Greg Benz Photography » Minneapolis based cityscape and landscape photographer; luminosity masking fiend

The colors inside slot canyons blow my mind. Sunlight, blue sky, and orange sandstone mix together to create these stunning spectrum of orange, red, and purple colors. And all the color combines with the flowing walls and caverns of the canyon to create one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever encountered. I could literally stay here for days just exploring and photographing Antelope Canyon.

Pinks and Oranges of Lower Antelope Canyon

Looking to speed up Photoshop?  There are many things you can do, but the most important is to make sure that Photoshop has enough RAM.  As soon as Photoshop has to turn to your hard drive for memory, everything slows down dramatically.

 

Optimize Photoshop Preferences

  • Performance / Let Photoshop use __ MB.  Use a larger number (70-80%).
  • Performance / Cache levels.  Try using a smaller value here.  You may wish to try 1.
  • Performance / History states.  Try a smaller number if needed (as low as 20).
  • Performance / Use graphics processor.   I leave this checked for faster performance with certain features (liquify filter, adaptive wide angle, etc).  Note that this has minimal effect for Lumenzia.
  • Scratch Disks.  If you have multiple drives, you can use them as virtual memory.  This can be especially helpful if your primary drive is full.  This also helps to add a drive that is different from the one on which Photoshop is installed.

 

Free up resources for Photoshop

  • If you are on Windows, run the 64-bit version of Photoshop.  The 32-bit version is limited to 3GB of RAM, which just doesn’t cut it.
  • Close other photos other than the one you are editing in Photoshop.  This frees up more RAM.
  • Quit other programs that you don’t need running. This frees up more RAM.
  • Clean the junk on your computer with a program like CCleaner or clean manually (free up space on the hard drive by emptying trash, defrag your hard drive, etc).   This can speed up virtual RAM.
  • Keep in mind that background programs (such as anti-virus) also impact system performance.  On windows, click on the Start menu and enter “msconfig” to see and disable background programs

 

Invest in new hardware

  • Install more RAM.  I personally run with 16GB because that’s the max that Apple sells for a Retina Macbook Pro, but I’d probably go as high as 96GB of RAM if I had the option.  There is a significant boost for most users between 4 and 16GB, after that the benefits fall dramatically – unless you are working with very large images.  To check if RAM will benefit your machine, click the arrow below your image that normally shows the file size and choose “efficiency”.  If you have taken the steps above and still see efficiency is less than 100%, you are using scratch disks and will benefit from extra RAM.
  • Invest in a Solid State Drive (SSD).  These are dramatically faster than spinning drives, and the price points have come down significantly.  Even if you have more than enough RAM for editing, this help launch Photoshop more quickly.
  • Photoshop doesn’t currently benefit much from multiple cores, go for a machine with the fastest GHz processor.  A higher speed processor with fewer cores will run Photoshop more quickly than multiple cores at a slower speed.

 

My setup:

  • 2014 Macbook Pro Retina with 16GB RAM, 2.8GHz Core i7 processor, 1TB internal SSD, external Thunderbolt RAID 6 drive.
  • Photoshop preferences set to 10367MB RAM (70%), 4 cache levels, 1024k tile size, 100 history states (ability to undo is important to my workflow), graphics processor enabled, internal and external drives enabled for scratch disk.

 

I’ve finally taken the leap into a mirrorless camera with the Sony a7Rii (aka a7R Mark II).  Is it an amazing camera?  Yep!  Does it take take insanely good photos?  Yep!  Is it finally a mirrorless camera that focuses as well as a DSLR?  Yep!  Will it replace my D810?  No, but that wasn’t my intention.  The Nikon D810 is the finest camera I have ever used.  The image quality and ergonomics are incredible.  But that said, it’s somewhat large and gets pretty heavy when you load up a backpack with a few lenses.  I got the a7Rii to help travel light, but I’ve come to find it offers much, much more.  In fact, the a7Rii is a total game-changer for mirrorless cameras.  It’s the first camera that brings top of the line full-frame image quality along with state of the art focusing, not to mention 4k video.  It isn’t perfect yet, but it is the first mirrorless camera that can not only go “toe to toe” with top of the line DSLRs, but beat them on numerous fronts.  In this article, I’ll go through my impressions of the a7Rii from the perspective of a long-time DSLR user – the awesome highs, a few lows, and how I plan to use both systems in the future.  And if you’d like to see what lenses and accessories I’m using with it, please check out my gear page.

