A Reasonably Non-Geeky Guide to Lens Tests and Reviews
Hardly a day goes by that on some forum somewhere a nasty argument is going on about lens testing and reviewing. (Going forward, I’m going to use the abbreviation R/Ts for Reviewers and Testers.) As with all things on the internet, these discussions tend to gravitate quickly to absolute black-and-white with no gray. This one’s great; this one sucks.
I made a bit of fun about his in a recent post. The truth is that most sites have worthwhile information for you, but none gives you all the information you might want. I’ve spent most of my life in various types of scientific research, and I’m accustomed to evaluating information from an ‘is this valid’ standpoint, not just ‘what does it conclude’. And because I get to see behind the curtain of the photography industry I have a different perspective than most of you. So I thought I’d share how I look at tests and reviews.
When I first saw the Sony FS5, I figured that it could be a fun secondary camera and not more. I expected to use it primarily as a slow-motion camera when I need one; I didn’t see it becoming too much more than that. Sony’s FS5 is the smaller and lighter sibling of the Sony FS7. This little guy compromises very little, making it an excellent B camera to the Sony FS7 and even a perfectly sufficient A camera.
I primarily shoot weddings and have been using the Canon C100 as my main and secondary camera for the last two years. For me, it has been an excellent workhorse and has been one of the most well-rounded camera packages that I have used. So the biggest issue for me was that it needed to be able to cut with the Canon C100 if it was going fit into my kit.
At face value, the Sony FS5 crushes the Canon C100 regarding the overall feature set. The FS5 offers High Frame Rate recording at up to 480fps, though the image is cropped and there is a max recording time of 8 seconds, 120fps has a max recording time of 16 seconds. I found that 120fps was sufficient for most situations, and I was able to get great shots even when handholding or when using a small rig such as the Zacuto Enforcer.
I found that the camera feels pretty comfortable, and the controls are pretty user-friendly. The handgrip unit is different than most others and takes a bit of getting used to. Since it’s molded to your hand, I had to always adjust the orientation based on where I held the camera. The camera is surprisingly small and light which is nice, but it is also a bit plastic, it doesn’t feel nearly as sturdy as a Canon C300 or Sony FS7.
While most professional camcorders have a built-in Neutral Density filter, the Sony FS5 not only has one, but it has an electronic variable ND that has a range of 1/4ND to 1/128ND. This is one feature that I didn’t think would be a big deal, but turned out to be one of my favorite. Walking around the streets of New York, going from shadows to full-sun, I was able to dial in my exposure using ND, allowing me to leave the aperture wide open while fluidly changing exposure.
The battery life was excellent using the typical Sony U60 battery, the same battery used with the Sony FS7 and other Sony systems. I pretty much kept the camera on for 6 hours while using the viewfinder primarily and the battery level didn’t dip below 40%. However, I completely expect it to last nearly all day, considering the battery is so big and hcumbersome.
The low-light performance was one of the most limited features for me. The shadows were very noisy right out of the camera. Even after a bit of grading, I could only minimize the noise. When I grade, I don’t like to crush the blacks too much (if at all) and I just was not able to get a look out of this camera that made me happy in high-ISO situations.
To summarize, I enjoy using the 120fps and 240fps slow motion, the ergonomics of the camera is very nice, and it is very lightweight which makes it an excellent option when shooting handheld. The built-in variable ND filter is one of the standout features to me; it is so convenient when shooting run and gun projects. Finally, the most disappointing part of this camera was the low-light performance. The noise in the shadows was very frustrating and when comparing it to my Canon C100, the Sony FS5 is significantly underwhelming.
Overall, this camera is a great option for most jobs. In my opinion, it is best suited for run and gun productions such as documentaries or weddings. Putting this camera in context of our current professional camcorder world, I think the FS5 lands somewhere between the C100 Mark II and the Canon C300 Mark II. The HFR options, internal HD 10-bit 4:2:2, and 14-stop dynamic range pretty quickly put it head and shoulders above the Canon C100 Mark II. However, the FS5 shooting in 4K is 8-bit 4:2:0 (though with the new update it can output raw 4K, we are talking internal specs here) while the Canon C300 Mark II offers 10-bit at 4:2:2 and 12-bit at 4:4:4. When looking at the Sony FS7 next to the Sony FS5, of course, the FS7 is the clear winner, as it should be, they are two cameras serving two separate facets of the market. The FS5 is much smaller and lighter than the Sony FS7, making it ideal for situations when you need high-quality HD video and in a small package. For me, the low light shadow noise is a deal breaker for me, and I don’t see myself reaching for this camera as my primary camera. However, when a project necessitates slow-motion, it will certainly be the one I’ll use.
