Unboxing a Legend

I received my “new” lens on Saturday. I was looking at many lenses to replace the 70-300G Lens I sold a couple weeks ago. I liked the 70-300G in terms of IQ. It was solid wide open and at the extreme ends. It was really fast to acquire. And I didn’t use it enough to justify what I didn’t like. I didn’t like how it extended. I didn’t like the filter size (62mm) or the aperture range (f/4.5-5.6) and it just didn’t feel like it belonged in my bag. For the short time I had the lens it made magic, though and I have no regrets. The lens was no crook.

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SLT-A99V, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G @ 300mm, f/7.1, ISO 200, 1/640s
original cropped to 1090×1635 (I cut out a bunch of the shot).

I’ve expressed before, I prefer primes. Before Saturday I had 2 main lenses. My bread and butter 85mm f/1.4 ZA and my newer, faster, wider 24mm f/2 ZA SSM I am still getting used to but have appreciated when I need it. I have one other lens I don’t break out often, especially since the sun is out less in the winter, a Sigma 600mm f/8 mirror lens. I use the mirror lens almost exclusively for shooting the moon. I plan on using the mirror lens more in 2013 as the days get longer.

While the two main Zeiss primes cover 85-90% of my applications, I did miss some of the length provided by the 70-300G. Of the 3191 Full Frame (A900/A99) shots I took with the 70-300G, 1158 were at 300mm. More than a third. The next three most utilized focal lengths were 210mm, 200mm and 180mm. Of the 1558 A77 APS-C shots, 438 were at 300mm, 247 were at 70mm and the next closest was 180mm with 99. So 450mm, 105mm, and 270mm at 35mm equivalent. Digging further, a vast majority of the 300mm length shots were at sporting or sport-like events (my son’s soccer, my daughter’s ballet, 2 NASCAR Races, 1 NFL game), the rest were poor-man’s macro, or close up shots of plants and animals in my yard or my Aunt’s yard in Arizona. The shot below is an example of poor-man’s macro.

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SLT-A77V, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G @ 300mm f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/40s

While I was looking at a number of lenses, I had settled my mind on one of two. The Sony or Minolta 135mm f/2.8 [T4.5] STF manual focus lens or the Minolta 200mm f/2.8 High Speed APO G lens. Both have 72mm filter sizes matching my Zeiss primes. One is a specialty lens, unique to the A-mount; the 135 STF. One is a lens which has stood tall in the test of time, with the regular speed 200mm f/2.8 being introduced in 1986 and the high speed version being released in 1988.

I looked into the Lightroom files for 135mm and 200mm respectively and looked at what I was shooting at those lengths on with my 70-300G as well as taking other factors into consideration. 135mm would be very close to what my bread and butter used to be on the A77 with my 85mm lens. The 35mm equivalent of 127.5mm. So with fractionally longer length than a length I am used to, the 135mm made sense. And the high-ISO capability of the A99 would keep the higher T-number at bay while focus peaking would make the manual focus tolerable. Below is a shot taken at 135mm with the 70-300G. It needs a bit of post-processing but the length was good for candid portraits from about 15 feet.

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SLT-A99V, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G @ 135mm, f/8, ISO 400, 1/320s

I try to imagine shots like the one above at f/2.8 but with T-shop at 6.7, basically nothing visible in the background. It sounds pretty cool to me.

200mm is quite a bit longer than 85mm but shorter than the max of 300mm. 200mm would be better for sporting events, OK for portraits, and the automatic focus would be a bonus as well. I had a good mix of portraits and sports at 200mm including the shot below.

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SLT-A99V, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G @ 200mm, f/5.6, ISO 3200, 1/500s

I liked this shot as it shows the dancer’s athleticism without sacrificing his body lines. I try to imagine flexibility to go down to f/2.8, especially with the depth of field shallowing a bit, yet being wide enough at a distance to capture what I want to. And I imagine I could have dropped the ISO down to 1600 or even 800. Luckily the A99 does 3200 just fine!

The Verdict

I went with the Minolta 200mm f/2.8 High Speed APO G lens. I could not find a used 135 STF in the time I was looking, however I went after a good copy of the 200mm lens.

My first impression when receiving the lens was I was amazed at how small it was compared to the pictures online. You see a white lens and you’re thinking it is huge. The 200mm is not huge, its barrel is actually quite skinny. The first shot below has my 85mm f/1.4 on the left, fully extended and the 200mm f/2.8 on the right with the built-in hood collapsed. There is less than 2 inches difference between the two.

