Sony’s press event in Sedona, Arizona, this week gave assembled journalists a chance to test out the new Sony a7R III in a number of different shooting situations, with the incredibly scenic backdrop of the sandstone cliffs and blue skies of this legendary tourist destination.
Media events like these are a pretty regular occurrence for the photo press, and they feel sometimes more like family reunions than anything else. While it might seem like the various different outlets compete with each other, that’s not really the case. Sure, we might all be vying for the same ad dollars, but there’s a collaborative feeling at these events—we spend a lot of time over dinner and beers (and on the inevitable long bus rides to a shooting location) debating the strengths and weaknesses of the new cameras we’ve tested, and giving each other feedback on our coverage.
The photo press world is so cooperative that we’ve started to run some content from some of the “competitors” in the photo market, bringing you reviews from ThePhoblographer, CameraStoreTV and Camera Labs, relationships built from time spent at these events.
The point of these trips is to give the press a chance to shoot the gear in the situations it was designed for, because a lot of the press aren’t professional photographers, and because we don’t all have access to the right kind of subjects.
Send a portrait lens to a journalist who doesn’t have a studio or the resources for a model, hair and makeup, and you get a lot of reviews that include pictures of people’s family and pets. Give a super-long tele lens to a reporter who lives in a city and you get a lot of shots of a squirrel in a park. That’s why these trips are often to scenic places like Sedona, Arizona, where possibilities abound to shoot landscapes, models, sports and anything else we need to test new gear correctly.
Media trips tend to have a fairly similar flow—media arrives and has some type of gathering for dinner and a briefing on the new gear, often followed by a good amount of talk over drinks (though slightly less of that as the press corps ages). Shoots usually start early the following morning, often very early if sunrise shooting is involved. We usually move between shoots all day, with a stop for a group lunch and then have some time to process our images and get some work done before dinner. If there’s not a night shoot, we’ll usually sit around and make each other laugh as we rib our colleagues for their own unique, um, personality quirks.
There’s a rotating cast of characters at these press trips but there’s always someone from our publications (usually myself, often with Wes Pitts, the Editor of our sister publication Outdoor Photographer), DPReview, Phoblographer, Imaging-Resource, SLR Lounge, plus a variety of other publications or YouTube Channels. Many of these events have between 20 and 30 writers, bloggers or vloggers.
It’s actually the group meals where I find the most value on these trips, not because of the good food (and the food is usually quite good) but because it gives us the opportunity to spend time with the product managers, PR people, and in the case of Sony and a few others, the engineers themselves. We give a lot of feedback to the companies at these group meals, and we’re always really happy when we see something improved in a piece of gear that we suggested in an early iteration.
This Sony trip had a lot of similarities to the recent Nikon D850 press event, held in Bend, Oregon, and for good reason. Both the Nikon D850 and the Sony a7R III are designed to be fast-operating, high-resolution cameras, good for everything from landscape to portraits to sports, and these two places are just so damned pretty. It’s hard to take a bad photo when you’re at the foothills of sandstone cliffs at sunset or shooting with Mount Rainier in the background. (It’s not impossible though; I’ve seen some terrible photos taken at press events, too, and just like every other shoot, we pick the ones that best show off the product’s features.
Sometimes the weather just doesn’t cooperate: On an Olympus trip to Iceland the group spent a lot of time in cold, wet weather. At the recent Nikon trip, forest fires raged across Oregon, casting some of the terrain in a hazy fog (though the fog moved out in time for astrophotography). On the Sedona trip, the weather was mostly cooperative, though we weren’t always in exactly the right place to catch a sunset we’d hiked in to shoot.
The Sedona trip was held at a property nestled into slick rock canyons and large outcroppings of sandstone. Ironically some of the nicest light of the trip was on those canyon walls near sunset—we literally could have walked 100 yards and have gotten as nice a test of the color rendering of the a7R III as anywhere else we shot.
