Plugged In: Quality not all smoke and moving mirrors

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Although bulky, moving-mirror SLR cameras still dominate the American market for serious cameras, that dominance is unlikely to endure. Mirrorless compact-system cameras will likely succeed older SLR designs, a trend that’s well underway in other technically sophisticated countries.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be comparing mirrorless CSCs from all major vendors. We’ll start with Sony.
As its consumer electronics business weakened a few years ago, Sony announced that digital photography would become a pillar of its revamped business model. Since then, a re-energized Sony has marketed many innovative, or at least different, cameras. Sony makes some of the best imaging sensors, an obvious benefit to the company’s camera division.

Some Sony digital cameras, such as its fixed-mirror models, achieved no technical or market breakthroughs. Other Sony designs, such as its mirrorless CSC products, are an important presence in the upper-tier digital camera market.

Until recently, most Sony CSC products used an APS-C size sensor, which has roughly half the area as the “full-frame” sensors found in more expensive, prograde cameras. Modern APS-C sensors, though, can produce better photographs than even the full-frame cameras made only a few years ago, so there’s now little practical difference between full-frame and APS-C cameras under routine circumstances. Sony, though, has placed convincing bets on both full-frame and APS-C interchangeable-lens camera lines, as well as making even more compact cameras using smaller, but still relatively large, “1-inch” sensors.

Sony’s new, full-frame A7 series is quite compact, nearly as small as CSC cameras using Micro Four-Thirds sensors with only one-fourth the imaging area. The A7’s extra sensor area results in better low-light imaging performance.

Illustration 1

Illustration 1 shows the front view of a current production Canon 5D Mark III full-frame camera on the left and, in the middle, Sony’s A7 series, whose critical imaging sensor is just as large as that in the Canon 5D. Even though the A7 is much smaller than Canon’s 5D Mark III, the A7’s more modern sensor actually produces better image quality than the 5D Mark III by most objective measurements. For consistent comparison, a top-end Olympus Micro Four-Thirds camera, the E-P5, is shown on the right.

Illustration 2

Illustration 2

The size difference between cameras that produce comparably good photos under most routine circumstances becomes even more evident in Illustration 2 (available online at http://www.redoubtreporter.wordpress.com), showing a top view of the same cameras with comparable slightly wide-angle lenses attached.

Sony’s A7 series now includes three different full-frame models, each filling a particular niche while using the same lenses and accessories. The basic A7 uses a 24-megapixel sensor while the A7R is built around the same high-resolution, 36-megapixel sensor found in Nikon’s much larger D800E. More recently, Sony surprised the market by releasing the A7S, a 12-megapixel model optimized to take photos in extremely low-light conditions.

The A7 series is now nicely rounded out with highly capable compact camera bodies that use the same lenses and accessories yet cover virtually all likely situations facing professional and serious photographers. However, these are first-generation cameras with some rough edges. Although I find the A7 concept very appealing, it’s probably best to wait for improved second versions.

As with Sony’s smaller CSC products, the currently limited choice of quality optics designed specifically for the A7 series also dampens enthusiasm. Micro Four-Thirds and Fujifilm X-series camera systems retain an important advantage in that regard.

With full-frame cameras of the A7’s quality, single-magnification prime lenses are preferred, not only for generally superior optical quality but also for their typically smaller size and brighter maximum aperture. The A7 cameras use an entirely new “FE,” for which there are currently a grand total of two prime lenses, a 35-mm f/2.8 moderate wide-angle lens and a 55-mm f/1.8 normal lens. These two prime lenses have generally received fairly good but not stellar reviews and are rather expensive.

The A7s FE 24- to 70-mm Zeiss zoom lens ($1,196) has received mixed reviews for image quality, with some reviewers suggesting that the A7 series needs a better standard zoom lens, especially given its relatively high retail price. In contrast, Sony’s FE 70- to 200-mm telephoto zoom seems a favorite of serious users despite its seriously high $1,498 selling price.

Sony’s somewhat smaller and less expensive APS-C cameras probably make more sense for most of us. Among the most current models, the a6000 stands out for excellent image quality, compact but solid construction, an eye-level electronic viewfinder, and a typical selling price hovering around $800. Originally branded as the NEX produce line, these APS-C cameras are refined, fourth-generation models that have no significant rough edges. As a lower-cost alternative, the a5000 does well, but the a6000 is noticeably better at a slightly higher price.

Illustration 3

Illustration 3

Illustration 3 (available online) shows a front view of Sony’s a6000 on the left, Sony’s comparably priced RX100 III compact camera (which uses a fixed zoom lens and a 1-inch sensor) in the middle, and Olympus’ E-P5 again on the right for consistent size comparison. Illustration 4 (available online) shows a top view of these same cameras with equivalent wide-angle lenses mounted. It’s evident that, even though APS-C camera bodies can be made very small, their lenses add greater bulk.

Illustration 4

Illustration 4

An adequate range of optics are available for these smaller Sony APS-C format E-mount cameras. Sony’s 24-mm ($1,098!), 35-mm ($448) and 50-mm f/1.8 ($298) lenses are all well-regarded. Sony’s 16- to 50-mm ultrawide-angle to moderate telephoto zoom lens is quite adequate but doesn’t break any optical records. Some of the original Sony optics, including first-generation 16-mm and 18- to 55-mm lenses, are less useful.

Sigma’s three DN prime lenses for Sony E-mount cameras are a particularly good value, providing better than expected optical and mechanical quality for very low prices, with the 19-mm wide-angle lens and 30-mm normal lens each selling for $169, and the very sharp 60-mm mild-telephoto lens retailing for a mere $209. As you might expect, these are very popular, and with good reason.
Zeiss currently makes three somewhat overpriced but good “Touit” lenses for Sony E-mount cameras, a 32-mm f/1.8 normal lens ($720), a 50-mm f/2.8 mild-telephoto ($998), and a 12-mm f/2.8 extreme wide-angle ($998).

Third-party Korean lens maker Samyang/Rokinon/Bower makes several manual focus, manual aperture lenses for Sony E-mount cameras. Optically, the Samyang lenses are quite good, especially given their relatively low prices, and are reasonably easy to manually focus with Sony’s electronic focus aids.
Next week, it’s on to Fujifilm, which makes some of the best-regarded CSC cameras now on the market.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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