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CAMERA TESTING WITH THE SONY A77 (4 OF 4)

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Part four of my four part write-up on testing the Sony a77 DSLR in various sports setting that I typically shoot  with my job. Please check out the previous post for details on the first test and a bit of an intro to this multi-part project: here

Surfing photography and the US Open.

My last test of the gear was at the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach. This would also be a bigger test of the longest lens I had with me to use, the 70-400 zoom. Combined with the 1.5 sensor I would have an effective 600mm of reach at the longest end.
Overall the lens and camera seemed to perform pretty well. I still wasn’t exactly in the best position to shoot the competition, but that’s my fault and the beach was ridiculously crowded for the main event.
Focus and tracking seemed to work pretty well. I was using a monopod for stabilization. And while I’m sure using a 600mm monster lens from another company would have resulted in pictures that were a bit better, I certainly can’t complain about the quality of the shots from this lens and camera combo.
I’m leaving out a lot of small details that are similar to what I wrote last week in Part 3, from the Lucas Oil Off Road Race. You can click back to that one if you’re curious.

So, what were my overall thoughts on using the a77 as a sports camera:

Focusing – I think there are several things I would change if this were to be a dedicated sports camera (which it’s not designed to be, please keep that in mind). I personally didn’t like the cross shape of the focus points. I’m accustomed to a diamond shape that allows for some point selection in the corners. But this is just related to how I like to shoot. Biggest annoyance was the seemingly slow adjustment of point selection. Also, the selected point “glows” grey. I want it to glow red. It was very difficult to see the grey selected point when looking through the viewfinder or at the LCD, especially on a bright day.

Continuous focus seemed to work really well as long as your subject was in the center of the frame. And when shooting slower moving sports the tracking focus worked well enough to be used, too. For motorsports though the subjects moved too fast or were too erratic. Again, the tracking/registered point option is likely best for people in groups (like the bride at a wedding) or with slower moving sports subjects that are high contrast against the background.

The lenses – I thoroughly enjoyed the lenses themselves. They were sharp, quiet enough to where I didn’t notice much of a difference compared to my gear and seemed to focus fast. While they turn and lock clockwise like Canon glass, they zoom opposite, like Nikon glass. This only threw me off a few times after years of muscle memory. haha!
Price-wise they’re not far off from the other major brands like Canon/Nikon for their respective focal lengths, as well.
The rear lens caps need to be redesigned somehow. There is only one way to screw them on when swapping lenses. So I feel time was wasted at several points when I was trying to do a quick change and fumbled while trying to line up the cap on the lens just-so. Picture it this way… if the face of the lens cap is a clock and there is notch at 3’oclock, you HAVE to line up the cap/lens exactly at 3’oclock or you can’t put the cap back on. Compared to a Canon cap which would lock at, say, 3 AND 9… you are more likely to re-cap quickly. Does that make sense?

The Digital Viewfinder – this was a big adjustment for me, Sony was right. I liked the internal leveler, and things like the option to show you in-the-viewfinder what the exposure will look like. But on overcast days like two of the race days I shot, when it was “bright out without being bright out” the digital viewfinder was hard to see and seemed dim looking at it compared to outside. Think of when you’ve taken a photo with your phone on a cloudy day… you know how it looks muted/dim on the screen but through your eyes it’s bright out? It’s exactly like that. (Yes, I know what 14% grey is, I’m not going super technical in explaining it here though). Do note that the viewfinder was also at the brightest setting, too.
The flip out LCD was handy – which I didn’t think I would like. But it was a nice feature to have when standing there, camera on monopod, reviewing shots.