I make a joke about this sometimes, but I think it’s more and more appropriate. Every day, I see more and more people take some single bit of data published on a lens and extrapolate the entire meaning of the photographic universe from that bit of data. My joke has always gone, “a single lens analysis is like measuring a third-grader and then publishing that third-graders are 157 cm tall.”
Almost every online resource gives you some useful information. At the same time, absolutely every resource only provides you part of the picture (pun intended). Oh, and that includes pictures (another pun intended). So without further ado, I will proceed to make fun of every type of online lens analysis, because they are interesting and fun, but really not worth getting so upset about.
With the recent celebration of being ten years in business, there is a sense of nostalgia throughout the office. What started as an idea by Roger, and a small garage full of camera gear, turned into an incredibly successful business that has been able to help and service millions of photographers in the industry. But the business at LensRentals.com hasn’t been the only thing that has changed considerably over the years, the world of photography and videography has as well. So when coming up with an idea on how to highlight the last ten years of camera and optic innovations, we decided to build a list of our favorite products that have been announced in the last ten years.
Not only are we staffed by experts in the field of photography and video gear, we also staff a considerable amount of photographers and videographers – each with their own unique styles and preferences. What we’ve found, is that there is no right piece of gear for everyone, and we all have varying tastes and expectations when it comes to gear. So while building a comprehensive ‘Top Ten’ list, we ran into a variety of opinions. After some long discussions, here are our collective top ten products in photography and videography over the last ten years, in no particular order.
Top Ten Gear of the Last Ten Years (In No Particular Order)
The anti-cell phone camera. Yes, it has some shortcomings compared to a $45,000 Phase or Hasselblad, but it’s 15% of the price and has a decent selection of relatively reasonably priced lenses. Proportionately, that’s like being able to buy a nice full-frame SLR for $450. Of course, not everyone wants or can afford medium format, but it makes it an option for a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have that option. A year from now I might be putting the Hasselblad X1D-50c in place of it, but not until I see if Hasselblad has begun to solve their lens problems.
If the Pentax 645Z should be remembered for anything, it’s how it made Medium Format practical in a digital era. Sure, Phase One and Hasselblad still exist, and are more common in the industry than ever, but Pentax was really able to break the ground and show people what medium format systems were capable of, without breaking the bank (in comparison to Hasselblad’s and Phase One Systems). It misses some key features, like a modular body, and the lens lineup is pretty lackluster by comparison, but the system give’s people an opportunity to see what that Sony 50MP 44MMx33MM CMOS sensor is truly all about.
Usually the word “new” when associated with Leica cameras indicates a slightly different surface finish or that one of the already few features has been removed. Leica has, after all, been tweaking the rangefinder camera for over a century now. The introduction of the Leica SL (Type 601), in 2015 was perhaps a necessary change from the company’s norm, one that might enable Leica to be more competitive and utilize now standard technologies in ways that a rangefinder can not. The Leica SL is capable of using any Leica lens (via adapter) including of course the M-mount lenses, as well as R and S lenses. So far the native lenses have proven to have comparable autofocus and stabilization. But the Leica SL (Type 601) carries with it Leica’s propensity for refinement, and it is the intuitive layout that makes this camera so enjoyable. Versatility? Absolutely. Features? As should be expected, but chosen carefully.
The Leica SL Type 601 is currently my favorite camera available. It looks big and bulky and sort of ugly, but once it’s in the hands, it feels just right. Image quality is excellent, with great dynamic range and noise performance. The EVF is the best one I’ve ever used on any mirrorless camera. I can focus the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux wide open in a dark bar and nail the focus 70% of the time. Oh, and the ability to use all M-mount lenses on it? Yes, please.
Before the Canon 11-24mm f/4L came out, Canon had nothing that could compete with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. They made this lens even wider with image quality that is just as impressive all the way to 11mm. Yes, it’s big and front heavy, but when you need to get really wide without the fisheye distortion, this lens is the one to grab.
