**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;
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)]
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;
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):
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.
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.
What's the difference between pixel and practical quality of a photograph? Consider the following two shots:
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.
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.
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.]
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!]
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.]
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;
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.
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.
Here's some links to reviews, previews and other opinions on the FE system: