Tag Archives: sony

PDN PhotoPlus Trip Report

On Saturday, my friend and I went to PDN in New York to look at all of the cool toys and things I could never possibly afford. Figured it would only be appropriate to share some photos for your amusement. Since this is so large, I’ve done the rare step of hiding this behind a More tag. Here’s a complete gallery.

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On the Sony 500 f/4 G

There’s three factors for development of a 500 f/4 G.

1. The technical bits of optical construction. Supertelephotos take years to develop and manufacture, and they’ll often be sold for a period of about a decade before they see an update. It’s non-trivial to build these, so you generally want to get it right before you sell them, and any production issues tend to be a setback. Witness the general non-availability of the Nikon 500 f/4 that was recently introduced for about a year after announcement. It just takes time to produce precision optics. Would people have preferred that Sony stayed silent about the development of the lens (and get slammed for doing so), as opposed to giving the hint (PMA 2009) and more info that the lens is coming? Of course, to some, those things are in effect the same because they can’t go out and buy it.

This is probably the least of the worries for the lens, but are worked out with basically time, money, and resources. I don’t think the question is if they can make a 500 f/4, it’s more if they would. Which leads to…

2. Economic bits. In the case of our system, one has to take a hard look at what kind of users would buy a 500 f/4. It’s a fraction of a fractional user base at large. How many do you estimate you’ll be able to sell over the course of those ten years? Two thousand? Would be really interesting to know exactly how many 400 f/4.5s and 600 f/4s Minolta sold over the years. If the economic case for starting production for it in 2010 wasn’t there, and 2011 looked like a better year (given upcoming sister products like faster camera bodies and a somewhat recovering economy), wouldn’t you take the hit and delay it a year which will, in the end, be a very short time period in overall lens sales? Yes, you might lose someone like Mark who just can’t wait anymore, but a few lenses here or there aren’t going to make or break the production of this lens. It’s going to be whether or not you can sell enough of a gross to actually make the development and production money worthwhile as well as being able to front the manufacturing process to begin with.

These, incidentally, are the same reasons why we’re probably not going to see T/S lenses for a long time, if ever. They’re an even narrower market than supertelephotos.

I think people underestimate how much the professional guys who shoot sports sort of subsidize the well-heeled amateur who wants a 500 f/4 or 600 f/4. Canon knows that the NFL, World Cup, baseball, etc shooters with major publications, papers, and leagues are going to spring for new supertelephotos as soon as they’re released. This gives a built-in market for several thousand telephoto lenses, which basically pays for their R&D, and the guy who wants to take a few trips every year to shoot wildlife in National Parks is gravy for them, and how they get their profit.

Who does Sony (and Minolta before them) have? Some well-heeled amateurs and very, very few professionals, probably none of which who shoot highly visible sports. It’s basically the same group of guys who’ve been in the system it for a very long time now, many of which already have some super telephoto options. Plus, you will have natural turnover of users, some leaving, some going, and the market is, unfortunately, probably inelastic. You’re not just competing with Canon and Nikon at that point, but also against yourself. Fortunately, the time is right for a new supertelephoto lens, given the existing options have been well out of production and are noticeably inferior in terms of AF (screw drive) to the competition.

This is a bit of a chicken and the egg type of problem, but ultimately if Sony wants to be taken seriously it has to offer the 500 f/4.

3. A suitable camera to use the lens with. While one can use a 500 f/4 with an a700 or a900, neither of these cameras were known as high performing cameras in the terms that people who care about sports and wildlife think about. The framerates are merely good, not excellent, and the AF is sub-par compared to the competition for this market. Without a suitable high spec, high performance body, the lens’ users will continue to curse the shot that they missed. Even if they don’t need a high framerate, they do need powerful, accurate AF. Of course, given what Sony has done on the entry spec (and cheap) a55, you have to wonder what they could do with a body at twice the price. If the a77 is able to do a full nine/ten frames per second with complete control (as opposed to the partial control in the a55), that’d be a pretty good start. The a55 is already pushing ~6.5 frames with full control. The body has to be comparable to a 7D or D300 in many (but not all) ways, otherwise, it’s a non-starter and will just continue the slide.

