probably not enhance – and could very well hinder – your photographic results.

And, of course, the files are huge. That means slower post-processing and more computer power and storage memory needed. So what would be the advantage? Will you be making gigantic prints which require minute detail? Will you be making significant crops out of the images? Do you demand the absolute very best that can be had (and that is, of course, a subjective judgment at best)? Otherwise, I think the 36mp model is overkill. Given that the a7R has some noted issues, if you do not already have one and insist on the 36mp model, I would wait a few months and see if Sony fixes the problems in its a7RII release.

For all of the same reasons, If you think you “need” full frame, I think most current Nikon users who are invested in decent or good glass could be really happy with the Nikon D610 and using the fabulous Nikkor glass?  Not sure if Canon has a like camera – but if they don’t, they will – seems to be a continuation of the “tastes great/less filling” argument between the “white hats” and the “black hats,” year in, year out.

“Full Frame” is a “fiction”

3.  Do You Really Need Full Frame?

What is “full frame,” anyway? It is a fiction. The “Full Frame” misnomer was created by DSLR users.  Long ago the SLR industry established a standard size of film for SLR cameras that had a diagonal dimension of 35mm (hence the 35mm SLR). But there have always been other formats, from sheet film in the back of a full view camera, to so-called “Medium Format,” (which had a couple different film rectangle sizes). All were rectangular (but lenses are round, leading comedian Stephen Wright, I believe, to wonder aloud why if lenses are round, why are photos rectangular? 🙂 ). But the lens size and length was generally designed as a function of the size of that rectangle of film.

In the early 2000’s, the manufacture of electronic sensors for cameras was a much more costly and limited process than it is today. In order to make a sensor that would perform in an SLR-like body using the lenses then available, the technology/cost matrix meant that an affordable DSLR would have the APS sized sensor (closer to the size of a standard U.S. postage stamp than to 35mm). This phenomena immediately created some issues with lens lineups. Because of the so-called “crop-factor,” the angle of view of lenses was decreased by about 1/2 (generally, multiply the 35mm-equivalent by 1.5). It varied slightly from camera to camera. But it immediately created a perceived issue for long time 35mm film shooters.  They began to wish for and even demand a sensor that was the 35mm rectangle their lenses were originally designed for, and began to refer to such a sensor as “full frame.” Eventually these sensors (probably already in the planning stages) were introduced and are generally referred to as “full frame.”  But try to convince a larger format camera user that 35mm is “full.” 🙂

At the same time, camera makers (and third party lens makers) began to manufacture lenses to the APS specification and in a sense, the “distinction” has become academic. It is no more “full frame” than any other sensor-size/lens combination which is properly designed for one another.  For those reasons, I am not sure the “full frame” reference is really a significant factor in one’s choice of camera.  More importantly, larger sensors might yield higher image quality.  That goes back to the discussion above about the “correct” number of megapixels.  See, I can use circular reasoning with the best of them.  🙂

When Nikon announced the enthusiast level “full frame” DSLR, the D700, I purchased one. By then, I had been used 2 iterations of the APS sensor (D100, D200) and had acquired some APS-designed Nikkor lenses. With the change “back” I had to completely re-think this lineup. I was never one who “yearned” for “full frame.” For the above reason, I never thought of it as a particular advantage or disadvantage. In fact, one advantage is that it is cheaper and easier to design smaller lenses for these smaller sensors. This is particularly notable in the mirrorless arena.  Of course, another advantage is that they will be smaller and lighter.

Sensor size is probably one area where “bigger is better,” at least in terms of quality. Bigger physical sensor size means relatively bigger photosites and as noted above, better, cleaner images (especially at the edges of light). That drove my move to the D700 100%. I wanted the best IQ I could “buy.” That motivated me to go to and stay with the Sony a7 also. On paper, I should achieve top-notch IQ with the “full frame” 24mp sensor.

Sensor Sizes Compared

Sensor Sizes Compared

But I have to question my own thinking here. Do I really need it? At least one of my “pro” friends tells me that if you want to sell traditional stock (read, Getty Images), you probably do. It is a matter of the minimum file sizes they will accept. I would bet 99.9% of the readers here are not full time professional photographers and do not plan to try to make (even part of) a living from stock sales. So again, do we need it? What are you using your images for? Again, the 99% majority are posting them on Facebook, or their own blogs and websites. Some are making books and cards and calendars and just snapshots for memories. Not many are making large (24 x 36 or larger) art-quality prints. and even then, the need for 36mp is probably limited.  I have a 24 x 36 art-quality print framed, matted and hanging in my office behind my desk that looks pretty darn good (if I do say so, myself) :-). It was taken, traveling in Venice, Italy, with the APS sensor, 16mp Sony NEX-6. When I travel, I always have to decide whether I am going to carry anything more than the NEX, a very small travel tripod, and an array of very small lenses to use with it, or the “bigger” outfit (for me, that is the 3 3/4 lb. Sony a7 setup these days). So, when size and weight become a serious consideration, so should these diminuitive APS mirrorless offerings.

The current version of the NEX-6 is the Sony a6000. It is intriguing: New “engine;” Improved a7 menu system (the NEX menu structure was mind-boggling – the a7 is somewhat better); 24 megapixel APS sensor (question about whether the same “spacing” issue of the photosites applies here? The photosites have to be smaller than those on the prior 16mp NEX6. A matter of tradeoff); Faster, better AF. Brighter viewfinder. If I were not invested already, this would probably be my entry-level purchase and just might suffice to be the only one. At only $450 a copy, you could buy 2 a6000 bodies for less than the price of one a7/a7II. You could carry them with different lenses attached. There is no 70-200 lens for this sensor/mount combination, but the 70-200 f4 mounts, and works well with it. There is a Sony-Zeiss rough equivalent 24-70 (the 16-70 f4). It has IS. The cost for this 2-lens combo and the a6000 would be $3,850. The weight would be under 3 1/2 lbs. (and 2 lbs. of it would be the 70-200!).

When size and weight become a serious consideration, so should these diminuitive cameras

I will watch with interest what competitors, Nikon, Canon, and Fuji do this year. I think Olympus is pretty much married to their 4/3 system and I think the smallish sensor size is just too much of a compromise. Nikon’s mirrorless array has been a non-starter for me, primarily because of their insistence on their own, proprietary sensor size/lens design. I don’t get it, Nikon. You already have APS sensors that are tried and true, and lenses designed for them. Sony has proven you can put them in a small package. Marketing, Nikon? I have no idea where Canon is in this – or why.

The next time I post here, Christmas, 2014, as well as some other holidays will have passed us by (not meaning to be insensitive or display my ignorance – but having been raised in the Christian tradition, all I know is Christmas) :-).  I want to say Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers out there and for lack of a better term, the “PC” “Happy Holidays” to all who may celebrate other holidays this time of year!

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2 Responses

  1. Just keep in mind that “Sony – Ziess” glass is manufactured by Cosina, which is not all bad. But, it isn’t what it could be. To many reviewers minds, “Sony – Zeiss” glass is well overpriced because of that. Although, it is priced about the same as Cosina-Voightlander glass, which is Cosina’s number one product.

  2. Thanks Ray. I was going to say manufactured by Sony or its outsource, but forgot. I think I remember you mentioning this before. Both the manufacture quality and the image quality seem very good to me. The Sony only stuff seems to be inconsistent. The 50mm 1.8 for the NEX series looks nearly as good as the Sony Zeiss. The 70-200 for the a7 series is disappointing. Will be very interested to see what the Sony-Zeiss zoom for the NEX and the 16-35 for the a7 looks like.

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