9.20.2012

My next camera will be a full frame Sony but it might not be the a99...

I was delighted to read all about the Sony a99 and I imagined that it would be a great addition to my growing collection of APS-C Sony SLT cameras, if it was the only Sony choice around. But something interesting happened on the way to empty my bank account and revel in the glory of full frame photographs. The VG900 happened. If you are one of my readers who hates even the thought of video co-mingling with still images you might want to stop reading right now and go find something more staid and conservative to read. But if you work professionally in this field then follow my logic.  

In the last three weeks I've bid on three different video projects for three different advertising agencies.  These are agencies I've either produced video projects for before or agencie with whom I've done many still projects who now trust me to branch out and provide them motion services as well. We're taking toddler steps here but the important thing is that we're moving the game forward. Up till now I've been estimating and planning to shoot the projects with Sony's very capable a77 cameras but the recent announcement of the VG 900 has me thinking in a totally different way.

Before I go on I should explain the VG 900 camera and why it may make a lot of sense for my company. Sony pretty much shocked the market with the first full frame (35mm frame) video camera on the market. The camera uses the same sensor as the a99 and delivers great video specs including output at up to 60 fps in 1080i.  It also provides uncompressed HDMI files for the really committed video perfectionist (not me...).  It has all the usual trimmings for a production video camera including full control over iris (aperture) and shutter speeds. It does ISO 100 to 32,000. The sensor yields 24.3 megapixel still frames and includes RAW file support.

You know that great EVF in my a77 and now in the a99 and NEX 7 that I keep writing about? There's one in the eyepiece of the VG 900 as well. And a big swivelly LCD screen. Very covered in the "pre-chimping" department.

The camera includes an ISO compatible flash shoe which, through electronic connectors in the front of the shoe, provide inputs for XLR balanced microphone inputs. The camera offers zebra indicators for exposure and focus peaking for manual exposure.  The mount on the camera is a NEX mount which points to the future introduction of NEX full frame capable lenses (which also points to a full frame NEX still camera....) but the camera is also capable of shooting the line of Sony Alpha lenses in full frame, with a supplied adapter.

So the camera will shoot the same quality of files as the a99 and will also trigger and control flashes when used in the still mode.  What this basically means is that in the usual way I use my cameras I can set up studio portraits, stick an 80mm Hasselblad Zeiss lens or Sony Alpha lens on the front and shoot stills all day long. I'll get the same depth of field benefits I would reap with the big sensor on the a99 and, when my client asks me if I can go upstairs and do a brief interview with the CEO I can plop the camera on my Manfrotto tripod with its fluid head and go to town.

With LED lighting I can do two kinds of creative content creation with one set of tools. And have a bag full of compatible Sony still cameras as "B" roll cameras and back-ups.  And here's the sweetest part: The VG 900 uses the same wonderful EVF in the eyepiece as the a99 and the a77.

Yes, the form factor is different and it will take some getting used to but it seems to me to be a significant move forward for someone who wants to be a creative chameleon.  There are several things that have not been made clear yet that interest me.  1. Is the shutter a completely electronic shutter in the still mode? 2. What is the max sync speed for flash? 3. Will the LCD rotate the image if I use the camera in a portrait orientation?  4. What kind of fps will I get in still mode and how big is the buffer? (that was actually two questions....).


The total price of the unit with the lens adapter for Alpha lenses is around $3200. Street price will probably be a bit less. I know some of you are saying to yourselves that you'll never stoop so low as to use a video camera for stills just as I'm sure some of my video friends are saying they'll never condescend to use amateur still photo gear to shoot video art. C'est la vie. To each their own. But what if it's really as good as Sony claims? What if the files are wonderful and the video breathtaking? And what if you send out some really good marketing collateral and a great and long term client calls you up and says, "Hey Bob, I love your lighting. Can you shoot some video footage for us?"


Don't get me wrong. I really like the idea of the a99, and I'm also comfortable with the handling and form factor,  but I also like the idea of getting more and more video production work tacked onto already existing still jobs, for already existing clients (whom I would like to keep).  I also like the idea of being able to leverage the Sony imaging technology and lens collections in both directions.  The idea of full frame is actually less alluring to me than the idea of being able to shoot wonderful video in an easy and straightforward package with 99% of the stuff you'd find on high end video cameras. 

If I need to travel small and light I'll use the NEX-7's.  If I need firepower, good files and a sports form factor to shoot stills with I can always use the a77s. But, if I need video with a big sensor or video with motorized zoom or a big sensor still frame in the middle of a video project it would be nice to have a unique new tool in the box.  And for not many more dollars than an a99.