 

Where does the a7Rii excel?

  • Size and weight.  Carrying a big, heavy pack all day is a burden.  With this system, I save about 1/3rd of the size and 1/3rd of the weight compared to the D810.
  • Autofocus!  This is the first mirrorless camera that can not only match a top of the line DSLR camera, but in many ways is better.  I would love to have f/1.4 lenses on this camera, because I expect I’d get a lot more eyes in focus or be able to use wider apertures with moving subjects.  I’ve been completely blown away on this front – the a7Rii has completed exceeded my expectations.  Not only is the focus fast and dead accurate in situations where the D810 would do well, but it offers greater coverage of the image with the highest quality.  And the eye focus system is insanely good.  It literally tracks a subjects eyes in real time.  You can shoot a moving subject up close with a wide aperture lens with this camera – unreal!
  • Image quality!  42 megapixels, electronic front shutter, dampened shutter, very good dynamic range, low noise.  This camera (along with the Carl Zeiss lens lineup) takes world-class images.  In fact, I’d say some of my images look better than what I’d expect from the D810, though I haven’t done extensive head to head testing.
  • Video.  The world’s first 4k full-frame camera.  Granted, some will complain that heat issues mean that you can only shoot continuously for modest lengths of time, but this is a huge step forward.  And if you just shoot HD, the autofocus is better than the D810 for video.
  • Image stabilization.  Having stabilization built into the camera is a huge plus, as none of my prime lenses have it.  And Sony’s five-axis system is extremely good.
  • Low light.  I haven’t tested this extensively, but I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of images at ISO 6400.  There’s very little noise.  Of course the image stabilization system helps significantly.  And the autofocus system appears to do very well in tough lighting.  This is a camera you can push to the limits.  When I really want to travel light, I think I’d be ok leaving the tripod at home with this camera.

 

Where does the a7Rii fall short?

  • Software quality.  The a7Rii feels a bit like like a beta product in one regard… it locks up frequently.  It hasn’t stopped me from shooting, but I’ve never had to reboot a camera as if it was an old computer.  In the past three days, I’ve probably had the camera lock up and become unresponsive at least 10-20 times.  That’s more than I’ve seen with years of shooting with the D800 and D810.  Sony needs to release an update to address these software bugs ASAP.  Thankfully, simply turning the camera off and on (or quickly removing and reinserting the battery) works 90% of the time – though you sometimes need to try multiple times before it starts working again.
  • User interface.  The a7Rii has 26 primary screens for configuring the camera, and some of these have some fairly significant sub-screens.  And there is essentially no built-in help (if you are willing to give up a custom button, you can get a short description, but most of the descriptions are too basic to actually explain anything).  I spent almost 10 hours figuring out how to set up this camera.  If you want to save yourself a lot of time, take a look at the settings I use on the a7Rii for landscape/portrait work.  Thankfully, once you’re setup, the camera is very easy to use.  In fact, I feel much more comfortable shooting through the viewfinder on the a7Rii than I do on the D810.  I get a lot more useful information in the electronic viewfinder, and the smaller number of buttons is more easy to remember.
  • WiFi and apps.  The idea of a programmable/connected camera certainly appeals to me, but the execution here falls well short of my expectations.  Getting connected to WiFi is a painful chore, and the Sony PlayMemories app store experience is an exercise in frustration.  Sadly, I will probably never use either of these features on this camera.  I was particularly looking forward to using WiFi to pull images off the camera for sharing on social media, but I’m just not sure it’s worth it.  If Sony updates the software to simplify the experience, these could become incredibly useful feature.
  • Battery life.  You are going to need lots of batteries.  Thankfully they are small.  I’m a little more concerned with the charge time across multiple batteries.  Each battery takes several hours to charge, which means I’ll need to bring multiple chargers when I travel if I expect to have heavy days of shooting (when I might easily deplete 3-4 batteries in a day).  Not a big issue, just something to plan for.
  • Long exposures.  I see a lot of hot pixels in 30 second exposures, and have read of similar experiences online.  I hope this is something is able to address via firmware, as I would really like to do some very long exposures while traveling.  You get great images with noise reduction turned on, but I don’t want to spend 10 minutes taking a 5 minute exposure.  This can be fixed in post, but it looks to be more work than I’d have with the D810.
  • No smart cutoff for the Electronic Front Shutter.  The electronic shutter really only matters over a certain range of shutter speeds, which does not include 1/1000s and faster – where the EFS can cause exposure issues.  It seems that a simple solution would be to have the camera automatically disable EFS at fast shutter speeds, and I hope Sony provides a firmware update to address this (or at least allow it to be added to the custom function menu so you can quickly turn it off if needed).
  • No exposure delay for continuous bracketing?  You can set a delay and then have the camera automatically shoot a sequence of 3-9 exposures.  However, there is no delay between shots, and the rear shutter causes a lot of vibration (just hold the camera and you will have no doubt).  At the same time, in my quick and unscientific testing, I have yet to see any degradation of image sharpness for the 2nd through 9th image in a bracket, I may be worried about nothing here.  Still, I’d love to see an optional 1 second delay between exposures.
  • HDMI port is exposed to the elements if you connect a wired remote release.  If you are trying to take long exposures around the beach, watch out for salt spray or rain getting into the open port.  Making separate protective covers would be ideal.  I plan to cut off the end of an HDMI cable and use it as a plug when needed.  Maybe this isn’t necessary, but I don’t want to find out the hard way.
  • Sensor cleaning is too manual.  I have the D810 set to clean itself every time I turn it off and on.  I don’t know yet how big of an issue dust will be on the a7Rii, but I wish the cleaning option wasn’t a manual operation buried deep in the menus.

