Reviews

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)

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.

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.

Syrp Magic Carpet Review

Syrp Magic Carpet

Enter Timelapse

You’re not a filmmaker; you’re a photographer. You deal in the moment; one image is all you need to tell a story. Filmmaking, you tell yourself, is another world – one that’s separate from yours.

Then, one day, you watch a timelapse and think: “I can do that – it’s just one exposure shot over and over again to convey the passage of time.  How hard can it be?”  So, you setup your tripod and camera, shoot a few hundred frames, and before long find yourself in a mystical world where reality is malleable and there you are: telling a story beyond one frame.

Now you’re hooked and it doesn’t take long for you to start wondering where to go next. A tripod and camera are nice, but motion is addictive. Sure, it maybe just the motion of a few clouds that gets you at first, but you want more. You want to create more interesting shots and take it to the next level.

Enter sliders, remotes, and motion control! Forget one shot to tell a story, you’ve gone over the edge now, and so has your budget! You thought lenses were expensive and heavy? Well, buckle up!!

Do a bit of digging and you’ll see motion control setups are all about modules. You have a slider, a motion control module, a timelapse module, and that’s just the beginning. Before long you’ll soon find yourself deciding what combination of gear you want: this slider, with that remote, with this motor, with this battery pack and at this or that length (this is not to mention accessories like ND filters and all the big bags you’ll need!).   It’s not hard to spend $1500 – $3000 on a motion control setup.

I don’t want to say modularization is wrong. It’s not, in fact there’s flexibility in being able to assemble a rig to meet your needs. All I’m saying is it can get real expensive real quick.

Now, that’s probably the longest intro to a review there ever was, but context is important! Let’s talk about the Syrp Genie and the Magic Carpet Slider.

In looking over the state of timelapse, the question Syrp asked was this: what if you could have a programmable remote and motion control unit for under $900? The question wasn’t rhetorical – Syrp put together a kickstarter campaign and delivered just that with the Genie. I want to give the Genie a full-on review in the near future, so for now, trust me when I say it’s a pretty cool. HDR: it does it; Bulb ramping, yep it’s got that; the ability to create pre-programmed sequences: sure. It’s claim to fame though is its ability to pull itself along any cable. Checkout the video:

The Genie is a great, but what was missing though was the slider. Syrp initially left the slider to you, but recently came out with their vision of what one should be with the Magic Carpet.

Syrp’s vision is this: the Magic Carpet is designed for the Genie – to complete the product line, but it’s also open to allow you to use the slider with your existing gear.

The Design

The industrial design of the Magic Carpet is fantastic. Here’s just a few examples of nice touches:

  • Syrp incorporated a pulley system so you can add counterweights to the track allowing you to create rising or descending track shots easily
  • The carriage has a quick release mechanism allowing for quick changes from a 1/4 “ to a 3/8” pin
  • The carriage also has a tension adjustment to make sure it’s nice and taut on the track
  • The end caps have legs with twist-out leveling adjustments
  • The tracks have distance markings on the side so you can calculate the distance you want the carriage to move (you’ll use this a lot when working with the Genie)

Syrp’s video does a good job of breaking the features down.  Check it out :

My Sample Footage

The above video is what Genie says it can do.  But what can it really do?  Here’s a short clip is shot with the Magic Caroet at blue hour.

 The Options

The Magic Carpet comes as either a 2.6’ track or a 5.2’ track. You can just buy the track, but you’ll really want to spring for the kit with the carriage and the end caps. I’m not sure why you’d want the track itself, so let’s break down the kit options.

The 2.6’ track kit is about $300 on B&H

The 5.2’ track kit is just under $370 on B&H

The combo kit with both tracks, one carriage, and end caps set will set you back a little under $490 on B&H

Both tracks will support just over 15 lbs (15.4 to be exact)

Using it: Rigidity

IMG_2886

I didn’t have any issue with rigidity with my setup on flat ground using the legs for stability. My typical setup, by the way, is a 5DMKII mounted on top of the Genie usually with the Sigma 35 1.4 DG HSM A lens or the Canon 24-105 f/4L.

