Ben Moon has crossover appeal. He’s not just an outdoor adventure photographer with a portfolio full of tremendous climbing and surfing photos—though he is most definitely that. He’s also a skilled portraitist with a love of music and a number of prominent performers as clients and even several album covers under his belt. And he’s a filmmaker and director, with a short film about his dog having been seen by more than 10 million viewers online. The unifying theme for Moon, no matter what he’s shooting or how he’s doing it, is that he’s always searching for real, heartfelt stories. He makes photographs with soul. By photographing what he loves, what comes naturally, he’s just living his life and carrying a camera to capture it. As he says, “You can’t fake authenticity.”
Moon has been a DSLR shooter for more than a decade. What first inspired him to seek out an alternative was not only the appeal of a smaller and lighter system, but one that would be less obtrusive as well. The compact size and low weight are immensely helpful on hiking and climbing assignments, and the low-key nature of a small camera works well in intimate, interpersonal settings.
“I got tired of lugging around a DSLR setup,” Moon says, “and backstage at festivals, there’s a lot of times when you pull out a DSLR and it changes the vibe. So a lot of times when I would be hanging with my musician friends, I would bring a Polaroid because it was more fun and engaging. I just thought it was a blast. One time I jumped on stage with Brett Dennen at a huge festival, and I was onstage with my Polaroid because I didn’t want to haul around a giant kit.”
Moon wasn’t going to forsake his professional gear for a point-and-shoot instant film camera, but the seed was planted: he needed to find an alternative to his big DSLR. So the photographer began researching micro-four-thirds cameras, although he wasn’t especially impressed. When Fuji introduced its X-Pro 1, he saw an opportunity. He liked the small size, the look and feel, and he even gave it a go and enjoyed the ease of carrying the compact camera everywhere. At that point, he began limiting use of his DSLR to assignments only. Otherwise, he carried the compact camera. Still, something was missing.
“It made exploring and taking photos fun,” Moon says of the Fuji, “but I never liked the images from the crop sensor. I wasn’t using it in low light. I never got attached to it. It didn’t feel quite right.”
Moon’s friend, National Geographic photographer David McLain, had been raving about his Sony cameras, saying that the company was way ahead of the curve. After testing a Sony video camera and “developing a lot of respect for the system,” Moon agreed it was time to learn more about Sony’s still cameras.
“I had this big trip to Norway coming up,” he says, “and my Canon 1Dx and 5D Mark III were back focusing and I was so over it. It was literally almost ruining commercial jobs. It was embarrassing. It was brutal. I was tired of doing the little micro adjustment thing, and really annoyed with it. But I was heavily invested in Canon. I had, like, 12 lenses, all the best primes and zooms. I had used it for ten years, they were my tools. Basically, David convinced Sony to let me try it. They were trying to get the a7 in pros’ hands. I said listen, no promises, I’m just gonna try it.”
Moon requested an a7S, an a7R and several lenses to take on his month-long trip, packed into a camper van with three friends as they drove across Norway.
“David suggested that I bring my Canon too,” Moon says, “because I was going for a month. So I did. Space was essential, but I brought both kits. I had all the Sony stuff—two bodies, five lenses and accessories—in one little bag that would have only fit one DSLR body and a couple lenses. I was like, ‘This is incredible, but I don’t have a clue what they do.’”
Moon only knew what he’d heard about the Sony a7S and a7R: that they had full-frame sensors, and that the former was great in low light while the latter produced beautiful, high-resolution images. Not long into the trip, during his first experience with Sony a7 cameras, he knew he was done with his DSLRs.
“We were all camping in the van one night,” he says, “when we didn’t have room to pitch a tent. And I just shot a few fisheye frames in the van with both cameras. I shot maybe five or ten frames with both, compared them, and then put the Canon away. I put it on the shelf and did not touch it again for the entire trip.”
Unbeknownst to Moon, while he was shooting with the a7’s for the remainder of the journey, he was getting particularly used to the cameras—in particular how they felt and how they functioned. Yes, the small size was a factor, but so were conveniences like the electronic viewfinder and focus assist.
“I didn’t realize it was happening,” he says, “but I just got used to the system. We hiked the highest peak in northern Europe and I carried the a7R and a 24-70mm over my shoulder the entire climb. When I got home and picked up my Canon, I was wondering why the exposure wasn’t changing in the viewfinder; I was so used to the EVF. I didn’t realize what a benefit that was until I’d shot with it for a month. I realized over the course of that trip that I wasn’t taking the camera away from my eye. I wasn’t looking at the back of the camera, because I knew my exposure was on. I could have image review in the viewfinder and it would pop up if I needed it and I could just keep shooting. I was so much more immersed in what was happening.”
“The other thing I found out,” Moon adds, “was in checking focus for portraits. I could punch into someone’s eye ten times and I didn’t miss any frames unless I was moving myself. I could punch in and check for really crisp focus on their iris and snap frame and I didn’t miss any moments that way. That’s one of my favorite projects, my portrait stuff, and to be able to know I had everything. At the time they didn’t have an 85mm that was native, so I had the A-mount les adapted. And now that I have the 85mm Batis, that lens is blowing my mind. That with the a7R II… come on.”
When Moon returned from Norway, the pleasant surprises continued. As he processed his images, he realized he was getting more dynamic range than ever before.
“That trip really sold me on the system,” he says, “because when I came back and processed the photos, I was processing a friend’s photos too. He borrowed my 5D Mark III once I shelved it. The latitude alone… Once I got into the rhythm of processing those giant a7R files, I was in love with it. There’s so much latitude, I could get them to feel exactly how I wanted. It’s insane. And you’re hardly ever missing exposure because you see your exposure. You don’t have to go, like, ‘Oh, I just shot 30 frames and they were the key moments but I shot it all two stops under.’ That just doesn’t happen. And the highlight latitude too, that just blew me away. I could just pull the sky back.”
That was a little more than a year ago. A few months later, Moon made the switch complete when he sold all of his Canon gear. Now he carries a compact kit anchored by the Sony a7R II and all the lenses he could want. The size was a benefit, but the big surprise was the quality.
“I have this little tiny, tiny camera bag that’s always with me,” he says. “And in it I have the 50mm Loxia f/2.0 and the two Batis lenses, the 25mm and the 85mm. They fit in there with the a7R II and a couple extra batteries and I have this little bag that goes with me everywhere. Obviously if I’m on a job I throw in other lenses, but that kit goes with me everywhere and I feel like I’m covered for so many scenarios. My walkabout lens is the little 50mm Loxia, or the 35mm, because I just love how small that is over my shoulder. I can just wander around with it and it’s not intimidating.”
“I bumped up my quality,” Moon continues. “This boggled my mind. Here’s a camera that I don’t miss exposure, I don’t miss focus, and I’m cutting the weight and size of my kit in half. And you’re telling me, too, that I’m getting quality that is mind-blowing, latitude and I have a camera that shoots 4k internal video? It’s a 43-megapixel camera, the autofocus is amazing… It just blew me away. This is the camera. It’s my everything camera.”