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Elinchrom ELC500 TTL studio flash

A new generation from Swiss masters of studio flash Elinca SA brings multi-platform TTL, super-fast recycling and flash durations, brilliant LED modelling and many design innovations. David Kilpatrick has been trying out the twin head kit.

The second wave of any innovation in technology is often safer to invest in than the pioneering first generation. Studio flash offering IGBT duration and power control, allowing much the same TTL and high speed functions found in camera speedlights, has been in development for over a decade but whole generations have been orphaned by advances in wireless trigger and camera firmware.

Finally bringing this to their new mid-range ELC TTL heads – one rung below the ELC Pro and one above the BRX – Elinchrom has worked for maturity in the whole technology. So, when the ELC 125 and 500 TTL arrived they worked much like any head with the EL Skyport Pro. Days later new firmware for the triggers enabled TTL operation, across a range of camera platforms already proven with the portable ELB 500 TTL.

The ELC 125 TTL is a little larger than a D-Lite. The ELC 500 TTL is substantial – as expected.
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Larmor 5th Generation glass screen protector with Sunshade

We’ve fitted GGS or similar toughened laminated glass screen protectors to our Sony bodies ever since way back in 2011, we were the first Alpha web resource to publish information about NEX screen delamination and how to repair a deteriorated LCD using one of these great products.

Replacing NEX LCD Cover Glass

Of course it wasn’t a cover glass, just a plastic surface layer. But if you fit a GGS, Larmor or similar ultrathin glass protector the moment you get your new Sony Alpha body (whether mirrorless or SLT, compact or bridge) you don’t need to mess with the original, risk your warranty, or risk anything at all. The new Generation 5 Larmor has a silicon adhesive which clings instantly, bubble-free, yet peels off safely using just a fingernail under a corner. It permits all touch screen operations, all screen folding including A99/77 and RX10 series reverse foldaway, and for around £10/$15 is an essential for your new camera.

Now there’s a new version which comes with a magnetic black surround and accepts a folding screen shade which just pops on to this. We paid £15.95 from ukhighland photographic on eBay, post free, VAT receipt given.

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Sony A7RIII review in Cameracraft

Read David Kilpatrick’s review of the Sony A7RIII

Cameracraft January/February started the A7RIII test report, and March/April 2018 continued it. Both are free to read now on ISSUU. In the second issue you’ll also find the review of the 24-105mm f/4 FE G OSS lens. In the first issue, Gary Friedman looks at the RX10 series and one-inch sensor quality as well – and David tests the Voigtländer Nokton 40mm f/1.2 Aspherical FE manual focus lens, Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DN DC, and Samyang 35mm f/2.8 AF FE.

Part 1

Part 2

Sony A7RII versus Nikon D850 – noise

There’s a lot of noise about the Nikon D850 right now but few direct comparisons. One problem I have with some early reports is that new D850 owners are most likely to be existing D810 or perhaps D750 or D5 owners. Any comparisons are therefore being made with earlier Nikon sensors.

Recently a Nikon ambassador whom I respect greatly placed some .NEF raw files into a Dropbox for fellow professionals to examine. Since this article effectively criticises Nikon, I will not reproduce anything recognisable. I naturally grabbed the files and processed them with my usual care in Adobe Camera Raw. This includes making adjustments to the Sharpness and Noise Reduction settings depending on the ISO used. My standard with Sony, Nikon and most other files is to reduce the radius for sharpening to the minimum (0.5) leaving the basic settings of 25 for sharpness and 25 for detail untouched, with no masking. I also don’t touch the Colour Noise controls at all, and usually only adjust the first Luminance control leaving Luminance Contrast and Luminance Detail at default. This first Luminance control tends to set to zero for ISO 100 (or the minimum for a given camera), 10 to 15 around 400 to 800, 25 at 1000 to 2000, 30 to 35 at 2500 to 4000, 50 at 6400 and never above this level.

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Tamron’s super value 70-300mm USD on the A7RII

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If you want to get a 70-300mm which works on the Sony A7RII, the A7 series body with the best on-sensor phase detection/contrast detection mix, your first choice should be the new Sony FE 70-300mm f/4-5.6 G OSS. But that demands a wallet opened with £1,150 (UK SRP) in it. In return you get a rare specification mix including focusing down to under one metre and almost a one-third life size image scale, without needing any special macro range.

For those who own either an LA-EA3 or LA-EA4 Sony adaptor, there’s a choice of A-mount lenses. The older Sony 70-300mm f/4-5.6 SSM G will work OK, but the current SSM II version is tuned for the on-sensor focusing system. Both work on the LA-EA3 with its SLT-mirror free design, and focus to a decent 1.2m. The low-cost Sony body-drive AF f/4.5-5.6 75-300mm will only AF on the LA-EA4 and is probably best ruled out.

The same goes for Tamron’s body-drive focus Di Macro, about the lowest cost such lens you can buy, and Sigma’s standard and non-APO Macro designs. For the LA-EA4 only, the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO Macro DG is actually worth buying as a good example can usually out-resolve any other lens of this range, but it’s slow and clunky. It focuses to under 1m and half life size scale but like the Tamron Di Macro does this using a separate close-up range you have to switch in to, only usable between 200mm and 300mm zoom setting.

This leaves two 70-300mm independent lenses with in-lens focus motors. The Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 OS DG is again very good optically (a fair match for the Sony G original) but it doesn’t use an HSM focus motor. Instead it has a motor more like a Sony SAM drive. As a result, it will only focus quickly on the LA-EA4. It can’t handle on-sensor PDAF.

The Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di USD can. It has an Ultrasonic Silent Drive, and this is very close in design to the Sony G SSM. Because the lens dates from 2009, most test reports have been based on DSLRs and not many Sony A7 system owners have bothered to consider it. At the current price in the UK – even the official SRP is only £275 but normally discount to a pre-VAT price of under £200, or if you like, $280 – it’s an unprecedented bargain for an advanced lens using low and extra-low dispersion elements.

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You should not be surprised at its size, because it’s almost identical to the Sony G. Same weight (within 5g), same 62mm filter thread, same rear internal focus with plastic window for the scale, same forward zoom ring and single barrel extension. It has one more element, being a 17/12 design rather than 16/11 like the Sony, and it lacks the control buttons and focus range limiter controls. It’s also a quarter to a third of the price.

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For me its major shortcoming is the 1.5m close focus, just too far away (nearly fell down stairs trying to get far enough away to focus when testing it, I’m just not used to lenses which force you back this way).

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What counts I guess is the optical performance, and here the Tamron still does not let you down despite being a seven-year-old design. Like the Sigma OS, it is a step above any of the previous 70-300mms including Nikon’s VR and the Canon IS design and when I tested it back in 2009 it matched the Sony G SSM even wide open at 300m. What it did not do was focus accurately on my DSLR bodies, needing AF calibration adjustment on the A900 and missing the mark on the A700 and A580. It was fine on the A55.

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The lens coating is pretty effective and the lens front rim, like Sony’s G, has no lettering to reflect off filters. It also has an effectively black-out inner baffle and zoom mechanism. Combined with the super-deep lens hood (very much like the monster you get with the Sony G) the result is a flare-free optic you can use in almost any light.

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The rear mount is a high quality metal A-mount as expected, and on my LA-EA3 the whole assembly was firm and felt unstressed.

Tamron kindly sent me a lens to update my earlier testing when this design was new. I wanted to see one thing – did the USD drive allow PDAF on the A7RII with the LA-EA3? If it did, this bargain price but advanced lens would be a possible 300mm range solution (and also, though I can’t test this, on the A7II and A7SII – I’m pretty sure it will not play well with pure contrast detection on the A7R, as on my A7 it will focus at all focal lengths and in low light but can take several seconds of hunting and fine tuning in small steps).

