Trying to escape from the political news, the dreaded heat, the August doldrums. My Sonys were on the chopping block on Friday but a last minute pardon kept them from becoming trade-in fodder. The Panasonic GH5 was in ascendancy and my computational faculties were in retrograde. At some point, over the course of the weekend I'm back to the sort of stasis I'd created a couple of weeks ago: Panasonic for the heavy lifting of deep, rich 4K video and the two Sony full framers for the art of the still shot.
Many years ago a friend of mine bought a crappy used car from a car rental company. He thought he was getting a great deal but it turned out he was getting a car that could only get itself sold as part of a highly discounted fleet purchase. But, after procrastinating too long he was stuck with it. He bitched and moaned about his "Walmart" car. My advice to him, if he planned to keep the car, was this: Take it to a car wash and wash it thoroughly. Then, dry it off and wax it till it gleams. He did this and was able to bond to the car well enough to keep it around for the next two years. The car met its demise when my friend braked hard, from Texas Highway speed, to avoid hitting an armadillo crossing the road in the middle of the night... The car flipped twice, left the highway and came to a stand still, upside down, in the middle of a cactus-y field. My friend unbuckled his seat belt and walked away without a scratch.
He was thrilled. Now he would be able to buy the car he really wanted.
When I find myself ready to sell a camera and my friends point out to me all the reasons why I should not, I think of my advice to my friend. The analogy in the camera world is to join the unappreciated camera to a favorite lens and then go out and shoot with the combo until you like it again.
That's what I did today with the Sony A7R2. It's a camera I've used sporadically for video and for photo assignments that benefit from big, big, big raw files. But for the past year and a half in which I've owned this camera I've found myself reaching for its less detailed sibling, the A7ii nearly every time I shoot a portrait and I've spent much more time shooting video with the RX10s, the a6300 and the fz2500. Even in the theater I've come to appreciate the features of smaller cameras with bigger lenses more.
Part of my reticence always revolved around the awkward price-to-usability ratio that existed when I dropped $3200 on it, new. I didn't want to "use it up" on smaller projects or in circumstances where any other camera would do just as well. I kept "saving" it for those sporadic projects that needed all the gusto a digital camera could muster. It's just that the projects were sparser and more widely paced than I anticipated at the time of purchase.
In retrospect, I should have been using it for everything; every project in which it was even remotely called for. The sensor is great, the format is great and, when used in concert with three hand picked lenses, the performance is stunning. The heck with trying to prove to the world the efficacy of using smaller, less specified cameras all the time...
So, that was my mindset today as I headed out the door.
I've changed my routine to compensate for the wicked hot Summer we're having. While we won't break any records (hope springs eternals) for actual temperature readings the combination of high temperatures (over 100 each day) and the high humidity this season makes for a deadly combination; if you aren't careful.
I used to just grab camera and lens, my good hat and my car keys and head out the door. I carry a credit card with me for coffee or some unforeseen purchase but that's it. Today was different. I grabbed a small, brown leather backpack I'd picked up in the Geneva, Switzerland airport back in 1995 and I put some newly considered essentials in. The main reason for the backpack addition (it's small, really...) was to make carrying my 16 ounce, double-walled, stainless steel water bottle easy and convenient. I loaded the water bottle up with ice, water and a hydration tablet (Nuuns; lemon lime) so I could hydrate if I felt the need. I tossed in a notebook and a pen in case I had a fleeting inspirational idea (none to report) and I tossed in the house keys, a couple of extra camera batteries, a cloth handkerchief, some sunscreen and a couple hundred dollars in small denominations.
I joined the Sony A7Rii to the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 and headed downtown. I think it takes some training to discipline your mind to pay attention to camera work when it's uncomfortable outside. Direct sun and high temperatures drains one's energy quickly and it takes some work to stay on task and to ignore the discomfort. I guess the trick is to be able to gauge dangerous discomfort from just basic wimpiness.
It's one thing to be hot and tired but a whole other thing to be disoriented, slightly nauseous, light-headed, dizzy or worse. You want to make sure you plan to stay out of the bracket in which these symptoms exist. Nothing on a casual walk is worth heat exhaustion or sunstroke.
