It was a cold (for Austin) night this past Tues. I was commissioned to shoot the dress rehearsal for the Zach Theatre rendition of, A Christmas Story, and I was in an experimental frame of mind. I've been using the Panasonic GH3s for a lot of different stuff but I hadn't yet plumbed the depths of high ISO performance with the smaller sensor camera and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to compare the Sony a99, the Sony a850 and the Panasonic GH3 cameras. On the other hand I always like to throw in a few wild cards and, since I have few high speed Panasonic lenses I reaching into an ancient bag of tricks and used some older, Olympus Pen FT manual focus half frame lenses for the smaller camera.
I'll dispense with the suspense and let you know right now that the Sony a850 was the loser at the high ISO stakes game. While it's a great ISO 160-200 studio camera it's not even a contender when we start ratcheting up the sensitivity boosters and head for darker regions. The 850 is a beach camera. It loves light so much it's got to be the George Hamilton of cameras. Even with an f2.8 on the front the noise reduction over ISO 800 just wipes out the detail like a cheap, vaseline covered UV filter.
The clear winner for sharpness, clean files and high detail with good color----under stage light conditions----at ISO 3200 was the Sony a99. Hands down. I used it mostly with the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G lens and the combo was doubly effective. While not many people have used the 70-200mm (think of the relative size of Sony's market compared to N and C.....) I'm here to tell you that even wide open it's a sharp and effective lens. I used it mostly at f3.5, just to give it some extra advantage.
But the interesting combination of the evening, for me at any rate, was the performance of the GH3 coupled with an ancient and unstabilized Olympus 150mm f4. It's a 45 year old, single coated lens, hand held by a nervous coffee drinker at the end of long day and it still pulled out some fun images. When you scroll down you'll see a series of images done in a 4:3 format. Those are the GH3 images. Most of them are done with the ancient telephoto. A few were done with the 60mm 1.5. I had to make allowances, not for the camera (which performed flawlessly) but for the older lens systems. It's not that they aren't capable of good performance but they lag behind the big Sony lens in overall contrast and ultra-fine contrast and so need a helping hand; which I gave them in the mid-contrast range.
I like to see comparisons like this because, even though I am comparing apples to watermelons, I can see imaging differences between the lenses that help me understand some of the stylistic considerations from decade to decade. People's styles evolved from their use of different tools. In an age where high contrast lenses can produce an endless number of sharp and "correct" photographs the coloration, contrast range and general "look" of the older lenses lends its own character to the images produced. The images from the older lenses look smoother and in some sense more three dimensional to me. In a sense they seem more "expressive" of the fictional time frame of the play...
Much as I love using the a850 for luscious portrait work I've resigned myself to retire it from theater duty. It's just not the right tool for the stage. And, in the company of the EVF-enabled cameras, it showed off the weakness of the OVF. It takes more time to meter and check and meter and check than it does to just look at the (95% accurate) EVF in the a99 or GH3 and shoot, shoot, shoot. The visual feedback is immediate and ongoing and it makes for a much quicker handling package in changing light. After using the EVF for tens of thousands of images in the last year and a half I can say that most of the corrections I make while shooting are done in real time and without conscious thought. The visually cued corrections have become part of the muscle memory of my shooting. And my hit rate is much higher for it.
These images are from the first dress rehearsal and from what I remember of the play (as divorced from what I remember about shooting the play) it was pretty well polished and I had more than a few "laugh out loud" moments. In fact, I left the theater with the idea that I'd bring back the family for one performance and perhaps a group of friends for another performance. It's really a good, nostalgic, heartwarming and funny production.
There was one strange moment in the evening though. You'll have to understand that I've been shooting images at dress rehearsals for the theatre for twenty years now. I've sat through hundreds of productions and shot well over 100,000 images for the theater. But this has never happened to me before.....
I came in a half an hour early. A section of seven seats had been reserved for me and the theatre staff had placed signs on each of the chairs that read, "Reserved for Staff Photographer." I spread out my four shooting cameras and two bags over a number of the seats and I went through the preparations that I usually go through. We had a small, invited audience. These are friends and family of the theater who do not pay for their tickets. The ushers and staff were informed that the staff photographer would be taking images during the entire show.
Everything went swimmingly for the first act. Then, during the intermission, a very solemn man with a Zach Theatre volunteer name badge came walking down my row and got up very close to me. He stood so that his face was about 18 inches from mine and he said, "You CAN NOT take photographs during the show. You have to PUT THOSE CAMERAS AWAY and not take them out again!!!!" I thought he was kidding. His affect was quite stern and when I laughed he inferred that not complying would result in my.......removal from the theater.
I reached into the pocket of my camera bag and pulled out my official Zach Theatre name badge which very clearly states upon it: "STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER." On seeing the badge the official mumbled something about how photographers usually shot from the sides..... I had to correct him and let him know that, since I'd been the photographer at EVER show we've done in the new theatre I could assure him that ALL the dress rehearsal images have all been done in exactly the same way.
It was so wacky. But I get it. Some people in the audiences feel endlessly entitled. The cellphone is sometimes too great a temptation for some and occasionally an audience member tries to take a surreptitious cellphone image during a peak moment in the action only to be laid bare by the white LED flash that they never seem to anticipate.....
The two images above are from the GH3 coupled with the 150 Olympus lens at ISO 1600. It's a totally different look and feel from the Sony. Next time out I'll take friend, Frank up on his offer and do a real comparison. Camera to camera. f2.8 lens to f2.8 lens and we'll see how they both handle the world at ISO 1600. I have a feeling it will be closer than Sony fans will want to admit.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving and don't try sticking your tongue on a metal lamppost.
If you get bored after too much turkey and too many political arguments with
the in-laws, don't forget that Craftsy.com is offering a portrait
course for free by yours truly. It's probably even better after a glass
or two of good red wine.....