My technology can beat up your technology

Gary Hart Photography: Looking Up, Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Looking Up, Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/100 second
ISO 200

For some reason, the technology choices of others seem to be the source of profound angst to many (self appointed) online “experts.” Whether it’s vinyl vs. digital, Windows vs. OS X, Android vs. iOS, Nikon vs. Canon, mirrorless vs. SLR, nothing incites in-your-face rancor like someone else’s technology choice. While I’ve been quite content to remain on the sidelines during these pointless battles, I must confess to being an occasional (amused) observer.

One thing I’ve observed during these skirmishes is that most desperate attacks seem to come from the side playing catch-up—the underdog. I mean, was there anyone more annoying than an Apple user in the nineties?

On the other side, it seems that the job of the front-running users who are under attack, the users with the technology embraced by the masses, is to respond with smug condescension. Which of course only further inflames the underdog. I mean, is there anyone more smug than an Apple user in 2016?

(Before you accuse me of Apple-user bashing, let me assure you that I’m a committed Apple zealot who long ago lost track of the number of iDevices within arm’s reach. You could plug in Nikon/Canon, vinyl/digital, and so on and easily find the same attack/condescend cycle repeating.)

But given all this, imagine my concern since exiting the Canon/Nikon battle zone—suddenly I was photographing with gear that seemed too anonymous to incite emotion among the masses. Where had I gone wrong? Which is why it was with great excitement that I read a blog post disparaging Sony mirrorless shooters—to be more specific, Sony full-frame mirrorless shooters, a fraternity of which I’m a card carrying member. It was like the new phone book had arrived and suddenly, “I’m somebody!”

According to this self-proclaimed authority, as a Sony shooter I’m an ignorant lemming with dubious lineage and poor bathing habits. (Okay, so maybe I made up the last couple of points, but I have no doubt the argument would have gotten there soon enough.) Rather take offense, I viewed this blogger’s anti-Sony rant as a badge of honor, a sign that my Sony mirrorless gear has achieved enough status to stir the juices of the insecure. Not only that, I’m now in a position to respond with condescending smugness—a significant milestone indeed.

But seriously

Okay, but seriously, who cares? Who? Cares? Are people really that insecure about their technology choices that they feel threatened by mine? I have my own very specific photography needs, as I’m sure you do. You can’t pretend to know my needs, I can’t pretend to know yours. I find no offense (or, I must confess, interest) in the equipment you choose, and certainly hope that you find none in mine.

On the other hand, I’ve reached the point in my career that my equipment choices do affect the decisions of others. People who like my pictures ask what equipment I use, and my opinion on the equipment they should purchase. While I’m happy to answer these questions (as my time permits), the real answer is that the equipment matters very little in relation to the person operating it. Today’s technology is pretty much across-the-board amazing compared to what used to be considered state-of-the-art. The limiting factor in your photography will almost certainly not be your equipment.

My advice is to filter out all the noise, target the few features that are most important to you and the way you shoot, and identify the system that best suits you. It almost certainly won’t be exactly the same as the system that best suits the online experts, no matter how loudly they make their case.

All that said, I’d like to explain why I’m confident that I’ve found the best camera system for my photography. It comes down to the realization over the year-and-a-half I’ve been shooting Sony full-frame mirrorless that I’m getting images that I never could have gotten with my Canon DSLRs. For me, that means ridiculous dynamic range from my a7RII, and similarly ridiculous high ISO performance from my a7SII. It also means more room in my bag, enabling me to carry more gear, which makes me more prepared for whatever Mother Nature delivers.

The most recent validation of my Sony system was captured late last month, on bright afternoon visit to Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons are narrow slot canyons carved in red sandstone by millennia of extreme drought punctuated by brief flash-floods. I’ve photographed these canyons many times in the last ten or so years; while I’ve always loved photographing there, I’ve also been frustrated by the extreme dynamic range that forces me (and pretty much everyone else) to decide between the scene’s highlights or shadows.

Since I don’t blend images (if I can’t shoot it in one click, I don’t shoot it), dynamic range is a huge deal for me. Our cameras just can’t capture in one click the range of light—from darkest shadows to brightest highlights—that our eyes see. But that doesn’t prevent me from trying to squeeze out as much dynamic range as my camera will allow (and hoping for more).

Already aware that my Sony a7RII (and the a7R before it) has more dynamic range than any camera I’ve ever used, on this year’s Antelope Canyon visit (helping good friend Don Smith with his Northern Arizona workshop) I decided to put the camera to the test with an extreme dynamic range scene that has always overwhelmed any camera I’ve thrown at it: in one frame, attempting to capture detail in the red rock buried in Antelope Canyon’s deepest shade, and the brilliant, sunlit blue sky outside.

On this visit, for most of the walk through Lower Antelope, a thin layer of clouds obscured the blue sky overhead. But as we were heading toward the exit, I looked up and saw a break in the clouds through the narrow slit overhead. I quickly metered the scene, targeting the brightest part of the remaining clouds and pushing the highlights as far I could without clipping (overexposing) them beyond recovery. On my LCD the image looked like a failure, with blinking (overexposed) highlights and black shadows.

Despite the unusable appearance on the camera, on my computer a small miracle happened: Tugging Lightroom’s Highlights slider to the left restored all the detail to the clouds and blue to the sky. Given my careful exposure, this wasn’t a total surprise, but on previous attempts, capturing blue sky in an Antelope Canyon image always was a death knell for the shadows. So imagine my surprise when I started pulling Lightroom’s Shadows slider to the right and rich red sandstone magically appeared, even in the darkest shadows. It was all there!

Does this mean that my new Sony mirrorless bodies are better than my Canon DSLR bodies? I can’t say, nor will I try to say—we each make the choice that best suits our style and needs, and all the online ranting from experts shouldn’t sway us. But for me, regardless of what others might say, or how loudly they might say it, I know I’m getting images that I never could have gotten before. And that’s really all that matters.

Previously impossible (shots I wouldn’t have gotten before)

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

%d bloggers like this: