A few months ago, I was in Patagonia instructing back-to-back workshops. Art Wolfe and Ignacio Palacios were also there to help teach the workshops. One evening, over a few drinks, Art was telling me about shooting bears in Alaska. He described photographing giant bears as they fished for salmon and ate berries in Katmai National Park. He said you could get within 10 feet of them, the photographs would surely be incredible. He explained we’d have to fly in on a float plane and walk about five miles a day, hiking through rivers. It sounded like another great adventure, sign me up! So he did.
Like many of you, in preparing for a trip of this magnitude, I kept rethinking what I should bring and what I should leave behind. I have a lot of gear, mind you, and I had just finished shooting Iceland and the Palouse with the Fuji X-Pro 2. It was a great camera for landscapes, but this wasn’t going to be a landscape shoot. Art mentioned that he was bringing a Canon 1dx II and a 200-400mm lens, as well as some other lenses and bodies. The first thing that came to mind was the amount of drugs that would be needed to mask the pain of carrying such a heavy load day in and day out. Over the last few years, I have worked hard to reduce the weight of the cameras I use in the field, but this shoot was undoubtedly going to be a challenge.
I looked up the Canon 1Dx II and realized I already had a camera that delivered nearly the same specs, the Sony A6300. It could do 11 frames per second and had a 24MP APSC size sensor. It was small, lightweight, and best of all, I already owned it. It also offered 425 phase detection and 169 contrast detection AF points, and excellent focus tracking. Could this be the ideal camera for bear shooting?
The A6300, like many other Sony cameras, is a powerhouse disguised by its smaller size. I have owned a lot of cameras in my career, but I moved over to mirrorless a few years ago and now own the Fuji, Olympus, and Sony mirrorless systems. I even wrote an article about my last trip with my Nikons, and you know something, I have never looked back or suffered any remorse.
Shooting these big bears was going to be different. I knew I would need a camera capable of a fast frame rate and a lens that would allow me to capture the action. I also knew that whatever lens I brought would need to be a zoom lens, as at times the bears would be very close and I couldn’t risk missing a shot due to using a fixed long lens. I also knew I wouldn’t want to worry about changing lenses in the outdoor environment we would be shooting in.
Decisions – Decisions
After a lot of deliberation, I finally settled on the Sony A6300 and Sony 70-400mm lens. The problem here was that Sony has two types of lens mounts, an “A” mount for their older camera lines, and an “E” mount for the newer lines, including my A6300. Luckily, this is where Sony shines, as they also make adapters. This allowed me to use my 70-400mm lens with the A6300. I settled on the LEA-3 Adapter, as it would also act as a mount converter and would retain the camera’s focus capabilities. As you can see from the set-up images, it worked out to be an excellent choice.
Being an APS-C camera, there would be a magnification factor of 1.5 when using a full frame lens like my Sony 70-400mm. This gave me the full frame equivalent of a 105mm-600mm in a very compact system.
The A6300 body with the Really Right Stuff L-Bracket weighed in at 17 ounces. The 70-400mm lens weighed 62 ounces, and the LEA3 adapter added another 3.9 ounces. The total weight for this system came in at 82.9 ounces, or 5.2 pounds. Totally manageable. Oh, and did I mention that the lens offered OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), enabling me to easily handhold my shots?
For a fleeting moment, I considered renting a Canon set up because I wanted to have the fast AF and AF tracking, not to mention a good zoom-lens ratio. That gave me the option of either a 100-400mm lens or a 200-400mm lens. I started comparing the potential weight, not to mention the rental cost. The 1Dx II weighed in at 3.37 pounds. The 100-400mm lens was 3.5 lbs and the ultimate 200-400mm lens, reasonably priced at $11,000, came in at 7.98 pounds. There were several people on the trip who had the 1Dx II set up with the 200-400mm lens. No question about it, it was beautiful rig, but weighing in at 12 pounds, it was also very heavy. Not a camera I wanted to handhold or hike with. With that system, a tripod would also be necessary, adding even more weight. Buying or renting was simply out of the question.
Did I mention that we were going to be hiking between two and five miles per day? Not just regular hiking, but walking through rivers, sometimes up to our waist, wearing full waders and boots. We’d have to carry our cameras, drinking water, extra clothing, and food in our backpacks. I don’t know about you, but my days of carrying 40+ pound packs are over.
I decided I was going with the Sony A6300 and 70-400mm lens as my bear kit. I would also bring an A7 II and A7R II bodies, the new 24-70mm G-Master lens, a 70-200mm lens, an 85mm G-Master lens, and a Rokinon 14mm lens. I also brought 16 extra batteries, chargers, and various filters with me. I carried all of this in a Dakine 30L Pack.
I read a lot about the A6300. If you’re someone who likes to keep up on cameras and gear, you know that everyone and their brother was writing about this camera. As far as I could tell, none of the reviews were bad, at least as far as still shooting went. The camera offered speedy auto-focusing, had a ton of AF points, and its focus tracking capabilities were some of the best Sony has ever made.
I bought the A6300 with a Sony 16-70mm lens. This was equal to 24-105mm in full frame. The camera itself is a small and capable package. It is very easy to use. So easy that I lent it to my sister, who is as photo-illiterate as they come, to use during our summer workshop in Iceland. The images she created were excellent. If you are a person who appreciates the quality of high tech cameras, but is looking for an easy-to-use model that delivers impressive images at an affordable price, this is the camera for you. It is a great gift idea for a spouse, or really anyone you want to share your passion with. A camera like the A6300 will quickly become addictive.
While working on the review of this camera, I tried out the AF system and in particular, the AF tracking.
The Sony A7 II and A7R II are not the best at focus tracking and high frame rate. I took the A6300 out to a bike trail and asked a friend to ride her bike towards me. Using the focus tracking wide and continuous AF, I shot a series of images. A lot of the shots were her coming straight at me. Another set was her moving perpendicular to me. I configured the camera on 11 fps and shot away. I was amazed at how accurate and fast this camera was. Just about every image was useable. The images where she was riding directly at me were all usable, and she was peddling pretty fast. The perpendicular images (panning tests) presented the occasional issue when someone else was running past her, or in a different direction. The AF System became momentarily confused but seemed to pick up its original subject fairly quickly. You can see the tracking AF points in the viewfinder, it becomes pretty obvious when this occurred.
Needless to say, I was very impressed with the AF system. I tried the AF with various other lenses. The 24-70mm and the 70-200mm G-Master lenses produced equally good results.
Ergonomically, however, this camera gave me issues. I have big hands. Even the A7R’s seem small in my large hands. With the A7 cameras, I attached a battery grip, and that made the camera feel more natural in my hands. The A6300 is very small. Holding it presented a problem, as my hands tended to grip the camera with only a few fingers as my palm came to rest on the rear controls. I was constantly resetting the f/stop and pushing buttons by accident with my palm. It would be helpful if Sony created a lock feature on the controls, especially with smaller cameras like this. It could be as simple as double-tapping the OK button (center button) on the 4-way controller to lock the buttons, and double-tapping again to unlock the controls.
Also, unlike many other digital cameras, the A6300 has only one control dial on top of the camera. Most cameras have one control dial near the shutter release, and one on the back of the body. Typically, these are used to control shutter speed and f/stop. With the A6300, you only have the top dial. For example, if you were in Aperture Priority, the top dial would allow you to set the f/stop. If you were in Shutter Priority, it controls the shutter speed. In manual mode, the top dial controls the f/stop and the multi-function dial on the back of the camera controls the shutter speed. Once you get used to it, you learn to live with it. I kept reminding myself, “What do you expect for less than $1,000?”
There is a pop-up flash on the A6300. As far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty useless. I think I have used it a few times for fill flash, or maybe a better term would be “wink light.” Luckily, there is an accessory shoe where a real flash can be attached. Speaking of the accessory shoe, I ended up purchasing a folding thumb rest from Lensmate. It is a metal thumb rest that slides into the accessory shoe. It is a very worthwhile purchase and I highly recommend it. It folds out so that you can reach the control it partially obstructs when it’s attached. This little accessory made holding this camera so much more comfortable for me. I was able to hold the camera better and with greater stability.
Since I am already off on a tangent about accessories, I also purchased the Really Right Stuff L-Bracket for this camera. It allowed me to quickly attach the camera to a tripod, and didn’t get in the way. I also used the Peak Design strap system, and thus have two Peak Design strap lugs on the camera. This ingenious system allows me to use a thin strap, thick strap, or a wrist strap, depending on my needs or whim. It attaches very easily and when I am using a tripod and don’t want a strap flapping around in the wind, it allows me to quickly remove the strap.
Performance in the field is the real test for any camera. One complaint about this camera that did concern me were reviews about poor battery life. Luckily, the battery it uses is the same one utilized by the Sony A7 series, which is convenient if you have multiple cameras. I brought 12 batteries with me on the bear trip. I only used two each day, and I was shooting fairly heavily. I got 250-300+ exposures from each battery. I like to remind people that when we used to shoot with film, we would get 36 exposures per roll and the roll was bigger than a battery. If I had shot the same number of exposures with film, I’d be bursting at the seams. While in Alaska, I kept two batteries in my pocket and could swap them out in seconds, as needed. No big deal.
The battery and SD card are accessible from the same compartment at the bottom of the camera. Sony doesn’t make a battery grip, but I have seen after-market grips if you feel you need one. The strength of this camera is its small size and reliable performance. I did just fine without a grip.
One of the other features that has garnered a lot of attention is the camera’s 4K video performance. I shot a few short clips using the video feature, and they were quite nice. Not nice enough to show you however, though that is more indicative of my lacking cinematography skills rather than the camera itself. Sony is known for its ability to create high-quality video. That said, I am convinced this is not the camera for that. Our friends at the Camera Store in Calgary, who I respect a lot, have reported serious overheating problems with this camera when doing video capture. It’s not uncommon for it to shut down after only ten minutes of shooting video. Bottom line, if you want to shoot video with Sony, invest in the A7s II camera.
