When I bought my Sony a99, it was one of the first cameras in the Sony line up to have the new Multi-interface hot shoe that promised a new generation of accessories which interfaced with the camera directly through the shoe. As soon as it was available I picked up the XLR audio unit, despite it's high price tag, to go with it which brought to the table one of the features lacking in most DSLR video style productions: In camera XLR audio recording with fully manual tactile controls.
Sony a7s geared upSony a7s with XLR module, shotgun microphone and wireless receiver.
The XLR unit has stayed with me for several cameras and is now best friends with my a7s. Because the XLR box requires it's own mounting, it can't mount directly to the camera (Sony has since resolved this with a new model that mounts directly to the shoe). This is no good for bare bones guerilla filming where you don't want any extra bits and pieces to get in the way. Unfortunately I'd become very much accustomed to the XLR module as it had almost entirely eliminated the need to use an separate audio recorder most of the time. I wanted something small, easy to pack every day, that I could use for impromptu video sessions.
Last year I saw the Sony ECM-XYST1M stereo microphone demonstrated at a trade show and I was blown away. A small stereo microphone with integrated shock mount, 90 and 120 degree microphone positions, low pass filter, a line out for use without the interface shoe AND a fluffy windscreen? Sold! I pre-ordered one on the spot!
This microphone has been my mainstay for subtle low key work and B-cameras. It was a perfect match for my NEX-7 and is even more so on my a6000. I now own two of these microphones for when I'm using my a7r and a6000 and secondary cameras for my a7s. It's very solidly built and sounds very good for what I need it to do.
The only one downside is that you can't manually control audio levels while interfacing through the shoe. This is true on every camera I've tried these microphones on. The work around for cameras with an external mic jack is to just plug it in. I've since learned that this is a standard shortcoming of the multi-interface shoe for audio. No microphone interfaced via the shoe will have anything more than auto-gain as dictated by the camera. This is a step backwards in my opinion but there are always cons to go along with the pros.
My current go to wireless microphone is also a Sony, the UWP-V6 kit. It's a great kit that's never let me down but it's not exactly what you want to carry around every day. The V6 kit is the same as the V1 kit but includes an XLR transmitter for use with a stick mic and that means even more to carry. Add in the XLR cables, windscreens, microphones, and other goodies to complete the kit, I found myself hunting for something more compact which I could carry around all the time and use for impromptu interviews and guerilla video shots. The UWP-V series has been recently replaced by the UWP-D series which are fully digital, have bigger screens, a better interface, an available adapter which lets you connect the receiver directly to a Multi Interface Shoe...and a higher price tag unfortunately.
What I ended up trying and recently buying was the Sony ECM-W1M. A bluetooth based wireless system. The receiver plugs into the multi-interface shoe and is very compact. A switch on the side lets you record from the transmitter, both the transmitter and receiver at the same time, or in 5.1 surround with certain Handycams which support it. The transmitter is tiny. Not much larger than a AA battery and runs from a single AAA battery. It has an integrated microphone and a clip to attach it to clothing. The kit also comes with some accessories for mounting and a couple of ear buds. The earbuds allow two way communication between the camera operater and the person with the microphone. It's a neat feature but I can't see it coming in handy that often. The transmitter also has a microphone port with plug-in power. The transmitter seems to pair well with my Rode Lavalier mic. Both fit neatly into my everyday camera bag.
To quickly test these microphones I performed a quick test, trying to compare everything fairly and with as little bias as possible. I recorded some video using several combinations of equipment, extracted the audio and posted it below so that they can be easily compared. The first test combinations are as follows:
Sony a7s + XLR-A1M audio module + UWP-V6 kit Lavalier transmitter and receiver
Sony a6000 + ECM-XYST1M stereo microphone
Sony a7r + ECM-W1M transmitter and receiver + Rode Lavalier microphone
Zoom H1 stereo microphone.
