For Colby Brown, while it’s important for a camera manufacturer to listen to its customers, it’s even more essential for the company to think outside of the box. “It’s always great when you can make your customers happy with stuff they’re requesting,” he says. “But if at least a portion of the workforce isn’t thinking of moonshot ideas or things we can’t imagine as realistically possible, I think things become stagnant and you lose that excitement.”
This guiding principal offers a small insight into Brown’s decision to switch from Canon to Sony, in 2014.
This is the forth in a series featuring the many stories and myriad reasons prompting users to switch camera brands. Make sure to follow the links at the end to read about other photographer switches from Canon to Nikon, and DSLR to Mirrorless. The following views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent that of B&H Photo.
Brown discovered photography while a student at the University of North Texas. He caught the travel bug and wanted to keep it up after graduating with a degree in Emergency Administration and Planning.
“I thought photography was going to be the conduit that allowed me to travel,” he explains. “I took a little Kodak 4.1MP bridge camera with me, and it worked wonders at the time. But once I accepted the fact that I really wanted to dive into photography as a potential way to travel, I switched to Canon, in 2006.”
Over the next six years he worked with Canon gear exclusively, starting with a Canon XTi. Known for his adventure travel and landscape work that often involves remote locales, Brown soon expanded to running two cameras simultaneously when in the field.
A Brief Flirtation with Nikon
“Canon didn’t have anything beyond 22MP, so 36MP was huge; it was a new frontier for digital SLRs at the time,” he says. “I was intrigued with what Nikon was doing, and successful enough in my career to be able to essentially duplicate all my gear, and run with both systems.”
Despite the impressive numbers, Brown found the effects of the much larger resolution on the sensor to be challenging at best, especially without in-body stabilization. “You couldn’t use a slow shutter speed because it was so much more obvious when you were off,” he explains. “And, due to the resolution, you also needed to use top-end glass.”
He also encountered an ergonomic challenge in working both systems. When shooting in manual, for example, buttons for the shutter and aperture are switched on the two brands.
“It was just mind-numbingly confusing,” he admits. “I was so used to the button layout, and to being comfortable, and efficient, and effective with my Canon gear. But then I’d pick up one camera for a trip and I’d suddenly be wondering which finger is doing what,” he says.
“I ended up feeling a lot less confident. It just didn’t produce the quality results I was after, and it’s never fun not to feel confident in your gear.”
After six months of attempting to reconcile both systems, Brown sold all his Nikon equipment and returned to Canon for the next year or two, while also trying out a few other alternatives. He appreciated the portability and the autofocus system of the Olympus cameras he tested, and he also played around with some of the Fuji offerings, but he really had his eye on what Sony was up to.
“My slight romance with Nikon gave me a very positive view of the Sony sensors. I knew what they were doing with the NEX line of APSC sensors and the micro 4/3rds bodies, but I wasn’t ready to switch over to a mirrorless system and sacrifice the typical image quality, dynamic range or ISO performance with the crop sensor options available at that time.”
All the same, Brown was starting to tire of lugging heavy gear on his intrepid travels. “I distinctly remember a trip in the Himalayas, hiking around Everest,” he notes. “A porter was carrying a lot of my clothes and hiking gear, but I still carried my whole camera bag. After 12 to 14 days of hiking, I remember thinking, ‘I am done carrying 50 lb of gear—all the bodies, and all the L glass I had, plus the big heavy batteries.’ So initially it was simply the portability, size, and weight that made me decide—I’m done.”
Making the Switch
When the Sony a7 and a7R were announced, in October 2013, Brown’s reaction was, “OK, now you really have my attention. I waited to see what people were saying about them once they were released before deciding to get my own, in early 2014. I haven’t looked back since,” he says.
Brown has used every single Sony camera to come out since February 2014—from the a6000 series to the a7 series—and he uses both models on current projects.
“My initial starting point was with the big resolution A7R series, and things either stayed along the same lines or progressed and organically shifted from there, depending on my projects,” he sayns. “That first generation of bodies and the A7S were all so very specified, they each had their purposes. It wasn’t necessarily like the Canon 5D MK III, which you can use for a little bit of everything.”
