Castlerigg Stone Circle illuminated by moonlight on a winter’s night. 30 sec exposure at f/8, ISO 200. Orion’s belt clearly defined in the break of clouds directly over the monument.

Cameras these days don’t just have fantastic resolution, some also have amazing control of noise, meaning that you can take excellent photographs with them even in the near dark. I was at Castlerigg Stone circle at night recently camera testing the ground breaking Sony A7r high resolution full-frame system camera. The A7r has astonishing medium-format-like resolution from its 36 million pixels and lack of low pass filter. It also displays pretty impressive long exposure noise control, a very wide dynamic range, from deepest shadows to brightest highlights and additionally, very good high ISO capabilities. Sony A7rAll this makes the A7r far more capable for ultra low light, night photography than you might expect from such a high resolution camera.

Castlerigg is an amazing neolithic monument c. 3200 BC, this stone circle also known as the Carles is near Keswick and situated in an open natural amphitheatre of Lakeland Fells.

The night we picked, the moon was out and the constellation of Orion, in all his majesty, blazed out in the night sky right over the monument, like a signpost in the heavens.  One could well imagine how in ancient times, a night like this would have been an equally awesome sight, heavy with import for the people for whom the features of the night sky had a huge significance; in the tracking of time, the procession of the seasons, planting of crops and other spiritual inspiration we can only guess at.

Not a bad result tom the A7r at ISO1500, especially when downsized from the huge 2 foot wide files the 36 million pixels provide.

Not a bad result from the A7r at ISO1500, especially when downsized from the huge 2 foot wide files the 36 million pixels provide.

On our night too, it felt propitious. The stones were laid out as though on a stage, dramatically lit at intervals by the moon. A fine spread of slowly moving clouds parted from time to time providing additional interest and drama.

A totally dark scene to the naked eye, literally pitch black to our vision until the glow on the horizon and moonlight in the clouds reveals detail at ISO6400, that's usable in web sized publishing.

A totally dark scene to the naked eye. All we could see was the glow on the horizon and some cloud where the moon was poking through. The camera sensor however saw quite well in the dark, revealing detail at ISO6400, that’s usable in web sized publishing and smaller print sizes.

It was so dark here that the only things visible to the naked eye were the pin pricks of tungsten light, nearby houses, cars headlights on the other side of the lake and a faint glow on the horizon. ISO3200 with 30 second exposure. Sony A7r with Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm via e mount adaptor.

It was so dark here that the only things visible to the naked eye were the pin pricks of tungsten light, nearby houses, cars headlights on the other side of the lake and a faint glow on the horizon. ISO3200 with 30 second exposure. Sony A7r with Olympus OM Zuiko 21mm via e mount adaptor.

100% crop of the main picture above shows a great deal of fine detail for an ISO3200 shot in the dark.

100% crop of the main picture above shows a great deal of fine detail for an ISO3200 shot in the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tripod is an essential tool in nocturnal photography and allows the long timed exposures necessary but without the camera shake. However it did not take us long to realise that even with the electronic viewfinder on the A7r, or any of our other cameras, there was not enough light to focus, either in auto or manually!   Luckily I had an old manual Olympus lens on an e mount adaptor on the camera, so by setting a moderately small aperture and using the focal scale on the lens barrel, (a small torch is a good idea on expeditions like this!), I was ably to set the lens hyper-focally to cover all distances from a meter or so to infinity at around f8, making good use of the great depth of field available on a super wide angle lens.

When it's too dark to see anything through the viewfinder, the electronic level guide on the A7r is incredibly useful for making sure your horizons will be straight! 25 seconds at ISO 1250.

When it’s too dark to see anything through the viewfinder, the electronic level guide on the A7r is incredibly useful for making sure your horizons will be straight! 25 seconds at ISO 1250.

While the EVF was not a lot of use for composition in the extreme dark we were working in, (where an optical finder would have revealed not much more anyway), the A7r’s electronic level display was very useful indeed in helping to keep horizons level, even when we couldn’t see them with the naked eye!

More follows on the A7r, both its still and video capabilities, but you can also learn more about how the A7r performs and see more images taken with the camera in my camera tests in Outdoor Photography Magazine and Black + White Photography Magazine.

Sony A7s on the way for even better low light performance!

Meanwhile, Sony have just announced the A7s at NAB and with only 12 million mega pixels, (one third the number of the A7r), needless to say, it will not have the resolution to match the A7r, but the individual pixels or photo sites should be much, much larger, thus letting in more light and keeping noise even lower!SonyA7s

The ‘S’ apparently stands for ‘sensitivity’ (guessing the ‘R’ in the A7r is therefor for resolution).  The extra large pixels should make the A7s the new full-frame, low light king!  The camera could also be amazing for video, designed as it is to provide HD with no line skipping or pixel binning which compromises the smoothness of motion and results in aliasing and moire that plague most other current DSLRs and mirror less cameras in their video modes. Its not that video from cameras like the A7r is bad, it’s not.  I have been enjoying shooting with the A7r recently, the EVF is great and the kit lens very well stabilised for handheld video. There is a slight graininess there to the images and a slight aliasing around fine line details in A7r footage, which should be absent in the the new A7s, which potentially could be super clean, super smooth and super grain-free at high sensitivities. I am looking forward to finding out.  The A7s will have a higher internal bit rate of 50 mbs, using the XAVC S codec, which should help, it is a distinct improvement over theAVCHD codec that the A7r is limited to.  Owners of the A7r I think should lobby Sony to fix a firmware solution to bring XAVC S and 50Mbs to the A7r if at all possible, why not, the camera should have had this in the first place. The A7s on the other hand, will also provide 4k video in 4:2:2, 8 bit, via the HDMI output to an external device, in both full frame and APSC crop modes.

It sounds like an amazing camera that I’m very much looking forward to reviewing. The Panasonic GH4 is the other latest 4K contender and would seem to have some advantages over the A7s in that allows you to record 4K direct to the internal card, (A7s only to external device), in H.264 at 100 megabits per second, (4:2:0, 8 bit) and its output through SDI is 10 bit to the A7s’s 8 bit! The GH4’s roughly 2x crop is also very useful for keeping telephoto lenses, like the ones I like to use for wildlife, small and light. The GH4 may also be cheaper than the A7s, but a recent UK advertised preorder price of around £2.5k for the A7s, (about £1k more than the GH4’s price), which was on Wex Photographic’s site, has now been taken down off the web, so it looks like pricing of the A7s is not yet finalised. The A7r was around £1.6k and I see no reason why the A7s should be significantly more than that, so let’s hope Sony keep it competitive.

I will also be reviewing the GH4 shortly and it looks like a fantastic, discreet, 4K capable walk-around video camera, even if the A7s will probably have the upper hand when it comes to the ultimate in low light performance and also that lovely full frame ‘bokeh’, the background blur in out of focus areas. AL