Sony a99 notes from the bleeding edge...

Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics. On stage at Dell World 2012

I love big, action packed, corporate showcases and no one does it better than Dell, Inc. I have been photographing the action at Dell for over 20 years and there's always something exciting going on. It was no different this year at their Dell World 2012 Conference. They brought together nearly 7,000 employees, vendors, partners, and customers for three days of concentrated concentration about what lies ahead for the world of IT. And I was the there to capture the high points of the conference with a bag full of Sony.

I didn't have a pedometer on my belt but I'll estimate that I walked at least 10 miles each day with a fully loaded, black canvas, Domke camera bag hanging over my shoulder. By the time I dropped into my office chair yesterday evening I was whipped. Bone tired. But kind of elated. The show was so much fun for a photographer.

What I'm going to write about today is how the gear worked out for me. While I'd broken in my new Sony a99 at a long dress rehearsal shoot for White Christmas at Zachary Scott Theatre the week before, and I'd taken the camera out for a few walks, this was really kind of an under pressure test of the whole system.  And any time you shoot a bunch of short deadline, available light under wildly varying circumstances, with world class celebrities who don't have time for "do overs" you really get to know what you like and what you don't like about your gear....quickly.

I used the a99 for most of my shooting. I brought along an a77 but about 80% of all images came from the a99.  Tuesday evening was my first test of flash with the a99. This has always been a weak point for the a77 and is one of the key reasons I went ahead and upgraded to the full frame body. I wanted more predictable/reliable flash performance.  I bought the new, HVLF 60 flash. It's big and hefty but it mates perfectly with the a99, provides weatherproofing in conjunction with that body and has a wonderful GUI on the rear screen. No mystique function numbers as in the HVL 58, just straightforward words that mostly make good sense. The flash is also equipped with LED lights and they can be turned up or down, seamlessly, with the center control on the back of the camera. Seemed gimmicky till I used it to shoot some quick video on a dark loading dock and then I got the whole hybrid concept and the fact that not only did Sony make a nice hybrid still/video camera but also a hybrid light source to go with it...

I shot a bunch of candid stuff at the Austin City Limits venue where Dell was hosting an opening reception for the attendees of the show. The flash had its first real test when I went backstage before the main show to photograph the lead band, Camp Freddy, with groups of VIPs. The flash was.....perfect. Bouncing off a concrete ceiling with the white (supplied) diffusion cap in place the camera and flash provided perfect white balance, a very even spread of light and enough power to give me fast recycle (while bouncing off a high, non-white ceiling) to get f8 at ISO 200.  Good performance in my book. With fifty shots in about five minutes I had no issues with overheat, misfires or bad exposures. The camera was set to M and the shutter speed locked in at 1/125th of a second.  I tried to buy the flash locally but it wasn't in stock yet. I had to order it quickly from Amazon and they had it to me overnight. I won't say it's the best $600 (including shipping) that I've ever spent but it's a damn good flash and easily on par with the Nikon flashes I've used. 

(Technical note: When you use the dedicated flash the camera switches from Setting Effect On to Setting Effect Off. This gives you a bright image in the finder all the time. If you want to see the real effect of the ambient light you'll need to toggle the flash off and the camera will go back to showing you what the scen will look like with your settings).

If you do hybrid imaging the LED light is pretty workable. It's got a good color balance and comes with a fitted filter for conversion to daylight. Nice. The flash feels sturdy and the menus are the easiest to navigate that I've seen on any speed light. Much more transparent than using a Canon flash. No one will require a Syl Arena book on the Sony to be able to use it quickly.

On to the camera. First caveat: Do not buy this camera if you mostly shoot fast moving sports. While I am a huge, huge fan of EVFs (and this is the best one on the market) the frame to frame response of the camera is too slow for fast moving tracking. I turned off the preview altogether and when I set the frame rate at 5 or 6 fps the finder image has just enough delay to make it a bit disconcerting. I would love to say otherwise but that's the truth. I would not want to use this camera to follow my kid whipping by in a cross country race.  While the focus locked on tight like a badger it's the finder image that makes the viewing process more difficult than shooting with an OVF. That's it. That's the only stumbling block I came across in my use of the camera this week.

A caution: If you shoot corporate events  you will probably be shooting, randomly and somewhat intermittently, for the better part of 12 hours a day. And you'll shoot lots of different subject matter; from decor to signage to people networking to people taking training in small dim rooms. But the thing that requires the most frames is capturing a great shot of speakers. You need to anticipate the action but you'll still want to hedge your bets by shooting a lot. And if you do that you'll want to bring at least one extra battery with you each day. I'd generally get to around 2:30 or 3:00 pm and look down at my battery meter only to see that we were dropping under 20% remaining. That's when I normally switch out batteries. This camera is a battery hog, even compared to the a77. It's the constant live view. There's always current running through the sensor and current running to one of the two viewing screens. And you can't judge by frame count. The real metric is how many minutes of fun time. I have three Sony SLT cameras and six batteries. When I packed for the show I packed two bodies and all six batteries.

