Sony lenses that are accessible to me are crap. Nice images. Cheap, but cheaply made. Plastic mounts. Flimsy focus rings. Lightweight, sure and that has its benefits but one drop and…..

This got me searching for some comparable Minolta lenses. Love! Metal mounts, brick-like build, brick-like weight (maybe that’s not a plus), and the colors! The creamy bokeh! My collection was unmanageable. I had to let a few go. I now feel compelled to shine a light on a few of them while they’re in my possession.

The “Beercan” is probably the most well known of Minolta’s first generation AF glass. It is heavy. 70-210mm and a constant f4 is a pretty nice feature set considering ebay prices go around $150 US dollars. The autofocus is driven by the camera’s in-body motor and the glass is propelled by a screw. The zooming is in body so the barrel doesn’t extend as you zip across the range. It’s pretty long though and looks obscene mounted on the a77 without a grip. It’s sharp from around 5.6. The focus ring is narrow and not the best for full-time manual adjusting.

The “Beercan” produces much better IQ than the “Big Beercan” (75-300), is faster than the “Mini Beercan” (100-200) and has more reach than the “Baby Beercan.”

In the Sony/Minolta world of cameras, it’s a must have. It is legendary.

And now a video…

A Painful Gain – Reviewing Sony a77’s Video

The a57 was a world opener for me. The video I was able to capture was remarkable and got my creative juices flowing. For inspiration I swallowed the addictive drug that is YouTube and Vimeo. I knew I needed more glass (lenses), faster glass (smaller f-stop) and wider glass (16mm or below on the aps-c crop). Sony makes a well-regarded 16 – 50mm f/2.8 lens (through the whole range!) with SSM that goes for $800. This is relatively cheap considering the Zeiss equivalent goes for $2000 and is universally agreed to be on the same level (minus the Sony’s being aps-c specific).  Ready to pull the trigger I found that they package this lens with Sony’s high end DSLT, for $1750 at my local camera shop.  In essence the $1,400 retail body would cost $950 since I was set on the lens. I put my beloved a57 on Craigslist. Enter the Sony a77.

On the surface I thought this would be a clear cut upgrade and there would be no remorse changing cameras. I get 24.3 megapixels over 16.1 (I know I said it didn’t matter but the option to do huge prints is nice), a three-hinged articulating screen over the a57’s troublesome two, oled vs lcd viewfinder, better colors and a weather-sealed magnesium allow body over the plastic one I got used to. I didn’t realize I was going to lose a few things along the way. First I lost light sensitivity. The megapixel crammed a77’s sensor doesn’t fare as well as the a57 in low-light high ISO situations and cannot go above 1600 in video mode. The a57 can do 3200, not great mind you but better than no video. The a57 has a focus magnifier in the digital zoom function that can aid manual focusing in video mode. The a77 does not, but they both have peaking (where focused areas are highlighted in red, white or yellow). It’s also substantially heavier, though good for durability, making long handheld shots a workout. Overall, I still consider the a77 a huge upgrade. Moving on.

I started to unknowingly pixel peep the videos that streamed to me from Vimeo. I compared them to the raw footage from my new a77 and wondered why I wasn’t seeing the same quality. I was semi-obsessed with how the Canon 7d (most relative price and build quality-wise to the Sony) had such clear images let alone the $500-700 range Rebel t2i, t3i, & t4i line. Let’s not get started on the hacked Panasonic GH2 which produces a $10k sharp image. I know you can take an iPhone and produce some excellent video. It’s up to the framing and story telling to make motion pictures captivating but I needed to know why my highly rated a77 wasn’t delivering the goods. I dug a little deeper.

It’s in the codec. Sony created the AVCHD standard tp avoid paying h.264 royalties to Apple. While the 2.0 version is highly efficient, the 4:2:0 and 24 mbps bitrate (4:2:2 in the Canons and upto 170mbps in a hacked GH2) doesn’t hold up well to color grading. Things can fall apart if pushed too far. The codec also macro blocks (creates large blocky screen artifacts) in blues and exposed blacks. Video is softer than the Canons and retains less detail than the GH2 as a result of downsampling that monstrous 24.3 megapixel sensor to 2mp (or 1080p). I started to get depressed at my investment.

