Ali

Sony A9 Review: A Defining Moment for Mirrorless Cameras

Sony A9 Review

Every once in a while a camera comes along that draws a line in the sand, redefines a segment, and marks a milestone in photography.  The first from-the-ground-up dSLR, the Nikon D1, was such a camera. Canon’s consumer-level digital Rebel was such a camera as was Canon’s 5DMKII with its breakthrough video performance.  Cameras like this don’t come along everyday, but when they do they mark a fundamental shift and a category maturity for a manufacturer.

Aimed at Sports and wedding photographers, the A9 is positioned to be a camera long-remembered by photographers as a defining moment for Sony and mirrorless cameras.   The list of specs is impressive:

  • 24 megapixel stacked full frame sensor
  • 693 phase detection autofocus points with 93% coverage
  • A shooting buffer capable of handling 241 compressed raw files or 362 JPEGs
  • 5-axis in body image stabilization
  • OLED viewfinder with 120fps refresh
  • 4K 24p full frame video

And that’s not all, the A9 has a silent electronic shutter, a highly performant autofocus system capable of 60 autofocus calculations per second, and every Sony fanboy’s favorite spec: 20 frames per second with no viewfinder blackout- making it faster than Canon’s 1Dx and Nikon’s D5.

Yet specs, however impressive they are, don’t make a camera.  I’ve had the chance to spend a good amount of time with the A9 and what follows are my impressions of using it day-in and day-out.

Dials and Controls
New Dial & Dial Lock
The first thing you’ll notice about the A9 is the addition of a two stacked dials on the left dedicated to burst mode and focus. This is a nice addition as it saves having to go through the fn options to set the burst and autofocus settings.  Both dials have a button lock you have to depress in order to change their settings.  The design works well, but I wish there was a more elegant way of locking the dials as I found the press-to-turn process a bit cumbersome.  It’s not that the implementation doesn’t work, it’s that it’s difficult to unlock and change settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder.  This is especially true of the AF selector which has a tiny push-button unlock mechanism.

Top view of the Sony A9 showing the newly added left dials for Autofocus and Burst mode.

 

AF ON and AEL Buttons
If there is one button I was happy to see it would be: AF ON.   Sure you can customize buttons on the A7 cameras to use rear AF, but you shouldn’t have to do that as it takes away from the camera’s customizability.

I personally have no use for the AEL button as I photograph everything on manual, but it is a good addition nonetheless and signals a new focus (no pun intended) on ergonomics from Sony.

While I liked the AF and AEL buttons, I did think they could have been more pronounced.   I felt they were a bit too small, and inset, and not as easy to depress or tactilely locate while looking through the viewfinder as they could be.  I also felt the AF ON button was a bit too close in proximity and tactile feel to the video recording button (I recorded a couple of nice videos when I thought I was focusing.  I also sadly managed to end a video I was recording when I thought I was focusing)  I hope Sony moves the recording button in future iterations and makes the AF button tactilely distinct.

Focus Joystick
The A9 has a joystick dedicated to setting the focus point.  This is a fantastic addition!  The joystick is exactly where it needs to be and its feel is perfect. The combination of AF ON and the focus joystick make for a much more streamlined shooting experience as you don’t have to move your fingers to all corners of the camera to set and achieve focus.  It’s awesome not to have  to hit the center dial button to move the autofocus point about as you do with the A7 line.

Back view of the Sony A9 showing the newly added AF-ON and AEL buttons and the focus point joystick

 

Usability
The Silent Shutter
The first configuration change I made with the A9 was disabling the AF beep as I hate hate hate having to hear a sound everytime the camera achieves focus.  Easy enough: go into the camera settings and turn off notifications.  With the “beep” disabled, I went to shoot, focused, depressed the shutter and….nothing.  The viewfinder didn’t blackout and I didn’t hear the shutter fire.  I had to stop and check to see if the camera actually took a photo.  That moment was a revelation!  You mean I never ever have to stop looking at my subject and, if I want it, I never have to hear a shutter?  That’s just plain awesome.  By the way, there’s a visual cue in the viewfinder indicating a frame was captured.  It’s easy to miss the first time you use the camera, but you quickly know to look for it.  Incidentally, you can enable a shutter audio sound if you want.

Menus
Sony’s menus have historically been a sore point for anyone switching from Canon or Nikon.   Sony cameras offer a lot of configurability, but their menus to date been anything but intuitive.  The A9’s menu remedies this by including a custom “My Menu” allowing you to add settings or functions you typically utilize.  This means you no longer have to hunt for the “format” menu item to clear your cards.