I'll keep doing my research. The a99 should be out soon and the VG 900 will be out in November. I guess the real issue is how likely one will be to get one in one's hands in the first quarter after the launch.  I have a feeling they'll be popular.

You can fight video and moan about the inclusion of it into our cameras or you can learn the rudiments like we learned to love digital when it became accessible. If you don't earn your living with this stuff it's really no sweat. You can afford to be opinionated and curmudgeonly and still be happy as a pig in shit with whatever still gear you want to use. But the reality of my market place is a shrinking number of still only or video only assignments and a pronounced uptick in combination jobs that require both sets of skills. That means I better polish the skills and shoot the samples I need.

I'm reading, researching, shooting and editing video almost everyday to bring myself up to speed. I'm building on a decade and a half (1980's to 1990's) of having shot and worked on many tape based video projects and movie film projects (mostly Super16mm) and some artsy Super8 intercuts we did for several corporate clients a while back. The tools have changed but the art really hasn't. The editing methods have changed but the flow of the images hasn't. Once I put it all together I think I'll have put together a more profitable value proposition for my existing clients and the potential to compete for new clients. But part of building the potential is getting over the fear of trying new stuff and feeling okay about falling down once in a while.

I've bought dumber stuff before and it always seems to work out (I got a whole book out of LED lights).  Anyway, it's a nice break from buying microphones and lights.....

I'm still not sure which way I'll go. Truth be told, as nice as the a99 looks I'm not noticing too many downsides with the a77s for the way I usually shoot. Could be that the VG 900 is the more interesting choice. Your mileage may definitely vary and that's the downside of writing a blog for such a large and diverse audience of advanced imagemakers.  But I'll let you know what I find out....



31 comments:

Rob Lowry said...

Kirk ... You're a Wild Man!

Personally, I wouldn't bite, but it's only because I don't like the ergonomics of the video gear. But that of course is just a personal choice. Like you've mentioned a few times ... I don't care what the 'object' is that produces my images ... I only care that it produces the images I want.

I'm still holding my breath for a FF Nex ... a NEX 9 maybe, but I'm starting to get dizzy and see little flashes of light.

---Rob

Steve J said...

Hi Kirk,

If I were in you shoes (of course I'm not, but I have SOME imagination) I would be finding the new Sony lineup very compelling for a number of reasons, mainly the cross compatability of NEX, Alpha and VG series lenses and accessories. Effectively you can buy one set of lenses (the expensive bit) and all of them can be used for video and stills, and if you want to go compact, you can downsize to the NEX and still do it all in a pint size package.

I can see where Sony is going with all this. My only wonder is whether a FF NEX camera is coming, whether it will really support WA lenses, and whether there will be a pro NEX lens lineup in the future, in which case I would simply use the NEX and the VG cameras and drop Alphas altogether.

Canon seem to be aiming at a much less integrated solution where only the really high end stuff is part of the joint system. They are even making dedicated cinema lenses distinct from the SLR lenses, which is overkill for most freelancers such as yourself.

Overall though, Sony seem to have a plan and are beginning to make horizontal integration work across the company. Something they were previously not so good at. Since they are also very well vertically integrated (making sensors, LCDs, EVFs and other components) I think they will be very hard to compete with if they can convince people to drop the trad DSLR model.

They really need a more complete and attractive lens lineup, especially for NEX, with a nod to video use (power zoom and silent aperture control). I think then they could pull a lot more people in.

Kirk Tuck said...

Rob, I'm thinking that full frame Nex is going to come at us quicker than we expect. And it should be pretty darn cool. Especially if it's priced just right...

soulnibbler said...

I'm actually in the same boat. The question of the physical shutter will be a big one for me. I've put a fair bit into adapted lenses for the nex system and I could really see the form factor as an advantage with the 200+mm lenses I like to play with, if it takes good stills.

I'm also not entirely sure we won't see an A85 in the near future.

Keep writing! I love your stuff.

On another note, I've been researching 6x6 and larger sensors for a few years now, I don't think it will happen with current steppers but there are a ton of ways to get it accomplished. I keep hoping someone will make a push for larger dies.

Kirk Tuck said...

They are currently revising some nex lenses to include power zoom and silent aperture which is great. The camera switches to APS-C config. automatically when you attach an APS-c nex or Alpha lens and you don't see a diminished IQ as the sensor is still cherry picking pixels in that cropped mode. Wonderful cross pollination.

Buy a bag of Zeiss AF lenses and use em on everything. It's a great way to do a system. Now I seem prescient, yes?

Frank Grygier said...

I like how you think. Always out of the box. I don't think you will be loosing much for portrait work with this camera except the mirror. Synching manual flash might be a challenge.

