Yes, it loves to boogie!
I bought my Sony SLT-A99 late last year. I got it as a kit with the Sony 24-70 f/2.8 CZ Vario-Sonnar T* lens and, let me tell you, it cost a pretty penny. It remains the most expensive camera kit I’ve ever bought. Despite its solid build and water- & dust-proof body, I’ve been a little sheepish taking it outside the house for any purpose that presented even the slightest scratch, dent or mould threat. I have taken the body sans-CZ lens to the local railway workshops for an upcoming piece highlighting the joys of Fast50/FF photography – that’s coming soon by the way – but for the most part the new camera has remained housebound, relegated to studio and snapshot duties.
But, late last week as I sat contemplating the RX100′s night time failings, it occurred to me that I may well have the perfect low-light camera tucked away in a padded bag, inside a securely locked Lowepro X100 roller-bag, inside the retinal-scanning property safe in the bottom of my wardrobe, behind the locked door in my office. We take security very seriously around here
I called the caretaker at the old Seven Hills TAFE College – the site of some of my favourite shoots and images – then contacted the local crew, Mick & Sheridan. We had a plan and I started packing the gear I figured I’d need for the evening’s adventure.
This was the first tableau of the night. A simple 2-torch and orb shot down one of the corridors between buildings. We took our time setting this one up, then had a few goes at it before Mick had to leave for a coffee date with his predominantly-female fan club.
Unfortunately, the CR2 battery in the receiver on my wireless intervalometer went flat sometime over the last few months, so I was restricted to either shooting in BULB mode with a finger pressed on the button for a few minutes at a time, or sticking to 30-second shots with higher-ISO to compensate for the short-timing. The A99 handled the restrictions just fine, with no severe noise or artefacts up to ISO1600. The above image was created in Manual mode at ISO800, f/6.3 at 30-seconds. As you may have seen in the video clip, the captured image straight out of the camera was a lot brighter, but I progressively darkened the RAW image to taste, using Sony Image Data Converter.
After Mick left for his harem, I went and caught up with the caretaker of the site while I was waiting for Sheridan to arrive. It’s always good to grease the palms of those who help you gain access to usually locked-down sites (as is this site) so I handed over a bottle of finely-aged ‘mood adjuster’ to sweeten the deal. After a while, my partner in crime had to go and deal with some business both pressing and urgent, so I went back to the ruins and set up this shot.
It’s another simple setup using 2-gelled torches, a gelled-flash on the camera and the orb tool. I’ve got the purple torch on a cheap gorillapod knock-off wrapped around a pole outside the left frame, about head height, pointed directly at the open shipping container at the right. I’ve got the red torch outside the right frame pointing up at the ceiling inside the building on the left. I’ve set the Yongnuo YN460 to 3/4-strength and gelled it with a double-layer of yellow cellophane, and set the camera to rear-sync fire so I had time to spin the orb and get out before it fired.
Sheridan arrived just as I finished setting up so we both got a few good shots of this tableau. As with the first image, I used the camera in Manual mode at ISO800, f/6.3 and 30-seconds exposure. I did some light processing of the RAW image in Sony IDC before finishing it off with a crop and a little added contrast in digiKam.
I am actually really happy with this shot, but if I were to do it again I’d aim to make the clouds in the sky a touch whiter to lighten the scene. I’d also take a bit more time with the orb, but because my remote wasn’t working that just wasn’t possible.
This next shot is a bit of a cheat for lightpainters – it’s a composite of 2-images – but I’ve got a really good reason! That ‘flat battery in my remote/intervalometer thing’, of course
The first shot was the now-standard 30-second shot to make the orb. The second shot was a bit longer because I could use Sheridan’s finger to hold down the shutter button while I made the waves across the grounds with a toy light-sabre. I’ve simply blended the in-camera JPEGs in Gimp using Lighten, then viola. Again you can see the poor standard of the orb due to the 30-second time restriction. But unlike the other images in this article (which are all made from RAWs) this is created from straight-out-of-camera JPEGs and, as you can see the quality is well up to scratch with very little (if any) tell-tale signs of heavy-handed noise reduction inherent to the APS-C cameras in the Alpha-line.
The Shot of the Night
No sneaky trickery with this next image, though. It’s a single shot of 143-seconds, again using Sheridan’s finger as my BULB mode actuator, and ISO400 with an f/6.3 aperture.
This is the shot-of-the-night for me and it took a fair bit of effort to achieve. I’ve gelled two flashes, one green the other gold, and flashed them alternately between the towers all the way up on the right, then all the way back on the left. Once I was back at behind Sheridan and the camera, I let off a green at the left and yellow at the right. It took 3-attempts to get the flash levels matched to the exposure settings on the cameras, so at the end I was a fair bit pooped but very satisfied.
The straight-out-of-camera shot was a lot brighter and more detailed than this final version, but again I edited the RAW in Sony IDC before finishing it off to taste in digiKam. It’s this image in which the A99 has proven itself to me as a perfect night time shooter.
We went back inside for the next one and I got a bit crazy with the gels this time. I’ve got 2-torches set up on the left (you can just see them in the shot), a red-lantern in a sink under the window at the back, one on the window-sill behind and above the camera, and a final yellow-gelled torch up high behind and to the right of the cameras. The yellow torch had brand new alkaline batteries in it which is why it’s casting such a solid hue. We were going to set off a sparkler bomb on the bench, but as we were setting it up we realised neither of us had a lighter or matches. DOH!
This image has been taken on Manual mode at ISO400, an aperture of f/5.6 and 30-seconds of exposure. I’ve enrichened the colours and made it more contrasty in post, using Sony IDC again on the RAW before finishing with digiKam, but the straight-out-of-camera version held a heap of detail in the items on the bench and scattered around the floor. The A99′s sensible density on the 24MP FF sensor really makes this camera shine in the dark, pun fully intended.
This was the final shot of the night. Sheridan wanted to capture the light/shadow shapes on the floor using a bright light through the holes in the gyprock wall. It was a great idea that worked really well. We did a few un-gelled shots that produced some very sharp shadows, then gelled the light with a double-layer of red cellophane. I wasn’t very impressed by the resulting shots from that combo, mostly because red is the worst for noise in the dark, so I pulled out the torch in my pocket (just happened to have a blue gel on it) and painted the room while the cameras were exposing.
It came up really well, producing a very eerie effect. This image was made using Manual mode at ISO800, a 30-second exposure and an f/4.5 aperture. Again, I processed the RAW image in Sony IDC then finished it off in digiKam with a crop and levels adjustment.
So, what now?
Despite my inital reticence about taking the big and expensive Sony SLT-A99 out into the harsh wilds of my photo-sphere, now that I’ve taken the leap I can’t wait to do it again. It has clearly outshone my Sony SLT-A77 in the night-time stakes – it has very little issue with noise and it produces rich, detailed, artefact-free images in all lighting conditions I have pointed it at so far. Lightpainting is a real challenge for any camera/lens combination but the dynamic duo of the A99 and 24-70/2.8CZ really steps up to the task.
The next steps from here will be to get a new freakin battery for my intervalometer and an old-school wired cable release for backup (I gave my other one away to the lady who bought my A350); and, get myself the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA lens to expand my field of view with this camera.
EDIT: I did actually scratch the tip of the lens’ metal hood on some bricks in a stairwell, so I’ll be taking that in to the panel beaters later in the week to repair O_O