Camera War Z Part III - dSLRs are Officially the Living Dead of the Camera World

I just re-read my previous post about dSLRs vs. Mirrorless. The first thing that struck me is that I wrote it a year and a half ago! Where did that time go? But more importantly, I am amazed at how fast things have changed in camera technology since then. At the time, I figured mirrorless cameras would catch or pass SLRs in a few years. But mirrorless cameras have continued to improve at an incredible pace and I can honestly say they have now surpassed SLRs in everything I need in a camera. As a Sony mirrorless shooter, I'll focus on what they have done in the past year and a half.

In April of this year, Sony released it's flagship mirrorless camera, the a9. If you haven't heard about it yet, here's a quick run down. The a9 is a professional grade, full-frame, 24MP, 4k, 20 frames per second(!!!!) mirrorless camera. But what sets the a9 apart from all other mirrorless cameras is its electronic shutter. An electronic shutter is exactly what it sounds like...the image coming off the sensor is captured without the use of the mechanical shutter, so there is no viewfinder blackout (or sound) that you normally experience when using a mechanical shutter. Electronic shutters have been around for years but they've been limited to slow moving or still subjects because of rolling shutter issues. Any significant subject movement during the image capture will cause distortion of the moving part of the image. Sony has effectively solved the rolling shutter problem in electronic shutter, allowing electronic shutter speeds up to 1/30,000th of a second with no perceptible distortion. I can't say enough how big of a deal this is. It's groundbreaking. Continuous shooting is possible at 20fps and there is no viewfinder interruption. Zero. Nada. Zilch. And shooting can be completely silent.

There are so many things about the a9 that Sony improved over previous cameras...better viewfinder, AF selector joystick, better ergonomics, bigger battery, dual card slots, touch screen, improved tactile feel of dials and switches, better menu system, and on and on.  These are all important things that Sony was playing catch up on. But I'm going to focus on what I think makes this a revolutionary camera instead of just an evolutionary one.

For a sports photographer, no viewfinder blackout is a paradigm shift. And I didn't realize how much of a shift until I went back to use my a6300 and a7rii. At first, not having viewfinder blackout seems kind of cool but not that big of a deal. But after using it for a while, it becomes seamless, and a huge advantage for following erratically moving fast subjects like skiers or soccer players. That moment of viewfinder blackout that I grew accustom to was often just long enough and would occur at the wrong time for when a subject changes speed or direction. As a result, there were often shots where the subject was partially out of frame or out of focus as tracking them during the blackout was a process of expecting them to continue on the path or speed that they were before the blackout. With no blackout, tracking them is much easier. So it was subtle at first shooting on the a9 but before I knew it, I was really using the no blackout viewfinder in ways I wasn't aware of. Picking up a traditional mechanical shutter camera felt like picking up an antique. Suddenly, everything else felt like old technology.

There are two additional features of this camera that make it groundbreaking: autofocus and image quality/dynamic range. Mirrorless autofocus has been getting very good, but hadn't managed to be as good as dSLRs for focus tracking a moving subject, until now. That's completely changed with the a9. The AF tracking on the a9 is as good as anything I've used, with the previous bar being set (in my experience) by the 5D Mark III. The a9 is as good or better than the 5DIII. It's hit rate is incredible and the camera acquires focus seemingly instantaneously and effortlessly.

The most unexpected improvement with the a9 was the dynamic range and the quality of the highlights and shadows when edited in post. With previous cameras, when pulling out detail of the shadows, there was a noisy, over-processed look if I pushed it too much, or a harsh fall off of highlights if I tried to bring the highlights back too much. With the a9, I find there is more range to work with highlights and shadows, but also that they transition much smoother, more naturally, and look less processed. As a shooter who is constantly pushing dynamic range and shooting backlit, this is a huge advantage.

The 4k video from the a9 is drop-dead gorgeous. With the a7rii, shooting 4k in full-frame was less than ideal. It looked good, but not as good as in crop mode. The a6300 looks great but has really bad rolling shutter and is a crop sensor. The a9 full-frame 4k video has the quality of the a6300, without serious rolling shutter issues, and with the shallow depth of field of a full-frame sensor. The AF tracking during video is decent but still needs some improvement before it is reliable to use for professional use. It is inconsistent but good under the right conditions.

So that all sounds great, but no camera is perfect, right? Exactly. There is some room for improvement and here are my nitpicks on the a9, in no particular order. First, the AF selector indicator in the viewfinder is a light grey that can be very difficult to see on busy backgrounds or mid-tones that it blends into. It needs to be brighter or have a selectable color option to make it more visible.

As mentioned earlier, the camera can shoot completely silently. But sometimes I want to hear the shutter. When I'm holding the camera high or low and can't see through the viewfinder or monitor, I rely on the electronic shutter sound to know I've taken a shot. It needs to be louder. I've had a number of times I've been shooting outdoors and wind or the sound of a waterfall is louder than the shutter sound so I can't hear it. Also the placement of the speaker for the electronic sound is the lower left side of the camera. Occasionally I'll be holding the camera in a way that my hand covers the speaker and I can't hear the shutter. A better location, like the top of the body would be better to hear the sound.

The a9 now has a physical button for selecting frame rate and autofocus mode. I'm happy about this but the AF mode selector has a lockout that is clunky and awkward to use. I think a lockout is a good idea but it needs to be redesigned to make it easier to use.

The video start/stop button has been moved to a new location near the viewfinder. I like this location much better, however, it is close enough in location and feel to the AF-on button that they are easily confused when using it while looking through the viewfinder. The video start/stop button needs to have a different ergonomic feel to differentiate it from the AF-on button.

Lastly, an issue that mirrorless cameras have yet to solve is sensor dust. All cameras have this problem. But mirrorless cameras are especially prone to getting dust on the sensor for two reasons. First, when you take a lens off, there is no mirror and the mechanical shutter is retracted. So the sensor is exposed directly to dust falling right on it. Secondly, the flange distance from the sensor to the lens mount is much shorter because there is no mirror. It's too easy to get dust on the sensor that is especially problematic in video. One workaround I've heard suggested is that Sony makes it so the mechanical shutter is not-retracted during changing lenses, or at least making it an option in the settings for when changing lenses.

There are two features I would like to see Sony put in their mirrorless cameras. First is a small or medium RAW option that still uses the full-frame sensor. I don't always need (or want) 24MP or 42MP (on my a7rii) but still want the shallow DOF of a full-frame sensor. Second I'd like to have the option to set the frame rates for the low, medium and high frame rate setting.

I read a post that the Nikon CEO said no pros are switching to Sony. He's dead wrong. I switched (from Canon) and know three other pros who have switched as well. Sony is doing what it takes to get pros and consumers to switch by giving features and new designs that give photographers the tools to be more creative. Canon and Nikon are sitting still, watching the revolution from the bleachers.

And did I mention that the a9 shoots as 20 frames per second?!! Insane.

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.