Steve J said...

Seems like a very likely roadmap given how much sense it makes.

I have never been a fan of DSLR video because of the live-view issue. This issue does not exist on Alphas or NEX's of course, but I still think there is no substitute for dedicated video cameras if it is the primary function of the shoot - for all the reasons you said.

However I noted that a new video pack is available for the A77 with some of the features you mentioned above built in to the VG900. This for me would make it a way better hybrid than any Nikon or Canon offering.

David Liang said...

Kirk you put me in a bit of a scare before I settled my nerves a bit. I pre-ordered the a99 and a shoulder rack with follow focus to help launch my video business. Not paying much attention to the other things Sony had shown at Photokina, you had me thinking hard for a moment there with this video camera.

I really can't tell how much video work vs. stills work there will be, I would imagine if it was video heavy this thing would be the clear choice. I think the thing for me about the VG900 is the size and form factor. I like being very mobile even with video I've been shooting with the a77 without a rig, and with the rig and follow focus I think the a99 would a really cool dual purpose device.

Where as the VG900 is stuck being that size and weight, and I'm just not used to shooting stills holding something like that. Image wise it's the a99 with a few video friendly features so I'm sure the quality would be amazing, but I just can't see myself using it for anything but Video.

Your post is good timing though I'd rather think this through now than later and have a mini freak out.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think the actual image quality of each will be identical. The Nex mount just gives you more and more options to use legacy lenses like the Zeiss lenses for Hasselblad and various Leica lenses, etc.

David Liang said...

Ahh now I see one of the big appeals the VG900 has to you, and probably others as well that have a collection of those lenses.

My oldest is the Minolta 50mm 1.7 with the crossed X. I think I'm going to look into the VG900 more though, I hate making what I thought was a good decision only to realize I let something slip.

Steve J said...

Of course I meant A99....

Rob Lowry said...

I'm definitely hoping so. I have an a850 that I drag everywhere with me, and last christmas bought my wife a NEX-5N. From pretty much the get go, I fell in love with the NEX but wished it was a FF (I've carefully selected my lenses based on their FF coverage). I love the images I get from my a850, but it's a chore to carry around. The NEX is just plain 'ole fun to use. I love being able to attach 45yr old pieces of manual focus glass and get focus peaking and focus assist. It's truly a camera to make people love taking photographs.

---Rob

Silvertooth said...

Even though I have no real interest in video (at this time), the VG900 sounds, as my grandfather would have said, "Slicker than snot on a doorknob!". I currently shoot a Nikon dSLR (for now). I shoot a lot of film with a Minolta manual focus system I backed into. I played with a Sony A67 the other day and really, really liked it, especially the EVF with the level visible. I have thought of switching to Sony for this reason. I would really like to look at an A77, but the only store in Houston that has one is about fifty mile from here. It seems that Sony is looking to be a company that plays to people who love photography in all its forms, including video. They are playing the role very well!

theaterculture said...

Back when Scarlet was still vaporware, it seemed like Red were trying to push the idea of a blurred still/video system that the product didn't really end up delivering. Sony seems to have cottoned onto the idea, and more or less nailed it here.

I'm intrigued by the APS-C version of the video camera as well. I have a feeling my film-making friends who grew up shooting 35mm would prefer that to keep the lenses behaving close to what they're used to, but the 135-sensor could become the default "cinema quality" for a new generation...

Anonymous said...

Kirk did you think about the VG-900 in the vertical format? For portrait shooting looks kinda difficult to me!

Caleb Courteau said...

Sony is rapidly developing an imaging arm that is all things to all people. From the RX-100 which is professional quality in your pocket, to the NEX line that is everything you need if you don't think in full frame focal lengths, to the a99 if you do, to the VG900 which is the answer to pro videographer's needs. In my opinion the VG900 is the most interesting. This is the first camera I've seen that thinks of convergence from the videographer's perspective. There's two reasons that's important. First, think of the philosophical difference between how a subject feels while they're being videographed vs. photographed. If you're being photographed you're thinking in terms of poses, while being videographed you're thinking in terms of flow. Most people aren't good at posing but most of us are good at talking while looking at a videocamera. If a tool such as the VG900 provided stills functionality that didn't interrupt the video signal I can see that as a potential way of getting good candids.
The second advantage is the manner in which you hold the camera. Holding your forearm perpendicular to your body with camera strapped perpendicular to your hand, bazooka style, is a very stable platform to hold a STILLS camera. Beats that hell out of the "dirty diaper camera hold", as Mr. Tuck rightly derides it. Maybe not discreet, but definitely stable, and if you're shooting video as you're shooting stills it's really almost ideal.

