Sony Thoughts from Paris*
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I spent the entirety of the previous fashion month calendar shooting on the Sony A7Rii camera provided to me by Adorama. As many of you know, I’ve been shooting on Sony digital cameras since I started Lord Ashbury back in 2012, and it in fact was my first serious digital camera. I spent New York Fashion Week getting my bearing around the new camera, London Fashion Week settling in with it, and Milan Fashion Week comparing the uses and aesthetic values between two of the lenses, the Sony 85mm/f.4 G Master and the Carl Zeiss 35mm/f1.4. The burning question when I started the fashion month for me was really if the camera delivered on enough of the goods for me to make the permanent switch from the more robust — and traditionally SLR — A-mount of which, I own two of these cameras. The A7Rii is not a perfect camera by any means, but then again, no digital camera is. What it is though, is the best digital camera in my studio. What follows isn’t really a review of the camera — it’s been out for a while and there are some very good resources on the internet that delve into the ins and outs of the camera in ways that surpass what I’m prepared or interested in discussing. That said, here are the macro impressions that I have in using the A7Rii compared the other frequently used cameras at my disposal:
• With the right lens, the 42MP sensor delivers the most satisfying images not taken on a medium format film camera
• Without a lens, the camera body is super light and portable
• Captures images about as fast as my A99 (which isn’t fast at all, but at least isn’t slower than what I’m used to)
• In natural light situations, take acceptably clean photos up to 4,000 ISO for professional clients and 6,400 for personal, fine art and wedding use. I would say the camera image holds up to about 8,000 ISO at f2.8.
• Even for Sony users not already in the mirrorless system, the A7Rii is not cheap; the camera alone with just one pro grade lens can set you back over $5,000 USD.
• Battery life with a single battery is pretty awful, best to buy a battery grip.
• At least on my camera copy, sometimes operating functions won’t initiate in the middle of active use. This happens particularly with image review and movie record. And yes, I know maybe the camera is writing to the card and needs a second; I know.
• With the battery grip and a pro grade lens attached, the camera isn’t that much lighter than a traditionally sized camera with a lateral-quality setup.
The two biggest criticisms I hear about the camera from professional shooters is that the camera’s paltry battery life makes real life/real job situations aggravating because a shooter needs to either frequently replace batteries or carry a bunch of batteries to ensure getting through the day , and that the camera’s burst mode (frames per second or fps) isn’t fast enough to compete with traditional professional cameras.
I’m going to address the issue of the battery first. In the past 2 months I’ve spent a combined 30 days and about 220 hours using the camera. On some days, I’ve shot up to 12 hours in the day, but for most shooting days, between 4-8 hours and 600-1200 images was pretty typical. For the A7Rii I own four batteries; I keep two in the battery grip at all times and keep two charged. Of the 30 days of shooting, there were probably 7 days where I was on a single studio set and brought chargers along with me just in case, meaning the other 25 days, no charger. After about the first week back in February, I was confident enough to go out with just the two in the grip on most days with the expectation that I would shoot until both batteries were dead. I believe I needed to swap out batteries on just two occasions; both with Carolina Herrera on all-day sets. On a heavy day, 1200 images cost me a full battery and about 70% of the second battery (in the grip; I think perhaps this matters). You could say that’s awful battery life … but I would say, as long as I could get through a moderately heavy day on one charge, that is actually my baseline for being just good enough. Without the grip, the batteries may perform worse, and this is my hunch though I’ve never tested it. Two batteries in the grip though will get 90% of photographers through a day with the right settings configurations. Actually, by the time I got to Paris, I stopped carrying batteries 3 and 4 in my bag altogether.
Before I get into the speed of the camera, I know you came for the photos, so here’s some photos from Paris:
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When it comes to taking portraits, the A7Rii is simply a beast of a camera. I never found myself having to do much to retouch the photos (though I always put a little Simbarashe shine on them), and for walk-around situations I don’t have any complaints whatsoever. There’s been a lot said about the 6fps though, and if you’re hesitant to go mirrorless for this reason, I suppose the question I would ask you is whether or not you shoot professional sports or wildlife in motion. If the answer is yes, this probably isn’t the system for you. Thing is, that’s such a niche group of photographers; for them speed is the thing that matters above just about every other factor on a digital camera. Is the mirrorless format slow? Well, yeah … but is it slow for you? Probably not!
