Mirrorless Night Action by Michael J

I hope that wasn't a misleading title; I'll blame it on my SEO optimizer. If you are looking for something other than sports photography, and if this photo doesn't interest you in the slightest, feel free to move on...

Face-off. How the game starts.   Sony A7R3 with Nikon 300 f/4 Fresnel, shot at 1/500 sec and ISO 12800. Yes, 12800.

Until recently, "night sports" and "mirrorless cameras" was almost an oxymoron, except for parents huddled under their umbrellas snapping shots of Jack and Jackie from the extended pencil lenses of their pocket cameras.  Within the past year, Sony has released three mirrorless cameras that pretty much close the gap between "DSLR" and "Mirrorless" regarding action photography in general, and more specifically night sports.

  • A9:  24 megapixels, 20 frames per second, $4,500.
  • A7R3: 43 megapixels, 10 frames per second, $3,000.  
  • A73: 24 megapixels, 10 frames per second, $2,000.  

All three cameras feature 'live' viewing through the electronic viewfinder, so you can continue to shoot - and see what you're shooting - while the buffer passes your photostream over to the SD card.  All three offer a joystick button for moving the focus pointer around the screen. And the latest two offer a touch screen interface so you can move the focus pointer with your finger or thumb, even when the camera is up against your face. 

For me, the A7R3 is the ideal choice because of its massive megapixels which allows me the comfort of cropping. Plus, I only shoot action sports six months out of the year.  And 10 fps is fast enough for most action sports; up until just a few years ago 10 fps was the holy grail and somehow the NFL, NBA, MLB and FIFA survived just fine without more.

The question for 2018 is lenses.  Sony still doesn't have any prime tele's like the 300 and 400 f/2.8 that are staples of pro sports.  The only options for primes are third party primes with adaptors. For zooms, it's pretty much the 100-400 f/4./5.6.  

I took a few of these options out into the pelting rains of Seattle's spring sports scene, to get some night shots of the "fastest sport on two feet", lacrosse. These were the Zeiss Batis 2.8/135, Nikon 300 f/4 PF, and Sony 100-400 GM. Shooting 90 mph shots on goal without the advantage of a wind-up requires both anticipation and an extremely fast focus.

Zeiss Batis 2.8/135

Fingertip balance

This is the longest prime tele that is native to FE mount. Yea I know, right?  It's a gorgeous portrait lens but it can be 'converted' to a 200mm lens if you shoot using APS-C settings.  If you already own one, and have a second body to shoot with simultaneously, it can work well for shorter focal length needs.

Batis 135 @ APSC setting, 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 5000

Batis 135 @ APSC setting, 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 5000

The first night I was shooting with the Nikon 300mm on my Nikon D800, so I thought I'd try the Batis 135 on my Sony, set to APSC. This affectively 'increases' the tele to about 200mm but decreases the resolution to 18mp.  Still, it was handy to grab this camera when the action got too close for the 300mm.  I love the creamy backgrounds of this portrait lens and it was quick to focus - though sometimes the focus would 'hunt' with quickly moving object.

Incidentally, and this may be a comment on how quickly technology changes, there is absolutely no comparison in low light image quality between my 'old' Nikon D800 with 36mp, and my Sony A7R3 with 43 mp.  The Sony has at least a 3 stop ISO advantage, meaning I can get better pictures with the Sony at ISO 10000 than I can with the Nikon at 6400. And even at those two settings the photo quality of the Sony just seems so much better. Entirely subjective, of course. And yes there is a reason why I'm keeping my Nikon glass.

Shooting at 10 frames per second, it is also very easy to catch motion:


Nikon 300mm f/4 "Fresnal"

Lens and body, hand-held.

