Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sony a200 review 2015 or how I got my beloved camera back.

Note: You can refer/ cite this article or portions of it or use it under the Creative Commons License. Kindly credit the blog and writer. Thank you. © Viisshnu Vardhan 2015.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine only. I am not paid by any camera company to write any article at any time in my life. I am not biased towards any particular camera company. I try to give accurate advice to amateurs and novices as well as pros to the best of my knowledge. I have a background in graphic design, visual communication and advertising. So don’t worry you are in good hands ;) wink wink. 

Hey go grab a coffee, this is a long article :)

You might be wondering why I am writing a review of a camera that came out in 2008. If you are following my blog regularly, then you know already this is something I do, write about things that are not the latest or the greatest. Its my thing. I need to take care of my reputation right? haha. We as photographers, under the influence of gear (pimping) promoting websites, magazines and ‘expert guru trainers’ tend to deride anything that is two years old and scoff at it as old technology. The truth is. It aint. It is as good as your latest blitsy, glitsy blingy gizmolicious $2000 dollar camera. These gear promoters use all kinds of psychological tricks to make you feel like what you have is inadequate, insufficient, outdated, obsolete and irrelevant. It simply aint true. Is the film camera irrelevant today? I don’t think so. It was invented like when? In the early 1920s? even far back? Sure it is inconvenient, I agree, but the image quality? You know the answer to that question. What is the dynamic range of Richard Avedon’s camera? What is the MTF chart of Herb Ritts’ lens like?? How many phase detect sensors did Cartier Bresson’s camera have?? If someone has the money to buy cameras and lenses every week, its great and all, but the rest of us who don’t should carefully look at our options to make the best of what we have and can buy. There is no end to consumerism and human materialistic lust. You buy the latest today, there is a new version tomorrow, and then another new version day after tomorrow. It’s an endless cycle that can adversely affect your finances, emotional and mental well being, family life and social dynamics.

That may sound heavy, but I had to say it 

Ok lets get back to the story…

The story of me and the a200 goes back to feb 2012. At that time I was in search of a camera and came to know of an a200 from a local camera seller in my city. I went there, checked it out and was very impressed with the quality of the images, not to mention the camera was in immaculate condition. I immediately bought it much to the horror of my photographer friends, they derided me for not choosing either a canon or Nikon. The technology was already four years old when I bought it. Then in September 2012 I bought my Nikon D200 and now have a full blown kit with the 18-70, 50 1.8D, and the 80-200 f2.8 along with an old Tamron from the early 70s 85-210 f4.5 constant, which is possibly radioactive.  (Had a Sigma 28-105 f2.8-4D, but sold it off. Regret it. Sigh) I used the sony a200 as a back up, in cases of emergency. I did also use it for a few weddings and events as the main camera and I have to tell you this camera punches far above its 500 odd grams weight.

Recently (June 2015) due to a bit of a temporary financial calamity, I sold off my beloved a200 through classifieds along with the hot shoe adapter, a Polaroid skylight filter and a vivitar flash for less than $200. Its just a couple months back. I spent the money. The camera was long gone.  End of story. Or was it??

A few weeks back I was checking my phone gallery and saw the pictures from a motorcycle shoot, shot with the a200. All of a sudden pangs of pain shot through my heart. Oh my god. What did I do..selling the camera was a huge mistake  I need to have my a200 back at any cost. I called up the guy I sold it to. He wouldn’t give my camera back even when I offered his money back  ohh man the travesty. What am I to do? I immediately went into this ‘restless psycho rodent’ mode and started digging the classifieds.

I started checking each and every classified looking for an off chance to find the a200 or the a300 or an a350….all CCD sensor cameras from Sony. Used Sony DSLRs are hard to come by online, let alone yesteryear CCD sensor DSLRs from Sony. I did find a few classifieds, but either the prices were too high or they were not in a good condition. I also went back to the original camera store in my city where I had bought my a200 previously after seeing their classified for the Sony a350. I nearly bought it, but didn’t as it had a white balance problem and the camera was stuck in tungsten and wouldn’t change even after I reset the camera several times. With a heavy heart I came back home, but didn’t stop checking the classifieds. 

