More thoughts about the a99.

It's hard sometimes to write stuff for the web and to also show meaningful photographic examples. No matter how you upload stuff for mass consumption on the internet it will be crunched, compressed and artifacts will occur. So when I write about a camera and then show images from the camera it's frustrating. The qualities in the samples is never what I see on my office monitor.  In many ways the real litmus test for image quality is still the act of making large prints and looking at them under controlled conditions, but we can't really do that every day for thousands of readers. The best thing I can suggest is to read the words and also look at the images but-----if you are looking at the images on an old laptop or the screen of your phone you might just trust the words over the images that you see in front of you.

When I looked at the image, above, on my screen I was looking at Sony's extra fine, full size jpeg which (I can tell by the original file size) doesn't get radically compressed in camera. So I was seeing some good tonal range and a high degree of sharpness and detail. Having slain all dangerous business dragons in the early hours of 6 am to 10 am today I gave into temptation and profiled a version of the above for a print out at Costco, on glossy paper. The image was printed at 12 by 18 inches. When I picked up the print (and some batteries, and 50 rolls of toilet paper and a shrink-wrapped package of 12 jumbo sized cans of tuna...kidding...) I glanced at it under the store's florescent lights, thought they'd done a decent job staying on top of their paper profiles and drove home.

Once I got back to the studio I pulled the print back out, flicked on my big OTT light for print viewing, grabbed my most authentic pair of reading glasses and took a better look. Absent was any hint of noise or file grittiness. The detail was pretty amazing and the colors looked rich and believable. It was a totally different evaluation experience than the one I usually do out of laziness, which is to toss the file into an Apple computer and then pop the file up to 100% in Lightroom or Photoshop and looking at it on a 27 inch, calibrated monitor. No matter which files we're looking into at 100% there's always something we don't like about them.

In printed form the file from the a99 Jpeg was about as good as a print gets. How would I know? I've been making prints and ordering prints for large commercial clients and magazines for about a quarter of a century now. It gives me some perspective.

Today I used the a99 to do a holiday card image for a very creative advertising agency. I'd show you the image but it's top secret until it goes out in the mail. I used the a99 with the 85mm f2.8 at f 5.6 until we all (two creative directors and an art director) looked at a few test files together and all agreed that the lens was too good, the files too detailed and the look too clinical. I pulled a Minolta 24-85mm f3.5 to f4.5 (long since discontinued and forgotten) out of the bag and we shot with that instead. It had a different look; a bit less clinical, and the agency liked that. We banged out 125 shots against a white background and here's how we did out post processing:  I sat down at the art director's desk and downloaded the files into her MacBook Pro via the SD card slot. We put the jpeg files into a folder on her desktop.  Then she picked up her computer and everyone followed her into the agency's conference room where she hooked up her computer to the 50 inch HD TV and hit "slideshow" in Preview.

The images popped up onto the screen and we all laughed at the funniest ones and made the intern mark down the frame numbers. I packed up my few lights, the backdrop and the camera and left. That was the extent of my post production on the job. 

I did have the images on my SD card when I came back into the studio and I was curious what ISO 125 looked like so I put them into my computer and started blowing things up. And blowing them up.  And blowing them up. Now I can say a few things about the Sony a99's low ISO Jpegs.  1. Zero Noise. 2. Perfect color (thank you, custom white balance). 3. Some of the best files I've seen for technical goodness.

It's been a busy couple of days here and I'm doing a lot of pre-production for another spa shoot on Saturday and then a three day marathon for a giant computer company that starts next Tues. (warning, probably a very sparse time for blogs from the 11th to the 13th....) but I do have the whole day to myself tomorrow and I'm going to be doing the next critical camera test. I'm going to shoot and process some raw files and I'm going to break out the weird shoe to normal hot shoe adapter that comes with the a99 and see if it does a better job with  shoe mount electronic flash than the a77.

If the tests go well I will share them with you. If they go poorly I'll just sit on the floor and pout.

One of the challenges for any camera is radically mixed light. The kind I hate is sunlight on one side of a person's face and florescent or tungsten on the other. You can see in the image above that the people outside the spot light are lit mostly by coolish tungsten balanced light (approx. 3660K in this example) while the people seated at the table are in a pool of cool daylight (6200K, approx.).  Since the main action is the interplay between the lead actors at the table I quick set the color temperature for their position and let the chorus actors go blue. Very blue.  No camera in the world will make the color any more uniform since that's not the role of stage light. I do find it interesting that the color balance of a scene is intimately tied to the final exposure of a scene. Many times I'll correct for color and find a scene going much lighter or darker than it had been, either in camera or on the monitor.

