Going small and light at Esther's Follies. Two cameras, two lenses. Both APS-C Sonys.

Ellen Kelter. Esther's Follies. 

The fun photographic assignments for me are the ones we do for theaters. There is something really exhilarating about being around talented actors and the idea that they routinely work live; without a safety net. I am under no illusion that my photography has to hit the mark every single time I work with clients. Sometimes I try something outside my comfort zone and get bit. I know the times when the client and I can get away with experimenting. For something like last Friday's shoot at the theatrical temple of political satire, Esther's Follies, I knew that I could try shooting a live show, and some behind the scenes images, with a couple of Sony a6X00 cameras and, if things hadn't worked out I could come back and reshoot the live show the next day.

For the last few theatrical documentations  I've done at Zach Theatre I've used a combination of cameras. Usually the a6300 and the A7Rii. My choice of these two cameras comes from the fact that when I shoot dress rehearsals of plays at Zach Theatre I am usually working around an audience and I think the ability to select the silent shutter option is comfortable for everyone. I tend to shoot a lot with the smaller format camera because I get a bit of extra reach from my lenses and I'll end up post processing files that are less than half the size of the A7Rii's huge raw files. 

The theater space at Esther's Follies is much smaller and so I don't really need the reach of something like the 70-200mm lens. I knew I could sit about ten rows into the audience and get both tight and wide shots with the very flexible 18-105mm f4.0 G lens on the a6300. When shooting a show with a full, paying audience I don't get to move around from side to side to get various angles, and being stationary also limits the lens choices I make. Action moves very fast at Esther's Follies. Skits can be as short as a couple of minutes which makes a wide ranging zoom much preferable to prime lenses. 

I was asked to come early for the first Friday night show so I could see a loose rehearsal, get a feel for the blocking and then hang out with the cast and shoot some shots behind the scenes, behind the curtains. I've shot at Esther's Follies for many years but in the past we always brought along studio electronic flash units and shot set-up poses on the stage. The images were good but lacked the kind of energy and verisimilitude we can get if we shoot images under actual stage lighting, during a live performance with an audience. Those kinds of shot were my main goal for the evening. 

The theater is down on Sixth St. and this weekend the city of Austin played host to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, so we had an extra 100,000 people in town. I wasn't sure about parking downtown. I thought I might end up far from the theater so I came prepared. I selected the a6000 and the a6300 as my cameras. I paired the a6300 with the 18-105mm f4.0 and decided that camera and lens would be my primary stage shooting camera. I gambled that I'd be able to keep the ISO around 1600 and the shutter speed up near 1/160 - 1/250th in spite of the lens having a maximum aperture of f4.0. The main reason for selecting it over the a6000 for shooting the show was that I would be sitting right next to (and in front and behind) patrons and I wanted to make sure I was using a silent camera. I also wanted to take advantage of that lens's image stabilization since I planned on spending time shooting at the long end of the lens and having the electronic tripod could make a quality difference. 

The two cameras, two main lenses (I tossed in the 50mm f1.8 OSS just for fun --- unused) a sack of batteries, my phone and a "just in case" electronic flash all fit into my little Tenba photo backpack. A perfect traveling case for practicing minimal gear photography. 

I paired the a6000 with the Sigma 30mm f1.4 DN lens for all of my "back of house" images, including actors in their dressing rooms and various views from backstage. The 30mm Sigma has the same angle of view on an APS-C camera as a 50mm lens does on a full frame camera and that just happens to be my absolute angle of view to shoot reportage with. It's has an unforced, lifelike view and it's a real chameleon of a focal length. While it would be even better with image stabilization either in the camera or the lens I felt like my handholding technique would be good enough to make the combo work.

I set both cameras to shoot raw. On the backstage camera (a6000) I used AWB because there was a mix of low level lighting that ranged from the greenish tinge of compact florescent lights to the orange warmth of incandescent, as well as a few LED bulbs in a fixture here and there. I knew I'd be individually correcting most of the back stage files but that was fine since I didn't shoot an enormous number. In situations like this I prefer to shoot with the camera set to manual. I can set a handhold able shutter speed, use the lens close to wide open (I seemed to prefer shooting at f2.5) and using ISO to fine tune exposures. Having a live histogram and live view in an EVF made it easy to zero in on the best exposures (but not always the most objectively accurate exposures). 

