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Sony F828 Field Review
Part II

A Crossover Digicam on Safari

This is the second part of a two-part review of the new Sony F828 camera. Whereas the first part was concerned with evaluating the camera’s features, functions and basic performance, this article provides some additional impressions based on actual field use – two weeks of shooting on Safari in Tanzania, East Africa.

You might also wish to read a related essay entitled Digital Bridge Cameras and Cognitive DissonanceWhy The Sony F828 Produces Consumer Angst.

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Serengeti Rainbow. Tanzania. January, 2004
Sony F828

On Safari

The Sony F828 arrived shortly before I left for a 10 day Photo Safari that I was leading in Tanzania. After publishing my preliminary review based on about a week of use, I departed on my travels with the Sony as one of the primary cameras that I would be using on Safari. I had been so impressed with my initial tests that I felt that the F828 could be used to produce professional-grade images. But I was most curious to see if it could stand up to the rigours of such a trip, and, more importantly, if my initial impressions would hold up under tough field conditions.

After two weeks, first in Europe and then Africa, I have now shot nearly 2,000 frames with the F828, some of which are used to illustrate this article. Others will appear in my Tanzania Safari report and portfolio which will appear on this site shortly. (My primary camera on this trip was a Canon 1Ds, with a Canon 10D as back-up.)

I have found that my initial impressions, as published in Part One of this review, have been little changed as a consequence of this shoot. In fact those things that I liked, I now like even more than before, and those that I found problematic are – if anything – more annoying than originally determined. I’ll summarize these, but first some new impressions.

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The Sound of No Hands Clapping

One thing needs to be said for the Sony — as with almost every digicam — there is no shutter noise. No mirror also mean no vibration either. It’s almost uncanny to fire off a frame, or even a burst of 7 frames, with nothing audible other than an almost imperceptible click. This makes the use of a camera like this ideal for theater, stage, film set and courtroom use. An M series Leica is actually loud by comparison. The camera offers an option of turning on a "electronic" shutter release sound, which I admit to using so that I know that a shot has been taken when I press the soft shutter release.

 

Masai Elegance — Tanzania. January, 2004
Sony F828

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Flash

The built-in flash acquitted itself well. Since I was shooting predominantly outdoors I set it to manual turn-on, balanced fill-flash, and the lowest fill setting, and got some decent daylight fill results. The flash covers the 28mm wide-angle setting quite evenly, and my only real complaint is that instead of a variable fill ratio setable in 1/3rd stops, as I’m used to with my Canon gear, there are only three fixed fill settings – high, normal and low. Low is the one that I used most, but it isn’t low enough, looking to be about -1 stop, whereas I usually prefer -1.6 stops of flash compensation for daylight fill use.

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Viewfinder and Polarizer

I have noted in Part One of this review that the electronic viewfinder is not to my liking. It is coarsely textured and makes judging the image difficult. The rear LCD is much better in this regard. I was particularly frustrated with the EVF when it came to using a polarizing filter, which I do frequently with all of my cameras. I found myself switching to the rear LCD so as to be able to better judge polarization, something that would frequently slow me down.

I'm willing to accept the limitations of an EVF because of the advantages that it offers in a camera of this size — lower weight, lower bulk, smaller size and lower vibration, but Sony, and indeed all digicam makers, need to expend more effort in producing better electronic viewfinders. The one in the F828 is only marginally acceptable.


Above the Clouds — Mid-Atlantic. December, 2003
Sony F828

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Build Quality and Ruggedness

I had originally been impressed with the materials and “feel” of the Sony, but there’s nothing like the hard knocks of a field shoot to uncover any failings.

After 10 days of literally bouncing around inside a Land Rover over incredibly dusty washboard dirt roads the F828 emerged without any ill effects other than a few scratches. The camera, as was the case with all of our gear, was coated in a fine red dust by the end of every day. But all that was needed was for it to be wiped down with a damp cloth. This compares with my Canon 1Ds and 10D which both needed to have their sensors cleaned every evening, a time consuming and finicky task. Of course there was no dust on the Sony's sensor because the camera’s lens in not removable, and the sensor is thus sealed against dust.

Dust at Dusk

I should mention that while no dust got onto the sensor or inside the lens mechanism, dust did impinge on the EVF. It's there still, with no way to remove it. A minor annoyance, but this points to the fact that the F828 needs to have better environmental sealing, at least around the internal LCD screen.

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What Continues to Impress

The focusing and exposure accuracy of the F828 are first rate; as good as a number of cameras costing quite a bit more. The Zeiss lens provided is, given its 7X range, wide coverage and high speed, a real pleasure to use. There is some barrel distortion at the wide end, and some vignetting at wide apertures, but on the whole image quality is first rate. In typical Zeiss fashion they have biased the lens toward resolution over contrast, but there's little to complain about in that regard either. The manual zoom ring has a smooth tactile feel.

The articulated body has proven itself to be versatile, and quite useful in many shooting situations. I come from decades of using medium format cameras with waist-level finders, and the live rear LCD, coupled with a lens that fills ones hands for support, is ergonomically superior to the too small bodies and twist screens found on some other digicams. This is akin to the problem we now face with some cell phones. They can be (and are) made so small that they verge on the unusable, featuring buttons that can't be seen clearly or pressed with normal sized fingers. You know what I mean. That's where Sony has hit the mark — the body seems to be just the right size.

The user interface is typical Sony — stylish and yet informative. It didn't take more than a few days for me to become very comfortable with the menu structure, something I can't say for my Canon 1Ds, which after more than a year and some 13,000 frames still frustrates me with its non-intuitive buttons and menus.

Though test shots with a Macbeth colour charts showed very good, but unspectacular colour reproduction capability, on-screen images and especially prints show a colour palette that is very pleasing. Again, I don't know how to measure this, but I do know it when I see it. The Sony's colour is very pleasing indeed. Whether it's because of their new 4-colour sensor I can't say, but obviously they're doing something right in this area.


Sunrise Fog Near Lake Manyara. Tanzania. January, 2004
Sony F828

Battery life turned out to be quite good. The camera managed at least 250 shots on a charge. Enough for a full day of shooting with lots of image review. With a couple of extra batteries and 1GB cards this would be the ideal camera for an extended hiking trip away from electricity.

But do buy the accessory BC-TRM charger. If you charge the battery in-camera with the provided power adaptor you'll not be able to charge a spare battery and also shoot at the same time.

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The Je Ne Sais Quoi

Those who believe that a camera (or any complex product for that matter) can be judged solely on the basis of its measured performance will find this section to be so much mumbo jumbo, and will reject its premise. But after some 40 years as a professional photographer, critic, reviewer and teacher, and after having used virtually every major camera system of the past half century, I can tell you that things that can't be expressly measured play as critical a role in a camera's suitability as do its specs and measurements.

The Sony F828 is one of those cameras that succeeds in being a successful tool in spite of its failings. It has that certain something that makes it pleasurable to hold and work with. The feel of the materials used, the way that it fits ones hands, and the manner in which (some — though certainly not all) of its controls are accessed, contribute to its largely successful design. So when I write that the Sony F828 feels right, understand that this isn't something that a test bench can measure. It just has a certain je ne sais quoi. At least it does for me. Your mileage may vary.


Masai Father and Son — Ngorongoro, Tanzania. January, 2004
Sony F828

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More Thoughts on CA and Noise

If you haven't done so already you may wish to read my essay titled Digital Bridge Cameras and Cognitive Dissonance Why The Sony F828 Produces Consumer Angst. It was published between the publication of the first part of this review, and this page. I won't belabor the point, but will add one final comment on these issues because they have raised such interest on Net discussion boards.

Yes, the Sony F828 has higher chromatic aberration and blooming than some other digicams. Yes, this level of CA is quite a bit higher than that seen with most DSLRs. Yes, the Sony is noisier above ISO 100 then almost all DSLRs.

So?

Much more important than these small difference in image quality, to my mind at least, are issues related to suitability and usability. And this is where, even with the flaws that I've outlined on these pages, I believe that the Sony offers the photographer a very usable tool for creating images due to its 8 MP chip and terrific lens.

