Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why I Switched from a Canon 5d mk 3 to a Sony a99 (review)

EDIT: before I begin, please remember that this is not supposed to be a very professional review-- it's a review written with the excitement of using a new camera that I'm really impressed by and excited about. It's not a technical review, it's mostly focusing on talking about features that the a99 has that I think make a pretty big difference in my every day shooting that I really appreciate. I haven't been able to fully test the a99 yet, but I'll try to continue updating this post to make it more informative along the way :)

Last week, I got my Sony a99 in the mail along with all the equivalent lenses to my Canon set, and started selling off my Canon gear. This caused a LOT of curiosity and questions from people wanting to know why I was switching! I am BLOWN away by the brand new Sony a99, so I wanted to write a full blog post on the switch and the reasons behind it. My into is gonna be a little long so scroll down to see the main points :)

Well, there are several reasons behind my switch. First of all, for full disclosure, After I did the NEX-5R Taylor Swift commercial with Sont and mentioned liking the NEX-5R, Sony did send me an a77 (crop frame), an a99 (Sony's brand new 5d mk 3/D800 equivalent), and a 85 1.4 Zeiss lens (Zeiss makes AF lenses for Sony only) to use. They did NOT insinuate or ask me in any way to fully switch over brands, to promote their products, or to write this blog post, however. They were excited about their product (as they should be!!) and wanted me to try it out and give them their opinion on it.

I bought myself a 35 1.4 Sony lens, a 50 1.4 Sony lens, and a 135 f/1.8 Sony Zeiss lens to complete my set, since these are the lenses I used with my Canon 5D mk 3, for those of you who will want to know what lenses I use :)

I got to use the a99 while I was helping out on Joseph Gordon Levitt's HitRECord.org tour, and the cinematography crew there couldn't stop talking about how incredible the video was, particularly the face tracking AF! I couldn't wait to try it out during a shoot. Last week, I got it in the mail and very quickly was so impressed and excited that I didn't think for more than a second before selling off my Canon gear.

Don't get me wrong. Canon is a great brand, and the mk 3 was fantastic. I used the mk 2 before that, and before that I used a Nikon D700 as well. When the mk 3 and D800 came out, I debated for a long time over which one I would upgrade to (I was very unhappy with the mk 2's low light performance and AF), and decided to stay with Canon, though the D800 is obviously great too. I always do tons of research before buying a camera, and mostly I've realized that when two brands have an equivalent camera, the small differences between the two usually aren't enough to make a big every day difference unless you're doing something very specific... like if you're a sports photographer, obviously a 1 frame per second capability difference matters, or if you do photography where you need to blow up your photos to billboard size, extra megapixels matter. If you always shoot at night, you need the best low-light performance. But for me and most of the people who follow my work (and the people whose work I follow), where we do mostly portraiture, fashion, conceptual, etc in a semi-pro or pro nature, those technical differences between two equivalent cameras of different brands are usually too small or not often apparent enough to actually make a difference in the way we shoot and the photos we are able to take.

This has not been the case with the Sony a99. The reason I was so blown away is that there are several very apparent differences that affect my shooting EVERY TIME in a very positive way. I'm having a really hard time condensing all the points I have to make, but they're all really important and make a real difference, so be sure to read them all!

Here are the main standouts to me that make me far prefer the Sony a99 to the Canon 5D mk iii (I have not used the D800 so cannot compare)

1. Electronic viewfinder. OH MY GOD. WHAT A DIFFERENCE!! This, this, THIS for so many reasons. Sony's viewfinder is electronic. What does this mean?

-it's like Live View (which the a99 also has of course) in the viewfinder, so you immediately see exposure changes, how your white balance affects the colors, and an accurate Depth of Field Preview. This means you don't need to keep taking pictures and checking the back of your camera to make sure it's what you want. It's a huge time saver and headache saver for me. **also, it has 100% coverage, unlike the mk 2 (97%), though the mk 3 also has 100% coverage**

-ACCURATE DEPTH OF FIELD PREVIEW BELOW f/2.5. This is SO IMPORTANT you guys! I don't know about you, but as someone who mostly takes pictures of people, I almost always shoot below f/2.5. In Canon's viewfinder, the depth of field preview only goes down to f/2.5, so if you're using anything below that, you will not be able to tell if your subject is in focus. This is a huge deal, especially since Canon's AF STILL is not all that great in my experience (to my disappointment, though it definitely improved over the 5D mk ii). In order to make sure your focus below f/2.5 is correct on a Canon, you need to use Live View or keep guessing and checking/hoping for correct focus, which is crazy.

