Monday, 23 February 2015

Going smaller... downsizing without losing features and quality

If you're getting fed up with the weight and size of your big DSLR and are thinking of going to something lighter and smaller with similar capabilities then read on...

I normally don't discuss the brand of gear that I use because I really do believe it does not matter. But today, this time I'm going to talk about it. I use a Canon 5d with a selection of L and non L lenses. I total I have more than 25kg worth of body and glass. As I get older I carry less and less - granted some of it like the fish eye and the macro lenses are special purpose and don't always come out to play but my staple lenses that I use the most weigh 10kg between them.

Canon 5d from the website

For some time I've been watching the development of mirrorless and micro 4/3 format machines and more recently the mirrorless full frame interchangeable lens cameras and I reckon the days of DSLR for the average consumer, prosumer, very serious amateur and even professionals are numbered.

I'm used to the stunning quality I get from the 5d, I'm used to its versatility and capabilities, I've been in this brand stable for so long that I know it's controls with my eyes shut - right from my film days. Most importantly I know what I can do with the machine and how it meshes with my own level of talent and needs. They've never really changed the control format.

I love photography, I'm not involved in any one genre and play in many including street, urbex, theatre and performing arts, trains, sports, motorcycles, landscape, seascape - you name it I've probably photographed it. Much of my photography has two things in common - the need to handle low light and the need to handle movement.

I've reached a juncture - do I keep what I've got or head down a new smaller, lighter path? I've examined this question every six months or so for the last few years. Until this year the answer has been a resounding stick with the home team... until this year, there are some offerings that really muddy the waters for me and the decision is no longer obvious. I'm writing this blog because I've been involved in some very good discussion on the topic on g+ (you know, the ghost town where there aren't any users - oh shut up and try it - you'll find out) and I think it is worth gathering those thoughts here because if I'm thinking it then plenty of others are too.

The big boys have lost the plot

I really think the big boys namely Canon and Nikon have lost the plot. Every model is bigger and heavier than the one before it. This is fine in the studio pro market where their top end models now equal or even better a number of the medium format machines. But for those of us who don't live in a studio, it means carrying more and more weight around with us.

When you purely review their specifications you dive into a world of numbers and statistics, but what does it really all mean? It's like shopping for insurance, telephony or electricity - they're all different and all incomparable for one reason or another - yet we have to choose. Surely brand loyalty isn't the way to do it.

First up, I'm only going to talk about two other brands in this particular blog because imho they are the front runners at the time of writing. I have played with quite a few and while each has its merits none have really excited me. The brands I'm going to talk about are Olympus and Sony. The two organisations are tightly intertwined anyway. Why them? Because of their current offerings.

Olympus OM-D EM1

Olympus OM-D EM1 from the website

When Olympus brought out the OM-D EM5 I was in lust with it, but I held off, I didn't buy it. It had lots of great features but I'm used to some serious resolution and I really like full frame - I'm a 35mm boy from way back and I have trouble adjusting to the crop sensor. Now that the OM-D EM1 is out I'm in lust again. It is a very good camera except it is only 16 mega pixels and is Micro 4/3 format. This shouldn't rule it out for me and I'm going to try one.

The lens collection for these machines is enormous and is well supported by third party manufacturers such as Sigma, Tamron, Samyang and many more. You will not go wanting for lenses. They range from cheap to very expensive and from very light to quite hefty. The very cheap lenses are generally of good and reasonable quality with the more expensive ones being somewhat heavier and of amazing optical quality.

Olympus are financially incompetent and had to be recently bailed out by Sony but as friend +Ananda Sim says they are a photographer's company, they're marketing is brilliant and they've attracted a set of followers so dedicated and willing to say it that they're almost a cult. Their current marketing tag of #olympusinspired  has thousands of photographers posting to all the social networks and a search reveals some amazing work. There is a lot of good news for Olympus in that it is good for people who know their stuff, but is also very good for people who have no idea. This is the single biggest selling point in this brand for the average person - you can have the fun and usefulness of interchangeable lenses but not need to know what you're doing.

A lot of people will tell you that the Olympus struggles in low light and dark, and it's true that for focus it's a shocker but the outcomes are amazing. Features like a progressive live view that shows you how the photo is coming together as the exposure progresses is  simply priceless. This feature first turned up in the EM5 and is present in the flagship EM1. It's range of ISO is not brilliant and for some of what I do, I really do need some serious sensitivity. When you are shooting the actors in a play while they're in motion on stage under stage lighting conditions you can't do a long exposure. That said I've seen perfectly acceptable results on the photo community groups I've taken into plays and they've used the EM5 or EM1. I do see from their faces that they're working hard for the outcome and most of the time they do use a tripod. Ananda is often an exception to this but I reckon he's got the hands of a rock because his shots are lovely and usually hand held.

Sony A7

Sony A7 from the website

I've been a player with Sony for ages, going right back to my second, and third digital cameras the FD-83 and the FD-93. Their sensors have always been good in the dark and they've always been top of the pack imho in the small camera market. Now they're in the full frame mirrorless with the A7R and this is a seriously attractive package.

