4.25.2012

How many ways to rationalize a camera purchase?

Behold !  It's the latest camera from Sony.  It's called the Alpha 57 and it's biggest claim to fame (from my point of view) is that it uses the same sensor that's been making the rounds in the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K5.  Both those cameras are known for two things: Very clean high ISO performance and very wide dynamic ranges.  By extension, using the same sensor, the Sony a57 should do well in both of those areas.  And I think this will be important for Sony going forward because as much as Sony shooters love the dense, detailed and dynamically well disposed digital files they've been getting out of the a77 and a65 cameras the feedback about high ISO is less than sterling.  I've written about the a77's difficulties with noise in previous columns.  I really like that camera and, for 90% of the stuff I shoot, I find the files quite good.  

When I shoot raw (a77) and use DXO Optics Pro or the supplied Sony software to abate noise I am happy with the output with no caveats up to 1600 and, at 3200, it's very workable with a little elbow grease and the right subjects.  At ISO 50 the camera just squirts out beautiful, long tone files with oceans of detail.  A little small detail sharpening and I'm happy.

But I'm also lazy and able to rationalize new purchases at the drop of a hat. I wanted to find an inexpensive addition to my Sony "work" system that would give me drop dead gorgeous high ISO files right out of camera.  Maybe even in Jpeg.  So I've been following the roll out of the Sony a57 and reading all the reviews I can get my hands on.  But nothing is as accurate ( to answer to your own point of view ) as getting a camera and writing your own review.  Amazon.com is backordered on the camera and the website last night indicated a wait of two to four weeks.  That doesn't work for me.  Once I decide on something I want that instant gratification.  I called Precision Camera here in Austin and spoke to one of the owners.  Wonder of wonders!  I had a camera in my hands the next afternoon.  And.... it's a mixed bag. But what it doesn't do as well as its bigger brother is mostly "cosmetic" to me so I think I'll keep the camera because it does what I asked for when I first rationalized its purchase. (Damn, that sentence doesn't make any sense at all but it's exactly true to my thoughts....).

I paid right at $700 and I headed straight home with the box, excavated the camera, tossed in a battery from my stash of "500" series Sony batteries, carefully inserted a 32 gig card and got to experimenting.  Here's what I found:

First issue.  Only one dial (on the front of the camera ) to control both shutter speed and aperture.  Yikes.  I know there's a way to switch between them.  Oh yes.  Hit the AEL button on the back. Disaster averted.

Second issue.  A bit thornier.  I started with the OLED finders of the a77 and find them quite good. Nearly as convincing as a big ass optical finder even if they get a bit noisy in low light.  But the finder in the a57 is not as good.  It's as big it's just not as crisp and clean.  It almost seems to have a little flare in the system.  Usable out of the box but not great.  I've played with it extensively now and have one tip for new users:  Set the EVF screen to the "minus one" setting.  The contrast on the screen looks better and it seems to be a good match for most situations.

The body is smaller and lighter than the a77 and the battery is supposed to give maybe 100 more exposures per charge than the bigger cameras.  The handling is great and the focusing is equally snappy and assured.

That leaves me with the pressing question:  How is the high ISO performance of the camera?  We'll have to do more extensive shooting but I spent all evening yesterday walking around the house shooting at 6400 ISO and I found it to be much cleaner than the untreated (jpeg default settings) of the a77 at 1600.  I would guess that it's on par with the Nikon D7000 or perhaps just a smidge worse, given the light loss at the mirror.  But, it's a big improvement and adds what I needed to the system for those times when I'm sitting in the front row at Zach Scott Theater trying to line up a shot of moving actors under dramatic, low light and I'm already at f2.8 on my big zoom and wishing for 1/60th of a second.  That makes up for a little loss of "EVF happiness" and banality of only one dial.

I've had the camera now for only a day.  Less than 24 hours.  I'll carry it with me all week long and shoot everything from the parades in San Antonio to Eeyore's (countercultural) Birthday Party here in Austin.  And every shred of life in between.  In a week or so I expect I'll have a fleshed out report on the camera.  Right now it feels like Sony needed sorely to get a camera into the SLT system that could go toe-to-toe with other brand APS-C cameras at ISO 3200 and 6400 and my preliminary tests show that they've largely succeeded.

