Sigma 16-28mm f2.8 E and L mount

The companion for Sigma’s highly regarded 28-70mm f/2.8 compact zoom adds an unbroken range down to 16mm while retaining a small c. 77x100mm size, 72mm filter fit, and 450g weight. It is announced today and will be available to buy from June 17th for £749.99 (UK SRP) or $899 (US retail before tax).

The new 16-28mm seen fitted to Sony’s compact A7C, with the companion 28-70mm left. The two lenses together weigh only 920g.

The full-frame Sigma 16-28mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary offers a promise of exceptional optical quality with a faster constant maximum aperture in barrel size similar to existing f/4 16-35mm designs. Special attention has been given to field curvature correction for edge-to-edge sharpness, important in wide-angle views – this is enabled through the use of a built-in lens profile, correcting distortion and vignetting in-camera or during raw image processing. 

It uses five FLD (fluorite-like glass) elements and four aspherics to minimise chromatic and off-axis aberrations. The lens has an inner zoom mechanism that keeps overall length and the centre of balance constant, improving performance when zooming during a gimbal take. The 72mm filter thread is larger than the 67mm of the similarly light and small 28-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary.. At just 100.6mm long (L-mount version) and 450g it’s appealing for outdoor, social, street and travel photographers who want a lightweight outfit for day-long use.

The lens is constructed using aluminium and thermally stable polycarbonate, performing well in temperatures from the arctic to the equator, and has a dust and splash resistant mount. AF uses a proven stepper motor compatible with high-speed AF, DMF and AF or MF modes with an MF switch on the side. It focuses down to 25cm with a maximum image scale of 1:5.6, 0.17X and has a nine-blade rounded aperture. On the L-mount version only, linear and non-linear focus ring behaviour can be set using the USB Dock UD-11.

The lens is supplied with front and rear caps and a bayonet mounted petal lens hood. Sigma WR or WR Ceramic,WR UV and WR Circular Polarising 72mm filters are optional extras.

Sigma UK – https://sigma-imaging-uk.com

Product information – https://sigma-global.com/jp/lenses/c022_16_28_28

Lenses For Hire (UK) adds Sony FE range

Sony reaches a Hire level 

Sony full-frame mirrorless system owners keen to find out how good the fast Sony GM lenses are can now hire from Lenses For Hire for as little as £69. The hire service has been evaluating the demand and quality of the Sony offering, and recently decided to add the system alongside their regular Canon and Nikon professional stock.

A three-day shoot with the 24-70mm f/2.8 FE GM OSS, delivered on a Thursday and picked up on the Monday by courier, would cost under £100 including insurance and carriage both ways and only £69 direct from the Maidenhead hire specialists. 

System lenses stocked include the new 12-24mm f/4 G, 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, 24-105mm G OSS, 90mm f/21.8 OSS macro, 70-20mm f/2.8 GM OSS, new GM 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OSS and the versatile travel-friendly 24-240mm. 

Tele converters, the latest Metabones Mark V Canon EF adaptor and accessories are offered. Sony A7II, A7RIII, A7SII and A9 bodies can be hired from £94. 

With GM lenses costing from £2,269 upwards an affordable hire period helps you make the right buying decision, saves you money and gives you the best choice for your work. 

Contact: 

Lenses For Hire Ltd 

www.lensesforhire.co.uk 

[email protected] 

+44(0)1628 639941 – or UK only 0800 61 272 61 

Sony A7RIII pixel shift with a vintage lens

We’ve got one from the first Sony ILCE-A7R3 delivery in the UK, and with a first review of two pages appearing in Cameracraft January/February 2018 from tests in early December, I will be following up with a fuller printed review and more on-line articles here as the camera’s potential unfolds.

Continue reading »

Sony A7RIII – more than a skin deep upgrade

With a body-only price of £3,199/$3,198, the third generation of the A7R came as a surprise to Sony’s own photo studio, who labelled most of the product pictures release on Wednesday as ‘A7RM2’ instead of ‘A7RIII’. We’ve changed the filenames on our system, but countless mediafolk of the future will be confused. They do after all look similar.

In fact the new 24-105mm f/4 G OSS lens was released with pictures of it on the A7RIII, above, and also on the A9 below. With the A7RIII having a 10fps 42 megapixel motordrive capability, thanks to an improved LSI and new processing engine reading off much faster from the 42 megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor, you might have expected economies of scale to have given it the same Dynax 7D-like left hand end drive mode physical dial like the A9, below – especially as the A7RIII has an additional drive-type mode, a four-shot sensor shift to capture 169 megapixels of image data.

This involves shifting by one pixel in four positions, and does not create a 4X size, 2X linear pixel count file. You can only get that by shifting half a pixel as Olympus do. The Pentax sensor shift high-res mode shifts by one pixel, and it does not increase the image dimensions, only the sharpness and colour information for each pixel location (making the image similar to a Sigma dp Quattro file in fine detail resolution). The Sony implementation also appears to need almost half a second between each of the four subframes, requiring a tripod and roughly 2 seconds of capture time. Sony’s proven multishot processing will certainly be able to remove any problems with movement of parts of the subject during this time, but it has to be done in the computer, using the new software suite.

Some commentators have assumed that the 169 megapixel four-shot file means large dimensions, effectively a 169 megapixel resolution full frame, the same way Olympus gets high megapixel files. But the pre-release information clearly indicates it’s a Pentax-type mode – here’s from the wording provided to dealers by Sony:

“You can then stitch the images together to create an image with fewer artifacts and a truer range of colours”.

I tested that on the Pentax K-1 and concluded it was not worth the effort. Regular normal 42 megapixel AA-free shots on a top grade lens are all you need. I’ll repeat that bit about top grade lens.

The A7RIII also has a new shutter mechanism which reduces shock, improving the SteadyShot performance, though still 30s to 1/8,000s as before. The sensor gains a new anti-reflective coating and there will be many ‘under the hood’ improvements because that’s what happens. There may also be teething troubles and newly introduced problems, because that also happens. However I’d say early buyers run less risk with this third generation A7R than they did with the predecessors, or indeed with the A6500.

But we’ll leave you with the 9 for comparison. Most else that matters is the same, like for example the Memory registers – only two on the A7RII, but three on the A7RIII. It will remember more things, like Setting Effect OFF/ON, and that is just as well because the III puts a DSLR-like feature on its left hand end, a threaded coaxial Prontor-Compur (PC) flash synchronisation terminal (below). Let’s just hope that the circuitry inside is well isolated, as one of my vintage flash units destroyed the Godox X1-T which I use both to get Setting Effect OFF and isolation from high trigger voltages on my A7RII.

Study this left end for a bit. It does have phantom power for the 2.5mm mic jack, but the earphone output has been moved so that two doors must now be opened at once to use both together. And there’s something missing.

The A7RII has a screw socket next to the neatly paired mic/headphone jacks, which allows a custom made tether clamp assembly (supplied with the camera, seen above) to hold HDMI and USB cables with clamped protection looping. You’ll need some extra Tether Tools kit to safeguard the connectors on the MkIII. There is now a USB-C/3 Super Speed connector as well as a USB-Micro Multifunction, and Micro HDMI. But no provided security of a tether clamp.

The back of the camera has much the same screen, but with improvements to resolution and daylight visibility – still no twist and turn, or reversing to face the camera back and protect the LCD. The rear button layout is revised, with movie button located near the viewfinder (well, if Canon does it, it can’t be wrong, can it?) and the switching AF/AE Lock/Toggle/Hold button replaced by an AF-ON and separate AEL, with C3 moved to the left end. Where the movie button used to be you’ll notice a catch for the weathersealed door which covers TWO SD card slots, one UHS-II enabled (more broken bits of card contact septum to lose inside your slot!). Changes to the movie mode using the main shutter release make the use of the red button less essential.

You can assign those cards the usual ways, to make copies on card 2 of card 1 as you shoot, just in case one fails (the most important use for wedding photographers) and also to use sequentially (overflow into card 2, liked by action photographers), or split RAW and JPEG, or still and video.

This is the new lens, 24-105mm f/4, and it will probably be very good. It has 77mm filters so I think I’ll stick with the A6500 for travelling, as the little CZ 16-70mm f/4 which is the direct equivalent of this is tiny by comparison and uses neat 55mm filters. Despite some reports to the contrary, I’ve found it to be a good lens, sharp across the frame at 70mm wide open, though prone to flare.

The top shows that the strictly amateur ‘SCENE’ position of the mode dial has been replaced by S&Q. I look forward to finding out what this means – probably much the same*  *Gary Friedman has provided the answer in Comments – it’s a slo-mo/fast-mo video mode which is of no interest to me personally, but might fascinate messers around with short video clips for YouTube, even if their smartphones do it better. Green auto survives, as not all owners will be experienced photographers, some will just be wealthy camera buyers and this setting will be where they leave it.