The a6000 does not have a silent shutter feature but it didn't matter since the actors and crew were all well aware that I was in the house and shooting.  I was actually pleasantly surprised by the a6000. I hadn't picked it up recently and I didn't remember it being so small and light. It felt almost transparent in its weightlessness. Even though it is an older model it's very close to the a6300 in handling and even low light, single frame AF. The main benefits of the a6300 in this kind of shooting, besides the silent shutter, are mostly that the newer camera has more phase detection AF points and AF seems zipper. The camera's EVF also seems a bit better (10%) at tracking color and exposure --- at least getting pretty close to what I would eventually see on my monitor when I transferred the raw files into Lightroom. 

I found the raw files to be quite malleable and I was happy to find that the latest rev. of Lightroom has  a profile built in for correction of the Sigma 30mm. It works very well and makes that lens shine. 

The stars in the Tenba bag were the a6300 and the sometimes maligned 18-105mm f4.0. I was able to sit in the middle of an audience and shoot at 5 or so frames per second without any noise at all. I elected to set the viewing controls to activate only the EVF so there was no distraction from a bright, rear camera screen. The image stabilization in the lens is good and probably buys me between two and a half or three stops of handhold-ability. There are few things I don't like about the two cameras but neither has anything to do with the menus or the image quality. I'm not even fazed by battery life. No, the one thing that I don't like about either camera is that they are just about half an inch to an inch too small. Not in ever direction, only in their height. Even though I have medium to small size hands the camera is so short that my pinky finger and the adjacent finger have no purchase on the camera. Making the camera a bit taller would make all the difference in the world to many users; myself in the forefront.

I have crested 10,000 actuations on each camera. This gives one much practice in holding and operating the cameras. Since I am shooting (in rotation it seems) with six different Sony cameras I have come to grips with the general layout of the menus and the familiarity is finally giving me comfort and confidence that I will be able to quickly find what I need. But the 20,000 combined exposures have made me realize that this could have been the perfect camera with just three ergonomic changes. First, as I just stated, the camera needs to be taller. Judging from the images of the new a6500 it seems that Sony does not believe this. Having finally understood this short coming I am researching the availability of battery grips or add on grips for the cameras. That would quickly solve my main problem but might introduce a secondary issue given that both cameras load their memory cards from the bottom. A grip might interfere with access. The secondary workaround is, I guess, to start with bigger memory cards so they need to be changed less often...

The second handling issue is the EVF finder area. This needs to have more relief for one's eye and more standoff. I feel as though I need to press my eye right into the finder to block reflections and see the image properly. The image in the finder is great but the mechanics of viewing need to be finessed. I can't imagine any add-on could fix this so I'll live with it....grudgingly. 

The third aspect is minor but annoying. I want the control dial on the back of the camera to be more tactile and much more robust feeling. The touch aspect of the rotating dial with four "button" points is so light that it lacks the tactile feedback to give me confidence in the control. This is important to shooting satisfaction as this control dial sets shutter speeds when I have the camera in manual exposure. I wish it were even half as good as the top mounted aperture control.

Once the a6300 is set up with the most used settings in the function menu, and once you've practiced 10,000 shots with it, the camera becomes highly responsive and quick to use. The size, when coupled with a lens like the Sigma 30mm, is a wonderfully light touch for just walking around and, when used in a non-intense shooting regime everything is comfortable. I've been noticing the things that bother me more because I've been using the camera more for longer shoots where I may end up shooting 500 to 1,000 shots in a day. You learn a lot more about a camera when you have it in your hands and in front of your face for hours at a time.

