The previous article highlighted three characteristics of new sensor technology that greatly improve image quality, and which in turn enabled creation of images that I would not have attempted in earlier years. I imagine that thousands of other photographers are finding this to be true. That’s the good news. Even better news is that, beyond sensor design, other new improvements in equipment and software are having similar impacts.
There are four that I consider particularly important:
- 5-Axis image stabilization
- New lens formulations, including new glass elements and coatings
- Improvements in editing software, including plug-ins
- Incorporation of many professional features in small cameras
Continuing with the format followed in Parts I and II, I will illustrate how I benefitted from these improvements with examples.
- 5-Axis Image Stabilization
For professional and serious photographers, avoidance of camera shake at slower shutter speeds created a marriage of necessity between cameras and tripods, particularly with respect to landscape images requiring sharp fine detail from close foreground to far background. This genre made famous by Edward Weston’s “f 64 school” stressed using small apertures for great depth of field, but then had to contend with long exposure times. Admittedly, large view cameras required tripods anyway. But, until recently, even if you used a DSLR with an f 16 aperture the shutter speeds required would lead to un-sharpness without a steady support, even in bright daylight.
As previously mentioned, new high ISO sensors are changing that equation. However, an image stabilization system that can legitimately restrict blur to the same level as a faster shutter speed four and a half stops higher opens up all kinds of new image possibilities, especially in combination with the high ISO sensors. 5-axis image stabilization does that by compensating for five different types of camera movement (three rotational and two linear). And the results really do match the marketing claims.
For this image, I wanted the water movement to be partially blurred with everything else to be sharp. Because of the crowds, and also because I needed to lean out over the wall to get the perspective I wanted, a tripod would not have been a good choice. The result met expectations.
This image was taken during a lull in foot traffic, though two visitors had to be removed from the bridge and stone steps in the background with Photoshop CC’s content aware fill routine.
A slow shutter speed was needed to register smooth water blur. But, again, crowds made tripod use awkward. Also, I wanted to see just how effective my new A7r M2 would be in controlling camera movement at a really slow speed.
Although this image was taken at 1/250th second, the high image magnification of 1:1 macro work would immediately show any camera shake, which is why macro shots are usually taken with tripods. That also allows sufficient time to see when the point of sharpest focus coincides with the most important part of the image. However, image stabilization worked fine while focus peaking quickly showed when the Mantis’ head and forearm teeth were in sharp focus.
- New Lens Design
Lens designs continue to improve year after year. Greater sharpness across the field, better light transmission, better correction for aberrations have flowed steadily. However, rapid improvement in sensors maintains pressure to produce lenses quickly enough to keep up with image quality potential. Since early 2015, a number of ultra-high quality lenses have hit the market. Sony users have been concerned that there wasn’t an adequate range of pro-quality FE mount lenses for the new cameras. That appears to have turned around in a hurry. The specs for a number of new Sony and Zeiss designs indicate heavy use of low dispersion and aspherical glass elements, plus new elements with exotic names that claim higher levels of correction and acuity.
My personal results with some of these lenses have been exciting. The Sony Zeiss 35mm f1.4 lens and the Sony 90mm f 2.8 macro lens are at the top of their class in sharpness and image quality. The Loxia 21mm f 2.8 lens and the Sony 85mm f 1.4 GM lenses which I just obtained are way up there in performance as well. Images shot with this class of lenses just seem to have an extra appeal, and under many different lighting conditions.
An image without a specific focal point tends to be weak. But, the way that this lens renders this scene is delightful. It captures the essence of wildflowers bursting forth in the mountains.
Theatre lighting has its challenges. Even if the spotlights aren’t too hot, color tends to get washed out and crisp detail is hard to achieve. It’s hard to fault the performance of this lens.
The Sony Zeiss 55mm f 1.8 lens is considered to be the sharpest commercial lens along with the Zeiss Otus 50mm f1.4 lens, though not as well corrected. What isn’t often mentioned is the beautiful bokeh of this lens, even at f 11.
- Continuing Improvements in Editing Software
The steady stream of improvements in the Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC subscription service doesn’t lend itself to single spectacular breakthroughs; but the results are great. Specifically, the de-haze tool provides more snap to landscape images; stitching of overlapping images is seamless even with handheld exposures, and the ability to remove distracting elements with content-aware fill routines is invaluable. NIK Silver Efex 2 produces great monochrome images and as a Lightroom plug-in is convenient and easy to use. Helicon Focus continues to be a favorite as it can solve depth of field problems for stationary subjects particularly in macro-photography.
