19 April 2016

Photographing Yosemite National Park with the new Sony a6300

The mother-trip of all mother-trips had to be paired with the best gear I could afford. Good thing Sony announced the a6300 six weeks before I was due to travel with its newly developed 24MP APS-C sensor, super-fast autofocus and 4K internal recording. Take my money Sony. Take my money.

Take a gander at some of my photos of one of the most beautiful places on Earth and be the judge of Sony's latest £1000 machine.

Yosemite national park
Sony E 10-18mm F4 OSS shot at 12mm, 1/125sec, f5.6, ISO 100.

Yosemite national park Vernal falls
Sony E 10-18mm F4 OSS shot at 10mm, 1/125sec, f8, ISO 100.

Yosemite national park upper yosemite falls
Sigma DN A 19mm F2.8, 1/400sec, f8, ISO 100. 

Yosemite national park tunnel view
Sony E 35mm F1.8, 1/200sec, f8, ISO 100.

Yosemite national park el capitan
Sigma DN A 19mm F2.8, 1/320sec, f8, ISO 100.

Sony E 35mm F1.8 OSS, 8secs, f1.8, ISO 1600. 

(All photos were RAW files, edited in Adobe Lightroom before being exported as JPEG files.)

Before I go all techie on you, let me begin by stating that Yosemite has become one of my favourite places on Earth, if not my favourite. If you've not been: go. If you've been before: go again. (I know you agree with me!)

Not only are you surrounded by surreal beauty that you've seen in countless photos (or Apple Mac wallpapers) but the tangible sense of serenity and friendly hospitality only heightens your feelings of tranquility.

Trails to the foot of cascading waterfalls, up mountain sides to over 2,300 feet and granite monoliths filling your saturated eyeballs with never-ending vistas is married up with a jolly and amiable crowd housed in a classic American, wood-cabiny environment.

What a place.

Sony's latest and greatest (APS-C)?

Sony a6300

And now the camera. For a more detailed analysis of the a6300, there are plenty of more knowledgeable people who can give you the facts so I'm going to provide remarks about my experience of using it.

Coming from the 5R, the slightly larger dimensions and added heft provided welcome sturdiness and the increased size of the grip (on the outside) was certainly welcome although an even deeper grip would have been nicer (the depth on the inside of the grip was largely similar to the 5R). The new chassis is made from a magnesium alloy and is dust and water resistant (but not waterproof) and overall, it gives a strong feeling of strength and 'seriousness'.

Sony a6300
The outside of the grip is deeper but the inside remains the same. An area for improvement.

Although some will bemoan the reduced compactness and thus portability, I, for one, welcome the enhanced handling that the increased size affords. Sony's NEX/Alpha range has continually improved on its ergonomics and yet still retain the compact size that it has been known for. For Sony's next (inevitable) model, they just need to make sure that they strike that fine balance between handling and comfort and 'pocketability'.

The menus are still a faff to use with too many sections and subsections and an exposure comp. dial on the top would have made useability easier. Still, Sony is slowly getting there with ease-of-use as the a6300 boasts more physical buttons for quick access including two custom buttons, a mode dial, function button and, new to the a6300, an AF/MF - AEL button and toggle.

Sony a6300
The new addition of an AF/ML - AEL button/toggle helps speed up operation.

The improved and more comfortable EVF is a joy to use: bright, detailed and displaying a very minimal amount of lag. The LCD screen has the same resolution as the a6000 and the same limited articulating action, facing upwards at an angle of 90 degrees and downwards at approximately 45 degrees. The screen can be moved and pulled out from the main body at a maximum of approximately 2cm.

Sony a6300
Sony a6300
Coming from the 5R, I miss that the screen can no longer flip all the way upwards but I'd take the EVF any day.

Battery life is so-so. Shooting 50 minutes of 4K video with the display quality set to high and 'airplane mode' enabled drained the battery to 30%. Not so good. Having said that, battery life when shooting stills was better and I generally lasted a whole day taking photos at Yosemite although I would imagine those doing full-on studio shoots might need a spare battery or two.

The autofocus, on the whole, is very quick, responsive and accurate. I shot model boats, football matches and a baseball game and it did a great job locking onto the correct thing/person and staying with it. On 11fps high continuous burst mode, very few of my shots were out of focus. That being said, there were times when I would back-button AF-C on a subject and it wouldn't always track them so I had to release the button and press it again, at which point it did accurately pick up the moving subject. This is slightly annoying and (hopefully) can be fixed with a firmware update.

Most importantly, image quality is excellent. I was very impressed with the detail retention, sharpness and dynamic range of the photos I took, especially of the night sky - I couldn't believe how many stars it was able to pick out in near blackness. In harsh sunlight, ominous overcast conditions, a night sky, whatever I aimed the a6300 at, it delivered. Can't say any more.

The 4K video is also pretty sharp, helped by no pixel binning and a 6K image being downscaled to 4K. The addition of picture profiles, including SLOG-2/3, and a mic jack make this a more viable option for videographers. However, rolling shutter is definitely an issue on this when shooting in 4K. Its effect is reduced when shooting 1080p and it is something that can be corrected in post, but only so much. Yeah, it's quite bad when quick panning in 4K.

Also an issue is one of overheating. I assisted on a wedding shoot recently and had the camera on a tripod, inside but in direct sunlight which was shining through glass panes on a door on a very warm day. I had the LCD screen pulled out and turned airplane mode on - I had read that this helps with overheating.

After about 15 minutes, the overheating icon appeared on the display. Thankfully the ceremony stopped after 20 minutes but I'm certain that the camera would have shut down at around the 25 minute mark. I switched the camera off and left it for approximately 5 minutes before resuming. The overheating icon was still there. I'm not sure how long it took for the camera to cool back down again but expect to have to wait in between long, continuous shoots. Now, to be fair to the a6300, it was very warm in that room, but it's certainly still an issue.

However, I conducted a test in my own room where the temperature was mild: 4K, airplane mode on, LCD screen pulled out. The camera shot 30 minutes of continuous 4K no problem, no warning symbol, nothing. If you're going to have the camera in very warm conditions, expect it to overheat when shooting 20+ minutes in 4K. If not, I think you're going to be okay.

Buy? No Buy?

If you're primarily a photographer looking for something high-end but you're not ready for/need a full-frame camera, this is easy: buy. Ergonomics are good, build quality is excellent, super-fast autofocus and brilliant image quality.

If you're largely a videographer, I would look elsewhere. A 4K oversample image with no pixel binning is great, as is the fast autofocus, but the rolling shutter and overheating will cramp your video style. 

For me, as someone who shoots 80/20 photo/video, this camera is perfect for me. 

And now to go back to Yosemite and shoot it all again.

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