Gear Review: Wacom Cintiq Companion 2

At the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas last week, Wacom announced the 13.3″ Cintiq Companion 2, which is essentially the 2nd generation in their line of powerful and portable tablets. Built with digital artists, photographers and graphic designers in mind, these devices not only come with a pen stylus and 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, but they run full versions of Windows 8.1, allowing you to install and take full advantage of Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, InDesign and any other application you can run on a Windows laptop or desktop machine.

While I will save my soap box talk on why a Wacom tablet (be it the their Cintiq, Intuos or Bamboo line) is easily the biggest game changer when it comes to post processing your images as a photographer for another blog post, the cliff note version is simply the power, efficiency and precision that a pen stylus provides is far beyond anything you can do with a mouse, which is in all honesty probably why most of you are here reading this review in the first place.

DTHW1210_LeftView_RGB1

The new Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 (Wacom licensed my image from Iceland)

Now as a travel photographer, I spend much of my time on the road (generally 4-6 months out of the year) working on various projects, teaching workshops and creating marketing campaigns. For the past 12 months I have been almost exclusively using the 1st gen Wacom Cintiq Companion and have been generally pretty happy with the results. That being said, no device is perfect and there was certainly room for improvement.This is why I have been so excited to get my hands on the Companion 2.

Below you can see a short unboxing video I put together after Wacom first sent me the Companion 2 to test.

So how does the Cintiq Companion 2 stand up against its predecessor? Lets find out…

Specs

One of the interesting changes coming with the Companion 2 is the fact that it is now going to come in a variety of different models, at various different prices points to help you work with both your budget and your needs. The last generation had only two models, with the difference being the size of the internal SSD (256 or 512gb). Now you have various different builds with price points ranging from $1299 tp $2499 depending on how much of a beast of a machine you can handle!

Various Model Specs (Click to Enlarge)

Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 Model Specs

Specs for All Versions

Specs for All Models

Whats New?

With each generation of a technology, improvements are bound to happen. This time around I have to say that all the changes from the 1st to the 2nd generation were on my request list.

  • New Screen – In what used to be a 1080p 13.3″ screen, you now get 2.5k (2560 x 1440) of screen goodness. It is color accurate up to 73% Adobe 1998 & 96% SRGB. Overall the display just looks much better!
  • New Power Button – The old power button could easily get turned on accidentally while being carried in the protective case, this can no longer happen as the new power button has a locking slide.
  • Thicker Power Connection – The power connection on the Companion 1 was pretty small and could be considered delicate, the new power connector is much thicker and seems to fit more solidly inside the Companion 2.
  • Front Facing Speakers – The speakers in the first generation Companion were not very good…in fact I rarely used them because I could never hear anything. The new speakers are not only much louder, they are facing the user, helping to amplify the sound you hear.
  • USB 3.0 ports – Now all USB ports are USB 3.0 (You get three in total)
  • More Express Keys – You now get 6 customization express keys, up from four from the 1st generation. These can be customized per application, so the same button can do different things depending on what application is currently active on your screen.
  • SD Card Slot – With a full SD card slot, you can now easily backup/store/offload your images off of SD cards directly onto the tablet…no more need for a card reader…atleast with my Sony full frame mirrorless cameras ;)
  • Input Display – You can now finally use the Companion as a secondary display (works on both Windows and Apple computers). Historically you could use the device to power other displays, but now it can be used in addition to your current computer setup as a secondary Cintiq display (with full pressure sensitivity). This is probably the most sought after requested feature of this the new generation of Companions.
You get two extra express keys with the Cintiq Companion 2 (on top)

You get two extra express keys with the Cintiq Companion 2 (on top)

Build/Portability

One of the first things that 1st generation Companion users will notice is that the Companion 2 is noticeable thinner and lighter (3.75lbs vs 3.9lbs). That might not sound like alot, but the tablet itself feels much better in your hands. Maybe the weight is simply balanced more equally. This is a very welcomed change as the tablet as a whole is a good amount heavier and bigger than your average ultra-book, even with a 13″ screen. When you add the bezels and extra space needed for the express keys, the 13″ is much closer to a 15″ laptop in reality. Regardless, this is one portable and powerful machine. Historically if I wanted the same performance and functionality, I would have to bring a top end laptop (usually an Ultrabook to save on weight) and a Wacom Intuos tablet. Combined they would take up more space and weight than the 3.75lbs of the Companion 2. This also helps when using the device in cramped spaces, such as on an airplane.

Using the Companion 2 on an Airplane

Using the Companion 2 on an Airplane while working on images from the Canadian Rockies

The tablet itself is built incredible well, much like the first generation. The express keys feel even more solid than the 1st generation and the volume up and down keys have also improved. As I mentioned above, we now have front facing speakers, which makes all the difference in the world when it comes to actually being able to hear the speaker this time around. Lastly the screen is gorgeous. It still does have that protective layer of film on top (protecting it against any marks from the pen stylus) but now you have a 2.5k QHD screen that is pretty awesome. My only gripe is that it could be a touch brighter, making it easier to use in bright sunlight…although the truth is that I don’t see myself using this device in that situation all that often. I also noticed a tiny amount of light leak coming from the LCD just below the bottom bezel, but it was a very small amount and only really appeared when booting up Windows 8 (with those dark screens).

Performance

While I have truly enjoyed using the 1st generation of the Cintiq Companion for the past year, the truth is that I was always looking for a bit better performance. As a photographer I mostly use Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop and while both handled basic to mid level tasks well, I would certainly start to feel its limitations when trying to edit large MP images or doing more advanced editing tasks in PS, such as large panorama stitching. Now that I have used the Companion 2 for the last few weeks, I can say without a doubt that that this is a more powerful device. Although to be clear, the version that I have been using is a pre-production “Premium” Cintiq Companion 2 ( i7 4558u processors, 256gb HD, 8gb RAM and Intel 5100 graphics card).

Windows 8.1 "About the PC"

Windows 8.1 “About the PC”

Statistically speaking the i7 4558u processor is roughly 12-15% faster than the i7-3517u found in the original. I was also told that while the my Companion 2 had 8gb of RAM just like the Companion 1, this time it was running in dual channel mode, which a Wacom rep tried to tell me felt like it was running with 12gb of RAM. Regardless of how true that is, programs did load faster and performance was better across the board. It was so good in fact that I was able to use it as my only machine for a week while I wrapped up a marketing project filming the build of a new custom PC for one of my sponsors.

While processors and RAM certainly play a role in performance, SSD technology has been one of the most important technology upgrades in recent computing history to help improve performence. If any of you have moved from a standard HD to an SSD for your main hard drive, you know what I mean. I benchmarked the SSD found on the Premium version of the Companion 2 and got the following speeds: Read: 508.98 MB/s  Write: 247.34 MB/s. These scores are pretty good, although that write speed is a touch lower than expected (I re-ran the tests and got 398 MB/s for write scores). Interestingly enough, when I tested the 256gb HD vs the 500gb HD in the Companion 2, I noticed that the 500gb HD’s have faster write speeds (443 MB/s vs 398 MB/s)…essentially the smaller HD’s just don’t write as fast.

For comparison, my main Desktop at home has a Samsung 840 Pro SSD in it and gets the following speeds: Read: 557 MB/s | Write: 459 MB/s.

SSD Benchmarks (Don't mind the German)

Initial SSD Benchmarks (Don’t mind the German)

When it comes to battery life, the Companion 2 works just about as advertised (which is similar to the Companion 1). These powerful devices pull allot of juice and so you can expect between 4.5 to 5.5 hrs of use. I would love to see 10+ hours, but I feel we have to wait for both better battery technology as well as more power efficient CPUs. Until then you can adjust the “Power” modes on your Companion 2 between Power Saver, Balanced and High Performance, each adjusting screen brightness and CPU strength to help control power consumption.

This being said, I am really looking forward to the “Enhanced” version of the Companion 2 (as well as the “Enterprise” model). This will not only come with 16gb of RAM, but the brand new Intel Brodwell i7-5557u processor that will not only bring a solid performance increase of the current Haswell processors, but also be up to 20% more power efficient. I will update my review after I get a chance to play with one of these bad boys.

Screenshots

Here are a number of screenshots of the Companion 2 running various applications as well as CPUz information (a popular PC information application) about the device itself. (Click on each image for full 2.5k goodness)

Main Desktop

Desktop Screen on the Companion 2 with one of my images from Iceland

Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom running on the Companion 2

Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop running with no upscaling for the 2.5k screen

Photoshop Scaling

In the “Experimental Features” section of Photoshop CC you will find 200% scaling if you want bigger buttons

Font Scalling

If you find the fonts on the QHD 2.5k screen too small, Windows 8.1 allows you to scale them up as needed

CPUz1

CPU Information

CPUz2

Cache Info

CPUz3

Motherboard Info

CPUz4

RAM Info

CPUz5

RAM Memory Timmings

CPUz6

Graphics/Video Card Info

Final Thoughts

When Wacom first announced the Cintiq Companion, I was excited to finally have a device that could do the duty of multiple other devices that I typically took with me when working from the road, namely a laptop and a Wacom stylus + tablet. For a 1st generation product, the original Companion did a solid job even if it had a few short comings. With the second generation it truly seems that Wacom has been listening to its customers. With the Companion 2 you not only have a much higher resolution screen, an input display port, more express keys and front facing speakers…but also custom purchasing options that change the price based on the CPU, RAM, Graphics Card and SSD size. This will help make the Companion 2 more affordable (a gripe about the 1st generation model) to a wider audience. If you want the top end model and have $2500 to shell out, you have that option, however if you just want to use the Companion 2 as a secondary display with an option to move your editing to the couch on occasion, you can pick up lowest end model at $1299.

Cobly Brown Cintiq Companion 2

However it can’t all be good right? This is a review after all. While I have truly enjoyed all of the updates to the Companion 2 (and can’t wait to get my hands on the “Enhanced” version), I do have two gripes…both of which are somewhat related. As I stated earlier, I wish the screen was a touch brighter, which would help you see the beautiful screen in harsher light. The trade off to this however is generally a drastic decrease in battery life when any digital screen has its brightness fully powered on. The brighter it gets…the more power it needs. Which leads me to my second gripe, battery life. With the Companion 2 you will get roughly 4.5 – 5.5 hrs of battery life (both stated by Wacom and reflected in my own tests). I am interest to see how the new Intel Broadwell chips (found in the “Enhanced” model will help battery life). Either way, I would personally love to see 10 hrs, but I suppose that is a touch unrealistic with such a powerful and power hungry device with the current state of lithium batteries. For some context, I am the same guy that thinks our phones and tablets should last for days rather than tethering all of us to the next wall plug. Overall battery technology has to increase/change/evolve for this to start happening…but I am optimistic for the future. Maybe by the time we get our hands on the Companion 4 we will get over 15 hrs of usage. One can dream right :)

Wacom Companion 2 being used in flight on an Airplane

Having a battery life that last longer than 5 hours would help with those long flights

Another interesting point is that many of you are probably Apple users and are probably hesitant to think about picking up a Windows machine. While I could easily tell you that Windows 8 is actually very stable, fast and efficient (essentially on par with OSX) and that there are applications to help you work with HFS+ and NTFS file systems, you still might not be convinced. Well if that is the case, you should know that I have heard a rumor from a very reliable source that you could theoretically get OSX running on the Companion 2, other wise known as creating a “Hackintosh”. If you don’t know what that is or how to do it…start with a Google search :) *just be aware that this would void your warranty…

Hackintosh

The act of putting Apple OSX into a custom built machine normally used for Windows

So do I recommend the Companion 2? I think the fact that I am already planing on stowing it in my messenger bag any time I leave the house should tell you enough. For you the only challenge will be to simply figure out which version works best for both your budget and your needs. That and of course waiting for the Companion 2 to actually go on sale, which should happen in March or April of this year, 2015. If you have any questions…please leave them in the comments below!

Full Disclosure

If you look on the right hand sidebar of this blog you will see the Wacom logo over there. That is because they are a sponsor of mine…which is how I got early access to the Companion 2. That being said, I would like to think that most of you are internet savvy enough to know that my integrity is worth far more than any relationship I have with any company I work with. It is simply too easy for any of you to find out if I wasn’t being honest with this review. These thoughts, both the good and the bad, are my own. Wacom didn’t ask nor pay me to write anything you see here.


A Year in Reflection – 2014

It is that time of year again when many of us not only look forward to new beginnings and making resolutions for the next 12 months, but also look back on the challenges and successes that the previous year brought with it. 2014 was certainly full of both.

Light at the End of the Rainbow - Lower Yosemite Falls

Light at the End of the Rainbow – Lower Yosemite Falls

Travel

Like most full time travel photographers, I spend a good portion of the year on the road, but this year was a bit different. While I was probably gone for the same amount of time as usual (4-5 months in total), I didn’t visit a ton of different locations. In fact, I went back to the same places alot. Why? Because projects, workshops and marketing campaigns kept me exploring and revisiting specific locations. How crazy was it? Ultimately I found myself in Iceland four times, the Canadian Rockies twice, The Big Island of Hawaii twice, Yosemite National Park for a few weeks and spent a month in Australia.

Reflection of the Ramparts in Jasper National Park

Exploring the Canadian Rockies

While I certainly have no room to complain as these locations are beyond gorgeous and I was able to get some of the best images of my career, the truth is that I missed the diversity in locations that I am generally used to, something I will certainly change for 2015. In addition, I normally make it a point to cross off a number of “bucket list” locations and experiences each year, even if that means pursuing personal projects over paid gigs. In 2014 I was able to visit Iceland in the Winter (knocking off both the Northern Lights and Ice caves from my list), capture the frozen methane bubbles in Abraham Lake (located in Alberta, Canada), document the incredible light show event of “Vivid Sydney” + explore Christmas Island (home to millions of red crabs), both in Australia and have my first adventure on The Big Island of Hawaii. Of course, even though I was able to cross off these six items from my “bucket list” this year, I also probably added another 50…which is evidence that while I might never complete my “bucket list”…I am certainly going to have fun trying :)

Braving the Elements

Braving the Elements

So how is 2015 shaping up so far? Pretty awesome so far with most of the year already booked out well in advance. Right now, it looks like I have return trips to: Iceland (2x), Abraham Lake in Winter,  Fiji, Colorado for Fall Colors and Myanmar with new trips and experiences in Japan, Norway, Ethiopia, Namibia and the PNW (Oregon & Washington) in the Spring time.

