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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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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!

My Early Impressions of the Sony A7r

This “review,” like all of my equipment reviews, is not intended to be a technical review, or to compete with or go head to head with the more serious reviewers, like dpreview.com. I strongly recommend that you read those sites when doing your purchasing “due diligence,” as well as reviewer comments on selling sites such as B&H and Amazon (taking them, of course, with a grain of salt and in the context the reviewer presents). My reviews are more of a pragmatic, hands on take on my personal use. It might be useful to read my blurb here on the blog about the intent of my reviews. It will also be informative to understand my general photography approach. I have friends who shoot sports, wildlife, birds, etc. Much of what I say here will probably not apply, so read within context.

Dublin City Center Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 200; f8 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin City Center
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
ISO 200; f8
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Last year, I made a momentous decision, trading in my impressive, Nikon D7000 (which I carried as a second – and it most served the function of “bag ballast” more than that of a primary tool), for a Sony NEX-6 “mirrorless” camera (see, “My Review of the Sony NEX-6“).

The draw, as noted in the blog, was the SLR-like performance and quality, in a very portable package.  The biggest negative in the SLR world (in my view) is lugging large, heavy pieces of equipment around.  The NEX camera and lenses substantially alleviate this issue. The tradeoff is the potential for loss in image quality and and possibly versatility. But we often get all wound up in “gear” and artificial “definitions” and “standards” of quality. All items of photographic equipment, are tools and they only need to be able to accomplish the purpose intended. Making a compelling image, in the end, is more critical than creating the highest possible (technical) image quality. I think this point is important to put the following into perspective.

In spite of the above observation, there is nothing as “sexy” as a quality-built tool. When I moved into the NEX-6 territory, I began experimenting with a couple of the Zeiss-branded fixed focal length lenses. All I could say was “wow.” And with the combination of the very convenient and small 16-50mm zoom lens and the relatively small, Zeiss f1.8 fixed lenses, the photographic possibilities were exciting – and all in a very small package.

However, the NEX series uses an “APS” size sensor and I had been “spoiled” (or maybe better said: “influenced”) by the “full-size” sensor of the D800.

CITY CENTER DUBLIN, IRELAND 04192014000045

Dublin City Center Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 200; f4 copyright 2014 Andy Richards

So when Sony announced the “full frame” A7/A7r series, many of us who had embraced the mirrorless concept anxiously awaited their release. I took delivery of my A7r, shortly after the first of the year along with the Sony-Zeiss 35mm f2.8 lens. Shortly after that, I also received the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom lens. The draw of the A7 series, in my view, is its “full frame” sensor (with the A7r sensor being essentially the equivalent of the Nikon D800e’s industry leading full frame sensor).

It is not an “apples to apples” comparison

Why not just own the D800e? For me, a primary consideration is that the A7r body is much smaller and lighter. When packing gear for travel, and even when walking around with the camera hanging from your neck, this weighs heavily (pun intended). The A7r and similar lens combinations are also less expensive (though it is a relative comparison). Thus, if it were an “apples to apples” comparison, the Sony vs. the DSLR would be compelling. Unfortunately, it is not such a comparison. The Zeiss Lens is 2 stops slower than the Nikkor. But the cost differential is $1,000. So a significant question is whether the 2 stops are worth the $1,000. For me the “jury” is still out on that. The primary advantage of the 2 extra stops has traditionally been the ability to make images in lower light situations. Now that digital sensors have progressed to the point where the image quality is really quite good at higher ISO settings, this may have become less of an advantage.

Kylemore Abbey Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Kylemore Abbey
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

The second notable advantage is the ability to render images with nice “bokeh” (out of focus backgrounds). It seems clear that the 2 stops continue to make a difference here. However, with the f1.8 fixed lenses, I am finding less need for the longer zooms to produce that kind of imagery. So the comparison is difficult.

I took a serious “plunge” when the A7 was announced, and sold all my Nikon Gear. The replacement was to be the A7r, the Sony Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom and the Sony “pro” 70-200 f4 zoom. As of this writing, I am still waiting on release and delivery of the 70-200. But after carrying the A7r/Zeiss 24-70 combination in the field, I am not sure I would advise doing what I did, if you already own a high-end DSLR and “pro” lens combination. Don’t get me wrong. I am not regretting my decision. For me, the portability and “packability” of the smaller combo, is huge.

