The Sony Mirrorless Chapter… For Now!
Where Angels Fear to Tread
I’m taking a deep breath. A really, really deep breath… because I’m going to talk about gear. Always dicey; it always incites such a ruckus, which is why I usually avoid it. Not to say I don’t have opinions! Mais non! I’m downright opinionATED, as anyone who knows me well can attest.
You may know I’m beginning a quest to find a light, mirrorless camera system that’ll lighten my gear load – but still allow me to create without compromise. I wrote a bit about it here and here. I knew this journey wouldn’t be easy – maybe not even possible! But I have to try. Today’s chapter: Sony & why it had to go back.
Carrying the weight of my gear is becoming an issue. My backpack full of my beloved Canon 6D’s and lenses has thrown me off-balance and taken me down a few times now. I don’t find that to be all that pleasant. Clambering over rocks, standing on ledges with 1000 ft drops and other landscape-y positions in which I find myself is becoming nerve-wracking. There are times I won’t even go for a shot I want simply because I’m scared that my pack with go all rogue and toss me over a cliff to an early death. That’s no good.
This was me, all clambered up in the giant granite boulders around Lake Tahoe. I had a smaller pack then and I had to be super careful… mine’s even heavier now!
NOTE: As we embark on this journey (which is how I look at this)… I have a few ground rules. Which is funny, since I hate rules. But I’ve watched gear discussions enough to know it’s a good idea.
- I’m not a camera reviewer. Far from it! If you’re looking for an unbiased, purely scientific review of gear, check out CameraLabs.com. Gordon Laing is awesome at that. I’m biased and make no bones about it. This is a purely subjective exploration.
- My observations, opinions, conclusions, tests, etc… are all based upon what’s right for ME. Think of this as me thinking out loud as I explore, not as me giving you advice.
- I’m willing to be open about this investigation process, since I suspect many of you have similar issues and are asking similar questions. Those of you who’ve been around here for awhile, know we have a positive, open minded approach to life and the things that happen in it. If you’re new here, please keep that in mind in your comments.
What Do You Need?
Here’s the deal. You have to figure out what you want to accomplish with any tool. THAT’S what should drive any decision you make. Not popular opinion! I have a very specific set of requirements in my paintbrushes, as I think of my camera gear. Changing from my Canon rig outright may not even be possible. But I do need some new brushes, stat!
I need MUCH lighter weight, just the right lens selection to do the jobs I need, at least SOME capability in low light and of course, the images need to be awesome and offer the possibility of printing BIG. I like to shoot landscapes, macro, fine arty-farty compositions of all sorts, ancient architecture, some wildlife. I DON’T shoot much street, portraiture, people in general. Whatever gear I own will have just work for the odd occasion I do those things. What I love to do and create – and the experience I want to have in the process is THE factor in what equipment I’m going to reach for.
Does that absolute mean full frame? I always thought so… but right now, I’m willing to question and challenge ANY belief as I embark on this journey. I’m clearing my mind and starting from the ground up. Time to figure this out for myself.
My Canon rig: (2) 6D bodies, a 14mm prime, 24-70, 70-300 and 100 macro. I love it. It does everything I want it to. Although, truth be told, I’d love even more reach than the 300… but going there means more weight and is freakin’ expensive! Ditto the new 11-24 on the wide end. Gorgeous beyond belief… but OUCH on 3 pounds and $3K!
I love telephoto, too. Awhile back, I unloaded my gorgeous Canon 70-200 IS f/2.8 for the 70-300 IS f/3.5-5.6… which was a step back and seemed counter-intuitive. But it’s lighter, has the reach that makes me smile and I was willing to make whatever small quality compromise there was. (It wasn’t much, for the work I do.) Coupled with the 6D, I don’t have digital noise issues, even when I crank the ISO up.. thus can hand-hold my shots at sunset, which I love to do.
This was taken with the EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM, ISO 400, f/5.7, handheld: (I often shoot it to great results with much higher ISO’s)
Sony. My first stop and why I sent mine back
Sony was my most obvious choice. I’d used it before and it was full frame, easy choices there. Wasn’t sure about how its current overall performance and E-Mount lens selection would work for me, but had to try. Sometimes, you just gotta get in there and get dirty! I chose the A7ii, because it had 24+ megapixels, and I hoped the stabilization feature would help offset the slower, f/4 lenses offered in the E-Mount line in lower light/handheld shooting conditions. It was the same logic I applied in pairing my Canon 6D with that slower 70-300 lens to awesome results. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out quite the way I’d hoped.
Before investing in full frame lenses, I started with the set I had for my NEX-7: the 10-18, 18-55, 55-210. Not the greatest glass in the world, but I just wanted to start with what I had on hand. The thing I learned using those lenses is that is that if you shoot with default settings, the APS-C sensor will be ON. That means the camera will detect whether you’re using a full frame lens or a cropped sensor one (and here I thought that only applied to cameras!).
