So, I’ve jumped on the Sony mirrorless bandwagon. Well not completely, but I have snagged a Sony a6000 to use as a travel and street photography camera. The following is a review of the Sony a6000 camera body, emphasizing its versatility with the adaptation of vintage Minolta Rokkor MC and MD lenses.
At this point you may (or may not) be asking yourself a few questions about why I’ve done this and why the a6000 is a suitable camera, so let’s address those first:
Why a mirrorless camera for travel and street photography?
Sometimes size matters (cue locker room joke). The Sony a6000 camera body is approximately 4.7″L x 2.8″H x 1.8″D (that’s slightly larger than a typical external hard drive) and weighs 12.13 oz. Meanwhile, my Canon 6D is 5.7″L x 4.4″H x 2.8″D and weighs about 26.7 oz. Therefore, traveling with the a6000 cuts the camera weight by 1/2 and bulk by 1/3 (lenses not included). Score.
Why utilize vintage camera lenses on a modern camera body?
Several reasons. 1) Price. 2) Optics. 3) Backwards Compatibility.
As I said, I wasn’t really interested in blowing a ton of cash on a new camera configuration. I had previously completed a simple restoration of an old Minolta Hi-Matic 7s (read the blog post here) and was getting hooked on street photography using a rangefinder camera. I pretty much wanted a digital replica of that 7s, or as close as I could get to it. I was also in possession of a hand-me-down Minolta X-370 SLR and Rokkor 50mm f/1.7 MD that once belonged to my parents. If I could adapt the Minolta Rokkor lenses to a modern digital camera body then it would provide the flexibility of using the same lenses for film and digital photography. After further researching the Rokkor lenses, I settled on expanding my collection and adapting them to a modern mirrorless camera. There is a lot of information available regarding the optics and modern use of these old lenses. In the case of the Rokkor MC lenses, some of the first versions were introduced back in the mid 1960’s but are well renowned for their optical quality and element coatings.
After several months of combing antique shops and eBay, I was able to assemble a capable collection of Minolta Rokkor prime lenses to use with a mirrorless digital camera AND my Minolta SLR for less than $120. Let that sink in… I obtained four prime lenses ranging in maximum aperture from f/1.4 to f/2.8 for less than a single modern lens (and I even got a pristine Minolta SRT201 SLR included to boot)!
Why the Sony a6000?
An important and often overlooked feature of mirrorless cameras is Focus Peaking. Focus peaking is a digital tool which highlights the area of the image that is in focus, allowing one to manual focus a lens on a given subject with greater speed and precision than can often be achieved by focusing through an optical viewfinder. Which brings up a second consideration – the electronic viewfinder. The a6000 has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead of the optical viewfinder of an SLR, meaning that you’re viewing the projected real-time digital image rather than the reflected scene through a pentaprism. The benefit is that focus peaking can be overlaid on the digital scene whether you are looking through the EVF or the rear LCD. Sony’s focus peaking capabilities and the EVF specifications are partly what drew me to choose the a6000 for use with manual focus vintage lenses. Of course, every other mirrorless camera have these capabilities… so big whoop. But what many don’t have is the a6000’s sensor.
The a6000 sports a 24.3 effective Megapixels (MP) APS-C sensor, yielding an ideal balance of pixel size (detail) and RAW file size (the resulting .ARW files average about 25 MB). The APS-C sensor maintains the 3:2 aspect ratio of the 35mm Rokkor lenses while producing a 1.53x crop factor, meaning than most of the common shortcomings pertaining to vintage lenses (soft corners wide open and vignetting) are mitigated. Most other mirrorless cameras utilize a considerably smaller Micro 4/3 sensor, producing a 4:3 aspect ratio and 2.0x crop factor. While this smaller sensor does have benefits, it’s more difficult to obtain a wide-angle or normal perspective with vintage glass. Furthermore, the price point at the time set the a6000 apart from other APS-C offerings, which mainly consisted of Fujifilm cameras (which also at the time only offered 16 MP sensors).