I am not ready to say recommend a complete changeover from existing DSLR Gear

The Sony A7r

We recently returned from a week in Ireland, and I had several opportunities to shoot with the A7r and the 24-70; all handheld. During the week, I selectively used this combination when more “serious” landscape opportunities presented themselves. I used a variety of ISO ranges, largely because of the handheld situation. We were on a tour and many of the locations and the short durations of our stays, did not lend themselves to the use of a tripod.  Also, unfortunately, as we were on a bus tour, I did not arrive at most of the locations during ideal lighting conditions.  Most of images show that weakness.

CLIFFS OF MOHR THE BURREN, IRELAND 04222014000036

Cliffs of Moher Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 320; f8 copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Controls

I found the controls and menu system on my NEX-6 a bit clunky, and missed the versatility of the controls of my Nikon D800. The good news is that the A7 series is much more “DSLR-like” in the controls and setup, and I have been able to set up the A7r essentially the same way I had my Nikons set up. One thing I have grown accustomed to – really missed on the NEX – and is “back” on the A7, is the ability to set the auto-focus so that the shutter button does not activate it, but it is activated by a separate button on the back. The A7 allows this. The menu system is logically set up and very easy to use and find things. There are several customizable buttons on the camera back. I have been able to set it up to switch between ISO settings, move the AF bracket, and change shutter speed and aperture very easily. There are also “user 1 and 2” settings on the camera dial, as well as a dedicated exposure compensation dial. The only thing I haven’t been able to figure out how to do is set the AF so it works with the shutter button in one mode and not in the other. Most of the time, it is not an issue, but occasionally, you want to hand your camera to someone to take a photo and you have to explain to them that the focus button is on the back.

Feel and Handling

The A7r is nominally, but noticeably larger than the NEX series bodies. But is is also noticeably smaller than even the next nearest neighbor DSLR (and palpably smaller than the D700/800 Nikon Series), it feels good in myhands. With the 35mm Sony-Zeiss f2.8 attached, it is still pleasingly small and low-profile.

The Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 attached, yields a different story.  It is larger than I had hoped (in my pre-arrival imagination). When added to the A7, while still smaller and substantially lighter than the DSLR with the 24-70 f2.8 attached, it is still a fairly large combination. Reality comes home to roost. It is currently impossible to design a relatively fast (constant f4) zoom lens with coverage for a “full frame” sensor, in a very small package (the lens is nearly 4 inches long and 2 3/4 inches in circumference). Thus, while ½ (or less) the size of the 35mm equivalent, and probably about 1/3 of the weight, it is still a chunk, and is a full 2 stops slower.  I expect the 70-200 will be about the size of the current “consumer” extended zooms available for the “mainline” DSLRs today.  The positive is that its size still makes it very “packable.” The negative is that it is still large enough to be almost awkward to carry around.

Finally, I have read about the issue of  “shutter slap,” which apparently shows itself at certain “medium” shutter speeds; but generally only with long lenses which are mounted on a tripod with an auxiliary foot. This concern is apparently restricted to the A7r (and not the A7).  I haven’t had an opportunity to use longer lenses, tripod mounted yet, but did try to shoot all my handheld shots at relatively fast shutter speeds.  Based on my early results, when using the 24-70 and fixed lenses, I plan to go back to my traditional shutter speed and aperture combinations.  I noted an unusually large number of images shot here at higher ISO than I think necessary (primarily to attain higher shutter speeds).

The Zeiss 24-70 is small enough to be packable, but still large enough to be almost awkward to carry handheld

Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 lens

The “Zeiss” design and manufacture is estimable. The image quality appears very good and the build of the lens also solid. I did not experience “zoom creep” once during the week. The zoom and manual focus mechanism is well damped and very responsive. The auto focus was very adequate in my view. And, using the widest aperture at the longer range of the focal length produced reasonably nice out of focus background bokeh. The lens produces images of the quality one would expect from a quality lens manufacturer. I am not sure it has the “look and feel” that was so obvious with the f1.8 lenses they produced for use with the NEX and Fuji cameras, however. I need more time and experience with this lens before I can make a final judgment.

