Shortly after buying an Olympus m740 shirt pocket camera I came to the realization that some really great photographs would be possible with a larger format digital camera. At first I poked around looking for compact cameras with larger sensors than the standard 6mm width, but there really were none available back in 2008. I eventually ended up with a 24mm sensor Sony A200 DSLR for much the same reasons I had chosen the Olympus m740, reviewers unanimously proclaimed the images to be great looking with good color. See sample Photographs from the cameras discused bellow.
Sony A55 Upgrade
Higher Resolution with a Sony A65
Helmet Cam Duty
24mm Sensors in Compact Cameras
I was pretty happy with the images from the little Olympus m740, they did have very nice color and the resolution was high enough to be impressive for 2007 (see
Vancouver Island with a 6mm Sensor). The main problems with the m740 were functional. It was way too slow under all conditions. It took a long time to start up and extend it's 5x zoom lens, and there was a huge delay between shots. The small sensor was also way too slow for most any kind of low light photography. There were really only two ways that the m740 could be used. For hand held use direct sunlight, or at least a very bright cloudy sky, was required. For lower light conditions or indoor photography it was absolutely necessary to set the camera down somewhere. Propping the camera up and using the self timer did allow nice indoor and low light photographs to be taken, but the maximum three second exposure time severely limited capabilities in the darkest environments.
I had purchased the 6mm sensor supper compact camera somewhat out of ignorance, but also to a large extent out of indifference. Carrying a camera in a shirt pocket had seemed like a great way to shirk the responsibilities of lugging around a 35mm SLR. Don't get me wrong I had never owned a 35mm camera, but I had used them a few times. When I was very young I had owned several different 1-26 cartridge film cameras with omni-focus lenses, and although they took some nice pictures I was constantly feeling the heat for using such an expensive large format camera compared to the 1-10 cartridge film cameras my mother used. Not only was my film more expensive, but the developing and standard 5x7 prints were also much more expensive than for the 1-10 format. The reality was that all of those omni-focus cameras were total crap not worth messing with. I did have one old 1-26 cartridge film camera with glass elements and a very basic focus mechanism. It was still a small aperture direct sunlight style camera, but it also had a focus leaver with distances in feet. The instructions that were passed on with the camera was simply that the leaver did not work, so it should just be left at the same position where the last user had set it. Even though the glass lens camera made better pictures I was told that I should use the newer (and much lighter) all plastic camera that did not have any distracting and non-functional leavers on it. This was a very forceful suggestion, and when I tried to argue that the more complex camera still took better pictures I was simply told that the leavers were too much trouble.
Eventually the high cost of film and printing along with a desire to not expand my photographic collection beyond one shoe box caused me to just give up on the whole thing. The approximately $15 total cost for a roll of 24 prints was really high for an eight year old with no income. Even though I could often get parents or extended family to pay for the cost of a roll of film and printing I never stopped associating it with the $15 cost. I mean wow, $15 bought a lot of baseball cards and ice cream back in the 80's. For many years people would ask me why I did not use a camera anymore, and I would invariably say that it just was not worth the trouble.
I despised the disposable cameras that were so popular from the late 1980's through the 1990's mostly because they seemed so extraneously wistful, but also because the results were very poor. I did however have a series of friends who were black and white photography enthusiasts. For the most part they took pictures of me, but I also got in on a small amount of the technical details of lens selection, manual or motorized focus, aperture size, developing, stopping, fixing and enlarging. I generally disliked black and white photography, because again the results were unimpressive even compared to my old 1-26 cartridge film cameras. ISO 200 black and white film in a 35mm SLR with a 35mm focal length lens certainly was capable of rendering quite a lot of detail, but I always saw that detail as useless and uninteresting without color.
A few times I borrowed a 35mm camera and loaded it with ISO 100 color film, and I thought those results were smashing. The problem was that I was still extremely adverse to the high cost of professional prints, and I never ordered anything other than the standard 5x7 proofs. I never even once tried to get an enlargement made, it all went right into my shoe box. Somehow I just knew that it was going to take a whole lot of money to do anything more with color photography than borrowing a black and white enthusiasts equipment and loading it with color film.
Despite more photographers showing up in my life I continued to shirk the technology. I was stuck on not liking black and white results, and not wanting to pay the high prices of professional color developing and printing. Then digital photography came along. I had actually been aware of digital photography going back to about 1990, but it was not until 1997 that a friend's uncle loaned him a digital camera. It was not much of a camera, only enough resolution for a 2x2 print and marginal color fidelity. Being able to take color photographs and instantly put them on our computers was however very powerful. We had a ball running around taking pictures of everyone we knew and then threatening to put the results up on our websites. This was long, long before Facebook. As it was we only each put a single mug shot of ourselves up on our web sites, and I heavily modified mine so that none of the original background was visible and my clothing did not look like what I had been wearing for the picture.
It took a long time to get around to buying a digital camera of my own, but in the interim I was given an Olympus D100 compact camera as a hand me down. Again the resolution was very low, but the color fidelity was considerably improved by 2003. Because the resolution was still too low for any kind of reasonable prints I just used the Olympus D100 for taking things apart. Instead of having to rush to get replacement parts while I still remembered how to put it back together I just took pictures of the disassembly process that I could refer back to weeks or months later when I finally was able to get the replacement parts required to effect a repair. This worked great actually, not only did I have something to reference on reassembly but it seemed like parts availability also improved dramatically at the same time.
The Olympus D100 built our cruising sailboat, but once she was up and operational photographs just for the sake of art finally seemed to justify some outlay of cold hard cash.
I thought that there would be some compact camera available with a bit larger sensor, but on this point I was sorely mistaken. Back in 2008 they all had 6mm wide sensors, every last one of them. The only way to go up to a larger sensor was a DSLR. For more on sensor size and resolution see
Photography and Videography.
I was sort of leaning towards the Olympus micro 4/3 format, and I did know a professional photographer that had gone this route. The small overall size compared to other DSLR cameras with a still substantially large sensor (17.3mm x 13mm) was very appealing, the high cost of the Olympus cameras and lenses was however hard to swallow. Hands down the cheapest DSLR on the market was the Sony A200, so I figured that was as good a place to start as any. Not only was the standard $500 price with an 18-70mm kit zoom very low for 2008, but when I saw one on sale for a deep discount I pounced.
My first impression of the Sony A200 was mixed. The photographic quality of the larger format was impressive, the images looked a whole lot better from a variety of perspectives. Color fidelity was dramatically improved over the 6mm sensor, especially under challenging conditions. Low light performance was of course worlds better with the DSLR, and again this was for a variety of reasons. The 24mm sensor was quite a bit faster than the little 6mm sensor in the m740 and the 18-70mm kit zoom that came with the A200 also worked over a much wider range of aperture values. The m740 pretty much ran with the aperture wide open all the time, closing down only very slightly for bright direct sunlight. The DSLR on the other hand worked over a range of aperture values. One of the really big differences for low light photography though was the extremely competent sensor shift image stabilization system (Sony Supper Steady Shot). With the lens at it's widest angle setting (18mm) exposure times of as little as a third of a second could fairly reliably yield crisp images with no camera shake blur. On top of all this the A200 could actually be used at up to ISO 400 sensitivity, where the 6mm sensor m740 had to be kept at the minimum sensitivity setting all the time to get any kind of reasonable results.
There were however some severe limitations and downright problems with the A200. The cheap kit zoom 18-70mm lens was not good wide open. For very low light photography at ISO 400 fairly good results were attainable with the lens wide open, but for the most part stopping down to much smaller aperture diameters was necessary to get good results. At anything smaller than f/16 the images did not look good because such a small amount of glass was being used. At anything bigger than about f/8 the cheap zoom lens just did not cut it, even center sharpness fell off. To get the best possible photographs from the A200, and it's pathetic kit zoom, aperture values of f/11 to f/14 were required. Since the depth of field was dramatically improved at f/13 versus wide open at f/3.5 I was for the most part satisfied to keep the aperture closed down quite far.
