Not Your Father’s Camera

The Single Lens Reflex camera is dead.

For the cyclist, this statement might not mean anything, but for cycling bloggers, this is very important. SLR cameras, the mainstay of photography since at least World War II, are about to vanish from the earth, replaced by something newer and (eventually) better.

 Anthony Wayne Supercross

Just as technologies like road disc brakes and ‘cross-specific groups herald big changes in the the way we connect with our sport, changes in gear have huge implications on how we cover things and how we present the cycling world.

A few products we’ve looked at recently show how very, very close we are to seeing a major shift in the gear we use to capture our sport, and how pros take pictures.

We’re not talking about the camera phone. We love the images that come from a smartphone, but we’re still way, way off from an era in which a phone can provide manual control over aperture and shutter speed and provide us with a variety of high-quality focal lengths to shoot from.

Instead there’s a big shift happening in the way a camera works, brought on by what’s called “mirrorless” cameras. Instead of using a mirror and an optical viewfinder (as do single lens reflex cameras) a mirrorless system uses just the LCD screen and/or an electronic viewfinder to compose an image and does away with the large mirror that’s in the heart of all SLR cameras.

The result is a camera that can be much smaller and much lighter. At first mirrorless cameras couldn’t come close to the image quality or performance of pro SLRs because systems like the popular Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras are based around a much smaller sensor and the original cameras weren’t as powerful (from a processor standpoint) to be used in fast-paced situations.

For most of the entry-level cameras that’s still the case but we’ve recently been playing with a camera from Sony (and writing about another one from Canon) that are changing the playing field while we’re trying to stand on it.

One of my clients is, for whom I do camera reviews. I’m currently looking at the Sony a7r for them, a miraculous camera that packs a full frame 36 megapixel sensor into a body that’s small enough to fit into my jacket pocket.

The Sony proves that it’s possible to take all of the electronics of something like a Nikon D800 and put it in a body that’s a fraction of the size. It’s as if Sony just said “I dare you.”

To take advantage of the new full-frame Alpha bodies Sony have had to also release a new line of lenses to take advantage of the compact body without having to crop the image. Unlike many of the more traditional camera companies, Sony has nothing to lose by creating a new lens standard.

I’ve been testing the camera with a Carl Zeiss lens and the results are as good as anything that comes from my pro system. If I only shot weddings, I’d have just sold all my gear and switched over. The average wedding shooter has two bodies on them and a utility-belt of lenses. The weight savings for that type of shoot could be upwards of 20 pounds.

The a7r isn’t the best camera for sports, as I found when shooting the Supercross race in Stony Point, New York. Because it’s such a big sensor there’s a bit of a lag between images and the autofocus isn’t quite as successful at tracking an image. (The little-brother a7, which I’ll be reviewing shorty has about 10 million fewer pixels and is more “performance” oriented, and would likely make a better sports body. I’ll report on that after I’ve played with it.)

But the images are mind-blowing. At their full resolution they’re full of detail that’s just not possible from other mirroless cameras in the same form factor.

Here is the gallery of images from a part of that shoot. (I left in a good sampling of images where the focus is not quite right by way of example. If you’d like to see more of the Sony Alpha shots that show off what this camera can do with more still targets, check out this gallery.)

The other advance that’s poised to change photography is found in the Canon 70d, a body that uses a special autofocus technology that puts a powerful phase detection sensor at every chip. For non-gearheads that means that a mirrorless camera with Canon’s technology can perform as fast as an SLR without the need of a mirror and a separate autofoucs chip.

Right now Canon have only put it into an SLR body, but the next logical step is to move it into something that eliminates the mirror and cuts the size of the body in half.

For the Bike Hugger staff this is sort of technological jump is massive because the amount fun had on a bike ride is inversely proportional to the weight of camera gear transported by the rider.

We’ve often switched technologies in order to get more with less. Recently Byron agonized over camera gear purchases for an overseas trip because each ounce of camera gear meant a bit less bike or computer gear on the flight. The solution was to ditch the SLR on a particular trip and to shoot with the iPhone, but this new technological jump allows us to take the camera gear for the high-res artistic shot and still make our weight allowances.

I’m predicting that within the next two years either Nikon or Canon will have come to market with a pro-level mirrorless camera and a new modified lens system, and Sony will have released a few new bodies optimized for the top-end pros as well.

One thing that will be interesting to see is how the brinksmanship of a bike race’s photo pool shakes out during this transition. At most sporting event’s there’s a bit of “mine is bigger than yours” mentality when it comes to gear. Guys with an entry-level SLR aren’t taken as seriously by a lot of shooters because they don’t have the expensive, heavy gear.

In any case, photographic technology is changing and it’s going to bring a world of options to the lifestyle blogger and to the Bike Hugger staff.

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