Initial Impressions – a Sony A7R and some old Olympus OM lenses.

This detailed post is the result of a bad back, a feeling of dissatisfaction with a camera and remembering something from years ago – just so you know….

Forgetting I’m not 18 years old any more I badly strained my lower back helping someone move out of a shop over Christmas. Since then, carrying a Canon 5d MK2, a Sigma 50mm f1.4, a 70-300mm and a 24-105 ‘L’ on long photo trips has become painful.

Zuiko 50mm f1.4 Sony A7R

Taken with the A7R and Zuiko 50mm f1.4 at ISO 100 with the shadows pulled up slightly – remarkable!

Secondly, apart from the weight, a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the 5dMk2 has been brewing lately – it’s not that much better than my 60D so it’s turning into a paperweight. It’s also irritatingly bad at attracting dust onto the sensor. The Sigma 50mm f1.4 though is possibly the best lens I’ve ever used, but again it’s very heavy and is turning into a ‘stay at home’ lens.

Zuiko 28mm f2  Sony A7R

The Zuiko 28mm f2 @ ISO 1600.

Thirdly I remembered what I always wanted from digital photography when it started to become viable, and that was a full frame digital back for my OM1N. 10Mp would have been fine, but for probably obvious reasons it was never done…..

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A size comparison clockwise from top left – the A7R, (full frame 36Mp), the Oly EPL5 (micro 4/3 16Mp), the Oly OM2N (er film!) and the Canon 5d Mk2 (full frame 20 Mp). The Sony is taller than the OM2N but narrower and with the adaptor weighs almost exactly the same.

So – what to do?

Zuiko 50mm f1.4 Sony A7R Novoflex adaptor

The Sony with the E-mount (or NEX) adaptor to Olympus OM. Its fits tightly with no lens ‘wobble’ and feels precisely engineered.

Something radical is called for. Trade the 5D and the Sigma 50 1.4 for a Sony A7R body and a Novoflex adaptor and go completely ‘manual focus’ using my old OM lenses. In size the Sony is around the same size and weight as an OM2/1 though the mount adaptor adds some extra length to lenses and it’s slightly taller. Some tinkering with the kitchen scales showed I’d been routinely carrying around 13 lb (6 kg) of kit (including a tripod) which could be more or less halved, This will be very welcome on long hikes. It will also yield up easily cropped 36 MP images, and more resolution is always welcome, though I wasn’t sure if the old OM primes were up to it.

Zuiko 50mm f1.4 Sony A7R

Pixel peeping a 50mm f1.4 shot taken at f8 ISO 100.

 

Zuiko 50mm f1.4 Sony A7R

Detail from the centre – I hadn’t even seen the gent in the window but he was recorded in some detail! The edges are inevitability slightly softer but better than expected. The centre is amazingly sharp.

 

Initial impressions of the body are very good. It didn’t take long to set up (i.e. switching to RAW, airplane mode on, configuring the function buttons) the build quality seems excellent and it feels light and solid with well damped and placed controls. Reassuringly it ‘glued’ itself to my smaller hands immediately – almost tailor-made. The camera bag fully loaded with 17mm to 135mm lenses can now be carried effortlessly and has lots of room left over.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Sony A7R

The 17mm f3.5 – I really thought this lens would be very soft but at f8-f16 it’s not bad at all even at 36 MP.

 

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Sony A7R

It’s possible to just make out the writing on the bench plaque.

The viewfinder is electronic (an EVF) and delivers a view roughly comparable to Oly’s VF-4 – i.e. very good. The information displayed in the viewfinder of the Sony is better organised around the image rather than over it and seems a little crisper, but there’s not much in it. Occasionally the Sony seems to need time to think over things, when moving around menus or if switched on soon after switching off, but it’s nothing I’d really complain about.

