Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sony Alpha a6300 Camera Review, Part II - 07 Apr 2016

Mounting the camera on the Digidapter™ was straightforward. The barrel of the Digidapter™ fits snugly around the 16-50 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens of the Sony a6300, so fitting the base of the Digidapter™ and locking down the screws was easy. Now, it was just a matter of sliding the camera forward until the lens produced a clean, sharp vignette circle at the 16mm setting. I suspect strongly that this is great for shooting at 16 mm, but focal plane misalignment may occur as the lens is zoomed to 50 mm, so it might be more prudent to move the camera a bit more forward. However, too far forward means that you cannot turn the focusing ring on the lens because it will be inside the Digidapter™ barrel (plus, you need to avoid crashing the lens into the eyepiece while zooming). BTW, the power zoom switch on the side of the lens is a nice touch and easier to use than reaching for the lens ring.

With the camera securely on the Digidapter™ it was now the time to figure out the best settings for imaging. Aperture-Priority was dialed in immediately. Then, I went to the Menu:

Image Size: RAW+JPG (I would quickly learn that Photoshop CS6 won't read the RAW files, so I broke down and signed up for the $9.95/mo. Adobe Lightroom 6 / Photoshop CC package. Now to learn Lightroom...).

Video: XAVC S 4K Video requires at least 64GB SDXC I U3 memory card. All I had were 16GB SD cards, so I dialed in the next best thing: XAVC S HD 60P 50M. I would purchase a Scandisk Extreme Pro 128GB SDXC I U3 card from B&H Photo Video for $79.

Drive Mode: Continuous-HI (the camera also has a nice 10-sec timer w/ 3-frame continuous capture).
Focus Mode: AF-S or MF (I would eventually switch to Manual Focus as it allows me to control focus when using Magnified Focus).
Focus Area: Center
ISO: ISO AUTO (100 - 6400 w/ Minimum Shutter Speed of 1/125 sec.)
Meter Mode: Center
White Balance: Auto
Focus Magnifier: ON
Smile Detection: OFF (doesn't work for birds, apparently, but is great for people / regular shooting)
Color Space: sRGB
MF Assist: ON

Focus Magnification Time: NO LIMIT (A slight turn of the lens ring turns on Focus Magnifier and I'm able to perform critical focusing using the scope; then hit shutter to take images. Be careful to not depress the shutter while focusing as it will disable the Focus Magnifier)
AF in Focus Mag.: OFF

Focus Peaking Level: MID / Yellow ( In manual focusing mode the focus peaking works very well, but may not provide critical focus sharpness; the Magnified Focus seems to provide better results so I use it whenever possible)

Silent Shooting: OFF (necessary for getting 11 fps, otherwise only allows 6-8 fps when ON)

e-Front Shutter Curtain: OFF (necessary for getting 11 fps, otherwise only allows 6-8 fps when ON - I believe this is the case; a quick test w/ OFF produced faster fps shooting)

Format: It's the Toolbox icon / 5 (always format the card in camera after transferring files to the computer)

The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is very bright, as is the viewing screen on the back of the camera. However, users of the camera quickly learn that it is useless in sunlight, so the EVF is necessary. An alternative is to use something like the Hoodman Loupe, which can be velcroed directly to the viewing screen (but only after buying a screen protector) and used in place of the EVF. I may go that route eventually as I had great luck when I used it on the Nikon 1 V3 and Sony RX100 III.

The camera is weatherproofed, and the magnesium body gives it a nice, solid feel. I think it fits the Digidapter perfectly!

Initial testing using AF-S produced some disappointing results, but I was shooting in low light, so tracking may have been the issue. I've been a bit nervous using AF since focus-peaking / magnified focus seems to be necessary in order to obtain the sharpest images (the Nikon's AF system is much more reliable).

After shooting Manual Focus for the past few days I really like the way the camera handles. As long as the camera is initially focused on the same subject as the scope I can use the EVF to find and focus using the scope. A quick touch of the lens ring activates Magnified Focus and I can perform critical focusing w/ the scope. Then fire a burst. I seem to have a lot of rejected photos, but the keepers are impressively sharp.

Color balance is excellent! I used to have to adjust color in the RX100 III but this camera seems to be spot on. Lightroom adjustments are minimal.

Sony Alpha a6300 + 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS Kit Lens on the 40X W Eyepiece

Lightroom / Photoshop adjusted
How is image quality? I managed to capture an image of this American Robin under low light the first time I tried the camera. 1/125 sec at f/5.6 at ISO 6400! With the Nikon 1 V3 I could not get usable images at anything greater than ISO 800. Luminance noise is negligible, and color noise is almost non-existent. Lightroom / Photoshop adjustments are able to clean up the image nicely.

Original inset and 100% zoomed

With the only sunlight available all week I took the scope out and camped out by the feeders. From about 20' away I spent an hour or digiscoping birds using the 16-50 mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS Kit Lens. This Black-capped Chickadee actually stayed long enough to get several bursts off.

