Quick Year-in-Review

2014: A Great Year for Gear – Is there a perfect camera yet?

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

What an amazing year for gear porn.

The Year of Mirrorless and 4K

2014 was truly the year of mirrorless – and 4K (selling it, anyway).

At one end, it was all about the Panasonic GH4 with its internal 4K recording and the first amazing third-party native lenses for it, the Voigtländer Noktons — and the Sony A7s with its incredible low light performance, wide dynamic range and promised tight integration with the Atomos Shogun for external 4K recording.

At an even higher level, it was about the Sony FS7 with built-in 10-bit 4K and a price point that no doubt left Canon with a severe case of the hives.

At the other end, it was about the iPhone 6 with 120fps (even 240fps) and –- with the 6 Plus – optical image stabilization.

Finally in the “keep your eye on this guy” category, it wasn’t the gorgeous CION or intellectually and morally exciting open source AXIOM, but South Korean electronics giant Samsung’s NX1 with internal 4K recording using the new H.265 codec and a very aggressive price point that really caught our attention.

The Year of the Sony a6000

But in these waning days of 2014, what’s become clear to me is that the real breakthrough camera this year has been the little Sony a6000.

It was just 12 months ago that I traded down from the Canon 5D Mk II for a pair of Rebel SL1’s when I concluded the value of the 5D2 was about to plummet. Given my skill level, client base and projects then, it made perfect sense to have the flexibility of two cameras and the silent and sure autofocus capabilities of Canon’s trio of EF-S STM lenses, to which I quickly availed myself: the 10-18, 18-55 and 55-250. Other than very low light performance and the ability to use Magic Lantern, the SL1 was – and remains – a superior video device to the 5D2.

In fact, while I had occasion to work with the 5D3, the SL1s put me off its size, weight and complexity.

By late summer, I’d tested and been blown away by the GH4 and the Noktons.

I thought I’d be investing in them by year-end, maybe early 2015. The additional video functionality (focus peaking, zebras, 96fps, 4K down-res’d to 1080 – and batteries that lasted longer than a nano-second) all conspired to make me walk away from the brand I’d used exclusively for 45 years.

I also thought about the Sony A7s, but the fully loaded price put it into another category altogether and – frankly – I read it as a first generation product that would be superseded quickly with something more polished (no mind reading here, just aware of Sony’s recent past).

But oh, that sensor.

In the fall I began to feel the need for a third camera for my business. I couldn’t bring myself to get another SL1 but couldn’t justify the expense of switching entirely to Panasonic with – at the very least – a Metabones Speed Booster (and maybe the EF adapter as well).

The A7s remained a more distant option.

But a couple of people I hold in high regard were raving about the a6000, and it dawned on me that it would be an interesting and cost-effective entry into the Sony orbit, where it could help me decide if I really wanted to commit to the Sony sensors (and costs) or live with the sensor tradeoffs I knew I’d have to make with the GH4.

The a6000 sensor on paper seemed a league above the GH4’s and the SL1’s; I knew I didn’t need 4K; the a6000 had the size of the SL1 with the video functions of the GH4; I figured I could live without the things it didn’t have (mic and headphone jacks, audiometers, slow-mo above 60fps); and the price was right.

Unbelievably right.

When Black Friday came along (combined with a $200 B&H gift certificate courtesy of a Vimeo Pro subscription), I acquired a brand new a6000 body for $248 – you read that right– and splurged for the Sony 50/1.8 OSS to go with it.

And then forgot about it until my daughter’s performance in the annual Nutcracker was only days away.

A quick call to bud Matt Bruce over at Resolution Rentals and I had some great Canon L glass (the 135/2.0, 70-200/2.8 and 24/1.4) and a Metabones EF>E-mount adapter ready to go to test with the little Sony.

Having shot dance recitals for years, I knew the low light and fast action would be excellent tests to see what the combo could do. I should add that years ago my go-to setup had been the 5D Mk II and the sharpest lens I have personally ever owned, the mighty Canon 200/1.8.

