Despite an early report from photographer Drew Geraci last week, it seems that the Sony a7R III may still be affected by the so called “Star Eater” effect. What is really going on?
Past a certain point, filmmakers should just let the story end instead of abusing the franchise and fall into absurdity. In the photography industry, a surprise space opera came out from Sony studios last summer when the company decided to introduce some sort of aggressive noise reduction in the firmware of its a7R II and a7S II cameras. Basically, this new filtering approach had the effect of removing stars during long-exposure astrophotography. The issue has been well documented by specialists like Ian Norman, from Lonely Speck, who wrote an open letter to Sony calling for action and stating that he can “no longer recommend Sony cameras for astrophotography.”
Norman described the problem as follows:
“The Star Eater problem is a form of software spatial filtering designed to reduce noise in photos, particularly hot pixels. ... The result is an astrophoto with less stars and the appearance of diminished resolution. ... Furthermore, the ‘Star Eater’ issue affects raw images (whether uncompressed or not) and cannot be disabled by any means.”
For those who missed the previous episodes, here is a little summary. Viewer discretion is advised.
- Before August 2016 - The Honey Moon Stage: Astrophotographers are in love with their Sony cameras, some even switched to Sony from Canon and Nikon thanks to the remarkable low light performance of the Sony a7S II.
- August 2016 - Betrayal: Sony introduces a new spatial filtering noise reduction algorithm that has the effect of “eating” and removing some stars from the images. People start noticing the problem after installing the new firmware.
- May 2017 - The Whistleblower: Norman wrote an article on Lonely Speck revealing the inconvenient truth to the world. Meanwhile, the new Sony a9 suffers from the “Star Eater” effect.
- May 2017 - The Negotiator: Norman engages in discussions with Sony representatives.
- June 2017 - False Hope: Sony releases a new firmware that purposely fixes the problem but detailed analysis conducted by Kin Kasson shows that the issue persists.
- July 2017 - The Petition: Astronomer Frédéric Michaud launches an online petition asking Sony to implement the possibility to disable the spatial filtering in the next firmware update.
- November 2017 - Sayonara: Geraci happily reports that “the star-eater is no more” on the new Sony a7R III after taking sample pictures with this camera.
- November 2017 - Dead Stars 3: Kasson conducts technical analysis on a7R III images transmitted by Rishi Sanyal, technical editor at DPReview. He finds that the a7R III still applies some filtering and notes: “at 4 seconds, the spatial filtering kicks in big-time.”
So what should we think about all this? Geraci says that his a7R III camera does not eat stars while Kasson still observes the spatial filtering in action during long exposure photography. The apparent contradiction might come from different perspectives. Geraci did a real life shooting test while Jasson only performed a “lab” analysis on dark-field captures. Both of them might be right, the spatial filtering is still there but somehow Sony tweaked a few settings and the camera doesn't’ eat stars anymore which explains Geraci observation. Indeed, as Norman mentioned in his article, “I’ll admit that it is a problem that requires a fair bit of pixel peeping. Some photographers might never even notice the issue.” Finally, let’s not forget that the a7R III is not available yet. Geraci and Jasson both used pictures coming from pre-released cameras which could be loaded with slightly different beta firmware versions.
In any case, the ball is in Sony’s yard. This stargate saga has been all over the Internet for quite some time now, damaging Sony’s reputation in the photography industry while the company is trying hard to penetrate the professional market. The a9 and a7 are great cameras, yet the product team let this slide. What is the management doing at Sony? This is bad press. This star-eater problem could be solved in two days by a bunch of software engineers. Just give us the option in the menu to disable the spatial filtering and this nonsense story will be no more. It’s time to end the saga.