Low Light King

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Nikon or Canon? The debate rages on amongst fans of each, and if you’re in the aviation community you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a straight race between the two. But after a discussion with Andrew Whyte recently, I was left wondering if there might be a third way. Andrew is well known for his astro, light painting and low light photography, and suggested I might like to try Sony’s A7s II. Sony rarely get a mention among aviation photographers, possibly because they aren’t really noted for their sports cameras, but with two night shoots coming up I was keen to try something new.

CVP very kindly offered a loan of a Sony A7s II and teamed it with a Zeiss Batis 25mm F2 lens. Aviation photography requires a lot of flexibility, presenting widely varying opportunities moment to moment, so I wondered if a full frame sensor with a prime lens (and a pretty wide one at that) would cut the mustard. Then there was the lighting situation. In the confined space of a helicopter at night, the only natural light is from the multifunction displays (MFDs) or the night vision goggles (NVG). This tends to be soft and green and for obvious reasons its not a good idea to start using a flash in such situations.

Whilst night images aren’t completely lacking from my portfolio, articles or reports, the ‘tactical’ low light images definitely are – mostly down to my kit limitations. I’ve never been a full frame photographer. For aviation work you really need the reach that a crop sensor gives even moderate zooms, but the compromise is the ISO handling, especially when working around the 1600 mark, certainly from my experience with the D300s and D7100. I know others that are happy to go far beyond that but I think the image quality degradation is just too noticeable. I was curious to see how the A7s II coped. I wanted to capture images of the pilots prepping their aircraft for a sortie in the cockpit at night with their NVGs fitted, and the ground crew prepping the aircraft. I would then fly at night with a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS/Air Ambulance), having flown on a similar sortie a few months earlier it showed the massive limitations that my current kit has when working at night and at high ISO.

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So I guess a run down of my ‘daily’ kit is in order. The D300s was my go to camera body for around three years, up until 2014 anyway. With no sign of Nikon releasing a direct replacement for the much-loved D300 series I opted to chance “Nikons top enthusiast camera” the D7100. Probably not what most pro photographers would expect an aviation/landscape photographer to use but I don’t get too hung up on kit; it has its limitations of course, most notably the poor buffer. However the lack of a low pass filter really does ensure the images have an almost processed look straight out of camera and are so unbelievably sharp when used right, especially when compared to the old tech that was the D300. My go to lenses then; first the Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VR – a fantastically versatile lens that I use for either shooting portraits in the aircraft, static shots of an aircraft being prepped for a sortie or from the top of a cliff shooting a helicopter as the crew position it. I also have a Nikkor 24-70 F2.8 or 17-55mm F2.8 in my camera bag at all times, the 24-70 offering a little more flexibility when shooting air-to-air – that extra 15mm can really make all the difference. They’re great for shooting portraits in and around aircraft as well for night shots when aircraft are starting up, particularly helicopters with rotors turning. Finally a 10.5mm fisheye from Samyang works fantastically well for cockpit shots in helicopters or when the side door is open and the crewman is leaning out, sometimes I’ll carefully lean out of the door whilst on a dispatcher harness to try and get some exterior of the aircraft featured as well.

A forthcoming visit to the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath and a night currency sortie with the Wiltshire Air Ambulance last week gave me the perfect opportunity to put the A7s II and Batis glass to work in an aviation environment.
Whilst I missed being able to pixel peep like I can with files from my D7100 (24.1MP) I don’t think it’s a massive issue and the Sony absolutely makes up for the fewer megapixels with its incredibly impressive ISO performance. I’m still amazing at how good the files look straight out of camera at ISO 10,000, even 20,000 is usable after some noise reduction in post. Obviously the grain is visible but it’s very manageable and gives that tactical look to the images which really suites the night setting. I found the autofocus to be more or less faultless, there were a couple of times when I switched to manual to save a little bit of time rather than switching the focus point, but as long there was some form of light source such as an MFD then it locked straight on. Images straight out of camera, especially in the day, have an excellent dynamic range and look almost flat, which is great for post production work later on, though that look could just be down to the awful weather and light that seems to follow me wherever I go at the moment!

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In flight the camera performed faultlessly, the light from the MFDs providing a great light source for the AF to lock on to – again at some points I did switch to MF instead of switching the focus point. I find it really hard to fault this little camera, but there are a few little niggles I have with it, all from a stills perspective.
It would be great to have the redundancy of dual SD card slots; it’s very rare that you get an opportunity to re-shoot something in aviation, so having a card fail could be disastrous.
The battery life isn’t great, but I guess the get around to that is to just buy more batteries. Finally I did find the menu to be a little fiddly compared to my Nikon, but that could just be down to the fact I’m so use to the Nikon layout.

This is probably a good time to mention that I am now completely in love with the Batis 25mm F2, it is such a beautiful lens. I’m really not used to shooting with a prime, being stuck to a focal length isn’t really beneficial when shooting aviation but I absolutely loved it. It certainly makes the mind work a little harder when thinking about composing images and it also means you can get right into the action though with the wide angle of view – which is absolutely perfect when working in the cramped confines of a helicopter. Also, the shallow depth of field when shooting at F2 is just so pleasing to the eye, it suits the night images very well when using parts of the airframe to naturally frame either the pilot or special-mission aviators.
I also love how Zeiss flashes up on the upper display of the lens when the camera is turned on; little things…

Whilst I do shoot video very occasionally, I don’t profess to know the complete ins and outs – my knowledge is very limited and whilst I’m working on increasing it, I thought it would be worth mentioning the 120fps option that the A7s II can shoot. Slow motion is perfect for helicopters; it shows perfectly how they beat the air into submission to stay airborne

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This really is an incredible package in a tiny body. Sony have created something very special in the A7s II and if you need that low-light capability I highly recommend that you head over to CVP and pick one up.

About Lloyd Horgan

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