Small. Light. Prime. Sharp.  I just love this lens and I've written about it before.  Here's a gallery of my favorite shots with this lens.   The great thing about the  "300F", as I call it, is how perfectly it fits the form factor of the Sony Alpha series cameras: you can hold the camera, with lens attached, in one hand.  I used it last year with a rented A9 for the Washington State Lacrosse  Championships, and just loved it; it outperformed a Canon 300 f/2.8 on the same body. But now that I own the A7R3, and now that it's lacrosse season again, I've been able to spend a bit more time with the pair.


This body/lens combination is so light, I can run up and down the side of the field all night, whereas those guys with their giant DSRL's and pro glass are stuck to their monopods tri-fold stools, and yes maybe they will get a few keepers but I'll be able to document the entire game, from both ends of the field. Well, that's the theory.

The Vello Nikon F to Sony E-Mount auto-focus adaptor is much maligned but when it is working, the focus is crisp and fast.  And it works better on the 300 Fresnal then on other Nikon lenses, including the 70-200 f/2.8 VRII, which I've stopped using for field sports because it just doesn't have the reach.  But the adaptor does have a few issues.  I have to keep tightening the screws on the flange, otherwise it will stop working. And sometimes it freezes anyhow, even when I'm using it. The work-around is to switch to another shutter mode, then back again.  This performs a reset better than if you turn the camera off and back on (I don't know why).  If that doesn't work, turn the camera off, pull out the battery, pop it back in, turn it back on. That also works better than turning the camera off and back on (still don't know why - but trust me, it works). 

Two other nigglies:

  1. Auto focus only works when the focus selector is in the middle of the screen.  So I use two different settings, either  "Focus Area Center" or "Lock-On AF: Center".  Try both.  (Note this may have been 'fixed' in the latest Vello version 6).
  2. Continuous Focus AF-C only works up to the "High" settings, which as far as I can tell is roughly 6 fps.  So if you use "High+" then be sure you are tracking the subject laterally.

With that said, this lens works great at night and can be used without a monopod on most well-lit fields:

Sony 100-400 GM

This lens weighs a few ounces less the 70-200, but has double the reach.  It is an ideal zoom range for field use because you rarely need anything below 100 and rarely above 400.  The weight and form factor are definitely out of balance with the A7 series bodies, so a supplemental grip might make sense. 

1/1000 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 4000.  Zoomed to 300mm - my favorite focal length.

1/1000 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 4000.  Zoomed to 300mm - my favorite focal length.

In short, I absolutely love this lens. It is extremely fast to focus, has a surprisingly low percentage of out-of-focus pictures even with tracking on, and the stabilization works great.  I did start to notice the limitations of 5.6 about an hour after the sun set, but nothing that a monopod couldn't cure (these photos were all shot hand-held).

The lens is sharp, is resolves beautifully, and the bokeh is very nice. At 5.6 I can get excellent subject-to-backgorund separation as long as the subject is on the half of the field closer to me. 

High Keeper Rate

I was impressed with the high number of photos I got that were 'keepers'.   The game that I shot at dusk had 900 photos (this was only half a game), 700 of which were in crisp focus, 150 were keepers, and 75 worthy of publishing as a game gallery for parents to purchase prints and contribute to their favorite charity.   In the past, typically I only have about 40 gallery photos per game even for daytime games.

Depth of Field at f/5.6

It's not great but here's what you can and cannot achieve with this lens. In the first photo, the players are on the other side of the field and it's difficult to separate them from those on the sidelines, even though there is about 15 yards of separation. An f/2.8 lens would have made the players pop.

315mm, 1/1000 sec f/5.6 @ ISO 1000

315mm, 1/1000 sec f/5.6 @ ISO 1000

In this next photo, the players are about midway across the field, i.e. closer to me. At f/5.6 the people on the other side of the field literally fade away, even at f/5.6.  