The above image is made from 14 exposures with different points of focus and combined in the Helicon Focus program. For a blobby 3-inch long subject like this it would not be satisfying to pick one focus point and leave everything else out of focus. Consequently, I probably wouldn’t have attempted to photograph this cute little guy if that was my only alternative.
I came across a large flock of Desert Bighorns in Badlands National Park which provided a number of simple and graphic compositions but with limited color. Black and white conversion was the obvious answer to capturing the drama in this scene. Though this image is high contrast, the textural and statue-like effect represents the feeling I had watching these animals.
Often during a snowstorm in Sedona, a hole opens in the clouds momentarily to bathe one part of the landscape in brilliant light. For the above image, I just had enough time to take two overlapping handheld exposures which Photoshop quickly and flawlessly stitched together.
The following two photographs are part of a series I made on prominent red rock formations in the Sedona area. They were created from large numbers of overlapping images both vertically and horizontally to make large highly detailed files. This had to be done quickly and precisely to avoid position changes in clouds that would complicate the stitching process. The answer was to use a Gigapan Epic 100 automatic positioning device. My choice of camera was a Sigma Merrill DP3 with a C-size Foveon stacked sensor that seems to provide unusually sharp detail and color accuracy despite having only 15 MP in area coverage. There has been much discussion over the true resolution of this sensor with good arguments on both sides. My own feeling is that the image quality from this camera is comparable to what the Sony A7r produces. The short telephoto focal length of the DP3 was optimal for creating a stitched panorama from a large number of overlapping exposures.
- The feature-loaded small camera
Most professional photographers prefer DSLR’s that are built like tanks to withstand the rigors of field photography. However, there is value to carrying a compact ILC camera that can produce the same or even better image quality. Weight reduction is an obvious benefit multiplied by smaller lenses that accompany ILC’s with C-size sensors. This certainly extends the span of active field photography for old-timers like me.
Perhaps the biggest benefit is the fact that these smaller cameras can be carried all the time to take advantage of serendipitous picture situations. The best camera in the world (if there is one) has no value if it sits at home when you’re witnessing an extraordinary picture opportunity. And today, you don’t have to sacrifice capability for the sake of carrying a small camera everywhere you go. The next two images exist because I almost always carry a camera. The two images after that were taken with a Sony A-6000 and a single zoom lens where I needed to travel light and changing lenses was inadvisable.
Mountain weather is often unpredictable. My wife and I were celebrating a lovely Mother’s day at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and decided to walk around Cheyenne Lake. The wind had picked up and light snow had fallen. Half-way around the lake the snow fell fast and started piling up. My wife pulled her hood up and started to walk faster. Looking ahead I saw a striking picture. Tree branches were now covered with snow as were the Spring-green lawns, except for a few spots that betrayed the illusion of Winter. Large snowflakes drifted down. It was a perfect picture opportunity. Fortunately, in my pocket was my Sony A 6000 with a compact Zeiss 35 mm f2.8 lens (53mm equivalent focal length for a C-size sensor). It captured the scene perfectly with enough resolution to make sizeable quality prints.
Coming out of a restaurant one evening I noticed this late stage sunset with red streaks against a darkening blue sky. It wasn’t unusual enough to pull out a camera, until I noticed a car with red, white and blue striping mimicking the sky. I whipped out the Sony RX100 M3 from my jacket pocket, flipped up the built-in flash and took this image just before the sunset faded.
At the King Penguin rookery on the far side of the island from Port Stanley, my Sony A 6000 with a 70-200mm f 4 zoom lens was my chosen gear. With 50 mph winds, changing lenses wasn’t much of an option. Since penguins don’t pay much attention to humans, I compensated for focal range limits by walking toward or away from my subject as composition required. This is one of 12 images taken at 11 frames/sec of this pair as they moved through a display of affection. It re-affirms my initial impression of the A 6000 as a potentially great wildlife camera in a small package. (The new A 6300 camera retains all the best features with even higher image quality.)
At an 18,000-acre wild mustang preserve in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I took over 600 images of some of the 800 horses that range there. My A-6000 with a Sony Alpha 70-300 zoom was used for 90% of these. I was fascinated by this four-day old filly as she ran circles around her mother who kept a wary eye on her energetic new foal.
In summary, new photographic technology, especially what was introduced in the past two years made it easier to capture challenging scenes and subjects and produce striking images. I have seen marked improvement in my work because of the new equipment and software, and have been inspired to make images that I wouldn’t have attempted a few years ago. Most likely, many photographers also feel their creative juices flow because of this amazing technological advance. We may be living in a golden age for outdoor photography.