Marketing Campaigns

As many of you may know, a good portion of my income as a photographer is working closely with companies, brands and destinations to create digital marketing campaigns (both stills and video) with a focus on various social platforms (G+, FB, Instagram, Twitter). This year I had a lot of fun creating these campaigns and exploring a wide variety of locations in the process.

One of the first campaigns I ran in 2014 was with Visit California with a focus on Yosemite National Park. I spent two weeks in Yosemite in the Spring, bringing a film crew with me, to create content for their massive Dream Big campaign. The result, outside of a large collection of images, was this 2.5 minute film about Yosemite and my family’s history with this iconic park.

After Yosemite in the Spring, I found myself in Australia working on a number of projects for Tourism Australia as well the Christmas Island Tourism Board. The later you might recognize as it is the island that has million of red crabs migrate across it each year and it has been featured on National Geographic and Discovery Channel multiple times. It also happens to be home to some gigantic coconut crabs which are truly a sight to see in person!

Coconut Crab crawling on the beach on Christmas Island

Coconut Crab on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean

To wrap things up, I ran two separate campaigns with Travel Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, one in February in the heart of winter and the other in fall, both of which were amazing and offered unique experiences exploring one of my new favorite mountain regions in the world. While I completed an incredible 4 minute video piece on the Canadian Rockies through these projects, it hasn’t been released publicly, so I can’t share it with you just yet, but it is coming :)

Working in the Canadian Rockies on a film project for Travel Alberta

Working in the Canadian Rockies on a film project for Travel Alberta with Cameron Slyvester of Nomadic Motion

Camera Gear

This isn’t generally a topic of discussion for my year in review posts but it is certainly worth noting this year. While I continue to use a variety of different camera gear, this is the first year that I have mostly moved to a mirrorless camera system, namely Sony’s mirrorless options (a7r, a7s, a6000). While I have still found myself reaching for a DSLR for certain circumstances, such as wildlife and sports photography, moving to a mirrorless system has greatly helped my photography improve. Not only because I love the sensors that Sony is using these days, but because the gear itself is just so much lighter and more portable than anything I have used historically. This allows me to more easily carry my gear into locations that might of not been possible before, such as when working off the grid or on projects in difficult to reach/travel locations. As technology continues to increase, I have a feeling that more and more photographers will make the move to mirrorless, freeing up space in our camera packs and easing the tension we hold in our shoulders from lugging our gear from location to location.

Waiting out the rain at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta

Waiting out the rain at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta

Sony a7r in Jasper National Park during dawn

Sony a7r in Jasper National Park during dawn

My Favorite Images of 2014

Here is a collection of 14 of my favorite images from 2014. Ultimately these images might not be my “best” images of the year nor are they images that garnered the most social media love (in fact most haven’t ever been shared publicly), but they do represent the beauty and experiences I had as I explored various different countries and locations this past year. Be sure to click on each image to enlarge it. Enjoy!

Nature's Solar Storm

Northern Lights over Vik, Iceland (Canon 1Dx + Nikon 14-24 f/2.8)

The Begining of the Universe

Sydney Opera House durring the Vivid Sydney Event (Canon 1Dx + 70-200 f/2.8 IS II)

The World On My Back

Gold Dust Gecko on The Big Island of Hawaii (Sony a7r + 100mm f/2.8 Macro ZA)

Sunrise at Mono Lake

Mono Lake Sunrise (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/2.8 ZA)

Mt Assiniboine Sunrise Reflections

Mt. Assiniboine Sunrise Reflection in the Canadian Rockies (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/2.8 ZA)

Lava Hole Sunset

Lava Hole near Kona, The Big Island of Hawaii (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/4 fe)

Iceberg Reflections at Jokulasarlon Iceland

Iceberg Reflections at Jokulsarlon, Iceland (Sony a6000 + 16-70 f/4 e)

Storm Over Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite National Park (Sony a7r + Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II)

Ice Bubble Sunrise

Frozen Bubbles over Abraham Lake (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/2.8 ZA)

Fall Colors Along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta

Fall Colors Along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/2.8 ZA)

Frozen in Time

Crystal Ice Cave in south Iceland (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/2.8 ZA)

Fog Passing through Morain Lake in Banff National Park

Foggy Morning over Moraine Lake in Banff National Park (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/2.8 ZA)

Bruarfoss in Winter

Bruarfoss Waterfall in Iceland during Winter (Sony a7r + 16-35 f/2.8 ZA)

Glacial Reflections in south Iceland

Glacial Reflections in south Iceland (Sony a6000 + 16-70 f/4 e)

Share Your Favorite Images of 2014

If you have links to your favorite images from 2014, leave them in the comments below along with a little details about what you are sharing.

I wish you all happy shooting in 2015!


Initial Hands On: Sony a7II With 5 Axis Image Stabilization

On November 20th, 2014 Sony surprised the photography world with the announcement of the second generation of the full frame a7 mirrorless camera, known creatively as the a7II, which retails for $1698. While this announcement caught even the Sony rumors sites off guard in terms of timing, the big surprise was that Sony had managed to fit 5 axis in body stabilization into in a small mirrorless body with a full frame sensor, a first for the industry. While Olympus has similar technology for a while, it has mostly been used in its mirco 4/3rds cameras, with great results. Needless to say, when I heard about this camera, I got excited. Sony was kind enough to send me a unit to review, so here we are.

Sony a7II Press Image

While my Sony a7r and a7s do great in a variety of situations, I have been eager to get my hands on a lightweight full frame camera that could handle shooting in challenging situations, such as low light or wildlife photography. While the a7s has amazing af capabilities in low light, it is still limited to 12mp, where we have double that with the a7II. On top of that, one of Sony’s bigger gaps in their mirrorless ecosystem is support for sports and wildlife shooters. Even though this camera is regulated to a max FPS of 5, I am hopeful that the 5 axis image stabilization will help when using longer telephoto lenses, specifically for wildlife photography.

Ultimately I still have plenty of testing to do with this camera, but I wanted to open things up to all of you. My full in-depth review of this body will come in the next week or so, but if you have specific questions that you want me to answer in the review, please leave in the comments below. Instead of tracking them down via each different social platform, it would help to have all the questions you have about this camera in one place.

Whats New

I will cover the specs of this camera at the bottom of this post, but wanted to quickly cover what is new about this camera compared to the Sony a7.

Sony a7 vs a7ii

Sony a7 vs a7ii

  • While it uses the same 24.3mp Exmor CMOS Image Sensor and BIONZ X Image Processor, it has improved metering performance which is now possible down to a rated -1 EV.
  • 5 Axis IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization) allows for up to 4.5 stops of stabilization. This works with all lenses, both native and 3rd party (via manually setting the focal length via a menu option)
  • Has a 40% faster start up time with near “instant on”
  • Enhanced AF algorithm that improves performance by 30% over the previous generation. The AF system can more accurately predict subject movement (with 1.5x more accuracy).
  • New Lock-on AF tracking to dramatically improve accuracy and stability.
  • Access to use the XAVC S Format for recording videos as well as S-Log2 Gamma (with a minimum ISO of 1600)
  • Improved Rear LCD in terms of resolution (1,228.8k vs 921.6k)
  • Magnesium Alloy Construction that is thicker than the first generation
  • Redesigned grip, shutter release button and an additional custom function button
  • All metal lens mount contacts, for a more secure fitting for lenses and adapters against the body

Initial Thoughts

One of the first things I noticed about the Sony a7II is the difference in weight. It certainly feels heavier than its first generation siblings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the overall build does feel much more solid. As for the new layout of the body, I love it. With a more prominent grip and slightly thicker body, the a7II feels better in my hands than all of the other a7 series bodies. At 6’3, I have pretty large hands which makes using some mirrorless cameras a challenge. The new placement of the shutter button is also a very welcome change.

Top down view of the Sony a7ii

Top down view of the Sony a7ii

While I am used to the shutter button on my a7r and a7s, the new shutter release button not only feels more natural in its new position, the button itself feels more responsive. It is larger and better built as well, making it easier to press down. I will have to get used to the double custom function buttons on the top of the body, but if there is one thing I have been hounding Sony about over the last year, it is to give users more customizable options. Now instead of three custom C buttons, we have four now, so it is a step in the right direction. I can’t wait till this style of body comes to the next generation a7r and a7s.

Sony a7II with Sony 55 1.8 fe

Sony a7II with Sony 55 1.8 fe

While the camera is certainly faster to turn on, I wouldn’t exactly say it has an “instant on” feature. It still has to wait a quarter of second from when I flip the on switch. Either way, there is certainly an improvement.

Specs


Imaging
Lens Mount Sony E-Mount
Camera Format Full-Frame
Pixels Actual: 24.7 Megapixel
Effective: 24.3 Megapixel
Max Resolution 24MP: 6000 x 4000
Aspect Ratio 3:2, 16:9
Sensor Type / Size CMOS, 35.8 x 23.9 mm
File Formats Still Images: JPEG, RAW
Movies: AVCHD Ver. 2.0, MPEG-4, XAVC S
Audio: AAC LC, Dolby Digital 2ch, Linear PCM (Stereo)
Bit Depth 14-bit
Dust Reduction System Yes
Memory Card Type SDXC
SDHC
SD
Memory Stick PRO Duo (High Speed)
Memory Stick PRO HG-Duo
Memory Stick XC-HG Duo
Image Stabilization Sensor-Shift, 5-Way
AV Recording
Video Recording Yes
Resolution 1920 x 1080: 60 fps, 30 fps, 24 fps
1440 x 1080: 30 fps
640 x 480: 30 fps
Video Format XAVC S
1920 x 1080p / 60 fps (50 Mbps)
1920 x 1080p / 30 fps (50 Mbps)
1920 x 1080p / 24 fps (50 Mbps)
AVCHD
1920 x 1080p / 60 fps (28 Mbps)
1920 x 1080i / 60 fps (24 Mbps)
1920 x 1080i / 60 fps (17 Mbps)
AVCHD
1920 x 1080p / 24 fps (24 Mbps)
1920 x 1080p / 24 fps (17 Mbps)
MP4
1440 x 1080 / 30 fps (12 Mbps)
640 x 480 / 30 fps (3 Mbps)
Aspect Ratio 16:9
Video Clip Length Up to 29 Minutes
Audio Recording Built-in Mic: With Video, Stereo
Focus Control
Focus Type Auto
Focus Mode Continuous-servo AF (C), Direct Manual Focus (DMF), Manual Focus (M), Single-servo AF (S)
Autofocus Points Phase Detection: 117
Contrast Detection: 25
Viewfinder/Display
Viewfinder Type Electronic
Viewfinder Size 0.5″
Viewfinder Pixel Count 2,359,296
Viewfinder Eye Point 27.00 mm
Viewfinder Coverage 100%
Viewfinder Magnification Approx. 0.71x
Diopter Adjustment - 4 to +3 m
Display Screen 3″  Tilting  LCD (1,228,800)
Screen Coverage 100%
Exposure Control
ISO Sensitivity 100-25600 (Extended Mode: 50-25600)
Shutter Type: Electronic & Mechanical
Speed: 1/8000 – 30 second, Bulb Mode
Metering Method Center-weighted average metering, Multi-zone metering, Spot metering
Exposure Modes Modes: Aperture Priority, Auto, Manual, Programmed Auto, Scene Selection, Shutter Priority, Sweep Panorama
Metering Range: EV -1.0 – EV 20.0
Compensation: -5 EV to +5 EV (in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps)
White Balance Modes Auto, Cloudy, Color Temperature, Color Temperature Filter, Custom, Daylight, Flash, Fluorescent (Cool White), Fluorescent (Day White), Fluorescent (Daylight), Fluorescent (Warm White), Incandescent, Shade, Underwater
Burst Rate Up to 5 fps at 24 MP for up to 50 frames
Flash
Flash Modes Auto
Fill-in
Hi-Speed Sync
Off
Rear Sync
Red-eye Reduction
Slow Sync
Wireless
Built-in Flash No
Max Sync Speed 1 / 250 seconds
Flash Compensation -3 EV to +3 EV (in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps)
Dedicated Flash System P-TTL
External Flash Connection Hot Shoe
Performance
Continuous Shooting Up to 5 fps
Self Timer 10 seconds, 2 seconds
Number of Shots: 1-5
Interval Recording No
Internal Memory None
Connectivity 1/8″ Headphone, 1/8″ Microphone, HDMI D (Micro), Micro-USB, Multi Interface Terminal
Wi-Fi Capable Yes
Power
Battery 1x NP-FW50  Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Pack1020 mAh
AC Power Adapter AC-PW20 (Optional)
Physical
Dimensions (WxHxD) 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.4″ / 126.9 x 95.7 x 59.7 mm
Weight 1.22 lb / 556 g

Submit Your Questions

One of the biggest problems I see with most reviews is that the review doesn’t always answer all of the questions you as a reader have. This is why I am opening up my review to you. I will release a full in-depth review soon on the Sony a7II, but in the meantime please leave your comments, questions, concerns and or tests you would like to see done and I will do my best to include as much as I can into the review itself when it is released. Enjoy!