I also wanted to compare the wireless range of both the ECM-W1M and the UWP-V1 but then came to my senses. The Bluetooth module is rated for 300 feet and I'm sure that this is an optimistic estimate in ideal conditions. The UWP pack is battle tested and with the high power setting on the transmitter and the dual antenna diversity receiver, it can easily handle a distance several times as far and through several walls if needed.
When I made the switch to Sony, one of the features that appealed to me at the time was the ability to shoot true 60p video in 1080p. Several years later and video frame rates are a hot topic with modern cameras right up there with 4k.
Currently cameras like the 5K MKIII still can't shoot 60p at 1080p resolution while others such as the GH4, a7s, and others can shoot HD upwards of 120 frames per second.
I've recently had the opportunity to use a Sony a7s along side an FS700 to do some high speed tests comparing 60, 120, and 240 frames per second; the maximum the FS700 can record at 1080.
The FS700 was a rental that I had for the weekend. This is the first time I'd used one for a professional gig having only played with them before in-store. The FS700 is an amazing camera and produces amazing imagery but it's built in an awkward package with awkward controls and menus. It would take me a long time to get comfortable with the form factor if I actually owned one. The basics are simple enough and the powerful features help you to see past those shortcomings. It can record video at frame rates up to 960 frames per second but the resolution and quality suffer greatly. 240fps is the highest usable limit.
The a7s is a camera I've recently purchased as it's a camera that's great both for video and for low light event photography. It can record video up to 120 frames per second though at a reduced resolution of 720p. Combined with the best ISO performance of any camera available today, picture profiles which include SLog2, and 4k video via an external recorder make the a7s one of the most interesting cameras on the market today. I prefer this camera because it's so much like my a7r...identical save for a few tiny features and the extra video settings in the menus. The learning curve was nowhere near that of the FS700 which I'm still trying to figure out. It should also be noted that when in 120p mode, the sensor crops to a Super 35 size creating a crop factor. This can be combatted with a Speed Booster if you've got one. This cropping introduces some aliasing and moire to the image but the overall quality is quite impressive even upscaled to 1080p.
I have experience overcranking 60p footage and have always felt that it wasn't quite enough. It can be very useful for subtle effects but has little to no effect on very rapid movement. I wanted to see how exactly the differences between 60, 120 (at 720p), and 240 frame rates compared to each other recording the same movement.
The below video shows some video of a toy quadcopter taking off at 4 different frame rates. I went with this demonstration because it has a combination of slow smooth motion and high speed rapid rotation of the rotors.
The most apparent difference that became apparent to me in these tests is that there is such a thing as too much. I made this video but watching the 240fps clip bores me to no end! In this case the 60p clip looks smooth but not neccessarily 'slow' like the 120p and 240p clips do. I shot as many different things as I could and found that for some applications, 240 isn't enough...like a popcorn kernel popping...it's just too fast. For normal human motion like people dancing, I tended to think the 120p frame rate was better than 240p. Faster motion like my dogs shaking, lapping water, or barking, 240p was the best. The FS700 can carefully control it's frame rate and shoot below 24 frames per second down to 1 frame per second. This is useful for making in-camera timelapse videos.
One of the differences of the FS700 is that it's Super Slow Motion mode has a convenient 7 second buffer that can be set to trigger at the end of the press of the record button. That is to say that when you press record, the previous 7 seconds are saved to memory. This prevents overly long clips and waste of memory space...though it also prevents longer recordings should they be desired. The ability to play back the clips slowed down is a huge help especially if you want to show client the work as you're recording it. None of the other Sony cameras I've used have this feature.
Another thing which became very apparent to me was the need for light. I recorded people dancing at a party Halloween night and in front of a white seamless with 2000 Watts of Tungsten light, I still had to run at 2000 ISO with the kit lens wide open at F/3.5 to get a proper exposure. To shoot high speed indoors with my choice of F-stops, would require a LOT of light. The a7s combats this need with it's amazing ISO performance and I'm looking forward to shooting slow motion video in dimly lit conditions where no other camera can.
