The Sony A7SII


The Sony A7SII

The Master Of Low Light

Nikon or Canon? The debate rages on amongst fans of each, and if you’re in the aviation community you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a straight race between the two. But after a discussion with Andrew Whyte recently, I was left wondering if there might be a third way. Andrew is well known for his astro, light painting and low light photography, and suggested I might like to try Sony’s a7sII. Sony rarely get a mention among aviation photographers, possibly because they aren’t really noted for their sports cameras, but with two night shoots coming up I was keen to try something new.

56th RQS HH-60G Pave Hawk taxiing out at RAF Lakenheath for a pairs night sortie.

 CVP very kindly offered a Sony a7sII and teamed it with a Batis 25mm F2 lens. Aviation photography requires a lot of flexibility, presenting widely varying opportunities moment to moment, so I wondered if a full frame sensor with a prime lens (and a pretty wide one at that) would cut the mustard. Then there was the lighting situation. In the confined space of a helicopter at night, the only natural light is from the multifunction displays (MFDs) or the night vision goggles (NVG). This tends to be soft and green and for obvious reasons it’s not a good idea to start using a flash in such situations. 

Whilst night images aren’t completely lacking from my portfolio, articles or reports, the ‘tactical’ low light images definitely are – mostly down to my kit limitations. I’ve never been a full frame photographer. For aviation work you really need the reach that a crop sensor gives even moderate zooms, but the compromise is the ISO handling, especially when working around the 1600 mark, certainly from my experience with the D300s and D7100. I know others that are happy to go far beyond that but I think the image quality degradation is just too noticeable. I was curious to see how the a7sII coped. I wanted to capture images of the pilots prepping their aircraft for a sortie in the cockpit at night with their NVGs fitted, and the ground crew prepping the aircraft. I would then fly at night with a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS/Air Ambulance), having flown on a similar sortie a few months earlier it showed the massive limitations that my current kit has when working at night and at high ISO.

HH-60G Pave Hawk undergoing maintenance work, the iconic green feet printed on the hangar doors.

 So I guess a run down of my ‘daily’ kit is in order. The D300s was my go to camera body for around three years, up until 2014 anyway. With no sign of Nikon releasing a direct replacement for the much-loved D300 series I opted to chance “Nikons top enthusiast camera” the D7100. Probably not what most pro photographers would expect an aviation/landscape photographer to use but I don’t get too hung up on kit; it has its limitations of course, most notably the poor buffer. However the lack of a low pass filter really does ensure the images have an almost processed look straight out of camera and are so unbelievably sharp when used right, especially when compared to the old tech that was the D300. Thankfully Nikon final came to their senses this year, releasing the Nikon D500. Having used the D7100 for over two years I needed a new main body and the D500 fitted the bill perfectly - you can read up on my initial thoughts here:
My go to lenses then; first the Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VR – a fantastically versatile lens that I use for either shooting portraits in the aircraft, static shots of an aircraft being prepped for a sortie or from the top of a cliff shooting a helicopter as the crew position it. I also have a Nikkor 24-70 F2.8 or 17-55mm F2.8 in my camera bag at all times, the 24-70 offering a little more flexibility when shooting air-to-air – that extra 15mm can really make all the difference. They’re great for shooting portraits in and around aircraft as well for night shots when aircraft are starting up, particularly helicopters with rotors turning. Finally a 10.5mm fisheye from Samyang works fantastically well for cockpit shots in helicopters or when the side door is open and the crewman is leaning out, sometimes I’ll carefully lean out of the door whilst on a dispatcher harness to try and get some exterior of the aircraft featured as well. 

Wiltshire Air Ambulance critical care paramedic surveying a field during an ad-hoc landing for a currency sortie. 

A forthcoming visit to the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath and a night currency sortie with the Wiltshire Air Ambulance last week gave me the perfect opportunity to put the a7sII and Batis glass to work in an aviation environment. 

Whilst I missed being able to pixel peep like I can with files from my D7100 (24.1MP) I don’t think it’s a massive issue and the Sony absolutely makes up for the fewer megapixels with its incredibly impressive ISO performance. I’m still amazing at how good the files look straight out of camera at ISO 10,000, even 20,000 is usable after some noise reduction in post. Obviously the grain is visible but it’s very manageable and gives that tactical look to the images which really suites the night setting. I found the autofocus to be more or less faultless, there were a couple of times when I switched to manual to save a little bit of time rather than switching the focus point, but as long there was some form of light source such as an MFD then it locked straight on. Images straight out of camera, especially in the day, have an excellent dynamic range and look almost flat, which is great for post production work later on, though that look could just be down to the awful weather and light that seems to follow me wherever I go at the moment!

In flight the camera performed faultlessly, the light from the MFDs providing a great light source for the AF to lock on to – again at some points I did switch to MF instead of switching the focus point. I find it really hard to fault this little camera, but there are a few little niggles I have with it, all from a stills perspective.
It would be great to have the redundancy of dual SD card slots; it’s very rare that you get an opportunity to re-shoot something in aviation, so having a card fail could be disastrous.
The battery life isn’t great, but I guess the get around to that is to just buy more batteries. Finally I did find the menu to be a little fiddly compared to my Nikon, but that could just be down to the fact I’m so use to the Nikon layout.

56th RQS Special Mission Aviator prepping for a night sortie. 