Holiday Giveaway

On a side note, if you want to win one of four Sony a6000 cameras or many other prizes, check out my 2014 Holiday Giveaway that runs from December 3rd -31st. Click the image below for more info…


COLBYGIVEAWAY4


The Colby Brown Holiday Giveaway

It is that time of year again and I have a pretty spectacular giveaway this time around. I have reached out to a variety of my partners and sponsors and have put together something special. Each week through the month of December, I will giveaway a mix of products from Sony, Wacom, G-Technology, Formatt Hitech, Nik Software, onOne Software and Artifact Uprising. Essentially each week you could win a Sony a6000 or a Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet or a Premium version of onOne Software’s Perfect Suit 9 and more…

Colby Brown Holiday Giveaway 2014

Contest Rules:

Start Date: December 3rd, 2014

End Date: December 31st, 2014 EXTENDED through January 15th, 2015

Prizes:

  • (4) Sony a6000 mirrorless cameras
  • (4) Wacom Intuos Tablets
  • (4) G-Technology G-DRIVE® Slim HD (500gb)
  • (4) Colby Brown Signature Edition Landscape Photography Filter Kits
  • (4) Nik Collection by Google Suites
  • (4) Perfect Photo Suite 9 by onOne Software (Premium version)
  • (4) Goal Zero solar charging products
  • (4) Color Checker Passports by X-Rite
  • (4) 6×8 Soft Cover Photo Books from Artifact Uprising

How It Works:

Each week, I will give away one of each of the prizes above (totaling 7 each week or 28 for the entire month). To enter, simply subscribe to my newsletter (below) and that will automatically enter you for one chance to win each week. For more chances to win, you can share this post up to 4 times for 4 extra entries per week. Every Monday, all social entries are reset to zero to give everyone the same chance. Share this post the following week and you are entering again (up to 4 times). Think of this as four giveaways (separated by each week) where you have the chance to win all of the prizes four different times :)

All the prizes you could win this month!

All the prizes you could win this month!

How To Enter:

In order to enter in this giveaway, you must subscribe to my newsletter listed bellow. Each month I send out a single email full of photography & travel information, discounts from my sponsors/partners, exclusive photo education content and more. Simply subscribe to my newsletter and you are automatically enrolled in the giveaway each week throughout the month of December.

If you are already a subscriber, you are good to go. Check out the “Bonus” chances to win below!

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required



Bonus Chances to WIN:

If you want to drastically increase your chances to win, simply continue to share this blog post on one (or all) of your social networks each week using the social sharing buttons located at the top and bottom of this page. Because this giveaway lasts through the end of the month with prizes being awarded each week, you have plenty of opportunities to win. You are free to share it multiple times each week (max 4 entries per week).

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Example of the social share buttons found at the top & bottom of this post

Don’t forget to use the hashtag #CBholidaygiveaway so that I can keep track of your social shares!

A gorgeous image of the northern lights over Iceland, because...why not? :)

A gorgeous image of the northern lights over Iceland, because…why not? :)

Who Can Win?:

Contest is open worldwide but only to individuals who have reached the age of majority in their jurisdiction of residence at the time of entry and who do NOT reside in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, the Province of Quebec, Sudan, or Syria. CONTEST IS VOID IN CUBA, IRAN, NORTH KOREA, THE PROVINCE OF QUEBEC, SUDAN, SYRIA, AND WHERE PROHIBITED.

How Are Winners Picked:

  • Each monday nine winners are picked at random from the week before based on those signed up for the newsletter and those sharing this blog post with the hashtag #CBholidaygiveaway. When the new week starts, everyone is free to enter the giveaway again by sharing this blog post via their social channels

*you must be signed up for the newsletter to claim a prize

Announcing the Winners

Each week I will use this space to list the winners. Each of them have been contacted via email. If they don’t claim their prize within 48 hours, a new winner will be randomly selected

Week 1

David Bellis, Erik Olsen, Bruno from the EU, Josalyn McKeller, Craig Sollman, Baldur McQueen, Paul O’ Hanlon, Marisa Krisananuwatara, Sairam Sundaresan

Week 2

Michael Malczewski, Daniel Nahabedian, Dollie Read, Garry Rosenfeldt, Daniel Lindahl, Debbi from NY, Andrea Jenson, Jim Dinan, Curtis from CA

Week 3 & 4

Bambi Dingman, Jacque Smith, Dianna from FL, Lisa from FL, Sandra from Georgia, Denise from BC, Isaac from NSW, Jason Fryeman, Cynthia Wilcox, David from NY, Eric Frommer, Amanda Tzannes, Eduard Moldoveanu, Karen Montalvo, Cliff Pickett, Fred Windberg, Mark Sinderson, Dan Miner.

I want to thank everyone that entered. There will be plenty of more giveaways throughout the year, so stick around!


So You Want to Become a Travel Photographer?

While we live in a day and age where camera gear is more affordable than ever, photo editing applications are much more accessible and social media platforms have connected each of us with more and more people from around the globe, many photographers still struggle with the idea of working professionally as a photographer. When it comes to travel photography specifically, things are even more complicated. While travel photographers have to learn the craft of photography just as a wedding or stock photographer, they also have to balance the notion of the cost of travel as well. After-all, it can be expensive to fly to India or Mongolia. While alot of people travel and take photos, very few of us get paid to live this lifestyle.

Working in the Canadian Rockies on a film project for Travel Alberta

Working in the Canadian Rockies on a film project for Travel Alberta

So where do you start? What path should you take? When I started my first photography company back in 2006 I too asked these questions. However instead of finding a resource to help guide me along the process, I ended up taking the long way up the hill. It was a few years before I first had my images published. Even longer before I started making any real money as a photographer. This is why I decided to partner with Matador Network and MatadorU and help them build something special. To train, support and prepare the next generation of travel photographers. So what is MatadorU? Lets dive in to find out…

The Matador Network

Launching in 2006, the same year I started my first photography company, The Matador Network had the vision for a travel site and community based not on “airline reservations and hotel rooms” but the real cultures, people, and places we encounter, as well as a broader global discussion of historical, political, and socioeconomic realities that inform our lives as travelers. Over the last eight years it has firmly established itself in the travel publication worlds as one of the top leaders in the industry. Earlier this year it became the largest independent online travel publication with over 6 million unique visitors per month with content that literally spans the entire globe.

The Matador Network

Partnering with MatadorU

In 2009, Matador created its own education arm called MatadorU that was geared at providing travel education for writers and photographers (with cinematographers to follow). The idea was simple. Matador not only wanted to help train the future generation of artists and journalists, but proactively work closely with its students to help them get published and even hired for jobs around the globe. In 2012 I partnered with MatadorU and have since helped them completely re-write their entire online curriculum for photographers.

Since than, MatadorU has been praised by a number of different travel institutions including National Geographic, The Society of American Travel Writers, Transitions Abroad and many more.

MatadorU - Travel Photographer Training

Fundamentals & Advanced Courses

When it came down to establishing a curriculum for travel photographers, I felt there was simply too much information to pile into a single course. After all there are two very important but separate aspects of being a photographer and wanting to do it professionally. Learning the craft of photography and learning how to make a living as a professional.

Fundamentals Course

If you are still in the beginning stages of learning photography or if you are looking for a refresher course, the Fundamentals course is for you. Here I break down the core fundamentals of photography including how to use your camera, discuss the ideas of exposure, composition and lighting, walk you through Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop in detail and show you how to compile your own photography portfolio.

Jokulsarlon Student and Ken - Colby brown

Learning the Fundamentals of Photography such as composition

If you struggle with answering the following questions, the Fundamentals Course might be the best place for you to start…

  • How do I get more comfortable shooting in manual modes?
  • What is exposure, and how do aperture, shutter speed, and ISO relate to it?
  • What are the best lighting situations to take photos in?
  • What does white balance mean?
  • What makes for compelling compositions?
  • What should I include in my captions?
  • How can I improve my focus?
  • How do I read a histogram?
  • What should I be looking for when I edit my images?

Advanced Course

If you have already mastered the fundamentals of photography and you are simply wanting to learn how to take your skills to the next level, both creatively and business wise, than the Advanced Course is probably for you. Here you will learn how to create photo essays, learn advanced post processing techniques, learn how to develop your brand, get key advice on pitching ideas to editors and learn how to get your own work published.

Want to learn how to get your images published? The Advanced Course would be your best bet

Learn how to build a brand and get hired as a photographer with the Advanced Course

If you can answer the following questions without much difficulty, you might want to consider the advanced course.

  • What is the exposure triangle and how does it relate to photography?
  • What is the difference between the basic and creative modes on your camera?
  • In which situations do you prefer to creatively over- or under-expose a shot?
  • What controls DoF? Which situations would you want a shallow DoF? A deep DoF?
  • Which features in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop do you use most often?
  • What are the benefits of shooting in RAW versus JPG?
  • Which social networks should you be on to build your brand?
  • What financial revenue streams are available for working photographers?
  • What are the important elements in a photo caption?
  • How do you tell a compelling story through your images?

Faculty Feedback, Getting Published & Matador Access

When it comes to online education, there is no shortage of options for photographers. Between Creative Live, Lynda and even Kelby One, alot of bases have already been covered. This is why I wanted to do something different with MatadorU. I wanted to provide an education that was more in line with what you would get at a university than simply as if you were sitting at home in front of your computer. The problem with most online education is that the courses are built as one way streets of information. As a “student”, you have access to a wide variety of topics and information, but you don’t get any interaction with the online entity. If you have questions or need clarification, you are out of luck. If you wanted feedback, probably not going to happen. If you want help finding paid jobs, not going to happen. This is why MatadorU is different.

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Want to be paid to head out on assignment in Zion National Park?

Faculty Feedback

As an international online travel publication, the Matador Network has staff all over the globe. When it comes to MatadorU, you have a number of faculty staff members in charge of each of the different departments at the online school. These individuals are there for you. Not only will you get feedback on every assignment you turn in, but you can further the conversation from there, asking questions, proposing ideas and taking things a step beyond the core curriculum.

Getting Published

As I mentioned earlier, one of my biggest challenges as a photographer when I first started out was getting published. I didn’t know where to start or what to do. With MatadorU being the education arm of The Matador Network, things a much easier. The staff and editors at Matador and MatadorU are geared to work closely with students to find new and creative ways to help you get published (and paid for your work).

Matador Access

Of course, learning how to be a travel photographer wouldn’t be nearly as fun if there was no possibility of actual travel right? Over the years as the Matador Network has built itself up to be a power house in the travel publication industry, it has made contacts with thousands of entities, companies and travel destinations around the globe. When these companies are looking for travel photographers, writers and cinematographers, they often reach out to Matador. This is why Matador Access was created. Think of it like an online travel job listing that you can apply for. Matador might need a photographer to head to Uganda to document the Silver-back Gorillas or to head to the Philippines to capture images of a festival. As a student with MatadorU, you have first hand access to these job listings.

Enjoy a Free Preview

While all of this sounds great on paper, you probably still have questions about MatadorU. No problem. Matador has opened up part of their online travel school for you to take a look at and poke around. There are no obligations, you don’t have to put any money down. Simply sign up and start looking around to get a feel for the programs yourself.

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Taking Your Photography To The Next Level

As photographers and artists we are all constantly looking for ways to improve our skill sets. At MatadorU, I feel I have helped create an online educational experience unlike anything else out there in the world. While I want to make sure that you learn the core elements of photography, I also want to help you take things to the next level. The staff at MatadorU are geared and ready to help you (along with the thousands of other students that have come through the program) to break through the barriers of entry in this industry. To learn the craft of the art form, the business side of things and provide you with resources that are unmatched in the industry to help you not only get published, but ultimately paid to travel the world and truly become a travel photographer.

Between now and December 1st, all MatadorU courses are being discounted by over $150 per course. Click on on this LINK, sign up for a free trial and find out for yourself if this is right for you.

MatadorU Courses


An In-Depth Review of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 OSS Wide Angle Lens

While Sony has continued to take the photo industry by storm with their a7 series of full frame mirror-less cameras, many of us have been eagerly awaiting the FE lens mount lineup to grow. At the top of that list was one of the only holes in Sony’s mostly incredibly impressive lens options for their a7 cameras…namely a native wide angle lens option. Like many Sony converts, I wanted a wide angle lens that was not only light weight and portable, but that didn’t sacrifice in build quality, functionality or image quality. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long. On September 15, 2014, the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 OSS (SEL1635Z) wide angle lens was announced. Needless to say I was excited. Having made the switch to Sony from Canon earlier this year, I had been using the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA lens that while impressive, was pretty bulky and heavy.

Sunset with Sony a7r and 16-35 f4 fe lens

Sony a7r with the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 OSS wide angle lens in Hawaii

As it turns out, being sponsored by Sony has its perks as I was given a pre-production model to use throughout my time on The Big Island of Hawaii over the last few weeks as well as here in Colorado before the lens is official released at the middle of November of 2014. On the lens itself resides the number 00011, effectively noting that I got to use the 11th version ever made. While Sony never asked for me to write this review, my goal was to put the lens to the test in a variety of environments and share my experiences. To make things more interesting, I wrote a First Look blog post that gave many of my followers the chance to ask questions that I would try to get to in this in-depth review. I tried to answer every ones questions here in this review, but if I missed something, please let me know in the comments.

Pre-production model of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 OSS lens

Pre-production model of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 OSS lens

Now that all that is out of the way, how did the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 do? Lets find out!

Specs

Sony fe 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS Press Image via Sony

Sony fe 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS Press Image via Sony

  • Optics/Lens

    • Lens Mount Type : Sony E-mount (35mm full frame)
    • Lens Stabilization : Optical SteadyShot
    • Minimum Focus Distance : 11″ 0.28m
    • Lens Groups-Elements : 10 groups, 12 elements
    • Filter Diameter : 72mm
    • Lens Type : Full-frame E-mount Wide-angle Lens
    • Lens Weight : 18.3 oz (518g)
    • Aperture (Max.) : f/4.0
    • Aperture (Min.) : f/22
    • Maximum Magnification : 0.19x
    • Focal Length (35mm equivalent) : 16-35mm (35mm) 24- 52.5mm (APS-C)
    • Aspheric Elements : 5 aspherical, 1 advanced aspherical
    • Aperture Blade : 7 blades (Circular aperture)
    • Angle of View : 83°-44° (APS-C) 107°-63° (35mm)
  • Weights and Measurements

    • Dimensions (Approx.) : 3-1/8″ x 4″ (78 x 98.5mm)
    • Weight (Approx.) : 18.2 oz (518g)

Build Quality

As I mentioned in my First Look post on the 16-35 f/4, this lens is built to the high Zeiss standards most of us have come to know. That is to say that it feels solid, not cheap and plastic. The metal body, focus ring and zoom ring all feel good in my hands. Focusing is buttery smooth and the zoom ring has enough tension to allow you to get accurate movement. While it is certainly heavier than the Sony 55mm 1.8 fe lens (which weighs 10 oz or 281g) it is not much bigger or heavier than the Sony 24-70 f/4 fe lens which comes in at 15.1 oz or 426g.

