The Photography Show, NEC, Birmingham
I just spent nearly two whole days at The Photography Show in Birmingham, UK. On the one hand, I went there for business reasons. On the other, I went there to play with lots of new equipment and see what bright ideas the industry is now offering. I thought I’d write a post discussing some of the equipment I played with and any other thoughts that pop into my head! Firstly, I strongly encourage any Brits to visit the show. Based at the NEC, it is easy to get to and it’s massive. Not only is there every bit of equipment you could think of, there are lots of demos, talks, seminars and other events that have broad appeal. There were at least three exhibitions too, with lots of tremendous traditional B&W silver prints from big names, including Sebastiao Salgado, Paolo Pellegrin, Elliott Erwitt and many more.
From an equipment point of view, I think this show should be firmly in the calendar for anyone looking to spend serious money on equipment. You can try extensively before you buy. Everything you could think of trying is there and the discounts available range from modest to massive. If you were looking to set up a Nilkon D850/D810 or Sony A7R III/A9 outfit, for example, you could save the cost of a hotel and train fares on a single lens purchase. Across a body and four lens outfit, you could save £500-£1500. Easily. Now onto specific equipment I played with and some very brief comments.
This is a lovely camera. The build quality felt fantastic, the AF tracking was excellent and the body was very well laid out ergonomically speaking. In standard mode, the shutter felt well damped for a DSLR, but there is a definite clunk there that tends to be absent from most mirrorless cameras these days. As silly as this may sound, it’s the kind of thing you notice when you shoot systems without the mechanical feel of a big DSLR. I would also add that the Canon 5D IV feels smoother with less judder from the shutter impact than the D850, not that this matters much. The Nikon D850 looks to be the superior in every way, if you’re a still shooter. For video, it’s a different equation due to Canon’s Dual Pixel AF.
I think the assessments are probably about right: this is one of, if not the best all round stills DSLRs ever made. If I were in the market for a high end DSLR, I don’t think I’d be looking too much further than the Nikon D850. There were no real discounts on this body at the show, but the Nikon D810 was well-discounted and there were great deals on lenses. I really, really hope Nikon doesn’t have any D600/D800 type quality control/recall issues with the D850, because it looks so very good and it’d just be a shame.
This little M43 camera has intrigued me for a while and I was curious to get my hands on one in the flesh. I have Panasonic GX80/85, which I think is a fantastic little beast, so I was expecting great things for a camera body that retails for double the price of the Panasonic GX80/85 with 12-35mm lens. The size of the Olympus Pen F was great (as expected), but I did not feel that the body had a build and feel that was quite where it should be for it’s price point. It felt more plasticky than the GX-80/85 and the finish of the back of the LCD did not match the rest of the camera. The colour effects wheel on the front of the body also got in the way of my fingers and made it all but impossible to grip the camera naturally without clashing with this dial (I really tried).
The AF was quick, but no quicker than much cheaper M43 bodies and, like the Panasonic GX80/85/ Panasonic GX9, it isn’t weather sealed. All in all, aside from a particular aesthetic and a few features that are unlikely to prove decisive, I could not see why anyone would look any further than a Panasonic GX80/85 or GX9, or Olympus OMD EM5 Mk II. If you prefer the rangefinder style eyepiece on the side, the Panasonic GX-80/85 or new Panasonic GX9 will serve you well, as will the OMD EM5 II if you prefer the mini DSLR viewfinder orientation. Yes, the Pen-F has a 20MP sensor, but every bit of evidence I have seen suggests that improvements over the 16MP are quite marginal. Yes, there are more differences between models in the details, but the challenge the Pen-F faces is it’s price. Quite simply, the cost of very competent models is now so low that more expensive models really do have to stand out as offering quite a bit more and I am not sure the Pen-F quite pulls that off. What’s more, it faces very stiff competition from larger sensor cameras, like the Fujifilm X-E3.