The carriage, by the way is fantastic.  It’s buttery smooth and taut. It glides through easily.

I did see some flex on either end of t he short track when mounted on a tripod using only the center mounting hole.  Fortunately, all the tracks have 1/4″ and 3/8″ mounting holes on both ends of the track.

While I prefer the shorter track for portability, I often go to the longer track as it allows me to get a good amount of stability while using only one tripod  (you can angle the track by setting the tripod height and just letting the other end of the track sit on the ground.)  It’s all a tradeoff: carry around a long track and a big tripod or a short track and two smaller tripods (if you want to work on the extreme edges of the track).  There’s no ‘right answer’.  It just depends on your shoot.

 

 Should you buy it

I’m a sucker for elegant design and the Magic Carpet is beautifully designed.  Syrp puts a lot of thought and effort into industrial design and it shows.  Yes, you will have some flex on the shorter track, but it is quite portable and a offers a good mid-point between rigidity and weight.  Combined with the Genie, it’s a great slider to own.  If you spring for the combo kit, you’re looking at under $500 that, in return, will give you a good range of timelapse options.

TriggerTrap Review: Control your camera from your phone

TriggerTrap Photo 1

What is it?
You have phone; you have a camera. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to trigger your camera from your phone? And, since your phone is, in essence a miniaturized computer, wouldn’t it be great if you had an app enabling you to use your phone as a programmable intervalometer and shutter release? Also, if you could use your phone as a trigger, wouldn’t it be interesting if you could use your phone’s sensors to trigger your camera based on sound, vibration, and so on?

That, in a nutshell, is TriggerTrap: a mobile dongle you can use to connect your camera to your iOS or Android devices for about $35.  It’s compatible with a wide range of cameras from Canon, Nikon, and Sony to Fuji, Panasonic, and a slew of others.

Using it
TriggerTrap is straightforward to use: connect it up to your camera, choose your mode in the app and fire. You’ll have to think about how to mount your phone to your camera or tripod, but that’s a pretty easy hurdle to get over. I ended up with the ChargerCity hotshoe mount for $15. There are more expensive options out there (especially if you want to mount your phone to your tripod; something you’ll want to do if you’re working in windy conditions), but for $15 you can’t go wrong.

TriggerTrap mounted using hotshoe bracket

TriggerTrap mounted using a flash hotshoe bracket

Camera Control Functionality
TriggerTrap is not a full camera controller (it doesn’t control ISO, aperture, and so-on). Nonetheless, it does offer a wide range of functionality. Just take a look below at all the modes available in the app: you won’t be short on things to do! (the app is free, by the way, so you can download it and experiment to get a sense of the user interface):

Cable Release Modes

  • Simple Cable release*: use your phone to take a photo
  • Quick release*: TriggerTrap will take a photo when you release a button
  • Press and hold: keeps the shutter open while your hand is on a button (i.e. bulb exposure)
  • Press & Lock: a bulb exposure where you press a button to start then press the button again to stop
  • Timed Release: program the exposure time for a bulb exposure
  • Self-Timer*: set a timer and get ready for the camera to be triggered

Timelapse Modes

  • Timelapse*: a simple intervalometer. Set the exposure time on your camera and use TriggerTrap to fire the camera
  • TimeWarp*: vary the interval time between exposures to speed up and slow down motion within a sequence (think car traffic speeding up and slowing down in your timelapse)
  • Distance Lapse*: take an exposure at a specified distance
  • Star Trail: set the number of exposures, the exposure time, and the interval between exposures
  • Bulb Ramping: take day-to-night/night-to-day timelapses

Sensor Modes

  • Sound Sensor*: capture an image when a sound reaches an amplitude threshold
  • Vibration Sensor*: capture an image when a selected vibration threshold is reached
  • Motion Sensor: capture an image when a predefined number of objects move in front of the camera
  • Peekaboo*: capture an image when a predefined number of faces are detected

HDR Modes

  • LE HDR: select the number of exposures, exposure step, and the middle exposure time to shoot HDR sequences
  • LE HDR Timelapse: shoot an HDR timelapse by specifying the middle exposure time, interval time, and exposure step.

 *can be used to take images with your phone’s camera.

