I returned on Sunday from a 9-day trip to the Canadian Rockies, staying outside of the town of Banff. It wasn’t specifically a photographic trip. It was mainly a family holiday. But, of course, I planned to make photographs. What kind of photographs? I thought a little landscape work even though the times of best light are usually when the family is asleep or eating. Most of the pictures would be people, though.
What gear to take?
I considered the delightful Nikon D810; which, by virtue of its improved autofocus, is a more versatile instrument than its predecessor. However, by the time I added a backup body and a few lenses, it turned out to be more weight than I wanted to carry, either in my travel bag or while hiking. Nikon lenses, at least the ones I have, are pretty heavy.
I considered taking an M240, the Sony alpha 7S as backup, and a few M lenses that could be used on either body, plus the Zony 55mm f/1.8 for when I wanted autofocus. That would have reduced the travel weight considerably. The Leica lenses tend to be small and light, even though they are dense. However, the M240 body is fairly weighty.
I finally settled on the Sony a7 and the a7S, the Zony 55mm, the Sony 70-200 f/4 OSS FE zoom, and the Leica 24mm f/3.8 Elmar. The Zony 55 is wonderfully sharp, light, and has AF. The zoom has unexceptional, but adequate, clarity, and is light compared to a 70-200 f/2.8, although no lighter than the Nikon equivalent. The Elmar is a crisp lens with great drawing, and it works well on the a7S (but not on the a7).
I figured I could make panos with the 55 if I wanted a lot of pixels, and it would be a good indoor lens. The Leica 24 would work well on the trail, and I could use zone focusing if things moved fast. The zoom would mostly be useful outside for people pictures, and could be pressed into service if I found cooperative animals.
I put a 64GB card in the a7S and a 128GB one in the a7, giving me a little over 5000 shots per camera. I brought along spare cards in a Pelican carrier, but did not intend to use them. I took 2 extra batteries and the Sony charger.
I took an Adorama Slinger bag and a LL Bean fanny pack. I could fit everything in the Slinger and everything but the zoom in the fanny pack. I use Domke wraps to keep things from banging together, and chalk bags for smaller lenses.
What did I learn?
In fluid situations, the alpha 7’s make you go to the menu system more than I’d like. This is especially difficult in bright light, and if you’re wearing a hat. What’s the deal with the hat? Bright light makes both the LCD screen and the EVF hard to see. When you’re wearing a hat and you lean closely over the LCD screen so that it’s shaded, the camera thinks that you’ve put it up to your eye and turns the LCD off. My standard for camera user interfaces is the Nikon D4, and I understand that the pro-level Canons are much the same. On the D4 – and the D8x0, for that matter – there are a series of dedicated buttons for the most commonly used functions, and a passive monochromatic LCD panel on top of the camera which if anything is more visible in bright light. Press the button, twiddle one or both of the control wheels, and you’re done. The Sony a7 series makes moves in the direction of direct access to some functions, with a dedicated exposure compensation control, the two top-level wheels (I’ve turned the rotating dial on the back of the camera off because it’s too easy to spin by accident), and the user-assignable buttons, but without the feedback provided by the Nikon’s top-of-camera LCD screen, when the light gets bright, you’re in the dark about what the camera is doing.
The alpha 7 series cameras are highly customizable. That’s a good thing. If you’re using two or more of them in one photo session, you’d be well advised to configure all the cameras as close to the same way as is possible. Mine were set up similarly, but not identically, and several times I said that, when I got back to the hotel, I’d take half an hour or so and set them up the same. I never did, though. Best to do it before the trip.
Although the autofocus of the a7 is not bad by mirrorless standards, and the a7S AF is pretty good when it’s really dark, neither camera can AF remotely as well as a D810. It doesn’t make much difference when the subject is stationary, but when things are moving around on you, your frame rate will drop and you’ll have more than a few misfocused images.
The low weight is a real boon on the trail. Having both cameras, the 55, and the 24 in a fanny pack makes for a light load.
There have been complaints about alpha 7 battery life. You will hear none from me. You can make almost a thousand images on one of the little batteries if you don’t chimp much. I carried two extras in my pack and never needed them.
In a week or so, I’ll have edited the images and will report more.