Camera War Z Part 2

sony a7rii with canon 16-35 f4L and metabones V adapter

About a year and a half ago I wrote a blog post predicting that mirrorless cameras were well on the way to making dSLRs the living dead of the camera world (original post here). It's time to take another look at what I wrote in that post and where I think the camera world is and where I am regarding the state of mirrorless. But before I dig in to nerdy gear head stuff, I should acknowledge that a camera is just a tool that enables photographers to execute their vision. Even the best camera is worthless in the hands of a photographer with no vision or creativity. Every camera I discuss below will enable a creative photographer to shoot incredible photos. 

When I wrote my original post, I had just returned my Samsung NX1 because of EVF live view design issues, but still believed that mirrorless cameras would overcome that issue and begin to dominate the camera market. Has that panned out? Let's take a look, shall we?

First, here's where I am with my camera lineup. I still have all of my canon camera and lens gear (Canon 5d mark iii and 7d mark ii). But I've since added a Sony a7rii and am impatiently waiting to receive a Sony a6300, both mirrorless cameras that I can use my Canon lenses with a Metabones adapter (with pretty good autofocus!). That is a game changer. Being able to use my Canon lenses on the Sony mirrorless cameras allows me to slowly transition from canon to Sony instead of making a big leap into the relatively unknown with a new camera system. It's not perfect but so far i really love the Sony a7rii. At 42mp the image quality is astounding. I'm seeing details in my images that I've never seen before even with my 5d mark iii. While the focus tracking with my adapted Canon lenses is not nearly as good as using them on the Canon cameras, it is acceptable for about 80% of what I shoot being almost better than the Canons with single shot autofocus. I'll even shoot some fairly fast sports like the running shot above with the a7rii. On a side note, continuous autofocus on the a7rii with the adapted Canon lenses is abysmal, which is the 20% I am unable to use it for. But I was aware of that shortcoming before I purchased the a7rii. I'm stoked to try out the a6300 for a number of reasons, but mainly because it is the first mirrorless camera that has a true live view during burst shooting. In other words, unlike all other mirrorless cameras so far, the a6300 will show the live view through the viewfinder in between shots, instead of a series of images that were just shot. This is another game changer for mirrorless and another bad omen for dSLRs. For most photographers, this is unimportant. For sports photographers, this is essential.

Sunrise over Fremont peak, titcomb basin, wind river range, wyoming

So what about the current state of mirrorless among camera manufacturers? I'm glad you asked. Sony has been leading the charge on mirrorless and is really dominating the market (among pros and serious amateurs) with mirrorless. With a combination of sensor design, high quality EVFs, features and reasonable cost (compared to the big two, Nikon and Canon), they are crushing it. Sadly Samsung dropped out of the high end market entirely and stopped making the NX1. Panasonic has a workhorse with the existing GH4 and likely to soon be announced GH5. Olympus is making some nice cameras but I don't see other pros really shooting with them. The big two have done almost nothing with mirrorless. They are both simply ignoring the mirrorless market, which confounds many of my professional photographer peers. From my perspective, it almost seems as though Canon and Nikon are ideologically against mirrorless. Instead they keep updating their dSLR lineups with impressive cameras like the Canon 1Dx mark II, Nikon D5 and D500, and the rumored Canon 5D mark iv. All of these cameras are great cameras and have impressive features that I look for in a camera but...

...but they are still SLRs. They are (now) unnecessarily big and heavy and lack an electronic viewfinder. And as I get older, heavy is bad. Heck even when I was young and stupid, I knew heavy was bad. But are there advantages to dSLRs that I'm not talking about? Sure but they are falling by the way side with each generation of mirrorless cameras. First was autofocus. The big two argued that you'd never get good autofocus with mirrorless. Well that's not true anymore. In fact I find my a7rii with my adapted Canon lenses can single shot focus better than my Canon lenses on the Canon bodies. How is this possible? With an SLR, the autofocus module is not on the sensor but a separate module within the mirror box. This creates room for error because it is approximating where the focus should be. And most of the time this works very well. But lenses can get out of alignment of where they are supposed to be so this error can change over time. I have a Canon 70-200 2.8L lens that is very sharp when focused accurately, but even with autofocus micro-adjustment, I can't get either of my Canon cameras to focus it well. But on my a7rii, it's spot on almost every time. Mirrorless cameras focus right on the sensor, so there is no built in focus measurement error.

Okay so what about the advantages of an optical viewfinder? Sharper and more responsive than an electronic viewfinder, right? Nope, not anymore. The EVFs on the a7rii and a6300 are outstanding. And the a6300 viewfinder has a refresh rate of 120fps. That's really fast! I didn't need any time to adjust to the EVF on the a7rii because it feels so much like an optical viewfinder. How about ergonomics? Who wants a tiny camera body with all those tiny buttons? That's a reasonable question but after using my a7rii and getting used to it, I find the SLRs unnecessarily big. In fact they feel huge and the buttons all seem far apart. The smaller a7rii now feels more natural in my hand. The a7rii does need a lot of improvement in layout of controls and functioning, but that's not necessarily a function of size but more about poor design.