I parked the car in the old Whole Foods parking garage where I know I can leave the car for three hours without having to pay or worry about being towed. I love having the car inside a parking garage because when I return after a long, hot walk I know the car will be hospitable. I pulled the leather straps on the backpack over my shoulders and headed down Lamar Blvd. to see what was happening at the graffiti wall.
I pulled out all the stops with my camera and lens. I set the camera to shoot uncompressed (enormous) raw files and set the lens to somewhere between f5.6 and f8.0 where I knew it was superbly sharp and vignette free. I worked on my stance and my camera hold. I worked on my slow release of breath when actuating the shutter and I worked without too much regard for the heat and glare to find compositions I liked. I kept the zebras engaged even though I was shooting in aperture priority just so I could see where the highlights started screaming. I notice when shooting in big raw that the EVF will show me a review image quickly and then, if I continue to watch it, the review image gets a bit sharper and more saturated a second or two later. It's as though the camera is taking time to process the file and write the embedded Jpeg that it will present.
As I write this I'm sitting in my office and the air conditioning is cranking. I'm slowly draining a big glass of iced tea while I'm playing with the eighteen files I edited down to from today's walk. You don't have the benefit of seeing them the way I am right now so I'll write a bit of observational description so you can see beyond the compressed files I'm presenting here and understand the value of the A7Rii.
When I look at a file on my monitor I am already happy enough with what I see but then I click into 100% and realize just how much detail is resident in the files. In the photograph above I can zoom in to 100% and see every hair on the young woman's head clearly defined. I can see the woven texture of her companion's t-shirt. In frames were I've under exposed to preserve all highlights (no blinking zebras anywhere) I can pull up the shadow areas as much as I want without any appearance of noise or color shift. Even in frames with the zebras blinking at 105% I can pull the exposure slider down and recover all the detail in the highlight areas.
After nearly two hours of shooting the Wall, the Capitol, Congress Ave. etc. I finally got really comfortable with the camera and realized that I wasn't going to break it or use it up all at once. I could concentrate on little tactile features I found I liked. I found my fingers feeling the gentle curve of the body on the left side of the body. I got comfortable using the front dial to move the exposure compensation up or down. It became a transparent operation.
Left to its own devices the camera will usually underexposure contrasty scenes by a third to two thirds of a stop so most of my compensation was to the plus side. That might bug me on another camera but with the wide latitude of this camera's files, especially at the lowest end of the ISO range, I saw it as part of a comprehensive tool set that works together to maximize the strong points of the system. Being able to accurately reproduce the brightest highlights along with capacity for almost unlimited shadow recovery. It's a pretty amazing thing. It reminded me of the freedom I used to have when I was shooting events with ISO 400 color negative films like Kodak's Pro line of color negative films make for press work. The lab could do miraculous things with those frames....
I finished off the water in the bottle in four separate stops. Near the end of the walk I went into the Royal Blue Grocery at the Austin 360 tower for coffee and one of their scrumptious walnut and chocolate chip cookies. Why coffee on a 100+ degree day? Because (par for central Texas) when the temperatures rise outside Texans seem to love dropping the temperatures inside. It must have been 60 degrees in the Royal Blue Grocery today. With the rapidly evaporating sweat from my clothes it's kind of a miracle I didn't get hypothermia. When I got back to the car it was perfect inside.
I'd accomplished what I set out to do. I took the final mystique and hesitancy out of the A7Rii and figured out its place in my hierarchy of cameras. It's fabulous and perfect for narrow depth of field, for times when I need technical perfection (not as frequently as you might think) and when I want to shoot in the same fashion and with the same disregard for operational awareness that I could get away with when shooting the old film cameras loaded with color negative films.
I love the lens. Anyone who has every written a review dissing this lens (Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0) is just plain wrong. It's superb. Perfect. Balanced. Neutral. And there's nothing wrong with the corners if you are coupling it with a 42 megapixel sensor.
Nice to bond with a lens over some fun photos and a disciplined approach to working in the heat of the day. I'm happy it's still here.