A different sort of anniversary. One that led to a camera discovery.

In the Darwinian theory of evolution the survivors are not the strongest but the most adaptable.
In the photo above are three lens adapters. The one on the left with the orange ring is a Sony LAEA-1 adapter. Next to it is a Fotodiox Sony Alpha to Sony Nex adapter and to the right
of that is an Olympus Pen F 60mm 1.5 lens with an inexpensive Olympus PenF to Nex adapter.

It's been well over a year since I walked into Precison Camera and Video here in Austin, Texas with a big cardboard box filled with Canon photographic equipment.  I put the box on the counter and asked the people behind the counter if I could trade it all in, or consign it. In a little less than an hour I walked out with enough Sony Alpha equipment to run the studio and the rest of my photography business. The lure, for me, had nothing to do with most of the features like, multi-frame noise reduction or twelve frames per second. What drove me to make the switch was how much I liked using electronic viewfinders when taking photographs; and especially when making videos.

Once you've really gotten your head around how well the EVFs work in helping you see what it is  you want to shoot you'll have a hard time every turning back. Just ask the legions of good photographers who picked up Olympus OMD's and never let go. The EVF drove everything in my switch from Canon to Sony. The image quality of the Canon 5D mk2 was great. The video was great. But after using the VF-2 EVFinder on the Olympus EP-3 cameras I found the whole, antiquated way of working with an optical viewfinder....primitive.  (let me here make one exception statement: If you shoot fast moving sports you'll be happier, right now, with an OVF camera. Fast frame rates and quickly moving objects are the current Achille's heel of most EVF systems. That will change....is changing...as I write).

I work pretty methodically. I set stuff up. I use tripods. I use auxiliary lighting. I shoot in single frame. I've never shot a bird in flight. You might live in a different reality. One of fast moving soccer stars and fidgeting finches. You'll have to judge your own situation.

I ended up with the classic professional's camera set up. Two bodies (a77s), a smaller and lighter back up body for those times when.....(a57) and a mess of lenses. The 16-50mm 2.8 and the 70-200mm 2.8 Sony's were the serious purchase but were quickly supplemented with all manner of specialty zooms and every day single focal length optics that are easier to carry and maybe more fun to use.

The big cameras are for work. These cameras are for fun and art and fun.

In all ways except the non-moving mirror and the viewfinder the Sony DSLT system emulates the Canon DSLR system. Big, bulky, competent and heavy. I learned the weak points and strong points of the new system and we were off to the races. Shooting the same kinds of corporate assignments in pretty much the same way. But once I saw what you could resolve with a really good sensor and once you took a look "through" (at?) a really good EVF and saw how sharp and detailed it can be, I started looking around for a similar replacement for my collection of 12 megapixel Olympus Pen cameras.  A collection that was beginning to show its age....( this was before the introduction of the OMD. Things might have been different if that camera had been on the market when I went shopping...).

I played with a Sony Nex 7 and on the first three trials I was baffled and stumped by the menu on that camera. But I went back and read everything I could about the camera. Afterall, it used the same EVF I liked so much in the a77 and the same incredibly detailed, wide, wide, wide dynamic range sensor as well. And one of the most attractive aspects of the Nex7 is the ability to use scores of third party lenses from across the decades. Once I understood the menu (does anyone really understand Nex menus????) I bit on the little system.

I don't have too many Nex system lenses for the cameras. I'm happier than most people with the performance of the 18-55mm kit lens because it really is sharp in the center all the time. It's only the edges that get goofy and I don't really care about the edges when I'm trying to make art. I now have two of the kit zooms. Not because I think it's that good but because I just found a (barely)  used Nex 7 kit w/lens for a whopping $700.  I always wanted a second body, the lens just came along for the ride.

The most fun and virtuous lens I have for the little system is the 50mm 1.8 Sony. It's bright and sharp and its IS is very, very good. I like that I can see the effects of the IS in the viewfinder...
I bought both of the little Sigma lenses as well. I used both the 19mm and the 30mm on my recent assignment at the cardiology practice and, with the profiles included in Lightroom 4.4, I found there performance very, very good. Sharp, crisp and without any personality flaws.

Ahhh. The Pen F 60mm 1.5 lens with adapter. Like Swiss Chocolate.

But one of the real lures of the mirrorless systems isn't necessarily the branded lenses but the fact that the cameras have a shorter mount to sensor distance which allows the adaptation of just about any lens with a longer focus throw. The Nex cameras (and the Olympus and Panasonics) can be used with Nikon, Canon, Leica M and Leica R, Olympus Pen F and many other "legacy" lenses. Couple the outstanding performance and low price of some of these orphaned lenses with what DP Review called the best APS-C sensor in the business (Nex 7) and you've got a hell of an imaging system.

I'm partial to the Pen F lenses for two reasons: First, they were designed to be used with smaller (half frame) areas of film so they were optimized to be much sharper and of higher resolution that lenses made to cover full frame. This means that, even now, forty years later, the lenses are very good performers. While the coatings are not state of the art the only real effect is on contrast and that's easy to compensate for in post processing. The second reason I'm partial is that I have a drawer full of them. I've been collecting them for no real reason since the beginning of the 1980's when most were available for double digit dollars. Not the prices they command now.