So the justifications for an SLR keep falling away, and there are too many other advantages and features on a mirrorless to go into here. But after a year and a half, I am even more sure that mirrorless is the (very near) future of cameras for serious photographers. No doubt dSLRs will always be around, but they will become a niche product.

On a side note, one of the criticisms of Sony has been the lack of professional grade lenses. I'd agree with that criticism but it is beginning to change. A few months ago they announced the G Master series of lenses that is just about as good as anything from the big two. This is a good start and it will take years for Sony to flesh out its array of lenses. But with the 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 lenses, they have taken two very big steps to be taken seriously by pros. I have yet to try these lenses and can't wait to shoot with both of them.

Good Lenses Gone Bad

As a pro photographer, I need to work with the best equipment I can to deliver the best possible images to my clients. I’m a Canon shooter and use all Canon L series lenses. The L series is the professional line of lenses that are the sharpest, most rugged, and weather sealed line of lenses that Canon sells. Even so, I tend to be very gentle with my equipment because I rely on it to work when I need it to. All my equipment looks almost new.

And Canon delivers on all of that quality. Usually. The L lenses are as sharp as anything on the market…except for when they’re not. About once a year, I will have a lens that has a glass element inside that shifts and the lens gets soft (i.e. not sharp) at one or more focal lengths, usually on one side of the frame. I’ve had it happen to at least five lenses.

A quick (but not cheap) repair by Canon usually puts the lens back to factory specifications. But it happens seemingly randomly and I am not able to notice until the images are viewed on my computer. I am in the habit of testing all my lenses before a big shoot to make sure everything checks out.  I also see this happening to other photographers because I have noticed images in print that show this problem. Once you’ see it, it’s obvious. The images here show the sharp and soft areas (shown by the red boxes in the full image at top) at 100% magnification. Notice how the image on the right gets softer as you view from the left to the right side of the image

Canon 5D Mark III Review

I was an early adopter of the new 5D Mark III (or Mark 3) back in April of this year. So I have had a decent amount of time to shoot with it and find out where it shines and where it comes up short.  The quick summary of my experience is that it is the best camera I have every used, but it does have room for improvement in a few areas. When I bought this camera, I planned on using it only for my slow sports (i.e. hiking), lifestyle and landscape shooting. As it turns out, I’m finding the AF is so good that I’ll use it for some fast sports shooting (trail running, mountain biking, etc) when in the past I would pick up my 7D or 1D cameras. The improvement in AF accuracy compensates (sometimes!) for the slower  frame rate. At 6 frames per second (fps), it’s not as fast as I would like and I’ll sometimes miss the ‘in between’ shots that a camera with a faster frame rate will get. But when I’m shooting a sport that I can have an athlete repeat if I miss the shot, then it’s my camera of choice. As good as the 7D cameras AF is, the 5DIII is noticeably faster, more accurate and customizable (with some caveats below).

I won’t spend any time talking about specs of this camera. There are lots of places like here that you can find that information. This review is about my impression of the usability and functionality of the camera.

Autofocus: Let’s start with the biggest change in the Mark 3 from the Mark 2. I could write something sarcastic like ‘Canon forgot to put AF in the 5D Mark 2, but they definitely didn’t forget it in the Mark 3.’ But that’s not my style. Let’s just say that the Mark 2 AF was a big disappointment and to me (and many other photographers) and that I have spent many moments swearing out loud (or grumbling under my breath in front of my kids) about how lame the AF is in the Mark 2. The Mark 3 AF is so improved that my kids will no longer think I can’t complete a sentence when I’m taking pictures.

The autofocus is fast and accurate…if you know how to use it. If not, it’s just fast. I’ve found it works best for me when I select one focus point only, knowing exactly how I’m going to compose my shot. The cross pattern selection option I find usually front focuses on something I don’t want, so I generally avoid it. The option to select 9 AF points in a square arrangement works well for tracking large moving subjects. Finally, I find the AF option that selects all 61 AF points fairly useless for me. The algorithm on just about any autofocus system it to focus on closest object. I rarely will compose to emphasize the closest object in the frame. I shoot often with the 50mm/1.4 or 85mm/1.8 lenses, which have very shallow depth of field. I have yet to find a camera that can focus those two lenses consistently accurate. But the Mark 3 is really good at doing just that. So much that I’ve even shot running photos with the 85mm/1.8 wide open. Astounding.

