Mirrorless and my telephoto renaissance

Gary Hart Photography: Dawn Close-up, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California

Dawn Portrait, Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills, California
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 @256 mm (384 mm full-frame equivalent)
Metabones Canon EF to Sony NEX Mark IV adapter
.4 seconds
ISO 200

Going smaller

Like most people, my original expectation for my nascent mirrorless world was a significantly lighter backpack, and indeed, I haven’t been disappointed. In my Canon days my primary pack was an F-Stop Tilopa with a medium ICU (F-Stop’s interchangeable internal module for storing and organizing gear), which held my 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35 f/2.8, 24-105 f/4, and 70-200 L lenses, plus a Zeiss 28 f/2 (for night photography). Unless I specifically planned a shoot that required it, my Canon 100-400L and 100 macro lenses traveled with my backup Canon body in a separate bag—not a big deal when I’m driving to a destination, but pretty much a non-starter when I have to fly (which I’m doing more and more).

After moving to the mirrorless Sony a7R, I immediately started using my smaller F-Stop Guru backpack, which easily handled the new body and the Sony equivalent of my primary Canon glass: Sony/Zeiss 16-35 F/4 and 24-70 f/4, Sony 70-200 f/4 G, plus the (Canon mount) Zeiss 28 f/2 and a Metabones adapter that allows me to use my Canon glass on a Sony EF mount body. This configuration gave me essentially the same focal range I had with Canon, in a significantly smaller, lighter package. Not only that, I can use a lighter tripod and head. Score.

But, since I hate shooting without a backup body and had heard fantastic things about the camera, I soon purchased a Sony a6000. This amazing little mirrorless camera’s 1.5 crop sensor makes it an ideal complement to my full-frame a7R, has (slightly) more resolution than the 5DIII, and (so far) appears to offer (at least) comparable image quality, with better dynamic range than the Canon. And with a little bit of rearranging, I found I could fit the a6000 into my Guru bag without jettisoning anything else.

The result of this downsizing is a camera pack that’s light enough for hiking without feeling like a backpacker, and and for cycling without feeling like I’m about to tip over.

Going bigger

For my ultra-telephoto needs, my plan all along had been to  to use the Canon 100-400 with the Metabones adapter. But since the 100-400 had always been my least favorite lens—awkward to use, and not particularly sharp—I had no real plans to add it to my regular lens rotation. But my ears perked up when I started hearing my friend and similarly recent Sony convert (and fellow pro photographer) Don Smith raving about the Tamron 150-600 lens. Hmmmm….

The Tamron 150-600 arrived shortly before I departed for last week’s Death Valley / Mt. Whitney Winter Moon photo workshop. Because the Tamron lens isn’t available with a Sony FE mount, it would require an adapter as well. Don had been shooting the Sony A-mount version of the Tamron paired with Sony’s converter; I opted for the Canon mount version, reasoning that I could use it on my remaining Canon bodies should the need ever arise, and I already have the Metabones adapter. (Word on the street is that the Sony A-mount Tamron with the Sony adapter has much better autofocus than the Canon/Metabones combination, but I don’t need autofocus.)

First reaction? This is not a small or light lens. But as soon as I started using it, two things became clear: it’s much easier to use than my Canon 100-400, and it’s noticeably sharper. Suddenly, size notwithstanding, I had a lens that I could see myself using regularly.

If I’d still been lugging my Canon gear, I’d have had to sacrifice essential lenses each time I planned to use the 150-600. But with the mirrorless system and a little reconfiguring of the compartments in the Tilopa ICU (moving around the padded, Velcro-attached partitions), I can now carry in a single camera backpack (that fits in every overhead bin I’ve ever encountered, including the puddle-jumpers): three Sony bodies (a7R, my brand new a7S, and the a6000), plus lenses that give me a focal length range from 16 to 900 mm (the 150-600 lens is a full-frame equivalent of 225-900 mm on the 1.5-crop a6000). Life’s good.

In the field

So, what does a photographer do with all this new imaging power? Use it, of course. Visiting familiar locations as much as I do, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to find a completely new way to see these landscapes.

The image at the top of this post was from my first time using the Sony a6000 and Tamron 150-600. To get a better handle on the conditions, I left home two days before the workshop, spending the first night in Lone Pine, near the Alabama Hills just beneath Mt. Whitney. After a moonlight shoot in the Alabama Hills, the next morning I rose before sunrise, strolled from my hotel room across the highway, and set up my tripod with the Tamron 150-600 mounted and a6000 attached.

The first time I aimed this combination at Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States), zoomed all the way out to 900mm (600mm x 1.5), and dialed in the focus, was an epiphany. Previously unseen rocks and trees snapped into view, and vortices of wind-swept snow spun on the summit. Amazing to my eye, but at 900 mm actually too close to find a composition I liked. So I pulled all the way back to a little less than 400 mm (256 x 1.5), framed up the mountain, and waited for the pink that always kicks off a Mt. Whitney clear-sky sunrise.

I captured this frame about ten minutes before sunrise. Being a little concerned about such a long focal length in low light, I hedged my bets slightly by using ISO 200 to halve my shutter speed. Since I notice little difference between ISO 100 and 200 on the a6000, I think 200 will be my standard ISO when I use the 150-600 on this body. But we’ll see.

