Why I Changed to Sony

(Landscape with Sony A7iii and Sony 16-35 f 2.8 GM)

In my last post I showed how a series of expensive accidents had led to a change in attitude and a change from Canon to Sony. Here I will explain the technical reasons for the change. Modern photography sets a very high bar, and to create the sort of images which I find satisfying involves a continuous learning process. Some people go on courses. I teach myself, but I also get help from similar blogs and websites, so I hope this will help other photographers to find their way through the mountains of horribly dense tech-speak churned out by the global photography business. 

The first thing to note is that Canon have historically prioritised the viewfinder for taking pictures and the screen for viewing them. A different set of functions is available depending on whether you are using the viewfinder or the screen. If, like me, you need reading glasses, this means, unless you use the screen only,  a constant fumbling with glasses to view your pictures.

With Sony the controls are the same whichever you are using, and that even applies to viewing the pictures you have just taken. The downside to this is that on my two Sony cameras the viewfinder has lower resolution than the screen. However, one button press will magnify the images so you can easily see if they are sharp.

The second big difference is in what is called “burst rate”  – the number of pictures you can take per second in continuous shooting modes. Only the big heavy 1D Canon cameras have speeds of 20 or more. For Sony this is the norm.

Thirdly, Sony offer far more auto-focus points. In theory this means that you capture more shots of fast moving subjects. I’m still to be convinced, but I find their auto-focus controls much easier to manage.

Lastly Sony offer far more variables which can be controlled by using a series of buttons. This can be very confusing and takes a while to learn, but it has now become for me the most important advantage for Sony. Let’s look first at my new camera, the popular full-frame mirrorless A7iii.

 Notice first the Custom buttons, C1 etc. These are the key to getting the best out of the camera. Like most serious photographers I use “back button focusing”, which means I use the AF-ON button (next picture) with my thumb to operate the autofocus and disable that function on the shutter button’s half-press. Pressing the shutter button half way activates the image stabiliser but not the autofocus. (This does not apply to the green Auto setting on the mode dial which I very rarely use.) The C buttons and the left, right and down presses on the control wheel can all be set to control most of the parameters you will need for a perfect shot.  After a lot of experimenting and adaptation from the Canon equivalents, I have settled on the following functions, most of which are the same on both my cameras – see below – which makes it much easier to change from one to the ot her without forgetting where everything is!

C2 I have set to toggle from viewfinder to screen. This is to save battery when I am walking with the camera and big lens slung to my side. C1 operates one of Sony’s star features – focus magnify. This will instantly blow up a selected zone in the viewfinder or the screen so that you can check focus. This is designed for tricky static subjects and is not available when in one of the continuous shooting modes. Because you can stabilise a focussed view with the shutter half-press this means I can use my camera with the big lens at 400 to obtain a magnification of x 96! (a 400mm lens magnifies by about 8, and the magnify button can magnify that image up to 12 times)

Moving to the back view, I have the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) button set to another of Sony’s star features: “Recall custom hold 1” As long as I hold this button a whole set of shooting parameters which I have saved – shutter speed, aperture, focus mode, focus area, metering mode etc. – will come into play and can be used instantly. I use this for a high shutter speed setting for fast moving targets. I don’t need the AEL button to lock exposure because back-button focusing does this for me. 

The Fn button shows a quick menu of selected functions, and I use this to change ISO from auto (my usual setting) to a fixed value.

As with most modern cameras, the large control wheel tilts up, down, left and right. Up is fixed for the display of icons in the viewfinder and screen. I have set right to change the focus area, left for drive mode and down metering mode. Press any of these 3 once to select the function and then use the up and down to change it.  

To my shame I have only recently realised how easily an all-purpose metering mode such as “multi” can ruin a shot if there is very high contrast. Sony has, among others, a very useful setting here called “highlight” which meters selectively to tone down the bright light and enhance the under-lit areas.

Related to this is the setting for the C4 button. This enables me to customise the metering on the fly. If, for example my focus and metering zone are on a very bright area, having set focus with AF-ON I then move to a dark area and press the C4 button. The camera will then lighten the dark area. A second press turns the selection off.

