Escape to the Canyonlands

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Chesler Park
Chesler Park Sunset : Prints Available

An awesome sunset over Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Sony A7R + Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm)

As winter drags on, there are times when no matter how good the snow is, all I can think about is getting out to the desert for some warm weather backpacking. Such was the case last week when Claudia and I drove over to Utah for four days of backpacking in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park south of Moab. And what a refreshing trip it was, with exciting weather and some fantastic light to photograph.

The trip also provided ample opportunity for me to test out my new Sony A7R 36mp camera matched up with my favorite Canon lenses. Since this is a popular new camera, and my first new professional camera in over four years, I’ll write a brief mini-review at the end of this post.

See LOTS more photos below!

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Chesler Park
Sandstone Light : Prints Available

Sandstone towers in Chesler Park illuminated by brilliant sunset light. (Sony A7R + Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm)

We hiked into the famous Chesler Park under cloudy skies and even had a few light rain showers pass over in the afternoon. But when the setting sun dropped though a small gap on the western horizon a spectacular sunset erupted, bathing the sandstone towers in golden light.

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Chesler Park
Chesler Light : Prints Available

Brilliant sunset light in Chesler Park, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park. (Sony A7R + Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm)

This was one of those fantastic sunset scenes where every direction I looked was jaw-droppingly beautiful; I was wishing I had 3 or 4 clones of myself to be able to shoot photos all over the place at the same time! Or perhaps a machine to slow down time would have worked too…

Chesler Park campsite CP1
Chesler Park campsite CP1. (Ricoh GR)

There are five designated campsites in Chesler Park, which is a circular sage-filled plateau ringed by sandstone towers. This time we were able to camp in CP1 which is located in a more secluded spot between two big sandstone rocks.

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon
Elephant Canyon Dusk : Prints Available

The Needles glow in the last light of dusk. (Sony A7R + Canon 24mm TS-E)

Behind the CP1 campsite is a big notch in the sandstone walls where we could look out over Elephant Canyon, our destination for the next two nights.

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon
Sunrise over Elephant Canyon : Prints Available

(Sony A7R + Canon 24mm TS-E)

The next morning brought clear skies and the perfect 65ΒΊ t-shirt weather that we were longing for. After a lazy morning we left our tent and day hiked all the way around Chesler Park, returning via the always-entertaining Joint Trail which passes through some crazy tight slots. We then packed up the tent and headed over to Elephant Canyon.

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Chesler Park
Dead Tree : Prints Available

(Ricoh GR)

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon
Sandstone and Needles : Prints Available

(Sony A7R + Canon 24mm TS-E)

Although the Elephant Canyon campsites aren’t quite as impressive as those in Chesler Park, they are located in perhaps the most scenic canyon in the entire Needles District; plus there was a small pool of water right below our camp which was very convenient. With plenty of time to kill we explored around and found a sneaky scrambling route that accessed a broad sandstone bench above our EC3 campsite.

coffee in the canyonlands
Mmmmm… coffee… my precious….

We woke up early in the morning to return to that high bench for sunrise, followed by another long lazy morning of lounging around and soaking in the scenery. Later in the day we hiked up Elephant Canyon, which just gets more and more impressive the farther up you go, with the massive Druid Arch as the grand finale. Despite the gloomy weather, which had turned a bit breezy and chilly, we waited around all afternoon for sunset. And again, to our delight, we were treated to yet another spectacular sunset show!

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon
Elephant Canyon Sunset : Prints Available

Sunset over Elephant Canyon. (Sony A7R + Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm)

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon, Druid Arch
Druid Arch Sunset : Prints Available

Sunset light behind Druid Arch in Elephant Canyon. (Sony A7R + Canon 17mm TS-E)

Needless to say, I was quite pleased to see such colorful clouds behind Druid Arch!

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon, Druid Arch
Druid Arch Silhouette : Prints Available

Druid Arch and sunset light. (Sony A7R + Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm)

We made our way the 2 miles back to our camp in the dark with our headlamps, cooked dinner, and settled into the tent for the night. Then it rained most of the night, which always seems a bit surreal in the desert.

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon
Needles Reflection : Prints Available

Sandstone needles above Elephant Canyon reflect in a rain-filled pothole. (Sony A7R + Canon 24mm TS-E)

In the morning the rain stopped just before sunrise, just in time for me to head back up to our sandstone bench, which was now a water world with hundreds of potholes filled with water and little streams flowing from one hole to the next. And Elephant Canyon, which the previous day was dry except for a few small pools, had now transformed into a real creek that filled the desert canyon with the sounds of rushing water.