260mm. 1/1000 sec, f/5.6 @ ISO 500

260mm. 1/1000 sec, f/5.6 @ ISO 500

Tracking Fun

Most of the time, the lens tracked very well. I tried the various continuous focus settings and found that AF-C with Lock-on AF Center was, by far,  the best.  Why? With AF Center you always know where you can start the focus tracking; there's no need to move the pointer artificially to one side or the other, only to have to reset it with the next positional move.  Place the action in the center, start focus, and it tracks the movement as the subject moves away (as you move the camera away) from the center.  Watch carefully; if the subject goes "off track" then you can easily and quickly regain focus simply by removing your finger from the focus action button then placing it back on. Just a quick tap, really. Using this method, I had over 85% keepers - and in focus.  Typically this included a fair amount of lateral movement.

Occasionally, the tracking would go 'off' and if I wasn't paying attention, it would then find something else to focus on, before returning to the subject.  This did not happen often but this next series shows what it looked like. And it did happen a bit more frequently as dusk turned to darkness. These four photos were all taken within the same one second, as I zoomed out from 280 to 190mm.

Frame a: in focus; b: focus on background; c: nothing in focus; d: subject back in focus

Adjust Your Focus Point Size

Lacrosse is a fast sport and the best players have perfected their unpredictable moves.  Even at the high school level, it's common to see shots on goal exceeding 90mph and sometimes 100mph.  This doesn't give the goalie much time to react when the shooter is only 20 yards out. Still, as a goalie, if you can anticipate the shot, and if you are good, you have a 50% chance of stopping it.  As a shooter, it's important not to telegraph your shot.  Some kids wind up before shooting but the really good ones have shot - and scored - before goalie even knew they were in position.  For photographers, this means you don't have much time to get the focus. And it really, really helps to know the player and what his 'tricks' and 'tendencies' are.  As a result, my own photos tend to be hit or miss at the beginning of the season but by the end, I can usually catch even the good shooters on the best teams that I've shot a few times. If I have fast focus.

This photo shows a shooter from last year's State Champion team. I got myself into position in time, but the focus caught player #14 instead, even though 14 was not in the center of my screen.  This is probably because I was using a wide focus point size. Sometimes it helps to use a much smaller focus point. It also helps to have your finger ready to release then re-engage focus. But in this case, it all happened much too quickly.



Zoom Distribution

I did a not-so-quick calculation of the 900 photos I took during one game.  The weighted average of focal lengths was 200mm, with 25% of my shots at 100mm, 10% at 400mm and the rest of them evenly distributed between the two. I don't recall 'needing' to go below 100; that just seemed to be an optimum starting point.

Night Action Settings for your A7R3 / A73 / A9

So here is what I use. But don't blame me if your photos don't turn out!. By the way you can put most of these onto your Function Button so that you can make changes on the fly, even without moving your eye from the EVF.

  • Drive Mode     > Hi or Hi+
  • Focus Mode     > AF-C
  • Focus Area     > Lock-on AF Center
  • ISO AUTO Min. SS     > 1/500 or 1/1000
  • Metering Mode     > Multi
  • Steady Shot Adjust     > On (but off with Monopod)
  • Zebra Display     > On with strong field lights
  • Silent Shooting     > Off
  • File Format     > Compressed RAW


I live on an island. The ferry ride home after a game is always nice, even in bad weather.  A few shots with the  100-400. 





Travels with the 24-105G and Batis 135 by Michael J

I thought these two lenses might make a perfect travel pair:  The versatility of the 24-105, combined with the reach and sharpness of the Batis 135. Both are new lenses, and together they also meet several other of my travel requirements: keep it down to two lenses, of which at least one is a prime; find some way to take photos of people without getting in their face; and the entire package must fit in my smallest sling bag for absolute portability.  