 

Would those issues stop me from recommending the camera?  Definitely not – they’re either relatively minor or issues I can work around.  I’d like to see many of them addressed, but the pros here far outweigh the cons.  It’s an awesome camera, but just like the D810, it’s better suited to some tasks than others – so I plan to use both cameras extensively.

 

When would I use the a7Rii instead of the D810?

  • Travel.  The key reason I got this camera was to give myself a smaller/lighter option for traveling.  I’ll certainly still use the D810 for some trips based on the reasons below (particularly if I plan to do much long exposure or architecture shooting), but I’m really looking forward to the extra freedom this should give me.  And this will be especially helpful when I travel with the DJI Phantom 3 to keep the pack weight down to something I’m comfortable wearing for a day.
  • Family portraits and street photography.  Eye focus on the a7Rii gives me a much better chance of keeping up with fast moving kids and unpredictable situations.  The smaller size and tilting LCD (can camera like a waist-level viewfinder) make it less intrusive, which can make it easier to get people to relax for the camera.
  • Video.  Focus peaking, a very smooth autofocus, and 4k video hands down better, though I don’t actually do much serious video work.

When would I use D810 instead of the a7Rii?

  • Long-exposure.  The a7Rii (at least with the firmware currently shipping) exhibits too many hot pixels in long exposures.  These seem to clean up well with noise reduction, but that means double the amount of time I need with the D810, which has a much more acceptable level of hot pixels.
  • Astrophotography.  Hot spots with long images on the a7Rii, and the 14-24mm f/2.8 offers an extra stop to freeze stars and a wider angle of view. ***
  • Weddings.  More choice of fast portrait lenses, simple ability to switch between matrix and spot metering for fast paced critical exposure work, can run all day on the batteries in the verticle grip, TTL bounce flash with my Nikon speedlights, and dual memory card slots to provide backup.
  • Architecture.  I don’t see much point in using a Nikon lens adapter – it takes away the size/weight advantage (not to mention autofocus for Nikon lenses).  So when I need tilt-shift for architecture, I’ll primarily be using the D810.
  • Sports and Wildlife.  The current maximum 200mm Sony lens won’t cut it for me. ***
  • Studio and creative portraits.  The Nikkor f/1.4  lineup of lenses can’t be beat, though you could certainly do most jobs just fine with the Sony lineup. ***
  • Concerts / theater.  Highlight-priority metering is very useful, and the f/1.4 lenses are great for creative focusing and low light.***   On the flip side, the a7Rii has a much better auto-ISO option and the tilt screen would be helpful for shooting overhead in a crowd.