Hand Holding Sony 16-35 f4 fe Lens

Hand Holding Sony 16-35 f4 fe Lens

The lens has Sony’s dust and moisture resistant design which according to Sony’s website “makes this lens appropriate for heavy-duty outdoor use, especially when combined with a camera that employs weather resistant measures such as the Sony’s a7 series of cameras”. While there has been some speculation over just how much weather sealing the a7 series of cameras and fe lenses have, I can tell you that I have been consistently impressed with both.

While I was only able to test this lens in the humid and wet environments of The Big Island of Hawaii (where it performed incredibly well), I have pushed the rest of my Sony cameras and lenses in wide variety of extreme environments around the globe (from -50 degree weather in the Canadian Rockies to the heat of Australia to the dust laden country of Myanmar in South East Asia). All in all, I haven’t had one camera malfunction because of weather (aside from my a7r deciding that an hour in -50 degrees was enough…and even than it was the rear LCD that froze and not the camera body itself.

Salt water spray is always fun to deal with when doing seascape photography

Salt water spray is always fun to deal with when doing seascape photography

Size Comparisons

When it comes to the a7 series of cameras and lenses, size matters. Most people moving to this setup are doing so because they are looking for lighter and smaller alternative to their former DSLR counter parts. So how does the Sony 16-35 f/4 fe lens compare to the rest of the FE lens line up?
*Don’t mind the poor studio images here…there is a reason I prefer to stay away from this kind of stuff ;)

Sony FE Lens Lineup - 35 f/2.8, 55 f/1.8, 24-70 f/4, 16-35 f/4 & 70-200 f/4

Sony FE Lens Lineup – 35 f/1.4, 55 f/1.8, 24-70 f/4, 16-35 f/4 & 70-200 f/4

If you are looking for the closest comparison in size to the 16-35 f/4, it would be the 24-70 f/4. Here is a closer look at the two next to each other.

Sony 24-70 f4 vs 16-35 f/4

Sony 24-70 f4 vs 16-35 f/4

Lastly, since many Sony users are currently enjoying the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA lens as their wide angle option with the a7 series cameras, lets take a look at how those two stack up together. The weight difference between the two is pretty staggering right off the bat, with the 16-35 f/4 fe coming in at nearly half the weight (518g vs 1020g) of the f/2.8 ZA lens + adapter needed to make the alpha lens work on the a7 series camera.

Sony 16-35 f/4 fe vs Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA

Sony 16-35 f/4 fe vs Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA w/ LA-E4 adapter

Corner Sharpness

Easily the most requested test for this lens was to see just how good it did with corner sharpness. However because I was shooting professionally in Hawaii, most of the images I came away with were when there was little light, such as dawn and dusk, which generally don’t make for great sharpness tests. So instead, I walked around my neighborhood here in Denver and found a good test subject in my neighbors house. I tested the lens at f/8, f/11 and f/16 at 16mm, 24mm and 35mm. Below are the results.

16mm

Sony 16-35 f/4 fe Lens Sharpness Test

At 16mm, you will find a normal amount of corner sharpness drop off for an ultra-wide angle lens. While the famed Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 produces better corner results (judging from past experience), the difference isn’t much. In fact, I would say that the Sony 16-35 f/4 fe lens does incredible well, putting it on par with both the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA lens as well as the new Canon 16-35L f/4 IS. Below you will find 100% crops of the corners at f/8, f/11 and f/16.

Sony 16-35 f/4 FE 16mm Corner Sharp Test

Click to Enlarge

To be honest, I found very little difference in corner sharpness between f/8, f/11 and f/16. While I don’t doubt that there is a tiny difference, I couldn’t find much evidence in my pixel peeping of the details.

24mm

Sony 16-35 f/4 fe Corner Sharpness 24mm

At 24mm, things continue to improve (as they do with most wide angle lenses). The corner sharpness looks better as there is undoubtedly less drop off near the corners.

Sony 16-35 f4 fe Corner Sharpness Test at 24mm

Click to Enlarge

Again it doesn’t feel like there is much of a difference between the three options, but if I had to give an edge it would be to f/11, which does seem to be the sweet spot for this lens.

35mm

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At 35mm, you get some of the best corners, although if history is any indication, I would suspect that 33mm would be better as the extreme ends of any zoom lens tends to not offer the best corner to corner sharpness.

Sony-16-35-f4-fe-Corner-Sharpness-Test-at-35mm

Click to Enlarge

F/4 Corner Sharpness *NEW SECTION*

After publishing this review, many photographers requested to see corner sharpness at f/4, an oversight on my part. This section will focus on corner sharpness at f/4 at 16mm, 24mm and 35mm ranges. Below you can see the results.

16mm

Pulling in the upper right hand corner you can get a good feel for corner sharpness. Considering this is being pulled from an unedited raw file, the results look good to my eyes. There is sharpness dropoff, but very little considering the use of f/4. This is good news for astro/night photographers. The bottom right corner doesn’t look as good as the upper right, which I equate out to focal plane distance separation as my focus point was half way up the drive way.

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE at f/4 and 16mm

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE at f/4 and 16mm (click to enlarge)

24mm

At 24mm, corner sharpness looks very similar to 16mm, although maybe a touch sharper. Either way, there doesn’t appear to be much of difference between the two.

Sony FE 16-35 f/4 24mm corner sharpness test at f/4

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE at f/4 and 24mm (click to enlarge)

35mm

At 35mm, we lose most of the tree, so I decided to focus on the lower right hand corner instead for this test in terms of the 100% crop. The results here look good as well and a touch better than the others, but I am not seeing anything too significant in the comparison between all three. All of them look like they will provide solid options for night/astro photographers wanting to use this lens at its widest aperture.

Sony FE 16-35 f/4 f/4 corner sharpness test at 35mm

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE at f/4 and 24mm (click to enlarge)

In conclusion this lens preforms incredibly well in terms of corner to corner sharpness. As you move from wide angle to its furthest zoom, it gets better and better. At its widest point, it might not take the new crown for corner sharpness but it is pretty dang close. Once Adobe Lightroom gets a lens profile for this baby, you will get even better results!

Distortion Test *NEW SECTION*

As requested after this review was released, I have decided to include a distortion test of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4. I used a fence in my neighborhood, lining up my tripod, camera and lens to be perfectly level. The variable in this case is that the fence is not guaranteed to be perfectly straight. Either way, looking at the upper right and lower right corners, you can see that this lens handles distortion pretty well. (click on the image to enlarge).

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE Lens distortion test

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE Lens distortion test

Sun Stars Test

One question that I received frequently from other photographers with regards to this lens was its ability to create sun stars. Essentially what they are asking is that if you stop down your aperture to f/22, do you get perfect little sun stars when photographing a light source, such as the sun or a street lamp at night. The quality of the sun star comes down to a few different factors, namely the quality of optics used in the lens as well as the number of aperture blades. While it is purely subjective, it is said that you want an odd number of aperture blades to give the best overall look to your star. Luckily the 16-35 f/4 lens has 7.

For the sun star test I took advantage of the fall colors here in Denver, CO and went to my local park. I found some beautiful yellow leaves and simply held them up in front of the camera while shooting hand held. As you can see from the results, the sun star looks pretty great.

Sony a7s w/ Sony 16-35 f/4 fe testing the sun stars

Sony a7s w/ Sony 16-35 f/4 fe testing the sun stars

In terms of how it handled flare, it isn’t immune to it, but does a great job of minimizing it, especially for an ultra wide angle lens. In this image above I was literally looking straight at the sun and don’t find any noticeable lens flare in the shot. The same goes for nearly all the images in this series that didn’t end up getting selected to be showcased here. It did show up in a few of the shots, but it seemed to be minimal and pretty well controlled.

Lens Filter Test

While ultra wide angle lenses tend to be popular with landscape photographers, they still have their trade offs, especially when it comes to using photography filters. For example, the coveted Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 ultra wide lens has amazing corner to corner sharpness, but because of its bubble front lens element, it is difficult to use any filters with it, especially at 14mm. This is a similar problem with most ultra wide angle lenses. While most have easy to use filter threads, you can’t use filters with them at their widest point because of vignetting (the filters effecting appear in the corners of your shot). When Sony announced the 16-35 f/4 FE lens I was hopeful. Not only because of my experience with other Sony FE lenses, but because the filter diameter is 72mm. While Canon’s wide angle lenses tend to be 77mm or 82mm in diameter, the size of the 16-35 f/4 FE lens offered the potential to use filters even at the widest mm offering, 16mm.

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE + a 105mm Circular Polorizer

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE + the Formatt Hitech 105mm Circular Polorizer with no slide filter guides

For these tests, I used filters from the Signature Edition Colby Brown Landscape Photography Filter Kit that I produced with Formatt Hitech. In the kit you will find a 6 stop ND, 2 stop soft GND, 2 stop RGND and a 105mm Circular Polorizer. The kit is available for sale directly through Formatt Hitech as well as Amazon, B&H, 2filters and most major photography retail chains around the globe.

Colby Brown Signature Edition Landscape Photography Filter Kit

Colby Brown Signature Edition Landscape Photography Filter Kit

The goal of these tests were to determine just how much flexibility this lens gives landscape and long exposure photographers. As a landscape photographer, my most used filter is my circular polorizer, followed closely by my ND filters that help me slow down my shutter speed to take photos of moving water (waterfalls, seascapes). I rarely use more than two filters so for these tests I had two Formatt Hitech filter holders ready to go. One had just the 105mm CPL filter adapter (allowing me to only use my CPL) and the other had 1 filter guide + the CPL adapter (which would allow me to use 1 ND slide filter and the CPL for example).

So how did it perform? Lets take a look…

In the image below of Kona, Hawaii you can obviously seen strong vignetting where the CPL filter hold crept into the frame. This isn’t all that surprising considering that it is the most amount of filters that I use at any given time (1 ND filter + 105mm CPL) at 16mm. The good news is that if you zoom in the 17mm or 17.5mm or above, all of the vignetting goes away. With most normal lenses I would have to use my ultra wide angle lenses at 19mm or above in order to use this filter setup. The Sony 16-35 f/4 fe essentially gives you roughly two more mm to work with when using a similar setup.

Guide and Polorizer

16-35 f/4 fe at 16mm with Filter Holder w/ 1 guide and CPL attached

Next up was a test to see what happened when I removed the 105mm circular polorizer from the same setup at 16mm. As you can see, there is no vignetting…even at 16mm. This means that you can easily use a single filter and possibly a second slide filter (if you add a second filter guide to your holder) and still shoot at 16mm. This is certainly a win for this lens!

Just Guide

Sony 16-35 f/4 FE w/ Formatt Hitech filter holder with 1 filter guide at 16mm

Lastly and most importantly to me is the test of the using my filter holder with just the 105mm Circular Polorizer (you can see an image of this setup at the start of this section). Here I wanted to see if I would be able to use my CPL with this lens at 16mm (something I can’t do with the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA alpha lens). When we look at the corners, there is just a touch of vignetting from the filter being visible in the frame itself (I am talking barely). This is big. Having an ultra wide angle lens that allows me to use a polorizer at 16mm will certainly make a difference with my landscape photography work. This is something that will easily be corrected for with a lens profile in LR when that becomes available. Very excited to see these results!

20141021_Hawaii_The_Big_Island_9523

Sony 16-35 f/4 fe with just the 105mm CPL

F/4 and Night Photography

When it comes to night photography, most photographers need incredibly fast lenses. Why? Because a fast aperture, such as f/2.8 allows more light into a scene than a slower aperture of say f/4. By allowing more light to reach your sensor, you can use either a faster shutter speed to capture stars with no movement (such as 20 seconds instead of 30 seconds) or you can use a lower ISO (such as ISO 1600 instead of 3200) which would offer cleaner images as a result (without noise and retaining detail). So with the Sony 16-35 f/4 FE lens being an f/4 lens and not an f/2.8 lens like its heavy and larger big brother (the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA alpha wide angle lens), some photographers were worried that they wouldn’t be able to use the lens for astro photography.

To be honest, this is really only a worry if you don’t own the Sony a7s (which I have) as it has such incredible ISO performance that there is very little to no difference between ISO 1600 and ISO 10,000 (with a little editing magic to help). So needless to say, if you have that camera, don’t worry about shooting with an f/4 lens. As for everyone else, I pushed the 16-35 f/4f FE lens in Hawaii with the a7r over the active Kilauea Volcano (with the milky way in the back ground). Below we can see the results.

Sony 16-35 f4 fe Night Photography

Sony a7r w/ 16-35 f/4 FE lens at 3200 ISO, 20 seconds at f/4

At 3200 ISO, I feel we are pushing the limits of the a7r in terms of noise management. As you can see in the image above (click to enlarge), the results still look great even at f/4. Bottom line is that if you are ok with shooting at 3200 ISO with your night photography, the Sony 16-35 f/4 fe lens shouldn’t be an issue for most of the images you will be trying to shoot.

F/4 and Bokeh

Another one of the benefits of using fast lenses is their ability to create gorgeous bokeh (the blurred background behind a subject). The faster the lens, generally the more blurred the background is. This is one of the reasons that many portrait and street photographers love lenses that have an f/stop of 1.8, 1.4 or lower. While portrait lenses tend to be 50mm-100mm to help compress the precieved distance between the subject and its background, the 16-35 fe sits at f/4, so how well does it perform? Lets take a look. (click on the images to enlarge).

By request, I have decided to open up the RAW files for the images found in this Bokeh test to alleviate any confusion or error on my part over the 100% crop found in the below images. You can find them in the following links. 16mm | 35mm

*All of these images were taken with the a7s in my home in Denver. I didn’t get around to capturing any epic images in Hawaii for this test, so these will have to do :)

16mm f/4

At 16mm, the bokeh in the background is nice but not ground breaking. That being said, portrait images with ultra wide angle lenses are generally pretty unflattering anyway, so the fact that the bokeh doesn’t look like an f/1.8 lens isn’t a big deal at this mm range. Regardless, you still have nice separation between your focal plane and the background.

