The SONY FE MIRRORLESS SYSTEM - Getting there for professionals?

Of all the mirrorless systems I'm using and have used, there is no doubt that for me, the Sony FE system has the most potential. The 'mix and match' lens system I have to use and some handling issues don't yet make it the real deal as far as I'm concerned, but with the A7r and A7s I have high resolution, incredible low light high ISO capability, top class video, fast AF and lots of other options. And all with a small(ish) light(ish) footprint. It is however a pretty new system and Sony being Sony they are slinging out all sorts of lenses and updated bodies in a somewhat disorganised manner to expand the range. The impression that they are making this up as they go, might not be that far from the truth.

And yet more lenses are planned and after a year there is already an A7 Mk II about to become available. And while this (again) is an example of Sony's 'scattergun' approach, I'm beginning to think that they are actually on the verge of putting together a mirrorless camera / lens system that will eventually put every other mirrorless system in the shade for the professional market, which Sony have made clear they are actively courting. 

The decision to adopt 35mm film size / 'full-frame' sensors seemed to be a reaction to the release of the RX1 and the resulting internet clamour for an interchangeable lens 'full-frame' mirrorless system. But it does mean that image quality, either for high MP resolution or low MP low noise results in low light, is always going to be superior to the other smaller sensor systems. And for me, these are the things that matter. Because I, like all other pro photographers, know that ultimately the highest possible quality of my images, aesthetically and technically, is the most important thing I look for in deciding what to use. All things being equal of course, in terms of usability, flexibility and the ability to 'get the job done.' And while for me that is pretty much the case for the FE system, maybe not all pro photographer needs and preferences are taken care of yet.

If (and it is an if) Sony can get a high quality, wide-ranging lens system out there for others to choose from, then the FE system will become very attractive for the diverse ways that photographers make their living. But even now with an ever expanding demand for video from clients, Sony FE cameras have a significant advantage over the Canon and Nikon professional duopoly. Bearing in mind that they have taken on both of the 'big two' in terms of resolution approaching medium-format (and dominating that since they make the 36MP sensors for the Nikon D810) and are currently leading the high ISO / low noise sector with the A7s, they are in a great position to get lots of 'switchers' from those who currently are unwilling to look further than the 'CaNikon' domination of the pro. gear market at the moment. They are even developing a professional network to compete in this marketplace. 

So unless they make some catastrophic mistakes, it seems they will get there. Simply because they seem to have more financial backup and an innovative, often experimental approach, that means their R & D will always be more ambitious that the ultra-conservative approach that both Canon and Nikon seem reluctant to abandon. Add to this the fact they they seem to be much more in tune with the constantly chattering, internet informed, enthusiast market, then they should be able to make serious inroads into the market domination still enjoyed by you know who. 

It will be a neat trick if they pull it off. And I see no reason why they shouldn't achieve great success and it surely won't be for want of trying. Fuji, m4/3 and an emerging Samsung will have many admirers for what they have (and are about to) come up with, but those smaller sensor systems will always struggle to compete with what the larger sensor can achieve. They also have to compete with the smartphone revolution nibbling away at them from the lower end of the market. No such worries for 'full-frame' sensor cameras.  And considering that Sony are also the largest supplier of sensors anyway and are unsurpassed in sensor development currently, many of their competitors are beholding to them anyway. 

Another important factor is that as a company, Sony have never stood still. Their constant updating of a huge camera range (less so with the lenses of course) is something we're all used to. This can be annoying if you have bought a camera only to watch it's value plummet as a new option quickly follows and It's maybe a good idea to think about FE cameras as somewhat 'temporary'. But despite this, they do make most other camera manufacturers seem like 'stick in the muds.' Fuji seem to be wedded to their 16MP X-Trans sensor, which has now been around for almost three years with little change. m4/3 doesn't seem to be inclined to move from small sensor 16MP, which will be enough for many, but professionals, seeking to 'keep up' might think that they can get higher image quality elsewhere, especially with the low light wonders of the A7s. Samsung may be onto a winner with the NX1, but the very fact that it is APS-C sensor camera will put many 'full-frame' Nikon and Canon users off, despite it's amazing specs.

With all this in mind I'm going to start easing away from my other systems and start heading further down the Sony road. I've got a 16-35mm f/4 Sony / Zeiss zoom coming today and the A7 Mk II, with it's 5-axis stabilisation for hand-held video looking very promising, so I suspect I'm going to be using Sony more and more. A good deal of my Fuji gear has already left for new ownership and my (admittedly much depleted these days) m4/3 gear is sitting unused. Plus with what I can get from my A7s, it may well be that my Nikon Df's days may well be numbered too. I'm mightily impressed with the A7s and the small size, electronic shutter and video options make the Df seem somewhat archaic (I suppose it always was), despite the fact that it is a great camera. But better high ISO images and a video option in a smaller, lighter and more versatile package is very appealing. 