*** Sonyalpharumors.com posted that a Nikon to Sony adapter with support for autofocus on G lenses is coming (noted above by the G next to the aperture number), I’ll be sure to check that out and review when available.

Those are just my first impressions – how about yours?   I’d love to see your comments below.

I’ve added the Sony a7Rii mirrorless camera to my bag.  My initial impression as a long-time Nikon shooter is that this is a complex camera – not something I would call intuitive with 26 different screens of settings.  Many of the default options really aren’t setup for a fast-paced professional workflow, so you really need to dig into the options to get the most out of this camera.  However, Sony has done a very good job making the camera setup extremely customizable and flexible.  And once you set it up correctly, you have an absolutely incredible camera on your hands.  Now that I’ve spent a good deal of effort to optimize it, I thought I would share the settings I recommend to get the most out of the a7Rii for landscape photography.  Much of my general guidance here is the same as my recommendations with the D810, with the key differences being that there is no mirror to lockup and you are always using live view.

 

First, a little background on the philosophy behind my choices…  My primary emphasis is landscape shooting suitable for large prints, I also need the flexibility to quickly and easily capture people and fast moving action.  And if I have to make a choice, my philosophy is to setup the camera to give me the best possible final image, rather than trying to get the best possible image straight out of the camera – I’d rather spend time on the computer if that’s what I need to create a better image.  Note that for all the settings listed below, I reference things like “2.5 AF w/ Shutter”.  By this I mean that you can find this setting by going to the 2nd tab (the gear icon), and looking at the 5th section of that tab.  Also note that I’m only listing settings that I consider very important or where I’ve changed things from the default.  And if you’d like to see what lenses and accessories I’m using with it, please check out my gear page.

 

Dynamic Range / Noise
  • 1.1 Quality = RAW for best quality.
  • 1.2 Bracket Settings-0+ order, which I find makes it much easier to group brackets when post-processing.
  • 1.2 Bracket Settings2 sec self-timer when coupled with Drive Mode = Continuous Bracket.  Note that the delay only applies to the first image (which helps get rid of any motion you may cause by manually pressing the shutter button), but there are no options to delay the subsequent frames in the bracket for continuous bracketing.  In my quick and unscientific testing, I did not see loss of detail due to vibration from the rear shutter.  I personally would not hesitate at this point to use continuous bracketing.
  • However, if you want to eliminate all camera-induced vibration (especially when shooting long lenses), I recommend using 0 sec self-timer coupled with Drive Mode = Single Bracket and a remote release.  2 second delay is still ok here; it just wastes time if you’re using a remote release.  Note that in reality, this is no more cumbersome than shooting high-quality brackets with the D810, which also requires a remote release and single shot (because mirror lockup mode is the only way to get electronic front curtain shutter on the D810; electronic front curtain is not used on the D810 when using exposure delay).
  • 1.6 Long Exposure Noise Reduction = Off.  30 second exposures are noisy, so I may use this occasionally, but I can rarely afford the double length exposures when shooting in quickly changing sunset/sunrise light.  Ideally I would program this into the custom functions menu, but that is not an option.
  • 1.8 Color Space = Adobe RGB to use the larger color gamut.
  • 2.5 Silent Shooting = Off most of the time because this causes loss of 1 stop of dynamic range.
  • 1.5 DRO (dynamic range optimization) = Off  because I can do a better job when post-processing.
  • Additionally, I put several options that I tend to adjust into my custom function menu for quick access.  The items above almost never change for me.

For exposures longer than 30 seconds, you’ll need to use the bulb timer in manual mode.  There are many options on Amazon; I’ver personally ordered this intervalometer from Neweer that cost $21.  It plugs into the micro-USB multi-function port on the left side of the camera, and you can set it to take exposures of any specific duration (which is much easier than trying to time bulb exposures manually).  Unfortunately, the cover for this port also exposes the camera’s HDMI port, so you may wish to consider how you should protect that open slot if you are near rain, salt water spray, etc.  I plan to cut off the end of an HDMI cable and use that as a protective plug.

