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?
The A7 is sure lighter, but wouldn’t it be more correct to compare it to the D610 and 70-200/f4 combo?
Sensor wise the D610 is a hair better (Dxomark, review sites), the Nikon f4 is substantially lighter and is smaller than the f2.8.
You’re probably right, if we’re comparing what you can buy now. The Nikon f/4 lens weighs 1.87 lbs; the Sony, 1.85. The Nikon body is 1.67 lbs, the a7 0.917 lbs. So the Sony combination is a little over 12 ounces lighter. However, I don’t have a 610, and I don’t have a 70-200 f/4 Nikkor. The comparison that just blows me away is with the hot setup of five years ago versus what you can buy today.
That’s true, it’s a very good combination. But if you still rely on DSLRs (if you need a pro flash system for example) the D610 + 70-200/4 is a very good combination with a lens rated very very high.
If Sony comes out with good and fast primes besides the 55/1.8, I may do the switch for the next generation A8.
Jerry Fusselman says
In reference to two telephoto zooms, you wrote, “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. ”
That last sentence has tormented me for weeks, I’ll admit. It is not easy for a spoiled photographer to follow this advice for shooting landscapes on a tripod (miles from your car) when it comes to 200mm lenses on a Sony A7r. I am thrilled with my Carl Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar ZE, which you recommended—thanks!—but is there any 200mm lens I could use (preferably lighter than two pounds) that can bear comparison to the Zeiss in terms of image quality?
Sorry, Jerry. I don’t think so. The 180mm f/2.8 Nikkor is getting long in the tooth, and the 200mm f/2, while sharp, is way too heavy for your application. If price is no object (and you’d have to buy it second-hand), there’s a 180mm R-series Leica APO lens that has a great reputation. I guess, if you’re miles from your car, a zoom’s OK. The key question is, van you get images that please you with it? If the answer is yes, don’t give it a second thought.
Jerry Fusselman says
Thanks for your answer. Yes, maybe I should just be satisfied with what I already have at 200mm.
For the Leica 180, are you referring to the 1.6-pound APO-Telyt-R or the 5.5-pound Summicron? I’ll assume it must be the Telyt-R. I will consider it.
Also, a new and excellent 200mm-or-so lens usable on FE mount (Sony or Zeiss) may appear in the next year or so.
Jerry, If you can, I’d wait. Nikon may replace their old 180/2.8, too.
Some caveats on the APO Telyt-R:
Jerry Fusselman says
Thanks so much for the followup, Jim. Yes, that’s a useful link, and its caveats matter to me.
Indeed, I will wait, and in the meantime, when I can carry it, I can use my Canon 200mm f/1.8. For longer hikes this winter, I will have to limit myself to the 135 at the top end.
For me, more Canon lenses than Sony on landscape hikes with the A7r: 17mm TS-E, 24mm TS-E, 35mm FE, 55mm FE, 90mm TS-E, and the 135mm Zeiss. Sometimes a subset of these with fingers crossed.