Some other cool stuff:
Many of TriggerTrap’s modes allow you to use one phone/tablet/etc as a master and others as a slave. For example: you can use your iPhone to trigger your camera while also triggering several speedlites.

TriggerTrap also has a handy neutral density filter calculator and simple solar calculator showing you Sunrise and Sunset times.

As an HDR trigger
TriggerTrap will work great to trigger an autobracket sequence you have programmed into your camera. It’s also a great device to allow you to take those 5,7,9+ HDR exposures. However, there’s one thing you need to keep in mind if you’re going to put your camera into Bulb mode and use TriggerTrap to set the exposure times. That thing is: every camera has a minimum bulb exposure time. A good limit is somewhere around 1/20th of a second. What this means is you won’t be able to shoot that 1/100 exposure during the day. This won’t be an issue if you’re shooting before sunrise/after sunset, but it will be an issue for you if you’re shooting during the day without a neutral density filter. While this is more of a camera limitation than a TriggerTrap limitation, it’s still something to keep in mind.

TriggerTrap for HDR

TriggerTrap used to take 7 exposure HDR

As an intervalometer
As a simple intervalometer TriggerTrap is great. It’s very intuitive to use and I like how the app uses a graphical indicator to tell you when the next exposure will be fired. For more complex intervals, you can use the Star Trail mode to dial-in the exposure time and the interval between exposures. I’d name the Star Trail mode something else as it does more than just Star Trails, but that’s not a big deal.

 I like the Time Warp and Distance Lapse modes, especially the simulation in the TimeWarp mode to give you an idea of what the acceleration and deceleration of the interval will look like.   Distance Lapse is very handy for shooting sequences in a car. The one thing I didn’t like is bulb ramping.

Bulb Ramping
As it stands, TriggerTrap’s bulb ramping exposure controls modifies exposures from the beginning of the ramp to the end of it. It would be nice if you could start a specific exposure then wait a predetermined time before ramping. From there, it would be ideal to set how long to ramp for before reaching the end ramp exposure and then continuing on at a final exposure time. It would also be nice to speed up/slow down the ramping rate if need be.

You won’t care if you won’t be using TriggerTrap to shoot Holy Grail timelapses, but this is something I would very much like to see improved in future releases.

TriggerTrap Bulb Ramping Interface

TriggerTrap Bulb Ramping Interface

Other Tidbits:
Get an iPod Touch: But everyone uses phones now! I know, but you’re going to miss your phone when you’re shooting an three-hour-long timelapse and have nothing to do but sit around and wait.   Especially if you want to use your phone to, you know, make phone calls.

Connect everything then turn on the app: I had some trouble initially getting the camera to trigger. To get it to work, I needed to first connect the camera and phone, turn up the phone volume to max then start the app.

External Battery Source: you’re going to want a battery pack for your phone if you’re planning on doing long duration timelapses. (Anker’s 3200mah battery is a good choice).  Battery packs aren’t too expensive these days, you’ll want to keep one on hand.

Should you buy it
I suspect Canon users (like me) will find TriggerTrap more compelling than Nikon users. Nikoners (Nikonites?) with their built-in intervalometers may not find TriggerTrap a need, unless features like TimeWarp, Distance Lapse, and the Sensor modes are desired creative options.

Overall, it really depends on what your expectations are. TriggerTrap is a good device at a reasonable price point. If you’re looking for a hardcore intervalometer, however, TriggerTrap may not be for you – especially with the limited bulb ramping functionality.

That said, TriggerTrap has historically been good at updating their app and adding features; it’s not inconceivable for the bulb ramping to be improved in the future. Also, in terms of user interface, TriggerTrap is easy to use and program.

Where to buy
Amazon: Dongle only (you will need a cable compatible with your camera)
Amazon: Nikon (Dongle + Cable)
TriggerTrap: Canon (Dongle+Cable)
Amazon: Charger City Phone hotshoe Mount
Amazon: Anker 3200mah external battery

Syrp Variable Neutral Density (ND) Filter Review

Syrp is one of those companies you’re happy to see succeed.  Just take a look a Syrp’s team and how they describe themselves in their contact page to get a sense of the Syrp mindset: just plain cool.  The company started with a successful kickstarter campaign to launch the ambitious, yet well-implemented, Genie Motion Control Time Lapse head.  Not being content to just stay still, though, Syrp recently introduced two new products: the Magic Carpet Slider and the Variable Neutral Density (ND) filter. 