What’s not to like about the new AF system? Not much but there is one thing that still needs work…expanded coverage of the image frame. The AF points are still clustered too closely to the center of the frame. My style of shooting is to put subjects towards the edges of the frame. With a moving subject or a shallow depth of field, prefocusing and recomposing is not an option. Also, I shoot a lot of backlit scenes and find the AF loses a lot of its advantage.  I hope you’re listening Canon!

New screen: It’s gorgeous. In fact almost too nice. I’m really nitpicking here. How can I be complaining that the screen is too nice? I often find the screen makes my images pop more than my high end LaCie monitor that I edit on. I know that part of the reason for that is the picture style settings in my camera. I edit in Photoshop, which doesn’t see Canon’s picture style settings. That’s responsible for part of the difference. But the difference is also because the way the screen displays saturation/contrast.

But the screen is very sharp and bright. It’s more useable in bright daylight than any screen I’ve used before, which to say that it is useable but still not easy, especially on a sunny day in the snow. One thing that Canon did that for me is a simple yet huge improvement is to give a white border around the levels diagram when reviewing images. In the past, it was a black background on the levels diagram against a black screen background, making it impossible to tell where the top and bottom ends of the levels were, especially when viewing in bright sunlight.

Speaking of reviewing (or chimping) images, Canon has changed the zoom feature on image review. In the past, there were two buttons on the top right of the camera whose function was dedicated to zooming in/out. This was fine although a bit cumbersome (push and hold or push, push, push to zoom in). Now, there is a dedicated zoom button on the left of the screen. Push it once to enable zooming. Then use the shutter dial to zoom in/out much faster. This took a little getting used to but I do like it better if for nothing else it’s much faster to zoom all the way in. The only drawback for me is that when I switch cameras (often during a shoot), when I chimp, I forget which one I’m using and fumble around for a few seconds until I remember which camera I’m using. Chalk that one up to operator error.

Image Quality: As good as it gets, really. Slightly improved over the Mark 2 but that was the best thing about the Mark 2. 22MP is a lot of resolution and my clients will regularly make wall size enlargements (for trade show booths) that look amazing, even up close. The level of detail is incredible for a 35mm sensor.

Auto Exposure Accuracy: I always found the auto exposure metering in the 5DMark2 to be wildly inconsistent. I had hoped that the metering accuracy on the 5D3 would be better but after a day of shooting a paddling race mostly in aperture priority, I’ve found the meter to consistently underexpose but exposure values will change too much from frame to frame, even with consecutive frames of the same composition, as shown in the the kayaking shots here.

High ISO Noise Performance: A big improvement over the Mark 2, which was pretty good. In the past, I would reluctantly shoot 1600 or 3200. If I did, the exposure had to be spot on or adjusting in post would add noise. With the Mark 3, the noise performance at 3200 is really good in stills and astoundingly good in video. Living and shooting in the Pacific Northwest, I find myself shooting fast sports in dark, mossy forests all too often. That’s when the combination of good AF and high ISO performance really come together to make many shots possible that I would have not even tried just a couple years ago.

Live view : I’m finding I use this more and more with the 5DIII. Maybe it’s because of the improvement in screen quality and size. I wish there was  a way to remove the white box showing the zoom area when in live view. Maybe there is and I haven’t found it yet but I find it intrusive when I don’t want it. Nit pick warning: The bigger screen makes my loupe worthless for using on the 5DIII. I can still use it on the 7D but will need two different size loupes until the came out with a 7DII with the bigger screen (rumored for 2013!).

Light Leak: I stumbled on a light leak in my Mark 3. There is a known issue for a light leak from the top LCD screen light that Canon has fixed but mine is different. The problem on my Mark 3 is light leaking onto the sensor from light entering the viewfinder during a long exposure at high ISO. It’s not a problem for most shots. But on long, low light exposures, I found the red light on the back of the camera will reflect off of my face/shirt and into the viewfinder if I’m standing near the camera during a long exposure. I’ve done tests to confirm this. I haven’t sent it back to Canon for service yet but I’ve never seen this in any other camera.

Miscellaneous small stuff: I like the rating button, especially since it translates into Photoshop. This is a big time saver when editing.  Aesthetically, this is a very solid camera. The sound of the shutter is very solid sounding and strangely satisfying. I’m sure a therapist would have some thoughts about why I find it so satisfying, but that’s for another blog post.

Wish list for the Mark 4: Nikon has had built in interverlometers for a while. This is a no brainer for a $3,000 camera. It’s all software and no extra hardware should be required. With the high quality high ISO noise performance, so many photographers are shooting night scenes now that an interverlometer should be included. A faster frame rate of 8fps and this could be my one camera for everything. But I’m sure Canon knows that and wouldn’t sell many 1Dx’s if they did!

Summary: As I reread this before posting, I think I sound pretty negative about the 5D3. But I’m not! A good review should point out the flaws and not just praise what’s being reviewed. The 5D is the best camera I’ve every used. But there is still lots of room for improvement.