More thoughts about the a99.

It's hard sometimes to write stuff for the web and to also show meaningful photographic examples. No matter how you upload stuff for mass consumption on the internet it will be crunched, compressed and artifacts will occur. So when I write about a camera and then show images from the camera it's frustrating. The qualities in the samples is never what I see on my office monitor.  In many ways the real litmus test for image quality is still the act of making large prints and looking at them under controlled conditions, but we can't really do that every day for thousands of readers. The best thing I can suggest is to read the words and also look at the images but-----if you are looking at the images on an old laptop or the screen of your phone you might just trust the words over the images that you see in front of you.

When I looked at the image, above, on my screen I was looking at Sony's extra fine, full size jpeg which (I can tell by the original file size) doesn't get radically compressed in camera. So I was seeing some good tonal range and a high degree of sharpness and detail. Having slain all dangerous business dragons in the early hours of 6 am to 10 am today I gave into temptation and profiled a version of the above for a print out at Costco, on glossy paper. The image was printed at 12 by 18 inches. When I picked up the print (and some batteries, and 50 rolls of toilet paper and a shrink-wrapped package of 12 jumbo sized cans of tuna...kidding...) I glanced at it under the store's florescent lights, thought they'd done a decent job staying on top of their paper profiles and drove home.

Once I got back to the studio I pulled the print back out, flicked on my big OTT light for print viewing, grabbed my most authentic pair of reading glasses and took a better look. Absent was any hint of noise or file grittiness. The detail was pretty amazing and the colors looked rich and believable. It was a totally different evaluation experience than the one I usually do out of laziness, which is to toss the file into an Apple computer and then pop the file up to 100% in Lightroom or Photoshop and looking at it on a 27 inch, calibrated monitor. No matter which files we're looking into at 100% there's always something we don't like about them.

In printed form the file from the a99 Jpeg was about as good as a print gets. How would I know? I've been making prints and ordering prints for large commercial clients and magazines for about a quarter of a century now. It gives me some perspective.

Today I used the a99 to do a holiday card image for a very creative advertising agency. I'd show you the image but it's top secret until it goes out in the mail. I used the a99 with the 85mm f2.8 at f 5.6 until we all (two creative directors and an art director) looked at a few test files together and all agreed that the lens was too good, the files too detailed and the look too clinical. I pulled a Minolta 24-85mm f3.5 to f4.5 (long since discontinued and forgotten) out of the bag and we shot with that instead. It had a different look; a bit less clinical, and the agency liked that. We banged out 125 shots against a white background and here's how we did out post processing:  I sat down at the art director's desk and downloaded the files into her MacBook Pro via the SD card slot. We put the jpeg files into a folder on her desktop.  Then she picked up her computer and everyone followed her into the agency's conference room where she hooked up her computer to the 50 inch HD TV and hit "slideshow" in Preview.

The images popped up onto the screen and we all laughed at the funniest ones and made the intern mark down the frame numbers. I packed up my few lights, the backdrop and the camera and left. That was the extent of my post production on the job. 

I did have the images on my SD card when I came back into the studio and I was curious what ISO 125 looked like so I put them into my computer and started blowing things up. And blowing them up.  And blowing them up. Now I can say a few things about the Sony a99's low ISO Jpegs.  1. Zero Noise. 2. Perfect color (thank you, custom white balance). 3. Some of the best files I've seen for technical goodness.

It's been a busy couple of days here and I'm doing a lot of pre-production for another spa shoot on Saturday and then a three day marathon for a giant computer company that starts next Tues. (warning, probably a very sparse time for blogs from the 11th to the 13th....) but I do have the whole day to myself tomorrow and I'm going to be doing the next critical camera test. I'm going to shoot and process some raw files and I'm going to break out the weird shoe to normal hot shoe adapter that comes with the a99 and see if it does a better job with  shoe mount electronic flash than the a77.

If the tests go well I will share them with you. If they go poorly I'll just sit on the floor and pout.

One of the challenges for any camera is radically mixed light. The kind I hate is sunlight on one side of a person's face and florescent or tungsten on the other. You can see in the image above that the people outside the spot light are lit mostly by coolish tungsten balanced light (approx. 3660K in this example) while the people seated at the table are in a pool of cool daylight (6200K, approx.).  Since the main action is the interplay between the lead actors at the table I quick set the color temperature for their position and let the chorus actors go blue. Very blue.  No camera in the world will make the color any more uniform since that's not the role of stage light. I do find it interesting that the color balance of a scene is intimately tied to the final exposure of a scene. Many times I'll correct for color and find a scene going much lighter or darker than it had been, either in camera or on the monitor.

The biggest example is in warming up an image that's too cold, light-wise. The exposure can change by up to a stop in some situations. I guess my point would be to color correct first, then set exposure, then fine tune the color balance a little bit more. I mention it here because I shot several frames in mixed light before I decided what I would emphasize and I watched again this morning as the exposure rocked around during color corrections. The Sony a99 will store three or four custom WB presets. The way to make theater photography easier is to come in early and have someone go through the major light cues while you set up custom white balances for the two or three predominant ones. If you know the lighting on the stages you normally shoot on you could keep those balances locked in.

