July 29, 2002
Weekly Column By
Real Photographers Don't Use Sonys
Thoughts on Digicams, Part II: The Sony DSC-F707
Part 1 can be Found Here
© Mike Johnston 2002
I buy a fair number of cameras, but seldom on impulse. I hadn't even looked at the Sony F707 prior to buying it. That's almost unheard of for me.
What happened was that I heard (on the dpreview.com Sony Talk forum) about the price-matching guarantee at Sears — it seemed Sears was matching some very lowball online prices, and people were getting this camera (already a strong bargain at its usual street price of $1k) for nearly half price. So, almost on a lark, I decided to try it and see how far I got. I figured that if I succeeded, I could sell my old digital rig for almost as much.
I did a google search on "Sony F707," found a price-guide site, and located the lowest price. Then I simply printed out the relevant pages and headed off to my local Sears.
The salesguy could not have been nicer. And get this — he actually knew a lot about photography, just like the old days at real camera shops. We had a nice discussion about manual Nikons. Anyway, he took one look at my printouts, said, "Wow, that's a really good price," and headed off to check with whoever he had to check with.
I was waiting there thinking, okay, now's when I get shot down.
Ten minutes later, to my surprise, I was on my way out of the store with a brand new, sealed-box F707 for $563.47 plus tax. I'm still tickled about it.
What Have I Done?
I'm not sure you'd be able to duplicate my good fortune. People have reported
widely varying experiences at different Sears stores across the country . But
the fact is, the F707 is a good deal at its usual street price of $1,000. It
competes directly with the Minolta Dimage 7i and the Nikon Coolpix 5000, and
compares favorably in terms of features and/or image quality with either. At
nearly half price, it stomps its competition pretty handily.
So, uh, suddenly, I had a new camera. But did I really want a new camera? And did I want this one? What exactly had I gone and done?
Last week's column, called "Just Say 'NO' to Digital SLRs!", generated a lot of traffic and more responses than any of my "Sunday Morning Photographer" columns so far. In that essay, I made the case for digicams.
However, to be honest, it should be noted that what I'm most enthusiastic about is not necessarily existing digicams, but the potential of digicams. A great many digicams don't adequately implement the potential advantages I was hyping last week. In fact, a dispiriting number of digicams are quite obviously bad cameras...they just don't work well enough.
This is because most digicams are essentially point-and-shoots, and most point-and-shoots suck. They have slow AF, bad shutter lag, nasty, squinty little viewfinders that make you feel half blind, and inadequate controls (not a bad thing if you wouldn't know what to do with controls if you had them, but quite the opposite if you know what you're doing). And image quality can be crappy.
I'll Gladly Take a Picture Tuesday If You'll Press Here Today, Dummy
We're all prisoners of our own experience, and I'm no exception where digicams are concerned. I've tried a fair number of digital cameras over the years, mainly through the good graces of manufacturer loans, but, personally, I was late getting on the bandwagon. I first jumped into digital with my own money only last year, guided by one principle: namely, I figured I'd find the least offensive camera I could for less than a grand, and then learn how to use it as best I could, suffering its limitations.
My motive? I was educating myself. It didn't expect to like it.
My bottom-line consideration was shutter lag. For you uninitiated, shutter lag is the delay between the instant you press the shutter button and the instant the camera takes the picture. It's commonly measured in milliseconds (thousandths of a second, abbreviated ms). 750 ms, for example, is three-quarters of a second. (750 ms is also about three-quarters of an eternity when you're trying to take a picture of anything that moves.)
To put you in context, a typical consumer 35mm SLR has a lag of about 100-200 ms; a pro SLR might have a lag of about 40-60 ms; and the Leica rangefinder, the champ in this regard, has a lag of 18 ms. The best measured shutter lag time of any camera I've ever personally used was that of the Canon EOS RT, a camera that had a pellicle mirror (beam splitter) instead of a reflex (moving) mirror. Significantly, however, the RT, to reach its amazingly short lag time, had to be "pre-fired." There was a swinging panel behind the mirror that housed the sensor for the meter. In RT mode, a half-press of the shutter button locked the meter reading and swung the sensor panel out of the way with a little "clack" sound. After that, shutter lag was 8 ms, which is essentially instantaneous. The Leica still scores over the RT in my opinion, though, because no preparation for releasing the Leica's shutter is necessary.
