Monday, March 16, 2015

Updating my Big Bird kit...

One of the challenges of selling all my Canon DSLR bodies and lenses to downsize into mirrorless was answering the question: What to do about birds?

Sony A6000 + LA-EA4 adapter + Tamron 150-600mm "Bigron"

I love taking photographs of birds.  When we lived in the States, Jude and I would visit parks and wetlands in search of ducks, small birds, geese, cranes, and large birds of prey.

The setup I had back in the States included a 70-200 f/4L, 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L (deemed the Dust Pump by netizens), and that amazing 300-800mm Sigma EX HSM f/5.6 super zoom.  The 70-200L was for birds very close to the camera.  The 100-400L was for fast movers in flight and the 300-800EX HSM was for, well nearly everything, including birds in flight (BIF).

Coming to France I learned how impossible it was to carry the 13pound Sigmonster anywhere.  I loved the "reach" but there was no way to haul it to where the birds are (Rambouillet, Sceau, etc.).

The 3.5pound 100-400L was nearly perfect, but... it lacked the "reach" I was looking for on the long end.

The 70-200L was simply too short for anything, even photographing sports cars on the streets of Paris during one of the bi-annual Traversee.

Moving everything to Sony mirrorless seemed foolish.  This is why I hung on to my 7D/Dust Pump kit.

Then one day I got sick, lost my mind, and sold the 7D.  The Dust Pump was put up for sale, too.

In my dull daze of illness I found was an article over on Luminous Landscape.  The solution Michael used in Antartica was a Sony A7II, Sony LA-EA4 A to E-mount adapter,  and Tamron 150-600mm f/5-f/6.3 in the Sony A-mount.  His target?  Penguins leaping out of the water.  I couldn't imagine a more challenging scenario.  He didn't know where they were coming from.  He didn't know how far away they'd be.  So he had to be ready and he needed to trust the AF system would be fast enough to capture what he was looking for.  It sounded like what I was facing.

I ordered a lens and adapter from Amazon.  Please remember, I was sick when I made this decision. I had no idea what I was getting.  My new birding solution was based purely on Michael's Antartica experience.

The "Bigron" at 150mm

The "Bigron" racked out to 600mm

Today I have everything in hand.  The lens and LA-EA4 are finally here.  We still have a copy of that left-leaning Canard Enchaine so I taped a couple pages to the wall and pointed my lenses at it to see what I could see.

First, a comment about the LA-EA4 adapter.  It comes with a translucent mirror and the AF components built into the body of the adapter.  The AF system does not require "internal" power and is driven off the camera's power source.  There was nothing to do but snap the lens on the front and snap the Sony A6000 onto the other end.  Simple and easy.

A further comment about the LA-EA4 adapter is to note that the in-adapter AF system implements it's own 15 phase-lock AF points.  The camera body recognizes the adapter and provides selections for the in-adapter focus points through the standard menus.  The in-camera AF points are disabled.

The Tamron lens (called the Bigron by some netizens) is just under a pound heavier than the Canon 100-400L.  For BIF a person can remove the tripod collar.  This lightens the rig up a bit, but there's no getting around the fact the Bigron is a slightly bigger beast than the Canon.  Yet the all-up kit weight of the Sony/Adapter/Bigron is less than the Canon 7D/Dust Pump.  

In the hand it all feels very familiar.  The diameter of the Tamron barrels are similar to the Canon L-glass.  The Bigron feels a little heavier up front, and is only marginally heavier over-all than the old Dust Pump.

What's been gained?  I now have a one camera solution for everything I do.  The Sony A6000 camera is very light, very fast (11frames per second at full tilt), and very flexible (I can use it for studio work and birds).  The Tamron has almost 60 percent more reach than the 100-400L Canon (400mm on the lens is actually closer to 380mm).  And the Bigron is a fraction of the weight of the old Sigmonster.

What's been lost?  That incredible Sigmonster.  I LOVED that lens, even if I couldn't take it anywhere.  The Sigmonster was sharp as sharp could be at all focal lengths.

As for image stabilization (IS), well, yes, I do miss that, too.  The Dust Pump had decent IS in the lens where the Sony/Bigron kit presently does not.  The Tamron does not offer IS in their Sony A-mount lens (but it does come with IS in Canon/Nikon mounts).  However, there are rumors of Sony releasing an in-body IS APS-C solution in the A6000-form-factor some day soon.  When that hits the streets I'll have a decent IS solution for all my lenses that I currently work with in mirrorless.

Canon 100-400L
Tamron 150-600
Nikon 300 pre-Ai
(all with NEX adapters of various kinds)

What also been lost is a very slight bit of AF speed to the old 7D/70-200L combo which was very "snappy" and quick.  The AF speed "feels" quite nearly equal to the 7D/Dust Pump combo.  Though in truth the 7D/100-400L sometimes missed the intended AF point.  Compared to the 7D/Sigmonster AF speed, the Sony/Bigron kit "feels" ever so slightly "snappier."  In short, I think I can live with the Sony/Bigron AF speed, though only time and a few live birds will tell me if this continues to hold true.  Bring on the penguins!!!

Having a look at the image quality, I compared the Bigron against an adapted Canon 100-400L and Nikon 300mm f/4.5 pre-Ai.  The test setup was -

  • Sony A6000, ISO100, Aperture Preferred, shutter released using 2 second delay
  • Big beefy Manfrotto tripod (the one I use for birding and an 8x10inch film camera, if I had one)
  • Manually focused at 14x for 150mm and 300mm focal lengths.  It was easy and, besides, the Canon and Nikon lenses were manual focus on the Sony.  AF was used on the Bigron when shot at 600mm.  Manually focusing that focal length was simply too difficult to do accurately, so I threw in the towel and let the adapter/Bigron do what they were designed to do.  Oh, and I ran out of room, so no attempt was made to match the size of the print at 600mm to the shorter focal-lengths.

The results should be pretty obvious.  The Dust Pump and Bigron do a nice job.  They're sharp and contrasty.  If I had to say which images were actually "sharper", I'd lean toward the Bigron at this (very early) point.  

At 600mm it's interesting to confirm what others have seen with the Tamron.  f/6.3 is slightly soft at that long 600mm focal length.  So... Stop the Bigron down to f/8 and call it good.  Good it is, too.  It seems as sharp at 600mm as the old Sigmonster, and that's saying something.

Note: Make sure you look at the comparison results with the file enlarged to 100 percent to see what I see.

Sadly, I think I ever so slightly missed the focus point on the Nikon 300mm f/4.5 pre-Ai as I've seen sharper images out it than these.  Which points out just how important technique is for gaining every last bit of image quality out of system.  It's not just the lens, it's how you use your entire system that counts.

After Jude and I get feeling better (we're still under the weather for the Late Winter flu bug that's been shared by millions) we'll schedule up a trip out to one of our favorite birding spots to have a look at how well the new kit works.

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