Revisiting that old landscape

Thursday, August 20, 2015 - St. Bernard of Clairvaux

The trail in the Parco della Maremma that reaches Bocca d'Ombrone is one of the easiest and shortest, but a very interesting one. In a few kilometres you first walk under the pinehood, then in an area where the trees become less dense, then another where many are dying because of the salt water, until you get into the marshes where there are only small plants and bushes. Here the sight reaches the hills and the mountains far away on one side, the Mediterranean sea and a few islands on the other. Cattle - horses and cows - can be seen grazing on the open meadows and a few birds can be also spotted (many more in the migration seasons). The scenario is most beautiful at sunset for obvious reasons, even though most of the times the Summer sky is clear and the show is somewhat diminished.

Tra praterie e pinete.

Sony α6000 + FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS @ 103 mm, 1/50 sec @ ƒ/8, -0.30 EV, ISO 100, hand-held.

It has been my “standard hike”, especially in Summer, since the past fifteen years. I think I know all the corners of the landscape, even though it's constantly evolving - for instance, because of the penetration of salt water into the marshes, many pine trees have first declined and then perished in the years; some have been transformed in white skeletons, others completely disappeared. Unfortunately this fate involved also some lonely trees that I loved. But that's nature, where everything is born, moves and then dies.

While the hike is always enjoyable, I must admit that in the recent years I perceived a diminishing stimulus in taking photos of that place, because of a “been here, done that” feeling. Things changed this year, when I have been offered many fresh opportunities thanks to a different choice of lenses, most notably being the first year here with my Sony FE 70-200mm f4 G OSS.

Cavalli al pascolo in riva al fiume Ombrone.

Sony α6000 + FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS @ 165 mm, 1/160 sec @ ƒ/8, +1.00 EV, ISO 200, hand-held.

In short, this was the problem: walking in a location where wildlife can be spotted, my first choice was the Nikkor 300mm f4D ED-IF AF-S with the Nikon D7000, which - being not stabilised - also required the tripod. This was already a bulky and heavy set of equipment, so I could only afford a single secondary lens. For almost all my Nikon life, the only zoom lens I owned was a 12-24mm. Great for some kind of landscapes (e.g. mountains, or with subjects in the foreground), but not very useful at Bocca d'Ombrone, where the landscape is mostly flat with hills at the horizon. A wide lens here is good when there is an interesting sky with cloud patterns, but as I previously said it's not a frequent thing in August. The ideal focal length for this kind of landscape is around 150mm (in 35mm equivalence), that is 100mm in APS-C. My two Nikkor lenses close to that were an 85mm and a 180mm - too short the former, probably too long the latter, but above all both couldn't auto-focus with my second body (a Nikon D5000 or a D5100). Prime lenses, furthermore, are a problem here because the trail is fenced and there is no option of “zooming with your feet”. In my latest Nikon years a second zoom came, but it was a 18-70mm and was of limited help in this context.

Vacche maremmane.

Sony α6000 + FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS @ 97 mm, 1/40 sec @ ƒ/11, +0.70 EV, ISO 100, monopod.

This year I made a radical choice: I left the 300mm at home and carried only the 70-200mm, plus the 16-70mm on the second body. It happened that I mostly used the former and - to my pleasure - new perspectives of the same old landscape appeared to my eyes. Thanks to stabilisation, I could also left the tripod at home, only resorting to a very light monopod in some chances. This meant to give up with wildlife (with an exception, see below), but it was a good trade-off. Probably the ideal lens for Bocca d'Ombrone is something like a 100-400mm, that would impose no compromises; but the only chances for the Sony E-mount, at the moment, require adapters and are much heavier than the 70-200mm. I can't dismiss the fact that, when I was back in my car after a couple of hours, my neck wasn't aching. I'm still hoping for a reasonably lightweight long zoom in the market for 2016.

Al tramonto nelle paludi.

Sony α6000 + FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS @ 154 mm, 1/160 sec @ ƒ/8, -0.30 EV, ISO 200, hand-held.

Paesaggio in trasformazione.

Sony α6000 + FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS @ 109 mm, 1/30 sec @ ƒ/8, +0.70 EV, ISO 200, hand-held.

There is the other side of the coin, though. It's hard to directly compare the AF of the α6000 with the one of my old Nikkors. Contrast-based AF in general is more precise than phase-detection and, talking about landscape, speed is not a problem. Actually almost all the shots with my Sony cameras are quite sharp, but sometimes the camera just gets it wrong. Unfortunately, wrong enough to ruin a photo, but not enough to be noticeable in the EVF, especially the one in the α6000 which is not the best in that class (it has even less resolution than the NEX-6). The stitched panorama below is ok and sharp, but its companion made by twice the elements, with an important landmark at the right side, turned out to be a total failure. Too bad it was something I planned to print and hang on the wall.

Of course also the Nikon cameras somewhat failed focusing, but - after more than one year of experience with the mirrorless - I can say that their failure rate in landscape mode was less relevant.

Panorama al Parco della Maremma.

Sony α6000 + FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS @ 105 mm, 1/100 sec @ ƒ/8, +1.00 EV, ISO 100, monopod, panorama from four stitched photos.

I don't expect big improvements from Sony cameras in this area, since I think that most of auto-focus development will be about speed, even though a new camera sporting an EVF with more resolution might help at least to be aware of the problem, so it can be immediately fixed; while I can't directly compare my score with the NEX-6 and the α6000 because I'm using them mostly with different lenses, I have the strong impression that the failure rate is smaller with the NEX-6 thanks to its better viewfinder. I'm still puzzled on why Sony degraded an otherwise excellent camera such as the α6000 with an EVF not at its level.

In the meantime, I'll take the habit of manually confirming the focusing with the MF assist. Probably I should also use a larger focusing area for better precision, at least in those kind of landscapes in which there is a large enough section of the subject in the same focal plane.

Another lost opportunity was due to the most stupid feature in the Sony α6000: the management of the AF engagement with the trigger. Landscapes require it to be turned off in order to allow focus-and-recompose; moving subjects require it to be turned on. While the α6000 offers three “memory recalls” for fast switching settings, AF engagement can't be part of them; furthermore, to change it you have to navigate through the menus (it can't be assigned to a custom button). My camera was in “landscape mode” when a fox, trotting towards me in the lane, appeared out of the bushes. It passed just a few metres from me - well in range of the 70-200mm - and the opportunity lasted only a few seconds, which unfortunately were not enough to enter the menus and reach the desired function change.