The best settings for the A200 with the 18-70mm kit zoom were to force ISO 100, force an f/13 aperture and use the great image stabilization to take hand held photographs at how ever short of an exposure time the auto exposure program chose. For the most part the auto exposure and auto white balance worked well enough on the A200. Not all of the photographs were perfect, but it was not usually a problem of exposure time or white balance. The 18-70mm kit zoom was also hard to focus manually, with a narrow difficult to grasp focus ring and very twitchy fast gearing. The viewfinder was also not all that great, meaning that manual focusing involved a lot of guess work. The body driven autofocus did however work well, even if it was unreliable. Sometimes the lens just did not want to focus, and I would take the same picture over and over again until the focus finally came out. Amazingly it usually took about the same number of tries to get perfect focus with either the autofocus or the twitchy manual focus. Being able zoom in on photographs immediately after exposure meant that I could delete the out of focus attempts at the time of capture, and it also meant that if there was a photograph that I really wanted to come out in perfect focus I could make sure that I tried enough times to get a good one. Inconvenient to be sure, but they were really great photographs. After some experience with learning what sort of a surface to point the autofocus points at I was able to get perfectly focused fast action shots fairly reliably on the first try. Having a camera again that actually took a photograph when the button was pushed was a relief after the Olympus m740 shirt pocket camera that was so slow to get around to actually taking a picture.
After using the A200 for only one day I realized that the images were a bit fuzzy at the pixel level compared to the sharpest shots from the Olympus m740. I contacted Sony about this problem, and all they could say was that I should send the camera back to them. Since I had spent such a small amount of money on the new DSLR I was reluctant to just send it away for some unknown length of time, so I just used it the way it was. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on, pretty early on I did have an 8x10 print made from a good photograph. Yes, just one single 8x10 print at 99 cents from a local store. When the print came back sharper than the pixel for pixel image displayed on the computer screen I had a clue about part of what was going on. When I played around with sharpening a copy of the image file I found that I was able to attain exactly the same look as the nice looking print. As I realized years later this reversible fuzziness generated by the camera was only part of what was going on, but for the time being I was satisfied that the image files I had were pretty good.
The Sony A200 certainly was able to do some nice 8x10 size photographs, and even slightly larger print sizes were possible. Somewhat by accident I got one of my photographs published (without a photo credit) in a New Zealand magazine in 2009 and the nearly full page print looked just about as good as any magazine prints ever had. Still though I was not satisfied with the still rather poor low light performance of the A200, and I began thinking about upgrading. When the A200 fell down the companionway at sea (in it's soft case) the sensor shift image stabilization system broke and the low light performance of the basic entry level DSLR then was severely lacking.
When the aperture mechanism on the 18-70mm kit zoom lens jammed in the wide open position something had to be done about camera equipment right away. I still had the cheap $100 70-300mm Sigma lens I had picked up shortly after getting the A200, but not being able to go wider than 70mm was way too limiting on a small sailboat. Having the 300mm lens mounted to the camera all the time was however a bit of a bonus for catching fleeting shots of birds and water creatures as they flitted past.
I seriously considered just buying another standard sort of lens, but what I found was that any wide angle zoom lens was quite pricy. It seemed like a much better deal to upgrade the camera also with some new kit. The hot new thing in 2010 were the new APS-C sized Sony cameras that did not use reflex mirrors. I had always suspected that the clunky reflex mirror was a mistake on a digital camera, and I was very keen to upgrade to something without such a cumbersome mechanism.
The two choices were the completely mirrorless Sony NEX cameras or the very strange translucent mirror SLT line also from Sony. As with the reflex mirror I could not figure out any good reason that a camera should have a translucent mirror, but the new models were intriguing none the less. Again I relied heavily on unanimous reports of extremely impressive looking output to sway my buying choices. I had been leaning towards the NEX 5 with a slightly lower price point and very compact dimensions, but the extremely limited availability of lenses put me off to the new style of camera. The lack of a view finder or a built in flash also seemed problematic. Electronic view finders and external flash units were available as accessories, but these defeated both the lower price point and the higher level of compactness.
When I saw an early release A55 at a photography store in Australia I just had to have it. This was in early 2010, long before the A55 made it's North American debut. I had to pay a steep premium for the new model but it still was not nearly as expensive as other high end DSLR cameras on the market. As squeamish as I was about spending $1300 on a camera the A55 was worth every penny of it.
The first really big difference I noticed was that the new 18-55mm kit zoom was light years better than my clunky old kit zoom had been. Not only was the image quality improved in every regard, but functionally the new lens also was a vast improvement. With an in lens autofocus motor the autofocus speed was a whole lot faster and it was much more accurate as well. A big surprise was that the new 18-55mm kit zoom was razor sharp corner to corner even wide open. As I used the lens over a long period of time I eventually found some severe problems with it, but initially I was nothing but stunned at how quickly and easily it could deliver a perfect shot. I also tried the new lens on the old A200, and there also it delivered impressive improvements. Again it was the dramatically improved autofocus capability and good corner to corner sharpness wide open that were most noticeable.
As for the A55 itself there were some immediately impressive features and capabilities, and also some extremely difficult to work around limitations. First and foremost was the higher resolution, which just blew the A200 out of the water. At all focal lengths with both the new 18-55mm kit zoom and my cheap old 70-300mm long lens the higher resolution sensor delivered dramatically improved detail and much nicer looking photographs. Vastly improved low light performance was also immediately apparent. Not only could the A55 be used at ISO 400, but the output was actually really good up to ISO 400. Like nearly perfect sort of good. On top of that all the way up to ISO 1600 very usable photographs could be taken.
Again the Sony Supper Steady Shot sensor shift image stabilization system worked amazingly well, and even with the higher resolution I could still usually get sharp photographs all the way down to very long exposure times. The new sensor shift image stabilization system was however considerably different than what had been on the A200. Way down to one quarter and one third of a second at the 18mm focal length the A55 did not do quite as well as the A200, as might have been expected with the higher resolution. What was very impressive about the A55 though was that at 1/10th and 1/15th of a second exposure times perfectly clear blur free photographs could be attained nearly 100% of the time, even when the camera was held in somewhat awkward positions. Not only could the new image stabilization system deal with more camera shake at moderate exposure times, but it also worked much better with longer lenses. Even out at 300mm the sensor shift image stabilization system worked great, and exposure times of 1/200th of a second or less were often possible.
The first problems I had with the A55 were that the auto white balance and auto exposure features did not work. The photographs were still really nice, but I had to manually switch settings for different conditions. If I left the white balance on the standard auto setting then photographs in cloudy or low light conditions came out looking too blue overall and photographs in direct sunlight or sunset conditions came out looking too orange. I had to manually switch to the "Daylight" white balance mode for most direct sunlight outdoor shooting and to the "Cloudy" white balance mode for all other low light and indoor conditions. This was very annoying, and I knew that it was also unnecessary because the A200 had automatically gotten the white balance close to correct all the time.
It was the same story with the exposure compensation. It was not that the camera was unable measure the light level and calculate the exposure, it most certainly did do this. But what it also did was consistently overexpose bright light outdoor photographs and under expose indoor and low light photographs. I quickly realized that I had to bump the exposure compensation one click (a third of a stop) darker for all outdoor daytime photography and sometimes two clicks (two thirds of a stop) for the brightest conditions. This was obviously totally bogus because the one click of exposure compensation yielded perfectly exposed photographs over a wide range of outdoor lighting conditions, and likewise the standard setting yielded perfectly exposed photographs over a wide range of indoor and lower light lighting conditions. I did sometimes give it a click or two brighter inside or at night as well, but this really ended up being an aesthetic sort of a decision not a camera functionality thing. At least with the electronic view finder I was able to see that the camera was making dramatic white balance and exposure compensation errors before I even released the shutter.