Dublin City Center Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 200; f4 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Dublin City Center
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
ISO 200; f4
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

By comparison, the NEX-6 with the 16-50 lens attached is very much more portable, and as such, much more enjoyable to carry around. For 80 of the “walk around” shooting I did, it was preferable, just because it was so small and light. With a maximum aperture of f5.6 at the long end (the 16-50 on the NEX APS sensor, is roughly the equivalent of the 24-70), the bokeh developed is not as nice and clearly not as pronounced. One additional observation involves the use of filters on the Zeiss 24-70 lens. I shot with a standard B&W polarizer and there was significant vignetting at the widest lens setting. I have ordered the slim version of the filter.

Conclusions

It may well be that my assumptions and conclusions about the APS vs. “full frame” sensor are overblown.  I have been “wowed” by the images I have been able to make with the NEX-6 with the Sony-Zeiss 24 f1.8 attached, and even with the Sony-branded 50mm f1.8 fixed lens.  They have yielded 13 x 19 inch prints from my Epson printer from which I cannot distinguish shots taken by my Nikon D800.  I am comfortable that I could go much larger than that without any noticeable degradation.  It may well be that only serious pixel-peepers will really discern a difference.  And I am not convinced that the difference really “matters.”  That being the case, I am almost wondering if the APS sized mirrorless cameras aren’t already “enough” for all but the most die-hard image makers, or for special purpose uses?  The “NEX” nomenclature has now been abandonned by Sony, in favor of simply their “Alpha” branding.  So the “upgrade” to the NEX-6 is now known as the Alpha a6000 (but it is the same body, with some significant upgrades, including 24mp).

On balance, I will probably continue to carry the NEX-6 for a daily use, a hand-held, walking around, and travel rig.  For the time being, I will use the A7r as I traditionally did, to shoot from a tripod in more dedicated landscape situations, or when Image Quality is an absolute critical issue (e.g., in low light conditions). Given these conclusions, I am not sure it is yet time to say this combination clearly equals or beats a DSLR setup. Said differently,  If you already own a DSLR and quality lenses, I would probably not recommend a switch from a DSLR.  There are many compromises.

On the other hand, if you are not already “invested” in DSLR equipment, it may well be worth the look, given the relative equality of image quality, the reduced size, weight and cost, and the general direction the industry is moving.  I especially think this it true for those of you who are “general” photographers who like to carry a camera, shoot a variety of subjects and conditions, travel, and shoot handheld.  Like every other equipment choice, the key is what your personal wants and needs are.  For me, the “portability” for packing and travel was worth the risk and as noted above, I do not regret my own decision.  These days, I use a much smaller tripod and the entire “rig” fits in my medium small, messenger style carry on back, for airline travel.

Clonmacnoise Monastic Site;  Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70 ISO 640; f8 copyright 2014  Andy Richards

Clonmacnoise Monastic Site
Sony A7r; Zeiss 24-70
ISO 640; f8
copyright 2014 Andy Richards

Nobody is seriously going to suggest that these mirrorless combinations will go head to head with a DSLR in any kind of “action” photography (particularly sports and wildlife). For these endeavors, at this point, they are not ready for proverbial “prime time.” But as a landscape, travel, portrait and general photography they are pretty impressive rigs.

The Canals of Venice

Canal; Venice, Italy copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Canal; Venice, Italy
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Venice is one of those very special places where every direction you look in is “eye-candy” for a photographer. Those who know my photographic approach know that I have spent the past 30 years as an outdoor and nature photographer, concentrating primarily on landscapes – large and small. But in the recent past, as I have begun to travel more of our country, and the world, my emphasis has (perhaps necessarily—if I want to shoot) shifted more to a kind of hybrid “travel/landscape” emphasis.

Canal, Venice, Italy copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Canal, Venice, Italy
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

In the case of Venice, that is a good thing. I think I might have counted 5 trees. All of the “island” of Venice is man-made; reclaimed from the sea, and is a massive maze of buildings, canals and streets. But for the parking area and bus terminal where the bridge from the mainland ends, there are no motorized, wheeled vehicles on the island! But these very features are what make Venice so photogenic. And, that there is a mix here of 1000’s-year old construction and architecture with relatively modern building, is pretty amazing.

