Jana. In the city.  Dead of Summer.

It's pretty rare for me to shoot stuff in full sun.  But sometimes you've got to try new stuff just to see what your camera will do.  This image started life as a file from a Canon 5Dmk2 camera and an 85mm 1.8 lens.  I shot it in the raw format and I tried to see just how much detail I could capture in the highlight areas on Jana's forehead and nose.  The real trick is to keep the highlight detail without plunging everything else in to the abyss of blocky shadows.  Some of it is careful metering but a lot of it is the wonderful dynamic range in some of the cameras we've had the pleasure to have owned.  The Canon 5Dmk2 was one of the those cameras.

But lately I've had equal success with the Sony a77.  It's all in how you use the cameras.  And how much you know about their personalities.  And to really know the personality of your camera you have to take it out on a series of "dates" and play with all the buttons.

I've shot the Sony a77 at ISO 3200 in the theatre and found it a bit noisy for my taste when I blow up the files.  But I've also shot a number of studio and full sunlight projects with the camera at ISO 50 and it's amazingly good there. In fact, it's exciting at ISO 50.  Why? Because the dynamic range is something to write home about.  How did I know it would happen like that? Because I took the camera out and shot people in the full sun and tested it.

I'd never met Jana before but I wanted to have a real person to shoot so I looked around on a model site, got in touch with her and arranged to meet her and one of her friends at a downtown coffee shop.  We spent a couple hours walking around downtown talking, shooting film and getting to know each other's aesthetic tastes.  After that we shot together again for one of my book projects.  

I've found that shooting test charts and boring set ups in studios is a flawed way to really understand a camera's potential. You have to shoot what you'd normally want to shoot with the camera to really understand it.  

All cameras are flawed in one way or another.  The denizens of the web forums would have you believe that some cameras are holy because of their high ISO performances alone.  Others are fixated with mega-loads of mega-pixels. I'm partial to the way cameras feel in my hands and how they operate.  But I guess the real point is that only you can assess whether the amalgam of parts and design and science that make up a particular camera connect with you.

If you read enough on the web you'll either ultimately be wildly confused or you'll end up chosing a consensus camera and never even touching or considering the camera that might be the "Goldilocks" camera for you.  Not too big, not too small, not to loud, not too ugly.  Just right.

I've just about finished testing every single parameter of the Sony a77 camera and next week I'm going to do the exercise of writing a full on review of the camera and a couple of my favorite lenses.  It's a flawed camera.  But no more so, in my estimation, than the Canon 5D mk2, the Nikon D700 and any number of other cameras I've worked with.

In a nutshell there are three reasons I still like the Sony a77 and haven't traded my two copies away for whatever the camera of the moment is:  1.  The camera has a very wide dynamic range, is very noise free and has wonderful tonality at ISO 50.  And, according to DXO's measurements it really is 50.  Not an electronically pulled 100.  2.  Once you've mastered using a good EVF on your camera for stills and especially for video you will never want to go backwards, even if the camera has some quirks.  And 3. I've come to respect and use some of the weirdo features I never, ever thought I'd touch.  I like the Multi-Frame noise reduction setting.  I humbly admit I like the built-in HDR capabilities (but I try hard to make the effects invisible).  I like the built-in electronic +1.4 and +2.0 teleconverter button.  That means I can keep the 50mm 1.8 or 1.4 on the front and push a button to get closer for a tight portrait.

The bottom line is that my a77 is more fun than previous cameras I've owned.  And the wonderful 50 ISO helps me work wider with studio flash and helps me get images with a look that's fairly unique among inexpensive DSLR's.  What I get is limited depth of field with high sharpness, wider dynamic range and incredible detail.  And for most of what I shoot that always trumps being able to shoot sports by candlelight.  In fact, with the exception of set up sports shots for advertising and the kid's swim team in full Texas sun, I never shoot sports and don't understand why that and BIF ( which stands for "birds in flight" and is another aspect of photography I have absolutely no interest in) capabilities in a camera seem to make so much difference to the other hundreds of thousands of camera buyers who also don't shoot those things.  If you do you might want a different camera....

But to be honest my perspective was built up over years and years of shooting and making money with big medium format cameras on tripods with slow, sharp, grainless film.  After showing a portfolio to people who potentially will pay for my work I've confirmed that real art directors still value the same things they valued in the film days.  To paraphrase:  They want their images sharp and technically perfect.  They know how to degrade them in post.  They can grunge up a beautiful shot but it's ten times harder to take a grungy file and make it sharp again.

Will your camera do what you want it to do? The only way to really know is to test.  Don't trust my opinions or Thom Hogan's or DPReview's.  Trust your hands and your eyes and the output onto your screen or prints of images that you like to shoot.  That's all that counts.


Zac said...

