From the large format perspective, the full-frame Sony sensor delivers adequate resolution (42 MP) in a very portable package, allowing us to make 16x24 inch prints at 300 dpi with a few pixels to spare. The tonality and dynamic range is superb, often as good as we can obtain when using large format sheet film.
To get resolution like this across the entire image, we need to shoot lenses at their best aperture and keep the camera very steady. The larger the print, the more important this becomes.
This photo was underexposed dramatically. The shadows appear hopelessly dark. Using Adobe Camera Raw we have lightened the dark values. The A7RII sensor can accommodate a substantial range of brightness from outdoors to indoors.
Shooting the above photo, two exposures were made: one an 82MB RAW file, the other a 41MB Compressed RAW file. They were exported from Adobe Camera Raw with identical (synchronized) sharpening, noise reduction and monochrome conversion. Is there a difference ?
Here are 100% crops from the photos above. On a typical monitor at around 110 dpi, the full image would be roughly 50x75 inches (120x180 cm). Even at 100% magnification, the difference between these two versions is so small that a slight change in sharpening and noise reduction can hide any distinction whatsoever.
These drastically underexposed shadow areas were rescued in post-processing. How much of a difference can we expect in a properly exposed photograph ? If we need to save on storage, the Compressed Raw option is very attractive.
Brian Smith's Ultimate Guide to Fullframe E-Mount FE Lenses is comprehensive and regularly updated.
Although less frequently updated, here's another survey and evaluation of native full-frame lenses with electronic coupling for Sony E-Mount cameras by Phillip Reeve: Sony FE Lenses: a Comprehensive and Independent Guide. He also provides these additional helpful articles: The Best Lenses Below $499 for the Sony A7 Series and Beginner’s Guide to Manual Lenses on the Sony A7.
For news about digital equipment of all stripes, see Digital Photography Review.
For fine-art subjects (as opposed to snapshots, sports, wedding and fashion), manual focusing is preferable: we're rarely working quickly and we can't trust the camera to make the right artistic decision. For example, see below where sharp focus has been applied off-center.
Because the Sony provides focus-peaking and magnification, it's like using a loupe on a view camera. Mirrorless cameras provide a level of precise focus that can never be reached while looking through an SLR or rangefinder window.
Another advantage of manual focus: we can focus with the lens stopped down to the actual taking aperture. This not only helps us preview depth of field, it eliminates focus shift.
Sony mirrorless cameras have a very small flange-to-focus distance, allowing us to adapt a wide variety of 3rd party lenses such as Leica, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Voigtlander, etc. To shoot manual lenses, a simple affordable adapter is all that we need. I was disappointed with a no-name bargain adapter (it developed a light leak which resulted in flare), but have had good experience with Fotodiox Sony E-Mount adapters.
For fine art subjects (landscape, still-life, portraits), older lenses are often an excellent choice. Many perform just as well as the newest ones, the only difference being that they are manual focus and have no built-in stabilization. Available in the used market, they are affordably priced.
Prime lenses are often best when possible: zoom lenses exhibit focus shift. More importantly, they suffer from barrel, pincushion and mustache distortion and lower edge performance which varies with focal length. Mustache distortion can be troublesome to correct, even with modern software.
For this reason, prime lenses are better-suited to photographs of architecture and other man-made objects. Prime lenses are almost always smaller, lighter, sharper and cheaper.
If we crop a full-frame 24x36mm digital sensor to make prints at 8x10, 11x14, 16x20 etc, the sensor becomes 24x30mm. Reducing the horizontal dimension by 20%, all lenses give a 20% greater effective magnification. For example, a 42mm lens on this cropped full-frame format functions like a 50mm "standard" lens... etc. On APS-C cameras which are 2/3 the size of full-frame, the sensor size becomes 16x20mm.
Modern portrait shooters often select lenses in the range of 85mm to 135mm to isolate the subject against a blurred background. This works well in a commercial setting where images are viewed only briefly and must compete for attention. However, portraits made from a distance can feel impersonal and flat.