The published specs were vague about Bluetooth, used for GPS tagging from a smartphone – I’m told US Sony Store specifications clearly state it does have. The A6500 and A9 both do, and can therefore use the Sony mobile phone function for live geotagging of pictures as you take them, using information read at the moment of capture from your nearby smartphone. We’ve also seen reports saying the A7RIII does not use Apps but that seems very unlikely.

There are also improvements claimed for dynamic range, with the figure of 15 stops mentioned. This would actually need a 16-bit A to D conversion internally followed by compression to a virtual 15-bit range (via a tone curve) saved in the 14-bit uncompressed raw .ARW format. A 14-bit raw format is now offered for all shooting modes including high speed continuous, which on the A7RII means automatic stepdown to 12-bit. The ISO range is extended to 32,000 before Hi expansion up to 104,200 and goes down to 100 native with Lo down to 50. One benefit of an effective 15-stop range will be that ISO 50 should have 14 stops, or as much highlight data as ISO 100 on the MkII.

The extra effective bit depth also pays off when using the S-Log3 and Hybrid-Gamma HDR video settings. This brings Sony professional video camera standards into a primarily still camera for the first time (better than the video-targeted A7SII, and the A9).

Sony claim improved skin tones too, though compared to what is a bit of a worry. Many people like Canon skin tones, I think they are like a 1970s USA colour portrait and that Sony’s skin colours have always been more natural. Others disagree and want the pinker, less yellow, face tones.

The A7RIII uses the new larger battery with its 2.7X capacity, introduced in the A9. I rather like the way my current Sony cameras share one rather underpowered battery type, but at least a bagful of batteries covers A56500, A7RII, RX10. There are not many different battery types, as we could find with our Olympus kit (check E-M1, E-M1 MkII, E-M5, E-M5MkII, E-M10, E-M10MkII and E-M10MkIII batteries if you want a nightmare). You can also charge Sony batteries in-camera.

Will I buy it? Probably not. I use the A7RII for relatively static, large image size, low ISO, controlled shooting of landscapes, architecture, products and so on. I have sold my full frame zooms except for the 70-300mm G OSS and now only use primes on the A7RII (10mm, 18mm, 28mm, 50mm macro, 55mm, 85mm). I don’t travel with it. We’ve bought an Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII for its Pro Capture (60fps, 18-20fps with pre-shot buffering) and macro auto focus stacking. I’m sticking with the A6500 kit for travel (10-18mm, 16-70mm, 55-210mm) but it’s got to go head to head with the Olympus including the use of the two different smartphone GPS methods.

  • David Kilpatrick

WEX Pre-Order (Affiliate link) UK £3199

MPB (Affiliate link) – buy and sell used Sony equipment UK

B&H (Affiliate link) – order US/World from $3198

Alpha A9 promises professional performance

You can order the A9 here – any of these links to order will help photoclubalpha pay our way.

B&H have it listed 

WEX in the UK (also Calumet)

Amazon (co.uk)

The front view below of the Sony Alpha A9 body, introduced today, gives a subtle clue about changes under the hood. For some time we’ve been nagging Sony about the weak, potentially tilting, 4-screw mount on the mirrorless bodies. Now they have at least added two more screws, to match Fujifilm X or the A-mount, even if the distribution is a bit odd with all the extra strength concentrated at the sides not the top and bottom where heavy lenses normally cause most stress.

It’s a clue to a different internal construction, probably stronger all round, to make it possible to support the new 100-400mm G Master  lens, a native E-mount new design which should come as a relief to those struggling with the A-mount 70-400mm varieties on adaptors:

But the lenses still have four-screw mount fitting (as do most A-mount lenses), and fairly weak sacrificial assemblies to prevent damage to the camera if knocked. See this video (it’s a bit long but makes a point): //www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGvlX9BtiTQ

The EVF of the A9 is around twice as bright as the A7RII and also runs at twice the refresh rate, while offering 50% more pixels. Part of this is down to the new stacked-CMOS 24.2 megapixel full frame sensor, which has a readout some twenty times faster than the A7II and previous generation 24 megapixel models. That, of course, is linked to the 6K native live feed from the full frame (used to create very high quality 4K video as well as an excellent live view) which in turn enables a distortion-free purely electronic silent shutter running to 1/32,000s plus 20 frames per second sequence shooting.

AF is claimed to be 25% faster than the A7RII and when the shutter speed is faster than 1/125s there is no visible blackout in the finder when shooting. Personally, a single frame (1/120s or 1/60s) blip would never be unwelcome as it helps tell you when you’ve shot. As for the low-light capability, not too much is being said; it’s in the usual up to 56,200 range with extension of two more stops. (Edit: April 20, we have noticed that at least one ‘reviewer’ – Sony Artisan paid to promote – completely wrongly claims 2,048,000 ISO not the actual 204,800, when comparing the A9 with the Nikon D5’s listed 3,276,800). The high speed sequences, movie frame rate and EVF refresh all tend to limit ultimate low-light clean imaging and we would guess that the A7SII and A7RII will not be made redundant.

That can not be said for the old weeny weedy weaky batteries of the E-mount range. The stripling NP-FW50 used in all the NEX to A7 series models gets kicked aside by a slightly larger variant with 2.2X the capacity. Frankly, it’s overdue but it creates a split system. I’m happy to travel with my A6000, RX10, and A7RII all sharing a pool of batteries even if those do run down alarmingly fast.

If it means carrying a new dual charger too, to get the necessary 2.5 hour recharge time instead of a leisurely overnight in-camera top up, I can only hope the charger (cum mains adaptor with clumsy dummy battery connection) also accepts the older batteries. It’s carrying multiple chargers that increases my travel bag weight not carrying extra batteries.

But… I see that the charger ‘cradle’ can mount four of the new cells, and charge the lot in 480 minutes. This cradle has a dummy battery on a lead, and 1/4″ tripod thread mounting points to add it to a video rig (which this camera is not specially made for, indicating an A9S is on the way with S-Log and direct 4K top quality encoding). The dummy battery then powers the camera for roughly 10X the life of the current A7 series batteries. So what if you have an A7 model? Easy – the outer shell of the battery simply slides off, revealing a SMALLER dummy inside, which fits the entire NEX/A7 mirrorless range or indeed the RX10 series. So your existing Sony mirrorless kit can be powered using this ‘battery bank’.

The top plate reveals that some input has been listen to. As a regular M1-M2-M3 user on my A99, the drop to only two memory registers on the A7RII is unwelcome but survivable. A return to three, plus a a custom button memory recall function, will make the a9 better. Having the drive modes on a physical control is good too. But I’ll leave any verdict on all this until the actual operation is better known – whether, for example, the memory registers now cover more than just the primary camera settings and thus enable one-step tripod setup.

I’ll have to say that after using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII, which offers many of the advantages being claimed by the A9 as major selling points, the non-reversible simple tilt rear screen remains a negative compared to a fully articulated reversible screen. Sony does now offer a real glass protector, but I like the A55 to A99 style screen which can be turned to face the wall permanently if you want (and has never arrived on the E-mount models).

The new joystick controller takes something from the A99/II controls and adds it to the wheel of the A7 series, while the upper thumb button becomes a native back-button AF. In addition to being able to move the focus points faster (it’s a pain with the A7RII design) there is a memory for AF point selection and a horizontal-vertical switch function. Combined with a larger number of AF points covering 93% of the sensor, the action/sports performance of the A9 should be a long way ahead of any earlier mirrorless (though the A6500 is pretty good).

Though not visible here, there are two SDXC (one UHS-II) card slots with the usual recording options similar to the A99/II, and also an Ethernet port which is almost a requirement for some major sports events. You will notice that the Drive control has a Focus control below it, giving direct access to the kind of AF/MF/DMF choices found on the dedicated controller of A-mount bodies – no more need for menu or Function/Custom button operations.

The eyepiece, shown here, may perhaps be a little less prone to detachment and we are promised the least squiffy finder view with new optics.

There is one minor fly in the ointment, a price-tag of £4,500 (UK) body only; the 100-400mm will be £2,500. While the team of assembled ambassadors made much of praising the silent shutter mode and small size of the camera at Sony’s vidcast press conference, none of this is new and pretty much anything the A9 can do is also within the reach of the A7RII and A7SII even if it does it faster and perhaps better. There was some praise for the durability of the system – what? I don’t know about others, but I find the Sony/Zeiss lenses are the worst I’ve ever owned for showing almost immediate signs of wear from the lightest contact with clothing and bags. Silver appears through the molecule-thin black coating instantly and neither the regular lenses nor the bodies have ever struck me as being suitable to knock around in a busy press kit or travel bag. Where old Leicas survived years of abuse elegantly, gradually brassing at the edges, my Sony kit generally just looks a bit scruffy and used despite minimal handling. The A9 looks about the same in this respect as the mark II lesser models.