Body Design – The design of the body was what I had the hardest time with. This has everything to do with muscle memory and personal preference. So take what I’m about to say with a very big grain of salt.
I had a hard time getting used to using the camera body. I’m not a fan of the “power button by the shutter” design. Nikon does this too… I’ve always thought it seemed silly. I always leave my cameras powered on and in sleep mode. This way they can be started quick and I never have try to shoot and think “oh, I didn’t turn it on”. But with the LCD’s of the Sony I felt the need to turn off the camera more often than I normally do. Startup seemed a tad slow for my taste, especially when I was turning off/on to conserve battery.
I didn’t like the sensor placement for auto-switching the LCD to the viewfinder, but I don’t know if that’s really a design change that is even possible.
I’ve already mentioned to Sony that there should also be an option for “no quick preview on screen” after capturing the photo. Also, I think there needs to be an option to set “preview for 2 seconds on LCD ‘ONLY’”. This way you get your quick preview looking at the back of the screen and then can go back to shooting. Currently if you use the “Preview for xx Seconds” feature it will show up in the viewfinder, too, blocking what you’re trying to shoot until it times out or until you tap the shutter button to return to shooting mode.
I’m not a fan of front adjustment wheels. This is also person preference. I find them too easy to hit/roll between shots and mess up your settings. But I understand this is something other shooters would say “well just don’t do that!”
Another design issue I had an unexpected problem with was the Video button. There is a large Video button on the back that if you hit at any time it will start recording. Great for videographers, bad for photographers. I knocked this many times and unknowingly started recording and didn’t realize it til I lifted the camera to my eye to shoot. I also did this a lot when I went to flip out the screen since the button is right above the corner of the screen most right-handed people would pull on to release the screen. Note: This CAN be turned off in the menu, I simply didn’t look long enough trying to figure out how to disable the button, however Sony clarified that it is an option.

Battery life – overall it seemed pretty great. I was just doing long days and only had one battery. However it also charged very quick.
Size of weight of the camera is nice and light, certainly a comfortable camera for all around shooting day to day.

So what was my overall impression of the camera? I enjoyed my time with it, but it’s not perfect for heavy sports shooters.
This is pretty much what I went in expecting, and from my understanding this is also what Sony was looking to learn more about by loaning me the gear to try out. There is no way that a sub-$2,000 camera will do what a $7,000 sports body will… This includes Canon and Nikon cameras in the $1-2,000 range.
Who would I recommend this for? Wedding Photographers, Portrait guys, Hobbyists, Weekend Warriors, and Amateurs alike. If you shoot “a lot of everything” and occasionally might do some sports work, it’d be a great system. There are some awesome lens options (let’s be honest, plenty of Nikon and Canon shooters pay top dollar for Zeiss glass for their cameras, too). The camera is light, feature rich with things you didn’t even know you’d need (like facial programming for your kids school performance, or that wedding you’re shooting).
I don’t think that it’s ready for the big sporting events – not for action photography just yet. But what’s cool to see is that Sony is working on it and doing the research they can to create a better system for everyone.

Click the break for photos from the US Open of Surfing

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CAMERA TESTING WITH THE SONY A77 (3 OF 4)

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Part three of my four part write-up on testing the Sony a77 DSLR in various sports setting that I typically shoot  with my job. Please check out the previous post for details on the first test and a bit of an intro to this multi-part project: here

Taking the Sony a77 to the track

This is where I was most curious about the a77 and lenses… the racetrack.

The first chance I had at the track with the Sony system was with the Formula Drift race series. I was in Seattle for one of my larger clients, Falken Tire, who I handle a portion of their motorsports photography for. The first day I arrived earlier than I normally would for a race, which gave me a couple practice sessions to get out and test shoot a bit with the a77. I would be using the 300/2.8 that I brought out with me.

While I was, again, happy with how the lenses performed I was a little bummed with the speed of the focus tracking. I was getting a bit of motion blur even when using faster shutter speeds. But again, this could also have been human error, I won’t deny that either. The 300 & a77 combo gives and effective 450mm/2.8 reach – this is VERY far for Drift and Seattle was a smaller track (proximity of photogs to cars) compared to Atlanta or Jersey.
But more frustrating for me as a sport shooter were the delays of the camera itself. When bursting at 10fps (or just shooting anything in general) the Sony system puts a brief preview of the image you just shot up on the screen or viewfinder – whichever one you’re using at the time. There is no way to turn this off. In the menu you can turn off previews (or set them for 2, 4, etc, seconds). But even after turning my previews to Off, there is still a brief moment the image is on your display. I think this is the camera’s way of telling you “Hey man, I took a shot!” compared with a Canon or Nikon you’ll have that brief moment of black while the mirror and shutter are up to exposure the sensor. So, I am guessing Sony put this there as a way to reassure you the photo was captured.
Note: This is something that I’ve already talked to Sony about to try and clarify, with them, what I mean by the screen pausing. Now I wouldn’t compare the pause to the brief flash of black from a shutter on a Canon or Nikon – that’s too quick to affect your shot. The image pause on the Sony I found distracting enough to screw up my framing. This is something Sony also said they’ll ask about since it’s not a complaint they’ve heard previously.