Of course, whether or not Sony can get people on board the train at that level of user is the question. If Sony had simply refreshed the a700, given it a few new things with moderately improved AF, it probably would not have sold very well and would go over like a lead balloon (see Olympus E-3 and E-5). Pentax might sell you a K-5, but they’re in no better situation than Sony and in some cases a worse one. Pentax is content to living in a market niche. Olympus users are even more screwed than either camp. If Sony tries to be a true third player, it will take a lot of time, money, and anguish, and would probably ultimately fail.

Sony is the Airbus that’s trying to disrupt the Boeing/Douglas duopoly. The only real way they can do that is a combination of two factors – 1, selling something that neither guy has (A320/SLT or on-sensor phase detect with global shutter). 2. one of the other guys needs to be horribly mismanged or lose a lot of business to reasons not related to you.

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An Afternoon with the Sony SLT a33

I actually had a chance to spend a decent amount of time with an a33 today (as opposed to about five minutes of initial handling a few days ago). The viewfinder has a great initial impression. You look through it and you get a big, bright view of exactly what you’re taking, and the information overlays are great. Doubly so the real-time level. Lighting up with green for go is quite enthralling. I had the a700 with me, and in terms of eyepoint, magnification, and accuracy, the EVF had it soundly beat. It was a true vision filling sight, as opposed to the a700 which is more of a “window to the world” type of view, and definitely a huge step above an a500 or KM 5D’s end-of-tunnel view. These are just raw specs, though. I’d rank it in pure size terms as slightly smaller than an a850.

It’s one thing to beat an OVF on raw specs, though. The devil is of course in the details. While the EVF is good, it is not perfect. It’s not the newest, super highest spec EVF – the resolution is good, much better than I remember the KM A2 being. But there’s still some room for improvement and I imagine that a higher spec model would have a better finder in raw resolution/refresh rate terms. In the higher gain mode it does lose some contrast, but it’s within allowable limits, especially because using an OVF in a dark situation can be problematic in and of itself.

The EVF absolutely needs some kind of switch to ignore exposure preview (a la KM A2) and ramp up the auto-gain for dark environments. It took Minolta a while to recognize this need from the Dimage 7, hopefully Sony will rectify it faster than Minolta did. Generally the camera is smart about when to use auto-gain, but it does need an override.

The viewfinder felt responsive, at least, as responsive as it could have been in the environment. Swinging the camera around resulted in a kind of rolling shutter effect at certain pan speeds. If the speed was fast enough and a properly panned subject was in the frame, it wasn’t really visible. Ditto if it was slow enough. But at, say, person walking speed, you could get some jitter. I blame this mostly on the environment – it wasn’t super bright sunlight but rather tungsten model lights. I imagine it could use minimum gain and the maximum refresh rate in a brighter environment.

I did not experience much RGB tearing, and I’m not sure if I was even able to recognize it. For me, this is probably not an issue. Your mileage will definitely vary on this front.

I had the 70-400 G with me and I was keen on seeing just how this lens would work on the a33 body. The verdict is that it reminds me a lot of the “bad old days” of the KM 5D. The old “hanging pinky” syndrome. There is just not enough grip for the pinky finger, and it winds up curling under the body. Admittedly, many cameras have this flaw, but it was obvious for me on the a33. The grip itself? Great. I had no real issues with where my fingers went on the camera, access to buttons, etc. The AV button is in the perfect place and the three buttons (movie, AV, and AEL) are all discernible by different touches. The shutter power switch seems better placed than on the a500, and I actually didn’t switch it off accidentally at all, which surprised me. Some users will find this grip to be a dealbreaker with large lenses, and I don’t blame them, but admittedly many cameras of this price class have similar issues. The a33’s compactness is quite shocking when placed next to an a700.