The APS-C sensor being ON means that all of your images will fill the frame, but they measure 3936 pixels across, instead of the full frame’s native 6000 pixels. If you turn that setting OFF (thanks for tipping me off to that, Cal Mukimoto!), then you get the full 6000 of pixels across. However, with the exception of the 10-18mm lens, the images look like this (these are untouched, no processing):
Now you have to crop – and you’re going to lose some resolution. Some of you math-y types can crunch the numbers on that, to me it just meant it defeated the point of having a full frame camera – and that I needed to bite the bullet to get lenses built for the beast. I decided to start with the 24-70 and 70-200. I had doubts about focal lengths (esp. on the latter)… but sometimes you just have to be open-minded and just see for yourself.
I shot this with the A7ii and the 10-18, experimenting with OnOne’s Perfect Resize to bring it up to my Canon’s native dimension of 5472 pixels across. (just an experiment: not a viable solution in the long run):
Where I Landed
Here’s what my highly opinionated self came up with…
- The A7ii is somewhat lighter than my 6D, but not THAT much. The native lenses aren’t as light as I need, either. I know that’s blasphemous! But I have a particular vision I’m reaching for… and if you’re contemplating this move, so should you.
- It gets noisier than I’d personally like it to at higher ISO’s… which means it doesn’t always play nicely with f/4 speed lenses at dusk and the soft, low light conditions I so dearly love.
- Sony’s 24-70 f/4 lens was actually OK for me. It’s sharp and focuses fast. I do have a beef with that focal length in general. That’s not a Sony thing, it a lens thing. I feel the same way about my Canon 24-70. Every manufacturer makes one. I think it’s a very average focal length – and unless you get crafty and find its narrow band of sweet spots, it can lull YOU into being average. (I always liked the range of the Canon 24-105. So versatile). Side bar: Scott Kelby wrote this really interesting post about lenses that made me smile.)
- Some of you will ask about this: and yes, I did shoot some lovely images with my Canon glass and the Metabones adapter… on manual focus. The auto-focus is more like “auto-neverending-search.” Useless to me for anything but tripod landscape shooting on manual focus. Plus it added weight. Definitely matched my 6D and its 24-70 ii f/2.8 in that regard. Which made me think… “Now WHY am I paying money to have the same rig as I already have, but with f/4 instead of f/2.8 and manual focus? You see the problem there.
Both of these images were shot with the Sony A7ii and my Canon 70-300 with Metabones adapter:
- After playing with the 24-70 for a couple of days, I switched to the 70-200 (NOT CHEAP!) My biggest question: would it just be too short in focal range for me? The answer: HELL YES! I definitely confirmed that a 70-200 will never work for me. Just not enough reach. That’s not a Sony thing though… it’s a KHutt thing. The Sony thing is that THAT is all they offer in E-Mount. Sigh.
- Other things that don’t work for me on this lens: The 70-200 on the A7ii isn’t breaking any speed focusing records. Plus it’s fussy about subject. Doesn’t like clouds. If you’ve seen my Store – and the Heavenly Cloud packs (many more are on the way. I have a collection of close to 4000 cloud images.) – you’ll know why this is a problem for me. I have my face in the clouds ALOT. The 70-200 was like talking to someone who said “What clouds? I don’t see clouds. Hey, how about that awesome telephone wire! I can see that – you wanna see THAT, right?).
- Then… there’s that f/4 thing again. My walk they day I took it out went from late afternoon till early evening. Image quality went down much sooner (from low light) than I thought it should in such a pricey, highly touted lens. And DAMN was that thing heavy by the time I was done!
- All in all, I just wasn’t having as much fun as I wanted to with this system. If I were more of a street or portrait photographer, maybe I would. But for what I like to shoot and the overall experience I want to have, it just didn’t make me sing. Again, this is a TOTALLY subjective thing!
One of the 70-200 shots from that evening (no processing):
The images are lovely, when you get get the ones you want. I’ve ALWAYS loved the dynamic range within Sony’s images. That part – especially in the shadows and blacker areas – really beats Canon. But it doesn’t weigh out against the other things that don’t work for my way of shooting and what I’m looking for.
What about large prints? Where IS the line with those? CAN APS-C sensor images go big, processed in my style? If so, HOW big? Dunno yet. The only way to know is to try. Nobody else’s experience is going to give me the data that doing it myself will. Proof will be in the proverbial pudding.
I sent back the lenses. Am selling my A7ii and starting over. Going back to square one and educating myself with fresh eyes, using my own sensibilities, preferences, eyeballs and judgement. I may well end up keeping part or all of my Canon rig – and creating a travel-only set up. Or some combination. We’ll see. What I’ve gotten from this experience so far is that I can’t apply old rules to new territory. Mirrorless is still the Wild West… it’s new and developing. We’re gonna have to RIDE this horse to know if we like its gait or not! And whatever we think we’re sure of now is going to change as the technology emerges… THAT I do know for sure.
Going to try Fuji next. A rig should arrive early next week, I hope. I’m very, very curious to see how it feels in my hand, how the images look, etc.
Will possibly try Panasonic too, just for the sake of discussion.
Finally, this is all much harder than I imagined. It’s not just a matter of replacing my Canon’s capabilities with a mirrorless system. That option just don’t exist yet. So instead, I’m having to get REALLY clear on what I want… and what compromises I’m willing to make. Mirrorless can be quirky… so I’m also opening my mind to what new ways I can create with quirky. Hey – that could be a match made in heaven!
SO much more to come… but that’s basically where I’m at with it all. 😀