Transitioning to an EVF future. And then some.

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?  


hbernstein said...

A reasonable argument for the switch/upgrade. Maybe now we can I can get over my shallow breathing and anxiety attack. It sounds like this will work very well for you.

This post, like all your posts, was not an attack on one camera or way of doing things, but just a thoughtful public explanation as to what helps you do your own work.

Thanks Kirk.

Martin Ranger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Ranger said...


really? Was that necessary? I have been trying to resist the urge to switch ever since the A77 has become available. Telling myself "a new camera will not make a difference" and "it's the photographer who takes the photos, not the camera". And I just about manage not to put years worth of equipment up for sale and indulge in change. Barely! And now here you come telling me you made that change.

Thanks :-)

P.S.: And since this is the internet, just to make sure: this comment is tongue-in-cheek.

AdamR said...

There's that phrase "makes shooting more fun" again. You, sir, have a problem.

kirk tuck said...

Martin, When a paradigm shifts all the older equipment immediately stops working and you become a hopeless hack until the upgrade is complete. If you wait five years with the old gear then you can come back around as a "retro visionary." You know all this stuff depreciates, right? Remember the gift from Ronald Reagan that keeps on giving: Accelerated Cost Recovery Schedule.

Seriously though, I think I could do most of my work well (brain power over raw iron) with a Panasonic GH2 or two and a bag of little lenses. Some of the bigger stuff, like the Sony's, is to keep the clients happy. It's not an expensive illusion and it's a buffer against megapixel mania.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks. You got exactly what I was trying to say.

kirk tuck said...

Adam, my big problem is that they don't bring new "fun" stuff to market nearly quickly enough...

Joey said...


Not to be a "me too" type of comment, but me too. My professional use involves photographing accident scenes, defective equipment, shooting video during covert surveillance, etc. Portraiture is my "feel good" photography.

After playing with an A65, I have donated or sold most all of my old gear, Contax, Zeiss, Leica, Oly, etc. in an effort to make my life easier.

I shipped a box of gear to new york last week, and am ordering a NEX 7 with adapters to use my Alpha and M mount lenses. Also, I have been shooting surveillance video with Sony super-zoom HX100V for a few months and have had two large clients call to ask about the excellent quality..(Talking about evidential use video, not Hollywood).

This was not intended to impugn other brands, nor provide unneeded corroboration of your decision, rather an acknowledgment that there are some great new tools available.



Martin Ranger said...


I totally agree. These days most of the stuff I shoot ends up on the internet and could probaly be shot with an iPhone. Unfortunately I am not cool enough for the iPhone and have to make to with an old-fashioned camera. Unfortunately, I keep being asked about my equipment by clients (photographic equipment that is), and the Really Big Lens makes me just so much more professional. Especially when I put it on the "carbon fiber tripod" with the, wait for it, ballhead.

As for old equiplment. The only cameras I regret selling are a Nikon F3 and the a D2x. But I don't think they are "retro" enough, yet. Maybe I should get my Dad's old Rollei and declare digital dead.

Oh, yeah, I love Accelerated Cost Recovery.

kirk tuck said...

Let's see, there's "bleeding edge adopters, cutting edge adopters, early adopters, first 25% of the curve adopters, middle curve adopters, trailing percentile adopters, and people who will not believe a trend is real until the next trend rolls in." Where you find yourself on that curve depends on your disposable income, your curiosity, you ability to look long, the numbers, the metrics and the common sense. It also depends on your market, your clients, your projects and your overall business plans. If any.

I prefer the "random chaos" business plan. I wake up. Have coffee and think, "What now?" If you can still make money with photo gear you're probably headed in the right direction.

Joey said...

You make a wonderful chaos distillery.. ;)

Stephen Cysewski said...

I have used the G3 since it came out, have tried and used both Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds since they first came out. I sold my Olympus E-5 outfit and purchased an A77. I purchased it before the flood limited supply. Most of my photography is outside and I find the viewfinder too dark in bright conditions outside. When I use the G3 it is easy to shade my eye with my hand. With the A77 it is a little large to shade my eye from the bright sun. Especially these days, bright snow, the viewfinder is nearly unusable, at least for my eyes. I have tried many methods and have decided to sell the outfit and only focus on Micro Four Thirds. Do you have any magic adjustment for the viewfinder that might make it usable. I also wear glasses so that does make a difference when using the viewfinder.

Frank Grygier said...

I have somewhat the same issue with EVF vs OVF. I have been using the Oly E-P3 with EVF for most of my street work and the E-5 for portraits. It is definitely hard to adjust to the limitations of the optical view finder. I like to Pre-Chimp as well. I am thinking that the OM-D will be my go to camera for all my work.

shojin said...