Now, the process of rationalization.  Here we go:  As you know, if you read the blog regularly,  I dumped a two and a half year accumulation of Canon EOS equipment after using it for two and a half years because I like the whole idea of the EVF's (electronic viewfinders) and I find Sony's implementation works well for me.  I assessed the system and decided it would be a good fit for most of what I do:  Portraits and set up (lit) advertising images.  I also shoot video and find the Sony video to be very good. 

The disconnect in the whole house of cards is this:  I shoot theatrical dress rehearsals once or twice a month and I needed a bit more low light performance.  I'd also like to shoot more evening work without lights and better ISO performance would help that as well.  For only $700 I get to plug a hole in the system.

The camera has a nearly identical menu and overall operational workflow as the a77 so there was no learning curve when it came to picking up the camera and engaging directly.

The camera is smaller and lighter which makes it a nice "carry around" camera to have with me.  I put the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens on it yesterday and can't think of a good reason to take it off...

I could also write a long review about the camera, post it on my blog and then link the product to its product page on Amazon.com and hope that legions of readers, seduced by my clever words, would rush there and buy the camera thereby helping to claw back some of my purchase price through referral fees (which have no impact on the final price of the product to you, the customer).
The fly in the ointment is obvious, though.  Here I am writing about the one product  that is currently out of stock for maybe the next full month.  By the time it's back in stock this missive will long since be forgotten and relegated to the bottom of the blog pile.

Final rationalization:  Well, at least I'm running a photo business and will be able to depreciate my camera purchase at tax time.....

Say, that's a good rationalization.  I wonder if they have any other expensive lenses I might need to "review."





16 comments:

Wataru Maruyama said...

I'm shocked you haven't rationalized picking up an E-M5 yet. Got mine on Monday and it's pretty much the m4/3 camera I've been waiting for. Not sure I want to let the Nex-7 go though. They seem like two different animals with different strengths to me. Okay, that's me rationalizing keeping them both.

MichaelT said...

I wonder if Sony will have a firmware update for the a65 and a77 to "fix" the high ISO "problem"? This seems to be the one area where Sony has fallen behind their competitors (all the way back to my a900; where I can start seeing noise at ISO 400) but perhaps they have figured out how to tweak their algorithms for improved noise performance.

Ron Zack said...

To have a $700 camera with that kind of low-light performance is a tremendous bargain, even at it's full retail price. I'm sure the camera will be useful for any sort of event shooting you might have to do as well as theatre shooting.

I've been finding myself is a number of situation where having a camera that can do a fairly clean ISO 6400 would be extremely useful, and I would love to have either a Nikon D7000, Pentax K5, or this new Sony a57. Sadly, the D7000 is the most popular camera in the universe, and not easy to find in stock anywhere, even though it's been on the market for 18 months or so. I think the same might be true for the a57, Sony is going to sell zillions of 'em. That leaves the venerable old K5, which was introduced at the exact same time as the D7000. Pentax has slashed the price of that camera, and with it's industrial strength weather proofing and build quality, it just might be the true bargain of the bunch.

So many good choices out there right now. We are living in truly wonderful times for digital photography.

kirk tuck said...

"So many good choices out there right now. We are living in truly wonderful times for digital photography." I totally agree.

Jeff said...

Your Sunday walk street portrait inspired me to buy an A65 to replace my aging EPL1 and I am thrilled with it. The resolution and image quality at low ISO are wonderful and your trick for using ISO 1600 worked perfectly. ISO 3200 JPEGs clean up well and in the very, very rare (for me) situations when I need to use 6400 because I can't use flash or a tripod or twilight mode I can live with some noise.

The only problem I have with this camera is that after seeing your street portrait my wife worries that it will show too many wrinkles.

Craig Yuill said...

I have had a D7000 for a few months now, and have been very happy with the quality of the photos I've gotten from it. The sensor in it is first rate. I prefer to work at ISO 800 or lower for best results. But I regularly use 1600 (and on occasion 3200) when light gets low, and get good results. I'm sure you'll be happy with the photos your new a57 produces. Happy shooting!

FotoEdge said...

