Continued from Part 1.
I’ve talked about how my Sony A7 and A7R cameras performed on the Iceland trip and I thought I’d discuss the optics and file quality that play a crucial role in the end product. So here goes:
File Quality is not something anyone can seriously attempt to criticise, because it just makes the critic look silly. Yes, I know there is lossy compression imposed on the RAW files and I wish Sony would fix that ‘just in case’, but I saw no adverse affect from this myself. If you can’t produce technically excellent photos with these cameras, you should give up!
With the poor light I often found myself shooting in, my most used ISO (looking over EXIF data) was 800 for the sea shots. While I would prefer it have been 200-400, the results at 800… 1250 have been great. These cameras simply deliver tremendous IQ and the files are wonderful in post. The higher the ISO, the less the dynamic range and the sooner noise appears in the shadows when you bend the files around, but still, the results are great. I use little noise reduction, because I do not like what it does to fine detail and acutance, but I used a touch here and there just to keep things in balance.
While I cannot talk about colour per se (because I generally jump to B&W immediately), I do believe that these cameras produce some of the best colour out there. I also believe this is why they make good B&W cameras. Now, there are some who believe the A7S has special B&W magic, whereas the A7 doesn’t and…. [screech] I’m going to stop right there. I think the A7R does a tiny bit better than the A7 (due to the larger number of pixels over which to record gradients, perhaps), but both do very well. I end up having to check which camera shot what, because I cannot tell from just looking at the screen in LR. There is nothing wrong with the A7 in B&W and both will produce very nice B&W files if you have the skill to make that happen. I think there are quite a few people out there who perhaps lack strong knowledge of B&W who are blaming their cameras a bit too much. After all, you could give an experienced film photographer any regular film of your choosing and any regular developer and they would be able to produce beautiful prints…. Far better prints than many of those who fixate upon particular magic bullet combos.
To do better that the Sony cameras you need a monochrome sensor and there is only one camera on the market at present with one of those (the Leica Monochrom). I am going to guess that the wonderful colour depth of these cameras is partly responsible for my satisfaction with the B&W results, but in general, I do believe people are terrible magic bullet chasers and the truth is that good B&W takes practice. Maybe some cameras take you a percentage closer than others, but I think we are in the realm of single digits here and low ones at that.
I rarely use ISO 50, but did find myself needing it a few times on this trip to get the shutter speed just right. While there is a loss in dynamic range, it doesn’t matter at all if the scene fits the range of the sensor at ISO 50 (which most scenes do). I found it also gave me a bit better tonality in the files once they’d been bent around a bit in post. ISO 50 reminds me a little of ISO 320 on the Leica Monochrom, which is a topic I will come back to a little later. Both are exceptionally clean and smooth.
Optics: What about the lenses? The Sony Zeiss 55mm FE is perfect, always. I really cannot say much more than that and I mean that for better and for worse. In certain applications, technical perfection is desirable, but at other times it is most certainly not. I found the 55mm a pleasure to use, because I always knew what I was going to get from it and I could say the same for the 70-135mm range of the 70-200 f4 OSS. I like knowing I can shoot a lens like the 55mm at f4 or f5.6 and be absolutely guaranteed of the uniformity of the image at all focus distances, but at the same time, you always get the same thing: perfection. My personal view is that it is desirable to own several lenses in your favourite focal lengths with different characters. This is a good argument for not having every focal length under the sun, but some variations of each, that allow you to work towards different imaging goals. I have never been a 50mm fan, but I am enjoying using this lens. If you enjoy this focal length is it perhaps ideally suited to general landscape usage
I used the 35mm FE more than the 55mm and I feel the it did very well. It is not as perfect as the 55mm and sometimes throws a bit of a curve ball, whereby changes in field curvature at different apertures and focus distances result in frames that are not quite as sharp at the margins as you had expected, but 97.84% of the time it delivers effortlessly. It is also super light and balances so very nicely on the camera. Quite a lot of the time, when around sea spray, I chose to prepare my cameras ‘inland’ and accept that I would not be ferreting around inside the bags in the spray. The last thing I wanted was salt inside my camera bag! I therefore popped the A7R and 35mm combo inside the lower left pocket in my parka (it fits nicely – try this with a DSLR?!) and have the other body out in the open. I also had my Ricoh GR in the chest pocket, so I was a walking camera bag really. This left the mini-trekker secure on my back, even if I felt pretty insecure in that wind at times. In all seriousness, there were a few occasions when I had to hunker down behind rocks and creep forwards during lulls between gusts. Had I not done this when on the sea wall in Vik on one occasion, I am sure I would have ended up in the drink as a WW2 RAF pilot would say. This wind was truly ferocious.
