Event: Sony Alpha Sessions Sydney (6-8th December 2018)

I’ve always been interested in photography – in fact, that’s probably what I focused mostly on during my major holiday in 2016. Of course, being interested doesn’t quite equate to being good at it – but I’m still trying. Being a stanch DSLR user interested in high image quality for the price, I started with a Canon 400D, moved over to Nikon D3200 which then gave way to the D3400 I have been using up to the present day.

For the most part, I was quite satisfied with both my D3200 and D3400 – they lasted a fair amount of time and gave pretty decent dynamic range and resolution compared to the 400D I started with. Their limited autofocus points, poor video capabilities and lack of any firmware “features” such as AEB, intervalometer, etc. was something I had come to accept at the “value” end of the spectrum. Of course, things wear out over time and I’ve been considering replacing the D3400 as my Tamron 18-50mm f/2.8 lens has a noisy autofocus motor, the central focus spot on the body always seems to badly front-focus and my SB400 flash has decided to throw in the towel along with one of my older Yongnuo YN560-II units.

It is at this time, I am most vulnerable to thoughts of replacing my DSLR with something a little more capable and a little lighter. Most of my friends have already started to move away from DSLRs towards mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs), sacrificing some baggage but not image quality. I thought about this myself as well – although when I last did, I felt that ILCs didn’t quite achieve the quality and value I was after – in fact, that was when I participated in the Cnet Olympus Photo Walk. In that experience, it was nice to see the firmware features offered by their cameras, some of the stabilization features, but I found the LCD compositing to be awkward, the EVF to be slow and grainy and the image quality of the micro four-thirds sensor to be noticeably inferior to the APS-C I was familiar with. I was pretty certain that my next major upgrade would be towards full frame – prices are bound to become affordable, sooner-or-later.

Just recently, thanks to being on a Sony mailing list and answering a few questions, I was given the chance to join their roadshow event.  I’m no stranger to the rave reviews their a7R series of cameras have garnered since their introduction, but having never used one, I was not sure whether the hype was justified. It was my impression that the Sony ecosystem was still somewhat in its infancy, with the range of lenses being relatively limited. But even more than that – I wasn’t sure if the user interface had gotten any better. Was the EVF decent? How about the LCD in sunlight? Is touch-focusing even practical? What about battery life? How about the AF? I had a lot of hesitations, especially when one considers the eye-watering price even if it is reasonable compared to the top end of their competitors.

I was under no illusion – this was a Sony marketing event. The whole aim is to sell cameras – that’s obvious. But not all marketing events are created equal and I knew what I wanted – hands on time with the equipment so I could judge for myself. I decided that it would be good to turn up with an open mind, hoping to learn exactly what their best cameras are capable of. It was free after all … so I didn’t have much to lose.

I realise that my comparisons are a little unfair, coming from the budget end and evaluating something that is akin to a flagship is like having someone who’s only driven KIAs to judge a Ferrari. However, it’s always good to know what you’re missing out on in the low-end.

Arriving on Location

The mission began at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Sydney. I had booked in a session on the Friday 7th December, from 6pm to 9pm. We were all told to get there by 5:45pm as the bus would be leaving promptly. I arrived early by half-an-hour – as usual, as I didn’t want to miss anything or hold anyone up. Interestingly, on the same day, a few other companies were holding end-of-year or promotional events at the same venue.

As the time approached, we were ushered down to our transport – a bus with custom Sony livery, promoting Sony’s superiority in the ILC market. Wow – no expense spared there. Inside the Sony bus, rather luxurious seating with ample room to move about and a small side table to boot. While we waited for the last few stragglers (who were slightly late, as predicted), we took the time to peruse the menu of goodies, most of which could be requested for a demo.

Of course, while the menu was more fully packed than I had expected, the listed prices (RRP) were equally formidable. But it’s okay to try … I guess that’s why people rent sports cars for a weekend …

For the Portraiture/Landscape session I chose, the location was Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, just a short ride from the hotel. During the ride, we got provided with some information about the Sony line-up of camera bodies and lenses, as well as their technological strengths compared with the competition. The hybrid autofocus (AF) was one of the most interesting to me – combining PDAF and CDAF in a way that uses the most suitable one for a given circumstance while having almost full-image coverage – something which all DSLRs don’t yet achieve. There were also a lot more lenses than I had expected broken into different tiers, showing the ecosystem had begun to mature, along with video shooting that uses the full sensor being resized down to output (e.g. 5K shooting down to 4K output) for increased sharpness, vibration-reduced shutters and even a silent shooting mode. On technicalities alone, it was quite impressive.

Probably the biggest irony was that we were watching the demo from a Panasonic TV. Ouch.

A Photography Excursion with the Experts

Once arriving, we had a chance to grab a camera body, lens to start on, using our own SD cards so that we could take home some images for further processing and pixel-peeping. I decided to choose the Sony A7RIII – full frame 42.4MP goodness, paired with a 24-70mm f/2.8 G-master series lens. It was an expensive combination, but one which should show what the camera is fully capable of.

