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Cameracraft is our new quarterly magazine for all enthusiasts, keeping a special connection with the Minolta/Sony Alpha systems. We have just printed issue 8, Third Quarter 2014 with a detailed practical article on using shift, tilt and stitching adaptors on the NEX and A7 bodies. Visit our web pages to learn more, or subscribe below..

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Firmware updates for RX10, RX100mkIII

From Sonyalpharumours (with the links all very neatly arranged, probably from Sony’s own sources) details of firmware updates for the RX10 and the RX100 MkIII. Surprise at our end about the RX100 update, since the camera has only been on the market a short while, and the internal batteries used to maintain the date (etc) usually have a seven to ten year life!

So, how on earth did they discover that a ‘low remaining life’ of this battery could cause problems? Time travel? Ah, that’s the answer – someone will have accidentally set the date to 2021, making the camera think its internal battery needed replacing because Sony will have put into the system a lockout which occurs at the end of the expected life for this component.

All those of you with Epson professional printers over five years old, who have managed to download a service manual, will know how this works. The printer is programmed to commit suicide and tell you that a certain service component needs replacing; the engineer’s manual tells the engineer to inform the owner that the printer has reached the end of its useful life. Another printer sale!

RX10 firmware download at Sony US, Sony Germany, Sony UK, Sony France, Sony Italy, Sony Spain, Sony Holland, Sony Belgium, Sony Austria, Sony Switzerland, Sony Norway, Sony Sweden, Sony Portugal. It adds following improvement:

Enables shooting 60p/30p/24p/120p movies in the XAVC S format that supports high bit rates  (1920×1080) 50p/25,(1280×720) 100p, (1920×1080) 60p/30p/24p, (1280×720) 120p
Note: When shooting a movie in the XAVC S format, ensure that an SDXC card of Class 10 or faster is used.

If you don’t use Windows, most of these links do not work – Sony Australia has a Mac OSX link.

RX100m3 firmware download at Sony US, Sony Germany, Sony UK, Sony France, Sony Italy, Sony Spain, Sony Holland, Sony Belgium, Sony Austria, Sony Switzerland, Sony Norway, Sony Sweden, Sony Portugal. It adds following improvement:

This update improves stability in rare cases where the unit does not turn due to low remaining life of the internal back-up battery (used to maintain the date and time)

Special offer – £5 off UK subscription to f2

The publishers of Photoclubapha now also produce ƒ2 Freelance Photographer – again. This is the magazine we launched in 1999 and sold in 2006 after launching Photoclubalpha as a website. Now it’s back with us and better than ever (there are very few photo magazines like this around – the latest issue weighs 44og and has book quality paper).

f2composite2-small

You can access a special page (not visible on our website) for a subscription with a £5 discount, UK only. We’re sorry that can not discount overseas subs, but with the sheer weight of this publication the postage accounts for most of the cost – for example, six issues posted to the USA can cost us as much as £41.10 out of the £41.70 subscription (from which Paypal takes over £2!) and we only make it work by using a mailing house to bypass the regular printed paper service.

So this is really a benefit for UK visitors only – though we’ve left the Europe and Worldwide options in place.

http://www.iconpublications.com/subscribe-here-to-photo-magazines/photoclubalpha-5-discounted-f2-sub-uk/

 

B&H double Zeiss Touit lens deal for NEX

I guess that Zeiss must be working right now on full frame Touit lenses, because this is unprecedented value for those able to buy in dollars without steep shipping charges, duties or taxes – however, the links they emailed out today led to a wrong page on their USED section, and after a lot of digging to get the right URL, the offer is needless to say on back order – and B&H are taking a Jewish holiday from June 3rd to 5th so you’d better jump in quickly before close of biz on June 2nd.

touit2lenses

BOTH the Carl Zeoss Touit 12mm f/2.8 and 32mm f/1.8 lenses for the E-mount for only $919 from B&H with free US expedited shipping (they do not cover full frame and I’ve tested them and found a fairly tight image circle). They are stunningly good for NEX-7, NEX-6, A6000, A3000,  A5000.

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/0/Ntt/Zeiss+Touit+Lens

Here are the actual image circles of the three Touit lenses (12mm, 32mm and 50mm f/2.8 macro which is not in this deal) on A7R, without applying any distortion or vignetting correction. All the lenses have an Adobe profile and in the case of the 12mm this enlarges the image circle substantially. Normally, this means the lens is a true 12mm equivalent with the profile applied and the actual focal lenth could be closer to 10.5mm.

touit12mmf2p8-imagecircleonFF

First, the Touit 12mm without lens profile

touit12mmf2p8-imagecircleLensProfiled

Now, the Touit same shot but converted from raw applying the built-in lens profile (conclusion – the profile applies to an APS-C frame and does little good to the outer field on full frame – you are better off using the lens without the profile, including on APS-C, if you want maximum wide-angle coverage)

touit32mmf1p8-imagecircleonFF

Then the 32mm f/1.8 on the A7R (like the shot above, at full aperture – image circles generally do not get larger when you stop down, if the edge is as well-defined as these Zeiss lenses)

touit50mmf2p8-imagecircleonFF

Finally, the 50mm f/2.8 macro to complete the reference. All pictures taken from behind the counter of the Carl Zeiss stand at The Photography Show – hence the great lighting and subject-matter…

- DK

Sony confirm silent mode in A7S

Today, Sony confirmed a rumour – no doubt started as a result of pre-production tester leaks – that the A7S would have a completely silent all-electronic shutter mode. This is not the same as the Electronic First Curtain shutter found on the A7, A99, A77, A6000 and so on but conspicuously absent on the A7R. Nor is it the same as the near-silent leaf shutter terminated exposure mode of the RX100 models, RX10, or RX1 models. It’s completely free of all mechanical action and totally silent.

Sony-A7S-web

A7S seen with LA-EA4 and 24mm f/2 Carl Zeiss. I’ve got the adaptor, and this lens – they do work well on the A7R, but I don’t use them as my tiny Voigtlander Color Skopar SL II 20mm f/3.5, mounted on a Nikon fit Kipon tilt-shift adaptor, delivers the goods without the bulk or the battery drain. The 24mm also works well on the LA-EA3 adaptor without SLT mirror, but focusing is excruciatingly slow.

The silent shutter has been implemented as a firmware upgrade to the early production samples and future stocks, along with several other important firmware enhancements – all of which will have Sony owners wondering why improvements to their six-month old or one-year old purchases are not equally forthcoming. These are however improvements to a £2,100 camera body which will not hit the shops until the end of July 2014.

The firmware fixes and upgrades are:
α7S now offers a ‘Silent Shooting’ mode
ISO range for Movie Shooting extended to ISO100 – 102400, expandable to ISO100 – 409600
Dynamic Range extended to 15.3 stops as sensor RAW output

The silent mode is an option, and we would guess it carries some penalty in terms of available shutter speeds or noise performance. They say “For situations where absolute silence is required on a shoot, such as nature shoots or behind the scenes at a movie production, the α7S will offer the user the ability to activate ‘Silent Shooting’, thus making the photographer as unobtrusive as possible.”

A further upgrade is the expansion of the ISO range when shooting movies (previously limited to the native range). The α7S now offers the ability to shoot between ISO 100 -102,400 (native range) and is expandable to ISO 100-409,600 whilst still shooting capability remains at a staggering ISO 100-102,400 (again, the native range) expandable to ISO 50-409,600. The sensor’s dynamic range has also been further extended to 15.3 stops sensor RAW output. Technical note: as the bit depth remains unchanged and is presumed to be 14-bit ARW, this enhancement implies a modified raw gamma curve.

Other system improvements

You may wonder why we’ve pretty much given up reporting on new Sony products. Despite running three photographic magazines, we can’t easily get hold of review samples as all three magazines are professional or enthusiast market only. I’ve now run out of money and can’t afford to buy any of the new cameras or lenses, as the rate at which they have been released and the price levels make this difficult, and the dramatic collapse in secondhand values has clobbered my recent workround of buying-testing-selling. Things like the 28-70mm FE OSS lens for the A7 are worth almost nothing (under £200 used even from a UK dealer now) and most gear is losing 35-40% of its launch month value within two or three months. Also, the performance of much of this kit tends to be flawed or just not that impressive. It’s really hard to justify spending thousands on Sony gear which then turns out to be very ordinary, when companies like Olympus, Fujfilm, Nikon and Canon only need an email or a phone call to send test kit out just as soon as it’s available.

To work further against Sony’s interests, so much of the older Minolta and other optical gear I have been trying – even something as basic as my 70-210mm f/4 ‘beercan’ on the A7R with LA-EA4 – produces such beautiful results. What money I have spent recently has been on adaptors and on vintage lenses including Voigtlander, Canon and Nikon. I’ve not lost a penny on buying and selling these to find the best choices.

Sony also has a habit of organising London press events starting at 10am which, because of the nature of London, pretty much demands an overnight hotel stay unless you happen to be based within the M25 ring. I’m 400 miles away with no intention of ever being closer. I’m willing to spend the two or three hundred pounds needed to be at a mid-day event in London, despite the fact that it generally only produces ten minutes with a product subject to a ‘no images may be used’ embargo, and all the major websites already had it a month before and the full details were all over the web before I boarded the early morning train. So that’s why I have not really felt an urgent need to work hard and put my company’s (my!) money into giving Sony free advertising.

Sony-A77-II_wSAL1650_front_top-web

Well, there’s a new Alpha 77 – the A77II. It has much improved AF, the new hotshoe, some WiFi stuff and the GPS has been removed. Neat though the WiFi and NFC may be, my main use of this is for remote control not tweeting photos, and for remote control rigs there are much better camera choices than a heavy A77 body with no possibility to control the zoom from an iPad/Android phone or whatever. The RX100 and RX10 hit the mark for this. The slightly gritty 24 megapixel sensor is still a slightly gritty 24 megapixels, and removing the GPS is just downright perverse. I have a Nikon D5300 sitting here which does everything I need in a gritty 24 megapixel APS-C format, with GPS, for a great deal less.

