src="http://www.mirrorlessons.com/wp-content/themes/mirrorlessons Portrait session with the Sony A7 & Zeiss 55mm f/1.8
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Date: 28/02/2014 | By: Mathieu

Chasing Light for Portraiture – A Sony A7 Gallery

ILCE-7, 1/200, f/ 28/10, ISO 100

Chasing Light for Portraiture – A Sony A7 Gallery

Last weekend I did a photo shoot for the young Italian actress Barbara Novara. She wanted to update her photo book and look as natural as possibile in the images. It was for this reason that we decided to work outdoors with natural light. I checked the weather forecast and Saturday turned out to be the best option.

ILCE-7, 1/1000, f/ , ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/1000, f/2 , ISO 100 – Summicron 90mm

I love taking portraits with natural light. Walking around the city, hunting down an interesting angle or a fleeting slice of light cutting across the pavement is an adventure of sorts, a treasure hunt for the light-hungry photography.

ILCE-7, 1/4000, f/2 , ISO 200 - Summicron 90mm
ILCE-7, 1/4000, f/2 , ISO 200 – Summicron 90mm

All I brought with me was a circular Lastolight reflector. No strobes, no additional lights. It was the perfect opportunity to work with the new full-frame Sony A7 and the Zeiss Sonnar T FE 55mm f/1.8. I also managed to borrow a Leica M Summicron 90mm f/2 since I still have my M to Nex adapter. The 55mm is a wonderful lens but to take good close-ups, a more traditional portrait focal length is advisable so as to avoid any distortion on the subject’s face.

ILCE-7, 1/1250, f/ , ISO 200
ILCE-7, 1/1250, f/2 , ISO 200 – Summicron 90mm

Working with ambient light means working in a less-controlled environment. It can be very satisfying but also presents some challenges, especially when you are taking portraits, because you want to make sure enough light hits the person’s face even in not-so-perfect conditions. That is where the reflector can come in handy. One of my favorite kinds of shots involves using a backlight, where the reflector is used to bounce part of that light back onto the subject.

ILCE-7, 1/1250, f/ 18/10, ISO 200
ILCE-7, 1/1250, f/ 1.8, ISO 200 – Zeiss 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/4000, f/ , ISO 200
ILCE-7, 1/4000, f/2 , ISO 200 – Summicron 90mm

In other cases, I just look for a softly-lit environment like the interior of an arcade. If there is enough light outside, the light filtered through the transparent roof or entries can create a low-contrast atmosphere that can be very pleasant.

ILCE-7, 1/60, f/ , ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/60, f/2.8 , ISO 100 – Summicron 90mm
ILCE-7, 1/40, f/ , ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/40, f/2.8 , ISO 100 – Summicron 90mm
ILCE-7, 1/200, f/ , ISO 200
ILCE-7, 1/200, f/2.8 , ISO 200 – Summicron 90mm

During the time we were outside, the sun was starting to set and that meant having some of the best light to work with for portraits. In this case, you need to work quickly as it will only last a couple of hours.

ILCE-7, 1/640, f/ 28/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/640, f/ 2.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/1000, f/ 18/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/1000, f/ 1.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/2000, f/ 18/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/2000, f/ 1.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8

The main thing to be careful of is unwanted shadows on the face, as they can look natural to the eye at first glance but are less attractive when you review the pictures afterwards. Often it is simply a matter of making the subject pose in the right way and having her look in the most appropriate and flattering direction.

ILCE-7, 1/1600, f/ 18/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/1600, f/ 1.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/2500, f/ 18/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/2500, f/ 1.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8

This photo shoot was the perfect opportunity to see how good the A7 is in terms of image quality. The raw files are no less than exceptional to work with. While I generally didn’t apply a huge amount of post-processing to these images, I often had to play with light and exposure in order to place her expression at the centre of attention. The dynamic range of the A7 is so vast that I can easily work with Lightroom and masks. Recovering highlights or opening the shadows was very easy with zero loss of quality. I worked with the colours rendered by the standard Adobe profile instead of the Sony profiles, as I found them too contrasted in this case. For some shots, I used the ever-perfect Rebecca Lily Pro Set II profiles which, while designed for the Fujifilm RAF files, work perfectly well with other raw files as well. They are especially helpful with the skin tone rendering.

ILCE-7, 1/200, f/ 28/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/200, f/ 2.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/640, f/ 18/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/640, f/ 1.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8

The Zeiss FE 55mm just might be the best lens I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. The sharpness at f/1.8 simply blew me away.

