Secret Handshake

secret handshake

There are a lot of rumors and folktales about this one.

-made with Leica
-Minolta sold it cheaply as “thank you” to it’s users
-every time a picture is taken with it, Zooey Deschanel sings a quirky song

The facts are it takes solid, sharp and contrasty photos that performs well against the much more expensive Zeiss line of lenses.

Here: Pitted against Sony “G” and Zeiss high end lenses.

secret handshake3

It has it’s drawbacks. 28mm is not wide enough and f4-4.5 is not fast enough, especially on a crop sensor, for general purpose. The minimum focusing distance is also pretty long, but it comes with a nifty macro switch that lets you in pretty close. It’s manual focus only but still comes in handy. I used it for some of the shots in the video that follows. The focus ring feels flimsy and is oddly located in the rear but autofocus is extremely fast on the Sony a77. For full frame or other high megapixel cameras, the resolution and detail it can capture with the right light is amazing. It’s also, like all other Minolta lenses, built like a tank….apart from the focus ring.

and now a video shot with it……making a pot of chili. Lost the footage of tomato puree going into it. blah, blah, blah just watch it.

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Minolta 50mm Macro

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The Minolta 50mm 2.8 Macro. This oldie doesn’t have a nickname but it doesn’t need to. Here’s what it does have though…1:1 magnification. Many of today’s zoom lenses have the word “macro” written somewhere on the lens. It’s somewhat misleading and in best case scenario gets you as close as 1:4. Moreover much of  today’s dedicated macro lenses have a maximum magnification of 1:2. Serious macro photography requires  1:1 magnification.

Closest the Sony 16-50 2.8 SSM can get
Closest the Sony 16-50 2.8 SSM can get
1:2 magnification
1:2 magnification
1:1 magnification
1:1 magnification

The most popular focal distance is 100mm. The smaller the focal distance, the closer you must be, which essentially means there is less natural light to work with. This is one reason why the 100mm is usually preferred over the 50. However, if you put a 50mm on an aps-c sized sensor, such as the Sony a77, that gives a FOV equivalent of 75mm. This is a nifty tradeoff since this lens fits in your pocket. Minolta did make a 100mm 2.8 Macro lens that some considered to be THE best macro lens period.

The biggest plus is you can find this lens going on ebay for half the price of either the Sony equivalent, which is the same optically, or the 100mm Macro. As a bonus, the 50mm macro can double up as a medium portrait lens good for 1/4 body shots.

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and now a video…

Queen of Portraits

Minolta made some “G” or “L” class lenses in there first go round with autofocus. Legend has it that through it’s formal cooperation with Leitz (more known for it’s Leica division)  Minolta integrated unusually high performance optical technology that some would prefer over the twice as expensive Zeiss. With a focal length of either 85mm on a full-frame or 127.5mm on an aps-c combined with an ultra fast 1.4 aperture it makes for a beastly portrait lens. Creamy Minolta bokeh, rich colors, and a hulk-like build add to the credence to it’s nickname “Queen of Portraits.”

and now a video:

Beercan

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…

Pocket Camera Cinematic Challenge

There are certain rules when it comes to creating cinematic moving pictures. Shoot in 24 frames per second (or 23.98fps exactly). Record in widescreen formats, either 16:9 or 1.85:1 (anamorphic 2.35:1 looks really epic too). De-saturate and get some shallow depth of field shots.

I wanted to see what these rules would look like with a pocket camera as the recording device. Case subject: Sony HX9V. A pocket camera from last year with middle of the road reviews but regarded as a decent video shooter.

The biggest challenge was the small sensor. This meant making sure there was adequate light, as a lack of it would lead to noise reduction activation and a resulting super soft image. The other disadvantage of the small sensor, compared to the larger ones found in DSLRs, is the lack of shallow depth of field. Everything is focus, which has it’s advantages for sure. People definitely and defiantly overuse this effect. I’m guilty of it too. To overcome this I had to focus really close and use the camera’s good macro mode and to zoom in and switch focus locks.

