Surprise! Sony a6000: first impressions.

Apologies to anyone who had a sudden heart attack or stroke or even just a coughing fit upon reading that title. Yes, I managed to get my hands on a Sony a6000 with 16-50mm kit lens. How? Well it came about as a confluence of three things:

1).  Eric L. Woods repeatedly pointing out how good Sony cameras are. I trust his judgement.

2). The camera being available in a local store, which happened to put it on sale (see below).

3). I was bored, and since ego-Bay has declared me Public Enemy #1 I can not relieve that boredom with inexpensive used photography equipment so I am forced to buy new if anything.

Now the a6000 is a camera I have considered and dismissed before. It has advantages such as higher resolution, the ability to adapt almost any lens to it, and supposedly faster focusing. You can see where I was going with it: the combination of 24MP and a 300mm lens on an APS-C format coupled with fast autofocus should make for a good ‘birding’ camera. I take a lot of pictures of birds. Or at least I do if I can. Lately things have been conspiring against me there. The problem, as always, was the price. Sony cameras are not cheap, at least not in Canada. I was actually toying with the idea of buying one, along the lines of “yeah maybe if they put it on sale I will”. Well they did, so I did. This was not the usual “$20 off” sale either. It was a clearance sale of more than 1/3 off! Funny thing is, they didn’t advertise it as such. Not even as a sale. The price just happened to go down. I fully expected to go into the store and be told “that was a typo”, which would have stopped me from buying it. It wasn’t, and I did.

The next big problem was the weather, which has been most uncooperative for every activity of late, except for getting soaked and freezing. Pretty good at that. Also being plastered with mud. So the first picture was by no means a fair test, but it does tell us some things:

Low light, low quality.

The exposure and colour are accurate to the scene. But when you zoom in you see that as is typical of today’s cameras the claimed high ISO rating is nothing but a number from the PR department: the noise level on any setting above 800 (for APS-C) is unacceptable even with both noise reduction settings on. Close up you see ‘palette knife’ quality, not ‘film grain’ quality:

Blotchy at high speeds.

It would be unfair to compare this to my Canon 1Ds because that has a larger sensor, fewer pixels (allowing more light per), and cost $8,000 when new. I will be comparing it to the Canon T100 when I can.

Let’s talk about ergonomics. This cameras is well thought-out, with only a couple of “mystery buttons” and a few illogical placements. On the whole nothing that would upset you much. Let’s face it I have ten different digital cameras now and even the three from the same manufacturer don’t have the same buttons in the same places. This and an inability to remember how I have each one programmed is why I prefer dedicated controls. The menu system, that bane of digital photographers everywhere, is the best I’ve seen yet. It’s not organized the way I would do it, but it is straightforward and intuitive.

My greatest praise is for the EVF. It is large, bright, and clear. You could almost think you were looking at an optical finder, it is that good. It has a diopter, but with my eyesight there no sense bothering trying to adjust it. Likewise the LCD display is good, but there’s no such thing as one of these that can be seen in bright daylight. The ability to tilt it into a pseudo waist-level finder is intriguing, but I suspect self-defeating. I shall have to try that out one day. If it ever stops raining here.

Picture Number Thirty-five.

There we have it: almost an entire ‘long roll of film’ into use and it produces its first artistic image. This is mainly due to me messing about trying to take images in lousy conditions. The fact is the camera passes the #1 test: it produces perfectly good pictures right out of the box on ‘Program’. In fact it has four program modes, including ‘intelligent’, ‘intelligent scene’, and ‘scene’ as well as the basic ‘P’ setting. I tried them in sequence and I could see some difference, but not so much so as to say “this one is better” nor do they produce any difference you couldn’t get with a 10% tweak in GIMP. Why manufacturers insist on cluttering up cameras with useless and redundant technology I don’t know. Save that stuff for the poor sods who think they can take great photos with their smart phones.

“If I hide behind this bush you can’t see me.”

Colour rendition in ‘standard’ mode is nice and subtle with a good tonal gradient. In fact it is highly reminiscent of a CCD sensor. Turning it up to ‘vivid’ gives a bit more saturation and contrast, but doesn’t go overboard and still retains that film-like quality. At this point I hadn’t even turned off the auto white balance.

Some more praise: the autofocus is as fast as everyone says. It’s especially good once you turn off the ridiculous multi-point system (really, kids; there’s one subject in your photo and you can’t have the camera trying to make 149 different spots ‘it’). It has continuous focus too, which I like but know is a battery-eater.

Of course with any camera the lens is the thing, and here … well I will withhold praise. At this point I’d say it’s a ‘good’ lens, but not very good and certainly not on par with the Super Takumars or the Nikon P610 (really camera makers should be embarrassed that they don’t equip their products with lenses as good as a 6-year-old, $400 ‘bridge’ camera). One thing about the lens that drives me crazy is the ‘power zoom’. Leave that for the point-and-shoot models, Sony. There are two reasons I don’t like this method in general, and one more specifically to this edition: zoom motors are much slower than twisting a ring, they are less accurate for fine adjustment, and in this case the control is in an annoying location. Using this almost-a-zoom-ring button is really irritating. I also don’t think the lens needs to ‘power expand/collapse’; that’s just more complexity to go wrong at some point.

Heart of stone.

Give me some good light and I’ll try this camera out fully, including putting it head-to-head with the like-sized-sensor Canon T100. It will be interesting to see if 1/3 more pixels has any realistic value (the Sony has two digital zoom settings built in: I’ve tried both and they are not impressive).

Now let’s talk money. The big stumbling block I’ve come up against is that a decent long-range telephoto zoom for this camera is $1,000+! That’s the same thing that stopped me using the Olympus E410 for ‘birding’; the longest zoom cost three times what the camera and two other zooms cost! Adapting other lenses isn’t the answer either, as without the excellent and fast autofocus you lose one of the main advantages. Adapting other AF lenses tends to be expensive and problematic; you may as well pay for the Sony lens to begin with and be assured of it working. Just some advice from the old man: if you go adapting lenses, be prepared to go manual everything. Do not expect any sort of automatic connection to work, no matter what the claim from the maker.

On to the big question: was this a sensible purchase? I’m invoking the Eric L. Woods defense here; I like it, leave me alone. Would I have bought it at full price? Absolutely not. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, though. It is a very good camera and not at all disappointing.

Now here’s the kicker: you want one? I’ll sell you this one quite reasonably. I have nothing against the camera, and I haven’t even tried it out fully yet, but I know it’s not going to fit with my shooting style. That’s a bit of a bummer, to say the least.

Unless someone would like to pony up $1,000 for a tele lens? I can’t afford it. Oh well, we’ll see what happens next what with my upcoming surgery and all.

What I need is good weather.

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