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February 10, 2013

Sony SLT-A99: It Loves the Night Life

Yes, it loves to boogie! πŸ™‚

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 πŸ˜‰

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.


The Ice-Breaker

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.

Hallways of Yearning

Hallways of Yearning
Sony A99 + Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 CZ Vario-Sonnar T*

I also packed the A77 and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC lens in, just in case the mood to take a quick video while we were shooting came over me. As it happens, it did.

Al & Mick lightpainting at the old Seven Hills TAFE

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.

Bowling Alley

Bowling Alley
Sony SLT-A99 + Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 CZ Vario-Sonnar T*

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 πŸ™‚

Transdimensional Lure

Trans-Dimensional Lure
Sony SLT-A99 + Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 CZ Vario-Sonnar T*

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.

Green & Gold Pyramids

Green & Gold Pyramids on the Roof
Sony SLT-A99 + Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 CZ Vario-Sonnar T*

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.

Straight-out-of-camera version of the above image

Straight-out-of-camera JPEG version of the above image

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!

Paint Booth

Paint Booth
Sony SLT-A99 + Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 CZ Vario-Sonnar T*

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.

Outside the Kill Room

Outside the Kill Room
Sony SLT-A99 + Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 CZ Vario-Sonnar T*

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


About the Author

I am a visual artist and photographer living and working in South East Queensland. I've been using a Sony DSLR/SLT camera since I made the big jump from 25-years of devoted film use in 2006. I like to create expressive and unique images using HDR, lightpainting, strobes and long exposure. I'm also knee-deep in a commercial photography start-up where I'm learning respect for the more traditional ways of making pictures. Website | Google+ | Blog


  1. Hey, Alan, your night shots with the orbs and light painting always just amaze me – very cool!
    Plus, it looks like the A99 handled the shoot quite well – too bad about the dead battery situation.
    I presume the A99 is now tucked safely away inside it’s hermetically sealed and climate controlled chamber. πŸ™‚

    • HAHA yes, the A99 has been cleaned and dusted and is back inside the sealed glass case in my high-security panic room xD It did really well at night, everything I was hoping for actually. I think for the next night outing we’re going to make sure we’ve got lighters and/or matches to set off that sparkler bomb and burn some steel wool while we’re at it. Keep your eye on Jason, too, I’ve been encouraging him to take the leap and burn the wool as well πŸ™‚

  2. TomN

    You might consider getting a cheaper, but slightly more advanced shutter release (example):

    $15 instead of $50 and has some UI. While it still has a battery issue, the charge lasts *a lot* longer and there’s still a manual button.

    • Hi Tom, thanks for commenting πŸ™‚ One of the guys I was shooting with had one of these hooked up to his Canon 650D and it did everything we need. It definitely helps to have the extra functions on a cable release, but as a pure backup I’ll probably wind up getting a cheap knock off from eBay for about $5 as well. Thanks for the link!

  3. Jay

    Fantastic article Alan!! Learned a ton and can’t wait to try this out myself very soon!! I have a few really cool ideas that I thought of last night while pondering how to create something different.

    Curious how you know what the exposure will look like? For example, if I were to set my Nex-6 up for a really long exposure in manual mode, how would I know what amount of light is needed for the exposure?

    In other words, how would I know how long to hold the flashlight at the wall to light it up? would 1 second do, or would I need to hold the flash light for 10 seconds??

    I’m not sure if this is coming off correctly, but do you know what I’m saying? Seems like I might still be missing something obvious here?

    Thanks again bud, and killer Photography!! Love the waves on the floor in particular πŸ˜‰


    • The torches are on for the whole time we’re shooting – we don’t turn them off. It’s just trial and error, mate Once the Sun goes down, you’re pretty safe making a photograph with ISO100 – 200, f/6.3 and exposure from 3-5 minutes. That’s my usual settings for the A77.

      That 3-5 minutes is plenty of time to create whatever you want with a LP tool. Once you’ve done that, a few well placed bursts of flash to get some detail into the surroundings will suffice, or you can ignore the flash and let the ambient light burn the “stage” into the image naturally. The former will look very artificial and shiny, the latter will look more natural and even.

      If you’re getting too much light from where the torches are shining, put another layer or two of cellophane over the end to reduce its lumen output. Trial and error, mate – the good thing about digital is that you don’t run out of shots and time is your only inhibitor.

      • Jay

        Thanks bud! That makes sense that is trial and error. I guess I’ll start with something really simple in the house here to get the feel for it first πŸ˜‰ I was thinking of having me standing in a few different spots at the same time? Or perhaps my face or hands in a few random spots?? Very basic it sounds like, but lighting it evenly seems like it will be a challenge for sure.

        Thanks for the camera settings!!


      • Inside the house isn’t the best – in the same way you get artificial light, it is artificially dark. Just try a few combos in the backyard in the evening to figure out your camera’s go-to settings under normal ambient light. Wave a sparkler around and get a feel for what peaks to white and what doesn’t. Multiple Jays in the shot is a different matter, that’s a blend in PS/Gimp using Lighten. A move-flash-move on single exposure will render you transparent, as we discovered the hard way ourselves doing stuff like this – B-)

  4. Really nice images, not only because of the orb but the composition as well. IΒ΄ve never tried “light painting” with long exposure but this was really inspiring. I will definitely try this out when itΒ΄s get dark.

    Today, weΒ΄re using an A900 and an A700 as backup but will add an A99 later to the setup, mostly because of AF speed reasons.

    • Hello Henrik, and thank you for commenting so positively πŸ™‚ Lightpainting is lots of fun especially if you’ve got a little bit of the performer in you. And I always wanted an A900 but by the time I was able to buy it, it was well off the market and the A99 was only about 6-months away.

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