While the image quality in fringe situations (lowest light) might not be exactly as good as the A7ii or A7Rii cameras it is very, very close and a really great tool for most kinds of photography. The silent shutter is also "physically silent" so you won't worry about "shutter shock"  when trying to handhold the camera at slower shutter speeds. You could do a good business for 95% of the work in the market with these two cameras and an assortment of really good lenses. The Sigma is highly recommended. Even wide open I think it is capable of superb results. With the automated geometric corrections in Lightroom or Photoshop it becomes nearly perfect --- or as perfect as a $350 has any hope to be. 

The 18-105mm f4.0 G lens is currently my favorite event and "quick work" lens. It covers such  good range for me that I am tickled every time I use it. From a wide establishing shot to a tight head shot in the flick of a zoom ring. While reviews point to less sharpness in the corners I haven't really found that to be the case in these higher resolution cameras. I think what early reviewers were seeing was the results of "stretched pixels" in lower res cameras when the camera auto corrected the pretty big inherent distortion of the lens at the extremes. If you have fewer pixels to distribute into the corners then sharpness suffers. If you have bountiful pixels then the effect is much reduced. For the kind of work I do, with the subject of interest largely positioned away from the corners, these shortcomings are something that just doesn't affect me. 

I shot a lot of frames at Esther's Follies on Friday and paid for my exuberance on Saturday as I tried to coax myself to edit down 2300 images (total between the two cameras) down to about 600. I finally gave up and just tossed out images with technical faults or blinks and bad expressions. I'll end up delivering around 1200-1500 images later today. They start life as raw file and eventually find their practical stride as minimally compressed, full size Jpegs. 

Of all the files I've processed this weekend I am happy to say that they hold together very well. As to dynamic range I have "rescued" a few darker images by pushing the exposure slider in Lightroom by up to three stops with very little destructive effect. The shadows become a little noisier but an application of a small bit of noise reduction cleans them right up without visible damage to the sharpness and detail. Altogether an impressive show for me from both cameras. And a workable system with back up for about $2,000. Interesting. I had not given these cameras the credit they deserve. I wrongly judged them by their size (at least subconsciously), and that was a big mistake. They play in the big leagues. 

Final note, the only real difference I experience between the a6000 and the a6300 is with the shutter and the lack of a silent option on the a6000. That, and a lower resolution in the EVF, are the only things that differentiate the two bodies for my use. The phase detection point increase is welcome but not critical. The a6000 was itself a very nice shooting tool. Now if I can just find a decent grip.....


Bassman said...

The RRS L plate solved exactly this problem for me with the E-M1. It doesn't interfere with the battery door on the bottom of the camera.

Butch said...

For rapid culling of long shoots, I'm using a free program that lets me display thumbnails on one monitor and full-size images on the other. Makes culling a breeze - quickly move frame to frame and hit delete. No Mac version, alas, but Adobe has some info on using a second monitor this way. https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom/help/displaying-library-second-monitor.html. Or perhaps it's old news to you.

Dave V said...

It's cool to read about how you can harness the power of smaller, lighter, and quiet in a challenging situation. One of the ironies of photo equipment is that folks who really NEED the full frame monsters married to the huge f2.8 zooms are local sports photographers and hockey/basketball parents. Your top flight venues tend to be well lit while the small community venues are often like caves.

Unknown said...

I must confess,my eyes have glazed over a few times recently while reading your praises for Sony cameras. The photographer makes photos, not the camera. Any photographer worth his/her salt, just wants a capable tool to do the work. There are DOZENS of great cameras out there. It takes time to learn the quirks and foibles of the tools. . . but capable they are. I know photographers that have great cameras and seldom use them. Where's that at?

Anonymous said...

Sony makes a leatherette "split-case" for the A6x00 where the lower half attaches to the tripod socket. Yup, its the kind grandpa used to have. But it makes the grip comfortably taller & fatter.

Dodge Baena said...

I'm so inspired by what you do that I have gotten in touch with our theatre here in Guelph (http://www.guelphlittletheatre.com/home) for volunteer opportunities in Stills and Video.
I really appreciate your blog (about the only bog I follow).