Sony 16-35 f/4 fe Bokeh Test

f/4 at 16mm – tested indoors

Sony 16-35 f/4 fe Bokeh Test

f/4 at 16mm – tested outside

35mm f/4

At 35mm, things become a bit better as the compressed spacial distance plays a greater role in how the bokeh looks.

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f/4 at 35mm – tested inside

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f/4 at 35mm – tested outside

Behind the Scenes Gallery

Here is a small collection of images of the lens being used in a variety of environments. Most reviewers tend to use lenses and cameras in controlled environments but I prefer to be out in the field in situations that I actually need my gear to preform in.

SOTC Image Gallery

One of the most common complaints I read from other photographers reviews is the fact that they edit their review images. While I also want to show off what this lens is ultimately capable off (and I do in the next section), I also want to give you guys a quick look at a small gallery of images that are Straight Out of The Camera…otherwise known as SOTC. These images have not been touched other than imported into LR and exported at 2048x on the long end. Most were shot with on the a7r but there are a few from the a7s as well. Nearly all of these images are shot either at sunrise or sunset and were part of an image bracket, which explains why parts of each image could be blown out. Enjoy!

*Keep in mind that this is a pre-production lens with any of the images I took in this review.

Edited Image Gallery

The images found in this gallery have been edited using Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, onOne Software Perfect Suite 9 and Nik Software’s Nik Collection by Google. Enjoy!

*Many more images coming shortly, but just wanted to get this review out the door and live rather than wait for me to edit more images.

RAW Files

Reviews like these bring out the “pixel peepers” in all of us, so instead of simply giving you access to high resolution JPEGs that have had atleast a tiny LR magic done to them, I have decided to include a few RAW image files for you enjoy to your hearts content. Atleast until Sony asks me to pull these from the review since my lens is a pre-production model :)

Sony 16-35 f4 fe ISO 100  Raw Image File

A7r | 16-35 f/4 fe | ISO 100 | f/13 | .6 sec

LINK

Sony 16-35 f4 fe ISO 50 Raw Image File

A7r | 16-35 f/4 fe | ISO 100 | f/16 | .6 secs

LINK

Final Thoughts

When Sony first started releasing lenses for their a7 series of cameras, many photographers initially worried about the trade offs to using gear that was substantially smaller and lighter than what they were used to in the DSLR world. Would the lenses be as sharp? Would they still produce good enough image quality? Fortunately Sony has continued to surprise us with incredible quality lenses such as the 55 f/1.8 and 70-200 f/4. So where does the 16-35 f/4 fe stand? In my personal opinion, near the top of the FE lens line up food chain. Not only was Sony and Zeiss able to engineer a small and lightweight ultra wide angle lens, they were able to do so without sacrificing image quality. I was impressed with the corner to corner sharpness (although it doesn’t dethrone the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8), how it handles sun stars and as well as how it can be used hand held with its built in OSS (optical stabilization), especially with the a7s which tends to have better AF capabilities than the a7r (which I use more than anything else).

Sony-a7r-with-16-35-f4-fe-lens

If I had to pick out a few soft points about the lens, it is a bit expensive ($150 more than Canon’s new 16-35 f/4). In addition to that, it is an f/4 lens, which might turn a few photographers away (such as Astro Photographers). Many people coming from the DSLR world have gotten used to carrying around the big and bulky f/2.8 glass, but when it comes to the FE lens mount, the focus is on making high quality portable lenses. An f/2.8 wide angle lens in an FE mount would be massive and out of place in the Sony lens line up. And to be fair to Sony, they already offer it with the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA alpha mount. It is sharp and fast, but at a cost (its weight and size).

Pros

  • Lightweight and Portable
  • Good corner sharpness
  • Great build quality
  • Excellent star stars
  • Minimal flare issues
  • Works well with filters
  • Dust and Moisture resistant
  • Lens stabilization

Cons

  • Expensive (MSRP is $1349 USD)
  • Not a fast aperture lens (f/4)

So do I recommend this lens? Yes. I am very happy the the image results from this lens and I am happy to say that it is essentially on par with the famed Canon 16-35 f/4 wide angle lens that was just released that has great IQ. This lens has already become a staple of my gear setup, helping me shed another 1lb off my camera backpack by swapping out my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 ZA lens with this one. No lens is perfect, but between the build quality, portability and corner sharpness, this is a welcome addition to nearly anyone with an a7 series Sony camera.

Full Disclosure

As I mentioned at the start of this review, I am sponsored by Sony. Regardless, even if you choose to not take me at my word or have issue with my opinions, I have provided enough RAW and high resolution evidence for you to come to your own conclusions about the lens. Having said that, Sony did not ask nor pay me to write this review. As for the question of bias because of my connection with Sony, my integrity is worth far more than a few free lenses and cameras each year. I am always honest in my reviews, regardless of my affiliation with a company and they know that going into our agreement.


Sony Announces New Professional Services Program to Rival CPS and NPS

Sony-a6000-Weather-Sealed-TestingAs a professional photographer that spends much of his time on the road working in extreme environments, I have found the use of a Professional Services Program to be integral to my various photography businesses over the years. As a Canon shooter previously, there were many times when I had to take advantage of CPS (Canon Professional Services) to help me fix a broken lens, expedite my shipping and turn around a repair in short order (within a few business days) because I was leaving for another project or marketing campaign.

When I became a Sony Ambassador and solely began using Sony camera gear earlier this year, this was one point of contention that I had with my choice. However after multiple conversations with Sony Product Managers, my worry was gone as I knew this day was coming. Today Sony announced their Pro Support services program. Lets talk a bit about what that means…

As Sony Imaging has continued to grow and take the photography industry by storm over the last two years, it has been working hard behind the scenes to not only make sure that pro photographers have the cameras and lenses they need, but the customer support as well. Both Canon and Nikon have offered professional services programs for years that help support those that have chosen to invest in their camera brand by giving them the highest level of profession support they can. This has typically involved rushing camera & lens repairs, optional loaner gear when need and discounts on out of warrant repairs. I can tell you from personal experience, getting a discount on the repair of a $4000 camera is very much appreciated!

Sony Pro Support Services Program Header

Pro Support Program Benefits

Here is a break down of what the Sony services program includes.

  • Welcome Kit
  • Dedicated phone support
  • Expedited turnaround time for repair service
  • Repair facilitation loans
  • Access to loan equipment for evaluation purposes
  • Free camera maintenance services
  • No out-of-pocket shipping expenses
  • Discounts on out-of-warranty repairs

Membership Requirements:

Unlike Canon’s CPS and Nikon’s NPS, Sony doesn’t force you to own over $15,000 worth of gear. Here are the requirements to join the program:

  • Owner of two (2) Sony Alpha Full Frame Interchangeable Lens Cameras and three (3) Sony ZEISS™ and/or G-Series Lenses
  • $100 annual membership fee
  • Active professional photographer (self-employed or member of professional imaging business)
Film Project in the Canadian Rockies shot purely with Sony cameras

Film Project in the Canadian Rockies shot purely with Sony cameras

A Game Changer?

While Sony just announced this program, it has in fact been running in BETA during a testing period for some time. Myself and other Sony Ambassadors have been able to take advantage of the Pro Support program for the last few months and needless to say I am impressed. Not only because I now have top notch professional support for my gear, but because of the size and scale of Sony. While Nikon has had horrible reviews for its NPS program in the US, Canon’s CPS counterpart has been top notch (speaking from personal & professional experience), however it has been regulated to the region you are apart of because of the size of the company.

Sony on the other hand is a MUCH MUCH larger company with repair and service centers all over the world. Historically if I broke a Canon lens in Iceland or Thailand, I couldn’t do anything until I got back to the US. What if I had the ability to get a it repaired on the road or if I could of had a loaner sent to me while working in the middle of a project? While Sony’s announcement today is simply focusing on the US market, it is only a matter of time before we all get world wide support. To me, that is a game changer!

Sony a6000 in use in Iceland

Sony a6000 in use in Iceland

For more information on Sony’s PRO Support Service program or to formally apply, visit (www.sony.com/PROServices).


First Look: Sony FE 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS Lens

*UPDATE – The full in-depth review of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 is now live. LINK

Over the last two years Sony Imaging has continued to push the boundaries of the photo industry. Between the dynamic range found in the a7r (In Depth Review) to the incredible low light performance of the a7s, there is a lot of reasons to love what Sony has been up to. However regardless how impressive Sony’s new cameras are, the native lens line for the FE camera mount has had relatively slow growth. While nearly ever one of the FE lenses available today are very impressive, the glaring hole in the lens lineup has been in the wide angle department, until now.

Sony-a7r-with-16-35-f4-fe-lens

Sony a7r w/ Sony FE 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS lens

On September 15th, 2014 Sony finally unveiled the Sony fe 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS lens, which has easily become the most sought after lens for the a7 series cameras (a7,a7r, a7s). Having partnered with Sony over a year ago, they were kind enough to give me early access to the lens while working on a project on The Big Island of Hawaii, where I am currently writing this blog post from. For the next 10 days, I will be pushing this lens to its limits in a variety of situations to see what it is capable of, but I need your help. In the comments below, leave what ever questions you have about the lens and I will make sure to cover as many of them as I can when I release my full in-depth review in the first week of November here on the blog.

Specs

Sony fe 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS Press Image via Sony

Sony fe 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS Press Image via Sony

  • Optics/Lens

    • Lens Mount Type : Sony E-mount (35mm full frame)
    • Lens Stabilization : Optical SteadyShot
    • Minimum Focus Distance : 11″ 0.28m
    • Lens Groups-Elements : 10 groups, 12 elements
    • Filter Diameter : 72mm
    • Lens Type : Full-frame E-mount Wide-angle Lens
    • Lens Weight : 18.3 oz (518g)
    • Aperture (Max.) : f/4.0
    • Aperture (Min.) : f/22
    • Maximum Magnification : 0.19x
    • Focal Length (35mm equivalent) : 16-35mm (35mm) 24- 52.5mm (APS-C)
    • Aspheric Elements : 5 aspherical, 1 advanced aspherical
    • Aperture Blade : 7 blades (Circular aperture)
    • Angle of View : 83°-44° (APS-C) 107°-63° (35mm)
  • Weights and Measurements

    • Dimensions (Approx.) : 3-1/8″ x 4″ (78 x 98.5mm)
    • Weight (Approx.) : 18.2 oz (518g)

Initial Thoughts

One of the first things I noticed about the Sony fe 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS lens was the build quality. Like the other Sony Vario-Tessar lenses for fe-mount cameras, this Zeiss made lens is built with very high standards. When you hold it in your hand, it doesn’t feel cheap. It feels solid. Why? Because instead of using plastic like many camera/lens manufacturers these days, they use a metal finish, both for the lens body itself and for the focus ring, which truly does make a difference when you are holding it in your hands. On top of this, the lens is listed as dust and water resistant, a feature I plan on putting to the test since a hurricane is currently moving through Hawaii as we speak.

Hand Holding Sony 16-35 f4 fe Lens
In addition, it is incredibly light weight, especially for a 16-35 wide angle lens. Until this lens came out, I had to use the Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/2.8 ZA lens (for Sony A Mount cameras) along with the Sony LA-EA4 adapter. That combination easily weighs 1020g or 2.25lbs. In contrast, the new Sony 16-35 f/4 FE lens weighs just 518g….or in other words, nearly half the weight of my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 a-mount lens setup. In a mirrorless world where I am always looking to lighten my overall load, this weight savings of nearly 1lb is very much welcome.

Another important observation is the 72mm lens filter diameter. As a landscape photographer filters are an important accessory I use quite often, especially CPL and ND filters, both of which are available via the Colby Brown Signature Edition Landscape Photography Filter Kit that I created with Formatt Hitech. The problem with using filters on wide angle lenses is the increased vignetting and general lack of the ability to stack filters when shooting near 16mm. If I could use a 105mm CPL at 16mm, this lens would be a game changer for many landscape photographers. The 72mm filter opening on the lens looks promising and I can’t wait to further test my filter with this setup here in Hawaii.

Front-Lens-Element-Sony-16-35-f4-fe

The front lens element of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS

Behind the Scenes

Over the course of the next 10 days, I will be exploring much of The Big Island of Hawaii as a teach a photography workshop to 10 of my clients. During that time, I will also be testing the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS lens. As time goes on, I will continue to update this section to include new behind the scenes images of me testing the lens out in the field so that you can get a feel for the kind of conditions the lens is being put through.

Rainbow Falls with Sony a7r and 16-35 f4 fe Lens

Sony a7r w/ the FE 16-35 f/4 OSS lens at Rainbow Falls near Hilo, HI

Akaka Falls with Sony a7r and 16-35 f4 fe Lens

Sony a7r w/ the FE 16-35 f/4 OSS lens & CPL fliter at Akaka Falls near Hilo, HI

Filters with Sony 16-35 f4 fe Lens

Waiting for Sunset near Kona, HI with the A7r, 16-35 f/4 FE and Formatt Hitech Circular Polorizer

Sunset with Sony a7r and 16-35 f4 fe lens 2

Finding reflecting tidal pools as the sunset lit the sky on fire

Sunset with Sony a7r and 16-35 f4 fe lens

One of the most incredible sunsets I have seen in Hawaii over tidal blow holes north of Kona, HI

The Sony 16-35 f/f4 fe at work on the a7r at sunset view the Kona shoreline

The Sony 16-35 f/f4 fe at work on the a7r at sunset view the Kona shoreline

Sunset Over Lave Holes on The Big Island

Sunset Over Lave Holes on The Big Island

Sony a7s being pushed to 10k ISO with the Sony 16-35 f/4 fe lens

Sony a7s being pushed to 10k ISO to capture the Milky Way over an active volcano with the Sony 16-35 f/4 fe lens

Sony a7r with 16-35 f/4 fe wide angle lens capturing a lava hole outside Kona

Sony a7r with 16-35 f/4 fe wide angle lens capturing a lava hole outside Kona

Submit Your Questions

One of the biggest problems I see with most reviews is that the review doesn’t always answer all of the questions you as a reader have. This is why I am opening up my review to you. In the first week of November, I will release a full in-depth review, but in the meantime please leave your comments, questions, concerns and or tests you would like to see done and I will do my best to include as much as I can into the review itself when it is released. Enjoy!


