Over the years, I have used Panasonic cameras almost exclusively, due to their small size, reasonable cast and good image quality. Since I travel often, lightweight and small gear is a big positive for me. Last year, I decided to venture into wildlife photography, I visited Botswana and Madagascar on a safari and all the other travelers had full frame cameras, the Canon 5D Mark IV. While my Africa photos turned out well, I found myself wondering if I could get better quality with a full sensor camera and I chose the Sony A7RIII probably mostly due to the intense advertising by Sony and the fact that I love my Sony RX100MV. I expected the camera to be expensive but the real sticker shock came when I bought lenses and accessories. I used it for one birding trip to Arizona and returned everything as soon as I returned. The lenses were too big and heavy and surprisingly, with the Sony 100–400mm lens and a 1.4x teleconvertor, the photo quality just was not there. I bought the new Lumix G9 and I have been happy ever since. Consider this post a journal of my foray into the world of Sony full frame cameras, specifically the Sony A7RIII.
Size, Weight and Cost
What you get out of these statistics is that the Sony A7R III body is comparable in weight and size to the Panasonic G9 body, but the Panasonic G9 has a more comfortable and deeper grip. The Sony A7R III costs about $1000 more, based on the higher resolution and the fact that it is full frame. The real story is the size and cost of the lenses required for a full size sensor. On the full frame Sony, the 100–400mm lens has a maximum reach of 400 mm with a fairly narrow depth of field. The micro 4/3 Panasonic 100–400mm lens has a crop factor of 2x giving it a maximum reach of a whopping 800mm with a deeper depth of field. To obtain 800 mm with the Sony 100–400 mm lens, you have to add a 2x teleconvertor. The problem with this solution is that you lose two f-stops or more making it only practical for bright sunny captures. Additionally, I found the image quality dropped too much to make it useful for birding. The compromise is a 1.4x teleconvertor which also loses at least one f-stop and is still blurry (as we will see below) for birding. Concerning battery life, the G9 gets 400 shots out of its DMW-BLF19 battery, while the A7R III can take 650 images on a single charge of its NP-FZ100 power pack. Sony battery is also heavier by one ounce, Sony Battery 4.2 oz vs Panasonic Battery 3.2 oz. When you add up the weight of the Sony A7R III kit with a 1.5x teleconverter, you are over 1 1/2 pounds heavier than the Panasonic G9 kit (5.53 lb vs 3.94lb), which is significant in real life shooting. Moreover the Sony A7R III kit has a reach of only 560mm, an f-stop of 6.6 or worse and costs $5805.00 without a battery grip, which costs $348 and is included with the Panasonic G9. In comparison the Panasonic G9 costs $3494.99, almost half the cost. I got these prices off Amazon effective July 2018.
On my initial outing with the Sony A7R III, I went to the park and took handheld pictures of ducks and geese. The early results were encouraging as seen above. Just to save space on the blog, I uploaded these images at 2048 on the long edge, tap to enlarge.
Depth of Focus
I took these two photos at the same location at about the same spot, in fact I cropped the Panasonic image slightly. Even without cropping, the images out of the Panasonic are bigger due to the 240mm extra zoom. These images nicely illustrate the depth of field differences between Sony and Panasonic. The surrounding birds are blurry with the Sony but clear and sharp with the Panasonic. Even the Pine Siskin in focus is a little blurry. I chose the pine siskin for this example for the fine detail in the yellow areas. Again to save space on the blog, I uploaded these images at 2048 on the long edge, tap to enlarge.
These comparisons of the Sony and Panasonic kit reveal several important facts. First, you can visibly see the difference in the Sony 560mm zoom compared to the Panasonic 800mm zoom. The extra 240mm of zoom makes a big difference in terms of optical magnification. The second major takeaway involves the issue of optical vs digital zoom. We all know that digital zoom increases pixelation, reduces resolution and introduces noise. The pixelation issue could have been addressed by the fact that the Sony A7RIII has a high resolution sensor (42.4 megapixels), 14-bit Raw, a full 35mm frame size and according to some reviews an ISO invariant sensor (100–32000, expandable to 102400). All of this technology should allow more extensive digital zoom than the Lumix G9 with a micro 4/3 20.3 megapixel sensor, 14-bit Raw and an ISO of 200–25600. And yet in this example and many more in my possession, the Sony A7RIII falls short. The short answer is that optical zoom trumps digital zoom in every situation, as we have all learned since we began photography seriously. Yet, there is more to this story, the optical performance of the Sony 100–400mm lens with an added teleconverter makes a difference too. The Leica/Panasonic 100–400mm lens is not only lighter but in my opinion is superior to even the Sony 100–400mm lens head to head. Again to save space on the blog, I uploaded these images at 2048 on the long edge, tap to enlarge.
