[REVIEW–SONY a6300 mirrorless camera]

Price: $1590 body only [street price]
Another fine Sony CSC

THE LOW-DOWN: This compact system camera has a 24 megapixel APS sensor with a hybrid phase/contrast detect auto focus system, meaning it is fast to focus. The 2.4m dot electronic viewfinder is paired with the 7.5cm 1m dot tilting 16:9 (television anyone?) monitor. The camera can record 4K video and there is a microphone socket to add to video capabilities. The body is resistant to dust and damp. External controls are limited with only one rear knob plus the usual programmable buttons. And the memory card goes in the battery compartment which can’t be opened when the camera is on a tripod – poor design for a serious camera at this price.

LIKE: For testing the camera was used for fast snapping of informal portraits and action shots at an indoor and outdoor event. It was teamed with the full frame 28-70mm FE lens and the results were excellent. Focus is fast and exposure and colour were spot on. The high resolution viewfinder is outstanding and the camera responds quickly to all inputs. It is a pleasure to use.

DISLIKE: Compared with other cameras in this price range the a6300 is short on instantly accessible controls.

VERDICT:
The a6300 is a fine camera that competes with the Olympus OMD E-M1 ($1300) and the Fujifilm X-T1 ($1138) both of which are configured as more serious cameras. The Sony wins for its 4K video and widescreen monitor and exceptional auto focus function. Both the Fujifilm and Olympus are part of extensive systems of lenses and accessories whereas the lens options for the Sony are limited. They are all good so enjoy the decision making.

 

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[WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CAMERA]

From time to time our advice is sought on camera buying and answering the inquiries is not easy.

The advice usually comes down to offering a few alternatives that may or may not suit the inquirer. Perhaps a few generalisations about the desirable characteristics of a good camera, regardless of price, could be more useful.

First, a warning. Big numbers do not indicate a better camera. More pixels and longer zooms are not, of themselves, indicators of quality. Here is why.

Bigger pixels (light collecting thingies) make for less digital “noise” and better dynamic range. Fewer pixels on a given sensor area will result in fewer gritty speckles in the picture and will allow shooting at higher sensitivity (ISO speed). This makes it possible to shoot in dimmer light without resorting to flash.

The issue of pixel size and density is important in compact cameras with small area sensors. Dynamic range refers to the ability of a camera to record detail in dense shadow and brilliant highlights simultaneously. Fat pixels can do this, skinny ones can’t.

Compact cameras are increasingly being fitted with 1” sensors, much greater in area than the traditional compact sensor, so a good rule when shopping for a new compact is to ask for a 1” sensor.

Compacts with larger sensors tend to have shorter zoom ranges, which is good. So-called superzooms have impressive focal length numbers but they are inferior optically and mechanically to a good short zoom. And the shorter lenses are faster (this refers to the maximum aperture and the ability to function in dim light.)

Do not tell the salesperson that you are an idiot and need a fully automated point and shoot. Make sure that the camera has a PASM dial. These letters stand for Program (automated exposure), Aperture (you set the aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed), Shutter (work it out yourself) and M for Manual. Put the mode dial to P, set the auto exposure to Centre-weighted and the auto focus point to centre spot and you can leave it that way for the rest of your life.

Two other essential characteristics of a decent camera are a viewfinder for when the bright sun obscures the LCD screen and an LCD that flips vertically. A screen that flips is a boon for getting down to the level of small children, animals and flowers.

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[THE SINCERITY OF SOCIAL MEDIA]

Here is the confession of a late adopter and a naive tyro.

After years of resisting Instagram, Twitter and Facebook I was suddenly pressured into cranking up an Instagram account. After all, how can I pose as an expert on all things to do with digital photography if I know nothing about the most-used picture sharing medium in the universe.

With helpful advice from a pal, who knows about these social media things, I eventually got the hang of hashtags and posting from the iPhone and PC (using gramblr.com). In no time at all I had dozens of priceless masterpieces out there for all to see and marvel at. A lady friend’s immediate reaction was :”You’re too old for Instagram” Cheeky! But she has a point — Instagram is where the young and the beautiful post their phone selfies to keep us up to the minute on their exciting lives in exotic places while wearing as few clothes as possible. This happens to be the sort of obsessive behaviour that gives narcissism a bad name. I am too old for that. I’m more Latergram than Instagram.

