New York Day 1 Sony A99 and Fuji X-E1

Ok today the first update on our trip to New York.
On the 20th I will be teaching a seminar at the MAC group (see yesterdays blog post) but that also means I have a few days in New York to test two very interesting cameras, Annewiek is filming some material we will use for “The DOORhof is always open” which will feature a review of both cameras, but today I already share some of my thoughts and the first results.


The images in this review are mostly shot with the A99 and are in random order.

New York is great, it’s a streetphotographers paradise, or as Scott Kelby once said “It’s like the circus comes to town, only 24/7/365”. So which city is better to test out two very interesting cameras, the Sony Alpha 99 and the Fuji X-E1 with the 18-55 zoom lens.

Let me start with the Fuji X-E1.
Fuji got me this camera and the 18-55 f2.8-f4 zoom just a few days before we left for New York, so this is really my very first experience with this camera. I saw the camera at Photokina and was immediately very anxious to test this one out, the reason ? very simple, it’s actually almost a X-Pro1 but for less money…. and yes it does miss some features and it’s a bit smaller, but it has a build in flash (which I call the “Wall-E” strobe because it looks a lot like Wall-E) and it keeps the same image quality from the X-Pro1, which you probably already know is awesome.

 The moment I got the X-pro1 I was in love with the camera, for street photography and any photography where you don’t want to be noticed it’s a great “stealth camera”, I always call it my “wolf in sheep clothes”.  There was one thing I really wished for in the system and that was a zoom lens… well Fuji got one (actually more now), for this trip I got the 18-55 with me which is a great walk around lens and gives you a very nice reach. The lens is relatively light stark starting at f2.8 and ending on f4 at the long end. I know that some people will start with “why not a constant f2.8?” but do remember that if you want that the lens would be a lot heavier and bigger and for most situations the f2.8-f4.0 coupled with the great noise performance in the X-E1 and X-pro1 actually work perfectly.

Now one of the really nice things about the 18-55 is the fact that’s is also a lens with stabilization, and I can report that it works really well. I don’t know how many stops it will really do, but trust me when I say…. “it works really well”.


So how do I like the Fuji X-E1.
Well you know from me that I’m always doing reviews from a standpoint of using the camera and not the pixelpeeping and 1:1 comparisons (there are many sites for that) so here is my personal opinion.


I love the build in strobe, when shooting the camera for private use the build in strobe is great when you take for example a shot in a restaurant where you want your group to stand out and lower the ambient, it’s also great as fill in flash outside and… well where you normally also use an on camera strobe for. Also the speed of the camera is great, the viewfinder is very nice, it responds very quickly and it’s sharp enough to judge images. Working with the X-E1 on location is great, focus locks on VERY quickly, this was also a huge difference on the X-Pro1 after the 2.0 upgrade by the way. The image quality is just jaw dropping, the image quality of the X-E1 is without any doubt just as good as the X-Pro1. The only thing you have to note is that when importing the files into Lightroom all images come in cropped to 16:9 mode, so when you import make sure you make a new crop to 100% and sync that to all images.

So what would I buy when I’m in doubt between the X-Pro1 and X-E1…. well I don’t know if Fuji is still gonna love me after this one…. but I would choose the X-E1, it’s about 90% of the fun of the X-Pro1 but at a much lower price, and the image quality is equal… so for me…. well the X-E1 is a 100% winner and I would HIGHLY recommend the camera for everyone that is on the lookout for a great smaller camera that has different very high quality lenses and gives an image quality that is 100% on the level of a DSLR, and let’s be honest most people with a DSLR are buying an extra smaller camera but often never use it because of the image quality, well with the X-E1 that’s history. When you see the ISO3200 and even ISO6400 images you really wonder how Fuji pulled it off, because even the ISO6400 images are 100% usable. And of course thanks to the unique sensor design of the Fuji cameras the images are razor sharp and super detailed, you can’t go wrong with these cameras I think.


