A new way of shooting

Gary Hart Photography: Forest Dogwood, Valley View, Yosemite

Forest Spring, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/125 second
F/8
ISO 6400

Regular readers of my blog know of my recent switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless. I started the transition with the Sony a7R, fully expecting to prefer it over my Canon 5D Mark III enough to justify the switch, but not so much that I’d completely jettison my Canon gear. In addition to 60 percent more resolution than my 5D III, the a7R gave me dynamic range that I never dreamed possible, and significantly better high ISO performance. So, despite a less than trivial adjustment to mirrorless shooting, it didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to miss Canon at all—I haven’t picked up a Canon camera since October.

When it became clear that I was with Sony for the long haul, and because I can’t afford to travel without a backup camera, I started thinking about a backup body. My usual backup body strategy is to complement my full-frame primary body with a crop sensor backup body in case I ever want extra reach with any of my lenses. The Sony a6000 seemed the perfect choice—extremely compact (without a lens, the a6000 fits in the hip pocket of my Levis), more than enough resolution (24 megapixels), compatible with all of my Sony lenses, and inexpensive (easily found for under $600).

Usually my backup bodies gather dust and only come out in an emergency, or perhaps for the occasional long-distance moonrise (when my foreground subject is far enough away that I want as much telephoto reach as possible). What I wasn’t expecting from the a6000 was primary-body image quality in an extremely compact package—not only does the a6000 have (slightly) more resolution than my 5DIII, its high ISO performance and dynamic range is better than the 5DIII (though not as good as the full-frame Sonys). Given all this, I don’t hesitate using the a6000 when I think I might want a little more reach, often juggling it with the a7R for extra flexibility.

Routinely carrying two bodies is certainly not groundbreaking, but it’s new for me. But I wasn’t finished with the a7R and a6000. Given my passion for night photography, it wasn’t long before I added the 12 megapixel Sony a7S to my bag. It took just a couple of night shoots to confirm the raves I’d heard about the a7S’s “magic” ability to see in the dark, but as with the two previous Sony bodies, the a7S proved its value in unexpected ways. More than just a night camera, the high ISO capability of the a7S allows me to freeze daylight motion at twilight and in full shade.

I knew I’d appreciate the size and weight savings of a significantly smaller body and (slightly) smaller lenses, but I thought the primary benefit would simply be a smaller bag. And while I do appreciate the option to travel and hike with a more compact, lighter bag without sacrificing the 20-200mm focal range I consider essential, my primary bag has actually gotten a little heavier since I switched to mirrorless. But with that slight increase in weight comes a significant increase in shooting power and flexibility.

For my entire photography life I switched lenses as my needs dictated (like pretty much every other SLR photographer). Now, with bodies this small, my bag easily holds three, and rather than switching lenses on one primary body, I first decide which body to use based on the composition (wide or long) and conditions (light and motion).

Here’s what I carried in my F-Stop Tilopa during my Canon days:

  • 5D Mark III
  • Canon 16-35 f2.8L
  • Canon 24-105 f4L
  • Canon 24-70 f4L
  • Zeiss 28 f2

And here’s what my F-Stop Tilopa carries now:

  • Sony a7R
  • Sony a7S
  • Sony a6000
  • Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
  • Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
  • Sony/Zeiss 70-200 f4
  • Zeiss 28 f2 (Canon mount)
  • Tamron 150-600 f5-f6.3 (Canon mount)
  • Metabones Mark IV Canon to Sony adapter

My primary body is the a7R, but when I want extra reach, I don’t hesitate going to the a6000. Sometimes I carry my a7R with a wide lens and my a6000 with a telephoto. And when I need to freeze motion in low light, the a7S is my body of choice. The addition of the a7S to my bag has made the biggest difference, allowing me to shoot in conditions I’d never have considered before.

Moonrise above a ridge five miles away? No problem—out comes the a6000 and Tamron 150-600 for 900mm of telephoto reach. Breeze-blown dogwood in a shady forest? No problem—here’s my a7S at 6400 ISO.

Gary Hart Photography: Ridgetop Moon, Yosemite

Ridgetop Moon, Yosemite
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
600mm (900mm full frame equivalent)
1/100 second
F/11
ISO 400

For example

In Yosemite last week I broke out the a6000 and Tamron 150-600 (225-900 full-frame millimeters) for the dogwood, and for a rising full moon. The a7S was my moonlight camera, and just what the doctor ordered when I wanted to photograph wind swaying dogwood in full shade.

On our final morning I guided my workshop group to Valley View to photograph the first light on El Capitan. Beautiful as that scene is, it wasn’t long before a few drifted across the road to an evergreen forest sprinkled with blooming dogwood. A breeze, further augmented by speeding vehicles, limited everyone else to distant views and brightly backlit flowers. I, on the other hand, simply switched to the a7S and bumped my ISO to 6400 to enable a fast enough shutter speed for extreme close photography.

With my 16-35 lens at 16mm, I put the front element about three inches from a bloom in full shade, dialing to f8 to ensure enough depth of field to keep my flower sharp throughout. Even in the dense shade, I was able to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the breeze. Noise at 6400 ISO? What do you think?

