A first peek at my Sony a99. White Christmas?

I'll admit it right off the bat; I had the Sony a99 for three days before I really pulled it out of the box and played with it in earnest. I was too busy enjoying the heck out of the swell files I was getting from the new, little Nex 6. But I figured I'd spent the money on the bigger machine so I might as well de-box it and give it a go. I'm excited by the concept of the a99 but truthfully it looks so much like my a77's that it's hard to get worked up over the physical actuality of the camera. 

I always buy tons of extra batteries when I buy into a system and I'm happy that all three of my DSLT cameras from Sony use the same battery. I popped a fully charged battery into the a99 and when through the menus, preset the camera and immediately went off to shoot a job with it. (No, I did not go all in. I carried along an a77 and the Nex 6-------just in case).

Yesterday evening's job was to photograph the dress rehearsal of Irving Berlin's, White Christmas, at the new Topfer Theater at the Zachary Scott Theatre Complex. The bulk of the images I shot were done with the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G lens. It's big, fat, heavy and bulky. A real, all American lens aesthetic. But it's very sharp and handles well in spite of its bulk. I figured I bought the camera for its image quality and it's ability to shoot under low light conditions so I didn't mess around. I set the ISO to 3200, the noise reduction to low, and over the course of the evening shot around 979 big, fat, x.fine Jpegs.

If you think I write too much I'll just cut to the chase and tell you what I think. Look at the image above, shot all the way out at 200mm, handheld. Now look at the image just below which is an approximate 1:1 enlargement of the center guy in the frame. Now click on it so you can see it bigger in a separate window. And remember that it's been resized down and compressed for the web. That's really all I needed to know about the camera. It just works and works well.

100% Crop.

Since most of the AF points are closer to the center of the frame than in the a77 I changed some of the ways I work with the cameras. I chose to use the center grouping of focusing points and to use C-AF instead of S-AF. The camera focuses quickly in low light and nearly instantaneously in good light.

During the shoot I kept an a77 in the chair next to me with a 16-50mm 2.8 lens mounted on it and I would pick it up and shoot wide stage shots from time to time. When I compare files I was pleasantly surprise to see that the a77 was not that far behind the a99 in overall quality (of course I kept the a77 at ISO 800....). In fact, it made me re-appreciate the a77 because that camera handles very well, has the same fast focus and the EVF is also really good.

None of these files has been hit with post processing noise reduction and I included quite a few that transition to black or heavy shadow so that the compulsive among us can peer into the low end of the Zone System scale and look for outrageous noise. If you are looking at the green uniform in the image above please be aware that the weave of cloth material is a different thing from noise...

a77 image.

In sober retrospect I'm asking myself this morning if I really needed to go ahead and buy an a99. While the camera is fun and solid, and I'm liking the files so far, I was very happy with the work I had been doing with the a77 and feel as though I could have continued along with those cameras for some time. But there are a few things I'm looking forward to with the a99.  One of those is the look of a high speed 50mm image with the full frame camera. Another is working with an 85mm in its ultimate visual comfort zone.


Like everyone else I fall into the habits I've been developing.  I had the Sony a77 and a57 menus pretty well figured out so I didn't stray much (or have to re-learn much) with the a99 but since I haven't practiced with the potentially cool front silent control dial I didn't mess around with it while on the job. Having done some more experimenting over the last month with the electronic shutter curtain I found that shots done with relatively fast lenses, used wide open and at fast shutter speeds, could potentially show edge blurring in shots with high lighting contrast. Especially scenes with light against dark. And it's an effect that can be accentuated in theater phtotography with deeply saturated, colored lighting.

Very few of my shots have been affected but it did happen from time to time and the effect is different from either flare or potential mirror reflections. Last night I made a point of setting both cameras in the mechanical shutter mode and I was happy to see that every frame was free of any sort of shutter induced aberration.  If you use electronic first curtain in any of your cameras you might experiment to find situations in which that is a non-optimal setting.  Not every tool works for every job in the same way.

