It’s fair to say that I’ve been in a bit of a photographic slump over the past couple of years. A lot of my posts used to be related to travel or getting out and about, and since a lot of that has been curtailed thanks to the dreaded virus of which we must not speak, a lot of the motivation or inspiration I had also went up in smoke. There was a notable exception to this last summer, when restrictions in Scotland were temporarily lifted, and I spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Glasgow with my friends Lee, Bryan, and Al, shooting film, taking more spontaneous portraits of strangers, and getting back into doing some pre–arranged model shoots. We even put out a photo zine called Coupon. However, as soon as things started to shut again, all of that momentum dissipated completely, and there’s been a long period of drought ever since.
I’ve tried a few different times to come back in from the photographic desert… scanning through piles of film that I abandoned part way through 12 months ago; finishing up posts about cameras and lenses that I like; and shooting at some protests. None of it connected in any real way though – and it all just felt like going through the motions. I have had periods of creative malaise like this in the past, but never quite as desolate. This one feels permeated with something a bit deeper than just disinterest. It’s tough to go from having something which is so closely tied to your identity just completely disappear, as it can feel like you’ve lost something of yourself.
Time for a new camera
Anyway, I’ve moaned about this on the blog before, and really the purpose isn’t to wallow in some kind of opulent self pity, but rather, to set the stage for this post – because I’ve taken what – for me – is a bit of an unusual step – and bought a brand new, digital, APS-C camera. The Sony ZV-E10.
The reason this purchase is a bit of a surprise is that it is the first camera of this type that I’ve bought since my main source of income was photography, and I was shooting with two Canon 5D Classics and a bunch of L lenses. Once I stopped actively pursuing some kind of meaningful income from taking pictures and sold most of that gear, I ended up almost solely using rangefinders, weird old film cameras, and manual focus lenses. The only real exception to that was the Ricoh GR series, which are superb candid/street shooters, but which I’m not really including here due to their non removable lens.
Anyway, I still love all of the beautiful oddball lenses and quirky bits and pieces I have collected over the years, but I increasingly have found that the mechanisms of having to manually expose and focus were – for the first time ever – becoming a hinderance to taking pictures, rather than something I enjoyed. There were times I wanted to just… grab a picture that I liked, rather than having to faff about to get the aperture and shutter speed set just righ (something that is particularly difficult when you are out of practice!). I found myself increasingly envious of friends who had auto-focus setups who were consistently getting superb pictures, while mine were always slightly off. It all just felt like a chore. Let’s not even mention the times where I did get shots that I thought would be great, but the film didn’t develop properly, or some other 35mm related fuck up.
The other big motivating factor for getting a new camera has been that over the past year I’ve sunk a lot of time into making videos on YouTube about making music and video art. One thing that has become painfully apparent with that experience is that while your fancy digital rangefinder or ageing full frame Sony A7 and vintage manual focus lenses might be the perfect combination for some beautiful pictures, they simply don’t cut the mustard when it comes to shooting video. The lack of microphone inputs, flip screen, limitations on frames per second and total recording time… etc have become a real pain, and so I was in the market for something to make my life in that regard a lot easier.
I hummed and hawwed for literally months over what to do about this, convincing myself that a GoPro would do the trick, but it obviously wasn’t good enough for what I wanted. In my head, anything other than another full frame camera would be a downgrade, but the cheapest Sony which was up to spec (the A7C) was coming in at around about two grand… and that’s without any lenses.
Ultimately, I decided to go for the Sony ZV-E10, which is squarely marketed at ‘vloggers’ (I hate that word). It has all of the features you would expect from a decent Sony mirrorless camera, as well as a bunch of added specifics which make it particularly nice for shooting video. The main down side for me is that it is an APS-C sensor. This isn’t to knock APS-C in any way. It’s just that after almost two decades of shooting largely with full frame, it is tough to contemplate going back. As it stands, the selection of relatively cheap, wide autofocus lenses available for the Sony means that this shouldn’t be a big deal.
Along with the body itself, I picked up three lenses. A Samyang 24mm f2.8, a Sigma 16mm f1.4, and a Samyang 12mm f2. This works out at about a 38mm, 24mm, and an 18mm equivalent on APS-C, which seemed like a nice selection on the wider end of the scale. The nice thing about all of these is that I can also use them on my full frame Sony A7 without any cropping, and of course I also have my whole collection of vintage manual focus lenses which I can attach onto the ZV-E10 if I want something particularly interesting, with the obvious caveat that they will be cropped down on the APS-C sensor.
Both the 16mm f1.4 and the 12mm f1.4 are nice lenses. They both have decent build quality, and even though they are plastic, they look good (it seems like they are going for that Zeiss kind of visual aesthetic) and don’t feel like cheap crap (at least not for relatively affordable digital lenses, anyway). The 12mm is a really nice kind of squat, compact shape, and feels particularly pleasant to operate. The 16mm is longer, so a bit unwieldy on the small camera body, but… it does give off the impression of being a fairly capable lens. For some reason, its form factor reminds me of the Helios 40-2 85mm f1.5 – which is a much larger, heavier, more expensive bit of glass, and one that I like a lot, so that’s good.
