In 2009, five short years ago, Nikon started shipping the D3x in quantity. It was a breakthrough camera, following after, and borrowing from, another blockbuster camera, the D3. Together, these two cameras took Nikon from badly trailing Canon in pro-level bodies to triumphantly ahead, and ended my short-lived defection to Canon. The $7000 D3x combined a 24 megapixel sensor, which was huge at the time, with Nikon’s usual professional handling. I bought one. I loved it. But I didn’t use it much; when the D800E came out and I had it converted for infrared use, I had fewer than 10,000 exposures on it. During the same time, I’d put almost 100,000 each on two D3’s and two D3s’s. I considered it a special purpose camera, for use when resolution was really important. I never liked to use it much over ISO 400; it had too much noise after that for aggressive post-processing moves.
For four or five months now I’ve been using the Sony alpha 7, which is also a 24 megapixel full frame camera, but one with really good low light performance. The controls are by no stretch of the imagination the equal of any of the pro-level Nikons, but it’s tiny by comparison to them.
A few days ago, I received a Sony FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS lens. I put it on the a7, and started to make some test shots. I couldn’t believe how small and comfortable the combination felt in my hands. My standard of comparison is the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (ya gotta love those names!) on a D4. The Sony/Sony combination weighs 3 lb, 2 oz, and the Nikon/Nikon pairing (with either the D4 or the D3x body) 7 pounds plus. It makes an immense difference in how far you can walk and how long you can hold the camera up to your eye.
Sure, the D4/70-200 focuses faster. It’s got an extra stop of light-gathering ability. It’s a big-boy lens. But the little Sony is just as crisp, and maybe a hair better. The active vibration-damping is at least as good. Neither lens is super sharp, but each is quite respectable for a zoom. 24 megapixels is a good match in resolution for the lens, although, as we’ve seen in recent postings, more resolution is nearly always better.
I consider both lenses to be primarily for handholding. If you have time to put the camera on a tripod, you’ve probably got time to put a prime on it. Handheld, there are advantages to the a7/70-200. Mirror slap is always a potential problem at handheld at 200mm with an SLR. The a7 has no mirror, and the electronic first curtain shutter finesses shutter shock as well. The Sony 70-200 has two focus-lock buttons towards the front of the lens, just like a $10,000 prime telephoto, and unlike the Nikon 70-200. I haven’t quite mastered their use on so short a lens, but they’re there. There’s a slick way to pop the rotating collar on and off, but the downside is that it’s not as smooth rotating the lens through 90 degrees when it’s on a tripod. No matter, I intend to leave it off 98% of the time, maybe 100% if I forget where I put the collar.
So now we have a camera that can take pictures of equal quality to the D3x in bright light, far better pictures in low light, and costs about a quarter of what the breakthrough Nikon did. You can pair it with a 70-200mm lens that will give you a combination that’s well under half the weight of the Nikon/Nikon system, and the improved low light performance and dynamic range will mean you’ll never miss that extra stop.
What’s going to happen in another five years?