The Battery and Grip
I own no fewer than 5 batteries for my A7II and I always make sure they are charged before serious outings.  The batteries are small and I have to be cognizant of how much charge I have left.  For example, I always make sure I have a fresh battery to go just before sunset or sunrise shoots as the last thing I want is to miss a shot because I have to fiddle with the battery.

Fortunately, the A9’s battery is a significant step up in size and capacity from the A7 series’ W battery.  Also, Sony significantly reduced the A9’s power consumption compared to the A7RII.

The A7RII, for example, has a CIPA rating of 290 shots while the A9 clocks in at 480.  This is still significantly shorter than a 5DMKIV‘s impressive 900 images per battery through the viewfinder- though it should be noted that the 5DMKIV’s battery clocks in at 300 images using LiveView while the A9 can yield 650 images per CIPA standards.

One result of the larger battery is a wider grip.  I like the slightly larger form factor, but I’m sure there are those who disagree.  This is largely a matter of preference.  Either way, the A9 remains significantly smaller than its Canon or Nikon counterparts.

Viewfinder, Autofocus & Burst Mode
I don’t care if you shoot sloths or plain ‘ol concrete drying exclusively for your day job, nothing puts a smile on a photographer’s face like burst mode- and 20 frames per second sure does the trick!  It’s a blast hitting that shutter button, daring the A9’s buffer, and letting the camera fly.

The A9’s autofocus performance is impressive and the camera is, as Sony promises, stable throughout-  what this means is I didn’t get it to lock up on me.  Also, having no blackout in the viewfinder is fantastic as I mentioned previously.  It’s a nice-to-have when shooting slower action, but it’s a godsend when you’re trying to nail a composition during fast-action sequences.

I put the AF through its paces in three tests using a challenging subject: a hyperactive 9yr old cycling down a hill towards the camera (aka Jonah, my son).  I executed 3 separate tests using the A9 coupled to a Zeiss 24-70 f/4 lens.  The camera was set to AF-C and Lock-on AF: Flexible spot Medium.   Two of the tests were down the same hill while the 3rd was performed in an area with tree cover and spotty light in an attempt to challenge the AF system.  20 images from each sequence were placed in the galleries below.  Incidentally, I set the lens aperture to f/4 to ensure the resultant focus wasn’t due to depth of field.

AF Test 1

AF Test 2

AF Test 3

Overall the AF was solid. The keeper rate across the tests was very impressive considering the test involved a subject moving towards the camera.  I did have a few shots near the end of the sequences as Jonah moved close to the camera.  I believe this was due to the focus point shifting away from his face as he approached due to him being in close proximity.  Nonetheless, I feel comfortable wielding the A9 for its main calling: sports and action photography.

Video
This was a fun one.  I wanted to give the A9 a challenge and also use it in the wild – not in a controlled environment.  I wanted to “run and gun” with it and create a video.

Sony’s A9 setup for video with a Manfrotto monopod, shotgun mic, and headphones to monitor audio

As you might know, I’m traveling full-time across the country from Key West to Alaska over the next couple of years in an RV (I’m currently in Montana just outside of Yellowstone National Park and heading east through the summer to arrive in the northeast for the fall colors).  If you’re interested in the travel side of things, you can read more about life on the road at ChaseTheSky.com.   But I digress.  For the A9 video test,  I decided to document my wife Jenni’s first jump with SkyDive West Plains in Washington.

A bit of background on the footage: all the on-the-ground video was captured using the A9.  All in-air footage utilized a GoPro Hero 4 Black.  As it turns out, you can’t take along your own camera with a skydive crew without a significant number of jumps under your belt.  It’s also generally not advisable to drop a $4500 camera out of an airplane with someone who’s jumping out of an airplane for the first time (consider that a pro tip!)  Incidentally, Jenni and the A9 both survived the video.

Another note on the footage: I wanted to let the camera have control as I shot.  With the exception of my hitting the AF button from time-to-time, I let the camera manage video capture.  Additionally, I used a Rode on-camera shotgun mic for the audio (note: if you want to get the low-down on capturing audio, be sure to checkout my Microphone 101 post where I walk you through everything from using your earbud’s mic to a pro audio setup).

Alright, finally, the video is below.  Be sure stick around to the end for the outtake, you’ll get a kick out of it.

You’ll notice a short bit of the camera going out of focus at 1:20.  I had pressed the AF button to see what the camera would do.  As you can see, it sought to refocus.  I do think focus would have been fine had I left the camera alone.  Would it have been better for Sony to have designed the A9 to ignore my focus request?  I’ll say no.  I want to be able to focus as I want, and I’m glad I was not overridden by the camera.