One fine morning a few days back, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, somebody posted a classified for the a200. It was like god send. I immediately called up the guy and fixed a meeting the very next day. He quoted a price of around $300..which was fair enough as the camera was in mint condition, it was hardly used at all. On top of that he was also giving me the original box, with an unused data cable and HDMI cable, power cable with all the warranty papers in original packing. I haggled the price to $206 (INR 13,000) and immediately bought it. There were also a mandarin user manual, an Arabic one and also an English one, along with a lens catalogue (Sony had a very few lenses back in 2008) and also an accessories catalogue. This deal was made in photographic heaven.

Comparatively I had bought my previous a200 for $190 (INR 12,000), without the box or papers. An extra 1000 INR for a camera in this kind of mint condition with box and papers is an extraordinary deal by any standard. 

The good thing is, I have my a200 back and will not sell it again for anything in the world. 

Though the a200  is supposedly an entry level camera, it has a few tricks up its sleeve. For example, you can add magenta in Kelvin, this feature is very useful when shooting wedding portraits. This feature is not available in either canon or Nikon entry level cameras to my knowledge. Its not there on my Nikon D200. IQ of the a200 is also far ahead of the canon and Nikon cameras of its generation. Its really a shame camera companies shifted to CMOS, with this, all the original colors, characteristic of CCD sensors were gone. New colors schemes needed to be created to bypass the low light gathering capability of CMOS sensors. Camera companies worked their way around the limitations of the CMOS, but they didn’t quite arrive at color accuracy..meanwhile they also diverted our attention from this issue, trumpeting high iso, dynamic range, live view capability as some kind of break through, but they were not. In my view any feature that compromises image quality is not a break through. It’s just marketing gimmicks. The quest for quality was abandoned for convenience. The target market, apparently enthralled by these new features lapped up the new cameras as some kind of Holy Grail. In the midst of all this turmoil there were a handful of purists who realized this scam and didn’t budge from their CCD sensor cameras and rightly so. 

There are still quite many photographers around the world who are holding on to their Fuji S5 PROs and Minolta Maxxum 5Ds’,7Ds’, Nikon D100s’ and D200s’. Why ??? There’s not a single CCD camera where there are complaints for color. Just google ‘CMOS sensors bad skin tone’ and you will get thousands upon thousands of complaints online…if these CMOS sensors were so highly advanced why aren’t they able to reproduce accurate skin tones??? Later generation CMOS sensors are now a bit okay, but earlier generation CMOS sensor cameras like the Nikon D300/300s, D90 were horrendous at skin tones and color reproduction. A Nikon D80, or a D200 or a D70s will beat any canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D800 in color accuracy. Yes it’s a fact. If you don’t believe me, you can try shooting colorful clothes and check back with me on that. They were accurate may be, but that was was not consistent. They also needed a lot of time on the monitor for correction. 

I shoot clothing catalogs from time to time and use the Nikon D200 exclusively. You know already how critically important color accuracy is when shooting clothing catalogs. There was not even a single time when any of my clients complained of color inaccuracy. A high street clothing boutique client I work for regularly even noted the color accuracy of my pictures and inquired what camera I used. I simply told him “Nikon” nothing else. He told me previously they had some other big name photographer from Mumbai to shoot for the catalogs, but had to fire him as the colors were inaccurate consistently.  I inquired what camera he was using, the client told me he didn’t know. I requested him to send me one or two original pics. He did. When I checked exif data I was shocked to see it was a Canon 5D Mark III.  Is it because of the CCD / CMOS difference ?? IDK.  

Even today, in 2015, I am yet to see a camera that can beat the Nikon D70s for skin tones. In one of his recent  videos, even Zack Arias accepts the fact that the Nikon D70s is the King of skin tones and he is yet to see a camera that can best the D70s. It was a 6 megapixel sony sensor. It is now in the realm of the legendary. Incidentally I have one soon to be shipped to my address.