But I want it turned off – or the ability to turn it off. That fraction of a second that there is an image in your viewfinder of something that JUST happened is long enough for your subject to move a bit and your framing to get messed up. So while it doesn’t affect the AF or anything like that, you might still not-get the shot due to accidentally cropping part of the subject out.
Now, I know that nothing will be as fast/accurate about what’s going on in front of your camera compared to a mirror, but if you’re looking at a screen you’re definitely going to want that screen as close to real-time as possible.

Another issue that I had with this camera in a race setting is the inability to “chimp” efficiently. As much as that term bugs me sometimes, it’s the perfect word to describe the action of “looking down right after a shot to see what it looks like” like a chimp inspecting something in front of them.
We ALL do this at the track CONSTANTLY. This can mean the difference between sorting through 500 photos when you download your card or 800 photos.

Now, I wasn’t using the most expensive SD card out there, so I’m sure there was some margin of error (read: slow) due to a cheaper card. But I don’t own SD cards since all my cameras use CF cards. So I’ll take some blame for the possible slow speed of writing to a less-expensive card I bought to save money.
However the camera seemed to write very very slow despite using a class 10 card as I was told to do. It was so slow, in fact, that I actually gave up trying to look at the photos I just shot because the camera was buffering them slowly. This won’t work for those of us who are used to quickly sorting through photos right after we shoot them, deleting (quickly) the bad/OOF shots, and being ready for when the next cars come by.
Note: After discussing this with Sony as well they pointed out the the horsepower of the a77 and it’s processor can’t compete at a level that’s near the power of the dual processors of the 1D lineup. It’s simply something that you will have to deal with at the price point of the a77. This was something I hadn’t put a lot of consideration to those days at the track because I don’t shoot with a 60D, ever.

Also another downside to the camera and the digital viewfinder setup was the sensor. On a bright and sunny day we all will put our hands around the LCD when reviewing shots. The light sensor on the back of the a77 always thought I was putting my face back up to the camera and would switch the view mode back to the camera’s viewfinder. This made it impossible at times for me to review photos without turning my entire body away from the sun (and action) to review photos in my own shadow rather than just use my hand.
Note: I discussed this with Sony, also. There are two options to handle this that were pointed out. First is to set the screen option to manual. So, using a button you can switch from viewfinder mode, to LCD, and back again. I personally would not like this option since it involves additional key presses and I’m sure that at some point I would put the viewfinder back to my eye quickly and forget to turn the viewfinder “on” by switching modes. The second option is to un-click the second the hinge of the LCD screen. This would lock the LCD into the “on” mode, however I have a feeling that there would be the same problem with not auto-switching back to the viewfinder when you try to use it again unless you click the LCD all the way back into position. Both of these simply would take practice and getting used to on the part of the photographer – they’re not something I would consider an end-all to using this system by any means.
My experiences with Off Road were similar to that of Formula Drift, so I won’t ramble on too much about it here.
However out at the off road track I tried the focus locking a bit more to see how well it would track a subject.
The way the focus lock works (put most simply) is that it would lock onto whatever was closest to the center and then track it as it moved around. Think of it as facial recognition tracking for large groups – that’s an easy way to describe it.
However when you have a bunch of trucks crossing paths and everything kinda blends together I think the system because overwhelmed. So, instead I stuck with Continuous focus and found that I got a bit better results as long as I kept my subject in the center of my viewfinder.

Overall thoughts on racing photography with the a77: Overall… it’s a very usable system. I think my initial experience shooting Drift with the a77 was hindered by the too-long lens combo on a track that was smaller than I expected. Below you will no photos from Drift, actually, because I’m just simply not happy with any of them.
I had much better luck at the Off Road track during the Lucas Oil Off Road race. The first day I was there was mostly practice which allowed me more time to shoot around and text. The system here, and longer glass worked very well, and with a larger track (both in size and distance) there was more time and flexibility when reviewing photos after shooting them.

Click the break for photos!

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CAMERA TESTING WITH THE SONY A77 (2 OF 4)

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Part two of my four part write-up on testing the Sony a77 DSLR in various sports setting that I typically shoot  with my job. Please check out the previous post for details on the first test and a bit of an intro to this multi-part project: here

BMX – faster moving subjects, first tests with longer glass.

