Some Advice for Nikon Shooters (from a Sony Shooter)

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite

Spring Reflection, El Capitan and Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Canon 11-24 f/4L with Metabones IV adapter @11mm
1/60 second
ISO 100

Yesterday Nikon finally jumped into the mirrorless game with its Z6 and Z7 announcement, a welcome development that can only keep pushing everyone’s mirrorless technology forward.

I made the switch to mirrorless about four years ago and haven’t looked back. At the beginning mirrorless was touted for its compactness, and while mirrorless bodies (and to a lesser extent, lenses) are more compact, it turns out that, for me at least, it’s the mirrorless viewfinder that has hooked me: with real-time exposure simulation, focus assist (peaking), highlight alert (zebras), and a pre-capture histogram, I don’t think I could go back to a DSLR.

While I shoot with the Sony a7RIII and am very much committed to the Sony mirrorless universe, I’m not going to get into the “my camera can beat up your camera” debate—Nikon makes great cameras and I’m sure their mirrorless bodies will be no exception. In fact, the Z7 looks like it compares very closely to the Sony a7RII, which is a fantastic camera that I still carry as a backup and don’t hesitate to use when the situation calls for it.

As happy as I am with my mirrorless conversion, I do have some insights that might spare Nikon shooters of some of the transition pains I went through when I switched from Canon DSLRs (1DSIII and 5DIII) to the Sony a7R series of mirrorless bodies.

  • The mirrorless viewfinder is different than a DSLR viewfinder and it will take some getting used to. I don’t know what the Nikon viewfinder will be like, but I’m sure it will be quite good—large, bright, and everything you’d want in an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Even so, you might be surprised at how long it takes you to get used to it (but you will). It just feels different to view a video of the world. The cool thing is, EVF technology is relatively new and will only continue to improve, while there’s not a lot more that can be done for a conventional DSLR viewfinder.
  • Beware of lens adapter hype. My original conversion plan was to use the Sony mirrorless body to supplement my Canon system, to continue using my Canon glass on the Sony body with a Metabones adapter, and gradually convert my lenses as my budget allowed. And while my adapted Canon lenses did indeed do the job, the experience was far from painless (not all that was advertised) and I wasn’t really satisfied until I was using 100% native Sony glass. Some of the problems are a function of the lens—generally the better (and newer) the lens, the closer to native performance it delivers. But as a landscape shooter, autofocus speed isn’t as big a deal to me as it is to anyone whose subjects are in motion, so sluggishness might even be a bigger problem for others. On the other hand, I suspect that since it’s Nikon making an adapter for their lenses to work with their bodies, it will be pretty good from the get-go—but I wouldn’t bet my house on it. And adapter performance likely won’t be as good as using native glass—best case scenario will be that some won’t notice a difference, but those for whom focus responsiveness and autofocus speed is essential should prepare for some frustration. (And I won’t begin to speculate about worst-case.)
  • You’ll miss that second card slot more than you might imagine. Making my living from my images, having two memory card slots for instant image backups saved me a couple of times, and gave me tremendous peace of mind all the time. If your DSLR doesn’t have a second slot, the missing slot might not be a big deal to you, but if you’re as failsafe-obsessed as I am, you might be surprised by how much you’ll long for that second slot. All it takes is one corrupted, damaged, or lost card to make you a convert to the second card slot paradigm.
  • The battery life will drive you crazy. Looking at the specs, the Z7 battery life is about the same as the a7R and a7RII, and nowhere near the Nikon full frame and Sony a7RIII (or the a7III or a9) battery life. I was willing to live with burning through multiple batteries in a single day because of all the other mirrorless benefits, and because the Sony batteries were small enough that carrying four or five at all times (I mean on my person, not just in the car or hotel) wasn’t a big deal. But it looks like the Nikon batteries are twice the size of the original Sony batteries, so there goes your size/weight benefit. I predict this will be the biggest complaint we hear about these cameras (as it was with the early a7 bodies)—that is, assuming the adapter is good.
  • Learn how to clean your sensor. Without a mirror to protect it, your naked mirrorless sensor will be exposed to the elements each time you change a lens. Fortunately, sensor cleaning is simple and not nearly as dangerous is many try to make you believe.

None of these points is a reason to not get a Nikon Z6 or Z7, but for me it would be a reason not to pre-order. Instead, if it were me, I’d wait and let others discover the frustrations so I could go into the non-trivial transition from DSLR to mirrorless with realistic expectations.