Detail / Focus
  • 2.5 AF w/ shutter = Off.  I don’t want the camera to refocus every time I take a picture.  This is a recipe for missed shots, and makes it harder to pre-focus.  Instead, I set the custom buttons below for “back buttton” focus.  This approach requires some patience as you learn to always focus with the back button (you will forget to focus some shots), but dramatically increases your speed and the number of properly focused shots once you get the hang of it.
  • 2.2 Peaking Color = Yellow.  This is easy for me to see, as I rarely focus on yellow objects (but red tones are more common in my landscapes).
  • 2.3 Pre-AF = Off.  This avoids AF adjustments that defeat the purpose of back-button focusing.
  • 2.4 Priority in AFS/C = AF (be in focus)
  • 2.5 e-Front Curtain Shutter = On.  This eliminates internal vibration caused by shutter movement to create sharper images and is one of the most significant enhancements in the a7Rii.  I strongly recommend leaving it on whenever possible.  However, shen shooting faster than 1/1000s (ie, large apertures in bright light), you may wish to turn this off to ensure even exposures.  You should also turn off when using 3rd party lenses.  Ideally, these exceptions would be automated by the camera or this setting could be put into the custom functions menu – just know that it’s here in case you need to turn it off because of uneven exposures across the frame.
  • Additionally, I put several options that I tend to adjust into my custom function menu for quick access.  The items above almost never change for me.
Sony a7Rii custom function menu

 

Custom Key Settings (1.7)

I use the custom buttons for things I would need to be able to change quickly, and the function menu as a holding area for all other settings.  My goal is to never dive into the camera menus again after setting up.

  • Center Button = Standard (this lets you click the center of the wheel to quickly made changes to the focus points).
  • AF/MF Button = AF On (as someone who has shot many weddings and small kids, there is no better way to ensure you always get the shot with moving subjects than to get comfortable with “back button” focusing).
  • AEL Button =AF On (I always want that back button to focus)
  • C1 = Focus Area.
  • C2 = Focus Mode.  AF-C works really well, and I tend to use it quite a bit.  AF-S is great for low light.  And I recommend manual when on a tripod and you have the luxury of zooming in to check critical focus.
  • C3Eye AF (I use this in the same way I use my programmed AF-ON button, but this is specifically designed to focus on people’s eyes or faces)
  • C4 = Deactivate Monitor (while this doesn’t actually turn off the monitor, it stops displaying the live display, which I find desirable when I’m shooting the same composition over and over on a tripod).
Function Menu Settings (1.7)

I set my function menu to let me quickly adjust focus, exposure, and video settings.  I’ve ordered them in groups of related items to keep things quick and simple to find.

Upper row:
  • White Balance = 5600K most of the time.  This gives me consistent daylight-balanced color which can easily be corrected in Lightroom, but I will sometimes use cloudy or tungsten white balance when appropriate.  I often shoot with a grey card to correct white balance in Lightroom.
  • Steady Shot = On (when shooting handheld) or Off (on a tripod, where it softens the image, reduces battery life, and reportedly contributes to overheating with 4k video)
  • Smile / Face Detect = Off for landscapes.   I use C3 programmed to Eye Focus when I want critical focus on closeups, or instead of my AF-ON button when I’m taking one-off shots of people.  I turn Face Detect on if I’m shooting lots of people, such as at an event.
  • Center Lock-on AF
  • ISO Auto Minimum SS  = “Fast” for best sharpness in landscapes, “Slow” or “Slower” when using stabilization and am not worried about maximizing all 42 megapixels, or set to a specific value for shooting fast subjects.   Auto-ISO function can help give you the lowest possible ISO, while still ensuring the shutter is fast enough for a sharp image.
  • Peaking Level = Mid most of the time, but it is helpful to tweak the amount of focus peaking assistance for manual focusing.