Zeiss 55mm at f/1.8 - 100% Crop
Zeiss 55mm at f/1.8 – 100% Crop

Coupled with the A7, I get all the details I could possibly need, perhaps even too many. This is just another confirmation that I don’t need the A7r. The Sony A7 is not the perfect camera but I must say that the image quality it can generate with this lens is second-to-none in the mirrorless segment (with the exception of the A7r, of course).

ILCE-7, 1/1000, f/ 18/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/1000, f/ 1.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 18/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 1.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/400, f/ 28/10, ISO 100
ILCE-7, 1/400, f/ 2.8, ISO 100 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8

I didn’t enjoyed this shoot just for the light or the gear. It was a purely fun afternoon. Barbara was very friendly and easy to work with. There was almost an instantaneous positive feeling between us. Heather helped me with the reflector and also took some shots on her own with the Olympus Pen E-P5 and M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8.

It was almost like a walk downtown with friends, not just a run-of-the-mill work assignment.

This is perhaps the most important aspect to consider when engaging in portrait or street work. Photography is also about human contact, and our session with Barbara is one of the best examples I’ve come across so far in my time as a photographer.

We actually enjoyed it so much that we extended the shoot to night shots as well, something that wasn’t planned at the beginning. Of course working with ambient light at night becomes even more challenging. The colours can be hard to post-process, as the skin tones tend to take on that yellowish palette typical of artificial light. This is where a B&W conversion can be a good solution.

ILCE-7, 1/80, f/ 18/10, ISO 800
ILCE-7, 1/80, f/ 1.8, ISO 800 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 18/10, ISO 250
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 1.8, ISO 250 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 18/10, ISO 1600
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 1.8, ISO 1600 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8

As with the sunset shots, it was again a matter of finding the right spot with the right source of light, coming for a window shop or street lamp for example. In the end, there was no dearth of light sources to experiment with.

ILCE-7, 1/50, f/ 18/10, ISO 800
ILCE-7, 1/50, f/ 1.8, ISO 800 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 18/10, ISO 800
ILCE-7, 1/100, f/ 1.8, ISO 800 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8
ILCE-7, 1/80, f/ 18/10, ISO 500
ILCE-7, 1/80, f/ 1.8, ISO 500 – Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8

I really want to thank Heather and Barbara for this lovely afternoon. I would have no problem signing up for another 365 days of portrait work if it always reached that level of fun.

Also make sure to stay tuned on MirrorLessons because the full Sony A7 review is imminent! :)

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About the author: Mathieu Gasquet

Mathieu Gasquet is a professional photographer with French and Italian origins. Besides running his own video and photography studio 3Dit Lab, he is also the official photographer for the National Cinema Museum in Turin. You can follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • http://www.mirrorlessons.com/ Mathieu

    Hi John, unfortunately there isn’t a proper “portrait” lens for the FE system yet. The 55mm is great but not for close up or very close up portraits both for the distortion issues but also for the short focus distance. A solution could be a third party lens with an adaptor. It depends on your budget and if you are comfortable using manual focus lenses.

  • John

    Hi there guys, lovely photos. I have been thinking about doing some portrait photography and have been thinking about the sony a7 as a ‘budget’ way of getting into full-frame. And so I was also thinking about the 55 Zeiss lens to partner it. But I note your comment about focal length and distortion. I would mostly be interested in close-up portraits. What lens would you consider to be a good lens for this? Hope you can give me some advice, best, John.

  • Heather

    She was a wonderful person to work with. We have a few projects in mind for the future with her as well!

  • hamdinger

    Beautiful portraits… although it would be hard not to get beautiful shots with such a lovely model in front of the camera!

  • Mathieu

    Thanks David! I guess we share pretty much the same feeling about the camera. The A7 is quieter than the A7r but still louder than most mirrorless cameras. But I guess I cannot really complain about it as it is still less noisy than a DSLR. 😉

  • soundimageplus

    Nice write up. Interesting to see this as I use my Sony’s for a different kind of shooting.
    ‘ The Sony A7 is not the perfect camera but I must say that the image quality it can generate with this lens is second-to-none in the mirrorless segment’
    Very much my feelings for what I do also. In operational terms I prefer my Fuji’s or m4/3 cameras, but as you say it’s very difficult to ignore the image quality of the A7 and A7r. It’s also very difficult to ignore the shutter noise on the A7r but that’s another story!!

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