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…..

_MG_1914_DxO2s

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).

_DSC0103_DxO2s

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.

_DSC0058_DxO2s

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!

_DSC0058_DxO2zm

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.

 

Initial Impressions – The Sigma 50mm F1.4 ‘Art’ on a 5D MK2 (lots of images)

I don’t usually post about modern lenses – there are lots of reviews out there already of any photographic kit made recently. However, this is the exception which proves the rule as this promises to be one of the best third-party lenses of recent years. All shots taken on a 5D Mk2, processed in DXO Optics 9. DPP (Canon’s RAW developer software) won’t help with distortion etc as this isn’t a Canon lens, but DXO has all the correction profiles available.

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

What was hoped for. Contrast, bokeh, colours and sharpness (including spider’s web). A good start to say the least.

Having been distinctly unimpressed by the weak construction of the Canon 50mm f1.4 (it needed a £150 repair after a slight knock) I started looking around for a replacement, and there isn’t that much available which is affordable (i.e. not the Canon 50mm f1.2), optically sound and well-built. There is the manual focus Zeiss Otus available, but as I don’t have £3k+ free it’s a non starter (I’ve had cars cheaper than that).

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Left – Canon 24-105mm f4 ‘L’, centre the Sigma 50mm f1.4, and for comparison with the way things were done in the past, the compact and excellent Zuiko OM 50mm f1.4. Amazingly the Zuiko is the equivalent of the Sigma!

Onto the lens. It’s big and heavy! It feels about as heavy as a Canon 24-105 f4 and it’s around the same size. Much has been made of this, but as I’m now used to the size and weight of the 24-104 on a 5D Mk2 it’s not really a problem. Build quality is excellent, the autofocus is quiet and the whole thing exudes a feeling of quality. Costing £700 it should I suppose!

Using Live View (CDAF) the focussing as fast as any lens on the 5D Mk2 (ie slow), using the viewfinder (PDAF) it’s as fast as the 24-105. Low light focussing seems as good as the 24-105 too.

Is it any better than the Canon 50mm f1.4 in the sharpness dept? At f1.4 through to f5.6, definitely and noticeably yes. After f5.6 they’re about the same.

Here’s the full picture in this quick test :-

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What a surprise – it’s The Mill again!

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f1.4 centre – excellent for a 1.4 –

Update – having tested manual focus on a 60D here this may be ever so slightly out of focus when using autofocus – a little AF tuning required. Having done some MFA in camera adjustments -5 seems the best compromise for all distances (the correction required is different at various distances).

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Here’s the result using Live View and manual focus shot on a different day – much more like it!

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f1.4 edge using autofocus and slightly mis-focussed – the trees are out of focus even at these distances (see later shots)

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f2 centre – AF

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f2 edge

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f4 centre – as good as it gets

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f4 edge

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f5.6 centre – astonishingly sharp!

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f5.6 edge – and again.

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f8 centre

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

f8 edge – things soften slightly at f16.

 

What’s noticeable other than the superb sharpness, is that at wider apertures, the trees which are 100 yards or so further behind the chimney in the edge shots out of focus – see the shots at f8 where they are. This narrow a depth of field isn’t something you’d expect for a 50mm lens focussed close to infinity, illustrating just how important accurate AF is. For a much more professional discussion about this see Roger Cicala’s excellent post about using fast lenses here.

This shallow depth of field ‘problem’ explains why some users are initially disappointed with the results from fast lenses – these lenses are difficult to use wide open, you need to be very precise with your focus point and shoot a few shots each time as the focus can vary slightly – even a tiny amount with this narrow margin for error can be disastrous.

Let’s try another shot:-

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Autumn on the way (at f2.5)

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Centre crop – that is very sharp.

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Top centre crop – very sharp too.

Depth if field at close distances is tiny as you would expect :-

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

The Siggy at around two feet (60cm) at 1.4 – a centre 1/3 crop of a frame and that depth of field is around 1/8th of an inch (2-3mm). To get more in focus the focus point would need to be the centre of the bell rather than the bottom and maybe use f2.8. You need to be careful with this lens!

Contrast at 1.4 is OK, but picks up quickly – by f4 the lens shows quite strong contrast – maybe a ‘neutral’ rather than ‘standard’ colour profile would be best if you like to shoot JPEGs.

Colours are very good to excellent straight from the RAW files, with a tendency towards a cooler neutral look (the Canon 50mm f1.4 produced ‘warmer’ results) :-

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

It’s all going on here – shallow DOF, contrast, colour and bokeh!

 

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

My stand in portrait model at f2 – the hair really is blue.

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

A crop from the centre. Focus on the eye is spot on!

Bokeh when the background is deeply out of focus is lovely, but when it’s ‘almost’ in focus it can be bit ‘busy’ :-

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Very out of focus bokeh – this is as good as the old Helios 85mm f2 used in previous posts!

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

A full range of ‘out of focus-ness’. The intermediate distance bokeh displaying a slight degree of jitter with a detailed subject.

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

This subject though – because it has less detail than the leaves – fades smoothly into soft bokeh.

Chromatic aberration is evident at wide apertures but DXO corrects it very well (sometimes with the manual sliders) –

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

A crop from the above – a hint of slight green and magenta on out of focus areas but for a shot at 1.4 this is excellent.

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Centre(ish) crop

I didn’t need to do any lens callibration focus adjustments on the 5dMk2 (the Canon rather huffily just reports ’50mm’ for the lens in the MF adjustments screen!), and it looks as if it’s also fine on the 60D though this needs proper testing. I only ever use the centre focus point – edge points may not be as accurate.

I haven’t worried about vignetting – DXO does an excellent job of removing it (I didn’t see any in other words). I also tried to get some flare without the lens hood attached but wasn’t successful, which may mean the lens hood isn’t needed….

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

So, all as advertised it seems, but who is going to buy one given the price (3x the Canon version) and the weight? Other than me obviously.

It seems to me that this lens offers an alternative to the fast/sharp in the centre/blurry at the edge/heavily vignetted fast prime ‘look’ which has been accepted for years. To have a f1.4 lens which is sharp wide open at the edges opens up some interesting opportunities, whilst allowing for ultra sharp images across the frame at f5.6 onwards. Photographers who would like to make the most of this new wide aperture ‘look’ will find this attractive.

The weight is a non issue in my humble opinion  – if you’re carrying a full frame DSLR with a 24-104mm or 24-70mm zoom you already don’t care about weight and do care about maximum image quality (if you do care about the weight you may have the wrong camera system!).

Sigma 50mm F1.4 ART,Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

Based on this initial series of images, the Sigma produces some of the best results I’ve seen. It’s not the easiest lens to use – where you place your focus point is critical, and choosing backgrounds with less detail provides better bokeh at mid distances (a universal rule not specific to this lens). If it had a proper aperture ring and image stabilisation it would be perfect!

Thanks for looking, hope you find this useful.

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

p.s I have no connection with Sigma – just using their products