I think Sony intended that recording video with this camera would be something you would do in short clips. I could imagine shooting stills with this camera, and while doing so, making a one minute clip of the scene. In a nutshell, bursts or video clips could be fun on this camera, and it’s nice to know the option is there if I want it. That said, the A6300 is not a video camera.
Another sore point with me is this camera’s menu system. Because I use Sony cameras a lot, I have become accustomed to the Sony menu structure. In all seriousness, Sony needs to hire someone who knows what they are doing when it comes to creating a camera menu. This camera’s menu is by far one of the most confusing and complex menus of any camera I’ve ever used. Sony should take a page out of the Phase One or Fuji book. Both of those companies have menu systems and a user interface that can be learned without a manual. Simple and organized, with a top-down approach. I can’t help but think that Sony is still behind the curve here, though I am confident that somewhere down the line, they will figure it out. In the meantime, I suppose we must suffer along and learn to live with it. With use, you will eventually become accustomed to the clumsy menu, but that won’t stop you from wishing it were simpler.
Here’s another thing that got to me. Sony does incorporate a customizable “quick menu” to allow a user to create a shortcut for controls or features they want quick access to, but unlike other cameras, which have a separate button (e.g., “Q”), to access the quick menu on this camera you press the button labeled “Fn.” How many of us would have never figured that out?
So, how do I use this camera other than for photographing bears? I carry this camera in my briefcase. I use a small lens and wrap the camera up. If I am on a plane, in an airport, or just about anywhere, I can access this camera and use it quickly and easily. The 16-70mm lens is accurate, compact, and sharp. It makes for a good street photography camera, and if needed, an effective general subject camera.
Who is this camera for? It’s a great starter camera, as the body costs less than a $1,000 USD and includes many features that other cameras don’t. Both novices and professionals can appreciate this camera. The high ISO capability and image quality allow it to be used in various settings, even in dim light. My sister accompanied me on one of my workshops to Iceland this year. As I previously mentioned, my sister is not a photographer, but she wanted to see what I did and who doesn’t want to visit Iceland? I set this camera up for her to use on her trip. I set it at “P” (God forbid) and Fine JPEG capture. The images she captured were great. All she had to do was load the JPEGs onto her computer and soon enough, she was sharing them with everyone she knew. Near the end of the trip, she got a bit braver, so I set her up for Aperture Priority capture. The ISO was set to auto, so it was a no-brainer.
To all of you photographers out there with big, expensive systems, and spouses or friends who aren’t photographers, this could be the camera to bridge the gap and get them involved with what you are doing. My sister had a great time using the camera and after a few days, really understood why people like me love taking pictures. I will probably be cursed, as my sister is now asking about purchasing a camera of her own. I will likely recommend this camera to her and will eventually show her a few other lenses that will round out a small and compact system. I may have created a monster, but at least now she has an appreciation for photography.
Wrapping It Up
I like this camera a lot. I wouldn’t have purchased it otherwise. It uses all the same lenses and batteries as my A7 series cameras. It’s small and lightweight, and convenient to carry around in my briefcase. The high ISO performance allows me to set the camera on Aperture Priority and set a minimum shutter speed, let’s say 125th of a second. All I have to do is compose and shoot. The camera adjusts the ISO and shutter speed, but keeps it above 125th of a second.
I can also shoot manually for action, or in the case of bears. I can set the shutter speed to 1200th of a second or higher, and an f/stop of F8-f/11. I set the AF to continuous, with wide tracking, and the drive to High for 11 FPS. Bingo, I had a no-brainer action camera. You can do this with any of the Sony models, but you won’t get the frame rate that this camera offers.
I think this camera is a tease. At the speed at which Sony launched this camera, I think they were experimenting with the new features. They put a lot of AF points in the camera and a high frame rate to see if it could be pulled off. They made it work. One can only wonder what they might have in store next.
My prediction is that Sony will announce a much larger, much higher megapixel camera, with amazing specs. The lenses, like the G Master Lens, will be in place to work with a higher megapixel sensor, and with faster SD cards being released every day, these cameras could shoot high frame rates and never fill the buffer. They will also likely figure out a method for keeping the chip and camera cool during 4K video shooting. The A6300 also has a fantastic EVF (Electronic View Finder). These EVFs are getting better all the time. Now it’s almost as good as shooting with a DSLR, as blackout times between shots are getting smaller and smaller. The EVF offers a lot of shooting information too, providing a user with better control over the image capture.
Some camera companies like Fuji, Olympus, Sony, and even Leica are offering fantastic mirrorless cameras. Based on the attendance at our workshops, I can safely say that more and more photographers are migrating to these models. I keep wondering when Canon and Nikon are going to wake up and realize that mirrorless is the future.
In the meantime, check out the A6300. It may not be the camera for everyone, but for the price, it is one of the best values out there. It allows me to get great bear photos.