I am now shooting a Sony Alpha 99, a full-frame, electronic viewfinder (mirror-less), top-of-the-line when I bought it three years ago, camera. And I love it. Of course, when I don’t use it for a couple of weeks, I forget many of its features, and also forget how to navigate through its extensive set of menus to exercise those features. Here it is in the above photo with the Carl Zeiss 24 – 70 mm lens, my “normal lens.”
As I understand it, the main advantage of a full-frame camera is that the individual sensor elements are larger, therefore the camera is less prone to noise. “Noise” is that speckled appearance most noticeable in areas that have a single color, except for the specks of random color. Noise is worse as the ISO setting is increased – which is why many texts on photography harp on keeping the ISO down to 200 or below. Well, the good news is that sensors for the last three years or so are considerably better than earlier, and higher ISOs may commonly be used without producing a lot of noise. This is especially good for me because much of my photography points me towards small apertures to get large depth of field, while also using a fast shutter speed to freeze motion due to wind or hand shake. My Sony Alpha 99 handles these situations well. (I do try to use the lowest ISO I can manage, given the need for depth of field and shutter speed, because even my wonderful camera is not noise-proof.)
So is there anything else about my camera that I really like? You bet. That electronic viewfinder makes possible some incredibly useful features for a photographer. Now, those features do come at a cost. TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such a Thing As A Free Lunch [I think the adage has been around quite a while, but the acronym is due to Robert Heinlein]). Something like 30 percent of the light coming through the lens is diverted by the semi-transparent glass (so the camera really does have a mirror of sorts, but it does not have to swing clear to shoot the photo) to the viewfinder. But the viewfinder is electronic! And that means that the camera can display through the viewfinder the effect the various camera settings will have on the shot, so that What You See Is What You Get. Change the exposure, and you see the effect through the viewfinder. Push the button to preview depth of field, and unlike cameras that do not have an electronic viewfinder, you have ample brightness to see what is in focus.
And that’s not all the electronic viewfinder does for you. Sony has this feature called “peaking color.” I use yellow, but red or blue are also available. What it does, anywhere in the frame that the sensor detects high contrast, implying sharp focus in that area, the pixels are turned yellow. You can see at a glance through the viewfinder just what is in focus. And if that is not enough, you can zoom in with the viewfinder to check for focus.
Another feature I’ve found useful is the range limit on autofocus. Many times it’s just handier to switch to manual focus, but not always. And then there’s the setting where the camera autofocuses, but then sets itself for manual tweaking. Often when the situation makes autofocus difficult – typical examples are extreme telephoto and macro photography – manual focus is just easier all the way around, but the peaking color still works and can be helpful.
I think there will come a time when all digital slr cameras will have electronic viewfinders with such features.
This is the main part of my gear, excluding the camera and main flash, which I used for this shot.
Starting at the top:
Tripod – carbon fiber, but it’s still heavy and cumbersom, which is why I also have a
Monopod – aluminum to keep it inexpensive, and because I use it (carefully) as a hiking stick. The monopod is much quicker for tracking moving objects, but not so steady as a tripod, obviously.
Halo flash attachment – obviously home-made, but it works very well. Insert the flash into the side of this gadget, place this gadget around the camera lens, and fire away. Clearly need an extension cable, which is off to the right. This flash has all the usual benefits of a flash – freezes motion, darkens distant objects, lights up the intended object – while casting no shadows that the camera can see. In particular, the lens of the camera does not get in the way for macro photography.
Small flash (to the right of the X-shaped flash stand) – I need this additional flash in order to use my main flash on wireless control off the camera.
Tamron 75 – 300mm telephoto – Not an especially expensive lens, but it has worked well for me
Tamron 200 – 500mm telephoto – Also not expensive for its type, but still about a $1000 lens. And heavy, bulky, and the main thing I used it for were the Llano eagles who are now nesting where they cannot be seen from Hwy 29. Darn. But the lens takes good photos, I think.
Sigma AF Macro – I got this lens 20 years ago, in my film days. Part of the reason I stuck with Minolta (bought by Sony) was so that my old lenses would still work. Then I replaced all those old lenses. Then I found that this Sigma macro still works really well on my new camera, and it has two big advantages over using an extension tube with my “regular” Carl Zeiss 24 – 70mm main lens: the homemade flash gadget fits over this lens, but not the monster Zeiss lens; and this macro will take decent non-macro photos, too. Sometimes it’s just too much trouble to be constantly switching back and forth from a macro set up to normal.
Three extension tubes and a doubler – The extension tubes work with any lens, so for instance, I can use one (or more) with that big telephoto to take a macro photo of a butterfly while remaining far enough away that I may not spook it. Or with the Zeiss lens for a flower close-up… unless I need the halo flash. As for the doubler, it gives me up to a 1000mm telephoto, if I can stand the loss of light. I’ve taken some nice photos of the afore-mentioned Llano eagles with that 1000mm setup. A real 1000mm telephoto runs up in the neighborhood of $10,000, probably more.
New Do-It-All Camera!
My Christmas present came a little early in 2015. I just got a Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ-1000. It has a Leica zoom lens with a full-frame equivalent range of 25 mm to 400 mm, 20Mpixels, F 2.8 – 4.0 (aperture decreasing with zoom).
On the left is my main camera, a Sony Alpha99 full frame with it’s Zeiss 24 mm to 70 mm zoom, along with a Tamron 70 – 300 mm zoom, a Tamron 200 – 500 mm zoom, and a Sigma macro lens, all discussed above. On the right is the new camera. I estimate that it will do as well as all the gear on the left in about 90 percent of the photos I take, probably more. But we’ll see about that.
So let’s look at some comparison shots. The new camera’s photos will be on the left, the more powerful system on the right. (Note that there was something like a half-hour time difference between each left photo and the corresponding right photo, with the one on the right having been taken around 9 AM on a December morning. Note further that I did adjust some of the brightness and contrast, especially in the Lumix shots on the left, but I did not spend much time doing it.)
So the new camera will not do low light as well, it does not figure to have the extreme depth of field (so I might have to do some photo stacking), but it weighs about one-sixth as much as the camera and lenses I’d have to carry to handle as wide a range of photography.
Oh, and I realize that the comparison photos I provided are not large enough to really compare sharpness near the pixel level. My photos mostly aren’t looked at blown up that much, so I figure I can sacrifice a little there.