Fitted to the A7RII+LA-EA3 I found it snaps into focus really fast, able to use either wide area or centre AF with much the same speed as native E-mount lenses, and activating the ‘green square’ focus point display. It was very poor using moveable Spot AF (unusable in low light), and the Zone AF option is greyed out. So, it can’t access all areas, but for regular shooting it’s good.

At focal lengths over 150mm, it can be spooked by starting completely out of focus. However, once the lens is not extremely defocused it acquires and tracks rapidly. The full time manual focus over-ride can help set it up before you use AF. In very low light with low contrast targets, at 200-300mm, even prefocusing manually may not prevent a long searching process or AF failure. However, in normal daylight with regular 3D subject matter it’s useable.

Since owners report that even Sony’s own lenses encounter similar issues – the 90mm f/2.8 G OSS Macro is known for hunting and taking time to lock on – it’s an issue more to do with the way the on-sensor focus works than anything else. It’s also much better than, for example, the Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 L used on the Sigma MC-11 or Commlite adaptors. That just gives up towards 300mm.

The Tamron has variable bokeh qualities. Foreground bokeh can be untidy and contours just beyond the plane of focus can be harsh. Totally defocused detail in both foreground and background can look very smooth. It has a nine-blade circular aperture, just like the Sony G A-mount, and I’d say overall image look was uncannily similar. The exact look depends on the focal length, working distance, aperture and placing of the foreground and background detail.

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Purple rhody at f/6.3 and 300mm – not too bad overall!

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Matching person in the distance – again, not bad, with a pleasant three-dimensional look. Maybe I should do a version in black and white…

As for this lens not having VC (Tamron’s OS/OSS) I can only say it doesn’t need it when Sony’s 5-axis sensor stabilisation does so well. Here you can see 1/30s wide open at 300mm indoors at ISO 3200. Note also what CA or fringe occurs. It’s pretty good.

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As for handling 42 megapixels, which didn’t exist when the Tamron was designed, there doesn’t seem to be a serious problem. Here’s a quick shot of Scotland’s relationship with the USA and Europe…

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And here, frozen by 1/500s shutter speed at the realistic aperture of f/7.1 and ISO of 200, is a detail at 100% size. I’m generally happy with a 70-300mm lens if you can see the weave and the stitching on our town hall flags at 300m, 2/3rds of a stop down from full aperture, reproduced on a 1.5m wide print.

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I’ll test the lens further and add a gallery of images and any other comments, but I think that this is the only non-Sony lens of this range which really works well with the LA-EA3 (and of course, extremely well too with the LA-EA4 given AF calibration).

The only slight incompatibility is that the camera/adaptor gives the lens the identity of the Sony 70-300mm f/4-5.6 G SSM, this is what appears in the EXIF. This also means that the camera will invoke an auto profile for the Sony lens, and handle the focusing as if this was the Sony lens. It also loads the built-in profile for the SSM G lens in Lightroom/Adobe Camera Raw. This seems to work just fine. Without the profile enabled, the flag shot for example shows a stop or more of vignetting which is a relative weakness of the design – exactly as it is with the Sony. The new FE G lens with its 72mm front element as opposed to the 62mm of the Sony G, Sigma OS and Tamron SP designs can be expected to have much less full aperture vignetting.

Please note that this report refers specifically to the A7RII as a host body – as stated, it’s not useful on the A7 and I also found it’s not good enough to use on the A6000 with LA-EA3 (fine with LA-EA2 or LA-EA4). It will eventually focus but with too much hunting and missing.

– David Kilpatrick

If you’d like to check availability or order the lens, here are my affiliate links (may help pay for the site, don’t cost you anything):

Wex Photographic, UK – £239

B&H, USA & World – $449 ($100 rebate to June 30th)

Amazon UK – £239 at time of publication

Elinchrom EL-Skyport Plus HS for Sony MFA

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This is expanded from the feature which appears in the July/August issue of f2 Cameracraft magazine. We’ve been using the Elinchrom EL-Skyport Plus HS for Sony Multi-Function Accessory shoe since its arrival on May 28th as the first test unit released by Elinchrom. If you wonder why I don’t immediately do a clickbait blog post, it’s because Elinchrom were already concerned by synchronisation/shutter release timing delay issues – being unfamiliar with the very slow AF-AE-shutter cycle of the Sony mirrorless full frame models. My feedback was needed along with others. I can safely say that any practical difficulties encountered with hi-sync (hypersync) using the new Sony Skyport are entirely down to Sony.

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It’s not advisable to work too close to a DJI Phantom drone as the rotor tips whizz by at a touch less than 100 miles an hour. With a 16-35mm CZ zoom used at 16mm to get the low viewpoint it did feel a bit like being buzzed at times but Ali Graham kept it well within the target zone. Click this image to open a full sized 42 megapixel original where you can see the exact extent of 1/8000s blur…

The idea here was to test, and show off, the 1/8,000s synchronisation with the focal plane shutter of the Sony A7R II which the Elinchrom dedicated high speed sync trigger EL-Skport HS Plus Sony makes possible. It actually makes it effortless, as this studio flash trigger is properly set up to provide the camera with the right signals. It’s the first studio flash wireless trigger ever designed to do this for any Sony or previous Minolta camera across three different generations of flash shoe, and that is important as electronic viewfinders really need a trigger which emulates a native dedicated flash.

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The variable pre-sync timing (ODS) of the Skyport HS Plus uses HSS, originally intended for burst mode camera top strobe flash, to fire the studio or location professional flash milliseconds before the usually ‘hey, the shutter is fully open – fire!’ moment we call X-sync. The shutter then opens during the flash illumination, instead of the flash firing during the shutter opening. The white  gap in the diagram above represents the shutter opening. The grey bar to the left against the vertical axis shows the ODS, which can move the start of the shutter opening to a different point on the flash output curve. This is done by changing the shutter release timing not the flash! Think about it – you press the shutter button, and that is the earliest moment anything can happen, either shutter firing or flash firing. Since the flash must be triggered before the shutter opens when using HSS, it is the shutter action which is delayed (it’s very easy to think of this as the flash being fired early!).

The big selling point for Elinchrom is Hi-Sync. They have even made special slow-burn flash heads for their Quadra ELB battery location kit, which have a T=0.5 flash duration longer than 1/550s compared to as short as 1/5700s with a Type A head. In practice you can fine tune shutter speeds between 1/1000s and 1/8000s to catch a fairly level plateau of high level output (the flash is used on full power for this). But at £199 this trigger, with its full visual display and adjustment of multiple head flash control, is actually worth getting even if you never used Hi-Sync at all.

The EVF issue

With a plain hot-shoe trigger, using an adaptor or not,  no Flash Powered On signal is sent to the camera. It will remain in whatever P/A/S/M mode is already set, and if this results in a virtually blacked out EVF or screen because the modelling or ambient light is low it becomes necessary to turn off exposure or effect previewing (Setting Effect On, the normal setting which links the finder brightness to the exposure set). When you fit a dedicated flash, non-HSS modes set the camera to a standard flash sync speed typically between 1/60s and 1/160s and switch the finder to an auto gain mode (Setting Effect Off) without any menu diving required. HSS modes retain the same finder setting but allow any shutter speed down to the shortest 1/8000s time.

Normally,  any remote trigger or commander fitting the Sony body will do this if it’s part of a wireless remote flash set up using the camera maker’s own battery flash protocols (and a camera-mounted flash like the Nissin i40 can do the same). You can make a crude studio flash trigger using a small dedicated flashgun and masking it with an infra-red filter but it’s not simple as automatic pre-flash sequences or operating delays need to be disabled, though Elinchrom’s current heads can be programmed to allow for pre-flash bursts.