Full official press information and specifications can be seen here:

//presscentre.sony.co.uk/pressreleases/sonys-new-a9-camera-revolutionises-the-professional-imaging-market-1923969

And for the lens:

//presscentre.sony.co.uk/pressreleases/sony-expands-flagship-g-master-lens-series-with-new-100-400mm-super-telephoto-e-mount-zoom-1923976

  • David Kilpatrick

 

 

Bad science and dissing the Sony A7 FE concept

No doubt everyone’s seen the article on Petapixel which can best be described as successful clickbait – by Sator, essentially claiming that the whole idea of mirrorless full frame is flawed. Well, the good news is that this article is more flawed than the flaws it’s claiming to point out.

First of, let’s simply dismiss the groundless myth that a shorter mount to focal plane register (body thickness) cause any problems with lens design. It simply doesn’t. Nor does an empty space without any body at all. The only aspect of register which can ever cause problems is additional body thickness, as found on single-lens reflex (SLR and DSLR) designs. In the early days of SLRs, it caused so much trouble for the design of very wide-angle lenses that SLR mirrors had to be locked ‘up’ and a lens fitted with a rear assembly almost touching the shutter, sticking right back into the darkchamber.

The quote from Zeiss in the article about the ‘short flange distance’ being an engineering challenge for wide-angle lenses may well be a result of mistranslation as it’s hard to imagine any Zeiss engineer actually saying that and meaning it. This is the company which effectively built the Hasselblad SWC, not to mention the aerial and stereoscopic models based on the 38mm f/4.5 Biogon. And they made the Hologon camera. Flange distance? What flange distance?

Take a look at the optical design of one of the best Zeiss/Sony collaborations, the RX1 series with its 35mm fixed f/2 lens, and you’ll see that Tatsuo Kureishi, Sony product planner, was probably right to say this: “We eventually realised that only a camera with a non-interchangeable lens could significantly increase image quality, since it would allow us to optimise performance between the lens and image sensor.” And what did he mean? That by not even having a focal plane shutter, by having an even slimmer body than the E-mount, a lens which almost touched the sensor, they could engineer something better. And they could align it to perfection. The ghosted product view below says it all. As far as I have been able to work out, the actual body register of the RX1 would be around 12mm, or like the FE mount’s 18mm but with the lens sticking into the body even more than the 5mm depth of the E-mount bayonet.

Now if there’s any reason the A7 series can’t have the same 35mm f/2 as the RX1, it’s down to the shutter assembly and the filter/coverglass pack of the sensors used in A7 bodies. But it’s not to do with the mount, and as this lens proves perfectly, claims that you ‘can not get lens performance without size and weight’ are also made on a weak foundation.

Now the throat diameter can indeed cause problems. Sator quotes a set of throat diameters:

Minolta/Sony A: 49.7mm
Sony E: 46.1mm
Fuji X: 44mm
Canon EF: 54mm
Pentax K: 44mm
Nikon F: 44mm

However, all these are meaningless without reference to the register. Back on 2012, in Issue No 1 of Cameracraft (the quarterly I produced with the co-editing help of Gary Friedman for three years) I printed the register distances then applicable to a range of new and legacy systems:

Pentax Q: 9.2mm    Nikon 1: 12.29mm     C-mount: 17.52mm     Fujifilm X-Pro: 17.7mm
Canon EF-M: 18mm     Sony NEX: 18mm      MicroFourThirds: 19.25mm      Samsung NX: 25.50mm
Pentax 110: 27mm     Leica M: 27.8mm     Robot: 28.1mm     M39 Leica Screw: 28.8mm
Contax G: 29mm     Olympus Pen F: 28.95mm     Contax/Kiev: 34.85mm     FourThirds: 38.67mm
Konica AutoReflex: 40.7mm     Miranda: 41.5mm     Canon FL/FD: 42mm     Minolta SR/MD: 43.5mm
Canon EF: 44mm     Praktica B: 44.4mm     Minolta/Alpha: 44.5mm     Rollei SL35: 44.6mm
Pentax K: 45.46mm     M39 Zenith Screw: 45.46mm     M42 Pentax Screw: 45.46mm
Contax/Yashica: 45.5mm     Olympus OM: 46mm     Nikon F: 46.5mm     Leica R: 47mm

A 46.1mm throat placed 18mm from a 43mm diagonal image sensor clearly isn’t ideal, but it’s for ever better than Fuji’s 44mm throat at the same 18mm. Or is it? Measure the actual mount, and the 46.1mm turns out to be a generous figure including the bayonet recesses. The real circular size is only 43mm and the internal diameter once any mount is fitted is only 42mm. The electronic contact array removes a further 4mm but fortunately not in a bad place. On the Fuji X mount, the contacts are placed to prevent any real chance of a full frame body (the same applies to Canon’s EF-M mount).

sonyjune1526

Sony got in by the skin of their teeth, and it is this mount diameter which actually starts to impose design contraints on lenses and makes some of them larger. A good example is the 85mm f/1.4 GM. That, in its purest form, would be a lens normally positioned >85mm from the sensor with an aperture diameter 0f 60mm. However, many of image-forming rays from this would be obstructed by the E-mount. A complex telephoto construction is therefore needed which reduces the virtual size of the lens aperture as seen from the focal plane and simultaneously moves its apparent location closer (placing the rear nodal point of the lens somewhere between 18mm and 85mm). Most lenses longer and/or faster than 50mm f/1.2 will need some increased complexity of design to condense the exit pupil.

Telecentric design

But against this, there’s a fortuitous benefit. Digital sensors, with their optically active filter/low-cut/IR glass packs, don’t respond well to very oblique angles of ray incidence. If you can make a telecentric lens – one which produces an almost parallel bundle of image-forming rays from a greater register distance – you’ve overcome this issue. That is what Olympus did with the original FourThirds format, which if scaled up to full frame size would have had a 77mm register – and they made their lenses telecentric, which means they produce a relatively parallel ray bundle, with a long back focus. Although FourThirds is now almost obsolete, it did have this odd advantage (also a real challenge which Olympus overcame in the creation of a fully retrofocus 7-14mm zoom with a 38mm register).

The point I’m making is that large size, complexity and weight are not as so many state ‘laws of physics’ relating to making good lenses. They may simply be the most expedient solution. Remove all constraints – as Sony did with the RX1, Minolta did with the TC-1, and Ricoh did with the original film GR – and exceptional lenses can be made to be very compact, almost as compact as the theoretical physics will allow. Indeed it surprised many users to find large glass elements almost touching the film plane in some cameras.

Sorry to be so wordy but it needs explaining. Does it matter? Yes, if you still believe in a Sony A7/FE system which can be as compact as a Leica kit used to be. In fact the E-mount makes it possible to design slightly smaller medium to long zooms and very much smaller wide-angles, and normal sized standard lenses. To adjust your perception, it’s important to take Sator’s camera size comparison images and align the focal plane index marks, not the front or back of the camera body. It’s surprising how much of an A7RII is behind the sensor plane.

sony-wrongcomparison

The screen grab above is from Sator’s article. It purports to compare two 85mms. There’s just one small problem – it doesn’t. The lens shown fitted to the A99 on the right is the 24mm f/2 CZ SSM A-mount, not the 85mm CZ. The 85mm is 1mm shorter but 3mm fatter with a generally chunkier look, and if you align the focal plane index marks, its front would come almost exactly level with the GM lens. It’s still smaller than the GM but if comparisons are to be made this way, they really should be correct, not wrong.

Why other big lenses?

Blame Canon and Nikon. Both have had SLR mirror paths which are very generous, and there are some lenses you can adapt to Canon which will give you a damaged mirror and lens in return (those lenses can’t be adapted to Nikon at all). Makers like Sigma and Tamron have to design all their lenses to clear the Canon full-frame (EF) mirror swing, and if that means adding 5mm to the back focus and then adding even more in glass to the overall assembly to make this work, so be it.

sigma-20mmf1p4

Therefore, when a nice fast 20mm f/1.4 Sigma appears designed for a retrofocus with a 42mm physical clearance, it’s going to be the same size when remounted (if they ever do) for a skinny 18mm register. Actually, the same size plus 24mm of deadspace extension.

If you think that a fast superwide is bound to be huge, try a Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8 Ultron in Leica M fit. It’s not f/1.4, but it’s also the size of your palm not your forearm – and no doubt an autofocus lens could be made much the same. In fact you can buy an E-mount to Leica M autofocus adaptor and turn it into one. My point is that where Sony’s own lenses may sometimes be fairly large in order to deliver the best results from the existing sensors and the mount constraints, DSLR system lenses can be even larger. Where there is potential for Sony native lenses to be small, there’s very limited potential for this with DSLRs. I use a couple of rare examples, the 20mm f/3.5 Voigtlander Nikon fit wide and the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake. They are exceptions. Within the range from 28mm to 90mm, there have always been excellent and fairly compact lenses for all types of system – Contax G, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Leica, Minolta CLE. Sony should look to these for inspiration for a core set of lenses, and seem to have done so with the 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 55mm. A neat 85mm f/2.8 next in line then?