I was particularly keen to have hands on with the Fujifilm X-H1 and get a feel for the body in terms of size and grip etc. Firstly, it is noticeably bigger than the Fujifilm X-T2 (as expected) and the grip is much deeper, but also quite angular. This means that it does not feel like the grip on a DSLR, but distinctively its own thing. What can’t be argued with is that it is a very secure handle for the camera, although the angles will suit some hands more than others. Very personally, I did not like the grip. It felt too angular and the bottom right corner of the camera seemed to poke me in the palm in line with my little finger. We all hold cameras quite differently and have different proportions, so although I did not get on with the grip, you may love it. Everything else felt typically Fujifilm and the top ‘ink display’ is a nice addition considering the real estate availed by the larger body. Personally, I have never noticed the absence of such a display and can’t imagine I’d really use it (mirrorless camera already provide so much info in the EVF and on the LCD), but perhaps it is more useful for videographers.
Fujifilm has once again showed that it listens. The Fujifilm X-H1 is not only bigger in size (because apparently users asked for that), but also sports improved AF ON and AE-L buttons. The small ‘flush’ buttons on the X-T2 make back button focus no better than ‘workable’. This is very much better on the X-H1, with more feel and more comfort. I think we can expect the same sort of design considerations in the buttons on future high end models.
In light of the size of the camera, which I would put as somewhere between the X-T2 and GFX 50S, or a 5D IV made skinnier, I can’t help but feel that a larger battery would have been wise. While the argument for continuity is a good one, this was probably the time to make the leap and I am surprised they didn’t do so. It miiiiiight indicate that there are no such plans for a battery size increase in the Fujifilm X-T3, so perhaps they will reconsider for the next generation. Certainly with the Sony A7R III / A7 III / A9 kicking out 650-710 shots, I suspect this is a road they’ll have to go down eventually.
Although I did not get to test it extensively, its performance from a stills point of view felt very much like the X-T2, so very good. I did not detect any obvious improvements in AF performance that would be glaring enough to consider it a true step up from the X-T2. The IBIS is of course very welcome and I can imagine those buying into Fujifilm might be struggling to decide whether the X-T2 or X-H1 is the way to go. My advice would probably be that for video, it is a no brainer (Fujifilm X-H1). For stills photographers shooting events, the X-H1 may offer a larger grip for long days and the IBIS will help you out when shooting without flash indoors or in very low light. For everyone else (street/reportage/documentary/landscape), I suspect the X-T2 and X-Pro2 remain the way to go. The weight difference is very real, but the difference in bulk is most profound. For anyone looking for the tiniest and most flexible combination, look no further than the next camera…
I’ve heard mixed comments about the Fujifilm X-E3 camera. My opinion is that it’s superb. It feels a more solid bit of kit than the Olympus Pen-F yet is a similar size and with the larger APS-C sensor. It doesn’t have IBIS, however, for a lot of street work you can live without it and you do get a the same great 24MP sensor that’s found in the Fujifilm X-T2, Fujifilm X-Pro2, X100F and X-H1. Size wise it is almost identical to the X100F without a lens, so about as small as you can go without encountering handling issue unless you have tiny hands. The absence of the thumb pad on the back has upset some people, but I actually think it was the right decision by Fujifilm. You can do everything you need to do without it, although this does mean compromises in some areas. How much, will depend how much you adjust settings and menu dive whilst out and about. Would I like to shoot an event without the thumb pad? Hell, no. What about street/reportage? I think I’d be happy with the improved grip its absence provides. Instead of having the thumb pad there, you can move and select menu items using the joystick and enjoy the flat camera back to park your thumb. Leica have been praised for decades for the simple camera body designs they employ and the X-E3 is a little dose of Leica haptics in a potent little package. AF was very good and seemed as quick and decisive as the X-T2/X-Pro2. The X-E3 is genuinely tiny compared to the X-Pro2 and much lighter, so one feels and hears a little more when the shutter fires, but its not objectionable at all.
