I’ve long been a Canon guy who only shot with “L” series glass, how ever i’ve noticed over the past few years that I have been leaving my big 5D MKII and lenses at home when I head out for day trips. The result from this is obviously that I’ve been taking less photos and ending up with more mediocre iPhone shots, simply because it’s the only camera I had on hand when I came across something interesting.
I used to carry my DSLR with me everywhere, lugging several kilo’s of glass and equipment with me and often not even taking a single shot but just being prepared incase I saw something worth shooting.
I remember carrying my Canon body with 24-105, 16-35MKII, 50mm 1.4, flash gun and more around my neck, every day, in South East Asia for almost 5 months on a big trip in 2011. I’m still amazed I was never robbed.
That’s a whole lot of extra weight to throw in a shoulder bag and so I find myself simply not taking my camera out lately, which is a bit depressing really. I’ve missed some great shots and had to fall back to my iPhone, which in most cases just doesn’t cut it.
This has recently got me thinking, is it possible to part with my beloved Canon gear? Surely not.
I should point out that I am primarily a street / urban photographer. I shoot everything hand held and i’m usually just wandering around the streets with a camera by my side.
Last September I purchased an Olympus OMD EM10, Panasonic 20mm II f/1.7 and the famous Olympus 12-40 f/2.8 PRO in hope that this might inspire me to take my camera out with me more often.
It worked great and i’ve been getting some fantastic images out of this little combo.
If you primarily shoot JPG and don’t spend a lot of time in post processing, the Olympus is a brilliant camera. The sharpening and saturation that can be applied in camera with Olympus is spot on in my opinion. Punchy, plenty of contrast, great colors and razor sharp JPGs.
Photos shot on Olympus OMD-EM10 with various lenses
I love this little camera, it’s great value for money although I haven’t quite felt like the smaller micro 4/3 sensor could fully replace my Canons full frame. There’s just a different feel about it, not so much in a bad way, I kind of missed the big creamy photos you get from a 35mm sensor.
That’s like paying thousands of dollars for a painting and only ever looking at it from across the room
Zooming in at 100% on photos from the little micro four thirds sensor often left me feeling a little underwhelmed, especially if I needed to do any serious amount of post processing, cropping or if I happened to be shooting in less than great light.
People often refer to this as “pixel peeping” and for the most part, I don’t think this it’s a bad thing. That’s like paying thousands of dollars for a painting and only ever looking at it from across the room.
I do tend to agree with people regarding pixel peeping though, it shouldn’t be the main factor that you base decisions on as there are many other factors that contribute to a great photo other than sharpness or pixel perfection.
I think it’s helpful to understand what your images look like at the pixel level, It can help you make better decisions about camera settings, post processing, noise reduction, sharpening etc. Just don’t over analyze it.
Anyway, in my quest to find a replacement for my DSLR I began looking elsewhere. This time it lead me to the Sony A7 series cameras. I had previously disregarded these cameras as not being up to scratch with Canon or Nikon. The Cyber shot cameras I had used in the past always over saturated images and image quality never blew me away (it had been about 6 years since I used one last) however I had been reading good things about Sony’s new cameras and the thought of a full frame sensor inside this little body blew my mind a little.
I had to see what the fuss was about.
I managed to find an unused A7II on Craigslist from a guy who was given one for a gift and didn’t want it. A lucky find considering the A7II was only 2 months old at that time.
I have to say, this is the first time I have ever rushed into a large camera purchase like this, not to mention buying into a system that will see thousands of my dollars over time with additional lens purchases without really doing my research. Usually i’ll read up on these things for weeks before making a decision but in this case I did about a days worth of reading and decided. I just wanted one, so I bought one and crossed my fingers.
The body felt good, it had some weight to it but not so much that it feels bulky. The grip was something I had missed when trying out the Olympus, the A7II had a good grip for the size of the camera. The kit lens felt cheap but it was very light and it actually took a pretty good photo.
The first thing you notice when you take the lens off an A7 is the gigantic sensor right there staring back at you, no mirror obstructing it like in a DSLR. It still freaks me out a little bit and I’m ultra paranoid about leaving the body open with the sensor so exposed.
Looking inside the Olympus OMD-EM10 and then looking inside the Sony A7II you can really get a sense for just how much bigger these full frame sensors are.
I had been spoilt by the autofocus performance on my DSLR and also on the Olympus. Focusing on the OMD with the 12-40 f/2.8 PRO is like lightning.
The A7 had some big shoes to fill there and I’m happy to say it was good enough that It didn’t concern me. I had read people complaining about the autofocus speed and I was a little worried although having used it now, I’m quite happy with it. It doesn’t match a DSLR or the OMD in speed, but I’m not missing shots because of it.