Further evidence of this 'shift in my affections' is due to that fact that I've been doing a lot of editing and uploading recently and it's clear that my Sony files are the best I currently have in terms of resolution (from the A7r) and more importantly for me have proved to be the easiest and quickest to edit and achieve high quality results. I'm still blown away with what that A7r turns out and no matter how good I get at 'rezzing up' smaller MP files, the A7r always wins out in terms of quality. Plus Sony now create brilliant jpgs. from all their current FE cameras, which when I need it too, speeds up my workflow in a very welcome fashion.

But Sony FE is not the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything yet. There are still gaps that need filling in the lens range and there is always the natural conservatism of a profession that has got used to looking no further than the 'big two' in terms of buying the tools for the job. Certainly Sony's a-mount DSLR's and DSLT's haven't really caught the professional world's imagination, despite there being some very decent gear in that range.

The FE system does have that mirrorless advantage though and in a changing profession the demand for video production is shaping what many professionals are required to provide. And DSLR's, while perfectly capable of being used for top of the range broadcast quality television work, because of the large crew, extensively kitted out nature of that, make life more difficult for the more humdrum everyday requirements of the 'jobbing photographer', who needs something quick, easy and adaptable to switch seamlessly between still and moving images, without having to cart around a truck full of add-ons. And Sony does that quite nicely, with the A7 Mk II and it's in body IS making high quality 'steadicam' like hand held video production a reality. And I particularly like the fact that the camera will apparently work out how much of each IS system to use when an OSS lens is attached. Panasonic of course has excellent video options in the GH4, but many pro's will be attracted by the larger sensor, larger MP count and higher quality (at all ISO's) available from the FF sensor.

As I'm constantly finding, those larger 36MP and 24MP sensors do offer an awful lot of 'wiggle room' in terms of composition. A lot of professional work can require a 'shoot first and fix it later' approach and those huge A7 and A7r files are very easy to crop and retain large file sizes for reproduction. And that counts for a lot. We've all probably been in a situation where we see a picture opportunity and we have the wrong lens fitted to the camera and no time to change it. Assuming that lens is wider than we would ideally like, the A7 and A7r allow even quite severe cropping and upsizing, with very little quality loss. And those huge files also allow the possibility to create different images from the same frame. For example I've created lots of high quality, high pixel count 'letter box' panoramas from my A7r files. 

Professionals want ease of use, versatility and a system that delivers day after day. I shoot pictures every day, as do many pro photographers. We don't get our cameras out just at weekends or on holiday. And this is a consideration. One of the reasons I rotate a lot of cameras is that I'm reluctant to give some of them a constant, everyday, all weather, demanding schedule. I was out the other day in some great light, but as is often the case in the UK that light was accompanied by a rain shower. I was using my Sigma DP2 Quattro at the time and I did risk a few minutes of it getting slightly wet, before deciding that it was time to get into a drier place.

In terms of robust reliability, the jury is probably still out on the FE system. Certainly I've not used my A7, A7r and A7s cameras, day in day out in lots of demanding situations. And that is certainly a consideration that needs addressing if Sony are going to attract more professional users. Because no matter what you say about them, Nikon and Canon high end FF DSLR's do have a reputation for heavy duty use. Though whether that reputation is merited is not for me to say, since as noted, I'm not putting my cameras through a heavy duty work schedule.

And it is part of the perception problem that Sony have to overcome. The attitude that Nikon and Canon DSLR's are sturdy workhorses and that Sony mirrorless cameras are 'hobbyist playthings' is a perception that many of my professional colleagues will still find creeping into their consciousness, despite all the attractions that the FE system seems to offer. I'm convinced that two (or three) FE cameras will do what I require with little concern for their welfare on my part, but I'm not sure that's the same for everybody. That perception will change slowly as more and more pro's make the switch to non-DSLR options and report back that they do the job just as well. 

But all of this takes time. The heading at the top of this post is - The SONY FE MIRRORLESS SYSTEM - Getting there for professionals? and the answer must be yes, it does seem to be getting there. But I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that the system isn't there yet in terms of convincing lots of pro photographers to make the switch. Many have done so already of course and many will, I'm sure, be following suit over the next months. But the next time you see a bunch of news and sports photographers snapping away on your TV, don't expect much change from the usual Canon and Nikon DSLR's. And despite the low light wonders of the A7s, I don't expect to see droves of wedding and social photographers trading in their DSLR's just yet. But unless Nikon and Canon seriously raise their game and embrace what mirrorless technology can offer the pro photographer, what Sony are offering will surely become more and more attractive. 