Manual focus using ‘peaking’ isn’t as precise as using the ‘focus magnify’ feature which nails focus every time (as per the EPL5). What’s slightly disturbing is that the OM lenses which I’ve used for thirty years have much less depth of field than I’d thought – the A7R shows the focus point moving very rapidly as the focus is racked and focussing for critical sharpness is tight. I can only guess at how approximate the split image/microprism method of focussing is on the OM1/2. On a 60D or a 5d focussing using the optical viewfinder is vague to say the least – hence some past sub-par results.

Zuiko 85mm f2 Sony A7R

The 85mm f2 though trickier to focus is good too.

Post processing takes a little longer due to the size of the RAW files. The 7360 x 4912 RAW files are around 35Mb, and DXO Optics 9 produces huge JPEG files of the same size or larger! Photoshop compresses the JPEGS more efficiently to around 8-15Mb. Opening and saving files takes a few seconds longer than 20Mb images too and DXO Prime noise removal takes around 4 minutes (vs 2 minutes for 20Mb files).

Zuiko 50mm f1.4 Sony A7R

The 50mm f1.4 wide open producing some showy bokeh. Shots wide open with this lens always need some chromatic aberration correction in PP.

The lack of an anti alias filter seems to make the resolution of the OM lenses shine through. When you can really nail the focus, shoot at a high enough shutter speed and stop down to f8 to f11 these old lenses produce some remarkably good results. They’re still prone to flare and some internal reflections, but results when compared to the results from the 60D/5D Mk2 are in a different league. To various degrees they suffer from some softer edges but subsequent posts will go into this in more detail.

Zuiko 50mm f1.4 Sony A7R

Sony reds are still rather oversaturated for my taste but they’re better than the RX100’s purply reds.

 

The most extraordinary thing about the RAW results though is how far shadow detail can be pulled up without producing noise.

Zuiko 28mm f2 Sony A7R

Some PP pulling up the shadows just a little produces excellent dynamic range. The 28mm again.

As for the infamous ‘shutter shock’ problem – I haven’t noticed it so far. As there’s no image stabilisation you need to be extra careful about shutter speeds and shooting technique and – so far – I’ve had no camera shake. The ‘double shutter’ noise doesn’t really bother me either really – by comparison with an EPL5 my 5d Mk2 sounds like someone hitting a shovel on a car bonnet (something of an exaggeration but you get the point!). Keep the shutter speed reasonably above the focal length of the lens and use good technique and all will be fine. You can push the ISO to 3200 without any real noise problems.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Sony A7R

There’s no automatic distortion correction software as there’s no EXIF lens data saved with the files – not even aperture. The 17mm if tilted upwards can produce some distorted verticals so keep it horizontal!

Infrared – look elsewhere I’m afraid. I’d hoped the A7R would be as good as the RX100 but no – the A7R is very insensitive to IR frequencies (see below).

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30 seconds at ISO 100 f8 with an R72 filter and underexposed – so useless for infrared. Hand held IR would have been great but I’m expecting too much!

Ultra high ISO is – as usual – not that useful. ISO 25600 (I thought ISO 3200 extreme!) is OK for a small print but otherwise not that good, even with DXO’s Prime noise reduction. ISO 100 -400 is essentially grain-less and up to 3200 ISO nicely controlled – this is a 36Mp image so for any given print size noise is less of a problem.

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High ISO 25600 is pretty ugly as you’d expect even with a run through DXO’s PRIME noise removal tool – which took 5 minutes! Stick to ISO 3200 or less!

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A fascinating close up of my well organised bookshelf…. For 25600 ISO this isn’t bad but then it isn’t that good either.

 

For a full days shooting I’ll need a second battery. Sony thinks in camera charging is a good idea unfortunately. Not providing a charger as an alternative is irritatingly cheap of them when selling a camera in this price range.

Overall after one week I’m very impressed. If you’re a photographer who takes their time and doesn’t mind manual focus and a few delays here and there, the A7R will extract the maximum detail from those old MF lenses with a ‘focus magnify’ feature which is very efficient (like the EPL5). To really like this camera you’ll also be the sort who doesn’t mind a bit of post processing to extract the best from RAW files. If you put in the effort the files produced are sharp, detailed and exceed by a country mile what I wanted 15 years ago with a digital back for my old OM1N.