This a6000 camera is actually a mid-tier offering of Sony’s alpha APS-C E-mount (previously termed NEX) cameras, sitting between the introductory a5100 and the recently introduced a6300. The new a6300 is technically the successor of the a6000 with updated wiring, 4K video, weather sealing, and a magnesium alloy chassis. Although I usually prefer to have some level of weather sealing on my cameras, the a6300 was not unveiled at the time of my purchase. Additionally, I don’t believe too many NEX lenses also have weather sealing; which therefore negates the benefit.
So, anyways…. now that you know every painstaking thought that went into my purchase, let’s look at the actual camera!
As you can see there isn’t a ton of real estate for the button layout, but that’s because it’s a compact camera! The buttons are about as well placed as one could hope, except for the video record button (red dot on far right side). If attempting to shoot hand-held video, I find that moving my right thumb to hit the record button really compromises my grip and introduces camera shake. Also, I have a hard time finding the button without looking, as it sits fairly flush with the camera grip.
I do like the 3″ tilty-screen and find myself flipping it out occasionally for low angle perspectives. It does also tilt out from above, allowing me to hold the camera above my head and compose a shot, but to be honest I really don’t ever use the camera in such a way. Unfortunately, the screen isn’t very visible in harsh sunlight and it doesn’t feature any touch capabilities. This screen design differs greatly from my Canon 70D, which sports a touch-screen with a fully articulating mount. Sony does however offer a semi-hard LCD protector (which is attached in the above photographs) as well as a flexible protector, which help protect the rather delicate screen. Most camera companies rely on 3rd party screen protectors to provide an extra layer of protection for consumers.
Input/output connections are limited to a micro HDMI and a USB 2.0 (multi) interface, the later is used for battery charging and cable connection to a computer. It’s important to note here that Sony packages the a6000 with the intent that charging is to be done with the battery in-camera via the included wall adapter and USB cable. They do not provide an external battery charger, instead they make you pay extra for it as a separate purchase. If you’ve ever owned any camera other than a point-and-shoot this will likely irritate you, as it did me.
Feature and Performance Critique
After using the a6000 routinely over the past 5 months, I’ve been surprised with the extensive features crammed into this little camera body. I have to keep reminding myself of just how complex this camera actually is for its size, especially when grumbling about differences compared to my Canon DSLR bodies. Overall, it’s a well-performing machine which has completely fulfilled my requirements regarding use with adapted vintage 35mm lenses.
Image quality is everything I had hoped for. Metering has proven to be accurate, and white balance simple to adjust. Even when using the vintage manual lenses, camera settings are fairly simplified. I operate the camera in aperture priority mode (A) for most situations, or in full manual mode (M) if I’m taking my time with a landscape. Because aperture is controlled via the lens rather than electronically by the camera, the other shooting modes are of little use to me. When shooting in aperture priority, I will set the aperture and ISO settings manually and allow the camera to select the appropriate shutter speed. Usually, the results are spot on but if I need to push or pull the image a bit I can just adjust the exposure compensation with the rear dial. Furthermore, I have been impressed with the EVF and rear LCD when displaying the anticipated exposure. When stopping the lens down, which with a manual lens means that I’m physically restricting the amount of light reaching the sensor, there is almost no lag time on the display(s) as the camera adjusts shutter speed and updates the projected exposure.
Note: when using adapted lenses on the a6000, the shutter “release without a lens” option must be selected on the camera settings menu, otherwise the camera thinks there is no lens attached and the shutter will not fire.
– Compact form factor with comfortable camera grip
– APS-C sized 24.3 MP sensor
– Easily customizable button settings (C1, C2)
– Accurate and customizable focus peaking (customizable peaking levels, colors, and zebra)
– Digital viewfinder & LCD grid overlay
– 11 fps max shutter speed with additional mid (6 fps) and low (2.5 fps) continuous shutter speed settings
– Compact, pop-up flash
– Tilt-screen allows for low and high angle perspective compositions
– Fn menu button is well placed on the back of the camera, allowing for quick setting modification (equivalent of Canon’s Q button)
– Eye proximity sensor automatically switches between EVF and rear LCD when you bring the camera viewfinder up to your face.
– Fast response/wake-up time from sleep mode
– Viewfinder magnification offered and is customizable between 2 sec., 5 sec., and unlimited timing (I assigned this feature to the rear C2 button)
– 100% viewfinder coverage
– No problem firing remote flashes using my bare-bones Phottix Ares wireless flash trigger set. Strobists rejoice!