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah, Elephant Canyon
Needles Reflection #2 : Prints Available

Sandstone needles above Elephant Canyon reflect in a rain-filled pothole. (Sony A7R + Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm)

Being the sucker for reflection photos that I am, I was giddy to have so many water-filled pothole “mirrors” to play around with. For these photos the camera was sitting directly on the sandstone, with the lens propped up on a small rock.

Hiking in the Needles District
(Ricoh GR)

We hiked out that day under threatening dark skies, kind of sad to leave the desert after such a great trip. But I also knew that all those clouds and rain that had been passing over us the last few days were headed straight towards the San Juans, and that after our desert hiatus we would be greeted by a winter wonderland back home!

Sony A7R Quick Review

As promised, here are a few thoughts I have about the new Sony A7R 36 megapixel camera matched up with my favorite Canon tilt/shift lenses. By no means a thorough review, these are just my personal thoughts and initial impressions of the camera after a week in the field.

The Sony A7R, with its AA-filter-less 36mp sensor, provides a noticeable increase in resolution over my previous camera, the 21mp Canon 5DII. I can honestly say that the resolution I’m seeing directly rivals and perhaps even surpasses the resolution of my large format 4×5 drum scans! 60″ wide prints will be possible.

However, the caveat is that in order to utilize the full potential of the 36mp sensor, you absolutely need to use razor sharp lenses, and probably stopped down more than you might prefer. The high resolution sensor clearly displays the limits of every lens, and even the sharpest lenses will need to be used carefully to get everything in focus. With my lenses I’ve found that apertures of around f/8 or smaller are often needed, or else the corners are going to be soft. I think many landscape photographers shooting the A7R are going to find that if they want to get tack sharp photos from corner to corner, near to far, they are either going to have to use tilt/shift lenses or they’ll have to do multiple exposure focus stack blending. If you’re shooting a normal lens at around f/8 or so, you’re simply not going to get near-to-far sharpness in a scene with any kind of foreground; and if you stop down too much, you’re going to see the degrading effect of diffraction. Focus blending could be a solution, but in my opinion it is an inherently flawed technique, not to mention an unpractical pain in the ass for most field work. This leaves tilt/shift lenses as the best option for maximizing the potential of the A7R sensor.

It’s also worth mentioning that the A7R sensor offers excellent dynamic range, and you can really pull the shadows out without any unwanted artifacts. As a test I took a deliberately underexposed shot and when I pushed the RAW exposure by 3 stops in Lightroom, the image still looks perfect. I can push it a full 5 stops and see a bit of grain but nothing like the ugly color banding that the Canon would show in such a situation. Impressive stuff.

Coming from the Canon, I’ve found the Sony to be a pleasure to work with and a comfortable transition. The tilting LCD screen is a joy, especially since I’m always doing manual focussing with live view. No more bending down to see the LCD; I can just tilt it out and stand straight. I do miss an optical viewfinder from time to time; the EVF (electronic viewfinder) is quite good but not as useful as an optical one, particularly in very low-light situations or if you want to hone in on a composition with the camera turned off. I pretty much only use the EVF in bright conditions when it’s difficult to see the LCD.

Live view focussing works great, even a bit better than the Canon which already did a great job. The magnified focus is very sharp and can move around the frame quicker than the Canon. You can also use focus peaking to makes things even easier.

I have seen that the camera tends to underexpose and it’s not reliable to use the LCD image alone for judging exposure since the screen shows the images brighter than they really are. So I makes sure to use the live histogram along with “zebra” highlighting (set to 100+) of blown out areas to judge exposure. Basically I adjust the exposure compensation until the brightest highlights are almost blown out, and that generally gives me an accurate exposure.

There are a few quirky things about the camera; the main thing involving the playback magnification, which uses two separate odd buttons that aren’t really intuitive. The live view focus magnification uses a different button as well. It would have made more sense to use two dedicated zoom-in zoom-out buttons for all instances of magnification. But this is all minor stuff since you get used to it eventually.

All in all, I really don’t have much else to say about the Sony A7R, which is a good thing. I’m pleased with the interface and how the camera works (which is not something I say for every camera I use!) and the image files are very impressive, not only in resolution but also dynamic range and color characteristics. If and when Canon ever comes out with their version of a higher megapixel camera body, it better be damn good because Sony has set the bar pretty high.

