My Sony a77 II Guide Now Available!


You can now order ebook or printed copies of my latest book: David Busch’s Sony Alpha a77 II Guide to Digital Photography. It should be available for at retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can order it directly here:
Sony a77 II book

I appreciate the patience of my Sony fans. Switching publishers is never easy, but I’m looking forward to a long term relationship with my new company.

Deflating the ‘Eggs in One Basket’ Myth

I’m currently in the process of upgrading my memory cards to Lexar 128GB 1000X/150 MB/s cards, as they are on sale for about $60 each in packs of two. I do this quite often (my last stop was in 64GB territory), and I’m always reminded of the “Eggs in One Basket” myth that has dogged incremental memory expansion for the last several decades. The debate about whether it’s better to use one large memory card or several smaller ones has been going on since even before there were memory cards!

I can remember when computer users wondered whether it was smarter to install a pair of 200MB (not gigabyte) hard drives in their computer, or if they should go for one of those new-fangled 500MB models. By the same token, a few years ago the user groups were full of proponents who insisted that you ought to use 128MB memory cards rather than the huge 512MB versions. Today, most of the arguments involve 16GB cards vs. 32GB cards, and with dropping prices, 64GB and 128GB cards have found their way into the debate as well.

I have some professional photographer friends who chortle at the folly of using large memory cards (I’ve actually witnessed the chortling), and they have special reasons for their preference. But most of us have no cause to fear using mature memory storage technologies. I don’t want to be a pioneer in working with 512GB memory cards (and have no need to do so), but I’m perfectly comfortable with my 128GB cards for the following reasons.

1. Memory cards don’t magically wait until they are full before they fail. You will not automatically lose 128GB worth of photos, rather than 32GB if a memory card implodes. If you typically shoot 6GB worth of images before you have a chance to copy them to your computer or laptop, then that’s the most you are at risk for under average circumstances. Whether you’re using an 8GB, 16GB, or 128GB card, the amount of images you shoot in a typical session will be the number you actually lose. All a larger memory card does is give you greater flexibility for those times when you want to shoot more in one session and don’t want or don’t have time to swap cards. Many photographers change cards when they are 80 percent full to avoid missing a crucial shot. A larger card helps you stretch that a bit.

The biggest danger comes from waiting too long – say several days – to back up your images. We all know photographers who have New Years Eve, July 4, and Thanksgiving images on a single card, and who never backup their photos.

2. 64GB cards aren’t twice as likely to fail as 32GB cards, although many seem to feel that’s so. Indeed, I’ve heard the same advice to use “safer” 256MB cards, 2 GB cards, or 4GB cards virtually up the line as capacities have increased.

3. Using multiple smaller cards may increase your odds of losing photos. Memory cards do fail, but that usually happens from user error. The first 128GB card I bought, a Sony model, failed within a few months, because I put it in my wallet for “safekeeping” and accidentally folded it in half. It’s also common for photographers to lose cards, put them through a wash and dry cycle, or perform other atrocities unrelated to the reliability of the card itself.

Yes, if you use smaller cards you may lose half as many photos, but you might also find that more cards equates to a higher risk of losing one or damaging one through stupidity. I find it’s better to use the minimum number of photo “baskets” and then make sure nothing happens to that basket. If all your images are important, the fact that you’ve lost 100 of them rather than 200 pictures isn’t very comforting.

4. When your family goes on vacation, do you split up family members to travel in several smaller cars? After all, in a terrible collision, you might lose only a couple of your kinfolk rather than all of them. Keep in mind that your family is much more important to you than your photos, and the odds of being in a traffic accident is much greater than encountering a faulty memory card. Humans are susceptible to the cognitive fallacy “neglect of probability.” I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of pictures and lost two memory cards, and I know three other photographers who’ve had memory card problems. I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles and been in four traffic accidents and know a dozen people who have had auto mishaps. Should my family be riding around in different cars while I stick to 16GB memory cards?

5. The typical memory card is rated for a Mean Time Between Failures of 1,000,000 hours of use. That’s constant use 24/7 for more than 100 years! According to the manufacturers, they are good for 10,000 insertions in your camera, and should be able to retain their data (and that’s without an external power source) for something on the order of 11 years. Of course, with the millions of cards in use, there are bound to be a few lemons here or there.

