An anecdotal story about "build quality." An often uttered "feature of cult-y cameras.

In response to recent debates about the relative value of the new Olympus EM-1.2 camera many commenters were quick to trot out "build quality" as one of that camera's winning features. I get the whole idea. Here's what build quality seems to mean to most of us: The seams where external parts of the camera come together are almost seamless. The fit of the interconnecting parts is so precise that the hobbyist carpenter or machinist can hardly believe it. The camera has a certain heft that people associate with the use of stronger or "better" materials. The knobs and dials seem to be made of metal and have a "dampened" response that makes them feel more "assured" and sturdy. The cameras have a reputation for some combination of waterproof-ness or sturdiness.

It's very important to understand that all of these "features" are subjective and the quality quotient cannot be objectively measured. We don't have ready access to rates of repair or MTBF. We are allowing our sensory input to prejudice our "feelings" about a camera, inferring absolute qualities that might not exist or, if they do exist, might not exceed the same list of qualities in similar products.

Here I will tell a story and hope that the camera buyers can make a connection.

Many, many years ago, when I was an electrical engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin I supplemented the money my parents contributed to my education and upkeep with a part time job at a hi-fi store. For people too young to remember hi-fil stores were specialty shops that sold home audio equipment. Stereo receivers, turntables, cassette decks, reel to reel recording machines, loudspeakers, component amplifiers, pre-amplifiers and tuners.

At the beginning of my part time sales career almost every

The Sony 50mm FE 1.8 is just right on the A7ii.

Choreographer for Zach's "A Christmas Carol." 

It was Saturday afternoon. I could sit alone in my office and keep refreshing Nate Silver's 538 website to see how the election polls were changing or I could pack a couple of cameras into my little Tenba backpack and head over to the theater to watch a choreography rehearsal for one of the holiday musical plays. I chose the sane option and got packing. 

In days of yore I was far too busy schlepping Ben around to various activities on Saturdays to ever have time to attend early rehearsals of Zach productions. I'd arrive on the evening of the final dress rehearsal and shoot the images for press and marketing cold. No clue what would come next or how each dance number might end. It's not the optimal way to do good photography. One of the things we emphasize to advertising clients is the importance of pre-production and scouting. Now I've got the time to do that with my theater clients too.

I didn't have anything specific in mind, image-wise, but I did want to get the feel of being totally immersed in the rehearsal. The actors were working with the show's choreographer for most of the afternoon so I pulled my two cameras out of my pack and got them set up. A 70-200mm on one body and a nice, pedestrian 50mm f1.8 on the other. I'd watch while, see something I liked and then wait for the next round of that rehearsal. The beautiful thing about shooting a production early on is that, unlike the final shows leading up to the opening, when you see something you think is cool you can be sure you'll see it again and again as the actors work to get the moves and timing right. It's much easier to put yourself into the right position to get a good photograph once you know what to expect.

Shooting with a 50mm is sweet because when you get close to a foreground subject, like the choreographer above, you get this wonderful feeling of depth in the image. Part of it comes (in this instance) from shooting close to wide open (f2.2-2.5) but another factor is the relative size relations as your eye wanders back through the frame. 

Because this was an early rehearsal and none of the images I shot as "notes" were mission critical I played around more with cameras settings. In my advertising work I tend to enjoy tight control of all camera parameters. Manual exposure and usually manual focusing are a given. I rarely get to practice with all the AF modes on my cameras but I'm getting more adventurous. Today I set the A7ii to continuous AF with a wide area. I also took a chance by setting my taking aperture at f2.5. That set a higher bar for the camera's focusing system. I had a custom button set up for focus locking so I wasn't totally without a pair of water wings...

Another thing I did, which I would not do on an ad shoot, was to set the shutter speed to 1/160th to help freeze motion and to set the ISO as above. The only thing I used to vary exposures was the Auto ISO setting and the exposure compensation dial. I was a bit nervous in situations where I saw the ISO ramping up toward the 4,000 to 6,400 range but as I kept reminding myself, these were just visual "notes" to set me up for the final rehearsal in a couple of weeks...

I came away from my afternoon at the rehearsal with a bunch of fun shots. I've edited down from 600+ to about 211. Most just required a little pop via the clarity slider in Lightroom or a nudge on the shadow slider. Everything looked pretty good even though the lighting in the rehearsal space can only be described as DISMAL.  When I peep at shots made with the cheap Sony 50mm ($199?), shooting close to wide open, I am very pleased that I haven't thrown down hard cash on one of the more expensive models in the 50-55mm range from Zeiss.

This inexpensive lens is very nice and very capable. I'll save the difference in price between it and the super star lenses and buy myself a new set of tires. The set of Continentals that came with the car is past its prime and our tread wear indicators are smiling at me. I have my eyes on a set of Michelin tires at Costco but no idea if any one brand of tire is actually better or worse than another. Perhaps someone out in VSL land is a tire aficionado???
Chime in if you disagree on my tire choice...

So, back to the photography. I thought I'd be shooting so much more with the longer zoom but, to be honest, except for single portraits, I am getting a bit tired of compression for the sake of compression. Relaxing the frame and getting physically closer felt just right. Who knows? I may bend as we continue onward and even starting using something ridiculously wide, like a 35mm.  But that strikes me as a bit radical. Anyway, props for a cheap Sony lens. It's about time. Now, perhaps they would consider re-releasing that wonderful Alpha 85mm f2.8 in an FE mount. I might even cry tears of joy....