I'm quite an amateur photographer and have only ever ran thousands of shots through two DSLRs, my personal Pentax IST-DS and a borrowed Canon Rebel T3i. My Pentax is going on 7 years old and there is a sharp drop off in noise free performance around 400-800ISO and I can't stand the handling on the 7 year more advanced Rebel. I made the mistake of playing with an A77 last week and have been researching everything possible about these cameras and how to fit any one of them (A57 up) into my budget. All this research leads to internet induced ISO paranoia. And then I come to your website and see all the wonderful photos and am reminded that indeed I do not shoot sports and I do not shoot BIF, tripods and flashes still exist, and why are we not all striving for the gorgeous rendering and dynamic range that can result from using the lowest ISO necessary to capture the shot?

Thanks for all you do on this website! I find a lot of your work and comments inspirational.

sixblockseast said...

My "Goldilocks" is a Samsung (or at least that's what I've rationalized to myself). It's the mirrorless NX10. In your own words: not too big, not too small, not to loud, not too ugly. Yes, high ISO performance is lacking, but that's not the most important thing. The Samsung cameras might not suit your purposes, Kirk, but I would love to see you review something besides the usual suspects. For example: the new Samsung NX20.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks. That made my day. Much appreciated.

kirk tuck said...

I wish my local dealer carried them. I think Samsung is a fascinating company. I'll put out some feelers.

Craig Yuill said...

Overall, the gist of your article is spot on. We all need to pick equipment that suits our needs. I am, however, one of those people who likes taking pictures of birds, so BIF capability is something I value. Over the years I shot with Olympus and then Nikon gear based on the fact that the cameras and lenses felt right in my hands. I often envied features found on cameras of other brands, but I kept shooting with the gear I had because I felt it suited me best. I also shot with medium and large format gear, and that has had an effect on the way I compose and use my equipment. I have recently been taking photos of my son riding his bike at a bicycle camp. I noticed that I have been using my kit zoom as a collection of primes. For example, I set the focal length to 50mm, then use it like a 50mm prime lens, stepping forward or backward to achieve the exact framing I want. No zooming to compose for me.

Keep reminding us to value what's really important in cameras. It'll help us avoid the pitfalls of featuritis and concentrate on using our gear to the fullest. Thanks.

Claire said...

Kirk, this portrait si gorgeous exactly where it is supposed to be : the tonal range. Lovely young woman, well composed, framed, deliciously blurred, etc, but the true pleasure of if comes from the subtle and soft roll-off of highlights, rich detailed shadows, and true, fleshy colors.
I loved this post. I love your posts in general. Your photographic thinking process seems to help mine. I've decided yesterday that I was mature enough in this hobby to ignore flavor of the month (E-M5) and do much better with what I have been shooting for a few months, than most people with the shining new OM. I've also had the (sweet !!) revelation, that indeed, I might have kept on searchng while my perfect (for the moment) tool was right there in my hands. Trying to put together a decent and relevant portfolio (thanks again, the process hit the spot, even if I gave up in the middle of it) I suddenly realize that I'd made more shots that I'm proud of with the GX-1 than with probably any other camera ?.. God knows photography is a long term process. It's always nice to feel one moving along the path. I'll be looking forward to reading your review, I do feel I'd have a hard time parting with real time feedback allowed by the Live View in our new cams.

Bold Photography said...

Amazon is selling 3 Samsung cameras - two micro 4/3rds and the NX20 bigger body one. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dsporting&field-keywords=Samsung+NX20

atmtx said...

Always a pleasure to see a wonderful portrait of Jana. Beautiful work.

Gregg Mack said...

Kirk, you are spot on, sir. Right now I am using both the Canon 5D Mk II and the Olympus OM-D E-M5. They both have their strenghts and their weaknesses. I have decided that I do not need, or want, the Canon 5D Mk III, because the improvements that is seems to offer over the Mk II (better autofocus, and higher ISO performance) do not matter to me for how I use that camera.

I've played with every darn menu setting in the E-M5, which has way too many options, but now I've settled in on my 4 basic variants, and have them saved as Presets within the menus. The Canon 5D Mk II now seems a bit clunky (in the menus), but is still makes a better photo than the E-M5, and I will still use it when image quality is the most important factor for the particular situation.

On the other hand, the autofocus and the image stabilization for the E-M5 clearly make that a much better "walk around" camera (for me).

Alex said...

I used to have Samsung NX10, chose it over Olympus EPL1 because of far superior ergonomics. Now I am shooting with the NX200 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alex_virt/sets/72157629520761340/) The new 20 MP sensor is a huge improvement. The image quality is excellent up to ISO 800 and usable up to 3200 if you shoot raw. Dynamic range is probably not as good as Sony A77's, but sharpness and detail at low ISO are absolutely fantastic with a proper lens, of course. So far I've got best results with the Samsung 30mm/F2 pancake and old medium format Mamiya lenses.

The main drawbacks of the camera are lack of an EVF and too long processing time. Both problems are solved with the new NX20 which also has a swivel screen and looks like a perfect camera for me. I am waiting impatiently for the price to drop a bit...

Tesch said...

You are spot on about the A77. I agree, it's not the perfect camera but it's limitations forces me to try new and different things to get the best photos out of it. This process helps me to create a look that is something I can call my own and pushes me in a direction that is different from the rest of the pack. No other camera has pushed me like the A77 and I really like that!