Photography

I have another web site entirely devoted to my photography and show casing my photographs. This site is available at verndewit.com.

I have been very interested in photography for the last 6 or 7 years. I've made it a hobby of mine to buy and sell cameras which has allowed me to try many different systems over the last few years. Over all these cameras you know what I ended up realizing? My Canon 20D would've continued to match any of the later cameras almost picture-for-picture as far as the end result was concerned. Yes, the 5D and D700 produced nicer bokeh and better low-light but the G1 and the E420 were much smaller and allowed me to be more creative in my approach to photography.

A Good Camera gets Better!

Sony announced the successor to the RX100 today. The impressively named "RX100 Mark II"... :) In case you didn't already know from my many glowing posts regarding this gem of a camera, if you're a climber, backpacker, hiker and / or skier you should buy this camera. Key aspects that are important for people traveling far with large loads;

  • Tiny form factor - fits in a small pouch on your shoulder strap
  • 1" sensor which is much larger than comparable camera's that are actually quite a bit larger than the RX100
  • Fast lens - f/1.8 at 28mm which is perfect for low light / early / late photographs and even astrophotography
  • Excellent image quality and 20 mega pixels to handle huge landscape prints

The detailed specs can be found at depreview.com.

My trip up Amery is a perfect example of where this camera shines. I also used it on my Columbia Icefields ski trips the past year. Here's some samples - click for full size.

A Rolling Review of the Sony A7R

January 04 2014 - Moving Forward with Olympus OM Lenses

Since acquiring my Sony A7R in early December, I've had the opportunity to try out and build up an assortment of lenses and techniques that work for me. I'm still very much in the figuring it all out stage but thought I'd give an update now, considering the camera is still fairly new and there seems to be a lot of interest in it at this time.

The first thing I've changed is the manual lenses that I'm using with it. Originally I thought I'd be using the Canon FD line up of high and medium high end glass, such as the 17mm f/4 and the 24mm f/1.4 L lenses. While these lenses work fantastically on the A7R, they do have one main drawback - their mass.

While researching alternate, manual focus lenses for the A7R I came across a thread on FredMiranda.com regarding the use of OM lenses on the Sony FF body via a OM-->NEX adapter. I've always been an Olympus fan and their OM glass has made quite a name for itself over the years. There are a few known issues with using the OM's on the Sony;

  • OM glass in good condition isn't cheap. And it's getting more expensive thanks to people like me who are using it on the Sony cameras.
  • The adapters increase the overall length of the lens by almost double for anything under 100mm. This is due to the way the older Olympus bodies had a very deep lens cavity from the back of the lens to the film surface. (This is a double edged sword because it's also the reason the lenses work so good compared to the Leica M mount which is very shallow...)
  • It can be difficult to find good OM glass without mould, fungus or dust simply because OM lenses haven't been manufactured for decades as opposed to the M-Mount lenses which are still made new.
  • There are some CA issues with most OM glass - even the very expensive stuff.

All that being said, I was very keen to try it. Even better was the fact that I had two great OM lenses already in my old camera bag from a $200 impulse buy of an OM-T about 8 years ago. I was thinking of going back to film at the time, and ended up with the camera and 3 lenses, a cheap Vivitar Series 1 70-210 f/3.5 Macro, an OM 50mm f/1.8 and an excellent copy of an OM 24mm f/2.8 lens. I figured it couldn't hurt to buy a $15 Ebay adapter and try them out - considering that the Sony / Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 ZE is $1000 and I had a similar lens for 'free' in my closet! :)

Olympus OM 24mm on the Sony A7R

Olympus OM 50mm on the Sony A7R

As the thread on FredMiranda grew longer and longer, I could see that there were going to be some impressive performers in the OM lineup. My adapter was ordered from China and was taking forever to arrive so I decided to act quickly before the OM market became to demanding and prices started increasing even more than they already were. Two lenses stood out among the crowd for me - the OM 28mm f/2 and the OM 21mm f/2. Actually the OM 21mm f/3.5 was the standout but I assumed the f/2 would be even better - and suited my needs more so I zeroed in on it. (I did much of my OM lens research at the excellent lens database on MIR.com.)

I'd always wanted a 28mm walk-around prime lens after spending most of the summer of 2007 with a Sigma DP1 and it's fixed length 28mm f/2.8 lens. When I used the Sony RX1 with it's 35mm fixed lens for the summer of 2012, I also carried the Sony RX100 II as a backup, mainly for its 28mm wide end. I also wanted the fastest glass I could afford - mainly for use with semi-macro flower shots and wide angle, single shot astrophotography on my back country excursions. The 21mm was a bit of a splurge, but I knew that even in the extremely unlikely case that Sony / Zeiss would put out a prime lens in that focal length, the odds of it being f/2 was very, very slim. It would also cost even more than my beautiful OM cost me - so I took the plunge and sold my Canon FD glass before putting in a few orders through various online sources for a 28mm and 21mm f/2 lens. I also made one more OM purchase - a beautiful OM 135mm f/2.8 that cost me less than $200 and was in brand new condition. Certainly much cheaper, smaller and lighter than the Sony 135mm f/2!!

Olympus OM 135mm on the Sony A7R

I still have a lot of testing to do with the various lenses that I own but preliminary results are impressive. The 50mm does what that focal length is meant to do - produce nice creamy bokeh and sharp detail where needed. The 24mm is also a very impressive performer, considering I got it for almost nothing and it's very small even with the adapter.

The 21mm and 28mm lenses are very impressive performers too. Extremely sharp in the center and very good at the corners - certainly as good or better than any AF lenses that may come out in the next few years anyway. The 36mp A7R demands very good hand holding technique and even then, a tripod or monopod is almost needed for every shot to ensure critical sharpness if you care about that sort of thing. For most of my shots I don't need perfect sharpness but I will be using a tripod more than I used to - especially for more formal landscape shots. There are zero color shifting issues such as the ones I had with the Zeiss 18mm f/4. There is a certain amount of vignetting that is easily fixed in Lightroom (and not noticed on the majority of shots) and also some easily-fixed CA, depending on the shot of course.


[Look at the top corners of each shot and you'll notice the vignetting on the 28mm at f/5.6 and f/11 and then the 21mm at f/5.6 and f/11. It's not horrible but it's there.]


[Voila! Vignetting gone with a simply adjustment in Lightroom.]

I will be doing many more tests with the various lenses as the months move on - most of my shooting is done in the spring / summer / fall. I will also be acquiring the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 when it becomes available in the next few months. This is one of the main reasons I have a battery grip - the native zoom lenses will not be small and the grip provides a nice balance and extended battery life with shooting formals for a day. Here's a few more product shots of the OM lenses on the A7R;

Olympus OM 21mm on the Sony A7R

Olympus OM 28mm on the Sony A7R

December 03 2013 - First Impressions

I recieved my Sony A7R from Henrys Canada on November 29, just in time to try it on a few weekend trips. Due to a shortage of FE autofocus lenses at launch, the only lens I could order with the camera in native mount, was the excellent, tiny and very light 35mm FE Zeiss lens. I also bought a Zeiss 18mm f/4 Distagon T* rangefinder lens off EBay to try on the camera via a LTM --> NEX adapter.

My overall impression of the camera is that it's very light and small for a full frame (FF) kit. It's bigger than my RX1 was, and the 35mm f/2.8 isn't quite as good as the f/2 lens on the RX1 but it's close enough. Obviously the strength of the A7R is having almost an infinate number of lenses I can use on it as long as I'm willing to use alternate and manual focus glass. The amazing thing about the size is that it's the same size as the Olympus E-M5 but has twice the sensor, or more! This gives some very shallow depth of field and some incredible dynamic range as well as allowing lenses to be used at their 'real' focal length - a 24mm lens is 24mm again.

For more information on why I think the A7/R is a revolutionary camera, especially for us climbers, skiers and backpackers see my original blog on the subject.

Sony A7R

First Outings with the A7R and FE 35mm

The first official outing for my A7R was a snowshoe trip with my kids. The weather was pretty dismal for landscapes but I thought I'd try anyway. We drove the 150km to the Chester Lake parking lot along the Spray Lakes road in Kananaskis Country to the west of Calgary, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. You can read a more detailed trip report with more photos (from the RX100II and A7R) here.

The A7R / 35mm Zeiss FE are a great combo. The package is very light and the quality of the lens is high. The lens does exhibit some purple fringing in some scenarios but not too bad. The most annoying thing for me was that the eye sensor which switches between the rear LCD and the EVF when you move the camera close to your eye got some moisture on it and from then on the rear LCD didn't display until I managed to dry off the eye sensor. In my opinion this sensor is a bit too sensitive. Not a huge deal but beware of this - if you get the camera damp or wet the rear LCD may not want to engage until you dry the sensor.


[My daughter, Kaycie at f/2.8 with the A7R and 35mm FE lens]


[The Chester Lake outflow stream at f/8]


[Excellent Sony color and auto white balance. Amazing dynamic range too!]

Handling, Output and Configuration

Handling is easy and intuitive with the A7R and there are a host of easily configurable buttons and options. You should never have to menu-dive after getting the camera set up, except maybe to format the card or connect to a wireless network (yes the camera can do that!). The shutter noise reminded me instantly of my first NEX camera - the NEX-5. It's a double sounding racket that is a bit of a shock after using the RX1 for 4 months! I really hope the next version can solve this 'issue'. 

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is the best I've ever used. The previous best one I've used would either be the Sony A99 or the Olympus E-M5. I've heard that the new Olympus VF-4 and E-M1 are even better but suffice it to say, that EVF's have come a LONG way in the past few years. With focus peaking features and all the benefits of live view, I personally don't ever need to have an OVF again. The only exception might be for range finder shooting (i.e. Leica) because that's a different style altogether.

The color and detail of the photos are great too. Lots of contrast and more than enough dynamic range for most uses. I used Lightroom 5 release candidate 1.3 to process the ARW (RAW) files. An update to Lightroom is expected soon with a production release version supporting the new Sony's. Overall, I found the files very malleable and easy to work with. Remember to ensure that your hardware can work with the 40mb (RAW) files though!! My MacBook Pro is at its limit and processing a 9 stitch pano was pushing it... :)

The day after Chester Lake I decided to head out on my own to climb a small sub-peak of Mount Kidd near Kananaskis Village. I didn't use the A7R much because I was in thick trees for much of the day, but I did manage a pretty nice panorama. The west half of the complete pano is below;


[A panorama from Mount Kidd Junior stitching 9 vertical shots ]

Early Conclusions

I have many, many more outings ahead with the Sony A7R. I will continue to update this blog with new findings and observations but here's my first (early) conclusions.

Pros

  • Excellent image quality
  • Small / light for a full frame package
  • Responsive and many buttons to make shooting quick and intuitive
  • Lots of lens options if you're willing to go the alternate route
  • Very good EVF / LCD
  • Comfortable to hold and handle

Cons

  • Some purple fringing on the FE 35mm - a bit disappointing for a $700 lens...
  • Very loud and jarring shutter sound
  • Eye / Rear LCD sensor is very sensitive and doesn't work if wet or fogged up

Who is the A7/R for?

In my opinion, based on many years with many digital cameras, the Sony A7/R is not for everyone. I think if you mainly shoot autofocus zooms or are really attached to AF lenses you should probably not get an A7/R right now. Sure - there are two native lenses available in the FE35 and the FE28-70 but you will get far more usage out of the excellent sensors if you are willing to use a vast array of alternate glass. In a few years I'm sure there'll be more AF / native FE mount options but for now something like the Olympus E-M1 will give much faster AF and a huge assortment of excellent lenses for far less money than the Sony's. I predict that there'll be a lot of used A7's on the market within 6 months of launch because many folks are buying into a system they don't have the patience or money to fully utilize. I think if you're looking at buying the A7/R you should be in the same market as someone purchasing a camera like Nikon's D800/E or Canon's 6D or 5DIII.

Just like it doesn't make much sense to buy the excellent sensor in the D800/E and then use a cheap zoom lens on it, it doesn't make very much sense to buy the A7/R only to complain about no cheap glass. I plan on using very high end alt and native mount lenses on my A7R, such as the Canon FD L lenses and Zeiss FE native mounts. I hope to buy the 24-70 f/4 and 70-200 f/4 Sony and Zeiss lenses when they are available, but these are not cheap!

If you're a landscape photog I would recommend the 36mp A7R. If you're more of a generalist photog I would say the A7 is a better choice simply because your computer will have a much easier time with the 24mp photos. :)

Alternate (non-native) Lenses on the A7/R

There is much discussion on the 'net around the use of alternate lenses (non-native) via adapters on the A7/R cameras. The Sony E-mount is very amendable to using third party and older manual focus lenses of all kinds. The hype, before the camera shipped, was that we'd be able to use lenses like the Leica 24mm Summilux f/1.4 on a full frame $2200 camera instead of on the $7000 Leica M Type 240. The reality did not match the hype, however. Due to the complexity of wide angle lenses on a short mount and huge sensor like the one in the A7R, the initial results of using small, MF rangefinder lenses was rather dismal. Examples started showing up with corner smearing and color casts.

As the hype slowly continues to die down, it's obvious that many alternate lenses work excellent on the A7/R cameras and there is no "one brush paints all" solutions. Some very expensive lenses like the Leica Summilux 50mm don't seem to work that great compared to much cheaper 50mm alternatives. Some wide angle lenses like the CV Voightlander 21mm f/1.9 seem to work pretty good on the A7's, while others like many of the Zeiss Biogons simply don't work well. I found out pretty quickly that the Canon FD lenses seem to work very well on the A7R - my Canon FD 24mm 1:1.4 L lens is testing quite remarkably and I hope to have real world samples from it soon. This could be my dream astrophotography wide angle lens.

With my Zeiss 18mm on EBay and a number of other options ready to test, including a couple of Olympus OM lenses I have a long and interesting road ahead of me using alternate lenses on the A7R. I will obviously be reporting on these as I test and use them and will update this blog as I do.

Canon FD L 24mm on the Sony A7R
[The excellent (and expensive!) Canon 24mm f/1.4 lens on the Sony A7.]

Zeiss 18mm f/4 Distagon

The first alternate lens I tried on the A7R was a Zeiss 18mm f/4 ZM (Leica mount) lens. This is a gorgeous lens that I had good success with on my Leica M8.2 where it was a 23.4mm equivalent due to the 1.3x crop factor of the M8.2. I thought the lens would work well on the A7R when I ordered it - before any of the Sony's were shipping. Unfortunately as the day of receiving the camera moved closer and closer I could sense that the 18mm wasn't going to work very good on it. The 'net was starting to fill up with hot debates about why certain alt glass (especially wide angle) wasn't working as expected but generally it has to do with the immense number of pixels on the large sensor and the small distance between the rear lens elements and the angles of light hitting the sensor edges. 

It was too late to cancel so I tried it anyway - I have a Leica M --> NEX adapter from using a Leica Summarit-M 75mm on my former NEX-7. I took the 18mm on my snowshoe trip with my kids to Chester Lake. I knew right away that there was color issues when I saw the preview shots on the LCD in the field. When I got home and opened the files my suspicions were confirmed. Converting to B&W and using some vignetting remedies in LR worked pretty well, but I am not enough of a B&W photog to justify a $1200 wide angle lens just for B&W shooting... There are fixes available for PP correction of color casts such as CornerFix or the new flat field plugin for Adobe Lightroom but to be honest I'm too lazy to use these tools all the time. I want my out-of-camera (OOC) shots to be pretty good so that all I have to do in post-processing is adjust color / white balance. I don't want to be running batch jobs, taking reference shots in the field and all that jazz.


[An uncorrected wide angle shot with the A7R and the Zeiss 18mm f/4 T* ZM. Notice the color casts in each corner?]


[The above photo converted to B&W and the vignetting removed. The 18mm is very sharp and detailed on the A7R but just too much PP work for my tastes.]

Canon FD 24mm 1:1.4 L

The second alternate lens I tried on the A7R was the Canon FD 24mm f/1.4 L lens. This is an expensive lens from the pre-AF days when Canon pretty much ruled the world of photography. The FD L lenses are gorgeous beasts - especially the fast ones of f/1.2 or f/1.4! I bought this lens after seeing good results on the 'net from the 55mm f/1.2 and 85mm f/1.2. It was another gamble - like the Zeiss 18mm - but I knew I could sell this lens again since I bought it in brand new condition.

Unfortunately the adapter for the FD mount didn't come in until after the weekend so I haven't done extensive testing yet. BUT - I have tested it enough to get pretty excited! There are no color casts on the corners and the lens is deadly sharp. Even at f/1.4 the center is sharp - this is looking like an excellent low light wide angle option and also a very good candidate for single-shot wide angle astrophotography, which is something I'm very interested in. The lens looks gorgeous on the A7R and operates very smoothly. Of course it's heavy and quite large, but considering how fast it is - it's pretty darn small actually!

Why Use Manual Focus Lenses on the A7/R?

Why bother with manual focus lenses at all? Isn't that just going backwards? Well, it depends. Using focus peaking and manual focus lenses is just as quick as most autofocus systems once you're used to it. You also don't have to move the focus point or focus and re-compose anymore. With manual focus and focus peaking I just compose the shot and then manually focus until the part of the picture I want sharp is shimmering with the peaking lines - then I snap away. It's really very fast and easy. The reason to bother with older or rangefinder, manually focussing lenses is that they are much smaller than the equivalent AF lenses which need to have lens motors in them.

Another reason to use MF lenses over AF lenses on the A7/R is that you will usually spend much less money on an equivalent, or better lens. For example, my 24mm f/1.4 Canon FD lens is smaller and lighter than the 24mm f/2 Sony lens + Sony adapter and is a whole stop of light faster! It also cost about $300 less than the Sony lens... Another good example is the Canon FD 135mm f/2 lens. This lens is small and downright cheap compared to the Sony 135mm! If you really want to get crazy (which I probably will), the Canon 300mm f/2.8 FD L lens is over 6 or 7 times cheaper than a close Sony equivalent. 

MF lenses are also usually built tougher and out of heavier material than newer AF lenses. This isn't always a good thing (i.e. too heavy) but generally they will last much longer simply because there's less moving parts to break and a more solid casing to hold the moving parts that are there.

Things to Watch for when Buying MF Lenses

There are a few things you should be aware of before just running out and buying every old MF lens you can find for your A7R. :P 

  • Look out for internal dust and / or fungus
  • I only buy new or like-new MF lenses - it saves a lot of hassle and makes resale much easier
  • Try to get the original boxes - good for resale
  • Look for reviews before buying expensive glass that doesn't work on modern cameras anymore...
  • Buy good adapters from EBay but don't spend too much. For example my FD --> NEX adapter was $14.99 and works very well

As always, you might get lucky at a local garage sale, but generally you get what you pay for. Don't expect miracles from cheap, old MF glass. You could get lucky, but probably won't. :)

How to Take Great Photos

So, how do you take a great photograph? That's a great question!! Depending on the subject and your definition of a great photograph, this will be different for you and I. I'm mainly a landscape photographer, and I seriously hesitate to call myself a "photographer" at all. The saying that the more you know, the less competent you feel definitely applies to me and photography!

 

Here's the top 10 things that I try to do to improve my own photographs. YMMV, of course.

