Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Camera Review: Sony a7R

1/250 sec @ f/11, ISO 100
The Sony a7 and a7R debuted with much-deserved fanfare last year about this time. I'd had a chance to try them out briefly early on, but it wasn't until recently that I spent a full week with the a7R. To keep things light and simple, I paired it with just one lens: the Sony - Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens. I planned to use it on some long hikes as well as walks around town - and, as it turned out, a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

My early impressions were born out, substantiating the many glowing reviews of this full-frame 36MP mirrorless camera. Images were tack sharp with vibrant colors, the camera was fast and responsive, and it gave good results in low light. Of course, this superior prime lens was a key factor.  

Most of all, the Sony a7R was a dream to carry around. On a five-hour, 12-mile hike with 2,000 feet of climb, through a dark and misty forest, I barely noticed the camera slung over my shoulder on a BlackRapid strap. When I wanted to grab a shot, it came to life quickly, though perhaps with some lag in lighting up the electronic viewfinder. 

1/60 sec @ f/8, ISO 2000
The a7R's small size helps keep it discreet while walking around cities and towns, as I did in Santa Cruz one evening. The dynamic range of the sensor is impressive. Contrasty shots, such as the lighted boardwalk sign, held detail in the lightbulbs as well as the shadows. Noise levels were comfortably low, even as ISO numbers went up. I wouldn't suggest going beyond ISO 6400 except in an emergency, but the RAW-file noise in the boardwalk shot at ISO 2000 and the "Compass & Chonometer" photo below at ISO 4000 were easily handled in Lightroom.

The Sony's menu system and controls take some getting used to. It's worth spending the time to set it up to your liking before ever clicking the shutter. Once set, and once you get used to the control layout, it's easy to manage common tasks such as white balance, bracketing, continuous or single shooting, and exposure mode and settings. 

1/60 sec @f/2.8, ISO 4000
The a7R's 36 megapixel images (7360 x 4912 px) will readily enlarge to wall-size prints of 30 x 45 inches or more. Burst shooting will only get up to about four frames per second, but this camera is best suited for landscapes and portraits. It can be used for street photography and should produce amazing macro images, though I haven't had a chance to try that yet. It's not the camera for sports or wildlife shoots, though. (Sony's a6000 - with its 11 fps capability - could be a good choice for action within the Sony family.) 

I've been quite skeptical of mirrorless cameras until this year, with the arrival of the Fujifilm X-T1 and the Sony a7 line. They've now reached maturity. 

NOTE: The camera used for this review was paid for by the reviewer and obtained through No compensation was received for this review.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Road Trip: Point Reyes National Seashore

Milking barn at Pierce Point Ranch
Foggy coasts, frequent sightings of endangered Tule Elk and historic ranches co-exist within the 71,000 acres of Point Reyes National Seashore. Ninety minutes north of San Francisco, the park offers amazing photo opportunities year-round.

Point Reyes is a favorite of mine, not only for photography, but also for hiking, history and peacefulness. Located in Marin County, it's close to hotels, restaurants, shopping and the wine country of Sonoma County. It's a year-round destination, though photo opps and conditions will vary by season. 

Tule Elk along Tomales Point trail, the cool Pacific behind.
For me, the Tule Elk are a highlight. Thought to be extinct by 1870, a hidden pair was later discovered. Today, about 4,000 animals are protected in a handful of areas in California, its native state. They'll be found on or near Tomales Point, and can readily be photographed with a long telephoto lens (400-600mm recommended). There's also abundant bird life, with shore birds at McClures Beach and many other species around Abbotts Lagoon. 

There are ample hiking opportunities, including short and easy walks as well as longer, more strenuous challenges. On a recent visit, I was thrilled to do a 12-mile hike through fog-shrouded forests while climbing 2,000 in elevation. Another hike out to Tomales Point offers a view of the Pacific Ocean to one side, Tomales Bay to the other, and the likelihood of seeing the elk anywhere along the trail. In fact, you'll see their tracks on the trail. Use these trails to capture the coastline, forests and sunsets. 

Hiking along Sky Trail in the fog.
Once home to the Miwok Indians, the mid-1800s saw the coming of numerous dairy ranches, some of which still exist today as inholdings. Historic structures of the former Pierce Point Ranch, now part of the park, show what life was like in the 1870s. They offer good photo possibilities, as does Point Reyes Lighthouse. Visiting the lighthouse requires a climb down 300 steps - and the climb back up! Also on the south end of Point Reyes, the brown cliffs and wide beaches of Drakes Bay mark the spot where Sir Francis Drake stopped for several weeks during his 1579 circumnavigation of the globe. 

Feel free to contact me for more information or if you'd like a guided photo outing to discover Point Reyes National Seashore. 

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Photographing Sunsets

12 minutes before sunset

Magic Hour
Everyone loves a sunset. There’s a magic to the multi-hued sky, the moment when the sun is slipping below the horizon and the day is almost done.

Getting the best images of a sunrise or sunset requires planning, preparation and persistence. I look at the event in three phases: golden hour, which begins (or ends in the morning) when the sun is 10 degrees above the horizon; the moments right around sunrise or sunset; and blue hour, the period when the sun is between 3 and 10 degrees below the horizon. Depending on the time of year and latitude, the whole event takes between two and three hours.

Golden hour is the time for those brilliant warm colors and low sun angles that add pop and contrast to your image. If sky conditions are just right, you can get a range of colors from pinks and oranges to blues and violets, usually in the 20-30 minutes before and after the moment when the sun breaks the horizon. Blue hour provides its own beauty, with the sky still showing and enough light to render foreground objects in cool, often monochrome, colors.

Moment of sunset

On Location

I like to get to my location early, either in the pre-dawn darkness for sunrise or late afternoon for sunset. I’ll scout out and determine my precise location, framing and composition. To help determine exactly where on the horizon the sun will set or rise, I use a phone app such as Helios or Sun Surveyor.

You’ll want a sturdy tripod, as exposures will get longer the later it gets, and a cable release. I also recommend a graduated neutral density filter to balance the bright sky against the darker foreground. And please … don’t stare at the sun. Be careful of your eyes and your camera’s sensor. In the three images here, the entire range of pre- and post-sundown light is shown. The subject is the famous Ghost Tree along 17-Mile Drive in Carmel, Calif., looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

The first shows the sun above the horizon, about 12 minutes before sunset. I had a great dramatic, orange sky. The next image, which I rendered in black & white, shows the sun right on the horizon. The colors were already fading. About 11 minutes later, I made the final shot in the blue light, which I emphasize by adjusting the color balance toward the blue tones. Exposures ranged from ⅕ second to 3.2 seconds, all at f/22 and ISO 100. Each image has a different mood, and the sequence shows what you can do with a little patience.

Blue hour
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