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Thursday
Nov272014

The Sony Alpha A6000: an Outstanding Little Travel Camera

It has been about 5 months since my last post, primarily because I've been very focused on my day job. Fret not though! I did get a chance to do some traveling recently, and have been spending quite a lot of time with the Sony A6000. I've used it while camping, hiking, and mountain biking at Lake Tahoe this past summer, it has been to India with me, and I've spent a bit of time shooting some landscapes with it here in San Francisco. Thus, I finally feel confident enough to write up a complete review of my experiences with it. If you can't already tell from the headline, I'm very happy with it, but there are several nit-picks that are worth digging into.

My A6000 Travel Kit

Handling

The A6000 is a camera that handles very well for its compact size. The built-in EVF (electronic viewfinder) is excellent, and is quick to turn on when bringing the camera to the eye. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the camera startup time - it sometimes takes a full 5 seconds to "wake up" after sitting off for several hours! Curiously enough, this start up delay seems to be much shorter (1-2 seconds) if the camera has been turned on recently. In either case, the A6000 is nowhere near as fast to startup as a modern DSLR, which goes from off to ready in a fraction of a second.

Moving back to the viewfinder, it's worth mentioning that I prefer the A6000's to the X-E2's (see my review here). The major advantage of the A6000 finder is that it works much better in varying light; it's brighter in sunlight, and dims appropriately in low light. The A6000's finder also seems to refresh faster than the X-E2's, and feels much more immediate overall. These two factors really make the EVF shine, and add up to trump the X-E2's EVF resolution advantage, in my opinion. 

The control layout is well thought-out, and nearly all of the button functions can be customized. On my camera, I've configured the AEL button to activate "Eye AF" (more on that function below, in the autofocus section), the C1 button sets the AF drive mode, and the C2 button turns the rear LCD screen off ("Deactivate Monitor" function). Unfortunately the "Deactivate Monitor" function never turns the rear LCD completely off - it simply displays blackness on the monitor, but the LED backlight remains on. This is acceptable in daylight, but in very dark locations the glow from the rear LCD is still noticeable and can be distracting. Fortunately, the monitor backlight does turn off when bringing the EVF to the eye.

Battery life is awful, yielding about 300 shots per charge. This means that I carry 6-8 batteries with me when traveling in order to match the shot output of just two Nikon D800 batteries. I understand that EVFs and constantly-on image sensors draw lots of power, but I would not complain if Sony decided to make a slightly thicker grip to accommodate a bigger power cell. Another power-related complaint I have is related to the charging setup - the camera ships with a cable charger, which means that the battery can only be charged through the camera. It's not possible to leave a second battery charging outside of the camera while you're out taking photos. Fortunately, third-party battery chargers that work well do exist, but it's disappointing that Sony doesn't include one with the A6000.

The software menu layout isn't bad, but it is nowhere near as well-organized as what you'd find on a Nikon or Canon DSLR. Sometimes it takes a bit of hunting to find a particular function. Another gripe of mine is that the camera lacks a front control dial, which is a standard feature on nearly all "prosumer" cameras these days. Another welcome feature would be some basic form of weather-sealing. Finally, I'd also like to see a configurable AF point count. I frequently shoot in single-point AF mode, placing the AF point myself. With 179 AF points, clicking the selected AF point across the viewfinder to move it to a different location can be a bit tedious. As crazy as this may sound, I sometimes prefer to reduce the selectable AF points down to 11 on my D800 in order to speed up the AF point selection process (fewer clicks), particularly since I don't need all of those AF points when taking landscape photos. The same functionality would be very welcome on the A6000.

