New trick, old dog

Nightfall, Big Sur Coast, California

Nightfall, Big Sur Coast, California
Sony a7R
43 mm
4 minutes
F/16
ISO 200

Way back in 2008 when I got my first live-view camera, a Canon 1DS Mark III, I couldn’t understand what all the hubbub was about. I’d been looking through a viewfinder for thirty years and saw no reason to do things any differently. But when a 5D Mark III entered my life in early 2012, its improved live-view interface caused me to waver a bit—in particular the live-view focus capability, an on-screen level, a histogram that appeared before capture, and the ability to compose at odd angles without being tethered to the viewfinder. While I incorporated these capabilities into my workflow in the field when conditions dictated, for the most part I remained the same viewfinder shooter I’d always been.

Enter mirrorless

A few years ago, camera manufacturers, looking to replace point-and-shoot business rapidly succumbing to ubiquitous smartphones, realized that removing the mirror box from an SLR (single lens reflex: a mirror deflects the lens’s view up through the viewfinder, then flips the mirror up and out of the way of the sensor when the shutter fires) camera would allow them to put an SLR-size sensor in a much smaller body. These first mirrorless systems picked off many enthusiastic amateurs looking for better image quality than a smartphone or point-and-shoot without having to lug bulky gear. But the pros still considered mirrorless cameras fancy toys, or at best, a viable second camera.

Then, in late 2013, Sony released its full-frame, a7 mirrorless cameras and partnered with Zeiss for compatible lenses. Sony was the maker of the esteemed 36 MP Nikon D800 sensor (which they put in their mirrorless a7R body), and Zeiss has long been regarded one of the world’s finest lens makers. Suddenly, they had our attention.

Waffling….

While I was mildly intrigued by what Sony was doing, I remained committed to my Canon 5DIII. Given my significant investment in Canon glass, and confidence that Canon would be coming out with something better soon, I gave little serious thought to switching.

But, despite the consensus that Nikon and Sony cameras have surpassed Canon in image quality, we’ve reached the end of 2014 with nothing but cricket sounds coming from Canon’s corner of Tokyo. Contrasting those cricket sounds is the celebratory din from pros I respect who abandoned the Canon ship in favor of Sony, and are thrilled with Sony’s improved dynamic range, high ISO performance, and significantly higher resolution. Hmmm.

Budding relationship

Then my good friend Don Smith (and fellow long-time Canon shooter) made the Sony plunge, and I got to see the camera and its results up close on our trips to the Grand Tetons and Columbia River Gorge. Don couldn’t stop raving about the quality of the Sony image files, and I couldn’t get over the compactness of his camera bag.

So this month I did it. I pulled the trigger and went all-in on a Sony a7R and three lenses: a Sony 70-200 f4, and Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4 and 24-70 f4 lenses. Hedging my bets, I also purchased the Metabones Mark IV adapter that enables me to use my Canon lenses on the a7R.

Was it love at first sight? Hardly. Like any new relationship, there are growing pains—in this case, it’s adjusting to a completely new way of shooting. I’ve always been a keep-it-simple, full control, totally manual (metering, focus) shooter—I just don’t want my camera making any decisions for me. Relying exclusively on an electronic viewfinder for composition, exposure, and focus is a paradigm shift that caught me off guard.

So the Sony and I are still negotiating certain aspects of our relationship. I will acknowledge that things like pre-capture focus-peaking (dots that highlight in-focus areas before I shoot) and exposure zebras (diagonal lines that appear where my image is over or under exposed) are potentially quite useful, but I still have trust issues—just because you tell me you’re sharp, doesn’t mean I have to believe you.

And I’ve always felt that spot metering was the way to go in manual exposure mode (it’s all I’ve ever used), but I’m coming to the conclusion that the way to go with the Sony is to let the meter see the entire scene and base my exposure settings on the pre-shot histogram. I wish it gave me the RGB histogram before the shot, but I’m willing to compromise for the sake of photographic harmony.

But there’s no denying the image quality, and for that alone, I’m quite confident that this relationship will last. Without doing a lot of pixel-peeping tests (I leave that stuff to other photographers while I’m out taking pictures), the dynamic range if the a7R just blows me away. I’m guessing that I get at least two more stops of dynamic range than I got with any of my Canon bodies, a game-changer for a landscape shooter.

This being such a new relationship, we haven’t spent a night together yet. And until we do, I’m not about to discard my Canon (does that make me a bad person?). I’m less concerned about the a7R’s night image quality than I am about my ability to compose and focus in low light using the electronic viewfinder. So stay tuned….

An evening out

While I haven’t done a full-on night shoot yet, I did stay out quite a bit past sunset on my first shoot. The image here is from that first date, a triple-date actually, to Soberanes Point in Big Sur with friends Don Smith and Mike Hall. While Don’s experience with his new a7R was the tipping point in my decision to switch, he was just a few weeks ahead of me, and we were both still trying to figure things out (and laughing about feeling like beginners).

When the sky darkened, the low-light shortcomings of the a7R’s electronic viewfinder became apparent, as feared. About 25 minutes after sunset (when I clicked this), I could still see enough with my 24-70 f4 to compose and focus, but just barely. Shortly thereafter I switched to my Canon-mount Zeiss f2 (with the Metabones adapter) and found the light gathering capability of the faster lens helped a lot. I’m guessing that until I get some fast Sony/Zeiss glass, I’ll be shooting night with my f2 and 2.8 Canon lenses and the Metabones adapter, but I’m less concerned than I was originally. Again, stay tuned….

