Want to know the ins and outs of your Sony Alpha or NEX camera? Gary Friedman can help.
An experienced Sony shooter, Gary is the author of 13 e-books, providing photographers a detailed guide to help them take full advantage of their Sony gear.
His latest release is a comprehensive manual on the Sony Alpha a99 camera. We caught up with Gary to learn about his e-book and his favorite photography tips for shooters of all levels.
Sony Blog (SB): Gary, let’s talk about you …
SB: What sparked your interest in photography? How long have you been doing it?
Gary: When I was about 15 years old my father gave me his old rangefinder camera, and at about the same time, I learned how to turn the downstairs bathroom into a B&W darkroom. After a long time, I applied my engineering expertise to automate my darkroom using my HP-41c handheld computer. Obviously a lot of detail came in between.
I turned 50 a few years ago so as you can surmise I’ve been doing this for a very long time.
Pictured above: 15 year old Gary in the darkroom
SB: What’s your photography style?
Gary: I think I can safely split my work into three categories:
1) Travel photography
2) Studio and editorial photography
3) Historical photography – taking pictures of completely ordinary things, knowing that in 30 – 50 years they will have some historical value. I actually wrote about this in my blog post.
SB: What do you like to shoot the most?
Gary: The grandkids.
SB: This book is over 600 pages. It means that you’ve uncovered all there is to know about the a99. Any special tips you’re especially fond of?
Gary: Two tips seem to really surprise and delight people. The first is the realization that Face Detection is not just some gimmick; it’s truly useful and works faster / better than the old Focus-Lock-Recompose-Shoot method I had mastered over 25 years ago. Plus, the camera gives exposure priority to faces if it recognizes them, so I get better shots with fast-moving kids AND it handles bad light automatically – all with one feature.
The second tip is to combine DMF (Direct Manual Focusing) with Peaking Level / Peaking Color – even if you don’t intend to focus manually, this combination will show you very clearly what the camera has focused on, and you can know in an instant if it made a mistake. (This was especially valuable with the early NEX cameras, whose AF was fooled by specular highlights reflected off water in daylight.)
SB: In addition to the manual settings, the a99 has some of the creative auto features like Handheld Twilight and Multi-Frame Noise Reduction. When do you recommend using manual modes vs. some of the pre-settings?
Gary: Well, the features you mention can be handy if you didn’t bring a tripod with you and the light is low. Of the new low-light features, my favorite is the Multi-Frame Noise Reduction, which merges several consecutive shots together but still allows you to change many camera settings such as white balance.
Manual modes are best when you’ve pre-visualized your shot, and you have the time to execute your vision. In that scenario the old tools are the best: Tripod, low ISO, RAW, SteadyShot = off.
SB: You cover video recording in this book. For the photographer getting into video with their DSLR, what advise do you have for them in settings?
Gary: That’s a tough one. For beginners I recommend shooting .mp4 (because it’s universally readable, like .jpgs) and choose the 1440 x 1080 12M setting. That should take the complexity out of the video settings.
SB: The a99 supports RAW shooting. When shouldn’t you use RAW?
Gary: RAW is a religious issue for some people, and it shouldn’t be. First let me state that if your light is good, and if your exposure is right for that light, then your images won’t benefit much from shooting RAW. That’s how we handled exposure during the days of shooting Kodachrome.
If your light isn’t good, or you’re not sure about which white balance to use or other camera settings, then you can easily shoot in RAW and figure it out later. RAW can be a safety net in that way.
When shouldn’t you use RAW? Well, there are many cool features of the A99 which cannot be used for technical reasons while shooting RAW. My favorites are the built-in corrections for distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberrations for select Sony lenses. Others include the High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode, Multi-Frame Noise Reduction, sweep panorama, and all of the Picture Effects (if you like Instagram you’ll love these).
SB:What’s your feeling on some Sony cameras not supporting RAW. Is RAW for everyone?
Gary: RAW is most certainly not for everyone. Beginners especially seem to think that you can’t get “Wow!”-type shots unless you shoot raw, which is patently untrue. In my seminars I pass around a few pages of mounted Kodachrome slides which I have licensed many times in my life. All are “Wow!” shots because the light and composition are spot on — neither Photoshop nor RAW were involved. So Light and Composition are what’s important – orders of magnitude more important than shooting RAW and postprocessing.
Having said that, RAW can be essential if you’re shooting in extremely low light, as you can get rid of the high ISO noise in Lightroom better than what the camera can do automatically in .jpgs.
SB: You’ve written lots of books about Sony cameras. For someone who may be used their point and shoot or camera phone and now wants to get more interested in photography, what’s the camera you tend to recommend?
Gary: Definitely the NEX cameras, as they were designed specifically for people graduating from their mobile phone cameras (but want significantly higher quality images). The menu system and user interface of the NEX 5R, for example, mimics the way a mobile phone works by employing a touch screen for focusing and shooting – just touch your subject and the camera does the rest.
SB: Why pick that camera?
Gary: That was an arbitrary example. Every camera is different, and is designed to cater to different needs. One of my favorite cameras right now is the NEX-6, which has a slightly more conventional user interface and supports wireless flash, one of my all-time favorite tools for adding drama and “Wow!” to my images.
SB: At what point in skill set should someone consider an a99 over some of the other models out there. Is the a99 for everyone?
Gary: Just as medium format photography is not for everyone, neither is a full-frame camera. Larger sensors mean you have to work harder to achieve the kind of incredible sharpness the Zeiss glass is capable of producing. Commercial / advertising and studio photographers will love it because it can produce outstanding image quality when the light is good and you’ve nailed down all your other variables. Have a look at the image of the cat I took in the studio for an example of what this camera can do when you’re “firing on all 8 cylinders”.
SB: So for the non a99 users out there, what’s your favorite photo tip you like to share about Sony cameras?
Gary: Well, I’ve personally been spoiled by the twist-and-flip rear display, which doesn’t appear on any other high-end camera. I’ve also been spoiled by the ability to see your white balance, exposure, and histogram in the viewfinder before you take your shot (no other high-end camera offers this either) and the fact that I can instantly review my image without having to resort to “chimping” (constantly taking my eye away from the viewfinder to look at the rear LCD), and I can shoot movies using the EVF so I can see and frame my subjects on very bright days (again, not possible on a DSLR), and I can follow-focus in movie mode much more smoothly than any DSLR thanks to that semi-transparent mirror.
So my favorite photo tip is, try not to appear too smug when using Sony cameras around other photographers. (Just kidding!)
Really the best tip I can leave for anyone is just as there is no substitute for proper focusing, there is no substitute for good light. (None!) Learn to see light as the camera does and that alone will improve your images substantially.