So, what can you do? Here are some options for preventing loss of valuable images:

Interleaving. One option is to interleave your shots. Say you don’t shoot weddings, but you do go on vacation from time to time. Take 50 or so pictures on one card, or whatever number of images might fill about 25 percent of its capacity. Then, replace it with a different card and shoot about 25 percent of that card’s available space. Repeat these steps with diligence (you’d have to be determined to go through this inconvenience), and, if you use four or more memory cards you’ll find your pictures from each location scattered among the different memory cards. If you lose or damage one, you’ll still have some pictures from all the various stops on your trip on the other cards. That’s more work than I like to do (I usually tote around a portable hard disk and copy the files to the drive as I go), but it’s an option.

Transmit your images. Another option is to transmit your images, as they are shot, over a network to your laptop or smart device. Many cameras have that option.

External backup. It’s easy to physically transfer your images to a laptop, smart device, or other backup storage, particularly when you’re on vacation.

Be smart. If you’re having problems, the first thing you should do is stop using that memory card. Don’t take any more pictures. Don’t do anything with the card until you’ve figured out what’s wrong. Your second line of defense (your first line is to be sufficiently careful with your cards that you avoid problems in the first place) is to do no harm that hasn’t already been done. If necessary, decide on a course of action (such as using a data recovery service or software) before you risk damaging the data on your card further. If you take a picture of your business card as the first photo in a session, should the card be lost your odds of having it returned to you are increased.

UNEXPECTED BONUSES WITH THE a7r II

Well, my Sony a7r II is on order. The new camera has so many improvements over my current a7r that I’m expecting I may have trouble finding a buyer for my old camera. I’m still absorbing the advantages in the lens choice department.

  • 18MP images with APS-C lenses. The a7r II can automatically switch to crop sensor mode when you mount a non-FE Sony E Mount lens. Thanks to the 42.5MP sensor, you still get images with 17.7MP of resolution using those lenses. I own a full set of the compact APS-C lenses that I used with my NEX-7, a6000 (and, soon, their successors), so won’t be losing much in terms of resolution or size.
  • Minolta/A-Mount lenses at full resolution. I also own quite a few old Minolta A-Mount lenses, as well as Sony full-frame lenses that I used on my a99. I’m dying to test those out on the a7r II using the EA-LA4 adapter I already own. I have some A-mount APS-C lenses, as well, currently being used on my a77 II. They’ll work in crop mode at 17.7MP. It’s all good.
  • Canon EF lenses with adapter. It’s likely that some people will switch to the a7r II from Canon, especially since it’s a few hundred dollars cheaper than the new EOS 5DS and 5DS R models, should match or exceed them in image quality, and — here’s the kicker — they don’t necessarily have to purchase all new lenses. Spend $650 for the Metabones Smart Adapter IV, and many (but not all) of your existing EF lenses will autofocus nearly as fast, and you don’t lose image stabilization or Av exposure mode.

Granted, using A-Mount lenses or Canon EF lenses on the a7r II defeats the advantage of having such a tiny, lightweight camera body. But I should note that not all of the E-mount and FE-mount lenses I’m currently using are all that petite, particularly my favorite, the 70-200mm f/4. Sony is adding native FE lenses all the time, but the ability to use a wide variety of optics (including Nikon and other mounts with adapters) opens up your options and, for many, eliminates or postpones the need to purchase special lenses for this great camera.

What does the new Sony a7r II actually mean?

It’s no secret that the original Sony a7r full frame mirrorless camera is one of my two or three favorite cameras, which I have been using on a daily basis since late 2013.  Coupled with the Zeiss “holy trinity” of lenses (16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm optics, each with an f/4 maximum aperture), I’ve prized the high-end model for its combination of image quality, high resolution 36MP sensor, compact size, and full feature set. And, since the introduction of the first of the new generation mirrorless full frame models — the 24MP Sony a7 II — I’ve been looking forward to the successor to my original a7r, which was introduced on June 10, with availability slated for August, 2015.  Does this new model justify the level of anticipation that we’ve seen?   I’ve put together a list of the most important new features.

  •  Surprise!  The new camera’s 42.4 megapixel resolution is not the most significant feature.  What Sony owners will absolutely love is the potential autofocus speed increase possible with the a7r II.  To understand why, you need to consider that the largest image capture bottleneck in most mirrorless cameras (and in dSLRs in “mirrorless” Live View mode), is the crippling slowness of  conventional contrast detect AF.

