Sony A99 Iceland Expedition

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Sony A99 Iceland Expedition from Enrique Pacheco on Vimeo.

Thanks to Sony Spain and especially Javier Agueda, I had a production unit of the new Sony A99 for my last trip to Iceland.
Testing a camera in a studio or around your house, is not always the most convenient, especially if like myself you tend to use your gear in hostile environments.
This winter trip to Iceland was a great opportunity to test the A99. Freezing temperatures, rain, snow and long exposures at high isos for capturing the northern lights have been some of the challenges that the A99 has faced during this trip.
In this article I will analyze the qualities and performance of this camera from the point of view of a landscape photographer who works mostly with video and time-lapse.

The body:
One of the greatest strengths of the new Sony A99 is its’ fantastic weather sealed magnesium body. Coming from the Canon 5D Mark II, this is a great advantage. In recent years I have seen several Canon (two of them mine) damaged by rain, splashing waves, or low temperatures. The Sony A99 has survived these harsh conditions in Iceland without problems, and this make me feel very confident when traveling to these kind of locations.
The camera’s strength is impressive despite it being the lightest FF DSLR on the market. For the second time this year,wind knocked my tripod and the A99 with it, falling from a height of almost two meters. After the strong impact, only a few scratches on the body testify what could have been a completely damaged camera.

Screen:
The articulated screen and the electronic viewfinder are undoubtedly the greatest advantages on the A99 for my type of work, and probably for many of you. No more going to the cold and wet ground to frame or review the picture. The articulated screen of the A99 allows frames that were previously impossible or very difficult, giving new options to your creativity.
From today I am not using any camera that does not have this type of screen, just seems obscene paying 3,000€ for a camera that does not have an articulated screen, which in the other hand we can find in the lower-end models. Do the camera companies think professionals don`t want kind of screens in our cameras?
So far the excuse was that there was not possible to seal the body with an articulated screen, but the Sony A99 has shown that both qualities are possible.

Electronic viewfinder:
The EVF was something that scared me if I’m honest. After many years looking trough an optical viewfinder, like many of you, I was not 100% sure about the change. But the EVF of the Sony A99 with its high clarity and sharpness has convinced me. Maybe if you only do photography it could be more difficult to adapt, but in my case, doing a lot of video and time-lapse, the optical viewfinder does not make sense any more. When recording video is blocked, and when you make time-lapse, the stroke of the mirror causes trepidation especially in long exposures, so that you always use the camera in live-view, which is the same as not having the viewfinder and mirror. With this EVF, you can still use the camera at eye level while you shoot video, and also have the screen off, saving battery. Also very importantly we have the histogram, level, and other information, which is not available in optical viewfinder.
Perhaps the only difficulty that I have encountered has been framing in total darkness, photographing aurora borealis, in these cases it is quite difficult.

Translucent Mirror:
The implementation of the translucent mirror in Sony SLT bodies is a great alternative to the traditional pentaprism and mirror of the SLR. On the one hand it avoids several moving parts in our camera body, decreasing the possibility of malfunctions. And secondly, it eliminates the vibration created by the tilting mirror during shooting. But also thanks to this system we have a phase detection focus system, which allows us an accurate continuous focusing in both photo and video, something that can not be achieved with traditional SLR.
As far as video is concerned, I have to regret that this continuous focus only works in priority mode, but I hope Sony will fix this via firmware, as Canon did in its 5D Mark II at the beginning with similar issues.

Menu and firmware:
While the menu is much better organized than its’ predecessors, I must say I expected something a little more professional in this regard. I understand Sony’s philosophy based on electronics, creating a very complete interface, with tons of features, but a little more order and the advice of a professional photographer is missing on my opinion.
Although I have to say that this is not a big problem in the A99 because most used options, have a dedicated button on the body, and we can customize wheels and other controls.
But it is at this point that I must express my only big problem with the Sony A99, by not including, (just for now I hope), histogram and magnification in video mode, as it´s included in photo mode. This does not make any sense, and I guess it will be implemented in a future firmware update.