The Sony a200 also has DRO (Dynamic Range Optimization) which is equivalent to Nikon’s Active D-Lighting. Btw the Sony a200 sensor is also used in the a300, the a350 also features a CCD sensor in an a200 body albeit with live view and an upgraded 14 megapixel version. This 14 MP version has a less piexel density than the 200 sensor. Hail the pixel density, to heck with high ISO. This 14 megapixel CCD is the highest megapixel APS-C CCD in the world. Nikon only went up to 10 megapixels with its D40x, D60, D80 and D200 after that they switched to CMOS around 2007-08. FYI the highest megapixel full frame CCD is the Leica M9, all other full frames sensors are CMOS. The M9’s 18 megapixel CCD was made by Kodak (Kodak’s sensor manufacturing division was bought out by the European company TrueSense a little while ago).

Getting Creative 

Very soon, I am planning to use the a200 with the adapter and Nikkor 80-200 f2.8 combination for a fashion shoot. Will keep you posted. 

Sure I can use a 5D mark III for the shoot, but the problem is my pictures will start looking like everybody else’s. In my immediate vicinity atleast I cannot see anybody else with this combination. A photographer’s signature look also comes down to the particular cameras and lenses he uses. Anybody can duplicate the lighting, but the kit? The colors? The particular camera+lens combo? Nobody else can. If you are an amateur or a struggling up and comer who wants to create your own ‘look’ I suggest you don’t use the cameras everybody else is using. This is the lesson from the masters. Create your own list of equipment and use it to create your own signature look and color. This advice equally applies to professionals. 

Bresson used a leica with a 50mm, nothing else. Ansel Adams had his own unique kit. Sally Mann has her own ancient large format camera with her own particular equally ancient lenses, I haven’t seen any other photographer using that kit and nobody else can recreate that kind of images, even if they tried. There are in a realm beyond legendary. She scoffs at the idea of using a modern, fancy DSLR. You don’t know Sally Mann?? Check her work here… she is my favorite photographer. Her work is untouched by any commercialism or materialism..its bare knuckles photography at its absolute best….

Hey bird man enough flying in the clouds now, let’s get practical and come down to mortal earth to  discuss DSLRs ;) wink wink 

Can a pro photog use this camera?

Absolutely. The limitations of this camera can be worked around. There is no PC sync port, but you can easily add a hot shoe adapter on the proprietary sony hot shoe that has sync port. You could add a battery grip as well to make it more balanced. Third party grips are also available, though I personally do not prefer using third party grips. OEM grips or nothing. 

In the hands of the right pro, a camera like a200 will make miracles. With the advent of lens adapters, you can happily use your Nikon, canon, leica, Minolta MD/MC, Olympus OM, Pentax/M42 lenses (Some old lenses from these companies are not compatible with Sony because the rear element of these lenses protrudes a bit into the mirror box. This can have a catastrophic effect on your camera. So research the lens+camera combination beforehand. However, this is not specific to Sony alone.) Hook this setup on a sturdy tripod and you are good to go. Unfortunately there is no focus peaking on the a200 but that is no problem at all as the camera has a focus confirm in the view finder which makes manual focus very easy. Always use a tripod or a monopod when using long telephotos in manual focus mode. 

Battery backup is superb on the a200. I shot for a wedding a year ago and I got around 1500 shots on a single charge. Apparently this was because I switched off the stabilization which can drink up battery juice quite much. I was shooting at 1/160th so shooting with stabilization was unnecessary. Incidentally the packaging on the box says only 750 shots. May be Sony had factored in the stabilization feature. 

The a200 sensor is very special. It has some kind of Konica-Minolta Mexicanish like magic sauce inside it. The sensor has a 3D like rendering. Pictures have depth and dimension, NOT flat like canon entry level cameras. I strongly feel Nikon/Sony CCD sensors are one of a kind. Like the Leica M9, though many cameras have come after the M9, there is no true replacement for the camera. The newer CMOS sensor cameras from Leica may have more dynamic range but something is missing, its hard to describe what it is, but something has left the building.  In the same vein I am yet to see a camera from Nikon that can beat the sensors of D70s, D80 and D200. These sensors romance the light in a way that no other CMOS sensors can. There’s also a lot of drama and character in the pictures shot with these cameras. These three cameras are closer to film than modern CMOS sensor cameras from Nikon. I strongly suspect the color schemes of these sensors were specifically created to emulate a particular film stock. Most likely Kodak Ektachrome.   