An example might be daylight in preset one, 4400K in preset two and 3300K in preset three. With an a99 or a77 or OMD you'll be able to make the changes while keeping your eye on the viewfinder and you'll be able to pre-chimp the effect of each WB setting. Since the presets are all right next to each other in the menu you won't waste precious time scrolling through the menu.

My nemesis are the big optical spotlights that the theater is using as follow spots. They seem to have an almost cyan/green cast to them that doesn't seem to bother the lighting designer or anyone else in the theater but, when juxtaposed with the tungsten stage lights, they have a distinct color cast that drives me nuts. The correction in Lightroom is the addition of 24 pts of magenta and a bit higher than 5800K temperature correction. It's actually the one compelling reason I've come across to use raw files when shooting in the new theater. Let's me do tightly constrained color correction with the adjustment brush before I make the final conversions. 

Breaking in a new camera can be like learning to drive a new car. Everything is not where you expect it to be. But drive it to work everyday and you figure out all the important stuff pretty quickly. And really, most cars and cameras are more the same than they are different.

Final note. Battery life with a well used (but not too old) battery was much better than the battery life I experienced with the camera and it's brand new battery.

Thanks for reading. 

Be sure to order some books for Christmas.  Or get yourself one of those really nice a99's....


Unknown said...

Which metering mode did you use? Have they added the ability to tie the spot meter to the focal point? That's one of the features I actually miss the most from other cameras. I've actually shot a couple of shows now with the A77 on the multi-segment metering mode and have been amazed at how good it does at preserving the highlights.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Paul, I don't really pay attention to the meter. I use the image on the screen and the histogram to find a workable exposure and shoot in manual, adjusting as I go. The finders in the a77 and a99 are pretty accurate. I always seem to adjust up about 2/3rds of a stop to get a histogram that is correct. My real focus is keeping the shutter speed at a usable setting and then working around an aperture that's one stop from wide open. The light doesn't change to radically within a scene. Everyone does it differently.

Richard said...

I have a great fondness for theater photography and in your images, you always are at the top of the action with such luscious colors. They must be very pleased with the images. But I am also impressed by the quality of the staging of the actors, the set designs, the set painting, the wonderful costumes, and the exquisite lighting. This must be a very exciting theater company in Austin. Everything is so "top drawer" at this company.

Unknown said...

The first time I used the a77 to shoot a performance I was more than a little worried and took the whole nikon setup with me too. After about 15 minutes I went and looked at the images and was just flat out amazed. Just for the heck of it, I put it in multi-segment metering, set the f-stop and shot for another 10 minutes. The results were consistently just perfect exposure. I actually shot the rest of the night in that mode. I shoot raw so I've got a bit more latitude in the final exposure.

I also agree with Richard below, you should give the set and costume people a big hug too because they are doing a fantastic job.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Zach Scott Theatre staff and actors are totally committed, full time professionals. How good is the work being done there? The theatre was able to raise $22 million in private donations in the middle of the worst recession my generation has ever known because local people understand that OUR theater productions are a. Wonderful. b. Done at a level that would make national companies proud and c. The can feel the value that real art, done without compromise, puts back into our city and our lives.

When Tony Kushner saw Angels In America on our stage he was stunned and amazed at every little step and every detail.

I am so proud to work with these guys. Going into our 20th year of working together to get the message out.

"Art shows us what it is to be human." - I first heard this from actor, Martin Burke. I would add, "And it makes us joyous to be alive."

It's easy to make your photography look good when everything around you looks great.

Richard, thanks for bringing up this very important point.

Bill said...

What I want for Christmas this year: a photo of you sitting on the floor pouting.

Brad C said...

Interesting point on the color balance affecting exposure - makes sense. Puts some perspective on the idea of shooting autoWB in RAW and 'fixing' it after the fact. Not a huge deal for most applications, but I can think of some cases where this explains exposure difference for me.

Brook said...

I really enjoyed reading the part about the 24-85 lens. I just recently bought an a99 and the body max'd out my budget. I have that lens from my Minolta Maxxum7 and decided that would have to be my walk around lens. I read some reviews of it by some people who used it on their a900's and they thought it was ok. I am happy with it and am glad to know it didn't disappoint when you used it.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Actually Brook, it's pretty darn good at every focal length except the extremes and in those situations (24mm/85mm) it just needs to be stopped down one or two stops to perk right up. Not a bad lens at all.

Lee McCurtayne said...

Your commitment to a 30yr old $100 lens restores my faith in the quality of Minolta relics. When cameras yielded lower resolutions most lenses were just OK. But it is refreshing to find that the higher the resolution of a sensor reveals just how much that lens is truely capable of.
I have an A99 and use the 50mm f1.4, the 28mm f2 and the 35mm f2 all are a revelation. Ps all RS models. Thanks indeed.

Lee McCurtayne said...

Your commitment to a 30yr old $100 lens restores my faith in the quality of Minolta relics. When cameras yielded lower resolutions most lenses were just OK. But it is refreshing to find that the higher the resolution of a sensor reveals just how much that lens is truely capable of.
I have an A99 and use the 50mm f1.4, the 28mm f2 and the 35mm f2 all are a revelation. Ps all RS models. Thanks indeed.
The A99 really punctuates how many cheap great Minolta past catalog gems still offer great alternatives.