Lower row:

  • Metering Mode = Multi most of the time, but I like Spot for portraits (especially when backlit, which I do often to keep the face in shade).
  • Zebra = 100+ This puts stripes on the LCD preview to show you any blown highlights, which I find to be extremely helpful, in conjunction with the histogram, to determine proper exposure.  However, I might turn this off for back-lit portraits (when I’m intentionally blowing out a good portion of the frame.
  • Silent Shooting = Off.  While I want this off to keep maximum image quality (and the shutter sound is ideal for shooting portraits), I do occasionally want to be more subtle.
  • Audio Rec Level to adjust for best sound when shooting videos (which should set peak sound just below clipping).
  • Audio Level Display = On most of the time.
  • Picture Profile = Off (to see stills in proper color on LCD, even though this does not impact the RAW file) or P7 (video for sLOG2 to capture more detail and color for post-processing)
Other
  • 1.1 Grid Lines = Rule of 3rds (I personally tend to compose using the golden ratio, but the 3rd lines are also a good reference for that as well).
  • 1.3 Flash Mode = Rear Curtain.  If I need to minimize the duration of a shot at night, I’ll typically switch to manual exposure mode, rather than turning off the slow sync.  If I’m shooting wireless, I’ll be using my PocketWizard Plus 3‘s.
  • 1.4 AF Illuminator = Off (chances are your lens hood blocks it, and the orange light is annoying – consider manual focus or a hand held light if focus is challenging)
  • 1.5 Display Rotation = Auto (see vertical images)
  • 2.2 DESP Button = histogram and level for both Finder and Monitor.  This lets me quickly check that I’m exposing properly and shooting with a level horizon.  I don’t see value in the other options (don’t need the clean version as the histogram doesn’t impact composition, and you can click the display button to show other camera settings if needed).
  • 2.4 Release w/o lens / card = Off to ensure I don’t forget to put in a memory card or accidentally touch the shutter while cleaning with the sensor exposed.
  • 2.7 Lens Comp: Shading Comp = Off, Do this with vignette adjustment in LightRoom, etc as this apparently gets baked into the RAW file.
  • 2.7 Lens Comp: Chro. Aber. Comp. = Off.  Do this with chromatic aberration compensation in LightRoom, etc as this apparently gets baked into the RAW file.
  • 3.1 Airplane Mode = On (save battery).  The only time I want to use WiFi is to send images to my phone for immediate sharing.
  • 6.1 Audio Signals = Off (don’t need all the distracting beeps, especially when I’m using the self timer for brackets.)
Video
  • 1.2 File Format = XAVC 4k for 4k resolution or XAVC HD for highest quality HD.  However, not all users will have the software required to play/edit these files and you’ll need to use a 64+ GB SDXC Class 10 memory card.  Final Cut Pro X users may need to update to be able to edit XAVC files.  AVCHD is a good (high def) option to work with many video players, though MP4 probably offers the most compatibility (while giving up a little more quality).  Ideally, I would put file format into the custom function menu, but that is not an option.
  • Setting Picture Profile to PP7 will record using “sLOG2” to capture maximum dynamic range to keep maximum detail in the highlights and shadows.  Shooting with overexposure (+2ev) and using a LUT (look-up table) in post-processing may help achieve best results when working with sLOG2.  See Alister Chapman’s excellent post on sLOG2 with the a7S for more detail on the key concepts.  And check out DaVinci Resolve (the free version is pretty powerful for color grading sLOG2 files).

If you’re looking for more information on these or other settings, here are links to Sony’s “how to use” help guide and the manual for the a7Rii.

Yantai is one of those Chinese cities no one really knows, even though it’s as big as Chicago. Smoking is pretty common in China, and it seems to work out in my favor – because a lot of hotel workers just leave the door to the roof open after taking thier smoke breaks. I passed through pretty quickly, so I have only two memories of the place. First, I got to come up here and have this amazing sunrise view all to myself. And second was dinner with 18 Chinese people the night before at a rotating table. It was like a “Lazy Susan”, except probably 5 feet wide. There were dozens of dishes and you just had to grab something when it came by, since someone was moving it all the time. If I didn’t have semi-decent chopstick skills, I would have starved! But the best part of the meal was when soup was served, and everyone quick talking and there was just the sound of 18 people slurping soup loudly.

Shandong skyscrapers at sunset