So over the past month these two lenses lived in my Thinktank Turnstyle 5 while I traipsed around Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Bloomington, Vietnam, and Hongkong. Here's what I found:

  • The FE f4/24-105G is indeed the perfect travel lens.  Its combination of reach and "acceptable bokeh" (more on this, further down) is good enough to allow me to need only this one lens. If I had to choose one, that is.
  • The Batis 2.8/135 is a monster, both in terms of its sharpness and its size/weight.  Although smaller and lighter than any other full frame 135 on the market, it's still about the same size as the 24-105 but heavier, and with a far more narrowly defined usage range.
  • The 80/80/80 rule: 80% of my photos were from the 24-105.  And of those, 80% were taken at the two extremes of 24 and 105 and of those, 80% were taken at 24.
  • I liked the zoom so much - and found it so handy - that I had to consciously force myself to put it away and pull out the 135 for very specific situations. Each time I did, I was ecstatic with the results.
  • I would probably prefer to use these two lenses each attached to a separate body so that I could use them both more frequently. When one lens was on the camera, I consistently missed shots that I knew would have been better with the other one. They are both too large for the "one-handed lens change" so it takes a bit of work - and time - to do a switch. And we are all aware of the ease with which the A7/9 series pick up gunk on their sensors. Moral: bring a sensor cleaning kit. Always.

f4/24-105 G

See full 24-105 Gallery here

Let's start first with this lens.  It's sharp, focuses quickly, and offers an ideal range of photographic opportunities.  The f/4 is a trade-off for the lower light and "better bokeh" of the 2.8/24-70 but for a travel lens, I would not even consider the latter.  Here's why.

Greater Reach = Better Bokeh Effect

The 2.8/24-70 might have greater separation for depth of field, but the 24-105 has greater reach so it's quite easy to get good bokeh at the long end.  In other words, 105mm at f/4 compares very well to 70mm at f/2.8.  I don't have a direct comparison but here are a few shots taken at the long end, 105 f/4.

Greater Flexibility

As mentioned in this article,  the 24-240 offers the best flexibility of any lens, but at a price: it's larger, heavier, not quite as sharp, a bit slower to focus, and jumps up to f/6.3 at the tele end.  The f4/24-105G offers reasonable flexibility to take photos at both ends of the zoom spectrum.  These two shots were taken from the same location.

Handheld at Night? No Problem

f/2.8 lenses and primes are touted as must-haves for low light photography. With the A7 and A9 series bodies, f/4 works just fine thanks. 

About that Batis135

View Full Batis 135 gallery here.

I brought along this lens because it's exactly what i was looking for to capture short tele shots of landscapes and of people, without getting in their face. Working with any prime gives up flexibility in exchange for sharpness. It's always good practice to spend some time with a prime lens as a way of learning to move in and out to achieve the desired 'crop' without having to zoom. This is a bit more difficult with a telephoto prime because it's quite impossible to get shots in crowded places. Or is it?

One issue I had with this lens was the speed of focus. Sometimes it would 'hunt' for the focus, causing me to miss shots. Probably due to fifficult lighting situations but I did not notice the same issue with the 24-105.

Ode to Pentax by Michael

Ricoh Pentax (formerly Asahi Pentax) just released a photo chart that shows every camera Pentax released. It reminded me that I used Pentax cameras for over 30 years. I've since moved on, but looking back it's been a great run. Virtually all of my analog photography was shot on Pentax. I still own several of the analog models, and several of my children learned their photography on them as well.  

Pentax camera's I've owned over the years

Multiple Choices At the Long End by Michael

Sony A7* users now have two new choices that reach out to the longer end of the spectrum: a delightful 135mm prime by Batis and a flexible 24-105mm zoom with fixed aperture.  I took them out in the field, to see how they stack up.

Read More

Olympus E-M5 Mark II: Getting Smarter by Michael


So you may have noticed I write a lot about Olympus cameras.  That's because I use them. I don't review them.  I use them because they are, in my opinion, the best small cameras for still photography on the market. And the competition is fierce: Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, and Pentax are all major players in the field of "mirrorless" cameras. In general, there are some critical differences between "DSLR" and "Mirrorless," and I've  summarized here.