The biggest example is in warming up an image that's too cold, light-wise. The exposure can change by up to a stop in some situations. I guess my point would be to color correct first, then set exposure, then fine tune the color balance a little bit more. I mention it here because I shot several frames in mixed light before I decided what I would emphasize and I watched again this morning as the exposure rocked around during color corrections. The Sony a99 will store three or four custom WB presets. The way to make theater photography easier is to come in early and have someone go through the major light cues while you set up custom white balances for the two or three predominant ones. If you know the lighting on the stages you normally shoot on you could keep those balances locked in.

An example might be daylight in preset one, 4400K in preset two and 3300K in preset three. With an a99 or a77 or OMD you'll be able to make the changes while keeping your eye on the viewfinder and you'll be able to pre-chimp the effect of each WB setting. Since the presets are all right next to each other in the menu you won't waste precious time scrolling through the menu.

My nemesis are the big optical spotlights that the theater is using as follow spots. They seem to have an almost cyan/green cast to them that doesn't seem to bother the lighting designer or anyone else in the theater but, when juxtaposed with the tungsten stage lights, they have a distinct color cast that drives me nuts. The correction in Lightroom is the addition of 24 pts of magenta and a bit higher than 5800K temperature correction. It's actually the one compelling reason I've come across to use raw files when shooting in the new theater. Let's me do tightly constrained color correction with the adjustment brush before I make the final conversions. 

Breaking in a new camera can be like learning to drive a new car. Everything is not where you expect it to be. But drive it to work everyday and you figure out all the important stuff pretty quickly. And really, most cars and cameras are more the same than they are different.

Final note. Battery life with a well used (but not too old) battery was much better than the battery life I experienced with the camera and it's brand new battery.

Thanks for reading. 

Be sure to order some books for Christmas.  Or get yourself one of those really nice a99's....

A first peek at my Sony a99. White Christmas?

I'll admit it right off the bat; I had the Sony a99 for three days before I really pulled it out of the box and played with it in earnest. I was too busy enjoying the heck out of the swell files I was getting from the new, little Nex 6. But I figured I'd spent the money on the bigger machine so I might as well de-box it and give it a go. I'm excited by the concept of the a99 but truthfully it looks so much like my a77's that it's hard to get worked up over the physical actuality of the camera. 

I always buy tons of extra batteries when I buy into a system and I'm happy that all three of my DSLT cameras from Sony use the same battery. I popped a fully charged battery into the a99 and when through the menus, preset the camera and immediately went off to shoot a job with it. (No, I did not go all in. I carried along an a77 and the Nex 6-------just in case).

Yesterday evening's job was to photograph the dress rehearsal of Irving Berlin's, White Christmas, at the new Topfer Theater at the Zachary Scott Theatre Complex. The bulk of the images I shot were done with the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G lens. It's big, fat, heavy and bulky. A real, all American lens aesthetic. But it's very sharp and handles well in spite of its bulk. I figured I bought the camera for its image quality and it's ability to shoot under low light conditions so I didn't mess around. I set the ISO to 3200, the noise reduction to low, and over the course of the evening shot around 979 big, fat, x.fine Jpegs.

If you think I write too much I'll just cut to the chase and tell you what I think. Look at the image above, shot all the way out at 200mm, handheld. Now look at the image just below which is an approximate 1:1 enlargement of the center guy in the frame. Now click on it so you can see it bigger in a separate window. And remember that it's been resized down and compressed for the web. That's really all I needed to know about the camera. It just works and works well.

100% Crop.

Since most of the AF points are closer to the center of the frame than in the a77 I changed some of the ways I work with the cameras. I chose to use the center grouping of focusing points and to use C-AF instead of S-AF. The camera focuses quickly in low light and nearly instantaneously in good light.

During the shoot I kept an a77 in the chair next to me with a 16-50mm 2.8 lens mounted on it and I would pick it up and shoot wide stage shots from time to time. When I compare files I was pleasantly surprise to see that the a77 was not that far behind the a99 in overall quality (of course I kept the a77 at ISO 800....). In fact, it made me re-appreciate the a77 because that camera handles very well, has the same fast focus and the EVF is also really good.

None of these files has been hit with post processing noise reduction and I included quite a few that transition to black or heavy shadow so that the compulsive among us can peer into the low end of the Zone System scale and look for outrageous noise. If you are looking at the green uniform in the image above please be aware that the weave of cloth material is a different thing from noise...

a77 image.

In sober retrospect I'm asking myself this morning if I really needed to go ahead and buy an a99. While the camera is fun and solid, and I'm liking the files so far, I was very happy with the work I had been doing with the a77 and feel as though I could have continued along with those cameras for some time. But there are a few things I'm looking forward to with the a99.  One of those is the look of a high speed 50mm image with the full frame camera. Another is working with an 85mm in its ultimate visual comfort zone.