It's apparent to me after using both that the a7s was the right camera to buy (I can't always still rent the FS700). 120 frames per second is plenty for most applications even if it is only 720p and the low light performance is more useful than I ever thought it could be.
When I left Canon and switched to all Sony cameras, I had to deal with the reality that my shutter release cables weren't going to work and that I'd have to buy new ones. Little did I know that Sony was going to ditch the old Minolta style release and go with an all new multi-terminal on all of their newest cameras. All of the current Alpha cameras now use this port instead. The good news is that many more cameras (like the lower end mirrorless) now support cable shutter release
where previously they didn't but it meant I had to buy all new cables again!
Not wanting to go with the flow, and due to a lack of availability locally, I went a different way and ordered an adapter which converts the Canon 2.5mm cable release as found on older
Rebel cameras to the new sony Multi terminal interface. It cost me dearly but not as much as a new shutter release cable as I still had the cable I bought to use with my Powershot G12. It worked well in most situations but not all. For me, the adapter didn't work with my Gigapan Epic Pro.
This was a huge blow as I'd been looking forward to putting a smaller camera with bigger megapixels on my Gigapan...the combination seemed more than ideal! Unfortunately the shutter release just didn't want to work. Contacting Gigapan, they had already encountered the issue themselves but didn't have a solution yet. Their engineers don't miss much but I couldn't wait for them to find a fix...I had to get mine going as I had clients depending on me to product G
igapixel panoramas for them.
I tried different combinations of cables, adapters but even today there are only a couple of third party cables out for this new port. Nothing worked...until I started to think outside the box...
One of the first things I did with the adapter when I received it was use it with my Pocket Wizards to create a wireless shutter release for the camera combined with Pocket Wizard's E3 Canon shutter cable and the adapter. I thought that if I could get the Gigapan Epic Pro to trigger a Pocket Wizard, then it should take care of the rest and my problem will be solved.
To make this happen, all I needed was a simple adapter from my local electronics store as the input on the Pocket Wizard is a 3.5mm stereo phone jack and the Canon shutter release is a 2.5mm. With the adapter in place, everything worked perfectly.
The receiving unit was placed in the cameras hot show where it would be secure and out of the way. I wanted to make sure the transmitter was also secure so I looped the lanyard around one of the uprights on the Epic Pro and added a piece of velcro to the side of the unit (my pocket wizards are always equipped with velcro for attaching them to my small flashes). My first test was at a football game where I shot over 1000 exposures without a single complaint from either Pocket Wizard and no misfires. I've tested with both the Pocket Wizard Plus III and X. The former works fine though I've had trouble with channels under 20 and the X units don't seem to work at all. It could be that their auto switching ability is confused by this set up and they don't know if they're supposed to send or receive.
I believe this solution could also work in reverse as a way to enable the shutter confirmation on the Epic Pro without the requisite hardware by using the Pocket Wizards in the opposite direction from the camera to the Epic Pro.
I have no doubt that Gigapan will resolve the issue eventually either with a firmware update, their own shutter release cable, or both. For now this solution has proven to be reliable and with the Pocket Wizard X units available at a much lower price than we've ever seen before, it's not an impossibly expensive solution if you need a work around right now.
I've just received shipment of a new Sony cable from TriggerTrap, one of the first 3rd party cables to be produced and I'm trying to put it in place of the adapter I originally bought as it was obviously hand made by cutting apart a Sony factory shutter cable...no double why the cost was so high.
This set up hasn't let me down yet through several very large Gigapan projects; most recently a 360 degree shot at a football game:
What happened to spring!? I just realized today that I haven't posted anything on my blog since March. Thanks to everybody who's reading these and now that summer is here I'll be doing my best to keep a steady flow going. I have a few articles on the go right now which will be done soon but just to let you know what's going on with my blog, I wanted to give you a few teases in the hopes that you come back soon!