– Easily accessed exposure bracketing controls in the shutter speed menu
– The camera settings menu is easy to navigate (Sony’s menu system is now fairly similar to Canon’s)
* = corrected on the new a6300
*- No weather sealing, plastic top cover construction
*- Loud shutter noise with no silent feature
– On/Off switch is easily bumped, leading to unnecessary battery consumption
– Panorama mode is useless – produces excessive compression of resulting .jpg, poor image quality, and forces auto ISO
– Screen is difficult to read in direct sunlight
– Although the 21 image buffer in RAW is fairly good, the write time following seems rather long – even with a 95 MB/s SD card
– Only 1/160 second flash sync speed
– No digital level in viewfinder or LCD
– Rear dial (exposure compensation) is too easy to spin, resulting in unintentional over/under exposed images
– Eyecup is stiff and uncomfortable. Obstructs proper placement of some 3rd party L-plates
– Relatively slow cold start-up time with no automatic sensor cleaning
– The mode dial contains a lot of wasted settings. There are two automatic settings (regular auto and “intelligent auto”) in addition to a panorama mode and scene mode. No one ever uses these
– Viewfinder diopter is tiny and difficult to adjust
– Sony’s multi interface hotshoe includes many delicate contact surfaces which are partially protected by shoe rim. Not a big deal, except a hotshoe cover is not provided. If you want one, Sony grossly overcharges you for a little piece of plastic
*- 3 Custom settings banks (Memory Recall) are congested into a single mode dial setting; “MR”
Focus Peaking Results
Focus peaking is the primary reason I purchased the a6000, and it doesn’t disappoint. In practice, this highlighted display of in-focus subjects greatly aids in the accuracy and speed with which I can manual focus a given lens. It isn’t always perfect, but what a useful tool it has become. The focus peaking settings of the Sony a6000 are fairly customizable to make the visual aid as obvious or subtle as you like. For most compositions, I find that a peaking level set to “Mid” and the peaking color set to “Red.” If your scene contains an excess of red, the peaking color can easily be switched to white or yellow for contrast. “Zebra stripes” is also available as an exposure aid, but I find it distracting when composing the image and leave it turned off.
The above image demonstrates the focus peaking function on the rear LCD of the a6000. The red highlighting of the camera screen in the upper photograph indicates that the “Canon” badge and additional buttons of my office printer are in focus. Viewing the lower image, the focal plane has been shifted to the “Empire” book along with the indicative red highlighting.
The obligatory comparison where we ramp the camera up to its maximum ISO settings. No camera review is complete without it, eh? For now, I don’t plan to use this body for nightscape photography and rarely take it past ISO 800. But maybe I will in the future. So, for those interested:
As you can see, it’s all quite usable except for the extreme high end of the ISO range. Commonly when photographing the night sky with my Canon 6D I don’t exceed ISO 3200, generally operating somewhere between ISO 2000 – 2500 (depending on lens aperture). Based on the results above, I would also be satisfied in using the a6000 up to an ISO setting of 3200.
Reportedly, Sony’s new a6300 has an expandable ISO range to 51,200. Big whoop. No one in their right mind uses an ISO setting that high, as it obviously contributes to poor image quality. I would rather see a lower native or expandable ISO range, say to 64 or 50. I’m certainly biased as a landscape photographer, but a lower ISO allows one to slow the shutter speed that much more without the need of (or in addition to) ND filters. I occasionally shoot at ISO 50 with my Canon 6D coupled with a 3 stop ND filter to obtain a longer shutter speed and blurred subject motion.
It’s fast I tells ya. Too fast. So fast that it will scare everyone around you into thinking you’re firing off a submachine gun. So fast that at its top speed of 11 frames/second (fps), images quickly cause a traffic jam for the processor. At this frame rate, the 21 image buffer when shooting in the RAW format yields only about 2 seconds of continuous shooting. I didn’t buy the a6000 for its fast shutter speed, so I tend to keep the frame rate down at the rather slow speed of 2.5 fps. Although, there is a happy medium setting of 6 fps if you prefer. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t try out the high burst rate at a recent hockey game. Here’s approximately 1 second of action for you:
Obviously this highlights one of the main disadvantages of using old manual focus lenses – no focus tracking!
