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Part V; Fundamental Changes

As I write this, it is amazing to me that I have been shooting with my current Sony system now for 10 years! It seems like only yesterday that I made the momentous complete switch to a new system and brand.

Fundamental Changes – 2007 to Today

Cameras.        During the foregoing time period, I owned a handful of small, “Point & Shoot” digital cameras. At first, it was the only affordable alternative, and for some of our personal use (travel, family events, etc.) was convenient to be able to shoot digitally, and then upload, send, and post images. We started with a Canon < 2megapixel model we ordered on QVC. It didn’t have a viewfinder and I always found that awkward. We used it some, but it wasn’t my personal cup of tea. Not sure what ever happened to it.

Nikon Coolpix 5000

  • Nikon Coolpix E5000.  In 2001, I purchased a Nikon model that was more suited to my liking, the Nikon Coolpix E5000. With a 5 megapixel sensor, a 28-85mm equivalent lens, a viewfinder, and raw capability, I was able to do a lot of what I was trying to do with digital capture. And, as you can see from the image although it was smaller than an SLR body, it was substantial, and had somewhat familiar controls for a Nikon SLR-user. All non-DSLR digital cameras back then had an unfortunate “lag” from the time you depressed the shutter and the actual capture. This was frustrating, though I did learn to capture action by using the burst mode and starting before I thought it would happen and continuing until after. With a very small sensor, there were also some limits to the image quality, and significant noise in low light conditions or high ISO images. I traded this one in when I bought the D100 DSLR.
  • Canon G12.  During the time I was shooting DSLR equipment, I wanted a small camera for convenience, daily carry, and travel. But I was only interested in one that would meet certain demanding standards: namely, high image quality files and raw capture/save capability. My research indicated that in the point and shoot line, the one camera that continued to stand out was the Canon G series. In 2012, I purchased a 10 megapixel G12, and shot that for a number of years. But as the DSLR lineup – and my personal ability to own them – got better, the point and shoot cameras were relegated to only occasional use. What they did have was the convenience of small size. The G-series were truly pocketable cameras. And that, we will see, drove my next phase of gear in a huge way.Both the Coolpix and the G12 had electronic viewfinders. Unlike the old 35mm viewfinder cameras that folks like Alfred Steiglitz made famous, the electronic viewfinders were electronically “linked” to the lens, so that it mimicked the look of an SLR “through-the-lens” viewfinder. Sort of. The were grainy, black-and white-ish, and not really a great representation of the scene. But the still beat – in my view – the LCD screens on the backs of consumer point and shoot cameras (a feature that these days comes on all cameras, including DSLRs). They weren’t great and they didn’t give the user experience the DSLR did. But technology marches on.

Canon G12

  • Sony NEX-6 – The Segue.     By 2013, we had begun to do a fair amount of travel. When it was a “dedicated” photo trip, lugging a bunch of gear seemed to be part of the mystique of the experience. And other items were held to the minimum necessary. It was a given that we would be checking bags. Most often those trips were with my buddy, Rich and involved just the two of us and our gear.

    Sony NEX-6

But my wife and I had also begun to take more extended trips, including some cruises, and some trips to faraway places. Sometimes it would be just us, and other times, we would join friends and/or family. Lugging photographic equipment (and even finding time to shoot in the best light) became a challenge. And even when we did travel, lugging the DSLR body and zoom lens around started to become a bit of drudgery. And because I was with a group and traveling more socially, so to speak, the shooting was less planned, the excursions less photography dedicated, and the time to focus on shooting curtailed. So I started thinking about alternatives. I needed something small, portable and relatively non-intrusive, while at the same time, rendering the image quality and giving me the setup flexibility I was used to.

I “met” pro shooter Ray Laskowitz years back on the old Nikon Professional Message board sponsored at AOL. Ray was always generous with advice, very knowledgeable about his craft and the equipment surrounding it, and very factual in his approach. We remained friends over the years, long after the AOL boards became nostalgic history. We e-mailed from time to time, and I was expressing my thinking about a “lighter” travel rig. I had “stumbled” upon the Sony NEX “mirrorless” interchangeable lens cameras, and in particular the NEX-6 and 7 models. When I raised that with Ray, he told me had had been shooting with a couple of the NEX-7 models for some time and was very impressed. He encouraged me – for numerous reasons – to give the “small camera” a try. At the time, I owned Nikon’s estimable D7000 (arguably the best and most popular APS DSLR they ever made). The image quality, even in low light situations was excellent. The APS sensor in the NEX-6 was said to be the very same sensor as the D7000 sensor (or very close). So I traded the D7000 in for a used NEX. That camera was my first introduction to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras; and to Sony. I was dually (see what I did there?) impressed. In fact, I can say it is one of the few cameras I have owned, that I truly regret not keeping. It sold me on Sony and what they were doing in the photographic world.