Sony-RX100III_Front_EVF_Flash-1200-web

And there’s a great new RX100 MkIII which has a new Carl Zeiss 24-70mm equivalent f/1.8-2.8 zoom, a pop-up EVF, unbelievably good video (not far removed from the A7S 4K abilities and high bitrate encoding of HD1080p) and a more flexibly hinged screen. I do think this will be worth it for new buyers, but I didn’t bother with the MkII. The MkI only cost me £350 slightly used, it lives in pockets and shoves into compartments of bags, it has a lenscap adapted to ensure this treatment does not damage its fragile lens-front cover, and it goes to 100mm equivalent which is more use to me than extra lens speed at 70mm. The old MkI may only by f/4.9 at 100mm equivalent, but it is respectable f/4 at 70mm and the same f/1.8 at 28mm. It’s knockabout travel camera, a car glove-compartment camera, capable of delivering shots which any photo agency or library will accept.

The RX100 III will start shipping in Europe at the beginning of July 2014 and will be priced at approximately £700. I’ll get one when I break, wear out, or lose the original but I might just opt for a Nikon 1 system kit instead. At least they have a GPS you can add, unlike Sony – it will soon be two years since the Multi Function Accessory Shoe was unveiled, and the GPS module for it is still not even on the horizon.

Alpha 77 II announced

Sony’s successor to the Alpha 77 improves all-round performance in line with the enhanced 24 megapixel sensor also found in the new A6000 E-mount camera. Key points are that the AF array now covers most of the image area (this is a mixed blessing as Canon 7D owners quickly found out, having active AF points near the image edge can produce some very unwanted results unless detailed control is offered of the AF behaviour – we shall find out when we test the camera); that the high ISO performance is 20% better, meaning the new A77 II should be as good as the original NEX-7 in this respect; and the entire rig is much faster though we would guess it also demands very fast SD or MSProDuo cards.

We are currently in touch with Sony to determine whether GPS has been omitted from this body, as the launch specification makes no mention of it, and if so, whether Sony is anywhere nearer releasing the separate GPS module originally planned for the Multi-Function Accessory Shoe (another key upgrade present in the revised camera). Update: there is no GPS in the camera and Sony doesn’t seem to know what we are talking about.

Full audio level control, something we have pressed for as a firmware upgrade for the original A77, is now provided. It’s also got the fashionable but almost useless WiFi/NFC functions (almost useless in a camera which can shoot 60 continuous JPEGs at 12 fps or produce 24 megapixel raw files). If you really want to upload your latest selfie, shoot the damn thing on your smartphone, says the man whose A7R is kept in Airplane Mode because that way you at least get a decent battery life… Sony only has this one photo in the Europe media library right now (but if you click it you get the full sized file).

Slightly tongue in cheek, as WiFi can indeed be enormously useful for remote viewing and control – but that all depends on how the connectivity works and will remain to be seen. It’s a bit heavy for a drone copter but great for a 20 metre sky pole if it’s got the right functions.

What follows is the Sony press release and specification table.

You can pre-order for only $1,198 (body) from B+H and we reckon this is a very fair price for the spec.

A77 II__front

  • New A-mount camera with world’s highest phase-detection AF point count – 79 points with 15 cross points
  • Translucent Mirror Technology delivers ultra-fast, intelligent AF tracking and up to 12 fps burst of up to 60 full-resolution frames
  • 24.3 megapixel Exmor™ CMOS image sensor delivers wide ISO 100-25600 sensitivity range
  • XGA OLED Tru-Finder and 3-way tiltable LCD
  • Tough magnesium body with dust- and moisture-resistant seals
  • BIONZ X processor for pro-quality images and Full HD 50p video
  • NFC/Wi-Fi for One-touch sharing and remote control by mobile

From dynamic sports to the sudden flutter of a startled bird: the new α77 II stays locked right on target, frame after crisply-focused frame.

Building on the heritage of Sony’s much-loved original α77 and α700, the α77 II gives advanced amateurs a string of exciting enhancements in a tough, weather-resistant body that’s up to any challenge.

Image quality is boosted while sensitivity is increased by approximately 20% compared to the α77 for flawless, exquisitely-detailed stills and Full HD video, even in low light. Non-stop continuous burst shooting stamina is enhanced and there is a clutch of pro-friendly new video functions for movie makers.

Best of all, the α77 II rips up the rule book with an advanced phase detection autofocus system. With approximately 2x wider coverage area than the previous α77 model, it outpaces the AF capabilities of many professional cameras.

New-generation 79 point phase detection AF system

For the first time ever, the α77 II features no less than 79 autofocus detection points, including 15 cross points within most frequently-used central area of the sensor. This aids super-accurate focusing, even with horizontally-striped subjects that confuse many other cameras.

There’s also a dedicated F2.8 AF point placed horizontally in the centre of the sensor. This centrally-mounted sensor supports apertures up to F2.8, ensuring maximum AF precision when using large-aperture lenses. The AF system also performs well in low light, accurately locking onto subjects in scenes with illumination levels as low as EV-2 (ISO100), where even the human eye can struggle to discern fine detail.

Vast amounts of metering data from all 79 focus points are processed by a brand new AF algorithm that’s been fine-tuned in extensive field tests. This predicts the subject’s next movement, combining AF metering data together with data on the subject’s position. AF precision is further improved when Lock-on AF is used, recognising the subject from its colour as well as its position in the frame.

Whether you’re framing through the viewfinder or on screen in Live View mode, Sony’s unique Translucent Mirror Technology maintains razor-sharp tracking focus on your subject, whether you’re capturing stills or Full HD movies. This powerful new system is less likely to be distracted by other objects – like a rogue balloon moving across your shot at a football match. It performs brilliantly in low-light conditions, capturing crisply-focused images of moving subjects on moonlit nights.

There’s a suite of sophisticated new AF functions that make the most of the new 79-point system. Expanded Flexible Spot mode maintains focus even if the selected AF point loses track of the subject, activating eight surrounding AF points that recognize the subject. In combination with AF-C AF mode, this dramatically increases performance with moving subject.

Lock-on AF mode lets users select one of four AF area modes (Wide, Zone, Flexible Spot or Expanded Flexible Spot). Once its target is acquired, the camera keeps tracking as long as the shutter button remains half-pressed. As the subject moves or framing changes, the camera automatically selects the most appropriate AF point from the 79 available. When subject movement is too fast for the new Expanded Flexible Spot mode alone, it’s combined with Lock-on AF for class-leading tracking performance.

For even greater control, the degree of subject-tracking duration can be fine-tuned in five steps (when shooting still images in AF-C mode). With subjects whose movement is predictable, a low setting reduces the risk of the camera focusing on another object suddenly entering the area around the subject. High settings deliver more responsive focusing – ideal when you’re rapidly shooting different subjects at different distances, such as wildlife. AF Tracking Duration can also be selected between High, Medium and Low during Full HD movie shooting.

Other new features include an Eye AF function that precisely detects and focuses on the subject’s eyes when photographing people. AF Range Control allows AF to be limited to a specified range, with five AF Tracking Duration settings to optimally match the subject’s motion. There’s a Balanced Emphasis mode that complements the release and focus priority modes by providing the ideal balance between focus and release timing. Users can manually select the most appropriate mode to shoot the situation and their precise creative objectives.

Shoot a continuous burst of 60 full-resolution frames at up to 12 fps

Continuous shooting stamina outpaces many professional cameras, too. The α77 II can capture a non-stop burst of up to 60 full-resolution JPEG images at a maximum continuous shooting speed of approximately 12 frames per second (in Continuous Advance Priority AE mode).

24.3 megapixel Exmor™ CMOS image sensor with improved sensitivity

A showcase for Sony’s world-leading expertise in imaging sensing technology, the 24.3 megapixel Exmor™ CMOS image sensor features the same gapless on-chip lens structure as used in the acclaimed α7R and α6000. Thanks to an array of latest-generation imaging innovations, it now offers 20% greater sensitivity than its predecessor that offers the same pixel count. Together with flawless image detail, low-noise performance is assured across a wide sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 25600.

The high-resolution sensor is partnered by the same evolved BIONZ X image processor featured in the α7 and α7R. Around three times faster than Sony’s previous BIONZ engine and optimised for the α77 II, it employs detail reproduction, diffraction-reducing and area-specific noise reduction technologies that contribute to amazing image definition, rich colours and textures with stills and Full HD video.

See things your way with OLED Tru-Finder and 3-way tilting LCD

Framing and focusing is a pleasure through the clear, bright XGA OLED Tru-Finder™ with 236,000 dot resolution. With three times higher[i] contrast and resolving power, it faithfully displays exactly what’s in the final image, letting you accurately judge the effects of adjusting focus, exposure and other settings before firing the shutter. A wide viewing angle and high eye-point are complemented by a newly-expanded choice of brightness settings, plus colour temperature adjustment for even more comfortable, accurate composition.

As featured on the full-frame α99, the α77 II also features a detail-packed 3.0-type (7.5 cm) Xtra Fine LCD that moves three ways for near-limitless creative flexibility. Easily shoot from high or low angles, in portrait or landscape orientation, handheld or with a tripod. WhiteMagic technology significantly improves screen visibility, even outdoors in direct sunshine.

You’re always in control with expanded custom functions

Evolved from the original α77, separate control dials in front of the grip and behind it allow intuitive, fumble-free adjustment of camera settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Lavish customisation options now allow a total of 51 functions to be assigned to 11 buttons.

Up to three frequently used groups of shooting mode and other settings can be stored in memory and recalled easily via the mode dial. In addition, an exposure mode dial lock function has been inherited from the a99 to prevent accidental mode changes.

Tough enough for serious enthusiasts

The tough, light magnesium body of the α77 II is engineered to withstand the demands of serious enthusiasts in search of that perfect shot. Positive, comfortable handling is enhanced by the large, contoured grip. Dust- and moisture-resistant seals around main buttons and controls are complemented by double-layered protection around all openings including media slot and terminals. In addition, the camera’s durable shutter unit is rated for 150,000 activations.

Pro-style movie shooting with continuous AF

The a77 II can record Full HD 60p and 24p movies using the AVCHD 2.0 format. As with still shooting, Translucent Mirror Technology enables full-time phase-detection AF, ensuring accurate focus tracking with fast-moving subjects while you’re capturing video.

A number of advanced features appeal directly to serious moviemakers, including three-level AF tracking sensitivity adjustment, a pro-style Zebra function and audio level metering. There’s also the addition of a clean HDMI output that allows viewing on an external monitor and recording without compression to an external storage device.