The body’s actual build quality felt good. Certainly no worse than KM 5D. The new textured rubber material felt quite solid and was an improvement over the a700. The plastic body felt good. No creaks or obvious issues, but you can tell that the body shell is plastic. The cinnabar circle around the lens mount is now some kind of metallic copper instead of the orange paint that the a700 has. It’s actually a bit subtler and classier. AF-MF switch still feels like a KM 5D switch and has a firm click, but IMO is too hard to switch. Certainly better than the a500’s switch, though.

Incidentally, the battery/memory door does clear my Manfrotto RC-2 quick release plate, so using this on a tripod and changing cards or batteries should not be a problem with this type of QR plate. However, some L-brackets or very large quick release plates may be an issue in this regard. Fortunately, most of these systems allow changing of orientation to work around this. Definitely a “try before you buy” here.

The extra “eye spacing” of the EVF from the back of the body was a welcome change from the a700 and other SLRs where I’ve sort of adapted to holding my face sideways to the camera. If you’ve got a big schnozz, you might still hit the LCD panel, but I didn’t. Also, there is a fraction of a second delay for the automatic switching of EVF and LCD screen. It is something I would probably get used to in time, but these few milliseconds are initially notiecable. There is no warm-up time to the EVF, it just takes a fraction of a second to go from “off” to “on.

Speaking of the LCD panel, the flip-out screen worked very well for waist level shooting. I could easily imagine having this body and the G on a tripod, following action with the LCD screen and not getting so “lost” in the viewfinder. It’s just like an old Hasselblad. An a77 type camera MUST have this feature.

The port flaps felt OK for rubber flaps. They closed securely but IMO I prefer the door-type flaps on the a700. That’s just a personal thing, someone could probably go either way on it.

Unfortunately, since I have not yet used this camera for my primary type of shooting (aviation), I probably can’t truly judge some aspects of it. Say, how well the EVF would work on a jet in blue sky. However, I was able to use both continuous shooting and AF.

The “slideshow effect” of continuous shooting definitely takes some getting used to. I did not experience any buffer blackouts or responsiveness issues; the camera was preloaded with an HG HX “insert letters here” memory stick which felt plenty fast. For things coming at or away from you, I doubt you’d really notice it most of the time. But going from side-to-side it is definitely there. The a33’s lower framerates/buffer probably contribute to this a bit, but in Continuous priority on the mode dial the shutter flips so quickly that I was kind of getting the hang of it. I imagine a camera with a more powerful shutter with faster sync speed (cough, a77) will be even better on this front.

Keep in mind that I can still make framing errors with my a700 OVF due to mirror blackouts and tracking going in and out of the frame. It’s very tough to truly get perfect at this and even the best shooters with no camera support (e.g. gimbals) will make mistakes from time to time. The EVF is not a solution to these problems and will still exhibit them a bit. However, having a big 100% view can’t hurt, and the thing is certainly not terrible. Great for some, adequate for others.

How’s the AF? It’s good. Very good. Put it up against D5000s, digital Rebels, etc, and it’d come out a clear victor in my estimation. Against a Canon 7D or Nikon D300 or even the new D7000? Those cameras would win, but for a variety of reasons that are, in my estimation, not really due to raw horsepower in terms of AF speed or tracking locks. Would they be better in those terms? Probably, but this camera is nipping at their heels in terms of raw horsepower. It just needs some taming and massaging that those higher level models have and that an a77 SHOULD have.

Again, I was not able to truly test it against my main area of expertise, but I was able to shoot some slow to fast moving objects with the 70-400, and the overall tracking experience felt very good. For instance, a skateboarder doing tricks on a series of ramps was one of the subjects, and it seemed capable of good burst tracking in wide area focus. The camera makes it very clear where it’s focusing, as many AF sensors light up at once and quickly change to show you where it’s acquiring focus. It’s almost christmas-tree like, in a way. The main criticism I could give is that it feels TOO responsive and that hopefully a higher level model will have some ways to tweak the AF system in terms of focus point grouping and time delay for attempting to change focus. The camera seems smart enough to stick with “groups” of points based on your composition, but I am a control freak and would prefer to explicitly say “use the central group of AF points only.”