He describes a few of the shortcomings facing users of first generation Sony mirrorless cameras. “You still had a bit of shutter shock with the a7R, and auto focusing was better on the a7, but the a6000 was even better,” he says. “Everything had to balance out, so I found myself using all the different camera bodies based on my project needs, whether a marketing campaign, a humanitarian project, a workshop, or something else.”
Favorite Features: Portability and Dynamic Range
When asked about his favorite feature, Brown finds it a tough call between portability and Sony’s dynamic range. “I think those two speak volumes for the type of work that I do and the locations I work in,” he says. “I’m a travel photographer who spends a lot of time out on the road in remote places rather than staying in luxurious cities and hotels. The fact that my gear bag is not only half the weight but also a third of the size it used to be allows me to pack more medical stuff, or climbing gear or whatever else I need, making me more efficient or effective with my gear load out in the field.”
In terms of photo production, Brown’s skills are very much in demand, which often results in a significant image backlog for less important projects. “Even to this day, I might go back to an image and realize that I’m on a Canon file,” says Brown. “The dynamic range is like night and day compared to any of my Sony files. It just reaffirms my choice in switching over,” he adds.
Currently, Brown’s go-to camera is the Sony a7R II, which seems to have taken the best aspects of many of Sony’s previous cameras, and wrapped them into a lightweight but powerful package.
“Rather than bringing three or four bodies every time I leave the house, I can now use a more streamlined set of gear,” he says. “My typical set up is the A7R II mixed in with the top-of-the-line body from the Sony a6000 series. Running with one of each gives me quite a bit of flexibility to cover everything I need.”
Because of the type of work he does, Brown is often asked about the durability of his cameras.
He says that while Canon’s 5D series is solidly built, the 1D series are like tanks. “They weigh a lot, but those cameras can handle a beating in pretty much any type of climate.”
With that as his starting point, Brown had some initial concerns in moving over to Sony. “They say the cameras are weather resistant, but what does that mean?” he asks. “But I’m happy to report that I have not had a single Sony camera fail or get damaged from working in an extreme environment.”
Brown has worked in all conditions, from under waterfalls in Iceland to the humidity of Cuba, Haiti, and Southeast Asia. “I haven’t had issues with water damage, and I’ve literally had my camera dripping wet,” he says.
His Sonys are also resistant to frigid cold. Once, with his Sony a7R in the Yukon, the temperature dipped to negative 56 degrees. “After 15 to 20 minutes of shooting, I found the liquid inside the rear LCD screen started to freeze a bit,” he says.
This was likely due to the articulating screen, whereas, with Canon, the LCD is built into the camera body, so the cold cannot get behind it. To remedy the issue, Brown took his camera to the car to thaw for a few minutes. “After that, it worked perfectly,” he says.
“Based on my own personal experience, I have no issues with taking my Sony mirrorless cameras into extreme environments all across the world because I do it,” he says. “I literally have not had a single point of failure with anything.”
Sony’s Challenges: Early Hiccup with the Menu System
According to Brown, Sony’s first-generation cameras suffered from a few menu item quirks, such as the inability to select more than one menu option in the drive mode. “It was like, do you want to do a two-, five-, or ten-second delay, or do you want to auto-bracket three frames of the same landscape at different exposures?” he says. “You couldn’t do both at the same time, yet that functionality had been built in with Canon and Nikon for years.”
However, these issues are now a thing of the past. “I did have to work through a few different challenges early on, but these days, I don’t think I miss anything,” he says. “I can’t think of a time when I couldn’t complete a project or my Sony gear was limiting me in any way.”
Initial Limitations to Lens Lineup
Another early challenge was a limited lineup of native Sony glass. Brown solved this like many other photographers, by adding lens adapters to the mix. “The adapters allowed me to use the Canon lenses I had grown to love over the years,” he says. “But as time progressed, as camera bodies got better, and the lens line built up over the past two years, I found myself selling all my old camera gear and going to native glass.”
He finds the use of adapters and third-party lenses to be a phenomenal bridge gap for photographers interested in making a switch, without reinvesting thousands in new gear. “But it is just that, a stop gap, meant to get you over to Sony,” says Brown. “Depending on the work you do, I’ve found lens adapters to be a point of failure, that can allow more moisture or sand or things to get into my bodies.”