24 thoughts on “Escape to the Canyonlands

  1. Awesome trip report as usual, Jack — you came back with some great images! Based on my experience with Sony produced sensors (in a Nikon), your conclusions seem pretty right on. The amount of dynamic range is startling compared to what I was used to from my Canon. Its great that you can now use those awesome T/S lenses with a high rez sensor, I can’t wait to see what summer in the San Juans looks like with this combo.

    1. Thanks Paul! Yeah I really got lucky with the light on this trip. And with the Sony I think I’ll probably be doing less multiple exposure blending, since there’s so much more latitude for pulling out the shadows in a single exposure.

  2. “Live view focussing works great, even a bit better than the Canon which already did a great job. The magnified focus is very sharp and can move around the frame quicker than the Canon. You can also use focus peaking to makes things even easier.”

    My experience with Metabones adapter was that focus peaking didn’t work. Because the 24 TS/E is very very sensitive on focusing, I was very dissapointed with the focusing control on the camera.

    Bracketing issn’t an issue for you? For my needs there is too little control over bracketing sequences.

    Cheers Josh

    1. Hi Josh, thanks for pointing that out. So far I’ve mostly just been adjusting focus visually in the magnified live view, without using the focus peaking. The LCD image is sharp enough to easily focus visually, and it’s been working well for me so far. I figured I’d mention focus peaking in my post since it’s a feature lacking in the Canon 5DII. I will make sure to keep your comment in mind if I try using the focus peaking more.

      As for bracketing, I don’t really ever use that anyways, so I can’t comment.


  3. Excellent shots as always. Perfect timing for me as well. Have been looking at getting the A7R to use with the contax 35-70mm which is my most used lens. Can I just ask what kind of converter did you get for the contax lens?

    My only concern with the A7R is the lossy compressed RAWs however if you can push the hell out of the shadows then I guess, who cares…

    1. Hi Ian, with the 35-70 I’m using a C/Y – EOS adapter that I got from ebay – the same adapter I used with the Canon. The advantage of this is being able to leave the Canon -> Sony adapter on the camera at all times. Despite the wonkiness of having two stacked adapters for this lens, the results don’t seem to be suffering at all.

      As for the lossy compressed RAWs, my experience with the camera and its files is still limited but so far I haven’t noticed any negative artifacts in the image files. Perhaps I don’t know what exactly to look for… It would make much more sense if Sony made this an option in the settings, rather than forcing lossy RAW. In any case, I’m still stoked on the dramatically improved image quality over the 5DII, so it would be hard to nitpick the issue.

      1. Many thanks for the reply. Just curious the top shot Chesler Park Sunset was this is an exposure blend? The tonal range of the camera does seem very impressive.

        The 35-70 really is an exceptional lens, I decided to purchase one after reading your thoughts on the lens, it took me a while to find the right one. Unfortunately it has slightly ruined me with regards to my canon L lenses, they just do not compare IQ wise.

        Thanks again.

        1. No, the Chesler Park Sunset was no blend, in fact only one of the photos in the series was exposure blended – the “Sunrise over Elephant Canyon” one with the sunburst. All the others were just from one exposure value, with oftentimes the shadows pushed and the highlights pulled back in Lightroom. The “Druid Arch Sunset” shot is the most extreme example of how much dynamic range is possible with one exposure – and it all looks clean as can be in the file.

          That said, I did stitch a few of the photos to increase the frame size, including the “Chesler Park Sunset”, “Sunrise over Elephant Canyon”, and “Sandstone and Needles”; the latter two with the 24mm TS-E lens for a seamless stitch.

          I agree, the 35-70 is a kick ass lens, and small too! I’m glad to hear I inspired you to get one and that you’re enjoying it! I think my 24mm TS-E is still my sharpest lens by just a hair, followed by the 35-70, with the 17mm TS-E just slightly behind. Basically they’re all sharp as hell! The only problem with the 35-70mm that I’ve noticed is that it’s nearly impossible to use for stitched panos. I don’t know if this is simply because my stitching software doesn’t have the metadata or lens profile, or if it’s because of some kind of subtle distortion characteristic. In any case, when I do need to stitch two together (such as with “Chesler Park Sunset”) I need to do it manually which isn’t always possible. Fortunately it worked out well for that one.

