It was (is) All About the Medium

Kodachrome 25; 1990s

For potentially bored readers, I have some good news. I just returned from another European trip in October, which means some new images again, rather than my historical stroll down memory lane. I am post-processing images right now. But first, another reminiscent post:

Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s they generally just didn’t measure up.

My “evolution” series got me thinking a bit about the medium. Those who have been shooting only during the past 20 years may be vaguely aware of an old cellulose material called film. When I jumped in, film was all we had, and the “pickins” were slim.  If you wanted to shoot color slides (the medium of choice, it seems, for serious “nature” photographers), you mainly had Kodak. There were competitors, but in the early years, Kodak dominated the film world, for a number of reasons. Most shops and retail stores stocked Kodak products.


In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth ….. and Kodachrome

Perhaps the most important reason was that Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s the others generally just didn’t measure up.

prior to about 1936, color photography was not prevalent among all but a limited group of professionals. Color wasn’t really that great (though it was relative, I suppose). Early results (including some early color slide films) are reminiscent of the early “colorized” movies we saw. We all knew it was black and white with some color added. In my mind, this was true until Kodachrome became the standard.

In 1936, a couple of musician-turned-scientists were hired by Eastman Kodak to complete their experimental process. As I did my research, I was interested to learn that there actually was another “Kodachrome,” which was a 2-color process, developed by a Kodak engineer in 1913. In 1936, Kodak introduced the 3-layer process which became the vaunted Kodachrome. Called a non-substantive film (an odd name in my view – but addressing the lack of dye or colorant “substances” in the film emulsion itself), the Kodachrome process was complex. It was essentially a B&W film, in which color dyes were added to the 3 different layers during the development process.

Fuji Velvia

This meant that a specialized processing setup was necessary, and until 1954, Kodak successfully maintained a monopoly on this process (known as K-14), by selling Kodachrome only with pre-paid processing by Kodak as part of the deal. In 1954, the United States challenged this practice as an anti-trust violation, and an agreement was entered into, among other things, ending this practice (and of course, allowing competitors to acquire the accoutrements to develop Kodachrome).

Originally, Kodachrome was released at ISO 10. A 20-exposure cassette cost $3.50. That, for those interested, would have been about $65.00 in 2019 dollars!

Kodak (Ektachrome) E100SW

In 1936, there was no ISO (or ASA, as it was originally known). During the World War, the military wanted a single standard to be able to increase their efficiency. Prior to this time, there were several standards (and thus, several different marketed light meters – all handheld in those days). The American Standards Association created a “standard” measurement for light sensitivity measurement, which then became known as the film’s “ASA,” or ASA rating. In 1987, the International Organization for Standardization was created and film manufacturers worldwide shifted to this international standard (which is numerically identical to the old ASA standard). So we now refer to light sensitivity measure – on all media – as “ISO.”


There were non-believers …

That same year (1936) German film and camera manufacturer, AGFA, introduced Agfacolor. While very similar to Kodachrome, including its three layer emulsion, AGFA engineers embedded color dyes into the film emulsion, making the development process less complex. I shot maybe one or two rolls of Agfacolor. Didn’t care for it. It looked, as I noted above, like lightly colorized black and white. It did seem to make a big hit in the motion picture industry, however, and was widely used in film-making for a number of years.

The Fujifilm company was established in Japan in 1934. I was not able to find much about early film offered by Fuji. Of course, they catapulted into top status with the release of Velvia, years later.

Fuji Velvia

Kodachrome II, was introduced in 1961, with an ASA/ISO rating of 25. In 1962, they a released 64 ASA version (later they simply became known as K-25 and K-64). In 2007, K-25 production was discontinued. K-64 production followed suit in 2009). One source noted that in 2009, sales of Kodachrome made up 1% of Kodak sales revenue. Kodak had essentially ceased processing Kodachrome themselves by 2006, and by 2010, the only one Kodak-certified facility remaining was Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas. Later that year the even they ceased Kodachrome processing. Which led me to wonder, what if I had any rolls of undeveloped Kodachrome? Some “Google” research will reveal that there are processors out there who claim to be able to process it. But I checked my freezer. No film of any kind in there. Phew! 🙂


Nothing lasts forever …

In addition to its complexity and considerable expense, there were other Kodachrome drawbacks. Transparencies were designed, of course, to be projected with a relatively strong light (anybody else remember those “travelogue” slide shows that were prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s?). The medium was consequently, relatively high contrast with lots of shadows. This made it particularly touchy to produce photographic prints from. And, we have learned in later years, the process of scanning and converting Kodachrome to digital images often is challenged by colorcasts which need to be addressed in the scanning process.

Stemming partly from photographers (particularly consumers) demand for cheaper and more convenient products, and also partly borne out of the 1954 antitrust decree directing Kodak to endeavor to release a newer, more consumer-friendly film that was in development, Ektachrome, with a new “E-process” in which dyes were embedded in the film emulsion was introduced in 1955. Originally ASA 32, a 160 version was introduced in 1959, and 64 and 100 ASA versions in 1977. I wasn’t even shooting yet! Two years after I got started, in 1979, Ektachrome 400 was released.

Kodak Elite Chrome 100

Ektachrome had some advantages. It was cheaper than Kodachrome and cheaper and easier to process. You could have it processed locally. If you wanted to make the investment in color processing equipment (essentially, some relatively affordable tanks and chemicals), you could process it yourself.

I shot very little of it. This was probably partly due to the prejudice I acquired early on, from my shooting inspiration. But there was also still no doubt that Kodachrome was still the professional-preferred medium for most. Ektachrome also had a known blue color cast, and I found it cool, and a bit less saturated than my personal taste. So, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s I shot Kodachrome.