Like everyone else I fall into the habits I've been developing.  I had the Sony a77 and a57 menus pretty well figured out so I didn't stray much (or have to re-learn much) with the a99 but since I haven't practiced with the potentially cool front silent control dial I didn't mess around with it while on the job. Having done some more experimenting over the last month with the electronic shutter curtain I found that shots done with relatively fast lenses, used wide open and at fast shutter speeds, could potentially show edge blurring in shots with high lighting contrast. Especially scenes with light against dark. And it's an effect that can be accentuated in theater phtotography with deeply saturated, colored lighting.

Very few of my shots have been affected but it did happen from time to time and the effect is different from either flare or potential mirror reflections. Last night I made a point of setting both cameras in the mechanical shutter mode and I was happy to see that every frame was free of any sort of shutter induced aberration.  If you use electronic first curtain in any of your cameras you might experiment to find situations in which that is a non-optimal setting.  Not every tool works for every job in the same way.

When I opened up the frames I shot with the a99/70-200mm combination I was happy to see that they were crisp, not blocked up in the highlights or the shadows (beyond what would be natural in dramatic theater lighting) and that they blew up very well. I tried to help the jpeg engine along by setting the creative mode to "standard" and setting a minus one for contrast. Most of my exposures were in the range of 1/160th to 1/250th which helped freeze action while the constant ISO 3200 allowed me to stop down the lens to a more optimum f4.5 to f5.6.  The 70-200 Sony G is as sharp wide open as any of the competitors but they all look better one or two stops down, if you have the leeway to get there.

The a99 camera felt natural in my hands. I've been using the a77 for almost a year and the feel of the cameras is pretty close, if not identical. The finder seems more neutral and less contrasty than the a77 finder and the only thing that's really different is the size and distribution of the green AF squares. I am hard pressed to tell the difference between the EVF and an OVF in most lighting situations. Just for fun I took an older Nikon F4 out of a drawer and compared the cameras in the studio. I much prefer the Sony finder. Your mileage may different. Just be sure it's not all emotional mileage before you start to argue about it.

Did the files knock me off my seat with their breathtaking quality?  Hey, it's just another camera. It did what it was supposed to do and it did it well. It's possibly that there are other cameras (Canon 1DX or Nikon D4 corrected a day later...) that have a bit better high ISO performance but not enough to justify the massive difference in price. I took a few shots of Belinda this morning at ISO 100 and in that instance I was very much impressed. As much as we (as a collective) like to use performance at high ISO's as a metric of overall quality I think that every improvement in technology in these machines also give us the ability not just to be flexible but to create files that are the BEST that files can be. That always means: using the native ISO of your shooting camera to get the lowest electronic noise, the highest dynamic range and the best color purity. But to do that right your basic technique has to be good.

Unlike some of the competitors Sony visibly rewards you for shooting at the camera's optimum settings. The flesh tones on the images of Belinda, taken with soft window light and accurately white balanced, are among the best I've ever seen from a digital camera and that includes D800s and several medium format digital cameras. I need to do a lot more controlled studio shooting with the camera but I'm close to declaring it the ultimate studio portrait camera----where tonality and color are concerned.

Love the indulgent poke at 1950's modern dance. Love the tones.

Be sure to click on this one because I absolutely love it. Can't believe how good the 70-200 2.8 G is at its longest extension.

The camera is far less cumbersome, in terms of size and weight, than it's direct competitors, the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5Dmk3. It's far smaller and lighter than the Canon 1 series or the Nikon D(single digit) series. The battery life is nothing to write home about. I shot 979 images during a two hour show with this camera and the battery read 23% remaining when I checked it at the end. That's okay but not quite in the territory of it's competitors.

Like most semi-pro and pro cameras these days it has two card slots, both for SD cards, and the interplay between slots is highly flexible. Raw on one, jpegs on the other.  Movies on one, stills on the other. And my favorite: Images on one and the same images backed up on the other. Good to have should you be in a shoot where you absolutely have to get the images to the client with no excuses.

So, my bottom line, after one two hour shooting session is: The camera is quite good, the files are outstanding, and, I want to shoot more with it. I have a studio shoot for an ad agency this afternoon and we'll be working differently that we di for the show last night. I'll be metering with a hand held meter and working in raw. I'll be shooting at medium apertures and at low ISOs. This the way to really test a camera or a camera system; by shooting real jobs in real life for real clients and then evaluating the results in comparison with the tools you were using yesterday.

And now the question you've all been waiting to have answered--------How was the show?

It was fun, nostalgic, spirited, musical, funny and in parts a feel good tear jerker. The stage craft was exemplary and the actors uniformly wonderful. I've gone, over the decades, from being a regular guy who likes movies where things blow up to a person who really enjoys live theater and musical theater. I blame Zachary Scott Theater for that. I'm not pushing the play too much because it's largely sold out right up until Christmas Day.  That's how good it is.  Grab a ticket if you are in town and you can get one. It's a great way to usher in Christmas and get your holiday spirit going.

Almost as much fun as buying a new camera...