The canals of Venice are a complex and incredible maze

There are so many things to shoot! it is a photographer’s sensory overload. And I wanted to shoot everything. In terms of showing blog readers what I saw, I hardly know where to start. As I noted last week, there are streets, churches, plaza’s, canals (grand and small) and buildings, everywhere that are wonderful photographic subjects. Without any clear sense of what is the “best” part of Venice, I’ll start with my personal favorites: The small canals that are everywhere and are what really make Venice “Venice!”

Canal, Venice, Italy copyright  Andy Richards

Canal, Venice, Italy
copyright Andy Richards

CANALS Venice Italy 091120130016

Canal, Venice, Italy
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, this kind of photography presents certain challenges to what I consider optimal photographic conditions. For those polite (and patient) enough to listen, I have preached for a number of years, some of what I consider “truisms” of “good” photography. Use of a tripod and cable release, and being on site at the right time of day are perhaps the two most important. Neither lends itself to the shooting I have been doing. Partly, this is because we are generally constantly on the move and because (and I sometimes need to be reminded of this) it’s not all about me and my photography. My wife and I travel together 98% of the time, and we are often also part of a group of people. While everyone likes to take snapshots, virtually nobody has the patience for me to set up a tripod and shoot a scene. And, because of the need to often be at a certain place at certain times of the day, shooting in the “right light,” is problematic. We have reached a compromise that usually allows me to have the morning light (in my view the “best” light anyway), but often I am not on site for the late afternoon or evening light. Sometimes, as a matter of logistics, I am also not able to get to the best sites for nighttime shooting.

Use of a tripod and cable release, and being on site at the right time of day are perhaps the two most important. Neither lends itself to the shooting I have been doing

But, I have tried to make the best of it, learning to use the “bad” light when I must (and post-processing when it helps), and shooting what I can. Another thing for me has always been good equipment. Unfortunately, the best equipment I can afford is my DSLR and “pro” lenses. Also unfortunately, to use them at their most effective level, they require a heavy tripod. None of this is particularly conducive to enjoyable travel. This trip, I eschewed this equipment in favor of a lighter, smaller package of my Sony NEX-6 camera and just 3 small lenses (a 50mm 1.8, a 24mm 1.8 and a 16-50 zoom). I have a very small travel tripod which, with the smaller equipment, really acquits itself surprisingly well, and for the couple times I found it possible to use a tripod, filled the bill. I am really pleased with the results. I think that in the future, I will change things up a bit. I found that the 50mm got used rarely – mostly from the balcony of the cruise ship, where distance is almost always a factor. The Zeiss 50m 1.8 never came out of the bag (I am considering selling it). The zoom was really useful – except not very durable and became the first equipment casualty I have ever had in my 30 years (the NEX survived a small, short fall onto a carpeted floor. Not sure if that was the culprit, but shortly afterward, the Sony 16-50 “kit” lens started misbehaving, and eventually stopped working altogether).

I am pleased with the results from the Sony NEX and Lenses

CANALS Venice Italy 091120130026

Canal, Venice, Italy
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

The Zeiss 24mm had to be my primary lens for the balance of the trip, but I certainly missed the ability to zoom in and out at a few of the spots we traveled to. The good news is it isn’t an expensive lens (already replaced). However, I am re-thinking my “bag,” and will probably eventually boil my “kit” (as they say across the pond) to a Zeiss 24mm f1.8 and their new 16-70 Zeiss f4 offering. The 24 gives me medium wide and very fast working lens for both landscape in walking around. The 16-70 is going to be “better” than the 16-55, both in terms of specifications and, hopefully image quality.

There are hundreds of scenes like this in Venice on the many secondary canals Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

There are hundreds of scenes like this in Venice on the many secondary canals
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

The canals. They are amazing. And they are everywhere. The Grand Canal makes a sweeping “S” curve through the island, and there are only 4 bridges that cross it throughout! Two of them are very close together, right at the Ferrovia (railroad) station and where the busses and auto parking lots are. The other two are quite far apart. But there are hundreds of small foot bridges across all of the small canals.

