New Gear for Christmas

Thanks to the generosity of my parents, who gave me a nice graduation gift, I’ve been busy upgrading my gear over the holidays. This is not as easy as it seems because of all the choices out there. My goal for the New Year is to do more of the reflective photography that I enjoy the most. Now that I’m devoting more time to fine arts photography and pursuing some of the themes that I’m passionate about, I want to be able to bring out as much detail in the images as possible and, if I’m lucky enough to get some gallery shows, to print my images fairly large. Here are examples of two photographs from my Sanctuary series that I’d like to print BIG. These are photographs of Christ Church Deer Park in Toronto.

Christ Church Deer Park Organ Master Image Christ Church Deer Park Sanctuary Master Image

After a lot of thinking, I narrowed the choices down to two basic strategies:

  • Convert to Sony, specifically the A7RII with a Metabones adapter. The new Sony camera is a marvel. It’s compact in size and has a wonderful 42 megapixel sensor that leads the industry in dynamic range and low noise. With the adapter, all my Canon lenses would work with the system and I’d have the choice of continuing to use Canon lenses or switch to Sony or Zeiss.
  • Continue with Canon and upgrade my 5DII to a 5DS. The new 5DS has a 50 megapixel sensor that gets kudos for its resolution, but gets some knocks for dynamic range and noise compared to the Sony.

The Internet is full of articles on these cameras and excellent videos. There was no shortage of advice! A lot of people who write about cameras are early adopters by nature, so the pro-Sony advice predominated.

Fortunately, one of my instructors owned a Sony A7RII and very generously loaned it to me for a day. He is a Canon guy, but bought the Sony to use when photographing on TV production sets because it has a silent shutter. I took the Sony down to visit the Bethel church, one of my favorite subjects, and spent some quality time with a tripod, some Canon lenses, the A7RII and Metabones adapter. Here’s an example from the shoot, taken on a dismal rainy day:


This photo was shot with my old, shabby Canon 50mm f1.8 prime, a cheap lens with a plastic lens mount that still does very well in all the resolution tests (e.g. DXOMark). It was stopped down to f6.7 and mounted on a tripod. I’m not going to bore you with pixel peeping, but the sharpness was OK, but not spectacular. I didn’t see any improvement in resolution over my 5dII. Somehow, the combination of the Metabones adapter, the Canon lens and a Sony camera didn’t deliver the sharp results that I was hoping for.

There were a couple of other factors that decided me against the Sony direction. The first factor should have worked in Sony’s favor. The camera is quite compact and much lighter than my 5dII. However, it doesn’t seem to be possible to build sharp lenses for full frame cameras that match the Sony in weight and size. Mounting my Canon 70-300L lens threw the system out of balance. It feels so right on the 5dII, so wrong on the Sony. Ditto for the Canon 24-105. Granted, I had a Sony 28-70  zoom with me that was quite small and compact. Unfortunately, it was also no match for the sensor and delivered very little in the way of image sharpness and contrast.

The second factor was the usability of the Sony controls. The small camera surface area is peppered with seemingly random small buttons that are hard to find. In the few hours that I had, I was able to set the camera up so that it was easy to set aperture, shutter speed and ISO with just one hand. However, there didn’t seem to be any easy way to control the focal point without a series of button presses. This has been borne out by subsequent Google searches. It is a Sony blind spot and shows general immaturity in the camera business. The Sony is a technical tour de force, but a usability also-ran.

After a couple of trips to the camera store to evaluate the Canon 5ds, I managed to find a near-new camera on Kijiji and consummated a cash deal in a Second Cup coffee shop. I always feel like a bit of a drug buyer in these situations, but the seller was able to produce the box and an original dealer invoice, so the camera swapped hands. I was able to take around 100 photos with the camera at various Christmas parties, using the 50mm f1.8 prime (see the picture of Joel for an example below) and I can sum up my experience in a few paragraphs:




First, the camera is delivering the sharpness that I expected. With the 50mm f1.8 lens stopped down to f2.8, Joel’s face is tack sharp right down to the traces of dessert on his chin!