The Canon 11-24mm f/4L was a game-changing lens when it was first released, and so far nobody else has really competed. There are lenses nearly as wide, but nothing nearly as wide that is so breathtakingly sharp. It’s not an everyday lens, of course, but it provides a completely different look and perspective for those who take the time to master it. It’s a lens I think about whenever a bunch of us are photographing the same thing because the photos I take with it make that thing look different than the photos everyone else took.
In the Spring of 2013, Freefly Systems shook the filmmaking world with the introduction of their M?VI M10 stabilizer. Since that time, the design has inspired innumerable imitators, none of which live up to the nimble performance of their original. However, it is our opinion, that Freefly Systems ultimately perfected the design with their M?VI M5 that followed in 2014. The Movi M5 reduced the overall size and weight of the gimbal, without sacrificing performance. On the contrary, many happy users have found the Movi M5 much more capable than its larger siblings (M10/M15). If a camera can be hacked onto it, the M5 will fly it better than any other gimbal on the market.
I’ve only been working at Lensrentals for two years, so I wasn’t around for video milestones like our first audio recorder or cinema camera, but I’d been here about three months when we started carrying the Movi M5, and it felt like a pretty big step. At the time, the Movi was the only handheld motorized gimbal, and it changed the way a lot of people shoot video. After a couple years and countless imitations, it’s still probably the best gimbal on the market, and it’s still really fun to use.
I remember when the Movi M10 was announced, and the little promotional video put together by Vincent Laforet was released. Everyone on my social media collectively lost their minds as the possibilities this new stabilizer could bring. Since it’s announcement, steady cam operations have truly gone to the next level and pieces like the Movi M5 make it possible, allowing for some silky smooth camera operation in situations never really seen before.
The Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II is not your grandfather’s DO lens. Every other diffraction optics lens ever made has been an optical compromise of some degree that we accepted because the lens was so much smaller and lighter than it would be without diffraction optics. This one is as sharp and contrasty as a regular refractive lens, but still significantly smaller and lighter. It’s lighter, about the same price, and arguably of better image quality than a Canon 300mm f/2.8 with a teleconverter. This has never been done before, and rumor has it may never be done again. If that’s the case this will be a collector’s item, similar to the old Canon 200mm f/1.8.
The Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS II is a lens you have to see to truly appreciate. It’s a 400mm lens I can actually hold. And unlike the previous version, this lens has great contrast and clarity. This is the perfect lens for wildlife or sports shooters who are traveling or are getting up there in age (like Roger).
After their previous entry to the 5D line of professional DSLRs started a digital cinematography coup, Canon had customer’s expectations quite high for a follow-up. Pre-release rumors swirled with video-centric features such as Raw codecs, high frame-rate acquisition in HD, and continuous auto-focus. In early 2012 Canon delivered the 5D Mark III, a camera with none of those features. Needless to say, early buzz was polarized, to say the least; nevertheless, the camera proved to be a solid performer, quickly overtaking the 5D Mark II. Its success highlights one the best qualities of Canon cameras, a devotion to prioritizing reliability over all else in their design.
I’m not a super-experienced or highly-skilled still photographer, especially compared to many of my co-workers. I dabble, though, and when I do, I usually rent a 5D Mark III. Not because it’s objectively the best camera we carry, or the most exciting, but because I’ve shot with it enough that I can finally operate it without fumbling. There’s something to be said for sticking with a camera until you know it by heart. Plus it’s like always in stock – purely because of the number of units we carry.
I continue to use the Canon 5d Mark III more than any other. When it was new, it completely upgraded my DSLR shooting experience with amazing low light performance paired with Canon L series glass. Not to mention a beautiful rear display. I still use it because the image quality is great for what I need while keeping the file sizes manageable. This camera has been the long time favorite of our wedding and portrait customers.
The Sigma 24-35 f/2 is unique for a modern zoom. The short focal range is an interesting compromise to achieve the open aperture of f/2, where most “fast” zooms only achieve f/2.8. It covers the three classic wide angles (24, 28, and 35) leaving those situations requiring longer focal lengths, often portraiture, to faster primes that will offer a narrower depth of field. The image quality at the extremes of the focal range is also very consistent, as there is less to balance out optically. I think of it not so much as a short zoom but an extended prime.