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Notice the barrel thickness is much smaller on the 200mm than the outer barrel of the 85mm, but about the same diameter as the inner barrel of the 85mm lens.

The next shot has the 85mm closed with the hood on next to the 200mm with the hood extended. Only about an inch and a half difference. Less if the rubber hood protector weren’t missing from the 85mm and if the 85mm were extended.

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The final telling part is this comparison, the giant hunks of glass on the front element. I would say they are nearly the same, with the 200mm lens having a slight edge. Regardless, they both have identical 72mm filter sizes, which makes me very happy.

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I am a victim of the weather, work and other circumstances preventing me from using the lens until this evening, however I think lens back-focuses just a hair, which I can fix.

Here are a couple of shots I took in troubleshooting.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/3.2, 1/30s, ISO 400

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/2.8, 1/100s, ISO 400

I like what I see so far, and I need to get used to the lens and figure out what it can and can’t do. The biggest thing that blows my mind, however, is the bottom of the bayonet says © Minolta 1989. The lens is 23 years old and it works like it was made yesterday!!

So far, I can tell it will focus sharp once I get the Micro Adjustment fixed as the shots I used focus peaking to frame were sharp, even wide open. It also seems to reproduce color well. The lens is about as loud as the 85mm lens, but seems to acquire faster. We’ll see as I will put it to the test tonight into tomorrow.

I plan on posting a review soon. Hopefully I can fulfill those plans.

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Goodbye 2012!

I think about 2012 today and I feel like it was a pretty good year. Looking back, however, I am reminded how current my memory is. 2012 was littered with political advertising. I am grateful for getting rid of cable television as I was spared a good portion of the nonsense. Our first week of not having cable was the first week of the Olympics, which made the lack of cable very tolerable and helped me ease into not having 2000 channels. With the antenna, I’ve found no matter whether there are 15 channels or 2000, there’s still nothing on worth watching most of the time.

I could go back and remember everything from 2012, but I don’t want to look too far back. For 2013 I hope to show people my inner peace and happiness as I have been accused of looking discontent and angry all the time. I will say I am guilty of having similar expressions if I am content or mad. And my happy expression isn’t much different.

I hope to get out more and find subjects beyond my back yard and try some things I don’t normally try. I did so very early this morning. I’ve been in contact with Gene, who writes the blog http://preferredaperture.blogspot.com/ and lives in the same area I do. Gene shoots with an A77 and he has shots of a run down abandoned building about 8 miles south of where I live, just south of the North and South Carolina border. Gene was gracious enough to send me directions. I tried a couple of things I haven’t tried before. One was the HDR mode on my A99. Here is the first shot, straight off the body. The A99 gives you a JPEG as shot and then the blended HDR shot. Here is the untouched JPG as framed.

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SLT-A99V, 24mm f/2 ZA SSM @ f/4.5, ISO 100, 1/2 sec, JPEG Extra Fine

Here is the HDR shot

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SLT-A99V, 24mm f/2 ZA SSM @ f/4.5, ISO 100, 1/2 sec, JPEG Extra Fine, HDR Mode 6EV

I took this just before sunrise. I learned one thing right off the bat. I need to shoot this subject again in the Spring. I just don’t like the bare trees. I do like the greens in the bush and in the grass showing up a little better. Here is the same shot shot adjusted to my liking in Lightroom.

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And a bit of the detail as some is lost posting to a blog as it crops the photo to a fraction of the actual size.

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I had SteadyShot turned off, and I learned you can’t use the remote or a delay for the shutter, so the HDR shots are heavily reliant on the shutter button being pressed gently. Good to know for next time.

Here is the same sign in RAW at a slightly different angle and a bit closer. And without the color adjustments.

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SLT-A99V, 24mm f/2 ZA SSM @ f/5.6, ISO 100, 6/10 sec

I definitely need to play with this more and see if I can do a little better. I have some ideas for subjects and I am hoping time will be cooperative.

I’ve got some more to talk about as I received my new lens on Saturday. I feel like I need to be able to shoot with it to do so.

What it takes to go pro: Step Zero (part II)

In my previous post What it takes to go pro: Step Zero I, I discussed how I had a perception of three types of family photographers. The guy at the school, the guy at the mall, and the guy who does specialized appointments. For the purposes of this discussion I will call him the guy in his car. I discussed how I was most like the guy in his car. I also said I didn’t want to be the person who tried to imitate their work for a discount. I talked in brief about building a portfolio and being able to distinguish shots as “acceptable”. The shot below is one I would have to deem “acceptable” as the child, my nephew, is actually looking at me and has somewhat of a smile.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/2.8, ISO 200, 1/500s

I’m not going to lie. I’ve put a lot of thought into turning my hobby into a second line of work. And I have thought a lot about the business model I would use to ensure I didn’t hurt the three guys, but at the same time I made it into a worthwhile venture for myself.