Pro flash triggers which are not part of the dedicated system won’t turn Setting Effect to OFF, and did not for the earlier locking flash Minolta-Sony shoe of the A77, A55 and other electronic viewfinder SLR-style models. It was apparently just a matter of applying a simple signal voltage across a pair of the contacts when the trigger was switched on – but not a single manufacturer could be bothered to find a solution. Not PocketWizard, not Skyport, nor anything else until the arrival of Phottix, Pixel King and a few other Chinese-made innovative brands which added a PC-X-sync socket to modules mainly intended for camera-top strobe guns.

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Now, with the rise in popularity of the Sony A7 series, Elinchrom has invested in a fully dedicated version of their EL-Skyport Plus HS which behaves just as if you had a Sony native flashgun mounted. To do so, they worked with Phottix and Sekonic. There’s no TTL, as the Elinchrom studio and location flash units are all high powered with manually controlled output. For normal use, the Plus HS offers a greater operating range to 290m (instead of 100m), LCD menus, and remote control of the power and modelling settings of all RX heads with the setting displayed on the trigger for the latest generation. Because it switches the EVF camera instantly into a studio-friendly mode and can act as a complete wireless remote control it’s worth the £199 cost for anyone using Elinchrom RX wireless triggered flash with Canon, Nikon and now Sony.

It is a very well made unit with a near locking shoe function (above). However, it’s also a bit of a monster (below) compared to the tiny original Skyport. That lens, by the way, is a Canon 40mm STM on a Commlite, with a 49mm filter thread adaptor and a Minolta 45mm f/2 lens hood. It’s actually one of the fastest-actuating lenses as its aperture mechanism makes up in speed of operation anything you might lose on AF speed.

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The size of this trigger is not only used for the informative top LCD display, it also houses two AA cells, which gives it the extra power for the 290m wireless reach and its advanced electronic functions.

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So for my money, this new trigger becomes my regular trigger. With any other trigger, I have to remember to change the Setting Effect and White Balance when working in the studio, and of course change it back. Sony, in their wisdom, have excluded Setting Effect on or off from the parameters you can remember in a user setting memory. With my A900 (optical finder) Sony all I had to do in the studio was turn the mode dial to 1 (Memory 1) and my camera was instantly set to ISO 100, Daylight, 1/200s, and f/13 as my startpoints for studio work. With my A99, the missing Setting Effect meant the 1, 2, 3 memory positions did not enable instant set-up or instant return to regular operation and it’s been the same with every SLT or mirrorless yet made by Sony.

Hi-Sync

The Hi-Sync feature – ability to emulate Nikon FP, Canon and Sony HSS – is compatible with all Canon DSLRs but not all Nikon, so check before ordering (example – no Hi-Sync with D5500 or D610, but fine with D750 or D300S). It’s also not compatible with all Elinchrom heads. My Ranger Quadra RX AS kit was bought with Type A (short flash duration heads) and my studio BRX500i heads are similar. They gave me high speed flash at normal flash sync speeds (up to 1/250s with most of my cameras) but the short, sharply peaking flash output can’t be used for Hi-Sync. I would need to buy Type S heads for the Quadra kit, or trade in and get the latest ELB 400 with Type HS heads – which is what I tested the unit with successfully before trying all my other flash. The lowest cost Hi-Sync studio head is the budget D-Lite 4 in IT (no remote setting) or RX (full remote) versions. In fact, the 400Ws D-Lite 4RX at under £250 per head, with its 5-stop output range down to 25Ws and constant 1/800s duration, is actually the most compatible of all current Elinchrom heads even though not really intended for intensive professional use.

Like PocketWizard and other triggers with hypersync, the EL-Skyport Plus HS offers a programmable delay in microsecond intervals from 0 to 5 milliseconds. This can be used with the Elinchrom RX Universal Receiver connected to almost any make of flash head. You then need to experiment with the power setting, as some have long durations at lower power with more even output level and for others a peak is followed by a relatively flat long tail decay at full power. There are some IBGT controlled flash units which cut off the peak and tail leaving a plateau of output. The ODS (delay) and camera shutter speed in HSS mode can be experimented with and you may get lucky.

However, the two certain ways to get maximum relative power and ease of Hi-Sync use are the ELB 400 with HS heads and the D-Lite 4RX. Mounting the very firm locking hot shoe on my Sony A7RII and switching the trigger on automatically set the camera to Wireless Flash and EVF Setting Effect Off, Auto WB to Flash. In Standard mode on the Plus HS, the shutter speed was set to 1/250s; just turning the Plus HS dial to set HS mode, my faster shutter speed set via the M mode on the camera was instantly restored and access to the full range from 30s to 1/8000s enabled. In fact it was impossible to create a mismatch, other than by entering an extreme ODS delay.

At all speeds faster than 1/250s, using Hi-Sync, the A7RII should be used with mechanical first shutter curtain. Silent electronic-only shutter mode simply doesn’t fire flash of any kind, and first curtain electronic mode may produce unevenly exposed or partial frames (I’ve since found that such problems really don’t happen often and you can risk using first curtain electronic to help overcome the really laggy shutter timing). Even used correctly, there’s some shading with the ELB 400 at full power, about a stop of fall-off smoothly grading to the bottom of the frame at 1/8000s. Moderating the shutter speed and adjusting the flash power and ODS can fine tune this but I wanted maximum output and my landscape format test shot benefited from the shading. Vertical shots are not as forgiving and the lighting may need feathering to suit. Be careful with some very fast lenses used wide open as these can also produce a shutter/scan related grad filter effect at the fastest shutter speeds.

To do the drone shot, we wanted to work fast so I did a simple manual adjustment of ISO and aperture in the studio first at the right distance. The main flash (2/3rd power, Outlet A on the Elinchrom ELB pack) had a red gel fitted, and the second head (1/3rd power, Outlet B) had no gel. I placed in the same relative positions I planned to use outside, and used my paper ceiling lantern to check settings.

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I then repeated the test on the sky outside without changing the settings, and got pretty much what was expected.

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So when Ali arrive with the drone at 4.30pm we just brought the portable flash pack and two heads on stands outside, already adjusted, and flew the drone in the right area of the shot working with the 16-35mm f/4 CZ zoom fitted to A7RII. The actual exposure was 1/8000s at f/5.6 and ISO 400, manually set. One small problem is that you can not judge ambient exposure unless you turn the Skyport off… because when it’s switched on, Setting Effect OFF immediately takes over and makes the sky look correctly exposed even when it will not be. I didn’t get this into the magazine report because I knew what was happening and only noticed, a few days later, someone complaining about this problem when using HSS fill-in flash on the Sony A7.

Such is the latitude of the A7RII raw file that lots of overshooting was not needed. I’m not a machine gun shooter. Even on top corporate assignments I’d often travel thousands of miles and then takes just a dozen frames of a CEO-in-office shot. I used to do whole newspaper features on a single roll of film. Digital has never changed my approach, but being able to check the shots as you take them is a great boon. It meant that with each shot, I could see how the rotor blades were aligned (the drone position was chance – slight buffeting wind kept it dodging around all over my designated shooting space). I could also check the light on Ali’s face and the drone controller. I took just nine frames before getting exactly what I wanted, and Ali was able to leave at 4.45pm.

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Troubleshooting

The HSS mode of the Sony A7 series involves a considerable delay between pressing the shutter and getting the shot. There’s no solution to this and as a result I found timing some action shots almost impossible. I had to manage to fire about 1/2-1/4s before the subject reached the required position. Bridal portraits? Fine. Synchro-sun action? Not so!

It’s not all down the HSS either. In my review of the A99, I found the 1/50s hair-trigger response of the electronic first curtain shutter was negated by a complete AE-AF-stopdown cycle giving the camera a reaction time about the same as any regular DSLR, and a rather long overall 300ms ‘cycle’ in AF-S/continuos sequence mode, extended to 400ms in 14-bit capture AF-S single frame. The A7R was found to have an actual capture delay of up to a third of a second, and in fact the A7RII despite its option for electronic first curtain is not that much better.