The top mode dial of the a6000 has a panorama setting, which I found intriguing. These days, panoramas are easily created using commonplace software (Photoshop, Lightroom, Hugin, etc.), but I was curious whether Sony made it even easier to generate a quick and dirty single-row panorama. Turns out it is quick and dirty, but altogether an unnecessary feature for this advanced camera. The panorama mode on my iPhone churns out better results than this function of the a6000, so don’t be expecting anything special.
Shown above is a single row panorama captured in camera, using the a6000’s panorama mode (upper photograph). The resulting image is a highly compressed jpeg with unacceptable resolution, which is rather contradictory considering that the combination of multiple 24 MP images should yield a high resolution panorama. The panorama also suffers from excessive cropping in the vertical axis, and a black bar on the right side from incomplete cropping by the camera processor. Additionally, when using the built-in panorama mode, the camera prohibits the user from selecting the shutter speed and ISO settings. In this instance, I wanted to use a small aperture and long shutter speed to slow the movement of the water. Consequently, this caused the camera to just crank up the ISO, further contributing to the poor image quality and lack of shadow detail.
The lower panorama is of 5 individual photographs, shot at around 1-2″ each at ISO 100, later stitched together using Hugin. Obviously, this produced a panorama with far superior image quality when compared to the in camera result, and also facilitated the desired effect of the blurred water along the dam. I understand that this is not a major issue to most users. But, instead of incorporating a panorama function on the a6000 I would have preferred Sony utilize the mode dial space for another custom “Memory Recall (MR)” slot.
FYI, it only took about 5 minutes to edit, export, and stitch the 5 photographs into a panorama using Lightroom and Hugin. Definitely worth the time.
All this being said, the a6000 coupled with the vintage lenses is actually a pretty good panorama configuration. The thinner camera body and relatively short lens lengths means that I can generate accurate panoramas with minimal parallax, all without needing to carry my nodal slide. Again, making this camera a good option for travel.
Note: If using adapted lenses, remember to write down what lens you used for your panoramas. Because the manual lens doesn’t provide exif data to the camera, the panorama stitching program won’t be able to pick up the focal distance and angle of view information. This will need to be entered manually.
Real World Images
I’m not sure whether the surprising image quality that I obtain with this configuration is due to the superb performance of these 40-50 year old Minolta Rokkor lenses or the great CMOS sensor packed inside the a6000, but I do enjoy the results. The following images were made with the Sony a6000 and various Minolta Rokkor primes, captured in RAW format and exported after a basic editing procedure in Lightroom (commonly consisting of curve adjustments, sharpening, etc.).
Rockkor’s 28mm f/2.8 (42mm equivalent focal length on the APS-C sensor) has quickly evolved into my favorite lens on the a6000, which is funny because I don’t generally like the results from a “normal” focal length lens. The particular copy I received is in excellent condition, it’s very sharp, contrasty, and easy to zone focus. I haven’t made any lens profiles yet for post-processing, but you certainly can for these non-native lenses. But then again a little bit of distortion adds to the unique character of these vintage lenses, which was the whole point in the first place!
Focus peaking displayed in the EVF allowed me to quickly focus on Molly’s left eye (camera right). I’m truly impressed by this 50mm lens (75mm equivalent on the a6000) as it is very sharp in the center at f/1.4. Wide open, this lens produces some unique bokeh with a bit of a rimming effect.
I believe this is just before I was told “stop taking pictures of me!” Stopped down a little, you can see the hexagonal bokeh from the 6-bladed aperture of the 50mm f/1.4. I don’t find the hexagonal bokeh to be a distracting effect, meanwhile the lens only gets sharper.
If you are concerned about your ability to obtain sharp, in-focus images when utilizing a manual focus lens; don’t be, it’s easy! I had Molly give the a6000 a try during a late afternoon hike, and after only 30 seconds of brief instruction she was capturing sharp photographs when using the focus peaking feature, including the above portrait. Afterwards, she even asked if it could be “her camera.” She hates cameras. I immediately declined, it’s mine!