But sometimes you want a bit more, and size is not that important….. well then you bring your DSLR, well at least I did this all the time, but as you could already read on this blog before I recently added a different camera to my toolbox…. not a DSLR but a SLT, or in other words a camera that looks/handles and feels like a DSLR but has no conventional mirror but a semi transparent mirror. Now this has a lot of advantages, including the option to have constant autofocus when tracking subjects because the mirror doesn’t move there is no mirror blackout in which a DSLR looses focus for a slight moment or has to switch to a different kind of focus.

But the main difference must be the EVF that the Alpha99 uses, I still call it my Wacom effect… the first two days you want to throw it out of the window and don’t even want to get used to it, but after a few days you start to “get it” and you actually can’t life without it anymore… well ok I can easily switch back to a normal viewfinder but I have to admit that I indeed “get” it why EVF will be the future, and 5-6 weeks ago I said that EVF’s will probably not be my thing, oh well how quick a photographer can change its mind.

Now I’ve been playing the Alpha99 for a few weeks now and done some studio work with, some street photography in the pouring rain in Amsterdam (so I can confirm with 100% certainty that you can take a shower with the camera….. well actually you better not do this and don’t take my word for it…. but it was soaking wet and kept working like a charm). However shooting street photography in Amsterdam is fun but it’s not really challenging, although we also did a night part and I was already pleasantly surprised by the speed of the AF system it was still an easy task for this camera…. now New York…. that’s something else and probably the city where many cameras will have nightmares about and wake up screaming in the middle of the night.


The way the city moves and the people are swarming around is giving the camera and photographer more than a challenge. So I was very curious to see how the AF system would work in this environment, and let me put it like this…. if it would do this right I will add the Alpha 99 for 100% certainly on my highly recommended list. And I have to warn you before reading further, I’m VERY VERY enthusiastic about the Alpha 99 but I will also be brutally honest in this part.

Let me start with the negative things, I have to add that I will probably write down things that normally people won’t even notice or think “well I don’t care”….. but I just want to point them out in this part.


1. Start up time
A bit slower than the Canon 5DMKIII I used before the A99.
Will it cost you shots…. well I highly doubt it, I used the camera mostly on power saving mode and going from sleep to shooting was pretty fast, but it is slower than getting a 5DMKIII from sleep to operation speed. Did it cost me images…. in 2 instances today so I would say that’s a very minor thing.  It would without a doubt not be a reason to give the camera a negative advise. However if you need SUPER quick responses don’t use the power off settings and just leave the camera on. Which brings me to the second point.


2. Battery usage
I have to admit that this was something that really worried me.
On the 5DMKIII I can use the camera for 3-4 days and still have juice left in 2 batteries in the grip, with the Alpha 99 this is much less, but it’s much less trouble than I expected. In all honestly I took 4 batteries with me today thinking I would need at least 3, however this was not the case, actually my battery died the moment we were back in the hotel, to make the story complete I used GPS all day long and the camera was on all the day on autofocus tracking, I looked at images and power saving was on the normal setting. The first thing I’m gonna buy for the A99 is still the grip (because I just love the way a camera works with a grip) but my fear of using way too much batteries during a day has been taken away today, I would still advise you to take at least a spare battery with you but it’s not as bad as some people think (including myself), and it was rather cold today, around 10 degrees Celsius which is also not so good for battery life.


3. Auto ISO
With all due respect to a great working camera this option is 100% useless for what I do.
It will keep the shutter around the 1/60 on the lens I used today (the 24-70) and that’s too slow for the fast moving outside scenes, I really would love Sony to change this to a variable setting that the user can adjust to for example a max of 1/500 or 1/250 (like on the 5DMKIII), I already mailed this to Sony and I really hope they will fix that in a firmware upgrade.


So let’s move to the positive….. because this really was everything that I would mark as negative in the Alpha 99 (that wasn’t that bad right?)

