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....