Equipment: There are always trade-offs

Much is being made of the size and weight of the new Sony a7 and a7R full frame mirrorless cameras. Both cameras are the smallest interchangeable lens cameras with full frame sensors ever created. Far smaller than any of the current Canon and Nikon full frame DSLRs. In fact, the new Sony cameras are slightly smaller and lighter than the new Olympus E-M1, which uses a significantly smaller four thirds sensor.

This has led some to proclaim – even some “professionals” who should know better – that Nikon and Canon are doomed, and that the Micro Four Thirds format is now irrelevant. On paper at least, what Sony has done is impressive. Yet as I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, it’s not the size of the camera that matters so much as it is the size of the camera/lens combination. You can take that a step further, and say that it is the overall size of the system – cameras, lenses, accessories, tripods, bags – that is most important in determining the portability of a camera system. That is, after all, what these new Sony cameras are allegedly all about – portability. If you’re a studio photographer, the size and weight of your gear isn’t quite so important. If you’re someone who travels with their gear, or hikes long distances, then size and weight becomes crucial.

So let’s consider the new Sony cameras in conjunction with the new lenses that were also announced. When combined with the new 35mm f/2.8 lens, the Sony a7 is still slightly smaller and lighter than the Olympus E-M1 with 17mm(34mm equivalent) f/1.8 lens. However, in order to achieve this goal Sony kept the maximum aperture of the new 35mm lens to a relatively slow f/2.8. The fast aperture of the Olympus lens means better light-gathering capabilities, and less of a need to bump up the ISO in low light, negating some of the image quality advantage of Sony’s larger sensor. As we move towards the telephoto end, we start to see the limitations of Sony’s small body/big sensor cameras. One of the other new lenses announced by Sony is a 70-200mm f/4 zoom. No weight was given for this new lens, but since it’s required to provide an image circle large enough to cover a full frame sensor, we can estimate the size and weight based on similar offerings from Canon and Nikon. With tripod collar – which will be required when shooting from a tripod, so as not to damage the camera mount due to the heft of the lens – the new Sony zoom is likely to be in the neighborhood of 17cm long, with a weight of about 850g. The a7/70-200mm f/4 combo should weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 1265g, with an approximate size of 12.7cm x 9.3cm x 22.6cm. That size does not take into account the tripod collar, which would eat up additional space in the camera bag. Compare this to the Olympus E-M1/Panasonic 35-100mm(70-200mm equivalent) f/2.8 combo. The Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 weighs a diminutive 360g – small and light enough to not require a tripod collar. Taken together, the E-M1/35-100mm combo weighs 907g – scarcely more than the new Sony 70-200mm alone – with a size of 12.9cm x 9.3cm x 16.2. One could add the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 to the mix and the weight would still be less than the Sony a7/70-200mm combo alone, while taking up no more space in the camera bag, and offering a 24-200mm equivalent range. This Micro Four Thirds lens duo would provide a one stop advantage in light-gathering capabilities over the Sony 70-200mm, again eating into the image quality advantage of the big sensor Sonys. If we talk about the upcoming Olympus 40-150mm(80-300mm equivalent) f/2.8, the disparity become even greater. Sony does not currently offer a lens that can match the new Olympus zoom, but if they ever made one, it would be similar in size and weight to the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8. The Sigma is over 121cm long, with a weight of 3390g. The Olympus 40-150mm is likely to be about half as long, and weigh a third of the big Sigma lens.

What if we went in the other direction, comparing the weights of the cameras when coupled with wide angle primes or zooms? Unfortunately we can’t, because as of yet there are no wide angle primes or wide angle zooms in the new Sony mirrorless full frame system. This raises another problem – as of now, only five lenses have been announced, and only two are currently available. Sony has promised many more lenses, but you can’t make images with promises, and a promise is not a guarantee. Many users of Sony’s APS-C NEX cameras – including yours truly – are still waiting for the telephoto prime Sony promised over a year ago. Furthermore, when Sony has delivered on their lens promises, the results have occasionally been less than spectacular. That is not to say that Sony makes bad lenses – not at all. Still, in terms of optical quality, many of Sony’s lenses have tended to be a notch below the lenses coming from Panasonic and Olympus. On high resolution sensors like those found in the new Sony cameras, lens performance is crucial, and the jury is still out with regards to whether or not Sony’s optics can make the most of all those megapixels. I’d rather have a great lens on a good sensor, than a mediocre lens in front of a great sensor.

Of course, there are other factors to consider when comparing camera systems, such as autofocus speed and accuracy, metering, handling and ergonomics, build quality, features, etc. The Micro Four Thirds cameras have, from my experience, the best autofocus systems available in the mirrorless world, in terms of speed and accuracy. The E-M1 adds very capable AF tracking performance. The Micro Four Thirds cameras also have many useful and innovative features, such as in-body stabilization and live bulb shooting, which allows a photographer to view the progress of a long exposure. The E-M1 is not only dust and splash-proof, but also freeze-proof. All these small points add up, and can greatly enhance the useability of a camera system.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m genuinely excited by the new Sony cameras, for many reasons. For one thing, I believe they are a sign of things to come, as mirrorless cameras slowly but surely replace the DSLR. And despite the large lenses necessitated by the big sensor, there are many instances where these cameras will shine, especially if one sticks to the wider focal lengths. If I shot exclusively in the 35-50mm range, I’d jump at the chance to own either of the new Sony cameras, and use it as my main system camera. As it is, I’m still considering the possibility of purchasing one, as a “situational” camera. However as someone who shoots a lot of different subjects, with focal lengths ranging from 15mm to 600mm, and who often carries his gear long distances, the Micro Four Thirds system remains the better all-around choice as my main system. I believe that if people were truly honest about how they shoot, and stopped seeing full frame as some sort of photographic status symbol, many would come to the same conclusion. The point is, every system has it’s strengths and weaknesses. The new Sony cameras are no exception. A manufacturer makes trade-offs when designing a system, and a photographer makes trade-offs when choosing a system. There is no one size fits all solution. You have to know what your needs are, and what you’re willing to sacrifice. I’m willing to sacrifice a tiny bit of image quality for a large savings in size and weight, and access to a broad and deep selection of excellent lenses, with cameras that offer outstanding performance and useful features.

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