Monday, October 4, 2010

Thinking About The Past, Present, and Future

The Journey Here

As has been the case for the last decade, I've been a Minolta/Konica-Minolta shooter, and by virtue of Sony buying out the photography assets, a Sony shooter. My current camera, the Sony Alpha A700, has been in my use for coming up on three years now, and it has been a complete joy to use.

Macro shot with Sony A700 and extension tubes.
©Wing Tang Wong [Gallery]
I've taken the camera to the Everglades and shot alligators with it. I've shot parades with it, in the rain. I've photographed my daughter and been photographed by it, by my daughter.

Butterfly on Alligator tail.
©Wing Tang Wong [Gallery]

I've recently shot three weddings with the camera and it has continued to perform reliably, even though it has long since been out of its covered warranty period and has also been discontinued for the last two years, by Sony.

Wear and Tear

However, the camera is slowly starting to show its age. Not in the photographs it produces, but in physical wear and tear. Things are starting to break, like the mirror retaining clip, long since broken and currently held in place with a small piece of scotch tape. Yep... there's a piece of scotch tape on the mirror on my DSLR and it's still producing awesome photographs.

Editorial/Lifestyle Beach shot.
©Wing Tang Wong [gallery]
 The sensor has become plagued by small/tiny bits of dust. Granted, I'm seeing the dust when testing at f/32... but they're there and they have eluded both dry and wet cleaning methods.

Not specific to the camera itself, but my default lens, the Tamron 17-50/2.8, the oldest lens still in my collection, has started falling apart, literally. I fear I'll be in the market for a new wide zoom not too long from now.


My friend Leo Pantaleon is an avid MMA cage fighting photographer. He's also gotten into fight wear photography as well as continued his sports photography. My own style and subject matter has slowly evolved and narrowed over time. While I originally started out shooting cosplayers at events and from there started exploring portraiture, I've gotten into wildlife photography, and more recently, wedding photography.

Wedding Cakes
©Wing Tang Wong

I've found that this has slowly driven a change in my lens bag... a quick chronology:

  • original kit lens 16-105mm/3.5-5.6 (okay lens useful zoom range, meh low light)
  • Minolta 50mm/1.7 (awesome old screw driven lens! worked flawlessly the whole time I owned it, eventually sold it to a fellow Sony shooter when I thought of ditching Sony for Nikon)
  • Minolta 70-210/4 "Beercan" (a legendary lens by Minolta that produces amazingly beautiful color rendition. great size and zoom range. eventually sold this as well, when I got the Sony 70-200/2.8 SSM)
  • Tamron 17-50/2.8 (at the time, a great wide zoom with a wide aperture. my defacto walk around lens and still in my arsenal, but well beyond warranty period and falling apart)
  • Sony 70-200/2.8 SSM (driven by the "need to own a 70-200/2.8" lens sensation, I bought this lens for a discount from a camera store that was going out of business. along with the Minolta "beercan" and the 50/1.7, has been the best lens I've ever owned. It replaced the "Beercan" as my goto lens for wildlife and portraiture.)
  • Sony 50/1.4 (after experiencing seller's remorse, I bought the Sony 50/1.4 to replace it for low light shooting. nice and sharp, but not as good as the 50/1.7 at rendering "beautiful" images)
 My current goal is to stick to just three lenses. Sure, I could go and start building up a collection of primes... but the truth is, I REALLY HATE changing lenses while I shoot. It takes me about 20-30 seconds, at least, to change and it introduces chances for dust to get in and onto the sensor. I'm really starting to see the draw of owning two camera bodies and having a wide zoom on one and a tele zoom on the other.

But as noted, my camera itself is starting to fall apart, is discontinued, and out of warranty. I've no desire to mail it off to Sony and hope/pray that it doesn't take weeks/months to come back to me as they wait for parts. I've considered leaving Sony once before, but two weeks of visiting camera review sites and checking out actual cameras in the stores, I've found I really like the look, feel, and handling of the A700. It's the Minolta genetics.

