Last fall, my trusty Canon 5D mkI ( yes the Mk 1) finally called it quits after a decade of use. I was on a job in the salt flats of Bonneville, Utah shooting a land speed record for the Triumph Race team. I figured I’d get some beautiful photos while I was out there. Sadly, the 5D sputtered, locked up, and I got every error message the camera could come up with. I loved this camera. It had a certain “Mojo” that is difficult to replicate:
What to do? I had a couple Canon lenses, so naturally I was excited for the MKIV, and the 5DSr. As a perpetual user of RED, Alexa and Phantom, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a SLR/mirrorless camera had video as a main attraction. I decided to go after pure still photo power. After testing both Canon cameras I felt the technology of the MKIV was impressive, but sitting at 31MP it didn’t seem to be catching up with the D810’s 43MP. I loved the resolution of the 5DSr, albeit its performance in image quality didint seem like a quantum leap forward. Having only in my eyes, acceptable dynamic range, moderate noise performance, I felt a bit perplexed. I wanted the technologically advanced 5DmkIV, to have the resolution of the 5DSr.
My friend mentioned to me, “Have you considered the A99II?”. I scoffed at first. I wanted a tried and true optical finder, and at the time I was convinced that the only functional autofocus system that’s useable came from a true optical mirror setup with phase detection. However a challenge had been posed, and I looked into it. After all, we all have to do our due diligence. The A99ii started looking more and more interesting, 399 AF points with a trans mirror… Hey this thing may actually be able to do it! But then the realization that none of my canon lenses would work on the system, so it basically put the system out of the running. After all it would mean reinvesting in top end Sony G glass as well as a new $3400 body. However my interest was piqued by Sony. What else did they have? I checked DXO to see what cameras were at or near the top of their sensor score list, and there it was. The A7R2 with a 98 overall score, 13.9 stops of D/R, and an E mount that let me at least temporarily continue to use my canon glass. Hmmm… I shoot mainly portraits and landscapes so even with a Metabones adapter, I would have the ability to get useable AF for a still subject, keep my lenses, get 42+ Megapixels, 13.9 stops of D/R, no OLPF, and use the uncompressed RAW. The perks on top of that were that it shot 4K video, maintained the D/R with SLog2 and because of the E-Mount, I could put any lens on earth on this camera. As you all know I LOVE vintage lenses.
Upon looking into the system further, I was still bugged by the lack of an optical finder. That is till I realized other than the 5DmkI, I haven’t looked through an optical finder since I shot with an Alexa Studio four years ago, then an ARRICAM LT 8 years ago. I was hanging onto something that honestly wasn’t really an issue anymore.
Ok, so it seemed I was leaning a bit towards an A7R2… But what else does the Emount do? After many late nights reading up on the E-mount system, I learned that Sony makes an A-mount to E-mount adapter, The LA-EA4. What is special about this? Well, Sony bought Minolta some years ago, and took their lens technology with them. Minolta, though not hugely popular back in the day, had one of the earliest autofocus systems available. I’m talking nearly 35 years old, however, they all still worked on the A mount. Especially with the LA-EA4 adapter as it has the screw drive mechanism to activate the older autofocus system built in! This let me put a whole catalog of vintage Minolta Maxxum ( their equivalent of “L series”), Vivitar Series 1 and Tokina lenses on a modern camera with native autofocus functionality. I searched online, and new old stock Maxxum lenses are often less than $100. Some as low as $50. So I picked up a used A7R2, a used LAEa4 adapter, and a Vivtar 19-35 F3.5, Tokina 28-70 F2.8, Minolta Maxxum 50mm F1.4, Tokina 90mm F2.5 Macro ( that is similar to my Vivitar Series 1 90mm; but with autofocus!) and a Minolta Maxxum 70-210 F4 “Beercan” all in immaculate shape. Total cost? $2997. That’s the A7R2 Body, LA-EA4 Adapter, and ALL of the lenses for $200 less than the cost of a New A7R2 body. The lenses are for the most part great and have vintage feel with nearly modern AF performance. The only hitch, though interesting, ( is it even a bad thing?) is the La-EA4 adapter has its own built in trans-mirror 9 point diamond pattern phase detection AF system. It bypasses the 399 AF points in the R2. This did not bother me as I only use the center point anyhow. Think about that for a minute. For the photographer stepping up from an entry level camera, for less than the price of a flagship body you get everything. I’d dare to say that it almost makes the A7R2 an entry level camera, with incredible room to grow over time. Imagine being fully outfitted optically from 19mm to 210mm, good AF, with the elusive vintage lens look, for less than $3000, taxed and shipped. Oh and another thing… The LA-EA4 and lenses will work on ANY E-Mount camera. A5000, A7, A6500 etc. Really makes stepping up easier no?
