This is a guest post by Leonard Norwitz, whom some will know for his ultra-fi expertise and writings, and who shares interesting pre-delivery doubts about the Sony A7rII. Thank you Leonard – [Pascal].
Le roi est mort, vive le roi !
My mouth waters with excitement as I anticipate the long awaited arrival of my Sony a7Rii and the four Zeiss Loxia and Batis lenses, yet, despite the hoorahs from all over the globe, I am beset with an unexpected degree of anxiety. The cost is staggering – about the same as my Canon 5D Mk II and six lenses; almost 3 times that of my three Sigma DP Merrill cameras. The Sony plus the four Zeiss lenses weigh just about the same same as the aptly named Canon with its two most used zoom lenses – the 16-35/2.8 and 24-105/4.0 (ca 2100 gr). Of course, the Sony with any one of the Zeiss lenses weighs in at considerably less than the 5Dii with the 24-105. Still, it ain’t no Sigma, or two Sigmas.
All of which got me to thinking – worrying, more like – about the trade off. I obtained pretty nice prints with the Canon up to 30 x 40. Even better with the DP-Merrills. They’re all gone now. And what do I expect from the Sony? A lot more flexibility for one thing. Perhaps the only thing. Except for studio work and indoor architectural studies back in the film days, I’ve never relied on a tripod. This, and a corresponding wholesome increase in ISO sensitivity, I anticipate, will be the most useful outcome of the Sony/Zeiss in actual practice. If image quality is only as good as the DP Merrills in their optimum range, I will be happy in that respect.
So, while I wait for Godot, I reflect nostalgically on the old old days and the recent old days, and I remember something about my relationship with the Merrills that turned my life around, photographically speaking. In short, that I was willing to take my time, to see deeply and to anticipate the final print, just as I was when I bought my first medium format camera forty years ago. I only hope I don’t lose what I gained. This is why I am returning to prime lenses only.
I thought it might be of some minute value to recall my early days with the DP-Merrill, so I’d like to share excerpts from a Sigma DP-Merrill blog I wrote between October 2012 and March 2013.
So there I was in October of 2012, looking forward to my third trip to Europe in 10 years. The previous excursions were planned as photo opportunistic adventures, but this time I expected to be spending the winter holidays with friends, and not get to “see the sites” nearly as much. It seemed the right moment to investigate something more convenient than my weighty Canon 5D Mk II.
Outside of my iPhone I had never used a camera with an LCD display in place of an eye-level viewfinder and, frankly, the idea struck me as impractical. I had never understood how anyone could hold a lightweight camera still without bracing it against their body. It seemed that the DP-Merrill, along with its aversion to high ISOs, exactly the wrong camera for me. I confess that until I came across Michael Reichmann’s enthusiastic, though cautionary, review in Luminous Landscape, I had not realized that Sigma made anything other than lenses, let alone this camera. It was also the first time I heard about the Foveon sensor. What got my attention was how Michael and others talked about the subtle, yet palpable, sense of depth the DP-2M was able to produce. Depth, not only in terms of being able to see deeply into the image, but also in something akin to bit depth as well. This may be why Reichmann felt there was something about his prints that cried out medium-format to him.
As for all the reasons he and other critics pointed out that should steer any 21st century photographer away from this camera, I figured I could deal with them as they came. Certainly the complaint about relatively slow write times was not a problem given my usual shooting style. On the other hand, I had yet to figure out how I would be able to hold the thing quietly. Impulsively, then, I made the plunge with both DP-1 and DP-2. I gave the optical viewfinder a go as well, but soon gave up on this add-on since there was no way I could see to deal with exposure and focus accurately in any of the auto modes. That was then. I was, and expect to continue to be, averse to the use of a tripod or external flash, especially for such a camera whose very size and weight spells ease of carrying. The adventure was about to begin.
Brighton and Belgium
Both cameras turned out to be smaller, heavier and more Spartan than I had imagined. My learning curve, despite many hours of practice before I left the U.S., was distressingly flat. I got some nice images along the way, but by the time I arrived in England, despite my usual preference for shooting in manual mode, I felt safer with aperture priority/auto-focus. I brought with me plenty of batteries (six plus the two in the cameras) and twice as much memory as I required (thanks to relentlessly dreary days). I felt somewhat assured by my rather inventive method of strapping myself into a three-point brace using the camera’s carrying strap to lock the camera into a kind of floating tripod. The simple trick is to push the camera away rather than try to hold it still.
I expected low light in those latitudes at that time of year, but not gray days every day (it rained some every day but one). On average I had only 3 hours/day of useable light. All the same I tried hard to stick with ISO 250 and never ventured above 400 so as to keep noise at bay. For some reason I can’t defend, I seem to have shied away from wide open apertures or even f/4, so shutter speeds were often very low, lower than they needed to be, really. I kept a sharp eye out for subjects that offered their own contrast, as skies were of little help. By necessity, reduced visibility brought me and my subject closer together than usual. Contrary to criticisms I had read about, I found that it did not require bright days to nail a substantial number of satisfying images.