Then I realized something about all the videos I was watching. Canon’s DSLRs have been out for about 3 years and Panasonic had the hack on the GH1 which came out two years ago. Professionals have been using these cameras. That means they had the right setup, knowhow and equipment (lighting is huge). The launch of the Sony a77 in August 2011 was hugely affected by the floods in Thailand and they didn’t become readily available until early this year. So all the videos out there were enthusiast-level but hardly professional studio filming. Upon further investigation, searching for raw video test footage from amateurs on the Canon Rebels-T3i yielded the same quality footage I was seeing out of my a77. I was a Sony enthusiast once more. This was a challenge.

Thanks to the Alpha SLT shooters across Vimeo and the people over at EOSHD I learned a few things. One was to shoot in Sunset mode with manual white balance (important otherwise the reds will be pushed). Sunset mode creates smoother gradients and exhibits less artifacts. TURN DRO OFF. Sony’s dynamic range optimizer is on by default and though it brings up shadows, it’s artifact happy. Try and get the picture the way you want it in camera and don’t rely on heavy fixes in post. I like to keep sharpness at 0 with whatever picture profile I shoot. -3 is the standard but the a77 is softer than the Canon’s and +3 yielded choppy aliasing. (after further testing I’d suggest -3 sharpness). If you’re shooting in auto set the max ISO to 800. If you’re shooting in 1080 60p and want to use autofocus, point to different lighting sources and toggle the ael button on when you 1/125 shutter speed. Rule of the thumb is to double the frame rate. So a 24p rate should have a 1/48 shutter speed. On a DSLR/SLT 1/50 and 1/125 are the closest you can get for 24p/60p respectively for the most eye-friendly motion. Combat low light with fast glass not higher ISO but you knew that. I use an old photoshop trick to get cleaner images by overlaying a copy of the video and setting opacity to 50% with a slight Gaussian blur in Final Cut Pro X. It gets better.

If you’re a Sony shooter and were wondering about the video, be happy. First off, I’m pixel peeping on a Retina Macbook display and all faults are null and void when outputting to a tv or projected. We have a lot things that other cameras don’t currently. In body electronic stabilization for video works great negating the need for expensive IS glass. Cheaper lenses, money saved. Although it crops part of the video image to give it room to stabilize it, you still get aps-c sized depth of field. 60 progressive frames at the full 1080p resolution means super clean slow motion. It’s as easy as dropping the footage in a 24p timeline and conforming the speed. No need for Twixtor, money saved. That translucent mirror that blocks a third of the light, giving us the high ISO problems, enables us to see what we’re filming through the OLED. No need to glue a view finder onto the lcd screen, money saved. The way the lcd screen articulates and focus peaking means you don’t need a separate monitor. Money saved. Now the Audio Gain Control is a nuisance but it does work well and the on board stereo mic is not bad for B or ambient audio. The SSM in the kit lens designates it as fast and silent. The AGC surprisingly doesn’t pick up the sounds this lens makes under normal conditions. I also find that if you yell (it’s silly) into the mic when you first hit record, it pushes the AGC down creating a better floor level. Combine that with the fast Alpha SLT-only phase detect auto focusing and it’s a great run-n-gun/sports event camera. The AVCHD 2.0 codec is efficient and you’ll probably end up spending less in SD cards and hard drives if you record a lot. The GH2 and Canon’s Full Frame Mark iii still provide better video but one requires hacking, the other costs three grand body-only. In the end, composition and framing will do a lot more for video than the tech behind it.

Oh yeah, it takes pictures too…

…here’s some test footage from the a77

Low Light, High ISO Workaround

ISO 6400 1/13 f2.8 50mm
Hand Held Twilight Mode: ISO 6400 1/10 f2.8 50mm

I’ve been shooting with the Sony a77 recently and, as expected, it’s low light performance is not great. The Sony a57, which costs half as much, outperforms Sony’s flagship a77 at noise sensitivity in low light. This is mostly due to the fact that it’s sensor is less cramped with megapixels (16.1 for the a57 vs. 24.3 in the a77) so you can add that to the mega pixel myth.

