Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Testing the Sony RX100 at the zoo

This past weekend I went to the zoo with my trusted Sony A77 (fit with an old Minolta 100-300mm APO telephoto lens, which on an APS-C sensor is the equivalent of 150-450mm on a 35mm camera) and my new Sony Cybershot RX100 (which has a focal length the equivalent to 28-105mm). I was shooting mostly JPEGs primarily because I wanted to test Sony's two cameras' JPEG machines against one another, including their picture effects. Normally, I shoot in RAW (Sony's ARW) because I can recover more in the highlights and shadows. After the sun came out in the afternoon, I sort of wish I had switched to RAW because there were actually highlights on the pelicans' heads that the JPEG compression simply compressed into oblivion.
I have photographed at this zoo dozens of times. This time I went together with my son and a friend of his. We met up with a fotocommunity group from Kirchheim/Teck (organized by Sveto Sonntag) that is very active and often enough in Stuttgart for us to have gotten to know each other. They are a very nice, interested group of photographers.
My goal was to try out the new camera wherever I didn't need a long telephoto lens, and to photograph as if I were using my big SLT; in other words, to take the shooting seriously. It ended up being worth the effort.
As my fellow photographer, Alessandro Russo, recently put it: "It's not the camera that makes the picture, but the photographer's eye." When I'm out shooting with others, I invariably find myself standing somewhere away from the crowd, even though we're photographing the same thing. I guess if you have shot a motif a hundred times, you are hoping to find a new angle for the 101st photograph. Thus, my different takes on the flamingos here.

 The heron below ended up giving me such a nice reflection that I actually took the picture out of Lightroom and added a bit of structure (clarity/contrast) in NIK's SilverEfex Pro. (I normally do 99.5% of my post-processing in Lightroom alone.)

These monkeys are such wonderful models! I'm surprised every time I photograph them what I end up with. This picture struck me the moment I saw it on the screen at home. I liked the composition and the contrast/interplay between the fore- and background.

 Another animal that fascinates me for different reasons is the pelican. In this zoo you can get very close to them and they are always swimming around with the cormorans in the reflecting pool between the sea lions and the Wilhelmenian bird house.

 Herons and storks fly around overhead, posing in the trees, sometimes where a natural frame presents itself.
Granted, these pictures are not drop-dead prizewinners, but they reveal the amount of picture quality I require and adequately reflect the moment I wanted to capture.

After having interpreted the data of my 950 pictures from that day's shooting, I noted the following things:
  • My preferred focal lengths were at the extreme ends of both lenses (28mm or 105mm; 100mm or 300mm), though 28mm and 300mm did the most work.
  • My preferred shutter speeds were 1/400 and 1/500, so outdoors one can tell there was a lot of light (in the afternoon).
  • My preferred apertures were open (f1.8 on the RX100, and 5.6 - at 300mm - on the A77).
  • My preferred ISO was either 200 (outdoors) or 800 (in the aquarium), though I also shot at 3200 achieving good results.
  • When I look through my pictures at the end of the day, I spontaneously choose the picks and delete the rejects. On this day I had a higher-than-average percentage of picks, though there was hardly a difference between the two cameras (37% for the point-and-shoot; 39% for the twice-as-expensive SLT) and the same percentage of rejects (11%) for both cameras, meaning the animal was too fast or my finger too slow. And I gave 30 of the pictures a one-star rating, meaning I thought they had potential and I wanted to process them right away.
The last few times I was at the zoo (with the A77), I had played with the picture effects, mostly in-camera HDR or the miniature effect. The RX100 has two new effects that I like a lot and which added to the high percentage of picks and winners I took with that camera: watercolor and illustration (low-med-high). I don't believe my photographic eye was just searching for the opposite of tack-sharpness for the sake of difference. I think I like the effect generator and what it does (in most cases) to the pictures.
As you can see in this shot of the small group of flamingos, the colors are attractive, but there are also areas of blurriness (such as in the right top corner). I will have to do some more experimenting to figure out exactly why such areas of blur occur.

While there is only one setting for the watercolor effect...