One-touch wireless connection and smartphone remote control

On-board Wi-Fi allows one-touch connection for easy shot sharing with your Xperia™, NFC-compatible Android smartphones, tablets and VAIO. A single touch also activates Smart Remote Control, linking the camera to your mobile phone enabling you to fire the shutter from a distance.

Lenses and accessories

Covering focal lengths from wide angle to telephoto, a family of 32 A-mount lenses offers an extensive choice of creative tools for visual expression.

The line-up includes glassware to fulfil just about every artistic need, from high-performance G Lens™ and ZEISS® models that deliver world-class quality to the unique Sony STF (Smooth Trans Focus) lens that produces extraordinarily smooth background bokeh. Premium G Lens models feature precision aspherical lenses, ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass, an advanced Nano AR Coating and other advanced Sony optical technologies that contribute to high resolution while also enabling beautiful bokeh effects.

ZEISS® lenses are jointly developed by Sony and ZEISS, a name that is well known to discerning photographers worldwide, making full use innovative and ground-breaking optical technologies. Superb contrast and high resolution that extend right to the edge of the frame are highly famous hallmarks of the ZEISS brand.

The optional VG-C77AM grip enhances camera operability by offering remarkable holding and operational ease during vertical shooting.

α Library app

Sony has also today released a new “α Library” application for tablets which includes two types of content. “α Lens catalog” showcases the entire line up of α lenses and provides key information and specifications about which lenses are best suited to different types of photography. The bi-annual “α Magazine” showcases the boundless fun of photography. The new α Library is available for download on Google Play and the iOS App Store from today.

The α77 II A-mount interchangeable lens digital camera from Sony is available to pre-order now from www.sony.co.uk. It’s on general sale in Europe from Summer 2014.

 


 

α77 II technical specifications

Key Features ILCA-77 II
Type Interchangeable lens digital camera with built-in flash
Lens Compatibility Sony A-mount lenses, operation with Minolta/Konica Minolta lenses confirmed
Image Sensor Type APS-C type (23.5 x 15.6mm), “Exmor” CMOS sensor with primary colour filters offering approx. 24.3 effective megapixels
No. of pixels (effective)

Approx. 24.3 megapixels

Processor BIONZ X™ image processor
Image Quality Modes RAW / RAW & JPEG / JPEG Extra fine / JPEG Fine / JPEG Standard
Focus system

Type

TTL Phase-detection AF

Focus point

79 points (15 points cross type) with centre F2.8 sensor

Sensitivity range

EV -2 to 18 (at ISO100 equivalent)

Focus area

Wide/Zone/Center/Flexible Spot/Expanded Flexible Spot/Lock-On AF(Wide/Zone/Center/Flexible Spot/Expanded Flexible Spot)

AF mode

Single-shot AF (AF-S), Continuous AF (AF-C), Automatic AF (AF-A), Direct Manual Focus selectable

Drive Speed (approx., max.) Continuous Advance Priority AE: Maximum 12 frames per second

Continuous shooting Hi: Maximum 8 frames per second

Continuous shooting Lo: Maximum 3 frames per second

No. of frame recordable* (approx.) [Continuous Advance Priority AE mode] Extra fine: 53 images/Fine: 60 images/Standard: 64 images/RAW & JPEG: 25 images/RAW: 26 images
[Continuous shooting] Extra fine: 56 images/Fine: 75 images/Standard: 93
images/RAW & JPEG: 26 images/RAW: 28 images
ISO Sensitivity Range Still Image: ISO100 – 25600 (1/3 EV step), (ISO numbers up from ISO50 can be set as expanded ISO range.)AUTO: ISO 100-25600, selectable lower limit and upper limitMovie: ISO100 – 12800 equivalent (1/3 EV step)AUTO ISO 100-12800 equivalent, selectable lower limit and upper limit
HD movie record Recording format: AVCHD 2.0 / MP4Video compression: AVCHD:MPEG-4 AVC/H.264MP4:MPEG-4 AVC/H.264
Electronic Viewfinder XGA OLED, 1.3 cm (0.5 type) electronic viewfinder (2,359,296 dots effective resolution), with 100% frame coverage, five display modes and grid line display modes.
LCD Monitor 7.5 cm (3.0-type) wide type TFT with WhiteMagic technology. Tilt angle: 150 degrees upward and 180 degrees downward. Rotation angle: 180 degrees clockwise and 90 degrees counter-clockwise.
Anti-dust System Charge protection coating on image sensor and image sensor shift mechanism
Exposure Modes AUTO (Intelligent Auto/Superior Auto) / Scene Selection / Sweep Panorama / Continuous Advance Priority AE / Movie (P/A/S/M) / Programmed AE / Aperture priority / Shutter-speed priority / Manual / Memory recall (MR1/2/3)
Exposure Metering System 1200-zone evaluative metering
Shutter Speed Still images: 1/8000 to 30 sec/Bulb;Movies: 1/8000 to 1/4 (1/3 step), up to 1/60 in AUTO mode (up to 1/30 in Auto slow shutter mode)
Exposure Bracketing Bracket: Cont./Bracket: Single, With 1/3EV, 1/2EV, 2/3EV, 1.0EV, 2.0EV, 3.0EV increments, 3 /5frames
Media Memory Stick PRO Duo / Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo / Memory Stick XC-HG Duo / SD memory card / SDHC memory card (UHS-I compliant) / SDXC memory card (UHS-I compliant)
Dimensions (WxHxD) Approx. 142.6 mm × 104.2 mm × 80.9 mm
Weight Approx. 647g (body only)Approx. 726g (with battery and Memory Stick PRO Duo)

 

Sony Alpha 7R – the Swiss Army Knife camera

I guess it’s time to publish another field test review of the Alpha 7R despite rarely having used the camera in anger, or in any state other than anger. It arrived in late November and caught me at a time when I was not going anywhere or doing anything, nothing was happening and the weather was just plain ordinary. We didn’t have floods, or snow, or anything else like the rest of the country. It also came with a set of problems to be solved some of which turned out to frustrate any affordable solution.

I started writing this page in February 2014. It may give you some idea of my issues with the whole current Sony system that I’ve taken almost until May to publish it.

SONY DSC

When you’ve got a wonderful new tool to work with, it doesn’t help to have no work to do which requires that tool. This really is the Swiss Army Knife camera, a strapline I used on the first issue of the new-look f2 Freelance Photographer magazine which I took back into ownership at the end of January. The A7R has the potential to fit in my pocket and replace every single other camera I own, to use all the lenses I have bought for all other systems and formats, and to remove stones from horses’ hooves.

SONY DSC

But, and here’s the problem, it also replaces nothing at all as well as it could. There are maybe no more than half a dozen reasons why, but they are critical reasons and any one of these reasons will limit the use of the A7R.

  • No in-body stabilisation and not all lenses are stabilised
  • No electronic first curtain means the shutter cycle is noisy and causes vibration
  • The sensor design prevents optimum use of rangefinder type lenses under 35mm focal length
  • No native full frame wide-angle lens under 24mm is likely to be available before September 2014
  • Any Sony FE-mount lens with a performance matched to the sensor is going to cost double its true value
  • No on-board GPS and (to date) no multi-function shoe GPS module to add
  • Single card slot only and consumer size lith-ion battery
  • Very slow start-up and wake up from sleep especially when not using Program, Manual or intelligent fully auto modes
  • Slow optimal AF/AE performance continuous shooting
  • Slow laminar shutter blade transit speed and flash synchronisation limit
  • Firmware compatibility problems with some existing E-mount OSS lenses
  • No provision for IPTC copyright information entry
  • Custom lens app can be used with manual adapted lenses but does not embed metadata in EXIF
  • User memory settings don’t cover functions from some menus
  • Apps are charged at additional cost for functions which would reasonably be free or included in a camera body with a price-tag of £1,800
  • No battery charger is supplied and default charging method is by micro USB cable
  • The rear LCD screen can only be tilted and is not reversible to face the body
  • The EVF even at its brightest is not up to tropical or desert viewing conditions
  • Auto switching EVF to rear screen is unreliable
  • As I have now found after five months’ use, not as durable as it looks (I have repaired the worn metal showing through the sharp edges on the ‘prism’ and body with a black Sharpie pen, but I’m tempted to use a guitar fret polishing sheet to make all the sharp edges into bright silver… just rub that thin black coating off!)

In case you’re thinking this is a completely unfair list of negative points to start a review with, well, you may be right. It’s here to make up for the usual lists of star features which *end* reviews. I’m also going to need to explain all these points. Here, to balance the negatives, are the positives.

  • The highest resolution full-frame sensor (24 x 36mm) currently made
  • The smallest full-frame system camera body
  • No moving mirror, no SLT mirror, and no optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter
  • 18mm lens mount register allows the use with adaptors of all current and past lenses from all systems designed to cover 24 x 36mm except those which used fixed rear assemblies and front groups
  • Custom lens app allows corrections for any lens, while built-in function auto corrects E and FE mount lenses
  • WiFi and Nearfield Connection transfer file to mobile devices or other hosts with automatic small JPEG creation even when full size JPEG or RAW is the selected shooting format
  • Sony PlayMemories Mobile Apps downloadable to camera and devices add functions such as remote control and intervalometer, lens corrections, sensor shading and colour shift compensation
  • The shutter is a professional specification speeded to 1/8,000th with motorized actuation
  • The body is reasonably rugged, very light magnesium with some composite surface panels and is sealed against everyday dust and moisture ingress
  • Although you can’t hear any sound, it has an Olympus-style ultrasonic vibration dust removal process and it is stunningly effective – no big buzz, no vibrational you can feel, but it really works
  • A full set of buttons can be customised for functions, and there are three adjustment controllers plus a dedicated exposure compensation dial
  • The electronic viewfinder with 2.3 million pixels and a 0.70X virtual view is only beaten by Fuji’s X-T1
  • Triggered or manual magnified manual focus allows exceptional focusing accuracy when needed
  • The high cost of Sony dedicated lenses is offset by the quality of many low-cost, older manual lenses and the option of two adaptors for Sony A-mount lenses, SLT mirror type or mirrorless
  • The interface allows manual selection of most functions, including APS-C format crop or using full frame with non-FF lenses, movie audio gain, finder/screen exposure simulation, and lens corrections

This last point may seem a bit vague but it’s actually what makes the A7R usable at all in many circumstances. The APS-C crop on/off has saved the camera from having zero real wide-angle choice during its first three months of release, as our December article on the use of the Sony E 10-18mm lens showed.