          1. Hi Jack, really amazed that Druid Arch Sunset is from a single exposure, not something I could contemplate trying on the 5D mk2! Even with bracketing and then turning the files into a 32bit file for editing in lightroom could I could not get that result, the shadows would still give too much banding.

            Agree about the 35-70 for stitching, I have gone back to using the 24-105 for that (only any good between 35-90 though!). The 35-70 seems to end up with a strange out of focus effect in the blended areas even though the original file is tack sharp. I might try ptgui before giving up altogether.

    1. Hi Stephen, I’m using a Metabones adapter. There is supposedly an issue with internal reflections with the TS lenses when using large shifts due to their huge image circles projecting light all over the inside of the adapter. But this can be remedied by applying adhesive black flocking paper to the inside. It’s a PITA but so far seems to be working fine. See here for details about that:

  4. Jack,

    Somehow, I just knew that I’d check in on your site, and you’d have taken the leap into the A7R, despite the fact that in our last correspondence, you seemed very wary of being drawn in by Sony again. So glad to hear that it’s working out, and thank you so much for posting your initial findings and tips. Super helpful. I waited quite a while for Fred Miranda to publish his perspectives on shooting landscapes with the A7R and Canon TS-E lenses. Like you, I’ve shot extensively with a 5DII, TS-Es and C/Y 35-70, and overall, I’ve been really happy. With Fred’s (and your) perspective, I think has finally sealed it for me. Of course, now Canon will release some insane competitor that has been waiting in the wings πŸ™‚

    Quick question: I’ve read that the A7R’s EVF compensates for reduced light coming through a manually stopped down film era lens, giving the shooter a bright view to compose and focus at the chosen shooting aperture (unlike the clumsy stop down metering we we get with the 5D II). As I understand it, this feature paired with focus aids (peaking, magnified view) make for a quite usable experience where all manual lenses are concerned. Is this the case, or are A7R shooters still dealing with cumbersome stop down metering? Being able to walk around with the C/Y 35-70 and shoot without all the hassle of a stop down metering sounds too good to be true!

    Great images, Jack. Thanks again for continuing to share your knowledge and passion with us.


    1. Hi Jack, yeah you probably know how it goes… First I firmly convince myself that I don’t want the new camera… then after a while I think, well, maybe I should give it a shot after all! What it came down to is that I see no signs of Canon releasing a higher mp 5D version anytime soon. The A7R is not a perfect camera but it’s certainly an improvement over the 5DII and will do just fine for the next few years until MAYBE Canon ever comes out with something that can compete.

      Yes, you’re right about the EVF comments and that you could more easily focus the 35-70 while it’s stopped down, while still seeing the preview nice and bright. Personally, I prefer to focus the lens wide open, because then you can really see what exactly where your focus point is. So I think that method is more precise, even if it takes a bit longer. Also, please see Josh’s comment above about the focus peaking being not-so-accurate with the adapter. I have not had a chance to test this myself.

  5. I definitely know how it goes. Thanks for the heads up about the peaking. Did you shoot the A7R TS-E combo with your lightweight Gitzo with the BH-25? If yes, did it seem like a sturdy enough setup? Lots of talk about shutter vibration circulating about.

    Hoping that Sony releases some killer FE Zeiss wide angle primes for light and fast when I can’t be bothered with a tripod or a heavy TS-E.

    Thanks again Jack.


    1. Yes, the Gitzo with RRS BH-25. It’s very sturdy for the size, and I haven’t had any problems with that. Supposedly the shutter vibration mainly affects longer lengths like 100+ mm which is out of my range most of the time. At 70mm and below I have not noticed any issues yet. Of course anyways it’s quite dumb that Sony didn’t implement an electronic first curtain shutter on what’s supposed to be their highest resolution camera… I don’t understand the logic (or lack thereof). Perhaps it’s something they can hopefully fix in a firmware update…???

      Btw, shooting the A7R without tripod makes no sense at all… probably zero chance of getting anything sharp. Might as well shoot a 16mp camera at that point.

  6. Good to know about the Gitzo. Shooting without a tripod makes no sense at all? Wow, those are strong words. I’ve read that you’ve got to re-evaluate your expectations, keep the shutter speed high, and shoot with the best hand held technique possible, but never that handheld was hopeless. Damn brother, that’s pretty grim news. Maybe all the sharp looking hand held work I’ve seen was downsized so much for the web (goddamn inter webs!) that I wasn’t getting the whole picture. Troubling this is….

