Tuesday, August 17, 2010

More on A900 Sharpness


My last blog post on using directional light to improve apparent sharpness generated a LOT of responses from full-frame Alpha 900 owners.  Below is a representative sample.  I believe this topic affects many people, and so I will share with you my reply as well: 
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Hi Gary,

I read you last blog in which you wrote:
“I get so many emails from new A900 owners asking if their camera is defective, since they can't seem to get the kind of Leica-esque sharpness that they expected.  Then they'll send me a sample photo taken in really bad light, 1/30th of a second handheld, f/stop wide open and with a moving subject.  Well, of course it won't be sharp!  In order to get sharp pictures you have to be firing on all eight cylinders: good light, good light, small f/stop, no movement, good light, detail in the subject, and good light.”

I am a A900 + Carl Zeiss 24-70 lens owner since one year, and I am not 100% happy with it.  It’s sort of good news that I am not the only one;-)  I had a A700 before which I used as a point-and-shoot camera: I used the Auto or Action setting most of the time, the pictures were always sharp and nice without me bothering about light, f/stops etc.  Note that I have three kids and most of my pictures are “action” shots.  I was happy, my wife was happy ;-)

Now with my A900 I have to bother about the right settings (yes, I went through your manual), but I still feel I am not getting the same overall level of quality I had with my A700.  I am less happy, my wife is even less happy (costs a lot of money, heavy to carry around) ;-(

When you say “good light, good light, small f/stop, no movement, good light, detail in the subject, and good light” I have to inform you that 1) there IS NOT SO OFTEN GOOD LIGHT in life, and 2) that there is RARELY NO MOVEMENT in life.
A900 may be a excellent studio camera, but it is apparently not the perfect action camera.  I am right, or is it just me missing some basics?  I secretly hope that one day Sony will come with a firmware upgrade that will solve all my issues…

(By the way, I am not all unhappy about my A900, I made some VERY beautiful pictures with it, I am just a little frustrated that I have to throw away shots that would have been ok or even great if taken with my ex-A700.)

Regards,
Paul

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"Hi, Paul.  Thanks very much for your email.  And I can identify with everything you say, for when I first got my A900 and Zeiss lens, I had EXACTLY the same complaint!  Part of the reason is that the A900 has shallower depth-of-field than the A700 due to its larger sensor.  So too does the CZ 24-70 lens, so you're already making two very important variables worse. 

Now here's the really annoying part: Your old 35mm pictures (I'm assuming you used to shoot with film) are less sharp than even your worst A900 shots.  You just never knew it because you've always viewed your images as printed enlargements and stood a reasonable distance away.  You probably never examined them closely on a 30" computer monitor (and if you had, you'd notice right away that you couldn't count the number of eyelashes on your subject).  So the third variable, then, is the ease of unreasonable scrutiny.  If you were to evaluate your A900 shots the same way you did your film shots -- that is, print them out and view them from a reasonable distance - you'll probably find a drastic improvement.  And that's assuming un-ideal light.

The fourth variable?  Expectations.  We've both been spoiled with several years worth of really sharp pictures because nobody could make large enough sensors.  (I was shooting with a KM A1/A2 for a few years too - that had a very small sensor!)  I personally forgot how difficult it was to get sharp pictures shooting slides back in the day, but all those memories came back to me in a hurry.

None of these variables alone can account for your stated frustrations, but together they really add up.  And I think it's safe to say that none of them can be fixed by a firmware upgrade. :-)  I have decided that an A900 is overkill for family pictures - it would be like shooting your child's birthday party with a medium-format Hassleblad.  That's why my A900 gets relegated to more demanding work such as studio and advertising photography (and some travel and landscape photography), and left home for most other occasions.  Smaller-sensor cameras have a theoretical advantage for sports photography (the greater depth-of-field) but if you shoot outdoors and use a small f/stop (like most sports photography is done) then you should get an equally high yield to what your A700 can produce.

I do hope this answer is at least a little bit helpful.  One of the curses of all this wonderful technology is that it has raised our expectations beyond what would have been reasonable just a few years ago. 

Sincerely,
Gary Friedman"

I'm sure many people will regard much of the answer above as heresy.  But it's also the truth.

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15 comments:

  1. Heresy is often the truth. When I got my a850, I was instantly transported back to my 35mm film camera days - not just because a 24mm lens behaves like a 24mm lens ought to (at last!) but because I remembered what a challenge it used to be to get a perfectly focused picture. At least now we can chimp our pictures on a high-res monitor, instead of having to wait until the film is dry, to know whether we've nailed those eyelashes!