The camera is smaller and lighter than its counterparts from Nikon and Canon but the image quality is highly competitive. I used to drop the contrast in the styles menu when shooting jpegs at stage shows and in big, top lighted venues but not with this camera. It's very high dynamic range is apparent even in the jpeg files it produces. At any ISO up to 3200 the balance of shadow and highlight performance is excellent. By that I mean that the highlights resist blowing out while the shadows resist blocking up or exhibiting noise. 

It feels perfect in my hands and in the space of the last two weeks the camera and my brain have colluded so that I can hit all the major buttons and controls without looking; almost without thinking about them. There's one control that I initially thought to be a little silly but now I love and use all the time. It's the dial on the front of the camera which can be configured to do many different things. And it's not click stopped so it's silent in the video modes.

In the still mode it can, with the push of its center button, bring up the focusing menu, the drive menu and a few others. Holding the button lets you toggle through the different configurations. I leave it set for one thing: Exposure Compensation. Since you control the dial with your left hand your right hand never has to leave the shutter button to make changes to exposure. With the EVF and the camera up to your eye you can go straight into the control dial and make minute corrections to the overall exposure while you watch the effect on the screen. Amazing. Incredible control when compared to traditional cameras and more so because it's all in real time.

So, I would be tightly focused on a speaker on stage and I'd notice that he might have walked into a slightly brighter pool of light. The EVF cues me, by showing me exactly what will be recorded, that the light has changed and I correct exposure on the fly without having to move my right index finger from the shutter button. I wish every camera I owned had this one control. It's hard to describe in words on a blog just how big an evolutionary handling step this is.  In the days of old our only cue for light changes was to keep one part of our conscious mind riveted on the meter read out and that might require going to spot metering and having to reframe over and over again for confirmation. Not anymore. Your under exposure or over exposure is immediately and accurately apparent in the finder.

What this really means is that your hit rate is much higher which in turn means less post production fewer images upon which to do post production.  If you have the 2 second review set for the finder you can review each image you shoot. See the one with the perfect expression and you can stop shooting that person and go on to the next thing on your check list. With an OVF camera you'll have to stop and chimp through the images (missing the ones in the present) in order to confirm that you did indeed get something workable. It's night and day for an event shooter.

The other control that I pooh-poohed when I first put my greedy paws on the camera is the Smart Teleconverter.  This is a button that gives you a 1.4X and a 2.0X magnification of the image in the finder. When you push the shutter button you get that frame. And its magnification. But the camera drops the pixel count down to 10 Megapixels.  I studiously ignored this and thought of it as a gimmick until I realized that 10 megapixels was more than enough for stage shots and.....getting this sizing baked into the Jpegs meant I'd have to touch fewer files to go in and crop, which would probably get me down to the same 10 megapixels.

Well...I was photographing Stephen Dubner from as close as I could get to him and I still couldn't get as tight a shot as I wanted. So I bit my ego and pushed the button. The framing got tighter and Stephen got bigger. Another push of the button and we got the image you see at top which is the equivalent of a 400mm lens shooting at f3.5.  Glad I don't have to carry one of those around in the bag. What makes this magic possible?  The EVF, of course. Can't do this kind of magic with the optical finders.  You could do it in live view but good luck focusing with contrast detection AF at this extreme focal length. And good luck handholding a 400mm steady with the "dirty baby diaper hold."

What features does the Sony lack that I wish it had?  Hmmmm. One this I miss that Canon and Kodak implemented well was variable sizes for raw files. When shooting events I think that a 24 megapixel raw files (somewhere north of 30 megabytes per file) is a real show stopper.  Especially when it comes to post production. While SD cards are incredibly cheap now and just about anyone can afford a pocketful, the backend is where everything goes to hell. 
One this show I hired a second photographer to cover things I couldn't since many of my assignments within the show were to provide imaging services in conjunction with VIPs and top execs.  I would be totally at the mercy of their schedules and never vice versa. Even so, over the course of three days I generated about 1500 images, all of which would have to be corrected in some form or another and then converted to Jpegs for deliver and then both the RAW files and Jpegs would have to be stored. When I added up the amount of space the RAW files would take up and the time required to work with them I made the decision to do a better job in camera and shoot Jpegs instead.

If I had been able to shoot compressed, 12 megapixel RAW files instead I probably would have considered that. At least for shots with high profile people. But early on my second photographer and I opted to go with Jpegs at the extra fine setting. For a lot of documentation we dropped to "half power" but when a Michael Dell, Bill Clinton or Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park) was in the frame we bumped back up to full size, just in case.