Autofocus

The AF system is the best of any mirrorless camera that I've ever used. It's incredibly fast and accurate, even in extremely low light. Interestingly enough, I found that the 16-70mm f/4 lens focused faster and more accurately in very dim lighting than the brighter 20mm f/2.8, but I think that is simply a characteristic of that particular lens, and not a reflection of the A6000's focusing system. In any case, I have absolutely no complaints about the AF system. However, it is worth mentioning that I don't shoot any live-action or sports events. One nice AF benefit of mirrorless cameras is that lenses don't need fine-tuning! Since the phase-detect AF pixels are directly on the camera sensor, there is no possibility for AF calibration error that can sometimes occur with DSLR cameras.

A feature that I've grown to use extensively is the "Eye AF" mode that I mentioned in the handling section. This setting quickly detects a subject's face, then focuses on the subject's eyes. This is incredibly useful when taking portraits, and allows for much more flexible, faster compositions: simply compose the shot, then hold the custom function button to ensure critical focus on the subject's eyes.

Image Quality

Image quality is where this camera really shines. The 24-megapixel sensor offers outstanding detail and dynamic range. Unfortunately the RAW files seem to be compressed and are certainly no where near as good as the 14-bit NEFs produced by Nikon cameras. The result of this is some slight banding noise when bringing shadow detail up, even at base ISO. A full-frame equivalent, this camera is most certainly not. However, it's still the best APS-C sensor that I've encountered (although most likely not as good as the D7100, which I have yet to try). In any case, see the images below for real-world examples. Feel free to click-through to view them in higher resolutions on Flickr.

San Francisco, CA (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Leh, Ladakh (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Khardung-La, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Stakna Gompa, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

The Chaos of Old Delhi, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Blue City, Jodhpur, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)
The Taj Mahal, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

The Himalayas (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Ecosystem

The Sony E-mount ecosystem is worth discussing here, as buying into any interchangeable-lens camera means buying into an ecosystem of lenses. Two things really stand-out about the E-mount ecosystem: lack of lenses, and high prices. While the A6000 itself is an incredible bargain, the same unfortunately cannot be said about some E-mount lenses. My favorite all-around E-mount lens, the 16-70mm f/4 OSS, comes in at $1000, which is very expensive given its parameters. It's a superb lens, and offers outstanding image quality with excellent range in a small package, but it's priced higher than comparable full-frame lenses made by Nikon and Canon. The 24mm f/1.8, a fast 35mm equivalent, is priced at an outrageous $1000, which is $100 more than Sigma's superb 35mm f/1.4 for full-frame.

Fortunately, most of the available E-mount lenses are quite good (excepting the kit lenses like the 16-50mm), but the selection is fairly mediocre. For example, I want to use the A6000 for underwater work, but the only macro lens available is a 30mm f/3.5, which is both too slow and too wide for wildlife macro work. Where is the proper 90mm f/2.8 macro? It really seems like Sony has focused on consumer-grade lenses, and are only now starting to cater to more advanced photographers. Fortunately a few other manufacturers are also making lenses for the E-mount system, and most of them are very good. One notable bargain is the Rokinon/Samyang 12mm f/2.0, which is supremely sharp across the frame, even at f/2!

The Milky Way Above Tahoe (Sony A6000 + Rokinon 12mm f/2.0)

Leh, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + Rokinon 12mm f/2.0)

Conclusion

For me, the A6000 represents an ideal compromise. It offers superb image quality in a small package, and that's what makes it such an outstanding little travel camera. Despite all of my gripes above, this is really the first affordable mirrorless camera that delivers enough image quality that I don't feel guilty leaving the D800 behind. In fact, for many longer trips, I will often choose the A6000 over my D800 because of the size and weight advantage. To illustrate the difference, the complete A6000 kit that you see in the photo above (camera, plus four lenses: 16-70mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8, 12mm f/2.0, and 20mm f/2.8) weighs less than a D800 + 24-120mm f/4 VR combo.