Kodak Elite Chrome II (50)

When I came back to serious shooting in the early 1990’s, the industry had changed. Fuji introduced its Velvia 50 in 1990. Its characteristic was a very colorful, saturated, and contrasty profile. It took aim at Kodachrome and punched it in the face. It quickly became the slide film of choice for nature photographers – especially for landscape and flowers. And it used the E-6 process (by this time virtually every emulsion used the E-6 process, except for Kodachrome).

Again, while there were others, there really weren’t 🙂 . Fuji and Kodak went head to head. Fuji released Velvia. Kodak parried with Lumiere 100 (a neutral balanced Ektachrome) and Lumiere 100X (a warm-saturated Ektachrome). Fujia added Velvia 100. Lumiere was short-lived and said by some to have some inconsistency in color from roll to roll. Kodak replaced it with E100S (saturated), E100SW (warm saturated) and E100VS (very saturated – Kodak’s answer to Velvia).

Kodak Elite Chrome II (100)

Fuji, in 2003, in response to criticism that Velvia was just too colorful (perhaps unrealistic to some), introduced Provia, in 100, 200, 400, and 1600 ISO versions, and  Provia F (ultra-fine grain).

These were all so-called “professional” films. They tended to be more expensive. Whether they were that much better is probably a personal judgment. They probably had better quality control. I remember going to my photo shop in my community to buy these films (they weren’t generally available in the big box and drugstores), and they were generally stored in refrigerated conditions.

To cater to consumers, both companies released (almost simultaneously) “consumer” versions of the above film varieties. Kodak’s Ektachrome became Elite Chrome, Elite Chrome II, and Elite Chrome Extra Color.

Fuji Sensia II

Fuji’s consumer version of Provia was Sensia, Sensia II, and Sensia III, in various ISO ratings. I am not aware that they ever marketed a consumer version of Velvia.

Interesting stuff for some of us, and by the mid-2000’s, essentially irrelevant to most of us. 🙂

Fuji Sensia II (100)

Before I did the research for this piece, I spent a few hours going through my archives to find examples of some of my images made with all of the above media. The problem is that it is truly impossible to make comparisons, here. This is partly because in order to do this on a blog, it became necessary at some point to convert all the media to one single media: digital. So this may not have been a very useful exercise – but it was fun doing it. Presented as digital media, I can see some nuances, but not any huge differences (of course, post processing software has “recipes” to “recreate” film “looks” in digital post-processing these days. I have done very little of that, except for B&W, and cannot really say how accurate they are). I did very little post-processing of the “film” images; just a bit of sharpening mainly. I would be interested if you can see any difference.

For me, digital processing made everything possible; digital capture made it much more convenient

 


And there shall come a Rapture …..

Digital shifted the focus (see what I did there?) from all of the considerations of film, down to one thing: the digital sensor. And it is all about the quality, sharpness, and resolving capability of those tiny little electronic chips. We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more.

Nikon D100 (2002)
6 megapixel – “APS”

The Purple Coneflower is one of my first flower images made with direct digital capture. As noted above, it is difficult to make useful comparisons with film. First, doesn’t scanning a film image convert it to a “digital” image? Then, once we get into the post-processing world, everything we once knew kind of goes out the window. We can post-process a film scanned image in much the same ways we can post-process a digital capture. It may be possible to capture “cleaner” images directly, but we still have to deal with “digital” grain (noise). Color rendering becomes pretty much what you want it to be. One interpretation of the coneflower, for example, is that it has a “color-cast.” This is purposeful on my part because I like the warm, saturated color in many of my more colorful “nature” images. But I did this (of course, you can inadvertently capture color-casts, but if you shoot in the raw format, you can almost always correct, or adjust it, as can be seen from the white daylily image made with the Nikon D200).

Nikon D200
10 Megapixel; APS

I had to laugh as I reviewed digital images in my Lightroom Catalog. I apparently have an affinity for lilies, probably because they are an easy, plentiful, and colorful subject (emphasis perhaps on “easy” 🙂 ). In any event, I have almost 400 lily images. The closest second is around 25.

We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more

When I shifted to digital, I was satisfied with what was available, but not completely happy that the sensors were still small. Size, with sensors, had at least three dimensions: actual physical sensor size, and pixel depth (the number of pixels on that space), and the actual physical size of each individual pixel. Obviously, they are interrelated. And in the beginning, this was a pretty big deal. Larger sensors and larger pixels could handle capture with less noise, at higher ISO levels and more detail. So, almost from the beginning, there were “pixel wars” between the purveyors of digital cameras. But also in the beginning, the successful manufacture and hence, availability of larger sensors was prohibitively expensive. Of course, the sensor size itself also effected the optics in a big way. The 35mm SLR camera had become the sort of “standard” by which most of this stuff was measured. But the affordable sensors at first were the so-called “APS” sized sensor, which is significantly smaller than the 35mm film rectangle we were used to, but as you can see by the gold rectangle below, much larger that what we first had with Point & Shoot cameras.

Sensor Sizes Compared

APS sensors meant that the lenses made for the 35mm perspective, did not work the same way. There were pros and cons (covered ad nauseum by others elsewhere). Because of the perceived combined “advantage” of a higher-quality capture and regaining the use, especially, of their wide angle lenses, many 35mm users almost immediately began to call for a so-called “full frame” sensor. I have always found this kind of illogical. What would a “medium format” (4 x 5 inch), or a full 8 x 10″ view camera user call a sensor made to their size? :-). But “full frame” caught on. I eventually jumped on that train, believing “full frame” capture was necessary for me to achieve the image quality I desired. I want to emphasize that there is certainly nothing negative about owning the larger sensor. There is little doubt that you can coax more out of it than the smaller sensors. But to me, it may have been the purchase of a dump truck, when a small pickup (or even a wheelbarrow) was sufficient. There are a couple factors – all empirical for me – that bring me to this conclusion.