Although electronic viewfinder cameras are not ideal for studio work, the high resolution of the A7R makes it an alternative to medium format for the highest quality. It can be set to ISO 50 or 100, with 14-bit raw files using a compression method which is comparable to Nikon’s lossless option. If ‘Setting Effect Off’ is selected, the EVF or screen will always show a bright auto white balanced image allowing modelling lights to be used for composing and focusing even when the actual shot will be taken by flash with a fixed preset WB. The professional or advanced user will want to have all the settings for such work stored as a custom memory preset, but Sony puts the ‘Setting Effect’ outside the saved functions. This is most frustrating as getting to it requires menu-diving.

The same applies to stabilisation, which is a function of the lenses not the camera. It is turned on or off through a menu setting or by assigning a Custom button for direct access, making occasional tripod work need an excursion into the menus before and after, unless you are to end up with OSS enabled or disabled inappropriately. The E/FE lenses have no OSS switch, the body has no switch, and there’s no one-press shortcut. Sony’s decision to omit M/AF and OSS on-off switches from the FE lenses makes the system just that little bit harder to work with. Buy a Canon or Nikon and even the cheapest lens has a stabilisation switch you can use easily every time you mount the camera on a tripod, work with flash, or use a fast shutter speed and want the optimum lens performance (achieved, almost invariably, with stabilisation off).

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No in-body stabilisation is going to handle this anyway – luck, flash, a tripod or a very fast shutter speed provide the answers

Working speed

How much does ANY of this matter, if you simply fit the appropriate kit lens or prime, and just get out and use the camera? Not a great deal if you use the camera like a point-and-shoot and your objective is a small print or posting on Facebook. Given the remarks I’ve seen on-line from people buying an A7R with a view to catching their ‘toddler running around’, plenty of new owners fall into this category. They are lucky because no matter what camera they buy, from a £50 supermarket offer to a Canon EOS 1DX, they will be happy with the results and only criticise them when the family pet outpaces the autofocus in the ideal photographic conditions of their living room.

The main issue which will hit any user of the A7R is its overall operating response and speed. Acquiring focus, by contrast detection, normally seems to take around 1/4 second with an FE or E lens, but can take half to one second in low light or with a low contrast subject. It can also fail but confirm positive occasionally, and this is a little frustrating as we are not used to getting defocused snaps today. Even one fail in a hundred is a surprise. If you try the LA-EA3 adaptor, which provides a mirror-free light path and supports AF with SAM and SSM lenses, half to one second is normal in good light. You may find it worth disabling the ‘AF with shutter’ option and using only the AF button to set the focus, so the shutter release does not keep resetting it with each shot. However, after doing this I found it more than inconvenient NOT to have the familiar AF on half-pressure.

The shutter cycle

Having acquired focus, you complete the shutter release action. The A7R then executes a pre-exposure shutter action which involves closing the shutter with a movement of both blinds. This takes 250ms, or one-quarter of a second. That is longer than the mirror lift timing of a DSLR. After the exposure is made (a minimum period of about 6ms) there is short blackout dwell and the shutter re-opens to restore live view. The complete cycle is between 375 and 385ms as timed using audio and video recording and analysis.

This is not so very much worse overall than the Alpha 99 full frame SLT used with mechanical first curtain, but more of the cycle happens before the exposure, creating a surprisingly long shutter release lag. The A99, like the A77 and NEX-7, NEX-6, A6000 and indeed most other new Sony models including the A7, can use Electronic First Curtain. This means no mechanical action happens before the exposure at all. By the time you see any blackout or hear any noise, the image has already been captured, silently; the second shutter curtain closes to end the exposure and allow electronic readout. The shutter lag with an Alpha 99 or A7 in this mode is 20ms, or 1/50th. The shutter lag with the A7R can not be reduced to less than 1/4 in single shot mode.

This is also why the regular continuous shooting offers only 1.5fps, with AF and AE supported for each individual frame and 14-bit raw data. If you set Speed Priority mode, you can get between 4 and 5fps at the most with the exposure locked but AF active – however, you don’t get a real time viewfinder display, and you also get 12-bit recording instead of 14. This lowers JPEG quality in-camera as well as the headroom and dynamic range of the raw file. You’ll only get this performance by using the best SD cards. Some which claim 90-95Mbps speed only write are half or less, and are quoting their read speed.

The A7R will often remain in a card-writing state for several seconds (as long as 16 seconds if a raw sequence has been shot and buffering is queuing the images). Playback or review is not always possible without a brief wait. Since turning off auto review (which is not subject to this wait) greatly improves EVF performance for rapid fire shooting, you may have no clear idea of your shots until well after they are captured.

The simple fact is that where many competitors including Sony’s own A7 have fast responses, the A7R has an operating speed closer to a 1970s film SLR with ‘auto winder’ (the slow alternative to a motor drive), or being more charitable, to a Mamiya 645 with a power winder. It’s essentially medium format operating speed. This is in contrast to the Nikon D800/E, which offers the same file quality without a speed penalty.

Sensor shading and lenses

The A7R sensor microlens and coating structure produces not only a strong magenta-purple shading towards the frame ends with short rear focus wide angle rangefinder lenses, it also throws up a yellow-orange discolouration at the top of the (horizontal) frame. It shows some degree of this effect with nearly all lenses under 40mm focal length made for Leica M, screw, Contax G or similar mounts.

A month after releasing the camera, Sony issued a PlayMemories App which can be loaded up and invoked to record and re-use manually adjusted corrections for named lenses. These include distortion (barrel or pincushion), vignetting, and colour shading. The app does not allow the creation of a reference image or mapping mask. You can do this for Lightroom (shading only, saved as data) or Capture One Pro (shading and colour, dust and defects saved as an image). Consequently it actually won’t correct properly as it ignores the yellow-orange patch. Its limits are insufficient to correct full fisheye to normal (as found in the onboard correction which Nikon use for their 10.5mm lens) or handle typical shading from lenses like the Voigtlander 12mm, 15mm and 21mm.

sensorshading21mmCSf8a7r

This is typical of a non-retrofocus wide angle shading map produced from the A7R. The slightly magenta vignetting can be cured easily. The piss-yellow patch can not and it’s there, to one degree or another, with more lenses than you would imagine.

A different aspect of the sensor construction produces smearing. I noticed that this was minimal with the 15mm Voigtlander and strong with the 21mm. It seems to depend on the rear group geometry relative to the sensor. I ended up selling both these lenses.

Since then, I have given up on the idea of a super-compact Leica style outfit though I still have a 40mm f/1.4 Voigtlander and an 85mm f/4 Zeiss. Sony’s FE lenses are not very small and not all that attractive in specification. They do little more than return me to the kind of lens choices I had thirty years with the launch of the Minolta AF system – a slight step backwards at the time, losing the 17mm f/4 option, 24mm VFC, 35mm VFC Shift, Varisoft and many other unique bits of glass. I’m using a bunch of vintage Pentax, Minolta, Canon and other lenses in the 17mm to 85mm range. They don’t suffer from sensor shading or smearing problems and have generally proved far better than modern zooms.

My gripe with these solutions is that even if I enter a lens identity in the App, my images show no focal length data in the EXIF info, and certainly no aperture data. At the end of a long day, I have not made notes on every change of lenses. I have no idea what lens or settings may have produced a good or bad result. What I need is for every lens to be a properly dedicated FE mount one whether AF or manual focus. And I don’t want to pay Carl Zeiss a thousand pounds to get a sharp result from the type of lens and aperture specification which has been easy to make to an outstanding performance level, at modest cost, for the last half-century.

There are three lenses made by Sigma – 19mm, 30mm and 60mm f/2.8 designs in E-mount – which prove it is possible to make low cost, lightweight lenses which deliver results almost beyond criticism. Just making the direct translation of these lenses to 28mm, 45mm and 90mm f/2.8 for (say) 50% extra cost would give the A7R exactly the kind of glass it needed from the launch day. Sony’s Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 and 55mm f/1.8 may be wonderful in their own right but they appeal to me as much as 35mm f/2.8 lenses and 55mm f/1.8 lenses did back in the 1970s. Not at all. They are the focal lengths and apertures you used to find on twin-lens film compacts and they’re what you still find in the scruffiest old bag of 1960s worn-out SLR kit at a junk sale. They are what my father’s Pentax kit had (plus the inevitable 135mm).

Fuji’s launch of the X-series with a fast 28mm pancake equivalent (18mm f/2), very fast 50mm equivalent (35mm f/1.4), and good 90mm equivalent macro (60mm f/2.4) paid off well and they followed up with a 14mm f/2.8 (21mm equivalent) and pro portrait 56mm f/1.2. Though not cheap, these lenses are all affordable and have been supplemented by further excellent kit, tele and wide-angle zooms. What the A7/R needs most is a direct counterpart to this Fuji system and it simply doesn’t have it.

As for the long end, I see almost no point in buying any lens made for the FE mount longer than something like 100mm. The 70-200mm f/4 may be attractive, but it’s forever limited to the FE mount while being as long as a regular Alpha lens. Had Sony made a clever two-part SSM lens for FE and Alpha, with a detachable rear tube like a dedicated LA-EA3, they would have had a winner. Instead they have the lens which Alpha A-mount owners have been waiting for – pressing for ever since the digital system arrived – made in the new mirrorless mount only. After seeing the final prices of the CZ 24-70mm f/4 and the Sony 70-200mm f/4 G, I’ve bought an LE-EA4 Alpha SLT adaptor as well as an LE-EA3 mirror-free adaptor.

But longer lenses are still much better on the Alpha mount, with its sensor based stabilisation and the larger bodies with true phase detection AF ideally suited to the wildlife, action, news and sports for which lenses over 200mm are destined. You can add an LA-EA4 SLT type adaptor to the A7/R, but these are still full-frame cameras one of which (the A7) has extremely low resolution for tele work compared to the ultimate telephoto capture machine, the neglected Alpha 77 (or its lesser spec 24 megapixel siblings).

From my point of view I’ve got an amazing camera body with a few limitations, but a menagerie of odd lenses all with even greater limitations or lack of connectivity. If someone came out with a Canon FD lens adaptor with a chip able to tell the camera I was using a 20mm and what aperture was set, that would be great.