    Maybe I can add one more tip to yours. When you're checking your pictures for sharpness (and noise) on your computer, look at them at 1:2 instead of 1:1. You'll be amazed at how much better they look. Pixel for pixel inspection is completely unrealistic with a full-frame image, IMHO, since it bears very little relation to what you'll see either on a print, or a 900x600 JPG for web use.

    But Gary, your choice of words is perpetuating the myth that full-frame sensors inherently have a shallower depth of field. Unless I've taken leave of my senses, depth of field is a function of focal length, aperture, and expectations (how big you expect to enlarge the picture) - but NOT sensor size. What is true, however, is that we use longer focal lengths to frame the same picture on a full-frame camera, ergo shallower depth of field. But we don't have to use those longer lenses - we can equally crop the picture, and produce an image which is indistinguishable in terms of depth of field and resolution from most of the APS-C cameras in Sony's lineup.

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  2. I completely agree about unreasonable expectations. I can take pictures today that were impossible even 5 years ago. I'm especially blown away by the ability to shoot low light shots ... the fastest film I would ever shoot was ISO 400 way back when. Today I routinely go to ISO 1600 on my A700 with good, non-pixel peeping results.

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  3. Mink - you're absolutely right about the depth-of-field issue, and I guess I am responsible for (partially) perpetuating a myth. The actual case is that for two images with the same field of view the smaller sensor will have the greater depth-of-field (which is what you said). When new FF owners do side-by-side tests to compare sharpness, they tend to go for identical in-camera framing, draw their conclusions and then move on, so I guess in my defense the myth actually matches the experience of new owners. Thanks for keeping me honest!! -GF

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  4. Let me add to Gary's foundation:

    1. A higher resolution camera puts a burden on every part of the 'system', including the skills and technique of the shooter.

    2. An exposure fast enough to 'freeze' a sharp 10MP image may not be fast enough to freeze a sharp image with a doubling of pixel density.

    3. If you think it's the camera and not the handholding technique, shoot with the same setings from a tripod, and see if results are equally 'un-sharp'.

    4. Light, light, light. Yup. Note also that a full-fram sensore is going to gather 2x the light of a crop sensor.

    5. Crank up the ISO as much as you need to get shutter speed fast enough for sharp images. You can filter out noise in post-processing, but you can't fix motion blur in post-processing.

    6. A lot of people use the outdated rule, minimum shutter speed of 1/focal length. This rule applies to handholding, and has no useful application for sports/motion shots. Even considering only handholding camera shake, the 1/focal length is pretty reasonable... for 6MP cameras. 12MP or 24MP? Nope, no way, no how. Try shooting a series of handheld shots at increasing shutter speed, and see for yourself how fast you need to shoot with *your* rig and your skills.

    - Bob Elkind

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  5. Hi Gary
    I have 2 A900s and zeiss 16-35/85/135 lenses and after 40 years of using everything from 4 x 5 to point and shoot digital I can say with honesty that the A900 particularly with the 135 Zeiss will give medium format processed well and 4 x 5 processed averagely a run for their money.
    In fact it might seem heresy but sometimes they seem too sharp.
    Part of the problem as I see it is "WE" (mainly over 30s) spent years investing in learning about film and how we use it and now for not much money you can buy a camera that will produce amazing images in still and moving formats with little effort. People are not putting in the learning bit, and most images never get printed.
    It is the same with Photoshop people see the bangs and whistles and not the real core.
    I have had books published and exhibitions containing 4 x 5 to A900 through Olympus E20 and not one person could tell me which was shot on which.
    Got all your manuals which have seen me through from A100 to 700 to 900.

    all the best

    David

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  6. I have used the same equipment as mentioned above and is also an happy owner of a700 and a900. I am an all-round photographer from Norway but I am now shooting nature and wildlife. My solution is: Use higher Iso or/and use the EV function if you have a less light problem. Even old lenses like Minolta High Speed 300 2.8 will produce excellent pictures on both a700 and a900. My favorite lens is Sony 70-200 G SSM used together with Sony 1.4 x converter, superb quality. Take a look at my Wildlife photo here: http://www.fotomanisk.com/#/gallery/wildlife/

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  7. I will go a step further Gary, I have both the 16-35 and 24-70 Zeiss lenses, and love both (on my A900). But recently bought a Sony 70-400G lens and without doing any technical testing, my perception is that lens is inherently sharper than the Zeiss lenses. Is that heresy???
    And I always tripod mount and shoot at small apertures for my landscape work and my pics are pin sharp on all 3 lenses (just I think the 70-400 has a slight edge on sharpness to the others - it's a gorgeous piece of glass).