I was seriously tempted to buy one and nearly did on at least three occasions. I had to tell myself that I didn’t need one and keep repeating that whenever I went weak. With Fujifilm’s 18/27/23-35-50WR lenses, this is a compact and flexible street/reportage tool. Pack two bodies and you will be able to fit your kit into an appreciably smaller bag than a pair of X-T2/X-Pros. The EVF was very good and a little bigger than the one in the X-Pro2 in fact, so if you shoot mostly EVF with your X-Pro body and want to add a second body, this could be the way to go if you are using small lens and want it for mobile/street work.
Sony A7 III & A7R III
In my opinion they’re both incredible cameras and set to change the landscape over the next few years. I haven’t conducted detailed testing, but I did shoot hundreds upon hundreds of frames with the Sony A7 III, A7R III and A9 and was quite surprised by some of my findings.
Firstly, using the Sony A9 as the benchmark, the A7 III and A7R III don’t feel meaningfully slower with regard to focus acquisition indoors under display type lighting. Expandable Lock-On AF seemed as sticky and Eye AF seemed just as good. I have no doubt that pushed hard, the extra processing speed of the A9 and the faster sensor readout would improve tracking, however, the A7 series now feels very fast indeed. Under the same lighting, I found that the Sony cameras acquired single shot focus more quickly than the Nikon D850, which surprised me. The Sony cameras felt like M43 to be honest, but under sparkling exhibition conditions, there was of course plenty of contrast for the mirrorless cameras to lock onto. Speaking of ‘locking’ the only thing I can think of that meaningfully affects switching between the Sony A7R III, the A7III and A9 is the main command dial lock. The Sony A9 and A7R III have a push button lock on the dial (push to turn) and the A7 III does not. I actually felt that this had more of an impact on continuity than the additional dial on the top left of the A9.
Onto frame rates: clearly the A9 still holds some serious advantages over the A7 series for high speed action photographers. 20 fps and a silent shutter largely devoid of rolling shutter is amazing, but the potential fly in the ointment of the A9 has been possible banding under LED lighting. I understand that this is not an issue for most people most of the time and it was first reported when shooting around LED powered billboards beside sports pitches. However, and this is a big one, the A9 seems to have found favour amongst many wedding photographers and general commercial togs shooting portraits and children. The eye AF is very helpful here, as is the superb tracking AF. BUT, a lot of indoor lighting is now LED. Most of the bulbs in my house and and the same can be said for many commercial venues, such as the ones people get married in. I have read some (wedding tog) fans of the A9 mention that they’ve had issues with banding and feel more confident shooting with the mechanical shutter indoors. I guess the reality is that it is very rarely a problem, but the real challenge for a wedding photographer is being sure they have the shots. Now that the A7 III offers 8fps in full continuous and 10fps with the last frame shown in the EVF in mechanical shutter, I wonder whether the A7 III is more ideal for these people than the A9? Certainly the warp free silent shutter of the A9 is a blessing for discreet wedding work, but not if there is any risk whatsoever of LED related banding. It seems the A7 III user has double the mechanical shutter frame rate of the A9 (10fps vs 5fps), albeit without the silence. However, generally speaking, the silent shutter of most mirrorless cameras will not result in image distortion when people aren’t moving around too quickly. When people are moving around, the noise from a mechanical shutter is of course less of an issue.
The Sony GPx1EM grip extension! Huh, the what? As well as providing a vertical grip/booster, Sony offers a ‘grip extension’ for the A9/A7 III/A7R III cameras. It isn’t cheap, but it does do a wonderful job of lengthening the grip so that it extends the full length of the hand. It simply screws into the tripod socket, but does of course cover the battery compartment necessitating its removal to change batteries. It adds very little weight and I can see it being popular with some users.