What does work is any LA-EA adaptor with Alpha lenses. You get all the EXIF data, and aperture control from the body. What you don’t get is the smooth focusing of a manual lens, or contrast detect AF, though you do have AF calibration to fix the inevitable inaccuracy of phase detect systems. It’s just a pity the 20mm Minolta/Sony AF design isn’t as good as the 1980s Canon last version manual focus FDn.

Timing and shake

The A7R shutter is a full size mechanism. A shutter like this running at 1/8,000th maximum speed should be achieving flash synchronisation at 1/250th. The fact that this camera is restricted to 1/160th shows that the transit speed of the shutter blinds is slower than normal. There must be a reason, and the discovery (by me, and others, despite vehement denials in some quarters) that a shock-induced form of camera shake happens could be it. Sony has also disabled OSS support for many E-mount lenses. I believe this is connected to the typical shake pattern in the hands of the average user.

Without going into detail, I made recordings using video, audio and motion sensing methods and observed the typical results from repeated exposures with different lenses. I found that shutter speeds from 1/30th to 1/160th could be affected by a vibration peak which occurs 1/250th after the shutter has opened, apparently a reflected or transmitted shock. At speeds longer than 1/60th this jolt occupies less than a quarter of the overall exposure and is not so clearly visible as a double image. It can look worse at 1/160th than 1/80th, because at 1/160th about half the exposure can be in one position and half with the camera shifted a tiny degree. A distinct double image is often shown and it’s always in the vertical direction when the camera is held horizontally.

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FE 28-70mm handheld 1/80th, OSS switched on (100% detail click to enlarge). Pre-update firmware. It’s very hard to be sure, but I think the April firmware update has made the 28-70mm (originally NOT recommended for the A7R or sold with the body) perform better.

2870-70f5p6-handheld-OSSoff

FE 28-70mm handheld 1/80th, OSS switched off.

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Sigma 70-300mm OS switched on, on LA-EA3 adaptor. One problem with using any non-Sony lenses is that firmware updates have no effect on them at all. Sony don’t make a stabilised lens going as long as 300mm, yet.

70300sigOS-70f5-handheld-OSoff

Sigma 70-300mm OS switched off. All images at 70mm (many tests made, these are accurate representations of the results and tend to show that stabilisation is likely to produce no benefit).

Since some stabilised lenses including my Tamron 18-200mm Di III VC also produced this distinctive double exposure, I believe that Sony’s disabling of OSS in the 55-210mm E lens for example was done because their engineers identified the problem before the camera went on sale. I also think it can be fixed by firmware updates to Sony E lenses, but probably not for others.

In response to those who say oh, it’s a super-high resolution camera, your technique needs to be (bla bla bla!) it’s actually slightly lower resolution than my NEX-5n and far lower than my Alpha 77 or the NEX-7 I no longer have. It’s also lower than the A3000 I owned briefly, and the NEX-6 I have used as a second camera since early March. 35 megapixels full frame is 15 megapixels APS-C and that’s a lower resolution than any E-mount camera made except the original NEX-5 and NEX-3 14 megapixel bodies. I can enable mechanical first shutter curtain on any other NEX or Alpha SLT body and never see the same ‘jolted exposure’ effect with the same lenses. I can also shoot with our Alpha 700, 900 and 580 bodies and never see this shake fingerprint despite their mirror mechanism and mechanical first curtain combined.

Of course I may get shake with disabled or absent stabilisation, hand-held, with almost any digital body. I use many different cameras through the year and sometimes I get very poor stabilisation, as when using certain Nikon lenses with the earlier VR zooms on their 24 megapixel DX format bodies. This shake is random and variable, and reflects my own instability, body sway, wind chill and so on. It’s not one type of shake visible too often in shots which should not normally be affected.

Reviewers have been incredibly cautious to observe this effect. I don’t know why. I’d spotted it within a few hours of trying the camera out. Others have been fast to defend the A7R and suggest that you just need to avoid that critical shutter speed range of 1/60th-1/160th. If this was not such an extremely useful speed range that would be fine. It’s actually the precise range you most want to be perfectly stabilised and least want to have to avoid. It’s also favoured by Sony when program mode and auto ISO are used.

One way to minimise this shake seems to be to use manual focus, mechanical lenses and to favour short focal lengths. The A7R never feels or handles better than when you’ve got a rangefinder lens in the range from 12mm to 28mm fitted. It becomes like the Leica that never was, the eye-level camera which doesn’t need a separate viewfinder to handle a 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 21mm or 24mm lens. Leica may have a good rear screen to help with this issue now but no EVF. So the next point has been a big issue for buyers.

For the latest firmware updates, and new Apps and software, see:

http://www.sony.co.uk/support/en/product/ILCE-7R

And for the rest…

While I do miss the dual card slots of most of the Alpha cameras I’m using, I know the NEX and E-mount models have never had this, and with a 32GB card installed I have adapted to using the USB cable to read off new images and let the A7R charge. I do not miss the separate battery charger as I have one, and spare batteries. Nearly all the time, the camera is kept fully charged by its time spent overnight attached to the Mac. Since my RX100, RX10 and NEX-6 all work the same way using the same cable life has been simplified.

My favourite designs remain the A55, A77 and A99 all of which have had GPS on board and rear screens which enable self-filming for video demonstrations, or folding away to face the camera (how I normaly use EVF cameras now). The shared battery across the A55, A7R, NEX and A3000 models and RX10 makes it likely I might travel using a combination of these. I don’t have much use yet for the WiFi functions but I understand their importance to others, and they will really come in useful for remote camera operation in future. That can include skypole or kite work, or having a camera tripod mounted 10 metres away from the main shooting position for a different viewpoint of an event, operated from a phone or tablet.

kerelanchurch-web

GPS identified this as a church at Mailadumpara on the highway to Munnar – the 10-18mm lens used on full frame enabled this uncropped 36 megapixel shot at 14mm, f/11 (the shading is due to natural sky polarisation and the vignetting of the lens which I have not corrected).

I found a solution to my GPS problems in the form of a £40 igotU device from Maplin. It’s tiny (I am tempted to put a hot shoe mount on it but so far have just popped it in my shirt pocket). Free igotU2gpx file reading and low-cost PhotoLinker (buggy and unreliable in the extreme with 36 megapixel raw files) let me write GPS data into full day shoots on all cameras used. It’s not as accurate as built-in GPS and the process is tedious; the GPS data also exists in sidecar files until MediaPro is used to embed it into finished JPEGs. I’ll still buy the GPS module for the multi function shoe just as soon as Sony release it.

Top quality files

The appeal for me of the A7R is the sheer quality of the image. Even at ISO 3200, it is completely acceptable when processed carefully with Adobe software from raw. The JPEGs are mediocre with the exception of multi-shot modes and I don’t use them except for panoramas and night shots. The raw file has been criticised but compared directly with competitors, I find it has what I need – excellent highlight recovery from normal exposure levels, very low noise across a wide range of ISO, an ISO 50 setting ideal for studio lit subjects, and extreme pixel level sharpness.

Lomography Petzval lens

The Lomography Petzval lens used on the A7R with Nikon adaptor. This reproduction lens from an 1840s design is a wonderful tool for portraits.

RTK-silverfex-faded-petzval

Richard Kilpatrick as a Victorian portrait subject with our Interfit background as a drape – A7R, ISO 50, Petzval lens at f/5.6 (Waterhouse stop) manually focused, Elinchrom Ranger Quadra RX flash.

Manual focusing with peaking and magnification combined tells you a lot about your lenses. Find a good lens, and the peaking will be present even at Low setting, with a very narrow band of activation. A poor lens (or aperture setting) usually fails to show a peaking line at Low setting, then shows one at Medium or High which has little discrimination. I’ve been able to identify my best manual and A-mount lenses by using the 14.4X magnification and the peaking function to examine targets.

Having done this, the extra performance squeezed out of almost lenses by super-accurate focusing makes AF seem inadequate. The contrast detection AF of the A7R is good, but just invoking magnified manual after it has locked on proves that it rarely hits the perfect mark. It gets to ‘good enough’. Like many new A7R owners, I find myself often using manual focusing without noticing that it is any slower than AF used to be. It’s a quantum leap ahead of any optical finder accuracy.

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I find the body shape and size ideal, and have no complaints about the position of anything except the shutter release, which could have been 3mm or so further forward, and also would have been improved by the addition of a manual cable release thread (found on the RX10). I don’t plan to get a vertical grip, as the whole point of the A7R is small size and light weight. The external finish feels secure, the battery and other doors are adequately sealed and I don’t tend to overwork them.

The small body size causes a few problems with tripod mounting. Even the smallest monopod head can restrict the rear screen movement making it impossible to angle the screen down if you want to hold the camera above head height. It doesn’t angle down much to start with. The position of the Menu button, needed to access some adjustments like OSS and Finder Setting Effect, isn’t ideal as the only button on the left end of the camera. The exposure compensation dial is unusual as a solus function using up an entire large mechanical control, and has no lock, so it can be turned a little easily.

The A7/R is so customisable that after a couple of months getting used to it and changing things you’ll have a camera as far removed from its out of the box settings as a typical Canon ends up. Mine, for example, has the AF/MF and AE Lock button/switch control set up to act as Focus when set to AF/MF (with pre-Focus and tracking lock and eye-start focus all disabled), and to act as Focus Magnifier when set to AE; while the shutter release is set not to activate AF, but to lock AE on first pressure (when using the camera in a controlled environment – when travelling, I soon reverted to AF with shutter). This makes the camera anything but point and shoot, as out of focus shots are guaranteed without a separate focus action.

In practice

Like far too many A7R users, I’ve spent half my time testing and experimenting, and not enough time shooting. I’ve had the RX10 as a companion at the same time, and needed to shoot with new flash systems, where that camera’s exceptional high speed sync makes it more versatile – there’s not much point having flash heads which manage 1/5000th duration when your sync speed is 1/160th, unlike the RX10 which can manage between 1/1600th and 1/3200th depending on aperture. I had a concert venue opening to shoot, with video, and once again the silent RX10 with its superb video quality was the obvious choice.

Then, at Easter, we had a nine-day tour of Kerala, an exceptional offer from Citrus Holidays providing us with a private driver and a packed itinerary covering 1000km and five locations. This was our first visit to India for 28 years, and would provide the first library images of India apart from a few scanned transparencies of subjects which do not date. Equipment mattered. Shirley always uses her Alpha 580 with Sigma 18-250mm OS original version; it’s heavy and the lens has been through one factory service already, but it’s been very reliable and survived a short period where a Nikon D600 kit was tried as a replacement (and sold pretty sharply, in favour of returning to the more reliable AF, AE and clean sensor of 580).