Adaptors and focus calibration

The general comment that adaptors introduce error is very true, but Sator doesn’t explain why the E-mount is so prone to such errors. Let me do so. It was designed, from the ground up, to be self calibrating and not to require much precision. When the original 16mm f/2.8 pancake was launched with the NEX-3 and NEX-5, that lens had so much focus travel it could go well beyond infinity. Just 0.1mm makes a huge difference with a 16mm lens at f/2.8 – and the actual flange to sensor register of those first bodies was not even accurate to 0.1mm. Sony just made the lenses able to cover the manufacturing tolerance, because the on-sensor contrast detect focusing always got it right. You would never know if a body had 0.1mm or 0.2mm variation from spec, as the lens had more than this leeway.

SONY DSC

Why the A7 system still wins – though now old, a Voigtlander Leica screw original 12mm f/5.6 ultrawide works well using a $10 simple adaptor. A very much more expensive adaptor – $300 – turned out to have incorrect infinity focus.

Then along came awkward early buyers of adaptors and lenses like the Voigtlander 12mm, or for example the 40mm f/1.4 which was the lens that really alerted me to the problem. These lenses are calibrated to Leica focus register with the aim of a hard infinity stop. They are supposed to hit infinity just as the stars in your night sky snap into perfect focus. We found that whether this happened depended on the individual Sony body and also on any adaptors. Manual focus lenses were not self-calibrating! That’s why the Fotodiox Tough-E mount arrived, why Sony tightened up generally on tolerances after the A7 and A7R, and also why makers like Samyang wisely allow a generous over-run past infinity for manual focus lenses (their 12mm f/2 for E-mount is an example, with plenty of tolerance to handle different bodies).

Now all of Sony’s E and FE mount autofocus lenses have continued to be self-calibrating. They do not have hard infinity stops and many don’t form an image properly at all unless powered up (the power moves groups and elements into position, centres any stabilisation group, and finally performs AF). The start-up routines can also involve opening the lens aperture and closing it, often every time the shutter release is touched for first pressure. This is why expert users often prefer to AF using an assigned custom button, not the shutter release. It can save a wasted quarter-second and greatly speed your response time for action and grab shots. It’s also why manual lenses are popular, as these always shave the response time of the camera body down to an absolute minimum.

The mistake some make is to assume the Sony E-mount needs to be as precise and accurate as a 35mm SLR or DSLR. It does not. It may feel like a precision instrument but in fact it’s not. Where an SLR design requires micron precision in alignment of the lens mount and the focus plane, the principal mirror and the secondary AF mirror, the AF module, and the focusing screen – all at once – the E-mount mirrorless requires only two conditions to be met. The axis of the lens should be centred on the sensor, and should be perpendicular to the sensor (and any focus mechanism used should retain this). If this is achieved, all other degrees of precision can be covered by tolerance. Obviously the IBIS, 5-axis moving sensor, does require considerable engineering excellence to do what it does and keep everything right. But unlike the old DSLRs, it will never need you to adjust hidden screws just to get the focus working properly.

The IBIS question

Sator suggests that with such a small throat aperture, the 24 x 36mm stabilised sensor really can’t do its job. We all saw the first demonstrations of AS, or SSS, or SSI or whatever we call it – the sensor apparently gyrating over many millimetres. Those who bought the original Sony A100 and 16-80mm CZ lens also found that sometimes the sensor would be a little more off-centre for the shot and one corner would be sharply vignetted. Well, you might expect that from the A7RII with certain lenses but in fact I’ve never observed it.

The IBIS never allows the sensor to sit off-axis. It will constantly correct for your wavering hold, but always return to a centred position. It’s not trying to dive 5mm past the shadow of the lens throat or outside your lens image circle, even if it can do so in theory. The real stabilisation corrections made are within a millimetre or two, and even that is a considerable blur when there are over 200 pixels in one millimetre of travel! Consider what a 200 to 400 pixel blur looks like. What IBIS is doing often corrects shake producing blur in the region of 2 to 20 pixels.

So, the reply to the apparently valid point that the whole sensor size, stabilisation movement, lens throat size, and lens image circle combine to make Steady Shot Inside a guaranteed failure can only be this: it works. It’s like a bicycle – look at it, think about it, and it’s not promising… but in practice it works very well. It also works, however its firmware interfaces with lenses, to use OSS optically stabilised Sony lenses very successfully.

Conclusion

The Leica screw system was probably designed with its 39mm lens thread much smaller than the diagonal of the film gate because it was originally made for an 18 x 24mm ‘single frame’ (later called half-frame) format. When a fixed lens was replaced with the screw mount, the inherent problem of having this smaller than the film diagonal was missed. That gave later generations the vignetting Leica Visoflex and the limited range and performance of all lenses over 135mm focal length!

To some extent Sony has done the same thing and simple large aperture long lenses might in theory vignette. In practice they don’t. The limitations are nothing like the Leica or Contax rangefinder mounts were in the past. The argument against full frame mirrorless, or the specific design of the Sony FE/A7 series, ignores many things including simple points like volumetric heft (looks very different from overhead views of the camera footprint) and multi-body kits. I use A7RII, A7 and A6000 and all three bodies together barely take up the baggage space of a single pro DSLR.

So, just relax. The Petapixel article was not a very carefully constructed one or a balanced argument. You’re going to find many different form factors of digital camera in future. The Sony full frame mirrorless system is just one. Because Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Nikon, Pentax, Samsung and Canon have all made design decisions for their mirrorless offerings which rule out full frame it’s not going to have ‘competition’ right now, and all users of other systems will find reasons why it doesn’t work for them – or take the plunge.

David Kilpatrick

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Sony’s Master plan – new 85, 24-70, 70-200 and more

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On Tuesday, February 2nd 2016, Sony UK held a press event to which I was invited. Well, I’m in a different country and about 400 miles from their Weybridge offices, so as usual my trusted English office editor at large (and son) Richard made the still substantial journey from Leicester. The result was a completely wasted day, his time and our company’s money, looking at a mixed bag of TVs, camcorders, headphones and all the Alpha and RX gear we already had seen long before.

Then on February 3rd, mid-afternoon, the same PR agency which had extended this generous invitation to come and gather ZERO editorial content for our magazines announced the new G-Master series 24-70mm f/2.8 FE, 70-200mm f/2.8 FE and 85mm f/1.4 FE, 1.4X and2X extenders, and upgraded A6000 successor A6300.

I was attending an excellent event with Graphistudio on the road in Edinburgh (they do try to cover the whole of our surprisingly large and still united kingdom) and returned to see the news. Talk about mixed emotions! I was furious that they should cost me a very real £300 or so (that’s what it costs, whether I do it, or Richard, or a hired freelance) to cover yet another of their red herring events just 24 hours before a major announcement like this. We get nothing free from Sony, they don’t advertise in our magazines, and unlike Minolta they don’t offer pre-launch access to pre-production samples.

And that’s why I should not even be writing this. In the past, I would never – as a responsible journalist and technical editor – have made any comment on equipment I had not been allowed to handle and preferably use if only for an hour or two. But these days a thousand bloggers try to drive traffic to their sites by doing exactly that.

Here are my thoughts, anyway.

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a6300_N_wSEL1670Z_fronta6300_N_reara6300_N_lefttside   Click to open full size official images!

The A6300

It’s 24 megapixels like the A6000 and does claim a slightly faster and wider zone AF. But the A6000 is already close to perfect and I normally shoot with centre point focus, not any of the wide zone modes. I really don’t want the collar on a dog sharp and its face out of focus just because the collar is the more contrasty target which the wide area focus finds first. It’s also twice as much as I paid for my A6000, which happens to have been selling for a market-beating price. I have a great set of lenses – 10-18mm, 16-50mm, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 55-210mm. All except the 10-18mm cost about half the official retail because Sony did some great deals. Basically anyone like me who has invested in a decent A6000 (or NEX-6, even) kit and already own an A7S, SII, or RII can take the A6300 or leave it. In fact my now-outdated RX10 and RX100 MkIII do pretty neat silent shooting, one of the main upgrades over the A6000.

If you need the very fast (120fps) refresh of the new EVF, 4K video and the improved audio functions (whether using jack plug mic or the MFAccessory shoe mic choices) then it’s easy – it will cost you less to get these than any other comparable route. Even the RX10 MkII no longer looks so attractive. As others have commented, it’s partly a matter of waiting for the body price to fall by the end of the year. In the meantime my A7RII actually does all the movie stuff I need (its APS-C 4K is superior to its full frame, and makes full use of line-up of lenses above).

However, if they manage to lend me a test sample and the new sensor turns out to kill the already wonderful noise/ISO ratio of the 6000 I could be won over early at a high price. Had this been a 36 megapixel body I would be thinking very differently, and perhaps even considering a switch from full frame to APS-C.

