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Gearducated: get the most out of your gear when night shooting

Chris Smith ventures out on a series of night shoots, armed with what he can carry in his gear kit, and explores the variety and quality of imagery possible when using just a few select items

19 November 2015


Chris Smith ventures out on a series of night shoots, armed with what he can carry in his gear kit, and explores the variety and quality of imagery possible when using just a few select items

35mm, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 2500

Sony A7S

The little A7S caught me off guard: although I’d read all about the camera, I wasn’t too sure how much truth I was being fed. The idea that a little camera could possess a 35mm full-frame sensor, and somehow still hold value at 400,000 ISO, made me wonder what the other camera companies are doing. 

The A7S was delivered in a fairly normal-sized box, surrounded by various accessories, and with a battery grip which turned out to be near essential, as the batteries’ limited capacity means they don’t last long. 

70mm, f/4.5, 1/250s, ISO 32000

I took the Sony on a date night out, and it was so easy to use that even someone who’s not overly familiar with a camera can take some great shots. Although it’s a pro-market model, the buttons and layout allow straightforward usage, and the high ISO means there’s no chance of missing a shot. While I was sitting down at a table for dinner, I was able to take a few quick snaps of my meal and see how the camera performed.

At ISO 2500, the image was still clear and sharp and I could shoot at 1/60s at f/2.8. The camera picked up the sharp peaks of colour and the dull lights, and managed a nice, flat RAW file that was easy to edit with the high level of dynamic range that the camera offers. I paired the A7S with the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens and stopped the camera down to f/2.8 to push it to its openings and test the sharpness. The results were very positive, the lens stayed tack sharp at f/2.8, and as it moved through the apertures it remained sharp throughout. 

Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24–70mm f/4 ZA OSS lens

From left to right: ISO 100, ISO 400, ISO 1000, ISO 4000

It’s a little wider than the 35mm, and a little longer than the 55mm, and as a walk-around lens it’s hard to beat. It has the same Zeiss optics as the other 35mm and the 55mm, and the same lovely build construction that we know and love. In fact, when comparing the lens to Canon’s bulkier 24–70mm f/4 IS, the Zeiss feels a lot better in hand and a lot more mobile in comparison.

The lens seems to be targeted more towards 24–70mm f/2.8 owners, which is a hard lens to compete with, but the Sony does a great job of meeting demand. The 24–70mm may lack a little light compensation with the missing stop, but the A7S body makes up for that with its clear ISO up to 12,800, which means even the most challenging conditions will leave you well lit. I took a few landscape photos with the lens to test how it works under dark conditions, and found that the width was a good match for the Auckland cityscape, and the tripod I used held the lens up well.

Sony FE 70–200mm f/4.0 G OSS lens

35mm, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 2500

It’s well known that every top photographer has a 70–200mm in their kit. It’s a bit of a staple lens, and everyone seems to have used one at some point. The Sony option is quite impressive. When compared to the Canon or Nikon f/4 equivalent, the Sony feels a lot better in hand, with the rubber zoom and focus rings holding shape well and feeling sticky to the touch. With the 70–200mm the lens can be zoomed completely forward to 200mm, and it creates a greater depth of field and a nice touch of bokeh coming through the back. I took the lens out to Queen Street at night to do some street photography. I found that although it’s a big lens, it was able to fit into my little tote bag, and was stored away easily. I could shoot down a few notches in shutter speed, with the lens’s image stabilization allowing for compensation. I walked around capturing moments of the night and found that it was an easy-to-use lens which gave me plenty of length to work with while snooping around town. 

Manfrotto MVH500AH Fluid Head & 755XB Tripod

From left to right: ISO 100, ISO 1600, ISO 40,000, ISO 256,000, ISO 409,600

I think anyone who’s used a tripod will have one complaint — the weight. Sure, they’re easy to use, and with modern technology comes ideal replacements, but for most shooters, the tripod is still a necessity in their kit. Today’s production methods have introduced new material for legs — carbon fibre. Often used in the creation of aircraft and high-end cars, the compound allows the user to benefit from a significant weight decrease. I took the tripod out for the landscape shots and needed to walk from the centre of town, out to Wynyard Quarter — not a long walk, but long enough to make a tripod annoying. The Manfrotto 755 CX3 never once weighed me down. The head allowed for a nice standard Manfrotto plate to adapt the Sony A7S onto, and from there I was easily able to adjust the head to capture the shots. The legs felt sturdy and tough, and could withstand some bashing. Definitely a great piece to have in your kit. 

Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens

55mm, f/1.8, 1/1250s, ISO 1000

You can’t help but stop and stare at the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens. It’s packaged in what feels to be a milled piece of metal. It’s nice to the touch and feels great in your hand. The body of the lens has been reinforced to repel dust and moisture, thus also ensuring that the lens is kept clean. 

When testing the sharpness of the camera, some will feel the result with this lens is so sharp that it creates an almost lifeless effect. In fact, there’s very little chromatic aberration, and barrel distortion doesn’t seem to exist in this compact lens. Paired with the Sony A7S, the lens is quick to autofocus and easy to manual focus. The firm and sturdy barrel means the focusing ring is nice to hold and grip. When used in a video situation, the constant-focus setting sees the lens move and alter silently while maintaining focus on various subjects. With f/1.8 as the maximum aperture, the lens handles night shooting very well. It maintains its focusing level at night, and holds colour and bokeh well in darkness. The lens comes at a cost, but certainly performs well. I used it at the Zambesi Britomart show to see how it would perform under low light conditions alongside big spotlights. The lens held up well and focused quickly, while holding plenty of detail and colour in the subjects and surroundings.

Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens

35mm, f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 3200

Shooting around town late at night with friends, you can pop out some spectacular shots with the addition of a mid-wide-angle lens. In this case the 35mm from Sony Zeiss well and truly covers the board. Sitting only 36.5mm from the sensor, the lens is a portable way to capture an evening with friends. Although it cracks out a little bit of vignetting when wide open, the mood it creates eases the issue entirely. In this case I used the camera to shoot a catchup at local cafe Little & Friday. As its food is rather friendly on the eye, and the cafe was quite dimly lit on a dark night, I wanted to make sure the food was presented correctly and with a nice dim, subtle light source. I chose to shoot the images at 40,000 ISO and at f/2.8. What I was left with was a clear nice picture with minimal noise and a nice depth of field. The colours still popped, and the photo overall still held a lot of sharpness even at that ISO.

Litepanel 1×1

What’s a night shoot without the help of a light or two, right? The Sony A7S has possibly got one of the best ISO ratings of any camera on the market, but out on an interview video shoot we wanted to add a bit more fill to the environment. With the help of White Studios, we were able to throw a Litepanel into the mix to aid to our interview. The Litepanel was an easy choice to light up the area. With a panel filled with LEDs, a battery and power-outlet option, and various filters, it makes the set-up quite easy to use. Along the way we moved the lights around and discovered they didn’t emit any heat. We were able to move the thin strips about without worrying about cooling the panels down and losing valuable time on set. In fact, if you were to chuck a battery on the Litepanel, you could effectively walk around lighting the sequence as you go. The Litepanel is quite large, however, and isn’t the most portable, but in a shoot situation it works well. And if you do require more power on set, you can just attach another one next to it and build up the pattern. 

We put the Litepanel to the test with a night-shoot interview that allowed us to light the area how we wanted, and with minimal cabling. We ran one through to the mains power and one on battery, and never had any trouble with the lights. The package was quiet and cold to the touch, allowing for ease of use and movement. The Manfrotto stands held up well, with a set of ProFoto sandbags to aid the rigidity.

Zoom H5, Sennheiser ew100

In addition to lighting for the interview, we also ran a Zoom H5 audio recorder and a Sennheiser ew100 wireless lavalier microphone. Running the two together allowed for an easy audio-recording solution, and the devices could be synced together through the Line Out adaptor plugged into the Sony camera body.

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This article was orginally published in D-Photo Issue No. 66. You can purchase a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: