My first photography trip to the Dolomites mountains was last year and I mostly shot with a DSLR (Nikon D800E). I came back with great memories of this beautiful area of Italy with a desire to come back for more. For this second trip, at around the same time of the year (May), my main setup was a Sony A7R2 that I used with a set of Sony lenses (16-35mm F4, 24-70mm F2.8, 70-200mm F4).
As many enthusiasts are evaluating a switch from DSLR to mirrorless, I will share in this article my experience and the benefits this new system brings. This is not a technical review of the camera - there are plenty already out there - but a collection of observations based on real world field use in context of landscape photography (no brick walls shots ahead).
Much has been said about EVF and there is still a debate around it : some love it, some hate it. Based on my experience in landscape photography, it brings many benefits :
- Live exposure : I mostly use Manual exposure when shooting and with live exposure displayed live on the screen, get it right is a breeze : set at F11 most of the time, I reduce the speed until blinkies start to appear (most of the time in the clouds of a scene) - CLICK - next. The live histogram shows if you're clipping or not. It's very hard to miss an exposure this way and it's ideal if your shoot ETTR.
- Checking sharpness : once photo is taken, while keeping the eye on the viewfinder, I would review the image by zooming in to check the sharpness : the viewfinder effectively acts a loupe. So practical.
- Shooting against the sun : have you ever shot a sunrise with a 70-200 on a DSLR, pointing at the sun ? If you have, your eyes must not have been very happy. So many times did it burn my gentle blue eyes retina. Not anymore with a digital viewfinder since you're looking at a digital screen, not the actual scene. You could argue that you could use the back screen of a DSLR with live view but in my opinion a bit slower and less practical.
- Reviewing images : in the sun, it's sometimes hard to review images on the back screen due to glare. You can use the viewfinder to do that and see the images in all their glory. People around you might wonder why you're pointing at your shoes looking at the viewfinder but that's ok.
Having said that, there are still some downsides in this current generation of a digital viewfinder.
- Night shooting : let's be blunt : you can't see a thing at night with the Sony A7R2 viewfinder. The image looks like a noisy mess. When the subject is so faint that the autofocus can't pick it up, you have to focus manually : if what you're looking at is a messy blob, very hard to tell if it's focused. In the night shooting session I did on this trip, it took me multiple trial and error to get mountains sharp enough. I knew it was still not perfectly sharp but good enough - in that field, I can't spend 20 minutes getting it perfectly there.
- "Digital look" : There is still a digital "look" to the image you see on the viewfinder. It's just not as nice as looking at the real thing. I'm sure resolution will increase even more in the future to make it look like the real deal. It's very close right now but not yet as sharp.
While not exclusive to mirrorless, this was my first time using a tilt screen on a landscape shoot and it’s a joy to use in the field.
During this trip, it allowed me to take shots that were impossible to take before, especially at ground level. To get the best reflection of a subject in the water, you need to be as close as possible to the lake or pond. With my tripod setup at ground level and by tilting the screen up, it was easy to adjust the framing and take the shot. Even with a DSLR and live view you can’t see properly the back screen as its too low so it usually takes trial and error. In the Dolomites, we are taking about shooting from inside a pond or in the snow. Not the best place to lie down to frame !
The AF coverage of my previous camera (Nikon D800E) was limited to a central zone, it could not focus on the sides and top / bottom. In so many occasions in the past, if I wanted to focus on a element of the foreground which was not center, i had to grab the focus from that element in the foreground and recompose. Not anymore with the A7R2, since it has a very wide AF coverage. I can frame the scene as I wish and select any area of focus in the entire frame.
Back in the good old days of my trusty NIKON D700, I used a lot of grad ND filters to save highlights in the skies. Not so much anymore. The dynamic range of the recent generation of cameras, D800E / A7R and A7R2, is so wide that i just don't use them anymore. There are still some situations where the scene has too much range and this case i would bracket three exposures and later blend in post. I did it in a few occasions on this trip just for peace of mind and I will later use the best exposure. I'm sure the number of blending that I will do will be very minimal and I should be able to recover highlights and shadows from one single frame.
Batteries of the A7R2 are physically smaller that DSLR and the EVF consumes energy, hence the lower capacity. But practically for this trip it hasn't been an issue at all. I usually did two shooting sessions per day : sunrise and sunset - 3 hour session each on average. In only two days I had to swap the batteries. I carried two spares in the bag just in case and would recharge every night at the hotel. Since you can charge the camera over USB, I charged it on a few occasions in the car with a cigarette lighter adapter or even a power bank.
The A7R2 did get a few noticeable extra grams (from 465 grams to 640 grams), but there is still quite a good weight advantage : comparing a similar kit with a 16-35mm F4 and a L plate, the Nikon kit is at 1.77KG and the Sony kit is at 1.24KG. Half a KG of saving is great in the context of landscape photography, where hiking is involved and every gram counts.
Getting sharp shots
Using recently the first Sony A7R with the 70-200 F4, I encountered quite a few blurry shots that I suspect were due to shutter vibration. The A7R2 version brings electronic first curtain which helps avoid the issue and my sharp shot success rate improved greatly. I did encounter a situation where I was bracketing 3 shots with the 70-200 F4 and only the first one was tack sharp. I will need to do more tests to understood root cause.
A few notes on the lenses I used on the trip
- 24-70mm F2.8 GM : In absence of a 24-105mm or 24-120mm which Canon or Nikon have, I went with the 24-70 2.8 G Master and boy am I happy with the purchase. The sharpness is incredible and it’s very solid with its metal construction. Since I mostly shoot landscape I didn't really care about the 2.8 wide aperture but it proved useful when shooting nightscapes.
- 70-200mm F4 : I chose this lens over the 2.8 version to save weight and because I don't need the 2.8 for landscape photography. I usually shoot between f8 and f13 with this lens and it's very sharp. I rarely used VR as I'm shooting mostly with a tripod but it proved useful a few times when shooint handheld.
- 16-35mm F4 : Light, compact and overall sharp lens, great for landscape.
Having shot landscape photography around the world for the last 10 years with a DSLR, I feel very optimistic about switching to mirrorless. It brings many direct benefits for landscape shooter : it’s easier and faster to get an exposure right and sharp, the image quality is stellar and the weight saving is appreciated. To me, it means that I can focus more on getting the right composition, going to the right location and on capturing the right moment. I know the gear will deliver. We’re still at the beginning of this new generation of tools and I can’t wait to see what’s next !