If you want to get the 0.20-22s response time, with the shutter firing a mere 1/50s after you press the button, you will have to disable AF With Shutter and use manual focus or centre back AF on demand. With native Sony lenses, you must also work wide open as the aperture can take 1/15s to close down; with adapted lenses, for example on the Sigma MC-11, this can be 1/8s or more. If you use Auto exposure (A for example with a manual lens) the camera will briefly reset the sensor in a short interruption of live view and if you use A-mount or Canon EF lenses which have an instant aperture closing action, it can allow about 1/15s following this happening to recalibrate.

I don’t have the time in the world to check all the delays and complexities of A7RII timing, but when HSS flash control is added, it’s as bad as it gets (remember, HSS delays shutter release). So you can press when the subject is approaching the centre of the picture, and the flash will fire when the subject has left… so you pan a bit, and anticipate the way you might have had to do with a focal plane VN Press Camera 70 years ago.

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And, if you are lucky, your Hi-Sync daylight and flash will work and your subject will still be in shot!

Fun day, 'mini olympic' fund raising sports in Scottish town of Kelso. Tractor tyre lift.

Even a relatively slow-moving sport like turning the tractor tyre was not easy to frame up and time (no, you don’t wheel it along, this is Scotland – you lift it and turn it over repeatedly to complete the course).

I continued with experiments with the trigger and my A7 as well as my A7RII, and also using the RX10 (on Speed mode but not HSS). Actually, the RX10 offers about the fastest response and easiest daylight sync up to 1/3200s shutter speed and no need for this or any other hypersync trigger.

During tests, I found that the A7RII completely locks out HSS mode when you fit a dumb manual lens, with or without the Lens App in use to tell the camera what plain-mount, uncoupled manual lens is fitted. Put a manual lens on, with no electronic aperture control, and it won’t let you select a speed faster than 1/250s even if both flash and camera confirm HSS operation. Perhaps it may do so with some other brand or type of flash. To check, exactly the same set-ups were repeated on the A7 – this body has no such problems. You can use HSS with manual lenses.

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The 28mm f/2 OSS lens on A7RII proved a good choice above, taken at 1/1000s and f/8, but during my attempts to actually get our kitten in the frame at all this was a rare semi-success. The camera was rarely as fast as the cat.

The worst scenario proved to be that a shot could actually be captured about two-thirds of a second after your shutter press with the A7RII. This delay must be a concern to Elinchrom and should be a concern to Sony (their own firmware updates to handle the new GM lenses have slowed down the operational cycle, and their HSS defaults to allowing for a pre-flash sequence even when there is no pre-flash involved). Just a point, ADI flash is not an option on mirrorless bodies and does not apply to bounce, wireless or HSS anyway so suggestions that setting his may improve timing are not relevant. The Skyport Plus HS tells the camera it is indirect or off-camera flash, and these always use Pre-Flash TTL. Perhaps Elinchrom can cut some of the lag time out but it’s really down to Sony to provide firmware (or even hardware) which permits much faster real-time shutter actuation. Without this, all the claims for fast AF are pretty meaningless; the best AF in the world can’t allow for the distance travelled by your subject in a third of a second or more.

Despite this…

Though this EL-Skyport Plus HS is not like the tiny original Skyport, I want one now just for its proper control of the camera in routine studio work despite not one of my existing Elinchrom units (Quadra Hybrid AS, BX500ri) providing the Hi-Sync function.

Please also note that Hi-Sync does not work with the new ELC heads (gated fast durations), with Type A or S pack heads, and with pretty much anything except the ELB 400 with HS head/s, and in a surprisingly welcome drop to the lower end of the cost scale, the higher powered entry level D-Lite4RX.

It’s been a long time coming but this unit is, I think, the sign that Sony has arrived as a professional camera system. – David Kilpatrick

www.elinchrom.com/skyport.html

Photoworld and Image – complete digital 28 issue archive!

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We are able to offer, now, the complete 28-issue digital archive in page-turn format for the final eleven years of Minolta Image and Photoworld (as it became) from 2002 to 2011. For only £10, a one-off payment, you unlock the complete collection of digital versions of the printed quarterly magazine.

This collection forms a fascinating document, showing the transition from the last heyday of Minolta to the merger with Konica in 2004 and the launch of the Dynax 7D, through the takeover by Sony in 2006 and up to the launch of the NEX E-mount system in 2010 and beyond.

Click to view the full digital publication online
Read Minolta Photoworld 2002-2011
Publisher Software from YUDU

Sony 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM on mirrorless FF

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With the 24-70mm f/2.8 new Sony GM FE lens selling for £1799 (UK) and the A-mount version two 24-70mm f/2.8 for a full £100 more, the cost of a basic mid-range zoom to use with a camera like the A7RII remains very high. There are good arguments to be happy with the 24-70mm f/4 FE zoom, or even the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 though that is best limited to use on the A7 (24 megapixel) and A7S (12 megapixel) bodies rather than the A7R (36 megapixel) or A7RII (42 megapixel).

Of course there are good lens adaptors out there and 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses from Canon, Tamron or Sigma with ultrasonic focus drive in Canon EF mount offer one solution. The original 24-70mm f/2.8 for A-mount with its SSM motor of this type can also be found for a fair price. But there’s one lens which I sold after my A7R arrived, mostly because I was parting company with my full-frame A-mount body survivors. It’s the Tamron-based but Sony revised SAL 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM.

Although I did have an LA-EA3 adaptor to use SSM and SAM drive A-mount lenses on the E-mount bodies, the 28-75mm didn’t really work very well on the A7R so it remained on my A99 or A900. I made a few tests and saw that it was certainly OK on 36 megapixels, though even on the 24 megapixel A99 where it played nicely with the AF system it had slightly soft corners when used wide open. They were not any softer than the 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss of that time and in some ways the lens was better behaved.

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The first thing to do was to fix this lens to the LA-EA3 creating an FE lens unit. Imagine the adaptor is just part of the lens (that’s pretty much how Sony makes many lenses for E-mount anyway). The total unit measures up at 115mm long including the adaptor, and 75mm diameter taking 67mm filters. The lens itself weighs only 565g, the combo weighs 683g with adaptor and lens hood. That compares with the new GM lens at 136mm long and 88mm diameter using 82mm filters and weighing 886g. As I already have a 16-35mm f/4 CZ which covers the 24mm requirement well, the 28-75mm range is just as useful to me as 24-70mm.

While the 28-75mm SAM activates PDAF and multiple AF points, it’s not the full works with tracking and Eye-AF. But it’s also not as noisy as some reviews imply. It’s much quieter than the 85mm f/2.8 SAM, and silent compared to the grinding focus of the 30mm DT SAM macro. Startup is fast, with the lens initialising quicker than FE mount stabilised zooms. The aperture actuation is slicker than with body-drive SAL lenses on the LA-EA4, and quieter. Focus is fast and the only downside is the rotating focus ring which does not support DMF or over-ride on the fly, or auto manual focus magnification. Manual focus requires you to set it on the lens and the body, and whatever you are doing, you need to avoid either turning the focus ring when there is any resistance, or blocking it from turning during AF. It’s a bit vulnerable and the direction of focus is the opposite to normal Sony/Minolta design. The zoom ring which locks at 28mm only operates in the normal direction.

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So, what you get with the LA-EA3+28-75mm SAM is basic but fully controlled and communicating, EXIF accurate with profile correctly invoked. It will track with continuous focus and during movies, though slightly noisy for in-camera sound recording; it seems to do so when some SSM lenses, like the 24mm f/2 CZ, don’t play.