The 24-70mm f/2.8  and 70-200mm f/2.8 G-Master FE

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With a 77mm thread and an overall size not far removed from the A-mount equivalents, the weatherproofing and generally improved design of the AF system will win buyers. The longer lens has the 0.96m close focus I’ve been campaigning for now for several years, and it’s disarmingly simple. If you study lenses, you’ll have realised that SSM, stepper or linear motor type AF (silent, no gears) has caused the increased and restrictive focus distances I’ve covered in Cameracraft and elsewhere. It has just been unable to provide enough movement. As an example, compare the old screw-drive 28-75mm Konica Minolta with the ‘identical’ Sony 28-75mm SAM. The 24-70mm f/2.8 A-mount models are actually amongst the better in this respect, managing the magic quarter life-size to important for many subjects. The 24-70mm f/4 FE is not as good though you would have though it easier to make close focusing with a simpler, slower lens – only 0.20X. At least the 24-70mm f/2.8 FE matches up to its A-mount equivalent.

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In these new fast FE zooms Sony has improved performance by using more accurate asphericals, designated as XA (extra aspherical, presumably meaning a curve which was out of reach before). Combined with expensive glass types (low and extra-low dispersion) and complex design (23 elements in 18 groups for the 70-200mm) this enables apochromatic correction although they do not use the term. This removes ugly colour bokeh effects. A ‘floating’ internal focus action for the rear unit gives a wider fully corrected focus range, affecting both the focused distance and the flatness of field. An SSM (ring) motor drives the heavy, larger forward group focusing and a linear (rail) movement shifts the rear assembly but the whole focus action is internal.

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I welcome the 96cm close focus (I trust it applies across the whole zoom range and with AF all the way). This lens achieves 0.25X scale at 96cm. Compare that to the Tamron Di VC USD 70-200mm which can only manage 0.125X, half the subject size, at 1.3m and that’s by switching to manual focus – it forces you back to 1.4m from the subject if you use AF.

It’s also worth comparing size; most new 70-200mm DSLR lenses are around 185mm long, the Sony is 200mm long. But it’s really ‘smaller’ than the original Sony A-mount 70-200mm’s 197mm. That 15mm extra length is almost entirely dead space, a kind of extension to the barrel in order to handle the 18mm register of the E-mount, and also enable the use of the 1.4X and 2X extenders. This extension falls behind a fixed, not removable, rotating tripod mount collar which has a removable foot instead.

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I’m sure that the dual focusing will be fast, with two simultaneous actions combined, and ideal for contrast detection  as well as on-sensor PDAF. My reservations are simple enough though – these are lenses for one-system users, dedicated to mirrorless. There really is no saving over the latest A-mount versions in weight and size, and many photographers (like me) may want to use both A and E mount bodies. I’ve been considering investing in another A99 even though I sold mine. That’s because it is so much more comfortable and complete with my longer lenses than the A7RII with LA-EA4 or 3, both of which I have. If I did so the 24-70mm and 70-200mm A mount would be on the shopping list, and what reason would I have for buying even more expensive new FE versions which could never, ever be used on a A-mount body?

The 85mm f/1.4 G-Master FE

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One guide to acceptable minimum focus distance is the simplest formula imaginable. A lens should be able to focus – at the least – to the same centimetre distance as its millimetre focal length. So, a 50mm lens should manage 50cm, a 100mm lens 1m, a 200mm lens 2m or closer. But that’s the least you need. The ideal is HALF the mm in cm. A 50mm focusing to 25cm is brilliant, a 200mm focusing to 1m is amazing (Vivitar once made one, with a bright f/3 maximum aperture too).

So, for me the 85mm f/1.4 with its substantial 82mm filter thread, 850g weight and focusing down to 80cm (some data tables say 85cm) with 0.12X image scale is just acceptable. A Samyang 85mm won’t go so close and most 85mms don’t break the 1m barrier. But an ideal new, modern 85mm would focus to 50cm. It’s just pretty hard to enable this using SSM or linear AF drive. Even the Carl Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 is the familiar 80cm, 0.126X scale.

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What I actually use right now is an 85mm f/2.8 SAM lens on LA-EA3. It’s not 100% free from CA and colour bokeh issues, but it is exceptionally sharp and it focuses right down to 60cm with 0.20X scale. Above all it is very small and light, and for me that is most of the point of the A7RII and all the A7 series bodies. It focuses perfectly on my LA-EA3. I can use it with A-mount extension tubes or my Meike metal full frame FE extension tubes, but that’s a bit of a crude solution.

Results from the MG 85mm so far seen, disregarding some fairly cheesy portraits, show that its 11-blade iris and apochromatic XA correction do deliver more than you will ever get from an 85mm f/1.2 Canon or a Samyang or a Sony 85mm f/1.4 ZA. The manual 1/3rd stop clicked or click-free aperture ring combined with the absence of magenta-green bokeh shift mean this lens will be massive for vids, whether creative porno or music promo. It should be on the same level as Zeiss/Arri ciné lenses if the claims stand up, and I would not be surprised to see a dedicated cinema version.

It’s a long way from the 85mm SLR lenses of Minolta’s past – six iris blades!

The extenders

Sorry, but most FE and E lenses can never (ever) use a a tele extender. That’s why you have not seen any. It’s also why I use that 85mm SAM… it makes a neat 170mm f/5.6 wth my Teleplus 2X MC-7. Way back, one of my favourite travel outfits including the Minolta XD-7 with 85mm f/2 and a 2X converter, 170mm f/4 was a sweet spot in every respect.

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These two converters can only be used with the new 70-200mm f/2.8 G-Master FE. When you look at how far the converter unit extends into the lens barrel,  you’ll see that this is a combination designed from the start. The rear element of the FE lens is deeply recessed, midway between a typical E-mount design (18mm register) and an A-mount (rear element no closer than 42mm to the sensor).

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The extenders add less length than an A-mount variant would, and the back focus of the FE lens is shorter. But it’s a mid-way compromise. Extenders are easy to make for DSLR back focus register, they are difficult or impossible to design for 18mm register mirrorless like Sony or Fuji unless the host lens is matched exactly to the extender. And the 70-200mm f/4, for example, is not…

The compromise

And, having mentioned compromise, I should explain the great compromise which has made the entire Sony E/FE system much larger than it needs to be.

It’s all down to the A7R 36 megapixel sensor. This sensor, more so than the 24 megapixel full frame, requires a very telecentric lens design. That is, more like a DSLR lens, despite the slim A7 series body. In order to perform acceptably with this sensor, the FE lens range could not be designed to be as small as a rangefinder system equivalent, or to take full advantage of the 18mm mount to sensor distance. Brian Smith, whose images are great (not cheesy portraits) but whose technical info clearly comes via Sony PR, says this: “Mirrorless camera design has allowed Sony’s lens designers to place larger than normal lens element close to the body”. Actually, they don’t, as the design of the extenders will tell you. They’ve used a stronger degree of telephoto construction in the long zoom, allowing a smaller than normal rear element and they have taken measures to move it further away from the body – and this is a general trend. If you want to see what a properly small 85mm f/1.4 looks like try a Carl Zeiss Planar 85mm f/1.4 ZE in Canon mount – 72mm filters not 82mm, 570g versus 850g and really solid all-metal manual focus. The mirrorless bodies do provide a zone from around 16mm to 42mm from the sensor surface which can accommodate the rear of the lens, and can’t ever be used on a DSLR. But Sony does not make full use of that and can not do so because of the microlens, filter layer and structural characteristics of the A7R sensor.

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All Sony FE lenses and all CZ independent FE lenses have been designed to work well with the A7R. The 28-70mm kit lens was not, but most owners find it acceptable. They could have made some of the lenses a fair amount smaller and lighter if the A7R had never existed. The A7RII is so tolerant towards short back focus, oblique ray angle imaging, that a whole different range of lenses could be designed for it… but never will be.

The system has to remain compatible with its earlier components, especially the first ‘flagship’ body A7R. And that is going to constrain design and increase costs for ever into the future. In contrast, see the Fujfilm X system. We have yet to find whether the new 24 megapixel Fujifilm sensor disagrees with any older lenses, but all new lenses no matter how fast, small or clever have full compatibility with all the earlier bodies and don’t seem to have any compromises in design.

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Here’s my view, after doing a lot of digging around over the last two days (Sony PR does not supply any of the technical data for the released lenses – all that had to be found, and cross-checked, from Sony corporate and various dealer sites). I have found some interesting historic lenses like the 50mm f/1.5 and 85mm f/1.5 Zeiss Biotar. They are simple and perform poorly by today’s standards but they are very small. I am familiar with many excellent lenses I’ve used in the past like the Minolta MC/D 45mm f/2, the MD 85mm f/2 and of course the ‘beercan’ 70-210mm f/4 AF. I loved my first serious freelancing kit, Pentax Spotmatics with 20mm f/4.5, 35mm f/3.5, 50mm f/1.4 and 105mm f/2.8. I’ve used some good lenses which have been perfect with all A7 series bodies, such as the Voigtlander 21mm f/1.8, the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM, and several rangefinder 35mm f/2 or f/1.4 lenses. All of these have been small and perfectly in keeping with the A7 series mirrorless bodies. I think Sony’s inspiration for new lenses should have come from classic rangefinder and compact pre-digital SLR glass, rather than from the bloated f/2.8 zooms of professional digital SLRs.