While the camera's CA and noise issues may prove to be an impediment to people who regularly shoot the type of subjects which will display a lot of CA. or who need to shoot at high ISO much of the time, these aren't that big a deal. Both can be mostly fixed with software if necessary. The real issue is that 90% of the time the Sony, like almost every camera ever made, will be able to produce results which are superior to the abilities of the photographer that is using it — myself included.

The reason that many photographers buy high-end gear — and this includes most pros, the passionate and compulsive, and the wealthy — is to overcome that last 10%. For people for whom a totally grainless, unbelievably sharp 20 X 24" prints on a home or gallery wall is the holy grail, spending tens of thousands on the best equipment may be worthwhile. But, even for these folks (and I count myself among them), the truth is that roughly 90% of the time just about any camera will do the job. And for everyone else "any camera" will do almost 100% of the time.

We need to develop some perspective. Do some reading. Find out what equipment the great photographers of the past 75 years have used. You'll be shocked. In almost every case it's basic run-of-the-mill gear. Great images aren't produced by great cameras. They spring from the eye and soul of people, not from pieces of metal, plastic and glass. The rest is techno-masturbation.


Cheetahs and Vultures
Sony F828

UPDATE: February 22, 2004

Some 5 weeks after this section of the Sony F828 review appeared I began using DxO Analyzer to evaluate digital cameras and lenses. After several months of testing the test system, the first formal test suite that I ran with it was on the Sony F828. The results from measuring chromatic aberration were an eye opener.

Immediately below is a table which helps explain this camera's chromatic aberration characteristics. Check the link at the bottom of this page for the complete optical review.

This camera system — the sensor and lens combined — clearly displays considerable CA at wide angle settings, and lower, but still quite high CA values at the longest focal lengths. But at mid-range focal lengths CA because very low, almost negligible. So someone taking photographs at medium focal lengths is going to say, "CA? What CA?," while someone shooting with the lens at a wide angle setting is going to definitely encounter it under conditions which make it visible.

Maximum Chromatic Aberration in Pixels
7.1mm (28mm)
17.5mm (70mm)
51mm (200mm)
f/2 or f/2.2
4.6
0.54
-
f/2.8
4.8
NA
2.21
f/4
3.5
0.48
2.11
f/5.6
3.25
0.54
1.89
f/8
3.22
0.65
1.59

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What Sony Needs to Change

No product is perfect; and some products are less perfect than others. Here are my suggestions for the things that I would like to see Sony address in its next iteration of this camera.

— Remove all non-shooting modes from the top command dial. Review and Set Up should have their own activation buttons so that the user can instantly take a picture in the current shooting mode regardless of what else they may be doing.

— Work on the chromatic aberration and high-ISO noise issues. These aren't show-stoppers at present, but they definitely need to be improved. At 8 Megapixels we have enough resolution for most any application that such a camera would be used for. Put your energies now into refining the rough edges of image quality that these two aspects produce.

— Find a better Electronic Viewfinder solution. The savings in weight and bulk of using an EVF are worthwhile in a small camera such as this, but the compromises in framing, viewing comfort, and clarity are still too great. Make this a priority! And while you're at it, incorporate automatic switching between EFV and rear LCD. The camera's usability will improve dramatically when you do.

— Fix the processing / buffer problem when shooting RAW. Teach the camera to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. There's no excuse for a camera that locks the photographer out for 12 seconds each time a RAW frame is shot. And while you're at it, open your RAW file format to third parties so that companies like Adobe and Phase One can provide RAW file support. Like most camera makers you haven't a clue about how to write RAW software, so instead of encrypting the files let those who have proven that they know how to do so provide your customers with usable solutions.

— A flashing highlight overexposure warning needs to be added. The live histogram is nice, but it takes up a lot of screen real-estate. While you're at it, make any on-screen text have variable opacity.


Under African Skies. Tanzania. January, 2004
Sony F828

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Changed Expectations

As happens in all fields from time to time, changes sneak up on us and force us to alter our expectations. With the Sony F828 we now have an 8 Megapixel digicam fully capable of producing high quality images suitable for many professional applications.