After having a few weeks to explore the camera and discovering how amazing “focus peaking” and “focus magnification” was, It wasn’t long before I discovered the joys of legacy lenses. I bought a $15 Minolta adapter and a Minolta Rokkor-X 50mm f/1.4 PG MC (made in 1973) for about $60 on eBay.
Wow. I had naively expected legacy glass to have been largely out of its depth when it comes to modern day camera sensors. I was wrong, they’re still capable of amazing images and whats more is that legacy glass, as I soon discovered had character and charm that modern lenses lacked.
My Minolta lenses all seem to have this warmer, smoother texture to them, almost like a permanent filter applied. I find the photos to be excellent and really enjoy the look of them. Modern lenses are very focused on perfection and I think that can sometimes come at the cost of feeling a little sterile. The Minolta glass has a “feel” about it, and I quite like it.
The build quality of these lenses is also in another class. They’re heavy, made from solid metal but they feel like a quality piece of gear attached to your camera.
Photos shot on Sony A7II with Minolta Rokkor-X 50mm f/1.4 MD & MC PG
Something else rather magical happened when I started using this vintage glass. It forced me to be a better photographer. Focus and aperture control is manual which means auto shooting options for your camera are limited and most of the time I found it was just easier to switch into full manual mode on the A7 instead of trying to let it work out the right exposure without being able to control the aperture.
This means you put a lot more thought into every photo, you consider every setting (well, most) before shooting a photo.
Focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO, rinse and repeat. We all know what these mean, but do you consider all of them before snapping a photo? Generally not. Usually we are in aperture priority or shutter priority mode which means we consider one or two parameters only.
This might sound like a nightmare, but it’s actually not. Sony’s focus peaking and focus magnification settings make manual focus very easy and we all know how to deal with aperture and shutter speeds already, this just forces you into thinking about them more then you would normally.
I expected to hate it, but I ended up loving it.
Next up, the big one. Image quality, how does it compare? I’ve pretty much stood by my opinion that nothing has matched my Canons image quality for as long as I can remember and it’s why I lug around heavy bags of “L” glass and huge DSLR bodies.
This factor is make or break for me and ultimately, it’s why the Olympus didn’t quite hit the mark.
Well, The A7II did hit the mark. It hit the mark with a baseball bat. The image quality is excellent, and not in an over sharpened, fake quality way but in a nice big full frame sensor way.
Photos shot on A7II with various Sony/Zeiss lenses
I splashed out and bought the FE 35mm f2.8 and then the FE 55 f1.8 that everyone online was talking so much about. Both are excellent but the 55mm is amazing. It’s by far the sharpest most flawless less i’ve ever owned. I actually don’t particularly like shooting in the 50mm range, i’m more of a 35mm guy (which is funny because I now own 3 x 50mm lenses) but I had to see what everyone was talking about online and now I see why.
The 35mm f2.8 is also a fantastic lens, it’s so small and light yet razor sharp. It’s my goto street lens, combined with the A7II body it’s a small and light combo that’s such a refreshing change from carrying all that heavy gear.
I picked up the Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4 a few weeks ago as a fallback walk around lens and I’m quite happy with that too. It gets a bad wrap online, but I think there were some bad copies in the first batches or people are just expecting too much from a general zoom lens. I used the Canon 24-105L as a walk around lens for years and had no issues with it, I think the quality from the Sony/Zeiss 24-70 is just as good or better, in a smaller package.
The in body image stabilization (IBIS) is amazing. Every lens, including your 30 year old legacy lenses now have image stabilization. With my Canon, 1/60 second is as low as I would ever go, that was the rule, now with the A7II and its IBIS I can shoot usable photos down around the 1/15 second mark. Even pulled a few around 1/5 second that weren’t so bad, all handheld. That’s incredible.
I shoot a mixture of RAW and JPG. Depending on the scenario. JPG for happy snaps and RAW For photos that will go up on my profile. The A7II, much like the OMD-EM10 is excellent for shooting JPG, there’s just so many settings you can apply to make great photos straight of the camera.
The DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) is super handy for pulling details out of shadows and getting just that little more dynamic range out of your photos automatically. This one setting has saved many of my photos from being dull, dark under exposed throw away shots.
It’s pretty easy to apply just a small amount of JPG processing to bring out shadows, contrast and color so that you don’t even need to post process. Whilst this is never really going to be an option for professional shooters, for holiday shots or a casual day out shooting, it’s great.