 

  1. Take the shot. Seriously. :-) People get way too caught up in the technical details of their equipment. If the shot presents itself, snap it. In order to do this you need to carry your camera with you all the time. This can be a hassle if all you own is a giant DSLR. I recommend using your smart phone for everyday, carry everywhere photography. There are even interchangeable lens options for your smart phone, including Moment or Olloclip lens solutions. The best part about using a smart phone is that it's always with you, you can use it for GPS navigation and when combined with cloud storage, all your photos are backed up as soon as you get back to a WIFI zone.
     
  2. Carry your camera around your neck. In the shot at the beginning of this article you should notice several things. First of all, the subjects are all moving. Secondly, I'm tied to them with a climbing rope! Third, we're in an intense environment, high up an exposed snow ridge. Fourth, this is a series of shots, stitched together. So how did I manage to capture a shot while moving on an exposed mountain ridge, tied to my partners who were also moving? I always carry my camera around my neck, ready at any moment to snap a photograph. In this case, I simply pointed the camera in the general direction of my friends (without even looking through the viewfinder) and snapped a series of photos in about 3 seconds. I didn't know how it turned out until I got home. I've hiked and climbed with many folks who are too scared to damage their camera and miss a lot of these shots because they don't have the gear out and ready to use.

     
    [Taking this shot of Ben and Steven descending Mount Joffre was only possible because the camera was out and ready to shoot right away. Five seconds later the shot was gone.]
     

  3. Shoot RAW (+JPEG). Yes, I know this is a pain and it takes up a lot more space but there are irrefutable advantages to shooting RAW photos, such as increased dynamic range (more detail in shadows / highlights) and options for future manipulation whether that is printing, photo contests or web display. Think of shooting RAW vs. JPEG as being the same difference between shooting 35mm negatives (or slide film) vs. Polaroids. Polaroids are cool but they're very static and inflexible whereas you could enlarge and manipulate your 35mm negatives much easier. Especially if you're an amateur or beginner, shooting RAW+JPEG allows you to use the JPEG's (which can be very good, straight out of camera) easily but still have the RAW for future use as you grow in post processing (PP) skills. Many amateur photographers shoot RAW without having the time / energy / skills to process them correctly. Most people simply don't have the time to spend hundreds of hours learning to process RAW photos and should use JPEG's whenever they can.
     
  4. Post process (PP) your photographs. Some people think that by sharpening or boosting the contrast levels on your digital photograph you are somehow misrepresenting the original scene. This is ridiculous. It's like insisting that any photography ever shot using Velvia film is not a 'real' photograph. If you're shooting RAW you will definitely have to learn to sharpen and post process (PP) your pictures. I would recommend at the very least sharpening and adjusting the contrast using a tool such as Google's Picasa or much better, a tool like Adobe's Lightroom. Sharpening is one of the least understood ways to make your photo "pop" when viewed on print or screen. It's also a very confusing subject...


    [Shots like this one of the Lake O'Hara region are difficult because there's so much going on. This is a rare HDR panorama that I took in order to get detail in shadow and highlights. This shot required a lot of PP to get it 'right'.]
     

  5. Use a prime lens. To boost creativity, leave the zoom lens at home and head out with a small prime. I shot most of my hikes and climbs for a whole summer on the Sigma DP1, a fixed focal length camera with an APC sized sensor. The lens was 28mm wide and produced some stunning shots. I never really missed having a zoom and I believe my creativity was boosted by being 'forced' to look for good 28mm shots. A more useful general photography lens would be 35 or 50mm equivalents. (NOTE: This is a good way to boost creativity, but not a great overall solution. I still use a wide angle zoom like a 24-70 for the vast majority of my climbing photography. Zooms are way too convenient to never use. :))


    [Believe it or not, this shot was taken with the Sony RX1 - a camera with a built-in 35mm f/2 prime lens. I had to take 9 photos and stitch them together afterwards to get the whole scene - but it worked!]
     

  6. Watch your perspectives. The vast majority of sub-par photographs, or the defining characteristic of a 'tourist photo' or 'snapshot' is the perspective of the shot. Way too many people assume that a photograph should be exactly what the person is seeing from their (usually standing) position at that exact moment. This seems logical but it doesn't convey any feeling. For example, take a beach volleyball game. You could just snap a shot from eye level and get a bunch of people playing in the sand, or you could crouch down and let the viewer feel the action from a lower perspective. Trees and telephone poles sticking out of subject's heads is another classic tourist mistake - pay attention to the background!


    [Sometimes the easiest perspective is just to point the lens straight down near your feet!]
     

  7. Pre-visualize your shot. Related to the above point on perspective is pre-visualizing the shot. Know what you want the shot to convey before you take it, then try to make it happen.


    [I pre-visualized this shot of Steven Song on Big Bend Peak during a snow shoe outing. I knew he'd pop out on the summit ridge and waited for it to happend before snapping this shot.]
     

  8. Learn to use the exposure histogram. If you don't know what the histogram is, or how to use it see this article
     
  9. Use filters. Especially for landscape photography, a CPL (circular polarizing filter) can make or break the shot. See here for more ideas on filters.


    [For this shot, I used a CPL to bring out the blue sky and remove unwanted reflections from the lake below.]
     

  10. Study other pictures. Learn from others! Some of my favorites are Galen Rowell, Darwin Wiggett and Michael Reichmann. Instagram can be a great way to get ideas, but be aware that many of the amazing landscape shots on Instagram are fake, including many that are promoted by the big names like National Geographic and others. 

 

 

Landscape Photos - Small Sensor

Fall Colors
Ever wonder how to get those white clouds, blue lakes and darker foregrounds in the same landscape shot on a small sensor camera without using advanced high dynamic range (HDR) and digital blending techniques?
 
There's an easy answer and it doesn't involve spending $5,000 on the latest and greatest 20+ megapixel full frame DSLR and another $1,500 on the latest wide angle lens to take advantage of the resolving power of that sensor. More importantly, for me, I can use my lightweight micro 4/3 camera kit (the Panasonic GH1 with a 14-140mm lens) on my hiking and mountaineering adventures instead of a much heavier full frame system and still get photographs that I can sell or hang on my wall. These techniques have been used be me on everything from a Sigma DP1 to a Canon G9 to an Olympus E420 - any small camera can be used much more effectively for landscape photography if you use the following advice.
 

(Mount Temple | Photographed with Panasonic GH1 + Singh-ray 2 stop filter and polarizer)
 
I own a full frame camera too but I can't carry it comfortably while hiking 15km and 1500 vertical meters in a day! Even if I could carry my expensive camera up a mountain, I would be too concerned about dropping it or scratching the lens to fully enjoy using it. Carrying a cheaper and lighter system makes good sense for many hikers and climbers. The issue we run into as photographers is that even though we get to see some of the most gorgeous landscapes on earth it's very hard to take advantage of these views on a small sensor camera without blowing highlights or clipping shadows. What's the solution?
 
Filters. More specifically, graduated neutral density (GND) filters. Sound too easy to be true? Well it's not. Read on.
 
Before getting into details I want to make a point on quality. There are many different choices for GND filters on the market today. Very few deliver enough quality to be worth your hard earned money. I have experience with one of the best brands on the market, Singh-ray filters. The difference between a quality filter and a cheap one can not be understated. Don't cheap out on filters because you'll end up with one set of cheap filters and another set of good ones. This will obviously end up costing you money and pride! Cheap filters scratch easily, aren't quality controlled and will produce odd color casts in your photographs. Trust me.
 

(Pine Lake | Photographed with a Panasonic GH1 + Daryl Benson 2 stop reverse ND filter)
 
So how does a GND filter help a small sensor camera achieve less highlight and shadow clipping? It doesn't expand the dynamic range of your sensor, but it does do the next best thing. It shrinks the dynamic range of the landscape before it hits your sensor. How does it do this? Very simply, a GND filter serves as a bright light 'dimmer' so that bright areas of the landscape appear darker to your camera's sensor. This allows your camera to expose the foreground properly, giving the shadows enough detail while still capturing the much brighter sky without blowing it out.
 
You may wonder if this will produce a fake looking or strange looking photo but in most cases it won't. Your eyes do the same thing when you look at a scene with many different levels of brightness and usually with a little bit of post processing the scene will still look very natural without having blown out areas. There are some tricks to getting it right: 
  1. Expose for the foreground and then use the 'auto exposure lock' on your camera to keep that setting while you re-compose the scene properly.
  2. Use the 'live view' feature on your camera to determine what strength GND you need (1, 2, or 3 stops of light blocked) either by guessing or trying them out (start with the 2 stop filter). Simply hold the filter (or use a filter holder) and slide it down till the sky starts showing details on the live view image. When you're happy with the sky and foreground detail, take the photo. Try a few different exposures if you have the time.
  3. Hard edge filters are better for scenes that have a natural line on the horizon such as lakes or tree lines and soft edge filters are better for more gradually transitioned horizons.
  4. You should start with a 2 stop hard edge and a 2 stop soft edge filter first and then add to your collection after that as you are able. The 2 stop filters work good enough in most cases. 
  5. You don't need a filter holder but it makes it easier to stack filters and to use other types of filters such as a circular polarizing filter (CPL) with the GND filters. I use Cokin 'P' size filters with the Cokin wide angle holder.
  6. While not strictly necessary, a tripod can make things a lot easier, especially in low light situations. I don't usually bother lugging one up a mountain but occasionally I do wish I had.
  7. For sunrises and sunsets try the more specialized 'reverse' GND. This filter holds back the brightness from the middle of the composition and then graduates to the top of the filter instead of the other way around so that the sun doesn't overpower the scene. I use the Daryl Benson 2 stop reverse ND filter from Singh-ray.
I know this all sounds very technical and time consuming, but in reality you will get very quick at slapping a GND in front of your lens when the situation calls for it. I usually don't carry my camera around with the filters pre-mounted on it - they're expensive and they get caught on things. I snap pictures without the filter until I encounter a scene where I know I want to get it 'right'. Then I slow down, take out the filters and go to work. Usually it's about a 2-5 minute stop and I end up with some great shots. Another key ingredient to most great landscapes is the polarizing filter. I use the color combo polarizing filter from Singh-ray but any CPL is better than none!
 
Here's an example of a blown sky, it's a nice image but the clouds have lost some of their detail and the shadows are too dark (I'd be really disappointed if this was the best image I'd captured this day):
 

(Storm Mountain | Taken with the Panasonic GH1, no filters)
The following image was taken on the same day from the same location but after I realized that I needed a GND to stop my sky from blowing out. Notice that the shadows are still retaining detail but the sky isn't pure white (blown out) anywhere:
 

(Storm Mountain | Taken with Panasonic GH1 + Singh-ray 2 stop GND filter)
 
One other hint for getting huge prints out of a small sensor camera is to not only use GND filters but also use stitching software to greatly increase the number of pixels you capture for a given scene. I've printed pictures from my micro 4/3 sensor at 2x4 feet and they look great using this combined technique.
 
Here's a picture that I've printed very large and is hanging on my wall that was taken with my GH1 and GND and polarizing filters. Notice the blue sky and white puffy clouds that wouldn't be possible on this shot without the filter and the CPL. Even with a GND the clouds on the left side of the photo are almost blown out, without the filter this shot would not be on my wall!
 

(Mount Coleman | Taken with the Panasonic GH1 + Singh-ray 2 stop GND filter and CPL)
 
So next time you're wondering whether or not you should get a bigger format camera to capture the dynamic range of your landscapes, remember the much cheaper GND option and try it out. Your wallet and your legs will thank you for doing it at the end of that hike or climb!

Photography - Basics / Equipment

Mount Odaray

I've been asked the question, "What camera should I buy?" a few times over the past year, so I thought I'd write a little bit about this and next time someone asks me I can simply link to this blog post! Yes. I am a wee bit lazy.

Intended Audience

Any camera recommendations depend on the end use of the gear. In this case I am targetting my suggestions at the adventure-oriented photographer. I'll also throw in some suggestions for travel and specialty photography but this is not the place to go if you're a wedding photog looking for gear suggestions!

The Basics

In order to make any wise decision about anything, you need to be informed. In the case of purchasing digital camera equipment this is no different. There are so many choices and opinions available, that you can quickly and easily become overwhelmed and end up buying crappy gear simply because it's easier to ask the Future Shop guy than figure all "that stuff" out.

Here's a crash course in the basics that make a big difference in digital photography and which equipment I will recommend. I know this seems like a lot to read through but I've kept it as basic as I can with links to my in-depth reading.

Exposure - The first thing you should understand is the basic principal of 'exposure' and how varying amounts of light and shutter speed are used in conjunction to determine the correct exposure of a photograph. I'll explain some finer points of exposure a bit later on but for now it's enough to realize that a lens can be set to let in more or less light (aperture) and that light can be focused on the sensor for a given amount of time (shutter speed). The more light that's let in at once, the less shutter speed will be needed. For example an aperture value of f/4 with a shutter speed of 1/500 is the same exposure value as an aperture of f/2.8 and shutter speed of 1/1000 - in other words they are inversely proportional. Increasing the aperture means descreasing the shutter speed. For more details on photographic exposure go here.
 

ISO - In the days of film, ISO was the sensitivity of the film. The higher the ISO value of the film, the more sensitive to light it was. The trade-off was that the more sensitve the film, the larger the 'grain' had to be and the less detailed the end photograph would be. Landscape films were typically 50 ISO where wedding photographers would use 800 or 1600 ISO. In the days of digital sensors, ISO still refers to sensitivity and still adds grain or 'noise' to the image with increased values. The difference with digital cameras over film ones is that most large digital sensors can easily handle ISO values of 3200 to 6400 while retaining acceptable noise levels for most prints.

ISO also factors into the exposure equation, the same way shutter speed does. In our 'exposure' example above, an aperture value of f/4 with an ISO of 400 is the same exposure value as an aperture of f/2.8 (more light) and an ISO of 200 (slower 'film'). 

NOTE: If you want to keep the shutter speed constant while changing the aperture, you have to adjust the ISO. If you want to keep the ISO constant while changing the aperture, you have to adjust the shutter speed.

Sensor Size - Although this is not the only thing that matters in this discussion, it's the most confusing one for most people and one of the most talked about and misunderstood. Many amateurs think that a larger sensor is necessarily a better choice than a smaller one but this isn't the case - especially for adventure photogs as I'll discuss later.

There are 4 main sensor sizes that you need to be aware of. The full frame (FF, crop factor of 1.0) sensor is the same size as a slide negative (35mm), or 36mm x 24mm. Every other digital sensor is considered a crop of the FF one. I'll explain crop factor in the next section. The APS-C (crop factor of 1.5) sensor is 23.5mm x 15.7mm while the 4/3 (and micro 4/3) sensor is half the size of FF (crop factor of 2.0) at 17.3mm x 13mm. Most point 'n shoot cameras have sensor sizes of 1/2.5" or 5.76mm x 4.29mm or even smaller. I've personally owned and shot with all of these sensor sizes.

So, are larger sensors better? Yes and no. Larger sensors will gather more light and have different depth of field (DOF) properties (explained later). This means they're better in low light situations and can have better dynamic range (we'll discuss this later too). BUT. Like anything else, there is a compromise to be had. Larger sensors generally mean larger cameras and also larger lenses are needed to gather all that light and cover the size of the sensor. More weight in your backpack or around your neck! For more information on sensors and sensor technologies go to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_sensor_format

(NOTE: The exception to this rule is the $7,000 Leica M9. This camera is FF and as small as an APS-C camera. It also doesn't have autofocus and a 24mm lens can cost another $7,000! http://www.dpreview.com/products/leica/slrs/leica_m9p for details...) 

Crop Factor and Size vs. Cost - So what is crop factor and why does it matter? Simply put, crop factor is the amount you multiply a lens focal length by, in order to get it's 35mm or full frame equivalent. If you haven't used a film camera you probably don't really care about this, but it's one way to standardize lens lengths over different sensors so that  a lens on one system can be compared to a lens on another. For example, lets compare two 600mm equivalent lenses on different camera systems with different sized sensors.

In order to get a 600mm field of view (FOV) on a FF camera like the Canon 1DSIII, you need a lens like the Canon 600mm f/4 IS. For the same FOV on a micro 4/3 (m43) camera like a Panasonic GF2, you could use the Panasonic 100-300mm f/4-5.6 OIS lens (remember, m43 is a crop factor of 2x so the equivalent length is the one given multiplied by 2, or 200-600mm).  
 

Lens Dimensions (Len x Dia) Weight Price
Canon 600mm f/4 IS 449mm x 168mm 3820g (8.64lbs) $11,000.00
Panasonic 100-300mm f/4-5.6 OIS 126mm x 74mm 520g (1.15lbs) $550.00

 

Now you can begin to see why a FF camera isn't always the best choice! If I was using a FF system instead of a m43 system, I would never have gotten the following shot from my canoe of a bull moose feeding roughly 500 meters away. There is just no way I would be carrying an $11,000 lens that weighed almost 9lbs on an 11 day back country canoe trip instead of the relatively inexpensive and tiny Panasonic one! I also couldn't afford it...


 
Crop factor applies to wide angle lenses too. The Nikon 14-24mm lens is a bit faster (f/2.8 vs. f/4.0) than the Panasonic 7-14mm but it's also 1.5 lbs heavier and twice the cost, not to mention gigantic in comparison.

 

Dynamic Range - If you read internet discussions on digital cameras you will find lots of references to the dynamic range of different sensors. Dynamic range is simply the spectrum of light that a sensor is capable of capturing in a photograph with any detail. In general, the larger the sensor, the more DR it is capable of capturing. This means that in landscape photos you get more detail from shadows to bright light which results in a better photograph. Point 'n shoot cameras will often have black shadows with no detail or 'blown highlights' which no detail in the sky areas. One way to combat limited DR in a sensor is by taking a series of pictures at different exposures and then using software to combine them into one photograph. The two main techniques for this are 'blending' and 'HDR' processing. Some cameras like the Sony NEX's can actually do in-camera HDR's. One of the biggest complaints with small-sensor cameras is their lack of DR. Newer sensor technologies are fighting this issue.

Filters can also be used to effectively expand the range of light you can capture with a smaller-sensor camera. I've written an article on this too! (http://www.explor8ion.com/using-gnd-filters.html)

Depth of Field (DOF) - To keep things simple, I'm using depth of field as the portion of an image which appears sharp and in focus. There are two things which work together to affect DOF and you need to understand this to make a decision about camera gear. As an adventure photographer, you will want most (not all) of your shots to have a large DOF. You will want most of your shots to appear sharp and in focus across the entire scene as in this photograph:

 

Notice how the foreground flowers and the background mountains are all in focus? This is a large DOF. The two things which determine the DOF are the aperture of the lens (how much light is being let in) and the size of the sensor behind that lens. Without getting into the mathematics of it, the smaller the sensor and the smaller the aperature, the more DOF you will get. (For more on this topic go to this website. WARNING: Hope you love math! )

For comparison, here's an image with a shallow DOF (notice that only the butterfly is in focus):

Apertures are measured inversely, so a large aperture number is actually smaller than a smaller aperture number (confused yet?!). For example f/8 is a smaller aperture than f/2 because it's a fraction. You can think of aperture as the opening in the lens that changes, depending on your settings. This is the opening which allows light to enter the lens and pass through to the sensor. 