    1. Of course you could TRY to shoot handheld, and maybe a percentage of your shots would turn out acceptably sharp. But think about it – why in the world would you buy a 39mp camera with no anti-alias filter, then shoot it handheld? This is a camera that already requires demanding attention to attain corner to corner sharpness even on a tripod with the best lenses. For some perspective on this, if people are concerned about minute effects of potential shutter vibration, it’s safe to say you can forget handheld shooting. That’s why I suspect that anybody who shoots this one handheld will probably end up with blurry pixels, unless they have freakishly stable hands! πŸ˜‰ Basically it’s a total overkill resolution for handheld shooting; you’d probably have to downsize the images anyways.

  7. Excellent shots Jack!
    And congrats for the new camera!
    That was a very good point about the sharpness of the lens and the extra sensitive 36 mp sensor.
    Would you say the D800 “suffers” from the same challenge?
    (I’m usually using a D800 with a Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G or a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D lens).
    Would you say the A7R offers a higher DR compares to the D800?
    Thanks for the “mini review” πŸ™‚

    1. Hi Yair, I have no experience with the D800 so I can’t really say much, except that I would guess the resolution challenges are similar, particularly with the D800E which also has no AA filter. I’ve heard that the sensors are the same in all these 3 cameras, so I’d guess the dynamic range is similar as well.

      1. Thanks Jack!
        Yep, I guess you are right (regarding the sensor and dynamic range).
        I intentionally chose the D800 over the the D800E because I wanted a camera which would fit various scenarios and having no AA filter could be a drawback. I’ll have to pay special attention to the Dof when doing landscape photography.
        Enjoy your new camera!

  8. Hey Jack,

    I hear what you’re saying, and it makes sense. Trust me, I have thought about it, probably too much. I have done an eye melting amount of research on this. The consensus among others who shoot the A7R handheld is that anything under 125 of a second is a crap shoot, and of course we’re not expecting edge to edge sharpness. I think I was sucked in a bit by the A7Rs tiny design. Now I’m starting to think that its lack of a mirror, sensor format and lens mount define its strengths, while all the compromises it makes to keep it small define its weaknesses.

    As I consider all of this, I realize that the A7R is exceedingly good at my primary photographic passion: landscape photography. Perhaps I should just be happy it does this well, and forget about having a versatile camera. After all, its not like I could take a large format camera on a stroll through the city, or on a brutally fast alpine rock route in the Sierra or the rockies. My 5D is too annoyingly big or me to do those things with it.

    Someone once wrote online that the C/Y 35-70 was a one trick pony, but that was ok, because it’s such a good trick. Perhaps I should look at the A7R that way. Perhaps I can’t get Heinlein out of my head: “Specialization is for insects.” And perhaps I’m just resisting the “one product for every occasion,” philosophy of design. Maybe that’s the conservationist in me. I can see the way out of this conundrum. Buy an A7 and an A7R. At least they’ll share the same mount. I can’t accuse Sony of being good at making money. Damn it! πŸ™‚

    1. Just for another angle on this debate, Brian Smith, if he is to believed, despite being in the employ of Sony as their “Artisan of Imagery,” claims to have taken all but one of his amazing shots in Haiti handheld with the AR7. He discusses the notion of using the AR7 without a tripod briefly here:

      Without a tripod, will I see the advantage of 36mp of A7R over 24mp of A7?
      Yes. No AA filter and finer detail with A7R. I shot everything (except for the predawn photos of the houses on the hillside) with A7R here handheld.

      If I will be using my camera 95% without a tripod, will the 36mp advantage be visible?
      Again yes. No AA filter and finer detail with A7R.

      Handheld, will the 36mp actually make a worse image than the 24mp because of pixel blur or whatever effect happens because of the larger pixel count?
      You don’t get more blur with more pixels – you just can see blurred or out of focus areas more clearly. Both cameras are great. You would be happy with either. But if detail is what you’re after – then A7R would be my suggestion.

  9. Hey Jack – have you found any way to get depth of field preview while zooming in with the LCD? That was my most used shooting approach with my 5D2, but it seems like the sony will not let me preview depth of field while zooming! And the metabones adapter button reverses DOF preview, instead of triggering it, which seems entirely worthless. I suppose for me it won’t be too much of a problem if I mostly shoot with my Nikon 14-24, which has manual only aperture, but still, it is rather frustrating (and I suspect I may decide to get a TSE lens in the near future). Unfortunately the focus peaking does not appear to be accurate enough to be helpful.

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