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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Sony a7Sii for weddings review

Sonoma County Wedding Photography by Hurricane Images Inc.

I was excited about using the Sony a7Sii for my upcoming wedding shoot.  Why? For one, it had been forever since I had used a silent camera.  No mechanical shutter, no sound.  And during a church ceremony this seemed priceless-- as did the incredible low-light capabilities of the a7Sii.  But the real world can be harsh.  The real world can turn "oh, my iPhone takes great pictures" into "my iPhone is completely impractical for anything beyond selfies and food porn."  So how did the a7Sii do at the wedding? Here's the good and bad.

The Good
I have to say that the a7Sii brings all of the joy of taking a picture back from 1990s.  We're so used to the camera doing all of the work that we've forgotten about the feel of taking a picture.  The ability to assign functions to buttons on the a7Sii is incredible.  It's lovely to have every possible function within thumb's reach.  It's lovely to see the histogram in the viewfinder.  It's lovely to have the viewfinder show the actual exposure-- what you see is (pretty close) to what you get.  Especially with a manual lens, it makes taking a picture a lovely experience.  Years ago I bought the coveted Nikon 50mm f/1.2.  I quickly concluded it was crap (at least my version).  It's soft from f/1.2 to f/4.  My Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is sharper. Wide open the purple fringing hurts one's soul.  But the (skimpy) 12MP sensor redeems those bad qualities, making the lens a delight and powerhouse of expression.

The a7Sii draws no attention to itself.  It's small and silent.  That's a plus for capturing candid moments at a wedding. I like stealth.

The camera truly is remarkable in low light.  This was taken at ISO 4,000.

It's grainy to be sure, but usable.  I gave this image (and all the others in this post) to the couple.  I wouldn't consider using anything above ISO 2500 from my beloved Nikon (okay, maybe if I converted the image to B&W I would do ISO 3200).  This was taken at ISO 5,000:


Again, grainy but completely usable.  And there's a quality to natural/available light that is completely different from flash photography.

Color rendition: that falls on both sides of the Good/Bad line for me.  You can get quite nice colors.  Sometimes. In low light, the hue can shift, and the program you use to convert your files can worsen the problem (I had to convert the files to DNG as a Lightroom 5 user).  I found that Adobe DNG Converter to be far superior in terms of color rendition, but not perfect.  Colors sometimes leaned towards green hues.  In good light, though, the colors are quite pleasing.

Black and white.  Between the lack of punch (and the color distortion that happens when you try to add in punch) and the low-light issues (see below), the Sony will eventually reach it's limit.  And then you make great Black and White images.

ISO 10,000

ISO 10,000.  Really?  I'm from the days of film where ISO 800 was pushing the "arty" look.

This is the image at 1:2:

Noise reduction is at 30; sharpening at 30.

The lack of sharpness here is largely due to the noise, and probably made slightly worse by a minimal shutter speed.  The image has the low-contrast quality that's endemic to low light situations, but I was standing four feet away from him and you really don't want a flash going off in this moment. 

The Not-So-Good
The first isn't a limitation of the camera but a fact of life.  Low-light situations are also low contrast and muted colors.  So in situations without clear light sources (and the shadows they produce), images are often a bit lifeless.  Rather than rely on the Sony's low-light capabilities, I used my Nikon with flash for many of my "low light" shots in order to get that added punch and dimensionality.  Otherwise, foregrounds blend into backgrounds and the world becomes mushy.

Between the electronic viewfinder and the electronic shutter there is a lag.  It's not noticeable when taking posed shots, but it can be a nuisance when shooting events.  You miss things.  This is exasperated by the fact that the preview image shows in the viewfinder.  That's wonderful in controlled situations, but a real stumbling block for fast moving events. You have to tap the shutter button to return to live view, and half a second has gone by.

12MP.  An additional challenge in working with only 12MP is the relationship between detail and grain.  There's less detail in a 12MP image, so grain (when it finally appears around 4,000 ISO) more quickly interferes with the detail.  Just a fact of life.  So in addition to having less ability to crop your photos, you quickly lose some of your detail with ISO.

Lens choices.  Oy.  Sony lenses are way over-priced.  The great thing is that a $20 adapter makes all of my Nikon lenses work... but only in manual focus mode.  That's great for video, architecture, and landscape.  It's too slow for people.  All of these images are shot with the Sony 28-70mm kit lens, which is sufficiently sharp for the a7Sii (yay) but also slow and unexceptional. The kit lens is far better suited to video and landscape than portrait and event.

Because you need the punch that comes from a flash, I spent less time with my Sony at the wedding than I thought.  If you can use a flash-- and you know how to use one-- it's just a better solution in low light.  If you can't use a flash for whatever reason, the Sony is great.

Sonoma County Wedding Photography

The verdict?  Any verdict would be an over-simplification.  I am increasingly impressed with the a7Sii's video capabilities, and that's the camera's strength.  I can see why one might buy the a7Rii over the "S" due to the megapixels and the fact that most of the time you won't use the better low-light capabilities.  I'm tempted to say that I made a mistake in buying the S, but it's also true that the lag issue and the lack of affordable auto-focus lenses means that my Nikon will always be my workhorse.  So when it comes to still photography (where the Sony a7Rii is clearly superior), I'd still be using my Nikon. I also suspect that the lack of affordable lens choices is even more problematic with the R, due to the need for really sharp lenses.  So if the Sony S is primarily for video (and for me that's true), then it's a better option than the R. My conclusion?  The a7Sii makes for a capable 2nd camera, but not a 1st camera for weddings.  This past week I took the camera to Joshua Tree, so I may add to my ongoing review of the Sony a7sii with that perspective.

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