The landscape photo above, with a large DOF was shot at f/8, while the butterfly was shot at f/2.8. A lens at f/8 is only letting a small amount of light in, while a lens at f/2 is letting much more light hit the sensor at one time. Here's an image that demonstrates what I'm saying, the size of the dots represent the amount of light the lens is letting in:

 
(For more on aperture and DOF go here.)

The important part for you to understand is that lenses have a 'maximum' and 'minimum' aperture value and that the sensor size, combined with the set aperture of the attached lens affects how much of the photo is sharp and in focus. For our purposes, this means that a FF camera with a 14mm lens at f/5.6 will have slightly less DOF than a m43 camera with a 7mm (14mm equivalent) lens at f/5.6, which for landscapes isn't a bad thing. (Roughly, the m43 camera at f/5.6 will have the same DOF as the FF camera at f/8.0) Of course for shallow DOF like portraits or macros, the FF lens will have a shallower DOF at f/1.4 than the equivalent m43 lens at f/1.4 which is why wedding photographers generally prefer a FF camera.

(FYI: One other thing that affects DOF is the focal length of the lens. A wide angle lens at f/2.8 will appear to have more of the scene in focus than a telephoto lens of the same scene - this is why most macro lenses are longer than 60mm.)

Lens Basics - As important as the camera sensor is, what you're putting in front of that sensor is obviously important too! Lenses have different properties that affect the pictures they are useful for and how well they take them.

Focal length refers to the magnification or angle of view (AOV) usually measured in millimeters. For example, here's a wide angle shot (24mm) with a wide AOV:

 

And here's a telephoto shot with a narrow AOV from the same area (on top of a mountain):

 

In general, a narrow AOV is used to focus the attention of the viewer, where a wide AOV is used to convey a more substantial scene. A narrow AOV can also be used in landscapes to 'compress' the landscape and make it more dramatic as the following shot of a mountain climber demonstrates;

 

The mountains behind the climber are brought into the scene, even though they are at least 10km away! Most amateurs don't use their telephoto lenses enough in the landscape because they think only wide angle shots are 'landscape'.

Typical lens types and usages:

Lens Type Focal Lengths Typical Usage Comments
Ultra Wide Angle (UWA) 12-18mm Landscapes, Seascapes These lenses include a lot of foreground but can make distant objects appear unnaturally small. They can also introduce other strange optical effects if the shooter isn't careful. Usually these lenses can't take filters and cost a lot of money.
Wide Angle (WA) 18-35mm Landscapes, Nightscapes General Typically used to include a lot in the scene. The wider lenses include a lot of foreground. I find 21-28mm is sufficient for most typical landscape scenes. Any lens wider than 28mm doesn't do well with polarizing filters (a must for landscapes IMHO). Nightscape lenses should be fast (i.e. f/1.4-f/2.8)
Normal 35-55mm General, Portraits Normal lenses work for almost everything. A fast normal 50mm lens is invaluable and usually fairly cheap. (i.e. 50mm f/1.8)
Telephoto (Portrait) 55-200mm Macro, Portraits, Compressed Landscapes Telephoto lenses are very useful for the adventure photographer. They get you closer to the action and make your landscapes look very dramatic.
Ultra Telephoto 200-800mm Wildlife, Sports Any lens over 200mm is specialized for extreme landscape compression or wildlife shots. Handy but can be very large and expensive!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting it Together

Phew! That took longer than I intended - and that was just the basics! :-) In order to put it all together you will have to give weight to certain parts of your photography over others and look at what's available in the market compared to your budget. I will demonstrate this with two different camera systems, geared towards my style of photography which includes landscapes, people (my family), macro and wildlife.

First we need to put a numerical value on what we want to use the gear for or a usage factor, a high number means it's more important. You can not have ties!

  1. Wildlife - not too important but I do take the odd shot.
  2. Macro / Flowers - I like taking flower shots.
  3. Walkaround, general - a lot of my shots are casual and spur-of-the-moment.
  4. People / Portraits - I like taking shots of my kids or people's faces.
  5. Landscapes. My favorite!

We also need to put a value on other factors such as the aesthetics of the gear, the portability (everyone has their own ideas for this) etc. Here's my top 5 characteristic factors along with their importance value, which works the same way as the usage factors above (high is very important):

  1. Aesthetics - the way my gear feels and looks is important, but not too important.
  2. Lots of Lens Choice - The more lenses available the better!
  3. High quality - I want good quality, but this isn't the highest concern for me.
  4. Lightweight - I want a light system.
  5. Small Size - A small form factor is very important to me. I can't carry around a huge system when I'm skiing or climbing.

Now, for each camera and lens combo we will determine what it's suitable for and come up with a numerical importance value for it. This value will help determine what equipment is most important to me and what I should buy first or consider in the first place. The following is an example of 3 new cameras that I'm interested in. They are all small / light compared to a full frame camera system. The NEX-7 and X-PRO are APS-C sensors (1.5 crops) and the Olympus OM-D is a micro 4/3 sensor (2.0 crop).

Factors Sony NEX-7 Fuji X-PRO 1 Olympus OM-D
Wildlife (1) x   x
Flowers (2) x x x
General (3) x x x
Portraits (4)   x  
Landscapes (5) x x x
Aesthetics (1)   x x
Lens Choice (2)     x
Quality (3)   x  
Lightweight (4) x   x
Small (5) x   x
       
Totals: 16 18 23

 

Based on the above table, the clear winner here is the new Olympus OM-D camera. Now lets evaluate a few different lenses for the Olympus and see if I can pick some of them too. For lenses I only use the usage factors because I'm only picking lenses that I'm interested in anyway. I'm simply trying to prioritze my spending here.

Lens Wildlife(1) Flowers(2) General(3) Portraits(4) Landscapes(5)   Totals
7-14mm f/4         x   5
12mm f/2         x   5
14mm f/2.5     x   x   8
12-50mm f/3.5-5.6     x x x   12
45mm f/1.8   x   x     6
25mm f/1.4   x x x     9
45mm f/2.8 Macro   x         2
100-300mm OIS x           1

 

Based on the above table, my first  3 lenses for the Olympus OM-D should be the 14mm f/2.5, the 12-50mm zoom lens and the 25mm f/1.4. I would also add the 100-300mm lens for the occasional wildlife shot. This is exactly the type of system I'm interested in. It allows me to walk around with a great set of light lenses that should cover almost any shooting situation I'm in.

A Straight Answer

So can I make some actual real-life camera gear suggestions? Based on my personal experience, I would suggest the following gear for someone who's interested in adventure photography (in order of what I consider best to not-as-good);

  1. Micro 4/3 - I know most of you won't buy this system because in North America it's not as popular as places like Asia but I really feel that it's the best compromise between size, quality and cost right now for travel and adventure photography. With many body choices and many more lens choices from both Panasonic and Olympus you have no excuse not to take some amazing pictures on your next adventure! Another bonus of the Olympus cameras is that you can shoot JPEG and get great color and DR without shooting RAW and spending all that time processing images when you get home after your trips.
  2. Sony NEX - I feel strongly that in the next few years the NEX system will be a better option than the m43 one. If it wasn't for a large lack of lenses for the NEX system it would already be on top. With a much larger sensor and a small(er) form factor than the m43 systems, the NEX also does better HD video. The NEX lens lineup is getting much better, but so is the m43! It's becoming a closer race (2013) but I still feel that for size vs. quality the m43 system is best.
  3. Sony RX100 - This little gem of a camera has no match on the market right now (2013). It has the same size sensor as the Nikon "1" series (1 inch) but in a much smaller point 'n shoot sized package. For climbing and long trips this is a no-brainer. I would also bring it as a backup to my main system if traveling. Filters can be fitted with solutions you can google or find on EBay (so you can use CPL and ND filters).
  4. Nikon "1" Series - This series has a smaller sensor than the m43, but performs almost as well. It has a lack of lenses but will become more dominant in the future. It has very fast autofocus and great video.

You'll notice that there are no DSLR's on my list - this is very intentional. I believe that with the size / weight advantage of 'mirrorless' systems, you should no longer consider large / heavy / expensive DSLR's as an adventure photographer.

Costs - What do I Need?

So at the end of the day, what kind of equipment do you need and how much will this all cost? I'll do an analysis using the Sony NEX 5N - a tiny APS-C camera with some great lenses.

Item Comments Cost
     
Sony NEX5N Kit The basic kit comes with the 18-55mm lens. $700
Sony 16mm f/2.8 A 24mm lens (16x1.5 remember?). Nice and wide and cheap! $300
Sony 55-210mm Not the world's highest quality optic, but cheap and over 300mm at the long end. Light too. $300
46mm CPL A circular polarizing filter. This is needed to darken the sky and make the greens and blues in your landscape 'pop'. $50
Extra battery You should always have an extra battery! EBay is the best place to get these cheap. $30
32GB SD Card To store pictures on. Get a fast one. $110
Tripod Get a small / light one. Gorilla pods are pretty cool. $50
     
TOTAL This may seem expensive but for a lifetime of good memories this isn't. Camera equipment has gotten much cheaper with the digital age - take advantage of it! Remember, this also includes an HD video camera. $1500

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

There are many different factors to consider before spending your hard-earned cash on a camera system. As you can see, it makes a big difference what you intend to use the system for and how much money you can spare.

In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is cheap out on your camera gear. When you're done climbing or canoeing or adventuring, all you have left are your memories and your photos / video. Your memories will fade but the photos you take won't. Make them as good as you can!

Printing and Mounting Photographs

I promised Eric Coulthard I would tell him how to make his own panoramic wall prints, so I thought I'd share my printing secrets with the world. Arts & Crafts time on explor8ion.com folks! I guarantee that unless you've looked into this topic already, you will be overwhelmed by the work that goes into getting a nice print from a digital photo or panorama. Try to stick with me though - once you've done it a few times you'll realize there's only a few important steps to the process.

 

Mountains lend themselves to large prints and even larger panoramas. There's so much scenery it can't be contained in one shot - especially those summit shots that we all love taking! If you're like me, you have hundreds of these shots and some of them should be hanging on a wall somewhere or at the very least printed in a large landscape book. The larger the photo or panorama, the harder to print and mount. I like things simple so I do not get my mounts framed or glassed, but of course you can bring your finished print to any custom frame shop and pay another $200 - $500 to get it framed if you wish. I will be detailing how I mount and treat large prints myself, saving hundreds of dollars.

 

I think a lot of folks nowadays don't see the value printed photographs. Most photos are shared to Facebook or posted on a blog and that's it. IMHO this is a real shame.  I have some of my best memories hanging on my walls and I get to re-live and enjoy very special moments every day. Instead of family albums (which can take a long time to produce), I do a book each year that details our family experiences over that year. My kids and possible grand kids will never see explor8ion.com, so I have it all printed in books too - just so all my hard work will be around a little bit longer.

 

I get to view the following panorama at 4 feet wide while sitting at the breakfast table each morning - what a view of twins tower - it brings back that clenching feeling almost every time I view it! ;) The crazy Pol, Raf, also has this photo on his wall, since he's the guy climbing in front of me and capturing his last Columbia Icefield 11,000er on this day.

 


[A 'clenching moment' captured for posterity (!) and a giant print on my wall. Click for full size]

 

One of the biggest misconceptions I hear all the time from people is this notion that "megapixels don't matter". If you aren't concerned about megapixels or which camera you're using while attaining some of the finest memories of your life time, I think you're making a huge mistake. You could regret this attitude later in life when those memories are faded and you have no way of bringing them back to life, because you weren't concerned enough about pixels. You spend thousands on your gear - why not a few hundred more on a decent camera / lens? I'll make some suggestions on gear at the end of this article.

 

Printing is a huge topic when it comes to digital photographs. There's a LOT of things to consider if you want a nice print. I can't possibly go over everything there is to know about printing, but I'll touch on the basics. For more information Google the topic - there's a lot of wisdom out there on making photographic prints

 

Digital Size and Print Resolutions

The very first thing you need to do is determine what size of print you can realistically produce from your digital photographs. This isn't rocket science, but it kind of is... ;) In general, the more total pixels your photo has, the larger it can be printed while retaining acceptable quality per inch of print. The measurement of pixel density, is called "PPI" which stands for Pixels Per Inch. A pixel is one "dot" of information in your photograph and in general a digital photo is x pixels wide and y pixels in height. The more pixels, or megapixels (millions) your digital photo contains, the more resolution it's said to have, because for a given total size of photo and print size, you will be able to cram more or less pixels into one inch of print.

 

A 4 megapixel (mp) photograph will have much less print resolution than a 24mp photograph of exactly the same scene. In theory, the 24mp photo will print much larger and much 'nicer' than the 4mp image (because for a given size, you can cram more pixels, or information, into each inch of the 24mp print), but as you can read in the sidebar below, both photos could look very similar on a computer monitor - other than dynamic range and other factors that more megapixels and better sensors can sometimes resolve. 


Sidebar: Just to confuse the heck out of you, PPI doesn't affect how the picture looks on a computer screen at all! If you don't want people to steal your digital photos for printing, but you want them to look good on the web, simply make them a small size (i.e. not too many pixels tall or wide) and don't worry about the PPI at all - or make it very small so that the file size is small. For an in-depth analysis of the so-called 72 PPI Myth read this article.


The catch is what you consider a "good" quality print. In general you should remember the following three numbers to keep things as simple as possible (see this article for more details);

 

  1. 180ppi is the absolute minimum print resolution you should ever use. Less than this and you are not going to be satisfied. On massive panoramas (say 4 feet or wider) this is a 'good enough' resolution because in general people won't be viewing from as close. Bill boards can have extremely low PPI because nobody views them up close and your eyes fill in the missing detail automatically from 50-100+ feet away.
  2. 240ppi is the minimum standard that I go for. It will serve almost any print size very well. It's not the gold standard of printing, but unless you have a lot of pixels to work with, you may be uprezing your photo just to make this number (I'll deal with this topic later).
  3. 300ppi is the gold standard. You should always start with this number and only 'downgrade' if you have to. There's no point in going higher than 300ppi - the human eye won't notice the difference and neither will most printers.

 

So how many megapixels does it take to make some standard size prints? The math is easy. For a given size in inches, simply multiply the x (width) by the number of pixels you want to fit in each inch of print (ppi). Do the same for the y value (height). Multiply those two numbers to get a total number of pixels needed. So a 4x6" print at 240ppi would go like this;

 

  • 4 inches wide x 240ppi = 960 pixels wide
  • 6 inches tall x 240ppi = 1440 pixels tall
  • Total resolution needed is 960x1440 pixels or 1.3824 megapixels

 

Following are some common print sizes that I'll be talking about, along with the corresponding number of megapixels you need to generate that print in the given print resolution (ppi). As you look over this table, ask yourself if you still think megapixels "don't matter".

Print Size 180ppi 240ppi 300ppi
4x6" 0.7776 1.3824 2.16
5x7" 1.134 2.016 3.15
8x10" 2.592 4.608 7.2
12x18" 6.9984 12.4416 19.44
16x24" 12.4416 22.1184 34.56
24x36" 27.9936 49.7664 77.76
24x48" 37.3248 66.3552 103.68
24x60" 46.656 82.944 129.6

 

There are exceptions to the rules depending on the situation and on the gear itself. For example the following photograph was taken at dawn with a Sony RX100. This is a 20mp camera so in theory it should generate a pretty good 24x36" print - especially when compared to a 12mp camera right? Wrong. I do have this print hanging on my wall and it looks decent, but the sensor in my 12mp Sony A7S would produce a much nicer 24x36" print in the same low light conditions. Due to it's tiny sensor (1") which doesn't handle low light very well, the RX100 starts with a much more degraded image than the A7S would have in the same conditions.

 

Crap in. Crap out - that's the rule that rules above all others when it comes to printing!

 


[A gorgeous scene taken from the summit of Mount Amery at dawn. I only had my Sony RX100 with me at the time (in order to save weight) and for web photos it's more than capable. When printed at 24x36", however, this photo looks more like a painting, thanks to the poor low-light capabilities of the RX100 compared with larger sensors and heavier cameras. Nothing's free!!]

 


Sidebar:  I need to make a comment on post processing (pp) photos. Some people seem to think that a digital photo can just be downloaded from the camera and voila! You're done! Other's seem to take it one step further and imply that any pp is violating some sort of photography ethic - no photo should be manipulated afterwards or the photog is somehow 'cheating'.

 

Pure Poppycock.

 

Especially if you're taking RAW photos, but even with most JPEG's, you should be pp'ing almost every photo you take - especially the ones you're going to print. I may do another article on this later, but suffice it to say that correcting the white balance, adding some contrast, boosting the shadows, lowering the highlights and adding some vibrancy and local contast enhancement is needed on almost every shot I take with any camera at any setting. Some cameras like the Olympus and Sony produce very nice JPEG's so I shoot RAW+JPEG if I'm too lazy to pp before displaying on my blog, but the RAW's are what I use for prints and they always need work. RAW photographs are like digital negatives. In the good ol' days of film, you bought Astia, Provia or Velvia film - in the good ne' days of digital you can produce all three looks with one photograph by applying the correct pp. Crap in - crap out. Post processing your photos is critical to getting a nice wall print.


 

Remember that print I have hanging over my kitchen table at 24x48"? I printed it at 240ppi which means I needed over 65 megapixels of information to generate that print! Do you own a 65mp camera?! Neither do I! As a matter of fact I only had a 16mp camera with me on that climb. So how did I make the print? Read on my friend - the secret's about to be revealed...

 

Sizing Photographs for Printing

By now you should be aware that even for moderately large prints, say 12x18", you will need a 20mp image for a 300ppi print. Many of the cameras I've used over the years are nowhere near that many megapixels. Even the $2500 camera that I'm using today is 'only' 12mp! The Sony A7S is an amazing camera, but it doesn't have a lot of resolution compared to most modern cameras. Even though it's only 12mp, I can still get large prints from it. I just sold the following photo taken of Mount Columbia from our Alexandra trip. I sold it as a 24mp image (6000x4000 pixels) even though the original is only 12mp. (It will be hanging in a boardroom of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta in Edmonton.)

 

 

So how did I get a 24mp file from the 12mp original? The answer is fairly easy, of course. I uprezed it. "Uprezed" is shorthand for "Up Resized" or "Enlarged". I enlarged it. Yes - I could have just written that in the first place but I'm trying to all cool about printing so I'm using the lingo. Deal with it. Resizing digital photos is pretty simple. Open in Photoshop or another image editor and resize using bicubic resampling (for enlargement) or any of the other options that make sense. It really is that simple, but there are a few "gotchas" (read this article for more information than you ever wanted on the topic);

 

  • Nothings free. If you start with crappy pixels and make more of them through enlarging, you will only end up with more crappy pixels. My Sony A7S produces wonderfully detailed pixels from its full frame sensor, and its RAW images can usually be uprezed by 100% with very little loss of quality. The same is NOT true of every 4, 12 or even 24 megapixel camera!
  • If you only shoot JPEG photos, these cannot be uprezed nearly as good as RAW photos. JPEG's are already compressed and are so-called lossy output (that's why they're so much smaller than RAW files on your hard drive). Because JPEG's have already thrown out a lot of information to make themselves smaller, the uprez algorithms have less information to work with - hence a crappier uprez than with RAW files.
  • All things being equal, it's always better to have as many megapixels to start with as possible. I really wish my A7S was 24mp instead of only 12. I owned the 36mp A7R but it's RAW files were too big to work with (too slow on my computer). Personally I think 24mp is the sweet spot right now. But the A7S can take photos in the dark and works well with wide angle lenses, so I had to compromise on megapixels. Like I said, nothing's free.