Logically, my A77 and A55 would have come along. They share the same battery type, and my basic lens set 8-16mm, 16-80mm and 70-300mm gives both exceptional wide angle and a good tele performance (300mm plus APS-C plus 24 megapixels) for wildlife. It is however a very heavy kit and we wanted to travel light and work light, in high temperature and humidity.

So, the A7R had to be my choice. Apart from anything else, this camera at £1800 had not so far proved ‘better’ for any given job – it was barely used. In the studio our A900 and A700 optical finders just work far better than any EVF camera, and for general PR and social photography the last thing you need is 36 megapixel full frame. It just creates oversized files and tends to have too little depth of field. The A7R had been used for tests, for some winter landscapes, and some architectural shots. We had not travelled at all since early November.

This decision also led me to leave the RX10 behind, and this was a big mistake. I took the RX100 instead because the RX10 is fairly large. Its zoom range and silent operation would both have been valuable. With the A7R and its 28-70mm OSS lens I took the 10-18mm OSS, my Tamron 18-200mm VC DiIII, NEX-6 body and 16-50mm OSS collapsible kit lens. This was really a backup in case any fault developed. In practice the A7R makes a better APS-C camera. I only used the 28-70mm lens once, and used the wide zoom and the Tamron fairly often on the A7R with APS-C crop, occasionally with crop disabled. While it’s possible to get a bit more wide-angle from the 10-18mm by shooting full fame, the 15 megapixel crop is a 100% perfect frame every time with this lens.

Despite the phase-detect focus of the NEX-6, this camera proved less accurate and slower in all conditions. Its main benefit was better timing for shots once the finder image is focused and stable, along with quieter operation. It may be a smaller body nominally but there’s little practical difference. Also, I was wearing a baseball cap, the minimum headgear needed in the sun. The left-end viewfinder eye position prevented a right hand ‘on top’ vertical grip on the NEX-6 while the central eyepiece of the A7R allowed a choice of grip style without having to remove the peaked cap.

The most significant loss my choice involved was telephoto power. Shirley’s 250mm f/6.3 reach on APS-C would have demanded a huge lens, a true 375mm or in practice a 400mm, to get the full benefit of 36 megapixels on full frame. It would also have demanded at least one f-stop more stopping down to match the critical long lens depth of field. I didn’t have an E-mount 24 megapixel body, but if I had one my 18-200mm would have slightly outreached Shirley’s 250mm as used on 16 megapixels.

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This snake bird (anhinga) was photographed using the NEX-6 and 18-200mm (162mm and f/8), from a moving boat. There is no trace of shake at 1/250th, indicating the VC stabilisation works on this body. I got excellent results from the NEX-6, which I picked up at The Photography Show on March 4th with its 16-50mm collapsible motorized zoom on a special deal. However that deal was not as good as the current B+H of $524 with free accessories.

There are no lenses yet made longer than 200mm for the FE mount. If there are any made other than an obligatory zoom to 300mm they will be expensive and limited to the E-mount system for ever. In contrast a Canon, Nikon or Alpha SSM long lens will always be usable on SLR-form bodies and also on mirrorless – possibly on various mirrorless systems. Canon EF lenses for example can be used on almost all mirrorless bodies, and Nikon teles have the possibility of fitting to their 1 system 2.7X factor bodies with totally successful functions and focusing. I’ve tried this and it works – an 800mm equivalent with outstanding image quality, from a 300mm.

It’s for these reasons I have succumbed to ordering an LA-EA4. I value the LA-EA3 because it allows me to use some lenses with contrast detect focus and a pure image path, but my favourite 70-300mm Sigma OS will not CD focus. Buy the EA4, and I can use all my screw drive Minolta and Sony glass.

This is why I sill feel the A7R can be described as the Swiss Army Knife! It can do APS-C as well as its 16 megapixel APS-C siblings, but switch to use full frame to squeeze extra angle from many lenses. My Tamron 18-200mm is only just compatible with the A7R – its VC stabilisation and general performance indicate that a firmware fix might be needed – but it can give me a 19 megapixel image sharp corner to corner with a range of image sizes from square to 35mm, at 18mm and f/11, making it as useful as a 16-200mm lens instead of an 18-200mm.

In March, I needed to write up the Samyang 24mm Tilt-Shift lens, which was only available for review in Nikon mount, and needed a full frame body. The A7R with a low-cost Nikon adaptor did the job perfectly and the magnified focusing function allowed full and successful use of the lens functions. I now have a wide range of lenses and adaptors, and there’s no manual lens I own which the A7R can not use.

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The Samyang 24mm Tilt-Shift f/3.5 manual lens has better control over movements (including 30° intervals for independent rotation) than the Canon or Nikon in the same focal length, though it lacks auto iris, EXIF data and focus confirmation. Here it is used with a low-cost manual Nikon adaptor.

24mmTSseriesmono

Using the 24mm Tilt-Shift – a lesson here in floor/ground and ceiling/roof relationships and camera position. First shot, a typical eye level architectural compromise in which a normal wide angle keeps the verticals straight. The trade-off is that you get a similarly generous view of both the floor and ceiling. Second shot, moving the camera close to ground level. Third shot, applying a full vertical shift; the floor is now seen from an angle giving it much less emphasis, while the vaulted roof is seen from below. For real estate shots, the camera is usually placed close to the ceiling on a tall tripod, and a drop front applied, to show the extent of room interiors better by emphasising their floor area. This is stuff I learned 40 years ago working with 5 x 4.

The A7R stabilisation incompatibilty issue with the Tamron 18-200mm was ‘tested’ at considerable cost in lost shots. During most of the Kerala trip, fortunately including a few chances to get close to wildlife like the anhinger shown above, I used the 18-200mm on the NEX-6 for the slightly higher resolution and faster response. I’m very glad I did this and put the A7R away. No shot shows any sign of stabilisation failure. Finding a dramatic sunset location with rocks and predictable spray from breaking waves, I used the same lens on the A7R, which I had taken to the beach to produce some tests showing full frame coverage.

175mmf9

One of my frame coverage tests of the 18-200mm on the A7R. 175mm, 1/200th at f/9 – conditions which with stabilisation should result in a perfectly sharp result almost every time. Instead, this combination produced a jerked slightly double imaged unsharp shot every single time. Even at 21mm focal length this degradation was visible.

All the images (full frame tests and rock sunset shots) showed the same characteristic stabilisation jerk even at 1/320th, which I had not considered possible as the peak vibration from the A7R shutter occurs 1/250th after the shutter opens. It may not be shutter shock which causes this shake effect, but a firmware incompatibility (in timing signals?) between the A7R body and certain lenses.

piccure-processed

Here is my processed image put through the new software Piccure, which I can recommend as the first program to analyse and remove shake effectively – see http://intelligentimagingsolutions.com – and which has significantly improved some of my A7R ‘shaken up’ shots to the point that when reduced to 9 megapixels, they are as sharp as you would have expected from a KM Dimage A2 (ah, the irony… we do make progress, don’t we?). Click the above image for a full size screen shot.

kovalambeachfamily-web

This was my final crop and process from the shot involved, which was an 18.2 megapixel ‘more than APS-C’ crop from the full A7R frame, sharpened using Piccure and reduced to 24MB final image size.

200mmsunsetrocks

This sunset, and all the similar shots taken with the 18-200mm on the A7R, proved too badly affected by stabilisation malfunction to use at the desired full size.

Again, Sony’s decision to disable OSS with many lenses on the A7R only, and to issue firmware updates to enable this, supports this theory. Whatever the case, I lost all my first night’s sunset shots for anything except web sized use (above – it’s not sharp for printing or library use). We returned two further nights at the right time and tried various combinations. It was a subject not helped by heat haze and blown salt spray (UV filters were fitted, of course, and needed cleaning frequently to avoid the whole picture being softened).

shakexample-rocks

It’s so bad it almost hurts your eyes, but this was the focus point of many shots, and the double image (always in the vertical direction when the A7R was held horizontally) from the 18-200mm Tamron consistently gave a result like this. You might also suspect inaccurate focus and poor lens performance, but plenty of other shots at similar apertures and settings on the NEX-6 were completely OK. Perhaps the only answer with the A7R will be the near-£1,000 70-200mm f/4 G and replacement of the 28-70mm with another £1,000-worth of 24-70mm f/4. All that to get me back to where I was thirty years ago in terms of aperture and focal length range!

shake2-rocks

Using Piccure had no useful effect on this shot. It created triple outlines of the shake in place of double.

Eventually I got what I wanted but only with the 70mm reach of the 28-70mm OSS lens. The final, third, visit had cloud cover as the sun reached the right position. But, if you want to try this for yourself, visit Light House Beach in Kovalam at around 6.00pm (get a beer and wait) around April 16th-22nd. Like all such sunsets, there are just two times each year where the sun will hit the right position over the horizon.

lighthousebeach-sunset1

The 28-70mm really didn’t have the power to give me the sun at the size I wanted, but at least with Photoshop processing this was a more or less acceptable result. For any shot like this, I would far prefer to have a true mirrorless camera – no SLT mirror either – and the A7R should be a perfect choice. Tripod use was not an option because of the crowds (which you can’t see) and combination of incoming tide and wave.

There was one lens which never let me down – the 10-18mm OSS. Whether on the NEX-6, A7R crop or A7R full frame this lens always turned in a perfectly focused and well stabilised result.

At the end of our Keralan tour, we were invited to have lunch and a short tour of a major ayurvedic resort hotel, Isola di Cocco. The tour only took twenty minutes, seeing some of the rooms, and was at mid-day when the light is not ideal. I took a few shots on the A7R including room interiors, and sent small versions to our hosts afterwards. The outcome was a request for commercial use of the image set in their next brochure. These were not exactly what we would do on a commission – for one thing, we’d normally remove towels from round the pool, pick the best time of day, make fine adjustments to room details and even use lighting.

Isola di Cocco Resort Poovar

A pool needs to be very clean to handle a shot from three inches above the water surface (at 10mm).

This is what we we used to do in the 1980s producing brochure pictures for travel operators and it was never a casual thing, more a very long and full working day with many appointments and too much driving. These shots were quick snaps, even if professional snaps, and we agreed to use for a charity donation (all Indian businesses seem to support local charities as a matter of routine).