The electronic view finder did work quite well, although the resolution was disappointingly low. The resolution of the rear display was much higher and looked great. The automatic brightness adjustment also worked well, and both the screen and the viewfinder were easy to use under any lighting conditions. The tilting and swiveling rear screen on the A55 was extremely useful for a variety of reasons. I usually kept the screen rotated to the closed position so that it did not distract from the normal use of the camera. If I wanted to change a setting or look at a zoom in of a recent shot I could just quickly tilt the screen down away from the camera and it would automatically turn on nearly instantly. Great features to be sure. The tilting and swiveling screen was also great for overhead shots. Standing in a crowd at a concert I could take well framed pictures with my arms stretched far up directly over my head while everyone else stood on their tip toes to try to take pictures with fixed rear screen cameras. It is fair to say that the A55 was head and shoulders above other cameras of the time.
The smaller size and lighter weight of the A55 was great, and the new 18-55mm kit zoom was also considerably lighter making for an overall dramatically lightened camera bag. Part of the reduced weight was a smaller battery, and this turned out to be one of the severe limitations of the A55. Not only was the capacity of the battery somewhat less than big old NP-FM500H that had been in the A200, but the A55 was also much more power hungry. With the screen turned off the A200 would take thousands of pictures on one charge, I used to routinely go weeks before topping the battery up from 50%. On the A55 though the combination of an electronic view finder, higher resolution and much more image processing muscle meant that the battery went down fast. After a big day of exploring and taking hundreds of pictures the battery was usually way down near the bottom of it's capacity. The A55 was however still able to take a substantial number of photographs on one battery, and I used to joke at the end of a long hike ashore about the message I would get when the battery finally shut off on low voltage. When the camera displayed "Battery Exhausted" I usually found that it had been such a long and intense expedition that "Photographer Exhausted" also applied.
All of that battery hungry image processing muscle did however allow for some impressive performance. The ten full resolution photographs per second in fast action mode was some serious sports and fast action horsepower. Ten full resolution photographs per second also filled up a 4GB card extremely fast, and holding the button down had to be used judiciously.
A new feature of the A55 that I was not initially excited about but that I learned to love was the GPS receiver. Being able to look back and see exactly where I had taken photographs was an interesting capability, but more often I ended up using the feature for navigation when hiking around ashore. Just having a latitude and longitude of a photograph displayed was not quite the same as using a chart plotter, but my navigation days had gone back sufficiently far before chart plotters that just finding latitude and longitude was sometimes of great use. Somewhat ironically what I used the GPS receiver for most often was figuring out which way was north on a cloudy day. If I got totally turned around on a long hike when I was trying to make a loop through unknown territory I could at least figure out which way it was back to the boat. And if I had the latitude and longitude of the boat or some other known point I could also figure out how far it was.
Lots of battery hungry processing muscle also made for a very fast GPS receiver, the A55 was able to get a position fix faster without WAAS than any other receiver I ever used. From start up to a position fix within a few miles of the last position fix was so fast it was often done by the time I had gotten around to pushing the shutter release (little more than five seconds).
When the new Sony A65 and A77 SLT cameras with higher resolution, a bigger battery, a more powerful built in flash and even more image processing muscle came out I really wanted one. I did not however buy one because it was another large chunk of cash. Even when the A55 unexpectedly died out in the Arabian Sea I did not buy a new camera. Sony repaired the A55 free of charge under the one year standard warranty, but this was very difficult to arrange and took considerable time since we were traveling on a sailboat.
Instead of buying a new camera I just moved the new 18-55mm kit zoom to my old A200. Photographers have long said it is good to have a spare body, and this was true for me as well. Going back to the A200 was a big and disappointing step down in image quality, but the much better 18-55mm kit zoom meant that it was mostly just a step down in resolution. The A200 was not quite as good on a pixel for pixel basis as the A55, but it was still doing pretty good. With lower resolution as well as much much worse low light performance I focused on getting impressive photographs in challenging situations that pushed the lenses to the limits of what was possible. Particularly long distance shots through many miles of heat rippling desert with a 300mm lens came out pretty much just as good with the A200 as they would have with the A55. The cheap 70-300mm Sigma lens turned out to be quite a heavy hitter wide open at 300mm, and even the old A200 was able to belt out as fast as 1/2000 of a second shutter speeds to use all that wide open light gathering in broad daylight.
Once we were in Greece I eventually got the A55 to Sony but not before considerable confusion and procedural mistakes that involved forwarding a package that Sony had refused to accept on from the post office where I had originally shipped it. In the end they had to ship the A55 to France for the repair, and it was a good long time before I got it back. The problem had again had something to do with the image stabilization system, this time though the sensor had just gone totally dead and no image could be displayed. When I got the repaired camera back I was pleasantly surprised to also find that the white balance and exposure compensation problems had been fixed. Just like with the A200 I could always leave the white balance on the standard auto setting and the exposure compensation on zero and reliably get perfectly exposed photographs of roughly the correct color.
The first big problems with the A55 began when I fell on my face while running across solid rock on Malta. I was carrying the camera in my right hand as I ran and stupidly paying more attention to getting to my new vantage point and how I was going to frame the photograph than where I was putting my feet. I tripped over the rough uneven Maltese base rock and went sailing. Instinctually I caught myself with my outstretched right hand, and the A55 was horribly in the way. The full force of my headlong fall was taken by the front bottom part of the lens smashing into the sharp and uneven solid rock. It hurt a bit, and drew a bit of blood from my right hand and right elbow but mostly it hurt knowing that I had just smashed my new $1300 camera into smithereens.
Amazingly though the camera still worked. The sensor shift mechanism on the A200 had broken so easily, but the A55 took that huge impact in stride. Even more amazingly the lens still worked, but the autofocus was never quit right after the smash. It would still autofocus, but not as reliably and for the first time I often had to regularly resort to manual focus to get perfect shots. Because the autofocus still worked most of the time and the new 18-55mm kit zoom was much more easy to focus manually I just kept using the camera and lens as it was.
It was actually not just the lens that was much easier to manually focus, the A55 itself also has a very nifty feature to aid manual focus. When focusing manually a press of a button will zoom in the feed from the sensor so that precise focus can be attained. This feature is not always easy to use, but it does provide a way to get perfect manual focus under any conditions. With the now slightly clunky focus mechanism after the big Malta fall I made frequent use of this manual focus assist feature.
After a few months that great 18-55mm kit zoom lens started giving more severe trouble. The photographs were just not coming out clear, there was some haziness and the focus often seemed to be the slightest bit wrong. What I found was that the lens was having difficulty sometimes in focusing to infinity. This had actually been a slight problem right from the beginning, but it was extremely slight when the lens was new. After several years of hard use, including that big fall, the lens was not reliably focusing to infinity at focal lengths greater than about 35mm. At focal lengths from 18 to about 30mm focusing to infinity was still working all the time, but at longer focal lengths it just would not fully focus out past 50 feet.
For a while I worked around this problem by only using the 18-55mm lens as a wide angle from 18mm to 30mm and using other lenses for longer focal lengths. I had already gotten a "fast 50" wide aperture 50mm lens, and the 70-300mm Sigma continued to be a staple. I did not like the wide aperture 50mm lens though. It was as good as the kit zoom had ever been at 50mm, but no better. All it could do better was open up to wider aperture values for low light photography. This was fun, but of very limited utility most of the time.
Then the 18-55mm kit zoom suddenly would not focus to infinity at any focal length. This was an emergency, and I needed a new lens right away. I was however told at a Sony store in Spain that replacement 18-55mm kit zoom lenses were currently not available. The new 18-50mm for the new higher resolution A65 and A77 cameras were not yet available and the old lenses had been discontinued.
I had been thinking that most of the lens limitations that I had been working around for all these years were in fact mostly bogus. The new (in 2010) Sony 18-55mm kit zoom had already done far better for a zoom lens than most people had thought was possible, and that was with some extremely small rear elements that looked like they belonged on a shirt pocket camera lens not on a lens for a 24mm sensor camera.