Ok the positive things, and I will not even mention everything, let’s concentrate on the things why I think you should run out and test one of these cameras yourself and maybe even switch from what you are using now…..and yeah I know I first said that if you have invested a lot in glass you probably would not switch but my mind is changing a bit the last few days because there are some points which for me would be a reason to really switch and sell my gear and go all Sony….. So let’s see what I think are these “super points”.


1. The sensor
This puppy is sick…
The dynamic range is awesome, the only system that gives you dynamic range like this is medium format, but…..  as soon as you start pushing and pulling I have to be 100% honest the Alpha 99 files just keep intact where my Leaf Credo 60 files will start to show noise even at ISO100. Today I shot some images that were shot on ISO1600 and even there I was able to pull up shadow detail that were stunningly clean, and I don’t mean pull up like 0.5 stop, no…. I really mean ALL the way in LightRoom. let me give you one example. The man reading a book in the next image was almost 100% black and after some LightRoom pulling/pushing this came out…. and THAT is impressive.

Now some people will say “Nah I don’t like that HDR look so the Sony is not my camera”…. well imagine this…. you don’t HAVE to use the shadows and highlight slider and when you don’t the images look very much like what I get from my 5DMKIII but with a little bit more dynamics, however IF you need it I think it’s great how far you can go.


2. The EVF
Already said it before and will repeat it again, when you are used to it the EFV rocks.
I set my “silent” controller on EC (Exposure compensation) so I can change that on the fly and literally  “paint” the image on the EVF the way I want it to come out. This will be a major selling point for people shooting live concerts, imagine being able to just set the camera up from the silent controller and EVF and never worry about metering and compensating again, and of course you can do it with live view on a normal DSLR but this works so much better, it just rocks.

3. The moving LCD
Never thought I was going to like it this much. Normally I’m a very “flexible” photographer I will sit down on the floor if I have too, or will just bent through my knees… well that last move cost me a 6 weeks of problems this year because “something went wrong” every since I’m a bit afraid to squad down but I also love that low angle. With the Alpha 99’s moving LCD screen there is no problem anymore, just point the display up and position the camera and voila you’re done. Oh and it’s also great for selfportraits 😀

4. The Autofocus
Ok now this will for some people be tricky, and it also is/was for me.
There are many different options in the Alpha 99 and I still have to figure them out what will work when, but let’s do it really quick.
The first thing is of course the setting for the AF operation think about single shot, intelligent AF (where it will lock but start adjusting when the subject moves), continues autofocus and some more options including a Depth analysis AF system (which will work only on a few lenses). And of course not to forget Manual Focus (with a great peaking option that really works).


Now on the focus part we can also select zones, wide, spot etc.
I do have to add that the focus points (for my taste) could be more spread out over the total size of the sensor, now they are pretty focussed (no pun intended) at the center part of the sensor.


But we also have object tracking which can be on OFF, ON, or with shutter half pressed, add to this face recognition and even smile detection, and you will get the idea…. this baby can focus…. but how does it work because let’s be honest in most cameras with these options in reality it just doesn’t work or not good enough.

Well I can tell you that from my tests today the autofocus just plain works.
I worked with a combination of several settings but ended up with a spot focus point to select my subject, then use object tracking with shutter half pressed to make sure the subject would not leave my field of view and I also tried a few times with face recognition but to be honest I did not use that too much for the shots I did today, however the subject tracking worked like a charm. It made it possible to focus on someone and point the camera somewhere else (as long as I kept the person into the field of view and around the focus points) from there it was just simply waiting till they were close enough and start firing…. because the camera was not aimed straight at them 95% of the people did not even notice they were my center focus point of attention.

The AF kicks in REALLY quick and locks on the subject very well, when things move in front of the subject it’s a bit of hit and miss but most of the times it will lock on again and keep the subject in focus, but in some cases it lost focus, but a quick release of the shutter and activating it again locked on again. I have to say that I was very impressed with the AF improvements from the 5DMKII to 5DMKIII but the Sony Alpha 99 adds another dimension (literally) and I really like this. I honestly can’t wait till I can testdrive the Alpha 99 with some sports because I think this will be an area where it will REALLY shine, if it already performs the way it does here sports will be a walk in the park because as mentioned before it’s a very difficult situation in New York to keep everything in focus where you want it with all the people just moving around.

