First weekend with the Pentax 645Z

Apr 8, 2015

I have been using the Pentax 645D for over 4 years, and it has proven to be the most reliable all weather camera out of any system I own. It has accompanied me in snow, ice, rain and hot desert climates without skipping a beat. While it’s a heavy and slow camera compared to smaller formats, the resulting image quality never disappoints.

The Achilles heel of the 645D however, was it’s somewhat unreliable auto focusing system, which without live view required me to fire off multiple shots to make sure I had one image with proper focus. Critical focus is a must on high resolution cameras, without it the resolution advantages quickly disappear.

The 2014 released Pentax 645Z promised to fix a lot of the minor issues that were present in the 645D. Pentax/Ricoh included live view and vastly improved high ISO performance courtesy of the new Sony sensor – the same sensor that is used in the Phase one IQ 250 and the Hasselblad H5D-50c.

I was debating for a long time if I should upgrade to the Pentax 645Z given the modest upgrade in resolution (40mp to 51mp), but having seen some samples of the high ISO performance of the new sensor, as well as the lack of anything exciting being announced in recent months (including the new Canon 5DS), I decided to stick with the Pentax system due to it’s reliability, solid design, and my prior investment in multiple Pentax lenses.

My 645Z arrived the day before easter weekend, giving me 3 days to shoot with the camera and get a few initial thoughts.

As with the 645D, the new 645Z body does not try to be a fashion item or designer gadget disguised as a camera. Every function that is needed for actual picture taking is front and centre, while all the “fun” features are hidden deep within the menus, most of them turned off by default. The camera can actually be used through thick gloves in old weather due to it’s deep and comfortable grip.

The first thing that struck me about the sensor was it’s high ISO performance. Images shot at 6400iso are clean enough for big prints, even a few shots I tried at 12,800iso are remarkably good and usable for smaller reproductions.

The live view is great, and unlike my Sony A7R, remembers the last zoom state when it’s re activated. Many little details like this, present on both the 645Z and the 645D before it, show clearly that photographers still have a say in designing cameras at Pentax. Another welcome addition is the articulated screen. It will certainly get a lot of use especially on low angle images off a tripod.

From what I can tell, the battery life is noticeably shorter than on the 645D. Most of this I assume is due to the live view and my more frequent use of the back screen.

The files from the 645Z are remarkable and have a lot of dynamic range. More important than dynamic range (for me), is the fact that the files are not compressed like the Sony A7R files. This quickly becomes apparent when manipulating colours. None of the banding or bizarre posterization effects in lower tones seem to exist in the resulting DNG files. While I still love my A7R system for lightweight travel, I had to discard ruined images in the past from the lossy compression Sony imposes on it’s raw files.

Below are some additional sample shots from this weekend. I will try to post more comments about this camera as I’m getting more aquatinted with the differences it has compared to the 645D.


Sony A7r field review: A year of use in the real world

Feb 10, 2015

This is not going to be a standard review praising the camera based on lab tests or stroll through a city on a good day. I have used a couple of the A7r bodies in various locations around the world ranging from dry deserts, the fluctuating moods of Antarctica, and the harsh conditions of the upper Himalayas.

I will try to keep this post brief and to the point, so here it goes…


Is the Sony A7r a professional camera ?

Sony advertises the A7r as a “professional” camera, or the top of the line in it’s mirror-less lineup. The word professional become more of a marketing buzz word in recent years than a term to describe tools designed for people that depend on them to make their livelihoods (aka, professionals).

So is the A7r with all it’s marketing claims a professional tool ? The short and simple answer is no. Why you ask ? Read on.


What makes a camera professional ?

A camera intended for professional use needs to keep a few things at the top of it’s feature list. These include:

• Image retention piece of mind in the form of dual card slots. Having dual card slots that allow for simultaneous writes safeguards from bad SD cards, allows backup, and lets the photographer hide one of the cards quickly if harassed to erase an image, or a series of images by various rent-a-cops or similar goons scattered throughout the globe.

• Removing as much of the camera interface away from the photographer as possible. In most situations the fewer controls one has to touch or re adjust the better. In this regard the A7r falls short in its build in behaviours. For example switching into manual focus should stick regardless of the priority mode the camera is set to. The current behaviour resets manually adjusted focus when switching from shutter priority to aperture priority or full manual mode, forcing the user to re focus on a subject and wasting time. Why not keep an adjustment that the user has already made when switching exposure modes ? I have more to say about the bad interface decisions below.

• Real weather/environment sealing. The A7r is not really weather sealed despite having been advertised as such during the initial release. In recent months I have noticed Sony removing most of the weather sealing claims for their site and other marketing materials; this is most likely due to user complaints.