I’m guessing that current Nikon shooters will probably endure fewer frustrations than I had with my first mirrorless body, the Sony a7R—Sony was still trying to figure out the whole interface thing that Nikon has nailed (I’ve never been a fan of Nikon’s interface, but Nikon shooters like it and that’s what matters). On the other hand, I was probably more forgiving than Nikon shooters might be because the a7R image quality was so much better for my needs than the Canon 5DIII it replaced. Dynamic range is king in the landscape world, and the a7R gave me 2-3 stops more dynamic range than my 5DIII—slow transition plan notwithstanding, I literally didn’t click another frame after my first a7R shoot.

While I expect the Z6/Z7 bodies will be ergonomically more mature than my original a7R, Nikon’s full frame bodies already deliver exceptional image quality, so most Nikon full-frame DSLR shooters transitioning from the D800/810/850 won’t have the euphoria of much better image quality that sustained me until the release of Sony’s a7RII and (especially) a7RIII.

On the other hand…

(Full disclosure: I’m a Sony Artisan of Imagery)

These Nikon mirrorless cameras are great for committed Nikon shooters who are completely invested in the Nikon ecosystem and have no plans to completely replace their lens lineup. But for any photographer planning to make the full jump to mirrorless that includes all native lenses, I think Sony is (at least) several years ahead of Nikon, and given their resources and commitment, will remain at least that far ahead for many years.

One of the early complaints about the Sony mirrorless system was its lack of lenses compared to Nikon and Canon, but valid as that criticism was, that disadvantage has shrunk to virtually the point of irrelevance, and Sony is already very far along on many more native Sony FE-mount lenses. Sony is several laps ahead of everyone else in the mirrorless world—with deep pockets and its foot hard on the mirrorless pedal, I don’t see that lead shrinking muchsoon.

As good as it is for a first generation offering, the Nikon Z7 is much closer to the 3-year old Sony a7RII than it is to the (already 1-year old) a7RIII, and for sports and wildlife (and anything else that moves), it isn’t even in the same league as the (more than 1-year old) Sony a9.

I have no idea how or when Sony will respond to the mirrorless offerings from Nikon and (soon) Canon, but I’m guessing it won’t be long, and am pretty confident that will be a great day to be a Sony shooter. Competition is great for all of us, and Nikon just gave the mirrorless wave a huge boost that I’m looking forward to riding as far as it takes me.

A few words about this image

I can’t tell you that this is my favorite Sony mirrorless image, but it would definitely be on the list. I chose it for this post because it’s one of the few Sony images I have that used a Canon lens with the Metabones adapter.

Leading a workshop in Yosemite a few years ago, I guided the group to a meadow flooded by the Merced River during a particularly extreme spring runoff year. My widest lens at the time was my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 (which I love, BTW), but the scene called for something wider. When he photographer assisting me offered to let me use his Canon 11-24 f/4 with my Metabones adapter, I snatched it before he could change his mind. Given that everything in the scene was stationary, I was able to bypass any adapter-induced autofocus frustration and take the time to manually focus (it didn’t hurt that depth of field at 11mm is extremely forgiving).

I’d never used a lens that wide and was so excited by the extra field of view that I returned from Yosemite fully prepared to purchase the Canon lens, adapter or not. Fortunate for my budget (and my back), I let the lens sit in my shopping cart long enough for sanity to prevail. Not only was the Canon lens quite expensive, it weighed a ton, and I had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before Sony offered something similar. Those instincts were rewarded a year later when Sony released a 12-24 f/4 G lens that is just as sharp and half the size (and much less money).

A Sony Mirrorless Gallery

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


Stop Being So Negative!

Sunset Lightning, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R III
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
1/5 second
ISO 400

Lightning (at a safe distance) is pretty cool. It has always fascinated me, partly for the ephemeral power that can explode a tree and disappear before my brain can register its existence, but also because lightning is a rare sight for these California eyes. What what exactly is going on in a lightning bolt? I thought you’d never ask….

The shocking truth about lightning

Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes negative/positive polarization between two objects. For example, when you get shocked touching the doorknob in your bedroom, you’ve been struck by your own personal lightning bolt. You got zapped because, courtesy of that carpet you just dragged your fuzzy slippers across, you picked up a few extra electrons that the doorknob was more than happy to relieve you of.

While the polarization process that happens in an electrical storm isn’t as thoroughly understood as the one in your bedroom, it’s generally accepted that a thunderstorm’s vertical, convective air motion shuffles electrons in the atmosphere. To jar your high school science memories, convection occurs when a fluid substance heats, becomes less dense, and rises until it cools and becomes dense enough to sink. (You initiate convection when you boil water.)

