The Sony A7iii Is Technically Advanced But Hard To Love

My first Minolta 600si was my Dad’s last camera before he passed away.  I inherited it and put in in the very large office closet where all my camera gear is stored.  It stayed there for quite a while and then I loaned it to one of my wife’s friends for about 3 years.  When I got the camera I was in a digital only phase and just did not want to use it.  But then when I got it back I had started using film again and tried it out the first day I got it back.  It came paired with a 50mm f2.8 macro lens.  It also came back with two 24 exposure rolls of Fuji Superia 400.

I did find and download a manual for the 600si.  After looking at that and then checking with the internet to see what people thought about this camera I shot the first roll mostly around our house.  Then the next roll we went to the zoo with my daughter and her two kids.  About half way through the first roll I started to think things like, “wow this is really easy to use”.  “What a great bright viewfinder”.  “No menus Yeah!!!!” “It even loads, advances, and then auto rewinds film rolls” “Boy is this auto focus fast.  It works about as quick as my Nikon D5500”. “This Minolta viewfinder is soooo much better than the Nikon.”

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And then those first two rolls came back from the developer and I was in love with this camera.  For a while I preferred the 600si to my long standing favorite the Olympus OM2n.  Now I am about evenly divided between the two.  I use the 600 when I think there will be kids, action, or low light and auto focus helps.  Or when I am lazy.  The 600 just does everything for you when you want or nothing at all and you can use it manually.

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Minolta thought a great deal about how someone would use this camera body and then made it simple and easy but effective.  My biggest complaints are that the plastic body does not look as good as the Nikon and the viewfinder is not quite as good as the Olympus.  But in every other way this is a great shooter.  Very quick to set up and then make changes when shooting.  All the controls are visible at a glance and changeable with just moving the individual controls changing a setting.

Sony bought Minolta in 2006.  This camera was made around 2000.  Sony must have fired or not listened to any of the Minolta people that made the brilliant 600si.  Even camerapedia calls this a cult camera because of the ease of use and capabilities.  But of course by the time it came out the hey day of film cameras was ending.  The Sony A7iii is a technical tour de force.  However, to set up, adjust when using, and love, not so much. And  I don’t just like older film cameras.  I loved my Nikon D5500.  The D5500 has some of the same advantages of the Minolta 600si, easy to use with it’s capable touch screen, very intuitive adjustments, and gives good photos.  A terrible video camera though.

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Notice all the single purpose controls.  A little secret is that when they all are aligned the same direction the system is on full automatic.  The Sony has pretty much no such thought given to the actual operation of the A7iii.  It’s all there from a technical standpoint, but using it is a jumbled up mess of mostly unmarked buttons, dozens of menus not set out logically, and very difficult to use in the hand.  The Sony is very hard to use quickly, one handed, or fast.  You can set up many of the controls but then you have to remember which ones are which.  If you have a dozen special buttons or controls and only a couple are marked you have to remember which is which quickly sometimes.

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The Sony A7iii turns out really good jpegs.  I always used raw with my Nikons because editing the raws gave better results usually than starting with jpegs.  But Sony adds to my confusion by turning out raws and jpegs that are almost indistinguishable.  That is nothing like Nikon.  Nikon raws are unedited and easily developed in Lightroom.  Sony raws out of my camera look the same as the jpegs.  The Sony is developing both in camera even though I would prefer raw, raws.  One of the problems I have encountered is that the A7iii knows through AI that we are near large bodies of water like the ocean.  When it knows that it adjusts the scene towards the blue side.  And that means you have to go through and edit white balance for every shot you want to use.  That said the Sony A7iii with it’s EVF and histogram in the finder you can control exposure much better than on a DSLR with OVF.  The Sony jpegs and raw so far as I have used this camera seem to be able to handle mid day harsh sun and give better files than Nikon.

I go to this one beach park that is part of a National Park and have tested a bunch of digital cameras and film.  The Sony A7iii is the best digital in this tough lighting of the ones I have used.  That said Kodak Ektar, Kodak Gold 200, Fuji 200, Kodak Ultramax, and Fuji Superia 400 have all given very good results on this test even when using the cheapest photo lab to develop them.  The Nikon D5500 & iPhone both failed this test badly.

