Gear Geek Field Report: Sony Cameras at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe

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Gear Geek Field Report: Sony Cameras at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe

A collision of fortuitous events made for the perfect spring escape to Lake Tahoe last March: snow, lots of sun, and a limitless supply of SD cards—along with demo Sony digital cameras ready to be put through their paces.

First, the snow.

The Tahoe region, which straddles the California/Nevada border anchored by its eponymous 191-square-mile lake, received a massive amount of snow during the 2016-17 ski season, reversing what had threatened to become a troubling trend of nominal snowfall in the previous years. It was an epic winter season—resorts had to close because they couldn’t keep up with the volume of the falling show. And the proliferation of all that white stuff meant that the skiing and snowboarding season would stretch comfortably into the warmer months, when the CA tradition of diving into the swimming pool at the summit of Squaw Valley Resort and then skiing down in your bikini or board shorts is alive and well and just as much ridiculous, hedonistic fun as it sounds.

Granted, I was there about a month before that fabled event, part of a cadre of journalists, photographers, and Instagram “influencers” invited to spend a few days in the region by Sony and Squaw Valley.

Next, the sun.

Come late March, the days stretched wide and glorious compared to the four o’clock shadows typical to winter, which made it easy to get in a full day of activities and still head to one of the many viewpoints overlooking the lake to shoot the setting sun. The water is too frigid to swim (save for one intrepid colleague, who risked hypothermia for a hero-shot plunge into the drink for a few videographers). But standing on the shores of the lake even during the brisk pre-dawn sunrise, you can feel the approach of summer and the promise of Tahoe’s most tantalizing features: the ability to ski a half-day, and mountain bike or stand-up paddleboard the latter half, followed by a sunset craft brew on some balcony that’s so postcard-perfect you’d want to puke if it wasn’t just so right.

DSC00095.jpg Photo by Nathan Borchelt

As with most spring seasons, the weather wasn’t always perfect. A bluebird day of snowshoeing in short sleeves was followed by wintery mix of rain, snow, and sleet on the slopes, only to be bested by another bluebird day with spring snow the size and consistency of frozen corn that very nearly caused me to “accidentally” miss my ride to the airport. But, as if by design, the skies were always calm and full of clouds each sun rise and sun set. Well executed, Sony.

And the cameras.

In the realm of professional photography, Sony’s digital cameras have been crushing it. Their line of all-digital non-mirror cameras deliver the kind of images that were formerly the sole domain of high-end DSLRs (single-lens reflex digital cameras that use an internal a mirror to transfer the light to image sensor or viewfinder). The Sony range delivers all the functionality you’d find on a DSLR, including huge megapixel images, 4K video, slow- and fast-motion shooting options, the ability to set the shutter speed and aperture, and—if you opt for a stand-along camera body—the ability to swap out lenses to fit the scenario. But these cameras are a fraction of the weight and size of your traditional DSLR, a huge benefit for action and travel photography, and largely why pros like Chris Burkhard uses them. While skiing on the mountain, we even came across Tim Peare, another pro who was at Squaw that day shooting pro athletes for von Zipper, a boutique goggle company, who also shoots with an arsenal of Sony cameras and lenses.

DSC00111.jpg Photo by Nathan Borchelt

Over the course of 72+ hours we got to play with two Sony camera models, the point-and-shoot DSC-RX100V and the Sony a6500 and two lenses—a 16-70mm zoom and a 70-200mm monster—in a variety of conditions and activities: sunrise and sunset photo shoots, night outings, hanging out in the Cali town of Truckee, snowshoeing under bluebird skis, skiing and riding on spring corn, and shooting pro snowboarders in one of Squaw Valley’s half pipes during a steady, cold drizzle that left us largely skiing to the base on instinct the visibility was so poor.