As for optical quality, it’s still a 14-year-old Tamron in disguise, but it can match up to 42 megapixels centrally across its full range. The performance over the APS-C image area is superb, even wide open at all focal lengths, with just a hint of misty aberrations slightly masking a super-sharp result on axis. On full frame, a marked ‘cap shape’ deviation from flat field towards the extremes causes strong softening on flat subjects and landscapes at 28mm and is not entirely removed at longer lengths. You would not want to use this at 50mm and f/2.8 if you had a faster 50mm you could fit and stop down to f/2.8. On real three-dimensional subjects at typical working apertures between f/4 and f/11 it can be extremely sharp. The respectable 38cm close focus and 0.22X subject scale (not as good as the new Sony GM 24-70mm) reveal microscopic detail on the A7RII at f/5.6. The shot below is at the closest AF on the large water drop in the centre, at 75mm and f/5.6 – you can see the bokeh is very acceptable, not complex or ‘nervous’ which it tends to be when used wide open for more distant subjects with a slightly defocused background.

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A 100% crop from th A7RII file (converted from raw ISO 500 14-bit, without any sharpening for web and with minimal NR) gives an idea how good this lens is and also just how little depth of field you’re ever going to see from a 42 megapixel full frame image used this way!

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It would hardly be worth buying an LA-EA3 and a new 28-75mm just to save about £1000 over the GM 24-70mm. If you already own an LA-EA3 and you can find a cut price or good used 28-75mm go for it. The way its aperture works means you’ll get very fast low light focus and minimal shutter lag (but you do need a mark II A7 series body to get the best functioning).

The zoom action is a real pleasure to use, very light but positive, and the overall build and feel of the lens will not disappoint. It also seems to get just the right response from the in-body stabilisation of the A7RII. Sure, 67mm filters may be smaller than many midrange zooms require, but I will either have to use a stepping ring or get a couple of new filters – not cheap, for the quality needed to maintain the lens performance. Also, it’s not weatherproofed.

Here’s a quick set of three hand held (with SSI) comparisons at 28mm – f/2.8, f/5.6 and f/9. I’ve loaded these up at full size so they should open the original Level 10 sRGB JPEG when clicked. The focus in on the foreground railing spike and the fine spider web gives the best idea of how the resolution and contrast of the lens improve from wide open. It’s clearly resolved at f/2.8 but with a gentle ‘glow’ at pixel level. First image – f/2.8.

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Second image – f/5.6. If you download all three images and load them into Photoshop, it’s interesting to switch between tabs and see the depth of field change.

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The third image is at f/9 and here the ISO is high at 2000. The A7RII can produce great results up to 3200 but I might not choose to have this at 2000. Even so, the sharpness can be judged without problems as the noise doesn’t have much effect on fine detail with current Sony sensors and processing. It always shows more in defocused, smooth areas.

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Because I use other lenses – such as the 24-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Sony and 50mm f/2.8 Macro Sony on LA-EA4, 40mm f/2.8 Canon STM, Sony FE 28mm f/2, 16-35mm CZ f/4 and also the unrivalled 24-240mm FE zoom I have many choices overlapping the range of this lens. I remember that for landscape work on the A900 it was hard to beat. Here’s one of my images from that combination, using a 6 second exposure at 40mm focal length, f/8 and ISO 100 with a variable ND filter. With the restrictions on tripod position given by the location, the zoom range of 28-75mm proved just right for a range of studies.

Roughting Linn, Northumberland - the waterfall.

With this lens arriving during a period (for my corner of the UK) of sustained white skies and drizzling rain, it’s not been out and about much. One thing it has done is to focus very well in dim room lighting on my sofa companions –

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And, for those who don’t think f/4 is wide enough and desperately want 55mm f/1.8 or f/0.95 lenses, this is at 55mm f/2.8 and of course when the iris of the eye is sharp the fur around it is not and Willow’s nose is blurred. Once again, despite correction for tungsten light at the extreme limit of Adobe Camera Raw, and using ISO 3200, it’s pretty amazing what the A7RII can do seen at 100% (below).

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But this super-shallow depth of field is what happens at 42 megapixels. Depth of field used to be worked out based on a 10 x 8″ print held in your hand, not a 6 x 4ft image viewed through the ‘window’ of a screen. Of course for social media you do indeed need very wide apertures because when your pictures are mostly viewed on smartphones, it’s like looking at a contact print from a Vest Pocket Kodak…

To support Photoclubalpha, subscribe to f2 Cameracraft (it’s probably the only photo mag edited by two long-standing Sony system users, myself and Gary Friedman).

– David Kilpatrick

You can find deals for the Sony SAL 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM A-mount lens at B&H Photographic, Wex Photographic for the UK, or Amazon Sony SAL2875 Alpha 28-75mm F2.8 Standard Zoom Lens

My new Sony 85mm…

With extremely expensive Sony-fit 85mm lenses in abundance and beyond my (economically sensible) reach, I’ve done good commercial work last year on the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM and later the Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM on A7RII. Some of my work relies on showing close-up details with strong differential focus, and hardly any lenses are free from ‘colour bokeh’ issues, so it’s needed some care to process the files and avoid that typical magenta tinge to the background and greenish hue to foreground blur.

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This is a typical example. It’s on the Canon 85mm f/1.8, and although this is a fairly clean lens, the background at f/4 needed some post-process work to avoid a magenta colour shift.

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In contrast, absolutely no work is ever needed on my Sigma 70mm f/2.8 macro. It shows no chromatic effects in defocused areas. But this is a studio shot at f/10 – and, like many commercial shots, the extreme f/1.4 or f/2 apertures which are so highly valued by the bloggerati simply don’t enter the equation. Differential focus here is precisely balanced against the legibility of the bottle wording at web size (these shots are for a 1440 pixel wide template).

I like to have a choice of wider aperture and macro lenses for this kind of work as they all produce different effects. My 70-210mm f/4 Minolta AF classic, for example, has about the cleanest foreground blur wide open on 0.25X scale 210mm close ups. My 85mm SAM is ‘dirty’ by comparison (but its 60cm 0.20X minimum focus distance still makes it the best 85mm for close work unless you use a macro or a zoom with good close range). Then, we get the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 popping up followed now by the costly Sony G-Master 85mm f/1.4 FE. In both cases you get 80cm minimum focus and around 0.12X image scale (rather like the 70-200mm f/4 Sony G FE lens used at 190mm and 1m focus).

I really like, on a full-frame camera, to reach one quarter life size on the sensor. One-eighth, the 0.12-0.125X type of scale, means a full A4 magazine page fills the frame. One-quarter, 0.25X, means a quarter of that page or a postcard size fills the frame. There are so many things in the world, from a kitten’s face to a lily in bloom or a perfect cup cake, which are about this size. When I photograph food I often want to avoid including the edges of the plate completely. Those lenses which push me back too far prevent that. I know many users will be puzzled by my preference and see no reason to want to get any closer. Well, that’s just me. I have always done well creatively and commercially from surprisingly tightly cropped, close-up work.

And, being more critical of these new hyper-expensive lenses, we’ve had 80cm focus 85mm lenses for SLR focusing for 70 years now. Really, any new lens in this focal length should focus to 60cm or ideally 50cm without calling itself a macro. That suits the way we live, in our cars, at desks, at home, at tables, in small spaces, giving other people space. I really like to be able to place an item in front of me, or even hold it in my hand, and focus on it. I can’t do that at all with 1m minimum focus (the old rangefinder Leica standard!) and only just with 60cm.

Then I started seeing some work taken on an interesting old lens. It’s small, taking 49mm filters. It is fast, at f/2. It was originally designed by Carl Zeiss and if you were really lucky you might find an 85mm f/2 Sonnar. But for around £100/$150 or a little more for guaranteed condition you can buy the Russian Jupiter 9 85mm f/2 manual preset lens in M42 screw (Pentax/Praktica). And since it’s a screw mount SLR lens, you can add an extra layer of focus extension for very low cost between the E-mount body and the lens.