Most of everything else was done on Final Cut Pro X. The HX9V records in 60 or 30 frames per second 1080p only but the 60p conforms nicely in FCPX to a 24p timeline. The added bonus is being able to slow mo any recorded scene smoothly since the editor has 60 frames to work with instead of 24 traditionally. I recorded in 16:9 but added some additional crops for a 1.85:1 ration. Finally I took saturation far down, the colors are actually quite nice on the camera, and added a slight vignette. Finally I added some slight orange, purple and teal.

 

Sony’s HX9V, and assume the replacement HX20V & HX30V, produces some sharp images that rival the GH2’s resolving power when there is sufficient light. There are two image stabilization modes that can be used together. One is optical, in the lens, and the other is software that when combined has a VERY smooth effect. Probably best I’ve used and similar to what a couple hundred dollar steady cam would achieve. The 16x zoom (20x on the newer HX20v) is pretty amazing as well as it effectively gives me a walk-around 24-385mm lens that fits in my pocket! Best of all you can probably find one used for a hundred bucks if you hunt around.

Sidenote: Stills suck, comparable to iPhone 4 photos.

So here are the results using a day of random shots:

See how this bite-sized camera stacks up against DSLRs 4-7 times the price.

A77 vs GH2

There’s a lot of acclaim for the GH2 and hardly any talk about the A77 with regard to video capabilities. Just scour Vimeo and discover thousands of uploaded GH2 footage compared to only a few hundred decent A77 video. I wanted to run an unscientific test to see just how superior the GH2 is, if at all. All outside shots were at ISO 160 with an ND filter, 1/50th shutter speed and 4700k white balance. Indoor at ISO 320, 1/50th, 5700k. I used an adapter on the GH2 and guessed on the aperture to match the a77 which generally hovered between 3.5 and 4. I used the Sony 16-50mm 2.8 SSM on both with the GH2 on 25mm and A77 on 27mm to account for their respective crops.

Resolution. The GH2 produces the sharpest images, almost a true 1080p. Though you can record 1080p at 60, 30, or 24 frames on the A77 it produces soft pictures that look more like 720p. Tree leaves and bricks look great on the GH2. I can hardly tell the difference on macro shots as the A77 has no trouble resolving detail there. Also aliasing is less of a problem on the GH2 and non existent when using ETC mode.

Color. I like the colors on the A77. If I had no desire to do any corrections in post the A77 would win. But with a high bitrate hack, the GH2 has a lot of latitude with what you push around in post. The new Apocalypse Now 444 hack also helps with smoother gradients. Likewise, setting the A77 to Sunset with manual white balance accomplishes the same thing.

Noise. The A77 has ISo 100 to 1600 in video mode that generally feels like a stop brighter at each respective ISo compared to the GH2. Images are clean through ISo 640. I think it’s a hair better than the GH2. However, the GH2 (with hack) can go all the way up to ISO 12800 and the noise grain looks so organic and film-like that it’s not a distraction to me. When I see noise on the A77 it’s an eyesore.

Motion. The a77 looks better in my opinion and emotes a more cinematic visual. It can record in 1080p at 60 frames per second that can be retimed for some nice slow motion. The Gh2 can record at 60 frames per second only in 720p but it pretty much looks like the A77’s 1080p because it resolves so much detail. With a wide variety of patches, it also is less prone to macro blocking so filming water in the distance won’t be a worry. Moire is almost non-existant on the GH2, can’t say the same for Sony.

Rolling shutter. On the Gh2 record in ETC mode. On the A77 record in 60p. Poof gone, otherwise it’s a small issue all DSLRs have.

Crop. 2x on the GH2 still gets nice bokeh. Video crop on the A77 (because of SteadyShot) is 1.86x but it does get 1.5x bokeh and light which is nice.