Advantages in video:
While other brands barely introduce significant changes in their new camera models, Sony has made a major commitment to technology with its new A99. There are many new features in the the A99, some of them unique in the market. I do not want to extend too much so I will just mention the most significant for me:

-OLED electronic viewfinder
-Articulated screen
-1080 @ 60p
-Clean HDMI output
-Focus peaking
-Continuous autofocus
-Stabilization in the body
-Headphone jack

Photographic Image Quality:
The Sony A99 has a full frame sensor and a resolution of 24mpx which provides great picture quality and low noise level. Again, for me the precedent and I think the quality standard today is the Canon 5D Mark II. The question for me was whether the Sony A99 was going to be able to replace my veteran 5DII.
After this two-week trip in which I have performed thousands of shots in all conditions, I can say without doubt that the A99 has everything I need, and it won the right to stay in my backpack as “A-Camera”
In both image sharpness and noise level, two of the most important things in my work, the Sony A99 shows great performance, matching much more expensive cameras. In the color representation Sony did a great job, improving by far predecessor models as A77, which I tested a few months ago.

Image quality in video:
While it looks like there is a little room for major improvements on still image quality, we can say quite the opposite about the video footage of DSLR. Here all brands without exception have much to evolve.
That said, and after numerous camera tests on the field and in more controlled situations, I can say that the Sony A99 has more resolution and less aliasing and moiré that my old Canon 5DII, which seems to give an excessively compressed image compared to the A99 , even though the Sony has a lower bitrate.
Another of the great qualities of the Sony A99 is its wide dynamic range, widely beating the Canon 5D MarkII, to which we were forced to install profiles like Technicolor, which although make a more flat image, also decreased significantly the sharpness of the image, which is quite low already.

Lenses:
The availability of a wide range of quality lenses is often what determines that a photographer change or not to another brand. I tend to be pretty picky about the lenses, for the past two years I have used only Nikon and Zeiss lenses in Canon bodies, always looking for the highest quality and performance.
In my work the most used is the wide angle lense, and more specifically the Nikon 14-24, a superb optical quality even at maximum aperture. Replacing it seemed no easy task, and not being able to adapt this lens to the A99 made me doubt about switching to Sony. But after this trip using mostly the Zeiss 16-35mm f2.8 from Sony, I can say without a doubt that I will not miss the Nikon. The Zeiss has a great definition, both in the center and on the edges, even at maximum aperture, f2.8, a must in my work as I have to shorten the long night exposures as much as possible in my time-lapses. Not forgetting its standard 77mm filter screw, which makes easy to adapt any kind of filter or holder, the opposite of the Nikon 14-24.
Sony also has a large catalog of focal lenses, from extreme wide angles to the longer telephoto, the 70-200mm f2.8 is a great example of a fantastic optical quality inherited from the prestigious Minolta.

Conclusions:
After more than two weeks of winter expedition in the south of Iceland, photographing, filming and time-lapsing all kind of landscapes and situations under harsh weather conditions, I can say that the Sony A99 has performed as a truly professional camera, offering all its potential at the highest level without any problem. What more can you ask a camera today?
To be light? No doubt it is much appreciated when you have to walk for hours with a backpack full of equipment. To incorporate features that increase creativity? The articulated screen, the EVF, the 60fps in Full HD or low noise are great examples.

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35 Comments

  1. Hola Enrique, felicidades por el trabajo y por la prueba. Me has dejado con ganas de tener esa máquina en mis manos.
    Tan sólo un “pero”. Durante todo el análisis usas como referencia la 5D MkII, pero lo realmente interesante a efectos prácticos sería compararla con la MKIII, ¿no? Entiendo que es porque esta última no has tenido ocasión de ponerla a prueba en estas condiciones, pero así me quedo con las ganas…
    ¿No habéis tenido ocasión de hacer una comparativa ni que sea en vídeo (que es lo que egoistamente me interesa) con la D800 pegada a un alienígena que te ha acompañado?