Second, this camera is well-sorted from an ergonomics point of view. This camera is not oriented towards the consumer, so there is a pretty good learning curve. However, for the pro shooter, everything can be customized and all controls fall readily to hand. When set up to shoot manually, the aperture, shutter and ISO can be controlled by one hand using two control wheels (ISO requires the set button to be held down by the thumb while one of the wheels is turned by the trigger finger). In addition, the 61 focus points can be set easily using the little multi-directional control button located right where your right thumb naturally falls. The mode dial has three custom settings that can be programmed with commonly used set-ups. In this way, the camera can assume three completely different personalities. Here’s how I’ve chosen to set it up:

  • C1: set up for slow, reflective photography. The mode is Manual, the images are recorded in high resolution RAW in full 50 megapixel glory. The assumption is that the camera will be operated in Live View mode, but the shutter is also set up so that there is a quarter second delay to allow any mirror shock to dissipate before the shutter opens.
  • C2: set up for fast, event-type photography. The mode is aperture priority and the camera is left to choose the shutter speed and ISO. The auto ISO mode seems pretty clever and the maximum ISO and minimum shutter can be chosen to confine the auto mode somewhat. The images are captured in slightly smaller raw files of around 28 megapixels to maximize space on the card.
  • C3: set up for  sports shooting. The mode is shutter speed priority and the camera chooses aperture and ISO. The focus mode is set to AI servo to track the subject. The images are captured in JPEGS of around 22 megapixels.

But, what about the low noise performance and the dynamic range. Well, you can’t have everything. However, the noise performance, according to DXOMark, is better than my 5dII by a significant margin and even slightly better than the 5dIII. The noise grains are extremely small and can easily be corrected in Lightroom. Not an issue IMHO.

The dynamic range is pretty good too at 12 stops. Granted, it is not class-leading, but the subject matter that I work with often exceeds the dynamic range of any camera. For example, the Christ Church Deer Park image above required an exposure of one eighth of a second to capture the windows and 20 seconds to capture the dark ceiling. I took 8 images and combined them using Lightroom HDR. A 13 stop camera like the Sony wouldn’t have made any difference.

And what about the weight and size? As I mentioned above, the lenses are pretty darn heavy and the 5ds nicely balances the heft of the lenses. The 24-105L and the 70-300L feel very nice in the hand with the 5ds. When I want to travel with a lightweight kit, I’ll turn to my old Sony Nex-7 with the smaller, lighter APS-C lenses like the Zeiss 16-70 zoom.

There was still a little bit of money left in the kitty after getting such a good deal online, so it was off to Henrys for the boxing day sales. The 5ds at 50 megapixels is a very demanding camera and deserves the sharpest lenses. Dxomark publishes a sharpness metric that reflects the overall MTF response of each lens. It’s a bit of a mystery as to how they can distill the complex measurements of sharpness over many apertures and many zoom settings, but it does make it possible to compare lenses using a single, simple number.

It’s clear that Canon’s older generation of lenses, like the 24-105L and the 17-40L, were really well-suited to cameras in the 20 megapixel range, but don’t scale up to the 5ds. As a result, I purchased a 24-70L II, an extravagantly priced lens that scores very well using the Dxomark metric. The boxing day discount at local dealers was very compelling and I fear that the shrinking purchasing power of the Canadian dollar will lead to further price increases in the future.

I’m going to put the 5dII up for sale, along with the 24-105L and the 17-40L. The proceeds will go to either purchase a 16-35 f4L (very sharp) or maybe I’ll wait for the new 16-35 f2.8 version III which is rumored to be coming soon.

I’m also looking at adding some very sharp primes to the arsenal. The Sigma 50mm prime and the 20mm prime are very sharp. The latter would be the perfect lens for my sanctuary series.

There was a concern that Lightroom and Photoshop would grind to a halt digesting these huge files, but fear not. The use of graphic card acceleration by both apps easily handles the rendering of the files.


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