Next up is an article comparing mirrorless cameras to high end camcorders. The more I shoot video with mirrorless cameras, the more I see the death of small chip camcorders...we'll see.
After that I'll be blogging about my tests using a ColorChecker Passport to grade video. I've worked out a slick workflow with Adobe Speedgrade which lets me correct any video, shot in any camera setting (IE: Flat) and bring it to a 'normal' state. I've just finished testing it with an actual video job I had and I'll be writing it up soon. It should be of interest to photographers like myself who have a hard time thinking in terms of video!
I've also just figured out how to get my a7r mated to my Gigapan Epic Pro. There were some technical difficulties but the 36MP monster is finally ready for proper trials. It's been raining a lot here lately but as soon as it gets nice again, I'll be doing some testing with this as well and will post my results in a blog post.
Thanks for your patience everybody!
I've had the chance now to use Sony's 36 megapixel powerhouse for a few weeks now for a wide range of work from settings in studio to both indoor and outdoor events. I'm still convinced that it's the best camera available right now for me but it's not perfect. It's certainly a unique camera and it's hard to put into words how it compares to my experience using Sony's other cameras. I decided to do some tests between the cameras paired with my own observations to put some perspective into where this camera sits amongst it's peers.
For special event use, I'm done with big cameras. The cameras, batteries, accessories, and lenses are all smaller on mirrorless cameras and it makes a huge difference. I can carry a lot more for the same weight or go minimalist and carry next to no weight and still have the essentials covered. Even with the battery grip and a zoom lens, the 7r fits nicely in a shoulder bag with room to spare. Add to that jockeying for position with press photographers and a half a dozen TV cameras on tripods and I have the advantage. The only down side to the 7r for events is when the light is autofocus speed.
To demonstrate the low light performance of these 3 options, I set up a controlled test in my living room at night using a focus calibration target for AF speed and ISO performance. All three cameras were tested with the same lens where possible and with the Metabones Speedbooster on the NEX-7. A light meter was used to calibrate the amount of light to a specific level.
To test autofocus, I set up a a Spyder Lenscal focus calibration target and an LED video light. I turned the light down until my Sekonic meter couldn't register the light anymore and returned an error. The last reading I received before the errors was 0.5 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. I used an f/2.8 lens on all cameras and shot at the target to see what would happen. For the a99 it was a 28-70 Tokina zoom and for the E mount cameras, I used the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens. I also tested the 7r with the 24-70 f/4 zoom. I was worried the pancake lens, notoriously soft wide open, would hinder the autofocus n the E-mount cameras but it was the only f/2.8 lens I could use to compare with the a99. The results from this test were as follows:
a99: Hit focus for an average of 1 in 10
NEX-5R: Hit focus for an average of 9 in 10
NEX-7: Hit focus for an average of 10 in 10
a7r (f2.8): Hit focus for an average of 10 in 10
a7r (f4): Hit focus for an average of 8 in 10
The a99 was hopeless in this level of light and would only hunt and rack back and forth until giving up. I was very surprised by this! I found the 5r to hunt a little but found focus almost every time. The NEX-7 and 7r were surprisingly fast and hit focus every time, fairly quickly, and without a lot of hunting. Even with an f/4 maximum aperture the 7r performed surprisingly well with what I considered to be an acceptable hit rate. I switched the 7r to the 55mm f/1.8 Zeiss and kept turning down the light. The focus kept hitting 100% of the time even after the light was turned down to it's minimum and turned to be facing away from the target about 12 feet away. Only when I turned the light off and the target was illuminated with only a tv across the room was the autofocus unable to lock on at all. Despite the light being so dim, I was still able to focus manually using the super bright electronic viewfinder. Something that would never be possible with an optical viewfinder. This test is completely unscientific and had the benefit of a high contrast target. With a real world targets, the results might have been different. I was hoping that my light meter would allow me to measure the light right down to the lowest levels but that wasn't the case. Below are two photos. One taken with the f/2.8 lens with the video light and one taken at f/1.8 in near blackness to give you an indication of how dim it was. They're dark because I was hand-holding the camera and needed some shutter speed plus I wanted to show how it looked to my eyes. Through the viewfinder, the target was bright as day albeit noisy and distorted somewhat.