If interested in using vintage lenses on mirrorless cameras, you’re going to need an adapter. The type of adapter required varies depending on the lens and camera types, but since I was adapting 35mm lenses to an APS-C sensor camera I didn’t require one with a corrective “teleconverter” lens. It’s just an aluminum tube with mounting flanges and a lens release button. When it comes to lens adapters you can spend as little as $10 and risk possible fitment issues, or blow a couple hundred dollars on a top of the line chunk of metal sporting AF confirmation chips and built-in variable ND filters. I went the Goldilocks route, and chose an Fotodiox Minolta MD/MC to Sony NEX-E mount adapter for a whole $23.00. Fotodiox also makes a “pro” model adapter which includes a tripod collar, but I didn’t deem that necessary.
For basic transport and protection, I snagged the unassuming Lower Event Messenger 100 for cheap. It’s rather purse-esque (“It’s a European man-bag Jerry!” Seinfeld… anybody?) but it stores the camera with adapter and lens attached, an additional lens, a flash if I need it, the wall charger, cables, and allen wrenches.
For any camera I plan to affix to a tripod and use for landscape photography, I buy a custom L-plate. This allows me to easily switch between portrait and landscape orientations and also acquire single-row panoramas with minimal parallax and the maximum vertical pixel count. Really Right Stuff (RRS) is the best when it comes to custom L-plates, but are also pricey. I went with a Sunwayfoto L-plate for my a6000, which has some fitment issues requiring me to use the camera without the eye cup, but is relatively inexpensive.
Lastly, I use an OP/TECH USA mirrorless strap with the a6000. This compact neoprene strap uses quick-disconnect buckles close to the camera body (a must in my opinion) which connect to the camera lugs with nylon cord, and is quite comfortable. It’s not the most stylish strap and is only available in black, but it’s very practical.
If you’re using the a6000 on a tripod, you may want to grab a remote or shutter release to eliminate any vibrations. Sony offers a relatively complicated wireless remote with a slew of unnecessary functions. From the looks of it, it may also control your TV and open your garage door. If you’re considering the a6000 for long exposures (> 30″) or time-lapse, there’s the usual offerings of cheap 3rd party intervalometers. I would recommend one of the new wireless intervalometers that utilize the hot shoe, but since Sony negated any screen-based level indicator you may want to save the hot shoe slot for a spirit level. Thanks Sony…
Alternatively, you can utilize Sony’s “PlayMemories Mobile” app on your smartphone to remotely trigger the camera’s shutter and review images via wifi. If you’re a social media junky, you also have the option to immediately transfer the photograph to your phone so you can post it asap. Kudos to Sony, as the wifi connection is easy to establish and the refresh rate on my phone is quite fast and detailed. My Canon DSLRs struggle with this. Although this system works quite well as a remote trigger, it isn’t a solution for me personally. When utilizing the PlayMemories Mobile Remote, you cannot capture images in RAW format. Major deal breaker! Additionally when operating via the PlayMemories Mobile Remote, neither the camera screen nor the phone display focus peaking, thereby eliminating my most favorite feature of the a6000.
The Sony a6000 also incorporates the ability to download and install additional camera applications and features from right within the camera. From this app store, you can unlock the cameras intervalometer capabilities via the “Time-Lapse” app for a nominal fee of $9.99. So… it appears that the concept of “in app purchases” has unfortunately found its way into the camera world. Want to get creative and take a double exposure with a Sony camera? That will be $4.99 please. My Canon 70D does that just fine, and I didn’t have to pay extra (though to be fair, it’s also a more expensive camera). Sony sells the concept as a way to “expand functionality” of your Sony mirrorless camera. I argue that such commonplace functionality should be included with every Sony camera! It certainly seems to be the principle with Canon and Nikon. In practice, my whining and these features are neglectable. I just find it foolish.
You may visit www.sony.net/pmca for more information.
Sony created one hell of a camera with the a6000, which is arguably one of the best cameras when it comes to the adaptation of vintage glass. It’s an advanced camera with an ideal form factor that will provide competitive image quality and features for years to come, even following the introduction of it’s more expensive sibling; the a6300. I purchased this camera knowing exactly what I expected in terms of image quality and focus peaking, and it delivered. Although I have my minor personal gripes, the overall quality makes it easy to recommend the a6000 to just about everyone.