Following instructions I pressed on regardless and within seconds of putting up a new image I was getting Likes from Vladivostok and Rio and all points in between. Amazing! What a world we live in. Now I have new best friends everywhere.

But then came the looming dark cloud of doubt.

First, the speed of the Like responses seemed improbable. Within seconds of posting I am getting Likes from Memphis Tennessee. Really? At any time of day?

I looked at the sources of the Likes and discovered an interesting thing — almost all of them want to sell me something or want me to Like them in return so that an unstoppable virus of sales messages starts to clog up the Interverse. I detected a distinct lack of sincerity in my new best friends.

I Googled the phenomenon to see if I am being Liked by a machine. And it turns out that is exactly what is happening. There are bots (short for robots – software applications that run automated tasks) that post responses to hashtags that have been designated by the user. So if I use the hashtag #melbourne I am instantly Liked by every restaurant within a day’s journey. One picture, tagged #trams, for some obscure reason is liked by #visionfootwear which, you will have guessed, is a shoe shop. My tram also appeals to #michalck of Poland and #freedbrundler of Bern where they have elegant trams themselves. That’s impressive. But I’m not so chuffed by a Like from #pocketsqareofficial, an online tailor. What’s haberdashery got to do with trams?

And there is no easy explanation for why I am of interest to a manicurist in Tokyo (responding to #gorilla) or a jewellery seller in Sofia. I think they need to fine-tune their bots. I have found that it is best to stick to dogs and cats because there are enough other slaves to their pets to excite modest traffic in genuine, human-generated Likes. If you get a Comment along the lines of “Gorgeous! Beautiful! Post more!” don’t get too excited. Comments can also be automated.

Call me old-fashioned and naive but I was under the impression that the emotional response of liking something was uniquely human. Who would have thought that robots have come so far.

Now I find that I am being Followed — a spooky feeling for a congenital introvert. Instagram does provide the option of a private account which promises to give the power to screen out unwanted followers but there’s no escaping the feeling that in this day and age the concept of privacy is obsolete.

I think that my past suspicion of social media was justified. I am put in mind of Henry David Thoreau’s scepticism about the telegraph. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…” He would love the Interweb!

Still, amongst the self-regarding dross and the unwanted sales pitches there are some gems. There are Grammers with themes — have a look at #silhouettegrams — and there are some real photographers who do not appear themselves in any of their pictures. See #meistershots, a German photographer who knows how to use a camera to dazzling effect. I am grateful that he Likes me. At least I hope it is him and not his Bot.

Now if you’ve got some time on your hands and nothing better to do open Instagram and have a look at #dpexpert6.

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[REVIEW–PANASONIC LEICA VARIO-ELMAR 100-400mm lens]

Price: $2199
For the birds

THE LOW-DOWN: This is the longest lens available for micro four thirds cameras, having a film equivalent focal length of 200-800mm. It is compact when retracted but does grow considerably in length at the telephoto end. Construction is excellent with weather and dust sealing. Aperture range is f4 to 6.3. There is optical image stabilisation in the lens and when combined with the Panasonic GX8 camera, which has in-body IS, the two work together to give even better shake resistance. When the lens/camera is tripod mounted it can be turned into either portrait or landscape orientation without rotating the lens – just loosen a screw on the lens, turn the camera body, and all the lens controls are still on top where they should be.

LIKE: This is a sharp lens at all focal lengths. Resolution and contrast are excellent. The hybrid image stabilisation on the GX8 combination makes it possible to hand-hold at the 400 (800)mm extension which is amazing.

DISLIKE: This is not a criticism of this particular lens – it is true of all super zooms – it can be difficult to actually find the small bird in the viewfinder at 800mm. Olympus deal with this issue with an add-on optical sighting device that fits in the hot shoe.

VERDICT: $2199 is a lot to pay for a lens, but for a lens with these specifications it is a bargain. Serious wild-life and sports photographers routinely pay more than this for their 600mm optics. So this is a lot of lens for the comparatively reasonable price. After taking hundreds of photos of birds, animals and events we did not like sending it back.

 

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