Real weather sealing means being able to take the camera out in pouring rain, in fluctuating temperature conditions, and in dusty environments. It also means the camera can withstand a reasonable amount of abuse such as being put down on dirt, having sand blown on it, or being banged around a little in crowded places. The A7r’s petite frame, including the design of it’s lenses makes this camera clearly a looks over function device.

Raw files that are truly malleable. Sony claims the compressed RAW format of the A7r is lossless despite using some home brewed compression scheme. I have not found the RAW files out of this camera to be truly uncompressed when using Adobe camera raw (Lightroom) to process them. Compared to files that come out of the Pentax 645D or even the Panasonic GX7, the Sony raw’s have a high tendency to exhibit banding in fine gradations such as skies and some skin tones. I have noticed the low tones to be a lot more brittle compared to the 645D files.

Another thing that I’m observing is flattening of highlights despite the histogram showing ample headroom. There is loss of texture and tonal separation in the highlights that I’m not getting in files from other cameras. This is most striking in certain images of clouds and snow.

A non vibrating shutter. Much has been written about this elsewhere on the internet, but I must confirm this is not a problem only encountered by anal retentive camera reviewers. The shutter vibration on this camera is real and ruins shots at very common shutter speeds used in shooting landscapes. No professional camera should ever be released with a problem such as this having been overlooked.


• Ray angle issues ? The a7R seems to produce a purple vignette when using the 35mm ƒ2.8 and in some cases the 55mm ƒ1.8. I’m not sure if this is a ray angle issue with the lens and sensor combination, or if there is another culprit to blame. I have to colour correct this in many images that have overcast conditions and it’s quite frankly a huge annoyance. Both of my a7r bodies exhibit this behaviour.


Sony A7r bad interface decisions

Realizing that every user has their own ergonomic and interface preferences, the following is my personal rundown of things that annoy or downright irritate me about the A7r.

• Manual focus does not stick when switching exposure modes or waking up from sleep. Imagine this simple scenario: You are trying to take a picture of a mountain peak and carefully manual focus the shot on a tripod in aperture priority. You now realize that the shutter speed is in a zone that will create a blur from the A7r shutter vibration and decide to switch to manual mode to control both the shutter and the aperture. Boom, you just lost your focus point because the camera switched into auto focus. Time to refocus your shot. Same thing happens when the camera comes out of sleep mode.

• No ability to turn of the EVF eye sensor. What if you manually want to switch between the EVF and back screen ? Can’t do it. Try walking with the camera by your side, you will constantly see it switching between the back screen and the EVF, drawing attention to itself in places where the back screen should not be coming on.

• The aperture scroll wheel is to close to the on/off switch. I have turned off the camera by mistake multiple times while wearing thicker gloves. Buttons on the camera can be triggered by accident even without wearing gloves. I recommend turning off the scroll wheel altogether as it has a big potential to be accidentally moved.

• The manual focus assist behaviours are lame. When manual focusing with focus assist on, the camera magnifies the area being focused on while the focus ring of the lens is being moved (expected behaviour). As soon as the user stops focusing, the magnified image lingers for a user selectable time of 2-5 seconds or forever unless the shutter button (or another assigned button) is pressed. This is not intuitive behaviour when shooting. I want to manually focus, and instantly see the whole frame the moment I let go of the focusing ring. Why this behaviour is not included as one of the options is a mystery.

Perhaps Sony should include a cropped focus magnification overlay on top of the whole frame like Panasonic has implemented. That way the photographer can confirm focus while still making sure the framing has not drifted during focus adjustments.

• The firmware updater is a mess. Sony should do what most other camera manufacturers do, let the user place a file on a SD card and have the camera automatically go into firmware update mode when the right file is detected. Having a whole application to do this is crazy, especially one that installs a root kit on your computer. This is one of the most idiotic decisions sony has made.

• Have the online/wifi features off by default. They waste to much battery.

• Include a real charger. The camera does not come with a charger, just a USB cable that one has to use to charge the camera through the body. This obviously puts the camera out of commission while the battery is being charged.

Sony A7R practical observations

Dec 9, 2013

I’m not a camera reviewer so the following observations on the Sony A7R are from the perspective of an active shooter and not a lab reviewer. Having used the camera for just little over a week I have not made any hard judgements on it. In a few weeks I intend to test it extensively in the field and try to post more results.

What I like so far:

This camera is intended to be a backup body for my 645D on an upcoming trip early next year, and as a general light weight body for longer multi day hikes where taking heavy medium format gear becomes prohibitive.