Japanese Maple Leaves
Copyright Andy Richards 2018

The NEX-6 generally sold as a kit with a Sony 15-50mm f3.5/5.6 zoom lens. It was frequently discounted by writers and critiques as not a very good quality lens. I found it to be of very good quality and very versatile. And it was small! The entire rig was reminiscent of the old viewfinder cameras. Two other things got me excited about my new find. First, the new electronic viewfinders were (are) amazing. They are full color, and it is virtually indistinguishable from looking through the through-the-lens prism viewfinders I had grown so used to. And, because they were fully electronic, they could be programmed to work in what we might call “real time.” As you change the exposure solution (shutter speed or aperture) the viewfinder can actually darken and lighten, simulating what the exposure might really look like. I have now grown so accustomed to these electronic viewfinders, that when I pick up a DSLR, it often confuses me as I make changes and nothing seems to happen. The second think was that Sony entered into a partnership with the acclaimed Zeiss Optical Company. This meant that they were manufacturing lenses with Zeiss specs, under Zeiss supervision, and also that Zeiss was manufacturing lenses that were designed to mount on Sony Cameras. The 24mm f2.8 Zeiss lens I shot on this camera had the most amazing bokeh of any lens I have ever owned. The Japanese Maple was in my front yard and I took this image with the NEX-6 – Zeiss 24mm combo shortly after rain one morning. The daylilies were also shot in my front yard with this combo. Keep in mind that on the APS sensor, the 24mm appears more like a 35mm in terms of 35mm film/sensor size.

Sony NEX-6; Sony-Zeiss 24mm f1.8 lens

  • Sony A7 ILCE.  I probably should have been satisfied with the NEX-6. But I was hung up on the thought that I “needed” so-called “full frame.” So I shot with my Nikon D800 for a while as my primary camera. Having the pro Nikkor lenses was also partly a motivator. But I remember doing some side-by-side comparison shots at one point and not being able to say the Nikkor pro lens was any better than the Zeiss. I may have had my own bias by then, but I preferred the Zeiss look. But wanting the “full frame” for image quality, I waited until Sony introduced the first “full frame” mirrorless camera, the A7. I took a leap of faith, and traded my entire bag of Nikon gear in for the A7, the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom, and the Sony 70-200 f4 zoom. The entire setup is smaller and lighter. In 20/20 hindsight, I gave up an awful lot in those two stops of aperture – not so much in versatility – but in the loss of the really nice blurred backgrounds the wider apertures provide. And in 20/20 hindsight, I was also amazed at just what great bokeh a quite wide angle lens on a much smaller sensor size produced in the APS-matched 24mm Zeiss. Those extra stops of aperture on the wide end are truly enviable. I have never been able to reproduce that with my current gear (even with a 50mm 1.8 Sony lens on the A7 – its just not Zeiss optics). I am not saying I regretted the change. I did like the smaller, lighter setup, and the A7 (now a pretty old model) is a quality piece of equipment.But my buddy, Rich, a couple years later, asked about making the same switch and I told him for our shooting styles, I wouldn’t do it again. He had an identical setup to mine at that point (a D800, the same two pro Nikkor lenses, as well as my old Tokina ATX-AF 300 f2.8 and a nice Sigma 24-70 zoom).  This reflection was particularly in light of another shooting change I made shortly after buying the A7.

Sony A7

Over time, I have come to feel that in today’s world, with my presentation needs, I really didn’t need “full frame.” And, at the same time, the quality of every part of digital technology continues to improve. But APS would have been fine, and if I could turn back time, I would have kept the NEX-6 and concentrated on lenses.

