Although I’ve now had my Sony A7R for nearly two months, this last weekend provided one of the best opportunities that I’ve had to to give it an extended try out in field conditions. We stayed the weekend at Bowentown, a small township on the Bay of Plenty coast, just south of Waihi Beach, spending several hours walking along the coast in front of the camp-ground, and then north of Waihi Beach along the track to Orokawa and Homunga Bays. The weather was scratchy, with strong winds, grey overcast and some rain, but it was great to be out with an opportunity to see what this camera could do.
Although I took a range of lenses, I was keen to mostly restrict myself to just three as a tryout for an upcoming trip to the South Island during which we have planned a 6 day back-packing trip in the Nelson Lakes National Park. I’ll take a Canon FD 35mm as my main walkabout lens, supplementing it with my FD 85mm for short tele shots and my FD 20 mm to cover the wide end of things. The latter is my one question mark – a couple of reviews have highlighted its Jekyll and Hyde character on Sony A7 cameras – sharp in the image centre, but with corners that don’t quite come up to scratch, even when stopped down well.
So with this kit (plus a couple of extra lenses as backup) we set out. Day one we walked the beach in fairly relentless westerly wind and grey overcast – not a lot of opportunity here except for a brief sunny spell, when I was able to try the 35 mm on some pingao, a native sedge that colonizes the least stable dunes. At the end of the day, I explored rocks at the southern end of the beach, encountering breeding gulls, who communicated loudly their resentment at my intrusion. Before retreating, I pulled out a longer telephoto for a shot of a large black-back gull whose posture made clear his intention to defend his nest if I came any closer. On the way back to the campground, I couldn’t resist trying the new B+W 6-stop neutral density filter I’ve just acquired, mounting the camera on a mini-tripod and experimenting with long exposures of the gentle wave surge around the coastal rocks.
Day two we walked the coastal track to Orokawa Bay, a pristine little beach north of Waihi, with dense pohutukawa on a terrace at the top of the beach – fortunately the lack of road access has saved it from development. We quickly made it over the first hill, and decided to head along the less developed track towards Homunga Bay. However, the temptation for swimming on Dianne’s part became too great, so we reached a perfect compromise – we would stop at a little cove just off the track, she would swim, and I would test out the FD 20 mm on the large jumble of boulders and logs at the end of the beach.
The light was mostly subdued, with minimal sun to cause problems with harsh shadows, and I had plenty of time to explore and carefully compose and focus. Results confirmed that the central sharpness is outstanding at all apertures from F/4 upwards, but sadly the corner sharpness lags quite a way behind. After looking critically at the results, my initial reaction was that I would not want to print a full frame image taken with this lens at any size larger than about A3. But on reflection I could see that cropping to 16 x 9 or 3 x 4 proportions, as I have in several images in the following set, its possible to generally avoid use of the extreme corners, making this lens generally fine for my purposes – use with care and compose to crop a little is the clear lesson!
Having swum and photographed to our heart’s contents, we returned the way that we came, stopping to laze about and explore at the north end of Orokawa Bay. Spectacular large rounded boulders on the headland are tempting photographic subjects, and I repeated my testing of the B+W ND6 filter, coupling it with a circular polarizer without too much loss of image quality. However, with the wind picking up and clouds rolling in from the west, we headed for the car at a fast clip, reaching our destination just as the rain arrived in a ferocious squall.
So overall, would a kit consisting of a Sony A7R and these three lens work for me for an extended back country trip? My conclusion is a resounding yes – as a manual focus camera for use in the deliberate taking of landscape photos, and given the overall image quality, it would have to deliver more bang for its weight and ease of use than any other camera that I’ve owned. The Canon FD lenses are heavier and bulkier than those for my OM-D, but perhaps with the exception of the FD 20 mm, the quality of these older FD lenses is very close to that of the MZuiko primes, despite their age. And a three lens kit still only weighs in about 500 grams heavier than an equivalent OM-D based kit. The lack of image stabilisation in the Sony is a loss, but mostly I can work around it, particularly when a tripod is on hand.
The other gains from the A7R are more subtle. One is the extra two stops of usable dynamic range, meaning that high-contrast scenes can be much more easily captured and processed without excessive loss of shadow detail. The second is the much greater potential to use selective focus, in particular, throwing backgrounds just that bit out of focus so as to isolate the main subject. Roll on the South Island!