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.

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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

Sony A57 Review

So it goes, “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” It looks like Sony remembered that video is the master of pictures in motion. That’s my take on Sony’s new mid-range A-mount camera in it’s Alpha series. The Sony SLT A57 is a fast, quality camera with impressive video capturing capabilities.

RECAP: A DSLR (digital single lens reflex) is the digital version of the same flipping mirror technology that has dominated serious photography of the past half-century. You look into a view finder and when you snap a picture, the mirror that you were actually looking at flips out of the way so a sensor can make a copy of what you saw.  Sony, with it’s SLT line, fuses a forgotten technology with it’s background in electronics to make a completely innovative camera that threatens the royal DSLR family of Canon and Nikon.

Instead of a flipping mirror, the a57 uses a semi-transparent one that doesn’t need to flip which enables this $700 camera to take rapid 8 (full control), 10 (aperture control), and all the way up to 12 (cropped resolution) frames per second. In this respect, the transparent mirror is allowing Sony’s SLT cameras to compete with others 4x it’s price. That stationary mirror is paired with an acclaimed 16.1 megapixel CMOS sensor that has a very fast phase detection auto focus.

The A57 has all the other details a DSLR would afford you. The things that work especially well are its ISO performance, up to 16000 for quality in low light conditions. It has a host of fun borderline gimmicky options like auto-portrait framing where the Bionz processor takes a look at a photo and crops it using the rule of thirds. The in camera digital zoom works unexpectedly well allowing my kit lens to get some respectable macro shots. It houses a larger battery than it’s predecessor, the well-received A55, allowing up to 550 shots on a fresh charge. Memory Pro Duo and SD cards (class 10 recommended for keeping up with a57‘s decent buffer) are accepted in the larger rubberized grip.

Sony’s newest offering is larger than the model it replaces inspiring confidence that the company was listening to customer feedback. It turns out mid-range DSLR customers didn’t want smaller and delicate in their models but something more substantial with plenty of grip options and spaced out controls for one-handed activation for most features. Sony’s live view has been excellent since it entered the DSLR market after acquiring all things Minolta. It’s fully articulated though it’s majorly annoying that it’s hinged on the bottom, which means even on a tripod it’s difficult to do self capturing. The electronic view finder (since its not a true DSLR, no flipping mirror remember, everything’s recreated digitally) is easy to use and greatly enhanced from the A55, though still no OLED inherited from the higher end A65 and A77.

If you have a collection of Minolta Lenses or have one of the first few Sony Alphas that didn’t record video, then the A57 represents digital SLR movie making in it’s prime and now would make right for an upgrade. Video capture is where Sony’s camera shines utilizng its in-body camera stabliziation (they call it Steady Shot) and its constant phase detection auto focus. Regardless of price, few DSLR’s can compete with how fast and accurate the A57 is when recording in movie mode. There’s no flipping mirror so auto focus is never turned off or in need of readjustment unless you want full shutter and aperture control. For indie film makers, probably the most important thing of note is that Sony’s new SLTs record in full 1080p at 60 frames per second and now also 24 progressive frames a second. The A57 records video at a bitrate up to 28 mbps which is a bit less than a hacked Panasonic GH2 or Canon’s T3i but neither do 60 at 1080p. Unless your going to do extensive and repeated digital manipulation to your videos, my opinion is 28 mbps is of very high quality.  In any case, shooting video with a DSLR and the many lenses that offer up a shallow depth of field can yield expensive looking results.

There’s a lot of fanboy-ism when affiliations are made to a camera manufacturer. Nikon and Canon make excellent products in the DSLR market, Panasonic does well with its micro four thirds system and Sony’s stronghold as underdog may well change with it’s SLT line of semi-transparent mirrors. With any of the above you get large image sensors and full manual control options over exposures which is why they yield better results than cheaper point and shoots or typical smart phone affairs. In my opinion, what it really boils down to are the lenses. Not the mirrors, definitely not the megapixels and not the brand’s name. If you have a bunch of Canon or Nikon lenses then stick with Canon or Nikon. However, if you have old Minolta lenses (don’t forget all Minolta Maxxum A-mounts work with all Sony A-mounts) or are starting from scratch then consider the A57. It’s the cheapest Sony camera that does 24p and, like all Sony DSLR and SLTs, have both in body stabilization (negating the need for the more expensive stabilized lenses) and a built-in auto-focus motor. The last two things simply mean that you could save money in the long run if you plan on buying a few more lenses.

Did any of this make any Flipping sense?

Note: Sample photos and test video clips are here and here.