    Saludos y envidia.
    JF.

  2. Hola Juan Fco. Como supones, la comparativa es contra la 5DII que es la que yo tenía y la que la gente conoce como un estandard de calidad hoy en dia. La 5DIII no ha mostrado ser mucho mejor, así que te puedes hacer una idea. Como yo, la mayoría de la gente viene de la 5DII, así que la pregunta es si compensa cambiar a la A99. Mi artículo está escrito desde ese planteamiento.

    En cuanto a la comparativa contra la D800, hicimos una pequeña prueba, ambas ofrecían una imagen muy parecida, quizá un poco mas de detalle en la D800, pero poco evidente.

  3. Felicidades E.Pacheco, una magnifica cámara que en tus manos se convierte en tomas extraordinarias.
    Gracias por compartir tus experiencias y darnos tus conclusiones.
    Un abrazo, y al igual que Juan Fco. Calero, envidia, mucha envidia.

    • Gracias por tus palabras Antonio.
      Un saludo.

  4. Hola Enrique,
    Antes que nada felicitarte por tu extraordinario trabajo y por compartir tus experiencias. Soy aficionado a la fotografía nocturna y la verdad es que he encontrado muy poca información en internet sobre esta cámara en dichas condiciones. Una de mis grandes dudas es como se comporta el EVF de esta cámara en esas condiciones hasta que por suerte he llegado a leer tu blog.
    Tu entrada en esta prueba de campo está muy bien detallada, pero tengo una duda solo con “la única dificultad con la que me he encontrado ha sido al encuadrar en total oscuridad, fotografiando aurora, en estos casos se hace realmente difícil”. ¿Podrás matizarlo un poco más? ¿Existe (en ese caso) mucha diferencia con OVF? O por el contrarió te encontraste algo más?
    Agradecerte por tu dedicación y por dar un poco de luz del comportamiento de esta cámara en estas condiciones. Un saludo.

    • Hola Gabriel, gracias por comentar.
      Pues según me han informado desde Sony, parece que se puede quitar la simulación de exposición del visor con lo que ganar luminosidad en el visor, yo lo he probado y si bien gana un poco, sigue siendo algo mas oscuro que mirando por un visor óptico. Esto siempre en total oscuridad. En cuanto hay un poco de luz, digamos casi luna llena, se ve sin problema.
      Pero hay que reconocer, que cuando no hay luz, tipo luna nueva, por el óptico tampoco es que se vea mucho.
      Espero te haya ayudado. Pero te recomendaría la probases primero.
      Saludos.

  5. how did you produced this video?
    was is using the atomos ninja 2 and premier?

    how did you do this awesome timelapse?

    did you shot all this video using the 16-35 lens?
    how good is this lens? will it be good as a primary lens for shooting stills and video?
    is it able to take full body portraits at 35mm?
    which lens should i get first 16-35 / 85 / 24-70?

    thanks!
    awesome video!

    • Hi Igal, I produced my own videos, I`m a freelance cinematographer.
      No external recorder was used, just straight into the memory card.
      I`ve been shooting timelapse for a while, so I`m pretty advance on this technique, join one of my workshops if you wanna learn.
      The 16-35 is a great lens, I shot the whole video with it, I´d use it for landscape and establishing shots, then a 70-200 will do the rest. That´s my combination, but you can prefer primes, up to you.
      Cheers.