 ...there are three settings for the illustration effect: low, medium and high. The low effect usually does the trick. The colors are usually subdued (depending on the creative style you had chosen; I had it set to vivid and still found them somewhat desaturated) and the highlights and shadows are taken to the extreme to create something similar to a line drawing that has been colored in.
I find the exciting thing about all these picture effects is that it gets me thinking about what the picture is going to look like after the post processing. I walked around looking at everything with all these filters in mind. It is probably no different for the Photoshop gurus who know what they can/will do to their shots on the computer.

The HDR effect (also available in high-medium-low) on the RX100 is also effective, depending on the motif. The only disadvantage about it and the other effects for which three (or more) pictures are taken in one fast sequence is that it takes a long time to process the image - around 6 seconds (and that's with a super fast - 95MB/sec. - SD card!). You can't take another picture until the camera has processed the image. With the watercolor and illustration effects that is not the case. You can even add those effects after you have taken a picture in the JPEG format: just go to second menu under PLAY and select one of the effects and apply it to the photo. By the way, you can water your picture down even more by continuing to add the effects over and over again.

The high contrast black-and-white effect is basically HDR in b/w. This photo also went through the NIK SilverEfex Pro filter called "Wet rocks". I thought it was appropriate. Of course one could have spent some time making the fish "jump out" from the background, but I like the way you sort of have to look for his contours among the rocks.

I had a good time in the aquarium, not only because it was dozens of degrees warmer than outside, but also because the pictures turned out nicely. It's difficult to get tack-sharp photographs through those thick windows in that low light anyway, so I felt it was no detriment to the motifs to throw them into the watercolor mode.

But even as a straight JPEG, the RX100 did a good job capturing the fish up close. Wide open (at 28mm), you can get within about 2" to the object you are photographing.

Some pictures - especially those where there was a lot of coral - really ended up looking more like a painting than a photograph. As always, it is important to consider the composition, of course.

Here are two straight shots of a starfish hanging on the wall. Either you give it all-star attention...

...or you let two other sea creatures swim through the picture. I think the lone star is more appealing.

An underwater HDR really brought out the contrasts and details, especially the bubbles floating around in the tank.

Back inside, I had fun with the cacti and the geometric forms in the roof.

The RX100 captures fine details rather well!

Ignoring the fact that the highlights in this JPEG image have been lost, one could delight in the detail captured in the bud here. (Using a tripod and bracketing the shot would have helped save the highlights.)

The outdoor landscaping lends itself to the watercolor effect, especially the little redwood forest.

Here are the rocks and moat that keep the goats and bears away.

Here is another example of the illustration effect, which I find quite interesting because of the lines here.

For some reason, I stood watching the pelicans for a good portion of the time I was outside. They would dip into the pool, then come out and dry their feathers, flapping for all it was worth!

The ceiling of the former emperor's birdhouse was just begging to be shot with HDR. The detail was captured well. At 400 ISO and me shooting three shots in a row over my head, I can't complain about the quality.

And for your pixel peepers, here's a close-up of one of the orchids in the central greenhouse.

Saving the best for last, I want to share a few more watercolors with you today. Some background: Weather-wise, this was the bleakest winter in Germany since 1951. So when the sun came out, I ran outside to enjoy it. I know the afternoon rays pour into these greenhouses, so I love going in there at that time of day. I didn't expect to be so fascinated by the effect the RX100 provided for me (and you), but the combination of light and composition really pleased me.

To see what the scene looked like without the watercolor effect, I took this shot for you.

And finally, I shot a quick panorama of the colonnades before we left. The stitching is pretty good and the exposure and focus, as you can see, are best on the left where I started panning, but overall the pano quality is satisfactory. I have had more luck with panos using this camera than with the A77, which often complains that I am moving the camera either too slowly or too quickly.

I still enjoy using the larger camera, which has some advantages over the smaller one, especially in handling. However, I won't be carrying it with me everywhere I go any more. The RX100 has taken its place for day-to-day shooting. For now, anyway... Yesterday I bought Gary Friedman's e-book about the new camera, having thoroughly enjoyed every one of the 568 pages he wrote about the A77. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the new camera - and the new book - once I've digested his words and tried out his tips.