My first attempt at a replacement lens was a somewhat spur of the moment purchase of a Sony 18-250mm supper zoom that I saw at a department store in Spain. The price was really steep at $600, and to this day I am not sure why I thought it was a good idea to buy that lens. I was just thinking that a much larger zoom range would probably be possible on the 24mm sensor. The Sony supper zoom was a big heavy lens, and it absolutely dwarfed the A55. What I was amazed by was the dramatic change in the look and "feel" of the photographs that this lens produced. Honestly they looked pretty good, but they looked like they came out of a Nikon. The problem with that expensive Sony supper zoom was that it would not focus to infinity, I mean it really had a huge problem where it would not focus to infinity at all at focal lengths more than about 50mm. At wider angle settings it was better, but the total lack of ability to focus to infinity anywhere in the middle of the zoom range was a deal breaker. It had to go back.
It was a bit of a tough sell getting my money back at the department store, and they brought in the big guns to make their case. The guy that handled the return was a store employee who was also an experienced professional photographer for Canon. He suggested that I should use Canon equipment, which the department store also sold for very high prices. Eventually though after a few test fire sessions and reviewing the results on the photography department desktop computer it was clear to all parties that my claims of a serious defect were justified.
As the department store did not happen to have much in the way of Minolta bayonet mount lenses I just took my money and went across town to a small photography shop. What they had in stock at the photography shop were some cheap Tamron lenses. This time I had my camera with me and I tried on an 18-200mm Tamron supper zoom before I bought it. Wow, it really seemed to work well. And at $150 it was a whole lot less expensive than the Sony lens that had not worked.
Without much deliberation I bought the Tamron lens and I was back in business so to speak. The Tamron supper zoom had a measure of the same Nikon like quality to the images, but this effect was not as strong as had been the case with the expensive Sony supper zoom. The first thing I noticed was that the Tamron supper zoom did not work well wide open down at the shortest focal length settings. A lack of corner sharpness would be a vast understatement. Wide open at focal lengths of 18 to 24mm the image center was sharp, but it was just an isolated sharp spot in a sea of blur. Not usable wide open f/3.5 and 18mm, but once stopped down to f/8 at 18mm it was dramatically better. The corners were still blurry, but the sharp spot extended all the way out to the top and bottom of the frame at least. Wide angles might not have been the forte of the Tamron supper zoom, but it got a whole lot better in the middle of the zoom range. From 30mm to 70mm it just blew me away at sharpness and overall image quality, and it would do it over a range of aperture values too. It actually seemed better than the Sony "fast 50" at 50mm, as hard as that is to believe. Good results were still attained out to about 150mm, but beyond 100mm corner sharpness was falling off again. Out at 200mm the Tamron was pretty crappy, with a sea of blur around a central sharp area and even the center area left quite a bit to be desired out at the maximum focal length. Still though having a 30mm to about 150mm lens that could also sort of do 18mm seemed pretty great.
The second day I had the new Tamron supper zoom I noticed a rather severe problem with the lens not focusing to infinity at focal lengths less than about 50mm, similar to what the Sony supper zoom had been doing. This problem on the Tamron was not as severe though, and it sort of seemed to come and go with temperature fluctuations. The next morning I took the lens back to the photography shop to complain about the problem, but when we tried it out it seemed to work. We also took another brand new Tamron 18-200mm supper zoom out of the box and it also seemed to work. A bit confused and dismayed I briefly considered buying the expensive $600 Tamron 16-50mm wide aperture professional zoom lens. This thing was as big and actually heavier than the 18-200mm supper zoom, and I was disappointed to see that it did not improve the sharpness or quality of the images in the slightest. It had better corner sharpness to be sure, particularly when opened up, but other than that the images just looked absolutely exactly the same as with the 18-200mm supper zoom. I kind of liked that "contrasty" Nikon look to the images, but it is not something that I would chase with a big heavy expensive lens unless it offered something amazing like a 10x zoom range.
In the end I just headed out with the same 18-200mm super zoom I had bought two days before, but the guy at the camera shop did clean both the front and rear elements on my old Sony 18-55mm kit zoom for me, and this helped a whole lot with removing the cloudy look I was getting. I had always cleaned the front element just by licking it clean and letting it air dry. This had worked flawlessly for many years, but apparently some form of non-saliva soluble film had developed on the front element and it was not coming clean anymore.
Sure enough later in the day the inability to focus to infinity at wider angle settings came back on the Tamron 18-200mm supper zoom. This time though I happened to notice that the problem went away sometimes as I was handling the lens. Pretty quickly I traced the intermittent lack of focus to infinity to which direction the had been turned just before the shot was taken. Neither of the supper zoom lenses had worked worth a darn with auto focus, so I had been doing nearly all the focusing manually. Out at 100 to 200mm autofocus still worked fairly well and was useful for capturing fast moving objects. Down at wider angle settings though the autofocus just bottomed out and caused the drive motor to strain.
What I found was that in order to get the lens to focus to infinity I had to first zoom the lens in a bit and then zoom out to the desired focal length setting before focusing. With this technique focusing to infinity was reliable at all focal length settings, and the pictures came out really quite nice.
The sharpness and clarity of images was reliably seeming as good as I had ever gotten with the Sony 18-55mm kit zoom. The Sony 18-55mm kit zoom had done much better with corner to corner sharpness at 18mm, and overall I still preferred the more true to life colors of the kit zoom over the supper zoom. The fact that the center sharpness was reliably so good though made me think that I was ready for a higher resolution sensor to really find the limitations of the lenses.
Only a few weeks later I picked up a new Sony A65 with a new 18-55mm kit zoom lens at another Spanish department store for the bargain basement price of $1100 (with 23% sales tax and the Euro trading up at $1.30 things seemed expensive). I figured that I practically had the new camera paid for already with the $450 I had saved by returning the defective Sony supper zoom lens.
Wow, the new Sony really performed. Again it was particularly in low light that the new sensor was really a huge improvement. Not only could the A65 deliver slightly better looking photographs at ISO 400 and dramatically better photographs at ISO 1600, but the higher resolution also was preserved at these higher sensitivity settings. All the way up to about ISO 800 the higher resolution A65 sensor was able to render more detail than the A55 sensor had been able to at ISO 100 in ideal lighting conditions. That was pretty amazing.
At ISO 100 in good light the A65 was an improvement over the A55, but this was not such a clear cut victory. The higher resolution obviously allowed for much more photograph, and this was impressive. As far as the color went though there were pluses and minuses. I had always been very happy with the overall look of the colors on the A55 even if the color fidelity was less than perfect. The A55 did not always represent colors exactly as I saw them, but I was nearly always thrilled with how downright gorgeous the photographs from the A55 looked both on the computer screen and when printed out at a print shop. The A65 really had better color fidelity than the A55; the colors always seemed to come through at exactly the same actual color. Eva's hull for example was always exactly the same color with the A65 regardless of the lighting conditions. This is something that the A55 had not been able to do. As far as photographic impact though the images from the A65 sometimes did not look as good. The colors might have been perfect reproductions, but the overall impact of the color was sometimes a bit disappointing. On the upside though low light photographs reliably looked stunningly beautiful and spot on in color fidelity with the A65. Particularly the most difficult indoor photography like dimly lit museums and strangely lit aquariums came through looking just like they had in person and also beautifully appealing.
The replacement 18-55mm kit zoom that came with the new A65 was a total disappointment. It did not have the inability to focus all the way to infinity at focal length settings more than 30mm like my old 18-55mm Sony kit zoom had developed, but it did have an intermittent and extremely slight inability to focus to infinity at the widest angle setting (18mm). This problem came and went, but with the new Tamron 18-200mm supper zoom that could always be made to fully focus both of the 18-55mm kit zooms were relegated to the spare parts pile.
