Lessons Learned: The Battery

  By George Barr












We were fortunate enough to be able to take an Adventure Canada circumnavigation cruise around Newfoundland. The ship had arrived the evening before from South America and before that the Antarctic, and customs were being VERY thorough and we departed several hours late – already well after sunset and just plain getting dark.

Still, you don’t waste opportunities and many of us were on the top deck of Sea Adventurer (112 passengers) and watching the preparations for casting off – I tried to get a good shot of that activity from above, but the results weren’t impressive. I’d had fun in previous days photographing the ships, large and small, that were lined up in St. Johns harbour and now wanted to see what I could make of the cruise itself. Normally I wouldn’t have even considered shooting this late in the day, especially hand held. Tripods were out due to vibration of the ships engine. For the last year, my lightweight camera kit consisted of the Sony Nex-7, the Sony 10-18 mm. lens, the Zeiss 16-70 mm lens and the Sony 55-210 mm. lens, all of them image stabilized.

Shortly before the trip, I picked up the new Sony A6000, seduced by it’s promise of really fast focusing. What I actually got as a camera was adequate focusing but still not a camera I’d recommend for sports, birding or even grand children, yet an almost ideal travel camera because of the total size of the kit, sitting in a Thinktank Photo Retrospective 7. Once I had the camera, what I really found was that this camera had a truly fantastic electronic view finder – much less contrasty than the one on the Nex-7, it looked like seeing through a glass viewfinder only usually better. Things looked detailed and natural even though it had lower resolution than the viewfinder of the Nex-7. I recently loaned the A6000 to a friend and on the same day he was able to make some effective portraits without difficulty or even resorting to the manual.

Anyway, there I was on deck, it’s getting dark and the light is fading even as we eased out of the harbour and into the narrows. Our last sight on the left is of The Battery, a small neighbourhood hanging onto the rock that forms Signal Hill in St. Johns Newfoundland, picturesque much like the rest of St. Johns central.

Despite being “The Narrows”, details on shore were sufficiently far away I had mounted my 55-210 lens. I had no choice but to crank up ISO to 6400 and at 70 mm. focal length (on an APS-C size sensor camera so about 105 mm. in 35 mm. full frame terms) the exposure turned out to be 1/13 second.

Remember, this was hand held, on a moving ship, in almost dark, with a ridiculously low shutter speed for a telephoto lens, at a really high ISO. I anticipated getting a snapshot print as a result.

I made a number of images as we sailed past, but this one, with the sky cropped out entirely and the street lighting becoming a significant part of the composition that I particularly liked.

On returning to our cabin, magnified views of the image suggested the quality was very good. When brought into Lightroom for raw processing, it was even better.

I brightened the image somewhat to show all the rock detail (ie. the image was not only ISO 6400, it was underexposed). I used a small amount of noise reduction in Lightroom in the raw processing and transferred the image to Photoshop. I made some minor adjustments from there and made a print on 13X19 paper and took it to the office, where it has received more positive comments than any other image in recent months (ok, exc. for the owls – a story for another day).

Really, the print looks very good at that size – ISO 6400 and brightened, 1/13 second hand held – wow, we really have come a long way.

Lessons Learned

1. Just because the light is low doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try shooting. Often when shooting landscapes, I’m already pressing against the 30 second max. exposure (without going to the B setting), and here, image stabilization saved the day, and what is an inexpensive lens that wasn’t considered stellar in performance, did a very nice job thank you. Noise in the print looks like very modest film grain and isn’t at all obtrusive.

2. Top notch results can be obtained from mirrorless small cameras and they really have come into their own. There’s a lot to be said for a lightweight compact kit when traveling – easy to fly with, nothing to lug it around on walks, and not ostentatious when trying to shoot people.

3. A camera that doesn’t fight you makes photographing a lot more fun. In this case, other than formatting the memory cards, I rarely had to dip into menus, relying on the function button to bring up in the viewfinder all the things I might want to change, from ISO to multi exposure, metering, and so on. I’ve owned a number of cameras over the years that have tried to fight me – and I never kept them long. In the end, the A6000 was used for 80+% of the images on the trip, despite traveling with two other ‘better’ cameras. Where it did let me down was photographing people – focus was just too slow to catch people in action, though fine when they stop briefly. In the past I have made very nice head shots at iso 3200 at 210 mm. and 1/10 second hand held in normal nighttime dining room lighting from 15 feet. At Lanse Aux Meadows I photographed a replica Viking longboat in a very dark shed by bracing the camera against a post and making several second exposures.












The image above as displayed is a 100% section from the bottom right corner of this 24 megapixel image. I can read the sign on the building and see the trunks of the trees and individual branches as well as the lines of the clapboard houses and details inside the windows of the homes. This was at f5, wide open for this very compact lens. Look at the noise in the shadows – pretty darn impressive.

Now, this kind of quality isn’t limited to the Sony A6000. It reflects more the state of modern sensors, whether micro 4/3 or traditional crop sensor DSLR. It simply happens that the A6000 provided for me a combination of features that were near ideal for travel, enough pixels to make really great 13X19 prints and probably larger, compact lenses without going to too small a sensor, a great viewfinder, and focusing adequate to the kind of people pictures I generally make, if not actually ideal.