And it's that FE 'full-frame' mirrorless option that will attract professionals. It has little to do with depth-of-field manipulation and everything to do with pixel size and image quality at all ISO settings. And it does of course have to do with the fact that the lenses are the same. There's no need to do some quick calculation to take account of a crop factor. And for busy working pro's used to FF DSLR's that is a consideration. I can remember in the early days of digital, I rushed out to get some pictures when the light improved and grabbed my 28-200mm zoom thinking that would take care of everything. After driving to where I wanted to be I realised that I was using a Nikon which of course was an APS-C sensor camera. In my haste I had completely forgotten that. It's a small point but in pressure situations, every bit of familiarity helps.

And I suspect that lack of familiarity leads many pro photographers to put off making the changes that they might see as their future. Sony, I'm sure, will gradually win over many photographers who will be prepared to embrace the advantages that the FE system offers and certainly their recently declared intention to go for "ultimate sensitivity, ultimate resolution and ultimate speed in 2015" will interest many. Particularly since Sony have demonstrated their ability to go some way to achieving the first two of those goals already. So we know that statements like this may be somewhat more 'hype free' than other manufacturers. And ultimately that's what attracts me and I'm sure will attract many other professionals. Because I'm in no doubt that by using FE cameras I stand the best chance of getting the best quality picture files I've ever achieved, in all kinds of light. And that's a very compelling argument for choosing one system over another.

A new way to support this site. My Version of Crowd Funding.

Up to now I've been including a Support this Site section. But it occurred to me that why not make that support specific to the gear I buy and review? Below is a poll on seven new items of photographic equipment just available or about to become so, that I would be interested in reviewing. And below that are seven donate buttons for each item. 

What do you want me to review?
 
pollcode.com free polls
SAMSUNG NX1 + 16-50mm f/2.8 LENS
SONY A7 MK II
PANASONIC LX100
FUJI 50-140mm f/2.8
PANASONIC 35-100mm f4-5.6
PANASONIC GM5
SONY FE 28mm f/2

This is a form of crowd funding, but what I'm attempting to achieve is not the whole amount to buy the item. I'm looking to fund the price of the item minus my tax allowance minus the amount I get for resale. For example, if I buy a camera for £1000. I might reasonably expect to sell it on after a few months for say £700. The loss of £300 can be set against my tax bill, so in effect my loss is £240. So once I achieve that £240, I can go ahead and get the lens knowing that I'm not going to loose money on it. And that's all I'm looking to do, not make a profit. If contributions exceed the amount I loose on a specific item, I will transfer those funds to something else, so I can buy that. Please note - the amount you choose to donate can be anything from $1 upwards.

This has the benefit in that it is reader driven. I'm also open to any suggestions that you might make for gear you would like added to the list. You can let me know this via the comments section or the various social media sites that publicise this blog.

So changes to how I operate the blog and what I write about. The major changes are lots more raw file samples to download and more user defined content. So instead of just reading about what I fancy using and buying, Soundimageplus readers get to help decide what gets reviewed her and gain access to large quantities of raw file samples, so that you can see for yourselves whether or not the image quality is what you are looking for. You also get reviews from someone who has no brand allegiance or any connection with any camera or lens manufacturer. As always reviews will be honest and independent and with no fanboy bias. (Apart from the fact that I seem to be a fanboy for an awful lot of different brands!!)

SUMMING UP THE CHANGES TO THIS BLOG

  • Lots of raw file samples for download
  • Archive of review posts over a period of time
  • Real World testing in real time
  • The 'tests' are actually conducted while I'm carrying out my professional work
  • You get to decide what gets reviewed
  • Crowd sourcing / funding of gear
  • More user interaction and participation

SUPPORT THIS SITE.

As a full-time photographer I make my living from selling images on Stock Photography sites. Writing this blog and doing the comparison tests takes time away from that and earns me very little. If you find what you read here of interest, then you can help me to fund the gear I buy to review, by clicking on the adsense banners, donating and / or buying your gear from the affiliate links. You don't pay any extra, I get a small commission. 

Previously I was posting on the free, Blogger platform, but this site, with it's greatly increased functionality, costs me money and the more it expands, the more it will cost.  If I can get THE SOUNDIMAGEPLUS BLOG economically viable, then I will be able to review a lot more gear and extend and expand those reviews. Running a blog these days that competes with the best out there requires a lot of time and effort and is close to a full-time job. This means that I'm neglecting other work to put that time in. It is my intention to turn this into a much more comprehensive review and user experience site and I can only do that if I can get it to generate more income. 

This site, like much of the internet, has free content and like much of the internet is funded by advertising and donations. I realise that not everybody likes advertising, but without it many of our favourite sites would have to resort to charging for what they do. Google, Facebook and all the other social networks sites remain free because of that advertising. 

There is an interesting article on the BBC website HERE, which deals with many of the issues above.

Many Thanks

David Taylor-Hughes