American Goldfinches are actively molting into their breeding plumage, and this image was tack-sharp. Check out the feather detail!

A Downy Woodpecker attacking the suet feeder was a challenge for the magnified focus, but I was able to get quite a few sharp images. A European Starling also paused long enough for a few keepers.

The kit lens is not known for its sharpness, but its a quality lens with good center sharpness (soft on the corners). For all but the most discerning digiscopers this is a terrific lens to have. Me, I'm a bit pickier w/ my image quality, so I'm opting for the extra quality that comes from good primes. 

Sony Alpha a6300 + Sigma 30mm f/2.8 Lens on the 40X W Eyepiece

With overcast skies and light rain falling I decided to try the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN lens on the camera. This time I shot through the open window, so there might have been a touch of convection (heat) currents to deal with. But, I shot wide open at f/2.8 and tried shooting at 1/250 sec. using Auto-ISO. All of these images would expose between ISO 800 - 3200.

Its difficult to compare a good prime on an overcast day with a lesser lens on a sunny day, but I'd say the Sigma 30 did an extremely nice job in low light. I noticed a touch of chromatic aberration on the cheeks of the chickadee (blue fringing) but focus was off and it cleaned up easily in Lightroom. Otherwise I saw good feather detail, especially w/ the American Tree Sparrow and House Finch. The next time I use the lens I'll stop down to f/3.5 and see if it makes any difference. Depth of field won't improve, but I might get a slightly sharper image.

So, after only a few days with this camera I have to say that I'm extremely happy with the results. The Sony Alpha a6300 handles wonderfully, feels great, and produces some wonderful, clean images even at very high ISO's. Also, after playing with the menus this evening its very possible that I was only shooting at about 8 fps and not 11 fps (due to the e-Shutter Front Curtain being ON).

I'll also have to pull out the Zeiss 20-75X Zoom Eyepiece and give the Sigma 30 a try. Who knows? It might produce good enough results to go back to the zoom eyepiece.

Heck, I even got a flight shot of a Turkey Vulture soaring over the field behind the house. Not bad for a first try...

Sony Alpha a6300 + Sigma 30mm f/2.8 on the 20 - 75X Eyepiece

I found the Zeiss 20-75X Eyepiece this morning and decided to give it a try w/ the Sony a6300. I found that current position on the Digidapter for the 40X W eyepiece also produced a sharp vignette circle on the 20-75X eyepiece, so there was no need to readjust the camera's position on the Digidapter. It was raining outside, but I decided to open the window and give it a try, anyways. With the 30mm Sigma the Zeiss eyepiece zoomed cleanly throughout the entire range. 

At 75X these images of a Pine Siskin and American Goldfinch looked sharp.

I did notice CA with the eyepiece, but Lightroom adjustments removed it nicely. As with the other lenses I found that magnified focus produced sharper images than using the focus peaking alone. Image quality is good enough that I think I could start using this eyepiece again - it would provide a more versatile magnification range (EFL of 900 - 2250 mm) than the 40X alone (1800mm).

Incidentally, I seem to be getting 11 fps now that I disabled the e-shutter front curtain in the menu (see above).

Now, its on to 4K and the prospect of being able to grab stills from the UHD videos! But I'll wait for better weather.

I'm excited to get out to the wetlands and put the Sony Alpha a6300 to a real test in the field. Thanks for watching!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Sony Alpha a6300 Review, Part 1 - 5 Apr 2016

As a die-hard digiscoper I'm always looking for the next great digiscoping camera. The Panasonic GH4 is arguably the best digiscoping camera out there, and the winners of all of the recent digiscoping contests will attest to its popularity. 4K Video is the draw, and the GH4 is considered the best camera supporting ultra-high resolution video. Other cameras, like the Panasonic GX8 come to mind, as well, and produce excellent quality results. I'm not even going to mention the wonderful results folks have been getting using the latest iPhone and Samsung cell phones.  I've been using the Nikon 1 V3 for 2 years now, and have also used the Sony Cybershot RX100 III as well, and have gotten excellent results from both cameras. The usability in the field: handling, autofocus speed, resolution and color balance has favored the V3, while the RX100 III produces slightly better detail, but only because of the better (Zeiss) lens. See my digiscoping review of both cameras. Unfortunately, the lack of 4K video (now available in the newer RX100 IV) and noisy sensor of both cameras have prevented me from ending the search for a better digiscoping camera.

When Sony announced the successor to the widely-popular Alpha a6000 I was immediately drawn to the fact that the new Sony Alpha a6300 would have 4K Video capability. The potential for being able to grab stills from high-res video made this camera worth looking into as potential digiscoping camera. The 24MP APS-C sensor (23.5x15.6mm) was also intriguing, as it is larger than the 1" sensor (13.2x8.8mm) of the Nikon 1 V3, so it should produce cleaner-looking images, especially at higher ISO's. So, when DPREVIEW came out with their 1st Impressions Review of the Sony a63000 I immediately went to the Studio Comparison pages to compare image quality and noise with the above-mentioned cameras. Their full review is here. I was duly impressed! Some folks don't put a whole lot of stock into these types of tests, but I believe they are a great tool for evaluating potential new cameras for all walks of life.