When focusing using the image captured by the sensor alone, a camera must tediously examine the edge contrast of parts of the subject and, frequently, hunt back and forth until the highest contrast (sharpest) image is found.   Many mirrorless cameras use nothing but contrast detection, and even optimized systems  may not be as speedy in achieving focus as the slowest dSLR that relies on contrast detection.  The chief advantage of contrast detect AF is that focus isn’t restricted to a small set of AF sensors, as well as the systems’ relative simplicity.

The a7r II’s back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor has 399 phase detection AF points embedded within its full frame.  That means the camera can use rangefinder-like phase detection to achieve focus much more quickly, up to 40 percent faster than the previous model, according to Sony.  “Hunting” isn’t necessary; by examining the AF points, the camera knows instantly which direction to focus, and exactly how much of an adjustment to make.  This superior phase detect AF can bring the a7r II up to the level of premium dSLR cameras in terms of autofocus.   An additional 25 contrast detection points are also used as required in Sony’s Fast Hybrid system.

  • Five-axis image stabilization.  Sony introduced 5-axis SteadyShot IS with the 24MP a7 II.  It’s an in-body system that works with virtually every lens, and makes adjustments along the x and y axes, and compensates for pitch, roll, and yaw, too.  (In plain English, x and y movement of the camera is along the focal plane in the left/right, up/down directions, respectively; pitch is tilting the camera up or down; roll is rotating the camera along a line passing through the center of the lens; yaw is rotating the camera from side to side along the axis of, say, the tripod socket.)  Depending on camera movement, any one of these or any combination may occur as you frame and shoot.
    This enhanced SteadyShot should give you a conservative minimum of two or three stops (i.e. you can shoot at 1/30th s where 1/250th s might be required before), and potentially much more.  (Keep in mind that IS does nothing to prevent subject blur.)   Since the a7-series cameras are so compact and light in weight, the ability to use them without a tripod in many situations is a significant advance.
    As a bonus, if you own a lot of old Minolta or newer Sony A-mount lenses, you can use them with the a7r II and  the EA-LA4 adapter.  You lose a bit of compactness, but gain versatility without sacrificing AF speed.
  • Back-illuminated CMOS sensor.  Sony pioneered back-illuminated sensor technology, and cleverly applies it to the new a7r II.   With conventional sensors, the matrix of photosites and the “wiring” they require reflect some of the light striking them, preventing that illumination from reaching the photosensitive layer that actually captures the image.  For a back-illuminated sensor, the order of the layers is reversed, so the illumination falls directly on the photosensitive elements, with the matrix and wiring relegated to the reverse side.  That allows the sensor to use virtually 100 percent of its area to capture light, making it more sensitive.  There is no optical low pass “blurring” filter in front of the sensor, enhancing resolution (you may need to remove moire manually.)
    This configuration provides three benefits.   Sony has been able to squeeze 42.4 megapixels onto a 24 x 36mm sensor without needing to reduce their size as much as would be required with a conventional sensor.  That translates into improved sensitivity, too.  The a7r II should provide improved image quality at ISO settings up to 25,600.  When production models are available, we’ll see whether the improvements will make photography at the equivalent of ISO 102,400 possible as well.
    The back-illumination configuration also allows improving the wiring on the back of the sensor (because there is no longer any concern about its interfering with light gathering), such that Sony says data transmission can occur up to 3.5x faster than with the original a7r.
    An anti-reflective coating on the surface of the sensor helps improve light gathering — and also should reduce problems you might face from light bouncing off the sensor, and then bouncing back from the rear elements of your lenses (frequently older, pre-digital lenses.)
    Don’t expect the a7 II to rival the current a7s for the low-light championship, but the results should be good.  Best of all, you won’t need to make some difficult choices about bumping up the ISO while reducing image quality.  You should be able to have some cake, and eat it, too.
  • Other goodies:  Videographers will like the ability to shoot and record 4K video in multiple formats including Super 35mm (without pixel binning) and full-frame format, a world’s first for digital cameras .   The rest of us should love a shutter with 50% less vibration, and which includes a (virtually) Silent Shooting mode.  The optional electronic first curtain shutter can further reduce shutter shake.  The XGA 2,359,296-pixel organic light emiting diode (OLED) viewfinder now boasts a 0.78 magnification, and the 1.2MP rear-panel LCD remains.  Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communications) allows the a7r II to communicate with your favorite Android and iOS devices.