In 1999, with a multi-state road trip in the USA to enjoy, I left the SLR kit at home because I was using two Minolta CLE bodies, a 20mm Russar, 28/40/90mm Minolta set and a Leitz Elmar 135mm f/4.5. SLRs in the AF era had started to became big, plastic and clumsy with fairly poor zoom lenses. I opted for the NEX/A/A7 system because I thought we were heading back to light, elegant, unobtrusive little jewels of lenses. Ah well, not so. We’re going to be sold lenses built like a Kardashian ass and learn to live with it!

– David Kilpatrick

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A zoom specification comparison

  • Sony Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II – focuses to 34cm, 0.25X, 77mm filters, 975g
  • Sony Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM – 34cm, 0.25X, 77mm filters, 955g
  • Sony Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 ZA FE SSM OSS – 40cm, 0.20X, 67mm filters, 430g
  • Sony GM 24-70mm f/2.8 FE SSM OSS – 38cm, 0.24X, 82mm filters, 885g
  • Sony G 70-200mm f/2.8 SSM II – focuses to 1.2m, 0.21X, 77mm filters, 188mm long, 1300g
  • Sony G 70-200mm f/2.8 SSM – 1.2m, 0.21X, 77mm filters, 197mm long, 1500g
  • Sony G 70-200mm f/4 FE SSM OSS – 1-1.3m*, 0.13X, 72mm filters, 175mm long, 840g
  • Sony GM 70-200mm f/2.8 FE SSM OSS – 0.96m, 0.25X, 77mm filters, 1480g, 200mm long, 11-blade aperture

*Focus to 1.3m at 200mm, 1m when set to 190mm or shorter focal length. 0.13X at 1m and 190mm.

All the pictures used here have, linked to them, the full sized unwatermarked official Sony PR images except the first image which we have cropped a load of useless white space from – Sony likes useless white space, as the others show. Web and magazine editors hate it and constantly have to crop product shots…

 

 

 

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.

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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
    .SONY DSC
  • 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!
    Canon5DS-6400-web
    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)
    .SONY DSC

    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…

 

 

Low-cost macro for the A7 series

It’s been a while since my last review of Sony products here, and not because I have been inactive. The truth is that I’ve spent so much on Sony kit 24/7 working has been necessary, including a good few reviews and tests of the A7RII and lenses appearing elsewhere. It’s a real issue, I now lose so much value with the lightning-fast depreciation of Sony’s products within a few months of launch that my old tactic of buying, reviewing and selling no longer works. For one thing, no media in the world will readily pay a fee which even matches the amount you might lose on a camera body in the A7 series over its first two months of retail life. Sony have been good enough to lend me a few items for brief periods but you really can’t form any useful opinions on such radical and new hardware on that basis.

However, my A7R II report is shortly on the way, and the extra time spent using the camera and suffering the damage to my credit card does not harm the process. It helps put the gear in context. I’ve resisted the anti-social pricing policies of the UK camera retail environment for some time, even buying one grey import from Panamoz. So it’s appropriate that my first article for a fair while should be intended to help you save money and get great results from any A7 full frame FE mount camera, while also supporting a company whose UK pricing policies are entirely reasonable – Sigma.

The Sigma 60mm f/2.8 ART DN lens

The butterfly above is one example of what this lens can do on uncropped full frame, in this case adding a single 16mm extension tube, which we’ll come to later as the exact type of tube you buy matters a great deal!

The neat, low-cost 60mm f/2.8 is the portrait lens in Sigma’s Art DN lens trio for APS-C and MicroFourThirds mirrorless systems. I’ve used the 19mm f/2.8 and 30mm f/2.8 as well, but the 60mm is my favourite. Originally, I tested it on Olympus MFT and the 50cm close focus with their 2X factor made it almost feel like a macro. It’s actually just 1:7.2X scale, but 1:3.6X relative to full frame on that smaller sensor. That’s a really good working distance and subject scale.

I was curious to see how much of the full frame the 60mm would cover. All these Sigma lenses are just £129.99-£139.99 retail at most UK dealers right now. They are beautifully designed and made, very light, use 46mm filters and have advanced optical design giving high contrast and first-class full aperture sharpness. Well, the answer is easy enough; you’ll get more than APS-C, with a 24 x 24mm square format crop working well, but not anything like full frame at any aperture from the 60mm.

This is the closest focus of the Sigma ART DN 60mm on the A7R II, uncropped.

Sigma call it a telephoto, with its rear nodal point much closer than 60mm to the focal plane. But its design signalled it would probably perform well as a macro lens too.

Meike extension tubes

So, we add extension tubes between the A7-series body and the lens. There’s one prominent make, Meike, and a couple of years ago I bought their very low-cost fully electronically coupled plastic 10 and 16mm twin tube set. 26mm of extension is not much. It won’t even make the E-mount 35mm f/1.8 focus to 1:1, and does even less with a 60mm. However, what it does is worthwhile combined with the lens’s own focusing range.

 

I found my plastic Meike tubes have a narrow circular throat and cut the image off all round. But, you say, the image was cut off all round already, so what could be done?

When you mount an APS-C lens on tubes, it covers more than APS-C. Put it on tubes adding about 1.4X to its focal length – like using 26mm of tubes on a 60mm lens – and it will cover full frame. You are moving the lens further from the focused plane, and as you do so, its fixed angle field of sharp coverage grows (it more or less follows the inverse square law, as does the effective working aperture of the lens when you use tubes). So a lens made for the NEX sensors, c.16 x 24mm, can cover 24 x 36mm when used on tubes for close-ups. The 60mm on 26mm of tubes would cover 24 x 36mm even with no leeway. Since the lens already has a good image circle, it turns out that it covers 24 x 36mm when used on the 16mm tube alone, and shows just a hint of corner cutoff with the 10mm tube alone. With both, it covers the full frame easily.

This is the result of using a 10mm metal extension tube – not the plastic set. The plastic design cuts off even more than the lens used on its own.

Meike understand this. They have a newer, metal-mount extension tube set costing about twice as much as the original plastic one. To get it, you must search for Meike metal extension tubes – and they are not easy to identify for certain. There’s very little explanation on-line. These tubes have a full width throat with baffles top and bottom, more or less matching the 24 x 36mm frame shape. Some black flock paper is glued in to prevent light reflection at the sides, but none is fitted top and bottom, and this is the main weakness of the design (you can obtain flock paper and fix this yourself).

Twin set, no pearls

Used alone, the metal Meike tubes turn the Sigma 60mm into a very good close-range long standard lens for the A7 series. I found that you can add the plastic tubes next to the lens, not next to the camera, and suffer no cut-off. This combination of four tubes adds 52mm and makes the Sigma 60mm able to do 1:1 with the addition of its own AF range.

You need to understand sensor-based stabilisation before using any manual lens on tubes (which these are equally suitable for, with adaptors). The A7 II series bodies use the focal length and focus distance of the lens as transmitted to the camera to control the Steady Shot Inside function. As far as I can tell from practical tests, the Meike tubes do not transmit any change to the information reaching the CPU, but SS seems to be OK with such relatively minimal extra focus extension.

This shot was taken at 1/15th hand-held with the 16mm tube on the A7R II, ISO 800, 14-bit uncompressed raw, f/8 on the Sigma 60mm lens. There’s no significant corner vignetting with 16mm of extra extension to the lens.

This is a 100% clip from the shot.

When I mount my 50mm Macro SMC Takumar on the A7R II I use either the SSI menu control, or the Lens Compensation App, to tell the SSI system I’m using a lens with an extension in place. It focuses to 1:2 size, and for this I tell the camera I’m using a 75mm lens not a 50mm. If I add 26mm of tubes, it will focus to 1:1 and I need to tell the camera I’m using a 100mm lens. That’s because a 50mm lens extended to 1:1 focus has the same camera shake characteristics as a 100mm lens used on a distant scene. Be careful, as this relationship only holds good for simple lenses (Tessar, Sonnar etc) and not for any zoom lenses, or any macro lens which uses internal focusing. If you mount a Tamron 60mm f/2 macro on your Sony body using a dumb adaptor, just tell the camera it’s got a 60mm attached. The Tamron changes focal length to focus, but the effect for anti-shake purposes is that it remains a 60mm. Its angle of view remains unchanged as you focus, while my 60mm Sigma when used at 1:1 repro covers half the angle of view it does at infinity.

I am not entirely sure whether the Meike tubes work properly with SS Inside, or if the system simply has enough latitude to function with my degree of unsteady hand-holding. Those contacts just seem to make a connection, with no chip to add information. The EXIF data does show the focal length correctly, and the set aperture (which will be a reduced effective aperture at closer range, 26mm of tubes turns 60mm f/2.8 into a working f/4-ish). But the focus distance is shown as whatever the lens focus function chip confirms – a range of 50cm to infinity. That’s obviously incorrect when tubes are added, in contrast to using a dedicated lens like the Sony 90mm f/2.8 FE G OSS Macro, which will show the true focused distance in the viewfinder and also pass correct data to the CPU.

So, a warning – the 60mm plus tubes is not technically perfect but seems to work well enough.