  6. thanks!

    workshop looks great but too far ,
    maybe if it was a webinar or something like that

  7. hi..
    sounds really great. I will go in February with A99, A77 and Nex7 to Iceland… I like to experience the Aurora.
    For Photo mostly you end up with which ISO?
    You didn’t Ve any problem with the 16-35 wide open in the corner?
    What about battery liife… by normal photo use in one cold night… 4 batteries enough?
    I m planning with Samyang 14mm, Zeiss 24mm and Sigma or Samyang 35mm.
    For Backup the 99, I consider more the nex7 with adapter without mirror… the 77 so bad in high ISO….planning to just use on the few hour daylight for my 70-400.
    thanks again for your infos. :)
    Rolf

    • To shoot Aurora Borealis I try to short the exposure as much as possible, that is cuz I used 3200iso and 2.8.
      The Zeiss 16-35 perform great at 2.8, even at the corners.
      I never used more than 2 batteries in a day, doing timelapse, that´s a great ratio shooting in cold temperatures.
      Samyang 24 and 35 are great, 14 not that much.
      I also had NEX7, but just sold it cause for timelapse is not very handy.
      Good luck.
      Cheers.

  8. Hola Enrique,

    Mis felicitaciones por el artículo y sus imágenes.

    Me encuentro en la decisión de evolucionar un grado mi equipo canon (5DII a 5DIII) o arriesgarme y cambiar de marca a Sony, pero me surgen varias cuestiones que me gustaría me dieses tu opinión al respecto, si es que has podido comprobarlo estos días. (Comentar que desconozco absolutamente a la A99, aún no ha caído en mis manos…)

    1º) Aunque el tipo de fotografía que has realizado no es del todo exigente en cuanto a velocidades de obturación, Has notado alguna limitación en cuanto a la velocidad debido a la pérdida de luminosidad (por el espejo SLT) respecto a la MkII? por ejemplo que a 3200ISO y 2.8 captases más luz de las estrellas con la canon?

    2º Cual es tu apreciación en cuanto al “parpadeo” o “refresco” del visor electrónico? Y en cuanto a sus colores? es cierto lo que se comenta que existe una variación entre los colores que se ven a través del visor y los que finalmente aparecen en la imagen captada?

    3º Que te ha parecido el enfoque respecto a la 5DII en situaciones de baja luminosidad o bajo contraste? le ocurre como a otras SLT de la marca que les cuesta conseguir encontrar las zonas de contraste en circunstancias no tan desfavorables como cabría esperar?

    4º También me gustaría que me dieses tu opinión respecto al sistema de medición de la cámara, y si te has visto obligado a realizar alguna corrección de compensación casi permanente en cámara (tendencia a subexponer o sobreexponer)

    5º En tema video, sabes si la A99 deja hacer transiciones de enfoque automático mientras está grabando?

    6º Como has visto el estabilizador para tomas a mano respecto a las ópticas IS con la 5D? He podido probar la Olympus OM-D y en este sentido me tiene impresionado con sus resultados.

    Muchas gracias de antemano.
    Un saludo

    • Hola Luzlux y gracias… a ver si te puedo responder.

      1. En las pruebas que he hecho al contrario de lo que dicen, a mismo iso y exposición las fotos me salen mas luminosas con la Sony que con la 5DII, por que? no lo se. Pero las Sony parecen mas sensibles, y eso parece compensar el 1/3 de paso que pierdes por el espejo.
      2. Hoy en dia los visores han avanzado mucho, no he encontrado el refresco del visor como un problema, a mi no me molesta. Cuando miro por el visor no exijo fidelidad de color, lo uso sólo para encuadrar.
      3. Yo sólo utilizo el foco manual, aquí no te puedo ayudar.
      4. Yo sólo utilizo la cámara exponiendo con histograma, me parece la forma mas precisa y lógica de exponer en digital.
      5. La A99 es capaz de enfocar automaticamente y hacer seguimiento en video, con unas transiciones bastante buenas y suaves.
      6. Aunque no lo he probado a fondo, creo que el estabilizador funciona bastante bien. En este viaje ha sido todo en tripode, a ver si lo pruebo mejor.

      Gracias por leer.
      Saludos.

      • Gracias Enrique,
        Me sirven de mucho tus apreciaciones…
        Un saludo.

  9. Hallo Enrique
    Herzliche Gratulation und grosses Kompliment zu diesen wunderschönen Bildern!
    Lieben Gruss aus der Schweiz, Charles

    • Sorry, don`t speak German. Try again with english!