The Future

The current breed of A5X/A5XX and lower cameras really don't interest me. Their bodies have gone the smaller route and they feel "plastic" in my hands, whereas the A700 feels solid. There are rumors of an A7XX/A7X version coming out. I'm eager to see it and hold it in my hands. I'm also eager for it to be a 24MP full frame sensor, like the A850 and A900 are.

Right now, my camera body replacement options are really limited to just the A850($2000 retail). The A900 is $700 more expensive. The only real difference between the two is a reduced frames per second speed 5fps down to 3fps and a reduction in the viewfinder coverage from 100% to 98%.

While I "lose" the free crop factor on paper, in reality, with the  A850, I still get a "crop factor" in that I can crop the image down to 11MP or so, and get the image I want. So nothing really lost there. My main fear with going full frame is that DOF will be that much more narrow, and thus focusing will be that much harder. With my current camera/lenses, I definitely experience back/front focusing and would have LOVED micro-AF correction on the A700. Both the A850/A900 have it.

The 50mm and 70-200mm would be awesome on a full frame sensor, especially the 70-200, as I'll no longer be shooting with an effectively 100-300mm lens at a wedding! Though I might want to invest in a 2x converter when it comes to wildlife, otherwise, I'll be cropping quite a bit.

This also means going wide will really be wide. It also means replacing the Tamron 17-50 with either a full frame 17-50 or a full frame 24-70... neither one will be cheap. :(

Right Now... For Now

The rumour mill notes that the A7X/A7XX will be released in early 2011. Right now, my A700 is still kicking. I've still got more tape. And my "buy a new camera fund" isn't funded. :) So I'd better start saving.

If the A7X/A7XX has no micro AF adjustment, then I'm going with the A850. In this day and age, life is too short to be messing around with spending the money for the gear to be performing at less than 100% of their capability. Full frame... would love it on the A7X/A7XX. If it were still an APS-C sized sensor, that wouldn't be a deal breaker, but I would be concerned about the noise performance, especially given that it's almost sure to be a pellicle mirror setup.

Wish list traits of a A700 replacement:
  • micro AF adjustment
  • CF card slot (going SD* is a deal breaker)
  • D3 level of low noise performance (hey, you've got those reversed sensors!)
  • tethered shooting
  • photo site/pixel binning for greatly improved ISO performance 
  • optical viewfinder with LCD overlay or EVF that can be switched on/off
  • LCD live view for macro shots and "over head" shots
  • exchange pop-up flash for built in pocket wizard
  • full frame with higher FPS speed APS-C crop mode (like Nikon)
  • built-in gps (would be nice, but not a necessity)
  • in-camera multi-shot people remover (would be nice, but no a necessity)
  • built in OSS, but also have support for lens based OIS would be nice as well.
  • dual-card writing capability (raw on one, jpg on other, or raw on both for backup, or write to both for speed!!)
I'm of mixed feelings for the new pellicle/translucent mirror technology. Every piece of glass/plastic/etc surface between my subject and the sensor is that much more opportunity for image quality to be degraded. Continous view and one less thing to generate a slapping/smacking sound would be a plus. However, not at the cost of worsening image quality over time.  As I get more and more into people photography, I find myself wanting better and quality of images coming out of the camera at better ISO(s). Yes, there's flash. But having that added USEFUL dynamic range is a real boon.

Video? It'd be nice, but I really don't consider it a necessity. If the camera recorded video at 24MP and each frame was a fully realized photograph... that'd be one thing, but at 2MP... switching between video and photo modes would kill the usefulness of one and/or the other through interrupted shooting.

So, I'll be on the lookout for a new body to replace the A700. Right now, if my camera stopped taking pictures the next day, I would get the A850. No hesitation. But I'm curious as to what the A700 successor looks like.

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