Final thoughts

I’m slowly coming to terms with the electronic viewfinder and am pretty sure I’ll grow to like using it most of the time. Some of the a7R’s shortcomings—for example, the shutter is noisy, most things seem slightly more sluggish than I’m used to, and the autofocus doesn’t compare to my 5DIII (though some of the other Sony’s are much better, and I’m not a big autofocus person anyway)—are of little concern to me as a landscape shooter. And because it’s a battery hog, I carry four batteries (they’re small and light), though two is probably enough for a full day of heavy shooting, unless I’m adding a night shoot. And the user-manual feels more like an afterthought (I’m afraid this doesn’t make Sony unique), but there are plenty of resources available online, with more appearing every day.

In addition to the a7R’s improved dynamic range, which by itself is enough in my book to justify switching, I love the new weight of my camera bag. The body is much smaller than my 5DIII, the lenses are somewhat smaller (which also saves money on filters), the combination of which means I can use my smaller bag (F-Stop Guru) and lighter tripod (Gitzo 1531—if I had to do it now, I’d be buying the RRS TQC-14) and head (RRS BH-30) most of the time.

Having a smaller camera bag and tripod has air travel benefits as well—I won’t stress the airport check-in weigh-in as much (I pack my tripod and head in the suitcase), and won’t need to debate flight attendants who refuse to believe my larger camera bag (F-Stop Tilopa) will fit in the overhead compartment (it will, but there can be flight-long ramifications to proving a flight attendant wrong in front of a plane full of cranky travelers).

I think the a7R is best for a landscape shooter—I don’t think I’d make the a7R my primary camera if I had to photograph anything that moves. All pros and cons factored in, it may just be the best landscape camera. The strongest recommendation I can make to anyone making a change is to allow ample time to get up to speed with the new camera. This is more than just learning a new control interface and menu system—unless you’re already a fulltime live-view shooter, it’s an entirely new way of shooting. In other words, take it on a few dry runs before going out when every click counts.

As with any new relationship, there will be growing pains. But I think this one’s going to last.

Really Right Stuff

F-Stop

Epilogue (January, 2015)

It’s been month and a half since I switched to the Sony a7R. And while I’m still getting comfortable with the full-time mirrorless paradigm, I have no significant complaints with the camera’s interface or handling (“It’s not you, it’s me”). The focus peaking is a godsend for a photographer like me, who obsessively seeks subjects from near to far in the frame. And I’m growing to appreciate the extreme customizability of the a7R’s buttons.

I do have a concern about the sturdiness of the the mount—all my lenses wobble a bit where they connect to the body, and with minimal pressure can be removed without pressing the unlock button (some more easily than others). I hope Sony makes fixing this a high priority, because while the body lenses are quite solid, this single flaw makes everything feel a little fragile.

But most important, I continue to be blown away by the quality of the images I get from this camera. The dynamic range is the stuff of dreams, and the sharpness and resolution continue to thrill me. I’ve grown to trust focus peaking, and find manual focusing so effortless that I never even attempt autofocus (nor do I miss using it). Perhaps the best indication of my level of commitment is that I just ordered a Sony a6000, giving my daughter my old Canon 5DIII. It looks like I’m all-in.

A (growing) Sony a7R gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.

15 Comments on “New trick, old dog

  1. great article. “real” experience with ups and downs that I might actually encounter.thank you !

  2. Gary,

    Like you, I have been watching and watching this for months. I went to Australia with all my Canon gear and the planes were a hassell, as well as the hiking in the Outback. Now, I have just heard this early spring, Sony is coming out with an AR9. so now I wait longer to see what it is about. I have a trip in October to Corsica so I want it for that.

    • I learned a long time ago not to postpone purchases based on rumors of imminent upgrades. When I’m ready to purchase, I purchase—if I miss an upgrade, I’ll just catch it the next time around. In this case, the a9 rumors started almost a year ago, so someone ready for an upgrade then would still be waiting. That said, if I’m not in a hurry, I’ll definitely sit tight to see what might be coming up. Since you don’t need the camera until next October, it sounds like you’re in a perfect position to wait.

  3. Great article, have been resisting mirrorless as well, now my resolve is wavering…
    Thanks for your insights!

  4. Thank you for the objective description of the pros and cons of that camera. I would like to shed some weight (in my camera bag Gary) but am not ready for such a big change. I will be interested to hear more of your thoughts on that camera.

    • You’re welcome, Rhonda. I continue to be blown away by the dynamic range, and am also extremely impressed with the sharpness of the Zeiss 24-70 (haven’t used the others enough yet to form an opinion). Stay tuned….

  5. I think u will produce great images with any kit. I am where u are at the moment, a bit old school. I am a big fan of Leica look. Recently took A7r n Leica M n Leica T on Alaska n Rockies n Oregon trip. Nothing was perfect but the T images n M images sang but the A7r n 24-70mm is very nice apart from electronic viewfinder. I still like the rangefinder viewport so pure

    • Thanks, Don. I’m still struggling with the interface, but it’s getting easier. I think part of the difficulty is that I just prefer looking through a viewfinder, but with the electronic viewfinder, there’s a lot more pushing buttons and turning dials with my eye on the viewfinder. But I’ll get there.

  6. Pingback: More thoughts on the Sony a7R | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  7. Pingback: Megapixels are overrated | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  8. Gary,
    Many thanks for your direction and info regarding the Sony a7R digital, your introductory experience with it and all the info sharing. This helps a great deal (your insites), with those of us looking for a smaller, lightweight and powerful system that is at the same level of equipment or beyond that which we are wanting to move on from.
    I’ve spent a week going over research, reviews and visiting with photographers to know all I can before decision time comes. I need to make the best decision so I can continue taking great images.
    You have been an invaluable resource for me and I am very grateful!!! You are a generous man too!
    My conclusion, I will be making the change to the Sony a7RII when it is available shortly. And by the way I did find the info on the lenses just where you directed me to on your blog.
    Eternally grateful with excitement,
    Rita

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