Sony I think have taken a couple of interesting paths, they've evolved from the traditional DSLR shape and incorporated a lot of design features of the more design focussed brands such as Leica. This yields a fairly attractive set of machines, they're also smaller than the traditional DSLR. The lenses are pretty hefty but still lighter than the comparison from my home brand. The other interesting path is that they seem to have ignored the all rounder and taken a new tack (which you could argue is all about money - but I think is about technology and space) - you can have your low light capabilities, you can have your really fast auto focus, you can have your huge megapixels, BUT you can't have them together. Sony seem to have the idea that like you would choose a set of lenses to suit the task you were going to undertake you'd also choose form your set of bodies for the one with the most capabilities. This means that at the moment I probably need at least two of the A7 series bodies to cover the different situations I would find myself in which means this outcome is expensive, but it's comparable with the current 5d pricing and I'd have two cameras for that money not one - meaning I don't need to buy a backup body that spends most of it's time asleep in the bag too.

As good mate +Peter Sherriff says you need to buy into the roadmap with the A7 series because the E mount is very new and there are not a lot of lenses available at this time but that is quickly changing and there are signs of offerings from third parties if they've not already started to materialise as I write this.

What others are doing and thinking

Where I've paraphrased I've used normal text, where I've quoted I've used italics

+Margaret Wong has upgraded from the OM-D EM5 to the EM1 and isn't looking back. She's enjoying the new hardware and is continuing to work with the lens collection she has.

+Jason Baker who uses Canon and has a Olympus is leaning towards Sony for the next upgrade.

+Peter Lavender suggests staying where I am as he has difficulties getting good bokeh from the Olympus.

+Ananda Sim says Olympus is a photographer's company. They will sacrifice profits, choose unpopular paths to innovate, and if they survive each year their product becomes sweeter. Sony is an all guns blazing company using shock and awe approaches. They have cheap gear as well as expensive gear and different models competing with each other from the same stable just because they can. So far due to the large size of the Sony empire the money has not run out. I perceive that they care for the big wallet customer, and that's not where I am.

The E-M1 is full featured and has a stable of of lenses that bridge cheaper to quite expensive. Primes would be good if they work with your style. As a general purpose option, it's well placed. It has its constraints and not all of them the obvious ones that trolls pick on.

Sony, being what they are have more than one pot cooking. The A7s has the high ISO. The A7ii has an early design IBIS. The A7r has the sheer resolution (but with Canon upping the ante, I expect the key Sony sensor business is already in overdrive for the Mark2). The A6000 actually focusses fast. There is not one pot but several pots tuned to different aspects.

And lastly, your trusty Canon 5D2 keeps on doing great at sports AF, tele shots, you know the grip, ergonomics, the AF response, the OVF and asset value well. the body and lenses don't need any new money.

With regard the cameras, it's reconciliation of expectations and negotiation with oneself to accept a particular compromise. And they have to be compromise designs like any engineering thing. As a designer you have to take a punt and damn the complaints by the customers who think they know otherwise.

The glory of the A7 series is a full frame sensor (formerly expensive) in a thin, small body with mass, inertia. You have to contend as a designer with a larger mechanism causing higher noise level, shutter shock and the IBIS has to be heaps more powerful to manage the same results as a Micro Four Thirds sensor. Optics is physics you have to find some way to deliver brigĥt f/no, good optics, image circle, compatible AF performance - all not changed from the DSLR and yet still keep result levels with CDAF reduce size / weight. Some customers even expect you to make a 70-200 f/2.8 L sharper at half a weight and price. 

With so many conflicting design parameters, it is age old and classic solution to have several biased designs instead of one integrated design until the tech gets it rigĥt.

The Micro Four Thirds way is to first make the sensor one quarter smaller, therefore all the constraints become much less painful and evolve the sensor over time to lift it's performance.

+Shari Mattox - Sherriff is using the Sony A7R and has come from the same 5d model I have and is using an A7R... and highly recommend it. Converting from a 5D myself for basically the same reason as you mentioned, it is much lighter and results are outstanding. I haven't let go of my 5D yet and use an adaptor so I can still use my Canon lenses. It's not ideal but until I get the Sony lenses I want...gradually, it works just fine. Good luck... It sux getting old ;-).

Richard Gay who is an EP-M2 user (the little brother of the OM-D EM1) notes that the mirrorless lenses are much lighter than those for the big DSLR.

+Peter Sherriff As most people that know me are aware I'm a long time Sony user having migrated to Sony DSLRs from my trusty Minolta cameras after Sony bought the business and I made the switch to Sony Mirrorless with the NEX-7 after my neck and back started giving me some serious problems. I'm currently using the a7R and whilst it's not the answer to everyone's prayers when it comes to small, light equipment it certainly has plenty of things going for it.

I'll start with the negatives - there's no getting away from what is currently a fairly short list of lenses for the a7 range. There are some truly fantastic lenses out there, especially when thinking of the size and weight of them in conjunction with the body but to a certain extent you're buying into a roadmap at the moment. Many users, myself included, are using one of many adaptors out there to use lenses with different mounts to plug the gap in the meantime. The a7R doesn't have the quickest autofocus out there, it can play a bit of hunt and peck sometimes to find the right spot. The high pixel count also means that if you're viewing at 1:1 you'll often find that images look a little out of focus, this is true for both images taken using autofocus and manual focus. More than any other camera I've owned the a7R highlights even the slightest of movement in the camera when taking your shot.