As someone who’s shot almost exclusively with Nikon cameras, I was shocked at how easy it was to get used to the Sony interface—shuffling through the pre-sets were easy, and hopping between modes like aperture- or shutter-priority were equally intuitive. After about maybe a ten-minute learning curve, I had the basics dialed, and spent most of the rest of the trip playing with the other features, like the 4K video and a slow-mo video feature that includes a setting that actually processes the image after you fire the shutter, which means you can follow the action and then capture the exact moment of drama right after it unfolds by tapping on the shutter, when it process what just transpired. Good bye to the endless frustrations of shooting and shooting and shooting—and you caught that one serendipitous stretch of video.

Below is a deeper dive into the two cameras, and a profile of a Dakine camera bag that proved essential throughout the adventure.

The DSC-RX100V, $1,000

The DSC-RX100V.jpg Photo courtesy of Sony

Perfect for: Active Travelers who know the basics of photography, or are anxious to learn. Or for shooting high-quality images with a streamlined package.

This compact camera is a serious workhorse. It shoots at 20.1 megapixels, boasting a one-inch sensor with 0.05-second continuous autofocus and the ability to shoot at 4K moving photos at 24 frames per second, as well as a super slow-mo at 960 frames per second. The latter feature worked particularly well with action shots and moody atmospherics like watching the sun cut through the snow-covered trees while driving along the lakeshore.

The controls are remarkably intuitive, and if this becomes your go-to, you can add some custom features to shortcut to your preferred settings. I also appreciated how you could toggle between two saved settings easily (making it easy to jump from a shadow-filled restaurant to a sun-bleached street and back without a lot of fiddling). The pop-up viewfinder tilts 180 degrees to allow for less contortion for low- or high-angle shots (or glare removal), and the pop-up electronic eye viewer makes taking shots more intimate, and a pure godsend when shooting into the sun or dim light. The 24-77mm Zeiss zoom lens worked fluidly and without distortion, and while I saw a bit of pixilation when shooting at f22 with the sun blasting the sensor to create a flare effect, image quality was largely solid.

Better still, the camera’s compatible with Sony’s suite of apps, which include features like time elapse and Motion Shot, which sequences super-imposed images when in burst mode (think multiple images of a skateboarder as they pull off a trick). It’s also WiFi-enabled to for one-touch remote sharing.

The Sony a6500, $1,400 (body only)

a6500.jpeg Photo courtesy of Sony

Perfect for: DSLR loyalists who appreciate the versatility of interchangeable lenses and won’t give up the control or image quality afforded by those high-end cameras, but are tired of the added weight and bulk that comes with them.

This workhorse does pretty much everything that the DSC-RX100V does—and a whole lot more. You get the WiFi connectivity, all the in-camera apps, and the same control UI. Beyond that it shoots stills at 24.4 megapixels—up to 306 continuous shots as well as 4K videos, with a 5x slow-mo and 60x quick-motion video and five-axel optical image stabilization to make the shots crazy-fluid, even when shooting with a heavy lens like full-frame 70-200mm G Lens ($1,500). The camera also employs a variety of touchscreen experiences with its tiltable LED screen, similar to the iPhone interface, to let you target the focal point, or shift the focal point while looking through the digital viewfinder. As for lenses, the Vario-Tessar T* E16-70mm ($1,000) should work in most situations, with a constant f4 max aperture to ramp performance throughout the smooth-operating zoom range, a linear motor drive, and a hyper-responsive auto-focus.

Dakine Sync Photo Pack (15L), $130

Dakine Sync Photo Pack.jpg Photo courtesy of Dakine

The bulk of the lower part of the pack is dedicated to a configurable padded section that proved large enough to handle all the lenses and cameras we used throughout the long weekend, including the massive 70-200mm zoom, as well as space for SD cards in the zippered outer compartment. Twin side pockets can accommodate additional lenses or tripods; the side clip helps anchor larger tripods in place. The upper pocket is small by comparison, but provided enough room for food, sunglasses, a water bottle, and an extra layer or two. People who carry big loads might consider upgrading to the 33-liter version ($220), but for day-trippers it’s a solid choice, with a sternum strap to help distribute the weight evenly across both shoulders.

Main image: photo by of Nathan Borchelt; lead image: photo courtesy of Sony

Nathan Borchelt is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).

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