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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bushwalking camera gear: a post for photo nerds only (ironically with no photos)

Regular readers of the blog have sometimes asked what kind of camera gear is used to capture the images taken by the usual photographer (who is responsible for most but not all the photos on this site). That's me by the way: the usual photographer.

Often I have been tempted (and have sometimes given into that temptation) to loftily say that it's of no importance, it's the photographer not the camera etc etc. That is of course largely true; but only largely true. I sometimes look at some of the pictures and wish I had had a better camera with me on that particular trip.

Having just switched to using the full-frame Sony A7r camera with Zeiss FE lenses, it seemed like a good time to have a little retrospective which could also act as bit of a mini review of the A7 stuff for outdoor purposes.

Retrospective: for a long time I was using Canon gear; briefly some APSC stuff (40 and 50ds) but then a long period with the 5D Mk 1I and later Mk III and mountains of canon glass. But I never had the stamina to carry say 5kg of cameras and lenses, or 2 if a stripped down kit, on long trips. SO at most it got outings on overnight walks. The result? Lovely images on urban travel (though it was still a lot to take around); wonderful quality in the home studio; but a serious compact on longer trips. The consequence was that perhaps most of my favourite images had so-so IQ. That got better: over half a dozen years I went from a Ricoh GX100 to a Panasonic LX3 to a Canon S90 to a Sony RX100. But state of the art as these were in their days for a RAW compact, only the RX100 wasn't noticeably worse even on the web than a larger format camera.

At some point I began to experiment with M43 cameras: the early Olympus ones and then a few Panasonics (GX1, GH2). These were a lot nicer than the compacts, and small enough to pack on a real trip.

But what this meant was that I never took the full frame stuff with me! So my lovely 5D Mk III was relegated to dog action photos in the park (for which purpose I still miss it and it's amazing tracking focus, though it is a big investment just for that) and pictures around town and home that I ws increasingly taking just to justify owning that nice gear.

When the Olympus OMD came out, I got one. And the sensor was so much better than the previous ones, that I felt it was time to get out of full frame and cash in my chips. So onto ebay went all the FF camera gear. (Actually I couldn't bear to part with the 17mm TSE lens and a couple of others, which turns out to have been wise). And it meant I could justify some nice M43 glass.

So entered the only M43 phase. It seemed to make sense, but I did miss the file quality that a full frame sensor gives you.

Then out came the Sony A7 series. The A7r has likely the same monster sensor as the D800E in a body the size of the biggest OMD. So small enough to carry. I couldn't resist.

Lenses, though, are much bigger.

The pretty nice (if a little iffy in the extreme corners at the wide end) Zeiss 24-70 f4 is only 100g heavier than the Panasonic 12-35 f2.8 I was using, though a bit bulkier. But I thought that might do. F4 gives you the shallow depth of field of an F2 M43 lens, so it allows a little more background softening than any M43 zoom permits.

The most recent post is the first from the new camera. Am I convinced? Overall yes. I think I'll stick with the system. The files are very nice. I think even at web resolution you can pick the micro contrast and colour bit depth, though maybe I'm kidding myself. Printed or on a large monitor it's amazing. Of course the extra resolution is not visible on a 1050 wide blog photo.

So I'll switch; but it wouldn't be mad not to: here are some considerations in favour of keeping with M43 for these purposes that you need to be sure are outweighed by the advantages of the A7 for your purposes.

First, and obvious, is the converse of the nice shallow depth of field you can get. If you actually want deep depth of field, f5.6 on M43 is the equivalent of f11 on full frame. That's two stops more light you need. Of course the FF has better low light performance, but what it means is that if you were using ISO200 on M43 you need ISO 800 on FF; and ISO 800 on FF is in fact not that much better than ISO 200 on M43, so in those conditions (which are by no means most, but they do occur) some of the benefit is gone - though you still get that resolution boost.

Second is lenses. If you start to think about extra lenses you might take on your M43 - an ultra wide zoom like the panny 7-14 or a long macro like the Oly 60 - the equivalents aren't yet available in FE mount, and when they are will likely be a lot heavier. So taking extra glass along is less doable. Also, the pancake primes for M43 are as a set a lot easier to take with you than equivalent FF lenses.

Finally technique and focussing. The IBIS in the OMD is so good that I have just got used to firing at will and getting sharp results. Not so the A7r; the combination of the extra resolution, and the lack of inbuilt stabilisation for the lenses that don't have it, means that you have to take care. Careful posture, attention to breathing, or a tripod, or higher shutter speeds (and concomitant  higher ISO that bites into the quality advantage. I used to often take a few shots on the OMD as a matter of habit from the old 5D days, usually to find that they were all equally sharp and shake free. With the A7 this habit has served me well. I haven't found a real issue with shutter shake. But remember, if a little shutter shock does make things worse at say 1/80 of a second. It is unlikely to lower the effective resolution below the 16MP of the OMD!

So will I be sticking with the new system? Yes; the image quality is amazing, and I prefer the controls to the EM5 (the EM1 looks yummy in that regard, though)

But if I really wanted to carry a whole system of macro, long lenses, and ultrawides etc on long trips I'd be less sure. But for backpacking I generally take a standard zoom and one other (macro if the flowers are good, or ultra, or a nice prime to use in places where a zoom is cumbersome) and at that level it's working for me.....

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