From here I'll switch to the positives and I'll start with image quality - it's just fantastic. Assuming you covered off the focus and stability side of things then the image quality really is superb, detail is amazing and the colours are just beautiful. The sensor technology in the Sony a7 range is absolutely at the top of the market at the moment - there's a reason several other manufacturers are using Sony sensors for their cameras and if/when you look at the higher quality Medium Format sensors then Sony pretty much have that sewn up.

Far from seeing Sony's range as being "shock and awe" I see the top end of their mirrorless range (a6000 and a7 range) as more of an acknowledgement that today's sensor technology is still something of a compromise and that different styles of photography have different requirements. To that end I view the a7R as being the best camera of its ilk for situations where you have decent lighting, good stability and the time to check your focus accuracy - landscape images for example. The a7S is staggering, and I do mean staggering, in what it can achieve in low light and if dingy clubs are your thing it's got to be on your shortlist. The a7 and a7ii are more all-rounders with something to offer everyone, the a6000 slotting into the spot where cropped sensor with very fast autofocus is beneficial - sports photography for example.

Ultimately, whilst I'd be happy recommending the Sony cameras to anyone prepared to listen to me, cameras are very personal things and what suits one person may not suit another. I am bought into the Sony roadmap for both lenses but also what I see as a bright future for their developments in sensor technology - more than any other camera company I see them pushing the boundaries of what's possible and for that I'm happy to give them my money.

+Christopher Cohen reminds me that feel is as important as specifications and trying them is critical - Christoher uses one of the other body brands I had considered but don't think would suit me but is one you might be interested in from Fujifilm and should be considered alongside the EM-1 and A7. He turns out beautiful images and knows his machine well. If you're looking at that one then he's a good source of information.

+Alan Warren I've got the A7S and it's perfect for me, everything I want in a camera. The A7ii would be my next choice (because IBIS) and I've never been a fan of the A7R due to the far higher resolution leading to less sensitivity in low light. If you don't want the higher resolution of the A7R or the greater dynamic range of the A7S the I think the A7ii is the way to go.

+Jason Boyes I was pretty focused towards the Sony A7r I must say, even with its limitations; and didn't even consider the rest of the A7 stable.

Since reading Peter Sheriff's reply this has changed. After having checked out the rest of the Sony A7 range, as well as a few Youtube clips I think I now have more questions than ever.

One has 5 axle stabilization and fast hybrid autofocus allowing for rapid accurate subject tracking (A7II). Is this a good all-rounder for all conditions?

Then you have the acclaimed full framed 36.4 megapixel beast in the A7r. As good as the reviews and images are, it does suffer in a few areas as we've heard.     

Then of course, there's the A7s. Having watched a few youtube clips on this camera, it's low light capabilities are beyond staggering...and I do mean beyond!
This thing is basically a pair of night vision goggles made into a camera, don't believe me, check a few of them out for yourselves lol.
But, for all this night-time goodness, what is this camera like as an allrounder I wonder?

+Jessica Hendelman and I had an ad hoc discussion on her switch from the Nikon stable to the Sony and she reinforced my thinking that Sony expect their users with wide ranging needs to actually purchase two bodies. She picked up the A7R and the A7ii for their different capabilities and a number of the Sony lenses and finds she gets all of her gear into less space with less weight and is enjoying the outcomes in her photography.

Where to from here?

Fortunately I know quite a few people involved in my photography circles that have the hardware I'm interested in and being able to go out on a play date to try the hardware is pretty easy to arrange, even better that they'll be right there with me so I don't have to learn the platform to achieve a reasonable review outcome. Stay tuned to see if I stay with the safe and comfortable or go out on a limb sell all my gear and go down a new path, I do not know the answer at this point. It may be that the results of my research, discussion both online and in person and playing with the equipment leads me to the point where I am today. I'm ok with that, for now. There hasn't been any significant break through in photography for many years, oh sure there are big changes inside the existing spectrum but there is no new quantum leap.

I do note that I'm not in a hurry and if the outcome of these discussions and playing with machines is to wait, I'm ok with that. Right now I have a good all rounder which suits my every need except weight which is getting tedious on the longer walks. Last night I walked with the 5d, a Samyang fish, Canon's 24-105L, and an 85mm prime. Great combo for what I was doing, but that's a pile of kilos which by the end of the night despite the awesome wide padded strap of the Think Tank Retrospective 7 bag I still had a sore shoulder and back. I'm also finding after years of use that the Black Rapid strap I use is very hard on gear (knocks) and a wrist strap or chest mount would be much better for the machine but the 5d is so heavy I don't think that's manageable (I know some people who do it, but they are at least ten years younger than me).

Probably the most important thing whether you love your current machine or not is to keep an eye on the market because you simply don't know what other hardware is capable of if you never try. I agree with Ananda that it's all about compromise and conflicting needs and capabilities.

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