You’ll also notice the camera went out of focus around 4:15 as the plane rotated off the ground.   This was my fault as I had set the focus point to the upper right hand corner of the viewfinder prior while waiting for the plane to taxi and I did not change the focus point during takeoff.  I don’t think I would have had focus issues had I used a wider focus area.  It was nice to see the A9 recover nicely and track the airplane as it moved past the camera in perfect focus.

I was also pretty impressed with the camera’s ability to focus on the two parachutes in the air against a blue sky.  I expected the camera to struggle here because the subjects were small, but I was happy with the results.

Overall on the video, and keep in mind I’m a photographer not a hardcore videographer, I was impressed with the A9‘s ability to focus during video and to handle shifts in dynamic range.  You’ll note several times during the in-car footage where the available light shifted, yet the A9 handled the changes well.

The Gestalt of it All
There is no doubt that the Sony A9 is an impressive camera.  The AF system is a solid performer even in low-light, and the high resolution no-blackout viewfinder delivers a low-friction shooting experience.

The improvements in battery life feel almost like a return to DSLR battery longevity and the new controls and menus make the camera more intuitive to use than Sony’s A7 line.

But specs, features, button placements, and the like only tell part of the story.  What really matters day-to-day is how does the camera feel.  Is it in your way?  Does it help you get the job done?  Is it easy?  Is it cumbersome?

All-in-all I’ve really enjoyed the A9 and have no hesitation recommending it- especially for wedding and sports photographers.  Yes I have quibbles with the AF ON button design and placement, but overall the camera is intuitive to use and it let’s me easily go about the business of capturing images.    You don’t have to work around it.  It works with you to let you do what you need to do.

Where to buy:
Sony A9 at B&H

Sample Images
Below are edited images created specifically for this review from a couple of nights in, and around, Seattle.

Seattle’s Space Needle at blue hour

 

Frank Gehry’s Museum of Pop Culture & The Space Needle

 

A look up at the Museum of Pop Culture

 

Alien Edifice: the Museum of Pop Culture

 

A reflection of the Space Needle at the Museum of Pop Culture

 

Snoqualmie Falls

Having 20 frames per second gives you the opportunity to capture the right moment. This, by the way, is my family Jenni’s skydive.  This is the relief after the fear shot (checkout how scared she was here)

A Swing over the Mountain

Jenni rides a swing over the edge e of the St. Ynez Mountains at the Ruins of Knapp’s Castle

I can’t adequately describe what an absolutely magical area of the St. Ynez mountains outside of Santa Barbara this is.  It starts with a walk overlooking the mountains on a dirt road to the ruins of Knapp’s Castle (a mansion abandoned after a fire in the early 20th century).  After the quarter-mile or so walk, off to the side of the mansion ruins, is this area with two rope swings.  We made it there perfectly at sunset- I couldn’t have asked for better light (timing shoots is something Jenni has been getting really awesome at recently!)

Everyone rode the swings while I did my camera thing to get this shot of Jenni swinging with abandon over the edge.

We stayed well past sunset until the clouds rolled in (we literally walked through the clouds to the top of the mountain back to car and drove down to our campsite.)

 

Vasquez Rocks

If you’ve seen Star Trek or Westworld you’ve seen these rocks.  They have been featured in Star Trek the Original Series (season 1, episode 18 “The Arena”) as well as in the 2009 film (the planet Vulcan).

More recently they were featured as a film location in episode 4 of HBO’s Westworld (“Dissonance Theory). It’s an awesome place to hike and hangout with a lot of short hikes and climbs featuring mountains in the background.

I’ve been at this location twice in the last week or so and may go there again.  There’s so much to see. I have a few more shots from here that I’ll be posting over time.

A Bridge in the Forest

It’s been a while since I’ve posted images as I’ve focused more on reviews and basically posted images on Facebook, Instagram, etc instead of here. I feel like I’ve been neglecting the blog.  Good news, I have a tons of images to post so strap in- a lot of images are on the way.

Our RV (aka battlestar) is currently in Soledad Canyon, California. Coming up are Santa Barbra, Joshua Tree and Las Vegas. So yep, more stuff coming (and that’s just the next couple of months; might even been heading to Yosemite in the fall/early summer)

While I’m in California, this image here is Paris Mountain, SC. I photographed it at the early stages of the trek way back in October. It was’t the image I thought I’d capture that day, but sometimes you just happen on a scene that’s the one.