Of course going up to the higher resolution sensor I noticed worse problems with soft looking corners from the 18-200mm supper zoom at the extreme ends of the zoom range. The higher resolution of the A65 also made it possible to see that corner to corner sharpness of the Tamron 18-200mm supper zoom was really exceptionally good at f/8 and focal length settings of 35 to about 60mm, better even in fact than the Sony fast 50. Obviously the poor performance out at 150 to 200mm seemed even worse with the higher resolution sensor, but amazingly I found that the center sharp area at the maximum focal length was in fact just about good enough to take advantage of the full increase in sensor resolution. To get maximum center sharpness at 200mm the aperture had to be stopped down to f/8 (from a widest value of f/6.3). The larger body on the A65 also helped a lot with the additional heft of the big supper zoom. The Tamron 18-200mm supper zoom was unsurprisingly a bit smaller and lighter than the Sony 18-250mm supper zoom I had tried, but it was still packing quite a bit of glass.
For the Tamron 18-200mm supper zoom f/8 was the sweet spot for overall image quality, but it was also interesting that full resolution could be attained all the way up to f/11. At aperture sizes smaller than f/11 though the rendered detail did begin to drop off slightly with the higher resolution sensor of the A65. On the 18-55mm kit zoom and the Sony fast 50 it was also about at the f/11 aperture size that rendered detail began to drop off, although the 18-55 kit zoom also seemed to be able to do really darn well all the way down to f/13 sometimes. I assumed that this slightly better small aperture performance of the 18-55mm kit zoom had to do with the smaller total number of lens elements. Amazingly though the Sony fast 50, with even fewer lens elements did not do any better at smaller aperture sizes. This type of testing uncovered an unexpected additional relationship. Since f/11 is a much smaller diameter at an 18mm focal length (1.64mm) than at a 50mm focal length (4.5mm) I would have expected larger f-numbers to be able to be used with longer focal length lenses. This did not however appear to be true. On the A65 f/11 or f/13 was always the maximum f-number that would render full detail regardless of the focal length of the lens just like on the A200 f/14 or f/16 was always the maximum f-number that would render maximum detail regardless of the focal length of the lens.
Even though the Tamron 18-200mm XR Di II LD Aspherical was labeled as a macro lens it's performance at less than about four feet was very poor. It would focus down to about two feet, but the images at these very close distances never looked anywhere near as good as with the Sony 18-55mm kit zoom. Using the 200mm focal length at the minimum focus distance did yield a large amount of magnification, but focus was very tricky and the overall look of the images was dramatically worse than for larger focus distances. The Sony 18-55mm kit zoom had actually done really extremely well all the way down to the minimum focus distance of 10 inches (at least at the 55mm maximum focal length setting).
As far as functionality went the A65 was again a mixed bag. Initial power up was much faster, which was nice since I was always in the habit of turning the camera off when I was not taking a picture. Initial power up was in fact so fast with the A65 that it could just about be used like a film camera. Power on, lens zoomed all the way to 18mm, focus ring bottomed out at infinity and the shutter release pressed all in one quick movement and the first photograph could be taken literally within about two seconds of unsnapping the camera bag. With the same big NP-FM500H battery as the old A200 battery life was again never much of an issue. The A65 certainly could suck down some juice when firing 10 frames per second at full resolution, but the bigger batter was always up to the task. The much faster charger for the NP-FM500H battery also contributed to overall ease of battery use.
Although the A65 was rated at the same ten frames per second continuous shooting as the A55 had been there was a significant difference in frame to frame speed. It was when the camera was not set to the continuous drive mode that there was a difference. The A55 had been a bit slower in the normal single shot mode, that is there was a bit of a small delay after taking one shot before the next one could be taken. The A65 on the other hand could do one shot after another just about as fast as the button could be pushed in any of the "drive" modes.
With the same big 7.4V 1650mAHr NP-FM500H battery as the old A200 battery life was again never much of an issue. The A65 certainly could suck down some juice when firing 10 frames per second at full resolution, but the bigger batter was always up to the task. The much faster two hour charger for the NP-FM500H battery also contributed to overall ease of battery use. Waiting around for the A55 battery to charge over a four hour period was sometimes problematic.
I had always used the same original battery in the A200, and since it was still in good condition I had a spare battery for the A65. This was however mostly insignificant as one NP-FM500H was nearly always plenty of battery power. Again the fact that it could be charged fast meant that even a quick 15 minute lunch break was long enough to get some substantial charge back in the battery. Since the charge period was so short, usually only one hour, and the state of charge indicators on the Sony cameras always seemed to work perfectly I was able to pull the battery out of the charger as soon as it had come up close to a full state of charge. I had usually done this with the battery that came in the A200, and it had continued to hold up well over many years. Just to see how long one battery could last I started using the new A65 exclusively on the old A200 battery, and it continued to hold up year after year. It is still going strong now in July of 2015 almost seven years since it was purchased new.
The 7.2V 1080mAhr NP-FW50 batteries for the A55 had not worked out so well. At 64% of the capacity of the big NP-FM500H the much smaller and lighter NP-FW50 was a significantly higher energy density battery, which was great for the much smaller and lighter yet power hungry A55. Right away I had wanted a second battery for the A55, mostly because the charger just took forever. Not only was the charge period twice as long, but since the capacity of the battery was considerably smaller that 15 minute lunch break just did not do much for getting charge back into the battery. The camera shop where I bought the A55 had had a second battery, but they wanted $150 for it. Just out of this world ridiculous! Sony was just raking everyone over the coals for these new little batteries, they could not be had anywhere for less than $100 back in 2010. I ordered an aftermarket battery advertised as compatible with the Sony NP-FW50, but it did not work. The price for this aftermarket battery had been quite high itself at $30, so I was quite mad. When I contacted the retailer they agreed to send me a replacement at no cost, but it took absolutely forever to show up. Eventually I realized that the aftermarket battery itself did work, it just would not make full contact with all of the electrical connectors in the camera. If I pushed down on the battery it would make contact with all of the connectors and the camera would work. So the procedure for using my spare battery was to jamb a little piece of folded paper under the battery hold down latch to push it farther down on the spring loaded contacts, which was extremely cumbersome. The next disappointment was that the state of charge indicator on the camera would not work with the aftermarket battery. At least I sort of had a spare battery seemed to hold as much capacity as the Sony original.
The original Sony NP-FW50 battery held up pretty well to many years of heavy use, and it did get fully discharged regularly. Since the charger took so long I often had to charge the battery overnight where there was no choice but to rely on the charger shutting off and not overcharging the battery. I still tried to charge the battery in the evening when I could shut it off manually once a nearly full state of charge was attained, but this was much more difficult and I often did not even bother trying.
The original Sony A55 battery did eventually die, but it took over two years of heavy use where I often cycled it close to the bottom of it's capacity on a daily basis. When the replacement aftermarket battery finally arrived I found that it was fully functional in the A55, and the state of charge indicator even worked. Perhaps unsurprisingly the first aftermarket battery without the capability to interface with the state of charge system on the A55 began to lose capacity after a much shorter number of cycles. The difference was that I always stopped using the original Sony battery as soon as it got to 0% on the state of charge indicator, I never let it go all the way dead until the camera shut off. The aftermarket battery that did not work with the state of charge indicator on the other hand was routinely run all the way down until the camera finally shut off on low voltage. Of course it could also have been on the charging end where the aftermarket battery was damaged. Since I usually did not know what the state of charge of the battery was I just had to let the charger run until the indicator light went out, and this may have been doing a considerable amount of overcharging.
On other topics related to functionality the A65 did not do so well. The menus did not work as smoothly as on the A55, and changing settings that did not have their own dedicated button was often infuriatingly difficult. It was not so much the delay itself when waiting for the menus as the inconsistent and unpredictable nature of the delays. Some days the menus would all work lightning fast, and on other days some or all of the menu operations would just always take like several whole seconds longer than normal. On the plus side the buttons on the A65 could be customized a bit more thoroughly than on the A55, so my favorite settings were able to be put on their own buttons. Really the only big change I made was to select the option for the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) button to be set to flash power compensation in all automatic modes. In full manual mode the AEL button still handles aperture adjustment.
