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. 

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