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    December 2009
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Fluffy White Stuff

I’m rediscovering the pleasure of pure photography. No CPU cycles have been used on the following images, with the exception of resizing (on the full images) and cropping (on the detailed excerpt) with GIMP. The images are all JPEGs, straight out of camera.

First sprinkles of fluffy white flakes, just as I am visiting Montreal. Robert is visiting from Curaçao and we’re having a good time at my uncle. I’ve taken my SONY Alpha 850 on an early evening stroll through the neighborhood. All of these are handheld. SteadyShot is fantastic. The first picture is ISO 1600 F/3.5 0.4″, detail below.

Next one is ISO 200, same exposure settings:

There are limits to SteadyShot too, especially when the shooter is not wearing appropriate clothing for the freezing temperatures. Next one is 60mm, ISO400, F/4.5 0.6″:

and indeed, the 1:1 crop from the full 24.6 megapixels reveals the operator’s unsteadiness: Earlier I tried some indoor images, with the Minolta 5400HS (it fires, but it does not take TTL values, so need to adjust manually for it:

I’m impressed by the level of detail. All of these are out of camera JPGs with no further processing.

I enjoyed my afternoon, even if I found room for improvement with the camera and I hope somebody at SONY reads this and take action, because these improvements should be very easy to implement with a firmware upgrade.

At first sight, i felt that summarizing under the DRIVE button both the drive and bracketing function is a smart move. Generally, the SONY Alpha 850 user interface is very well designed. Hit the drive button and the front wheel will rotate between nine functions:

  1. Singe-shot advance
  2. Continuous advance
  3. Self-Timer (and the rear wheel switches between 2 and 10 seconds self timer)
  4. Exposure bracketing: Continuous (and the rear wheel selects the EV stepping and number of steps – unfortunately an insufficiently broad selection)
  5. Exposure bracketing: Single (same as the above)
  6. White Balance bracketing (again with the rear wheel selecting the details)
  7. Dynamic Range Optimization advanced bracketing (again with the rear wheel selecting the details)
  8. Mirror lockup
  9. Remote Commander

The problem with this, other than the limited bracketing range, is: how can I  bracket on a self-timer (as I could do with my five years old entry level Canon 350D)? Or have a Mirror lockup on a remote trigger? And why are some settings (like exposure bracketing) repeated?

The issue that bothers me most is that if I set the camera on exposure bracketing (either continuous or single), I must hold the trigger down  until the last picture in the bracket (continuous) or press the trigger three time (single), unlike the Canon 350D where in continuous mode triggering once just let the whole bracket run.

If I was given the opportunity to redesign the SONY Alpha 850 DRIVE button, I would keep the same elegant and intuitive two wheels approach, with the first wheel selecting the drive-related function to manipulate and the second wheel selecting the appropriate parameter.

The front wheel would cycle between

  1. Trigger (single shot , continuous shot, remote control)
  2. Timer Delay (with the rear wheel selecting one of 0, 2, or 10 seconds)
  3. Exposure Bracketing (with the same functionality as it is now, but only once, leaving the choice of single or continuous shot to the Advance selection)
  4. White Balance Bracketing (with the same functionality as it is now)
  5. Dynamic Range Optimization Bracketing (with the same functionality as it is now)
  6. Mirror Lock Up (on/off)

Saving three steps, while keeping functionality. Or actually, expanding it, since it would be possible to use Mirror Lock Up with Remote Trigger and Bracketing with Timer Delay.

When Bracketing in continuous trigger mode, a single click on the trigger button should run the whole bracket – no need to hold it depressed.

This would be just to catch up with my old Canon 350D. I think more can be done to offer the discerning expert more functionality from this great camera.

Next thing I would do is expand Exposure Bracketing. I’d make it more explicit, separating it into two options. Exposure Bracketing Stepping: a selection of 0EV (no bracketing), 0.3EV, 0.5EV, 0.7EV, 1.0EV, 2.0EV. And Exposure Steps: a selection of any number from 0 (no bracketing) to 9, so that if I set 9 steps at 2.0 EV stepping I get a real HDR shot of -8EV,-6EV,-4EV,-2EV,0EV,+2EV,+4EV,+6EV,+8EV.

The icing on the cake would be the addition to the Trigger menu of a fourth option: Time Lapse. Then expand the Timer Delay selection from a limited set of 0,2,10 seconds to a continuous selection from 0 seconds to 3600 seconds. However this one would break the beautiful, elegant, simple and effective physical metaphor of the two wheel, because ranging from 0 to 3600 in steps of one on a single wheel is unlikely to be practical. But there are other solutions for it.

All of this should be feasible with a simple firmware upgrade. It’s software only. SONY actually delivers the software to do this: Remote Camera Control is bundled with the camera. But it requires a USB cable and a laptop / netbook – an unacceptable extra weight and battery drain in many shooting conditions. Come on, SONY, you can do better!

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