A friend recently asked if I could take some photographs of a small Kabul orphanage, which looks after disabled children. They needed a few recent images. I was very happy to do so and seeing as I have only the the A7 and A7R here in Afghanistan at the moment (oh, and the Panasonic GM-1), there was no question as to what equipment I would be using.
I knew it would also provide a good test basis for the Sony cameras. Everyone know that working with children is difficult, but as I have just discovered, photographing children you cannot communicate with and who have significant disabilities, is another level of difficult, especially when you only have an hour or two. I should point out that the files I have shown here are not necessarily the ones I sent to the charity. B&W is often associated with ‘hardness’ and suffering, which is understandable. I have chosen to show you some B&W and colour, because I suspect both will be helpful.
So how did the Sony A7 and A7R fare?
My first impression was ‘where is my 5D III when I need it’. Unfortunately, the answer is ‘3500 miles away’ and so I just got on with the task in hand and by the end I was very pleased with how the Sony cameras performed.
Firstly, the cameras are small and light. I could tell right away that the children were less intimidated than they would have been with a huge bazooka of a DSLR and fast prime in their faces, but this was offset by the fact that I did not have super quick AF or fast aperture portrait lenses with AF for ‘snap shots’.
To be honest, I did miss those things. I have found myself working very quickly an intuitively with the Canon 5D III and the 85 1.2L II or 135 f2 L for portraits. Pleasant images are just so easy to achieve, by virtue of the quick AF and shallow depth of field. With such equipment you can adjust focus in a blink as your subject shifts around and the shutter release on the 5D III feels so perfectly weighted and responsive that I’m never thinking about the precise moment of release. I think and the camera fires. The A7 and A7R are slower to focus and lack the same clarity when it comes to the being assured of the exact moment of exposure.
To begin with, I shot primarily with the 35mm f2.8 FE Sonnar, which I reviewed here and the Sony 28-80 f3.5-5.6 OSS (which I will review soon). I did so because it was easy and I don’t think there is anything wrong with this approach. I was playing it safe, because on the A7/A7R these lenses are quicker and easier to use than manual focus adapted lenses and I wanted to ensure I got some decent frames early on. The 35mm Sonnar focused very accurately and reasonably quickly and I shot everything at f2.8 in the full knowledge that the results would still be razor sharp but with pleasant bokeh.
We all know the 28-70 kit lens is not a portrait lens and of course I did struggle to isolate the subjects from their background. Nevertheless, I did manage to produce some frames I am quite happy with. It’s a responsive lens and, with the sort of rapidly changing environment one encounters with children, the flexibility of the zoom did help me out.
For a change of pace (and look) I then opted for my Leica 90mm Elmarit-M on the proven Kippon adaptor. This allowed to hang back a little and forced me to slow down. This lens performs beautifully on the A7/A7R and you can be sure of razor sharp images wide open. Even at f2.8 you do have to be careful of small changes in the subject’s distance and this proved challenging. I had a number of less than perfectly sharp frames due to the gentle sway of the children, even when they seemed to be sitting still. It’s for this reason that even the 85 1.2 L II on the 5D III is considerably easier to use under the same circumstances. With the 90mm Elmarit, clearly you have to use magnified view for perfect focus. Focus peaking is not precise enough for critical focus and a lot can change when you are pressing a couple of buttons and checking focus. Still, this is the best frame from that sequence and from the whole shoot, IMO.
Towards the end of the second session, I decided to try out the CV 35 1.2 II and I’m glad I did. No, its not sharp in the corners shot wide open on the A7/R, but that matters not. Its sharp on centre and, although the zone of sharp focus is very shallow, I did find focus peaking to be reasonably reliable with this combo. Reliable enough for modest prints that it, but for absolute focus perfection, once again, you need to switch to a magnified view. Here is an example of an image, which conveys a completely different feel to some of the other images (particularly the colour ones).
The 35 CV 1.2 II does make the combo nose heavy, but it still handles well enough and can honestly say that the whole manual focus experience on the A7/R is absolutely brilliant. Looking at the image in the viewfinder and feeling the focus ring ‘feels natural’ unlike the X100, or even the electronic manual focus on the Canon 85 1.2 L II. It did not feel like I was using an old school lens on a modern body…. there was no mismatch. Well done Sony! Here’s a colour file form the 35 1.2 II and A7 combo.
The look of the 35 1.2 II is completely different to the Sonnar and I am very glad I brought it. These two lenses really do compliment each other, but should you take the much heavier 35 1.2 II out on a shoot, rest assured that stopped down to f5.6 and f8, it actually outperforms the 35 Sonnar around the edges.
So what else did I notice?
The weight of the cameras, or lack thereof, was a breath of fresh air. What a pleasure.
The colour balance of the RAWs was stunning. Skin tones were smack on and everything just looked astonishingly natural. My Canon files have always impressed me – more so than Nikon files at default settings IMHO – but the Sony files looked better still. These cameras produce a balanced ‘photo-reality’ that is better than anything else I’ve experienced before and you really can see it. You don’t get gaudy files, or a sense of ‘digitalness’ that some cameras produce. The below shot shows her true skin colour exactly as it is.
The camera can do this sort of job, but its not as at home as a high end DSLR. I would have found the shoot quite a bit easier with my Canon gear and I would have better images as a result. However, the A7/R both allowed me to produce some good images and I have no doubt that the 55 1.8 FE Sonnar would have been on one of the bodies full time had I had one with me.
The cameras interface is reasonably intuitive. I was never fighting it and never confused by it. It just works.
The noise of the shutters wasn’t something I really noticed.
The A7R does need slightly higher shutter speeds. The camera as a whole does feel a little less responsive than the A7. Its hard to quantify or describe, but you do sense it.
The files are gorgeous. The high dynamic range did save a few images that I know would have been unsalvageable with the 5D III if I had pulled the shadows up that much (due to banding). The high ISO performance is stunning. The following shot was made at ISO 4000 and after applying 20 points of luminance noise reduction, I would be happy printing this file to any size.
I did struggle to land my fingers on some of the custom buttons (or even the shutter speed and aperture dials) first time every time. I’m getting there, but there is a little way to go.
Both cameras offer a very sure grip. I mentioned in my earlier pieces that the ‘right’ grip with these cameras is a little more ‘finger and thumb’ than I was used do, but once ingrained in your brain, you find the grip remains adequate and the shutter release is suddenly transported to the right place.
Seeing where I struggled a little (to create the look I wanted), I now feeling the lure of the 55 1.8 FE Sonnar….. unless Sony decides to produce a lightweight 85/90mm f2 lens, in which case I want one of those instead! I’m sure they can. After all, the Canon 85 1.8 a 400g lens and Sony has already shown how they can produce stunning performance in a featherweight package (35 Sonnar). I think a 300g 85mm f2 would be perfectly achievable.
I’m really glad I had the 28-70 kit lens. Its not the best lens in the world and it does not allow for particularly shallow depth of field, but it is flexible and faster to focus than the 35 Sonnar.
These cameras are not perfect. They are also not all cameras to all people. But they are exceptionally good. Even when out of their element (as they were here) they still acquitted themselves well and did much better than they might. I can say with absolute authority that with the 35 Sonnar attached, they performed far more confidently than X100 would have with less frustration at my end.
The charity that supports this particular orphanage can be found here. If difficult enough being a child in Afghanistan. Disabilities are little understood and come with further debilitating social stigma, not only for the children, but for the families. Any donations will be greatly appreciated by this small charity.