Your a77 rig just looks bad ass!

DGM said...

I agree, shojin, but my favorite "bad ass" look is when he puts those Hblad lenses on the a77. That looks surprisingly hard core, and gets my inner hardware geek all worked up.

It should not matter what the gear looks like and, truthfully, if it did not deliver the goods, the perception would turn to comic tragedy, rather than admiration.

With the Hblad lenses mounted, I would almost expect Kirk to dress in all black combat gear, with elbow and knee pads, combat boots, and a radio head-set with a short black whip antenna sticking up off the left side of his head. I suspect that would only appeal to a small sub-set of his client base.....

shojin said...

DGM: I agree. That Hblad glass just takes things to a whole new level.

Kirk: I am glad to see you add Sony to your stable for personal reasons... I've been shooting with an a900 for a while now because with Zeiss glass if just slays everything in it's path. And I think the a900 is the last real camera; everything else is a digicam.

Low Budget Dave said...

I would be interested in hearing more about the handling of the A77 as compared to the NEX-7. I can read the reviews, of course, but it would be nice to hear some opinions.

Tom Swoboda said...

As much as I find Sony's new photography solutions compelling, I just can't bring myself to give my money to Sony anymore. They are too quick to abandon the market when product categories put less than spectacular profits on their balance sheets. They don't give much time for their products to succeed. I've been burned more than once by Sony.

kirk tuck said...

Kinda like when Canon abandoned their FD lens mount and went totally EOS ditching at least TWO decades of loyal FD users in one fell swoop.

8473f0a6-72b1-11e1-96e8-000bcdca4d7a said...

And the lens mount before FD !

e7802420-a990-11e0-a37f-000bcdcb2996 said...

Can't wait until you get the Zeiss 85/1.4 or the 135/1.8 or the 135 STF for portraits.

DGM said...

Sony has been throwing a lot of different stuff against the wall to see what sticks. It is apparent that the NEX and Alpha/Minolta mounts are sticking, at least for the moment.

Manufacturing prowess has become a competitive weapon. The convergence of this with the increasingly short attention span of the social animal will insure shorter life spans for any particular product.

It is the way of things. All that being said, I think the live view revolution is in full swing now, and has some legs. I expect rapid iterations on displays and features, but Sony, Olympus and Panasonic seem to be very well positioned to ride the wave. Should Canon wake up and smell the coffee, they could be a major player as well. Nikon made a surprisingly strong move with their new compact system, and they are riding high with their DSLR line at the moment, but Sony has a huge advantage as a premier supplier of chips and displays. Interesting times.

shojin said...

Not to mention the Zeiss 24/2.0... delicious glass it is!

Clay said...

Viewability in bright light would be a big deal for me, too. I had been more concerned about the update rate in low light conditions, since that's one of the factors that drove me from P&S to DSLR.

Your point about the glasses runs against what I've read, which is that modern EVF's are better for us glasses-wearers. Hmmm...guess I'll stick with what I've got for a while longer.

Clay said...

Could you expand a little on your lens choices? As many portraits as you do, I would think you'd miss the 50-70mm range when you're out on a shoot. Is that not the case, or do you find yourself using either <50 or >70 for any given shot?

Rob Lowry said...

Just to set some context; I have personally owned the a100, a700, a850 an the NEX 5N. I own several old pieces of Minolta G glass, several Sigma EXes, and a couple of the Zeiss autofocus lenses as well.

So ... starting with the ugly. Uh huh, anything higher than ISO 1600 is gonna have more noise than you want. But, with even a tiny amount of noise correction the images will be as detailed, and rich as anything else - provided you shoot in RAW. My own personal experiences with high ISO JPEGs from a Sony camera had me reaching for the tequila.

As you're finding, the Sony cameras are in their zone at lower ISOs, and coupled with in-body image stabilization are formidable. I absolutely love being able to attach a 30~40 yr old piece of glass and get stabilization benefits. And sometimes, it's this stabilization that will prevent the need to step up the ISO setting.

Some Sony users might try showing you 100% crops, expounding how Sony retains better detail, despite higher noise, but I know you're not a pixel peeping kinda guy.

All in all ... my relationship with the Sony Alpha line has been love, with the occasional bouts of hate. YMMV


Kevin Fagan said...

I use the A77 with radio triggers and I can't get over how I used to shoot sets and talking to models with a camera in front of my face using the old optical view finder .. The new Sony LCD flips out so I have no camera in front of my face alot of camera makers should take notes what a luxury to use and the MP giving the extra cropping room is a welcome improvement ..