DSLR Advantages

  • More megapixels
  • Generally better low-light capabilities
  • Arguably better depth of color
  • Larger cameras better for larger hands
  • Pro lenses have "better" depth of field
  • Lower cost

Mirrorless Advantages

  • Much smaller camera and lenses
  • Image quality essentially the same (pixel peepers may disagree)
  • In-camera stabilization (at least for Olympus)
  • "WYSIWYG" View (you see the exact exposure results in the viewfinder)
  • Touch screen actions, similar to smart phones

Many of those differences are becoming smaller, or at least  blurred. For example, Sony now has a full-frame mirrorless camera, although you'll have to pay for it. And in my opinion, the size advantage is lost and the larger shutter sounds like a garage door opening.

How to choose a camera

Back to Olympus and why I like their cameras.  They are small, but not the smallest. They have excellent in-camera stabilization (and the new E-M5 MII is said to be 'the best').  And they are very well thought out.  That is important to me as a photographer, and here is why: cameras are just tools. I doubt anyone could look at a photograph and say "wow, that was taken with a Nikon D800." I doubt anyone could even pick two 11x14 prints out of stack and say "This was taken with a full-frame camera, and that one was taken with a mirrorless."  So what makes one camera better than another? The way it feels in the photographer's hands. And the way it performs, according to the photographer's needs. That's it. Well, there are two parts to it.


If it Feels Good...

If a camera initially 'feels good' in my hands, I'll probably take more pictures with it. And I'll probably take better pictures with it. And I'll probably have it on me or around me more, so I'll get some shots that I would otherwise miss, because I'm not carrying around that big camera.

And if it is Good...

Different cameras also provide different "services" for different photographers. For example, some are better at video. Some are weather-sealed. Some have a flip-up or flip-open touch screens.  Each photographer has his or her own needs, and if a camera can meet those needs, then the result will be better pictures.

Back to the Stack

So if I'm pulling prints out of that stack of 11x14" prints, I may not be able to tell which camera a photo was taken with. But I can probably tell which photos are 'better' or, at the very least, which ones speak to me. And chances are, those will be the photos taken with an optimum "camera - photographer match".

So is the E-M5 a Match?

Yeah. For me, definitely. I picked it up and immediately it felt like it was made for my hands. I don't have large hands but I can spread more than an octave on a piano. This camera has a beautifully articulated, minimalist  front grip that doesn't get in the way but still gives you a firm hold on the camera. To me it feels just as nice as the E-M1, which has a much larger hand grip.


The touch screen also pops out and flips, which is both good and bad.  If you are used to flipping the mirror up (like most previous Olympus cameras), you will miss being able to "shoot from the hip" by taking photos while looking down at the screen.  But what you gain is the ability to do selfies (applause, at least amongst some people). You can also flip the screen backwards so that it is protected from scratching, which is great if the camera lives in a bag or purse, and you are constantly putting it and and taking it out.  Also, the flip-out does allow you to take pictures from any angle, including "shoot from the hip" - it just takes a bit more to get it to that position.

And Inside...

Inside the camera, a few really cool features struck me immediately. First of all, the new shutter is both extremely fast and extremely quiet.  Both of these are handy for any kind of street or candid photography, and for theater or other events where photographers are expected to be seen but not heard.  There's even a 'silent' mode so you can take photos completely without a sound.  I tried this out in "High"  sequence mode which peaks out at 10 frames per second - that's almost fast enough to shoot a movie - and I could not hear a single click. I had probably shot 30 frames before I realized what I was doing.

My type of features

This camera is loaded with too many features to list out here. But I will list out the features that are important to me as a photographer who travels a lot, and who does a fair amount of  'street' photography:

  • Weather-sealed
  • Twin control dials
  • Bright, full-size electronic viewfinder
  • 5-axis image stabilization
  • "Live" long exposures (watch as it 'develops)
  • "Pro" video quality
  • Slim body does not attract attention
  • Extremely fast sequential shooting
  • Silent mode
  • HDR as top-level item (use sparingly!)
  • 4 programmable function buttons
  • It's beautiful!