The week following my first test with skateboarding at Black Flys I met up with one of my BMX friends, Michael Rodriguez. We headed out early on a Saturday morning to Chino Hills BMX park where he was going to get some riding practice in that day with his cousin who also rides.
We arrived at 8a since it was going to be triple digit temperatures that day and finishing before it got that hot was the goal.

The 12fps speed of the shutter was great, again. But this is was when I first started to find a bit of frustration with the video viewfinder. Sony had told me that one of the biggest things to get used to for people was using a view finder that was a video screen since there is no mirror in their camera.

For those that aren’t familiar with how a SLR/DSLR works… the image you see in the viewfinder is a reflection off the mirror inside the camera of what is coming through the lens. The Sony system doesn’t have a mirror, so you’re looking at a small LCD screen that is showing you what is hitting the sensor.

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Here’s a diagram I found online from “nobadphoto.com for a quick reference. The green line is the path of the light (the image). You can see where it reflected before it hits your eye. Well, Sony has illminated the mirror (item #2 in the diagram) so the image goes right to the sensor (#7). Does that make sense? I’m going to assume that it does so I don’t have to get too much more detailed since this writeup isn’t about how the system produces an image. haha.

One benefit of this is that there is an option to see the exposure of the image in the viewfinder – a preview of how the shot will actually look. Although I could see this being much less useful in dark settings. And it proved to be a bit frustrating when I photographed racing a week later – that’s in the next blog update.
The viewfinder also was constantly running a leveler on the screen while shooting. This was something I (surprisingly) was able to ignore while I shot but used a few times when I was framing a shot and noticed, “huh, I’m not level”

For the majority of the BMX shooting I was doing I shot with the 24-70/2.8. The lens itself was sharp, felt comfortable to use, and was smaller in size compared to my Canon lens. I also had much less OOF shots with a smaller lighter lens than with the telephotos this particular test because it’s much easier to move a smaller lens quickly and track people/subjects.
But shooting in a sport/servo tracking mode I still felt like the focus was a bit slower than I’d like and dropped focus to the background more often than I hoped. BUT the park we were shooting at was made up of bowls that Michael was riding in and out of, so there are plenty of things that were coming in/out of the shot as I was shooting. I also don’t know how well my DX would have exactly handled it since I didn’t have it that weekend to try.
After looking through the photos and thinking about why this may have occurred I realized that I was being a little loose on my shooting. What I mean by this is I’ve become very used to a wider “spill” area around the focus point that the Canon 1D systems allow for in their 61-pt auto-focus system. So, if a person/object drops out of your focus point for a second or two (depending on your sensitivity settings) the camera will not lose focus on the subject, nor will it quickly focus on the selected point again – which is now likely the background of the image.
So, while going through images I realized this is what was happening with my images. It’s not that the camera was doing something wrong, it’s that I was relying on a system that wasn’t part of this camera. However, I know that when I shoot with my Canon 5D2 I’m very aware I don’t have this option with that system either and need to remain locked on my subject at all times.
This was something I was more aware of during my next test and OOF shots proved much less of an issue because of it

Overall thoughts for BMX – Works well enough. The speed of 12fps (of course) is great. I will accept fault for some of the focus system issues – and I realized after I didn’t try out the subject lock feature. This would have possibly helped improve many of the shots, as a rider in a cement bowl is a higher contrast compared to something like a car on a track. Below are a ton of different photos of Michael, his cousin Victor, and a couple young kids throwing some tricks on their scooters, too

Click the break for photos!

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Camera Testing with the Sony a77 (1 of 4)

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Ready for some sports – but not all.

As many of you know I spent a part of July testing out the Sony a77 DSLR camera system and a variety of lenses in various sports environments that I would typically encounter on my job.

I was approached by Sony Digital Imaging about giving feedback on their system and how it handles “doing what I do” for work. Not many people would consider a Sony system for sports shooting when they’re shopping, and I was going to try and get an idea of how well their system worked in various sports environments.

The Events

The tricky part of this overall test was going to be time and access for me around my normal schedule of races. It also happened to be during a month that I would be relocating from San Diego back up toward LA.
However, I reached out to a couple friends around the industry for credentials and help with various events, and also several athletes I know to see when and who would be practicing.
As it worked out, I was able to test shoot a bit of skateboarding, the Formula Drift race in Seattle, the Lucas Oil Off Road Race in Glen Helen, the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, and also some BMX in Chino Hills.

Click the break for photos and thoughts after my first test shooting some skateboarding at Black Flys Sunglasses Headquarters.

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