This bridge is one of only 3 like it left in Venice.  Anybody see the difference? copyright 2013  Andy Richards

This bridge is one of only 3 like it left in Venice. Anybody see the difference?
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

The small canals follow absolutely no plan or logic. A more effective maze could not be designed. Virtually every travel book, blog, or other “piece” I read prior to visiting said that a part of the “charm” of Venice is that you will walk along these canals and you will get lost! I took that as kind of an exaggeration. I was wrong. You do get lost. Almost every time you set out for somewhere. We made the walking trip from the Ferrovia station to St. Mark’s Plaza (Piazza San Marco) four times. The first two seemed like a disaster. We never made the same route to or back. But eventually, you find your way—it just takes twice as long. While I don’t think my wife appreciated the “getting lost,” charm, I did see the value of it from a photographer’s perspective. I eventually learned a way to get to San Marco directly and shortened the trip from 45 minutes of uncertainty, to a pretty clear cut 20 minute walk. But maybe I missed another, “better” canal shot.

Canal, Venice, Italy copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Canal, Venice, Italy
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

You will get lost; I did get lost. But it was wonderfully lost!

As you can see, I shot canal after canal (usually with a small footbridge). For the most part, I couldn’t direct you to one of them if there was a gun to my head. I “discovered” them as I walked around Venice, often in the early morning, before all the people showed up.

Canal, Venice, Italy copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Canal, Venice, Italy
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

On the last day, we boarded the cruise ship and then went back onto the island. We had some specific errands to do, near the Rialto area. We had not been in this area at all. We were dog-tired (Venice wears out your legs) and I was tired of schlepping the photo gear around, so I left it on the ship. It was a mistake. It is hard to tell why or how, but there were more small canals and bridges this way, and they were different. I also made a mistake by not going back off the ship that evening and doing some night shooting. If we are ever back, I will do those things.  I think the name on the sign below is a good comment.  Splendid, indeed.

I borrowed the idea for the Title of this Blog from this restaurant sign image copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Canal and Water Taxi, Venice, Italy
copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Change is Inevitable.  Some change is good.  Some maybe not so much.  I, like most people, am often intially resistent to change.   Its new, unfamiliar, and often requires “homework.”  Well, recently SmugMug, my Website Host, unveiled its all new and “better” site, including a brand new look.  We have now moved from “thumbnails” to “tiles.”  For reasons I probably cannot explain, I have succumbed to the change and “migrated” my LightCentric Photography website to the “new” SmugMug; with a new look (though not too new).  I am still learning the new system, so it is a work in progress.  Please give it a look and let me know what you think.

Can my Father’s Nikon beat your Father’s Sony at Dominoes?

Sony Nex_6; Sony 50mm f1.8 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Sony Nex_6; Sony 50mm f1.8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Knowing my penchant to rant about the appropriation of other people’s intellectual property, I spent a few minutes this morning trying to attribute the old saying, “my father can beat your father at dominoes.” Couldn’t find it. Lots of references, though, so I am reasonably certain it is in the public domain by now. But this isn’t one of those “white-hat” – “black hat” discussions, either. I have long said that a camera is a “tool.” There are many very good tools out there. Some are better at certain jobs than others. Some are higher quality than others. But it is certainly true that a skilled craftsman can get impressive results with a variety of different tools. So I am not evangelizing one brand, method or tool over another here. Rather, I am making some comparisons based on my personal observation—which is admittedly, limited so far. Over the past couple months, I have been talking (some might argue, “raving”) about my newest acquisition, the Sony NEX-6 “mirrorless,” interchangeable lens camera. These cameras are rapidly gaining ground in the battle for the hearts of serious photographers. There is a fair amount of “buzz” on the internet recently about photographer Trey Ratcliff’s announced complete move from Nikon DSLR gear to the Sony NEX system. A number of other photographers, like G. Dan Mitchell, use, have blogged about and embrace these smaller, mirrorless camera systems for limited purposes. There are 2 popular systems, the so-called “4/3” system which is embraced by such flagship camera manufacturers as Olympus, and the so-called “APS” sensor cameras found in the Sony NEX and Fuji X series. Both have their virtues. The Olympus system’s primary benefit is its full line of estimable Zuiko lenses. To me, its negative is that the sensor is too small. This means that the field of view (misnamed “crop factor”) is 2x equivalent, against the approximately 1.5x equivalent of the APS sensor. But more importantly, the image quality produced (particularly in terms of noise and bokeh) just isn’t quite good enough for my taste (the Olympus body is a pretty little thing, though, very reminiscent of the best of the “rangefinder” cameras, but with a pentaprism-look to the viewfinder).