This is probably a good time to mention that I am now completely in love with the Batis 25mm F2, it is such a beautiful lens. I’m really not used to shooting with a prime, being stuck to a focal length isn’t really beneficial when shooting aviation but I absolutely loved it. It certainly makes the mind work a little harder when thinking about composing images and it also means you can get right into the action though with the wide angle of view – which is absolutely perfect when working in the cramped confines of a helicopter. Also, the shallow depth of field when shooting at F2 is just so pleasing to the eye, it suits the night images very well when using parts of the airframe to naturally frame either the pilot or special-mission aviators.
I also love how Zeiss flashes up on the upper display of the lens when the camera is turned on; little things.. 

Whilst I do shoot video very occasionally, I don’t profess to know the complete ins and outs – my knowledge is very limited and whilst I’m working on increasing it, I thought it would be worth mentioning the 120fps option that the A7sii can shoot. Slow motion is perfect for helicopters; it shows perfectly how they beat the air into submission to stay airborne.

This really is an incredible package in a tiny body. Sony has created something very special in the a7sII, especially if you need that low-light capability.


Nikon D500 - First Thoughts


Nikon D500 - First Thoughts

The New DX King

Nikon have finally replaced the much revered D300, better late than never I guess, my D7100 which was originally meant to be just an interim body has done a superb job since I purchased it in 2014. For a camera body that is classed as an“enthusiast-level DSLR” it’s performed flawlessly, however after two years of solid use it’s now starting to show signs of wear and tear after being used and abused in all kinds of testing environments. So naturally the D500 is the only sensible replacement, apart from perhaps the D810 but I’m still putting off going down the FX route.

First Thoughts

 Just a couple of things that struck me when taking it out of the box…

It’s easy to see that this is most definitely a pro DSLR, the rugged build and fully weather sealed body combined with the visible size difference when compared to my D7100, the 100% field of view optical viewfinder is an absolute dream, no pop up flash which I think has irritated some but I can’t ever recall using mine so that is no big loss, dedicated buttons for image quality, WB, metering, mode etc – similar to the D300 I guess (after shooting with the D7100 this is so good to have back), the tilted touch screen is worth mentioning although I do think it’s a little bit of a gimmick, however I imagine it would come in fairly useful when you’re restricted with movements during a flight and finally the little joystick on the back that controls the focus points. 

Think of it as a D5 but in DX form and you aren't far off, after-all it shares the same processor, focusing system and has the same number of pixels. 

I’m going to try and keep away from the nitty gritty details as there are more than enough blogs out there detailing all the specs - Google is your friend!

Two AS332B Super Pumas from BHELMA VI perform an aerial ballet during a return flight to Lanzarote. 

Unfortunately I left it a little late when ordering the body, which meant it didn’t arrive in time for my trip to Sweden, which was disappointing, luckily my D7100 still has some life in it! I had cancelled my order with WEX and ordered one of the last bodies off Amazon before leaving for Sweden, in the hope it would be delivered before I set off for the FAMARA exercise in Lanzarote. Which it did, halfway through the exercise I received a call from WEX asking when I wanted it delivered. So rather lucky I cancelled the order.

Anyway the FAMARA exercise with BHELMA VI was the ideal opportunity to see how the D500 would deal with the challenging shooting conditions – mainly the heat and dust.

The kind of environment the D500 had to put up with, dust everywhere as this AS332B Super Puma gets airborne with a full load out of troops.

The lack of buffer is the first real noticeable aspect of the cameras performance, especially coming from the D7100, which has a fairly atrocious buffer. I didn’t even come close to hitting the buffer once, even when shooting at the full 10 frames per second, which personally I found a bit much. I stopped it down to 6 FPS after the first sortie, I’ve always found the AF struggles to keep a track if you’re constantly rattling off the max FPS – although when quality sorting my shots there were very few images that were out of focus, the AF is just mesmerizing and so bloody quick. I don’t think I can even recall it ‘hunting’, not even in low light conditions or brownout landings, that’s fairly impressive.

As I mentioned at the start the viewfinder really is a dream, it provides 100% vertical and 100% horizontal coverage, which probably doesn’t sound like a standout feature but it allows for the most precise framing. Going from my D7100 to the D500 it’s even more noticeable; it provides such a clear and bright view.

The D500 handles the dynamic range very well, the highlights from the aircrafts lights were easily recoverable in photoshop. A very had scene to expose for.  

The rugged build and full weather sealing seemed to do the job in Lanzarote, having endured brownouts landing both in (doors open) and outside hardly any dust has managed to break through to the sensor, I think the dust on the sensor probably came about when changing lenses out in the open landing zones which were particularly dusty. But it took everything that was thrown at it and just shrugged it off.

How do the files look when compared to the D7100? Well this is where it becomes tricky, honestly I think the difference in image quality is negligible but then that isn’t really what the camera body is about. It is first and foremost a sports body, therefor tailored towards the users need for high FPS, lightning quick AF and an insane buffer. I’m not saying the image quality is disappointing, if you were jumping straight from a D300 for example I imagine you would see a world of difference, but image quality is where the D7100 really excelled itself so I think it’s only natural to find the increase in image quality isn’t all that noticeable. What is noticeable though is the difference in ISO handling, as you'd expect though I guess. But even at ISO 200 the difference is quite impressive, it's probably easier to see when post processing as the D7100 files need another 25% extra when compared with the files from the D500. I haven't had chance to test the high ISO performance but I'm mightily impressed with the lack of grain visible at ISO 200-400.

BHELMA VI AB212 flying over Lanzarote at sunset. 

With the technology gap closing between camera releases there is only so much of a jump that can be expected with regards to IQ, really the focus is on how Nikon has finally produced another flagship pro-spec DSLR that far surpasses anything I’ve used before in terms of usability, ruggedness and performance. I honestly can’t express just how good the AF system is.  It’s quicker than Usain Bolt over 100m!