 

Microphone 101: An introduction to capturing audio

Failure is an Option
I’ve been wanting to put together video reviews for a while, so I tried a quick test by shooting a chat about my DJI Phantom 3 Pro.  As you can see (and hear), it did not go so well.  Actually, it went significantly worse than well (arguably, it went significantly worse than bad!).  The footage itself was good, but the audio left a lot to be desired.

So, audio became a quest; I wanted to capture good audio and I was going to get to the bottom of it – one way or another. This video is the result of that quest: a brief tutorial and intro for anyone asking themselves the question: how can I record good audio for video?

What’s out, What’s in
You can flat-out forget about relying on your camera’s built-in mic: whether its on your phone, iPad or mirrorless/DSLR.  Built-in mics are designed to pickup everything and anything.  Audio, in a sense, is similar to photography.  It’s  said a good photo is more about what is left out than what is included.  The same applies to capturing audio: it’s what’s left out that makes good sound.  You only want to hear what you want to hear – not everything else in the environment.

Mics: some options
In short, you have 3 options: lavaliers, shotguns, and boom mics.

Lavaliers are what’s commonly known as clip-on mics.  They sit close to speaker’s  mouth to capture the audio.  This allows for the ambient noise to be left out (though a lavalier can be lowered on the wearer to allow more environmental sounds to be picked up).

Shotgun mics are mounted on top of the camera and are used commonly when you have multiple speakers talking directly at the camera.  In such situations, you don’t want to capture and mix audio from multiple lavaliers.  A shotgun is what you’ll go for.  Keep in mind that a shotgun mic is directional: it’ll capture what’s in front of it.  The better it is, the better it is at keeping the “cone” small.

Boom mics are basically highly directional shotguns on an extension pole (aka the boom).   Just about any mic can be a boom mic really- the boom just gets you closer to the speaker and allows you to turn the mic sensitivity down so it picks up less of the sound in the environment.  Just about every movie you’ve seen has used a boom mic for the audio.  Booms are great, but not very practical for most YouTubers as booms are typically at the higher end of the price scale- not to mention you’ll also need an assistant to hold the mic and keep it pointed at you.

Let’s not forget HandHeld mics: handhelds are great because you can be right up to the speaker and eliminate ambient sound.   They also allow you to a great deal of mobility and the ability to pickup audio from multiple speakers (i.e. they’re great for interviews).  They suffer, however, from the disadvantage of being, well, handheld!  I can never use a handheld, it would drive me insane as I am pretty animated and use my hands a lot when I speak.  You’d never hear me because the mic would be everywhere except near my mouth.

What’s In the Tutorial
Lavaliers

Shotgun Mics

Booms

I also also had a couple handhelds, most notably the Sennheiser MD-46.

Notes on the Audio
You can hear the lavaliers and shotguns in the video- be sure to check it out if you haven’t already.  My two favorite mics were the Rode SmartLav+ and the Sennhesier Clip-Mic Digital (powered by Apogee).  The Apple EarPods were a surprisingly passable option – just about everyone has a set and using them to capture audio is way better than just relying on your camera’s mic.  If you’re the “I like life hacks” type: you now have a new trick up your sleeve!

The SmartLav+and Clip-Mic Digital were pretty close.  The Sennheiser was the stronger mic, but if you’re on a budget, you can’t go wrong with the SmartLav+.

As for shotguns, the Rode VideoMicro and VideoMic Me are basically the same mic with different mounting/connection options.  They were pretty close in sound.  I did prefer the Rode VideoMic Go even though it is the largest of the three.  I also think the two other mics would benefit from a windsock (aka windscreen aka dead kitten) and would yield better audio if used with one.  The said, the nice thing about the VideoMic Me is you don’t need a mount for it – just plug it into your phone/iPod and you’re good to go.  Keep in mind you can easily use any shotgun with your phone if you use something like the iOgrapher.

iOgrapher with Mic and Light

As expected, the Rode NTG3 performed exceptionally well.  I didn’t demonstrate this in the video, but even a small turn of the mic resulted in a change in amplitude.  Be sure to correctly point the mic or your audio will peak and valley all over the place!  Incidentally, the Auray ABP-47B boompole was fantastic.  The built-in cable made connecting, and handling, the NTG3 a breeze.

And, while we’re on the subject of boompoles, the Rode Micro Boompole Pro ($99) was incrediably  light!  You barely know it’s there – especially when using it with the VideoMicro.