      • He says, Hearty congrats and compliments for your wonderful pictures and works. He also says friendly greetings from Switzerland.!

  10. Great article Enrique!
    I have been waiting for this camera a very long time.
    I have ordered mine.
    Blue skies,
    Harry

  11. Hola, Enrique

    Gracias por compartir tus experiencias. Lo que queda claro es que cualquier cámara de nivel, en las marcas más grandes que conoces(Sony-Canon-Nikon), dan resultados muy parecidos con objetivos de calidad. Tus imágenes con el patito feo de Sony son una muestra evidente de ello.

    Por cierto, el chico que te escribió en alemán te dijo:

    “Hola Enrique

    Te felicito de todo corazón (y con el mayor de mis respetos) por tus maravillosas imágenes.

    Saludos desde Suiza

    Charles”

  12. This is what you wrote.Perhaps the only difficulty that I have encountered has been framing in total darkness, photographing aurora borealis, in these cases it is quite difficult.
    Could you please elaborate what the problem is.Difficult too see the aurora? This camera is high on my list.
    Great reading btw.
    Regards
    Trygve from the cold north :-)

    • It´s more or less the same problem than using a optical viewfinder, in total darkness, you can`t see anything, so it´s difficult to frame. But with the electronic viewfinder you see even a bit less than with the optical one.
      Anyways, I think it´s not a big deal, just couple of test shots will do the work.
      Cheers

  13. Thank you. Great films. Can you give details of time-lapse used with the A99. I am now shooting all my video on the A99 and for 2 camera interviews I mount the RX1 on top of the A99.

    Best wishes Barney

    • The A99 works great for timelapse, not having mirror and having a evf are great advantages for me.
      I use either a regular remote from ebay or a Kietacam motorized slider. Working great so far.
      I always shoot in RAW, so files are really heavy, but quality is amazing.
      Cheers!

  14. Congratulation! Your pictures and movies are just spectacular. I immediately bought the Sony alpha a99. I cannot come to spain for your courses. Could you tell me if you have a web seminar ? If not, what parameters did you select for the night pictures and for the slow movies ?

    Many many thanks.

    Denis

  15. …Especially, what menu on the Sony alpha 99 did you use to setup the time lapses of 3 or 5 seconds and the automatic shooting ?

    Thanks.

    • Denis, I always shoot in manual. I use a remote to set the interval, 1 second for cityscapes and between 3 to 6 seconds in landscapes.
      Good luck.

  16. Amazing work. Would love to join your workshops someday.
    Cheers!

  17. Great review, thank you Enrique. A few months ago I decided to ditch all my Nikon and make the switch to Sony and don’t regret it for one minute. You’re absolutely right about the articulated screen, other manufacturers regard it as a gimmick in high end equipment, yet only a few years ago, high end film cameras just had to have the waist level finder as a professional necessity. I also love the ability to do everything in the viewfinder, a great help if you wear reading glasses, or to be more accurate, don’t need to reach for them any more! Just one point that you may not have realized, the EVF draws more power than the screen, apparently, quite a shock that one, but worth an extra battery in my bag. Look forward to more posts with your A99.

    • Thank you Gerald. Indeed the a99 is a great camera.
      Cheers.

  18. hi, im also looking at changing from a 5d mkll to a99, how does the a99 go with super long exposures compared to the 5dmkll, sometimes i do exposure of up to 30mins with my 5dmkll, thank you

    • Hi Joey,
      I`ve never tried more than 30s, can`t tell…
      Cheers

  19. Nice shots! I was in Iceland with my A99 last week but I was trapped in a snow storm the day we’d rent a car… I was madly disappointed to not get to the waterfalls or the sea and that I did not have to see the night sky… but… next time!! ;-D

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  3. Sony A99 Iceland Expedition - Playyers | Playyers - [...] articulated screen, the EVF, the 60fps in Full HD or low noise are great examples. Read more at: www.enriquepacheco.com ...

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