The Sony G 70-200 f4 OSS performs beautifully below 170mm or so, but can be a handful and not ‘great’ above this with distant subjects. Stay away from the long end and distant subjects and you won’t find anything to grumble about and, at my most used focal range of 70-135mm, it’s stunning. There were a number of frames I looked at on the laptop and thought, ‘oh, this must have been with the 55mm… amazing…’ only to discover it was the 70-200 at the short end. The OSS was enormously helpful and permitted me to control the ISO very nicely. I shot the 70-200 frequently from the car seat, taking care to switch off the engine before shooting. Engine vibration will rob your images of ultimate sharpness unless you are at surprisingly high speeds, so beware. The only irritation was the play in the mount on my A7 with this lens. It did bug me, but of course had no impact on the images.
Now for the Tokina 16-28mm f2.8 bazooka. This thing is a weapon and might seem a silly lens to take along with the diminutive Sonys, but I am yet to be sold on the 16-35 f4 OSS and already own the Tokina. As I found on my 5D III, its sweet spot is about 20-22mm. Anything either side of that sees a slight degradation. With my copy, I find 16mm to look less good on the A7R than on my 5D III, but no surprise there really. I found the lack of good resistance to the manual focus a pig, however. I lost a number of frames to the lens refocusing itself after I had set it to the desired distance. Very annoying. The bottom line is that this is a stopgap solution until Zeiss gives us some wide-angle Loxia lenses, but I shot over 30% of my ‘Sea’ images with this lens, so it’s a bloody good job I brought it with me. It may be a club that could double as a mortar round, but it has done a fine job. Well done Tokina: a wide-angle zoom with nigh on prime quality at the price of a 35mm FE. I actually did not notice its size once I got working. After all, there was so much else to concern myself with…. like not ending up in the sea. AF is not good on this lens even on Canon bodies, so with the lens mounted via Metabones III, it was manual focus all the way.
With everyone being so excited by the A7 II and its 5 axis stabilisation, you may be wondering if it would have helped me, but in all honesty I cannot think of a single frame where it would have. In most cases, I had the stabilisation I needed built into the lens (the 70-200 f4), or was focused far more on subject movement with the wide shots. So before you abandon ship and curse the H-Bomb impact the new camera has had on the value of your current A7/R, maybe think again. IBIS is great to have for many applications, but with a wobbly sea in front of you, not so much.
The Conclusion: these two highly imperfect cameras helped me produce what I wanted under extremely difficult conditions. Niggles aside, where there are failures they are mine and I shall be wiser next time. It is important to get to know your gear and the silly billys who change cameras and lenses every five minutes in search of the latest and greatest are always going to be at a huge disadvantage. It goes as far as knowing which apertures to use at different focal lengths with your zoom lenses both for uniform resolution and for creative effect…. knowing what speeds you can shoot each camera at with different focal lengths before camera shake appears… recognising when curvature is going to be an issue… which lenses are best avoided close up and more. Its not rocket science, but this trip is the second major application of these bodies for me (the other being the aerial project in Afghanistan) and I expect fewer ignorance induced glitches with each usage. There were no real problems on this one, but I’m glad to have learned what I have.
Nobody is going to fondle their A7/R. Nobody is going to construct a special dehumidifier for theirs, or purchase posh handmade Italian half cases in exotic colours. In ten years the vast majority will be broken, lost, uncared for or sitting on shelves, but between now and then there are fantastic images to be made an these cameras will do their part. I would therefore say this: before upgrading or dumping, consider the cost of your next photo trip. Where could you go instead of the upgrade and what might you come home with? Which matters most: the photos you will have taken, or those you might take in the future?
PS Mine are at home and will get a major sensor clean each when I return. I will of course check that they are still working. After all, I did lick them thoroughly clean!