What should you buy
This really depends on what you’re doing.  If you’re just starting out, I’d say start with your earbuds and see if they meet your needs.  From there, you really can’t go wrong with the Rode VideoMicro (if you want to go the shotgun route).  The Clip-Mic Digital, again, would be my choice for a lavalier.

Let me know what you end up with, or just ask any questions you have below in the comments.

Syrp Genie Mini: Motion Control that won’t break your back or your wallet

A Portable Motion Control Head
Motion control gear for video and timelapse isn’t known for its portability.  Motion control heads have been getting smaller, and more portable, in recent years.  Yet, finding a solid, small, but easy to use motion control head isn’t, well, easy.

New to the fray is the Syrp’s Genie Mini.  Priced at $249, it’s  relatively inexpensive for a feature-rich single-axis motion control head that can handle 8.8lbs panning and 6.6lbs titling (more than enough capacity for most camera bodies) .  It’s also small (really small).  It’s Just take a look at how it compares to its big brother (sister?) the Syrp Genie, Radian from Alpine labs, and an iPhone 6s.

From left to right: Syrp Genie, Alpine Labs Radian, Syrp Genie Mini and iPhone 6s

From left to right: Syrp Genie, Alpine Labs Radian, Syrp Genie Mini and iPhone 6s

Elegant Design
At 3.6” x 1.56” it doesn’t take up a lot of room in my camera bag.  It’s also pretty light (8.1oz/230g) and doesn’t add much weight to my gear bag.  That’s awesome for long hikes making it easy to want to bring it along.

It also sports an attractive design aesthetic.  The rubber shell is thick, yet smooth, and soft, to the touch.  I was initially put-off by the cork top (preferring the minimalist black rubber top of its larger sibling,) but the mini’s cork retro styling grew on me.  From a feel perspective, it feels solid and has a nice heft to it.  There’s also no wiggle/play in the head which makes it well suited for captures on windy days (something the Alpine Radian struggled with.)

Bluetooth Everything
Looking at the Genie mini from a features perspective, one stands out: and that’s Bluetooth programmability (with the free Syrp provided iOS and Android apps).  All programming, including firmware updates, is handled by your phone/tablet.  The app even tells you how much battery you have left- a nice touch.

Programming Features
If you’ve used the Genie, the Genie mini will be very familiar to you from a programming perspective.  You can use the app to create a timelapse sequence or video.  You can decide where the mini begins the sequence and ends it.  You also have options for easing-in and easing-out and, when shooting timelapses, you can specify how long the mini will hold the shutter down (allowing for an HDR sequence to be captured.)  Also, if you get confused along the way, Syrp included tutorial videos in the app.  So if you’re setting up a timelapse and get a bit lost, just click on “More Info” and watch a video to figure out what you need to do.

Take a look below at the app screens.  I have screens below for timelapses and video to give you a feel for how the app works.

Single-Axis is cool, but Multi-Axis is Cooler
The mini is a capable device in its own right, but pair it with its larger sibling and you can pan and track.  Syrp even offers an interface cable allowing the two heads to talk to one another.

Track and Pan

The Genie paired with the Genie Mini

That’s pretty cool, but add another Genie mini, and Syrp’s Pan and Tilt Bracket, and you’ll be able to create multi-axis sequences. Both Genies will pair with your phone and the app will identify one as the pan head and the other as the tilt head.  From there, you can program your sequence and be off shooting.  Take a look at the video from Syrp explaining all this.  It’s seriously cool.

Should you buy it?
Put the Genie mini in the highly recommended category.  It’s small, elegant, feature-rich, and can be used as part of an ecosystem of devices allowing for a wide range of multi-axis captures.  Start with one device and add-on as needed.

Syrp has been around for a few years now and has been releasing one solid, well-thought-out, product after another.  The company has an eye for design and it shows.  The genie is an amazing little device for your gear bag.

Where to buy
B&H $249

Canon Plays Catch-up With 35 1.4L II and EOS M3 Mirrorless

Another Canon Me too

What was Canon’s big announcement yesterday?  The release of the 35 1.4LII (since the 35 1.4L has been trounced by the Sigma 35 1.4 DG HSM A) and the release of the Canon M3 (as Sony runs away with the mirrorless market).

I have no doubt the 35 1.4LII is going to be a strong contender.  I’m sure the reviews will show a marked improvement in sharpness and construction.  What I do have doubts about is the Eos M3.  Scratch that, I don’t have doubts, I’m calling it now: the Eos M3 is yet another disappointment.  Take a look at the how the camera is described by canon:

“Designed to inspire, the EOS M3 digital camera brings true EOS performance and image quality to a compact, stylish and elegant package. A pleasure to operate, with the sophistication to create stunning still and moving images, the EOS M3 is an ideal EOS for many applications, such as portraiture, landscape, travel and everything in between.”