Noise and DXO Photolab
One final note, I was surprised at the amount of noise in the cropped Sony A7RIII photos, considering it’s supposed ISO invariance and full sized sensor. The final crop was 567×378 for the Sony and 640×480 for the Panasonic with a lot more noise for the Sony given the same illumination in both photos, despite the difference in sensor size. I really don’t worry much about a little noise in my images since I began using DXO Photolab. While Lightroom is where I store my photos and do minor processing, I routinely use DXO on wildlife photography in general and bird photography in particular. Birds have many detailed and intricate features that show the slightest error in camera and/or processing. DXO Photolab precisely corrects optical aberrations, provides micro-contrast to improve clarity, improves color and detail with “ClearView”, has the best noise reduction of any program and as a bonus has the Nik collection for local adjustments (U Point). For bird photography, I use it as the first step in my workflow. It doesn’t do everything I want in an editing program but the things it does do cannot be matched elsewhere. Just a note about DXO, when I first started using it, I found myself rooting around for sliders to move. DXO is unique in making a final edit with a minimal amount of work. You click a few options and voila, DXO does the hard work for you, pixel-by-pixel. I have no affiliation with DXO and unfortunately they are going through bankruptcy as of March 7, 2018, I hope the software continues to be available.
If ever there was a bird to test a camera system, hummingbirds would be the choice. The are tiny, fast and incredibly detailed and beautiful. In this set of photos, the hummingbird is a little further away for the Sony (remember the Panasonic has 240mm more reach), but the light is perfect. While the image from the Sony is nice, look at the incredible detail with the Panasonic. This is one of the better images of hummingbirds I got with the Sony.
This is the best hummingbird photo I got with the Sony system. It is very pleasing but lacking in detail, particularly in the feathers. The violet spots on the head are just that, spots without detail of the underlying feathers.
This image again shows the superiority of the Panasonic system with finely nuanced details of feathers and plumage. Note the individual feathers in the spots of color. Again, the raw image is bigger with the Panasonic, a result of the additional 240mm of zoom.
Just to drive this point home, here is a female Anna’s Hummingbird taken at 400mm with the Panasonic G9. Note the detail in every filament of every feather. Again to save space on the blog, I uploaded these images at 2048 on the long edge, tap to enlarge.
Autofocus and Image Stabilization
Much has been made of the decision by Panasonic to use it’s Depth-from-Defocus autofocus contrast detect system as opposed most other cameras with a hybrid phase/contrast system. I personally found the Panasonic autofocus to be significantly better than the Sony system. Dpreview found “The Panasonic G9 represents the most capable Contrast Detect AF camera ever released. Proof of this is the fact that is aced all of our autofocus tests”. They did find problems shooting an indoor basketball game but my subjects are all outdoors with good light, very different from indoor sports. I personally found shooting both moving and stationary birds to be much better with the Panasonic with many more “keepers” than the Sony. In addition, I look forward to using the 6K video recording feature, which yields 18MP still frames, especially for birds in flight. In terms of stabilization, I believe the Panasonic wins, hands down. I find hand held shooting is very accurate and comfortable compared to Sony. Dpreview said “At 200mm using Dual I.S. 2 the G9 provided 5 2/3 stops advantage over hand-held shooting, making it the most effective IS system in any camera we’ve tested to date. Even down at 1/5 sec we were finding the majority of image acceptably sharp with IS on.”
One of my biggest headaches in the past was logging my photos with GPS. The Panasonic implementation of low-power bluetooth is excellent, easy to use and virtually foolproof. The Panasonic G9 is also one of the most customizable cameras I have ever used, with buttons for just about everything and even a LCD panel on the top. Additionally, the touch screen is excellent and a mature technology with Panasonic as opposed to the rudimentary implementation by Sony. I also love the fact that I can bracket exposure, white balance, focus and even aperture. I personally use the postfocus feature for focus stacking in macro photography (see my post in the references) but it can also be used for landscapes. The Panasonic G9 has a fully articulated screen as opposed to the Sony A7RIII which only tilts up and down and the EVF is just amazing. Finally, since most of my photography is done outdoors, the weather sealing on the Panasonic G9 is really good, unlike the sketchy weather sealing of the Sony A7RIII. I travel extensively and size and weight are paramount concerns. The Panasonic G9 is much bigger and heavier than my GX8 but the prime lenses are smaller, cheaper and lighter than the Sony counterparts.
I am going to stop with the examples at this point, since I have already posted examples of photos with both cameras. For the Sony A7RIII with Sony 100–400mm with 1.4x Teleconverter go (here). For the Panasonic G9 with Leica 100–400mm lens go (here) and (here) although the second post has the two Sony examples of hummingbirds seen in this post. The issues related to birdwatching that we have discussed in this post have been focused specifically on the Sony A7RIII but I think it is a problem of all full or crop sensor cameras for birdwatchers. Despite advances in technology, physics dictates that a larger sensor requires larger, heavier and thus more expensive lenses. However, advances in technology can shrink the size of the necessary sensor as Panasonic has demonstrated in this camera and even Sony recently developed a 48MP 8mm smartphone camera. Additionally, advances in computational image acquisition, as seen in smartphone cameras, could yield amazing results although the camera industry has been slow to adopt this strategy. For me with bird photography, the Panasonic G9 wins out over the more expensive and heavier Sony A7RIII. I hope you enjoyed the post, please leave a comment.