A Photographers Guide to Visiting Yosemite

There are few places in the world that are as beautiful and inspiring as Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. When it comes to iconic locations that define a country such as the United States, it is hard not think of images of Half Dome or Yosemite Falls, both of which have been made famous over the years by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell that each helped define photography for their respective generations.

The iconic Upper Yosemite Falls with early morning light

The iconic Upper Yosemite Falls with early morning light. Shot with a Sony a7r

While many people know that I grew up in the Bay Area, few actually know of my historic ties to Yosemite. My great great grandfather was a man named William E. Colby and he was one of the original members of the Sierra Club with John Muir. Together, they worked hard to help protect Yosemite in the early 1900’s and when Muir passed away in 1914, William became the director of the Sierra Club, staying in the position for nearly 49 years before retiring. I feel this is part of the reason why Yosemite has always felt like home.

In April of this year (2014), I worked on a project for the #DreamBig initiative with Visit California and Yosemite National Park. One of the many things that came out of the project was the video that you see below. Enjoy!


Between my love of the park itself and my family’s history Yosemite, I have a clear understanding of why so many photographers have it listed as a “bucket list” location. Because of this, I decided to put together this comprehensive guide to visiting Yosemite, from a photographers perspective. I cover a lot of topics; from information on which airports to fly into, to my favorite spots to photograph, to my favorite times of year to visit. There are plenty of amazing things to see in Yosemite National Park (which is open year round).

Getting There

Google Maps View of Yosemite and Northern California

Google Maps View of Yosemite and Northern California

Located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite offers a multitude of ways to visit this amazing national park. While most people will be flying into one of the airports below, local travelers or residents have the ability to drive using Highway 120 (East/West), 140 (South West/North East) or 41 (North/South) to enter Yosemite Valley itself. While HW 120 and 41 tend to get closed during snow storms in Winter & Early Spring, HW 140 tends to stay open, so check for Yosemite Road Conditions HERE.

Nearby Airports w/ directions to Yosemite

  • San Francisco (SFO) – The largest of the nearby airports, SFO is a great international hub airport and most likely where all international travelers will be flying in from. While this airport might offer the most flight options, it is also the furthest away from Yosemite and has the most traffic to deal with. (Time 3 hrs 34 minutes w/ no traffic) (Google Maps Directions)
  • San Jose (SJC) – A smaller, but well built airport, SJC is the airport of choice for most flying into Silicon Valley. While you won’t have as many flight options as SFO, you will have much less traffic to deal on both ends of your arrival and departure. (Time: 3 hrs 33 minutes w/no traffic) (Google Map Directions)
  • Oakland (OAK) – Located on the other side of the bay from SFO, Oakland is a great option for those flying in via Southwest Airlines (as well as through a number of other carriers. While you still have to contend with Bay Area traffic, you won’t have to cross any of the bridges that can make transit times in this part of the world a bit ridiculous depending on the time of day of your flights. (Time: 3 hrs 20 minutes w/no traffic) (Google Maps Directions)
  • Sacramento (SMF) – Located in the capital of California, SMF airport offers a small airport (with few International flights). The airport is well built and your drive to Yosemite will avoid all of the Bay Area, focusing more of the interior of California. You can still find traffic in Sacramento and Stockton, but for the most part it will offer a more pleasant driving time than any of the Bay Area airports. (Time: 3 hrs 20 minutes w/no traffic) (Google Maps Directions)
  • Fresno (FAT) – My favorite airport for my Yosemite adventures, FAT is by far the closest airport (by an hour in terms of driving time to Yosemite) and you rarely, if ever have any traffic to contend with. The airport itself is newly renovated, has some nice places to eat and a variety of car rental options (Time: 2 hrs 16 minutes w/no traffic) (Google Maps Directions)

When To Visit

As you can imagine, each of the different seasons (winter, spring, summer and fall) offer different experiences inside the park. Before your trip, be sure to check the current weather conditions as well as take a peek at Yosemite’s various webcams to give you real time updated information.

Cameron Slyvester filming on location in Yosemite for a project with me

Cameron Slyvester filming on location in Yosemite for a project with me

Winter (Dec – March)

Winter is one of the best times to visit Yosemite. Not only do you not have any crowds to contend with, but if you are fortunate to visit during a winter snow storm, there is nothing quite like seeing Yosemite caked with a layer of snow. However this also means that much of the park is closed down outside Yosemite Valley. Glacier Point Rd and Tioga Pass road are both generally closed during the winter because of snow and generally don’t open until the end of April at the earliest.

Spring (April – May)

Overall my favorite time of the year in Yosemite, a spring visit to the park can offer nearly everything we have grown to love and appreciate about its beauty. The waterfalls will still be flowing from the winter snow melt, everything will be lush green as the park continues to thaw out from winter, the dogwoods are in bloom (in April) along the Merced River and if you visit early enough in April, you still have a chance to catch a late winter snow storm that could blanket the Valley for a day or so before melting off. As mentioned above, count on Glacier Point Rd and Tioga Pass to both open up by late April, giving you access to other parts of the park itself.

Summer (June – August)

By far, summer is the most popular month for visitors to Yosemite. This generally means that you can find large crowds of people in Yosemite Valley and most of the accommodation options (including camping) completely booked solid. If you are planning on taking your family to Yosemite in the summer, plan ahead. Also note that while all of the park will be open in the summer (including a few of my favorite parts, like Tuolumne Meadows), most of the waterfalls will have dried up by this time. Ultimately, because of the crowds, it is hard to recommend visiting the park during the height of the summer months, atleast if your focus is on photography.

Fall (Sept- Nov)

If you want to beat the crowds of summer and have a slightly cooler temperature to contend with, visiting during fall might be perfect for you. While you don’t get the lush greenery of spring, the fall transformation can be beautiful in its own right. For the most part, you won’t find crazy fall color in Yosemite like you do in Colorado with the Aspens or in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, but you will certainly see a color change move throughout the park, which can be incredibly beautiful.

Accommodation

When it comes to finding a place to stay in Yosemite, you have a variety of options, depending on the time of year that you visit and where in the park you wish to stay. Let’s break down the options based on the different regions of the park.

The Tip

Representing the top end of your options in Yosemite, the Ahwahnee is a site to see

Yosemite Valley

In Yosemite Valley, you will by far have the best selection of options for places to stay, ranging from the high end to a plethora of camp sites that are open for a good portion of the year.

  • Ahwahnee Hotel – The high end option for those wanting to stay in Yosemite. The hotel itself is incredibly impressive, although certainly expensive. Needless to say there is nothing else like it in Yosemite.
  • Yosemite Lodge at the Falls – Located close by Lower Yosemite Falls, you won’t spend as much as if you stayed at the Ahwahnee, but it isn’t cheap either. Regardless it offers probably the best location of all the hotels, has comfortable rooms, good dining options and wifi (although I wouldn’t count on it working in your rooms).
  • Curry Village – For those that don’t want to spend a lot of money, but also don’t want to sleep in a tent, Curry Village offers large cabins and tent cabins (which can come heated). The trade off? You will be in fairly close proximity to your neighbors. Either way the beds are comfortable and you can’t beat the price if you want to stay in Yosemite Valley itself.
  • Housekeeping Camp – Located along the Merced River, the Housekeeping camp is a great place to stay in later spring, summer and early fall. Perfect for those that want to camp, but without sleeping in the tent. Each unit of the Housekeeping camp camp (266 units) can hold up to 6 people. Do note that the beds don’t come with sheets, blankets or pillows (although you can rent them for $2.50 a night.
  • Yosemite View Lodge – The only accommodation listed that is actually outside Yosemite Valley…in fact it is outside Yosemite National Park itself. That being said, it is located just 20 minutes away from the park entrance, offers very affordable spacious rooms, has awesome in-room wifi (something no other accommodation in the park offers) and has the Merced River flowing in its back yard. If I am not camping, this is generally my favorite option (mostly because of the wifi).
  • Lower & Upper Pines Campground – Located within Yosemite Valley, this is one of your best camping options. There are plenty of spaces (for both tent and RVs) and you are located in an area with pretty awesome views of Half Dome. What’s not to love about that?
  • Camp 4 – If you are heading to Yosemite to do some rock climbing, this is where you want to stay. Known for its climbing/adventure persona, Camp 4 is located right up against the granite walls of the valley itself. First come/first serve only.

Tuolumne Meadows

This area is closed during the winter months, so keep that in mind and be sure to check road and camp site conditions.

  • Tuolumne Meadows Lodge – While the term lodge is a touch misleading, the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge is open from mid June through mid September and offers you 69 canvas tents (similar to Curry Village).
  • Tuolumne Meadows Camp Ground – Just as it sounds. The main spot for camping (tent and RV) in the high sierras of Yosemite.
  • Tioga Junction Campground – If you find that all of the Tuolumne Meadows options are full (common in the summer months), you can head just outside the parks east entrance and camp at the Tioga Junction Campground. This campground is first come/first serve.

Mariposa Grove

  • Wawona Hotel – Located between Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, this is your only option to sleep with a roof over your head. That being said, the hotel is a National Historic Landmark that was built during the Victorian era. It is great for those that want a little peace and quiet compared to the sometimes crowded experiences found in Yosemite Valley.
  • Wawona Campgrounds – Located near the Wawona Hotel, this is a great half way point between Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove in terms of camping.
  • Summerdale Campground – The closest campsite to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees is here.

Back Country Camping

While places like Tuolumne Meadows or Yosemite Valley get all the attention, the truth is that Yosemite has hundreds of miles of amazing back-country hikes that are waiting to be explored. However to stay overnight, you will need to secure a Wilderness permit from the NPS (National Park Service). All the information you need can be found HERE.

Places to Photograph

While all the information I have covered so far is important for anyone’s visit to Yosemite, I imagine that most of you want to get an idea of places to photograph. Wait no more!

Tunnel View

One of the most iconic views of Yosemite can be found at the Tunnel View lookout point. While this location is generally a sunset location (to help you get some color on El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls and Half Dome), an early morning trip here could prove fruitful if it is cold enough to bring a layer of fog into the valley. Wait to long and the mid morning sun will burn it all off.

The View from the Tunnel View lookout point in Spring. Shot with a Sony a7r

The View from the Tunnel View lookout point in Spring

 

A layer of fog fills Yosemite Valley after a recent snow storm

A layer of fog fills Yosemite Valley after a recent snow storm. Shot with a Sony a7r.

Bridalveil Falls

Located near the west entrances to Yosemite Valley, Bridalveil Falls is a beautiful waterfall to photograph during the late winter/spring months. For the best views of the waterfall, check out Tunnel View, Bridalveil Falls Trail, field near Bridalveil Creek, Gates of the Valley. In the morning the waterfall is in the shade and by afternoon it will have some light on it (which will fade before sunset).

Afternoon light peaks through a passing storm to light up Bridalveil Falls

Afternoon light peaks through a passing storm to light up Bridalveil Falls – View from Tunnel View. Shot with a Sony a7r.

El Capitan

One of the icons of the park, the massive granite face will be one of the first things to greet you as you enter the Yosemite Valley. It is amazing to know that people scale El Capitan on a daily basis in the summer…some without any ropes at all. Because of its location and the directions it faces because of its size, you can actually get nice light on El Capitan during both sunrise and sunset (although the later is certainly more popular). It is best viewed from Tunnel View, Gates of the Valley, the field near Bridalveil Creek, El Capitan Meadow, Cathedral Picnic Area.

El Capitan in shade during a passing storm

El Capitan in shade during a passing storm – View from Tunnel View

Yosemite Falls

Next to Half-Dome, Yosemite Falls is probably the most iconic feature of Yosemite National Park. The waterfall itself is actually 3 waterfalls, upper (the tallest), middle (not visible from the ground) and lower (most accessible). While you can photograph Yosemite Falls at any time of the day, if you happen to visit during spring, be sure to make your was to the Lower Falls around 7am – 8am to witness a beautiful rainbow coming out of the falls mist. While the waterfall is seen from much of Yosemite Valley, it is best viewed in these locations: Swinging Bridge, Lower Yosemite Trail (Spot 1, Spot 2), field off of Southside Dr, field just south of Ahwahnee Hotel.

The view of Yosemite Falls through the Trees from the Yosemite Fall's Trail

The view of Yosemite Falls through the Trees from the Yosemite Fall’s Trail. Shot with a Sony a7r.

The view of Yosemite Falls from the field near the Swinging Bridge

The view of Yosemite Falls from the field near the Swinging Bridge. Shot with a Sony a7r.

Half Dome

When you think of Yosemite, it is hard not to envision Half Dome. Not only is it the icon for the park itself, it is also used around the world, including in the logo for North Face. Most photographers attempt to capture Half Dome during a storm when you have dramatic light or during sunset. With sunrise, the sun often rises at the wrong angle most of the year, although with the right clouds, you can still get some pretty amazing photos. There are a variety of spots to get awesome views of Half Dome: Sentinel Bridge, field opposite Lower Yosemite Falls trail head, Glacier Point, field opposite Curry Village, Merced River Spot outside Yosemite Village parking (sunset).

Half Dome after a light dusting of snow

Half Dome after a light dusting of snow. Shot with a Sony a7r.

Half Dome at Sunset from a spot just off the Yosemite Village parking area

Half Dome at Sunset from a spot just off the Yosemite Village parking area. Shot with a Sony a7r.

Three Brothers

A gorgeous series of three granite peaks set in the heart of Yosemite Valley. The Three Brothers are great during a winter snow storm or if you have dramatic clouds. Catching it at sunset can also be pretty spectacular! The best view is from THIS spot near Sentinel Beach.

The Three Brothers at sunset over the Merced River

The Three Brothers at sunset over the Merced River. Shot with a Sony a7r.

Merced River

While the Merced River flows throughout the Yosemite Valley, my favorite time of year to photograph along its banks is during spring, when the dogwoods are in bloom. While the spots for the best dogwoods change year after year, I have found these two spots to be fairly solid. Spot 1, Spot 2.