WIFI Connectivity is actually pretty handy. I didn’t really think I would use it but I have on a few occasions now been out and about and shot some photos that I would of liked to have been able to post on Facebook or email to someone. I know if I wait until I get back home, the moment has passed and I probably wouldn’t bother. Within a few seconds you can pull the photos from your camera onto your phone and post it online, it’s super simple. Being able to view the frame from your iPhone in real time also makes taking self portraits or shots with your partner easy, no more 10 second timer and rushing to get into the frame.
The Tilting Screen is something that I didn’t think I would care about, but now I have it i’ve actually been using it quite a lot. I find there are 3 main uses for it.
1. Shooting pictures of crowds by holding the camera above your head and tilting the screen down. Traditionally it would take a few shots to get this right, now I can see the frame easily on the screen.
2. Taking photos from a ground perspective which can give your photos a completely different look.
3. Shooting sneaky “from the hip” shots on the street. Point the screen up and glance down from time to time to line up the frame.
The EVF (Electronic View Finder) is the probably the biggest change when switching from DSLR to mirrorless. After using the OMD EM10, I wasn’t really sold on the idea. I could see the benefits but I felt it also had drawbacks. The A7II has changed my mind on that. It has a much higher resolution EVF than the EM10 and the quality of the image you see is quite good. Being able to see changes to white balance and picture style settings appear in front of your eyes is awesome, it helps you visualize the final product before you snap the shutter and you can control all the cameras settings including the deep menu items without taking your eye away from the view finder.
I never usually use the black & white settings and prefer to process in post, but actually seeing the frame in black & white through the view finder as you’re taking the shot has been helpful with composition in some cases.
Having a dynamic histogram updating on the fly in the corner of your view finder is very useful for getting that shot on the first shutter release instead of reviewing the histogram on the LCD and realizing you’ve blown highlights after taking the shot.
My favorite part about using an EVF is that in broad day light when your LCD screen is barely visible you can review photos from the view finder and see if your highlights are blown or the colors are deep enough without having to try cover up the screen or move into shadows.
So, about now it sounds like I’m pretty happy with the A7, but there’s a few problems.
The battery life is exceedingly bad. By that I mean buying a second or third battery is the first thing you should do when you buy an A7. A battery won’t cover a day of shooting. It’ll cover a few hours of stills and I never leave the house without a second battery. I don’t shoot video but I can imagine it would drain pretty fast. It’s not a huge deal for me, the batteries are small and not heavy so I just throw in a spare, but for a semi pro camera, this really should be better.
I had to send my 35mm in for repair as there was a firmware bug (yes, firmware bugs in lenses happen now). The customer support was terrible. Nobody knew what was going on, people on the phone couldn’t tell me the status of my repair and all up it took around 6 weeks and lots of nail biting to get my lens back.
While I don’t personally have that many gripes with the handling of the camera, I do find my self fiddling with settings and pressing wrong buttons a lot. The menu button is in a really bad place, which also doubles as the back button so you need two hands to work the camera menus. This is something that Canon have fine tuned down to a science. I could shoot my Canon and make settings changes by touch, but the Sony, not so much.
Think downsizing cameras means you’ll save money? Think again. The lenses are expensive. $1000 for a Sony/Zeiss prime. $1300 for a Zeiss Batis prime, $1200 for a 24-70 f4 that isn’t particularly good. The new A7RII which looks amazing is retailing at $3200, yikes! If you’re switching from Canon or Nikon expect to funnel all the money from selling your DSLR gear into Sony gear. It ain’t cheap!
So, i’ve ranted on for a while now about the A7, I should just get to the point.
Does it replace my DSLR?
Yes it does. It solves my main problem of portability and weight. It delivers as good and in most cases better image quality than my Canon did. I’ve been taking much more photos since I switched to the Sony system as I’m quite happy just throwing the A7II with the 35mm 2.8 into a bag when I go out and barely notice it’s there. I actually take my old camera bag which used to only hold my Canon 5DMKII with a 24-70 attached except now I can take my A7II with 24-70 and my 55mm f1.8 and filters.
The problems I have with the Sony system aren’t show stoppers and I believe they will be ironed out as the A7 series matures more.
The other important part for me is obviously the quality of the photos and I’m quite pleased with that aspect. I’ve let my inner pixel peeper go wild over the past few months and i’ve been continuously impressed with the results.
To those that are also on the fence about switching, unless you’re a sports photographer or need access to huge lenses I think you should give it a try. If it works out for you like it did for me, you’ll end up taking a lot more photos and capturing those moments that you would of missed previously because your DSLR was sitting at home in the cupboard.