Yes, the Sony 70-200mm F/4 FE zoom is a great close-up lens…

Close-ups from a distance

Most of us like to pack a full set of lenses so we’ll be ready for anything.  Yet, I’ve found that many people will happily settle into one of two camps…either they are a Telephoto Person or a Wide-Angle Person. Although either group will frequently travel into the other’s territory, they tend to “see” many picture-taking opportunities either from a telephoto or a wide-angle perspective, and tend to approach their subjects from one “angle” or another.   With a telephoto view, selective focus and emphasis on fine details or textures often takes precedence, as shown in this shot of a blue and yellow macaw in Islamorada, Florida.  Wide-angle lenses may be favored by those who want to use apparent perspective distortion for effect (the distortion is only apparent, not real, because it is not due to a defect in the lens), or who wish to take in a broad expanse of the surroundings.

I wanted to isolate this macaw against a busy background, and used my Sony 70-200mm f/4 lens at 200mm to capture the bird from a distance of about 40 inches, wide open at f/4 and 1/800th second at ISO 200.  As you can see from the inset, this lens can be used as a great macro lens, too.  The telephoto let me keep my distance from the macaw (although it was more likely I’d get bitten than frighten the bird), while the wide open aperture and lovely bokeh of this lens de-emphasized the background.  And for this “macro” shot, no tripod was required.  The fast shutter speed and the lens’s optical image stabilization was all I need for a sharp image.

With 36 megapixels, you don’t always need a telephoto lens…

With 36 megapixels, you don’t always need a telephoto lens

 

My Sony a7r and a6000 were two of my mainstays while I was shooting down in the Florida Keys during my January-March escape from the bitter Winter we had up North as 2015 opened.  Although I favored the a6000 with the Sony 70-200mm f/4 lens for wildlife, sometimes I found myself with an opportunity to shoot an interesting creature, such as this heron, when toting only my a7r and 24-70mm f/4 Zeiss Vario-Tessar FE 24-70mm f/4.  As you can see from the slightly cropped main image at left, I really was able to get no closer than about 50 feet from the bird at Long Key State Park before it began to display skittish tendencies.  I was already knee-deep in murky water, so I shot away.   Back at my Winter “headquarters” I was pleased to see that 36 megapixels were plenty to allow some judicious cropping.  Exposure was about 1/800th second at f/5.6 at ISO 100 and OSS active.   I can’t remember whether I was more concerned about my feathered friend flying away, or slipping and giving my mirrorless camera a salt-water bath.

 

Where does KEH get all these like-new *old* lenses?

The majority of lenses I buy are brand new, often because they are just coming onto the market.  I bought my 16-70mm f/4 Zeiss lens in an economical bundle with my a6000, and purchased my 70-200mm f/4 and new 16-35mm f/4 Zeiss favorites for my a7r online for delivery the day they were released.  But I like to fill in my collection with less expensive optics, often to pick up some relative bargains that I can use under tough environmental conditions on less-than-crucial shoots  Certainly I can slap a B+W filter on my most prized lenses, but why expose them to hazards when I’m just experimenting?

That’s why I’ve purchased more than a dozen lenses from KEH.com, with most of them costing less than $300, and a few for as little as $40. I picked up an older Sony A-mount 18-200 f/3.5-6.3  Sony 18-70mm f/4.5-5.6 A-mount lenses  for a pittance, and a “disposable” Sigma 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 macro zoom for $40.00.  A few of my E-mount lenses were also purchased gently used from KEH at more modest savings.  When I buy from KEH, if I choose anything above their Bargain or Ugly grades, the lenses I receive are invariably indistinguishable from new. And, in many cases, we’re talking about some fairly ancient lenses.

The secret, of course is the glut of A-mount lenses sold with Minolta badges over the years.  I’ve got a 70-210mm “beer can,” 75-300mm zoom, and a selection of other great lenses at bargain prices.  They have all worked well, with full autoexposure and autofocus features, on my A-mount Sony cameras, which have included everything from early Alpha traditional mirror models (both full-frame and APS-C varieties), more recent SLT-era models, including my latest a77 ii, and, with an EA-LA2 (which I have since replaced with the EA-LA4) adapter, on my succession of NEX and a5xxx and a6xxx E-mount cameras.

Not all of these are the best-built or sharpest lenses in the drawer, but they all do the job and cost me only a fraction of the price of the equivalent new lenses. When I went looking for a 70-200mm zoom, I wanted to buy new. But browsing KEH.com for offbeat and older A-mount (and an occasional E-mount) is a sensational way of filling in your kit for not much money.

Why I’m switching to Sony…sort of.