When you use a tripod or flash, or a fast shutter speed, and turn off Steady Shot none of this applies. In practice with shutter speeds fast enough to stop subject action or wind vibration, it all goes well. The Sigma is very sharp even though not designed for macro range work, but that’s typical of this type of lens – even if 8 elements in 6 groups with several low-dispersion elements is not basic.

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Here’s an example with 26mm of tubes plus some lens focus range. The ISO 800 14-bit uncompressed file has allowed some work on the bee’s back which lacked contrast. Click to open a 2048 pixel wide version.

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Here’s an example which clicks through to a full size A7R II AdobeRGB JPEG (no doubt much crunched by WordPress image storage) taken at f/9 on the 16mm tube. If any of my image files have 20mm in the filename it was the 16mm tube – I’m so used to the lengths used by regular SLR mounts! The 60mm has a seven-blade aperture and gives pleasantly neutral defocused quality behind the subject. You can call it bokeh if you want to. Thank you, Scottish weather, for keeping a few flowers in this condition and giving me some sunshine just after the 14-bit uncompressed raw upgrade for the A7R II arrived.

The Metal Meike extension tubes have the same essential benefit over the plastic version with all FE and E mount, and legacy, lenses used of the A7 series full frame bodies. You can use them on the 28-70mm, 24-70mm, 55mm f/1.8, 28mm f/2 and most lenses though they have little use with the 70-200mm and I would not recommend hanging a 24-240mm off a tube.

Footnote July 2017: I now have the 50mm f/2.8 FE Sony macro. It’s a very nice lens, indeed, but the internal focusing means it’s really more like a 40 to 35mm as you get the subject bigger, and you end up just millimetres away. I compared using this lens on 26mm of tubes to focus on a target 7.5cm wide with the lens itself set to infinity (and therefore, 50mm). Working distance from the lens rim to subject – 11cm. Then I took the tubes out, and focused the lens using its own range, on the same target. The clear distance was reduced to 7.5cm. Now you know why you need tubes and probably don’t really need a macro lens.

– David Kilpatrick

If you have found this article useful, you can support Photoclubalpha by using affiliate buying links (we are not sponsored or paid in any other way, except by selling subscriptions to f2 Cameracraft).

Sigma 60mm at B&H

Vello metal mount extension tubes at B&H (similar to Meike)

Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN for Sony E – Silver from Amazon UK, no idea why they have none in black

Neewer metal extension tubes – much better price than Vello! on Amazon

Visit Wex Photographic and search for any items (UK)

Sony A7R II, RX10 II, RX100 IV – making everything else obsolete

(Updated June 15th after press conference)

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The new Sony A7R II is the camera I’ve been waiting for, which everyone has predicted, and which seems to tick every box without having a huge price label on its own. I find the $3,200 (UK coinfirmed £2,600) matches its stated specifications well. Others may disagree, but they’re probably influenced by the price collapse of the original A7R, now occasionally found for under £1k.

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Even so, at $3,200 the A7R II commands a $1,500 premium over the A7 II and much of that must be what you pay the new sensor – which does not seem to be licensed or sold to any other brand. Not even to Nikon, yet. The A7S remains the most expensive model despite the minimal 12 megapixel capture and lack of in-body stabilisation (SS in Sony terms, or IBIS generically).

On Monday June 15th I flew to London to have a look at the A7R II and the new RX10 II (£1,200) and RX100 IV (£850). This was a bit like a motoring journalist going to a car launch and being told, you can sit in the seat, waggle the gearstick but don’t start the engine as no photography was allowed with any of the demonstraton cameras. I was surprised to find it was a European conference, as this normally means journalists from across the Channel have a facility trip to be present, and that seems very extravagant just to look at cameras which can not be tried out. I wish I lived in France not Scotland – it might not have cost me almost £300 to be there, eight miles from Heathrow (but an eight miles which might as well be a fifty Scots miles!).

Don’t expect to get one on June 17th, as B&H’s information and too many bloggers have repeated. We are told by B&H it won’t arrive until August even though pre-orders open on June 17th in the USA. It may be later arriving in some regions. Demand is going to be so high that if you want one, you’ll need to crash into that queue…

But you can snag a Canon EOS 5DS – 50 megapixels – for only $3,699 right now

A7R II – or A7 II R?

In brief, the A7R II consists of an A7 II body with a new 42.4 megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, same Bionz X processor allowing 5fps at full resolution, new 399-point Phase Detection AF on the sensor covering most of the field (up from 117 points), a similar EVF with improved eyepiece giving a genuinely impressive 0.78X instead of 0.71X virtual magnification, the same rearRGBW bright LCD, plus silent shutter and HD 4K movie functions improving on the offering of the A7S. The new shutter mechanism is claimed to have a 500,000 actuation life expectancy which puts it ahead of almost every pro DSLR yet made. The back of the camera body is magnesium, where it’s solid composite plastic in the A7II. And it has, unlike the A7R, five-axis sensor stabilisation which talks to Sony OSS lenses for the best blend of anti-shake methods ever devised.

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The new EVF size, to the eye – compared with the old (A7II, A7R, A7) 0.71X view below (A7R, Sigma 12-24mm at 12mm, Canon EF fit, on Commlite EF-FE adaptor).

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You will read in the specifications and promo blurb that it has a new LCD double the brightness, new tough body and strengthened mount, new shutter release and controls but all these ‘improvements’ are listed by Sony over the A7R and already existed in the A7 II. Instead of making comparisons with the A7 II – which this is really a development from – Sony has listed many advances made relative to the A7R. It is not an A7R II. It’s really an A7 II R.

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The eyepiece surround is much improved, wider and softer still than the A7II which in turn is softer on specs then the earlier models. Eyepoint and position flexibility both improve and there are no unsharp zones at all even if you shift your eye around.

It’s important to understand that many of the improvements already exist in the A7 II partly as a result of criticisms of the original A7R made by objective reviewers, not Sony artisans or staff or sponsored bloggers. You don’t owe this camera to the success of its predecessors or the daily Facebook sermons of awestruck evangelists – you owe its features to corrections made to the shortcomings of the models so far. And to those who have had no vested interest (other than ownership) persuading them to weaken critical appraisal. The further improvements in the A7R II are either extremely technical – serious core improvements in the sensor and focusing – or minor refinements and carries-over from the A7II.

42.4 versus 36 point anything

If you really think 42.4 megapixels is going to take you to realms far beyond your 36 megapixel sensor, think again. It is the same step up as from 18 megapixels to 21 megapixels, a move Canon made without absolutely transforming the images created, or about the same as from 10mp to 12mp. There’s one big difference – it does not make the jump to any larger common print or repro size. Remember going from 6 to 8? That was from sub-full-page to a decent full page resolution, for US or A-size documents at a touch under 300dpi. 24 megapixels took us to a really sharp A2, 36 megapixels takes us to a acceptable A1, and all that 42 does is to make a slightly better A1 but not 300dpi.

icelight-cherries-36mpsize

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Above you can see the actual, real size difference (in proportion) between a 36 megapixel shot and a 42 megapixel shot. If you click on the bigger version, it will take you to my pBase page with a full A7R II sized version of this A7R shot. Zeiss? No – a 45 year old Asahi Pentax Super-Multi-Coated Macro Takumar 50mm f/4, used at f/11, and a 30 second exposure at ISO 50 lit using the ICE Light 2 moved round the subject in horseshoe shaped path for 15 seconds, laid flat, and then moved under the perspex for the remaining 15.

In practical terms, it’s 7980 x 5320 pixels (or very close – Sony has been extremely coy about releasing full specifications, even at the conference I could not find this out) versus 7360 x 4912 for the A7R. In perspective, make a big print from the A7R and it’s 24.5 inches long at optimum resolution; use the A7R II and you get one inch extra each end on the long side, 2/3rds of a inch extra top and bottom. The A7R makes a 16.3 x 24.5 inch print to perfection; the A7R II makes a 17.7 x 26.6 inch print.

Anything smaller than A4 printed, it’s got no great advantage over the 12 megapixel A7S – but you are getting close to enabling a 2X crop (one quarter of the frame) to look as good as the A7S full frame. Sony showed A3 prints. They could, honestly, all have been shot on the Sony A100 from 2006 and no-one would have been any the wiser. One enlarged section was the only real test of the camera. I’m sure the model’s dermatologist loves it.

a7RII-prints

Where it does count most is when using crop frame mode. In APS-C crop mode, the A7R II file is large enough for a 300dpi double page fine art magazine spread, just under 18 megapixels. I’d say that where 42.4mp is not a critical size, 18mp actually is. You can get away with 16, and for Nikon, Panasonic, and Olympus this had been an important baseline. Cropped frame FF from Sony now rises above that baseline instead of sitting just below it.