There is a workaround found in the a77 and the camera’s in Sony’s SLT line. It’s hand held twilight mode. You can find it as one of the scene options on the large dial. My first thought was that these options were nothing more than toyish features to be seldom used, but the hand held twilight mode was surprisingly useful. What it does is take 6 rapid pictures in succession and stacks them together to create a single image. You can also activate this in PASM modes by selecting Multiframe Noise Reduction which will do the same thing at your selected ISO.

As a side note, I’ve upgraded the firmware on the a77 to version 1.05 and can confirm that the dials and power on/off are much faster. There is zero lag switching shutter and aperture controls and hardly any delays when looking through the oled evf or activating from sleep. You can find it here. If you’re working on a Mac running Lion, like myself, you’ll have to restart the machine and hold down the 3 and the 2 keys on the keyboard to boot in 32-bit mode after you’ve downloaded the firmware. Once you restart your computer it will boot back into its default 64-bit state.

Hand Held Twilight

Nothing to gain from AGC

After many tests I accepted the fact I have to capture audio on a seperate device.

I’ve had to make affiliations for the better part of my life. I went with Sega when my cousins had Nintendo as their console of choice. I stuck with the now software-only video game company as they released the Master System, Genesis, Sega CD and 32x. Yes I had all of those systems. No, I don’t regret it. Really. I had yet another choice when the Saturn was to launch against a heavily hyped upstart in Sony’s PlayStation brand. I went out and dropped $599 on Sega’s 32-bit Saturn, wrote an article for the school paper and convinced a handful of people to hop on the Sega Bandwagon. We were a lonely bunch. Yes, I regret that. I was a Warrior fan when they traded Chris Weber for Tom Gugliotta and stuck with them through the Sprewell choke and Mookie playing hooky. Let me use that HD DVD as a frisbee because I’m popping in a BluRay. Give me WCW not the “Hitman” headlined WWF. I will supply you with charts and graphs if you tell me a PC is better than an Apple. And if I could take a picture of your face right now, it won’t be with a Canon or Nikon.

I’ve made my affiliation, for better or worse, with the Sony line of cameras. I’m loyal to them. Which is too bad, because they frustrate the hell outta me. That proprietary hot shoe is a nuisance causing me to seek obscure adapters through eBay in order to mount a simple microphone. Speaking of which, an external microphone on a Sony Alpha Camera or Nex Camcorder is a moot point because of AGC. Auto Gain Control (AGC) is the only option you have when recording audio on a Sony Camera. It means that it determines for you how sensitive the mic is. So in a noisy environment, it’ll crank the levels down so you don’t pop any speakers on playback. In a quiet environment it will push the levels up as it searches for some kind of audio to record. That’s when the real problems occur as it’ll pick up and amplify the lens motor noise and just render the audio useless. AGC will also introduce a faint humming in the background that screams amateur which is not what you want if you plop $2,000 on the a77 or Nex-VG20. It doesn’t matter if you mount an external microphone, all those unwanted noises will be picked up and recorded on the audio track.

You would think Sony’s algorithm when designing this SLT specific external microphone would cancel out lens noise. It helps but not enough to make usable audio. I personally could not tell the difference from the onboard mic when sound was placed directly in front of the camera.

Unfortunately, Canon saw this as a problem and have fixed their line of cameras through firmware updates. 3rd parties introduced Magic Lantern that gave Canon DSLR users full audio control. Nearly two years ago! The a57, a37 and a77 came out months ago and Sony chose not to address these issues. You can bypass picking up lens noise by focusing manually of course but then you can’t utilize the major selling point of the Sony’s SLT line with their blazingly fast phase detection auto focusing. I’ve tried the Rode Video Mic Pro and Sony’s own ECM-ALST1. They both suck on my a57 because they not only pick up but amplify lens motor noise.

Now most pros will record audio separately anyways. This gives them a second audio track, which is handy to have so one can serve as a back up, and the ability to control/monitor audio feeds. Something like the Zoom H2, which I use, can record audio and be synced to match the video later in post. It adds a wrench to workflow but the results are usually better than recording off a shotgun plugged into a camera, manual gain or not. But in ENG or run-n-gun type situations this won’t be an option and it’s no wonder paid work is usually done on a Canon or Nikon if shot with a DSLR. On the bright side, Sony’s xx7 line of cameras have a pretty good onboard stereo mic that makes syncing in post easier.