D800 “full frame”

First, I had some personal experience. While I am not sure this is any longer true, at the time, to me the “holy grail” was the photographic print, on traditional photographic paper. I have owned a couple Epson printers that were capable of making inkjet prints that rivaled anything I had ever received from any lab. And, I was able to do my own “darkroom” adjustments. For economic reasons, the largest I generally made were 13 x 19″ prints, and that became my de facto standard for measuring quality. And while I enjoyed and appreciated my “full frame” Nikons, my “testing” didn’t prove out the benefit (for me) of the larger sensor (except, perhaps with its integration with some really fine pro- zoom lenses designed for 35mm).

Sony NEX APS
(equivalent to Nikon APS)

The real eye opener came some years later, when I made side-by-side images with my Sony “full frame” and my Sony RX100, and printed them. I could not see much difference. To be fair, much of what has gone on has been in the post-processing realm (both in terms of technology and my abilities). There have also been technology gains which have made the smaller sensor just that much better.

Sony NEX APS
Zeiss 50mm f1.8 lens

 

The red lily image illustrates this, I think. It prints beautifully as a 13 x 19. I believe it could easily print much larger with no noticeable degradation. It illustrates to me my earlier premise that resolving power, low light, and clean capture-capable sensors (regardless of size, and often regardless of the number of megapixels) has really become the “media” of today.

 

“Gear Stuff” – a comparison between Large and Small Cameras.

Castle Hill Lighthouse Newport, RI Copyright Andy Richards 2016
Castle Hill Lighthouse
Newport, RI
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

I have “categories” on my blog, like “gear” and “musings.” I am not sure if this blog is more “gear” or “musings.” So let’s just call it “musings about gear.” 🙂

The age old gear discussion often involves whether one is better than the other

All craftsmen use tools. Some are generic, but often there are special tools for a particular job. I think photographic “gear” is really better characterized, generally, as “tools.” The age old gear discussion involves whether one is “better” than the other. So let’s just start this out by stating that, when it comes to photography, “better” is always subjective. And perhaps when we apply the adjective, “better” we need to think in terms of “better for what,” and “better for whom?

Castle Hill Lighthouse Newport, RI Copyright Andy Richards 2016
Castle Hill Lighthouse
Newport, RI
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Equipment that is better for me is not necessarily better for another photographer. One of my good friends, Phil Dolinger, is a sports photographer. He wouldn’t use my gear. It just wouldn’t work for him. It is the wrong tool. I could use his gear (Phil, if you give it to me, I will use it 🙂 ). But I don’t need his gear. I travel and I most often shoot cooperative (“still”) subjects. Usually, I can get closer using my feet. So I can work with smaller lenses and smaller cameras.

Sailboat Rhode Island Copyright Andy Richards 2016
Sailboat
Rhode Island
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Before I go further, I guess I need to consider what I mean by “large” and small.”  For many of the years I have been shooting, in my thinking, really large cameras were view cameras.  They use sheets of film, often as large as 8 x 10 inches.  Large cameras were the various iterations of the so-called, “Medium Format” (MF) camera, which shot film rectangle sizes of generally between 6 x 4.5 and 6 x 8 inches.  While these cameras certainly were capable of capturing tremendous detail, the were often fiddly, expensive to operate, heavy, and required accessories.  There is a reason you never see a view camera on the sidelines on NFL Sunday.  View cameras and often, larger MF cameras required the use of a large and sturdy tripod.

Probably the most ubiquitous camera over the last 40 years has been the 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera.  The vast majority of shooters, pro and serious amateur alike, used these cameras.  Though their film square was a mere 35mm diagonal, they were a very acceptable compromise of film, a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, adjustability of shutter speed and aperture.  Their main advantage was their diversity and portability.  A variation the SLR is the so-called viewfinder camera.  Most of them used 35mm film and they were, more often than not, used by pro’s who needed portability and sometimes anonymity.  Or, often because they just preferred them.  Since my acquisition of the Sony RX100 small camera, I now understand why.

I have always thought the term “full frame” was kind of self-serving.  It refers to 35mm.  All those shooters shooting various medium format and larger format cameras have to be saying “really?  Full Frame?  You are gonna go with that?

And then there are “small” cameras.  Those are essentially anything smaller than an SLR, in my thinking (obviously, it’s all relative).  We have, over the years, come to calling them “point and shoot” (P&S) cameras.  This perhaps pejorative name is less based on their capability than their intended market.  These were everyday, snapshooter, often inexpensive, and generally, limited systems.  They didn’t have to be.  I once carried an Olympus “pocket” camera that made some very high quality images.  Some used 35mm film, some even smaller film.  Generally, a “serious” photographer did not carry one of these “small” cameras as their primary gear.  In the past 5 years, that has (at least for me and perhaps a couple others I know) has all changed.

What has been a real eye-opener for me is just how capable current small cameras are. In “the day,” nobody argued that a larger piece of film yielded finer, more detailed results; especially where large prints were involved. So the View Camera generally yielded best results. Medium Format cameras generally yielded better results than 35mm. For its first 20 years, it has been assumed (and probably proven), that the same held true with digital capture. There was no question in the nascent days of digital capture, that the medium format digital backs rendered finer, more detailed, and just overall more pleasing images.  But they were completely out of the economic reach of the typical enthusiast and of many pros.  The first consumer affordable sensors in a “larger” camera format were the so-called APS-sized (smaller than 35mm) sensor.  Built on the 35mm SLR body concept, they have been tagged DSLRs.  They are are probably still the most popular enthusiast dedicated digital camera. The roadblocks to creating 35mm equivalent and larger sensors were technology and cost. As those two factors converged affordable 35mm (so-called “full frame”) sensors became reality. But for the 10-15 years before that, an entire, new phase of manufacturing came about in order to produce lenses that worked hand in hand with the smaller APS sensors. Again, gear. Lots of it. Good for manufactures and sales :-).  I have always thought the term “full frame” was kind of self-serving.  It refers to 35mm.  All those shooters shooting various medium format and larger format cameras have to be saying “really?  Full Frame?  You are gonna go with that?”