Journalists arrived from all over across the course of the first day, so a few of us that got in early went out for a beautiful hike. While we were on the trail, some hikers warned us that there were “havalinas” on the trail ahead. Gordon Laing (from Camera Labs and who has a lovely British accent) said, “What is a havalina? Is it some kind of cocktail?” When we were told that a havalina is a cute wild pig, he seemed disappointed that it wasn’t a cocktail being handed out on state park land.
We gathered the first night to go over the features of the a7R III and the new 24-105mm F4 G lens, had dinner and then some of us headed out for astrophotography. Jet lagged and tired, I ended up shooting astro anyhow, and collapsed in bed sometime around 2 a.m.
The next morning started early with breakfast, and one group headed out at 6 a.m. to shoot sunrise from a hot-air balloon. My group headed out to Slide Rock Park (about 40 minutes on the bus) and then to a local Tibetan Buddhist peace park, a large concrete column with a dome adorned with a statue of the Buddha. The structure is stuffed full of symbolic items—food, clothes, even bullets, as prayer for improving the condition of the world.
Another lunch and then we headed out in smaller groups (more bus riding) to a few spots to shoot mountain biking, which turned out to involve a pretty long hike in the hot sun. Not everyone brought water, so I became very popular when I took out my thermos full of ice cold water. Two mountain bikers rode up and down the trails on command while we shot from different locations, yelling at each other to get out of our shots. It’s really hard not to photograph another journalist while 15 of you are on a 100-yard section of trail.
We shuttled from the mountain bike shoot and then were off to capture a sunset landscape scene at Cathedral Parks (see our guide to this great shooting destination on our sister publication, Outdoor Photographer). We spread out across the park and watched as families came to play and photographers showed up to try to capture the light. The park was still, punctuated by the laughter of kids playing on the slick rocks by a creek.
After the sun went down we shuttled off to another dinner, and then back to the hotel for another round of astro. This shoot was lead by photographer Drew Geraci, who specializes in doing amazing time-lapse work. If you watched House of Cards, you’re familiar with his work, as the title sequence is made up of his beautiful, slow time-lapse work.
I skipped this astro shoot in favor of some sleep to be fresh for the helicopter ride. This was only my second helicopter ride, and the first one with the doors off, and it was exhilarating and a beautiful vista. Honestly, though, one of the reasons it was only my second ride was because I’m pretty scared of heights—or at least I was, this event helped shake me of that because I really wanted to be able to shoot from elevation in Sedona, and a doors-off ride isn’t very common.
This was a great opportunity to test the 24-105mm since you want to have a range of focal lengths when you’re flying high above a mountain top, but then dropping in to get right up alongside a cliff dwelling on the face of the outcropping. It’s also a good way to highlight in-body stabilization, as the same shoot years ago would have required an expensive gyro rig. If you get the chance to ride in a helicopter with the doors or windows removed, I highly recommend it. It’s a view of the world that’s hard to duplicate, even with today’s great drones, thanks to the bigger sensors in full-frame cameras, and the ability to change focal length with a zoom.
Another shuttle ride back to the hotel and some downtime to organize images before we launched into a model shoot setup next to the backdrop of the red-stone cliffs. While I could theoretically charter a helicopter if we had the budget, planning a model shoot like this one would be more logistically challenging, because of all the moving pieces.
See Our Live Model Shoot Video
To provide a variety of different shooting stations, the Sony team brought together multiple models, a pair of horses, some cowboys and some vintage cars, plus continuous lighting gear, grips, props, hair and makeup stylists, and wardrobe. It provided a really good, precise way to test the eye-detect AF improvements in the Sony a7R III when you can control the lighting and the subjects so precisely. Not to spoil our upcoming review, but the AF and the eye-detect AF is noticeably better in the Sony a7R III compared to the a7R II and alone is enough to justify the upgrade.