Comparing JPG's between the Sony a6300 w/ the Nikon V3 at different ISO settings RESOLUTION difference is apparent and extremely significant, while COLOR NOISE is not:


The Sony produces a brighter, cleaner image while the Nikon is smaller, softer and therefore less resolved. Color noise is handled well by both cameras, even at higher ISO's. For those of us who shoot RAW, however, the differences are even more apparent, especially at higher ISO's!

Even without blowing up the images you can see that the smaller V3 sensor produces more color noise at the expense of resolution, making it relatively unusable for digiscoping at ISO's much above 800. The a6300 produces resolvable images even at ISO 6400.

When comparing the a6300 with the 3" (17.3x13mm) sensor of the 17MP Panasonic GH4 the differences are much more subtle, especially when shooting JPG. Both cameras handle JPG processing very well, even at ISO 6400, with the slightly larger sensor of the a6300 resolving just a bit more detail.

When comparing the a6300 w/ the GH4 while shooting RAW, the differences are similarly negligible with a slight edge given to the larger sensor of the a6300:


Image performance is not limited to sensor, of course, but also to the quality of lenses used (and ultimately the quality of the spotting scope). The Panasonic 4/3 series of mirrorless cameras boasts a wealth of wonderful lenses to digiscope with (especially their line of pancake lenses), while the Sony Alpha series is much more limited. In fact, without using 3rd-party adapters, the E-mount Sony a6300 only offers the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS Kit Lens, the 20mm f/2.8 Pancake Lens, or Sigma 19mm and 30 mm f/2.8 offerings for E-mount cameras. More importantly, these lenses need to be able to fit the barrel of the Digidapter(tm) digiscoping adapter I'm using for my 40X W eyepiece of my Zeiss 85T*Fl Diascope.

So, I took my scope out to the good folks at ProCam in Livonia, MI and tested the fit of the Sony a6000 (the a6300 was not released at the time but is identical in size and shape) and 20mm f/2.8 Pancake lens. The good news was that I was able to make the 20mm lens (2.46" diameter) fit the barrel diameter (2.50") of the Digidapter(tm) and see only a trace of vignetting at the corners when mated with the 40X W eyepiece of the Zeiss Diascope. Image quality was good, but there was a bit of softening at the corners. Jerry Sadowski, who works at ProCam, suggested I try the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN lens, but it was getting late and I had to head home. I promised to research the lens, though, and get back to him.

Lavikka Photo has an excellent, in-depth YouTube review of the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN lens on the Sony a6000 where it is compared with the Sony 20mm Pancake Lens. For about half the price ($169 at B&H) the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 produced sharper images, sharper corners, and less chromatic aberration than its Sony counterpart. Even better, the 2.39" diameter lens will fit the Digidapter.  I also checked out Lavikka Photo's review of the 19mm f/2.8 lens (2.39" diameter and $199 at B&H) and its comparison with the Sony 20mm f/2.8 lens, and it also produced better results.

So, the decision was made, and I returned to ProCam last week and purchased the Sony Alpha a6300 with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS Kit Lens, the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 and 19mm f/2.8 lenses! With thanks to Jerry Sadowski and Mark Byrnes, and the rest of the internet, I'll be putting the Sony a6300 to work as my new digiscoping camera as soon as the weather clears, and I figure out how to turn it on... In part II of this review I'll put it to test in the field and describe my experiences with menu settings and operation. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Finally, Open Windows! - 10 Mar 2016

I've spent the winter photographing birds through the windows. The images have been ok, but not to my satisfaction. The past few days, however, have seen temps in the 60's-70's, so I've been able to do some digiscoping with the windows open. What a difference a single pane of glass can do for image quality (in the negative sense).

Birds have been scarce, however. The rain and rising temperatures may have pushed the winter birds along their way, but a few Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows are still around. In fact, I've had as many as six Tree Sparrows at one time (a winter high). Check out the feather detail!

Song Sparrows have returned to the yard, with a pair of birds foraging close to the back window!

I remounted the Nikon V3 on the Digidapter so that it is closer to the lens eyepiece when wide open (10mm). This forces me to manually slide the Digidapter 'back' away from the lens in order to remove the vignette shadow that is more apparent now. However, I'm still able to grab sharp images while 'pseudo-hand-holding' the Digidapter in its sweet spot. The vignette shadow disappears when I zoom to about 18mm. Even more important, when I zoom the V3 lens out to 20mm and 30mm the focal points are now more closely aligned. The result? Sharper images at 20mm - 30mm!

check out the feather detail!

I even managed a couple pics of a semi-cooperative Tufted Titmouse in the shade!

Now, if I can only keep my little Asia from jumping out of the open window while I'm trying to photograph the birdies...