This glass can be half-empty, or half-full. It’s a pretty limited range for a zoom, roughly 1.5X. It’s not as wide an aperture as a fast prime. But it is the first full-frame zoom with a f/2.0 aperture and you have to be impressed when a company does something that’s never been done before. You have to be more impressed when they make it optically excellent. I was certainly ready to say ‘yes, but it’s a full stop wider so we can’t expect it to be quite as good’. But it’s every bit as good as any other best-quality zoom. And far less expensive than any other best-quality zoom.
The Profoto B1 Strobe has changed my life as a photographer more so than any other piece of gear made. I’ve always been a Strobist at heart, and prior to the Profoto B1 system, I was often carrying Alien Bee systems on location, along with their massive Vagabond II battery system. Now, I had all that power at my fingertips, in a small and lightweight package. But Profoto also broke ground on being among the first strobes with TTL and High-Speed sync, giving them an edge over just about every other strobe manufacturer ever.
While the Profoto B1 wasn’t the first battery powered strobe we ever carried, it marked a real turning point in quality, reliability, and performance over the competition. TTL and high-speed sync in a 500Ws battery powered strobe compatible with the whole range of Profoto modifiers? Seriously, what’s not to love? And I loved this light a lot, right up until its little brother, the Profoto B2 came along. For my needs, the Profoto B2 is a better option, but most of our clients need the extra power the Profoto B1 can deliver.
The Sony A7R II is my second favorite camera available, and the one I shoot with the most. The small size makes it easy to travel with, especially when I go camping and hiking or when I go urban exploring. The high resolution combined with the great low light capabilities of the backside illuminated sensor are a dream combination for all my late night shooting for my personal work. And the in-body stabilization is a godsend.
It’s pretty simple: 42 megapixels, 5-axis in-body image stabilization, 4K video, and hybrid autofocus at a reasonable price. Add to that faster burst shooting, reduced shutter vibrations, and electronic first curtain and you have a game-changing camera. It’s a big improvement over the Sony A7R, which was a big improvement over the Sony A7. I love the Sony A7r II camera for what it is, and also for the rate of improvement, which makes me a little giddy thinking about what the A7R III might be.
In 2008 the cheapest large sensor digital cinema cameras were tens of thousands of dollars and weighed 20+ pounds. Canon’s decision to add 1080/24p video recording to one of their still photography cameras changed the world. The 5D mark II upended an industry, launched careers, changed attitudes, and altered the look of cinematography for the next decade, all on its own. It is one of the most important cameras in history.
The Canon 5d Mark II was the first full frame digital camera I ever owned. I bought it shortly after it’s announcement in 2008, and it was really a groundbreaking piece of equipment for its time. Being the first Canon DSLR with video capabilities, the Canon 5d Mark II can really be credited for the DSLR videography boom that took place after it’s announcement. Suddenly, shows like House, and movies like Black Swan and Captain America were able to harness the power of the Canon 5d Mark II, bringing professional level video camera capabilities in a small, and affordable package. While it’s a bit old now, it’s impressive to know that a camera nearly ten years old can hold up to the standards of this ever-developing industry.
What do you think of our list, was there any big surprises as to what we’ve decided on? Over the last ten years, the photography and videography industries have changed faster than ever before, so some pieces of gear had to be left out on our list. If you have anything that you’d like to add, please do so in the comments below, and we look forward to another ten years of being your source for gear rentals and expert advice!
The Sony a6300 is pretty stunning for what it can do within the limits of an APS-C sized sensor and at such a budget-friendly price. It’s supposed to be replacing Sony’s a6000, and it’s very well built toward both photo and video functionality; the trusty a6000, just upgraded. It’s light, it’s powerful, and it’s affordable. In my review, I will cover what’s so special about this new camera on the video side of things.
The build quality of the Sony a6300 is nice and light like the original a6000, but with a sleek new matte finish, and a more ergonomic grip. The EVF is bright and sharp, and the LCD is of the traditional stylings of the a7 series, which in my opinion could definitely be a tilt and swivel by now. This time around, the buttons are tighter and more polished than of its predecessor. Overall, a general improvement in housing.