 

Before you get all depressed because you only have JPEG photos from the past 10 years and they're all small - you don't have to print large in order to enjoy them! I would recommend a collage of small photos (i.e. put 1 year of photos into 1 giant 24x36" print) or make your own printed books, which have smaller images (check out Blurb.ca for one option that I use and love). If you print a book make sure you add some details so that when you're 60 years old you can remember which peak you're standing on in the photo.

 

Before you run out and spend $3,000 on a Nikon D750 and huge lens, you should know that you can probably generate massive files from your existing digital camera. There is a way to 'trick' your camera into producing files that would make it look like a mini-medium format imager.

 

Stitching to get Megapixels

I can produce massive digital files and correspondingly huge prints from my relatively 'small' 12mp Sony A7S. You can even generate panoramas that will print at 24x48" with a 6, 8 or 10mp camera - quite easily. The secret is panoramic photo stitching.

 

Stitching photos together to form massive photos used to be a PITA. Nowadays it's pretty darn easy. In the field you simply point and shoot your camera at the landscape and fire away - overlapping each shot with the one previous by about 1/4. You can do simple panoramas, or complex matrices where you go across and then up or down. The only limit is your patience while waiting to stitch them together back at home. Of course, nothing's free, and there are situations that work better than others. The more static a scene (i.e. no moving parts), the easier it will stitch. The following scenes are much harder to stitch properly than static landscapes;

 

  • Waves
  • People
  • Fast moving clouds (usually not an issue though)
  • Animals (that are alive)
  • Fighter jets (that are flying)
  • Macros

 

One thing a lot of folks don't realize is that you don't have to do a panoramic shot to stitch for massive prints. Say you have a 10mp camera and there's a beautiful landscape in front of you that you're sure you want to print some day. Instead of doing a classic panorama, just point your camera at the scene and do a fast sequence of shots - of the exact same scene! Do NOT use a tripod for this. The way it works, is that each frame will be slightly shifted from the others due to your movement (hence no tripod). Even just 1 or 2 pixels shifted is enough. This means much more information (i.e. pixels) in your stitched photo! Your 10mp camera just produced a 50mp image from a static, non-panoramic scene simply by holding down the shutter release button and rapidly firing off a sequence of shots. Cool eh?

 

The following photo is a 12 image stitch with my Olympus OM 135mm lens from our camp at the Alexandra bivy. I wanted a high rez shot of the waterfalls coming down from the Alexandra glacier. Rather than just do a single shot, I panned the lens 3 times across and the 5 down for a total of 15 shots. Accounting for the overlap between photos, there is still at least 144 megapixels of information in this photo - shot with a 12mp camera. 

 


[Over 144mp of information in the original stitched version of this photo]

 

As you can see, the above photograph isn't a 'classic' panorama. It's sized at 2x3 dimensions and would make a great 24x36" print. I'd have to downrez it even at 300ppi! Obviously the more classic wide or tall panoramas work exactly the same. Simply take a whole series of vertical photos in the field and stitch them together when you get home. If you have a 4 or 8mp camera, just take lots of overlap and lots of photos and you can still print a panorama 5 feet wide with tons of detail (assuming the lens is decent and you expose the photo properly - remember if you start with crap you'll end up with crap...). (Note: Olympus is rumored to be releasing a 16mp camera soon that will do this for you, automatically. This will produce 40mp images from a 16mp sensor!)

 

The 24x48" panorama that I have above my kitchen table was taken on a 16mp Olympus E-M5 camera. But it took at least 65mp of information to make. I fired off a series of 7 vertically oriented shots and managed to get a photo large enough to print at 240ppi or even more if I wanted (7x16=112 megapixels). The moving climbers didn't affect the pano because I made sure they were in the middle of one of them (i.e. don't put moving things on the edge of your photos if you are planning to stitch them later).

 

A very common issue that I run into all the time, is that I don't have enough room on the bottom and top of my panos to stitch them how I'd like. This is why I recommend taking vertical oriented shots when making summit panoramas - you get a lot more room at the bottom / top of your stitch. If you don't correct for distortion, you'll get a pano like the following one from Mount Beatrice;

 

 
[Click for full size]

 


Sidebar: What about HDR photos - aren't those stitched as well? Yes and no. HDR photos are generated by taking a number of photos of the same scene, with different exposure settings. Than a program like Photoshop is used to combine the different exposure values into one photograph with all the exposures - basically it expands the range of shadows to highlights without blowing them out. You get more dynamic range. This is a different topic that I might address in another article some day.


 

Sharpen before Printing!

Phew! We're almost ready to send the file to the printer. Almost. There's one more critical step in the process. If you don't do this step properly your photo will not pop the way it should. Remember - crap in, crap out? The same goes for unsharp photos. Obviously the photo should be focussed properly, but this isn't the same as 'sharp'. Sharpening is another topic that you can research extensively, but at the very least you MUST do what's called output sharpening on any photo you're either printing or displaying on a screen somewhere. You must size your photo first (i.e. up or down rez it) and then apply sharpening. (For photos that I display on the web I use a two-step process where I over sharpen slightly and then downsize for display.)

 

A very simple rule-of-thumb that I use for prints is to view my photo at 50%, after first sizing it correctly for width, height and resolution (ppi). I then apply sharpening to the photo until it looks nice and sharp on my monitor at the 50% viewing size. That's it. Usually I only have to use the "sharpen" command in Photoshop once or twice and I'm good to go. Very easy. You may have to experiment a bit but a basic rule of thumb is to over sharpen slightly. The final step is to save the photo before delivering it to your printer. I recommend either saving it as a compressed TIFF or a 11 or 12 quality JPEG. Both of these options will generate very large files - but that's a good thing! Large means information and information means better print.

 


Sidebar: When printing photo books it's way too much work to resize and sharpen each individual photo for it's final size since I often resize them while building the book. In this case I output every image for the maximum size of the book page (i.e. 12 inches wide) and sharpen for that size. If I end up resizing to 4 or 6 inches it'll still look good since downsizing usually adds the effect of a sharper image anyway. I just use the default sharpening setting in Lightroom for matte paper when doing my batch export.


 

Printing your Photograph

FINALLY! Well almost. :) There is one more step (or series of steps LOL...) you can do if you're fussy. Most professional printers and print companies will generate color profiles for their printers. These can be used in conjunction with your image editor and a good computer monitor, to ensure that what you see as "red" on your computer screen is going to look like the same "red" to the printer and on the final print. The area of color management and printer and monitor profiling is way beyond the scope of this article but you can start reading about it here if you're interested. At the end of the day usually the default sRGB profiles will work just fine (i.e. don't worry about it unless your prints look awful).

 

Most printers don't print panoramas very easily and certainly not cheaply! The easiest way to get small panoramas is to assemble and cut them yourself. Say you want two 12x36" panoramas. Simply create a new image in Photoshop at 300ppi and 24x36" in size. Size and sharpen your two panoramas at the same ppi and 12x36" each. Copy and paste them into your 24x36" image and save it. Send this to the printer and cut it into the two panoramas yourself at home (see next section). This works great for almost any size panorama. For huge panoramas (24x48", 24x60") I usually have to talk to the printer and sort it out beforehand. The files are so big I usually have to deliver them on a USB stick myself anyway. You won't be uploading a 100mp image to your printer's online photo site!

 

I get my large prints done at a professional print shop (vistek.ca). Obviously there's a lot of other options from home printing to Costco. Whatever you can afford and whatever you're happy with is good enough! The thing I like about Vistek is I know what to expect and they can handle huge files for panoramic prints. I've printed to 5 feet wide with them and with excellent results almost every time. They also give you the option of previewing your print so that you don't waste $100-$200 on the final print.

 

DIY Photo Mounting

I think Eric only expected to see this last section when he asked me about printing panoramas. He got a lot more than he bargained for, I'm sure! ;) The final step is to trim and mount your prints. You'll need to go to Michaels (or any hobby store) and get the following items;

 

  • Foam core backing in the right size and color for your print. I usually get larger than I need if possible and usually get white. Black can look nice too.
  • Photo mounting glue - get lots and make sure it's spray, not glue stick!
  • Adjustable trimming knife - make sure it is good quality and if possible has a guide on it so you can run it down a straight edge. It has to cut through the foam core and mounted photo.
  • Photo preservation spray - prevents UV harm and protects the photograph from aging effects.
  • A straight edge that can be used in conjunction with the trimming knife to guide a long, straight cut. A long, narrow metal ruler is perfect.
  • A rubber roller for rolling the image onto the foam core when gluing, to get rid of bubbles and make sure it's mounted flat.
  • Double sided photo mounting squares or tape for hanging the foam core on your wall (note: this will take paint off when removed).
  • A clean, flat surface that can withstand a few knife cuts without resulting in a divorce.
  • A ventilated area.

 

The first thing to do is mount and glue the photograph to the foam core. For large prints, spray both surfaces. The tricky part is lining everything up. Large prints will want to roll back up on you while you're trying to spray the glue and then mount them on the foam core. The glue sticks pretty fast so there's no time to waste. You can cut combined panos (i.e. two 12x36" on one 24x36" print) either before or after gluing onto the foam core. I do it after gluing so I only have to cut once. Gently roll the photo flat onto the surface of the backing using the rubber roller. Don't press too hard or you'll make dents in the foam core that won't come out. Once the photo is glued, spray it with the protective spray at least twice, following directions for drying times and safety measures. You have to watch that you don't get glue on the roller or you end up smearing that all over the photo. I speak from personal experience here. :( Usually my panos come wrapped in brown paper that I use to protect the photo while I'm cutting and rolling it.

 

Now the trickiest part - cutting to size and trimming the white edges from your print... There's no magic here, but you need to practice a few times before you'll generate a nice straight and precise cut. If you're mounting the photo directly on the wall, like I do, you want a nice clean edge. Trust me - trimming a 5 foot long image without screwing up is VERY nerve-wracking. A very sharp knife and steady cut along a straight edge (that doesn't move halfway through the cut) is critical. After cutting is complete and the photo glue is completely dry, apply the double sided mounting tape and hang on your wall, or bring it to your custom framer.

 

Summary and Camera Gear

So there you go! Easy right? :) It isn't that bad once you go through the process a few times. Here's a summary that makes it look pretty simple;

 

  1. Take your photos with as many good megapixels as possible. (Good camera / lens)
  2. Try to take RAW photos. RAW + JPEG works too (use JPEG on web).
  3. Resize, sharpen and save large for printing.
  4. Print photos.
  5. Mount photographs or make a book.

 

One last note about camera gear. In today's market there's an overwhelming amount of choice for (good) camera gear. I would recommend either micro four thirds gear from Olympus or Panasonic, or the Sony RX100 series for most trekkers, climbers, hikers, bikers or skiers. The best options right now IMHO are either the Panasonic GM5 with 12-32mm and 35-100mm lens or the Sony RX100III if you need really small and light. These cameras aren't cheap - but nothing's free remember?! With the GM5 you can expand your lens choices to a staggering degree and with the RX100 you are getting a lot of power in a very small package, including very good HD video. (There are certainly cheaper options out there that will work very well, but you're probably going to have to either compromise on size and weight or quality of the lens to go much cheaper than these two.)

 

If money isn't as much of a concern for you, check out the full frame Sony A7 series. These camera's are all very powerful. I am doing an extensive review of my A7S which will be published soon. I've been chasing the holy grail of small, light, perfect camera for over a decade now. Thanks to current technologies we're getting very close!

Smart Phone Photography (iPhone 6s)

With all the incredible advances in smart phone technology over the past few years, there are two in particular that have caught my eye. The first is the GPS capabilities that have been standard for a while now and which I'm currently experimenting with and have blogged about as well. The second thing I became interested in after acquiring a new iPhone recently, is the photography and video capabilities of the modern cellphone.

 

NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn't add a warning up front that there is some good evidence that cell phones interfere with avalanche transceivers - obviously something you should be aware of during winter when you take an electronic device with you, including your phone. There are solutions such as keeping the two devices separated by at least 20 inches.

 

The first thing you might ask, is "why bother?" - can a smart phone really be counted on to take trusted photographs of memorable situations? The answer is that it depends. I personally know of someone who has been using a smart phone (similar to this one from Samsung) for years to take photographs of hundreds of his summits and climbing expeditions (I only wish he'd upload higher resolution images to his web site! :)). Here are just some of the questions you should be asking yourself to determine how much or little you will use your phone's camera to document the adventure of your life;

 

  1. Am I going to print or blog most my photos?
  2. How many photos am I going to take and how willing am I to pay for extra storage?
  3. What kind of post processing (PP) am I going to do to my photos after taking them? Realistically.
  4. How do I want to back up my photos to make sure I don't lose them?

 


[The iPhone 6s with a Moment Case and 60mm lens]

 

Removable Lenses for your Phone

I've recently acquired some Moment removable lenses for my iPhone 6s. Why? Well, the answer is rather obvious. I can put them all in one pocket and I get the following focal lengths out of the set;

 

  • 18mm (Moment lens) - perfect for sweeping landscapes and large panoramas. Also great for unique perspectives and group shots indoors.
  • 25mm 10x Macro (Moment lens) - this is the least useful lens, but it's fun and can be used with nice effects.
  • 29mm (default iPhone 6s lens) - one of the best all-around focal lengths. Works for almost any situation except portraits or flower shots.
  • 60mm (Moment lens) - great for portraits. You don't have to shove your phone right in someone's face to take a nice portrait. I also like this lens for flower shots and to generate some foreground / background separation, which is tough to do with a phone's camera.

 

The built-in focal length on the iPhone 6s is around my favorite focal length of 25-28mm. This focal length allows pretty much any type of photo from close ups to sweeping panoramas (vertical stitching) to portraits. My second favorite focal length is anywhere in the 18-21mm range. This focal length allows lots of creativity in both landscape and urban photography. I am very happy with the 18mm Moment lens. My next favorite focal length range is 135mm. I'm hoping that this is the next lens from Moment ;). Of course, 50-75mm is a very standard focal length and allows compressed landscape stitching and flower / portraiture, so I'm very happy with this option on the iPhone. Macro is always fun, but I always use it much less than anticipated for some reason.

 


[Macro lens from Moment]

 

All-in-all, I am delighted with this first set of interchangeable lenses and can only imagine that there will be more options soon, including a fisheye and a telephoto lens.

 

As for why I choose Moment lenses over Olloclip's solution, the answer is simply that I wanted the best I could afford. Moment lenses are designed by professional cine lens artisans and use ED glass and special coatings to enhance the final image. I figured that my phone lenses are already suffering the disadvantages inherent to their size / design so why make it worse with my attachment lenses? So far the Moment lenses have been worth it, but I can highly recommend the Olloclip lenses too - whatever suits your fancy and your wallet.

 


[The 18mm Moment lens is truly very tiny and has excellent glass - all for $99 USD.]


[The 18mm Moment lens allows a much wider angle of view (AOV) than the default 29mm iPhone 6s lens. I'm impressed with this jpeg's color and tonal range too. I had to open up the shadows a lot in LR as I exposed for the sky.]

 

Disadvantages of using a Phone Camera

I might as well get this out of the way up front even though it's obvious. Your camera is *not* a DSLR or even a high end P&S like the recently announced Canon G5x or Sony RX100 IV. At least not yet. I believe that it's getting closer with products like the Sony QX1 and Sony QX30. (You should be aware that camera modules like the QX30 don't actually use the camera in your phone, they only use the phone's screen as an interface / shutter button.) The point of this article is not to convince you to dump your 'real' camera in order to exclusively take photos with your phone, but I am opening the door to perhaps using your phone camera more than you currently do. I consider it more of a backup option and an option to supplement your real camera, not replace it every time, unless the modules I mentioned above are good enough for you!

 

There are some obvious disadvantages of your phone's camera, here's just some of them;

 

  • Sensor Limitations - phone camera sensors are small, with all the disadvantages that brings including, too much depth-of-field (DOF), crappy high ISO, limited large print options. Try taking a photo of the Milky Way or a sharp portrait with blurred background with your phone if you don't know what I mean... :)
    • This being said - there are a TON of apps on the Apple App Store that contain some ingenious solutions to *some* of the limitations of the sensor in your phone.
  • Limited storage - my phone is only 64gb and most of that is for apps and music. If I'm in the back country with no WIFI, I am severely limited by memory space.
  • No easy manual control - most phone cameras have limited or no easy-to-use manual control. Trying to use manual ISO, speed or EV can be difficult and clunky. Note: I am trying the Manual app out and it seems pretty intuitive to use but manual focus is a bit clunky, especially in the field.
  • No aperture control - iPhone cameras have a fixed aperture.
  • Battery limited - taking a few hundred shots is fine, but what if you're also using the GPS and texting and updating your status? Your battery will be toast, very quickly.
  • Handling - try taking photos with winter gloves on, or worse, while balancing on skis with gloves tucked under one arm and the phone in another! I also seem to get my huge glove in almost every wide angle shot unless I'm very careful about how I hold the phone while taking a photo.
  • No viewfinder - this is related to handling and isn't a huge deal for most people, but not having a viewfinder, especially in bright outdoor conditions can be a real PITA. How do you know what exposure you're using when you don't even have a preview of the shot to look at, thanks to a brilliant sun?
  • No zoom options - the only zoom available on most phones is digital zoom. Don't bother. Your phone camera is primes only unless you have a funky detachable module like these ones which doesn't really use the camera in your phone.
  • No telephoto lenses - as of right now, the longest quality tele lens (from Moment) is the 60mm. This isn't going to get that distant peak or animal. (There are options for telephoto lenses but I'm not convinced they're any good. I'm going to try one or two and update this article at a later point.) Again - if you have something like the Sony QX1 you can attach any Sony E-Mount lens, but this is defeating the point of the phone camera - i.e. small and with you all the time and using the built-in camera in the phone itself.

 

There are certainly even more disadvantages of phone cameras over 'regular' cameras, but this article is about using your phone, not throwing it in a large vat of acid because it "can't do everything a DSLR does" - so I'll move on. ;)

 


[The shutter button on the Moment camera case even allows a half-press focus / exposure lock - just like a normal camera.]

 

Print or Blog

The most important question to ask yourself with regards to using your phone as a camera, is whether or not you are going to print your photos or simply post them on the web (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, blogs etc). If you're pretty much never going to print your photos larger than a 'normal' sized photo book (i.e. 8x11" at the largest), you have nothing to worry about with a modern smart phone camera's resolution and ability to print. You will be fine using your phone - especially for casual snaps and trips that are spontaneous or excursions that you don't want to lug an extra camera around for.