When I opened up the frames I shot with the a99/70-200mm combination I was happy to see that they were crisp, not blocked up in the highlights or the shadows (beyond what would be natural in dramatic theater lighting) and that they blew up very well. I tried to help the jpeg engine along by setting the creative mode to "standard" and setting a minus one for contrast. Most of my exposures were in the range of 1/160th to 1/250th which helped freeze action while the constant ISO 3200 allowed me to stop down the lens to a more optimum f4.5 to f5.6.  The 70-200 Sony G is as sharp wide open as any of the competitors but they all look better one or two stops down, if you have the leeway to get there.

The a99 camera felt natural in my hands. I've been using the a77 for almost a year and the feel of the cameras is pretty close, if not identical. The finder seems more neutral and less contrasty than the a77 finder and the only thing that's really different is the size and distribution of the green AF squares. I am hard pressed to tell the difference between the EVF and an OVF in most lighting situations. Just for fun I took an older Nikon F4 out of a drawer and compared the cameras in the studio. I much prefer the Sony finder. Your mileage may different. Just be sure it's not all emotional mileage before you start to argue about it.

Did the files knock me off my seat with their breathtaking quality?  Hey, it's just another camera. It did what it was supposed to do and it did it well. It's possibly that there are other cameras (Canon 1DX or Nikon D4 corrected a day later...) that have a bit better high ISO performance but not enough to justify the massive difference in price. I took a few shots of Belinda this morning at ISO 100 and in that instance I was very much impressed. As much as we (as a collective) like to use performance at high ISO's as a metric of overall quality I think that every improvement in technology in these machines also give us the ability not just to be flexible but to create files that are the BEST that files can be. That always means: using the native ISO of your shooting camera to get the lowest electronic noise, the highest dynamic range and the best color purity. But to do that right your basic technique has to be good.

Unlike some of the competitors Sony visibly rewards you for shooting at the camera's optimum settings. The flesh tones on the images of Belinda, taken with soft window light and accurately white balanced, are among the best I've ever seen from a digital camera and that includes D800s and several medium format digital cameras. I need to do a lot more controlled studio shooting with the camera but I'm close to declaring it the ultimate studio portrait camera----where tonality and color are concerned.

Love the indulgent poke at 1950's modern dance. Love the tones.

Be sure to click on this one because I absolutely love it. Can't believe how good the 70-200 2.8 G is at its longest extension.

The camera is far less cumbersome, in terms of size and weight, than it's direct competitors, the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5Dmk3. It's far smaller and lighter than the Canon 1 series or the Nikon D(single digit) series. The battery life is nothing to write home about. I shot 979 images during a two hour show with this camera and the battery read 23% remaining when I checked it at the end. That's okay but not quite in the territory of it's competitors.

Like most semi-pro and pro cameras these days it has two card slots, both for SD cards, and the interplay between slots is highly flexible. Raw on one, jpegs on the other.  Movies on one, stills on the other. And my favorite: Images on one and the same images backed up on the other. Good to have should you be in a shoot where you absolutely have to get the images to the client with no excuses.

So, my bottom line, after one two hour shooting session is: The camera is quite good, the files are outstanding, and, I want to shoot more with it. I have a studio shoot for an ad agency this afternoon and we'll be working differently that we di for the show last night. I'll be metering with a hand held meter and working in raw. I'll be shooting at medium apertures and at low ISOs. This the way to really test a camera or a camera system; by shooting real jobs in real life for real clients and then evaluating the results in comparison with the tools you were using yesterday.

And now the question you've all been waiting to have answered--------How was the show?

It was fun, nostalgic, spirited, musical, funny and in parts a feel good tear jerker. The stage craft was exemplary and the actors uniformly wonderful. I've gone, over the decades, from being a regular guy who likes movies where things blow up to a person who really enjoys live theater and musical theater. I blame Zachary Scott Theater for that. I'm not pushing the play too much because it's largely sold out right up until Christmas Day.  That's how good it is.  Grab a ticket if you are in town and you can get one. It's a great way to usher in Christmas and get your holiday spirit going.

Almost as much fun as buying a new camera...


Craig said...

The show looks fantastic. I love the set design, costumes, and lighting, and the actors look like they're having a good time. (Sometimes reading the VSL makes me want to move to Austin, but I know my wife would never stand for it.)