Sony RX100-iv

  • Sony RX100.    I carried the A7, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 on the next 2 or 3 major trips we took. It packs nicely as the footprint is substantially smaller than the D800 and Nikkor 24-70. It is also much lighter. But not enough that it still seemed like an anchor much of the time. I started looking at the point and shoot cameras again. And they had come a long way. by 2015, Sony was, into its 4th iteration of its RX100 camera. Measuring 4″ x 2.25″ x 1.75,” it is a truly pocketable camera. It extreme quality build gives it some heft, but it is still a far cry from the bigger cameras. It sports a Zeiss f1.8-2.8 lens with optical image stabilization and a 24-70 35mm equivalent zoom. The smallish sensor was newly designed to improve the size of the exposure surface and reduce noise. It is fully capable of raw capture, as well as pretty much everything the A7 can do.  So, 24-70. Zeiss. Raw. Less than half the size body and miniscule lens. See where I am going with this?Of course, image quality would be the biggest test. Again, I sought Ray Laskowitz’s advice. Again, perhaps not coincidentally, he laughingly told me how he had just come home the day before to find a box for him holding the RX100. He had no hesitancy about the quality issues – so of course, I bought one. And never looked back. I have an Epson inkjet professional printer capable of making gorgeous 13″ x 19″ prints (longer in landscape with roll paper). I took a similar flower image to one above, and printed it on my inkjet, side by side with a print made from an A7 “full frame” file. I couldn’t see the difference. In a few weeks, I would be making the trip of a lifetime; to Japan for my son’s wedding. We spent 3 days in Kyoto and the balance in Tokyo, and I took just the RX100 and a small tripod. During the entire week I can think of only one instance where I wish I had my longer lens. The image quality on this little camera is amazing. On family travel, I haven’t carried any other camera since, and that includes a couple trips to Europe.I am not ready to fully give up the bigger gear, and still carry and use it on dedicated photo outings. So, you will see here and on my SmugMug site, that my primary camera is the A7, with the RX100 as my backup/travel camera. It has made my luggage needs much smaller and lighter. And, if the economics supported it, I wouldn’t hesitate to move to the NEX-6 or equivalent, along with some of the lenses, as my primary camera. My buddy, Rich did exactly that last year.

Lenses.  Lenses and size drove my current equipment lineup.  Though I have had the good fortune to have a couple really nice lenses in the lineup over the years, until I finally moved up to the Nikkor “pro” zooms, lenses had always been a bit of a compromise in my bag. The closest I came was probably the Tokina 300mm f2.8, which was arguably as good as the Nikkor equivalent. Piece for piece, high quality optics are the most expensive component of the system. And the larger the medium, the more costly it is to produce high quality optics with wide apertures. It is more difficult and expensive to produce a 35mm lens than the equivalent Point & Shoot size or even the equivalent APS size.

That all changed with the NEX-6. I had read and heard about two legendary optics: Leica and Zeiss. I wasn’t necessarily a believer. But I was able to purchase the 24mm Zeiss lens used for a pretty good price and after some research, wanted to give it a try. Even on the smaller sensor, it is/was amazing. I can say without a doubt that it was my favorite of any lens I have ever owned. It got lots of use, along with the 15-50 “kit” lens. Sadly, I no longer have it.

Sigma made a couple lenses for the Sony E-mount (the NEX mounting system) that were really inexpensive and some of the sharpest lenses ever made. At one time, B&H had a BOGO deal on the two of them – a 30mm f2.8 and a 19mm f2.8 and I picked them both up for $199. Needless to say, I had some fun shooting with the NEX-6 lens combinations.

When I bought the A7, I traded the Nikkor gear. I matched up as close as I could at that time, with the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 and the Sony 70-200. In terms of build quality, They are both as nice as any Nikon I ever owned. They both AF quickly and quietly. They are marginally smaller than the Nikkors. But they are also 2 stops slower which helps account for the size. As small and compact as the A7 body seems, the good lenses are all disappointingly large and heavy. For working photography, I have liked them fine and believe they render good, sharp images.

One of the “draws” of the Sony camera was the fact that Zeiss has a continued comittment to make their own proprietary lenses in the Sony mount (E for APS and EE for “full frame). There are a couple Zeiss lenses out there that I might like to own some day. But I just paid off all my mortgages and car loans, and am not sure I want to mortgage the house. As was historically the case, the Zeiss lenses are expensive! Time will tell.

I did purchase – more recently – two lenses. Each had a specific purpose. The first was a Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens. It is fully mechanical and was purchased primarily to engage in some night time photography – particularly of stars and the Milky Way. I have not really dedicated the time and effort to that yet, but it is on my “to do” list.

The second, was the Sony 50mm f1.8 lens. That was done specifically to try to achieve some of the bokeh effect I had been able to create with some of my prior gear. Again that one needs some sorting out and use. Stay tuned on that one.