Dog Woods in Bloom near the Merced River

Dog Woods in Bloom near the Merced River

Reflections of the afternoon sun on the Merced River

Reflections of the afternoon sun on the Merced River

Glacier Point

Glacier Point offers the best top down view of Yosemite Valley by far. Located nearly 4000ft above the valley, you get a commanding view of Half Dome, the valley floor and Vernal & Nevada Falls. Most photographers feel this spot is best at sunset and I would have to agree. Directions

The view of Half Dome from Glacier point at Sunset. Shot with a Sony a7r.

Mariposa Grove

Located near the South entrance to Yosemite you will find the giant sequoia trees of the Mariposa Grove. Some of these trees date back 2400 years and reach sizes of 90 ft in diameter and over 210 ft tall. You can shoot Mariposa Grove at any time of the day (especially with cloud cover), but I find the early morning light to be the best. Plus it is always nice to get in and walk around before the crowds come. Directions

A Giant Sequoia Tree in the Mariposa Grove with my wife standing in for a sense of scale

A Giant Sequoia Tree in the Mariposa Grove with my wife standing in for a sense of scale

Tuolumne Meadows

Located in the high sierras, Tuolumne Meadows is a beautiful location that sadly doesn’t get the attention that Yosemite Valley does. While it doesn’t have the giant icons of the valley like Half Dome, it is an incredible beautiful and serene meadow that is worth exploring. You can have luck at either sunset or sunrise here. Directions.

Layered Sunset

Tuolumne Meadows at Sunset

Mono Lake

Located past the Eastern Entrance to Yosemite National Park, you will find the small town of Lee Vining at the gorgeous saline body of water, Mono Lake. Most photographers that visit Yosemite also try to spend atleast one or two days photographing Mono Lake (if the roads are open) as the mineral deposits that have created large tufas towers along the southern edge of the lake are fun to photograph. I have had success with both sunset and sunrise here, although the later is what normal is recommended if you had to choose one or the other. (Spot 1, Spot 2).

Sunrise over Mono Lake

Sunrise over Mono Lake. Shot with a Sony a7r.

Additional Gallery

Surrounding Areas

While most travelers visiting this region tend to focus all of their attention on Yosemite, there are some wonderful small gateway towns and communities that offer wonderful historical experiences, especially if you are bringing your family along with you.

Mariposa

Established in 1806, the small historic town of Mariposa was once booming during the Gold Rush years. Located between Fresno and Yosemite National Park (on HW 140), it is a great stopping point to get a taste of the history of the region and enjoy a few local wineries & breweries. The town has an old stone jail (built in 1858), an old gold stamp mill & museum and one of the oldest courthouses in California (build in 1854…which is still in use). Directions.

Old Stamp Mill from the Gold Rush

Old Stamp Mill from the Gold Rush

One of the oldest court houses in  CA that is still in use

One of the oldest court houses in CA that is still in use

Bodie Ghost Town

Bodie is a ghost town located in the Bodie Hills, east of Yosemite National Park and north of the town of Lee Vining (Mono Lake). Bodie used to be a mining town that began to decline in the early 1900’s. These days it is an authentic ghost town that feels set in the Wild West. In 1962 it became the Bodie State Historic Park. If you get a chance to check out this eerie town with a great historical flavor, you won’t be disappointed.Directions.

Bodie Ghost Town - Image via Wikipedia CC

Bodie Ghost Town – Image via Wikipedia CC


An In-Depth Review of the Sony a7r

There is no doubt that Sony has the photo industry talking lately. While you can certainly purchase a very capable Canon, Nikon or Fuji camera, it is Sony that seems to be the most innovative these days, both in sensor and lens technology. So when Sony announced the a7 & a7r last year, I (like my of my colleagues) was intrigued, one could even say excited, with the notion of an affordable light weight, full frame mirror-less camera. Especially one that housed some of the same sensor technology that went into the popular Nikon D800e. But with this being 1st generation technology from Sony, was it truly going to live up to its hype? Is the Sony a7r truly a game changing camera? I had to find out.

A7r-River-Icelanda
After making a few phone calls and talking to the right people at Sony, they agreed to send me an a7r (and a handful of lenses) to put to the test. As a landscape, travel and humanitarian photographer, I am often working in fairly extreme environments and the projects I had lined up over the last half year certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. From Iceland to the Canadian Rockies to Hawaii and even Australia, I pushed this camera to its limits…and then some. I even managed to break two ribs while bringing it with me while ice climbing in Iceland this past winter. Have you ever wanted to know just how cold a camera can get and still perform? What about test your camera to see if it is actually weather sealed by using it in a rain storm? Humidity? Snow? Heat? Dust? Done…Done and Done! So how did she hold up overall? Will the a7r become a permanent pillar of my gear setup? Lets find out!

Specs

  • Camera Format – Full Frame
  • Pixels - 36.8 Megapixels
  • Max Resolution - 7360 x 4912
  • Lens Format - Sony E-Mount (Handles new FE lenses as well)
  • Bit Depth - 14-bit
  • Memory Card Type – SD/SDHC/SDXC
  • Video Recording Options - 1920 x 1080 : 60 FPS, 24 FPS | 1440×1080 : 30 FPS | 640 x 480 : 40 FPS
  • Viewfinder Type - Electronic
  • Viewfinder Pixel Count - 2,400,000
  • Viewfinder Coverage - 100%
  • ISO Sensitivity - 100-256000 (Extended Mode: 50)
  • Shutter – Electronic | Speed: 30 – 1/8000 seconds
  • Burst Rate - 4 FPS at 36mp
  • Wireless Connectivity – Wifi/NFC
  • Battery Type - 1x NP-FW50 Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery
  • Dimensions - 5.0 x 3.7 x 1.9″ / 126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2 mm
  • Weight – 14.36 oz / 407 g

Build/Portability

One of the first things that people says to me when they see me out shooting with the a7r is “I can’t believe how small it is”. When I run a dual camera/tripod setup with my Canon 1dx next to it, it looks almost like a child’s play thing. That isn’t to say that the build quality isn’t impressive or that it doesn’t feel solidly built when you hold it in your hands…but it is small…impressively so. The body itself weighs just 14.36 oz and can arguably fit in your pants pocket without a lens attached (if you have big pockets like I do). The topic discussion of how weather sealed it is has sparked a lot of debate as Sony has removed any previous indications that it came protected from the elements. For many, this was an admission that it does in fact lack any weather sealed certifications and that probably is the case…however my experience with it over the last 7 months proves otherwise.

Sony a7r in -45 C temps in the Canadian Rockies

Sony a7r in -45 C temps in the Canadian Rockies

Since the camera was released late last year, I have taken it across the globe and back again multiple times. Pushing it to its limits to see what it was capable of doing. During this time frame, I took it on 4 arctic trips (3x to Iceland and 1x to the Canadian Rockies) where I dealt with temps as low as -50 degrees C. It has also been to the hot and humid environments of Hawaii, Christmas Island (in the Indian Ocean) and the Kimberly Region of Northern Australia. And to top it off it has experienced large amounts of rain and been put under waterfalls in Australia, Hawaii, Iceland and Yosemite National Park.

Sony a7r on location on The Big Island of Hawaii

Sony a7r on location on The Big Island of Hawaii

Overall, I think it is safe to say that I have tested this camera in a variety of environments that far exceeds the average photographer out there. So how did it perform? Exceptionally well! Would I rate it as good as my Canon 1dx? Not so much, but it did hold its own in every single environment I put it through. With cold, I was able to shoot for about 30-40 minutes in -48 degree weather before the LCD started having issue and I had to return to my vehicle to warm it up. With rain, it went through a number of down pours (including waterfall spray), getting drenched by all accounts and only turned itself off once after a prolonged exposure to water (multiple hours), after which I let it dry and it turned back on without any problems.

Articulating LCD

One of the lesser talked about features of the a7 series of cameras (including the a7r) is the LCD screen. While it doesn’t have touch functionality like the Samsung and Olympus mirror-less cameras, it does articulate. As a landscape photographer that purely uses live view manual focusing every time any camera of mine is set up on one of my tripods, this is a very welcome feature. By extending the screen and flattening it out, I can stand above the a7r while it is inches from the ground and still ensure that I have achieved perfect focus.

A7r Articulating Screen. Photo from "The Verge"

A7r Articulating Screen. Photo from “The Verge”

It is important to note that if you are a Nikon shooter, the Live View system on the Sony is much much better than what you have been using. You can actually tell if you are in focus in low light….I know…crazy right! ;)

Sensor Position/Cleaning

One thing truly worth mentioning is how difficult it is to keep your a7/a7r/a7s sensor clean. Because of how small the camera is, your sensor is essentially always RIGHT there when you change your lenses. This means that dirt, dust and even water (if it is raining), has a much higher chance of getting onto your sensor then if you are using a true DSLR. Because of this, I highly recommend you not only carry a portable rocket blower to blow away these dirt particles, but that you get efficient at cleaning your own sensor (something that takes some getting used to). It is not an easy task or one to be taken lightly as it will cost you between $500 – $800 for a sensor repair from Sony technicians. The sensor cleaning kit I use most of the time is from Copper Hill Images.

Sensor Technology

One thing that most photographers don’t realize is that Sony actually makes roughly 60% of the camera sensors in the market. If you have shot with a Nikon or Fuji camera for example, chances are you have been using a Sony sensor. If fact, the highly regarded sensor found in the Nikon D800E is not only Sony’s…but an improved version of that sensor is found in the Sony a7r. While not confirmed, the recently announced Nikon D810 is said to share a near copy of the a7r sensor itself. Impressive indeed considering how small they made the A7 series cameras. So what is special about the a7r? A few things coming to mind…

a7r-open-sensora

Gapless On-chip Design

One of the biggest advantages of the sensor that Sony put in the a7r is that fact that it can record a slightly larger range of light than most DSLR sensors. This means that instead of having to bracket two exposures to cover the range of light in a particular scene, I might be able to capture all the image data I need in one shot. In this day and age of HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography where you are blending multiple images together, I have found myself using three images on the a7r where I might of had to use 5 with the Canon 5D Mark III. Sony was able to accomplish this partly because of their Gapless On-chip Lens Design.

Gapless On-Chip
Where most sensors have tiny gaps between the lenses on their sensor, Sony was able to create a gapless design. This allows every pixel to be covered on the sensor, essentially allowing the sensor itself to collect more light. On top of that, the short flange back distance of the E/FE lens mount allows for a sharper angle of light to enter the sensor area, adding to the sensors ability to capture light in a given scene.

No AA Filter

While the Sony a7 uses an already impressive 24mp FF sensor, the a7r comes with 36mp high resolution sensor that has had the AA filter removed. So what is the AA filter and why is its removal important? Essentially the AA filter, which stands for Anti-Aliasing, is a blur layer that is applied to most DSLR sensors to help remove certain unwanted artifacts, such as Moire patterns (repeating light and dark bands) that can become present when capturing objects with small repeating patterns.

Example of a Moiré Pattern via Wikipidea - Copyright Roger Gilbertson

Example of a Moiré Pattern in the door via Wikipidea – Copyright Roger Gilbertson

While a sensor with an AA filter does help to remove these unwanted patterns, they also can take away a certain amount of detail of our your images as well since it is essentially a “blurring” filter. It is important to know that all Medium Format cameras do NOT have an AA filter either, allowing you to capture the most amount of detail in an image, rendering images sharper then cameras with sensors that have the AA filter still intact. While I haven’t experienced any Moiré Patterns in the images I captured with the a7r, Adobe Lightroom & Adobe Camera Raw have tools to help you remove/lesson these patterns if they were to appear.

BIONZ X Image Processing Engine

Behind the a7r’s sensor is Sony’s new BIONZ X Image Processing Engine which helps you capture textures and details in a more realistic way. Over all, Sony says that this technology enables you to capture more natural details, more realistic images, richer tonal graduations and lower noise. While most of that is up to the subjective preferences of each photographer, I will say that the a7r has a unique feel to it, both in terms of detail, color and tone. In contrast, both Canon and Nikon have their own look and feel as well. So what are my thoughts? I really like the look (SOTC) of the images I have taken with the a7r, especially the texture detail (which probably has more to do with no AA filter) but do I like the overall look more than Canon or Nikon? I don’t really have an answer to that. They are all different in some way and it depends on what you are going after. The Sony a7r has replaced my 5D Mark III, so that should say something I suppose.

Sony BIONZ X Image Processing Engine

Sony BIONZ X Image Processing Engine

Battery Life

One of the trade offs to using a camera that is so small and lightweight is that their batteries have to be small too. Where my Canon 1dx battery could last a few days with moderate shooting, I find myself having to recharge my Sony a7r batteries just about every night after a shooting session. If the light is good and I am shooting a lot, I could easily go through two batteries in a single evening. Because of this, I always carry anywhere between 4-6 of Sony’s NP-FW50 batteries with me at all times.

NPFW50 Sony a7r battery

NPFW50 Sony a7r battery

I could of picked up the external battery grip for the a7r from Sony, but to me that begins to defeat the purpose of such a lightweight and portable camera body. In the end, having the a7r and 4-6 spare batteries in my bag is still lbs lighter then my Canon 1dx and its spare batteries or my old Canon 5D Mark III, its batteries and the battery grip I had on it at all times. Luckily these batteries are pretty cheap, a far cry from the expense of the LP-E4n batteries for the Canon 1dx.

In Camera Apps

One of the interest features of many of Sony’s mirror-less cameras is their ability to download apps (similar to a smart phone) that help expand the functionality of the camera. While there isn’t a large offering of apps currently available, there are a few that extremely helpful, such as the app known as “Time-lapse”. Instead of forcing a photographer to purchase a remote to help you with time lapse or timed images, you can purchase this app for a few bucks and run it straight from your camera. Essentially it allows you to easily create time lapse movies, giving you control over File Format, Interval between shots, total number of shots, exposure lock and more.

Settings Menu for the Timelapse app for the a7r

As Sony continues to open up more API’s, more and more functionality will be brought to their mirror-less cameras. Exciting times ahead!