The camera appears to continue AFing in AF-C mode even during your exposure, which may seem disconcerting at first. I’m not sure if there’s a shutter speed threshold where it stops doing this. It could be used to one’s advantage.

Changing the focus point in local area focus is a breeze – press the AF button and use the four way. Done. Not as convenient as the a700’s joystick, but actually more convenient than how it used to be on the 5D and doubly so than the weak a330’s “go into a menu” version.

Suffice to say that beginner to most amateur users would, IMO, be satisfied with this AF. More demanding users will miss configurability options but will probably find it usable in many situations and definitely an improvement over what they were using in the past. For me, this kind of AF jump would probably equivalent to the one I experienced from the KM 5D to the a700 in terms of up-front user experience.

Face Detection in Program mode was quite good for some quick portraits. I didn’t have to wait on the camera at all, which was a surprise to me, and seemed to give people shots with wide area focus some help. This will definitely be helpful to people who are on full auto. I’d probably use this feature often when doing people shoots, as with wide area focus it means I have to mess around less with specifically choosing focus points. Seeing all four AF points light up in a face detected area when doing a rule-of-thirds composition was quite enjoyable.

On the subject of the camera’s UI, it’s clearly no a700, but it’s not unusable. It is just different and takes getting used to. In a straight holistic view of it, the camera’s Fn button mode is really not all that different than QuickNavi on the a700. If you turn on the super-information display overlay on the LCD image, it actually feels like you’re directly controlling the options. You can also use the dials on the camera body to manipulate the settings, just as on the a700. Where it feels different is that QuickNavi combined with the a700’s joystick is very fast. A four-way controller is a step backwards in terms of speed. But the gestalt is still there. It is also missing the ability for the direct access buttons to enable the Fn view, which the a700 could do. Pressing ISO dumps you into the dedicated ISO selection screen. However, it is nice that the changes to ISO, white balance, etc are instantly reflected in the viewfinder/LCD image. This is not unlike the a550, but since it is using the actual image view, it’s truly representative of what you’ll shoot.

The Fn menu does remember the last thing you used, at least, it feels like it did.

It would take some getting used to having options on the four-way (e.g. drive, ISO, disp, WB). Not having a C button to set to flash compensation is a bummer. Honestly, the flash button should enable flash compensation with a flash attached, but I did not test this since I did not have my F58 with me. It could be there for all I know, but I doubt it.

I recorded all of two movies – one with AF and one without. The AF movie mode has to be seen to believed. It really works, and it works well. The caveats are all well known at this point, but I could actually see myself using it for recording videos to put on FlightLevel350 or for my personal use. I also tried manual mode with aperture control, and it seemed to work well enough. Both the EVF and the main LCD are great for framing and adjusting focus. Is it missing some stuff? Absolutely. Give me some kind of blinkies for exposure problems, give me an edge detection for focus. AEL works as advertised for locking exposure. Presetting aperture in A mode also works, but you’re committed for the length of the clip. The camera does need an individual gain/shutter control, but this is worked around by setting your options in manual mode, pressing AEL, then recording. Unfortunately, there is no predictability as to what variable will be modified when adjusting exposure compensation. An amateur/casual user would generally be OK with this arrangement, but demanding users will not, and the a77 needs to have manual control of these options. If the a55 gets these options, as scuttlebutt seems to be pointing towards, then most of this paragraph is rendered moot.

Ultimately, my opinion is that cameras like the NEX VG-10 are the future for large sensor video recording for a variety of reasons. But video DSLRs are here to stay, so we might as well make the best of the situation.

Depth of Field preview works great. The screen/viewfinder auto gains to show a proper exposure, so no more dim finder. The camera also shows a very accurate depth of field preview – I could not tell the difference between the captured image and the preview (obviously because it’s all done on main sensor). It also doubles as a focus stop/exposure lock. That could be useful in some situations.

