Wednesday, 7 May 2014

My weapon of choice..

The old and the new. My present kit next to my old film SLR

This is bit where I bore you to tears about which bit of kit I use.

At present I use a Sony Alpha SLT-37 DSLR. There are not as many Sony users out there and sometimes I get pelters from some photographers who will remain nameless for not using the more usual Nikon or Canon brands (In fact I get this so much I tend to term Nikon enthusiasts as Nikon Nazi's since some seem to think of non-Nikon users are the Untermenschen )

Up to a few years ago I used a small Panasonic compact to get my photos. It was convenient, had a good zoom range and was generally pretty happy with it.

However despite getting nice photos I decided to upgrade. The main problem was the compacts low light performance. When the sun was shining and the subject was relatively close, I could get some nice pictures. But as soon as the light dropped from optimum I really struggled. I ended up with photos too dark, too grainy or blurred because of too slow a shutter speed.

One of the great advantages of a compact is it's portability and there is a true maxim that says the worst photo you will ever take is when you do not have a camera with you. I was attracted at first to the mirrorless 4/3 cameras such as the NEX range, which seemingly combined good performance with portability. But after playing around with them in the now long departed Jessops, I couldn't stop feeling that I really needed a viewfinder(Once you have a camera with a viewfinder there is no going back). While a lot of photo's can be composed using the back LCD, you really can't beat a viewfinder, especially when tracking moving objects. But the NEX range is probably what got me thinking about Sony in the 1st place.

Anyway once I had decided to buy a DSLR (and persuaded my wife we could afford it) the problem was which one to buy. I had a limited budget which severely restricted my choice if I was buying new. Basically it was to be one of the entry level cameras from the Sony, Nikon and Canon.

The Sony at the time had a number of advantages for me. Firstly I already had some Minolta lenses which were compatible. While the lens were not great glass in modern terms, they would do the job for a while.

Because Sony had to try harder than the others (it not being the brand of choice), I also felt I got more bang for buck than the equivalents in the other brands. It was also a little bit cheaper.

But actually the main interest for me was the Sony's SLT technology.

Most DSLR's use a mirror to reflect the light coming through the lens through a set of prisms into the viewfinder. Sony do something different. There is no mirror in the normal sense. Instead the light is split by a translucent mirror with a small percentage going to a electronic viewfinder and the rest to the camera sensor.

One advantage is that when you take a shot the camera no longer has to lift the mirror before taking the photo. This is seen at it's best by with Sony's frame rate matching much more expensive camera's. Another advantage is that without the need for a large prism assembly at the top of the camera, the camera can be built smaller which improves portability. This was a big consideration  for me at the time. While the size difference is not huge it is significant.

Another factor was also to do with my personality. Basically when it comes to technology I am a masochist.

Maybe it is because I work in the technology industry, but my relationship with gadgets is one of detached interest. I severely distrust the herd instinct that makes people jump on the latest bandwagon  . For example while I appreciate the technology in Apple phones and iPads, I will never have one myself because basically the lack of control over the product.  I would rather have a product which tries a new direction with both the plus and minuses that entails.  Why go the scenic route when you can climb over sharp rocks in the hope you might find a better viewpoint that no one else has ever seen?

And so it is with the SLT technology. There is no doubt it has some advantages. Because the mirror is not being flipped up all the time, it is easier for Sony to produce a camera with a faster continuous shooting mode. You also see at all times what the camera sensor is seeing without having to flip the mirror up. One big plus for me is that you get a lot more information in the viewfinder than an equivalent DSLR, so things like histograms are available at all times while you looking through the viewfinder. Plus you get 100% coverage(although this is a can be a mixed blessing)

Then again there are those rock splinters.

Because not all the light goes to the sensor you are losing about 5% of light to the sensor. While most of the time this is not a problem, you will still suffer at little in very low light (But since at this point you should really be on a tripod anyway this is not as disaster). There is also a lag between the light hitting the camera and it showing in the viewfinder. Normally you do not notice this, but when panning fast moving objects such as cars it is apparent and you have to compensate to try and ensure the subject is somewhere in the middle of the shot which takes a bit of practice.

So after 2 years of usage how would I sum up the Sony Alpha SLT-37

The applause

Good frame rate (up to 7 f.p.s)
Excellent Sensor for the money.
Electronic viewfinder(EVF) provides extra information and 100% coverage and a better preview of what the photo will look like

The brick bats

The EVF is a mixed blessing. It make panning shots difficult and it does not have the resolution of a standard viewfinder

This being Sony, they have to put there propriety mark on the camera somewhere. The memory stick slot is OK, since there is also a SD card one. The Sony RAW format is OK  since all camera manufacturers have their own raw format. But why do they insist in having a Sony only flash hot shoe? It means if you want a external flash(and if you do indoor work, you will) you either have to buy a very expensive Sony flash or buy an adapter and miss out on E-TTL mode.

The rear LCD screen though is the real bugbear. I have a friend who bought the previous mode(alpha 35). That has a quite decent LCD. When they made the alpha 37 the designers obviously took the decision that if they were upping the sensor pixel count, they had to make economies elsewhere. The result is a LCD which is close to useless being really poor resolution and difficult to see in bright light. I tend not to bother using it and if I am reviewing my shots I tend to use the EVF. Unfortunately they appear to have done a similar trade-off with the my cameras replacement , the SLT a-58. This really is penny pinching now that decent LCD panels are a dime a dozen(Basically they are doing it to ensure there is a clear market difference between the middle tier and low end DSLRs. So basically a marketing and not a technical decision )

Would I buy Sony again?

The real proof of the pudding is given my time again and what I know now, would I buy the same camera.

The answer is probably yes. The camera is relatively small, has a good sensor and some nice features. It has it's fleas too, but so would any of the entry level models. Best of all for me, I am not following the herd and can go my own way, and perhaps find advantages over the herd.

One thing with cameras is that once you have made your choice you are stuck with it. As you build up your kit, it makes it harder to switch brands(although Ebay is your friend here ).

So what about Sony's now? Well I still think they make interesting to great cameras(The a7 and RX100 have great reviews, but come at a price) and are as good as the equivalent Nikon or Canon.

Sony always have had great engineers. However Sony as a company need to realise the advantages of standards and stop listening to the marketing men. I'm pretty sure it is the engineers at Nikon who decide the product and not the money men.

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