I’ll get to the Genie and Magic Carpet Slider in upcoming posts.  Today, we’ll be looking at Syrp’s ND filter.

What is it & A little bit of background
Constant and variable ND filters have been used in astronomy, cinematography, and photography for some time.  Ask any amateur astronomer how they attenuate (i.e. reduce) the full moon’s light, and they will reach into their bag and show you a small variable neutral density filter.   Cinematographers use ND filters to allow for shallow depth of field shots during the day, and photographers use them to create a sense of motion in brightly lit scenes.  Ever lamented your inability to use a slow shutter speed to photograph a waterfall at mid-day?  You would have been able to if you had a neutral density filter.

How Neutral Density filters work
Variable NDs are comprised of  two polarizing filters stacked on top of one another.  A polarizing filter, as you may know, works by blocking incoming light at 90 degrees to the filter.  Stack two filters on top of one another at 90 degrees, and they can block out a significant amount of light.  In the case of the Syrp variable ND filter, that amount of light varies from 1 stop (i.e. ½ the light) to 8.5 stops (i.e. 17 times less light) depending on the relative angle of the two polarizers to one another.

Think of it this way: if the relative angle of the two filters is zero, you get the minimum attenuation.   Conversely, at 90 degrees, you get the maximum attenuation.  Stated simply, you turn the variable ND filter one way you get less light; turn it another, you get more light.

Variable vs Constant Neutral Density Filters
Sounds great, so why aren’t all ND filters variable?  Why do manufactures even sell constant filters?  The reason for this is making a good variable neutral density filter isn’t easy.  Variable ND’s are susceptible to color shifts.  If not done right, a variable ND’s color shift can vary widely across the rotation range.  On one end of the rotation you might get a blue-red shift, while on the other, you get a green shift.  That said, even constant (i.e. non-variable) neutral density filters, have color shifts.  But, those color shifts are, as might be expected, constant (for obvious reasons.)

Additionally, keep in mind a variable ND stacks two pieces of glass on top of one another in front of your lens.  If the materials and craftsmanship aren’t top-notch, a discernable loss of sharpness can occur- often in the corners, but also in the center of the frame.

Large Vs. Small
Syrp created two versions of the ND filter: large and small.  The small filter is 67mm and comes with step-up rings for 52mm and 58mm lenses.  The large filter is 82mm and comes with step-up rings for 72mm and 77mm lenses.  Both filters come with a sweet leather case (seriously, it’s a thing of beauty) and a cleaning cloth.  Pricing is $139 for the small filter and $189 for the large filter.

Syrp Variable Neutral Density Filter Review Photo

The Syrp Variable ND Filter: everything in the box

Color & Sharpness
I was impressed with the filter’s optical performance.  The Syrp Variable ND shows a consistent, and well-controlled, green color shift.  I was expecting a lot more variance out of a filter at this price range, but it wasn’t there.  Also, the shift is consistent across the rotation range and is easily correctable in Camera Raw or Lightrooom (i.e. you don’t get a blue shift on one end, and a green shift on the other).  This is a big deal, because the last thing you want to do is color-correct for every little turn of the filter you might have made during your photo session.  I also didn’t see much vingetting; that was a real surprise.

The image does get a bit softer at 8.5 stops than without the filter, but it is usable.

Take a look a the series of images below comparing an image taken with no filter vs images taken with the Syrp variable ND filter at various stops.  Drag the slider to see more of either image.  The last image you see in the series is a color-corrected image taken with the Syrp filter at 8.5 stops. Note: all the images were taken on a tripod within a few seconds of one another.

No Filter vs Syrp Variable ND at 1 stop

No Filter vs Syrp Variable ND at 3 stops

No Filter vs Syrp Variable ND at 5 stops

No Filter vs Syrp Variable ND at 8.5 stops

Image taken with the Syrp Variable ND at 8.5 stops – quick and dirty color correction in Lightroom.