One thing I did notice early on was that I didn’t bring a UHS Class 3 card – instead, bringing my Toshiba Exceria Type 2 cards capable of 60MB/s write but only certified as UHS Class 1. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that this would rule out the capacity to film in 4K and higher bitrate settings, as the camera insists on the use of UHS Class 3 cards.

The first thing I noticed was just how compact the combination was. It was small, but solid – densely packed with glass and electronics, although Made in China. The loss of the mirror box really did mean that the camera could be made smaller – adding to this, the fact the lenses can sit closer to the sensors also meant that the lenses could be made smaller. I could scarcely believe that I was holding a full-frame camera more comfortably than I was holding my DX-format Nikon D3400.

One thing I did notice was that the body does have the control wheels and joystick a little cramped together. I’d have to say the compact size and weight are definitely a great asset when it comes to travelling, as I’ve had to contend with the strictness of cabin luggage requirements. The only hesitation I had was with the flip-out hinges on the LCD mechanism, which seemed a little thin and fragile by comparison. Not being used to compositing with the LCD, I didn’t really make any use of the pivoting LCD on the day.

I spent quite a lot of time leafing through the menus because the camera had a lot of configurability. Some of that was expected such as quality/mode/copyright info settings, but others were more along the lines of button and knob customisations which allowed users transitioning from other cameras or with very specific workflow preferences to flexibly reassign buttons. It was quite a myriad of options, which I couldn’t really fully comprehend given the limited time I had with the camera and not thinking to download and pre-read the manual before arriving.

Even without having a manual to hand, it didn’t take more than a few minutes to discover how to work the camera in Av mode and start playing with AEB and touch-focus. It was what I had expected from something that was very much LCD driven – it shouldn’t be too much effort to learn to use it. It was a little confusing, as muscle memory about which way lenses twist on/off and which dial controls what function constantly resulted in me doing exactly the opposite of what I expected to do. While this was a little frustrating to have to push each button twice, it didn’t distract me from my mission to evaluate the camera and its performance. As a result, I went a little photo-crazy – not looking at taking aesthetically pleasing shots, but more trying to challenge the camera technically.

With the afternoon sun assaulting our eyes, I thought this was an ideal situation to assess dynamic range. As expected, I pointed the camera towards the setting sun and it handled the situation with aplomb although the shooting experience was somewhat different. Looking through the EVF, we notice that the clarity is not as high as with an OVF and the dynamic range is limited compared to what the sensor is capable of. As a result, sometimes in harsh conditions, the EVF looks a little flat or washed out and still slightly grainy for my liking. The slight lag was also noticeable but not as objectionable as some others I have used.

After talking to some of the staff, I was told how to adjust the brightness of the EVF, which helped slightly. I was also told that using the EVF consumes more power compared to the LCD, which was also surprising. Changing over to compose with the LCD made the camera feel more like a “large” point-and-shoot, which made it a little less natural especially when attempting to hold the camera steady for a shot as you’re likely going to be holding it at arms length rather than propping it up against your face.

But then I discovered the gem of the touch-capable LCD. The touch to focus feature was very much amazing. When using the EVF, I was trying to manually select a focus point. This involved moving around the joystick which didn’t feel intuitive and was actually quite slow as the hybrid AF covers almost all of the sensor. Instead, using the LCD, it’s as simple as tapping on the screen. While shooting video, this seems to work well, smoothly transitioning between near and far focus without the “hunting” often seen in CDAF-only systems. But even without the use of the touch-focus feature, I found the hybrid AF system to be absolutely mind-blowing – it is almost capable of mind-reading, so I found myself less worried about setting focus points and just shooting in the knowledge that the camera will probably get it right more often than not.

Another thing I found rather nice was the auto ISO feature was not totally insane, with the ability to set limits. On the whole, I didn’t think about manually clicking around with the ISO as I would normally do as it seemed to choose something decent on its own. There’s nothing worse than choosing a high ISO and forgetting about it … coming home to a batch of noisy RAWs.

It was good to see the camera had a number of inbuilt shooting modes such as exposure bracketing of up to nine shots and a pretty respectable burst shooting speed even with AF. I found it to be very good at filling up the memory buffer (especially in uncompressed RAW) which resulted in a bit of a delay as it emptied to card. One downside I discovered was that during a buffer empty, it is not possible to change shooting mode while the buffer is emptying which was a minor annoyance. But otherwise, I found the interface to be pretty responsive overall.

During the event, we were given the opportunity to change between different bodies and lenses. I didn’t bother changing away from the A7RIII, but I did also give the 12-24mm f/4 G, 70-200mm f/2.8 G-master and 85mm f/1.4 G-master a try. All of the lenses actually felt rather smooth and well made, a slight contrast to lower-priced aftermarket lenses I’m used to. I was almost like a kid in a candy shop.