With the a99, because it uses an electronic viewfinder, the depth of field preview is accurate no matter what aperture you're using. YAY! Now onto AF and live view...

2. Auto-Focus in more ways than one!

a) General AF:

The a99's Auto-Focus is WAY better than my Canon 5D mk 3. I have to say, I have been really disappointed with the mk 3's AF. It's definitely an improvement over the mk 2, but even shooting models who aren't moving much, and even with several AF modes to chose from, I had almost completely stopped shooting AF because it just almost never got it right, or had to search for awhile to do so. Obviously, keep in mind I always shoot around f/1.2-f/2.2, so it's difficult to get focus on a model's eyes every time for any camera. But still. I expected better. Because Canon's viewfinder doesn't allow you to accurately manually focus below f/2.5, I was constantly using Live-View to make sure I had correct focus.

EDIT: I had originally said that the even the a77's AF seemed better than my mk 3, and someone pointed out that they had had a different experience and that I may have a lemon copy of my mk 3. I hadn't considered this before, but with all the trouble I've had with AF on it, this is definitely a possibility. I plan on sending it in to be checked. Stay tuned, though it will be awhile before an update on that. Keep this in mind while reading, though the a99's focusing has been fantastic regardless!

Sony actually uses a completely different technology for their AF than Nikon or Canon. Here's a quick summary of it:

"Utilizing the Translucent Mirror technology, the autofocus system is able to continuously monitor the image frame and alter the autofocus quickly and responsively. Two phase contrast sensors, a 19-point sensor above the translucent mirror and a 102-point focal plane phase detection sensor, work together to deliver greatly improved subject tracking performance and increased precision."

Obviously, it doesn't just hit focus correctly 100% of the time like any camera, but it gets accurate focus WAY more often than my mk 3. For example, I could almost never take a good picture of my cats with my mk2/mk3, because they're always moving just when you don't want them to haha (and again, I shoot wide). With my a99, I've gotten plenty of in-focus shots already.

b) Live view AF:

I don't know about Nikon, but the AF on the live view (LV) for Canon is pretty horrible. It's extremely slow, which makes it pretty much useless unless your subject is completely still. I have NO idea why they made it like this. I have never understood it.

With the Sony a99, the AF is just as fast in LV mode as it is in the viewfinder... so it's just lightening fast all around.

c) AF during videos:

Not only does the Sony a99 have AF during videos, it has incredibly accurate AF during videos with Face Detection/tracking. Canon does not offer any AF during video. Nikon does for their D800, but when I was researching that vs the mk 3, I heard from enough sources that it was useless enough not to matter. Sony's is INCREDIBLE. They used it for the whole HitRECord.org tour where they had 4 different a99s (2 stationary, 2 hand held and constantly moving) filming with this AF on constantly (and it was a live feed to the big screen on stage), and it worked like a charm. The only limitation is that it only does AF down to f/3.5, under that, you'll still need to manually focus. Small price to pay, in my opinion! Especially coming from the mk 3, which has no AF during video at all!

The a99 also records up to 1080/60p (60 frames per second) while the mk 3 only goes up to 1080/30p (30 frames per second), which is something to consider. Well actually, if you're really into video, Sony blows the Canon and Nikon out of the park so you should definitely be seriously considering it.

3. Awesome, moving LCD screen:

So this isn't anything new for lower-end cameras, but none of the high end FF cams have it. I didn't think anything of it until I got the a77 and then started using it quite often. Now that I have it on the a99, it's been a lifesaver in a bunch of situations already.

Here's the deal guys. I'm short. And I shoot with tall models often. So with the 5d mk 3, this meant me standing on my tip toes, possibly with live view on, straining to get a level shot that was also well composed and in focus... or me asking the model to squat :P Seriously though, this was a problem. Now with the Sony a99, I can pull the screen out and tilt it as needed, lift the camera up, and compose easily. With the AF being super fast and accurate even in Live View on the a99, I don't need to worry about attempting to manually focus while holding the camera above my head like I did with the mk 3.

Not only that, but it's way easier to get interesting angles without bending down, laying on the ground etc. I just pull the screen out and adjust the angle as needed and hold the camera where I need to for the shot.

ALSO, it can be folded out far enough and twisted around enough that you can take self portraits while looking at live view, which is a really nice added bonus! :)

4. ISO performance and SteadyShot INSIDE Image Stabilization

Here's the technical description:

"This camera features Sony's SteadyShot technology for image stabilization within the camera. By reducing camera shake at the camera level you can achieve shake compensation up to 2.5-4.5 stops in shutter speed. This technology is compatible with any Sony Alpha lens."