Lens Ecosystem

*UPDATE – The full in-depth review of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 is now live. LINK

One of the biggest advantages of the Sony a7r, is that it gives photographers access to an incredibly power high resolution sensor while not limiting you to Sony’s limited FE lens lineup. Effectively, one can use Canon, Nikon or even Leica glass (amongst others) on the a7/a7r/a7s camera bodies. This is a good thing because the cameras native lens line up is pretty small. That isn’t to say that Sony isn’t doing pretty amazing things with the FE lenses currently on the market…but that your choice of currently available full frame FE lenses can be counted on one hand.

Sony A7r with the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 FE lens

Sony A7r with the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 FE lens

As of today, you can pick the following FE lenses: 35mm f2.8 FE , 55mm f/1.8 FE, 24mm-70mm F4 FE OSS, 70-200mm f/4 G FE OSS and 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 FE OSS. Each of these lenses packs a lot of power in small and lightweight casings. Now is the Canon 24-70 F/2.8 II sharper then the FE version, yes (especially in the corners), but the difference isn’t monumental. When looking at the FE 55mm f/1.8 lens, it is said to be the best AF lens that DXO Mark has ever tested (bested only by the manual focusing Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 OTUS lens that costs 4x as much). All in all Sony has managed to pull off some pretty amazing technical magic with all these new lenses, considering their size, weight and optical quality across the board. I have used the 35mm and 55mm extensively, and I have to say, I enjoy them both (although the 55mm is hands down my favorite).

SOTC w/ 100% crop of an Icelandic Horse (55mm f/1.8)

SOTC w/ 100% crop of an Icelandic Horse (55mm f/1.8)

While Sony will undoubtedly continue to release FE lenses and push the boundaries of what can be done with small lightweight FF lenses, you can also use Sony’s E mount (cropped sensor lenses) without an adapter as well as their Alpha line of lenses (DSLR) through the Sony LA-EA4 adapter. Unlike the Canon EF Metabones adapter (that I will discuss in detail later on) that offers slow AF capabilities, Sony was able to build an AF system directly into the their Alpha adapter, allowing you to take advantage of nearly all of the AF capabilities of their extensive Alpha line of lenses. While I continue to wait for Sony to release a nice wide angle FE lens, I have been using the Zeiss 16-35 f/2.8 ZA Sony Alpha lens with my Sony a7r. While the added weight of the adapter and the bulky 16-35mm lenses tend to negate any weight savings with the lightweight a7r over my Canon bodies, I have been incredibly happy with the image quality results (which you will see in the “Image Gallery” section of this review). *UPDATE* – Check out my First Look of the Sony FE 16-35 f/4 ZA OSS lens.

SOny a7r w/ Zeiss 16-35 f/2.8 Alpha Lens + Adapter

Sony a7r w/ Zeiss 16-35 f/2.8 Alpha Lens + Adapter

As a Canon shooter previously, I had full access to my Canon lens lineup as well, which was a huge plus during my migration process to Sony. Over the last 6 months, I have used the following Canon lenses:

  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8 II
  • Canon 70-20 f/2.8 IS II
  • Canon 17mm f/4 TS-E
  • Canon 24mm f/3.5 TS II
  • Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS II macro

While the use of these lenses has provided excellent results, there are a few caveats. The first and most obvious is that AF doesn’t work that well with the metabones adapter. You do have the ability to AF, but it takes so long, it is not viable to use with moving subjects. Outside of that, the 70-200mm and 100mm macro both come with their own challenges. For the macro lenses, I found using LiveView to be pretty deceiving in terms of establishing your focal planes (on this lens only), which made it difficult to use in many macro situations. With the 70-200, I have experienced a known problem with the a7r called “shutter shake” on occasion. What happens is that when you are shooting around 1/100th of a second, the shutter can cause unwanted vibrations when it opens and closes, causing your images to come out soft or sometimes just slightly out of focus, even when using a tripod. When your shutter speed is faster or slower than 1/100th of a sec, it tends to mitigate this issue. The work around is to apply pressure on the back of your camera towards the ground with your hand or palm in an even manor to help stop the unwanted vibrations. It should be pointed out that Sony is very aware of these issues (I have spoken to the Sony Alpha Product Manager multiple times) and the newest Sony a7s comes with a true “silent” electronic shutter that completely fixes the problem so it is only a matter of time before this technology is added to the next generation of the a7r line of cameras. All this being said, you can still get amazing results out of this combination, but you have to aware of the issue in the first place.

Sony a7r w/ Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II

Sony a7r w/ Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II

Recommended Accessories

When it comes to making your photographic life easier with the Sony a7r, there are a few accessories that I highly recommend you think about purchasing. While some of these are obvious, others I found through trail and error sessions I had in the search for the tools I needed to help the a7r fit into my photographic workflow.

Wireless Remote

In my book, anytime you are shooting from a tripod, you should always use a remote shutter release to help mitigate any additional vibrations you might add to your shot (especially important with the high resolution of the Sony a7r). While Sony does offer a wireless remote for the a7/alpha series of cameras, the Wireless Remote Commander retails for $30. Their wired version can run upwards of $50.

Opteka RC3 WIreless Remote for Sony cameras

Opteka RC3

There are however much cheaper options, especially since the A7r has an IR (infrared receiver) that triggers the shutter. Not only can I remote trigger the shutter from various high end Android phones, such as the HTC One M8, but the Opteka (Chinese Brand) RC3 can be found for $7.95 on Amazon. Once I realized this remote worked so well, I picked up two spares, just in case.

Dual Battery Charger

One of the surprises of the Sony a7r was that it does NOT come with a battery charger. Instead, you have to plug the camera itself into the wall (using any standard micro USB cord). This of course can be cumbersome at times as well as inefficient if you have multiple batteries to charge. While you could purchase an additional Sony 1x battery charger for $49 – $59 dollars, I found a much better solution.

Opteka Dual Charger

Opteka Dual Charger

Relying on my favorite 3rd party Chinese brand again, Opteka has a solution…kind of. While they do have a dual battery charger that can power the Sony a7r batteries, they don’t sell it as is. Fortunately, all of their battery chargers have removable/switchable plates which allow you to mix and match plates for your battery needs depending on the kind of battery you need to charge (so in theory I could charge a Sony a7r battery as well as a Canon 5D Mark III at the same time). So in order to get the dual battery charger for the Sony a7r, you need to purchase three products. 2x Opteka MBC -series AC/DC charger (Select the NP_FW50 option from the drop down menu) + 1x the Opteka DBC – Series AC/DC Dual Charger (Pick any battery option in the drop down menu) and then simply switch the battery plates so that you have two NP_FW50 plates on the dual charger. All in all this will cost you around $28 USD, but you will have a dual charger for your a7r that works both in vehicles and with any wall socket.

Canon Lens Adapter

As I mentioned earlier, one of the best features of the Sony A7 line of cameras is its ability to use nearly any lens from nearly any manufacturer you can think of. Think of it as the universal receiver ;) While this means that you can use Nikon glass or Leica glass, I am came into this as a Canon shooter first. On top of that, as a landscape/travel photographer, I find that Canon’s Tilt Shift lenses are a perfect fit for the a7/a7r. If fact I know of a few Nikon shooters who picked up the a7r solely to allow them to use one of Canon’s wide angle T/S lenses, such as the 17mm or 24mm (both of which I own).

Metabones Canon EF Mark IV

Metabones Canon EF Mark IV Adapter

In order to get these lenses to work, you need to pick up an adapter and while you have a few choices, the most popular version is from Metabones. This isn’t to say that their adapter for the a7r was perfect, as they initially had some quality control issues, namely a poor choice of internal reflective material on the Mark III version of the adapter that caused unwanted light reflection in some situations. Luckily, their latest version (Mark IV), solves this issue. Either way, if you want to use Canon glass on your a7r, this is a must purchase.

L Bracket

One of the most important accessories any tripod using photographer can pick up for their camera is an L Bracket. So what is an L bracket? It is a metal Acra Swiss tripod mount that wraps around your camera and is shaped like an “L”. This allows you to easily go from landscape orientation to vertical orientation, all the while keeping the center of gravity directly over your tripod, as opposed as throwing it off and having your camera lean to the side. The problem with the a7r in regards to this are the adapters. While I have a Really Right Stuff A7r L bracket that fits on the body of my camera, I can’t use it when I have an adapter on because of the dimensions of the camera itself. The base of both the adapters I have (Metabones for Canon EF Lenses & the Sony LA-EA4 for use of Alpha Lenses) are too close to the body of the camera, effectively blocking my tripod from securing with the L Bracket. To solve this issue, I have had to buy two separate L brackets…not for the a7r…but for the adapters I am using. So instead of my tripod connecting to the base of my camera, it now connects to the L-brackets that are always secured to what ever adapter I am using at the moment.

L-Bracket on my Metabones Lens Adapter

L-Bracket on my Metabones Lens Adapter

Because I use both Canon and Sony Alpha lenses with my a7r, I had to find L-brackets that fit both adapters. For the Metabones Canon EF lens adapter, I found one from a small company called Hejnar Photo. For the Sony Alpha LA-EA4, Really Right Stuff has a solution for you.

Image Gallery

Now for the reason that many of you are hear in the first place…to determine what this camera is actually capable of capturing. I have broken the following galleries up into two different sections. The first gallery consists of five SOTC (Straight Out of The Camera) images. Here you will find a small group of images that were captured in RAW, uploaded to LR and then exported as high resolution JPGs. The second gallery is full of images that I have processed to showcase what is possible with the a7r. *there is a glitch in my current Gallery plugin that causes the thumbnails to lack a touch of saturation. Click on each image to enlarge it to get a better sense of their quality…

SOTC Gallery

Finalized Images

Raw Image

Old Farm from South Iceland
In order to showcase the the power of the Sony a7r, I am supplying a RAW file of the above image from Iceland for you to download and manipulate as you see fit. It will give you an idea of how far you can push these files.

Strengths

  • 36mp Sensor with no AA filter
  • Light weight & portable
  • Incredible Image quality
  • Near universal compatibility (with adapters) to use lenses from other manufacturers
  • High quality articulating rear LCD
  • Excellent Live View in low light situations (Almost as good as Canon’s, miles ahead of Nikon’s offerings)
  • While not officially weather sealed, it can handle its own in challenging environments
  • A couple excellent offerings in the FE lens mount from Sony (albit more need to be announced/released).

Weaknesses

  • Relatively shorter battery life compared to larger DSLRs (understandably)
  • Menu system still lacking expanded auto bracketing options
  • Some users have experienced Shutter Shake when using telephoto lenses around 1/100th sec shutter speeds
  • No silent shutter option
  • AF system on the a7r isn’t as good as the a7 or a7s
  • More FE mount lenses would be welcomed. By 2015 this won’t be a problem anymore
  • Sensor requires more frequent cleanings

Final Thoughts

When Sony first announced the a7r, many photographers felt it was going to be a game changing camera. I mean what isn’t to love. A small lightweight mirror-less full frame camera with an incredibly powerful 36mp sensor with no AA filter. Landscape photographers around the world where literally salivating over the press release. So after using it extensively for over 6 months, what is my verdict? Does it live up to the hype? In this photographers perspective, it does, but with caveats. Ultimately It has set the bar for all cameras moving forward in terms of what photographers are looking for. No camera is perfect, but the pros for the a7r far outweigh its cons in my mind, based on my experience and the kind of photography I specialize in.

The a7r handling the extreme cold on Abraham Lake in the Canadian Rockies

The a7r handling the extreme cold on Abraham Lake in the Canadian Rockies

For me, the Sony a7r has replaced my Canon 5D Mark III, effectively being my go to camera for anything I am shooting from a tripod, which is much of my landscape and travel work. Not only has it allowed me to shave a few lbs off my camera backpack, but the sensor on this thing is incredible. The rear LCD does a great job, allowing me to manually dial in perfect focus (something I ALWAYS do when shooting from a tripod) in nearly any environment (including low light), given both its quality and articulating abilities. Lastly, having the opportunity to use Canon, Nikon, Sony, Zeiss and even Leica lenses opens up so many doors that were previously closed for photographers. That in itself is a game changer!

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Using the A7r Live View to ensure focus during fading light in Yosemite

So what improvements would I want for the 2nd generation of the a7r? To start things off, I would like a little better AF system. If they bring the technology they put in the recently released Sony a6000, it would make the a7r a much more universally effective camera, rather than one that I found best suited for landscape, travel and studio work from a tripod. On top of that, there needs to be a true silent option for the shutter (or an entirely electronic shutter), which would most likely fix the shutter shock issues that can potentially be experienced with this camera and the rear LCD should have touch functionality (it is 2014 afterall). Lastly, Sony needs to open up the menu system a bit to allow similar functionally that nearly every other DSLR/Mirrorless camera has. If I want to shoot a 5 image bracket at 1.5 stops between my images, I should be able to. Is that overkill for the dynamic range of this camera…probably. But I still would like to have the option, which I don’t currently have. Manual bracketing works just fine, but extended auto bracketing would be a nice touch. With all that said, do I recommend the a7r? Yes! Even with its quirks, it is leaps ahead of the other mirror-less options out there. If you are a landscape/travel photographer that uses a tripod and is looking for a powerful, small and lightweight addition to your system, this is the camera for you! Unlike most mirror-less camera options that are solid secondary cameras, the a7r could easily be your main body, depending on what you photograph. If you have an extensive amount of lenses from your current system, the a7r should be even more attractive as you will not be forced to buy all new glass. However if your photography work requires top of the line auto focusing (especially in low light situations), you might want to hold off until the next generation comes (or check out the a7 or a7s instead).

Using the a7r in an Ice Cave in Iceland

Using the Sony a7r in an Ice Cave in Iceland – Photo by Martin Asao

All in all, I am incredibly impressed with what Sony has been doing with both sensor and lens technology lately. While the a7r has become a permanent part of my gear setup, I still need to use other camera bodies to handle my low light auto-focus needs, such as my humanitarian work. While you can purchase very capable cameras from Canon, Nikon, Fuji and even Olympus, it is Sony that is seeming to push the boundaries of what the photo industry thinks is possible. Remember when you were told that there was no way to fit a FF sensor inside a tiny mirror-less body? I do :)

FULL DISCLOSURE While Sony did not pay me or ask me to write this review, they did send me an a7r to test and use as I pleased on many of my projects around the world.