After some work with the models, I headed back to another shuttle ride to another sunset shoot, along with Wes and legendary photographers and instructors Gary Hart and Don Smith. (Both Gary Hart and Don Smith have contributed to Outdoor Photographer and both run outdoor workshops that we highly recommend. Gary’s information is here, and Don’s is here.) To try to catch light around Bell Rock, Wes and I hiked the long path around the base of the mountain. For the first hour of walking, the light was fair, at best, and we kept up a good pace. As we came around the back side of the formation, the sun’s light suddenly swept over the valley, giving us a few moments to get shots before the light in the park faded, and then eventually went pitch-black as we worked our way back to the shuttle bus.
We took the bus to our final group dinner, and already started reminiscing about the trip. We talked about the latest scandals in the YouTube video world, about who was left accidentally on the top of a mountain during a shoot, and about the camera. The consensus was pretty even across all the journalists—the Sony a7R III is a watershed camera. Where the a9 crushed the speed record, the a7R III provides a great all-around camera that doesn’t sacrifice in any area.
After sitting around a fire and finishing a few drinks, we headed back to the property and turned in for the night. Many of the gathered press had early flights, but some of us that missed the first balloon ride had a last-minute opportunity to go up in a hot air balloon, and we had to leave at 6 a.m. for that.
Dawn broke early, and after a few quick snacks we set out of the balloon ride. Our pilot was exceptionally good (28 years of piloting experience), and the ride perfectly smooth. We floated up to around 3,000 feet, and then back down to hover in mid-air alongside the wall of a cliff, something I didn’t know balloons could do. With a few gentle puffs of hot air, we lifted up and slide gently above the trees on the ridgeline. I cannot recommend hot-air balloon rides enough. Again, the 24-105mm lens proved to be a versatile choice, with the ability to go fully wide to capture scenery but to also zoom in on geological formations. I also used the 12-24mm G lens, which offered a sweeping view of the scenery.
For photographers, it’s important to go out in a balloon when the light is great, and that’s not always possible. We had good, but not great light, and launching in the dark would have put us up in the air for more of the sunrise. This isn’t permitted in every area, so check with your tour operator, but you want to get up as close to sunrise or sunset as you can, to avoid harsh overhead sun.
We returned to the property and did some last minute editing, return of gear, a very rushed packing job, and then gathered to say goodbye as people headed out. My redeye flight meant that I could stay longer, and so I headed out for another hike with Gordon from Camera Labs, Chris and Jordan from The Camera Store TV, and Kishore Sawh from SLR Lounge. I’ve been all over the world with these guys, and hanging out with them is like being with family.
Also family-like is the relationships most of the longtime photo press has with the PR people from the major manufacturers. We’ve all spent extended time with the camera and lens companies on trips like these, and they’re instrumental in building the communications channels that the press corps comes to rely on for accurate information and fact-checking. If you look at many of the blogs and YouTube posts that get huge negative reactions for incorrect information in camera reviews, much of that is because there isn’t a relationship with the companies, and no one to call if there’s a question about a product.
We also spend a lot of time with the actual product engineers themselves. Sony does a bit more of this than many of the other companies, sending people from Japan to these events when possible, but we’ve had this access with all of the companies at one point or other. It gives us the opportunity to give the companies the direct feedback we’ve generated from our testing, and have gotten from our readers.
I’ll spend more time with the a7R III for our review when the units ship to us sometime next week, but these three intensive days—coupled with years of working with these and other cameras—makes it clear that this system is a winner. Sony’s one remaining area for improvement is the menu systems, which is a big issue with many of the other cameras as well.
One of the perks of this job is the ability to go to these media events, because they’re great opportunities to see beautiful locations, a great way to truly evaluate the camera gear, a chance to see friends, and a relationship builder with the companies. They require a huge amount of work on the part of the manufacturers, and I think that speaks to the commitment the camera companies have to providing great equipment for photographers. They’re a lot of work for the journalists, as well, usually involving a lot of plane travel and some sleep deprivation, and they come on top of our usual heavy trade show schedule, but they’re the tools we use to bring accurate reporting, and they’re a great amount of fun, especially when we get to test a new high-end camera with the beauty of nature as the backdrop.