What else about the camera? I have mixed feelings now about the differences between the a77 (24 megapixel cropped frame) and the a99.  The a99 is a slower camera. You can't argue with its class leading image quality but most cameras are really, really good performers today and there's a lot of "touch and use" issues that make one either happy to use a camera or indifferent... or even resistant to using the camera.  It may be that I'm just more used to the a77 but it seems to operate more quickly and decisively. The frame rate is much faster and the finder image more nimble when the review is switched off. In many situations I like shooting with digital APS-C lenses and I'm used to those focal lengths and the way they render images.

But then I look into the finder and I can see that Sony has tweaked the EVF. It's a generation better than the EVFs in the a77 and the Nex7 even if there is no change in specs. The finder image seems much more color neutral and much less contrasty. Not that the finder image if of low contrast, rather Sony have changed the tonal response to help prevent blocked up shadows and clipped highlights that don't appear the same in the final files. The EVF is almost exactly like looking at an optical finder under nearly all lighting conditions.

What do I want, lens-wise, for the a99?  I am perfectly happy with the 70-200mm so those focal lengths are off the table. But I'm not happy with the performance of the Sony 50mm 1.4 on the Sony at critical aperture points (2, 2.5, 2.8 and 3.5). The communication between the 50 and the camera seems off, somehow. Many of my exposures ending up being too bright and too blue-ish compared to the rest of the lenses I used. It could be that I just need more experience with the combination but time will tell. I may look at the Sigma 50mm 1.4 or I may just practice more and see if I can get a handle on what's going on in the 50mm's brain....

I'm happy with the Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 for the Sony. It looks sharp and crisp almost anywhere in the focal length range and, while there is a hefty amount of barrel distortion at the wide end it's a simple distortion instead of a complex multi mustache type and very easy to correction in Len Correction in either PhotoShop or Lightroom.

I do want to find the right ultra-wide angle for this camera. I'll look at the 16-35mm lens for the system but at nearly $2000 I think I'll wait till after the holidays. I don't have a pressing need at the moment...

The best combination of the week was the a99 body with the 28-75mm lens. They are both lighter than their competitors and a bit smaller. Both are major plusses for those times when you have to spend lots of quality time with your cameras. The combination rarely left my body for 12 hours a day. Even at lunch and dinner. You want to get to know your camera well? Nothing beats a total immersion. Nothing. No workshop, no DVD, no series of YouTube videos. Just pick the damn thing up and use the hell out of it from breakfast until you brush your teeth to go to bed. 

My biggest compliment to the a99? It never let me down.  Not on a single frame. Not in any setting. Not even with a brand new flash. It is, hands down, the best digital camera I have ever shot with for work.  That said, I think I'll give my back and my arms a rest and spend some quality time with my slinky, little Nex 6.  Delightful in so many ways....

Stay tuned. Tomorrow I think I'll write about my experiences photographing former president, Bill Clinton, and 60 very nice people. One at a time... 

It was a wonderful corporate show and Dell is to be congratulated and pulling off a perfect three days of knowledge sharing, paradigm shifting and fun. Thanks to all, included my other photographer, Matt Lankes.


Chad Thompson said...

Well, in spring of 2013 you'll have a 50mm f/1.4 Planar Sony Zeiss lens to try on the a99. That'll be nice.

Kirk Tuck said...

Guess I'd better try one. I'll wait around with the current lens for a while. Maybe my technique will improve. Thanks for the heads up.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

For me it would be the one Chad recommends, plus the 85/1.4 from the same family. As photozone wrote: "Are you listening Canon and Nikon? Welcome the new owner of the 85mm f/1.4 class - the Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZA."

Yes I know you're happy with the cheaper Sony one, but this one - hmmm... it's the only small system with autofocus Zeiss glass, isn't it? Should almost have Contax quality ;-)

Kirk Tuck said...

Love high speed 85mm lenses. Hate paying for them once you realize you mostly use them at f2.8 to 5.6. And I really hate carrying them around in the bag. Contax had, at one time, an 85mm 2.8 Zeiss optic. That would be darling.

AlexG said...

Have you thought of the Sigma ultra wides the 12-24 and the 15-30? Are there any other third party options for an ultra wide zoom. I had the Sigma 15-30 on a 5d it was ok-good as I recall, just I did not like the camera as much as I would have hoped.

Kirk Tuck said...

For the present I'll just pop the Sigma 10-20mm I bought last summer onto the a77 for high res wides and put it on the a99 for 10 megapixel wides. I'll take a look at what's available when that routine hits some boundary.

Karlen Mkrtchyan said...

Never experienced EVF. You made me want to try one ;)

Anonymous said...

Amazing story. I love reading about actual work. Not just seeing files of puppies and kitties and such.