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  8. Well I've been using my a900 for quite a while now for all sorts from sports, landscape, wildlife and portraits and I've found it to be excellent. Much better at gettting a sharp focus than my a700 was. The DOF doesn't seem to be a major issue if you get the lighting right as gary suggests. I do have the advantage of the CZ24-70 and the sony 70-400 which helps. so good glass is essential or you might as well go back to the A700. For sports, I find the flexibility to post capture crop will effectively give me the same resolution as the a700, but I can choose where to make that crop. Now the sony repair centre in the UK, thats another story......
    SM

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  9. I'm a A700 shooter and like a good number of beginner-to-intermediate photographers out there, I shoot alot, but rarely print, thanks to the availability of online galleries and the like. To that end, I was/am a heavy pixel peeper and have consistently thought many of my 1600 ISO A700 shots were losses, due to noise.

    It wasn't until printing out some shots for a recent wedding that I was dumbstruck by the fact that what Gary and so many others have been saying is true: much of that just doesn't show up in prints. Even heavily cropped shots looked good at 8x10.

    I'd been agonizing over image quality that I'm missing out on by shooting with an A700, but perhaps what I'm missing on is improved technique and occasionally printing out my shots to see just what I've got. :)

    Thanks once again for the great article, and as always, the comments from your readers add it the illumination.

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  10. I love the shallower DOF on A850. A lot of lens that won't shine on APS-C like A700 are working great on the A850.

    One of the less talked about advantage of shallower DOF:

    Much easier to get that out of focus bokeh while using small aperture -> higher optical quality. F6.3 to F8 may not be a big deal, but The improvement from F2.8 -> F4 can be significant.

    also, most of the 35mm lens range makes senses. 28-75 F2.8 is a great lens, not the awkward 42 - 105mm.

    FF is definitely not for everyone, but I lugged my A850 to China (hiking trip) and was very happy with the results despite the extra weight.

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  11. Gary,

    In addition to the apples to oranges comparison of APS-C vs. full frame and film (35 mm, medium and large format) vs. digital I wonder if you would comment on three additional, potential, causes for peoples perception of "lack of sharpness":

    1. the particular lens / body combination, using AF, is actually not in focus and requires a micro-focus adjustment (accomplished as outlined in your book with home made tools or something commercially available like Lens-Align).

    2. dynamic range, specifically, A900 12 bit A/D depth vs. the "other guys" 14 bit depth

    3. noise in the shadows (not clipping)

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  12. @MichaelT,

    Are you asking me if I think much of the complaints are due to bad, uncorrected focus? Of course it's impossible to know, but I can tell you that most of the samples that people send to me look unsharp more because of movement than because of uncalibrated lenses. (That's my perception, anyway.)

    As far as bit-depth or shadow noise, I personally don't think either of these are a significant (or even insignificant!) source. Noise cannot easily be confused (nor is it the same as) unsharpness, and bit-depth will usually show itself more in bleeding colors than in any other way.

    My $0.02. :-)

    -GF

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  13. Saludos Gary; te escribo desde España, y me expreso mal en ingles.
    He cambiado recientemente mi A700 por una A850; tengo un CZ 24-70,un Sony 70-300, un Sony 50 1,4 y un Sony 100 macro 2,8.
    Quiero comprar un zoom mas angular que el CZ 24-70.
    ¿ Cual me aconsejas ?
    CZ 16-35 2,8
    Sigma 12-24 4,5
    El problema de Carl Zeiss, es elprecio.
    Gracias y saludos.

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  14. Hola, Manuel!

    Si fuera yo me iría definitivamente para el 12-24 Sigma. Es la mitad del precio de la Zeiss y por todos los informes es igual de buena.

    -GF

    (And for those of you who were impressed, I'm not bi-lingual. I just used Google Translate. :-) )

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  15. I was recently in France shooting low light in cathedrals and also travel and landscape shots. I was using the a900 mostly with the CZ 24-70 and the 70-300 G. I was absolutely blown away with the image quality of the images when good technique was used; i.e. steadying the camera on a wall or something solid when hand held, a tripod or hand held shutter speed at about 1/focal length of a second (even this minus 2 stops). The a900 with the 24-70 is probably the best combo for these focal lengths on the market for sharpness because of in camera stabilization and that the lens is a Carl Zeiss . I just acquired the CZ 135/1.8 and the sharpness of this combo is equally impressive. Recent enlargements that I did for a client at 18"x24" were stunning in their sharpness.

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