Nikon D800; Nikkor 24-70 (50); @ f2.8 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Nikon D800; Nikkor 24-70 (50); @ f2.8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 32 @ f2.8 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 32 @ f2.8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

A couple weeks back, I posted some images from an overnight trip up to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Leelanau County, Michigan, in which I had slung the Sony over my shoulder to “play with,” and take some “comparison” shots. The only problem was they weren’t really good comparisons. Since then, several readers have asked for some side-by-side images. The problem with a busy career and personal life is that sometimes there is little time for dedicated camera work. I need to “map” out a plan so that I can do comparisons at not only identical focal lengths and f-stops, but identical exposure solutions (ISO, f-stop, focal length, shutter speed and light conditions). I did play around with the camera in the back yard yesterday, trying to get some side-by-side comparisons. One thing that came to light is just how difficult it is to get true “apples to apples.” Changing light conditions, wind and camera position (because of the different relative size of the body and lens) were a challenge.

These comparisons are based on my, so-far, limited, personal observations

Some observations shouldn’t surprise. There is a very different bokeh to the Nikon images, which I am sure is strongly attributable to the much larger, full frame sensor. Is it “better?” In my view, that is a personal judgment. I continue to be impressed with the contrast, sharpness and color rendition of the Zeiss lenses. They seem a bit brighter and the color more contrasty and saturated (though “saturation” is probably not a correct term for this phenomena). Yellow is a difficult color to capture detail in. In my view, the Nikon did a slightly better job of rendering detail (but it is also important to note that the overall exposure on the Nikon shot, using AP, was less and that probably captured better detail. Again, I need to have a chart to organize my thoughts while shooting – I really need to get identical exposure solutions in order to compare that feature).  It is also worth noting that I am still trying to get a “handle” on the AF behavior of the Sony system.  It uses a different detection method and more or less constantly searches for focus.  One might think that is a good thing, but it can be disconcerting with close up images like these.  I am very comfortable with the Nikon system, having used it for 25 some years and seen it evolve.  It may be the case that I am not yet getting that part of the image I am trying to render sharp, quite there yet.

Nikon D800; Nikkor 24-70 (35); @ f8 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Nikon D800; Nikkor 24-70 (35); @ f8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 24mm; @ f8 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 24mm; @ f8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

For these comparisons, only focal length, f-stop, and ISO were constants during capture. I used aperture priority (when I get a chance, I will chart my exposure results using full manual with as near-identical conditions as possible – but don’t hold your breath for that “test” to happen soon). This is the result of about 20 minutes of “backyard” work with close shots of flowers. I have yet to try any real landscape or cityscape comparison work. Nor have I done any significant amount of low-light or nighttime shooting with either system (even the D800 is relatively new to me. I shot my last major shoot in the Michigan U.P. in October of 2012 with the Nikon D700).

This is still not an “apples-to-apples” comparison

Because I wanted to compare quality with quality, I only used the Sony/Zeiss 24mm and the Zeiss “Touit” 32mm against my Nikkor 24-70 f2.8. In post processing, I used almost exactly the same workflow. In ACR, I adjusted each image to the same color temperature, set the black and white points, added an identical amount of “clarity” and “vibrance.” I will often make a contrast adjustment to images in ACR, but didn’t do that here, as I wanted to be able to see the “contrast” of the lens (I understand, of course, that the clarity and vibrance adjustments are inconsistent with that because they are indeed “local contrast” adjustments, but I think most raw images need some “punch” – and I made identical moves on all the images). On a couple of the images, I was shooting in brighter sunlight than I would have liked, so I used Viveza 2 to globally reduce brightness on a couple of them and Pro Sharpener to do a small amount of capture sharpening. Again, all compared images were treated exactly the same. This is about as close to “apples to apples” as you are going to get from me right now.

