I get emails from photographers all the time with various questions on my methods or simply seeking advice. Though I hardly get enough volume to have a weekly reader FAQ like some sites do, I believe it would still be a good exercise to share some of my replies to inquirers with the rest of the world to help others with similar questions. If you have a question of any kind relating to photography, shoot me a line at email@example.com and I’ll see what I can do.
For the first entry in this (more-than-likely) continual series, I recently received a great question from John on using the NEX-7 for critical macro work:
I am a just-retired Horticultural Lecturer who has over the years spent much time building up a slide collection of plant and flower subjects.
I am scanning the best of these and have had some success selling them as framed or mounted prints.
I have only just started to dabble in digital photography and am equipped with an iMac and an Epson Printer (A2) and have been using my brothers Canon 7D to try out.
I have been following your website and in particular your use of the Sony NEX 7. I am considering this together with a Nikon 55mm micro 2.8 manual for further plant photography.
Now to the question based on your use of the NEX 7:-
Do you feel that it is capable of producing really top quality 30ins x 20ins prints for exhibition/sales? (fine art might be pushing it at the moment) I have considered a traditional DSLR however they do seem very heavy for field work hence theinterest in the NEX 7, also is an APC size sensor suitable or would I be better biting the bullet and going full frame, still a heavy option.
I would be grateful for you comments/thought,
Hey there John, I’ll start out by admitting I have next to no experience in film. After seeing how I can rattle off hundreds and hundreds of exposures without ever paying a cent to have them processed is very liberating whenever I’m trying to capture fast action. Anyways, I think now is as good a time as it’s ever been to make the transition from film to digital, especially with the recent wave of high-quality interchangeable lens compact cameras (NEX-7, OM-D EM-5, X-Pro 1) making it easier than ever to simply “have a camera with you”. Though I’m straying slightly off topic here.
Back to what you are getting at, I consider the NEX-7 + Manual legacy lenses to be THE platform for manual focus work, a.k.a. macro, where you need to have the focus point exactly where you need it to be (like in the photographs you already have done).
There are a few reasons for this (well, there are actually many, many more, but I’d rather talk to someone in person for all the reasons I love my NEX-7!):
1. Peaking, peaking, peaking. If you don’t know what it is, it’s a feature that outlines areas of contrast (which are usually the areas in focus) in a color of your choice. Once you acquire general focus, you can use magnification to zoom in all the way to the pixel-level. This feature allows you to place exact critical focus on your subject. In mirrorless terms, it’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get, as everything is essentially liveview. You can’t usually get this kind of accuracy with a DSLR unless your focus screen is calibrated perfectly (and DSLR’s liveview is awkward to use). Even then, you don’t get accurate real-time feedback if your shot is truly in focus at the pixel-level.
2. Resolution. There are some who say 24MP is overkill. It’s not, in more ways than one. Imaging Resource’s review of the NEX-7 stated near their conclusion that at base 100 ISO, the detail is so great that prints at 30×40 inches were tack sharp. At ISO 400 20x30s still looked great. Since I’m assuming you’ll be doing all your plant shots on a tripod, you can afford to always stay at base ISO. Fun fact, the NEX-7′s APS-C sensor out-resolves most of today’s full frame DSLRs in RAW at ISO 100. See below for a snapshot taken from DPReview’s studio comparison tool, link here. As to my own experience, I’ve found the high 24MP resolution allows me to crop (sometimes heavily) while still retaining excellent detail. In some situations such as baseball where even my 300mm f/2.8 can’t get the players to fill the frame, I can crop all the way to a 6MP shot–enough detail for a good-looking 8×10.
3. Weight and versatility. You’ve seen it from my lens reviews. When you want an almost pocketable camera, you can slap on the featherweight 50mm f/1.8 Series-E. If you want a superb portrait kit, the moderate 105mm f/1.8 AI-s. For close-range sports, the 180mm f/2.8 AI-s ED. For long sports, the 300mm f/2.8 AI-s ED. As you increase lens size, camera size becomes irrelevant. It’s on the smaller lenses, such as your supposed 55mm micro-nikkor, when you will see the true genius of these small compact mirrorless cameras. Sure, your kit may look nothing more than a souped-up compact camera to the untrained eye, but you should be judged on your photography, not your tool, right? I’ve gone that route and it’s working out just fine for me. I make sure to show people my photographs before the camera, and the few people that still know nothing of these mirrorless cameras are always stunned to see something so small produce images of equal and better quality than huge DSLRs with the same-sized sensor.
By the way, that 55mm Micro-Nikkor, especially the f/2.8 version, is still considered one of the benchmarks for macro. You will probably never find a sharper lens outside of Leica’s best. That said, my 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor AI-s is hellaciously sharp as well stopped down a bit. All depends on the perspective you are going for, as well as how important your working distance is. I like being able to stay out of stinging range when getting close to critters:
But with flowers, you can get as close as you need to. Watch out for new hybrid breeds of Venus Flytraps. They may bite.
All the best,