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The above shot was taken about a month ago and this was a full sun mid day shot.  The Sony did this with a jpeg.  What is really strange is that when I put on a UV filter later in the shoot I could not tell the difference in the files.  I got shots with unwashed out colors from several films, but no other digital. (I only tried a Nikon D5500, Sony HX 80, and iPhone 7+).

Conclusion so far.  My six weeks of experience with the Sony A7iii is that from a technical and performance standpoint it is excellent but hard to use and confusing.  Sometimes too smart for it’s own good.  Like when it turns water scenes blueish.  And, why is it editing the raws?  It is also expensive compared to the Nikon Z6.  A Sony A7iii with kit 24-105 f4 & 55mm Sony Zeiss f1.8 = $4,300.  The Nikon Z6 with kit 24-70 f4 & Nikon 50mm f1.8 = $2,895.  I don’t think the cheep Sony kit lens is worth having.  And 200 of them currently on eBay at half price says I am right.  Final thought – I may get really good results from the Sony but I don’t think I will ever love or even like this camera much.

Suggestion for Sony – Get those Minolta guys back to help you with handling and logical handling.

Sony A7iii Test With Adapted Minolta 35mm-70mm f3.5-4.5

This test is with my six week old Sony A7iii, Sony adapter LA EA4 & Minolta 35-70mm f3.5-4.5 zoom.  These shots were all taken hand held at f8 and 1/60 sec.  I used a Godox TT350s flash set on TTL.  All are from jpeg out of the Sony set at large & fine.  I used the jpegs as I could see only a tiny bit of image degradation using jpeg.  This is beginning to be the norm with this camera.  When I was using my Nikon D5500 or D750 I almost always shot raw and edited with Lightroom CC or CC Classic.  I did that because there was a substantial benefit to do so.  With the Sony A7iii the jpegs come out so good there just does not seem to be a point to store the bigger raw files.  When I say the Sony jpegs are good I mean both image sharpness and color.

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This lens I got for free.  I bought a Minolta 70-210 from eBay for $32 a couple of years ago to go on my Minolta 600si film camera.  I looked up this lens on the internet and it gets some good ratings.  Cheaply made but it is sharp and works well when you get a good sample.  This should be evident from looking at these photos I just shot today.

I used these settings to get these shots.  Single shot, DMF focus, center focus area, 0 exposure comp, auto ISO, center teetering, AWB, std color, and A mode set at f8.  The camera chose 1/60th.

_DSC0753I have found with this lens that if the background is very busy and bright the bokeh can be distracting.  But this is no Zeiss Otus or Sony G master lens.

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This lens works very well with both the LA AE4 adapter and the Godox flash.  I set the flash on TTL and put on a light diffuser that Godox included when I bought this flash two weeks ago.

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These lenses can be bought at a low price and if you are looking for a budget zoom with this focal range I recommend it.

Sony A7iii Complexity of Operation

The Sony A7iii is capable of very good photographs with native E mount glass or adapted Sony A mount glass.

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Shot with Sony A7iii with Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8
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Shot with Sony A7iii and Sigma 50mm f2.8 macro and Sony LA EA4 adapter

Both of these shots were made to jpeg – fine only and the only edit I did was to import to Apple Photos on my MacBook Pro and hit enhance.  I used auto focus on both and the adapted lens focused perfectly.  The colors here are very accurate.  I used the Sony “standard” setting for jpeg color.

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Shot with Sony A7iii and Sony Zeiss f1.8 manual focus

Then I put back on the native Sony Zeiss lens and tried to get a decent shot of this metal Christmas scene.  This is not a good picture, but I am using it to illustrate a point.  I tired the auto focus in wide and it got a bit confused.  So I figured this was a good time to try the manual focus again.  Manual focus for close up shots is really better than auto focus.  So I aimed the camera at where I wanted to focus and slightly turned the focus ring on the Zeiss.  The camera zoomed in and showed me focus peaking.  That made it pretty easy to set focus where I wanted to.  Of course this is a very very complex way to do this. My old Olympus OM2n has manual focus only and you get a very easy to use split focus in the viewfinder.  When the images come together it is in focus.  The Sony is almost as good in regular light and I am sure is much better in low light.  If you zoom into the above photo you can see that it is quite sharp.  And I can tell you the jpeg colors are accurate.