 

As I detailed in my article on printing and mounting photographs, the main consideration when printing photographs is resolution (i.e. megapixels) and the trick of stitching photos to get even more resolution. The camera in the iPhone 6S is a 12 megapixel unit, which is fairly standard nowadays. The issue I have with the default iPhone camera application is that it generates pretty small (compressed, 8-bit) jpeg files that don't always take well to manipulation (i.e. resizing, sharpening in Lightroom or Photoshop). The Moment app lets you save photos as TIFF files, which are much larger but also more malleable than the default jpegs. Be aware that your phone will fill up quickly with TIFF's - I would only use them when presented with a killer shot. Obviously, being an iPhone, there are many other options for camera apps and most have similar options.

 


[The 18mm lens and Moment Case]

 

Editing and Storing Photos from your Phone

After taking the photos (either JPG or RAW / TIFF), what is the best way to process and store them? There is no *best* way, but there are various options you should consider. I do the following;

 

  • For casual photos of family, friends, unplanned stuff I simply turn on the iCloud storage options for my photographs. Yes, this means I will eventually have to start paying for storage but the huge advantage is that I never have to worry about losing important memories either. I also don't have to store my photos on my phone, which is 'only' 64gb. Just make sure you tweak the settings so that you only upload on WIFI or you might get some big phone bills!
  • For more formal shots, say a series of landscapes or some creative project, I will use the default iCloud option for the originals, but I will also download them from the Apple Photo application on my MacBook and incorporate them into my normal photography workflow (i.e. store them on an external drive, import them to Lightroom and post process them as usual). This is also where I'll process the TIFF files and manually perform any panoramic stitches.

 

There are some considerations when editing photos taken on your smart phone;

 

  • You should always consider if editing is really necessary or if the phone camera captured the memory good enough. I have some nifty apps on my phone that I use for on-the-spot edits that are usually good enough for snapshots and uploading to social media. I use Photoshop Express or the built-in Apple photo editor most of the time.
  • When doing panoramas, should you use the phone's built-in panoramic stitching or manually do it with individual photos? For quick 'n easy, use the phone's capabilities but for that unique panorama from the top of some mountain or near some back country lake, I would use the manual method every time - especially if it could become a large print on your wall some day.
  • HDR could be necessary for that REALLY special shot of a sunrise near an alpine lake or any static scene with a wide dynamic range. I can adjust the EV (exposure value) on my iPhone with the built-in camera or expose one shot for the shadows and another for the highlights. Combine into an HDR using your favorite photo editing tool at home. A tripod would be extremely handy in this scenario.

 


[For casual snaps that are instantly shared to social media, I often do in-phone editing with Adobe's Photoshop Express app. In this case I used the preset for "fall" and added a border before saving and sharing.]

 

Workarounds for Smart Phone Camera Limitations

Earlier, I mentioned some disadvantages of the phone camera. There are workarounds for some of these limitations;

 

  • Apps and more apps!! There are a TON of apps out there that take the limitations of your phone and execute some pretty facinating workarounds. For example there are HDR apps that do a pretty amazing job of getting around the sensor limitations in the iPhone by combining multiple exposures into a single shot.
  • You can set up and use Photoshop actions to generate out-of-focus (OOF) background blur (i.e. bokeh) for nice flower or portrait shots. This isn't the easiest thing in the world to learn, but I've used it with some success.
  • You should buy an external charger for your phone, to get around the battery limitations. It's one more thing to carry, but you can get pretty small ones that will charge your phone 4 or 5 times, which should be plenty for any trip less than around a week long.
  • A small tripod is a good idea, especially for HDR's. 
  • A wrist or full camera strap is a good idea.
  • Considering how small / light / slippery some of these phones are, a good waterproof camera case is probably not a dumb idea. ;) Beware that removable lens solutions like the Olloclip and Moment won't work with these types of cases.

 


[An in-camera processed and stitched panorama from this past fall on a lunch time walk in downtown Calgary. I'm pretty impressed with this sooc jpeg. It's not technically perfect but by doing in-camera stitching, cropping and post processing, I only spent 3 or 4 minutes capturing a nice memory that will even print pretty large. Not too shabby!]

 

Real World Use - Winter Ski Tour

I recently took my iPhone 6s on a ski tour up Healy Creek to Simpson Pass and out via Sunshine Meadows and the Sunshine ski resort. I took the Moment lens case and the 18mm and 60mm lenses along. I only shot JPEG to keep things easier.

 

I recorded and followed a GPS track using the ViewRanger app, as well as taking photos. Even in winter temperatures (around -10 to -5 degrees Celsius) the phone still had over 75% battery after 5 hours and roughly 100 photos, including some live photos and some panoramas. To be honest, this performed MUCH better than I was expecting.

 


[The iPhone 6s handled this difficult lighting situation pretty well, I thought. Deep shadows at the bottom and bright sunshine above. This is a JPEG straight out of camera (sooc) and there isn't too much clipping of highlights or shadows. Of course the blue color cast is thanks to early morning light and all the snow.]

 

Reality did sink in a few times though. Even on this low-key and very easy ski tour, the phone proved tricky to use as a trip camera, especially in winter conditions. Here's some things that I found annoying or didn't work as well as I wanted them to;

 

  • The Moment Lens case is connected to the iPhone via Bluetooth and kept losing it's connection. I'm not sure why - possibly the cold? It has never done this before. This wouldn't bother me, except with gloves on the whole exercise of getting enough buttons pushed to reengage the Bluetooth was annoying. I quickly took the case off completely, which of course meant I couldn't use the lenses and the phone was now completely unprotected.
  • Especially while moving (i.e. hiking, skiing, climbing), switching prime lenses is a PITA. I've discovered this before. On many mountain excursions, I've used prime lenses to keep my camera kit small and light. For example, on Mount Alexandra I only took an 18mm, 24mm and 135mm prime lens (and not even auto focus) for use with my Sony A7s. I got some amazing photos, but switching lenses was a bit of a PITA. I basically only used the 24mm except when I really wanted to switch for a particular scene. Not a huge issue, but something to be aware of with primes. It's easy to imagine that you won't mind switching lenses while you're sitting in a dry room but it's quite another matter when it's getting dark, it's snowing, cold and windy! The 29mm lens on the iPhone is good for about 88.8% of my landscape shots. The Moment lenses will only be used very sparingly. Good thing they're tiny and light and not that expensive compared to DSLR glass.
  • The phone, without a case is very slippery, especially with gloves on! I dropped my brand new, $800+ phone into the snow and it quickly vanished from sight!! I was not at all happy as I plunged my bare hands into the deep snow after it. YIKES. Amazingly, it was fine and I even kept using it after this incident, but I need to find a way to attach a wrist strap to it. This is an advantage of the Moment case - it attaches a strap.
  • Big, warm mitts and gloves don't work with the touch screen. Obviously I had to take at least one glove off for each photo.
  • Touch ID doesn't work with sweaty fingers or in the cold very well. The phone got a bit damp from me sweating and the cool air. I had to use my PIN half the time, which wasted a lot of time and meant my exposed hand got colder!
  • The iPhone is small and light. This means it's easy to drop but it's also very easy to get your gloved hand (the one holding the phone) in the photo. I had at least 20 shots out of 100 that had a darkened edge from my stupid glove in the right hand top corner. Ooops.

 

I know the list of negatives looks long, but there were positives too. The main positive was that I could use a tiny, light device to do two important functions. Take photos and follow / record a GPS track. The other positive? Great photo IQ IMHO. Definitely good enough for the type of day it was - namely a short ski tour of an area which I've taken hundreds of RAW photos already. I only needed photos for my blog and for recording memories from this trip.

 

 
[A manually stitched (using Lightroom) panorama of the Sunshine Meadows with the iPhone 6s. Yes, some highlights are blown but this is pointing directly at the sun! ++]


[Another great thing I discovered about the iPhone 6s SOOC (straight out of camera) jpeg files is that they convert very nicely to B&W shots.]

 

I think the iPhone 6s with the Moment case / lenses is better for the following scenarios than winter ski trips;

 

  • Warm temperatures (no gloves, no moisture isses, can wear the case like a camera around my neck). Also easier to switch lenses without worrying about dropping them in snow, or falling too far behind your ski buddies while fiddling with Bluetooth issues!
  • Around town - conditions where the phone can be in your pocket and easily accessed and used without worrying about dropping off a cliff or into a snow bank.
  • Casual, spur-of-the-moment shots because it's all you have with you!
  • Family / friends photos - mostly because it's always there. Practice using indoors and don't forget to USE it. You really don't have much to lose so snap away!
  • Travel photography - obviously you might want a more 'formal' camera for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but your smart phone is a pretty darn good backup camera. With a small tripod and some good lenses you could take 90% of your travel photos easily with your phone. And you're probably less likely to get mugged or challenged in the street while using your phone camera than a large DSLR.

 

Conclusion

I still have a few things to try with my iPhone;

 

  • HDR
  • Tripod shooting
  • Video
  • Telephoto lens

 

I have tried enough on my iPhone 6s to conclude that it can perform amazingly well as a camera, especially in the form of a small / light, carry-anywhere tool that also happens to give me GPS, phone calls, texting and many other useful functions. The auto-backup functionality of iCloud works well for me and I have already captured many family moments that are special for reasons beyond technical photograph perfection.

 

 

I will continue to use my phone as my main GPS unit when not measuring mountain heights (I have a dedicated GPS with a barometer for such things) and will continue to use it as a backup camera on my various trips. I will try to use it more and more to document everyday memories in my life adventure - after all, why NOT?

Sony's A7(r) NEX Full Frame Camera

**Updated October 18 2013**

Sony has done it again! I don't normally get very excited about camera gear (yeah right) but this time I will be blogging about my experience with the new Sony NEX full frame, mirrorless camera system, as I have one on pre-order already.

What's the big deal? Well, among many other things;

  • Small, mirrorless FULL FRAME (same size as the HALF FRAME Olympus E-M1).
  • Gorgeous Zeiss lenses to take advantage of that FF sensor
  • 36 or 24 MP options
  • A7r has no AA filter (sharper)
  • Built-in Viewfinder
  • Weatherproof

I'll continue to blog more about this camera and why I think it's the panacea for adventure photographers as I read more about it. 

[Sony's new full frame camera, the A7r is a hiker's dream camera!]


[With the 35mm f/2.8 len the system isn't much bigger than the smallest FF camera money can currently buy - the Sony RX1(r)]

My Digital Camera Dilemma and History

I have used an embarrassing amount of different cameras over the past decade. The vast majority of these systems were purchased second hand and resold on the used market - making them more like 'rentals' than true investments and allowing me to try many, many different body / lens combinations.

These include, but are not limited to;

  • ​Panasonic DMC L1
  • ​Panasonic LX1
  • ​Panasonic GX1
  • Panasonic G1
  • Panasonic GH1
  • Olympus C770UZ
  • Olympus E-400
  • Olympus E-410
  • Olympus E-420
  • Olympus E-M5
  • Olympus E-P3
  • Olympus E-PM1
  • Nikon D70
  • ​Nikon D90
  • Nikon D200
  • Nikon D700
  • ​Nikon D800E
  • ​Canon 5D
  • ​Canon 6D
  • Canon 20D
  • ​Canon 1DIIN
  • Sigma DP1
  • Ricoh GRIV
  • Fuji X-PRO
  • Fuji X-E1
  • ​Fuji X100
  • ​Sony A900
  • ​Sony A99
  • Sony NEX 5
  • Sony NEX 5N
  • Sony NEX 7
  • Sony RX100
  • Sony RX100II
  • Sony RX1
  • Leica M8.2
  • Pentax Q
  • Pentax K-5

This is just from memory. I know I'm missing some in this list! :) So what was I so busy pursuing? If you know camera gear, you'll immediately notice that most of the gear is on the small / light side, especially the Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji gear. My top 3 priorities for camera gear were (and still are):

  1. Size / Weight (portability)
  2. Image Quality (sensor)
  3. Lens choices (low to high quality options)

There are some other obvious priorities that are lower but still desirable, including viewfinder, weather proofing and styling. Ever since the four-thirds and m43 (micro four-third) standard was adopted by Olympus and Panasonic back in 2003 and 2008 I was a huge fan. Cameras like the E-400 and E-P1 changed everything for me as a hiker and scrambler. I could now carry a DSLR with a set of lenses without weighing as much as a tank and actually enjoy both photography and tramping around the mountains and doing canoe trips and backpacking adventures.

Sometimes Size Matters

There was always one nagging problem with the 4/3 standard though. Sensor size.

Now, sensor size isn't everything there is to making a good image - that's why I happily used the 4/3 cameras for years and have huge prints on my wall from many of them. Sometimes a smaller sensor is actually better - especially with landscape photos in bad lighting because you get more depth of field with larger apertures on a smaller sensor. (If that last sentence confused you - read this and this.) Panoramic stitching software kept improving over the years, and that made it possible to do massive landscapes from relatively small angles of view with great detail and printing options. Another thing that kept me enamored with the Olympus and Panasonic systems were the huge selection of great lenses which took years to show up on the market but are truly fantastic and tiny compared to the competition, whether it's APS-C or full frame options.

So why are there some giant cameras on my list of previously owned gear, like the Nikon D800 or Canon 6D? Simply put - Image Quality. I'm not talking about images sized for the web (1200 pixels on the longest side). I'm talking about detail - 1:1 viewing and cropping options. I'm referring to pixel quality, not necessarily practical quality.

Pixel vs. Practical Quality

What's the difference between pixel and practical quality of a photograph? Consider the following two shots:

 
[Click image to view full size]

 
[Click image to view full size]

I consider both these previous shots to be quite excellent and would hang both on my wall (the bottom one is a 24x36" pano already...) One of them is taken with a Canon 6D and Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 and the other is taken with an Olympus E-P3 and Olympus 12mm f/2.0. The Canon combo is a full frame system worth about $4,500, while the Olympus is a half frame, m43 system and worth about $1,500.

Can you spot which is which? The 6D / Zeiss shot is the first one.

I've just illustrated the difference between practical and pixel quality. Practical quality is good enough for just about anyone and any situation. Pixel quality is all about the details. The details don't really matter until the photo is cropped, printed, enlarged or edited in certain ways like exposure adjustments or shadow / highlight manipulations. On web sized photos the details don't really show up unless you know what to look for. There are some excellent photographers who use the four thirds format, but most of their photos are online and not in galleries and I think their gear is part of the reason why. In the two photographs above, the first one will make a much better print and was much easier to post process due to the larger and better sensor of the 6D over the E-P3.

As I continued to use and enjoy the practical benefits of the smaller formats like APS-C and Four Thirds, I always wished I had the quality of my full frame cameras - that's why I convinced myself to buy a number of these huge cameras / lenses just for the pure image quality I could achieve. I always ended up selling them due to the sheer unpleasantness of lugging that gear around.

Other Options

Was there no other options besides the huge and heavy Canon / Nikon / Sony full frame gear? Not cheap ones! I briefly used the Leica M system, a 1.3 crop in the M8.2 and while I loved the image quality and the tiny lenses, I didn't like the restrictions and expense of the system. I went on a waiting list for the new type 240 full frame Leica but at $7,000 for the body only it was way out of my league for now. Even just a set of medium level Leica lenses on top of that body would be over $15,000! And there's no AF, no macro, zooms or practical wide angle solution either.

I also spent quite a bit of time and money on the Sony NEX APS-C system. While I loved almost everything about the system, the lack of native lenses was a huge issue for me - the Sony NEX-7 needed a high quality zoom and some really nice primes like the 24mm Zeiss. While there is some decent options finally available now, the Sony NEX-7 is outdated technology and there are better sensors and systems available now.

The Fuji X-Trans system is a very attractive option with excellent IQ, fairly small options (X-M1) but trade offs in the form of slow AF, large zooms, non-standard sensor format and not the best electronic viewfinders. 

My Current Compromise

The long and short of it is that for photographers who truly love hiking, climbing, canoeing, backpacking and any other self-propelled, wilderness adventures there is no panacea. There is no system that will give all 3 of my top requirements in camera gear, namely being small and light, having maximum image quality and great lenses.

The best system compromise that I could come up with for the summer / fall of 2013 was carrying two cameras! Believe it or not, this gave me the most image quality vs. size / weight from any system that I'd looked at up until the new Sony FE system. Right now I am carrying a Sony RX1, full frame, fixed lens camera for most of my landscapes and a Sony RX100II for any tele or single shot wide angle shots I might need. The RX100II is a 1" sensor, the same as the "Nikon CX" format. Being a 20mp camera gives me options to generate fairly high quality photographs and prints, especially if I stitch shots. The following shot is from the RX100 and is a print on my wall at 24x36". It looks good from a distance but shows smearing from close by. In a pinch and for web photos, the Sony RX100II works adequately and is tiny and very light for long trips. 


[This photo is a 24x36" print on my wall and is taken with the RX100 at low light. It looks OK, but not good enough for a gallery print IMHO. It looks great on the web though!]

Using panoramic stitching I can achieve very large, high quality photographs on a full frame system using Zeiss optics on the RX1. I'm constantly amazed by the high quality of the pixels on the FF sensor and amazing Zeiss lens sitting in front of it. The RX1 and RX100 share batteries and even an electronic viewfinder so using them together makes a lot of sense. I've adopted the strategy of trying to use the RX1 for any 'formal' landscape shooting and the RX100II for documenting my trips - taking spontaneous shots and photos that won't necessarily end up on my wall but will be online or in photo books (where I'm printing much smaller sizes).

 
[The Sony RX1 (L) and RX100 (R) are a good team, but using them means a LOT of compromise!]

The problem? Flexibility and options. Right now I have no interchangeable lens system! That's extremely limiting in many situations. For example, if my kids have a school play I will have no ability to take good, low light photos with any sort of zoom or telephoto lens. I have no fast prime or wide angle option. What I have is an excellent 35mm f/2 lens stuck (literally stuck!) on an incredible full frame sensor and a mediocre 28-100mm lens stuck (again, stuck) on a decent-but-not-spectacular 1" sensor.

 
[A Sony RX1 photograph - this type of shooting is almost impossible without a fast, wide lens and a large sensor.]

 
[The Sony RX100II is no slouch either - especially for web sized and smaller prints, it does just fine.]

Why the Sony E-Mount Full Frame changes Everything

While Olympus and Panasonic continued to push their half frame systems as smaller, lighter and more practical, technology continued to evolve around them. Cameras like the revolutionary RX1 and RX1r proved that a small full frame system was possible and photographers started to get excited when rumors of a full frame NEX began to gain steam about half way through 2013. Was it possible? It didn't seem likely, given that Sony already had two different camera mounts (the A and E mounts) on top of a host of point 'n shoots and the high end 1" sensor option in the RX100 and RX100 mark II.

But on September 16, 2013 Sony once again shocked the camera world by announcing another new system based on the E-Mount (APS-C), called the "FE" system and implemented in the A7 and A7r cameras.

Check out the diagram below and pay specific attention to the 35mm "full frame" and the Four Thirds system:


[This is the first reason why the Sony E-Mount Full Frame camera system changes everything - sensor size!]