What has been an eye-opener is just how capable smaller cameras are

Again, the gear and tools analogy holds here. The reason 35mm SLR cameras were so popular was their versatility. You don’t see many view-cameras and black cloths setting up for sports or wildlife shooting.  And you never see one of those being hand held on a crowded city street.  Not only are the images upside-down on the viewing screen, but it is really difficult to move the camera and focus it.  Another reason, of course, is the ability to manufacture and offer SLR style bodies at a price that can be afforded by consumers.

Temple Rokuon-Ji Kyoto Japan Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Temple Rokuon-Ji
Kyoto Japan
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

But things have changed. And oh, how they have changed! Film and digital capture sensors are both, without doubt, physical science. But the technology surrounding the physical science just gets better and better, and put in the context of our own empirical experience, unbelievable. Things like Fuji’s “Foveon” sensors, and the newer “stacked sensor” technology championed by Sony, has given us the advancement to create high image quality digital capture with very physically small sensors. So much so, that it is becoming really difficult to differentiate an image captured by a small camera and one captured by a large camera.

I need to qualify this. On paper, there is still no comparison between the image quality rendered by a large digital sensor and a small one. The larger one will yield measurably better results. “Measurably” is the key. The practice of magnifying the images to 100% and looking at the individual pixels is often referred to as “pixel-peeping.” I won’t argue that difference is remarkable. But I don’t know that I really care. For me the objective has always been display of my images in a format that viewers can enjoy. And though more and more, digital display has become the benchmark, I still think in terms of the relatively large photographic print. So, when I am able to take a small sensor image and make a good quality print at 24″ x 36″, I have obtained the results I seek. I have a couple such prints that are indistinguishable to my eye from similar prints made from my “full-frame” (35mm equivalent) camera.

The practice of magnifying the images to 100% and looking at the individual pixels is often referred to as “pixel-peeping.” I won’t argue that difference is remarkable. But I don’t know that I really care.

On my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island, I carried the small, Sony RX100iv in my pocket the entire time I was shooting. I have started to use it to frame up images and take test shots while setting up the full-frame a7 on the tripod. What has continued to amaze me is that I find it difficult to meaningfully distinguish images shot with it and the a7. And these days, my small camera images are mostly handheld. The first Castle Hill Lighthouse shot here was made with the a7 and a 70-200 lens. after making a few shots with the R100, I waited for the “golden” light to make the a7 shot.  The only real difference I can see is the light and color of the image. As far as the image quality, I really cannot see a difference. I am confident that I could print from either digital file as large as I would ever want a print to be for hanging. (NOTE:  when I wrote the first draft of this, I said “Sure, it is not going to make a billboard image, but I haven’t shot one of those yet 🙂 ” )Recently, I sold an image made with my full frame Nikon DSLR that was used as a billboard sized panoramic images in an Interstate Welcome Center.  Perhaps the RX100 would have shown its weakness there 🙂 .

Castel-Angel Rome, Italy Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Castel-Angel
Rome, Italy
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

I have used the RX100iv exclusively as my travel camera, to some pretty amazing places. I have surprised myself that I have foregone carrying the more “serious” equipment. As well, I have been surprised that I haven’t missed it and have brought home some pretty good images (IQ-wise, at least. I’ll let the viewer judge whether they are “good” images or not).

Rigging, Tall Ship Newport, RI Copyright Andy Richards 2016
Rigging, Tall Ship
Newport, RI
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Every image here, except the first one, were made with the Sony RX100iv. I believe the quality of smaller sensors has gotten so good that I told my buddy, Rich on our trip that if I ever replace the a7, I will most likely move back the NEX (now badged “Alpha 0000”) series of cameras. While using an APS sensor in lieu of the 35mm equivalent, they — and their matching lenses — are smaller, lighter, and generally less expensive. But with pretty estimable image quality capability. I like all those things.

 

The Sony RX100iv; An in-depth Review

Recommended

Sony RX100iv
Sony RX100iv

The RX100iv, is not a casual user’s camera – it is a serious photographer’s tool. That’s not to say a number of P&Sers won’t buy, and effectively use it. But if you are going to set it on the “auto,” or “scene” setting and shoot away, and/or posting images only online, you will be wasting 90% of the camera’s potential; and leaving a lot of money on the table.

My “path” to the RX100

Some of you may have read about my “saga” of equipment during the past couple years. For those who haven’t, I’ll briefly recap, as I believe it puts this review in perspective.  I started photography, shooting slide film with an all-manual, SLR back in 1976. I have since, advanced through a number of iterations of SLR and eventually DSLR cameras (“upgrades”?), have studied photography, and made a pretty serious run at it as a hobby. For most of my shooting time, I have been a Nikon owner (which is not a black vs. white commentary, but perhaps shows a level of seriousness), shooting their very good cameras and lenses, including a number of “pro” designated lenses and bodies.

The RX100iv is not a casual user’s camera

Sometime during late 2012 and early 2013, I decided to trade my “backup” Nikon D7000 for one of Sony’s “MILS” (mirrorless interchangeable lens) cameras. The series was the “NEX” line (now re-badged as the “Alpha” x000 series), and was often found in stores like Best Buy and Staples, in the lowered-numbered iterations. The higher numbered NEX-6 and 7, though, were formidable cameras, with viewfinders and all of the “bells and whistles” you find on the modern higher-end DSLR cameras.

Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

The NEX-6 incorporated the identical APS sensor to the one in the D7000 and was a very compact form factor. I thought it would work nicely for a carry-around camera. It did – and more. In fact, it became my primary travel camera. It was light, small, inconspicuous, and easy to use (reminiscent of the Nikon-1 that was marketed for Nikon by Ashton Kutcher for a few years). I fell in love with smaller and lighter, but still felt “married” to the concept of carrying a “full-frame” sensor camera for my landscape imagery.”