Some businesses have a mission statement or a charter. I’d have a very simple concept of what I envision my business model would be around but let me explain first so I don’t sound like I am going away from the statements I made in my first post about undercutting or undervaluing the three guys. Hopefully I can paint this picture for you so you can understand where I am coming from.

Business Concept #1: Provide low-cost services for people or events who wouldn’t be able to afford or wouldn’t normally hire a photographer. 

Let me make this perfectly clear: I already have a good job. I don’t need to photograph to support my family. I’m interested in helping folks who probably would hire a professional if they could afford it, but can’t afford it. How would I know they couldn’t afford it? I still haven’t figured that one out yet. Let me explain what I mean here and express a few of the ideas I have.

When my wife and I were getting married, we were given a meager budget of $2000 to plan and finance our wedding. We were both recent college graduates without anything resembling a job and our parents didn’t have much. The average wedding photographer cost around $1000-$1500 at the time on the low end and most of them charged a minimum of $500 just to show up. Needless to say, we didn’t have any professional photographers at our wedding. We engaged the sister of one of our bridesmaids who was invited anyway, and we got the basic shots we wanted, nothing special, and we got what we paid for, maybe a little more. To this day, my wife wishes she had more, but for what we had we appreciated the work.

For anything within a 100 mile radius of my house I would charge $50 or less for each trip, and if they provided meals, I would charge less. I figure this is cost balance on gasoline and food if it isn’t provided. In some circumstances I would waive those costs. If I was allowed to use an open bar, for instance. But I seriously doubt I would allow myself to be hired by anyone who had an open bar. If they can afford an open bar, they can afford a sitting fee. For anything out of town or requiring an overnight stay, I would require basic transportation costs and basic lodging needs. Gas if I am driving, an airplane ticket and a ride if I am flying, and a couch to sleep on. A basic hotel room if no couch is available.

I would develop a questionnaire for the bride and groom (mostly the bride), bridesmaids, groomsmen, and the parents regarding what shots they wanted, what they wouldn’t want in a shot and then I would work within those parameters and I would add my spin where I could. I would prioritize the shots with the bride’s needs at 1-100 and the rest would fall in line behind her. I’d show up, shoot until it was all over and then leave. If they wanted the whole experience captured, I would do the rehearsals and follow the bride around while she got ready and go up until the bride and groom leave for their honeymoon. If they wanted me to follow them to their honeymoon, they’d likely not be someone who I would likely target until I decided to look for a different type of subject.

I would use the same concept for family portraits or senior yearbook photos. Show up, maybe suggest some locations or scenes and shoot away. If I go to a family’s house and there is a BMW in the driveway, they’re probably not the right family for me to shoot. I’d want to help out the teacher, fireman, or police officer.

Business Concept #2: Charge nothing for Facebook-sized low resolution, low quality shots.

That’s right. Free. My bodies shoot 6000×4000. I would give 60% quality 900 pixel long-edge shots away for free. Why? Because they’re going to post the ones I shoot in a likely illegal-but-they-wouldn’t-know-or-care fashion anyway. If I disable right-click, they’ll use Print Screen. I’ll likely watermark the proofs on whatever site I have host them, but I will give away 900×600’s unmarked. I’d use a quality low enough that cropping or up-scaling wouldn’t be worth it, but they’d render fine on Facebook. This shot was, at one point, for four separate Facebook profile pictures:

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA@ f/4, ISO 200, 1/200s

And in full resolution it could be cropped accordingly and provide high quality single person portraits.

But with the long edge at 900 pixels and at 60% quality, there is more than a slight difference.

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It is fine for Facebook, though

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This also leads in nicely to my next concept…

Business Concept #3: Different prices for post-processed full resolution shots/prints.