Lastly I have set the C3 button to control the focus mode, which I normally have set to Auto so that if the subject is static it operates as Single-shot AF, but if the subject moves it changes to Continuous. There is a Manual focus setting, and, a peculiarity of Sony, a Direct Manual Focus setting. This is one of the areas where Canon has the edge. When trying to focus on a difficult subject with a shallow depth of field, it’s useful to be able to tweak the focus using the manual focus ring. With Canon, depending on the lens,  you don’t have to change anything to do this. With Sony you have to change to DMF which is a single-shot setting.

 As far as possible I have set up the RX10 iv with the same controls

The C2 and C1 functions are the same.

However, there are less buttons on this camera. The AEL  button has to serve for back-button focussing, and Recall Custom hold 1 moves to a button on the left hand side of the body. You have to use your right index finger to operate this.

C3 is the same as C4 on the smaller camera, and the Right, Left and Down presses on the control wheel have the same settings.

There are two physical controls which seem odd to me. When in manual, Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority modes you can only change the aperture by using the physical aperture ring shown in the first picture. However, in Auto and Programmed Auto modes the aperture is controlled by the software. No doubt Sony had good reason to have this physical control, but I can’t see the point of it.

The other difficult-to-use physical control is a turn-button on the left side of the camera which sets the focus mode (set with C3 on the A7iii).

Trying to describe such complicated technical issues simply is difficult, so I hope you have been able to follow. As always, comments welcome. In my next post I will list the relevant contents of my gear cupboard.



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Too Much Kit?

NERD ALERT –  This post is all about cameras and lenses.

Don’t we just love all these gorgeous lenses and cameras the manufacturers keep tempting us with? What exquisite pleasure it is to take the first pictures with a new lens you  have just blown another big chunk of savings on! We can easily convince ourselves that we need first, a wide angle lens, then an all purpose mid range lens such as a 50mm, then a portrait lens and/or a macro lens, and of course we need a big  telephoto for those long distance shots, and a teleconverter to increase the range. It’s no good getting the cheaper kind with high f-stop ratings. Nothing higher than f2.8 will do! It’s all about that term so beloved of the Japanese tech giants – “upgrading”. You can’t ever have too much good kit can you?

Well, yes you can.  In the Spring of 2019, dissatisfied with the quality of image from my “all purpose” Tamron 18-400 lens, I sold it and bought a Sony RX10 mk4 as a back-up all purpose travel camera.

 The lens, made by Zeiss, has the extraordinary specification of 24-600 f2.4 – f4 with a diameter of 80mm and a zoomed-out length of 200mm. There are cameras like the Nikon P900 which zoom a lot further, but they usually have slower (higher f rating) lenses and the tiny “micro four-thirds” size sensor, whereas the Sony has a 1″ sensor. The result is a quality of image at the telephoto end which in good light,  can match my super 400 f4 Canon lens. It can also produce outstanding 4k video footage. I had a lot of fun with this camera during last year, but a day in the rain with a rain cover attached to it damaged the zoom motor. The cover did the damage, not the rain. It still worked as normal but made a nasty noise. Sony wanted £650 to repair it, but I thought this was excessive so postponed a decision on what to do about it.

Than, at the height of the Coronavirus lockdown I had another nasty accident. This time it was my best Canon camera and one of my best lenses. (5Div and 70-200 f2.8 iii)  Owing to a careless moment fixing the combination to my tripod, it fell. To cut a long story short the combined repair bill was very little short of £1000.  Sorely chastened, I concluded that too much kit leads to too much handling, which can lead to accidents. I researched camera repair companies and decided to try sending the Sony to Fixation in London before risking my Canon gear. They did an excellent job for less than £200, and I was really pleased to be using it again.

However, there now loomed yet another problem which I couldn’t get round by spending money. No amount of super photo kit could rejuvenate my brain.  In fact this was not a new dilemma. I had come to the conclusion months ago that I would eventually have to choose between Canon and Sony. The unavoidable truth was that every time I switched from one set of camera controls to a very different set, I had difficulty remembering which buttons did what. My memory cells are depleted by age.