The is up/down circular flow of atmospheric convection happens when air near the ground warms, expands, and rises. The rising air carries water vapor; since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, the ascending water vapor eventually condenses into clouds. The convective motion jostling the water and ice molecules inside the clouds strips the molecules of electrons. Electrons are negatively charged and more dense than the surrounding air; freed of their conventional bonds, these electrons fall earthward. Overhead, the clouds relieved of many electrons are suddenly positively charged, while the ground below has been rendered negatively charged by virtue of its new electron surplus.

Because nature abhors any imbalance, these opposite charges attract each other. The extreme polarization in a thunderstorm—positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground—is quickly (and violently) equalized: lightning! So I guess you could say that lightning is God’s way of telling Earth, “Stop being so negative!”

With lightning comes other atmospheric changes. The sudden infusion of a 50,000 degree electric charge displaces the surrounding air very suddenly, creating an audible compression wave that we know as thunder.

The visual component of the lightning bolt that caused the thunder travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second. But lightning’s aural component, thunder, only travels at the speed of sound, a mere 750 miles per hour (or so)—a million times slower than light.

Because lightning and its thunder are simultaneous, and we know how fast each travels, we can compute the lightning’s approximate distance. (Thunder’s speed varies slightly with atmospheric conditions; light’s speed is non-negotiable.) From our human perspective the lightning arrives instantaneously, but moving at 750 miles per hour, thunder takes around five seconds to travel a mile. So, dividing by five the number of seconds to elapse between the lightning’s flash and its thunder’s crash gives you the lightning’s distance in miles (divide the interval by three for the approximate distance in kilometers). For example, if ten seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about two miles away, fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away, and so on.

This speed difference also explains why lightning comes and goes in milliseconds, while its thunder can rumble and roll for several seconds. Because a lightning bolt can travel many miles, the thunder from its nearest portions reaches you much sooner than its most distant components.

About this image

Each summer moisture from the Gulf of Mexico makes its way up into the American Southwest. The combination of moist air and extreme heat (to kick off convection) makes August ripe for thunderstorms at the Grand Canyon. For the last six years, Don Smith and I have scheduled two photo workshops hoping to photograph these thunderstorms and their effects (clouds, rainbows, and especially lightning).

Bit with unseasonably dry air in place, the forecast at the start of this year’s first Grand Canyon Monsoon workshop wasn’t especially favorable for lightning. I told the group during the orientation that I wasn’t concerned, that I’ve often seen forecasts like this change suddenly—then anxiously monitored every subsequent NWS forecast update with crossed fingers. In the meantime, we were all quite content photographing incredible smoke effects, courtesy of three nearby wildfires.

By the end of our second day I started seeing hints of moisture returning to the forecast toward the end of the workshop, with each forecast looking a little more promising than the one prior. By day four, the workshop’s final full day, I was downright optimistic.

We’ve always had better lightning success on the North Rim. Partly because the view faces south, the direction from which the storms tend to arrive, and partly because our cabins at Grand Canyon Lodge are right on the rim. Grand Canyon Lodge also has a pair of view decks, shielded by lightning rods, that are ideal for photographing lightning.

The lightning started firing early on our final evening. We all rushed to the rim, attached our Lightning Triggers, and pointed toward the most promising clouds. Much to my relief, it wasn’t long before everyone in the group had at least one lightning image, and most had many more than just one.

But feeling a bit greedy, with nice clouds overhead, and the smoke that had set up camp in the canyon for most of the week suddenly scoured by heavy rain, I realized that all we needed to ignite a sunset lightshow was a little sunlight. I glanced westward and saw signs of clearing. Dare I hope for a sunset to go with this lightning? As if by divine intervention, the sun emerged from the clouds just a few minutes before sunset, infusing the canyon and its diaphanous rain bands with light that started amber and reddened with each passing minute.

When the choice is between a (relatively) bland scene most likely to get lightning, and better a composition with just a slight chance for lighting, I usually take my chances and opt for the better composition. In this case the lightning had shifted a little north of the canyon, but I pointed my camera toward the better light over the canyon and crossed my fingers. So irresistible was the light that while waiting (and not wanting to change my composition and miss a lightning strike), I pulled my a7RII from my bag and clicked a couple of handheld frames due south, where no lightning was possible but the light was especially sweet. (Anyone who knows me will be shocked to hear that I took a picture without a tripod.)

Though several bolts fired during the five or so minutes before the sun disappeared, the one in this image was the only lightning I captured with the great sunset light. But all I wanted was one sunset strike, and I felt extremely lucky that it arrived just as the magenta glow reached its crescendo.

The lightning waxed and waned for several more hours. With the sun down the sky soon darkened enough for me to remove my Lightning Trigger and switch to long exposures in Bulb mode. I stayed until after 10:00, wrapping up with a couple of 20+ minute exposures that captured more than a dozen strikes each.

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops

A Lightning Gallery

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