Studio Application

So coming back to the a200, it is an excellent camera for studio applications. Given its accurate skin tone rendering it can be used for studio portraits. Owing to its excellent tonal rendering this camera can also be used for still life, stock photography, catalogues and much more. Given its inexpensive price, even if one breaks you can happily get another. Its lot better than current generation entry level Nikon and canon cameras. It has an auto-focus motor built in unlike entry level cameras from Nikon. 10.2 megapixels is more than enough for normal use unless you are shooting for huge billboards. Sony a200 .ARW raw files are 12 bit…that’s plenty for the above mentioned applications. Not happy with 12 bit? You can interpolate them to 16 bit and save them at 500 dpi or 800 dpi as TIFFs…problem solved.

For landscapes

I don’t know if it’s the sensor or the bionz processor or some cosmic magic..the a200 renders clouds in all their glory…given this reason alone, you can use this camera for landscapes and cityscapes. I haven’t seen any other camera render the skies so beautifully. With the right kind of inexpensive wide angle like the Tamron  10-24 or the Tokina 11-16, the a200 will start singing melodies. Cant afford either of them ?? how about a cheapy peleng f3.5 8mm fish eye?? Its only around 200 bucks online. Its like 12mm in 35mm terms. 200 bucks for a brand new 12mm wide angle is a damn good deal if you ask me. The on-sensor sharpness of the a200 will offset any softness the peleng may have. If you are shooting at f9, 10 or 11, pictures will be obviously sharper. I don’t own a peleng but planning to get one soon.  If you don’t like the fish eye look for your wide shot, you can de-fish the pictures in photoshop in a jiffy. The good thing about cheapy fish eyes like peleng is that…they are primes and have a fixed aperture. A thing to remember is, this aint no carl zeiss, but if you can use your ingenuity, you can make the pictures look like carl zeiss…which is 20 times more expensive.   
Can you use the a200 as your main body?

Yes and No, depending on where and how you intend to use it. If you are shooting studio portraits, jewellery, stock, products etc., the a200 can be a main body, along with something like an a230 or a a290 as a secondary body. If it is location shooting like for events, concerts, weddings, sports/action etc., then it’s a good idea to have a sturdy pro body like an a77 or an a99 if you are a Sony shooter. Or any other pro body in canon or nikon and to keep the a200 as a second or third back-up. It can also be used to shoot BTS pictures by your sexy assistant while you are going about your work on location when both your cameras are on roll ;)
Fortunately the prices for the a700, a850 and a900 have come down drastically on ebay and elsewhere. No they are not CCD but the image quality is better than Canon and Nikon CMOS cameras of their generation. Image quality wise too they are very near to the latest cameras.  The writer on the SonyAlphaClub blog writes that somehow even the latest sony APS-C and fullframes lack the “fluidity” of the a900 in the pictures. I have to mostly agree with him as I previously spent hundreds of hours checking pictures from the aforementioned cameras on flickr and 500px and can confidently say he has a point. 

As mentioned earlier, I personally have a Nikon pro kit with a D200 body, 80-200 f2.8, 50 1.8, and an 18-70. I built my career with this kit. I am lusting after a Nikon D700, but not in a position to afford it at present. Even if I shift to Sony system, I intend to keep my Nikon system. This way I can mix and match lenses and bodies to get interesting results. May be I will also buy some cheap canon pro body with a Sony and Nikon lens adapter…just for kicks ;)  