Nikon D800; Nikkor 24-70 (50) @f5.6 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Nikon D800; Nikkor 24-70 (50) @f5.6
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 32mm @ f5.6 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 32mm @ f5.6
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Is there a “clear winner” here? I will let you be the judge.  I don’t see how you could conclude either way on that one. There are just too many variables to consider. And, though part of me wanted the Sony System to show a clear “win,” there are simply things I like “better” about each system. There is little doubt that the D800’s full frame sensor edges the Sony APS sensor, in terms of detail and bokeh. And It shoud be a matter of mathematics to know that for large prints, the D800 is going to stand up better. I will assume–though I haven’t done this comparison–that the D800 images will stand up better to more aggressive processing (e.g. crops, etc.). On the other hand, the Sony/Zeiss combination renders images that, given the compromises, are just darn impressive. And the smaller sensor means smaller file sizes, faster processing, less storage space, etc.  As the following, single image of the Yellow Day Lily illustrates, One advantage my particular Sony system has is the very wide maximum aperture lenses (of course, they are available for the Nikon system, too, including some very similar Zeiss glass and the very good Nikon glass — I just don’t have them).   I have to wonder (and maybe salivate just a bit) about how that f1.8 bokeh might look mounted on the D800? Is the Sony/Zeiss f1.8 “better?”  I don’t know.  What I do know is that its pretty darn good!

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 32 @ 1.8 Copyright 2013  Andy Richards

Sony Nex-6; Zeiss 32 @ 1.8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Is there a clear winner?  I’ll let you be the judge

I am not ready to put the D800 and Nikkor “pro” lenses (and the heavy tripod and accessories) on eBay just yet. But I can feel pretty comfortable in using the Sony for even the most serious shooting endeavor when it suits my needs. When I am traveling (and when the trip is not a “pure” photography adventure), I will feel very comfortable compromising the possibly slightly increased performance for the convenience, light weight, and inconspicuous quality of the smaller, mirrorless system.

Sony & Zeiss; a Marriage Made in Heaven?

Daylily; Sony Nex_6; Zeiss 32mm; f1.8 Copyright  2013  Andy Richards

Daylily; Sony Nex_6; Zeiss 32mm; f1.8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

I am talking, of course, about the Sony NEX-6 and Zeiss. I continue to be impressed with this combination. The diminutive size of the Sony Mirrorless NEX series is a joy to carry around. And the ability to use Zeiss glass made to fit the system’s “e-mount” makes it, in my view, worth the tradeoff from my DSLR system; at least for some of my “serious” photography. Will there come a time when it supersedes the DSLR system? I don’t know, but I do know I’ll “stay tuned.”

I continue to be impressed with this combination

Last weekend, I had a chance to get out and shoot for the first time since “spring” happened (at least I think it happened – I do live in Michigan, you know 🙂 ). Traveling to Northern Michigan, I spent Saturday morning exploring along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The morning light was disappointing, but the weather, otherwise, very pleasant and it afforded an opportunity to do some recon of an area I have wanted to re-visit for some time now.

Sunrise over Boyd Field, Saginaw, MI; Sony NEX; Zeiss 24mm; f8 Copyright  2013  Andy Richards

Sunrise over Boyd Field, Saginaw, MI; Sony NEX; Zeiss 24mm; f8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a large tract of high sand dunes along the Northeastern shore of Lake Michigan. I grew up near there, in Traverse City, which is arguably Michigan’s premier resort town and destination. About 1/2 hour west of there, the National Park starts in the little town of Empire. As kids, we used to make at least one annual trip there to climb the dunes. To a grade schooler, they seemed mountainous. To a 56-year old, they don’t look that high, but don’t fool yourself. You’d best be in pretty good shape if you plan to climb from the parking lot to the highest point. Fortunately, there are alternative routes up.

Just to the North is the little historic town of Glen Haven (also where the National Park headquarters are). There is a more “tame” path near the campground parking lot just past the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Glen Haven. It still had me breathing heavily when I slogged to the highest point. But from there, is a near-breath-taking (no pun intended) view of Lake Michigan.

Barn in National Park; Glen Haven, M Copyright  2013  Andy Richards

Barn in National Park; Glen Haven, MI
Nikon D800; 24-70 zoom

Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Before you get to Glen Haven, there is a white barn that is part of the National Park. I have read about it and wanted to find and photograph it. Unfortunately, though I did find it (it’s on the main road, so not too hard to “stumble” onto), the light was not particularly cooperative. I did confirm, though, that it would be a good potential image when the fall foliage is in season. I thought it might have some “winter” appeal, but it is white, so I am not so sure about that. I did spot a couple weathered gray barns that I will seek out on a winter trip in the future, however.