Long shutter lag times are the bane of good shooting skills — they almost insure that you will miss the "decisive moment." Most point-and-shoots are really woeful in this regard. So this was the sticking point I was most wary about. I wasn't going to get stuck with any camera that took a whole second to go off, or anything like a whole second.
After some quick (and, I admit, not terribly serious) research, I sprung for an Olympus C-3040z from the good folks at Mike Crivello's Cameras in Brookfield, Wisconsin, one of the best old-fashioned, full-service camera stores in the Milwaukee area (actually, in Wisconsin). I just liked the way it felt in my hand.
The key to the 3040 to me is pre-focusing. A half-press of the shutter button locks the AF, and at that point, lag is reduced to about 100 ms, a wholly acceptable level. Without pre-focusing, shutter lag is about a day and a half. Or might as well be.
Pre-focusing is simply the way I use the camera. I always pre-focus. I'm used to it, and don't find it frustrating.
Generally, I use the LCD as the finder. It doesn't always confirm focus visually as effectively as it might, and I lose a few shots having focused on the wrong thing without knowing it; but only a few. As with most LCD finders, glare makes it almost useless outdoors in bright sunlight. In those situations (not much of my shooting is done in bright sunlight, I guess, because I don't need to do this often), I revert to the optical viewfinder, which is adequate but, like most point-and-shoot viewfinders, just barely.
Overall, I've been pleased with the 3040. Despite its rather involved settings menus, it's really not very difficult to master, and it's a blast to shoot with. I've tended to play with it, using it almost like a toy. Its color rendition is generally good as long as you stay away from situations that excite purple-fringing. Inkjet prints up to about 6x8 look fine.
Hey, Wasn't This Column Supposed To Be About a Sony?
This isn't the time for reflections on the camera industry, but suffice it to say that one of the many revolutionary changes that digital is wreaking on the camera market comes from the fact that electronics giants such as Sony and Panasonic are jumping in to compete with the traditional camera companies. Longtime photographers aren't exactly going along. One observation I have to make about Sony from the "demand" side of the commercial equation is that experienced, knowledgeable photographers seem not to be looking to electronics companies like Sony for their digicams. Perhaps by habit, we're a lot more comfortable with names like Canon, Olympus, or Nikon. I've found that the discussions on Sony digicam forums tend to be a bit more rudimentary than those on Nikon and Canon sites; more basic questions get asked more often. The Sony name seems to attract a higher percentage of consumers who are newcomers to photography.
This cuts both ways, however. Although longtime photographers have almost an irrational reverence for a name like Nikon, this attitude may not be entirely warranted in today's brave new world. Sony is considered by photographers to be an also-ran, if not simply a pretender. Nikon is revered for its long history and assumed to be superior. Yet this disparity in reputation isn't entirely justified by the products. Despite its many offerings, Nikon is not exactly taking the digital world by storm. It's one of the few companies that offers fully professional digitals SLRs, true, but its digicam offerings have so far been rather middle-of-the-pack.
So although perceptions of the two companies are quite different, there isn't any clear hierarchy in the actual quality of the digicam product lines. No hierarchy that's clear to me, anyway. For one thing, the F707 at its ordinary street price contends directly with the Coolpix 5000, yet the latter is a rather disappointing camera that is clearly a cut below the F707 in terms of capabilities, build quality, level of seriousness, and results. Real photographers may not use Sonys, but don't mock Sony. It's holding its own.
The Sony DSC-F707
The Sony F707 is what's called a "prosumer" camera, meaning that it's likely to be too difficult for know-nothing amateurs to figure out, and also that it's capable of producing pretty high-quality image files in the right hands. (I'll have a few more choice words for that term "prosumer" later in this column.) But it's still a digicam, and, essentially, that means it's still a point-and-shoot. So to get some of the typical point-and-shoot deficiencies admitted into evidence right now, I'll say that the Sony has some limitations. It can be slow to AF; it's got an EVF, which is a barely adequate analog of the aforementioned barely adequate point-and-shoot optical VF; the damn thing goes virtually snowblind in bright sunlight, when the LCD screen becomes too glarely to see and even the EVF (I don't know why--perhaps because your pupil is closed down so much against the daytime brightness?) seems very dim. Some of the controls are not ideally accessible — the zoom button doesn't seem to be in quite the right place, and the buttons on the left side of the lens barrel aren't easy to see. And, like every complicated electronic camera, it doesn't have every feature that everybody wants. A few more WB presets would be nice, and there's no RAW mode.