In the world of production, codecs are everything, and as far as codecs go, this APS-C sensor camera is up to today’s standards, with internal 4:2:0, 8-bit UHD 4K recording formats up to 100mb/s/30fps, FullHD up to 120fps, as well as still offering the ability to record 1080/4K at a higher bitrate including 4:2:2 color sampling with the help of an external recorder. This internal 4K compression quality turns out even better than that of the Sony a7s Mark II, resulting in a much better contrast detailing for a much richer image.
Moving on to internal specifications of this little monster, the base ISO of this camera is a good 800, of course producing a bit more grain than other cameras due to its smaller sensor size. The low light capabilities of this camera are actually really surprising, showing exceptional work between ISOs 1600-25,600, granted the latter is a bit harder to distinguish details, but still workable. Its dynamic range is very impressive, clocking in at about 11 stops, just a stop or 2 below that of the Sony a7s Mark II, compared to most modern cinema cameras that score between 10-13 stops on the charts. In my experience, this results in some fantastic color grading compared to some higher end cameras out there.
There are some cons, but not too many. The rolling shutter on this camera is pretty bad. If you plan on high action shooting, run away from this camera, far away. The SD card slot, needing much improvement, is inconveniently located underneath the battery door, making fast swaps hard and gimbal swapping even harder. There is no headphone jack and the preamps inside are noisy and cheap. Shoot in 4K on this camera because its FullHD(1080) mode comes in on the soft side of things, much softer than the HD modes of almost all of Sony’s previous mirrorless camera systems. Not as much of a con as it is a nuisance, the LCD on the Sony a6300 will go black while recording to an external recorder, however, the UI will remain after record button has been triggered.
As for my personal take on it, I think it’s a fabulous little mirrorless camera for video, and it’s hard to find a better one with the features and the price point that the a6300 has. When I was shooting with the camera, it didn’t feel like the cheaper crop frame cameras I had used in the past, but more like a smaller version of a more limited a7 series camera physical and spec-wise. It obviously had more noise/grain in the image because of the smaller sensor, but it was actually very decent compared to how I was feeling about it in the beginning. I shoot a lot indoors where low noise is a must for me, and this camera held very well around those dangerous ISOs we all fear, allowing me to feel comfortable just shooting like I normally do with my own a7s. What made me really happy was that I could finally use all those faster E-mount crop lenses at their full potential, rather than be stuck having to use the very limited selection of Sony full frame glass, or renting an adapter to use full frame Canon, Nikon, or the heavily expensive Leica lenses with a camera like the a7s ii, which actually can’t even record 4k with crop lenses. The internal 4k image sharpness was superbly crisp, and I still couldn’t believe it was sharper than the a7s ii’s internal 4k image after reviewing a few comparison shots. The rolling shutter was pretty bad, but just don’t film high paced subjects or sports and you’re A-okay. I was able to fully satisfy my color correcting hunger thanks to the stunning dynamic range of 11 stops, blending in almost perfectly with other higher end Sony workflows like the Sony FS5 and Sony FS7.
Lastly, all this for just around $1000, compared to price tags of $3000-$4000, makes this camera even more appealing to the budget cameraman like myself.
Internal and external 4K recording capabilities
Good build quality
Limitless lens adaptability
Great price point
In short, the Sony a6300 graded nicely, the internals are very well thought out, and being an APS-C sensor camera, the lens choices are much wider and cheaper than if you were to be using a full frame camera, and allows for the use of third party Speedboosters to bring it up to a Super 35 sensor image, just in case you need that extra bump.
The only things I would change would be relocating the SD card slot to the side of the camera like the rest of the Sony a7 series, and improving the quality of the camera’s FullHD resolutions. Having to shoot 4K a majority of the time to achieve the results I need, winds up costing me precious memory storage if I don’t have a larger card available for recording. Another problem with being forced to shoot 4K for the sharpest image is that lower end editing computers have more trouble handling the footage as opposed to the native 1080 footage so many of us still work with on a daily basis.
Aside from the pros and cons, when it comes down to it, if you’re needing a nice, budget-friendly B/ C cam to coincide with your other bigger camera systems, well then this is a good go-to for you. Remember, though, only you can know what’s best for you, so get out there and start shooting!