To round out the system I got a Tilta Cage, Metabones PL adapter, and figured out a trade of some old gear for a Odyysey 7Q+ to record 4K. I mean when the 4K looks so good why not use it right? ( I will go over the video capabilities in another post)
Now, back to the photos. I went wild shooting and enjoyed every last second. These are from a few things, My wife riding a horse, some astro work and some shooting from a helicopter on Election night.
I was having a ball. I found however that there was one small issue with the Sony system. It is what has plagued every sony camera since the Vx1000 DV camera. Skin color. At least in camera skin tone rendition. There is just something about the way the Sony cameras render skintone. It isn’t “Wrong”… It’s actually too accurate. Cameras like the Canons (video and photo) seem to enhance the skin tone ranges, Nikons, The ARRI Alexa DEFINITELY enhances the skin tones, and the RED system has made vast improvements in this department. Sony looks like it uses the same color science since 1994 … Ok maybe thats a bit harsh, but you get the idea. The color quality is recoverable in post, but it requires work to dial it in.
Stock A7R2 in camera skin tones: See how the skin just kind of seems like a flat wash of color? I liken it to taking a tack sharp black and white photo, then colorizing it.
I discovered something curious in stills mode however, the Picture Profiles, the camera’s gamma and Color matrix settings, included Slog2. This is primarily intended for when you shoot video, you can preserve all the dynamic range of the camera. However, you can take stills with Slog2 Gamma engaged. Hmmmm… I was curious. Slog2 is Slog2. It’s a reliable standard. I bet, the LUTS we use for films that are Slog2 based luts would grade the stills. I looked on line for some Slog2 luts that had promise, but many were over powering and just made the image look unnatural. I then found a company called Omeneo Primer, they had the kind of stuff I was looking for. I bought their pack called Omeneo Primer for A7R2. Their LUT pack is specifically designed to “deSony” the image in terms of color quality. It adds some contrast to the LOG image to make it look nicer, but it renders the image with a much softer toe and shoulder, preserving detail. They state on their website that the primers are intended to give you a good starting place from which to grade further. I found it really just brings the Slog2 Image to life in an amazing way.
I just did a very simple test, I shot in XtraFine Jpeg mode to preserve as much information as possible. Slog2 Gamma won’t apply to RAW images. You have to shoot Jpeg in some fashion.
I took my wife and her friend outside, shot the frame according to normal exposure according to the internal light meter with “still” gamma and “still” color matrix. Really, the other matrices are essentially the same color feel, with either a lot of saturation, or not so much. None of them seem to exude warmth or a particular style. 709Matrix is far too saturated, and what it does wind up saturating just doesn’t look great. The “Still” color matrix is saturated, but not absurd.
The two photos were shot, within a couple seconds of each other. One in stock “still” gamma at normal exposure according to the meter, and the second shot is just switched to SLOG2, same exact exposure, ISO, shutter speed everything. Then, the third image is the Slog2 gamma shot with the Omeneo LUT applied in photoshop. No other adjustments other than applying the LUT.
1: Still Gamma:
2: SLog2 / S-Gamut Color
3: SLog2 S-Gamut color : Omeneo LUT. Notice the skin. IT just has a rosy, warm feel, without warming the whole image. In fact the whole image globally has more vibrant, realistic color. They mapped the sony sensors specifically to draw out the colors in a more pleasing way.
Another Example, My mom on mother’s day last week:
Slog2 / S-Gamut:
SLog2 / S-Gamut: With Omeneo LUT: No other adjustments.