Not that I am saying that the F828 is the only camera that can do this. Firstly, I haven’t tested every other digicam, and new ones are coming to market at a ferocious pace. Also, I’ve seen lovely art images produced by a $15 Holga, so let’s be clear that the artist has much more to do with the creation of art than does his tools.

But, with the new Sony several things come together – actually two of significance – a high resolution imaging chip, and a very good lens. The first allows very high resolution images and the second provides the photographer with excellent performance combined with a wide range of focal lengths, and a fast aperture.


Masai Village. Tanzania. January, 2004
Sony F828

The camera is flawed in many ways. It has higher noise than some of its competitors and it also exhibits quite a bit more chromatic aberration than it should. RAW performance is crippled by bad software and stupidly imposed technical limitations, and while aspects of its handling are exemplary the design of some control functions is problematic. In other words, like all cameras, it’s a compromise. But while some cameras are flawed in such a way as to serious impinge upon their utility, the Sony has enough merit in the things that it does well to compensate for its problem areas.

But photography is always about compromises. When I’m shooting with a Leica M6 and am reveling in the uninterrupted rangefinder/viewfinder, I also at times wish for the composition accuracy of the ground-glass on an SLR. When I am working with a very high quality large format or medium format system I frequently rail against the lack of easy portability or ultra long lenses. You get the point, I’m sure.

Similarly with the F828 there are times that I wish that I could shoot at higher ISOs and not have to deal with noise, or encounter certain types of high contrast scenes where CA rears its ugly face. But then I revel in being able to have an 8 Megapixel camera with a fast and very high quality 28-200mm lens that fits in a coat pocket, and which I can easily carry all day, whether hiking in the mountains or exploring an exotic foreign city.

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The Conclusion

To paraphrase a recent American President – “It’s the pictures, stupid”. With the Sony I know that I can at times capture images that otherwise wouldn't be possible without much more expensive, bulkier and heavier gear. Is it therefore an adequate substitute for a high quality digital SLR? No, of course not. A DSLR with 7-8 Micron photosites will invariably have lower noise and produce higher quality images overall.

But, sometimes a digicam like the Sony F828 is all one needs. Image quality isn't an absolute. If it was we'd all be shooting with large format cameras, or using medium format digital backs. But just as with film-based cameras there's a need for a wide range of models to meet photographer's differing financial and technical needs. One size does not fit all. Until recently most digicams were the equivalent of film-based point-and-shoots. But models like this new Sony are pushing the envelope. We now have a decent alternative to larger and more expensive gear, and while their use entails compromise, most photographers will find that such cameras are likely able to produce images that meet their needs and exceed their expectations.

The Sony F828 is a compromise – a flawed jewel. But for me it’s also a keeper, and it has now become my light-weight travel camera of choice. At least until the next model that incorporates all of my suggested improvements comes out.

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DxO Analyzer
Optical Test Results

The Sony F828 has been subjected to a comprehensive optical evaluation using DxO Analyzer.
These results are found here.

The Winner is...

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Concepts: Camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital cameras, Pixel, Image resolution, Photographic lens

Entities: Land Rover, almost all DSLRs, my Canon 1Ds, Adobe, Europe, Tanzania, Chromatic Aberration, LCD screen, user interface, ISOs, Lake Manyara, Michael Reichmann, optical review, East Africa, Mid-Atlantic, CA, SLR

Tags: camera, Sony, images, chromatic aberration, image quality, focal lengths, new sony, review, sensor, Canon 1Ds, high quality, Sony F828 camera, rear lcd, Digital Bridge Cameras, DxO Analyzer, electronic viewfinder, better electronic viewfinder, camera system, medium format, wide angle setting, gear, photographer, Sony F828 review, primary camera, Cognitive Dissonance, Tanzania, Consumer Angst, initial impressions, format cameras, ones hands, je ne, light-weight travel camera, shutter release, Sony address, higher chromatic aberration, major camera, chromatic aberration characteristics, dust, Megapixel camera, ideal camera