I thought the NEX6 would work nicely for a carry-around camera — It did that, and more

Other than the limitation of the APS sensor size, the one “knock” on these cameras was the lack of “good” lenses. That was not my own experience. Not only did some of the Sony lenses perform very well, but Sigma made a pair of very cheap lenses that were extremely small, sharp and affordable. But the real draw was Carl Zeiss. Sony and Zeiss have developed a partnership and lenses are now manufactured for by Sony with Zeiss specs (and badged Sony/Zeiss). Zeiss also has manufactured lenses for the Sony line of camera, on its own. The best of these lenses were prime, very fast (f1.8 – 2.8 range) and rendered some wonderful, contrasty images with great bokeh.

Then, Sony announced its Full Frame a7 series and for me the rest was history. A chunky body which reminds of a very small SLR, and still relatively large lenses, this combo is still smaller and lighter than my older Nikon SLR, and the advances in technology are pretty great. My primary camera is the a7. My “backup” and walk-around was the NEX-6.

Sony RX100iv

But I am always looking at “new and improved.” And small is good. My a7 default rig is the a7 plus a Carl Zeiss f4 24-70 zoom lens.  The quality I get from this out fit is certainly second to none.  But it is still big and heavy compared to some of the more “portable” choices out there.  I am not sure where or how it captured my attention, but sometime during this past winter, I “noticed” the fourth generation of this little camera, the RX100iv. At the time, I didn’t know about the prior generations (i and ii did not have the same lens and earlier-design sensors and less features, and iii had the same lens, but still not the advanced sensor of the iv).

Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

What first grabbed my attention was the built-in Carl Zeiss f1.8-2.8 zoom lens. I wondered how it might compare to other Zeiss offerings for Sony. DPreview, and other resources, said: “favorably.” Then I began to look at the other features of the camera. Sony is (in my mind) a developing camera company (as compared with, for example, Canon and Nikon). In that sense, as their mirrorless offerings began to take hold, they changed and “fiddled” with their menu system. For a while, each new offering had a different or changed system, which was annoying. When moving from camera to camera, being familiar with the consistent approach of a system is very useful. The NEX system was very different from the a7 (I believe the newer generation alpha 6000 – of the NEX series incorporates Sony’s newer, current, menu system). The RX100 has an almost identical menu interface to the a7.

Small is good

Note that the lens, a Carl Zeiss f1.8 24-70 zoom was first installed on the iii version of this camera. From what I can see, the primary differences between version iii and iv are the “stacked sensor” (more later), an electronic shutter, more resolution (3840 x 2160 vs. the iii’s 1920 x 1080), faster continuous drive (essentially, a non-issue for this type of camera in my opinion), and a negative, shorter battery life. Many of the improvements seem to favor videographers. I haven’t gone there at all, so I cannot comment on this camera as a video tool.  But the RX100iii is about $150 less than the iv.  This might be a factor for some with a budget in mind.  I would think you would get a pretty good camera in the RX100iii.

About the same time I was looking, my mentor from NOLA e-mailed me that he had acquired one of these cameras and he was duly impressed. I decided it was time to make another “leap of faith.” I boxed up the NEX-6, some lenses, etc., and made an essentially even “trade” for the RX100iv. My thinking was that if I was disappointed, I could still get back to the a6000 without a 2nd mortgage. I did do a “preliminary” review on this camera shortly after I acquired it, promising a more in depth review.

Barcelona, Spain Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Barcelona, Spain
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

This is a “serious” camera, with all the controls resident in a “serious” DSLR camera; a Carl Zeiss lens; and the ability to capture images in raw format. At $950.00 it is a high price point for the P&S world, but it is not really a P&S camera under the hood. It certainly can serve as a backup (and maybe even a primary camera) for general photography at a “professional” quality level.  I have now carried it (nearly exclusively) on two out-of-country trips (Japan and the Mediterranean), and shot over 2,000 images with it. I think I can make some “hands-on” observations now:

Form Factor

Size. There is no getting around it; this is a P&S sized camera. The body on this diminutive camera is a mere 4” long x 2 ¼ high by 1” deep. The “lens bump” on the front adds an addition 5/8 inch, being the only thing keeping it from being a true miniature pocket camera. But pocketable it is! I have carried it in my shirt pocket, my front pants pocket, or in the cargo pocket when available. It would be a tight fit in jeans, but in looser fitting pants (I wear Columbia pants in the field), it fits well.

One thing that clearly distinguishes it from the field is its weight. Mine weighs 10.7 ounces, which equals a fair amount of “heft” — but not uncomfortably so, in my view.  It appears to be all or mostly metal construction and built for durability. It feels good in the hand (though I did purchase Sony’s additional stick-on hand grip for the lower right part of the body). My hands are medium-large and it gives me a feeling of added security when carrying the camera in my right hand. It is a matter of preference. I think you could do fine with out).

The RX100iv is a P&S camera in physical form only!

It’s Inconspicous. To me this is very exciting and important. Here is a camera that is tiny enough to pack anywhere and carry and has the potential to make near-DSLR quality images.  In addition to the fact that it is very small and light (maybe even the difference between an extra carry-on or not for airline travel); it is also very inconspicuous. When shooting with a group of photographers in a National Park, that is probably not much of a factor. But in travel situations, cities, and faster moving groups, it becomes a pretty big deal. I am generally able to move around and shoot as I wish, and I am just “another tourist.” People do not instinctively “freeze up” when they see it (if they see it). This is a phenomenon I never appreciated until my pro friend and mentor suggested that it would be an advantage (in fact, he has a funny story where a shooter with all the “big dog” gear, kind of disdainfully tried to “shoe” him away so she could get her shot – having no idea that this guy is a life-long pro, trained photojournalist, who has shot international music acts, books, and sells substantial stock photos, and likely could have taught her a thing or two about phography).