And this brings up an interesting point about the Sony A55 and Sony A65 cameras. They look like they have a full manual mode, but it is not real. It is certainly possible to take quite a bit of manual control over the cameras, but it is in fact a matter of tricking the camera into doing what is desired as opposed to just making manual adjustments to all the settings.
The flash power adjustment is a good example of this. Even in full manual mode the flash power is not directly adjustable. The rather weak flash on the A55 will fire at full power under many situations in both automatic and manual modes. The A65 however is a different animal. The flash on the A65 is blindingly powerful, don't get that thing in your eyes at full power! It does not however normally fire at anywhere near full power. Even if the flash power compensator is bumped all the way up the flash fires at a considerably reduced power. In order to use the full blinding flash it is necessary to trick the camera into doing it. The only way to get the flash to fire at full power is to turn the exposure time way up to like 1/15th of a second in full manual mode while keeping the aperture stopped down to f/8. With these settings the flash gives a supper pop like nothing I had ever used before. Someone might wonder what a small aperture size and long exposure time would be good for with a powerful flash, and justifiably so. In reality the best thing a flash can do is add pop and depth to an already well exposed photograph in good lighting. With some descent ambient lighting, but not quite enough to get a fully perfect photograph, firing that powerful flash fills in the grain and texture of dark areas, enhances the color and generally improves the resolution of fine detail. Just don't look into that flash under these conditions, it is really really bright! In fact the flash is so bright that I found myself closing my eyes just as I pressed the shutter release if I was using the rear screen instead of the view finder.
Another example of the lack of a true full manual mode is the fact that in manual mode there is still some exposure compensation automatically applied. Overexposure still leads to an overly light image and under exposure still leads to an overly dark image; it is just that this does not happen to quite as large an extent as would be expected just going by the numbers. This would be analogous to a print shop correcting for slight film exposure errors in the developing process. Underexposed film that is "push processed" so that the image does not look overly dark unavoidably loses some detail and clarity, and going the other way over exposed film tends result in blown out highlights no matter how it is developed. With a digital camera it is not quite this bad as the shadow detail and shades of white are much richer than with film photography so there is more room for correcting for insufficient exposure time. Perhaps not too unsurprisingly this automatic compensation in full manual mode is much more dramatically noticeable when using the flash.
The A65 has roughly the same layout with an electronic viewfinder and a swiveling and tilting rear screen that the A55 does. The difference is that the resolution of the viewfinder was dramatically increased for the new model. This is not just a small difference either, it is really a huge increase in viewfinder resolution (doubled resolution according to the Sony literature, although I have not been able to quantitatively verify this). Walking along viewing the video displayed in the electronic view finder is a trip to be sure. Both the A55 and the A65 have quite fast 60Hz refresh rates on the electronic viewfinder, at least in full lighting. Under dim lighting the viewfinder on the A55 would quickly drop down to dramatically lower frame rates, but the A65 maintains higher frame rates in even very dim lighting. This is of course related to the dramatically improved low light performance of the new higher resolution sensor in the A65. The combination of the much higher viewfinder resolution and the fast refresh rate means that the A65 is much easier to use in low light, and it really is a trippy adventure to walk around in dim light looking only through the viewfinder of the camera.
This also translates into dramatically improved video recording capabilities in low light conditions. The A55 could do some great video, but if the light was not bright enough the video would just get dark and useless. The A55 could do some descent low light videography, but only down to moderate levels of darkness. The A65 on the other hand is the champion of low light videography (at least for back in 2012). Not only does the more sensitive sensor in the A65 allow good video down to lower light levels, but there are some additional manual adjustments available that can allow really supper dark conditions to work for videography. The A55 always stuck with the same frame rate regardless of the lighting conditions, and there was no manual override. The A65 on the other hand can be set to run at any lower frame rate, and this dramatically improves picture quality in the darkest of conditions. It might be expected that going down to 24 frames per second in dark conditions would be beneficial, but the reality is that when fast action is not required going down substantial further on the frame rate can deliver truly spectacular dark conditions videography. All the way down to about 15 frames per second very slowly moving scenes can look quite good, and that extra exposure time really helps out a lot with overall image quality when not much light is present.
The A55 did great video, but I did not have any way to watch it. Initially the only way I could see the videos I shot was with the Sony software that came with the camera. This displayed the videos in a small window on the computer screen, a much lower resolution than the actual resolution of the videos. I could see that the color was great just like in the still photographs, what I could not see was the resolution or even really the impact of the frame rate. I had thought that the frame rate would be 50 frames per second since I bought the camera in Australia, but this turned out not to be the case. When I measured the frame rate by filming flickering 50hz and 60hz lighting both ashore and onboard Eva I found that the thing was in fact operating at 60hz. I figured that this had something to do with the fact that computer displays nearly always operated at 60hz regardless of where in the world they were located. Certainly on laptop computers the refresh rate of the screen is always 60hz, and never 50hz.
Eventually I got a little add on program to view the videos at the full 768x1365 resolution of my laptop computer screen, and I saw that there was indeed a whole lot more in them than I had been seeing in the smaller window viewing. The A55 came with a big sticker on it proclaiming "Full HD Video", and I fully expected the 1080x1920 video that the owner's manual said the camera operated at. Having no modern TV equipment on board though I just had to assume that it did indeed do what the owner's manual said it would do.
Right from the beginning there were other problems with video playback on the laptop computers. Even with just the small window viewing in the Sony software the video would stick sometimes. This sticking was also sometimes a problem when I played even old 480x640 DVD disks, but the sticking was not by any means reliable. Sometimes DVD disks played fine, and I even got some movies in 720x1280 on dual layer DVDs in Australia that sometimes played fine on the laptop computer screen. At first I switched the region code of the drive to Australia, but when we got to Europe and bought a few more movies I realized that this was not going to work. We then had DVD disks on board from three regions, and the maximum of five region changes were going to be used up rather quickly. The solution was a hack of a little freeware program that allowed DVD disks to be played in a virtual drive without changing the region code. This hack worked fine, but the problems with choppy playback did not entirely go away.
DVD disks still only played without sticking some of the time, and my videos continued to stick most of the time also. This sticking was really annoying because it was sometimes so bad that I could not tell anything about what the video looked like other than that I could still see that the colors were great as always. It was also easy to see that the sticking jerky video was due to the playback device. The videos would stick in different places each time I played them, and sometimes the videos would play smoothly without any sticking. When the videos would play without sticking they really looked great even on the lower resolution 768x1365 screen. Not only was the color nearly perfect, but the overall impact of the images was quite good, better really than the commercially produced 720x1280 feature length movies crammed onto a single sided dual layer DVD. A small portion of this higher image quality of my videos versus the commercial movie products was the slight resolution difference, after all a 720x1280 picture is never going to look quite as good stretched out to 768x1365 as a higher resolution picture stripped down to 768x1365. This resolution difference between 720x1280 and 768x1365 is however only a very small difference, 0.92MP versus 1.05MP is not a dramatic difference by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the difference in image quality was simply the bit rate of the video files, the files from the Sony A55 are pretty big. Cramming a whole movie plus some special features onto an 8GB dual layer disk means that the video has to be heavily compressed. Even 720x1280 video is three times larger than 480x640 video, and a dual layer DVD does not have quite twice the capacity of a single layer DVD.
Then another new playback problem showed up in 2012 after I bought the new Sony laptop. All of a sudden all of my videos had weird zebra patterns at the edges of sharply defined objects. These alternating lines of contrasting colors showed up only briefly during fast action segments, and it looked like some misguided attempt to convert the display refresh rate to 50Hz. Whatever it was it sure did not work, but it was pervasive. A similar zebra pattern was showing up on various television screens I saw ashore in Europe when they played HD video from the United States. The last time I saw this strange zebra haloing was at a National Wildlife Refuge visitors center in Florida; they were playing some videos from Europe on television sets.
