I've been using and writing about electronic viewfinders for the last three years here on the Visual Science Lab. My first real experience with EVFs was via the Sony R1 camera which, I felt, was a surprisingly prescient offering for its time. It use a very flexible LCD finder screen which could be positioned as a wais tlevel finder and it had a low res but well implemented, true EVF. When packaged with a large sensor (about the size of the Canon G1X sensor) of 10 megapixels and a very well reviewed Carl Zeiss 24-120mm (equivalent) zoom lens it became a great shooting camera for a certain kind of subject. I used it extensively for interior and exterior architectural studies and many available light portraits. It worked well in the studio for still life set ups with the proviso that I shoot with continuous light. The low light capabilities of the finders weren't stellar and made use with flash a bit problematic. But the sensor, which was rumored to be a variant of the sensor in the Nikon D2x professional camera, was amazingly detailed and well mannered.
Ben and I have also had the pleasure of using the EVFs in Canon's superzoom line of compact cameras, including the SX10, SX20 and SX30. The EVF worked well in full sunlight for stills and video. Ben and his friends have put a lot of miles on those cameras in the pursuit of their digital video art. (Which reminds me...he promised to teach me Final Cut ProX when he had a chance..).
Recently much progress has been made with EVFs. So much so that I found, recently, that I've been drawn to work with the Panasonic GH2 and the Olympus EP3 not so much for the nimble size and fun optics but for the instantaneous feedback of the well implemented EVFs. Pre-chimping beats the hell out of post chimping any day of the week.
I love pulling the camera (regardless of brand) up to my eye and seeing a clear, clean representation of just how the camera would finally render the images. The impact of exposure compensation, Jpeg parameter changes, dynamic range expansion schemes and more. When I went back to a conventional optical viewfinder I always found myself wanting to see what the camera saw, not just the soft fall of focus caused from viewing a scene through a fast, wide open lens. The scene might look one way with the lens wide open but have a different character when stopped down for shooting and with all the parameters figured in. Seems like a little thing to wait to see the image on the back panel after taking the test shot but it isn't. I also work a lot of days in the direct sun and resent having to wear a Hoodman Loupe around my neck for post shot examining of a camera's LCD screen in bright light. Or any ambient light. Every color cast changes your perception of color rendering...
So, when Sony announced the a77 back in August my attention was piqued. But real life intervened. The floods in Thailand threw a huge wrench in Sony's rollout and I finally put my hands on an a77 a few weeks ago and started an evaluation. My first concern was the quality of the viewfinder but that faded in minutes. The finder is great. I love it. But we'll talk about EVFs in depth in a future column. My second concern was how the camera would handle situations that comprise the bulk of my paid work, portraits with electronic flash on various locations.
The a77 accepted my radio triggers and syncs up to 1/250th of a second with smaller flashes. With bigger flashes is seems to sync better at 1/125th. With one menu adjustment the finder shows a bright image of the person in front of me under conventional modeling lamps of 100 watts. As the light drops (say in a dark room) the finder becomes noisier but is still usable for easy composition and feedback. Shooting this way means that I do have to post chimp to see the actual result. But as I transition to shooting more portraits with big panels I can go back to the nuanced preview I like.
My first paying job with the a77 was making location portraits of doctors and the camera passed the test with good marks.
When I went back to shoot with my conventional cameras I found that, of all the cameras I owned, they had become the least fun to shoot with. And, at the ISOs I use (50-1600) the files where a toss up. I made up my mind and decided that, for my "work" cameras, I would switch to an all Sony system.
I won't bore you with the details of the disposition of the previous system but I thought I'd share what I've started with in the new system.
I had amassed a collection of bodies over time. Each had different menu set ups and the screens on the back of the cameras ranged from "good"on the back of the 5d2 to "horrible and punishing" on the 1Dmk2 (my oldest). I had a bunch of disparate lenses and both of my most used "L" lenses were very sharp f4 lenses. I really wanted to simplify the entire inventory.
I wanted two identical bodies so the menus, knobs and settings would always match. And I've signed a pact with the gods of photography to only replace in pairs from now on. With this in mind I bought two a77's. I read both manuals (kidding) and I set up both cameras to exactly the same settings. Now I'm diving in and master each of the control sets and special settings. I'm intrigued by things like the Multi-Frame noise reduction. I want to know every control setting on the camera.
No fumbling with personal settings or custom settings that vary from body to body.
I wanted two fast zoom lenses that I could use to cover an event without having to change lenses. I working in a lot of dust and grime last year and not having to switch lenses on a hot, dusty highway construction site would be...advantageous. I chose the Sony 16-50mm f2.8 lens and the 70-200mm G series lens. I've tested them at all relevant apertures and I'm happy with their performance.
I bought the Sony HVL-F58AM flash unit and it seems to work fine. It's flexible and it can be controlled by the in-cameras flashes on the a77's.
I also bought a nice Hasselblad to Sony Alpha lens adapter and I'm very, very happy with the performance of the 80mm Zeiss Planar and the 120mm Zeiss Makro-Planar. They have a different look. I call it "authoritative bright." It looks clinical, contrasty and clean.
In the end, all current systems are overkill for most of the photograph we do. I do like shooting with the EVFs and I'm sure many will argue convincingly for OVFs. I looked at aging inventory in one system and decided to start over again in an different system. Working with new gear and a new style of feedback is refreshing and novel. It makes shooting more fun.
I'm sure I'll hit some snags in the transition but you know I'm transparent enough to mention both sides of the equation. I wonder if Sony marketing needs a pro user to sponsor?