Barcelona, Spain Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Barcelona, Spain
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Image Quality

In the final analysis, any serious photographer (at least in my own view) should be choosing her or his tools based on one primary feature: image quality. Perhaps said another way, a camera with all the bells and whistles which produces poor image quality, is a non-starter.  While my remarks below may read to some as at least mildly critical, I want to emphasize that overall, I find this to be a fine camera, worthy of carry, and I plan to keep and use it as a “workhorse” for a long time to come.

Mad River Warren, Vermont Sony a7 Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Mad River
Warren, Vermont
Sony a7
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

“Image Quality” is a Relative Term

I believe “image quality” is a relative term. If I am making poster sized, fine art, landscape prints, my “need” for IQ might be different than if I am going to post online. I don’t have unrealistic expectations (at least not currently) of using the RX100 for this kind of image (edit:  I drafted this before actually making some prints.  I have made a couple 13″ x 19″ prints now on my Epson Printer that rival anything I have made from larger sensor cameras). But I do want to be able to make a large print if I make an image I like well enough. When I first got the camera, I made some closeup flower images and printed one on my Epson printer at 13” x 19” and was impressed with the print – IQ. Enough so, that I opted to carry only this body on my trip to Japan.

Mad River Warren, Vermont Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Mad River
Warren, Vermont
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

In September, I packed both cameras, and carried the a7 on one shore excursion.  Learning that I essentially had all the same focal length and exposure solution ability, I decided to leave the a7 aboard the ship and carry the RX100 for the balance of the trip.  Nearly all my Mediterranean images were made with the RX100.  While in Vermont in October, on a photo-specific trip, I carried the RX100iv into the field and made a few side-by-side comparison images.  I have posted a couple of them here, for comparison (and whatever else you may want to do with them – subject, of course, to copyright 🙂 )

Robert Frost Cabin Vermont Sony a7 Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Robert Frost Cabin Vermont
Sony a7
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Overall Quality. I will leave the technical stuff to DPreview, Wilhelm Imaging Research, and the pixel peepers on line. My reviews are always intended to be more empirical, hands-on, “will this work for you,” kind of judgments. In that respect, the answer is a qualified “yes.” On a scale of Poor to Excellent, I would judge the IQ rendered by this sensor as good, leaning toward the “excellent” range on the scale. It is not as good as, for example, the Zeiss 24mm f1.8 prime lens on my NEX-6 was. But it is close enough for the intended use. Most of the imagery made by me with this type of body does not call for closeups, bokeh, etc. I am shooting cityscapes, buildings, etc., and when conditions warrant, shooting around f8 at low (100 – 125) ISO ranges.

Mad River Warren, Vermont Sony a7 Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Mad River
Warren, Vermont
Sony a7
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

I should note that I capture raw images 99.99% of the time.  I set my in-camera settings to be totally neutral on every digital body I own.  When I first purchased the RX100iv, Adobe had not yet released an ACR version that would render the raw capture files from this camera.  So in the beginning, I set it to shoot both raw and Jpeg images, so I could see and work with them in Photoshop.  I did briefly use Capture One to render the raw images, but the new workflow was more than I wanted to learn, so I was glad that Adobe shortly upgraded ACR to include the newest Sony raw file format.

Barcelona, Spain Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Barcelona, Spain
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Anyway, I cannot really comment on any of the settings for jpegs in the camera.  The jpegs I used seemed clean, sharp, contrasty, had good dynamic range, and seemed true to exposure settings I made.

Sharpness. I will give this camera an A- / – B+ for critical sharpness. As most readers probably already know, with digital capture, sharpness can be affected by a combination of factors. Aside from the human factors (shake, shutter speed, etc.), the two that primarily affect sharpness in digital capture are the lens and the anti-aliasing filter on the sensor. I don’t know which combination here affects the imagery the most, but I have been mildly disappointed here. It is rarely an issue, but occasionally I have seen a lack of sharpness in some images. I use AF almost exclusively and I am aware that it could be my specific copy of the camera. It is also a zoom lens. I may just have too high expectations after shooting with the a7 and the NEX-6/Zeiss prime combination, but it is a Sony-Zeiss designed lens and I expected more.  I am not saying it is unacceptable by any stretch.  It is, to me, comparable to the results I used to get with my Nikon D200 and the 28-200 f3.5-5.6 zoom lens.  I can (and will) certainly live with it (and as you see, my “grade” is really not that bad).

Sensor. Sensor size will always influence IQ, in my view. The larger the sensor (with other technical factors being correctly done – and nobody does it better than Sony) — the better the potential IQ.  Larger sensors tend to have less noise issues and capture more detail and dynamic range. Lots of reasons for this – I’ll let the experts explain it. Sony has done something interesting with this camera. At one inch, the sensor is significantly larger than most P&S camera sensors, but still small than APS. On the iv generation, they have introduced their “stacked sensor” technology. This has moved some of the essential “computing” technology off of the primary capture sensor to another stacked chip. I cannot begin to explain this, but they do a pretty clear job in the DPreview piece on this camera.

Bokeh. One of the challenges to small camera construction is that sensors are smaller, physical lens apertures are smaller, and this affects bokeh. It is much easier to get smooth, creamy, out of focus backgrounds with a wide-open (f1.8 or 2.8) on a full frame or larger sensor with a big lens. I had hoped that the ultra-small lens at f1.8 would get close to the larger a7 – f4 Zeiss 24-70 combo. Not quite. For those really impressive closeup shots, I am probably going to stay with my full frame camera. But for most purposes, this isn’t an issue. The general shooting I have done has rendered very nice imagery.  The daffodil shot below is exemplary of what the RX100iv is capable of.