I’d give away uncropped, unedited 900×600 shots. I’d charge one price for uncropped, unedited 6000×4000 shots. Basically the JPEG straight off the body in RAW+JPEG mode. I’d charge up to a premium for post-processing above basics. I’ll get the white balance and exposure close. If you want whitened teeth or no gray hair, pimples, zits, or wrinkles, it will cost you more. If you want me to make your weird Uncle Jim disappear, it will cost you more. I will do some diligence as I have a couple of children myself, but if you forget to wipe your child’s chin, I’ll fix it for a small price.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/4, ISO 200, 1/200s

If you want selective coloring, or sepia tones, it will cost more. If you like the shot how it is, it won’t cost you any more than the base price. What is the base price? I haven’t figured it out yet. I would do the research and be consistent with the average professional.

Business Concept #4: Purchases open to family and friends.

I would use a site like SmugMug and make purchasing be open to family and friends. If a couple couldn’t afford prints or other printed artifacts, I would allow others to purchase it for them. This would also lead into a good model for family and senior photos, as well as events. Two parents who are teachers of a high school senior may not be able to afford good senior photos, so I provide the basics at a low cost and anything above and beyond that, people like grandparents and/or friends could chip in. This way, I still make a little money on the print, but the family gets good quality at a lower price.

I have some other ideas but realistically, I am not sure how this model would pan out. My goal would be not to undercut someone who does this for a living, but to provide a service to those who wouldn’t normally purchase a service.

The 70-300G Successor… and the Power of Photo!

I sold my 70-300 G last week and I was looking at a couple of options for the successor; specifically the Sony or Minolta 135mm f/2.8 [T4.5] STF lens or the Minolta 200mm f/2.8 APO lens, ideally the High Speed version.

The 135 STF came in to play once I realized with the A99 and focus peaking I could handle the fact it was manual focus. It screams to my shooting style and it would appease my need to constantly tinker.

The 200mm f/2.8 is a lens I have desired for a while as it would complement my 85mm lens well and it is famous for delivering wonderful color. It also would return a bit more of the length lost in selling the 70-300G.

I also considered the Sony 70-400G, 70-200 f/2.8 G, and Minolta 300 f/2.8 0r f/4 High Speed APO among others, yet the 135 STF and the 200 f/2.8 have been at the top of my list for a while. Both are found on the used market for anywhere between $900-1200 US and the Sony version of the 135 STF is in the $1300-$1400 range new. The Minolta 200 f/2.8 APO and High Speed APO is long discontinued, as the line was introduced in 1986 and the high speed versions added in 1989.

I have selected a successor and the purchase has been made, in part with proceeds from the 70-300G. The successor? I will post some of the first shots and you will find out in the future….

In other news, a few weeks ago I posted about my perceived process of turning pro, of turning my hobby into a side-business. I found something out regarding one of the photos I would use if I were building a portfolio.

This is the original copy as posted before:

SLT-A77V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA@ f/2.2, ISO 800, 1/80s

Here is an excerpt of an e-mail I received from a work teammate of mine after he sent a notice to our team regarding his impending relocation:

I would like to thank you for the amazing photography! You can truly capture a lot in a photo!

Sending out my relocation announcement made me think… the picture that you took of me at the first 2012 offsite: that was responsible for me meeting the love of my life. Long story short: she saw that picture that you took and that is what  led to us connecting through a remote study course. She tells me many times about how amazing the photo is and how it spoke volume. You really captured so much about me.

Now, I won’t deserve the credit for anything other than nailing my focus and stealing a candid shot, I will say it is one of my top 10-15 shots ever. I wouldn’t change a thing, other than the color balance… Looking back at it, I really framed the shot well and the aperture was open enough to get the right blur in the background but retain enough detail.

Incidentally, I had edited the shot since posting about it in late October, with the newly-found A77 color profiles.

Here is the result:

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I think the color profile, paired with a white balance adjustment, did well. However, I wouldn’t go back and time and post the shot differently as I don’t want to tempt fate! I will say, I met my wife under somewhat similar circumstances so I wonder if forces greater than those ever imagined to be contained in a photo are involved.

Briefly Upcoming!

I posted a photo of one of my cats on 500px.com and it made it to “Upcoming” on Sunday. It has since calmed down, but I am flattered it made it to “Upcoming”

Hope everyone is having a good holiday, and those who aren’t on holiday, I hope their day is happily eventful or happily uneventful depending on your current needs.

The Irony

I shipped my 70-300G lens yesterday, actually re-shipped it as I guess the automated system grossly underestimated the postage and the post office returned the package as postage was due.

Today I had this eagle in my back yard and only 85mm of lens to capture it.

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This is 455×417. I didn’t really have time to make any adjustments, so I had SteadyShot off from the color calibrations I was doing and I was at ISO 100 and I wished I was at 400 as I missed a shot of the eagle flying away with its meal, which you can barely see in its left claw. I will say, I am happy to have gotten what I got.