Weird Stuff. The a77 and GH2 under certain lighting conditions can produce banding in the images. Usually scrolling through different shutter speeds or getting more light will resolve it. Both are equally distracting when it occurs.

Ease of use. The A77 is by far the easiest to use. It’s a great size, good heft for handheld shots yet not heavy. Slap an SSM lens, turn on autofocus and use that great tilty screen and thats all you need. No bulky monitors. Or use peaking for manual focus. Perfect ENG style camera. It’s also weather-sealed with a magnesium alloy body so shooting in the rain or dusty environment isn’t a worry.

Pro results. With the right exposure there is no beating the GH2’s image quality unless you’re ready to invest over 3k, not including lenses. Also, while peaking is great I had mixed results. I had a green light on the Red Bull in one of the above shots but it looks more than soft, it looks out of focus. The GH2’s zoom in video makes it easy to get pinpoint focus when setting up a shot. It won’t work during record though when peaking on the A77 does. The Sony can be used for producing great video, but the limited bitrate make it less than ideal.

Misc. If money is a factor, sure the A77 is more expensive, but with the in-body steady shot all lenses are stabilized. Slap an old Minolta 50mm 1.4 or Beercan and get creamy bokeh. The equivilent lens for the GH2 with cost substantially more if it had optical stabilization. BUT since the GH2 is micro four thirds you have an almost infinite lens supply. With the right adapter you can connect just about any lens from any era. Plus with 4:3 MJPEG mode you can shoot in Anamorphic Widescreen a la Blade Runner style!

Creativity. I think the A77, since it’s easier to pick up at random and use, allows me to concentrate on the moment, composition, and other things. It’s important for a one man crew such as myself.  There’s some technical prep work that needs to be done on the GH2 and quite possibly more gear that needs to be added. (ex.I want to go to the skate park and shoot wide angle. With the GH2 if I go with a vintage lens I need a steadycam and followfocus. I can get rid of the followfocus and get a Panny 20mm 1.7 but that has no Optical Stabilization (though it’s contrast detection auto focus is pretty good). With the A77 I can turn on focus tracking and slap any lens I want on it, hand held. In this respect, the A77 might be a bit more versatile with what its able to do.

Conclusion. The A77 is by far the better stills camera. If I’m out and about with no agenda I’m taking it with me. If someone is paying for video work, it’s gotta be the GH2 because when optimized, it produces stunning images.

P.S. I lost lots of footage on the GH2 recording on a 32gb Transcend Class 10. Everything looked good in playback but the files were corrupted when trying to transfer. I had no issue with the SanDisk 95 mb/sec Extreme Pro card. Plus it turns the a77’s 12 frames per second burst into a killer feature with 8 second buffer clearing on RAW + jpeg, 6 seconds full 24 megapixel jpeg, and even less on 12 megapixel mode. It’s again even faster if put into 8 or 10fps mode.

Game Changers

So Apple has revolutionized the way we interact with technology and have a big iPhone unveiling tomorrow. Sony have their own announcements tomorrow that may make the same sized waves in the world of photography/videography. One major camera that’s to be publicly introduced tomorrow is the SLT a99. It’s Sony’s first Full Frame camera since the a900 was released in 2008.

The a99 was created with special attention made to video. Some things that stand out are:

1) Sony’s switch away from it’s propietary shoe mount into the universal mount. There are many microphones, lights and recorders that can now be mounted without clunky chinese adapters.

2) The video resolution seems to be sharper. Sony’s line of SLT cameras had pixel counts many times greater than what standard Full HD 1080p required so there was a downscaling process that produced some soft images. Panasonic did a better job of scaling HD video from its sensor in it’s GH2. Sony’s RX100 point and shoot produced some sharp images as well. The a99 seems to be on par.

3) Manual Audio Gain Controls! Plus there’s a headphone in jack to monitor your recordings.

4) There’s an aps-c crop mode that will automatically detect if you mount a lens designed for the a77. It will crop the image accordingly.