For many readers like myself, I think the A6000 will make an ideal second system, perfectly complementing a large full-frame setup, and filling the need for a light travel kit. For others who are newer to photography, I would certainly recommend investigating the A6000 as an excellent alternative to the standard APS-C DSLRs offered by both Nikon and Canon - just be weary of the fairly barren and expensive lens ecosystem that you're buying into. It pays to do your due diligence here, and to be certain that any lenses you might want do exist.

Pros

  • Superb sensor, delivering top-level image quality in the APS-C category.
  • Fast, accurate autofocus that works surprisingly well in very low light.
  • Incredible value: top-of-class image quality with entry-level pricing.
  • Small size and weight: perfect for traveling.

Cons

  • Immature lens ecosystem with abnormally high prices and poor selection.
  • Very slow startup time.
  • Abysmal battery life: ~300 shots per charge.
  • Doesn't ship with a separate battery-only charger.
  • A few "prosumer" features like a front control-dial and weather-sealing would be nice.
  • RAW files don't seem very RAW - some compression and slight banding when recovering shadows.
Saturday
May312014

The Fujifilm X-E2: a Landscape Photographer's Perspective

The Fujifilm X-E2: Handsome Indeed

The Fuji X-series of cameras have been some of the most discussed and reviewed cameras of the last two years. Fuji appear to have created a very successful formula that excites both amateur a professional photographers alike: good image quality in a small, reasonably-priced package that has intuitive manual controls. Combine this with a great lens lineup and a solid history of adding features via firmware updates, and one can see why they have become so popular. It's no secret that I shoot primarily with Nikon gear, but I'm certainly not the type to become attached to a particular brand when a better tool for the job exists. Since my Nikon setup is rather large and ungainly to travel with, I decided to give the Fuji X-E2 a try to see if it has what I need in a travel camera.

Before we begin, a quick note: I tested the X-E2 with the recently-released 2.0 firmware update which added significant electronic viewfinder (EVF) and autofocus (AF) improvements. Additionally, this is not intended to be an exhaustive review, but more of a short collection of my thoughts about the camera. 

Handling

The X-E2 is a handsome little thing: the perfect size and weight for travel, and with the MHG-XE accessory grip, the camera fits perfectly in my hand, and has a solid, well-built feel. Fuji did very well with the control layout, adding manual switches wherever possible instead of slow-to-access menu items. I'm a big fan of the manual shutter speed dial up top, the AF-mode selection switch, and the aperture selection dial that is on most Fuji lenses. The software menus are fairly well-thought-out; I was able to get used to them very quickly, so no complaints there. This was the first camera with an EVF that I've used for any extended period of time, and I was pleasantly surprised by the EVF resolution: it's very good! The EVF refresh rate is also rather good (the 2.0 firmware update greatly improved this) - there's a barely-noticeable delay between what happens in real-life, and what you see in the EVF.

Unfortunately, that's where my praise for the handling aspects must end. The camera is very slow to start-up, and certain functions can't be accessed until a few seconds after startup. The ISO button, for example, doesn't work until 2-3 seconds after turning the camera on, which resulted in one missed shot for me. If the EVF is in eye-sensor mode, it's very slow to activate shortly after turning the camera on. The process would often go something like this for me: turn the camera on whilst bringing the EVF to my eye, and then wait 3-4 seconds for the EVF to activate. To me, this delay was unacceptable. The default EVF mode switches between the EVF and rear LCD based on an eye sensor, but three other modes are available: EVF only (always on), rear LCD only, or EVF only activated by the eye sensor. I think the camera could use one more mode: DLSR emulation, where the EVF is used to compose and take photos, and the rear LCD is used for photo playback and menu access (and remains off otherwise). The addition of this new mode, along with much faster EVF response/activation time after startup, would make the camera much more usable, and would eliminate the sluggish feel that it currently has.

Autofocus

The AF is fast and accurate in good light. It's slightly slower, and noticeably less-accurate in poor light. The 2.0 firmware greatly improved AF performance, but it's certainly not up to DSLR standards yet, and it's not even close to DSLR standards when tracking moving subjects. Despite this, it's quite good for a mirrorless camera, and certainly usable for a travel camera.