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Above: my Jupiter-9 with Camdiox helical Pentax screw E-mount adaptor fully extended and with a vital lens hood fitted; top, the mount and lens set for infinity focus, lens hood removed.

So last week I assembled a relatively low-cost eBay rig to enable even closer focus than the 60cm of the SAM . This is partly just experimental, our of curiosity to see how well a 1930s Sonnar type design made in 1980s Russia with 1950s technology and coatings can peform. The 85mm f/2 Jupiter-9 is often used to get an attractive f/2 soft-focus with core sharpness, gradually cleaning up until around f/3.5 the softness is gone. It is also used to get neat circular bubbles from strongly out of focus light sources beyond the subject, or a generally very attractive focus transition at any aperture since the 19-blade mechanical iris forms an almost perfect circle at all settings. It focuses slightly closer than 80cm.

With the well-made Camdiox helical adaptor costing under £28 delivered, this is extended in a continuous range to 35cm from the film plane and 0.51X. Obvously, it takes up no more space than my plain M42 adaptor as it is exactly the same thickness at infinity setting – and it does allow true infinity focus. Being solid metal, the combination is not all that light, a dense 490g in its 88mm long by 63mm maximum diameter, 20g more than the Batis. But it feels good. The aperture mechanism is crude and difficult to see and use, but would normally be set first to a chosen aperture such as f/2.8 for the best sharpness with a shallow depth of field, or f/8 for landscapes. It would not be much fun for anyone who likes taking a range of shots from f/2 to f/16, or for anyone wanting accurate half or third stops.

First of all, is this lens even remotely sharp, and can the Sony A7? bodies use it well? Both answers must be yes. Just set the focal length for normal distances to 85mm and the in-body SSS of the A7SII, A7II and A7RII will give amazingly effective stabilisation. Work between f/4 and f/11 and this simple old lens design outresolves the A7R. I was just checking the focus on some calendar text in very dim room light, using ISO 1600 on my A7RII, when I pressed the shutter with 1/40th hand-held –

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This was never intended to be seen, just a casual target. These pictures open out to Facebook size, by the way, when clicked – 2048 pixels. Here’s a 100% pixel friendly section from this. I was surprised. The lens was at f/4 and focus was done at max magnification, at the taking aperture.

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You need to check this JPEG out by clicking to open/view at 100%. It’s like this right across the frame, corner to corner. There’s a pleasant dimensional quality to the rendering this old lens gives, but it has one massive failing – it flares up dramatically if any light at all reaches the front glass. The only solution is a very deep lens hood indeed.

Making more considered tests, I headed for a target I had set up to explore colour bokeh, that unpleasant magenta to green shift in defocused areas. With this set-up, my 85mm SAM is not bad at all and does benefit from a proper lens profile. As you can see, the music doesn’t seem to change much in colour from front to back though in the full size 42 megapixel file, especially without lens CA corrections, some funky colours do appear.

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Here’s how the Jupiter-9 worked out – first of all, it’s one of a number of shots at different distances and angles, not identical to the SAM shots, and this one takes advantage of the closer focus combination of adaptor and lens:

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The colour shifts are different, with a bit of a rainbow including red and cyan fringes as well as magenta and green, and the contrast is lower. However, the detail in the very limited f/2.8 focus zone is very fine and over a range of tests the blurring (from the circular aperture) just looks better. No doubt I need to take many more shots with this lens (once the deep 200mm lens hood I’ve found arrives…) but it seems like a worthwhile creative option alongside a number of older manual lenses.

What really interests me is that this same design, with a few refinements of modern manufacture, would surely be worth having. Tamron’s forthcoming 85mm f/1.8 will focus close – it is the special feature of this new lens series – and maybe along with the 35mm and 45mm f/1.8 designs will one day appear in native E-mount. I’d love to see a half-price Batis, a Sonnar f/2 variant instead of f/1.8, with a decent close focus limit around 50cm. Until then I’ll use the SAM on LA-EA3 or LA-EA4 (works well with either) and my assortment of manual set-ups including this Jupiter-9.

Here’s a revision to the post, got some sunshine this morning (day after writing the original post) and with focus peaking and f/5.6 even a little moving target comes out whisker-sharp!

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– David Kilpatrick

Sony A7R II review by David Kilpatrick

Sony’s A7R II has a unique position in the mirrorless ILC world, creating the largest image files at over 42 megapixels from an in-body five axis stabilised sensor with exceptional performance given by backside illuminated CMOS.

My reviews in print of the Sony A7R II have now appeared, in the British Journal of Photography, f2 Cameracraft and Master Photography magazines. All three make slightly different points, and reflect growing experience of the camera which I bought from WEX as one of the first despatched on July 28th. The UK best body-only price then fell from their £2,695 to just over £2,000 from one main Sony dealer (at an event promotion) in under three months.

Despite finding bargain deals or importing directly, since the introduction of the A99 only three years ago I have lost about £3,500 keeping up with Sony full frame camera bodies. I’ve also spent around £2,000 buying other Sony models like the NEX-6, RX100, RX100 MkIII, RX10, and A6000 to cover the shortcomings of every different full frame model – and £2,000 or more updating my lenses.

So why invest in the A7R II when experience tells me the Sony system loses value faster than any other, yet so often falls short of performing as required?

One body for all lenses

The A7R II almost matches medium format digital, and gives great results with rangefinder (Leica) fit wide-angles. It has enabled me to add a 12mm f/5.6 Voigtländer Ultra Wide-Heliar to my kit for sharp, tint and vignette free 120° architectural and creative work. I write about lenses, and with current and future adaptors, this body lets me focus and make test shots with all lenses from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Leica and many others. Click the Heliar image below for a link to a full size (slightly cropped and straightened from 42 megapixels) file. It’s actually shot at f/11 though the pBase data says f/5.6, that how the camera’s Lens Correction app works.

Caerlaverock Castle

There’s no lens made which disagrees with the 42 megapixel sensor as far as I can tell. My kit includes the 12mm mentioned above, the 16-35mm f/4 Carl Zeiss OSS, the 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 Sony OSS, the 28mm f/2 Sony OSS FE (look out for individual reviews shortly); a 40mm Canon f/2.8 STM pancake, a 24mm Samyang tilt-shift, 85mm Sony SAM f/2.8, Sigma 70-300mm OS and a whole bunch of interesting older stuff used on adaptors.

With the Lens Correction App configured for SS with each manual lens, the very high resolution of the A7R II sensor allows a stable view for precision magnified focus well beyond the ability of any AF method or reliance on focus peaking alone. Doing this at working aperture ensures no focus shift on stop down. The results show me quickly which lenses are excellent performers without needing an optical bench or test charts (give me a single LED light and a darkened room, and I can find out what I need to know about any lens very quickly).

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Most Sony and Sony Carl Zeiss zooms do yield good sharp images on 42 megapixels but it’s easy to exceed their best by fitting something like my 1970-ish SMC Takumar 50mm macro (used for the shot above), or even my Russian 50mm f/2 tilt-adapted Zenitar. I found the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS which was fine on A7 II inadequate for critical quality on the A7R II and after tests concluded the 24-240mm was the best option to replace it. To learn why FE/E mount zooms and OSS lenses are never likely to blow away fixed focal length unstabilised types like the Zeiss Loxia or adapted classic RF and SLR optics, wait for my 24-240mm review.

Having said size matters, I downsize many of my final images to as small as 9 megapixels. I don’t need 42 megapixels (7952 x 5304) for every image and for some it’s ridiculous. I’m still selling thousands of stock images* taken with DSLRs from six megapixels up. So for general ‘field’ use, most lenses are more than OK, as I can reduce the file size right down 3600 x 2400 pixels when noise needs cutting, depth of field is a problem, or general sharpness is poor.