I cannot judge image quality, as I did not have my own personal SD/MS card to take photos with.

All in all, this is an impressive camera. Is it for everyone? No. But this is the future of digital imaging. Some day the mirror will go away entirely, but this is about 90% there. There’s a lot to like, and some things not to like, but for a first step forward, this thing is a big leap forward (with probably a step back for some users depending on their backgrounds or what level of camera they are used to using).

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DPReview

I’ve been reading Digital Photogrpahy Review for the better part of eight years at this point. The site’s clearly aimed at enthusiasts, and it colors what they write considerably. Take this line here from their preview of the NEX interchangeable lens compact camera.

Our real disappointment with the automatic mode is that it does nothing to encourage you to learn about what it’s doing. Something as small as highlighting the aperture value when you adjust the ‘defocus background’ option would at least hint at what parameter was being changed.

Here’s a clue, guys – most of the people buying these cameras have zero interest in knowing what they’re changing in Auto mode. It’s for point and shoot upgraders who want better image quality but aren’t quite ready for the leap to a “big camera.” Auto is meant to be brain dead easy. Change it to Program mode if you want a more transparent automatic mode. Truthfully, if/when I buy it, the thing is most likely to stay in Program mode most of the time. There’s a time and place for the big camera, and for the small camera. Odds are I’m not going to want to dick around with a bunch of settings and go with a more automated small camera, and I’m an enthusiast user!

The focus on what things can’t do in a lot of reviews today, be it cameras, iPads, whatever troubles me. It’s really easy to tear something down when writing about it. It’s difficult to think of new and exciting things to do.

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A Month With the 70-400 G

So I’ve had the 70-400 G for about a month now, and I’ve gone on two photo shoots with it. What’s the verdict so far?

Well, the verdict is that it’s awesome. It works well for blue sky as well as ground stuff. I’m really enjoying the advantages that SSM focus brings, like the limiter, focus stop buttons, and the full time manual override. The focus so far has also been deadly accurate.

The image quality at 400mm also beats the Bigma hands down. The difference is actually quite shocking. There’s less vignetting, more contrast, and the sharpness feels really close to when I had the 400 G prime. I can’t really quibble with the optical quality.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s only one “lug” on the bayonet for the hood to mount to. My other lenses have two lugs for the hood to lock against. This might be the source of the complaints about the hood coming loose easily. If you don’t thread it 100% right, it doesn’t have two locks to keep it in place. I’ve taken extra care to make sure the hood is both stowed and attached properly.

Overall, I’m very pleased. Here’s to hoping that it will be a good air show season this year.

United 757

United 757

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Things I’d Like to See on an a700 Replacement.

Sony’s working on a new a700-level camera. As a current a700 owner, I’d be interested in upgrading to this camera sometime. I’m hoping they do several things to this camera in terms of feature set. We know the camera’s going to have video recording and some kind of live view, so let’s take that as a given.

a700 Replacement Concept

a700 Replacement Concept

Improve the Autofocus: This is a given. The AF has to be a big step forward. It’s a bridge too far to expect it to be the better of the D300’s system, but it has to be competitive. Add in more cross sensors, make the sensitive area larger, and improve the tracking. Not only that, improve the detection of focus distance for the least amount of effort and allow grouping of AF points.

Improve the metering (flash and ambient): Another given. The 500 series already improved on this a bit, but one again, we can never have too accurate of a meter.

Incorporate flash improvements: Allow the a700 replacement to use the HVL-F58AM as a commander in CTRL-2 mode to use older Minolta flashguns in ratio mode. Also allow the popup flash to act as a ratio commander. How about a Flash Value lock to fire a preflash early? Also, include the a550’s full time slow sync mode.

Improve dual card slot functionality: Allow for the splitting of RAW/JPEG to different card slots, or use mirroring on the slots to act as a backup. Allow us to change this via QuickNavi, too. Or allow for automatic switchover when one card is full.