Daffodil Sony RX00iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Daffodil
Sony RX00iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

IQ Conclusion. These comments aren’t meant to discourage a potential acquisition of this camera. For several years, I shot with a Nikon DSLR APS sensor camera and their “consumer” 80-200 zoom lens. I have many very good images from that combination. The IQ from the Sony RX100iv easily matches that IQ. Don’t let any comment above stop you from acquiring this camera. The numerous images I have put on my website should convince you that there is huge “bang for the buck” in this camera. One other thing I didn’t mention – the quality and sharpness appears to be very consistently good throughout the entire range of the zoom lens.

Usability and Controls

Have I mentioned that this camera is Small? For some, this might be a factor. But in this day of cell phone cameras, I doubt it will be anything but an advantage for most of us. I love the portability. This camera fits in a pocket, a purse (or “man bag”), a small backpack pocket, or a briefcase. This means you will carry it and if you carry it, you will use it.

This camera fits in a pocket, a purse, or a “man bag”

Viewfinder. I grew up in a viewfinder world. Starting with waist-level finders and quickly graduating to wysiwyg, pentaprism finders, my first 30 years of photography involved seeing through the viewfinder. Though I occasionally find the LCD screen useful, I “see” photographically when I have a view finder. So for me, a viewfinder is a must have option.

Sony has done this very cleverly. There is a pop-up viewfinder. It is a bit cumbersome, but you get used to it quickly. When you pop it up, it turns on the camera, and the default is that when you retract it, it turns the camera back off, though that can be turned off in the menu system (this was a complaint in the iii iteration and I understand that a firmware upgrade has now given iii owners the option to turn it off too).  In order to recess back into the housing, Sony has engineered a pull out/pushback part to this finder.  In order to retract it back into the camera, you must push it back. I haven’t had any issue with this, but it might be possible to break it by trying to force it down without pushing the optical part back in.  This is probably the camera’s weakest point, mechanically.  I have always been pretty careful with my gear (when you spend big dollars it makes you more careful 🙂 ). When you pop it up, if you bring it to your eye without pulling it out, you will get a blurry view. This is probably the camera’s weakest mechanical link.  For RXiii users (and the default behavior for the RXiv), when you clicked the viewfinder back into the body, it shut the camera down.  I read some complaints that Sony didn’t make this a user changeable feature.  Apparently, they listened, and the RXiv can be set to either shut down or stay on (and there may be a firmware upgrade that adds this feature for RXiii users).

Barcelona, Spain Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Barcelona, Spain
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

There is a slider adjustment on the viewfinder to focus the finder. It is one of my “niggles” with the design/construction. This slider moves easily in use, and I find myself having to constantly re-adjust it. I wish there were some kind of click stop for it.

The viewfinder is, like all of the Sony MILS viewfinders, an electronic finder. This used to be a negative feature on digital P&S and mirrorless cameras. They looked like a grainy, B&W video cam screen and weren’t well integrated with the lens. Sony has not only fixed that, but in my opinion, has actually improved on the pentaprism viewfinder found in SLR/DSLR cameras. One really cool feature (when turned on in the menu system), is a kind of “real time” exposure view. As you adjust aperture and/or shutter speed, you can see the image in the viewfinder darken and lighten. Focus integration is instant. This is a very nicely integrated piece of technology by Sony. On my recent trip to the Mediterranean, I picked up my travel companion’s Nikon DSLR to take an image of them as a couple and immediately noticed that the viewfinder wasn’t changing as I made adjustments. I have grown to like this feature on all my Sony cameras.

Controls. The controls are similar to the a7, but a bit less handy for the traditional dial style camera. There is one dial on top which changes the shooting mode. I generally leave it on A mode (occasionally on M). I would like to see that dial dedicated to something more useful, like changing aperture or shutter speed.

Lens Ring. The RX100 has a nice, knurled lens ring. That ring can be set to use as a focusing ring for MF, a zoom ring (I use the electronic zoom on the shutter button) or – depending on which shooting mode you are using, to change aperture (A and M), or shutter speed (S). Another “niggle” I have with Sony is that this knurled ring (while smooth in use) turns too easily at the touch, and I find myself having to re-set my set aperture more often than I would like. I have gotten into the habit of checking that as I bring the camera up to my eye. But to my way of thinking, I shouldn’t need to be worrying about that. Settings should be, well, “set,” until I change them. Maybe more damping, or even a click stop might serve this well.

Rocker Dial. There is the traditional “joy-stick” rocker-dial on the back which makes other settings in those modes. It is generally well placed and damped and I haven’t had any issue with accidentally changing things with it when shooting (it is possible, if you carry the camera at your waist one-handed with your right hand, to move that dial, however).

There are also dedicated and programmable function buttons. The Sony menu system has begun to be more consistent, and it is very similar to the system on my a7 (and on the alpha x000 series).  A review of that is beyond the scope of this review and others have done it well already.

LCD Screen. The RX100iv has a very nice, articulating, 3” diagonal LDC screen. It is hi resolution and reasonably useable even in sunny conditions (though I rarely use it). I recommend only 4 accessories for this camera. One of them is a screen protector. This camera is going to get scratched up, particularly if you pocket it. The screen protector is a worthwhile investment (the other two are a small arca swiss plate for tripod use, a remote trigger, and the hand-grip, whose mileage may vary).

Flash. The RX100iv has a popup flash. Like most P&S flashes, it has limited utility and strength, as well as being mounted on the body, causing the probability of red-eye. I have not looked into the use of external flashes, or whether it is even feasible (other than remotely triggered flashes).

Tripod Use. Those who know me know I have preached and preached (and then preached some more) about the virtues of a good tripod. I carry 2; both carbon fiber and both fairly expensive (not to brag, but to point out that for the perceived utility of this accessory, really good ones are just darn expensive). There is a tripod socket on the body. I have a very small arca-swiss type dovetail plate with a small ridge on it that grips the back of the body to resist twisting. I have used the camera on a tripod and obtained results I could not have otherwise. The image of Tokyo Tower, at night, was taken from a tripod, through a hotel window.  It would be impossible to do this handheld.