Medium.  This is an area where nothing really changed. Digital is obviously here to stay, and the change will come in capture technology and quality. Today, we are seeing iPhone images that probably weren’t possible with my D100. That is technology. That is good, in my view.

Doodads. The same factors that influence my gear changes effected this area. I happily shot with the Induro Carbon Fiber tripod for a few years. It was very rigid, light, and easy to use. My body height needed that length it offered. But it was really a bit of a travel hassle. Even in my checked bag, It would only fit with the head removed (not a huge deal). But for the type of travel I was becoming accustomed to, it was just too bulky. And with the RX100, it was massive overkill. With a smaller camera, in general, I was able to get by with a smaller tripod. And there were times and places I just could not go with the big legs.

Around 2010 – 2011, I began searching for a very small tripod that I could use in a pinch on any of my equipment. I ultimately found a carbon fiber legset with a very small ball head and a reasonable price tag. For a short time, I used an aluminum tripod from a company (owned by Induro) called MeFoto. It was – ironically – slightly larger than the carbon fiber model I now have – and not quite firm enough to do the job. I ultimately gave this to my daughter.  The model I purchased is the Sirui T-025. It is perfect for the RX100, and I have used it on a rig as big as my Nikon D700 full DSLR with a fairly heavy 28-300 lens, to shoot the San Francisco skyline on a windy night on Alcatraz (sounds like a song). The link is to my 2012 blog describing this great little tool. The folded length of this little ultralight gem is under 12 inches. Of course it is not going to extend up to my full 6’1″ of height. Life has its compromises. 🙂

Years back my decision was Bogen vs. Gitzo. Today there are 100’s of brands of carbon fiber tripods available and many of them are quality-built at reasonable prices. I was impress with the build and price point of the Sirui equipment, and so, in 2014, purchased a larger Sirui to replace the Induro. I was looking for a smaller folded size and was able to move to a slighlty smaller and lighter build model, because of the size and weight of equipment I was supporting. Many of these new tripod have a design in which the legs fold back over the main part of the tripod, making their folded height smaller. My regular tripod is the Sirui M3204X. There are 4 leg sections, which does compromise the stiffness a bit (though I often only use part of the lowest section). But it also makes for a shorter folded length. With the same folding design as my smaller model, this one is under 21 inches (with the ballhead attached). I changed my head recently, which may require removal for packing, but the 21 inch tripod legs will actually fit in a carry on bag (though I am not necessarily likely to do that). If you can sense a pattern here, I am trying to go smaller whenever possible.

Bogen Tripod with 3-way head

My first Bogen tripod had a 3-way adjusting head on it. Until ballheads became popular, that was the common configuration. That head itself weighed more than my bigger Sirui tripod. With long handles for adjustment, it was cumbersome, and of course it sported that clunky Bogen quick-release setup. The primary reason I moved to ball heads was to acquire the dovetail quick release system. But I always missed the 3 way head. For my kind of shooting, when I am using a tripod, I am almost always shooting stills. I usually have plenty of time to make adjustments. The ballheads have two drawbacks that annoyed and occasionally frustrated me. First, any vertical and horizontal adjustments were made completely by hand. There is no indexing mechanism and it can be difficult to make very small adjustments. Second, unless it was a fairly large and very well constructed head, ballheads are susceptible to “ball drop.” In the best case, it meant you would work hard to get your composition, tighten it down, and it would still move a fraction – especially with a heavy lens. In the worst case, if you didn’t get it tightened down, the entire lens could slam down against a leg (of course, possible with a 3 way also – but less likely in my experience).

Ball Head with Arca Swiss type QR

Three way heads are much more positive. This is especially true with geared heads. I have always coveted a geared head. But until very recently there were two alternatives. One was ungodly expensive (Arca Swiss manufactured – $1,100 to 1,500), or Manfrotto (Bogen) with its quirky QR mechanism. The only way I could see around that was to “Rube Goldberg” a dovetail mount on a Manfrotto, and I wasn’t really ready to try that. Too bad, because the Manfrotto Jr. model looks very well built and comes quite reasonable (the Manfrotto is about #450.00 and the Jr. about $200). I find it surprising that it took this long to see an Arca Swiss mount geared head come on the market. But over that last year or so the Benro company (same parent company as Induro/MeFoto), finally release a very nice, cast magnesium, dovetail mount 3-way geared head at a $200 price point. Of course, I now have one :-).

Benro Arca-Swiss compatible 3-way tripod head

Finally, in the past couple years, I have been fiddling with electronics (Flash/controllers/remote controllers)

 

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