Obviously the size of the camera and the image quality to size ratio is what has attracted me to the A7R. On this front the camera definitely lives up to the hype, and the Sony / Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA Sonnar has a “3D” depth that I don’t see in a lot of other lenses in it’s price range. Given my criteria for a high quality small sized body with interchangeable lenses the A7R delivers.

Besides image quality, which for me is the most important aspect along with size of the camera, the sony A7R fails on nearly every other front.


• Crappy charger, uses short flimsy usb cable to connect to the camera directly. I had to purchase a separate Sony charger to charge the $89 (CAD) dollar per piece batteries. A camera is not an iPhone and should not be charged like one. Also having to charge the camera through the body takes it out of commission if you want to use multiple batteries. If Sony is targeting this camera at professionals or serious amateurs, not including a proper charger is a lame choice to make.

• Horrible defaults, especially for shooting with gloves on. The scroll wheel controls ISO and is very easily moved during shooting, disabling the scroll wheel is a must for many shooting situations. I’m not quite sure who thought that a hardware interface element like this is a good idea, but the camera overall seems to have been designed by computer geeks and not photographers.

• Lens focusing ring design has very little tactile feedback even when wearing thin gloves. This is something one can get used to but it’s not ideal.Thicker and slightly higher grooves would be much nicer.

• Camera manual seems like a google translation from Japanese, why even waste paper ? Common questions are not described in the manual or are difficult to find. Reading a few pages feels like a strange drug induced journey towards great confusion.

• A lot of the features of the camera are useless in raw mode and convolute the menu system needlessly. There is even an etched WB (white balance) symbol on the body by the scroll wheel; a useless feature when shooting raw. Something that is generally not used by anyone serious (such as a jpg shooter) should not be prominently featured on the camera body.

• The downside of the A7R form factor is the inability to use it reliably with thick gloves in low temperatures. The controls are to close and don’t have enough tactile clues that can be felt though medium and thick gloves.

• Power switch design and position is easily mistaken for the front aperture scroll wheel and the camera can be easily turned off by mistake. This is something that has happened to me a bunch of times over the course of the week and can become a big deal considering the camera takes a few seconds to turn back on.

• The shutter is indeed loud for a camera of this form factor. I’m used to a relatively loud shutter/mirror sound on the Pentax 645D but the sony A7R does not really have much of an excuse to be this loud considering it lacks the huge mirror box.

The following images are a few samples from this weekend. I will post more pictures and observations in the coming days, including examples of a disconcerting banding effect with the A7R raw files processed in Lightroom 5.3 RC.


Real world Panasonic GH3 and the Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm F2.8

Jan 27, 2013

I have spent over two weeks shooting with the GH3 alongside my other cameras in Cuba and must say that I’m pleasantly surprised by how useful it turned out to be for this type of travel photography.

The region I visited had a diverse geography, ranging from a busy city (Santiago), beaches, to a wet tropical climate in the mountains. The camera was tested in the city, farm villages and tropical forests.

The two other cameras I had with me were the Sigma DP2 Merrill and the Pentax 645D which is my go to camera for photographing landscapes. If I had to sum it up, the GH3 coupled with the Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm F2.8 outpaced both the Pentax and Merrill in the versatility department.

This camera and lens combination is very responsive, comfortable to use and easy to hold for many hours at a time. While I would like a sensor beyond the 16 megapixels, travel photography or journalism does not necessarily require much more resolution.

Shooting in Santiago was very chaotic. The car traffic, fast moving people and extreme heat all added up to a place no big or slow camera is very well suited for. While it can be done (and I have tried) the DP2 Merrill turned out to be a little limiting when a good moment presented itself. Due to it’s fixed lens and slow response I missed some potentially interesting shots.

The Pentax 645D on the other hand is simply to large to put up with for 8+ hours in a busy city and likes to attract attention. I have put up with it many times and still continue to do so because of the image quality rewards it provides, but at the end of the day missing to many shots or scaring people away with it’s imposing form factor can be frustrating.

I have found the GH3 to be a very reasonable replacement for something like a full frame Nikon D4 which in fact is not much lighter or smaller than the Pentax. Sure the D4 is more suited for sports and wildlife, but a 70-200 lens on a full frame body is a huge beast to carry around all day and attracts just as much attention as the 645D. I have encountered a photographer shooting with a D800 with the additional grip and the camera looked just as imposing.