The traditional formula to determine focal length for portraits was film/sensor height plus width. For example, a 9-inch lens was favored on 4x5 inch film since 4+5 = 9 inches. Lenses from 200 to 240mm roughly match this formula. The horizontal angle of view is approximately 30 degrees.
On a 24x30mm sensor, 24+30 = 54 so 55mm lenses works nicely. They conveys a heightened but natural sense of intimacy and depth, not only for portraits but for most subjects. On the 24x30mm sensor, I use a 55mm lens for almost all of my photographs, but the actual range spans 50mm to 60mm.
Fortunately, lenses in this range are generally the best performers ! Cropping to the 4x5 format further improves image quality because we discard the extremes of lens coverage where resolution is weakest. Working in the traditional aspect ratio, our lenses receive a free upgrade !
There are countless lenses available in the normal focal length but for its combination of image quality, flexibility and low price I chose the 55mm f/2.8 AIS Micro Nikkor from 1979. You can buy this lens used on eBay or from KEH but after decades it is still available for purchase new because it's a fine performer even by modern standards. It focuses down to 1:2 but is very sharp at all distances due to what Nikon calls Close Range Correction: a floating internal element.
With this model, no lens shade is required because the optics are recessed within the barrel. Because this lens does not open wide it is light and portable, taking 52mm filters. I love macro lenses: they are usually free from chromatic aberration and distortion. Many standard lenses are sharp but if you like to shoot at close distance without needing an adapter and you appreciate not needing a lens hood, this is a fine choice.
For a collection of images made with the 55m Micro Nikkor, click here.
The Voigtlander 75mm Color-Heliar f/2.5 was introduced in 1999 and the Leica screw-mount version is portable, affordable and sharp with a 10-bladed aperture and excellent blur rendition. Although not officially a macro lens, it performs very nicely at close range using a stretch adapter or extension tubes.
The lens shade is integrated into the design and the lens cap fits over the shade, making it even more portable in actual use. Weighing only 230g, it takes 43mm filters and is only 65mm long: less than the width of many modern designs. Even with the lens hood in place and an adapter attached, this lens fits in your pocket ! You can carry it for long periods of time.
There are faster lenses in this focal length, but I prefer lenses which do not open very wide: they are smaller, lighter, more affordable and optically superior. Lenses which open wide often have mediocre performance at wide settings, particularly away from the center of the image. If not, they are prohibitively expensive, large and heavy.
For a collection of images made with the 75m Color Heliar, click here.
The 35-105mm Zoom Nikkor Macro was introduced in 1983 and is available at modest price in the used market. A manual focus zoom, it opens no wider than f/3.5 so it's compact, taking 52mm filters like the 55mm Micro Nikkor. As with all zoom lenses, sharpness at the extreme edges falls below center sharpness but if we crop to either the 4x5 or 5x8 ratio, this lens is quite sharp. It's a capable performer in a portable package. Shhh, don't tell anyone!
This lens has 16 elements in 12 groups and a ring which shifts the internal arrangement, allowing you to gradually transition to macro mode. At the 35mm setting, it can focus down to a 1:4 ratio. If we add a short extension tube the lens will focus very closely at all focal lengths. Because of the macro design it performs well at short range as well as distance.
For a collection of images made with the 35-105mm Zoom Nikkor Macro, click here.
The 70-300mm Nikkor AF ED is very affordable and portable compared to similar offerings. This model provides autofocus on Nikon cameras, but no image stabilization. Like most zoom lenses it exhibits distortion, aberrations and lesser edge performance at various focal lengths: I never shoot it wide open and I use a simple Nikon-to-Sony adapter which does not provide autofocus.
To get higher resolution or built-in image stabilization, professionals who make huge prints may require a newer model - at much higher cost - but if we shoot at best aperture, print at reasonable size and avoid the extremes of lens coverage, this lens offers long reach and light weight at a very attractive price-point.
For a collection of images made with the 70-300mm Nikkor AF ED, click here.