Oregon Test Drive
A Sony-inspired adventure into Oregon’s wildlands
I’ve been contemplating the focus of a follow-up to my COVID response blog post for some time now. As most of you likely agree, it’s been a little tough to concentrate on any one topic of importance these days.
The beginning of each week has most of us flinching over our morning coffee as we read the next installment of “2020 Black Swan Bingo” hurtling our way. So, amid this calamity-fueled malaise, Jamie and I decided it was high time to get the hell out of the house, get into nature, and clear our minds.
Given the limitations on travel, we settled on spending Jamie’s birthday on an overland excursion in our trusty Ford 4×4, looking for increasingly remote places, away from humanity, where we could sleep under the stars. A perfect counterpoint to the last few months, we hoped.
The goal was two-fold. First, we desperately wanted to put our new gear from Sony, our Official Camera Sponsor, to a more rigorous test than photos of each other in quarantine. We finally had bodies and lenses we could really wring out. With workshops temporarily paused, our ordinary opportunity for documentary photography wasn’t feasible. Thus, a little travel documentary photography would suit the bill nicely.
Second, we just needed to get out of the damn house and away from screens. Thankfully, Oregon has missed the worst of the pandemic, with a little over 500 deaths state-wide and a low infection rate. For our bit, we have been careful and stuck mostly to home. However, our patience for confinement was wearing thin, and we yearned for open spaces.
We headed overland to a secret lake we know in the Umpqua National Forest for our first stop. It sits far atop the Cougar Reservoir, nestled in the Willamette Range. Suffice to say, if you enjoy the out-of-doors and own a relatively robust 4WD, there’s hardly a more beautiful way to find isolation than the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest.
To give the next blog that follows this one context, the fir, pine, and cedar coniferous forests of the Central Cascades and the recreation they offer are why we moved West. The Cascades are home to some of the most beautiful wildlands in America; much of it is undeveloped or roadless.
Few visitors take the time or energy required to venture too far off the paved roads. Millions upon millions of acres are largely untraveled and unoccupied. In these areas, someone can drive or hike for a large portion of a day and camp overnight, likely never to see another soul. This isolation can last for days in some areas, where population densities are less than a single person per square mile.
As such, the Willamette Range is a perfect choice to let off a little steam and make photos away from all the day-to-day drama of civilization. We set out on Friday of Labor Day weekend with the fantastically helpful Gaia app and a flatbed of camping gear, food, and, of course, a few cocktail fixings. We logged out of our screens, said goodbye to connectivity, and hit the road.
Reporting on this portion of the adventure: we had an absolute ball, particularly enhanced by the experience using the Sony gear.
The Sony a7s make an absolutely fantastic kit. It is light years ahead of its competitors. It’s small enough to be considered “packable” but offers all the usability and ergonomics of a full-sized pro SLR. This feature was an essential factor for us when choosing a camera sponsor. We’d been spoiled with small, lightweight bodies and lenses with our previous gear. However, the Sony platform fits the bill perfectly and offers more versatility.
The real surprise for me was the glass. I figure the only people who read these missives likely know me pretty well. As such, everyone knows how much emphasis I place on glass, and the particular derision I apply to crappy lenses. I just can’t fake enjoyment if lackluster optics poison the images.
Perhaps it’s a side-effect of using rangefinders for so long. Still, I’ll sacrifice quite a bit of user function if the platform gets a leg up from really great lenses. Even better, if the glass has a unique fingerprint, I might incorporate it into a more extensive style palette.
My god, the Sony pro glass is so good it’s hard to believe. Clearly, this is why so many professional photojournalists have re-homed themselves into the Sony ecosystem. These lenses are so good it should serve as a wake up call to other century-old companies who rely on their optical engineers’ reputation.
As I’ve bored many of you on this topic, everyone knows I have a shortlist of about five truly great lenses from the last thirty years I genuinely love. Since it an entirely subjective measure, the list represents lenses that are more than just “sharp” or have pleasing “bokeh.” My top lenses are those that, when used by a large body of artists, define a unique style. These are often described as lenses having a “fingerprint all their own”. This is an important measure and stands apart from a quantitative measure of quality. I can’t wait to take delivery of the next set to add to the two we have now (35 1.4 Zeiss Distagon T & 24-70 2.8 GM). I’m getting a sense that Sony’s glass will be a contender for my list.
The 35mm prime is gorgeous and not over-corrected, as Zeiss lenses can be. It is poppy, saturated, and neutral while not being too sharp. In fact, it is just sharp enough to leave a little room for error at the short depth of fields is boasts.
The zoom, frankly, hardly feels like a zoom. I say this with the caveat I could barely pry it away from Jamie for the entire trip. Her photojournalism soul has been too long without using a quality zoom, and she fell in love with its exceptional compatibility with the a7riii body. Dimensionally, it’s small but extremely well-corrected across the zoom range and apertures. This, to be honest, was a pair of attributes I didn’t expect and gave the prime a run for its money. As we are incredibly interested in getting more GM glass in our kits, we’ll see if this trend holds. If it does, it might break my dependence on prime lenses.
Suffice to say, all of the attributes described here of the mirrorless platform are obvious to anyone watching the metadata of photojournalism images recently. The movement to the Sony platform is as noticeable as it is numerous and, I can say now with authority, with good reason.
The End of the Road
The trip was fantastic, and we fully put the gear through its paces. Just what the doctor ordered. We got out, found beauty, and enjoyed adventures together. Even Cody the Cowboy dog, who I can’t believe is almost 10-years-old, had an absolute ball. (Though truth be told, you jingle the truck keys and it becomes the best moment of his life…until the next one.)
Jamie and I finished our journey buoyed by an enjoyable respite from urbanity and reinvigorated for our future workshop planning. Likewise, we were both just tickled about the gear we will use traveling and working with during our workshops in the coming years.
John Christopher Anderson
CEO of Momenta Group