Panasonic is marketing the GH3 for “multimedia journalists” which may become a new buzz word. However, considering the market for the Nikon D4, the feature set is not significantly different. Unfortunately, the low light performance of the smaller sensor is not quite in the same league as the D4, nor is the high speed shooting, a potentially big deal for some users. If you compare features like the articulated screen, which lets you shoot above a crowd, or the excellent video capability, things start to get more interesting.

It turned out that most of my photography in the city was done with the GH3 and the excellent  Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm F2.8 lens. This lens is very sharp, focuses lightning fast and is very accurate even on moving subjects. With the latest firmware (as of December 11th) the lens has the ability to track focus and re adjust at 240fps. I have made some 16×20 prints of the above images and they hold up very well even at close inspection. The Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm F2.8 performs as well if not better as some of the prime lenses already available for MFT. I find this trend very exciting for travel photography and documentary applications.

The weather sealing on both the lens and the GH3 body has also proven it’s worth. I was caught in dense rain with the camera and it kept on going without a hitch.

My initial observations made about the camera in a previous post still hold true. However, I must confess that I have gotten used to some of the button layout changes and the new scroll wheels which I did not initially like.

So far I’m very satisfied with both the image quality and handling. The video quality is excellent and I got some footage at 6400iso that is still usable for many applications. Good job Panasonic, now go and make more fast lenses.




Panasonic GH3: First Impressions

Dec 21, 2012


I don’t want to make this a full review of the camera so I’m just going to state some of my initial observations and differences between this model and it’s predecessor.

I have used the GH2 extensively over the last two years and besides it’s rather poor low light performance always found it to be a pleasure to use as a lightweight travel photography camera. A lot of my images from Havana as well as from Japan have been taken with the GH2, including the occasional video clip. Being involved with moving computer graphics and vfx in my day job I don’t particularly find the video features that interesting even though they are nice to have.


Initial Observations:

1) The body is a little chunkier, heavier and feels a little bit more solid. The profile of the newly designed grip feels more comfortable in my hands and the camera is finally weather sealed which is a feature I find very important. The number of weather sealed lenses for the MTF system is still quite small, but it’s definitely a good direction for both panasonic and olympus to be taking.

2) The viewfinder appears to be smaller compared to the GH2. I’m not sure if this is just an optical illusion or not, but there is more of a tunnel feel compared to the previous model. The viewfinder quality itself is nicer due to the OLED technology and the display refresh rate is noticeably faster as well.

3) The articulated OLED touch screen is a lot nicer than the previous model and the touch response feels much more fluid. I would say it’s closer to a modern smart phone than what the previous screen felt like.

4) There are more buttons all over the camera, including more customizable function buttons (more on this later). The click wheel that the GH2 had is gone and the circular 4 button layout on the back of the camera has been replaced with a scroll wheel.

I find the lack of the click wheel somewhat annoying but maybe it’s something I will get used to over time. The buttons for ISO, exposure compensation and white balance are located at the top near the shutter release and are harder to locate without taking the eye off the viewfinder compared to the old arrangement.

5) The battery is bigger and panasonic claims 500+ shots per charge. When paired with the optional vertical grip which takes an additional battery this number doubles. So far I must say the battery performance is excellent.

6) The vertical grip feels nice and comfortable and includes an extra attachment point for hand straps.

7) The electronic shutter which is off by default is amazing and totally silent but for some reason is limited to 1600iso.

8) All the customizable function keys but one (fn4) have about 10 pages of options that can be mapped to the key. For some reason the function 4 button is limited to 3 pages and is the only button comfortably accessible when the camera is in a horizontal or vertical position while the optional grip is being used. I was hoping to map the manual focus assist function to this button so I can access it in both camera positions. I hope a firmware update fixes this as there is no reason for this button to have less options than the others.

9) The SD card slot door has a tendency to slide open when the hand moves off the camera with moderate friction.

10) The high iso performance is visibly better than the GH2 but obviously don’t expect the same performance as a full frame camera.

11) Still no auto iso in manual mode. This is a ridiculous omission of a feature that is present on the Olympus OMD EM-5 and countless other cameras. I want to be able to use a manual focus lens with an manual aperture, set my shutter speed to what I want and have the iso adjust itself automatically. I hope Panasonic will do something about this in a firmware update.

12) New pinpoint focus mode is awesome for precise auto focus on a particular point in the scene. The results are as good as manual focusing carefully on a set point in the scene.

13) The manual for the camera reads like an auto translate from Japanese to English. Many pages are wasted on useless features such as the various “creative effects” with amusing names like Impressive art, silky skin, sweet child’s face, cute dessert among many others.

I will be stress testing the camera a lot more over the next two weeks in Santiago de Cuba. Because the internet access in Cuba is rather spotty, I will be updating the blog upon my return.