Size Comparisons

The new FE system is exciting mainly because of it's size to sensor ratio. Here's some images to illustrate why I'm so excited by this new system. To be fair - pay attention to the primes vs. zooms - I think the one 'issue' with the FE system is going to be the size of its zoom lenses. This is why Sony is making the zooms 'slow' at f/4 rather than f/2.8 - it's keeping them smaller. Of course, the option is always there to attach manual focus lenses like the Leica or Zeiss "M" lenses which makes the package small again.

 
[From L to R we have the Sony RX100II, Sony RX1, Sony A7r, Canon 6D and Nikon D800E. Click for full size - image generated at camerasize.com]

 
[Similar sized bodies but much different camera systems! L to R we have the Sony RX1r and Sony A7r FF. Than the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic GX7 m43 or half frame. The Fujifilm X-E1 is an APS-C sized sensor with very fine output. Click to enlarge - data from camerasize.com]

 
[A more equivalent comparison between the RX1 and A7r - the RX1 (L) with the EVF isn't much smaller anymore.]

 
[The Sony RX100 (L) is still tiny compared with other cameras. The other 3 cameras have 35mm lenses (equiv) and the RX1 is still the smallest package and the fastest lens too. Note the Olympus half frame E-M1 (R) is the same size as the full frame Sony A7r! Admittedly though, the Olympus is a more spec'd out camera with faster AF and many, many more lenses. For a complete photographic system, the micro four thirds cameras will be better for most shooters for years to come, until the Sony FE system has a full gamut of useful lenses. Click for full size image - data from camerasize.com.]

 
[A comparison with equivalent zooms (24-70 f/4) on the Sony A7R (L), Olympus E-M1 (C) and Canon 6D (R). I think the Sony is the only one that doesn't extend on zoom, so that's something to remember. The issue with the FE system is going to be the size of its zoom lenses - you can't beat the physics of light and AF requirements. This is why MF lenses will be an important component of my A7r kit - they deliver more quality in a much smaller package. Click for full size, data from camerasize.com.]

New Options

In one fell swoop, Sony changed the game for landscape photographers who actually carry their own gear into the field. Two of my three most important criteria were instantly met - I now have a small, light camera with optimal image quality based on sensor size! 

There is still one outstanding issue with the new FE system. Sony has announced an aggressive plan to launch 15 lenses over the next 2 years but frankly, I don't believe it. When I bought into the brand new NEX system, I waited over 2 years for any decent zoom options and ended up going back to the four-thirds camp precisely because there were no good options for lenses on the Sony system. Even as I write this, there are very limited choices for good, high quality lenses on the NEX system.

A couple of things encourage me, despite my doubts on FE lenses;

  1. Right now I am using ZERO interchangeable lenses so anything is better than nothing! :)
  2. The first 4 lenses to be released all interest me. They include;
    1. Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 - perfect walk around lens, it's all I'm using now!
    2. Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 - good for portraits and walk around.
    3. Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS - this is the lens that will make this system viable for me. I've owned a Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 while using the A900 full frame Sony and it's the best zoom I ever used!
    4. Sony G 70-200mm f/4 OSS - I am concerned about the release date for this lens but if it's released in 2014, it will complete my system.

What about my current RX1 and RX100II? Will I keep them? Yes. Even though the 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss on the A7r is a duplicate of my RX1, there are enough differences that I will keep my current gear for now. The RX1 and Zeiss 35mm f/2 are still the best IQ / Size combo available. Carrying the RX1 and RX100II on really tough and long trips still makes sense, as the A7r with the 24-70 will still weigh more and be bulkier than a RX1 / RX100II combo.

Another huge benefit to the A7r is the ability to manually focus with lenses like the Leica 90mm Summarit-M via an adapter. Using focus peaking and 3rd party (tiny) lenses, I can achieve very high IQ with small and light lenses - at the expense of auto focus. This gives me Leica M flexibility without the $7,000 price tag of the M Type 240 and of course the option to use native (auto focus) lenses too.

There are some questions about using wide angle MF lenses on the A7r (can the sensor handle the edges?) and these are legit concerns. Only time will tell. If the sensor holds a 24mm I'm good to go - I don't typically shoot wider than that anyway.

What Should You Buy?

Right now I'd say that for the average shooter, there are still better systems on the market right now. These include the Fuji X-trans and Micro Four Thirds systems. Fujifilm just released the X-E2 and the X-M1 and Panasonic released the tiny GM1. Both these systems have many great lens options and are small and light and capable of generating incredible images.


[The tiny GM1 is a great new addition to the m43 family.]

 
[Compared to the A7r, the Panasonic GM1 is really small! But so is its sensor and it has no viewfinder options either.]

 
[The GM1 is so small, Panasonic had to design a new lens just to fit it properly! All m43 lenses will fit - but most will be too big to be practical on the tiny body.]

 
[The Fujifilm X-M1 is another sweet choice for small form factor and great IQ. It doesn't have a viewfinder option though.]

 
[The Fujifilm X-E2 has a built in EVF and is quite similar in size to the A7r - but not it's sensor size! Image from camerasize.com.]

Simply due to the lack of lenses, I think many people will give up on the FE system in the short term - the same thing happened with the NEX-7's when they were released. Initially there was HUGE hype, but when the lack of lenses was revealed people's enthusiasm cooled quickly. The difference with the A7's is that the 4 lenses that will be released in the first year are all very high quality. For most people buying into the FE system, they should seriously consider the A7 kit with the 28-70mm lens. They should question the need to fill their hard drives with the 36mp A7r before paying an extra $500 for it. Only the fussy landscape folks should dish out the extra cash for the A7r. The A7 will also be a better video choice because of the lack of AA filter on the A7r, which can be problematic for video.

Links

Here's some links to reviews, previews and other opinions on the FE system:

Using the Sony A7S - Native & Alt Lenses

This is a pretty long blog so I'll make it easier on you to jump around to different sections that may interest you. As the title suggests, this article focuses on the Sony A7S full frame 12.2 megapixel digital mirrorless camera. I'll be writing about various topics as they pertain to this camera, and showing plenty of example photographs I've taken with it over the past 6 months with various lenses - both native FE mount and alternative mounts. I am not an official camera reviewer. You can go to sites like dpreview for full specs and photos of charts and graphs or see Ron Schaffer's excellent review with Leica M glass. I am an amateur landscape / family photographer who loves adventure and landscape photography. My trips include everything from family camping trips in the Okanagon Valley to canoe trips in the Canadian Shield. I mostly enjoy climbing peaks in the Canadian Rockies and have over 415 of them so far. I climb, hike, scramble, ski and snowshoe into some very remote areas and I always like to take a camera along. 

 

I'm a bit of a camera and tech junkie (I work in the tech industry) and over the years I've owned an embarrassing variety of camera gear. :) This includes the main cameras from all camera makers including but not limited to;
 

  • Canon (20d, 5d, 1dMarkII, 1dsMarkII, 6d, Pro1...)
  • Nikon (D70, D700, D200, D3, D3S...)
  • Sony (A900, A850, Nex3, Nex5, Nex7, A7R, A7S, RX100, RX100II, RX100III...)
  • Fuji (X100, X100S, X-E1, X-E2, XPro1...)
  • Olympus (E300, E400, E410, E520, E-P1, E-P2, E-P3, E-P5, E-M5, E-M10...)
  • Panasonic (GX1, GH2, GM1, GM2, L1...)
  • Leica (M8.2)

 

Table of Contents

 

  1. First Fling with the A7 Series
  2. Back to the A7 Series
  3. The Sony A7S and Sony / Zeiss FE 24-70mm f/4.0 OSS Lens
  4. The Sony A7S with Alternative ('Alt') Lenses
    1. Olympus OM Lenses
      1. OM 18mm 1:3.5
      2. OM 24mm 1:2 and 1:2.8
      3. OM 28mm 1:2
      4. OM 50mm 1:1.2
      5. OM 135mm 1:2.8
    2. Leica M Mount Lenses
      1. Cosina Voightlander (CV) 15mm f/4.5 II ASPH
      2. Leica Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm ASPH
      3. Leica Tri-Elmar-M 28-35-50mm ASPH
    3. Carl Zeiss Contax G Lenses
      1. Techart (Golden Eagle) Contax G to NEX AF Adapter
      2. CZ G21 f/2.8
      3. CZ G28 f/2.8
      4. CZ G45 f/2
      5. CZ G90 f/2.8
  5. Astrophotography with the Sony A7S and Various Lenses
  6. Photo Stitching to get High Resolution Prints from a 12.2 Megapixel Sensor
  7. Conclusions

 

First Fling with the A7 Series

In December of 2013, I acquired my first Sony A7 series camera, the 36 megapixel Sony A7R and wrote an article detailing its usage with Olympus OM glass. After using the A7R for about 6 months I realized something - I didn't need or have the computational equipment capable of handling the huge RAW images it produced. Don't get me wrong, I loved almost everything about the camera except for the massive RAW output. Yes, I tried using smaller resolution JPEG's but that didn't work for me either. There were a few niggles in addition to the file size including;
 

  • Corner smearing / vignetting of alternative lenses, especially anything wider than 24mm. I even noticed color shifts with the native 35mm FE lens.
  • The meticulous photographic methods required to fully utilize the sensor (i.e. shutter delay, tripod). I am a "quick snap" photographer, I see my image and take it. No fuss, no muss. I very rarely have time or inclination to carry or use a tripod.
  • Shutter sound.

 

As I used my Sony RX100 mark II for long ski trips in the spring of 2014, I began to question why I had so much invested into a system that was proving to be too much hassle for me in regards to finding good lenses and processing my images after each trip. I like my photography to be part of the adventure I'm having, whether canoeing, hiking, biking, climbing or skiing. I don't want my photography to be the adventure. I sold a bunch of my alt lenses and the A7R and bought back into the micro four thirds (m43) camp - a tiny Panasonic GM1 with some great m43 glass. I used the GM1 with a 15mm f/1.7 Pana-Leica lens on my climbs of Mount Cirrus and Joffre and loved it. The 16mp files were plenty big and the IQ was fantastic too. I still highly recommend this camera for people who want quality in a tiny and portable package (now there's the GM5 which has a built in viewfinder and is even better than the GM1).

 

For my remote back country canoe trip in July I choose to use the Olympus E-M10 with a few lenses such as the Olympus 60mm macro and 75-300mm telephoto, along with the tiny new Sony RX100 mark III. With a built-in viewfinder, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and great photo and video image quality, the RX100III is a very usable and practical adventure photography kit. Of course there are also limitations with RX100III, such as no telephoto, a small sensor and limited dynamic range, not to mention no lens expansion options. Nothing's free.

 

Back to the A7 Series

By the time summer 2014 was rolling around, I realized I missed the clarity, shallow DOF options and mostly, the low light abilities of a full frame sensor and began to seriously look back into the A7 line of cameras. That's when I discovered the amazing Sony A7S. The "S" stands for sensitivity (ISO) and the camera was highly touted for it's following abilities over other A7 and full frame (FF) cameras:
 

  • Shoots from ISO 50-409600 (!!) with unprecedented low color noise and great dynamic range
  • Improved low light AF up to -4EV
  • EVF is usable in near-darkness
  • True 4k video recording utilizing the entire sensor (no cropping or line skipping)
  • A completely silent electronic shutter which also helps prevent shutter shake at certain focal lengths and shutter speeds


I was very intrigued by the first three improvements. Nothing comes for free, and in the case of the A7S the cost is sensor resolution. This is a 12.2 megapixel camera. Yes - you read that correctly! A $2,500 full frame camera has been released in 2014 with 'only' 12mp. Another benefit of the A7S that was recognized almost immediately by alternative lens shooters was its improved capabilities with especially wide angle lenses over the A7R and even the A7. Presumably the larger pixel wells and a different S/N ratio works in favor of the A7S with adapted lenses - I don't think Sony specifically designed the camera for this benefit but rather it's just the physics of light and larger pixel wells on the sensor itself. This was the third reason I cracked and decided I simply had to get my hands on one of these beauties and try using it for the summer and fall of 2014. The decision didn't come lightly, because compared to a Sony A7, the A7S wasn't cheap! This is probably the main reason why reviews of this camera are hard to come by. There are not lineups of photogs buying a 12mp camera that costs a $1,000 more than a 24mp camera that looks exactly the same - i.e. the A7. (See this article for a detailed comparison of the three Sony A7 models.) As of late 2014 there is now a model II of the A7 coming soon with image stabilizaton. As attractive as this option is, it won't make ISO 102,000 usable for single-shot astrophotography images so it won't help me any! ;) (People also seem to be forgetting that image stabilization is mainly useful for static scenes. It won't make the camera sensor perform any better with WA and UWA lenses, or freeze motion with telephoto lenses.

 

In this review of the A7S, I'm going to explain why I think this is a revolutionary camera and why I love using it with alt glass and obviously native Sony FE lenses. I'll also explain why I think it's the perfect carry-everywhere camera. I think this is a revolutionary single-shot astrophotography camera and will probably revamp my interest in deep-space astrophotography as well. I will also detail how you can use the 12mp sensor to make huge resolution files that will be appropriate for huge prints with loads of detail - the same way the 36mp A7R can be used. You can pretty much get all the benefits of the A7S and A7R combined in this one camera - the reverse is not true of the A7R as it cannot match the low light abilities of the A7S.

 

I will also look at several alt lenses on the A7S and explain how they can be profiled in-camera using a Sony camera application called the Lens Compensation Appwhich has some limitations as well.

 

The A7S & Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm FE OSS Lens

I don't like buying expensive cameras like the A7S and then putting cheap or crappy glass in front of the sensor. To this end, I decided that if I was going to invest in the A7 series again, I wasn't going to mess around - I would also buy the two most expensive and highly rated zoom lenses to go with it. The Sony/Zeiss FE 24-70mm f/4 OSS and the Sony G FE 70-200mm f/4 OSS are among the best zooms in those focal ranges and aperture values that I've ever used - and they'd better be at $1200 and $1600 respectively! The lenses were kept at a max aperture of f/4 to limit their size and weight, but with OSS and the incredibly high sensitivity of the A7S sensor, there is no issue with a relatively slow lens. To be honest, you don't need any other lenses with this camera, other than maybe a small prime in your favorite focal length. I had the Sony/Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 but ended up selling it in favor of the cheaper and faster Olympus OM 50mm f/1.2. There are a few manual focus lenses now available from Zeiss, the new Loxia line which includes a 35mm f/2 and 50mm f/2. The Loxia line isn't cheap - but advantages are obvious, native FE mount with full electronic information sharing (i.e. lens compensation, aperture and exif) and I'm sure the Loxia glass will produce stunning results. If Zeiss produces a WA or UWA lens I will have a hard time not buying it. :)

 

My first test of the Sony / Zeiss FE 24-70mm f/4 OSS lens on the A7S was on a very tough 2.5 day climbing trip that I did with three friends from Edmonton. We climbed 3 mountains and many thousands of vertical meters of height gain in a very short period of time. My only complaint about the lens on this trip was it's slight tendency to pull the camera forward while climbing and the subsequent banging around that it did against my body or even against rock on steep pitches of climbing. One thing I certainly couldn't complain about was the quality of the images the combo produced!

 

 
[A large, stitched panorama from part way up our first mountain. The 24mm wide angle is perfect for lining up vertical panorama's. ++]


[The small nature of the A7S+24-70mm FE combo meant that I could carry it around my neck, even while climbing. This means much easier action shots because all I have to do is point 'n shoot the camera at my friends climbing around me, rather than spend precious moments on a steep snow / ice slope with burning legs while struggling to get a large DSLR out of a carry case.]

 
[A great summit panorama from our second peak of the day, once again showing that for huge landscape images you can still get amazing resolution out of the 12mp sensor on the A7S by using modern stitching software. ++]


[For some reason, the output from the A7S likes B&W conversion.]


[Another B&W - this time showing the advantage of a zoom lens.]

 
[Another very high resolution stitch - 7-10 vertical photos. ++]

 

After the King George trip, I was excited to try the A7S / FE 24-70mm combo again. I got my chance on a father / son canoe trip to northern Saskatchewan. We did a 4 day trip on the Churchill River near the remote hamlet of Missinipe. Canoe trips are both great for photos, and tricky. They're great because you can carry more gear than hiking and climbing trips. They're tricky because there's lots to keep track of on a canoe trip. You're trying to stay dry, navigate, fish and experience the terrain as you move quickly through it. Having the two FE zooms along made perfect sense on this trip. I also shot RAW+JPG and ended up liking the JPG output so much I used it for about 50% of my trip photos.

 


[My son fishes from our first camp on French Lake. Note the DR of the scene from the bright sky to the dark foreground shadows.]


[This sunset shot illustrates how easy it is to handhold the A7S and shoot at higher ISO's to compensate. This is ISO500. No noise at all!]


[Another handheld shot. This one is at f/16 to produce a sun star. This meant an ISO of 640, again, not an issue!]


[Handheld, ISO 25,600! Barely any noise in the shadows. The A7S starts to sing when the light gets low. The ability to shoot the f/4 zoom lens in the dark is something that gives me great creative freedom. This cannot be understated. I've used a Canon 6D with a 24-70mm f/2.8 and f/4. Those are large, heavy systems and can't shoot in the dark or low light like the A7S can - not even close.]

 

I did another late summer trip in Banff National Park with my friends from Edmonton. This time we climbed over 4,000 meters in 2.5 days up 3 peaks. I carried the A7S with the 24-70mm lens again. The first night I was alone and managed to capture some great nightscapes with the slow zoom lens, wide open at f/4. Once again, I was delighted with the output from the lens / camera but I was getting a bit tired of lugging the 24-70mm lens up and down mountains! Even though it's a wonderful lens - and light compared to most 24-70mm full frame zooms, it's not as small and light as I'd like it to be. It's mainly the bulk of the lens that's an issue for me. It's weight is actually pretty good considering the quality and the fact that it's a stabilized lens.

 

[55mm shot of the mighty Mount Alberta with the 24-70mm zoom lens.]


[Once again, the A7S handles dramatic differences in lighting between the valley floor and the summits thousands of meters higher.]

 
[This is an 'impossible shot'. I wanted to capture the climbers coming across the lefthand slopes, but I also wanted to capture the exposure they were dealing with. To do this, I had to take a quick panorama against the harsh morning sun! The A7S & 24-70 pulled it off brilliantly, even the sky managed to retain a deep blue color (with some PP of course). ++]


[Amazing mountain scenery captured easily by this dynamic duo.]

 
[Another example of a shot where I had no time to get ready - an impromptu vertical panorama, 5 vertical shots starting at the climber and going rapidly left before I follow him up. ++]


[Pointing the camera down, half pressing 'til I hear the 'beep' of AF confirmation and taking the photo before resuming my tricky down climb!]

 

I have to stress that the A7S / FE 24-70mm OSS combo is the most flexible and usable camera / lens combo I've ever used. A lot of folks don't realize how unbelievably handy it is to have an image stabilized, high quality wide angle to short tele lens mounted on a sensor that can handle photos from near-darkness to full, brilliant sunshine. I see comments all the time from people who don't understand that for a climber to not have to worry about ISO or what time of the night or day they're taking photos, is very liberating. Those early morning ascents can now produce stunning wall-hangers even at 12,800 ISO values - no problem! Expensive? Yes. But the expense comes with an ability that no other camera shares (yet) - the ability to be free from ISO / low light concerns with almost any aperature value.