So this afternoon I thought I would take another pass through the menus to try and improve my knowledge of the many settings that are in them.  I put in about an hour before it becomes just too much.  There are far more Sony settings than my last camera.  And from the enthusiasm of the tutorial I was using it seems like I should commit many of them to memory.  But many of the settings interfere with other settings and the number of possibilities is very large.  The Nikon system is far simpler.  I would guess that after a year with this camera body I will still not know most of them.  Adding to the complexity is the fact that only a few of the buttons are labeled.  That means you have to remember where you put the focus settings before you then have to remember which of the settings you have to use.  This system would be much better with a simplified menu that could be controlled by a touch screen.  Since Sony makes smart phones I know they can make touch screens.  And I do know that the back screen in my camera is a partial touch screen.  But I have to go back and read the manual to figure out how it works.

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Shot with iPhone XS max

This rainbow turned up outside our house a little after I took the pictures of the Christmas figures with the Sony.  I went outside with the Sony to get a shot of the rainbow, but it was still raining.  And I am not quite sure exactly how weather proof the Sony and Sony lens are.  They are supposed to be OK with some rain, but I am still not sure how much.  The iPhone on the other hand is quite capable of just about any amount of rain with no damage.  As was my Nikon D750.  So the iPhone got this rainbow shot.  The above is smart HDR, and below is just a single shot.

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If you look at these two shots on my detailed monitor I am not sure the HDR added anything.  The clouds are not blown with either.

Unlike the Sony the iPhone XS max with the standard apple camera app is easy to understand after a bit of effort.  And the Adobe iPhone camera app is pretty darn simple too.  Adobe has really come a long way to improving this iPhone app over the last year.  A year ago their HDR was terrible, unusable.  Now it works well.  But then Apple has just blown the doors off computational photography with their smart HDR which much of the time really adds something to the finished image with no effort.  I have only had the new iPhone two weeks and I think I am pretty expert at using it.  With the Sony I am OK with the stuff that is basic but World’s away from getting all the complicated things to work.

So here is a message to Sony from me about their A7 line of cameras.  Cut about half of the menu items.  Make the back screen a full touch screen.  And make sure you buy and use an iPhone for a while to see how simple making good photos can be.  And a couple more things.  1.  Why is there no pop up small built in flash.  You fit one on my last inexpensive compact Sony HX 80 so I know you can do it on the A7 bodies.  That type of flash comes in very handy and if it works as well as the Sony HX 80 built in flash that would be great.  2.  Identify the main buttons.  Put labels on them.  3.  A7s should be possible to operate with one hand, they are not.

Keep It Simple When It Comes To Tech

I just spent 5-10 minutes trying to get my bluetooth speaker to attach to my iPhone so I could listen to some music.  Every time I turned the speaker on it was pulling music from some device somewhere in the house but not the one I wanted it to.  After a few failed attempts I gave up.  I did not feel like fishing out a wire and the dongle that adapts the iPhone to an old style phone plug so I could just use a wire.

Earlier today I wanted to scan a document to email to someone.  I loaded the HP printer scanner and then realized that my new MacBook Pro does not have the software for that scanner loaded into it.  And since that HP is about four years old there are no updated drivers that work with the latest Mac software.  So I had to go get one of my old Windows laptops that I knew had that software in it so I could run the scanner.

An hour later I tried to make a new folder on one of my external drives so I could store some data on it.  Guess what, the new MacBook does not have the software on it to get full use of the Seagate drive like the old MacBook does.  So I had to fire up the old MacBook to see what the name of the software is and go to the Seagate web page to get the driver.

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Taken with Sony A7iii with old cheap (very cheap) Minolta 30-70 lens

Don’t get the idea I don’t like tech, I do, but I like stuff that is simple to get to work right and lasts a while.  Bluetooth usually works OK, but can be a PIA.  Wires are simple and always work.  Software drivers and getting software to work in the system you want it to work in can be easy, hard, or impossible.  That older HP combo printer scanner is likely not going to work as a network scanner unless wire it into the network or wire it directly to the computer I want to send the scan to.  It works fine and is not that old.