Image Quality

I will go ahead and say it up front: the X-E2 image quality is very disappointing. The X-trans sensor has good noise characteristics and delivers great dynamic range in RAW, but unfortunately this comes with a great loss of detail. Some of this detail loss is due to the RAW de-mosaicing algorithms in Lightroom (I'm using 5.4), which seem to give images a strange, painting-like rendering. However, some detail loss just seems to be a characteristic of the strange pixel arrangement that the X-trans sensor has, since some artifacts and detail-loss are still visible in the JPEGs produced in-camera. The strange, painterly effect is most noticeable when taking photos of fine detail, like vegetation, and ultimately is unacceptable for a landscape photographer like myself. Some photographers seem to be getting better results by converting RAW files using CaptureOne, but I'm stubborn and refuse to completely change my workflow to make minimal image quality gains. Ultimately, I'd be much happier with a traditional bayer arrangement; noise is always correctable in post-processing, but lost detail is never recoverable.

To see an example of this strange X-trans rendering, click through the image below to view a full-sized version:

Sausalito, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 18mm, 0.5s, f/8, ISO 200, OIS: off.

In the image below, you can see the X-trans de-mosaicing struggle with the fine detail of the bridge cables. There is also a strange color-cast around some of the cables, which looks a bit like chromatic aberration, but is not removed by Lightroom 5.4's correction algorithms. Click through to see the full-sized image:

San Francisco, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 48mm, 5.3s, f/8, ISO 200, OIS: off.

Another with some of the strange painting-like rendering in the details of the boats. Despite this, I'm fairly happy with this image. Click through below to see the full-sized image:

Sausalito, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 18mm, 1/280s, f/8, ISO 200.

There's quite a lot of detail-loss in the long-exposure below. Click through to see the full-sized image:

San Francisco, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 18mm, 30s, f/8, ISO 200, OIS: off.

The next image, I'm very happy with, and would consider quite good. For some reason, the camera seems to fare better when taking portraits. Click through below to see the full-sized image:

Sausalito, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 28mm, 1/240s, f/3.2, ISO 200.

Conclusion

The X-E2 is a pretty good little camera, albeit with a number of annoying handling nags. I would be willing to forgive some of the handling problems if the image quality were up-to-par for my landscape work, but ultimately the X-trans sensor is unacceptable for me. Sadly, my landscape work has turned me into an obsessive pixel-peeper: I demand good detail from my RAW files, and the X-E2 doesn't deliver in that regard. Even the JPEGs leave a lot to be desired. If you're as landscape-obsessed as I am, I don't recommend this camera for you. My Nikon D7000 from 2010, which also has a 16mp APS-C sensor, produces RAW files with much more detail than the X-E2. If, however, you're a more casual photographer and not as pixel-obsessed as I am, then you could be very happy with the X-E2. It delivers outstanding web-sized images, and could make a great travel companion for you!

If Fujifilm is listening, here's what I'd like from my next X-camera:

  1. Replace the X-trans sensor with one that has a traditional bayer pixel arrangement, like the excellent 24mp APS-C sensor used in Nikon and Sony cameras.
  2. Address some of the camera's slowness and handling issues, particularly the slow responsiveness just after turning it on.
  3. Add a DLSR EVF mode: compose and take photos using the EVF, playback and menu access using the rear LCD.

Those three fixes would make the X-system a perfect travel setup for me. Until then, I'm going to stay away from Fuji cameras, whilst yearning wistfully at their beautiful prime lens lineup and compact-size.

Pros

  • Size and weight: perfect for travel!
  • Manual control layout: I really like the manual shutter dial up top, and how the majority of lenses come with an aperture ring.
  • Fuji's lens lineup is outstanding, and is aimed perfectly towards enthusiasts and pros. Canon and Nikon could certainly take a hint here and add a number of fast primes to their APS-C lineups.
  • Excellent dynamic range and noise performance.
  • Produces beautiful web-sized images.