For a long time (or so it felt), I couldn’t decide between choosing the Sony or Fujifilm’s reportedly great X-Pro 1 (now X-Pro 2). Both cameras offered my desired features; great sensor quality, focus peaking, and the rangefinder form factor. The Sony a6000 won me over with it’s higher MP sensor and price point. I have zero buyers remorse.
My biggest criticism of the Sony NEX-E mount camera system is the current lens selection offered from Sony. It’s not that Sony’s new lenses will produce crummy photographs, optically they’re great, but they don’t fit my personal preferences and intended uses. In my opinion, Sony’s APS-C format lenses suffer from cheap plastic build quality and exhibit poor ergonomics. For a company that demonstrates great focus peaking integration into their camera bodies, the offered lenses exhibit thin focus rings (if any), no hard focus stops, and usually no depth of field scale. Instead, Sony has left manual focus features behind in order to pioneer mirrorless autofocus technology (a justifiable compromise I suppose). Sony does provide better optics and build quality in their Carl Zeiss offerings and full-frame (35mm equivalent) lenses, but these lenses are commonly large in size (dwarfing the a6000), heavy, and quite expensive. Obviously I’m using old, manual focus lenses on my camera to circumvent this issue; but I understand that it’s not for everybody.
Modern Lens Recommendations
Thankfully, there are some serious offerings from 3rd party lens manufacturers which are definitely worth considering:
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC DN Contemporary
The Sigma 30mm is a potentially exciting lens, and will likely be better than comparable lenses currently offered by Sony. This is a newly announced lens from Sigma and is not yet available, so its performance cannot be commented upon. Yet, Sigma has been punching out some really impressive lenses recently and I expect this to fall in line. Considering how much I’ve enjoyed the Rokkor 28mm, this 30mm represents a viable modern autofocus counterpart. With a 30mm focal length, it will be a “normal” 45mm on the a6000 while also sporting a wide focusing ring if you choose to use manual focus AND it’s a f/1.4! I’m expecting this to be a perfect pairing with the Sony a6000/a6300.
*Update* – The sigma lens is now available. Initial reviews indicate that it is a well built lens, with fast autofocus capabilities, great manual focus ergonomics, good center sharpness performance, and fantastic bokeh from it’s 9-bladed aperture. One reported negative property of this lens is the high level of chromatic abberations wide open at f/1.4, which is stated to be practically eliminated at f/2.0.
Samyang 12mm f/2.0
It’s difficult to find good, wide angle vintage lenses for modern adaptation. Not too many exist, they’re usually prized by collectors, expensive, and can suffer from significant distortion. Samyang (aka Rokinon & Bower) arguably offer the best and most economical wide angle options for landscape photography on mirrorless cameras. This 12mm f/2.0 (18mm on APS-C) is sharp, fast, and contains an aspherical lens element; making it a perfect choice for nightscape photography. It’s also well made, manual focus only, and cheap! I’ll likely snag one myself in the near future for a compact landscape configuration.
Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8
A wide angle alternative that incorporates autofocus is the fabulous Zeiss Touit 12mm. Zeiss of course makes excellent lenses, if not the best. But seeing as it’s slightly slower than the Samyang and 3x the price, I’ll stick with the manual focus Samyang. However, these do seem to go on sale regularly.
Rokinon 50mm f/1.2
Looking for crazy bokeh and sharp images in portraits? As one of the few f/1.2 lenses available for mirrorless cameras it’s a good choice for portraits with it’s 75mm equivalent focal length. A pricier option than Rokinon’s (Samyang, Bower) other lenses, but far cheaper for a f/1.2 when compared to canon’s EF lens’ for DSLR’s. I’m happy with my $20 Rokkor 50mm f/1.4 though.
While researching Minolta Rokkor MC & MD lenses and their adaptation to mirrorless cameras, I came to rely on several online sources for information. These websites provide some history of Minolta, detailed information regarding lens design, manufacturing periods, and performance reviews. If interested in such things, these sites can be very informative.
Technical specifications regarding the Sony a6000 and a6300 were obtained from Sony’s webpage and Adorama.