5. Low light performance
Now I did not compare my 5DMKIII with the A99 let’s first make that clear, but I’m more than happy with the A99 performance. Today I shot images ranging from ISO100 to ISO25600 and some of the 20.000 ISO images came out so incredibly well that I thought they were actually around ISO6400 or lower. Do remember that high ISO noise will often also be determined by the source of the lights and the scene it self. The final two ISO settings are more a setting to get the shot (and will make some nice B&W) but everything below those last two are without a doubt printable and usable. Most people are looking too much at 1:1 on their screen and not realizing that with the 24 MP files you are actually judging the image as if you are looking at a billboard from a few inches away, as soon as you print most noise melts away like snow in the sun. That said I feel very comfortable for commercial use up to ISO3200 and ISO6400 as a great backup, settings higher are a bit hit and miss, some look awesome and some are a bit more noise but usable. However ISO3200 is just plain awesome with still great sharpness and detail and a “nice” noise. Now I have to explain that last remark a bit… noise can be ugly and noise can be “acceptable” medium format cameras for example have sometimes great noise that is 100% acceptable where some DSLRs can have terrible noise that really destroy the image. The A99 has a very pleasing fine noise that is without a doubt there at higher ISOs but doesn’t JUMP out to you.


But also the AF is just great in low light, this is something that already caught my attention in the studio, the AF locks really fast without hunting. Especially in the Metro and subway that saved me MANY shots I would have otherwise lost (remember those two I lost at the beginning of the story due to the start up time….? well the A99 made good with MANY others).

6. The glass
Now don’t get me wrong…. I always teach that in the first place you have to tell the story and that gear is often HIGHLY overrated and it will not make the story better, or you a better photographer, but man is it great when your gear let you do things that you normally can’t and add to this some amazing glass (which is not cheap) and you’re in photography heaven, and this is how I would subscribe the Zeiss 24-70 f2.8, this lens might be one of the reasons I at the beginning pushed through to like the A99 just because the 3D look this lens gives you is so incredibly addictive. And today in New York this lens performed like a champ, AF is quick and the 3D look of the images is just plain awesome, you guys only see the small versions here but the full res images have incredibly depth and sense of depth. Also wide open the lens is very nice and sharp, it shines when closed down 1 stop but saying it’s less good wide open is actually doing wrong to the lens.


Again you don’t see me talking about video and the reason for this is simple, I can’t judge that on my laptop, but I will judge it when I’m home and will report on that in a later review.
It will be clear by now that I’m very impressed with the A99, it’s actually the first time EVER I spend so much bandwidth and blog posts to a piece of hardware (and I hope you guys don’t mind), but I really think it’s that good.


Now I did get some questions the last few weeks and the most important ones I will answer really quickly.


1. Should I switch from Canon/Nikon to the A99
Well yes and no.
Remember cameras are just tools to tell the story, in the end the A99 will not make you a better shooter, you will have to do that. If you are doing 100% sports and you own a Canon 1Dx with some expensive glass, please keep using that camera and glass. If you are using it in other areas and have invested heavily in strobes, glass, accessories etc. Don’t switch the next generation of Canon/Nikon will probably be a lot better than what they are now, this “game” will continue for ever.


So when yes ?
First of all when you have an ok body and some lenses and want to switch to a pro setup make sure to check out the A99 I’m pretty sure you will switch. But also when you already have a pro outfit and you need that extra dynamic range or you want the benefits of the EVF (See What You Get).


And of course if you’re in the market for a new camera.