I am being dragged, kicking and screaming toward the realization that the Sony/Zeiss combination is “serious” equipment

Arriving in the harbor at Glen Haven, it became clear that this was not going to be a day when the light would be cooperative. Also, it was already getting late and the sun would have probably been too high anyway. So I wandered out onto the beach to do some scouting. Carrying the “big rig” (D800, 24-70 and large tripod), I decided to sling the NEX/Zeiss 24mm combo over my shoulder. In comparison, it is a featherweight—hardly noticeable. But it did give me a chance to see how it performed in comparison to the Nikon/Nikkor combination. These are not “scientific” comparisons. It was almost a second-thought to do it this morning, as my primary plan had been to either shoot or scout, with my “serious” equipment (you can see that I am being dragged, kicking and screaming, toward the realization that the Sony/Zeiss combination IS “serious” equipment  🙂 ).

Harbor; Glen Haven, MI Nikon D800; Nikon 24-70 f2.8 @ 70mm; f8 Copyright  2013  Andy Richards

Harbor; Glen Haven, MI
Nikon D800; Nikon 24-70 f2.8 @ 70mm; f8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Unfortunately, I was not really thinking about making useful comparisons for readers of the blog. Consequently, I am not posting this as an equipment review, but just generalized observations. When I am in the field, I try to think about the light, composition, and capturing what I “see.” It is hard for me to shift gears and be more “technical” without a solid pre-plan. What I need to do (and when I do get the chance, I’ll report back here), is map out a plan to shoot the same subject with the two different camera combinations with the same magnification and f-stops. I didn’t do that here. So what I came back with is a hodgepodge; but enough to tell me that the NEX/Zeiss combo is indeed a serious contender in the photographic world. The two images of the Harbor in Glen Haven are, not true side-by-side shots. The Nikon version is shot with the Nikkor 24-70 f2.8 @ 70mm and f8. The NEX/Zeiss version is shot with the Zeiss 24mm fixed lens @f8. So its not “apples to apples,” but what I think you can take away from this is the image quality comparison. I did roughly the same post processing for both images (adjust exposure as needed – none here – in ACR, then add clarity and vibrance; adjust contrast and open in Photoshop). In both images, I applied dFine noise reduction and capture sharpening, both at the software default levels. In Viveza2, I adjusted the brightness in a couple areas and added just a touch  of saturation (about 10% on the slider) in the sky in in the Nikon image.  You can see that I just couldn’t help myself on the Nex image and I played with the sky more.  But what strikes me is how the lower part of the image–virtually untouched except to reduce brightness ever so slightly–snaps.  The Nikon image shows some softness in the pilings (which I am certain was technique and not the equipment), so I did a small amount of selective sharpening there (and didn’t really “fix” it J ). I would have a great deal of trouble saying one blows the other away.  I do appreciate that I need to make a more scientific comparison, perhaps even (gasp) posting un-post processed images for viewing.

When I am in the field, I try to think about capturing what I “see”

Among the positives of this photographic tool is its versatility in general photography. Its estimable sensor is capable of relatively high, relatively noise free ISO. It is small, but fits well in the hand. The fast 1.8 lenses allow handheld shooting in many different conditions. It is unobtrusive which may make it better for shooting in certain situations. It is easy to carry—which means I will (and do) which goes well with the old saying that the best camera you have is the one you have with you when that “decisive moment occurs.” I don’t have any illusions that it will ever be a serious wildlife system, or that we will soon see the sidelines of the NFL or MLB populated with Mirrorless shooters. But for general photography, it’s going to be hard to beat.

Harbor, Glen Haven, MI NEX; Zeis 24mm f2.8 @ f8 Copyright  2013  Andy Richards

Harbor, Glen Haven, MI
NEX; Zeis 24mm f2.8 @ f8
Copyright 2013 Andy Richards

Out on a morning walk, earlier this week, I made the opening day lily image, using the NEX/Zeiss 32mm f2.8. This image was shot at f1.8. You could say I’m “smitten.” The real proof for me, however, will be how these images look in large print. I haven’t made an image that moves me to print it yet. When I do, I’ll be sure to make mention of it here. In the meantime, I’ll keep shooting, and I hope you will keep reading :-).