In other news, the DXOMark results for the A99 posted today. I’d have to say, I wonder about the “Sports (low-light ISO)” score and how their testing is performed. Looking at their FAQ, they use a 120mm + lens, I wonder which one they used and their subject matter as the score was only slightly higher than the A900 but in my experience there is a marked improvement in the A99 over the A900. The sensor scored 89, ten full points above the A900, eleven above the A77, and it is their fifth highest score ever, with the Nikon lineup of D800 and D800E, D600 ahead of a Phase One medium format body. It is tied with the Nikon D4 and blows the Canon 1DX and 5D3 out of the water. The Canon bodies were also higher in the “Sports (low-light ISO)” category but suffered in the portrait and dynamic range testing. Interesting. I’d like to see how they get the results they get. Frankly, I like the eye test better myself. DPreview seems to have a good thing going with their comparison widget. All I know is I am happy with the A99.

I’ve got your low light ISO, RIGHT HERE! Shot at 210mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 3200:

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And a little closer:

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All it needs is a little luminance. But for being in the 23rd row at the opposite end of the theatre, I am pretty happy with the detail. I probably could have used a little faster shutter speed to stop the fan a little better, but it gets the point across. I can see thread detail from that far away.

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I know I am a slacker: Random News

Happy Holidays everyone! And for those who culturally or religiously do not celebrate holidays this time of year, I hope your Winter in the Northern Hemisphere or Summer in the Southern Hemisphere is treating you kindly. I am relatively ignorant when it comes to the knowledge of all possible cultures or religions, but I am trying, which counts for something, right? The internet is a wondrous thing, in the few months I’ve been doing this, this site has seen visitors from all over the world, from all seven continents, and from many different places. I hope to some day visit and experience many of those places and educate myself about the people and culture and hopefully photograph the vast experience. I have not seen as much of this Earth as I wish I could, but I have been surprised and enlightened every time I have visited a place foreign to me.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/1.4 ISO 1600, 1/30s

Farewell 70-300G!

I sold my 70-300 G lens yesterday after only 2 months or so of ownership. The reason? I’m trying to reign in my net camera spending a bit as I am feeling the pain with three kids during the holidays. I’ll likely be selling the A900 or the A77 soon as well.

That’s not to say I don’t have plans for a viable replacement! I looking at the Sony or Minolta 135mm f/2.8 [T4.5] STF lens or the Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO lens as candidates. Both sit in the $1000-1300 range for an Excellent+ or New copy. Yes, more money than the 70-300G, but after I sell one of the two of my backup bodies, I’ll likely still be ahead compared to the day before yesterday.

Now I am back down to two main lenses, my bread and butter 85mm f/1.4 ZA and the 24mm f/2 SSM ZA. I have penciled in the upcoming 50mm f/1.4 SSM ZA as a lens I will purchase when I have the money, but I am in a tight spot when it comes to length. Hopefully I won’t need it anytime soon!

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SLT-A99V, 70-300mm SSM G @ 300mm + f/5.6, ISO 320, 1/320s

Officially Licensed

I posted a while back about what it takes to go pro. I guess I took one of the steps in obtaining a North Carolina Privilege License, which I received earlier this week. In order to sell photos in North Carolina, you need a license. I imagine this is a way for the Department of Revenue to track people for tax purposes. I am fine with that. I mainly got the license because I have people who are willing to give me money for some of the photos I have taken. I have to also obtain a sales tax license, and eventually I may have to organize an LLC if I want to go any further. More than anything else, I don’t want to be a lawbreaker. I have a post I have been writing, which is effectively the second part of the post listed above regarding potential business models I would use and my potential target customer. I just need to put a little polish on it.

Light Box Profiles

In order to get true-to-me Adobe Lightroom profiles, I created a light box out of an old cardboard box and some white Bristol board. I plan on rigging my tripod and a t-square with a level to get consistent results in capturing the MacBeth colorchecker in building the calibration profiles. Once I do this, I also plan on doing another A99-A900-A77 comparison, with the Lightroom calibration, which will be a more true-to-life test for the bodies. The T-square is adjustable so I can use the same prime lens and adjust the distance for the subject to account for the APS-C crop value in the A77. All I need is a kid-free, chore-free night to do all of this. I plan on sharing the Lightroom profiles somehow.

I leave you with a shot of Grace in a bush in my back yard.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/2.2, ISO 200, 1/160s