Six months of Sony captures

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

14 Comments on “A new way of shooting

  1. Gary, how are your knees not screaming bloody murder? What do you think is the difference in weight in what you carry?

    I keep debating but my knees (and hips) are winning. I used to obsess about being prepared for every possible scenario. But I’ve downsized from a loaded Tilopa to a Guru with one body, a wide zoom and a long zoom (all Nikon). My backup is a Sony RX100. I used to carry lighter, plastic lenses to help compensate, but didn’t like the loss of clarity.

    Thanks for a great blog. You are so generous with information and insight!

    Best,
    Glenn

    • Thanks, Glenn. I was blessed with good knees—I still run 3-5 miles every morning (after more than 10 years of running 50 miles per week) and have no pain. 🙂

      I have both the Tilopa and Guru. The Tilopa handles everything, plus my RRS 24L tripod and BH-55 head; when I want to go light, I switch to the Guru, jettison the Tamron 150-600, and go with the RRS TQC-14 and BH-30. Without the Tamron, my bag is (a little) lighter than my Canon bag, even with 3 bodies.

  2. Hi Gary- What a great post. I am currently hiking and touring Spain with my D800 and 24-70 lens and, as much as I love the results, I am not going to resist the lure of the mirrorless set-up much longer. Your images are stunning as always and your post is very helpful. Thanks!

  3. i agree with most of what the article says.. i’m a 5dmk3 user that has been shooting with a a7r and a a6000 for about a year. Here is my experience:

    i really am impressed, i love the electronic view finder! i love the small size.

    You dont mention any of the downsides of these cameras. They arent perfect.

    (1) the battery life for these cameras is TERRIBLE.. to get through a full day of shooting you’ll need 3 to 5 batteries. The batteries are small and cheap.. but you are always watching the battery meter. For me the problem isnt carrying around 5 batteries in my pocket all day.. its charging those 5 batteries at night to be prepared for the next day of shooting. you kinda have to hover over the chargers and swap the batteries out when a battery is fully charged.

    (2) lens selection is limited (but getting better), 90mm macro should be out in late july. 55mm f1.8 is a very very sharp and fast focusing lens. but the rest of the lenses are very good but not amazing. all the zooms are F4 not F2.8.

    (3) focusing is slow!, especially on the A7r. thats fine for landscapes and portraits.. but for concerts.. anything with people moving.. it can challenge, expecially in difficult lighting situation. A6000 focusing is about as fast as a low end DSLR. Also very rudimentary focusing options.. not like the high end DSLRs. you can pick a focusing point and single shot/continuous focus but thats all the options

    (4) menus and interface (buttons, etc) are not as easy to navigate as they should be. way too easy to knock the exposure compensation button out of wack without noticing it on the a7r

    As for the quality, Dynamic range is a little better.. its nothing drastic.. but it is noticeable.. in my experience the ISO performance is about as good as the 5dmk III maybe a little better… but not amazingly better

    *one weird quark: the a7r has MAJOR problems focusing when there are lights in the background.. if you have a backlit subject or a bright light behind your subject, the camera will not autofocus. You just have to flip it over to manual and use focus peaking.

    • one more thing.. the a7r shutter.. its LOUD!.. really really loud.. you wont be sneaking around taking shots without people noticing with this camera.

    • Thanks for your comments, Darrell. Your points are covered pretty extensively in the numerous camera reviews out there—the point of this post wasn’t to review the Sony cameras, it was to share an unexpected benefit of my change to Sony. If you read some of my earlier blogs (none of which are reviews, which I consciously avoid writing), you know that I’ve detailed my frustrations.

      Regarding your specific points and how they relate to me: I really don’t care about the battery life—I don’t think I’ve ever used an entire battery in a day, but I still carry at least two spares because they’re small and light (fit easily in my filter bag). That doesn’t mean that the battery life doesn’t suck (it does), it just means that it’s a non-factor for me. Likewise, lens selection and autofocus are non-factors as well—I have all the lenses I need, plus my Canon lenses with the Metabones adapter. And I never autofocus.

      I have no problems with the interface, and appreciate its customizability. I’m a little surprised by your comments on the dynamic range because I’ve tested it at 2-3 stops better—to me that’s more than significant, it’s a game changer. High ISO performance is noticeably better, but I haven’t tested it.

      I don’t expect anyone to switch systems based on my word alone. There’s no such thing as a perfect camera—the most we can hope for is a perfect match, and the Sony system is as close to a perfect match for me as I’ve found.

  4. I am so happy that I,at least, have a camera with the same image sensor…:-)…..even though it weighs 2,000 pounds, I still love it but I Really love the images you have been presenting to us . No convincing needed here – I am a fan. I remember when I was using Olympus and they were trying to go mirrorless and did, but just not as well as Sony has. Being a Dogwood fan, this story and image really provide such a graceful message, Gary. I am so glad that you are enjoying the possibilities and new horizons. Your lessons and posts certainly bring stimulation and inspiration to me. All the best Gary!

  5. Pingback: Ode to the Sony a7S | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  6. I want to say that the images you show are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. I’m glad that the advancement in technology enabled these shots but more importantly you are a very good photographer. I especially like the ridge top moon shot!

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