In a world: boring. The M3 is basically a T6i sensor in a small form factor and still lags behind offerings from Sony and Olympus.  You want a viewfinder? Slap it into the hotshot!  Full Frame Sensor: no.  Max frames per second: 4.2 (compare that to the Sony A6000’s 11fps, for example.)

A sign of things to come?

The only good silver lining here is htis could be Canon waking up and realizing it needs to up its mirrorless game.  But will there be anyone with Canon glass around to care?  There’s no doubt there will be Canon shooters out there, but will those who made the “switch-to-sony” come back?  Switching systems only happens for drastic reasons (who wants to sell their lenses and start all over?).  Can Canon release a mirrorless that’s worth it? That remains to be seen- the M3 isn’t it.

Canon: we’ve hit a roadblock. And, it’s over…

I never thought I’d write this post.  I’ve been with Canon for years; my first ‘real’ film camera was  a Canon, my first DSLR and every camera since until this week was a Canon.  I owned several L lenses; I never thought I’d be here writing about switching platforms and ‘going Sony’, but here we are and that’s exactly what I’m writing.

Three days ago, Canon marked down its 3rd quarter outlook due to weak digital camera sales.  How big was the hit? Just a minor $10 Billion dollars!  Now, I’ve been thinking about writing my “breaking-up with you Canon post” for a few days, and now with the Canon earnings outlook, I thought: “yah, I better get on this”.  I figured I should tell Canon why just a few thousand dollars of the big $10 Billion were not coming from me.  So, how did we get here?

I remember when the first few micro 4/3 cameras made it to market in 2005/2006.  “Mirrorless, bleh,” I remember thinking.   Sure these new-fangled mirrorless cameras were small and light, but micro 4/3?  I couldn’t understand why anyone would want a sensor even smaller than APS-C.  Who would want a smaller, noisier, sensor just to save a bit of carry weight?  Besides, how good could the lenses be- Canon has a history of excellent lenses?  I rightly outright dismissed the early Olympus and Panasonic cameras.  No serious photographer would really go mirrorless.

In June 2010, though, Sony released the Nex-7 and things got interesting.  APS-C sensor, 10 frames per second, OLED viewfinder, in-camera HDR, whoa. Sure the lens collection wasn’t big, but Zeiss lenses…now we’re talking!   Tempting, but still just APS-C (I wanted big, clean, pixels!).  I’m wasn’t about to dump my 5D Mark II.  The Nex-7 was compelling, but it wasn’t compelling enough.  Besides, I had a big Canon lens investment.  I wasn’t going to switch but, for the first time, I thought:  “not bad mirrorless camp, not bad.”

As one Sony Nex camera after the other was released, I thought: “Canon is going to respond- there’s market here.  I wonder what Canon will do?”  And, what did Canon do?  Canon waited a full two years after the Nex-7 before announcing the EOS M- a camera as compelling as dental surgery.  It was as if Canon said: “Let’s think of the worst camera we can make, and let’s make it mirrorless.  Maybe then those kids out there will see the error of their ways and buy DSLRs.”  Predictably, no one bought the EOS M.  The AF was slow, the ergonomics were less than impressive, and no one was interested- at least I wasn’t

Things got more interesting just a few months after the announcement of the EOS M.  In September 2012, Sony announced the first full-frame mirrorless: the RX-1.   Ok, it had a fixed 35mm f/2 lens, but still: it had a full-frame sensor (and that was a Zeiss lens boys and girls.)  What did Canon do? Canon waited a full year before releasing the less than compelling EOS M2 (a me-too 18megapixel APS-C with slightly improved AF and built-in wifi).  Mind you Canon announced the M2 just 3 days before Sony announced the A7 and A7R (24 megapixel and 36 megapixel full-frame pro class cameras that turned the world upside down).

Some would call the A7R the iPhone moment for the Canon blackberry.  I wouldn’t go so far.  Canon still has a fantastic product line, but Canon was dug in and, it seemed, worried about cannibalizing its own product line.

