UP TO SPEED?
Marvelling at the imaging performance of the Sony A7S III at very high sensitivity settings – it still looks good at ISO 51,200 – it was a reminder of how far we’ve come in fairly recent times. I started my career shooting Kodachrome 64 – that’s ISO
64 – and then switched to Fujichrome Velvia 50 when the Kodak product started to become harder to get processed. Velvia 50 was rated at ISO 50, but if you wanted more details in the shadows you shot it at ISO 32. Anything above ISO 400 was pretty terrible in colour transparency films and the limit with colour negative was really ISO 800 if you didn’t want loads of grain. I rarely, if ever, shot with anything faster than ISO 100, even with motorsport, and can’t really recall it being a big problem… but it must have been restrictive.
We now pretty much take being able to dial up to ISO 6400 – or even beyond – for granted as most of the recent DSLRs and mirrorless cameras deliver reasonable results at these sensitivity settings. The A7S III (you can read our full review in this issue) performs well at
ISO speeds that we could only dream of when shooting film because of its larger pixels – the result of having only 12 million of them on a full size sensor – which deliver a much higher signal-to-noise ratio. Remember when 12 megapixels was mega? That’s in the even more recent past – for example, the Nikon D3 appeared in 2007 – and we’re starting to settle on the 45MP to 50MP resolution range as being the new normal with full-frame sensors. As we found with the A7S III, 12MP still does the job well with the added advantage of a wider dynamic range and enhanced sensitivity, but Sony primarily targets this camera at videomakers and its remarkable stills capability is just a fortuitous by-product. I guess we won’t be going back, even though I still use my 2007-vintage D3 on occasion as it’s more than enough for any magazine work. I was also once more than happy with its 9fps shooting speed – in fact, that was blisteringly fast back in 2007 – but it looks a bit sluggish now that we’re talking 20fps or even 30fps and, what’s more, with continuous autofocusing adjustment. The Nikon F4 – through which I would have put a great many rolls of Velvia 50 – looks positively glacial at 4fps, but again I don’t recall it being overly problematic, even with motorsport. It was what you had, so you just worked with it… or around it. Nevertheless, 20fps is brilliant for shooting racing cars and you never miss a frame, although there are an awful lot of them to sift through when you get back to the office.
How much faster can we go? Well, obviously 20fps is only fractionally slower than video at 25fps and, with 8K, each frame is a 33MP frame, so the oft-predicted convergence is now very much upon us. Sony’s recently-announced
Alpha 1 does 50MP stills at 30fps, which means it’s essentially shooting video at this resolution if only for a short burst… but who needs any more than 400 frames every time they press the shutter? Oh yes, and it maintains full AF and AE tracking at 30fps.
I know I want it, but I don’t know that I need it… the reality is that the A7S III’s 12MP res at 10fps would cover pretty much all my requirements, but these days more is always more when it comes to camera specs. As a camera reviewer, I’ve long stopped suggesting that we’ve gone as far as we can go and, sooner or later, 8K at 120fps will be a reality, but what would you do with it? And we all know the law of diminishing returns that starts to kick in with ultra-high pixel sensors… there are very real physical and performance limitations here. There are, of course, plenty of good reasons for adopting the latest and greatest in camera tech and spec. Today’s professional photographer needs to be ready for everything and anything in terms of what you might be called upon to shoot – including, increasingly, video – but as always it’s still all about making the numbers work for you creatively and commercially.