The next item on my agenda was to learn how to shoot in manual mode, which had been my default method of operation for decades. By “learn” I don’t mean that the procedure was a mystery so much as that it seemed so counter-intuitive. The placement and design of the shutter speed control struck me as bizarre, and still does. The DP Merrill has surprisingly good upper-end latitude, but the biggest problem in practical use is glare. There are occasions where it is simply impossible without a shade over the LCD display to see what I am shooting or well enough to focus and frame. In which case I have to rely on one of the auto-exposure/focus modes and hope for the best.
I should add one item that strikes me as a serious and puzzling design and practice flaw: Sigma does not allow all shutter speed/aperture combinations. In fact, the camera is incapable of correctly exposing a scene in strong sunlight at f/2.8, even at ISO 100. The fastest shutter speed the DPM allows at f/2.8 is 1/1250 sec. (It should be 1/2500 or 1/3200.) Try it. The camera will automatically stop down to f/4 or 5.6. 1/2000 sec is the fastest speed possible on this camera, but is not available at f/2.8. In practice this means that the DP3’s portrait capability, which has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, is further hampered in strong light (not a preferred scenario, I know) by having to stop down. Nor does it make any difference whether you are in Manual or an Auto Exposure mode. Makes no sense! I later learned that many cameras suffer from this – the Fuji x100s, for example.
Ah, did I just say “focus”? Surely, there is no area of this camera’s technical workings that is more hocus-pocus. Sigma offers three possible magnifications at which to zero in using manual focus. The first is full frame, which is pretty much useless because the LCD is not large enough, resolved enough, nor sufficiently glare-free. On the other hand, there is a focus distance scale (in meters or feet at our discretion) that helps, but I can’t tell if I am in focus by relying on the display. At the other end is 10x magnification, where camera shake is so great that, without a tripod, it is utterly useless. (Your mileage, as they say, may differ.) This leaves 4x magnification, a seemingly sensible compromise. However, there are two hurdles to overcome and, with practice, progress can be made. The first is that LCD resolution is just awful, surprisingly so. What we end up having to choose from is the least unsharp position, never a sharp one. Second, without a great deal of practice, it will often take some while to sort out what part of the frame the new magnification has settled on. Heaven forbid you focus on the wrong speck. OK, you’re focused, but now you have to hit some other button to return to full size so you can properly frame your subject, being careful not to move closer or further away.
I have added one more step that might seem counter-intuitive at first, but we are talking about stationary subjects, so not to worry. In any of the auto modes, my finger, pressing slightly on the shutter whilst trying not to press it too far, would simultaneously try to hold focus and exposure while framing and holding perfectly still. Subtle shake is inevitable – for me anyway. So I set the camera for 2-second delay. After I press the shutter I have ample time to fine tune my framing and breathe so that the shutter clicks at the end of my exhalation when I am most relaxed. Best of all, though it seems an unlikely combination at first, using a 2-second delay complements auto-focus operation perfectly. I just place the focus square over the desired area of the frame, press the shutter, wait a moment for the focus to locate itself, at which point, it will lock. The delay delays the moment of truth until the focus actually locks – that’s the beauty of it – during which time I can re-frame, relax and exhale. I find that I can obtain surprisingly sharp pictures as low as 1/20 sec, even whilst free-standing.
Now that I am comfortable with manual exposure operation as needed, and can make sensible use of auto focus as desired, I am left with the matter of LCD glare on bright days. For some reason this became more apparent once I got my DP3. Perhaps it was just the timing of having sorted out the Merrill’s remaining nagging points. One solution was the Photosolve Xtend-a-View Pro 3.0 which I picked up in early March. Since I have three cameras and wanted to continue to minimize space, I decided to not go for permanent attachment. Applying the hard rubber grip strips to the viewer helps keep the gizmo in place, but in actual practice, I find it difficult to maintain full contact for 100% coverage. Even so, the ability to block off glare is something of a godsend. In addition, the soft rubber eyepiece makes it possible to hold the camera right against the forehead. This is actually clunkier than it sounds to use. The viewer magnifies 2x, so that helps with focus somewhat; but what really nails it is using the viewer in conjunction with the camera’s manual 4x magnification option. For some reason, to my surprise, the optics of both camera LCD and viewer work very well together, and they permit easy focus once I located my point of interest. What’s more, with this extra stability, I am able to make some use of ISO 125~ 200.