Looking back…

Why use yesteryear cameras? Simple reason. They can be had for peanuts. On top of that, they are not far behind the latest cameras in terms of image quality. If you are a frugal photographer like me, hunting the classifieds and getting the camera you want is a lot better than going to the camera store like everyone else….experience wise. There is a sense of achievement when you find cameras like this. That said, I would like to advice you to check the camera thoroughly whether buying from a discounted store or from a seller on classifieds. These ‘old’ cameras are also available through online stores brand new, in box with a huge discount. Unfortunately I don’t have the option of buying like that here in India. Sure I could import from amazon uk or amazon usa but the customs and shipping costs will break the bank. DSLRs from sony are good, even some of the CMOS ones, don’t pass them just because they are CMOS, there are some good CMOS and some bad CMOS. With the latest advancements in photoshop, you are in good hands with yesteryear CMOS sensor cameras from Sony like the a450, a580. I wouldn’t suggest you buy the a700, or a850 or an a900 etc. They are too ancient and a few minutes in dpreview forums you will be convinced they are basically useless with all their caveats. For the price of an a900 I will probably get a Nikon D700, which is an extraordinary camera. Don’t go for entry level SLTs. There are completely garbage. Unless it’s an a77 or a99 there is no point in getting any other SLT below their level (forget the a58). 

The a77, 77II and a99 are amazing cameras. Frank Doorhof uses the a99 alongside his medium format kit. He also uses the a99 for his training sessions. The a7 series cameras are a whole another level, but if you are a frugal photographer like me, you wouldn’t want to buy them. I also feel the a7 series cameras are highly overrated and are impractical for photographers specializing in wedding, action/sports etc as the autofocus is too slow. Besides the fullframe E mount lenses are too damn expensive. Sony, I feel, is indulging in pure thuggery even with their alpha line of lenses. Cheaper lens options are far too few and in between. Why is the Sony 50 1.8 SAM DT lens only for APS-C sensors when the same equivalent lenses from Nikon and canon are compatible with full-frame??? ?? Why is it expensive than Nikon and Canon versions??? Why the hell does it have a plastic mount even though its expensive than canon and Nikon versions ??? Couldn’t you put a metal mount on the lens Sony?? And why the heck does the 85 2.8 full frame compatible lens have a plastic mount and costs $250?? I hope Sony people are reading this. 

Now, the original a7 (the first 24 megapixel version) has come down in price for around $1400 after the a7II was launched. It’s a good deal if you can live with its limitations and 24 megapixels is more than anybody ever needs for anything in everyday practical terms.  Hey if you need anything above 50 megapixel shoot film and scan it at 5000 dpi and save it as TIFF at 32 bit  ;) wink wink. I strongly believe the a7 series are strictly studio cameras, which can only excel under controlled lighting conditions. 

On an end note…

This shot was taken from a fast moving car at 110kmph. Stabilization is ON. 

My whole kit only consists of things I absolutely need. I have no regrets whatsoever for buying things in the whatever ragtag kit I have, however I regret selling a few things when I needed some dough. A penny saved is a penny earned. No matter what you buy, buy it only if you absolutely need it. Do thorough research beforehand. Remember there is no shame in not using the latest and the greatest. Those people who make fun of you (yeah I was there) for using cameras like the a200 are not the ones that feed you or your family. Stay away from peer pressure and GAS. Focus on mastering your lighting and creative/conceptual thinking NOT on acquiring the latest cameras. The same people who may deride you for using your entry level a200 will gasp with awe when you master your technique and unique perspective. Go ahead and create your own path. You can buy the latest and the greatest when you make enough money. Forget buying the kit on your card or on credit or taking a loan. It’s a whole another story if your photography business is running well and you can happily pay for them…my guess aint here because it is.  May be you are just getting started in the business, if you are here reading this article then by no means it’s an accident. Follow my advice. You will not regret it. Think like a Ninja, strike like a Panther. Cheers and happy clicking. 



Alwin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Viisshnu said...

may be because the world is round bro haha...yes Sony a350 delivers excellent images, i came upon this blog

check it out

Yes sony CCD has special flavours than the D200, same with my sony a200, IQ and colors are better.

There are plenty of old sony CCD bodies and even cheaper konica Minolta lenses on ebay. you cant go wrong with the a200 or a300 or a350. I wish you luck bro.

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