 

The Sony A7S and Alt Lenses


[Compare the two Sony FE AF lenses to my other 'alt' lenses. They are smaller and lighter than comparitive lenses from competitors, but still huge next to small primes...]

 

'Alt' is short for alternate, which is simply code for adapting and using lenses that were made for other cameras on my camera - in this case the Sony A7S. The A7 series originally delighted the so-called 'alt shooter' crowd. There was finally a real potential to fulfill the seemingly impossible promise of a small, light full frame digital camera that could accept small full frame lenses from the film era, including but not limited to;

 

  • Leica LTM, M and R mount 
  • Zeiss lenses in various mounts including Contax and Leica LTM and M
  • Canon FD and modern mounts
  • Nikon AIS and modern mounts
  • Minolta MD & MC 
  • Olympus OM 
  • Pentax M42 and K
  • ...

 

Soon after the A7/R cameras started being used by serious amateaur and professionals alike, it was apparent that it wasn't going to be quite this easy. Most alt lenses wider than 35mm had severe color casting, vignetting and corner detail smearing - even worse on the A7R than the A7. The lenses that worked well were among the most expensive lenses money can buy, including the wide angle zoom from Leica, the so-called WATE 16-18-21mm f/4 which is over $7,000 to purshase new. Leica lenses, in general however, didn't work very well either. Lenses that cost over $3K and work well on the Leica rangefinders were only starting to work at f/8-f/11 and even then with corner issues and smearing / loss of detail at infinity.

 

Something I hadn't tried on the A7R, but have started using successfully on the A7S is the Lens Compensation App which is available from the Sony store for $9.99. I think a lot of people (including me previously) don't realize the power that a camera with the ability to download and install software applications has. Think about all the nifty things your phone can do with apps. Now open your imagination a bit and think about how many things nifty software could do on your camera. This includes things such as;

 

  • Lens compensation for any lens
  • HDR processing
  • B&W or other specialty in-camera color processing
  • Astrophotography settings including star trails and interval timers
  • Time lapse photography
  • Any updates to specialty settings for different lenses / adapters including 3rd party stuff

 

There are things that have to be improved by Sony or by the makers of these third party apps. These include;

 

  • Time to load. It takes a long time to go from 'normal' shooting mode into an application.
  • Carry forward the normal settings into the app. For example, if you have RAW as your file format in the main camera settings, you could accidently have JPEG set in your application and not realize it until much later. This applies to many settings. I think the apps should at a minimum start with whatever settings are in the main menus and then allow refinement from there.

 

There's two main things I look for when buying (older) alt glass;

 

  1. It has to be in MINT condition. I'm not interested in old, mouldy, dusty, dirty and broken glass. I want the lenses to hold their value and if I don't like them I want to be able to resell. This means lenses in prime condition. I pay a lot of extra $$$ to get as new condition as possible. My Olympus OM 50mm f/1.2 was literally brand new! And because I was dealing with a friend, I paid $400 less than EBay price on a similar lens. I paid a lot of money to get brand new Contax G prime lenses, but because I was willing to take a chance on a new seller, I managed to save well over $1,000 over 'normal' prices - and even managed to get very rare black versions of all these lenses.
  2. If possible I want the original (OEM) lens hood, box and case with the lens. This is not a deal breaker, but it makes it much easier to resell and ensures the lens works both as an artistic tool and investment.

 

The Sony A7S and Olympus OM Lenses


[The Olympus OM lenses are a very nice fit, look and balance on the A7 series and especially on the A7S. I used these with an A7R too, and they worked well even with its 36mp sensor.]

 

I delved back into the market and eventually started building my collection of alt glass again - concentrating on Olympus OM glass. The reasons for concentrating on the OM lineup was;

 

  • Great Zuiko designs that have held up over the years (i.e. distortion on the 18mm f/3.5, great coatings etc)
  • Smooth, reliable manual focus and aperture - seems to stand the test of time very well
  • Small, beautiful lenses that fit very well on the A7S
  • A larger rear element to sensor distance than some other lenses (Leica, Contax) - this means less distortion and color casting, especially on wide angle lenses
  • Great value - much cheaper than some other Alt glass but it's getting expensive again thanks to folks like me singing its praises on the A7 series cameras :)

 

My favorite two OM hiking / mountaineering lenses are the 24mm 1:2.8 and the 135mm 1:2.8. This combo can take pretty much any landscape shot that I need, including nightscapes, panoramas, people, flowers, compressed landscapes, wildlife and more. I actually prefer the 28mm focal length for walkaround landscape shooting, but find it limited for shots where I want more foreground or need to fit more into the scene for stitching. The next two OM lenses that I love to take along are the 18mm and the 50mm. Following is some more in-depth analysis of these lenses as I use them on the A7S.

 

Olympus OM 18mm 1:3.5


[The tiny and excellent Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5 is also very expensive. But it fits perfectly on the A7S and works extremely well on it too.]

 

This lens is not cheap. A good copy will run you around $700-$1000, and this is for a used one. If you manage to find a new or like new one, you could easily spend more! That is a lot of money for a MF lens, but there's a few reasons this lens costs so much;

  • Color / contrast / micro detail is amazing
  • Distortion is almost zero - for an 18mm lens this is almost unheard of
  • This is a very sharp lens - corner to corner sharp by f/5.6 and razor at f/11

One thing about an ultra wide angle (UWA) lens is that they can be tricky to use properly. Everyone thinks that wide angle is what landscape is all about but 18mm is extreme. The thing with UWA lenses is that using them properly requires a good, creative eye. Just point 'n shooting will only produce scewed perspectives that don't look natural. The reason UWA primes are so expensive is partly because they're extremely hard to manufacture but also because much fewer of them are sold because they are so difficult to use properly. I bought the OM 18mm mainly for single shot nightscapes, mostly of the Milky Way. I've also used it for landscape stitching where I needed the extra room its width provided.

 


[A single shot from the 18mm of the Milky Way. ISO 25,600 at 25s and f/3.5 (wide open)]

 
[I needed the wide angle of the 18mm for this stitched pano or I couldn't fit the upper and lower lakes in the same shot. I took 8-10 vertical single shots and stitched them in PS CC. The shadows were black - the A7S has great shadow / hilight recovery ability. ++]

 

Olympus OM 24mm 1:2 and 1:2.8


[The OM 24mm f/2 or f/2.8 lens is probably my favorite all-use OM lens.It's wide enough for most landscape applications including vertical stitches and it's not too wide to screw up the perspective.]

 

It has to be noted that the f/2.8 version of this lens is pretty much as good as the f/2 version, and is 1/4 the price. At f/8 or f/11 you are not going to notice much difference between the f/2.8 and f/2.0 versions. The only reason I owned both is that I like the ability for shallow depth-of-field with the f/2 lens (wide angle flower shots are a favorite of mine). The f/2 lens certainly vignettes worse than the f/2.8 one does. With a polarizing filter the f/2 will shot dark corners whereas the f/2.8 will not.

 

 
[Another wide angle vertical stitch with the 24mm f/2. ++]


[I didn't have the f/2 version on this trip, but here's a great action shot from the 24mm f/2.8 showing off its capabilities.]

 
[Another panorama with the OM 24mm f/2.8 ++]

 

Olympus OM 28mm 1:2


[The OM 28mm f/2 lens is another perfect landscape / walkaround option on the A7S. It's deadly sharp even wide open and has very little vignetting or color shift.]

I love the 28mm focal length but I have to be honest that I don't use this lens very much, thanks to the excellent performance of the two 24mm OM's that I also own. As a walk around lens, this one performs admirably, vignetting much less than the 24 1:2 especially on the A7/R. Apparently Sony is coming out with a 28mm FE prime soon. This will render the OM28 pointless for me. Even a bigger reason for me to sell this lens is my recent acquiring of the Leica MATE (28-35-50).

 

Olympus OM 50mm 1:1.2


[This is one of the fastest lenses money can buy - the Olympus 50mm f/1.2. It's a highly regarded lens that takes some incredible photos on the full frame sensor of the A7S! Compare this lens to the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and you'll appreciate the size difference between the MF OM lenses and more modern AF lenses.]

 


[Incredibly shallow depth of field at f/1.2 while still retaining sharpness, color and contrast.]


[One more example of the shallow DOF at f/1.2 on the full frame A7S with great contrast, color and sharpness. The OM 50mm 1:1.2 really sings on this camera.]

The OM 50 f/1.2 is a great lens! I owned the FE55 f/1.8 lens which is obviously a full AF prime on the A7S. This lens is even nicer than the very highly regarded 55 IMHO. The Sony is very sharp and very capable but I like the soft rendering of the OM much better, especially for shallow DOF and portraiture. This lens also costs much less, even my copy which was literally brand new (old stock). This lens isn't going anywhere - I'm keeping it for the foreseeable future!. 

 

Olympus OM 135mm 1:2.8


[The Olympus OM 135mm f/2.8 is a very cheap medium telephoto lens that has great balance, color and contrast on the A7 series cameras. It also has a built in hood which is handy to keep flare under control.]

 

I love the OM 135mm f/2.8 for its ability to compress the landscape and obviously for portraits and medium telephoto shots. It's small and light enough to carry almost everywhere and it's cheap too - it'll run you only around $150 for a mint copy with the original Olympus hard leather lens case. The Olympus OM 2X-A Tele-Converter also works with this lens, making it a pretty darn small 270mm f/5.6 - perfect for wildlife or that distant peak! Contrast is a bit low straight OOC (out of camera), but a little bit of PP fixes things up very nicely. 

 


[A medium tele lens is great for compressed landscapes.]

 
[Compressed landscape with the 135mm OM at f/8. ++]


[The 135mm is perfect for taking photos of nearby peaks in all their glory. It has great contrast and color - and it's cheap!]

 

The Sony A7S and Leica M Mount Lenses

I much prefer the way the Leica M mount lenses fit on the A7 series to any other alternative lens mount that I've tried. The reason is simple. The M mount lenses are designed to sit much closer to a full frame sensor than many of the other mounts such as the Olympus OM and Canon FD or Nikon AIS. This means a much smaller overall  lens size when mounted. Note on the above product shots of the OM lenses on the A7S, how deep the adapter is between the sensor and the rear of the lens? In some cases, such as with the OM 18mm, the adapter almost doubles the amount that the lens protrudes from the front of the camera. Obviously this is not the preferred situation, but it's simple physics of the lens, the mount and the Sony A7S design. 

 

Of course, nothing's free. Due to Leica M lenses sitting so much closer to the sensor, they introduce some interesting design challenges, especially if they're wide angle. When the A7/R cameras were first announced there was huge excitement in the alt lens crowd. People were convinced that Leica M lenses on the A7 series would be the answer to everyone's dreams. They were proved wrong early on. Most lenses in the wide to ultra wide range (less than 35mm) didn't work that well on either the A7 or the A7R. I tried the Zeiss 18mm ZM f/4.0 lens which should have been perfect on the A7R, but it was pretty horrible with corner color casts, smearing and massive vignetting.

 


[The Zeiss 18mm f/4 ZM did not play well with the A7R...]

 

There are a few M lenses which are rumored to work fantastically on the A7 series and especially the A7S. (Ron Scheffler has just completed an excellent phlog on this topic - thanks Ron!) These include the following;

 

  • Leica WATE 16-18-21 ($7,000)
  • Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux ($7,000)
  • Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ($5,500)
  • Voightlander 15mm f/4.5 ASPH II ($600)
  • Voightlander 21mm f/1.8 ($1200)

 

I decided to try the Voightlander 15mm f/4.5 lens before even considering laying out the kind of cash true Leica lenses demand. I managed to score a 9.8/10 condition copy. I have owned a Leica digital M before - the Leica M8.2. I loved the rangefinder experience and have been drooling over this system ever since. My dream would be to own a M240 with the 16-18-21, a 28mm summicron, 50mm summilux and a 75 or 90mm summarit-m. Maybe a nice 40th birthday gift some day...

 

Voightlander 15mm f/4.5 II ASPH


[The Voightlander 15mm f/4.5 is very small on the A7 series cameras - much smaller than even the Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5]


 

After some initial testing with the VC 15mm I decided that I was going in a different direction with my M lenses. Although it is small, and performs reasonably well on the A7S, I didn't like that I couldn't use filters (due to vignetting). Obviously I don't use CPL filters on such a wide lens, but GND's can be handy for water effects. I also noticed some corner smearing that made me nervous about real world application.

 

Due to a 2nd hand deal on a Leica WATE that I couldn't pass on, I ended up selling the VC 15mm before I could test it extensively. (See Ron's article for a review)

 

Leica Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm f/4 ASPH (WATE)

 

I'll state up front that this is the most expensive lens I've ever purchased. I bought it 2nd hand and saved a lot of money over buying a brand new one, but it still cost me an arm and leg. I've bought Leica lenses before (I owned a Leica M8.2) and I know what my money is buying and in the case of the Wide Angle Tri-Elmar-M (WATE) I knew I was paying for the 3 things all Leica fans are willing to sacrifice a lot of $$$ for;
 

  1. Leica Quality of Build
  2. Leica Quality of Image
  3. Leica Quality of Size


I fully acknowledge that to most people, the idea of spending so much money on one lens is absolutely ridiculous. I make good money, but I'm by no means rich. So why do I think Leica lenses are worth it? See the above 3 points. :) 

 


 


[The best performing, wide angle primes that I tested on my A7S. Note how large the relatively small OM18 is compared to the MATE and WATE mainly due to the huge adapter it needs?]


To test the lens for color shift, smearing and vignetting my choices were very limited considering the time of the year! Obviously I'll be running more comprehensive 'tests' that mean more to me (actual photographs from the field) once I take the lens out more often. I simply stepped out my back door and took snaps of the back yard. The snow made it very easy to spot color shifts and vignetting. Smearing was a bit harder but the lower corners should show that at least. Following are tests at 16mm at various apertures. Please excuse the dust spots and dreary weather. This is a very high level test, only meant to demonstrate color shift and vignetting. You'll have to either take my word for it or find other tests that this lens is sharp from f/4 in the corners on the A7S.

 


[16mm f/4 from an earlier test sequence. The Sony PlayMemories app works very well to correct the vignetting. There is very little color shift but I could correct for that too.]



[Wide open at f/4 with no corrections focused at around 1.5m]

 


[16mm at f/5.6 focused around 1.5m with no corrections]


[16mm f/8 focused around 1.5m, no corrections]


[16mm f/11 focused around 1.5m, no corrections]

 

The vignetting is pretty limited, remember I'm shooting at a partially light blue / white canvas! Next are some 100% zoomed shots. I set the lens to about 1.5-2 meters for Hyperfocal distance - best at f/8-f/11. You can download a full size JPEG and full size ARW by clicking the appropriate links below;

 

 
[Click here for a full size JPEG or click here for the ARW file. It's important to remember that I'm testing for vignetting, smearing, color and focus shifts by hyperfocusing at 1.5-2m. I could have a deadly sharp fence by focusing on just the fence, but I am not doubting this lenses ability to focus on things... ;)]

 

I compared the WATE directly against the OM 18mm at 18mm f/11. I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the OM 18 performed, but in the end the WATE out performs it in both sharpness across the frame and CA (which can be fixed either in the PlayMemories app or PP quite easily). Is the WATE worth the extra money? Not at 18mm IMO. If you only need an 18mm lens on your Sony A7S, I would recommend buying a used Olympus OM 18mm in good condition. If possible try to find one with the filter adapter ring. This will cost you at least 4 or 5 times less than the WATE!

 

But. If you are looking for wider (16mm) and less wide (21mm) and ultimate IQ then the WATE is definitely the way to go. I'm not aware of any lens around 16mm or any at 21mm that will come even close to matching the WATE on the A7S, and if you start buying premium lenses in those focal ranges you will end up spending close to the same amount anyway. (NOTE: The Sony FE 16-35mm lens is testing very well as a fully AF solution.) 

 


[The WATE on the A7S is a potent low light lens, wide open at f/4 and ISO 8,000 for 30s.]


[Another shot on the WATE at 16mm, ISO 51,200 for 30s]

 

Leica Tri-Elmar-M 28-35-50mm f/4 ASPH E55 (MATE)

I wan't planning on buying this Tri-Elmar, but I got extremely lucky and managed to find a local copy on Kijiji and somehow managed to pay only 2/3 of what it's worth. (This means I can always profit from a sale if it's not up to snuff.) I figured there must be someone out there who has tried this lens on a Sony A7 series camera and reported back, but I found very few mentions of the MATE on any Sony A7 camera, much less the Sony A7S. I think the MATE is even rarer than the WATE, and is older so many folks are no longer interested in it. Due to the MATE's relative obscurity amongst mainstream photogs, there simply aren't many sample floating around on any camera, much less the specific ones I'm interested in.

 

I guess I'm the guinea pig on this one...

 

Right off the bat, I got a bit of a scare with the MATE. I mounted it on my A7S using a Metabones M to NEX adapter. Everything worked out until I tried removing it. It was hopeless stuck on the adapter! :( I tried everything to remove it but was very scared of damaging my new (expensive) lens. Eventually I resorted to disassembling the adapter before it finally popped off. My Fotodiox M to NEX works no problem with the MATE and the Metabones (and Fotodiox) work no problem on the WATE. Very strange.

 


[As you can see, the Leica Tri-Elmar MATE lens fits very well on the A7S. It balances perfectly and weighs slightly less than the Sony Zeiss 24-70 FE OSS lens - but is much smaller in size of course!]


[The lens hood is large, but protects the rare front element very well. I think I'll use it a lot just for that reason.]

 

After exchanging a lot of cash for this lens, I brought it home to put it through it's paces. Things I noticed almost immediately;

 

  • Very little (no?) vignetting wide open at 28mm
  • No color shift or corner smearing at 28, 35 or 50mm
  • Some CA - easily correctable
  • Switching between focal lengths is easy and obvious but I feel like I should be gentle with this process - I get the sense that there's some pretty fancy footwork going on internally to make this lens work the way it does
  • The focus ring on my copy is very stiff - the person I purchased it from claims only to have shot two roles of film on his M7 with it - I believe him considering the condition of the lens
  • I can already tell that I'm going to love not having to switch primes as often - my sensor gets very dusty when I am constantly switching lenses in the field

 

 


[The two Leica Tri-Elmar lenses make for 6 total prime lenses in all my favorite focal lengths. And notice how tiny they are!]

 

Just like with the WATE, I simply stepped out my back door and took snaps of the back yard for my initial impressions of the MATE. The snow made it very easy to spot color shifts and vignetting. Smearing was a bit harder but the lower corners should show that at least. Following are tests at 28mm at various apertures. Please excuse the dust spots and dreary weather. Again, I am not going to get into detailed tests and 100% views. Other testers might be interested in that sort of thing but I'm not.

 



[28mm f/4 with some corrections via Sony PlayMemories app]


[28mm f/4 focused around 2m, no corrections]


[28mm f/5.6 focused around 2m, no corrections]


[28mm f/8 focused around 2m, no corrections]


[28mm f/11 focused around 2m, no corrections]

 

Unlike the WATE at 16mm, the MATE at 28mm pretty much loses any vignetting by f/11 with no corrections necessary to my eyes. I also did some comparison shots between the Sony FE 24-70mm at 28mm and the MATE at 28mm. Just as with the OM 18 when compared to the WATE, the Sony actually performed pretty well compared to the WATE. It's not as sharp across the frame and doesn't behave nearly as well at hyperfocal range for some reason, but when comparing 'bare bones' shots you'd have to look closely to tell which lens was used - but you'd be able to tell on close inspection. 