I was stoked to see what the little guy could do.

The Nutcracker

On December 13th, I walked into the auditorium with my partner Claudia and the three Canon lenses; an SL1; the a6000 with Metabones adapter; and a pair of monopods (Benro and Gitzo). I mounted the 70-200 on the a6000, while Claudia attached the 135/2.0 to the SL1. She’d shoot auto everything; I’d shoot manual everything.

Our plan fell apart immediately.

Within two minutes of setting up, the ballet company’s artistic director came over and told me we couldn’t shoot at all.

I think the white 70-200/2.8L gave us away. Or maybe it was the monopods?

No matter: I chose a tactical retreat, so we got…nothing.

But I was back the next day for the matinee, this time wearing a coat with the largest pockets I could find (a 16 year old Barbour Border jacket) with the a6000 and Sony 50/1.8 inside my right pocket.

No one saw me coming.

I’d wanted to shoot video, but now with everything truly on the line and no backup, I went to autofocus and auto exposure stills – and no support whatsoever.

The Results

Quick Year-in-Review

Shot with Sony a6000 and Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS, auto-focus and auto exposure, 3200 ISO

The a6000’s results at 3200 ISO with the 50 1.8 OSS – at $248 the exact same price I paid for the a6000 –blew me away.

And proved, once again, that while – OK, yes, it’s about the gear – it’s really not about the gear.

It’s about using what you’ve got well.

In this instance, this meant sitting in the right place (close enough to the stage but not too close); using the 11fps burst rate selectively (NB: when the buffer fills, the screen goes blank so that you cannot follow the action; this is about the only scenario – fast moving action – where a pentaprism-based DSLR still has it over mirrorless, in my book); pre-visualizing the image you want and dialing in shutter and aperture so that ISO can automatically float; and using the autofocus well.

The bottom line? The combination of outstanding technology filtering down to ridiculously low price points – coupled to a modicum of skill — allowed me to shoot essentially identical shots separated by six years and more than one order of magnitude in cost.

Incredible.

For me – and I know this is highly subjective and your mileage may vary — the a6000 felt and operated the way the Leica M8 should have (I sold mine two years ago). It is small, solid, easy in the hands – and does the business unobtrusively with high image quality.

The a6000 also sets the bar for any Canon or Nikon interchangeable lens camera – or anyone else’s, for that matter — in 2015 if they want to compete in this space.

No harm/no foul if they don’t.

The Video

I subsequently shot the accompanying end of year/happy new-year video on the a6000 with the Canon EF 24/1.4 via the Metabones – and was blown away again.

Man, that 24/1.4 is SHARP and has wonderfully shallow depth of field for such a wide field of view.

And with the a6000’s focus peaking (better than that on the Zacuto EVF which is part of my standard kit), manual focus was a snap.

While there’s no mic or headphone jack on the a6000 (sigh), Sony’s implementation of HDMI on the includes audio which means you can – if your monitor provides for it and the Aputure VS-2 I was using does – monitor the audio anyway.

Yet the video proved, once again, that it’s less about the gear than one’s skill.

As in: I THOUGHT I was recording to my new Tascam DR70-D via a Polsen lav, but I was so excited that I forgot to hit “record” – I was monitoring only!  Clearly, I have much room to grow.

Still, the little a6000 mic wasn’t half bad.

What’s Next?

We’ve got a lot more coming up in the opening weeks of 2015.

Along with the usual assortment of news, footage and commentary, we’ve got a full review of the Aputure VS-2 field monitor I used for the video (which I think is an incredible value); the Tascam DR70-D that replaced my Zoom H4n; the Syrp Genie motion controller; and a full review of the CAME-TV 7800 3 axis gimbal (you may have seen our test footage earlier).

And that, truly, is just a start.

But in the meantime, I want to thank you, dear readers, fellow contributors – and especially planetMitch – for allowing me the privilege of sharing our jointly held passions, curiosities and learnings about all things digital imaging.

Happy/healthy/merry!

(cover photo credit: snap from Hugh Brownstone)


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