7r - 16mm f/2.8 Pancake - 1/25 - f/2.8 - ISO6400At this level of light (0.5 sec, f/2.8, ISO6400 as per Sekonic meter), the 7r was able to hit focus 100% of the time while the a99 was barely able to hit 1 in 10. 7r - 55mm f/1.8 - 1/50 - f/1.8 - ISO6400This level of light was from a TV across the room. The exposure settings were within 1/3 of a stop of the previous test (one stop faster shutter and at f/1.8 instead of f/2.8) and still at ISO6400. Autofocus wouldn't lock on but manual focus was still possible.
Up until now I always assumed that phase detect autofocus was king but I was dead wrong. While it can be faster than contrast detect in most conditions, it's not always better. This was one of the reasons I was considering keeping the a99 but now there is no advantage in my mind. Especially since I was having focus accuracy issues with my a99...I've seen no such problems with my other cameras.
Next I wanted to test ISO noise between these cameras. I didn't want to get carried away and shoot dozens of photos at different settings. All I wanted to accomplish was to show the level of noise at high (but not crazy high) ISO levels and throw the Metabones Speedbooster into the mix. The following photos were shot at ISO6400 on the a99 and the 7r and ISO3200 on the NEX-7. I used one of the best lenses I have which will fit on all three cameras, a modified Leica R 50mm Summilux f/1.4. This lens has had it's bayonet replaced to a minolta/sony bayonet. All three cameras metered the calibration target the same at 1/3 of a second at f/5.6.
You can judge for yourself from the extreme crops of the bubble level on the base of the calibrator. I feel that the 7r looks very good at ISO6400. More importantly, the NEX-7 looks a tiny bit better to me at ISO3200 and with the Speedbooster than the a99 does at ISO6400. I always suspected this to be the case and they're certainly close but the NEX-7 is a very good APS-C camera and I knew that with the speed booster it could come close to full frame performance. The newer Sony mirrorless APS-C cameras like the a6000 have better ISO performance than the NEX-7 and very good autofocus in a package that's going to be less than $700 and will still fit in a coat pocket. I can't see any reason to keep the a99 on this front either when the performance combination of the NEX-7 and Speedbooster are just as good. I'm afraid this test is the nail in the coffin for my beloved a99. It's been a great camera and I've had no regrets owning it opposed to a Canon 5D mkII or mkIII but Sony is innovating in a way nobody can keep up with right now so I have to say goodbye.
There are many things to consider when comparing cameras for real world use and tests like this rarely tell the whole story. What these tests do provide however is an opportunity to dig deep into the finer details. This has allowed me to notice the little things that really make the difference in the end. I could write a whole post about it but some of these things include the ergonomics of the cameras, their weight, how I don't really miss not having a top LCD and buttons for ISO, drive, white balance, etc. in the 7r. The fact that the battery door on the 7r battery grip is flimsy but the ergonomics are clean and simple and much better than the complex set up on the a99. I'll likely miss the fully articulated screen of the a99 but it always felt flimsy to me as well...the screen on the E mount cameras all feel very solid.
I've read my fair share of reviews on these cameras as I always do before I buy but the only thing I've learned is that everybody is looking for something different. To some the shutter noise in the 7r is a problem for street photography and for others the flash sync speed is an issue for flash photography. Some don't like the 'plasticy' feel of the a99 and some don't like the tri-navi controls on the NEX-7...which I love BTW and am sad to see go away. All I can tell you is that this is the second time a Sony camera has caused me to stop, think, and immediately send my best, favourite, camera to KEH. I hope it doesn't become a habit but at the rate Sony is going, it won't be long before they've changed the game again.