One sensor for all image shapes and sizes

With the A7R II, unlike the A7R, all the APS-C E-mount lenses work properly (they never have their OSS forcibly disabled). The auto cropped image is 5168 x 3448, 17.8 megapixels, and that’s a perfectly useful size for all personal and most professional work. The 0.78X EVF is, of course, completely filled to exactly the same visual quality as when a full frame lens is used – the user experience with an APS-C lens is identical to that with full frame.

As with downsizing or lens based cropping, I can crop full frame captures right down to less than a quarter of the A7R II image and have a file acceptable to Alamy for stock library use, or to a client directly for almost any reasonable editorial use. That same crop can go full page in a wedding album, or make a fine A3/16×12 print. It’s like using 120 rollfilm again, you can find pictures within pictures.

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A 240mm shot clearly not close enough…

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This is a 3600 x 2400 crop. That is, an image large enough for full page publication or a 12 x 18″ photo/inkjet print (click to view full size)

With many lenses which don’t cover full frame, a 24 x 24mm crop is perfect. The Sigma prime lens ART trio (19mm, 30mm and 60mm f/2.8 AF without stabilisation) all do well on this basis. I had a 16 megapixel square format digital back on Hasselblad V and the square format is a favourite. Unlike Olympus, who offer a 1:1 ratio capture, Sony only includes 3:2 (35mm shape) and 16:9 (HD widescreen) – I’d love them to add a proper 1:1 square image seen in the EVF and on screen, a perfect 28 megapixel crop.

The high resolution FF image also means there’s less need to stitch panoramas or use shift lenses. Canon’s 17mm f/4 TS-E tilt shift lens was introduced in 2009 when their full frame 12 megapixel 5D has just been upgraded to the 21 megapixel 5D MkII. On the A7R II, using its maximum 12mm shift reveals serious loss of outer field sharpness even at apertures like f/10, f/11 and f/13 which are optimum on other ways. It’s not a sensor cover glass problem as the Canon 5DS R revealed exactly the same weakness. Downsize the image to 12 megapixels, which the lens was probably first designed for, at everything looks sharp. But here’s where 42 megapixels can pay off – I just need to use a 12mm Voigtlander or a Sigma 12-24mm, crop a 14 x 21mm area from any part of the 24 x 36mm frame, and I have a 14 megapixel image allowing even more effective ‘shift’ than the Canon. And I can, of course, use the Canon via an adaptor if needed.

The same kind of strong cropping works for telephoto wildlife shots (300mm lens, better than 500mm on 14 megapixels) and for macro work (1:1 on full frame, 2.2:1 at 14 megapixels). You need to remember all the time that traditional depth of field calculations just don’t work well with sensors of 36 megapixels and over. When you view a full size A7R II image at 100% on a non-Retina iMac or HP 27″ monitor, you are looking at part of a six foot wide ‘print’. Depth of field tables, still used today, were based on viewing a 10 x 8″ print from a similar distance! This problem is reduced by higher resolution screens but sometimes, you simply need a smaller image size.

Canon 5DS/R (in proportion with earlier models) have useful M-RAW and S-RAW formats, allowing the cameras to become full frame 28 or 12 megapixels with a single menu change. This function is missing from Sony raw files and would be a great firmware enhancement, if it was possible.

Reasons to buy the A7R II

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Having used two other A7 series bodies, and started the transition to the FE lens series with some mix of adapted glass on the way, why didn’t I stick with the far more realistic and practical A7 II, or the A7R which was paid for and at 36 megapixels just as useful a large file size?

  • Internally or externally recorded 4K video though not a commercial offering from my side might well be a request from a future client. I don’t make videos though many years ago I did made 16mm films and many 35mm slide based dual and multi projector AV programs. However, I know many still photographers who have found sufficiently high-end clients for video to invest the time. I wouldn’t touch any video production, even a brief 20-second ad clip, for under four figures. It’s fun to experiment with until any serious use emerges. Also, excellent Super-35 crop format video.jamesgem-1371-web
  • Completely silent operation when needed – though not compatible with any kind of flash, the fully electronic shutter is an option for wedding ceremonies and I’ve used that function already. It is also useful for shooting stills when someone is making a video, or during quiet concerts, in meetings, or when you simply don’t want the sound of a shutter to be heard. When silent is not needed, electronic first curtain (not provided on the A7R) improves shutter lag time and cuts vibration
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  • It’s also got a 500,000 actuation life shutter built to more than pro specification and a superior 0.78X electronic viewfinder, a slightly improved body flange for the lens mount (now common to all the II models, tighter and more precise than the original machining), no light leaks. And the mode dial is improved with a locking button, the Multi Function Accessory shoe is further improved in contact reliability, the ocular is T* coated and gives better eye relief.SONY DSC
  • It will perform well with all kinds of lenses and the 399-point wide area phase detection AF array built in to the sensor functions partly, or completely, with more native Sony and converted Canon lenses than ever before. It betters the A7R and A7 II in this respect, though I sold the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM above as it didn’t work with the II having worked well on the A7R. Metabones have now fixed this, but my adaptor is a cheaper non-programmable type… you get what you pay for!
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    This is what you get from the Canon 5DS at ISO 6400, default, for shadow detail and noise (click to enlarge a 100% view of this section from a much larger file)


    Compare the separation of the black ribbon, and the shadow detail in general, from a similar shot ISO 6400 A7R II file, using the same lens and settings (click to view enlarged).

  • The back-illuminated CMOS sensor has a dynamic range – and a contrast curve or gamma function through controlled A to D conversion – which provides an ideal raw file for subsequent adjustment at lower ISO settings. Here, the difference seen above between the Canon 51MP sensor and the Sony 42MP is striking. The Sony images may often look softer and lack punch, but they reveal two stops more detail in the tones close to deep shadow. It’s probably been designed this way to allow s-Log gamma settings for professional video, producing flat neutral results ideal for grading to match from take to take. This happens to be very flattering to skin tones and it’s no surprise the A7R II is rivalling Fuji’s X-Trans sensor amongst fans of the flesh.jamesgem-1685-web
  • The same sensor has awesome practical performance in low light without sacrificing resolution, and noise levels which allow surprisingly high ISO settings for critical subjects like wildlife where fur and feather textures are easily damaged by noise (or noise reduction). Properly processed from raw, or shot as JPEG in camera, ISO 800 can be used as an everyday setting and 1600 will not even harm landscape detail. Up to 6400 an effectively noise-free full size image can be extracted, and at 12,800 to 25,600 some downscaling is all that’s needed to clean up. Admittedly, it’s never going to match the 12 megapixel A7S or A7S II at 51,200 and has a limit at 102,400 rather than marching on to an insane 409,600 EI as that body does.SONY DSC
  • Compared to buying an A7 II, remember that with the A7R II you get two Sony batteries and an external charger (about £150 in official value) as well as the ability to operate the camera from any 5v 1.5A USB source (not just to charge the battery internally, but to shoot using USB power)
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    You also get a neat tether-trap locking cage which screws into the camera side and can secure your USB and HDMI cables against accidental disconnection or strain on the connectors.
  • Final reason – going beyond the A7R II specification does not seem to offer further compelling advantages. It doesn’t have any major flaws or shortcomings except perhaps the single card slot and some doubts about the durability of the body, weatherproofing, and the quality of the lens mount (see below). I’m not in need of more than 5fps and 22 continuous raws before slowing down, and if I am the smaller Sony models like the A6000 and my RX10 do some pretty neat extra high speed sequences. So, for the first time since the sale of my A900 to get the A99, I feel I have a long-term camera no matter what Sony does in six months to make it hopelessly out of date.

What’s could be wrong?

