GEAR TALK: MIRRORLESS CAMERAS IN AVIATION PHOTOGRAPHY
In recent months, I’ve been receiving queries about what camera system I use, and whether it can be good in aviation photography. My answer, is always "What works for me, might not work for you, but I can share the reasons why I use my current set up, mainly a Sony A7R4 and the smaller Sony A7C.” For those that do not know what that is, the Sony A7R4 is the current top of the line full frame mirrorless camera, whereas the A7C is the smallest full frame camera to date .
A while back, I polled over 100 fellow aviation photographers on what camera type do they use; Mirrorless or DSLR cameras. The responses I received were quite evident, 79% uses DSLR camera while on 21% used a mirrorless system. From my own personal observations, full-bodied DSLR cameras still hold the majority in the aviation photography scene, and I do understand why.
I started photography back in 2011 when I was a student at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore. We had a compulsory introduction course in the first year of school, which was how I started this journey into photography. As with all photographers, my first camera was one of the 2 big brands of the day. A Nikon. My faithful D5100 was my virgin experience at photography, and with the support of my best friend, I started taking photos of landscapes, toys and in time, even dabbled in model portraiture. I did tell myself, I would never need a full frame camera, why would I need one since I was not working fulltime as a photographer. Boy was I wrong. By late 2012, I took up photography full time and I had upgraded to a D600. By August 2014, I had gotten a D810 full frame camera. Part of the reason for the upgrade was due to the fact that my D600 met with a “water accident” while doing an underwater model shoot. A painful lesson learned that day.
Anyway, August 2014 was also the same time I started aviation photography, and the D810 produced such amazing quality images, though my skills in taking airplanes at that time are still so rough. At this point, I heard about Sony making a come back, with their new A7 mirrorless full frame camera, and I just dismissed it. Enter my best friend again, who said and I quote, “This will be the future of photography one day”, to which I replied, “Meh, I will never get a Sony mirrorless camera.”
Why? Well, at the time, I felt that the image quality of mirrorless cameras cannot meet or beat that of their full-bodied counterparts. Also, looks wise, it’s so small, how could anyone take me seriously as a photographer using a camera that looks like a toy.
This discussion would go on between us for about 2 months, and in October 2014, I took my first spotting trip overseas with the D810. The camera bag was so heavy for me. I have lower back issues hence I can’t carry heavy loads for too long. And that camera bag was considered a heavy load whenever I have to travel. It was hard to use that camera while in economy class of the flight, and while trying to take some street shots, it was intimidating to subjects whenever they see someone using a big black camera with a huge lens. For spotting, It was good but just again, too heavy to lug around on a long-term basis.
That trip made me realize the potentials of using a smaller mirrorless body and saving my backaches.
So, after returning and a few weeks of heavy consideration plus research, I did what I said I won’t do, and I took a brave step, sold away my Nikon D810 and lenses, and reinvested in a Sony A7 series camera, with a set of wide angle, and long tele-lenses. And in 2016 I upgraded the A7 to the A7R2. That decision was one of the best I have made, and with no regrets.
My idea of a camera is simple; It should feel like a natural extension of your body, feel right and comfortable to use, without compromising on image quality. The camera should not be cumbersome or intimidating and must make you feel like you want to take it out on a daily basis to use. For me, the A7R2 and its smaller faster sister, the A6500 meets that criteria. I’ve been using them for all my photography needs, and they have delivered excellent photos without disappointment. I don't need to use a large backpack to house my travel set up, most of it now fits inside my 20L backpack, or my sling bag if its just one camera and a prime lens. The cameras are light in weight, though some of the high-end lenses are heavier, and if u add up the weight, it still won't be as heavy as a full-bodied camera plus lens. Most recently, I upgraded the ol' A7R2 for the A7R4, and purchased the A7C as a secondary camera for occasions when I do not need the full power of the R4's 61mp sensor. Battery life on these newer cameras are way longer than before, fixing one of the short fallings of her predecessors. I love the fact that the camera can fit next to me in my seat on my flight, and whenever something interesting pops by the window, I’ll be snapping away with ease and room to maneuver.
So here is my Current Sony setup I use for most of my aviation photos. Regular Spotting: Sony A7C + Sony GM 100-400mm
Gate Spotting / Inflight: Sony A7R4 + Sigma 14-24mm/ Zeiss 40mm
These setup combos offer the best balance of reach vs distance vs speed for each occasion. Recently, I have purchased a Sigma Ultra Wide angle 14-24mm lens and use it at the Singapore Airshow with very impressive results. Now, do note, I do not work for Sony nor do I get sponsored for any of my gear by them. I am just writing this as a photographer who uses a Sony mirrorless system. Now that does not mean the Big C or Big N aren’t good systems, in fact I have used all 3 brands and have come to conclude that Sony best suits my needs as a photographer that values a good balance of mobility and quality. So if this little write up can help some photographers looking to make the switch over, that's great. If it furthers reinforce a photographers trust in his current system, that’s great too. At the end of the day, its the photographer that works the camera, not the camera that dictates the images a photographer creates. It should be a symbiotic relationship between man and machine, that work hand in hand to create the images you want to create. Below are some sample images shot on the Sony Camera setups mentioned above. Not too bad for a mirrorless system eh?