“Having that ability to use some of your former lenses with Sony’s mirrorless cameras is phenomenal for a bit of breathing room during the transition, but I always recommend going all in with native glass to take advantage of all of Sony’s features, such as Eye AF.”
As noted above, Brown shoots with both the full-frame a7 series and the smaller a6000 series, which have distinct lens systems. Yet since all Sony lenses share the same mount, “I can switch lenses between full-frame and APS-C sensor cameras with ease,” notes Brown, “making it easier for me to be in the field, carrying less gear.”
Pros and Cons of Battery Life
The other debatable issue in switching from a DSLR such as Canon to a mirrorless is battery life; however, Brown considers this less of a challenge, and more of a benefit. “Everyone knows that Canon’s batteries are bigger, with higher MaH and more juice inside, so they certainly do last longer,” he says. “At the same time, mirrorless cameras are purely digital, and there’s no optical viewfinder, so you’re powering some sort of screen whatever you’re doing.”
On the plus side, the camera’s smaller body size is mirrored in the batteries. “I’m saving weight not only on the cameras, but all the accessories too,” says Brown. “Sony batteries are smaller, lighter, and they charge faster.”
What’s more, a newly integrated feature in second-generation cameras provides the ability to charge batteries on the fly with a micro USB cable. Brown explains, “After shooting for a few hours, I can throw my camera back into my bag, and connect it to a portable power brick. As I am driving to my next location, my camera is literally charging on the fly. This is a pretty big deal, he adds.”
While car chargers are available for Canon and Nikon users, “charging via micro USB gives me much more flexibility when it comes to using a lot of the adventure and travel gear I already bring with me,” says Brown. “I am not always near an available car outlet, so having the ability to charge my camera via any USB-powered device—including my laptop—is a game changer.”
A Simplified Workflow
Since switching to Sony, Brown’s workflow process has been simplified and improved. As an example, he describes his process for creating landscape work.
“When I was shooting Canon, I would often shoot a five-image bracket with a scene that has a lot of contrast and dynamic range, knowing that my camera wasn’t able to capture what I needed in a single image or two. When shooting with my a7R II, I can easily get three or four stops of shadow and the highlight detail back from a single raw image. Gone are the days when I was forced to bracket with most of my landscape work.”
His workflow improvements are equally impressive in the digital darkroom. “You have exponentially more image data to work with,” he says. “Looking at an image that might have been overexposed with my Canons, I’d probably attempt to play with it and eventually give up, but now I instinctively know my limits with the Sony sensors. I can do so much more with digital processing and stylization when processing my images once I get back to the office.”
Wish List and Parting Advice
When it comes to Sony, Brown’s hopes and dreams for the future are pretty broad. “I feel that most of my needs are currently met, but I’d certainly like to see continued improvement in resolution and dynamic range,” he says. I’d also love to see continued improvements made with mirrorless AF systems, and how they work with the camera’s EVF. However, if I’m going to be honest, what I’m really looking for from Sony is the unknown,” he adds.
One of Brown’s initial attractions to Sony was its willingness to push boundaries. “I hope they not only continue to deliver impressive products, but also continue to catch the industry off guard. I think most photographers didn’t think fitting a full-frame sensor into a small camera body was possible—but they did it,” he explains.
But despite Sony’s current momentum and brand equity, Brown takes a philosophical view of switching cameras brands without good reason.
“I think people are lying to themselves if they say any camera manufactured in the past few years isn’t capable of taking great images,” he says. “If you feel your images are on par with what you’re trying to do, I don’t think anyone needs to switch to a different system. But once you reach a ceiling, and feel that maybe Sony’s ISO performance or dynamic range could further enhance your ability to create—at that point, I think it makes sense.”
“All too often, people feel that becoming a better photographer is purely about the gear, and that’s not the case, he sums up. “Don’t just switch over thinking it’s going to magically make you a better photographer, because you’ll just be disappointed, rather than taking ownership of the creative process we all have to go through.”
To learn more about Colby Brown, click here to visit his website.
To read the other stories in our series, Why I Switched, click here https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/p/why-i-switched.
Do you have a story or some insights to share about switching brands? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.