First up, the poorly specified and designed lens mount and low precision body/lens relationship. Where Minolta A, Fuji X, Pentax, Leica and nearly all good makes secure the body and lens bayonet mounts using six screws, the E-mount uses only four even for the top end bodies which may have to support lenses approaching 1 kilo in weight. The four-screw fitting creates two axes of potential tilt restrained only by diametrically opposed screws, six-screw design is better but actually a five screw design beats both as you can’t draw a diameter across any two screws and create a tilt axis.

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The E/FE lens-body system is built round a concept of achieving final accuracy in alignment and focus without needing precision in every component. The nominal 18mm mount to sensor register doesn’t have to be perfect (and seems to vary by at least ±0.1mm). All Sony E and FE mount lenses compensate for variations and use free-floating magnetic focus often combined with floating OSS – they don’t have fixed infinity stops. Just as the bodies don’t have to be all that precise, the lenses themselves don’t need to be. As long as both work with the sensor to AF perfectly, the overall system is self-correcting.

You soon find out the limits of E-mount precision when buying adaptors for older manual lenses or modern Canon EF lenses. I’m sure Zeiss makes due allowance in the design of manual focus Loxia lenses, and Voigtlander has specifically allowed the new E-mount range planned for 2016 (10mm, 12mm and 15mm) to focus past infinity because they are aware of the variable register of the system. I have measured many adaptors and the only safe decision for the engineer is to fall short of the target register. Some very expensive adaptors turn out to be 0.3mm thicker than others for the same mount (I’ve found this in Leica M, Canon FD and Canon EF adaptors). The lenses being adapted often have a fixed infinity stop and are designed to hit this precisely. Combine a 0.1mm ‘plus thickness’ Sony body with a 0.2mm plus adaptor, and your manual wide angle lens won’t focus on infinity.

So, one overall issue is that despite the high cost, the Sony FE/A7 series range of bodies and lenses lacks the precision engineering of past systems and it’s designed that way. When you find one side of your pictures always seems soft with wide-angle, wide zoom or very fast lenses you have encountered the limitations of Sony precision and quality control.

Secondly, the A7R II has such large files and a slow overworked processor relative to those files and the massive task of running a high resolution, high frequency EVF and many clever software functions. Any kind of systematic ‘chimping’ to check each shot after taking may leave you frustrated. Depending on your choice of card and some unknown spin of the CPU’s internal dice, you will sometimes encounter long file writing times and a brief lockout from playback.

Install the 14-bit (in 16-bit container) raw uncompressed format introduced in October 2015 through a firmware update, and the situation may improve. With Firmware V2.0 I’ve seen typical write to card times halved but identical shots could take varying times and the worst case remains close to 10 seconds for the light to go off on a single shot. Most of time it’s clearing about 1 second after 2 second auto review, and disabling auto review has no apparent effect on this, or the time the camera takes to respond to a fresh shutter actuation.

Secret solutions

Since you’ve been patient, and listened to why the A7 system in general has a few failings, here’s how to get the best optical performance and general response from it.

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First of all, for the best optical performance use lenses where OSS can be disabled but in-body SS allowed to operate. The internal 5-axis sensor based stabilisation of the A7II/RII/SII is awesome. In-lens OSS is impressive but by its design will always lose you some resolution, often more towards one side or corner of the image than centrally. Amended paragraph, see comments: To see how good your stabilised lens really is, turn off stabilisation and shoot something using flash or at a high shutter speed.

But… if you turn off Steady Shot or OSS on the A7R II, you disable it in the body and the lens. You can not turn it off for the lens, but keep it working in the body. Only the 90mm f/2.8 Sony G OSS Macro, the 70-200mm f/4 Sony G OSS (above) and the 28-135mm f/4 Sony G PZ OSS offer the on-lens switch. So if you want stabilisation, you can’t choose to have it provided by the body with these lenses. You can do so with Canon, Sigma and Tamron lenses used on a Canon EF adaptor – their IS, OS or VC will operate normally when the SS in the body is disabled. In fact you must never use these lenses with both methods turned on together, or the result will be unsharp. This is a problem we first noticed with the Olympus system, where their lens and body stabilisation do not communicate and it’s possible to us none, just body, just lens or ruin shots by turning on both together. The Sony body used with third party lenses does allow this; used with Sony lenses, it prevents it.

The A7R II will switch between internal SS, lens OSS and a combination depending on settings. But it won’t tell you what it is doing, which makes this intelligent function something of a handicap. As a rule, if you can lock the camera down (tripod) or use a very fast exposure (studio flash, shutter speed 4X the focal length of the lens) shooting with no stabilisation at all will offer the best results.

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Secondly, don’t use ‘AF With Shutter’ all the time. It’s convenient sometimes, but every time you take first pressure on the shutter, your E-mount AF lens will initialise a short routine involving focus position recalibration followed by AF. It costs you a variable extra lag before the shutter fires, maybe 1/15th to as long as 1/4 second. Instead, turn this off and AF will default to the centre button of the rear controller (you can change this assignment). You then use this to AF for each change of subject, composition or distance but if nothing’s changed you do not touch it and you do not re-AF. You save battery life, and you eliminate the whole shutter-button-AF delay cycle. You can now capture pictures, using electronic first curtain shutter or silent mode, within 1/20s of pressing the shutter.

Thirdly, for action shots prefer stops close to full aperture on E-mount lenses for the same reason – the aperture closing action involves a delay you can clearly identify and it’s longer with apertures like f/16. But for maximum reaction speed, use a purely manual lens. The camera knows there’s no aperture to be closed so it misses out that stage. It knows there’s no AF. You can get down to a mere 1/50s shutter lag, faster than most photographers can think. If you are used to older DSLRs which typically fire the shutter between 1/15s and 1/8s after you have pressed the button, you’ll anticipate and fire too early for action shots. Beware the LA-EA adaptors for A-mount lenses as you can’t turn off the aperture lever actuation. These adaptors will always add a delay even if you fit a manual lens.

I’m not going to delve into how you use focus peaking, magnification, setting the slowest shutter speed to be used by the Auto ISO function and so on. You can find out about this from countless videos and blogs, not all of which feature grandmothers, sucking and eggs. Nor will I recommend JPEG noise reduction and image settings in camera, since I don’t use JPEGs. Remember that your picture style and adjustments, like extra sharpening or contrast, will be reflected in the view you see through the EVF and on-screen. They will affect focus peaking, the histogram and what the image looks like when you use magnified manual focus, too. My tip is ‘stay neutral’ for the best EVF experience and ability to judge and control your results, especially if shooting raw. Camera Standard – boring but it won’t fool you into making adjustments which are not needed.

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A 16mm landscape with careful focus checking, and only just enough depth of field even at f/16 if the end result is going to be a 1m wide print

Read the manual, think about all the functions of the camera, assign your custom buttons, set your parameters. My set-up includes (routinely) Auto ISO 200-1600 because within that range the A7R II files have low noise and good textural sharpness and there’s no great benefit in dropping to 100; AWB; 1/250th slowest shutter speed because the world moves and I’m very happy with 1/250th at ISO 800 rather than 1/125 at ISO 400 for nearly all my walkabout shots; AdobeRGB because I need that but actually sRGB is better matched to the EVF and rear screen, and will give you a more accurate histogram; no JPEGs because I don’t need them; Airplane Mode on; compressed raw unless there’s a really good reason; AF-S and Centre point focus; no face recognition, no smile shutter, no tracking, nothing clever with AF; single shot; generally Aperture Priority but sometimes P, M or very rarely S; Date Format file folders; SS on; electronic first curtain; setting effect on; finder and screen at default brightness and colour; grid lines 3 x 3; focus peaking low, yellow; lens correction enabled; 2 secs review, or none.

– David Kilpatrick, all images except front and rear views of A7R II body and 70-200mm lens are ©David Kilpatrick/Icon Publications Ltd; please do not link directly to images or copy

* You need thousands on offer to sell dozens…

 

 

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