As I have written elsewhere, I think of the lens as the real “maker” of an image, the camera is only the “recorder” . And, as I have also written before, I have a strong preference for manual focus, analog-era lenses of decades past. I don’t think that modern “digital” lenses can match them in terms of that unique combination of sweetness and sharpness that one associates with great optics by Zeiss, Leica and Olympus. The camera is supposed to be a piece of hardware that allows one to get all that a lens can deliver, and to do it in the most efficient way possible. My measure of a camera is in how well it performs in these aspects. There are other constrains, of course, the most important being lens compatibility. Not all lenses are created equal, and not all cameras can be matched to all lenses.
When I converted to digital, not too long ago (2009), I was not aware that digital lenses were so different from what I was used to. But I sensed, rightly in my view, that Zuikos would be the best digital lenses out there. So, up until not too long ago I only used Olympus cameras. Why? Because when it comes to optical quality of digital-era lenses nobody can touch them – well, except perhaps Leica, but those are out of my price range. So I was limited to Olympus four thirds, and then micro four thirds, cameras. I currently own an EM-1 and an EP-5, and I think that they are absolutely great cameras, I love their build quality, image quality and ergonomics. And the in-body image stabilization is truly great. But they do have their limitations. The key one, from my point of view, is the 2x crop factor, which makes using wide angle manual focus lenses essentially impossible. Together with this, and also a result of the small sensor size, are the limitations in dynamic range and detail, especially if one expects to make more or less large prints. It is a pity that Olympus decided long ago to go with the small sensor format. Otherwise they would be leading the pack, as their optics are – did I say it? – well above anything that their competition has to offer. That decision is now irreversible, by virtue of the small image circle of the four thirds lenses. So I will keep my mirrorless Olympus cameras together with a select few Pro-series micro four thirds Zuikos. If one has to travel light there is no better choice.
But there are situations when I can afford to go around with a whole lot of manual focus lenses, which is my preferred way of making images. So, about a year ago I hit an apparent roadblock. I wanted to expand my use of manual focus lenses, and there was no way that I could do this with Olympus. I began looking for alternatives. The first decision was easy: the new system had to be mirrorless. Just about any manual focus lens ever made can be adapted to a mirrorless body. And, crucially, modern mirrorless bodies have excellent focus peaking functions. Having tried this feature on the EP-5 and EM-1 I did not think that I could use manual focus lenses ever again without it. Forget DSLR’s then – no big loss, and no need to join the mindless pack (I’ve always stayed away from herds and herd mentalities). The second decision was equally easy: the new camera had to be full frame, in order to be able to use analog-era lenses the way they were supposed to be used. A 21mm is a super wide angle. A 50mm f/1.4 is a fast normal prime. And so on. So a Sony A7, or one of its relatives, was the only answer. The “bottom of the line” A7 looked like the best choice. A few hundred dollars more would have got me image stabilization or a sensor with more resolution, but to start with the A7 looked like all I needed. No image stabilization means one less thing to go wrong, and I shoot from a tripod whenever I can, and the high ISO capability of the A7 compensates quite a bit if I can’t use a tripod, and I always have the Olympuses when I really need image stabilization. I still think that I made the right decision in going with the plain A7. Regarding the higher resolution sensor, I don’t know yet, I still have to try. But let’s get back on topic.
I did my research before buying the A7, and although there are many people who love Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras, there are also those who spill unending vitriol about them. But the latter sounded a lot like the same people who spill vitriol about Olympus, i.e., the pack who follows those two brands that will remain unnamed. So I ignored them and jumped for the Sony. Since I bought the A7, a little under a year ago, it has undoubtedly become my flagship camera. You know, the “default” camera that you go to for just about anything. Here is a more or less representative sampling of images that I made with the A7. Take a look, if you wish (click on the image to allow full-size versions):
This camera is a real landmark. The images that I chose show, I believe, this camera’s remarkable versatility. It does everything right. If one has the luxury of shooting from a tripod and can use very low ISO, the detail is simply out of this world. I also own a Sigma SD-1, and although the Foveon sensor has better detail, the difference is not always easy to see, and the Sony sensor has orders of magnitude more dynamic range (this is the Achilles heel of the Foveon), and processing Sigma raw files is a pain in the neck. And of course the Sony has much much better high ISO capabilities. So if one has to shoot hand held with the A7, it is generally not a problem, even without image stabilization (this is how we did it in the film era, by the way). I doubt that any other sensor out there can match the A7’s sensor in terms of its high ISO performance and dynamic range. And probably no other sensor can match it if one considers image quality together with low light performance. Yes, the Foveon would be the better sensor if illumination was always strong and even. Perhaps there are other sensors, including some from Sony, with better low light capability. And, if one factors in size, the Olympus micro four thirds sensor and the Leica APS-C sensor are very capable too. But sensor size matters. The sensor in the A7 is, in my view, perfectly balanced. It gives the camera a unique versatility. You can shoot anything, anywhere, with any lens, and the camera will come through with flying colors. Check the images above. Several different lenses, from 18mm to 300mm. Wide range of subjects, illumination conditions and color gamuts. The A7 performs flawlessly under any sort of conditions. There is simply no camera like it. In fact, shortly after I began using it there was a huge price drop on its little sister, the A6000, and, on the basis of my experience with the A7, I decided to get one. For a different set of requirements, largely arising from the APS-C crop factor, it is every bit as phenomenal as the A7. I will discuss the A6000 in a future post. For now let me end with this. It is possible that the lens offerings from Sony are not up to the camera’s standards. I don’t know, and I really have no plans to try, as I am mostly interested in analog-era lenses. It may be that autofocus in the A7 is not as fast as that of other cameras. Again, it does not matter to me. I have no idea as to its video capabilities, and I could not care less – if you want to make movies, why would you buy a photographic camera? All of these may be issues with the Sony A7, but for me none of them are. I use it only as the “digital camera back” for my precious manual focus lenses of decades past. In that capability, it is unsurpassed. It is my flagship, and if you have not tried it you don’t know what you are missing. Look at the images – they speak loudly to me.