Obviously this methodology is not meant for candid, off the cuff shooting, though zone focusing is still an option for streetwalking. In any case, if I take a few extra seconds to set exposure and focus accurately, the results are likely to be consistent and satisfying. The whole procedure requires more mindful effort than in days of yore when preparation – if we can call it that – and operation had become more or less automatic with my 5Dii. This simplicity and efficiency was part of that camera’s seductive charm, to be sure, but the Merrill has prompted me to look more deeply into possibilities that previously escaped my attention if for no other reason than I an required to take more time to think about what I am doing and why. I now get closer to my subjects, exploring new textures and compositions.
It’s not that I couldn’t get the same shots with my 5DII and 24-105, it’s that I never would have thought of them. The camera encourages me to see possibilities that the Canon did not. This is no small point, and perhaps many photographers will not see the sense in it. One photographer friend, whose work I admire, has no idea what I am talking about. Another feels what I am saying is self-evident.
I still have the Canon 5D Mk II and the two zoom lenses 24-105 & 16-35 mm, but have found no compulsion to use them in the past 5 months. (A planned trip to Death Valley suggests the wide angle zoom. I’ll bring it along and we shall see.) So, here I am with three cameras instead of one. Together, they weigh less but cost more and still don’t cover nearly the possibilities of my larger camera with the 24-105. The Canon has industry support that makes for real-world ease of operation; but the Merrills have rekindled my enthusiasm for the art, which has no price tag and not much relevance to operational convenience either. As Stephen Sondheim says: “Art isn’t easy.” I take him at his word.
March 9, 2013
It turned out that I never returned to the Canon for the two years I had the Merrills. It was really only the Merrill’s crushing ISO range that precluded many a photo opportunity – thus the Sony Alpha, which, like the great majority of cameras, but not the Sigma, permits a range of easy to use RAW processors. I have sold everything save the iPhone 6-Plus which has a better camera than my first Canon DSLR! It’s amazing what you can do out of necessity. Since I made my order, I have been literally weighing the possibilities. . . and the memories. We shall have to see if the purchase of the new Sony a7Rii and Zeiss lenses is merely a case of buyer’s remorse.
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Leonard, I understand your doubts, having once been seduced by the per-pixel goodness of the Sigmas. But I do think you are in for a marvelous treat with the A7rII.
The sensor remains the great unknown. We have been told it could climb to lunatic ISOs, which is useful to 0.1% of us 0.1% of the time, but know nothing of the real image quality at base ISO, which is far more important. But it would be surprising if Sony released something inferior to the previous generation, which is exceptionnal.
Besides, Zeiss glass is wonderful for 3D, so you should lose nothing of the sense of depth you rightly prise.
On top of that, full frame brings with it a different look, that feels more laid back and more medium format in the right conditions. This is not really the case with the A7s, which looks a bit more ‘etched’ due to lower res (some crave that look), but the 42Mpix of the A7rII, downresed to web format should look properly stunning with the right technique and the right lenses.
The lenses you have chosen should deliver quality in spades and, as for technique, it does look like you have done your homework aplenty 🙂 I really think you’re in for a treat!
Oh, and, great pictures ! That Walnut Creek does ooze medium formant. Lovely.
Have no fear, Leonard, it will all work out. Let me tell you why, and take you for another sweet trip down memory lane. Did I just say “sweet”?
Before my A7R, I owned a NEX 7 and, frankly, I loved it. It was good enough, with fine primes from Mssrs Zeiss and Leica, that, when I came back from Patagonia, I dumped my 5D II and 5D III with more Zeiss primes on my shop’s door front, and never looked back.
Fast forward to last week, when my A7R goes nuts and needs a repair job. Back to the trusty NEX 7. But not to the warm, cuddly, tree-hugging relationship. This time around, coming from the A7R, the NEX7 feels cranky, difficult, uncertain and, to put it bluntly, limited. And pictures confirm that. I get noise at ISO 100, which the A7R spares me, and shots that I routinely take with the newer camera fail on the NEX7 because of insufficient DR.
In a nutshell, I can’t get my A7R back fast enough. And that is even before I get my A7R II. Lest you think the NEX was at fault, when viewing my pics with the Canon, I still know why I dumped them in favor of the Sony midget.
So have no fear, Leonard, it will all work out. You are in for a treat. And, yes, Sony camera bodies can be quirky, but, coming from Sigma DPs, you’ll probably not even notice…:-)
Merci, Mssrs Pascal et Philbert, for the encouragement.
As I reflect more on my anticipated gains and losses, and on your observations and predictions, I suspect it’s going to come down to how well I can deal with the extra weight. I have purchased a Peak Design CapturePro Camera Clip and Think Tank belt, hoping to head off the hostiles. We shall see.
One thing’s for certain: It will be nice to hold something that actually looks and feels like a film camera once again.