I have an inventory of PenF lenses that covers 20mm to 150mm, but most significantly the ones in the middle focal length ranges are fast. Even by today's standards. My favorites are the 38mm 1:1.8, the 40mm 1:1.4, the 42mm 1:1.2, the 60mm 1:1.5 and the 70mm f1:2.  All are good performers wide open and great performers when stopped down two stops.

I'm not focused on having every focal length covered on the Nex cameras as I would be on my "professional work system." I find myself most comfortable with the classic focal lengths. I'm happy from 18-80 or so. But the nice thing about an ultimately flexible system is that when I want to press the Nex into wide angle service I need only grab one of the Alpha to Nex adapters and my 10mm to 20mm zoom and I'm there. If I need fast and long I can slide the Rokinon 85mm 1.5 Cine lens on the front and go to town. With the LAEA1 adapter all of the Sony lenses will work in all of the exposure and metering modes. 

But the thing that makes this lens flexibility ultimately usable is the inclusion, in the cameras, of focus peaking. It's a technology that comes from professional video. With manual focus lenses the camera can be set to show colored outlines at the points of accurate focus. It's far, far faster and more accurate than trying to focus with the discrimination of your eye. An added advantage that EVF cameras have over even the most expensive DSLRs is the ability to look through the finder and push a magnification button twice to focus at 10X. Without having to stop, put the camera into live view mode and use a rear screen....which could be vexing in full sun or other non-optimal conditions. 

Focus peaking makes all manual lenses easy. And it works. It works best wide open but it does work even when stopped down. And as you turn the focusing ring of your manual focus lens you see the focus peaking indications "roll" through your scene. It's wonderfully symbolic and a great way to learn about focus zones.

Here's the camera that started me down the Nex path.

No camera can "do it all." But the Nex 7 comes close. If I were more of a risk taker I'd probably have jettisoned the Alpha gear a few months ago and relied exclusively on the Nex 7 and a good assortment of lenses to do my work. But there are still a few attributes of the DSLT cameras that make work easier, and then there's that whole client expectation factor to think about. Just as they like to see doctors with stethoscopes around their necks they want to see big black, jelly bean cameras with large lenses on their "pro" photographers. Who can blame them? We inadvertently trained them to precondition their selections that way.

With adapters the Nex 7 does almost everything well. The few weak points keep me in a larger system. One is the contrast detection AF. Yes, the bigger cameras with full time phase detection are much faster to lock in. I'll confess that I do like the look of the full frame cameras (a99) for times when I want to effortlessly drop out backgrounds. I like that my big camera has a headphone jack and manual audio controls for monitoring and adjusting video sound. It also goes longer on a battery.
But for my aspirational photo job, walking around Paris and Tokyo and Buenos Aires and Rome, casually making art, ala Henri Cartier Bresson and Elliot Erwitt....could there be a better system?

I find the Nex cameras to be ultra competent photographic tools in tiny, wonderfully ergonomic packages. Much more powerful picture takers than any of us had even a few years ago at any price. The size, weight and price of the cameras and my most used lenses means I can carry two bodies at a time with my two favorite focal lengths (the 30mm since it's close to my beloved "normal" and the 50mm 1.8 because it's just about the right lens and speed for portraits) and move back and forth between the focal lengths without having to change lenses or to even carry a bag.

If I practice good technique I can blow up the files to enormous sizes and see maximum detail.
How about three really capable bodies and three really good lenses for about the price most people are paying for one full frame DSLR and a much slower zoom? Seems like a deal to me.

One more generation of improvements in battery life and lens selection and Sony will have effectively eradicated the need for a traditional mirrored camera system, and all the attendant bulk and weight. One more generation of improvements in on chip phase detection AF technology and our little cameras will focus as quickly as anything out there.

No one ever said that good images could only be done on full frame cameras, or with expensive tools. When I'm really interested in exploring the world and people around me I want to go in with unobtrusive cameras and blend in. The age of the voyeur photographer who stands outside the group, looking in with a long, sinister lens, is over. The power is transitioning to tools that become both second nature and also wonderfully flexible.

I credit the Sony Alpha cameras for bringing the Sonys, in general, to my attention. But I thank the Sony Nex's for making my photography easier, more fun and less stressful. 


Bill Beebe said...

But I thank the Sony Nex's for making my photography easier, more fun and less stressful.

Pretty much the same way I feel about the Olympus Pens I have lying about.

Craig said...

Thanks, Kirk. This is good food for thought.

One question I have about the Sonys, both the SLTs and the NEXs, is how well do they deal with sensor dust? Do you find that the non-moving mirror in the SLT cameras leads to less dust on the sensor? Do the cameras' sensor cleaning mechanisms work well? I know Olympus was the first to have automatic dust removal in a digital camera and their system is well-regarded, but I still find that dust invades my E-P2 more often than I like. Turning the camera off and on a few times usually makes it go away, but it's still annoying and often not easy to edit out of a picture after the fact.

Anonymous said...

I like the way you divide things between work and fun. It makes sense. The cameras might need to be different.

michael Regnier said...

I love my Nex 7, just wish there was a way to shoot tethered to the computer.

Eli Burakian said...

Great essay. I have yet to make the jump to the NEX system, but being able to use my Alpha lenses on the mirrorless system means I don't have to get another whole set of lenses.

I really appreciate how you took the time to explain your reasoning.