The 24mm f2.8 on the other hand is fairly underwhelming – it is nice and compact, but it feels much cheaper than the other lenses. The lens hood is a kind of glossy plastic which is never good, and it simply isn’t all that inspiring. It strongly reminds me of the Panasonic pancake lenses from the GF1 era, or the original 50mm f1.8 for the Canon EOS series. Those lenses were fine, but not ones you were desperate to shoot with. That might sound kind of trite and ridiculous, but ‘pleasure of ownership’ (to quote my friend Al) is an important element for creative tools.
So… I almost instantly decided to return the 24mm f2.8, and instead go for an APS-C Viltrox 23mm f1.4. Initially I was going to go for the bigger cousin of the Samyang, a full frame 24mm f1.8 – but the lure of the faster glass of the Viltrox was too much to pass up. I also took the plunge on a Sigma 30mm f1.4 – which comes in at about a 50mm on the APS-C sensor.
I was surprised at just how small the ZV-E10 is when it arrived. It really is pretty tiny, which in many ways is a good thing. It means I’m more likely to take it out and about as it seems like quite an unassuming wee camera. Its size belies its feature set though, with its interchangeable lenses, a fully articulating screen (so it flips right out and round to the side), powerful video recording options, and impressive focus tracking. Having literally never bought a brand new camera before, and never really been on top of digital camera technology, I am genuinely kind of blown away by the quality of the focus tracking, and the high ISO performance. I mean, this thing was shot at ISO 51,200. Wut.
Perhaps this is too noisy for you young folks, but let me tell you about sensor technology from 2007, where we were lucky to be able to shoot above ISO 800.
The other really nice thing I noticed immediately about the camera is just how close you can focus with the autofocus lenses on a mirrorless body, compared to what I am used to on a rangefinder. It is night and day.
Oh and that’s another thing. I’m actually managing to get things in focus, and they are sharp. What is this black magic?!
The picture quality is very nice, though the lenses obviously don’t have as much character as the vintage ones I usually shoot, and the RAW files take a bit more finegling than the Leica M to get them to where I want them to be, but that’s to be expected.
The one main thing that I don’t like is that the SD card slot is right at the edge where the battery door hinge is, so it’s really awkward to get it out. Why put it there, seriously!?
One thing worth noting (that I am sure those more experienced with modern digital cameras will be aware of already) is that the Sony ZV-E10 has a ‘silent’ shooting mode. I turned this on without giving it much thought, but I soon started to notice excessive horizontal banding on a number of my shots, like so:
At first I thought that this was because of a mis-match between the shutter speed and the lights, but I soon realised it was happening in other scenarios too. My friend and fellow learned photographer Al enlightened me to the cause: silent mode engages an electronic shutter. With an electronic shutter, rather than having a physical object move to take the picture, the sensor turns on and then off to capture the picture, in a similar way to how video is captured with these cameras. This can give rise to the ugly banding effect. Turn off the electronic shutter, and the problem goes away. This isn’t an issue I’ve ever run into before, and it isn’t especially clear from the Sony’s menu that switching on silent mode changes the kind of shutter in use – so perhaps this’ll be helpful for somebody else.
Shooting with a compact camera which can take so many of my existing lenses, but which is also more deliberate than a point and shoot has been a breath of fresh air in the limited time I’ve been using it, and I’m pretty excited to see what I can do with it, now that I can focus more on the subject and scene rather than getting the technical components right. Of course, it could just highlight that I can’t actually take pictures at all any more, and that my mojo is gone for good. I guess we will see.
I do find it quite amusing that the camera is marketed squarely at vloggers, yet so many vloggers don’t love the camera because of its need for separate lenses, lack of in body stabilisation etc. It’s not perfect for photographers either, as there’s a bit of a lack of buttons for common functions, as well as perplexing choices over what parameters can and cannot be assigned. I am still trying to figure out how to map the manual focus assist function to a button, as that is something I used constantly, and is a real issue when you use manual focus lenses.
In the short time that I have been using it, the ZV-E10 has already piqued my interest in taking pictures again, which has been great, but it’s also shown up some of the limitations it has for ‘serious’ work. Sony cameras in general simply do not have the kind of sturdiness or build quality that I would need for use in a hard-knock professional environment. There’s also some workflow choices with the Sony that are downright bizarre. Additionally, when using it alongside my ancient A7, the picture quality on the built in screen seemed much clearer on that for some reason. To be fair, the ZV-E10 doesn’t pretend to be a professional level camera, but since the Sony system is currently my main auto-focus option, it ends up being used that way inevitably. If they had just put a tiny bit more effort and attention into the photo taking side, it would have been killer. Ultimately, it is a bit of a weirdo camera, which is a good all rounder, and one that I am generally pretty happy with for what it is. It has got me thinking about what actually taking pictures again more regularly might look like, which is a good feeling after so long out in the desert.
If you’re into YouTube, you can watch me talk about the camera and what I like about it in some more depth in this video. Like, comment, subscribe. Help me buy new lenses with my massive ad revenue. Tell all your friends about my channel and help me retire a wealthy man.
I am still in the very early stages with the ZV-E10, but here’s some of the first shots I’ve taken with it.