Paul Glover said...

The merest possibility that a full-frame stills NEX could happen is intriguing. Sony are on our radar anyway because we need a decent "family digital", we already have some old Minolta A-mount glass, if I *must* shoot digital for anything I'd rather do it properly with the full advantage of a good EVF and capable video for when we need it, finally Sony's "big camera" division looks like it has figured out what it wants to do when it grows up which takes away some of the earlier uncertainty.

That, and I have a fairly full Canon FD system whose lenses would be an excellent fit for a mirrorless full-frame live-view camera. Interesting times.

Caleb Courteau said...

Edit: parallel to your body.

Michael Matthews said...

Excellent!

Sony has been building the broadcast industry standard in portable video gear for the past 30 years or more. I think they know what they're doing.

Bonus points for keeping an open mind.

Mark Davidson said...

Thanks for the useful and timely post.
I have recently added video to my services as clients ask for it. I am currently using a Canon 5Dmk3 as it was what I had for my architecture work. The video is fine out of the camera but I actually could see myself using this Sony for my business.

I almost never hand hold my camera and always travel to my locations with a lot of lighting and other gear. The large tilt/swivel LCD would be wonderful for composing my shots. I could adapt my TS lenses to it and I would be set.
The price is very good for the spec.

This seems to me to be one of those devices that catches on when individuals, unburdened by the biases of still photographers, discover the versatility and quality it can deliver.

Kirk Tuck said...

If you can't stretch your business won't change. And the world will change around it...

ODL Designs said...

Another thought provoking read Kirk. I just completed a video for a client who essentially pleaded with me to produce it (I dont really do them at all) so they would have at least "something".

After going through the shoot, and applying the lighting knowledge from still photography, and the steep learning curve on the software... It was both a lot of fun, and very rewarding. My next camera may very well be the GH3 while I begin practicing and developing my abilities in video.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

John F. Opie said...

You know, when I saw this, my first thought was that it was the perfect solution for a small studio/photographic business. Form factor is indeed a tad strange, but that's normal for new systems.

Once a year I go to the BaselWorld watch show (I am one of the moderators of the world's largest watch forum). Last year I had my E30 with the 12-60 attached to it for general photographic work and the GF2 with the Oly 50 f2 attached via adapter for macro work (the LCD is great for macro work), with an LED ring light attached to it for illumination of watch movements and dials, getting very close indeed.

This, coupled with a macro that would give me at least the same resolution of the 50 f2, would be the perfect piece of kit for that show and is on my short list. The price is a downer, but for that resolution, that set of capabilities and the entry into the professional video world, there is very, very little to dissuade...

Sony, for all its quirks and foibles (and outright bizzareness at times), is increasingly making sense. They've even got the sense not to push their own lenses, but bring their relationship with Zeiss into the game to throw the gauntlet down to everyone else. While I probably can't afford to go this road, it is very, very tempting...

Brad C said...

I didn't see that one coming! Tell us the truth: you are thinking about doing weddings on the weekends and don't want to get caught with a camera smaller than uncle Bob's :)

In truth, I think Sony really has a system that uses the latest technology to really nail the needs of visual professionals across the board. Canon isn't really embracing mirrorless yet, while Nikon misses on video. Sony does it all: mirrorless (with APS-C sensor), full frame, video, SLT bodies, sensors, mirrorless adapter for video. Great stuff that all works as a system!

Mark Davidson said...

This time next year we will be clamoring for video RAW.

Mister Ian said...

Have you thought about the Blackmagic camera? Now that there is a reasonable price for something shooting raw. Every time I shoot video outside of controlled lighting I dream of raw data coming from these awesome new large sensors. Of course raw has its drawbacks, file sizes, rendering time etc. but as Moore's Law marches on it should be mainstream soon ... And you can of course use your lenses with adapters on the Blackmagic.

Kirk Tuck said...

I wasn't away that the Black Magic camera was at all capable of shooting still frames, nor is it really set up for handheld work without a lot of peripheral attachments. The thing that makes the VG 900 desirable is the combination of portability and shared imaging pipeline with the still side of the Sony catalog. Garage-style inventor box versus mature and highly usable design.

Kirk Tuck said...

How raw do you want your video? Sony's new a99 will do 4:2:2 output via HDMI. Is that raw enough? Or does it have to be all raw? And if so can you imagine the processing time? Maybe we should just practice better and better technique.

Mister Ian said...

Good points, I think if you have raw video you can extract single raw frames but you may not have enough pixels to compare to a still camera. Yes, the external stuff needed to make the Black Magic work efficiently and ergonomically is garage-style potentially taking too much time and adding risks and more complex setup to every shoot.

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