2. There is a limited lens choice, Canon/Nikon for example has 4-5 24-70 lenses
Well this is just wrong.
Remember that one of the reasons Canon and Nikon has more lenses is also because they have an IS version and NON-IS version, with the Sony the IS is actually in the body so you don’t need to spend the extra money for IS in the lens plus that means you don’t need two of the same lenses. What people also seem to forget is that you don’t only use the Sony lenses, there also is the Zeiss series of lenses and of course the whole Konica/Minolta series of lenses which gives you a VERY wide selection of lenses. Add to this that with the A99 and the peaking function for focus you can use a lot of manual lenses that can be picked up for almost nothing on e-bay and you will have a huge selection of lenses.


Oh and I almost forgot….
Most Tamron and Sigma (etc.) are also available for the Sony mount.
For example at the moment I have a Sigma 12-24 lens with me (some of the examples you see in this blogpost are shot with that lens) and that lens is awesome on a full body, it’s very sharp and quick and gives you a great view on the world, I do have to add that it misses some of the 3D magic of the Zeiss, but hey it’s a LOT cheaper and for the price it retails for there is a VERY high chance I will be adding this lens to my bag.

3. How about the future ?
Well ok, this is a tricky one.
Do realize that Sony now also makes a lot of sensors for other camera brands 🙂
The A99 is indeed the first camera that got me interested (and some other photographers I know) but we will never know what the future brings, but I have a feeling that Sony will be here to stay, and if they don’t…… well you can always choose a different camera when that happens…. however from what I hear now 2013 will be an interesting Alpha year.


4. How about tethering ?
Solved by our friends from DNA software (DSLRSOFTWARE.COM) works flawless in Lightroom and to be complete it’s A LOT faster than with the 5DMKIII but something got broken in Lightroom 4.2 because in the old version tethering with the 5DMKIII was much quicker. But anyway the Sony A99 tethers just as fast as the Canon did before it got broken in the software.


5. Small flash solutions ?
This was also a problem for me (and a big one) because I love playing with the smaller strobes.
However there is a solution in the works by Phottix (see my blogpost a few days ago) that will give you radio TTL/HSS etc. so that’s also solved.


6. Will I be shooting Sony in lets say a year ?
Some sites already quoted that “Frank Doorhof “MF shooter” switches to Sony A99″ well let’s make one thing really clear, for most of my fashion/celebrity studio/controlled lighting work I will keep using Medium Format, there is simply nothing that really beats MF in controlled light setups, it’s just a totally different system with different results. What I do think and what’s more important as a question is, will I start using the Sony for everything else…..


Now about the Canon system I love and invested a “huge” amount of money in.
At the moment I added the A99 to my toolbox for a so called extended loan period, meaning there is always an option that at the end of that loan period the camera will go back to Sony however I find that chance very slim because as you can already read in the reviews and remarks I make online I really think the A99 is a camera that simply rocks, and has more than enough features that I find incredibly useful for my other photography like street and sports which other DSLRs don’t have, add to this the very (and I mean very) good image quality, or in other words….. it’s a huge investment for me to make the switch because I use a wide variety of lenses and an extended small flash system so there is still a considerable amount of investment I have to do before I would really use the A99 for everything, but let me put it this way, and I think this means a lot, I would be more than sad to see the A99 go 😀 and the main reason I already quoted in my reviews is the overall image quality (especially getting details back) and the EVF plus focus system and those three combined does make me REALLY consider doing the investment.


So completing this blogpost (which became much longer than I intended (sorry guys)) I can only say that in day 1 in New York the A99 performed as I hoped, it’s an interesting camera and without a doubt a pro camera (don’t let people tell you otherwise), the AF rocks and that speed is what WILL help you get more good shots. Some of the “problems” I thought I would have are not there anymore, or are much less than I thought. Other things will hopefully be changed in the future with firmware upgrades but are no deal breakers. Overall I can say I’m using the A99 with very much pleasure and it really performs as a pro camera and I would highly recommend the camera to every photographer that demands great image quality and flexibility. I will be updating my views on the A99 probably some more in smaller remarks but for now I think this is the final long review and with the previous reviews I think you guys will have a pretty good idea about the camera.