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What I’d like to see would be 1:1, 4:3, 5:4 ratios implemented with the EVF and LCD screens cropped to match – and ideally the raw files reduced in size the same way. A square 1:1 would be 28 megapixels and that crop allows so many APS-C lenses (like the Zeiss Touit 12mm) to be used without vignetting or limits of coverage distortion issues. The example above is from the A7R and it’s a square crop 24 x 24mm from a frame taken with the 10-18mm f/4 Sony OSS, at 11mm; the lens would have allowed a 4:5 crop equally well.

Important edit: just read another ‘Sony artisan’ blog post asking the (redundant) question as to whether Sony lenses will be up to this new resolution. Anyone who owns an A6000, NEX-7, or A77 is already shooting at well above this resolution (full frame will need to match the Canon 5DS 50 megapixels to beat them). The resolution of the A7R II is slightly lower than that of the base level entry A3000. Don’t panic. Plenty of old legacy lenses will match it well, let alone any new Sony FE and A-mount designs.

I checked out the 20mm f/2.8 SEL lens with the new version 2 wide and fisheye black converters on full frame at the Sony event. Really, this lens comes so close to doing a good full frame and the converters even leave much of the area intact for a much bigger crop than APS-C.

20mm-on-FF  20mm-wide-FF  20mm-fisheye-FF

And that’s all without removing rear baffles or doctoring the built-in lens hoods of the converters!

Detailed points

When we get a chance to use the camera, the following points will be of interest:

Has the mount been upgraded again? It still has only four attachment screws, compared to Fujfilm X system’s six screws (and the A-mount uses six too). My two camera bodies and two changes of mount on the A7R, to Tough E mount and then 2nd generation Tough E mount, all produce unpredictable degrees of slop, smoothness or jam-on tightness from various adaptors showing that no matter what, tolerances are broad. Comment: can’t tell from changing lenses at the event, it feels much the same as the A7 II.

Has the Memory position, 1 and 2 on the mode dial, been improved to remember MORE of the important settings – notable, Setting Effect ON and OFF, for saving a studio flash preset mode with the EVF/LCD setting effect disabled? Answer: No.

Is the hot shoe part of the Multi Function Accessory Shoe hampered by paint, or tolerances in fit, or does it readily accept all standard ISO hot shoe simple flash devices and triggers? Looks clear.

Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM on Focus EF-FE adaptor (also works perfectly with Commlite) on A7R. The 40mm f/2.8, and Sigma 12-24mm in EF mount work well on my A7R with these two sub-Metabones price adaptors. At the press event we found the 85mm just didn’t focus at all with any adaptor on any of the pre-production A7R II bodies, but the 40mm was fine.

Will the promised ability to use PD-on-sensor AF with Canon and other lenses rely on Metabones as the only adaptor, or is it generic? The microlenses on a backside illuminated sensor have a large effective aperture than traditional design, and this means the PD-lenses (a special variant of the microlenses used on sensel pairs) will be similarly improved. This may make some difference, but it’s actually the focus motor control via lens to body data communication which will enable fast and sure operation with Sony SSM on LA-EA3, Canon USM on EF-adaptor, and so on. Remember, this does not make screw drive or SAM, or micromotor Canon AF pre-USM lenses, function any better. It will only apply to ultrasonic, piezo, linear motor and similar finely controllable AF mechanisms with close to zero play and accurate (8 contacts, not 5) distance and ‘state’ reporting. Note, too, that Sony’s revised lenses (SSM II) are not just optical and weatherproofing reworks – the new SSM is designed to work with contrast detection, as found on the A7R, much better.

Comment: we found that the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USMdidn’t work on any adaptor on the A7R II, while the 40mm f/2.8 activated the PDAF points and focused very rapidly, and a 24mm f/2.8 USMf/2.8 focused fast – and that various different demo A7R II bodies responded differently and one malfunctioned a lot of the time even with Metabones. Sony said this was known and the final retail stock should at least work OK with Metabones IV and probable firmware updates, but other cheaper adaptors will not be tested.

The new camera’s mode dial has a central lock button, and a slightly lighter click action without risk of being turned by mistake. We’d had liked to have seen a lock on the +/- EV compensation dial too, but this just has slightly strengthened clicks.

Wish list

The same small battery has been used yet again despite the II body design having what looks like enough room for a full sized Alpha battery (see below – carefully positioned batteries with A7 II body). Let’s hope for upgraded batteries from Sony.

Please, Sony, you provided a GPS pinout in the new shoe – you have never rolled out a GPS module or firmware. It’s three years now and no news. Hell, I nearly bought a brand new boxed A99 at Dixons Heathrow Terminal 2 shop for £1075 inc VAT maanger’s special, I miss GPS so much!

Please let the Lens Data entered into the menu for SS of manual lenses, without data communication, be embedded into EXIF so if I enter 50mm, my files say so. And ideally, please make it possible to enter the focused distance (this would improve stabilisation) and the aperture in use (just to complete the EXIF data).

Sony pointed out that the latest version of the lens correction App will record the focal length and aperture as you enter them, in EXIF. It has its own SS on/off setting and automatically recognises whatever focal length you have entered. You can name and recall each different lens, and if for example you normally use your 24mm f/3.5 Samyang shift lens at f/16 for architecture, you can enter f/16 as the lens’s aperture and that will be corrected embedded in your EXIF. But to get this you must run the app, not just shoot with a manually set focal length for SS.

Please change the Memory 1 and 2 registers to save and recall ALL the camera settings and not just those in the first bank of the menu system (but see the vital point above about Setting Effect On/Off). Until I test the camera, no more to say – but Sony does not usually keep quiet about changes, and has not mentioned this aspect.

The existing rear screen – the II design, left, improves on the original A7R but this is still a basic, amateur level screen to be working with and a fully articulated design would be better.

Though you’ve missed the boat with this camera, the crudely hinged and angled rear screen needs to be replaced with a fully articulated screen that can be reversed to the camera for protection and to prevent distracting light when working in the dark.

Out of the loop

I’ve been out of reviewing new Sony gear for some time, as it has not proved possible to get hold of it early enough or for long enough to give any meaningful assessment which Joe Photographer anywhere in the world couldn’t appear to do themselves. For six or seven years I have bought and sold new Alpha gear to fill the gaps between the occasional availability of review kit, but recently that has become so expensive it exceeds any margins available from the three magazines I publish, or any fees I can obtain from other media. Like politicians, people who write about gear either need an independent mind or independent means – without one of these, you’re always in someone’s corporate pocket or feeding from crumbs under the main table.

The result, as we see all the time, is that many early users or reviewers of Sony kit are no longer all that independent and much of the first wave of information now comes through the channel of ‘artisans’ (as it does with ‘ambassadors’ for all makes). And we see plenty of others who are clearly of independent means, whose main purpose in life is to be the first to post pictures taken with new item X regardless of the cost.

So maybe I don’t need to push to get hold of an A7R II for the too-short two week period of any review loan, after a six month wait while other consumer-orientated magazines and blogs take priority – or indeed rush to buy one.

But… like the RX10 which I use all the time… like the A6000 kit which is co affordable and compact it’s essential… like the RX100 MkIII which goes where even the RX10 is not welcome… like my A7 II with stabilisation which has transformed a box of assorted lenses into a solid outfit… this one’s possibly something to buy because I actually need it and will use it.

I may not even cosy anything as it will make both the A7R and A7II redundant, because it does both jobs and also covers the A7S I did manage to borrow but never bought. And it does more.

So, thinking whether or not to bother with this upgrade is a bit irrelevant. Even if it was still ‘just’ 36mp the other improvements would mean it still replaced the need for a handful of A7 models, all in one.

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Small miracles

My one doubt is that the A7R II may be beaten in practical terms by the RX10 II. Please note that so many incorrect snippets of info have gone around about the ‘stacked’ sensor design, I thought it referred to RGB stacking. It does not, the sensor is a conventional Bayer pattern, and what is stacked is the electronic substructure. This does not affect the top side of the sensor and the performance in image quality should be similar to the existing models. What it does is greatly speed data transfer and enables over 1000 (lower resolution) frames per second to be clocked through from photon received to movie frame recorded.

The RX10 and 100 new versions offer ridiculous levels of high speed slow motion capture, clean 4K video and other technical benefits which come with a very small chance of dust on sensor, unlike the A7R II which is almost guaranteed to be a dust devil. Why do I say that? Because a backside illuminated sensor renders dust on its cover glass even more sharply than a conventional one! We know the RX models are not dustproof and if you are unlucky enough to get a spot on the sensor it’s a service visit to get it removed, but in my experience with five or them so far I have never had a single dust spot.

sonyjune1531

So what? Just retouch? Not when making movies! Admittedly most movie makers will open up the lenses to max or only a stop down on these 1″ sensor cameras, and would open up lenses just the same on the A7R II and never see dust even if it was there. But what about the time you want that ‘American take’ – f/22 at 20mm? Traditionally they were taken in dusty settings for the spaghetti westerns!

All I can say is that the RX10 has come very close indeed to removing the need for any other camera and it’s been a pleasure to work with the raw files. The RX10 MkII might be so much better that I forget about DSLRs or mirrorless systems and just get on with capturing great images. Or then again…

– David Kilpatrick

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