Zuiko 50mm f1.4 Sony A7R

The 50mm f1.4 @1.4 doing what it does best.

As a setup with MF lenses it would be comically inadequate for any sort of action photography or for telephoto lens use past 135mm but as I don’t shoot that sort of stuff I don’t care! I’m sure anyone with a collection of old quality prime lenses would find this camera just as good. The lack of an anti alias filter over the sensor seems to make a huge difference to sharpness using these lenses.

It’s not perfect, but it’s 95% there for my purposes (not necessarily yours!). I’ve now got so much room in the camera bag I can even take along an OM2N as well!

Hope you find this useful, thanks for looking.

p.s. If you’re interested in the internals of this camera have a look as Lensrental’s disassembly of an A7R here.

 

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Olympus Dramatic Tone Long Exposures

Looking for something new to try on a photo trip out to Swanage in Dorset, I had the diminutive EPL5 and some neutral density filters rattling around the camera bag so thought I’d try some long exposures using the ‘Dramatic Tone’ art filter.

Olympus Pen, Dramatic Tone, long exposure

Four seconds at f18 with the camera firmly braced against a sea wall produced this – not bad at all.

 

This special effects filter produces some spectacular results, pushing the contrast in the midtones and dragging detail from otherwise overcast skies. While shooting, the results look great but looking at hundreds of shots later when processing them brings home a sinking feeling – this effect should only be used sparingly as too much of it becomes tiringly repetitive!

Olympus Pen, Dramatic Tone, long exposure

Two seconds at f22 and more streaky seabirds….

 

Two stacked 58mm x3 ND filters on a hairy contraption of 37 ->49 then 49 ->58mm step up rings allowed their use on the tiny 14-42mm kit lens. When things briefly brightened up a circular polarizer was added to cut the light getting through to the sensor was added too! The resulting JPEGs were post-processed in DXO Filmpack using some of the ‘designer’ presets to give a toned result which adds an extra dimension to the monochrome images.

Olympus Pen, Dramatic Tone, long exposure

A river discharges into the sea here and there’s always a lot of seagulls milling around. The streaks in the sky are them flying past. Two seconds at f22.

 

The Oly’s IBIS (in body image stabilisation) and hand holding the camera on various posts, railings etc at exposures up to 8 seconds at f16-f22 worked reasonably well but there were around 50% failures due to camera shake (I was pushing things to extremes here!).

Olympus Pen, Dramatic Tone, long exposure

One second at f22 was all that was need here

 

There were a few dust spots on the sensor which have been cloned out – and the sensor given a quick clean. The processing required to create these if shooting in RAW+JPEG takes a few seconds at normal shutter speeds. With long exposure noise reduction processing added, it takes around five seconds to process and save each shot so don’t expect this to be a quick process.

Overall I’m reasonably pleased with this as a technique. It adds an extra twist to the well trodden ‘Dramatic Tone’ approach and might be useful for art print sales – though I can’t see it being much use for book covers. Mainly though, it’s simply good fun – give it a try if you have a chance.

Thanks for looking, hope you like them.

Ultrawide on a 5d Mk2 – a Vivitar 17mm f3.5

This lens worked out pretty well on a Canon 60D crop frame sensor (here) and it’s also quite handy on Olympus OM series film cameras. ‘Full Frame’ digital though is a lot more demanding, especially at the far edges of the frame so how well does this vintage lens shape up on the mighty 5D Mk2? I need a wide-angle lens for this camera so it’s been dusted off for a test. All shot in RAW and converted in DXO Optics 9.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

The waterfall at Kimmeridge Bay in full flow. The flare to the bottom left is a ‘feature’ of this lens – I quite like it and here it fills a dark area of the frame.