I spoke to a few professional photographers considering a move to mirrorless with the Sony A7 III, which isn’t terribly surprising. Numerous big name UK retailers stated that sales for the A7 III (and Sony kit in general) was incredibly high during the show, so something is going down well with consumers. I will be doing some testing on these cameras and writing about it in due course. The Sony A7 Mk III is every bit as impressive as I suggested earlier in my Sony A7 III – The VolksKamera article.
Sony 12-24mm f4 G
The Sony 12-24mm f4 G is a fairly compact and lightweight lens. It feels built the same as the GM lenses, but the lighter weight makes it feels a bit hollow. It is very much smaller and lighter than the Canon 11-24mm f4 and Nikon 14-24 f2.8 G and, according to Lens Rentals, better optically too. For those who do not need the speed of the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM and want more flexibility than the Sony Zeiss 16-35mm f4, this lens has to be on their short list. It also seems to be regarded as a little better optically compared to the 16-35mm f4 Sony Zeiss. The only obvious downside to this lens is the lack of a front filter thread. This may be a factor for those trying to protect the front element with a filter or landscape shooters who will need some sort of aftermarket adaptor if they want to use filters.
AF was super quiet and quick, just like the Sony 16-35 f2.8 and 24-70 f2.8 GM lenses.
Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM
The Sony FE 16-35MM F2.8 GM lens was quite a bit smaller than I expected it to be (it weighs 680g) and one rung down in size compared to the very well regarded Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L III (weight 790g). According to Lend Rentals, they’re both very comparable for overall optical performance. Balance was excellent on the A9/A7III/A7RIII and superior to the heavier and longer Sony 24-70 f2.8 GM. It’s far from cheap, but it does feel surprisingly in keeping with the modest proportions of the bodies considering it is a f2.8 lens. AF was silent and very quick. Optically speaking it is comparable to the Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L III, according to LensRentals, albeit with a slightly difference balance of qualities. It felt a real pleasure to use on the A7/A9 series bodies.
Black Rapid Straps & Slings
Black Rapid has been in the business for a long time. Yes, there are a great many super sexy leather slings/harnesses/straps around, but they tend to have fewer adjustments, they’re bulkier, cost a lot more and the camera rings don’t slide as smoothly over the straps. I played with quite a few of the brands at The Photography Show and felt that in terms of pure performance, the Black Rapid offerings were the most practical. I could raise and lower the camera with little friction or noise and that’s a big plus. Some of the leather competitors used much chunkier metal clasps and fittings, which jingled away and, in some cases, threatened to clank against the camera base. This kinda defeats the object for me, whether you’re a street photographer, or events photographer. Sexy leather straps may look good, but if you sound like an approaching horse when you raise the camera, it may have an impact on your interaction with your subjects. The only downside to the well made and super-safe camera attachment system Black Rapid uses is that it isn’t quick release. This means it will take perhaps ten seconds of fiddling to remove a camera from the strap, when the safety lock is employed. The upside of this system is that it is very small, low on noise and its very secure.
Rotolight Neo II
The Rotolight Neo II is an interesting tool. It’s an LED source that isn’t cheap and isn’t all that powerful (compared to flash/speedlights). The very cool features are that it is compact, can be adjusted for colour temperature while maintaining intensity and can be set to flash as well. It can flash in High Speed Synch (HSS) mode and has no recycle time, meaning you can do 10 fps if you want. After lots of reading on my part, the short version is this: this light won’t come close to filling deep shadows on a bright sunny day; however, it will provide a lovely light source when used indoors, in the evening, or at night. It’s easy to use, provides a continuous or flash light source that has ample power indoors or at night and will attract lots of interest for sure. One has to be careful with the hype… however, if you live in the gloomy UK, the Rotolight Neo 2 is a much more practical light source than someone living in Texas! With lots of cloud cover in the UK and very dark rainy days, I can see the Rotolight Neo 2 being used by quite a few portrait shooters, or possibly wedding togs too. Videographers are likely to love it, because it has lots of additional features suited to video work.
I looked at a lot of other products, but thought I’d leave it to these for now….