Updated: Oct 14, 2022
I’ve used a lot of different cameras during my 50-year love affair with photography. When I was a teenager in the 1970s and just getting into the craft, I met Barry Bishop, the legendary mountaineer and veteran of the expedition that made the first ascent of the west ridge of Mt. Everest in 1963. I asked him what camera he would take on his next Himalayan expedition. He replied, “If weight was critical, I’d take a Rollei 35. If it was less critical, I’d take an Olympus OM-1.” Soon thereafter, a professional photographer gave me a broken Rollei 35 and told me I could have it if I paid to fix it. I got the camera fixed, then accidentally drowned it in a river in West Virginia. As soon as I could afford it, I started building an Olympus system, which I used primarily for shooting outdoor sports.
The 1980s brought a startling advance to camera technology: auto-focus. Olympus, it seemed to me, was not keeping up. In 1989 I made the first expensive switch of my career and began building a Nikon system. By 1993 my interest in outdoor sports photography was wilting, while my interest in landscape photography was blossoming. I switched again, this time to 4x5 field cameras. I shot with them until 2008, all the while watching the rapid improvement in another breakthrough innovation: digital cameras. Finally, advancing age, advancing technology, and two back surgeries convinced me that a 140-pound, 51-year-old landscape photographer shouldn’t be carrying around 70 pounds of 4x5 equipment anymore. In 2008 the best high-resolution cameras for landscape photographers were made by Canon. When Canon introduced its first 20-megapixel DSLR, the $7,000 EOS 1Ds Mark III, I switched again.
At the time, I didn’t seriously consider the new kid on the block: Sony. When Sony introduced its first mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras, the reaction of professionals was mostly scorn. Sure, the cameras were small and light – always a plus – and the specs were surprisingly impressive, but the screen in the camera’s electronic viewfinder couldn’t redraw fast enough to keep up with fast action. The cameras burned up batteries like a chain smoker going through cigarettes. The build quality wasn’t rugged enough to meet the demands of hard-working pros. Lens selection was limited. In the pros’ view, Sony was a consumer-electronics company. It would never make a camera a real professional would use.
Sony took the criticisms to heart. One by one, it overcame the technical challenges of building high-performance mirrorless cameras. At the same time, it introduced an ever-widening assortment of top-quality lenses. In 2013 the Sony a7R, the first full-frame, interchangeable lens mirrorless camera, won Popular Photography’s Camera of the Year award. As PopPhoto put it, “The introduction of this camera system even has us wondering whether the days of the single-lens reflex are numbered. It certainly is a shot across the bow of the two DSLR biggies, Canon and Nikon, whose ILC (interchangeable-lens compact) offerings to date have seemed, to put it plainly, halfhearted.” Pros began to take notice. Some began to switch. Finally, Canon and Nikon realized that Sony was about to eat their lunch and began playing catchup.
Today virtually all the new camera models from the major manufacturers are mirrorless. In addition to being smaller and lighter, mirrorless cameras have other advantages. The electronic viewfinder can display more shooting information than an optical viewfinder. Changes in exposure or white balance are reflected instantly in the image you see through the viewfinder as you compose the shot. You can also review images and change menu items while looking through the viewfinder, so you no longer have the issue of bright daylight washing out your LCD screen, making it impossible to read.
Still, I hesitated. By that time I had a small fortune invested in Canon DSLR lenses. Switching yet again was going to be extremely expensive. Then students began showing up at my workshops with the latest mirrorless cameras. They seemed so tiny and light, yet they delivered impressive results. Despite my age (64), a multi-year battle with patella-femoral syndrome (doctor-speak for deteriorating knees), and incipient osteoarthritis in my lower back, I still wanted to spend as much time as possible shooting in the deep wilderness. That meant an endless quest to save weight by buying lighter gear. Many years ago a friend used to joke that it cost $100 per pound to lighten your pack by buying a lighter tent or sleeping bag. In 2021, to save weight by buying the latest camera gear looked like it was going to cost over $1,000 per pound.
Nikon’s Z system was attractive, but I no longer had any Nikon gear whatsoever. Canon’s EOS R5 looked like a great camera, but an R5 body, plus Canon’s 15-35mm f/2.8 lens, weighed only 3.5 ounces less than my Canon 5D Mark IV with an EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III lens. At the time, Canon only offered eight mirrorless lenses, all of them high-quality, but the focal-length ranges I’d want were only available in fast models that were big and heavy. In contrast to Canon, Sony offered some 50 E-mount lenses for its high-end mirrorless cameras like the a7R IV. That lens assortment included a 16-35mm f/4 and a 24-70mm f/4, each weighing about a pound. Canon, I was sure, would eventually catch up in lens selection for its mirrorless cameras and perhaps even make a lighter mirrorless body, but I didn’t want to wait. Sony had another advantage over Nikon, from my perspective: the availability of a high-quality adapter that would let me use my Canon EF lenses on a Sony body. In particular, I wanted to be able to use my Canon 50mm macro, my Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS, and my Canon 24mm tilt-shift on my Sony body. I saw no reason to replace the macro and telephoto lenses with the Sony equivalents, since both Canon lenses are of excellent quality, and Sony doesn’t currently make a tilt-shift lens in any focal length. The a7R IV offered 60 megapixels compared to my Canon 5D Mark IV’s 30. According to DxO, the a7R IV’s sensor was not only better than the 5D Mark IV’s in terms of dynamic range at low ISOs, low noise at high ISOs, and ability to record a wide range of colors, it was almost as good as medium-format sensors found only in cameras costing much more.