When I bought a TV in Florida and played my videos all of the strange zebra haloing was gone, and so was the jerkiness and sticking. The resolution was also noticeably way higher than I had ever seen on the 768x1365 laptop computer screen. Wow, there is Eva in HD! I was both amazed and disappointed. That TV with a USB input made it very easy to watch my videos directly from an external hard drive, but it had horrible color and my videos along with commercial movies and broadcast HD TV just looked horrible. I knew it was the TV because I had seen my pictures and videos on several laptop computer screens where the color was just perfect. With the horrible the colors of everything looked totally wrong, like the videos had all been taken with the 4mm sensor in a phone (what do you call those things, a handy, a cell phone, a camera phone or a smart phone?) Not only were the colors wrong, but everything was shifted towards a gray purple color. It sort of looked like the color saturation was turned down, but the pervasiveness of the overall purple color also made it obvious that just boosting the color saturation was not going to do a lick of good. I was so disgusted by the ugly flat color of that first TV that I hardly watched anything on it before marching it back to the store and demanding my money back. In retrospect I should have kept it for the meager $150 price just to prove that my videos were in fact higher resolution than 768x1365 because other TVs I bought stubbornly stripped everything down to 720x1280, and I mean everything including JPEG files.
This set in motion a long and painful saga of buying and returning TVs and Blu Ray disk players. Some TV's with USB inputs would not play the AVCHD files, so an external player was required. Some players would not play my AVCHD files on the USB input and some players would not even play disks that the Sony software created from the AVCHD files. And practically all the time the resolution was stripped down to 720x1280. Finally I ended up with a Blu Ray player that would play the files when they were burned to a DVD, and a TV that had sort of OK color and would display at the 1080x1920 resolution (at least with still photos played on the Blu Ray player). The big problem with this setup was that the TV was really horrible to watch. It overboosted the color saturation, which sort of ruined the way the videos looked. But worst of all that crappy TV was painful to look at. No matter what was displayed it just belted out painful levels of radiation not unlike a poor quality CRT from the 1970's. On top of this it seemed like the player was still stripping resolution off of the videos. The videos were certainly showing up at more than the 768x1365 of a laptop screen, but not reliably. And worst of all some days a clip would totally be stripped down to 720x1280 all the way through, and then other days there would be portions of the same clip that clearly came through at an impressive higher resolution with better detail. And finally to further emphasize the inconsistent display resolution any test video I took to check the resolution displayed exactly at 720x1280, and only my older videos sometimes came through at noticeably dramatically higher resolutions.
The next hurdle I had was that my DVD disks would not play on some other Blu Ray players when I visited family. On some players the disks would play (normally striped down to 720x1280), but on other players they were just dead. I thought I had a solution to this when a Blu Ray burner came on the market in early 2015. Just having 25GB of storage on a single standard size 12cm optical disk was great. This meant that a full feature length HD movie would fit on one single sided disk. The Blu Ray disks I burned played fine on my Blu Ray player, but when I tried the much older Blu Ray player that my cousin had had for many years the disks would not play at all. Major bummer! Oh well, he only had a 720x1080 TV anyway despite it covering most of a wall in his living room and having cost as much as I usually pay for a used car.
The next thing I did was to really push the old A55 to it's limits by bolting it to my dirt bike helmet. Once I got the correct angle of aim this worked pretty well. The precise angle that the camera was aimed relative to my helmet was of critical importance because the 18mm focal length (on the 24mm sensor) really is on the long side for use as a helmet cam. All of the commercial helmet cam products have much, much wider angle lenses. With just the right angle though the results were pretty good. The first thing I noticed was that the color was just absolutely stunningly superior to any helmet cam footage I had ever seen on TV or in movies. Yes, that 24mm sensor blows 4mm and 6mm sensors out of the water for fast action HD video just like it does for photography.
Of course the next thing that I noticed was that 60Hz is really barely enough for a helmet cam. There is good reason that GoPro has gone with 120Hz, it is a whole lot smoother looking when things are going fast. As some dispensation though the Sony Supper Steady Shot sensor shift image stabilization was excellent at capturing some types of dirt bike riding. As long as the trail was not too terribly rough the sensor shift image stabilization was able to bring the jitters and jumps quite nicely down to a sub nausea level when viewing. All that image stabilization really sucks some power though, and a battery typically lasts for only about 15 minutes of filming where with the sensor shift image stabilization turned off the same battery reliably goes for 40 minutes. That is a big difference! Watching 40 minutes of hard ridding on rough trails with the image stabilization turned off is however more exhausting that doing the actual ridding.
I had always noticed that the A55 seemed to have two frame rate modes. For slow moving scenes it dropped down to 30 frames per second, presumably to make more room in the output file for the full 1080x1920 resolution. During fast action the frame rate went up to 60 frames per second, but the camera always seemed to be hunting very hard for places in the video where the frame rate could be dropped back down to 30 frames per second.
When I have been able to view videos at their higher resolution it often seemed like the resolution was jumping back and forth during faster action sequences. I assumed that this was a result of a constant compromise being run between frame rate, resolution and file size. With only a very limited amount of raw video being stored in a buffer before being compressed down to the 19 megabit per second standard average bit rate the camera would have to limit bursts of higher bit rates to only a very few seconds. With a larger buffer and more processing power the bursts of higher bit rate fast action at full resolution could be much longer at the same 19 megabit per second average bit rate so long as other parts of the film had stationary backgrounds to save file space.
With the extremely fast action of helmet cam duty mostly what I saw on the A55 output was a lower resolution, although there certainly were moments when the sensor shift image stabilization would decide to lock onto a scene and the resolution would jump up for a second (or at least for a handful of frames).
So yes, the A55 does do 1080x1920 video as the prominent sticker proclaims. It just does not do it all that much of the time while it is strapped to a dirt bike helmet hurdling down the trail. As violent as the motion of a sailboat at sea is, it ainít nothing compared to a dirt bike.
I also began to have even worse trouble with image quality on my same laptop computer screens. I had been using the Acer laptop from 2011 to 2013, and for most of the time the color had been very consistent and in agreement with the old Toshiba I had used since 2008. The difference was that the new Acer had a screen that just looked better, the photographs were more alive and the colors more vibrant without being oversaturated. After I bought the new Sony A65 camera though I began to have trouble with the display on the Acer laptop. Sometimes the pictures from the new A65 just looked horrible. At first I tried deleting the offending photographs, but the problem persisted. Sometimes my old pictures from the A55 looked worse also, but the problem was inconsistent and there continued to be periods of time when all of the photographs looked perfect. The new A65 with it's better color fidelity but sometimes less pleasing overall look combined with the Nikon like effect of the Tamron 18-200mm supper zoom certainly made for some unusual looking photographs. But really they were unusual mostly because they were so good. I sort of preferred the gorgeous colors of the A55, but I persisted with the A65 because the higher resolution meant that so much more could be done with the photographs and I also knew that from a technical perspective better color fidelity was going to be useful and desirable.
When some of the keys on the keyboard on the Acer laptop stopped working after it was left out in a rain storm at Fort de France on Martinique in the Caribbean the stage was set for further computer problems. I just switched to using the newer Sony that I had bought in 2012, and initially there were no color problems. The big problem I had was that the Windows XP driver for the Intel display adapter did not have any adjustability. At first this was just a bit of a problem with the screen being too bright most of the time, but the colors still were spot on and all of the old photographs and videos from the A55 still looked perfect like they always had before I bought the A65.
The new photographs that I took with the A65 continued to show up very strangely on the computer screen sometimes. At first it was only the output from the A65 that was showing up weird, mostly with the color saturation turned down. The display problems were not consistent, and often pictures fresh from the A65 looked fairly good when I first transferred them to the computer, then looked horrible a few days later but still sometimes were displayed normally at later times.