We’d be more than happy to go back and do it properly though!

Back in the 1980s we had nothing to approach the 15mm equivalent angle of the 10mm used on crop frame A7R, even though a few such lenses did exist for 35mm systems. 35mm was like using a 6 megapixel camera, and our shots had to stand full page to double page use. I used a Pentax 6 x 7 with its widest non-fisheye 45mm lens and that was equal to a 24mm, something you can now find at the wide end of many compacts. It had to go on a tripod, as the exposure times with Fujichrome RF 50 film (for shadow detail) with the f/16 or f/22 apertures needed for sharpness in depth were usually around 1/4 to 1 second. The tripod was one you couldn’t easily take by air today, and the camera kit with two bodies and three lenses was heavy and bulky. Then there was a matter of a hundred or so rolls of film to handle the five bracketed exposures for each frame, lead anti-X-ray bags, and a large Metz flash with an extension head… and our 35mm Minolta kit on top of it all. Each room could take an hour or more to photograph.

Isola di Cocco Resort Poovar

Raw conversion controls enable the rich teak wood interior to be shown clearly without losing the highlights of the wall and white sheets.

And here I am today, complaining about aspects of the A7R when I can walk into a room like the one above, without a tripod, find my viewpoint, observe the horizon level display while composing carefully, and make an exposure at ISO 1600 with quality equivalent to ISO 100 35mm film. With a lightweight carbon-fibre tripod, this almost Leica-sized camera can now outperform anything we might have expected from 6 x 7 film and at ISO 50 is good enough for wall-sized prints and poster reproduction.

We have some aspects of A7R technique and performance to ‘fix’ and you’ll realise that I do not approach using any new camera uncritically. But there’s nothing else on the market short of medium format which can match what it does.

I do not address, here, the demands of users wanting to switch from conventional heavy-duty SLR type cameras whose gear includes fast long apo telephotos and zooms, who work frequently with sequence bursts, require to track sports action, shoot news, capture wildlife or want to snap their kids and pets (which requires much the same camera performance as covering sports and news… they may move slower but they are much closer!).

My present thinking is that the new 12 megapixel A7S with its 4K motion picture capture and extreme low-light performance may not be what I want, but I’m considering adding an A7 or changing the NEX-6 for an A6000. I’m not quite ready to sell the A900 or the A77. I’ll see how the A7R performs over the summer and update in due course.

- David Kilpatrick

 

 

 

 

NEX-7 close cousin reaches astronomical value

A crowd at a charity auction in Florida couldn’t believe their eyes as two brand new Hasselblad Lunar cameras with a joint retail value of around $14,000 suddenly rocketed in value to $54,500 (from Hasselblad press release this afternoon).

Two photo enthusiasts at the world-famous three day-long annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance exotic car festival began bidding against each other for the chance to own an ‘ultimate luxury’ olive wood-handled Lunar camera, crafted by the iconic camera brand.

Lunar Olive Wood 18-55 Hood_b

When the bid reached $28,000 neither party wanted to lose out on a Lunar, so a deal was struck for an extra camera to be auctioned – for a joint record-busting price that raised a total of $54,500 for a spina bifida charity.

The deal also included a unique set of classic motorsport photographs shot over decades with a Hasselblad camera by Concours Show founder and chairman, Bill Warner.

Warner said: “Hasselblad is simply the ultimate camera. It’s the Mercedes-Benz, the Porsche and the Ferrari of cameras, all in one.”

The Amelia Island classic car and automotive art festival, which is billed as ‘three days of automotive passion at the International Historic Motoring Awards, Motoring Event of the year (2013)’, draws classic car enthusiasts from across the globe each year and raises millions of dollars for charity.

Michael Hejtmanek, President of Hasselblad Bron Inc. said: “We knew our new, retro-look Lunar range was compelling – especially the rich-veined olive wood edition with its advanced technology and supreme ergonomics – but for a pair of them to raise $54,500 for Spina Bifida Jacksonville at this auction is just outstanding.”

Further information:

http://www.hasselblad-lunar.com/
http://www.spinabifidajax.org/
https://www.ameliaconcours.org/

Our comment: fortunately, charity auctions are always about the charity not about the real value of the items. These are still only worth a little compared to the actual lunar-landing Hasselblads, of which four are thought to be surviving in the wild and surfacing at auctions from time to time.

Sony Global Ambassadors programme

A new global initiative sees Sony working closely with some of the world’s top photographers and industry leaders to celebrate the beauty of photography. Inaugural participants in the Global Imaging Ambassadors programme include William Klein and photographers from the leading international photo agency, Panos Pictures.

Through the Global Imaging Ambassadors programme Sony will work closely with a range of photographers with diverse styles from across the globe. The symbiotic partnership will see Sony lending its technical expertise and ground-breaking products, whilst benefiting from participating photographers’ exceptional imagery, professional feedback and brand support.

In addition Sony will work with each photographer to create a bespoke image using Sony’s high-end line of photographic equipment. These commissions will include unique shots of respected photographer William Klein’s return to New York, where this past summer – 60 years following his seminal work, Life is Good and Good for you in New York – he documented Brooklyn, a city he refers to as ‘the America of tomorrow’.

Of the programme, Klein says, “Brooklyn for me, a Manhattanite, has always been a mystery. This year, it became a photographic discovery. With the Sony a99, photography has been a pleasure. The camera has been a partner, rather than a burden. And the quality of the photos have proven to be an unexpected revelation.”

A portion of “Brooklyn, by William Klein”, along with an exclusive behind the scenes film, can be seen on the new ambassador website. Additionally, a major retrospective of Klein’s legendary work is now on display at the FOAM museum in Amsterdam. The showcase of over 200 pieces of Klein’s work spans six decades and includes ten photographs from this latest Brooklyn project.

William Klein show

Panos Pictures brings to the programme a wealth of established and award-winning photographers, including Zackary Canepari, Espen Rasmussen, Sanjit Das and George Georgiou. Over the past five months, these photographers have been using Sony’s RX1/R and a7 cameras to produce their projects in places such as Malaysia, Norway, Turkey and the USA. Adrian Evans, Director of Panos Pictures says, “Panos Pictures photographers always strive to be unique and creative in their approach to visual story telling and journalism. Our relationship with Sony gives our photographers access to Sony’s latest technological innovations, and support for photographers long term projects in an industry that is rapidly changing.” Additional photographers, including Bolivian based Karla Gachet, will be added to the programme in 2014. All current projects can be found on the ambassador website.

Yoshiyuki Nogami, Senior General Manager, Marketing Division, DI Business Group, Sony commented: “The Global Ambassadors Programme is an extremely exciting project that allows Sony to lend its technical expertise to some of the world’s leading photographers to enable them to bring their creative visions to life. From Sony’s perspective, we are able to gather valuable feedback about what photographers want from their equipment which will shape our new product development and help us move towards our goal of providing the best digital imaging products available in the market.”

Running the programme on Sony’s behalf is the World Photography Organisation (WPO), an international organisation providing various platforms and programmes for photographers of all levels and disciplines, along with educational and cultural programmes for the public. Sony has a long-standing partnership with WPO through their sponsorship of the annual World Photography Awards.

Using the 10-18mm OSS zoom on full frame

uncorrected12mm

This is a pretty awful case of vignetting and distortion – as you would expect. It’s from an APS-C format wide angle zoom, the 10-18mm f/4 SEL OSS lens for NEX, used on the Alpha 7R full frame mirrorless body. Early in the launch period of this camera, various far more attractive images appeared on-line using subjects like roads, rail lines, beaches and even shop counters where the lines look straight – rather like that drainpipe – because of where they fall in the shot. As you can see, anything with a horizon near the long edge of the framewould have given a very different impression.

However, Adobe offers a free utility which enables you to make lens profiles to correct vignetting and distortion.

I’ve now created a lens profile for ACR/LR using full frame and the 10-18mm on the A7R. The vignetting is such that the profile creator really can’t handle it, and overcorrects the extreme corners as a result. I’ve done f/4, f/8, f/16 at 12, 14, 16 and 18mm focal lengths using an A2 chart; for a lens like this, a much greater working distance and an A0 chart would really be desirable.

corrected-customprofile12mm

At 12mm you can probably see the vignetting artefacts in the corners, the magenta corner shift and incomplete correction of the horizon line. You’ll also be quick to spot that the 12mm coverage has been reduced to something much less, lens profiles always reduce the field of view (they can not do otherwise).

The profiler simply can’t handle the degree of sudden fall-off in illumination given by the 10-18mm used on full frame. Manual distortion corrections can actually do a better job. At other focal lengths, the profile I’ve made works well enough, and if the frame is cropped slightly (still exceeding the APS-C area the lens is designed for) it’s possible to get good results and wider angles.

I have sold my Sigma 12-24mm HSM II which was used with the A99, and also sold a Voigltander 15mm f/4.5 I bought to test (zero cost fortunately, as it made a small profit between Gumtree source and eBay destination). The Sigma was not only very difficult to focus using CD, its HSM motor won’t play with Sony CD.

My .lcp full-frame file can be downloaded from:

http://www.photoclubalpha.com/AdobeCameraProfiles/ILCE-7R FF (E 10-18mm F4 OSS) – RAW.lcp.zip

Samples produced for a dPreview forum question

There’s been a lot of discussion on dPreview forums of which lenses work on full frame E-mount, as Sony saw fit to put a Disable APS-C crop option in the menus of the A7 and A7R (almost as if they wanted owners to experiment). They have made other welcome changes of a similar kind which I’ll cover in a full review of the camera – which I can not do yet as I have no FE mount lenses for it, and with the current choice and prices, I can see I may never use FE mount lenses on this camera.

So, to answer some questions on dPreview’s E-mount forum, I posted these images and comments.

Here is a ‘native’ uncorrected shot of a local building taken on the 10-14mm on A7R at 11mm, f/10, ISO 100:

View: original size

Here is the result of using the profile, doing a crop and some straighten of slight rotated tilt, and pulling the scale down (with the profile applied, the roof apex is clipped off at the top as the lens has so much distortion its 11mm probably becomes more like 15mm when corrected):

View: original size

I’ve used some clarity and local burn adjustments on the sky to treat the image more or less as I would (except that I wouldn’t actually photograph this building at this time of day, with blinds drawn, etc).