The A99 clearly served you very well. I never paid much attention to the older Sony DSLRs, but it looks like they've become quite competitive, and they are leading the way with their use of EVFs. For digital, I think an EVF is preferable. Over time, resolution will continue to increase, and latency (the delay between light hitting the sensor and an image appearing in the EVF) will continue to decrease, so those concerns will go away eventually. Even in the E-P2 I don't find them to be particularly bothersome most of the time.

Anonymous said...

In five or six years all truly professional cameras will use EVFs instead of OVFs for a number of reasons. Some good, some bad.

Marco Venturini-Autieri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marco Venturini-Autieri said...

I agree with you: the "Nikon F4" might have a bit better high-ASA performance ;-)

Peter B said...

"A first peek" might be more accurate.

Ken said...

The images look good. But I bet you return the camera and save the money to go towards whatever the A77 successor will be next year. Just for fun, since I know your feelings about this, you may want to check this out: http://vimeo.com/13081827

David Liang said...

I have to agree especially for photojournalists and sports photographers. The sheer amount and range of data the EVF can show, the customization of that data, and pre-chimp white balance/exposure verification really speeds up ones work flow.

I was shooting a rehearsal for Swan Lake a month back and because of the EVF, my eyes never left the finder to check anything and I caught some breath taking aerials and dramatic moments. No worry about focus, exposure, white balance, nothing. Was such a delight.

Bold Photography said...

That looks like more fun than the ballet we're going to...

Kirk Tuck said...

Gee, I think so too. ;-)

Kirk Tuck said...

Marco, I've looked everywhere for the ASA dial on my a99. No such luck. Only that pesky ISO thang. Dang.

Kirk Tuck said...

How embarrassing. Fixed now. Thanks for letting me know. KT

Frank Grygier said...

Sensors and image engines are getting to the point of diminishing return for dollars spent it would seem. Pick the camera system that speaks to your inner photographer voice as long as your credit card voice can't hear it. I think we should judge a camera's performance by it's native ISO and forget all this peaking of pixels in no light.

Marco Venturini-Autieri said...

Two things here. The first is that you mention the F4 (a camera I would like to try!) as if it were digital (high ISO performance); I found it a funny typo (perhaps, loaded with Delta 3200?).

The second thing is that, once upon a time, ASA was 100, 200, 400 and DIN was 21, 24, 27; then ISO came and put the two numbers together (ISO 100/21 or 200/24 etc.). But nowadays everybody uses ISO to really mean ASA. Because I am old (39) and grew up with film and I still use it, I like to say ASA 100.


Kirk Tuck said...

I think you missed the point of the original text which was just to compare the difference between a really nice (though older) optical viewfinder with the current electronic viewfinder. Being 57 and a photographer for way too long I still think ASA instead of ISO. I just say ISO so the kinder-digi don't make fun of me.

No film loaded in the F4, no memory card loaded in the a99.

DE Photography said...

Kirk you could whip us all photographically with one arm tied behind your back and your dominant eye plucked out (gawd forbid :) I swear you could make a pinhole camera look like it can take Bresson quality images!

Excellent examples as always.

neopavlik said...

I'm vicariously enjoying your use of the A99 and Sony. I remember emailing/posting comments a few years back wondering why you weren't trying out the A900/A850 that was out of my budget.

In the 99/77 vein I'm thinking that a D3200 and $ 1400 of lenses will give me a bigger boost than the D600 right now.

Anders C. Madsen said...

I believe that Marco is talking about this part:

"It's possibly that there are other cameras (Canon 1DX or Nikon F4) that have a bit better high ISO performance" - pesky typo... ;)

Marco Venturini-Autieri said...

Yeah, that part.
Oh. With all this advertising for this new camera, I'll have to buy one myself.
I mean... let me do a search for "Nikon F4" on eBay :-D

Kirk Tuck said...

It's easy to look good as a photographer when all the people around you (Zachary Scott Theatre) are amazing. It's a perfect "sunset" every day when you work with really talented professionals.

Kirk Tuck said...

Ah. So sorry. I missed that and I will go back and correct it. I really meant the D4. If I had promotional coffee cups I'd send one to you, Marco, for your perseverance and keen eye. Dammit, I wish I were perfect....