Simply put, cameras are tools. It is up to the artist to create the image. Digital photography is everywhere nowadays. Point-and-shoots and iPhones are capable of some amazing things, and consumer level DSLRs are cheap enough to bring a high level of image quality to the masses. What separates soccer moms from professional photographers is the deep understanding that professionals have of their art and their gear. Anybody can learn the relationship of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, but the application of it and the understanding of the side effects that those bring transcends any technological advancements. DigitalRev has plenty of proof on that concept. At the same time, if your camera is downright annoying to use, what use is it at all? That is where my issues with Sony began.
The year 2015 has, without a doubt, been a big one for photography. Sony made some serious waves with the announcement of the a7RII and following it with an updated a7SII. For artists that bridge the gap between photographer and cinematographer frequently, shooting Sony is a no-brainer. While Canon has been the champion of that arena, Sony has offered many features in the a7 line of cameras that make them worthy opponents of Canon’s big dogs, like the C100 Mark II and the 1D-C. When you couple that with the amazing quality of Sony’s sensor technology, you get a machine that is capable of bringing nearly any creative vision into reality.
Near the end of 2014 I got myself the original Sony a7 along with some adapters. I had the Leica R, Nikon F, and Canon EF adapters and because of the versatility, I thought the quality of the system seemed to be unmatched. Sony turned a lot of heads when they announced the a7II. The stabilizer and much-improved build quality really caught my eye, so I upgraded. Months passed and I shot with the Sony all summer, and was so excited about the beautiful images that I was capturing with this small, relatively light camera. Most of my photographer friends scratched their heads when I told them what I had done. Many asked why, after I had preached Sony’s capabilities and convenience, I ditched it for a technologically less advanced, larger, heavier and "less convenient" camera, the Nikon D800.
The issue that the Sony posed to me — and it took me quite a while to realize — was that it felt slow and cluttered. The menu setup was decent, and did not cause many issues, but the button layout and the speed of the camera began to frustrate me. To be fair, there is a lot going on that these cameras have to process. The issue was that the Nikon bodies that I often found myself using were just fast. The D810, with massive files, was still performing quicker in any given situation, due to what is essentially a lack of features. There is no EVF or eye sensor that needs to catch up or turn on, the rear LCD is not always on, and there is no built-in stabilizer that needs to run constantly.
I know that a lot of people will disagree with me regarding these features, but the point is that I did not need them. An electronic viewfinder and an in-body stabilizer were not things that I found myself using in my professional work. Some people may love it; documentary photographers/videographers or event and wedding photographers that need to be able to see in low-light situations and get clean images in those situations will love it. I, however, don’t shoot that kind of subject matter. I do not shoot in low light and I do not shoot video, so those features were eating through battery. I also do a lot of portrait work with off-camera lighting, such as the Profoto B1, and missed the high-speed sync, TTL, and the TTL Air remotes. On top of that, I was constantly testing out new lenses that were all in Nikon mount. I had also recently purchased a Nikon F100 as my main 35mm film body, so Nikon was slowly creeping into my workflow. What I began to notice was no real change in image quality, but a more comfortable experience. I started to feel like the camera was never in my way.
The other issue that I had with the Sony a7II may seem trivial and ridiculous, but I honestly felt that it was too small. A D800 with a vertical grip fits perfectly into my larger hands, making the button layout more spacious and easier to access. As someone born with poor vision, I have been bound to glasses for most of my life. My glasses were getting smudged and I always had to clean them. I kept accidentally bumping the ISO wheel, the quick menu, or the review button, which slowed down shoots.
The images that each camera produced were not much different aside from long exposure performance and the obvious difference in resolution. With the Sony, I felt as if going past 30 seconds was going to give me an image that was too noisy in the shadows to print larger than 16x20 inches, or even for some web purposes. The D800, on the other hand, has given me gorgeous results with exposures as long as four minutes in some relatively contrasted scenes. As far as dynamic range is concerned, the D800 feels like it has a very slight advantage when Capture One’s high dynamic range sliders come into play. That advantage will likely disappear once all of the a7-series cameras receive the 14-bit uncompressed raw that the a7RII and a7SII have. Even so, how much of a difference does it make? The answer: very little. Calling the Sony a7 cameras unprofessional due to a lack of 14-bit raw is like saying that not wearing a tie with your suit makes you unprofessional. It is not about how you dress, but rather how you act. In camera terms, it is more helpful to be a talented photographer than to have trivial things like uncompressed raw. Does it help? Absolutely. Is it necessary? Not in the slightest. When I first started out in photography, I had a Canon T3i. With that camera, a cheap 50mm and one speedlight, I was able to create some portraits that made it into the top 300 entries of roughly 12,000 in a state-wide competition. Granted, I was a junior in high school, but it sure impressed some adult somewhere.
My point is, the gear does not matter. Having a camera that is comfortable to use and works for you, not the other way around, is far more important. Is the D800 better than the a7II, or vice versa? No, not at all. They are different beasts, but still capable of creating the same image in most situations. There are plenty of people on Instagram taking some beautiful landscape shots with a crop sensor DSLR and a cheapo wide angle. No camera will make you a better photographer; shoot what is comfortable for you, focus on the art and the results will come.