You’ve probably been seeing articles and blog posts about photographers who are quite a bit more famous than me – including Trey Ratcliffe – who have switched from Nikon (or Canon) to Sony in the past few months. Now, I’ve joined them – sort of.

Because of the unusual nature of my job, I’ve always owned and used a full array of cameras from Canon, Nikon, and Minolta (now Sony), dating back to the ‘60’s when I used Nikon Fs, a Canon Pellix, and Minolta SRT-101 as a newspaper photographer/photojournalist. I even used a few Pentax cameras, including the Spotmatic, a pair of Olympus Pen F/Pen FT models, and, while shooting weddings, portraits, and fashion, a Pentax 67 120/220 SLR.

More recently, my work writing camera guides has kept me diligently using a variety brands in my everyday shooting. For the past decade or so, I’ve maintained a full “permanent” complement of Canon, Olympus, Minolta/Sony A-mount, and Sony E-mount lenses. I have rotated into my “semi-permanent” collection my favorite cameras for each of those platforms, with an EOS 5D Mark III eventually replaced by the latest EOS 7D Mk II, or the Olympus OM-D E-M5 bumped in favor of the newer OM-D E-M1.

Through all that, my Nikon cameras had remained my “go-to” models that I turned to for my most demanding assignments.

Because I own roughly 30 Nikkor lenses, every Nikon SB-model flash unit, and most of the other accessories, it’s only natural that I’d come to use Nikon products more than, say Canon (10 lenses, and every Speedlite made.) Then, Sony made the transition from quirky to increasingly professional, and I was surprised to find myself using my Sony gear in preference to Nikon (or other) equipment more and more.I took a massive amount of equipment to an air show and spent a full day photographing the Navy’s Blue Angels and other performers. After a few shots with my D4s and 300mm and 70-200mm Nikkor lenses with 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters, I ended up switching to a Sony Alpha a6000 with Sony 70-200mm f/4 zoom for the next 4,200 exposures. The darn thing has lightning-fast focus, and, as an ASP-C camera, gave me the equivalent field-of-view of 105-300mm for 24 megapixel images at 11 frames per second.

A few weeks later, at a concert where “professional” cameras were considered an annoyance by the performers (even though I was an official photographer for the venue), my Sony a7r worked like a champ. Its low-light image quality didn’t match my D4s or Df in terms of noise (although an a7s certainly would have), but I ended up with some 36MP shots that I liked very much.

The a7r and Nikon Df were my main cameras during my month shooting in the Florida keys earlier this year. But, in planning for a month-long photo trip in a few weeks, decided to leave my Nikon gear at home and trust the Sony equipment to do the job. I was confident that there was nothing I couldn’t do with my new array. Everything I needed fit into one small LowePro backpack:

* Cameras. Sony a7r and a6000. I have my choice of shooting the a7r in full frame mode for 36MP images with full frame lenses, or in APS-C mode for 15MP with either full frame or APS-C lenses. If I’d rather end up with 24MP resolution, I can use any of the lenses on the a6000, with the “advantage” of its 1.5X “crop” mode.
* E-Mount Lenses. The 16-35mm f/4, 24-70mm f/4, and 70-200mm f/4 FE (full frame) Sony/Zeiss E-mount lenses comprise a “holy trinity” that’s nearly the equal of Nikon/Canon’s equivalents, and can be used on the a7r or a6000. I’m also taking several Sony APS-C lenses, including the 16-70mm f/4 Zeiss, 16mm f/2.8, as well as 12mm f/2.8 and fisheye adapters.
* A-Mount lenses. Although Sony’s LA-EA4 adapter isn’t compact and sort of counters the advantage of the tiny size of the a7r and a6000, they do let me use my full assortment of A-Mount Sony/Minolta lenses with fast autofocus. I’m taking the adapter and Sony 50mm f/1.4 full frame “normal” lens for low-light photography, and Sony 35mm f/2.8 macro lens for closeups.
* Accessories. I have the Sony RMT-DSLR 2 IR Remote, and Sony HVL-F43M flash. That’s all I really need, except for a Gitzo Traveler carbon fiber tripod.

Actually, a normal person doesn’t even need all that stuff to take great pictures. Either Sony camera and a lens or two will do the job. However, I love the fact that I can tote along a whole bag of gear (including lots of extras for experimentation) without worrying about being loaded down. I’m certainly not ready to abandon Nikon yet, but I’ve found that a part-time switch to Sony no longer requires making any sacrifices. Stay tuned.