Why this matters: with my Canon, there have been plenty of times when I got up to the max ISO I was willing to use, was at the widest aperture possible, and had to call it an evening because I couldn't go below 1/80th (preferably 1/125) shutterspeed before things got shaky. Obviously this may be different for you.. I think I have shaky hands and that + moving subjects does not bode well, but the difference will still be the same. With my Sony, I haven't tested the limits, but I've been very surprised that I can still shoot at 1/50 and it comes out like 1/100 or 1/125 on my Canon. I actually wasn't aware that there was a specific technology that did this, and thought I must be imagining things until I read about it haha! This also means that no matter what lens you use, it's stabilized, which is awesome.

I haven't fully tested the limits of the a99's ISO range (the 5D mk 3 has a slightly bigger range- 2 stops more when expanded), but I've taken it to where I am normally comfortable for non-night shots on the mk 3 (1600) and have noticed no difference. I will expand on this later when I've had it for more time and have shot with it in low light for a shoot :)

5. Zeiss Lenses!!

If you're even semi-serious as a photographer, you probably already know that Zeiss lenses are completely drool-worthy. Sadly, if you buy them for Nikon or Canon they're manual focus only. Zeiss makes many of the Sony lenses though, and so they're all fully compatible, including incredible auto focus!

6. Lighter body

My Sony a99 is noticeably lighter than the 5D mk 3. At first I wasn't sure if I liked this, because heavier gear usually feels more solid. However, I've quickly come to love it! My gear is heavy in general, and having a lighter camera (even though its about the same size) definitely makes a difference.. I don't feel like I'm "lugging" my stuff around anymore.

On/Off switch location

Nikon has this down, but Canon still doesn't. Canon's on/off switch is in a terrible place on the mk 2. On the mk 3 it's improved, but still not exactly natural for switching on and off. When I had my Nikon D700 back in the day, I used to constantly turn the camera off between shots because it was so quick and easy and it became second nature.. I never even thought about it. This makes a big difference in battery life. The Sony a99 has the on/off switch in that same, natural position (kind of in front of the shutter button) for easy on/off and power saving.


Oh yeah, and the a99 retails for $2,798-- a very reasonable price!


Those are the main things that make a big difference for me and make this camera so worthwhile to me. There are a few more perks that aren't as important to me, like a slight boost in megapixels over the mk 3 (but not as many as the D800, so no huge file sizes/no crowded sensor) at 24mp, a dual SD only card slot (I prefer SD since you can plug it directly into your computer and they are slightly less expensive than CF cards), and much better doors to the area on the camera where you can plug cords in (compared to Canon 5D mk 3). It has all the features I used on my Canon. It shoots 6fps which is equal to the 5D mk 3. I find the image quality to be completely the same if not slightly more pleasing than the Canon.

EDIT: A few potential cons have come up in discussion (mostly on private messaging). I say potential because neither has affected my shooting, and so probably won't for many people, but may concern a few.

-One concern is battery life. I have only had two shoots with this and the battery has lasted fine for them, but they weren't particularly long and I don't doubt that the battery life must be shorter for the a99 since it always has either an electronic viewfinder on or live view on. This isn't a huge deal for me since I always have a backup battery, but may matter to some people or be a slight annoyance. I like the EVF so much (I think that's my favorite part) that I feel it's a fair trade off.

-Additionally, there IS a slight lag when you turn the camera on. Not sure of the exact time, but it takes about a second or so to be ready to shoot, rather than being instant. My guess is this has to do with the EVF turning on, but I'm not sure. This hasn't really been significant for me since the type of shooting I do doesn't require that I take the picture within a second of turning the camera on, but it may be of concern to a few.

-The a99 automatically detects when your eye is over the viewfinder and instantly switches to EVF, and when you take your eye away, it instantly switches to Live View. Someone asked if there was delay with this. Not at all in my experience so far! :) I actually really like the feature! :)

Don't get me wrong, Nikon and Canon are great brands and I've happily used both. But I have to say that I very honestly think the Sony stepped WAY up when they released the a99, and that anyone considering a full frame camera needs to at least seriously consider it as an option.

Feel free to ask me any more questions about anything I haven't covered here!

You can see full product specs and pictures or buy the Sony a99 here: Sony SLTA99V Alpha SLT-A99V Full-Frame 24.3 MP SLR Digital Camera with 3-Inch LED - Body Only (Black)

Here are some sample images I took with my a99 on a simple shoot in the park! I have many more from a recent shoot, but we are submitting them to a magazine so I can't release them. Sorry! I'll be adding any photos taken with the a99 to this set on my flickr as well as I release them .