When I managed to get a reinstallation copy of Windows 7 these problems disappeared for a time. With Windows 7 up and running I was again able to adjust the brightness, contrast and saturation. It was kind of strange though how the Sony worked, because there were two levels of saturation adjustment. One in Windows 7 itself, and one in the driver software for the Intel display adapter. Neither of these adjustments seemed to work well, but when there was a huge problem with the display I could often get it back to looking reasonably normal by fiddling with the two saturation adjusters as well as the two brightness adjusters and two contrast adjusters. This was a horrible process, and the results were never quite as good as I had been used to on both the Acer and the Sony laptops in years past.
At the same time I started to have trouble with print shops refusing to print my photographs. In the past prints from the Sony 24mm sensor cameras had always come back looking really great, with perfect color and for the most part very good shadow detail. The first problem I had was that a print shop printed a big $150 order way too dark. Like practically every single one of the prints came back incredibly dark. On this order they also refused to print the full resolution of the photographs. The 8x10 prints were lower resolution than I had ever seen on photographic prints, and even the big 12x18 prints came back at such low resolution that the files from the A55 were not fully represented. As annoying as it was to have the resolution of my photographs stripped down it was the overly dark prints that really caused problems. Most of the prints just looked horrible under normal lighting, but I did notice that they looked much better when viewed in direct sunlight.
When I tried a different print shop I was able to get a slightly higher print resolution, but again many of the prints came back darkened and useless. As far as color went some of the prints were great, but others were messed up in difficult to describe ways. Mostly a flat and desaturated look.
For a time the only way I could get prints with consistent color was to use the photo kiosks at local stores. These photo kiosks used to do 6x8 prints that were pretty nice. But the 6x8 prints were gone, and all that was available was much smaller 4x6 prints. Those 4x6 prints were just ridiculously small, but at least they were even cheaper than the old 6x8 prints had been. I had sometimes used the 6x8 machines to do cheap proofs by making two prints for each photograph. One was of the full photograph (but of course cropped down to the 4:3 aspect ratio), and the other one was zoomed in so that the print was equivalent to a portion of an 11x17 print. I was able to do the same thing with the 4x6 prints, it was just that the full height print was so small as to not even be fun to look at. Still though I was able to see that my digital files were still intact despite the huge and horrendous problems I was having with my laptop computer and the print shops.
Then I started having trouble with the 4x6 prints. At first it was that the machines in many stores were over boosting the color saturation. For a while though I was still able to get fairly accurate color from some of the machines. It turned into just one store that continued to do reasonably good 4x6 prints, but even that did not last. The last time I tried to use that machine the print resolution was even lower so that looking at the 4x6 print was like looking at a postage stamp under a magnifier.
Now with no way to reliably make prints the laptop computer has been working even worse also. The problems, previously isolated to color and brightness, also expanded into generally poor looking images with a hard to describe flatness. Everything on the screen has just been horrible looking, even old 480x640 DVD disks just look horrible with poor color and a flat look. The flat look is similar to what you get when you turn the contrast way down on a photograph that previously looked good.
When I tried again to adjust the settings to get a more normal appearance I found that the available settings had changed. No longer were brightness, contrast and saturation available in the Windows 7 display adjustment feature. In place of those standard adjustments all that is available in it's place is a "Gama" adjustment, whatever the heck that might mean. All the "Gama" adjustment seemed to do was make the screen look worse which ever way it was moved.
With the contrast, brightness and color saturation adjustments still available in the Intel display driver though some changes could be made. This time I just clicked on "Restore Defaults", and this did seem to improve the display a bit.
As strange as it may sound there is a line of reasoning that somewhat explains the disappearing color and the difficulties I have been having with print shops and my laptop computer display. Back in 2012 Sony came out with a nifty little camera called the RX100. It was a supper compact shirt pocket camera with a zoom lens and substantially larger 13mm wide sensor (somewhat strangely called a 1" size sensor). The small size of the RX100 and the seemingly great performance across the entire 4X zoom range of the lens was impressive, but sample images I saw looked to be lacking good color. The 13mm sensor size seemed to me like it would be big enough for the 20.9mp advertised resolution (9.3mp actual sensor resolution), but large areas of red in sample images looked rather poor. I was still thinking about buying an RX100 to try it out myself, but the $650 price was steep for a step down in image quality compared to my 24mm sensor Sony cameras. Instead I ended up buying the amazingly competent A65 for really only slightly more.
Just a few months later Sony released the RX1, which was a different take on a compact camera. The RX1 had a full frame sensor (35mm wide) with the same advertised resolution as the 24mm wide sensor in my A65 and a fixed 35mm focal length lens. The RX1 was an extremely expensive camera and was widely believed to be the absolute best photographic equipment available on the market. The steep $3000 price reflected this perception of the RX1 being the top of the line equipment. The sample images I saw from the RX1 were technically impressive, with just about full sharpness all the way out to the corners over a range of aperture values and lighting conditions. Again though the color seemed to be a bit messed up compared to what DSLR cameras had been doing, including mine. I thought this was probably just some problem with the sample images themselves, and I would have bought an RX1 in a heartbeat if I had been into spending that much money on a camera.
What I got instead was a new 35mm fixed lens for the more reasonable price of $200. This new 35mm wide aperture lens developed specifically for the smaller 24mm sensors delivered the same flawless corner to corner sharpness over a really huge range of aperture values, it was just a whole lot sharper than the mediocre fast 50. The problem though was that whenever I put this impressive new 35mm lens on one of my cameras the colors got all screwed up. It was partly the lens, but there was also some inconsistent reactionary processing going on somewhere that caused problems. I had always found that the Sony cameras recognized their lenses and adjusted accordingly, and this even seemed to be true with the Sigma and Tamron aftermarket lenses. Tamron labeled their lenses prominently as "For Sony", which I always sort of jokingly interpreted as meaning that the design was somehow done for the Sony corporation as opposed to simply being a lens that would pop onto the old Minolta bayonet mount.
In any case I for the most part hated using the new 35mm lens because so much of the time the photographs looked quite crappy. I was able to make a few big 11x14 prints with the 35mm lens that looked great and showed off the impressive corner to corner sharpness, but the reality was that 11x14 prints usually looked far better with the Tamron 18-200mm super zoom so long as the focal length had been between 30 and 50mm with an aperture of f/8.
The main reason that I had stuck with Sony cameras over the years was that I had always been very pleased with the good color fidelity and gorgeous overall look of the color in the photographs. It seemed though that the Sony corporation had gone into a back peddling mode where they were trying very hard to ruin the color produced by their cameras. My reaction to this realization was to buy a Sony DSC W830 supper compact shirt pocket camera for the rip off price of $120. I say rip off because most people who bought one of these would just throw it away because the color looked so bad. The 20mp advertised resolution (8.9mp actual sensor resolution) was obviously way too high for the 6mm wide sensor. I knew this before I bought the camera and I even joked with the salesman in the camera department that these things should come with a warning label about the poor color reproduction.
I was actually surprised how well the excessively high resolution small sensor camera was able to perform. The colors were screwed up and useless to be sure, but from an analytical perspective the color fidelity was actually much better than I had expected. The performance of the little 8x zoom lens was also quite impressive, the camera actually could render most of that resolution over a wide range of focal length settings. Of course the corners were not sharp and there was really no range of aperture values at most focal lengths.
The low light performance of the little 6mm sensor was extremely impressive (compared to older 6mm sensors), and the sensor shift image stabilization system was right up there with the Sony Supper Steady Shot on the big cameras. All in all it was a real lot of hard hitting electromechanical wizardry packed into a very small package.
The problems with color on the DSC W830 were however extremely severe. The color fidelity was better than expected, but the way that this was attained was with software guessing and the result was that large areas of uniform color came out looking flat and devoid of detail. The overall result is an image that both looks a bit off in color and lacks detail in many places. Again though it should be emphasized that Sony has actually done an amazing job of cramming so much color resolution onto a 6mm sensor with results that seem to defy the laws of physics.