The rest of the week was a rediscovery of ultra-telephoto photography. When I first switched to digital about twelve years ago, I started with a 1.6 crop Canon 10D, and my only telephoto lens was a 70-300, making images up to 480 mm a routine part of my capture paradigm. Isolating distant subjects, magnifying closer subjects, compressing foreground and background subjects—it was all a simple matter of reaching into my camera bag. But since switching to full-frame, and replacing the 70-300 with the (faster, optically better) 70-200, ultra-telephoto photography took backseat to more conventional landscapes, and I eventually forgot how much I enjoyed it when it was more convenient. Ultra-telephoto became something I had to plan, rather than a creative option available whenever the inspiration struck.

Gary Hart Photography: Moonset, Wildrose Peak, Death Valley

Moonset, Wildrose Peak, Death Valley
This is a 563 mm equivalent (375 mm X 1.5) sunrise moonset capture from Dante’s View

Don was assisting my Death Valley workshop (Don and I trade off assisting many of each other’s workshops), and I’m sure by the end of the week the group had grown weary of hearing Don and I gush about the fun we were having with our new toys. Sand dunes, moonrise, moonset, distant peaks—no natural feature was safe from our magnifying eye. A particular highlight came dark and early one morning at Dante’s View, when I turned the a6000 and 150-600 to Jupiter, low on the horizon near Telescope Peak, gathered the group around my LCD, zoomed to 600mm, and shared the glowing disk of our solar system’s largest planet surrounded by the four Galilean moons.

The bottom line

Mirrorless has definitely meant a significantly smaller, lighter bag to handle my “meat and potatoes” 16-200 mm focal length range (that I never leave home without) when mobility is paramount—hiking or biking, I hardly know there’s anything on my back.

But equally significant is the way compact mirrorless gear also allows me expand my creative options without hiring a Sherpa. Now, in the same backpack that once maxed out with a single Canon body (most recently a 5D Mark III) and Canon lenses covering 16-200 mm, I can travel with three mirrorless bodies, plus lenses covering an effective focal range from 16-900 mm (including my 28 mm f/2 Canon-mount Zeiss for night photography). Life’s good.

Visit my website to purchase prints and see my photo workshop schedule

 An ultra-telephoto gallery (>200 mm)

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


Death Valley Winter Moon Photo Workshop

Moonrise Silhouette, Death Valley

Moonrise Silhouette, Death Valley

Sony Digital Imaging

16 Comments on “Mirrorless and my telephoto renaissance

  1. love, love the moon rise silhouette, love, love love my T 600 you probably don’t remember me gushing about it in Yosemite last time
    just got my A7R no shots yet, trying to get thru manual, don’t even tell me about yet neat camera
    fabulous photo of moonset, great article

    • Thank you, Louis. If I were advising someone trying to decide on a camera system today, I’d definitely send them to Sony. But the body and glass to start any new system is a big expense, that might not be justified if you’re already invested in a system.

      Olympus makes great cameras, and excellent lenses. Anyone without an unlimited budget should have very specific reasons for switching from any of the current DSLR systems, because pretty much every DSLR makes great images. In other words, if you know the Sony addresses specific frustrations you have with your Olympus, it might very well be worth making the switch, but if you just think it’s probably a better camera, I’d stay put for now. I switched from Canon for the compactness of mirrorless, and the dynamic range of the Sony sensor. For me it was a great move that I’d make again in a heartbeat, but this is my livelihood.

      • Ok, a heres a little background, im a 71 yr old pro. I use a Nikon D800 and 10k worth of glass.
        The Oly was fof street use and maybe hikes into the wilderness, but i fell in love with the camera, but 1

  2. dang you! ive been looking at sonys for awhile now and between you and don ive pretty much decided. looking at your images (and patsy’s in yosemite) im really excited about doing some ultra telephoto stuff soon! love your images!

    • Kim I was using the 600 in Yosemite but not with the sony A7R just my old D800, just got the Sony the other day, have not taken a pic but Gary won me over for sure, not only because of camera performance but the weight factor was a clear winner for me.

  3. Just when I really thought that I had everything I “needed”! A photographer’s nightmare (or is it perhaps a photographer’s “dream”?).

  4. Your lessons and words are so very much appreciated, Gary. Topping these off with the magnificent images – so very close – I am smiling as I write this. … Now, Since (1) I am banned by the Chairperson from further camera purchases (other than, perhaps, the a6000 if I am sneaky enough about it) and (2) I have the Nikon D800 which holds the same Image sensor and also holds weighs 18,000 lbs (ok, I exaggerate but I need the weightlifting exercise anyway), I get the dual benefit of a workout and the great image sensor…. Finally, my question (Thank Goodness): Do you happen to know if the tamron lens would work with my Nikon D800 (with an adaptor) or shall I continue to research? Nevertheless, these images are tremendous, Gary – Thank you so much 🙂 dj

    • Dennyjump- I have the Tamron 150-600 on my D810 and I love it. Very sharp at 150 and sharp at 600. Finds focus pretty quickly on Birds In Flight, and as Gary mentioned, manual focus anyway when on the tripod. You will love this lens (additional 20,000 lbs)!

  5. Hi Gary,
    Great insight on Tamron lens for telephoto nature shots. Thanks for posting. I just purchased the A6000 and am heading to Alaska for a short trip. I’ve got 2 lens: 16-50 & 55-210. Question for you, as you’ve been using the A6000:

    Do I need a wider lens than the 16-50 to get expansive mountain and tree photos?

    Or does your gut say that I’m good with that?

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