This seems like an amazing camera along with the other rumored Sony product announcements like the full frame point & shoot RX1 and a pro NEX ILC. Can Sony inspire people to switch away from Canon and Nikon and in the process save itself?

Sony a99 Rumor

 

For those that haven’t checked out sonyalpharumors.com, it’s a must if your into all things Sony. This guy works hard scrounging rumors from resources all over the globe and puts them together into intelligent product rumors.

I’ve been checking his website daily for a99 updates and here’s what the rumor is:

  • 24.3 Mpx Full frame CMOS Exmor sensor
  • SLT technology
  • New Bionz imaging engine
  • 14 bit RAW recording
  • 10 fps
  • ISO 100 up to 25.600
  • 50 ISO extended (with lower dynamic range)
  • 102 AF point AF (11 cross).
  • AF range
  • MF assist
  • Dual Phase detection system (with AF phase pixels on sensor)
  • 30 sec and 1/8000 maximum shutter speed
  • Time Lag 0.05 sec.
  • Shutter life guarantee of 200,000 cycles
  • 2.360k OLED electornic viewfinder
  • 3″921k LCD with same tilting system of the A77
  • Full HD video recording at 1920×1080/60p AVCHD format
  • HDMI output
  • Built-in stereo mic
  • Built-in flash with guide number of 12
  • Auto HDR capability
  • New multi-segment low pass filter
  • Photodiode expansion technology
  • Light concentration technology
  • Selective noise reduction
  • Ultrasonic anti dust system
  • In body image stabilization
  • Two memory slots: SD and SD+MS cards
  • USB: 2.0
  • Announced on September 12, 2012
  • Available in stores in late October 2012
  • New accessories to be released with the a99: battery grip, flash, remote control, microphone etc.
  • Very light, weather sealed magnesium alloy body.With 730 g this is the lightest FF body on market!

The specs add up to the most innovative and feature rich full frame camera and with the right price may be able to compete with the high end Nikon/Canon DSLRs if it’s any good in lowlight.

 

Sony Camera Hack Project is Official!!!

For all Alpha and Nex users here is the link. The project is led by Someone 1.00 who managed to hack the a55. It is also backed by the infamous and legendary Vitaly Kiselev who hacked the GH1, GH2 and Gxx series of Panasonic cameras. This is exciting as Vitaly once said that Sony’s firmware was infinitely more difficult to hack than the Panasonic’s. But here we are!

Sony Alpha a55 has been hacked?!?!

Here’s the link to the forum on EOSHD.

Fingers crossed it makes its way over to the a77. Just as the hack on the GH2, any modifications to the firmware that allows bitrate and/or audio controls will make for a much better movie making camera. The alpha line records at a maximum 28mbps in AVCHD 2.0 codec which delivers fairly decent video but lacks detail and resolution. The hack may not help that, but 28mbps AVCHD can break up in post. Generally the higher the bitrate the better. The hacked GH2 can deliver up to 176mbps all intra frames. They both use the same stock codec, which means the first (i) frame is the most detailed followed by b and p frames that is composed by the processor’s guess of where movement in the video will occur. This can create macro-blocking and odd artifacts in the video. As such, a hack producing a codec with all first i frames and a high bitrate is popular.

I’ve talked about how annoying Sony’s insistence on only auto gain control for audio is. The hack might open things up in that department, like it did for the Canon line of DSLR’s with the Magic Lantern hack.

There are also rumors of the new full-frame a99 Sony SLT and an update that will be released around that time for the a77.

With the NEX and RX100 topping the sales charts it’s exciting times for the Sony community!

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.

Standard
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

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.

Sony’s So-So Future at play

4th generation PlayStation dubbed "Orbis" is underway

Don’t let my disarming dimple and broad shoulders fool you. I am a trekkie. Wow that felt odd to type. Odder than my first AA meeting having to utter “I’m an alcoholic.” Even so, I am one and a huge fan of the holodeck. I NEED THAT THING! I remember watching episodes of the Next Generation with my dad imagining the gaming potential of such a device, donning a gi and lobbing hadoukens. I’m day dreaming right now, putting on a nanosuit, kicking an abandoned car off a cliff in full cloak mode. Now obviously we’re not there yet, but we can measure the estimated jump from current to next gen and determine if they will be viable platforms.