Unlike most other marketing and sales events I have been to, the Sony event was staffed by “digital imaging specialists”. If you assumed this was just a fancy title, you’re wrong, as they truly are the gurus who know the menus inside out and can answer practically every question. I asked a particularly difficult one about how the compressed RAW works – was it lossy/lossless? Does it affect shooting speeds? How does it do its compression? What is being lost – highlights/shadows? Surprisingly, they were capable of elaborating on the exact compression technique used, the size of the compression blocks (which are rectangular, surprisingly) and the sort of effect it may have on extreme highlight/shadow recovery. I couldn’t find a question they didn’t have an honest answer to – more than that, the event was as promised – a chance to let the cameras sell themselves.

In the roughly 60-90 minutes of shooting, I managed to draw down the battery from 30% down to “exhausted” and fill up my 64GB card with uncompressed RAW + JPEG images. Overall, a pretty decent effort for battery life, although that still remains one of my concerns especially as aftermarket batteries are often terrible and genuine batteries are not cheap. I did wonder if changing the screen to the parameter view away from live-view saved any power, but as pointed out by one of the experts, the live histogram continues to operate so the camera is still busy processing the sensor data in real-time.

Unfortunately, the event ended before we got into really difficult territory – namely night shots.

Post-Event Temptations

I suppose if you’re on the cusp of pulling the trigger, this event was very much designed to get you over that hurdle. After the photography was discount pricing on a majority of their products – but to secure the price, you had to purchase on-the-spot that day. Afterwards, the discounts get less lucrative with “second-chance” offers. Respecting Sony’s marketing efforts – I won’t divulge the special pricing but I will have to say that the discounts were sizeable and hard to ignore, beating the grey importers while assuming none of the risks. It gave me a feeling that they really did respect our time and consideration of their range of cameras by giving us a way to fill that urge for an upgrade.

But unfortunately, this is where the story ended. Without much time or battery available to review the photos on-camera nor being able to examine the RAWs, it was hard to be immediately convinced that it was worth it. I still had some reservations about the interface, even though the experts did assure me that it was a big step up from what it was in the past. But I’d have to say, the experience was like being bitten by a bug – I now understand the “magic” of their hybrid AF system and the flexibility of their camera’s configurations and I can see that the range of lenses is hardly limiting. In fact, I’d have to say that the size of my wallet is probably the bigger limiting factor, but I was definitely impressed.

Cooking up some RAW meat

Getting home, the first thing I did was import my images into Lightroom to get a closer look at the images on my brand-spanking new 4K IPS monitors. One thing I was surprised about was just how slow Lightroom seems to get when processing such large RAW images. Having chosen to push the envelope, a single RAW image is around 80-90MB of data, so I suppose being slow might just be a combination of the large RAW files, the outdated Lightroom version I’m using and my hardware.

What struck me first about the images was a slightly different colour balance than I was used to. This is not unusual as each manufacturer does have a slightly different colour in my experience.

Dynamic range and colour proved to be rather excellent – it really made it almost pointless to use the AEB modes, as bracketed shots done handheld on a mildly windy day are going to suffer from so many ghosting artifacts that need retouching that it’s easier just to “squish” the curves on a single raw to get a little more from the highlights and shadows.

The next, and most obvious thing, was just how much resolution is in each of the images – meaning more cropping opportunities, if the image is sharp. The lenses seemed mostly up to the job – the distortion was a little higher than I was used to, but nowadays, most workflows include software distortion correction which brings it back into line. In the past, I decried this, but now I realise that lenses are not uniformly sharp, RAW processing involves many stages (e.g. debayering) which can affect the sharpness anyway, so doing some non-linear geometrical transforms to correct distortion wasn’t going to make things worse in reality.

The high resolution also makes very high resolution panoramas a snap.

To my surprise, unlike with my PDAF-only DSLR in non-live-view mode, the hybrid AF on the Sony practically nailed the focus every time. Even for quick fleeting shots, I was able to get a good focus. Now I know why I was so nervous about shooting with the aperture more widely open – a sub-par AF really does make getting a good shot so much more difficult.

High ISO noise was also very well controlled, with shots taken at ISOs of about 1000 or so (above) looking much cleaner than even ISO 400 shots from my regular camera. Extreme ISOs still suffer in terms of detail, but I’m still quite impressed as the R is resolution-oriented, so this might well be the result of sensor technology advances and backside illumination.

Conclusion

In the end, I didn’t end up purchasing a Sony ILC. In fact, I haven’t yet decided what I’ll do now that the D3400’s on its last legs. If I am looking to leave the Nikon system, now’s probably a good time to do so since a few things are falling apart. But going to Sony isn’t quite as cheap as it was to go to Nikon – the choices with the established manufacturers for lenses and accessories are greater, which makes for affordable glass with good quality.

If anything, I’m more confused – knowing ILCs are coming of age and Sony sensors are amazing really does make the decision of what to get … just that little more confusing. Can I justify the expense at the moment? I’m not sure. I don’t make any money from my photography … it’s more of a hobby that also spills over to content creation for the blog. I guess I can still wait a little longer, but maybe my next camera won’t be a DSLR after all.

Thanks to Sony’s generosity, we didn’t leave empty handed. But I’m happy that I at least got a chance to see what the latest mirrorless cameras are capable of. I’m impressed.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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