On the bulky 5d Mk2 even this relatively heavy old MF lens feels fine. It’s lighter than a 24-105mm ‘L’ so it’s quite reasonable to carry around without becoming fatigued. The filter size is 67mm and infinity to minimum focus (25cm) takes a rack of around 180 degrees. The majority of this rack is taken getting from one metre to 25cm so you probably won’t see that bit of the scale very often.

This lens seems to cause the 5D MK2 more metering problems than any lens I’ve attached to it. Evaluative and centre weighted modes both occasionally produced wildly overexposed shots so keep an eye on the playback histogram after each shot.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

On the 5d Mk2 via an Olympus OM to Canon EF Fotodiox adaptor. Nicely balanced and a pleasure to use. Manual focus is very difficult due to the huge depth of field so the LCD of depth of field scale are preferable.

One of the traditional uses of such a wide-angle lens is for course landscapes and initial impressions are impressive at f8. The colours are natural and everything looks sharp enough – without pixel peeping.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

What it should do well – and it does. There isn’t much curvature on horizons (pincushion distortion) as long as the horizon is near the centre of the frame though it’s not that bad generally.

The other traditional use is interior shots and with an angle of view of 90 degrees it’s quite good at that too!

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

Remarkably I haven’t seen any chromatic aberration which usually plagues wide-angle lenses, but there are a few odd internal reflections and flare when shooting into the sun which you can either live with and use creatively or just try to avoid by being very careful with your compositions.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

As with all wide-angle lenses converging lines look particularly dramatic – you end up looking for them everywhere. The closer you are to the subject the more dramatic the effect is.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

As there’s so much depth of field you can also use the depth of field scale to ‘shoot blind’ and just hold the camera near the ground like the following shot. After lots of experimenting it seems the depth of field scale is a bit optimistic – use the next widest aperture scale (i.e. set f16 but set a hyperfocal distance for f11). Maybe it was ‘good enough’ for film but it’s not for critically sharp results on the 5D…..

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

Using such a wideangle lens for close-ups isn’t advisable due to distortion which increases the closer you get. The closest focus distance is 25cm – use it if you dare!

And another using the same technique – one of the few shots of snowdrops I’ve taken which I like – and I’ve taken loads!

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

Bokeh with such a wide-angle lens only appears when the lens is closely focussed. It’s slightly fussy but not bad.

After all these promising results, time for some proper test results. This scene was chosen to be especially demanding for a wide-angle with bare branches acting to test the sharpness.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

The full test frame.

At f3.5 centre :-

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

f3.5 edge :-

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

Well wide open it’s not that good at all – the edge is terrible, but having read detailed test results for such lenses – even modern ones – the extreme edges of wide angles are often poor. Conclusion – avoid f3.5!

at f8 centre :- Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2f8 edge :-

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

Improved as you’d expect, though still not exactly brilliant!

at f16 centre :-

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

f16 edge :-

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

Much better – relatively… The extreme edges of the frame are still not great but better than I expected.

All things considered, this is remarkably good for a £100, thirty year old lens. As long as you keep it at f8 to f16 the performance isn’t too bad at all and on a par with many modern ultrawides (especially mid-priced zooms). It’s so much fun to use that I don’t really care too much about the soft edges – with such a wide angle of view they don’t seem too important. If you’re a perfectionist or pixel-peeper though this may not be good enough for you.

For someone who needs such a wide-angle lens infrequently this is good enough for me (and becoming a favourite lens). The lack of chromatic aberration is remarkable, the flare which crops up now and again is quite attractive (to me anyway) so all in all it’s getting a hearty recommendation for the price.

I’ll finish with another shot from the waterfall sequence – the slight vignette is caused by stacked ND filters, not the lens.

Vivitar 17mm f3.5 Canon 5d Mk2

Thanks for looking – hope you find this useful.

If you’re interested in using other MF lenses on your DSLR have a look at the other reviews on the film, camera and lens review index tab.