Canon have been the market leader for wildlife photographers for a lot longer than I had been using their kit which meant there was a huge choice of different cameras and lenses available, with plenty of (relative) second hand bargains to be had. Sony gear is not cheap, and they have only in the last 5 years or so started competing directly with Canon for the Sport and Wildlife enthusiasts, so there are no bargains around.  The obvious thing to do was to stick with Canon and sell the Sony.

I did the opposite. I sold all my Canon gear and replaced some of it with Sony.

The first picture shows it waiting to be collected by MPB the big camera resale company: two of Canon’s best cameras, a 5D4 and a 90D, and some of their best lenses: a 400 f4 DO ii and a 70-200 f2.8 iii, a 16-35 f2.8, a 50 f1.4 and a Sigma macro 105 f2.8. It still hurts thinking about it.As a partial replacement I bought a Sony A7iii, their 100-400 f4.5-5.6, a 1.4x extender and a very expensive 16-35 f2.8. This meant I was downgrading – from the prime 400 f4 lens to a lower spec 100-400. I was also making the increasingly popular move from DSLR to the smaller and lighter mirrorless concept formerly known as Compact Systems Cameras.

Why? The main reason was a philosophical one. I want to be slimmer, lighter and more versatile. It’s part of what I hope I have learnt from our very restricted life in the last 3 months. Getting the best wildlife shots doesn’t always mean having extra reach. There are hundreds of fleeting opportunities if you are nimble enough to catch them in focus and at the right exposure. Local doesn’t have to be boring. Even very common birds and animals can make great pictures if you can capture some exciting or appealing behaviour.

How Sony will help me to achieve this is the subject of my next post.

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A Dream of Hares

I am standing, or sitting, on a balcony. It is very early on a midsummer morning. Beneath me is a garden and beyond the garden is nothing. The garden, golden in the early light, has tidy rows of fertile vegetable beds and there are flowers and neat, low box hedges. It’s not my garden. My garden is  scruffy and overgrown.

A magical, wonderful wild creature appears – a hare. It is there, below us on our balcony. Joy wells up. There is some special magic about hares, and now there is another one. Where is my camera? I long to capture these mysterious beasts. They move closer, a slow lolloping gait which quickly covers the ground, and now there are more – three, no five hares all so close, just below me and the friends who are with me.

We are so excited. Oh, if only I had my camera with me, but I don’t keep the camera in the bedroom, and I can’t tell from the light around the blind if it is a bright clear morning or yet another one of grey drizzle. I’m half inclined to lie here in the afterglow of the dream, but I get up and draw the blind. It’s grey and I wish I had stayed in bed. Too late now; I wrap myself in a dressing gown, go downstairs, brew some tea, wash and get dressed. It’s now five thirty.  The ground is wet with recent rain but it’s warm and there is sunlight and I decide to look for hares.

Hares have a much higher place in our esteem than their cousins the rabbits. Rabbits don’t jump over the moon, or change into witches or run at 45 miles per hour, or go mad in March or have boxing matches. When I was young, living in rural Wiltshire and much influenced by the books of Phil Drabble – he of “One Man and his Dog” fame – I used to hunt hares with a lurcher dog. Lurchers are the poacher’s dog, bred from one of the “long dogs” seen in medieval hunting pictures – greyhound, deerhound, wolfhound, borzoi, saluki, – and a supposedly more intelligent species such as collie. The idea was to breed a dog which could match the hare’s uncanny ability to turn at right angles at top speed and “lurch”  sideways with the hare. In my brief experience the hare almost always escaped. Hares were plentiful on the Downs then and I saw no harm in killing a few for the pot. However, when we proudly served jugged hare to one of our friends she refused to eat it on the grounds that it was a sacred animal!

The name “Harrier” is the hare version of “Rabbiter” and is applied to those wonderful birds which hunt over open ground and to a forerunner of the Beagle, dogs bred for their scenting ability and stamina which could hunt a hare to exhaustion. Until last autumn I had not seen a hare round here for 10 years or more, and was delighted then to spot one on the “fridd”, the marginal land between farm and mountain. Recently I have seen two. This is almost certainly because, under lockdown, I am spending a lot more time in my locality. Twice in the last 2 weeks I have seen and caught the image of a hare in an area of ordinary grass fields intersected by a narrow lane, just ten minutes walk from the house. The first, with an ear missing, was close but close to the wrong lens and the blown-up image was poor. The second saw me coming before I could take the picture and was soon too far away for a good image. 