You can see, the difference in skin tone rendering in the first example. It’s far richer, overall has warmth, depth and just enough saturation to look pleasing, but not unnatural. The steely grey undertone of Sony images are pretty much eliminated. Colors that under normal circumstances you would never see suddenly come to life. However, that’s not all…
I posted my findings online, and started a thread about the technique. In a discussion I had with Geoffrey C Bassett: I brought up this technique and he wanted to try it out. He noticed something quite remarkable. It seems that when the camera is in SLOG2 mode, some interesting image processing happens. It seems that shooting stills in SLog2 seems to eliminate a majority of chromatic aberration. Under the same test images, he also noted that SLog2 images were a bit grainier. What I think happens, is that the camera does zero processing in noise reduction, and doubles up Chromatic Aberration Compensation, or just does an extremely good debayer. Whatever the case is, I would gladly take a slightly grainer image in exchange for beautiful color and less C/A.
Geoff C Basset’s Test: ( feel free to click his name to check out his work)
RAW Processed in Capture one:
SLOG – OMENEO LUT:
1: The out of Camera “Still Gamma” Jpeg: Notice the high light handling, the purple fringing on the silver gears and the bolts in the pedal gear.
2: RAW Processed with Capture one: Notice although the highlights are better handled, but the purple fringing is still there!
3: SLOG2 – OMENEO LUT: Look how clean the edges of the white highlights are on the spokes. The image seems sharper because somehow the ghosting that comes from the purple fringing is removed. I think perhaps the debayer algorithm in SLOG2 mode is better. It seems to process the image for more accuracy, albeit a bit noisier. Also the highlight handling as a result is far better then even his RAW example. I’m not too worried about the grain however. This is a 100% crop from a 8K image. That noise gets eliminated when scaled down, or even when it’s printed. Obviously, some noise reduction would also solve it, if you don’t like any noise in your image. Personally I like the grain.
TEST 2: Direct sunlight.
1 Standard Jpeg: Notice how the chipped paint section on the boat looks almost purple from all the C/A. Also the paint on the boat reads white, and the water reads nearly grey.
SLOG – OMENEO LUT: Here the boat looks blue, and the water takes on the sky’s reflection that was just not there in the JPEG version.
JPEG standard – The Chromatic aberration is clearly visible on the hull of the boat and edges of the deck chair. Also note the White tag on the orange life vest.
SLOG2 – OMENEO LUT : For the most part, the color of the boat without all the purple fringing can actually show through, from a combination of a better utilization of Dynamic range in the highlights, and a lack of C/A. In the Jpeg image the boat appears white. In the Slog2 with LUT version, the boat reads as a light blue. Also notice the lack of blotchiness in the orange life vest. The color subtleties are FAR better.
While this doesn’t replace a RAW workflow, it’s a great alternative. I think a properly exposed image using this method that benefits you with all the clarity of color, for me, is now my prefered way of taking pictures. Alternatively, you can start using the A7R2 camera as a director’s viewfinder on set, it can be set to S35 mode, and you will get the field of view that closely matches nearly all cinema cameras, even the RED (at 5K ANSI s35 frame size). Then after shooting a Jpeg in SLOG2, you can apply the LUT you want to use for the project directly to the Jpeg and get a sense of how things may look. I think the trick is to expose perfectly, treat it like any LOG cinema camera. Often LUTs come in different varieties based on different sensors, so they should track pretty well between the A7R2 and whatever you happen to be using.
I would likely shoot Jpeg + RAW to use this technique, but have the RAW as a backup incase it needs major adjustments. I would really like to figure out a way of making photoshop or lightroom export an Slog2 + S-gamut TIFF from the RAW files, so you can make the exposure adjustments necessary then use the luts to bring out the colors hiding in there, but from an uncompressed, 12bit space. I think if you are careful, you can get away with shooting SLOG2 to Xfine Jpeg, and forgo RAW altogether so long as you expose properly. You can adjust exposure a bit in photoshop before you apply the lut for small correction. It still looks pretty good up to a stop of push or pull.
I think this is a cool way of working, I hope you find it useful.
Thanks for reading!