The Olympus OM-D does seem to meet all your requirements and you already have a great collection of glass that you know how to work. I pre-ordered mine on Feb 8 and it still not here, but I know it is worth the wait. Just for the Flip LCD, New 5 Stage Stabilization System and the EVF. You add to it the build quality and low weight and smaller size and you have a system to stick with. Plus all the lenses will work with future Panasonic Future Cameras. I really like the Olympus Service because you can actually call and talk with a real Tech. Olympus is an optical company and Sony is an Entertainment Corporation. I predict you will dump the Sony stuff and stick with the micro 4/3rds... Sigma, Tamron and Lensbaby already are building lenses for the system.

Vu Le, DDS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bold Photography said...

It's BECAUSE there are so many great choices out there that I'm NOT stressing out about it... rather ironically. It's almost like going to a carnival and knowing that no matter how you throw the ball, you'll walk away with a large bear for the better half...

Vu Le, DDS said...

While it's true that camera equipment produces business revenue over multiple years, it doesn't always make tax sense to depreciate it over time. My accountant (dad) has told me to write off purchases below $1000 all at once. The main benefit for deprecating an item over 7 years is to spread the deduction over 5-7 years. During your starting days, you will have very little income to deduct against. So when you open your office/studio, depreciation allows you to take that big bolus of gear, and slow release the deductions. Otherwise, you could have $100,000 deductions against $10k of income...a $90,000 waste of deductions. By depreciating it, you ideally write off amounts smaller than your income. You're basically banking the deductions for later years. This is invaluable during a slow economy.

Conversely, if you have a great year, DON'T spread that lavish Leica over 5 years; take the deduction all at once if you can. Read up on Schedule 179 and see if it applies to you. (it does for dentists like me)

The other common misconception is to mistake a tax-deductible purchase with "free." Tax DEDUCTIONS decrease your taxable INCOME. If you wrote off a $1,000 camera in a year that you made $50k, you would be taxed on $49k. So instead of paying $12,500, you might pay $12,250 in taxes--a savings of $250 for your $1000 camera. (yes, I'm oversimplifying the math) The reality for most working photographers is that an immediate "write off" is really just a 25-35% discount. Better than nothing, but nowhere close to free.

Taxes make a poor rationalization for camera purchases. Let's just admit new stuff makes us feel good, and enhances our aspirations to be better at our craft...often in intangible ways.

Standard disclaimer: consult your financial professional before acting on this marginal financial advice.

kirk tuck said...

Vu, I'll let my accountant grapple with the fine points. He's more focused on those number than I am. I do know that in stellar years we can tax accelerated cost recovery or deductions on up to something like $125,000 on equipment expenses. We've done that before and it seems to work well. The problem is always offsetting gains and non-earned income and trying to deal with AMT.

I'd rather shoot and write.

Wally Brooks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dmitry Krasitsky said...

Thank you. Can you shoot A57 in studio with EVF?

ch said...

Hi Kirk,

I'm quite surprised you haven't used pentax gear (or maybe you have?). I found (just recently) pentax gear actually fulfills a lot of my requirements. The pentax bodies and lenses are small, well built; k-5 has great sensor and in-body stabilization, above all, you can barely hear the silent shutter of k-5. Looks to me like a great e-m5 replacement

kirk tuck said...

Without any problems whatsoever. You switch from "Setting Effect On" to "Setting Effect Off" and the finder give you a bright image to focus on in the EVF. Works charmingly well. That's the formula for using with studio flash. If you evolve to the next plane of photographic existence and start working with LED's you can leave the Setting Effect On and get what you see.

Mark Hespenheide said...

Kirk,

I'm late in reading this article, but I need to make a recommendation to you -- see if you can find a good-quality lightly-used sample of the Minolta 70-200 f/2.8 zoom. I shoot with the a850, I'm a landscape guy rather than a people/portrait photographer, and yet the results out of this lens are wonderful. There's a tonality and delicacy of colors that's remarkable. I'm not even talking about the sharpness or speed, but something else that won't show up in test results. If I compare it to my former Canon L glass, if I point both of them at colorful subjects, the Canon can "block up" so that all of the blues look similar to each other. The Minolta shows extraordinary "color contrast" if that term exists. The Minolta makes me want to shoot events in low light, even though that's almost diametrically opposite my normal style...