This time I walk briskly through the deserted village until I approach a field gate in the hedge. Then I go into stalking mode – slow deliberate movements and long pauses. I carefully scan the first two fields – nothing. I walk on and repeat the operation – still nothing. Then I have reached the rough track where I saw the first hare, the one with one ear. There are no hares today, but walking back I spot these sparrows (Mum and two teenagers) jostling for a place on a post. I didn’t really expect to find the perfect shot and I’m quite happy with the sparrows.



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A Fresh Perspective

This post is a departure from my usual format in that it refers to a Gallery of pictures. If you hover over each picture you will see my notes on them:  Wildlife and Lockdown

It follows on from two previous posts: The Joy of Local and Lockdown Frustrations

All the places where these pictures were taken were accessed either by bike or walking or both. I crossed private land only with the permission of the landowners.

There was a period in May when I got depressed abut the “quality” and quantity of the wild creatures I could watch and photograph in this area so dominated by a sheep monoculture. It’s good practice and good for the soul to photograph Jackdaws and Robins, but doesn’t get the adrenalin going. Then a few things happened. I began to realise that I was finding creatures I thought were lost to the area or ones I didn’t know about, so I’ve collected a representative sample from April, May and June, and begun to realise that my “Patch” isn’t that bad after all!

Please have a look at the gallery. The pictures are in date order and begin with the first swallow – always a red letter day for me. Taking a fresh look at common birds like the Dunnock, Magpie and Jackdaw is well worth the effort, but the hedgehog image took a lot of preparation and was the most rewarding, even though I wasn’t there to see it. The only rarity amongst the birds and insects was the Wood Warbler, but the real thrill in that picture was identifying the long trills which mark out its song, and the gorgeous environment of the Pisgotwr valley up in Mallaen mountain.

I had my hide up at a local lake for the pictures of Canada geese, Little Grebes and ducklings. These are all species you can see in city parks, but here there were no people and the splashing of the geese chasing each other, the long trilling call of the Grebe and the song of the Blackcap were the only sounds breaking the silence.

The Song Thrush was in a wild little valley way up beyond Rhandirmwyn – the Gwenffrwd. Again the context made is special.

All the insects shown were in our garden, and it is especially gratifying to see the dragonflies and damselflies returning after the old pond was emptied and a new wider and deeper one created. It is astonishing how quickly the previous occupants – water beetles, whirligig beetles, frog and toad tadpoles, water skaters, newts et al – returned.

I now have three locations on the river where I can either use the pop-up hide or remain partially concealed, and the Goosanders, Wagtails, Vole, Squirrel and Buzzard were all caught by or near the river. Discovering the Bank Vole – a species I had barely heard of – was a big bonus, but it wasn’t until I saw Old Father Hare that I realised I now had photographed a really satisfying selection of wildlife.

Here in Wales infection rates in the densely populated areas are still high so it may be a few more weeks before we are able to travel again, but whereas I feel sorry for my friends in the Valleys and the cities, I no longer feel sorry for myself!





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The Joy of Local

This piece is about birds, but it’s also about being confined to my locality and the new mind-set I’m trying to embrace. I wrote a long introductory piece, but some might find it a bit heavy so I’ve made it an optional read here: http://phototwynog.co.uk/The%20Frustrations%20of%20the%20Local

Above is a picture of a common bird in a common tree. it’s a Chiffchaff, perched in a Alder, one of the many Small Brown Jobs (SBJ) relegated to the second division by the Birding community. To me this bird is special, but why should it be any more special than that other SBJ, the House Sparrow? That’s an easy one to answer because the Chiffchaff is one of our first summer visitors. It’s the herald of spring. I photographed one of the early arrivals at Kidwelly in March:

So why bother catching it again? Partly it is the excitement of the whole concept of migration – the enormous distances these little birds can travel and the romance of distant lands and the journey. I also think they are beautiful in their own right, and they are on my “Patch”. I now have to introduce a nasty bit of birder jargon – “Patching.” This has nothing to do with sticking on patches but refers to the study of your local patch and its avian inhabitants. Suddenly this is the only kind of bird-watching now available to almost all of us. Springwatch rises to the occasion, but I find it hard spending hours looking at areas which in previous years I would have dismissed as lacking in quantity and quality of wildlife. “Quality”? What does that mean? Is a chiffchaff of higher quality as a species than say a Dunnock? It’s a good question. Why for example would we be prepared to spend good money to see a Red Squirrel or a Pine Marten but would not cross the road to see their close relations the Grey Squirrel and the Mink? The first two are native species and rare, the latter introduced and common. The Native has more charisma than the Introduced, the Wild has more than the Domestic and the Rare more than the Common.

Take Canada Geese. (Yes please and as far away as possible). Here they are in April:

They are a familiar sight anywhere there is water and have become a pest in some cities. In their native North America they are migratory and their haunting cries from high above as they set off or return must be as exciting to birders in their homeland as the cries of our migrant geese such as the White Fronted are to us. 

Yet I now find myself keen to study and photograph these common birds. There are four geese here. The males are apparently bigger than the females, but not otherwise distinct. They divide into two pairs, though I don’t know if the pairs are male and female or both the same sex. One pair is dominant – those on the right – and bullies the other pair. The two pairs were still chasing each other around on the 11th of May, but all 4 birds stayed on the lake for the whole time I watched which led me to believe that they were not nesting pairs.

With permission from the landowner I set up my pop-up hide by the lake, though not anticipating much in the way of excitement. My next visit on the 25th was therefore quite a shock. Only two adult geese were in evidence; they were clearly a pair and clearly looking after their 5 well-grown goslings. I still don’t understand how 4 geese without a nest between them became a pair with young. Normal nesting behaviour for geese would be for one bird to stand guard – usually the male – while the other incubates the eggs. When the goslings hatch the pair would stay with them to adulthood. How had these 5 got to be here? Why did I think my patch wasn’t interesting?

It got better too. Another common bird on lakes is the Little Grebe or Dabchick. I’ve taken many pictures of these cute relatives of the more charismatic Great Crested Grebe, but I’d never seen them with young before let alone juvenile hitch hikers. Then a strange sound which took me immediately to the wild places of the north – the rippling trill which is the Grebes’ song. I was enchanted:

Further up the valley is a bend in the river which can only be reached on foot by beating a way through the undergrowth of a large patch of land which had been left untended for years. With encouragement from the landowner I moved the hide up here to a little pebble beach where on previous trips I had watched nothing much more than the water flowing, but it was an idyllic spot and it was still the breeding season. To get the hide there I had to strap it to a rucksack already laden with camera gear and cycle the three miles from home. As soon as I had it assembled I stepped inside, unzipped the small “windows” and lowered the mesh screens which enable me to see but not be seen. I waited an hour, taking pictures of the birds I expected to see. As well as Mallards which can be seen pretty much anywhere there is water, there are three species which are quite common along the upper Towy – Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Pied Wagtail. These are occasionally joined by the more charismatic but still quite common Goosander and in the summer by Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and with luck a Spotted Flycatcher. I had for years been watching and studying Dippers nearer to home, and had also once, on different occasions seen an otter, a mink and a weasel. The wagtails and the dipper showed up, but there was a thrilling surprise – another bird quite common elsewhere but not here: a Common Sandpiper.

My next trip struck gold. The birds were now used to the hide and after a half-hour wait the Sandpiper popped up just in front of me. It was too close and I missed focus. Agony!

Then things got exciting:

A Goosander and something I had never seen before – Goosanderlings!
They seemed to be in a hurry to get away so I thought they must have been frightened by the movement of the camera lens. Not so. The hide was working as it should. Fifteen minutes later they were heading back towards me and spent another ten minutes exploring the area in front of the hide:

My day was made. The common had been made special.

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