Add an AF Point Lock: I don’t really care HOW they do it, be it a physical switch or some other method. Just put it in there.

Add AF Microadjust: Bring it over from the a900 for fun and profit.

Rerwrite the drive menu: Most of the drive menu options are OK, but we need more bracketing options. More than three frames in a bracket, more than 2 EV difference, with or without mirror lockup for HDR. Give us more drive modes!

Include Copyright Information: Although I use Lightroom to set this information, some guys don’t do imports. Let them apply copyright metadata directly to images.

A Transparent LCD Focusing Screen: Along with configurable AF points, this will allow for more information on the viewfinder, like grid lines, battery info, et cetera.

More Info in the Viewfinder: Specifically, put the freakin’ ISO in there. It’s about damn time.

More Body Button Configurability: For instance, let the EV button control flash compensation if I want it to. Hold down a combination of buttons (e.g. Delete and Fn for 3 seconds) to prompt for a format of the primary memory card. Let me set that FV Lock feature I just talked about to DOF preview. How about enabling AF-MF to act like an AF ON button?

Put the Sync port on the front: Like the a900. Basically, make all of the ports clear of potential L-brackets.

Tiltable Screen: If this thing has live view and no tilting screen, I’ll be disappointed.

More functions for the DOF Preview/Lens Button: Allow the button to enable MF Check Live View, enable intelligent preview, DOF preview, focus hold, focus start, memory adjustment, quick focus mode change (AF-A/S to AF-C while held, for instance).

Make Custom White Balance Faster: Give us some shortcut to set a custom WB to the current register.

Bring in the Auto HDR mode from the a5x0 series: This works amazingly well and should be part of DRO on this new camera.

Create an automatic multi-exposure mode: Slightly different than the auto HDR in end result, but a similar idea in and of itself. Allow the user to take multiple exposures and merge them together into one file on the camera.

Include a built-in Eyepiece Shutter: Bring this feature along from the a900. I hate using the clip on one.

Allow the use of non-ROM lenses in Aperture Priority Mode: Keep the a700’s behavior the same. Don’t make it like the a900 or the consumer cameras.

Illuminate the new extra LCD panel via metered light: If the metered light is under a certain EV, light it up, just like on the old Minolta film cameras. Use an efficient light that doesn’t drain excessive battery power.

In-body level: It would be really cool to have an auto-level when using the camera so that bubble levels are unnecessary.

Add Help Screens for custom functions: The lower level cameras have help screens for basic functions, but IMO the higher level cameras can eschew that in favor of help screens that can detail info about what each custom setting in the menu does.

Allow saving of custom settings to memory card/PC: this also means allow us to do custom settings configuration from, say, Remote Camera Control.

Allow precise clock setting: This means setting a time zone and setting the time in the cemera by seconds to synchronize clocks. If Sony ever adds a GPS attachment, allow the camera to determine the time via GPS time.

Create custom menus: Allow the user to create a list of frequently used menu items, a la My Menu.

That should be enough from me for now. I know nobody at Sony will actually read this, so into the great internet circular file it goes.

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Sony a450

There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in various fora today about the just-announced a450. The a450 looks to be exactly like a 550 except it has no quick AF live view and a smaller screen with no tilting feature. It does have a slightly bigger viewfinder (same as the a200/a100/KM 5D), but is otherwise feature-equal.

There’s a lot of bluster about how Sony doesn’t know what it’s doing from people waiting for an a700 replacement, as if this camera and that one are mutually exclusive. They aren’t, and the camera is also probably has little to do with whether or not the 500 series is doing well, because those cameras have only been out for about two months. I see it more as a tacit admission that the a230/330/380 do not offer much for someone that wants a more traditional SLR at a low price point. There is a lot to like about the camera – if you pit it against the D3000 or Rebel XS, it eats both of them for lunch. I’m just not sure how much more I can take from people saying “YOU AREN’T PAYING ATTENTION TO MEEEE” all these days.

Will waiting for PMA for the a700 replacement really kill people?

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