IMG_2991.Color_Corrected

Using It
The stops are clearly defined on the filter as I, II, III, IIII, IIIII, IIIIII, IIIIIII, IIIIIIII, IIIIIIII+ (the last being 8.5 stops).  I like that the stops are demarcated, but I think the single notches can be hard to read after about 5 stops.  It’s not a big deal, as I was able to tell what stop I was at.  But, part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have been easier to just use digits.

Also, while there’s a small indicator dot to line up the stop to, it’s not clear whether I should be aligning the first “I” or middle “I” to the indicator.  It would have been great to have a dot to show me where to align for a particular stop.

The stop marks and the indicator are minor quibbles.  It’s really not hard to sort out what stop you’re at.  Besides, what you’re really looking for when using an ND filter is a target shutter speed.  You’re just spinning the filter until you get to your desired shutter speed.  Do you really need to line up an indicator to a dot?  No, you don’t.

I did have a bit of stickiness with the step-up ring to my Canon 77mm lenses.  However, I never had to use a filter wrench to remove the filter.  The filter motion is smooth.

Syrp Variable ND filter review photo

The filter mounted on my battle-scarred 24-105f/4L

Should you buy it
Some minor notes on numerals and stop indicators aside, the Syrp Variable ND filter is a strong performer.  It shows a consistent, well-controlled, and manageable color shift across the rotation range while still yielding a sharp image.  That’s a lot to pack into a sub- $200 variable ND.

At $139 for the small and $189 for the large filter, the price is well below comparable filters from B+W and Singh Ray (where you’ll be spending $300 and up).  All-in-all, you get good optical performance at a decent price.  Besides, you’ll really want that filter case!

Where to buy
B&H: Syrp ND Filter – Small
B&H: Syrp ND Filter – Large

Instagram Hyperlapse Review: The Good, The Bad

Instagram Hyperlapse Review Photo

What is it?
Let me start with what a hyperlapse is (in case this is the first time you’ve run across the term.)  At its most basic form, a hyperlapse is a timelapse with motion.  When I say motion, I don’t mean panning, tilting, or moving the camera on a track: that kind of motion does not a hyperlapse make. A hyperlapse involves significant motion through an environment with the camera moving across multiple axes simultaneously.  Hyperlapses are awesome, but creating one usually requires you to use a tripod, some fancy camera gear, and Adobe’s AfterEffects or Premiere with the Warp Stabilizer plugin.  In short, you can’t create a hyperlapse on the cheap.  Well, you couldn’t: until today that is.  Today creating a hyperlapse is free thanks to Instagram!

Instagram just released a Hyperlapse App for iOS (I’m sure an android app won’t be far behind). What’s interesting about the app is this: while video stabilization normally requires a heavy amount of processing power, Instagram’s Hyperlapse correlates the iPhone’s gyroscope motion data with the captured video to cancel out motion (aka shake).

It actually works really well.  Check out the video I created with it today:

Like
The app is dead simple.  All you see when you open it is a record button that’s it.  You hit the button to record and press it again to stop.  When you hit stop, you’re asked how much you want to accelerate the video.  You can choose from 1x to 12x.  You also get a button to confirm or cancel.  What’s cool is you get a preview of what the accelerated video looks like.  Once you confirm you can then share the video to Facebook or Instagram, or you can save it to your phone.

It’s really a breeze to do.  Just keep in mind: you don’t get any audio.

No Like
No YouTube or Vimeo sharing? I sort of understand Instagram/Facebook wanting to keep users within its walled garden, but it just doesn’t feel right not having sharing out to YouTube or Vimeo.

Also, if you happen to get a phone call while using the app, it locks up and becomes unusable.  You have to kill the app and start over.  Perhaps this is just specific to my phone ( I’d be curious to see if others are seeing the same thing.)

Should you Get it?
YES!  First it’s free. Second, it’s simple.  While it’s not perfect, it’s a lot of fun to use.  I’m going to tool around Orlando with it and play around.

Here’s Instagram’s release video for Hyperlapse: