Early in 2016, I made the decision to switch from Nikon, which I had been shooting with for 9 years, to Sony.
It wasn’t an easy decision. When you buy into a camera system it isn’t just a matter of getting all your lenses and gear to be compatible. You become accustomed to where all the knobs, dials, switches and buttons are. It is similar to playing an instrument and then being asked to play something else, even if that something else is similar, like moving from playing the clarinet to a saxophone.
I had originally purchased a Nikon D200 back in 2007, which was their top of the line crop sensor camera. In 2011 I upgraded to the D300s, which was the successor to the D200, and which originally came out in 2009.
My new camera: the Sony A7rii
Since 2011 I had been waiting for the successor to the D300s to come out…..and nothing ever happened. I would occasionally read the Nikon rumor sites and a few times every year there would be rumors about how the D400 would be released at the next big photo/technology event.
…and nothing happened.
I then started thinking about just getting a full frame Nikon camera like the D810, which I almost did. Moving to a full-frame camera would have been close to switching to a brand new system because I would have to have purchased new lenses along with the new body. If I was going to do that, then I figured I should just consider changing everything.
I ended up just doing nothing for a very long time, using my D300s even as it literally started to fall apart (and I’m quite serious when I say it was falling apart. Most of the rubber surfaces on the body are now falling off.)
As I waited, and as Nikon kept not releasing the D400, I began hearing more rumors that they were simply abandoning the professional crop-sensor market. They weren’t releasing anything or saying anything, so it seemed a reasonable proposition which matched the facts.
My backup camera body: the Sony a6000
In 2015 the Sony a7rii came out and I started reading all of the reviews. Almost all of the reviews were gushing in its praise, and a several went on to say it was the best camera in the world currently in production. Several photographer friends of mine also switched to Sony and they were very pleased with the switch.
In early 2016 I made the decision that I was going to get a Sony a7rii and lenses which would replicate the current set of lenses I was using.
About one week after I set my mind to moving to Sony, Nikon finally released a successor to the D300s….the D500. However, by this time it was too little too late. Nikon’s seven-year wait was way too long, whereas Sony had been releasing a steady stream of new products, showing more innovation than Nikon or Canon.
So in one fell swoop, I not only changed manufacturers, but I moved from crop sensor to full frame, and from SLR to mirrorless.
Adjusting To A New System
Moving to a new camera system is a subtle thing. I think most photographers could pick up a camera they have never used before and quickly figure out how to adjust their aperture and ISO settings.
Really becoming comfortable with a camera, however, requires a lot of practice. It is knowing where the knobs and dials are so you can make setting changes without looking. It is having an intuitive feel for what you can get away with in terms of ISO. It is knowing where everything you need is located in the menu.
For example, I learned that I really didn’t want to go above ISO 800 on my D200, or above 1600 on my D300s. I could go a bit higher if I really had to, and maybe do some noise reduction in Lightroom, but that was pretty much my limit.
It took me a while to figure out what that level was on my a7rii. In Ethiopia, I took some photos inside of a cave which were absolutely unusable because I didn’t have the correct ISO settings. 9 months later I was again inside a cave in Great Basin National Park and I was able to take some pretty nice handheld shots because I had a much better feel for the camera and what it could do. I prefer to use tripod in caves for obvious reasons, but I was unable to get a permit in time from the park service.
This photo was taken at ISO 25,600. It is a hand held photo taken inside of a Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.
Next time I change cameras or a camera system, I think I’m going to spend several days a home just working on learning the settings of the camera. I didn’t spend enough time learning with this switch.
I also purchased a second body to have in my bag. I purchased a Sony a6000 prior to my trip to Ethiopia. Honestly, I really just purchased it as a spare body in case something happened to my a7rii, but I found myself using it as my primary body when I was off shooting polar bears in Manitoba.
Benefits of Moving to Sony
Overall I’m pleased with my move to Sony.
As I noted above, in addition to switching manufacturers I also moved from a crop sensor camera to a full frame, an SLR to a mirrorless camera, as well as to a camera with a much higher resolution. Many people will point out that I could have gotten similar benefits of just moving to a Nikon D5 or a similar body, and they would be correct. Just keep in mind that many of my observations might not just attributable just to moving to Sony.
Low Light Capabilities
I have to start with this because it was the primary reason I moved to Sony and to the a7rii in particular. The low light capabilities are amazing. I felt shackled with my older, crop sensor body when it came to low light photos. There were many photos I wasn’t able to capture simply because of the poor low light performance of my D300s. As a travel photographer, this is probably the most important attribute for any camera body because I am often in places like churches or temples which have little light and a flash is not an option.
There were several photos I’ve taken over the last year which simply would have been impossible with my old gear. This photo of an Ethiopian priest was taken at ISO 12,800, several stops above what I could have done before.
Taken at ISO 12,800, this photo wouldn’t have been possible with my previous gear.
From the reviews I’ve read, The a7rii is about one full stop better than the top end Canon and Nikon bodies right now. That is debatable I know, but I’m very happy with where I’m at for low light performance right now.
Size and Weight
It is true that, in general, mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than SLR. My current kit does take up less space in my bag than my previous gear. However, the difference isn’t as great as some people think. Much of the weight is just squeezed into a smaller package. It is lighter, but not so much that I think it would be worth making a change on this basis alone. Nonetheless, it is a nice side benefit when you have to carry your gear around all day long.
The size difference is enough that when I put my current gear in my camera bag, which is pretty analogous with what I before in terms of lenses, there is definitely more space. This makes it much easier to carry a second body, which brings me to…
Smaller Crop Sensor Cameras
The Sony a6XXX line of cameras is very affordable and come in a small package. They basically look like point and shoot cameras, except they can use the same e-mount lenses that you can use on other Sony mirrorless cameras. Whereas the size and weight benefits to the a7rii over an SLR are marginal, the benefits to the a6000, a6300, and a6500 are substantial.
It is very nice to be able to carry a backup body with me which is so light, small, and cheap. They also perform quite well. I used my tiny a6000 with a huge Sigma 150-600mm lens while in Manitoba and was able to take respectable photos with it.
Taken with my Sony a6000. ISO 600 / f6.3 / 1/2000 sec
I went from a 12.3-megapixel camera in the D300s to a 42-megapixel camera in the a7rii. That is an enormous jump in resolution….and file size (see below).
Because most of what I do is displayed online, I really don’t need 42-megapixels, but having the extra resolution is handy for a host of things.
The higher resolution gives me more options when it comes to cropping is post processing, as well as the freedom to do other things with my images down the road if I so wish.
Downside of Moving to Sony
While I’m overall satisfied with Sony, everything isn’t perfect. Here are some of the downsides to the system.
I usually could go several days or longer on one battery in my SLR’s. Now, I have change batteries at least once a day and quite often I go through multiple batteries a day. I pretty much have to recharge my batteries every evening or I risk being without power the next day. Several times I’ve forgotten to charge the night before and I got by on the skin of my teeth the next day.
The battery drain primarily comes from the fact that because there is no mirror, at least one LCD is usually running whenever the camera is on, even if it is the tiny one in the eyepiece.
I’m sure there will be improvements to battery life in future models, but I don’t think that mirrorless cameras will ever be as good as SLR’s in this department.
The size of RAW files in the D300s are approximately 15mb each. The Sony a7rii produces RAW files which are about 80mb. That is a substantial difference is size.
It takes an abnormally long time to write the images to the memory card. The decision to use such a slow bus, and to not use the Sony proprietary XQD format memory cards, is one of the most baffling things about the a7rii.
I’m often waiting for the camera to finish writing to the card and there were a few times when I’ve missed a shot because of the buffering.
Thankfully, the rumors are that the next Sony flagship camera will solve this problem with a vengeance, allowing continuous RAW shooting. That means you will be able to hold the shutter down and it will shoot and save continuously until the battery is dead. That’s impressive.
Even if I never change lenses or open the battery door, the sensor on the a7rii gets really dirty. Whereas I didn’t flinch in taking my SLR out in a light rain, I wouldn’t think of doing that with my Sony cameras.
Because there is no mirror to protect the sensor, they need to do a much better job of sealing the camera to keep dust out.
Despite its flaws, I’m overall pleased with the images I’m getting from my a7rii and my a6000. I don’t forsee myself changing systems for quite a while.
Sony has been innovating at a much faster pace than Nikon or Canon, releasing new cameras and features every year. Moving to Sony wasn’t just a play to take better photos today (which it did) but also a bet on the future.