Rode is a standard for prosumer audio mics. This shotgun has -10db, 0 and +20db settings and they all stink on the Sony because AGC will crank up until it finds something. Usually, you guessed it – lens noise. Maybe silent films is the way to go. “The Artist” did well this year, yes?

If Sony’s history says anything then Alpha/Nex users cannot look forward to a firmware update to resolve this issue. Sony does pay attention but they usually address them in the form of a new product. It’s a shame. Audio is important, it’s 50% of the experience. You can usually take a shitty video track and with good audio, make it usable. It doesn’t work the other way around. Delving into video production has given me this unnecessary headache but I’ve made my affiliation. Hey, Sega turned out alright, right?

Moving stills

I was stuck in Palo Alto waiting for an appointment at the Genius Bar. With a couple of hours to kill, I took out my new Sony a57 to see what would happen. I learned a few things along the way …

…the built in mic under most circumstances is useful only as a reference to sync audio recorded from another source

…lots of CMOS wobble in handheld shots

…history lesson – image capturing sensors are either CMOS or CCD. CMOS is regarded as cheaper and arguably superior in taking photographs so it’s found in most DSLRs. Because of the lens selection, which can give a shallow depth of field and natively blur the foreground or background, digital SLRs became a popular choice for restricted budgets as a means of producing high quality film-like movies. the trade off is CMOS sensors have a tendency to make images look warped or rubbery when fast pans are used.

…I didn’t expect this much wobble just walking with it though. It may have to do with Sony’s in body stabilization which suspends the sensor and moves it to counteract hand shakiness.

…hand straps are better than the neck straps that come with cameras

….whenever you think your done recording wait another 10-15 seconds and try and give that same time before hand if your going to do some panning. the extra footage comes in handy for editing especially if transitions are going to be used.

…Sony and Panasonic helped create the AVCHD codec in which their cameras record. It’s pretty advanced and from what I can tell is part of the reason the resulting 28 mpbs avchd .mts files are comparable to a canon that records in 50 mbps .mp4. The downside are the .mts files don’t play well with Final Cut. So don’t drag all the files off the SD card onto a drive. Instead use the import from camera option in Final Cut. Something about keeping them in the camera created folders makes it easier for Final Cut to use the clips otherwise it’ll be an extra unnecessary step converting all the mts files into prores.

… 1080p (progressive) = 1,080 horizontal lines of resolution displayed all together. 1080i (interlaced) = 1,080 horizontal lines of resolution displayed alternately, so in actuality at any given frame your only seeing 540 lines or half of the 1,080 lines that make up that frame.

…1080p at 60 frames per second is not going to happen right now in Final Cut. The clips I shot at that quality were not useable in FCPX and was changed to 24 frames. I haven’t found a work around yet. 1080i at 60 frames works well though. 60 frames a second is desirable if one wants to slow motion things in post. The effect looks smoother since there are frames of information to work with.

…if you want that cinematic film look these are the things i would do to my camera settings. 1) 24 frames per second 2) lower saturation and contrast all the way – it’s easier to color grade in post 3) use a lens with an aperture of 3.5 or below – for that shallow depth of field, blurry goodness effect.

…the huge Microsoft Store is just wrong next to the tiny Apple Store. The huge empty Microsoft store is just right next to the packed tiny Apple Store.

…all of the above only helps to enhance. if there isn’t any thought into the composition or emotions than the greatest camera and editing really only dresses up poop. It’s still going to stink. Because it’s poop.

…I guess dressed up poop can be entertaining sometimes. So here’s some high resolution doo doo.

Sony A57 Sample Images

RAW images were all shot during the daytime with ample light. JPEG images were taken in fairly lowlight conditions.Lens used was an old Minolta 50mm prime.

JPEG ISO 400 50mm f15.6 1/8
JPEG ISO 400 50mm f1.7 1/100
JPEG ISO 400 50mm f1.7 1/80
RAW ISO 100 50mm f6.3 1/500
RAW ISO 100 50mm f5.6 1/200
RAW ISO 100 50mm f4.5 1/8
RAW ISO 100 50mm f3.2 1/320
RAW ISO 100 50mm f1.7 1/250
JPEG 2X CLEAR ZOOM ISO 100 50mm f1.7 1/250