Let me first make one important distinction: in talking about speed in this context, we’re not referring to the shutter speed. The shutter actually tops out at 1/8000th of a second, meaning that if your aim is right, you can freeze-frame the fastest bird in pinpoint detail. Frames per second (or fps) is the camera’s ability to capture stop motion in successive images (think of a flip book, if you will). Higher fps means that in a given second a camera will theoretically produce a certain number of images. So while the 1/8000 shutter speed is fast enough to catch the bird in flight, if say, you wanted a particular motion of that bird captured, a camera with a higher fps will give you a greater chance of capturing that specific instance. TRUST ME, this doesn’t matter to the average shooter, and it doesn’t matter to most advanced shooters. In terms of fps, the camera is fast enough to catch people running or walking; it’s certainly fast enough to catch models walking down the runway — which I’ve covered enough in previous posts! I would say, how much faster do you need it to be? The shutter and autofocus are both ridiculously fast, the fps is ‘adequate’. You could actually take the camera to a sporting event and get some really nice shots, and that’s something important to remember when it comes to photography: that moment is great when you catch it, but if you’re good, the image you didn’t capture will never exist, and if it never exists, who cares? W Magazine never, ever came back to me about runway images and said, “Do you have a photo where the model’s hair caught the air just a little more” or “…where the jacket was just a little bit more out?” That stuff all matters to people who sit around comparing cameras like dream cars. Of much greater importance, the A7Rii has a special “eye-focus” mode where it will focus on a person’s eyes rather than say, their nose. In good light situations, the camera has perhaps the most accurate autofocus capability on the market. I would imagine that getting the subject right is probably more important than the micro-nuance of what frame to select.
And this actually yields a sneaky nice benefit for pro shooters, believe it or not. Remember how I mentioned that a typical shooting day for me is somewhere between 600-1200 images? Many of my colleagues on the street are taking 2500-5000 images in a day — because their cameras have higher fps! On paper, shooting burst with a high fps seems like a good idea because you’re closer to an infinite number of frames to choose from. But the reality is, when you shoot this way, you actually have closer to an infinite number of frames to choose from! Let’s say you’re out shooting one day for 8 hours and a client wants photos due that night. Would you rather have to sort through 800 images or 3000? Plus, where are you going to put 3000 images? More money spent on memory cards, external hard drives … for thousands and thousands of photos you’ll never, ever use. It’s waste, and photographers are just throwing away money. So … lower fps means less frames collected, means less sorting time for you and less storage space required. Besides, have you ever looked at my images and thought to yourself, if only Simbarashe had a faster camera…. Come on, now.
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While my verdict seems fairly obvious by this point, I’d like to reiterate my love for this camera. I find the A7Rii as capable as my more traditionally sized pro cameras when put under extended heavy use. This camera is not really optimal for pro sports shooters, though in the hands of a really capable photographer it could produce the most magnificent images in this environment. Runway photographers who shoot 10 shows and hundreds of images per show every day for months on end really need something more robust because their shutters literally don’t stop all day. That leaves the 99 % of the rest of us, and there’s little the mirrorless system can’t do that those other cameras can. In regards of the Sony mirrorless specifically, some of their pro lenses are the absolute best glass on the market, period, especially with the 24-70mm/f2.8 (which I did not test) and the 85mm/f1.4 G Master, both in a class of their own.
But at the end of the day, really, everything that you read about this or any other camera system makes little difference. In 2017, all of the major camera manufacturers make tremendous cameras and they’re all really, really good. What really matters are the images themselves, so if you’ve been reading through this series wondering if this camera system is right for you, the question is pretty simple: what do you think about actual photos?
Until next time.
* Thanks again to Adorama and Sony. It should be mentioned that I was under no obligation to write favourably about the A7Rii or related lenses and equipment, nor am I under any obligation to do business with either of these companies in the future. Though the camera was gifted, I was not paid or contractually obligated to write these series of posts covering the fashion calendar. The provided links to Adorama and the Sony equipment are not affiliate linked in any of the posts: I turned down an offer to collect commission on purchases from the links as I wanted to ensure that there was no conflict of interest on anything I’ve written over the past several weeks. In full disclosure, my love and loyalty to Sony cameras runs 5 years deep on this site — for digital photography work it continues to be my system of choice.