 

So - is the MATE worth almost 3 times more than the FE 24-70mm? For most people - definitely not. I'm not even sure if it is for me yet. Unlike the WATE, where there's no debate that it is the best optical solution for UWA - the MATE isn't the only solution that's viable for 28, 35 or 50mm on the A7S or the Leica M system. Although it's very hard to find a good performing 28mm on the A7S, there is a Sony FE 28mm coming out soon and the FE 24-70mm is no slouch either. Then there is the excellent Sony and Loxia 35mm lenses. At 55mm, the Sony FE f/1.8 is considered one of the sharpest lenses money can buy! There are only a few reasons why I'm keeping my MATE for now and most of these reasons aren't for everyone;

 

  1. It's much less bulky than the Sony FE 24-70mm for my skiing / hiking / mountaineering trips and even if the Sony FE 28mm is a really good lens, it will be bulkier and probably not as good as the MATE at 28mm
  2. It's much easier to focus in the field than the FE lens - simply dial it to 3m and f/11 and I'm good to go
  3. It produces wonderful files on the A7S - rich colors and very sharp with good micro contrast
  4. It can be used on my future Leica M or Sony A9 cameras

 

I managed to get out cross country skiing with the A7S / MATE combo hanging around my neck. I skied 22km and was never really bothered by the gear around my neck. I managed to test the lens and am really loving the ability to hyperfocus and get very sharp photos to infinity. Here's a shot at 28mm f/11, directly into the sun.

 

 

Sony A7S and Carl Zeiss Contax G Lenses

Just like the Leica M mount, the Contax G mount is designed to place the rear element of the lenses much closer to the film plane than some other alt lenses which results in a much smaller overall package size when mounted on the A7S. The G lenses suffer from all the same issues as the M ones, the wider the lens, the more corner smearing, color shifting and vignetting on the A7 series cameras. But - when I got an opportunity to buy a complete set of black Contax G lenses at a price that was too hard to resist, well - I couldn't resist! Most G lenses are a silver or champagne color. While color isn't a big deal (obviously not impacting performance), a black G lens in pristine shape is worth a lot more than the silver one, because of their limited production run. The lenses I bought were literally brand new with boxes and I paid hundreds of dollars less than current prices - this meant I could profit or at least not take a loss on reselling them.

 

The Contax G system is an auto focusing range finder system, kind of like the Leica LTM and M mount, but with AF. The weirdest thing about the G system is that the lenses have no manual focus option (i.e. ring) at all! Think about it. Which other lens that you know of, has NO OPTION for manual focus? This is part of the reason why these lenses are 'cheap' even though they're Zeiss - because they're also quirky to use. There is an adapter made in China that claims to give AF functionality to the Contax G lenses on the A7 cameras. This was just too good an opportunity for me to pass up. And if the AF adapter ever needs improvement (it does BTW...), it comes with a Bluetooth 4.0 chip which allows it's firmware to be updated. It also allows manual focusing (by wire) - supposedly better than other G-->NEX adapters on the market today.

 

The following G lenses are known to work very well on A7 cameras:

 

  • G 45mm f/2 Planar
  • G 90mm f/2.8 Sonnar

 

The following G lenses are questionable and haven't been shown to work very well on either the A7 or A7R. I haven't seen them tested or used on the A7S yet. So I decided to try. ;)

 

  • G 21mm f/2.8 Biogon
  • G 28mm f/2.8 Biogon

 

There are only three other lenses in the G lineup. The 35mm is supposed to work pretty well on the A7 cameras but the other two aren't special and don't work properly with the Techart adapter anyway:

 

  • G 16mm f/8 Hologon (fixed aperture)
  • G 35mm f/2 Planar
  • G 35-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario Sonnar

 

Techart (Golden Eagle) Contax G to Sony NEX Mount AF Adapter Review

I did not have high expectations for this unit. I've read some rather discouraging reviews and comments on the web about sub-par AF in regards to both speed and accuracy. My first surprise was how quickly the unit shipped from China - It only took 3 or 4 days. It took 3 more weeks to finally get my Contax G lenses in the mail - from the USA. I immediately mounted the G28 onto the adapter and my A7S. This was tougher than I expected. It's hard to explain, but mounting a G lens is weird. You'll understand when you try it. There's a double twist before the lens is actually mounted. I also immediately noticed that the G lenses don't have a MF ring like almost any other lens on the planet. This may not seem like a big deal but it's much bigger than I thought it would be in 'real life'.

 

To my surprise, the AF was not only reasonably fast (about the same speed as a Sony RX1/R) but it was also reasonably accurate, especially wide open. (Note 1: I was using the latest version III of the adapter.) I've read about it taking '3 seconds' to lock focus - mine was nowhere near that slow in good light and wide open, although stopped down past f/4 it took a few seconds to find focus. I could easily auto focus with all four lenses. The G21 and G45 were the fastest at less than 1 second to lock focus wide open. Even more surprising was the fact that 3/4 of the time I could AF at around f/8-11 if outside in good light. This was much better than advertised as Techart recommends only using the AF wide open. Don't get me wrong - this is nowhere as fast as the native FE AF lenses, but I thought it would be great for landscapes and portraits. (Note 2: Before you slam me for being too positive on the AF capabilities of the Golden Eagle, continue reading... ;))

 

After using the adapter around the house and liking it quite a bit, I tried using it outside on a hiking trip, the way I would normally use it. This is where things quickly get more negative for me and the G system on the Sony A7S. :( I had three major issues with the Techart Adapter while trying to use it in the field.

 

Manually focusing with this adapter is easy with bare hands, indoors when you're not in a hurry and you're nice and warm. Focusing with gloves, while hiking in a cold wind and trying to keep up to my hiking partner while ascending a mountain was MUCH harder than it should have been. The Contax G lenses don't have manual focus and don't even allow the camera to be set to MF, but even so, figuring out all the settings for a proper manual focus was too complicated. I'm sure I was doing something wrong, but trying to manually focus and then not trigger the AF while snapping the photo was almost impossible. I'd read the manual, but why couldn't I find a proper English manual on the internet anywhere?! I tried several options including disconnecting the shutter button from AF but nothing was optimal - especially with gloves and while moving. With my Olympus OM's I simply use hyper-focusing if I'm in a hurry. Set the lens focus using the DOF scale and snap the photo. It's quicker than AF in most situations! While taking a series of photos for a summit panorama, I had to refocus between each shot. This was a real PITA because the wind was cold and the scene was changing quickly (moving clouds) and at f/11 the focus would only lock ever 3 tries and took about 3 seconds to lock (remember, Techart recommends only using AF wide open).

 

Camera lockup and blackout issues plagued me all day. The new adapter is supposed to be better than the old one, Well, it's still pretty bad. It locked up the camera for me at least 20% of the time. I would turn off the camera, wait 5-10 seconds before it would actually power off and then turn it on again and wait another 5-10 seconds for the PlayMemories app to load and everything to be ready for the next shot. This is totally unacceptable for me. When I'm climbing a mountain, the photographs need to happen quickly. I see a moment I want to capture and I need to be able to photograph it almost instantly. Not 20 or even 30 seconds later... Because there's no pure MF option (even 'MF' is by wire) and because of the crashes, the G lens solution was unusable for me, even though the glass itself is great at certain focal lengths, and the AF works if you're not in a hurry and are using it wide open. I've heard from others that there are better MF options available, but I can't get used to lenses that can't be normally manually focused.

 

The adapter is 'fiddly'. I ran into an issue half way up the mountain where the little gear that drives the AF wasn't aligned with the lens properly. This was because changing lenses is a PITA with the Contax G series. They fit the adapter no problem, but there's a two-part twist that's hard to explain and even harder to manage with winter gloves on. It makes quickly changing lenses while trying to walk up a mountain very complicated. More work than it should be. Too much fiddling for my liking. This issue wasted at least 20 minutes while I stood in a gale-force winter wind and tried desperately to get the lens to work again - because even MF is 'focus-by-wire' there is no way to use the lenses unless that gear is operating properly and unlike most focus-by-wire solutions, the gear is exposed on the adapter and therefore can be bumped and misaligned easily.

 

So there you have it. For my uses (hiking, skiing, climbing) , the Golden Eagle adapter doesn't work well enough to consider. I'd be better off with a fully manual solution rather than trying to AF with either the camera or by wire using the tiny focusing wheel. That being said, I'll give a brief over view of the lenses themselves, both how they look and how they worked for my on the A7S when the adapter was cooperating enough for me to get a photo.

 

Contax G Biogon T* 21mm f/2.8

Sony A7S with Contax Zeiss 21mm f/2.8

 

I had high hopes for this tiny gem of a lens but I'll admit, with an excellent Olympus OM18 and a very expensive Leica WATE, I never expected to keep it, even if it was a decent performer on the A7S - which it wasn't. Deadly sharp in the center, even wide open, the corners were too smeared to be worth a $1200 lens on the A7S. Auto focus is fast and very accurate with the Golden Eagle adapter at large apertures but after f/5.6 it slows considerably and is hit and miss on accuracy.

 

I used the Sony PlayMemories "Lens Correction" application to correct for vignetting and color shifting which worked pretty well, but I had to max out the settings in order to get even close to a usable image. It's not all terrible as the following image shows, but not worth the $$$ that this lens demands or comparable to what it could do on film.

 


[A landscape with the 21mm. Notice the slight color shift still visible in the corners and the smearing on the extreme corners as well.]

 

Contax G Biogon T* 28mm f/2.8

Sony A7S with Contax Zeiss 28mm f/2.8

 

I also had high hopes for this tiny gem of a lens. I'm happy to report that for a lot of scenarios, this lens will make 95% of users very happy. It focuses fairly quickly wide open (nice for WA portraits) and eventually locks focus even at f/8-f/11 if there's enough contrast in the scene (be aware that it can take 2 or 3 tries and many seconds at small apertures). The extreme corners show some smearing, but nothing compared to the 21mm. Also, the color shifts are more correctable than the 21mm to correct with the Sony PlayMemories camera app. Remember that the app is also not without challenges. For example, say you have a profile set up for the CZ28 at f/5.6 but now you want to shoot at f/11. You need to go into the app, find the right profile and select before snapping a shot. This takes time, and with winter gloves on is a frustrating experience.

 

Colors are very 'Zeiss' and the micro detail is also there. If I didn't have a Leica MATE and great native Sony FE glass in this same focal length, I'd probably keep this lens. 

 


[Pretty good sharpness even in the corners for the G28. Not perfect, but pretty darn good.]

 
[A stitched panorama with the G28. This shot was very hard to take because the camera kept trying to AF between shots. There was no way I could find that would set it to a focus and exposure and not try to re-focus. The camera literally cannot be set to 'MF' when the Techart adapter is mounted! ++]

 

Contax G Planar T* 45mm f/2

Sony A7S with Contax Zeiss 45mm f/2

 

The G45 lived up to expectations with regards to performance on the A7S. Aside from the issues I had with using the Techart III adapter, the lens itself performed top notch. It's small, sharp and has great rendering, color, micro contrast etc. If I didn't have the focusing issues and the excellent OM 50mm f/1.2 or other options in the same focal range already, I'd definitely keep this lens. I knew when I bought it that I was reselling it.

 

Contax G Sonnar T* 90mm f/2.8

Sony A7S with Contax Zeiss 90mm f/2.8

 

The G90, like the G45, lives up to its reputation on the A7 series, on the A7S. Just like the G45, if I didn't hate using the Techart adapter or not having MF on the lens so much I'd keep this lens. I have a Leica Summarit-m 75mm in this focal length already so I knew I would be reselling this lens when I bought it.

 

Using the Sony A7S for Astrophotography with Various Lenses

As is obvious from the shot below, taken at ISO 25,600, one of the biggest advantages of the A7S is that I can use relatively slow lenses like the Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 or the two Leica Tri-Elmars in almost any photographic situation. Believe it or not, this includes astrophotography. Single shot astrophotography isn't very hard, but it can be very expensive. In order to get a great Milky Way shot with most cameras you typically need the following:

 

  1. A fast (f/2.8 or faster, 1.4 is best) wide angle (24mm or wider) lens that is sharp and CA-free wide open or by f/2.0.
  2. A high ISO of at least 3200 but as high and noise-free as possible on your camera (for most cameras this is ISO 6400 at the most).
  3. Ability to manually focus in pitch dark (easier said than done!).
  4. A tripod is not strictly necessary but makes things much easier. I usually just use rocks or my backpack, but you have to make sure whatever your camera is on doesn't move at all during the exposure.
  5. Depending on the width of your lens, expose for around 20-30 seconds.

 

Fast, wide lenses aren't cheap and most important for me, aren't small or light. And fast, wide lenses don't typically work well on A7 series cameras. For example, the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS isn't fast enough on the A7R. You could get decent night sky photos, but anything over ISO 5000 or so is going to be very noisy and 24mm f/4 at that speed isn't getting enough light. You could adapt the 24mm f/2 ZA lens but now you're carrying a huge, heavy lens that will be tough to manually focus in darkness. You could try some alternative lenses such as the Leica 21mm f/1.4 - but that lens is $8,000 and doesn't even work well wide open at infinity on the A7R! ;) The Sony A7S gets rid of the problems of shooting at night in three ways over most other digital cameras;

 

  1. You can shoot slower (smaller and lighter) lenses at very high ISO's (up to 102,000 usable ISO).
  2. Some UWA alternative lenses (much smaller than the native FE lenses) work very well on the A7S compared to the A7R.
  3. Because the A7S is designed from the ground up to work in low light, focusing using the EVF in near-darkness is much easier than on any other camera. I can literally focus on the stars in pitch dark without coma noise interfering so much that I can't tell the difference between noise in my viewfinder and a star. With an OVF (optical view finder) and wide angle lens, there isn't enough zoom to know if the lens is 100% focused. On the A7S I simply digitally zoom the EVF and crank the MF until the stars are perfect round orbs of focused light. Easy and fast. On the A7/R the EVF is too grainy to focus effectively and live view on any camera isn't as easy to use for focusing as an OVF / EVF. The live view will be very grainy at night on most other digital cameras.

 

Following are some examples, with various lenses, of the A7S' ability to use relatively slow zooms or primes to take great nightscape photographs.

 


[The Milky Way at ISO 25,600 f/4 20s exposure. Taken with the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS zoom lens at 24mm.]


[Another shot at ISO 25,600 20s and f/4. Taken with the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS zoom lens at 24mm.]


[For this shot of the Milky Way, I used an Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5 lens at ISO 25,600 wide open for 25 seconds.]

 

I haven't started doing deep-space astrophotography yet, but the A7S will be wonderful for this venture as well. For deep-space stuff like taking photos of nebula you need some additional gear including;

 

 

The reason the A7S will be wonderful for this type of astrophotography is simply it's ability to shoot at high ISO, but even more important to adapt older alternative lenses. A new Canon 600mm f/4 IS will cost you around $13,000 while an old Olympus 600mm f/6.5 will cost around $1000 for a mint copy!

 

Stitching to get High Resolution Photographs from a 12.2 Megapixel Sensor

As I alluded to in the comments under some of the previous panoramic photos, modern software has lessoned the importance of huge megapixel sensors for some types of photos under certain conditions. Software stitching is not a 100% panacea for all photogs or all situations, but for me it's definitely a much used way to get extremely large, detailed and magnificent panoramic prints from relatively low resolution sensors. I've been using stitching software for many years now, and it's only getting better and easier to use. 

 

I exclusively use  Adobe Creative Cloud for panoramic stitching simply because it integrates so well with Adobe Lightroom. I just select the photos I want to stitch in LR and right click before sending them to PS - it doesn't matter if they're in RAW, JPEG or any other format, or whether I've already edited them or not. Once in PS I use some predefined actions that I recorded earlier, to make things even more efficient. Most 5-7 image stitches take less than a minute or two. The best part about modern stitching software is that you can stitch in any direction and almost any number of photos, depending only on the computer you're using. The following stitch is from 5 vertical shots taken across 3 times (i.e. 15 total shots in a 5x3 matrix) from top to bottom with a zoom lens to capture the mountain summit, it's glacier and waterfalls in a very high resolution, compressed view landscape photo.

 


[This is a very large composite photo taken with a zoom lens (Olympus OM 135mm f/2.8) in a 15 shot matrix, 5 across and 3 down. Using PS CC it did all the lining up, stitching and exposure blending for me. This is a massive digital file capable of a very large print. All from a 12mp sensor.]


Using a combination of modern technology (low light sensor and software) I was able to capture a shot that is no way inferior to what the 36mp A7R could have captured here. There are situations that are not as friendly for high resolution stitching and these include;

 

  1. Dynamic scenes such as waves, fast-moving clouds, people (crowds).
  2. Fast-changing light although you can adjust somewhat for exposure before stitching.
  3. Wildlife.
  4. Sports.
  5. One shot moments, such as climbing shots where multiple exposures just aren't practical. If I'm in a moment where I need a panorama but need to move quickly I'll use the built-in Sony panoramic mode - but this is very risky for a number of reasons such as the effects of polarization (banding in the sky) and it produces a JPG file only.

 

High resolution stitches work best in a static landscape shot but be creative! For example, you might have a situation where a single shot is all that's needed to capture the scene, but you are worried that a 12mp file isn't going to be enough resolution for the large print you want. Just hold down the shutter button and take a fast sequence of 5 shots. The slight shake that you will inevitably have, is good in this case (don't use a tripod). Because all 5 shots will be very slightly different, the stitch will have much more detail than a single shot. This is a very useful trick to get single-shot high resolution photographs out of a 12mp sensor.

 

Conclusions

Sorry this article got so long - I started it a while ago and then went on a lens-buying binge and had to keep updating it. Email me if you have specific questions and I'll try to answer them as best I can. I don't get paid to do these assessments, I only do them because I like writing and sharing my experiences and sometimes I'm bored with nothing else to do. ;)

 

My concluding thoughts on the Sony A7S are that it's not the camera for everyone. It's expensive and low resolution by modern standards - I really wish it was 24mp. For me, it's the best solution money can buy due to its incredibly capable low-light sensor and the fact that I can use incredibly small, light and excellent alt glass such as the Leica WATE on it. But I have to admit that for MUCH LESS money, you could buy a system that's not only smaller but also lighter, but also has more resolution and for 95% of photos won't look any different either on the web or even printed! A micro four-thirds system such as the new Panasonic GM5 with some tiny primes like the 15mm f/1.7 or 12mm f/2 is a very nice little package with great output. This causes me to pause and ask myself if sometimes pursuing the "best option" is a self-defeating or entirely meaningless pursuit.

 

As long as you're getting out there and enjoying what you love, there is no 'right' or 'wrong' gear to take photos with. Just remember, you won't always be able to enjoy life the way you can in your youth / health - and make sure you make some giant prints or books to enjoy your memories a little bit longer.