Tokyo Tower Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Tokyo Tower
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Remotes. One disappointment for me has been Sony’s implementation of remote triggering. On the a7, I cannot use a wired remote without removing my L-plate, which essentially defeats the purpose of having an L-plate in the first place. I have had to resort to a wireless remote. They are quirky, and I struggle with getting it not to try to re-focus. But I have figured out the workaround.  Now, I find that I cannot use the wireless remote on my RX100. So I carry the wired remote for that and the wireless for the a7. So much for consistency within brand.  But these issues are minor, in light of the overall utility of this very small, very estimable camera.

Battery Life

In three words: not very good. But there is good news. The batteries are quite small (much smaller than DSLR batteries), and aftermarket versions seem to be just as good as the OEM battery. So I just carry extras and keep them charged. Won’t quite get a day’s shooting in on one battery (the way I shoot).

Things I would like to see in a newer software version: a battery and card “warning.” I know they are already there visually, but only if you have that screen turned on. If you are in the heat of things, its disconcerting to find the “decisive moment” and get the message “battery exhausted” or “card full,” and have your camera rendered essentially useless.

Another thing that I have found disconcerting is that the battery “meter” on the back screen of the camera is not particularly accurate.  Recently, I took my cam to an event and when I checked, the meter told me my battery was at least 75%.  When I went to use it, I got barely 2 shots before it was down to nothing and “exhausted.”  One think I have learned about these batteries.  If you leave them in the camera for an extended period, they will be exhausted, regardless of what the “meter” says.  Always start out with a freshly charged battery.

“Bells and Whistles”

My working gestalt when it comes to cameras is that they are a tool.  At its heart, this may be as good a small “tool” as I have ever owned.  The essential part of the camera is a pretty simple mechanism:  it gives us the ability to expose on a sensor, and the ability to control the variables of that exposure.  All of the other stuff is “bells and whistles.”  We have come to take AF (autofocus) for granted, and as my eyes continue to age, I find it a necessity.  I like the ability to set the camera to Aperture Priority or Shutter Speed Priority, but that is really just a convenience from the essential setting — manual.  And you really cannot effective use AP or SP unless you understand how to use Manual Exposure.

At its heart, this may be as good a small “tool” as I have ever owned

Like all modern digital cameras (and I really wish we had a choice to exclude much it what comes next), this camera is packed with bells and whistles for the less experienced or less sophisticated user (that’s my own view anyway).  And in my opinion, if you come within this latter category, the RX100iv is way too much camera for you!  It has the (apparently) requisite “Auto” and “Program Auto” settings, and within the menu, a myriad of “scene” settings.  For the life of me, I don’t see what a serious shooter would ever do with those settings and thus – would rather have them gone, have a simpler menu, and more effective use of the dials.  :-).

These cameras all seem to have in-body HDR and Panoramic Settings.  Interesting, but essentially useless to me (and many other shooters) because they default to — and only work in — jpeg mode.  To my way of thinking, all advance cameras are bloated with this stuff in my oh, so humble opinion. 🙂

Panoramic; Florence, Italy Sony RX100iv Copyright Andy Richards 2015
Panoramic; Florence, Italy
Sony RX100iv
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

I was intrigued with the panoramic feature, and during our trips had 3 or 4 opportunities to capture a panoramic shot.  Since we never had time for me to set up a tripod and take the series of raw images necessary to stitch together in Photoshop later, I tried the in-camera feature, knowing I would have jpeg captures to work with.  It is basically disappointing.  First, it is set up only to take the image in “landscape” mode.  When stitching panos, most of us take our series in “portrait” format in order to have more top and bottom to crop and work with when perspective correcting.  Second, the in-camera perspective correction is almost non-existent.  My images have a pronounce curvature, and would take some pretty series surgery to fix.  Not anything I am willing to spend a bunch of time on.  I have found some very limited usefulness for that here (illustrations in my blog in very small image sizes).  If I am going to shoot a panoramic that I really want as a “keeper,” I will be taking a series of portrait-orientation shots and stitching them in PS.

Accessories

As much of a gadget guy as I am, I have learned that the old saying, “less is more,” is apt here.  The less you have to carry, adjust, attach, care for and think about, the more you can focus on your goal of making pictures.  On this camera, I have kept it to a minimum of 4 items.  I put the extra grip (it is very small, like the camera, and doesn’t interfere in any way with the camera – including pocketability) on mine.  That will be largely a matter of personal choice.  I have an arca swiss style plate for my tripod head, and a wired remote for tripod shooting.  I put a screen saver on the LCD.

There are other accessories (for example, I purchased a kit to install a polarizing filter.  It seems pretty “Rube Goldberg” to me and I doubt that I will use it).   There are add-on “telephoto” and wide angle attachments.  But the beauty of this little camera is that it is simple to use, yet has all the capability serious shooters will want to make creative images — without any accessories.

Conclusion

It pays to remember, here, what a very good friend of mine once said about equipment.  Every single piece of photographic equipment out there is a compromise.  There are minor things I miss about the NEX-6.  That wonderful f1.8 Zeiss lens is the biggest thing.  The ability to interchange lenses might be another.  While in Japan, I can identify two specific instances where I would have liked to pop a telephoto on.  But only two out of several hundred images is not bad, in my view — and an acceptable compromise.  There are – for sure – going to be times when “more camera” (i.e., a full frame or larger sensor and interchangeable lenses) is going to be warranted.

But I have now taken over 2,000 images with my RX100iv.  I am pretty well satisfied that it was a great choice for a general purpose and travel camera.  I think that if you are an experienced and serious photographer who travels or has a use for a smaller format camera — this is one you should look very hard at.

Recommended

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!