Still, after a honeymoon period of several weeks, I'm still greatly impressed by F707's formidable feature set. Most remarkable is that it can take perfectly framed, perfectly focused, and perfectly exposed pictures in pitch darkness. I kid you not. With a flip of a switch, its viewfinder becomes an infrared scope, so you can see to frame in the dark. It then emits a pattern of low-level laser beams to focus on, sets the flash exposure based on the focus distance, and voilá.
This may be a parlor trick, but it's a damned good one!
It's truly not an easy camera to master. It's been a very long time since any camera has been able to make me feel like a dope, but this one did, intermittently, for several days. I had to read the manual. I had to overcome my own assumptions about what the manual said in a few cases, too — for instance, when the manual says to "push" the jog dial, that's exactly what it means — the jog dial is actually a pushbutton. Works quite well, too.
In fact, a great many of the camera's capabilities are very effective. To name my favorites:
- The two-speed zoom toggle. Nice touch (pun intended).
- The noises the camera makes. Or, more properly, doesn't make. Silent zoom, silent AF, and configurable response noises (okay, so sue me, I like the little pre-recorded mechanical shutter-noise) — it's all very quiet.
- Spot metering and exposure compensation. Both work well, even though spot metering on point-and-shoots is sometimes, ahhh, shall we say, not precise.
- Manual focus confirmation. Manual focus feel is so silky-smooth that instead of making me pine for my screwmount Takumars, it actually reminds me of my screwmount Takumars. The camera also has a weird feature in this mode that borders on being brilliant: When you touch the manual focus ring, the viewfinder zooms way in to the picture to allow you to see what you're focusing on. Let go of it and it zooms back out again. This is just the sort of gee-whiz feature that normally would drive me crazy, but I have to admit that when I'm actually shooting, it works. In fact, it makes manual focusing usable whereas without this feature it probably wouldn't be.
- Custom white-balance setting. Apart from the fact that I've taken to wearing white button-down shirts so I have a quick reference for setting WB, which even I hafta admit is kinda eccentric, this is a great, easy-to-set feature that I use a lot.
- Diopter correction; thanks from my rheumy 45-year-old right eye. (I've looked through too many grain magnifiers, I guess.)
- Battery life. Compared to virtually all digicams I've tried, just plain outstanding. Keeps going, and going, and....
Get On The Stick, Sony!
One great big, fat, sorehead gripe: Memory Stick capacity. Ever arrogant, Sony wants you to buy its own standard non-proprietary flash cards, called Memory Sticks. Never mind that this makes the camera incompatible with a bevy of aftermarket devices (present and future) that you might otherwise want to use, like two out of three of the available portable image-storage hard drive units. The real rub is that people who buy other makes of cameras can buy CFII-compatible cards up to 1 gig, and people who buy Sony cameras can currently buy Sony Memory Sticks up to a big whoop-de-doo 128 MB. That's less than two rolls of 35mm film at the "Fine" .jpeg setting on the 5-mp F707, thus wiping out one of the baseline advantages digital is supposed to have over film. If Sony wants to force captive technology down its customers' throats, it ought to at least insure that its technology remains more or less competitive. I hope there are busy little workers missing their dinners and working late at Sony as they scramble to catch up to the rest of the world. Let's have a 512 MB Stick, you dorks, chop chop.
The only other thing I don't care for is the range of the lens — I'd prefer it to be shorter, though not if it had to be slower — but I can live with it. Just a personal preference.
Okay, You've Been Rambling Long Enough. Upshot, Please.
Features and complaints aside, here are my three major impressions of using the F707:
First, image quality. Subjectively, I tend to esteem cameras based on what I get out of 'em. It's tough to stay objective about this, because there have been times in my travails as a camera reviewer when I've really wanted to like a camera but I just don't do well with the darned thing, and sometimes I really don't like a camera but am forced to admit that it does its job really well. Ya gotta be honest with yourself about this stuff. Apart from view cameras, for which I have no real talent, I can shoot with most anything, and I've gotten great results with all kinds of different cameras. There's just something akin to trust that you start to feel for a device when its results consistently please you. Thus it is with this Sony. I got it hoping to be able make 8x10s as good as the 5x7s I can make with my Oly. The Sony goes one better. Properly printed, 8x10 images from this thing can be reallygood. In terms of color it has only one small idiosyncrasy, which is that sometimes the saturation of bright reds needs to be toned down just a tad in the dedicated red channel in Photoshop. Overall, however, as long as you aren't feeling all gung-ho to print poster-size, the results the F707 serves up really do nourish your enthusiasm for picture-taking and printmaking.