Sony A7II

Sony’s A7II full-frame mirrorless just made it into my camera bag

Canon, it seemed, just wasn’t seriously interested in the mirrorless market.  But, guess what, photographers were.  Specifically, I was.  I wanted a small, light, full-frame body- not to mention the host of features Sony was touting (focus peaking, manual assist, OLED EVF, the list goes on).  Canon, wants me to buy a DSLR.  I looked at the 5D Mark III many times, but I can get a larger sensor, excellent image quality (not to mention fantastic dynamic range) and a host of features from the Sony A7II.  And so, I write this as the last few bits of my Canon gear sit on eBay.  Last week marked the farewell to my 5DMKII and all my L lenses.  It also saw the purchase of a Sony A7II and Zeiss lenses (Zeiss 16-35 f/4 FE and Zeiss 24-70 f/4 FE.)

Canon: I wanted it to workout, but it didn’t.  Maybe one day our paths will cross again, but right now, I don’t see it happening.  Switching platforms was not easy and if Sony keeps on innovating like Sony has been (hello A7RII, you beautiful beast), I won’t switch back.  Canon now has 10 billion reasons ($) to build a pro-grade mirrorless camera and I hope Canon does as competition can only make things better.  Who knows, maybe I’ll pickup a Canon again someday, but not now.  Now, I’m building my  Zeiss lens collection.

Alpine Labs Radian Motion Control Head Review

Not too long ago capturing motion control timelapses meant spending thousands of dollars. Sure, you could “DIY it”- it didn’t cost you much to put your camera on an egg timer and wait for the “spin cycle” to complete, but good luck programming that setup!

Looking around these days, though, you can easily find a motion control head under $250. The options and features abound, and many, like the Alpine Labs Radian Motion Control Timelapse head ($249 over at B&H) we’re going to look at today, started their life on Kickstater- this means there’s a community there out of the gate tinkering and making suggestions to improve the product. But how good can a sub $250 motion control head be?

What is it it?
Radian is a lightweight single-axis motion control head. Single-axis means you can capture tilts or pans, but you don’t get linear motion on a slider.

Radian is, light, light, light. It weighs just 15 ounces (425g for ye metric folk) and measures 4.57 x 1.77” (116 x 45mm). It fits very easily in my camera bag and I don’t mind carrying it along a hike.  To put this in perspective my Canon 24-105 f/4L weighs 1.47lbs (670g).  Think of Radian as a light 2nd lens you’re bringing along. This is a big deal! When you’ve walked 13 miles with food and water strapped to your back, you’re thankful for every ounce you’re not carrying!

It’s light, but it’s also all plastic.  I wouldn’t call it flimsy, but I also wouldn’t call it a bullet-proof all metal design- keep this in mind if your’e hopelessly rough on your gear.

Using it
Setting it up is straight forward: Radian attaches to a 1/4″ screw (no 3/8″) so just turn Radian onto the bottom of your camera then attach it to your tripod head.  Radian includes a little bubble level in the package.  This is nice, but I really wish the bubble head was integrated into the unit – one gust of wind and that bubble level is gone!

Software
Radian doesn’t have an LCD screen -you program it using your iOS or android device. What this means is the programming user interface is easy to use and, more importantly, Radian’s functionality is constantly being tweaked through Alpine Labs app updates.  What’s also nice is you only program Radian using your phone: your phone doesn’t have to remain connected to execute the timelapse like other apps such as TriggerTrap.  You just plug-in your phone, program, and disconnect.  Once your phone is disconnected the Radian app keeps track of your timelapse’s progress. This lets you walk away and just pull out your phone to see if you need to go back to your tripod(s).

Take a look at images below to get  a feel for the user interface.

One of the really cool things about the Radian app is queuing.  Queuing, let’s you create a sequence of commands for Radian to execute.  This allows you to shoot a timelapse, bulb ramp, then shoot another sequence at a new interval. The sky’s the limit with what you can line up and it’s a really nice feature to have.
Speaking of bulb ramping: I really like Radian’s bulb ramping setup screen.  Most bulb ramping implementations give you a start exposure and an end exposure.  Radian however, lets you set a delay before bulb ramping begins- this means you can shoot a timelapse at a pre-defined exposure for a set amount of time (pre-sunset), decide when bulb ramping begins and ends (i.e. ramp for sunset), then continue shooting your timelapse at the final exposure (i.e. night exposure).  What it all adds up is bulb ramping that works.
By the way, you can also directly control Radian – this is nice if you’re shooting video.  You just tell it the direction you want it to go (clockwise or counterclockwise), the total angle, and the amount of time you’d like the motion to take.  This ability is also helpful in setting up your timelapses.
Now, I liked having an intuitive user interface to program Radian, but I didn’t like having to remember to pack the cable necessary to do so.  It’s also a little cumbersome to plug, program, unplug, wait: plug back in to tweak something.  Is it the end of the world (no- and you can tell me I’m whining?)  Put that down as: this should be wireless (Radian 2, by the way, will bring bluetooth connectivity).
Wind is not your friend
The one bad thing I have to say about Radian is it does not like wind.  Radian works just fine when the weather is calm, but wind will turn your camera into a sail that pulls Radian around.  I’ve had a couple of occasions where I just couldn’t use the head because it was too windy.  This may not matter for your application, but if you’re outdoors on the seashore all the time, this may be an issue for you.
Ok, this is a lot of talk, let’s see some video
You can talk about a device all you want, but in the end the question is: can it perform the job it was designed to perform?  With just a little more ‘talk’, I’ll say yes.  Take a look at the video below:

Like
  • It’s light
  • Easy to program
  • Battery lasts forever (it’s rated for 100 hours!)
  • Fits easily in my camera bag
No Like
  • Industrial design doesn’t scream elegant.  It’s functional but not pretty.  Also, materials could be more robust
  • Susceptible to wind
  • Bubble level should be integrated into the unit’s body

Should you get it ?
For $249 it’s a good timelapse device to have.  It’s small, lightweight, and easy to bring along.  If you’re shooting atop of mountains, or anywhere where wind is pervasive, I’d say look at something else.  Outside of that, it’s well worth the investment for a single-axis timelapse head.

Where to buy
B&H – $249

Hyperlapse Stabilization: Comapring Final Cut Pro X, CoreMelt Lock&Load, and After Effects Warp Stabilizer

Most discussions of hyperlapses go something like this:

  1. Make sure you point your camera at the same spot as you move
  2. Move about the same distance between exposures
  3. Take exposures at regular intervals
  4. Create the video sequence in post and stabilize it in Adobe’s After Effects’ Warp Stabilizer.  Yah, you can use other stabilizers, but they’re just OK.  You really want the stabilizer in Premiere or After Effects.

Math Matters

All this sounds great, until you do the math.  Most photographers are paying $9.99 a month for Photoshop and Lightroom. Many are even content to stay on Photoshop CS6 while paying annually for the latest version of Lightroom.  For those who are paying Adobe’s $9.99 subscription fee, however, the question is: does it make sense to up the payment to $49.99 per month just to create hyperlapses?  In a word: no – especially for your typical hobbyist or semipro photographer.  “There just has to be an alternative”, I thought – as I set about finding a cheaper way.  And, in fact, there is – if you’re a Mac user (yes, I said cheaper and mac user.)

Alternatives

First: the editor.  Adobe Premiere is great, but for $299, Apple’s Final Cut Pro X is an excellent non-linear editor you can install on multiple computers.  It’s really a no-brainer – even if you hate the Magnetic Timeline.

Second: the stabilizer.  Surprisingly, FCP X’s IntertiaCam stabilizer is pretty good at working its magic on hyperlapses.  Unfortunately, however, fine grain control (like the ability to choose the stabilization area, or the ability to adjust stabilization in a specific axis) just isn’t there.  For that you need a third-party plugin.

One stabilizer that came up often in my research is CoreMelt’s Lock&Load.  Looking through blog entries, I saw a slew of folks talking about Lock&Load, but  I couldn’t find examples of it being used with hyperlapses.  So, I lined up the three stabilizers (InertiaCam, Lock&Load, and Warp Stabilizer) and created the video below comparing my raw sequence with the stabilizers’ output:

As you can see, the three stabilizers are pretty close in terms of the job they do.  I was surprised by IntertiaCam – I just didn’t expect it to do that good of a job.  It’s not perfect, but it far exceeded my expectations.  I was also pretty surprised by Lock&Load; not only was it pretty fast at analyzing the motion in the clip, but it also comes with a slew of controls letting you fine tune the stabilization area and amount.  Warp Stabilizer, ofcourse, did a great job as expected.

What to get?

If you need to do the occasional hyperlapse just get yourself a copy of FCP X and use IntertiaCam.   If you’re wiling to spend an extra $99, Lock&Load is a very capable stabilizer that will serve you well.  It gives you a lot of control over stabilization and it’s FAST.  It can also accommodate 4K footage if you’re shooting video.  Yes, you’ll spend just under $400 for FCP X ($299) and Lock&Load ($99), but that’s still $200 less than what you’d pay for one year’s subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud.  Finally, Creative Cloud (though expensive) comes with a ton of tools (Photoshop, Premiere, Illustrator – just to name a few) and many of you are already paying for the suite.  If you’re already paying for the subscription then get out there, shoot, then fire up AE.

Note: CoreMelt provided a copy of Lock&Load for the purpose of this review.