My point here is that if you take photos today that you want to enjoy a few years from now you had better be very careful how you save the files.  If you take high quality photos and want the quality to be the same in the future you have to be especially careful to make sure that no software changes your files.

  • To make sure your file exists and is readable in the future you need to save some copies.  This is what I do.  I put the files on a plug in drive.  I then back it up on a second drive locally.  (In the future I am only going to use drives formatted for Mac as I do not trust that the driver for the drive will be updated in future years.)  I keep copies in either Apple Photos or Adobe Lightroom CC or both.  Usually the raw in LR and the jpeg in Apple Photos.  I also have a third back up drive I update about once every six weeks that I store in my motorhome safe.  Then as a final measure I keep a copy in drop box.  Drop box is the only on line service I have found and used that does not screw around with the size of your files when you load and download them.  Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Flikr do.  Oh I almost forgot Flickr.  I have a lot of my files on Flikr and some on Google Photos.  And I sometimes make photo books or have prints made.
  • I have had significant problems in the past loosing large numbers of my photos.  I used to back everything up to one hard drive.  It failed.  I lost several years of full sized files and my only copies were on Apple Photos.  Just last month I went to update a file from 2017 in my main back up drive.  The whole year of 2017 was missing.  In this case I had a back up copy of the back up copy on another drive.  Some of the files did not want to be copied and I had to play with this for a couple hours.  So at this point in time I am hyper careful.
  • I have had several on line back up systems change dramatically for the worse.  I used iPhoto and Aperture on Mac.  I liked both of them.  But then Apple discontinued both and substituted Apple Photos.  Apple Photos is still not nearly as effective at editing files as the previous system except using on line.  Apple’s system of on line photos is pretty good now most of the time.  I used Google Picasa to edit thousands of work photos.  It was the best quick edit and file organizer you could get at any price and Picasa was free.  Then Google canceled it.  Adobe Lightroom on the other hand has improved.  I use both Lightroom CC Classic and Lightroom CC.  Both work well.  The on line CC system keeps adding features and you can use it fairly well in conjunction with the CC Classic.  Flickr used to be free.  Now you have to pay to use it.  All of these systems have at one time or another played with the size of the files except drop box and Adobe Lightroom CC Classic.
  • I would say my files are now very secure.  But I am tired of it taking so much effort. Plus I have no illusion that raw files will work ten years from now.  By then your raw files will be from an obsolete camera and you will be using a many generation newer OS.  The best you can hope for is jpegs will still work.  I think jpegs are mostly safe.
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Taken on a 1980 Olympus OM2n with 28mm f2.8 and new Kodak Ektachrome

Here is how I did it 14 years ago.  I bought film or the people that developed it sent me free film.  I would send it off to Seattle Film Lab.  At the time I used my Olympus OM2n and a couple of Olympus pocket film cameras.  When I finished a couple of rolls or even just one roll, I would send it to Seattle Film Lab in a prepaid mailer.  They would develop it and send the negatives, prints, a CD of the scans, plus a free roll of film.  That would take about a week.  The thing is Seattle Film Lab would edit the photos before I got them. I rarely edited what I was sent back.  When I went on vacation I would use slide film so I could project the shots on a screen in full resolution.  I used Kodak Kodachrome in those days.  You couldn’t edit slides.  You either got them right or you did not.  I made photo albums.  I saved the negatives, CD in files in a file cabinet.  My prints from 2004 look just fine and have not faded.  The CD’s I got back then still work.  And if I had not sold my projector I could use slides.  The only thing that endangered your back up files was your house being destroyed.  So if needed today you save a copy of scans in a location not in your house.

I do not plan to go back to just using film.  But anyone that tells you getting great photos is easier or cheaper today is contradicting what I have learned.  iPhones or good Androids take great photos and video and are easy to use.  They give better results than old pocket film cameras.  But big digital cameras with big lenses and big files are very expensive, need careful care, go out of date in about 3 years, and storing the files is complicated.  If you don’t already try both higher end digital and film and use what you like the best.  I waver back and forth.