For me, the 10-18mm on A7R with our without the profile correction offers the same options as using assorted lenses on 5 x 4 sheet film. It never mattered whether a 47mm didn’t cover the entire film, you got an image circle and could use whatever part of it you want. At 10mm the image, with the profile used, has strong corner cut-off but the overall circle of usable image greatly exceeds APS-C provided you stop down (f7.1 seems just OK, f/10 is maybe optimum, I’d certainly try f/16 despite fears of detail loss).

View: original size

The red crop mark is square – my ‘Hasselblad SWC killer’, as the classic SWC had just a 38mm wide angle lens. You needed to get an Arcbody with 35mm Rodenstock to go any wider on 56 x 56mm film (6 x 6). With the A7R and 10-18mm at 10mm, you get the equivalent of a 24mm lens. Not a 24mm fisheye on 6 x 4.5 like the widest ever offered by Mamiya… a 24mm rectilinear on 6 x 6.

The yellow crop mark represents a significantly larger area than APS-C (which is actually just a little under the 24 x 24mm square in width). It is shifted vertically, as if the lens was being used as a shift lens. If only the APS-C area is considered, its approximately 16 x 24mm area can be positioned right to the top of the frame, equalling a 4mm rise, or the equivalent of using a 6mm rise on a full-frame PC lens (most actually go to 11 or 12mm rise). There is only one lens made which can compete with this, and that’s the Canon 17mm f/4 TS. Admittedly this is a superb lens and when stopped down to f/11 and used on the 6D (Canon’s most shift-friendly sensor) will blow this result away for clean rendering of detail toward the frame edges.

And then, you can still use the 10-18mm in APS-C crop mode as a snapshot wide angle with pretty much perfect correction (Adobe’s own Sony profile for APS-C), for videos too. Now – I’m after some information…

I need to know if the 20mm f/2.8 SEL has the same basic design as the 16mm f/2.8 scaled up, and the same kind of simple-to-remove rear rectangular baffle – because if it does, it will probably cover FF on the A7R to a very high standard if an Adobe .lcp profile is created for it. So, help would be appreciated – if you have an A7 or A7R, test the 20mm f/2.8 SEL with its rear baffle removed. On the 16mm, this is a simple process involving three small screws and lifting the plastic moulding off the lens (replace just as easily). It may be the same on the 20mm and if the optical design is simply a scaling-up the image circle may also be larger. As the 16mm f/2.8 will – like the 10-18mm zoom – cover full frame but will need a good profile (my next project) the 20mm is very interesting.

- David Kilpatrick

Nikon’s DF finally recaptures the spirit of Dynax 7D

Sony said, as they took over the Konica Minolta camera division in 2006, that the day of mechanical controls and switches was gone. Economies of production and efficiencies of design meant that from now on, cameras would be controlled by buttons and menus. Anyone who remembers the original Alphas, the 7000 and 5000 from the mid-1980s, will also remember that this is not an original idea.

Minolta started to return to mechanical dials and visible controls after ten years of experiment with buttons, programs, and automatic functions. The Dynax (Alpha, or Maxxum) 800si and above all the 600si Classic restored traditional camera controls. The acclaimed 9 and 7 models followed, featuring physical switch or dial controls for exposure compensation (separate ambient and flash) and drive modes along with a shutter-dial style mode setting including the vital 1, 2 and 3. The triple custom memory setting enabling users to switch instantly between (say) outdoor action, studio flash and tungsten theatre lighting has survived as a Minolta gene all the way to the latest Sony generation.

Now Nikon has arrived with the DF, a very much standard autofocus DSLR using the D4′s 16 megapixel full frame sensor and a D610-derived AF and shutter specification, in a moderately compact retro-styled body with about the same number of mechanically switched visible controls as the Dynax 7D. It’s over ten years since the 2002 design of that camera (which finally appeared in 2004 after a change of imager from a planned Foveon sensor to the 6 megapixel Bayer Sony, rumoured to be a decision helped by Sony’s pressure on Konica Minolta as their main supplier for compact digital sensors).

nikdf-slant Dynax-7D-slant

Top, you see the Nikon DF in the black finish which very few sites are choosing to highlight – the silver and black looks SO much more retro – with 18-35mm Nikkor lens, 2013; below it, you see the Konica Minolta Dynax 7D with Konica Minolta (aka Tamron) 17-35mm. Note the strap lugs; KM moved one forward for better balance, but carefully kept the right-hand strap behind the shutter finger. Nikon has rather peculiarly chosen to place this strap lug forward as well, putting the strap physically between the index finger and the rest of the fingers.

The Nikon is hiding a flip-out aperture coupling pin to allow the use of original Nikon F (Photomic metering) or Nikkormat generation F-mount lenses, which have an external non-self-indexing meter coupler on their aperture control. Minolta’s full aperture metering used a self-indexing coupler which, unlike Nikon, did not required a back and forth rotation of the ring to tell the camera the relationship between the full aperture and any stopped down setting. In the 1960s, Minolta’s method enabled the fastest lens changes and also enabled ‘blind’ changing as there was no need to look down at the lens or engage a pin when doing so.

Nikon kept faith with their old mount when they introduced their AF system, despite the deep body register and narrow throat creating many problems with lens design. Minolta designed a brand new wider throat. At the time it made sense. Who then was to know that precisely the same constraints on lens design imposed by the narrow Nikon mount and deep mount to film register would make Nikon lenses much better, 20 years later, in the age of digital sensors with their need for telecentric designs and small rear exit pupils?

You’ll see that the old KM has a switched White Balance at the right hand end, more or less where Nikon has put a small PASM selector dial on the DF. Imagine it – a switch to get AWB, your most recent Preset, a Custom reading or to set in Kelvins. Where the D7D has a PASM plus 123 custom memory selector (locking) and hiding below it a mechanical switch for self-timer and sequence drive modes (3fps from the 6.1 megapixel sensor), Nikon has a very granular T (for time) to 1/4,000th shutter speed dial cramming those intervals in.

nikdf-top

The actual shutter inside the camera despite being full-frame in the Nikon is really much the same as that of the D7D, a 30 second to 1/4,000th unit with X at 1/200th. And below the Nikon’s dial at the front (the KM has it at the back) is the drive mode selector, which does include the Mirror Up position that the D7D was lacking. There’s a mini LCD display on top to allow the use of the 1/3rd step control-wheel set shutter speeds, and to display the aperture on G type lenses which don’t have a physical setting and must be set from the body.

On the left end of the Nikon there’s a two-tier wedding cake for ±3EV 1/3rd stop exposure compensation, and below this an ISO control from L1 (50) to H4 (51,200).

d7dback

I don’t seem to have a picture of the D7D left hand dial from above, but it offered something unusual – turn the dials a full 180° and the 1/3rd step EV compensation adjustments were exchanged for 1/2 step adjustments. The D7D also had a stack of controls on the back, like the lockable AF point selector control round the four-way selector, an ISO button (bearing in mind this camera was derived from the Dynax/Alpha 7, which used DX coding to read filmspeeds and an LCD menu entry to adjust them), Memory Set and other stuff which now seems rather clever and useful. The AS anti-shake physical switch, last seen on the Alpha 900, is one which would be welcomed back again. And of course this camera had AS. It was the first, and everyone apart from Nikon and Canon has followed the lead.

nikdf-back

Where the back of the D7D was criticised for being a bit complex for the everyday user, the Nikon DF in all fairness bears a remarkable similarity right down to five left hand buttons and the metering selector switch, AE and AF buttons. The DF has more stuff on the front, including a control wheel which looks a bit like the battery cover off an early Mamiya SLR and two buttons down to the right of the lens escutcheon which vaguely resemble an ancient two-pin flash connector. Since there can be no actual need for the bulges they are placed on, this is probably deliberate. Same goes for the mechanical cable release screw thread in the shutter button, fun feature, but actually electrical releases can have many more functions and don’t transmit hand movement the same way. The DF has a pretty skinny right hand grip but exceptional battery life at up to 1500 exposures, where the D7D has a lovely big grip partly to accommodate a similar size of battery which rarely managed 400.

KM’s pioneering DSLR weighs almost 200g more than the Nikon, though both are made from magnesium alloy, despite the smaller format. That’s perhaps because the prism in the Minolta design was not downsized and the actual eyepiece magnification of the 95% view was 0.9X, where the Nikon dealing with a full frame is reduced to 0.7X (and still, of course, looks larger – 0.7X versus 0.9X 0.66X 0.95X, or a cumulative 0.56X scale).

As for size and fit, the Nikon is said be based on an F2, or maybe they meant an FM2 – but it’s not in any way, the prism can look vaguely FM2-like in the chrome version with leather panels, but the body is a completely different shape some 15mm shorter than an F2 but much fatter and taller. It’s a dumpy sort of chunk, is also shorter fatter and higher than the D7D despite having no built-in flash. D7D = 150mm x 106mm x 65mm (specifications misprinted as 77.5mm in many reviews, no idea why); Nikon DF = 144mm x 110mm x 67mm.

Now there’s one other way in which Nikon has copied the KM D7D – the DF has no video! It does have live view, and that means you can overcome the shortcomings of the D600-like 39 point AF module (limited to the DX crop area and in my experience with very small AF point areas making it ‘twitchy’). Live view has magnification and focus peaking.

The new Nikon shoots 16 megapixels not 6 – that’s what a decade of progress has done – and it shoots 5.5fps not an actual 2.8fps like the ’3fps’ D7D managed. But it’s got just a fixed rear screen, 3.2 inches verses 2.5 (the D7D was ahead of the field in 2004). The Nikon also shoots superb ISO 6400, equal to the old sensor’s 1600 at a pixel level before you consider the benefits of the larger file as well.

And the pricing is borrowed from KM 2004 too – the D7D came in as a $1599 body only which made it a premium product against competition like the Canon EOS 300D, the Nikon DF arrives at $2749 body only and it’s a comparable level considering the full format, technology and cost changes, and a near ten year interval.

We’re sure the Nikon will be a success and this article is not trying to knock the concept or the execution. It’s just here to point out that a decade earlier, Minolta had designed and Konica Minolta eventually produced a DSLR with a general philosophy of physical, external, mechanical-feeling controls. As the pictures show, the Nikon DF could almost be a tribute to that design rather than something based on historic Nikon film bodies – which it quite simply isn’t!

- David Kilpatrick