In June 2021 I ordered a Sony a7R IV, a Sony 16-35mm f/4, a Sony 24-70mm f/4, and assorted batteries and accessories. Buying a smaller camera, with smaller lenses, allowed me to buy a smaller LowePro chest pack, which saved still more weight. I picked up a pair of Kenko extension tubes weighing four ounces to get some close-up capabilities, a one-ounce battery holster from ThinkTank, a MindShift Filter Nest Mini compact filter case weighing three ounces, and a three-ounce PackIt toiletries bag from Eagle Creek to carry all the accessories. Sony doesn’t make an intervalometer, so I bought the Vello version, which works well. Finally, I ordered Really Right Stuff’s new Ascend 14 ultimate travel tripod.
I chose my first two Sony lenses, both f/4s, with the intention of using them only for daylight landscape photography. That left open the question of what lenses I would use for night photography, where fast glass is a major asset. When choosing lenses for my Canon system, I had bought Canon’s EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, which I later upgraded to the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III. Carrying that lens meant I could shoot both daylight and night images with the same optic, but also meant I was carrying around a two-pound lens on every trip, whether I was shooting night images or not. My Sony 16-35mm f/4 weighs about 10 ounces less but isn’t well-suited to night photography. My solution was to buy a Sony 35mm f/1.4, which delivers excellent performance both in terms of sharpness and control of stellar aberrations (those annoying “bat wings” some stars exhibit in the corners of images made with inferior lenses). It weighs about 11 ounces less than the Canon EF equivalent. I also bought a Sony 14mm f/1.8. I had rented this lens for a Perseid shoot in the summer of 2021 and been quite impressed both with its optical performance and how amazingly small and compact it was. It weighs 1 pound 6 ounces. For my night shoots in 2022 I will either bring the 35mm f/1.4 and plan on shooting multi-row panoramas of subjects with no close-in foregrounds or bring the 14mm f/1.8 if I need good depth-of-field and want the simplicity of capturing everything in a single frame. For a trip that combines daylight and night shooting and where I need to travel as light as possible, I’ve thought of leaving the 16-35mm f/4 behind and just bringing the 14mm f/1.8 and the 24-70mm f/4. That would leave an awkward gap between 14mm and 24mm, but with 60 megapixels to play with, I could always crop the 14mm shot to the desired composition and still have enough resolution for most purposes, particularly if I use Adobe Super Resolution to quadruple the pixel count. For example, a 14mm shot cropped to the angle of view of a 20mm shot would still have 30 megapixels.
Sony cameras have a well-deserved reputation for having complex menus. On the plus side, the lengthy menus make possible an astonishingly wide range of customization. On the downside, you can waste a lot of time wading through irrelevant menu choices. Fortunately, I’d begun using Sony’s RX100 III in 2015 and had recently upgraded to the RX100 VII. These tiny, jewel-like cameras are about the size of the palm of your hand and weigh only 10 ounces. I use them on family vacations and for ultralight trips in the winter. The menu system of the RX100 system bears a lot of similarities to that on the a7R IV, so I had less to learn to come up to speed. I recommend David Busch’s book on the a7R IV to learn its many features. I also recommend putting the menu items you use most in the My Menu section of the menu, which greatly speeds up operations. Practicing with your camera regularly will help you speak Sony fluently.
In July 2021 I took my new Sony kit on a week-long backpacking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness, where I revisited areas I’d only passed through or seen from a distance during a nine-day backpacking trip on the Continental Divide Trail in 1997. It was a delight spending seven days in the wilderness with a highly capable but relatively light camera kit. Heavy rain fell nearly every afternoon and continued into the evening, so the yield in terms of good images was lower than I’d hoped, but it was good to know that I was still capable of undertaking such an adventure even though my phone has been ringing off the hook with robocalls selling Medicare supplemental insurance policies in anticipation of my 65th birthday, now less than two months away. I’m glad I made the switch, and I’m looking forward to getting into the field in 2022 and making more images as deep in the wilderness as my knees and lungs will take me.