Second, form-factor. This is an unusual, offbeat camera body design, but I'd advise anyone not to knock it until they have tried it. Personally, I not only like it, I like it a lot. For reasons I enumerated last week, I've always really liked waist-level finders, and, in everything but bright sunlight, rotating the body of the F707 so the LCD faces upwards and nestling the camera at belly-level is an extremely comfortable way to shoot. It's a very easy camera to hold; the hand-grip, though tiny, is great. The whole camera balances on your fingertips when carrying it in your hand.
Verticals take a bit of getting used to — I square the body with the lens and turn it so the body part points up (should this have been a square camera?!?). As with most everything where the F707 is concerned, camera-handling takes just a bit of acclimatization time. But once you've broken yourself in to its peculiar ways, you may find you like it even better than more conventionally-styled cameras.
Finally...er, well, this is not very objective, but there's no getting around it: I LOVE THIS SONY. Some cameras you just take to. It's slowly become evident to me over the years that some camera designs are more than the sum of their parts, more than a collection of features. You can't discover this from a catalog or a spec sheet. They just work better; they're harmonious; they inspire more affection, more loyalty. They fit you. For me, these have been the Leica M4, the Pentax Spotmatic (especially the ES II), the Olympus OM-4T, the rosewood Wista 45DXII, the Rolleicord Vb. I'm not ensconcing the F707 on the A-list just yet, mind you, but just the fact that a digicam is mentioned in the same paragraph with my paragons has a lot to do with blue moons, cold days in hell, monkey's uncles, etc., etc.
Sure, there are things on any camera that any given person would want changed. But overall, I've been very taken with the F707.
If you detect a bit of crowing here, you're right: I'm pleased with my purchase,
doubly pleased that I got a good deal, and relieved that something I did so
rashly didn't turn around and bite me on the keester. Let's just say that impulse
purchases are not ordinary this good to me.
Crowing aside, one might say that the F707 is analogous to Photoshop Elements. It's got a great depth of capabilities and features that can be combined in many ways to get various jobs done. Like Photoshop, it's not easy to master. I'm pretty good at coming up to speed on camera features, both theoretically and in practice, yet I suspect there are things I still haven't learned about how to get the best out of the F707. Like Elements, it's well ahead of most of the more basic competition. Yet, also like Elements, it's plainly not quite the whole nine yards, not the complete package; it won't do everything. The cutting edge of digital camera quality it's not. But it's got the flavor. As far as it does go, it runs with the big dogs, and runs laps around the mongrels.
Okay, now about that word "prosumer." I hate hybrid words of this sort. (A precondition of their creation is utter ignorance of etymology.) "Prosumer" is a category that used to be known more accurately as "advanced amateur." But being an amateur (from the French amator, lover) is out of style. Apparently, having been battered and hounded for thirty years with the use of the word "pro" as a marketing term meaning "good," we're no longer willing to admit that we are not pro.
Don't get me started.
The point here is that while this isn't a camera for professionals, it's not a camera for consumers, either. It's neither pro nor sumer. It's a camera for photographically savvy advanced amateurs who are not afraid to learn to master some fairly involved operational techniques, and who have enough shooting experience to be able to work around its various vestigial digicam and point-and-shoot limitations. Although it doesn't quite offer cutting-edge DSLR image quality on the order of, say, the D60's, it's still an excellent digital printmaker's camera, capable of very high-quality results.
The perfect digicam?
Don't be silly. These are the crucible years. Change is happening fast.
Then again, five years ago I wasn't willing to say that any digital
camera was a "good camera," period, and the Sony F707 is. It's a fine
little camera, capable within its lights and fun to use, and it yields quite
gratifying photographic results as long as you aren't too ambitious in terms
of print size. For any digicam to be called a good camera by my tough standards,
well, that's progress.
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.