Cons

  • X-trans image quality leaves a lot to be desired: lots of detail loss due to X-trans de-mosaicing.
  • The EVF is slow to activate after turning the camera on: it takes 2-3 seconds for it to recognize that my eye is at the viewfinder after switching the camera on. This is incredibly frustrating, and makes the camera feel very sluggish.
  • The EVF needs one more mode: "DSLR emulation", where the EVF is used to compose and take photos, and the rear LCD is used for photo playback and menu access (and remains off otherwise).
  • The EVF doesn't adjust brightness automatically based on ambient light, and it's a bit too dark in very bright sunlight (even at its brightest setting).
  • The ISO menu can't be accessed for a few seconds after turning the camera on, which sometimes results in a missed shot.
  • IS.2, the secondary image stabilization mode, doesn't activate on shutter 1/2 press as described in the camera manual. Instead, it seems to activate during photo capture, which sometimes results in blurry photos since stabilization can take a short moment to properly "settle". IS.1, the default mode, leaves stabilization active constantly as long as the camera is on, but unfortunately this drains the battery much faster.
  • Spot metering doesn't use the selected AF point, and instead the center area is always utilized. This is very counter-intuitive to how every other camera meters in spot mode.
  • Long exposures cannot be stopped mid-exposure - not even by physically turning the power switch off. This is rather frustrating for a landscape photographer, since sometimes I start a long exposure by accident and need to end it quickly to change a setting and re-start.
  • Long exposure noise-reduction is a mystery. It doesn't actually take a second dark-frame exposure to subtract noise from the original.
  • AF isn't up to DSLR standards, particularly in low-light.
  • Exposure delay/self-timer mode not preserved when turning the camera off and on. I use the 2-second self-timer as an exposure delay for landscape photos, so I have to re-enable it each time after turning the camera back on.
  • Unable to change selected AF point without first pressing a different button. This extra step is an annoyance coming from a DSLR.
Friday
Jan312014

Looking Back at 2013

2013 was a fantastic year for me. Despite my slightly reduced travel itinerary (compared with 2012), I still managed to do quite a bit of exploring - particularly around California and the West Cost. I was able to visit Portugal again with my wife, and we made it out to Hawaii for a long weekend. I'm not sure what 2014 has in store for me, but if it's anything like last year, it should be very exciting indeed.

The New Span, Bay Bridge, San Francisco

Campsite, Lake Margaret, Eldorado National Forest

Golden Hour, Porto, Portugal

Golden Gate Fog, San Francisco

The Night Sky Above Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

Diver Silhouette, Monterey

Golden Gate Glow, San Francisco

San Francisco Skyline, Blue Hour

STOP, San Francisco

Wednesday
Dec042013

Announcing: GuessTheFormat.com

I'm pleased to announce the launch of a website that I've been working on in my spare time over the last few months: GuessTheFormat.com. GuessTheFormat is an experiment for photographers: can you guess the image sensor format of a photograph just by looking at it?

I've often pondered about my ability to identify camera image sensor size, also known as "format", just by looking at a photo. Am I able to distinguish images taken with a full-frame camera from those taken with an APS-C camera? Or compact from four-thirds? How much of an affect does image sensor format really have on photographs? Could an excellent photographer with a compact camera trick me into thinking an image was taken with a full-frame camera?

I decided to create a website to help me ponder some of these questions. GuessTheFormat.com is a result of my work and experimentation. Created using Scala and Play Framework, the website indexes images from Flickr Explore, and categorizes them by image sensor format. Images are then presented to the player along with two sensor formats: the correct one, and a random incorrect format. The player's challenge is to examine the photo and try to select the correct format. Results are recorded, aggregated regularly, and presented on the stats page.

Try it out for yourself, here: GuessTheFormat.com