My first machine was the Commodore 64 and that was quickly replaced with the Master System, Sega’s own 8-bit rival to the NES. My video game life at the time was this, arcades for the latest cutting edge game and hope the home version is half as capable. The Master System turned into the Genesis turned into the 32x/Sega CD (don’t you dare laugh, don’t you dare) which turned into the Saturn and the Dreamcast. I finally, bit the bullet and went with the Playstation 2 and the PS3. By the time I reached Sony’s current system, consoles became the premiere destination for games, not the arcades. What this box was capable of doing graphically was unheard of and unseen before. It also became much more that a gaming system.

Over the previous generation of consoles, the current ones became a media box. Go on  Amazon right now and see their front page offering of Instant Prime Videos on the PS3. Netflix, Blu-Ray, YouTube, and Facebook are all available on your living room screen. Unless the same innovative leap can be made for the next generation then its too soon to release one and it will be too late for Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft in the gaming world.

From what i’ve heard the proposed next consoles have one positive and two negative bullet points. The good part, the graphics will blow your effing mind. Full 4K 3D support. The cost, it will not support your old library of games (i blame the success of HD remixes like the God of War Collection) and games will be locked into a single user account effectively killing the used game market. I rarely bought a game new and part of my justification for spending $40 to $60 on a game was that I’d be able to recoup at least half later. I’d then use that on a newer game. It was the circle of life. Hakuna Matata. No worries.

Let’s discuss that one positive. Sony’s rumored 4th Playstation the “Orbis” has claims of a Radeon 7700 equivalent GPU that will work in tandem with an integrated GPU/CPU hybrid. That’s great but living space is finite, which means screen size is limited in most homes to a 60 inch widescreen on the high end. I interpret that as a viewing distance pretty much set at 7.5 to 15 feet. Current 1080p sets at viewing distances 3 feet and further mean that the human eye cannot discern individual pixels and with the average living room approximately 250 square feet, I don’t see the future of 4K resolutions taking off the way Retina had become a household term. The display prior to them needed the added pixel density because viewing distances tended to be inches away from the eye. Speaking of Retina, the prevalence of iOS has changed the gaming landscape.

More than ever we’re convenience based consumers with short attention-spans. Hey you, focus! How else to explain the popularity of Netbooks, the iPad, Macbook Air, iPhone and Ultrabooks. These are not the pinnacle of the technical, graphical hardware heap. These are the perfect platforms for trendy, ten minutes at a time gameplay when and where you want to play. With the way we play games changing and devices like the Roku, Apple TV, and television adapters for smartphones and tablets, the media capabilities of become even less of a selling point. For some perspective, I sold my XBox 360 and Playstation 3 once I had a Macbook Pro with Windows 7 installed on BootCamp. Now when I want to game I use my iPad as a controller while the game streams through Apple TV. I personally feel confident I won’t ever buy a traditional gaming system ever again. That’s a little worrisome for an avid gamer to admit.

Really, the current generation of consoles remain surprisingly strong as is. The Wii was proof that the interface becomes more important than hardware capabilities (see: Apple). Now, Nintendo’s motion control was limited and eventually lost support from developers but lesson learned. We’ll see what the Wii U has in store for us at the next E3. Regardless, Nintendo’s Wii was risky, innovative and this new crop of systems must make a similar leap. Tweaking the graphics won’t cut it.

Finally, the Orbis sounds like a gum. A breath freshener. I know that paired with Sony’s new handled, the Playstation Vita, we get the latin phrase “orbis vitae.” Or the circle of life. Lest we forget that part of that circle includes death. Death of a video game empire, perhaps. Hakuna Mata.