7.24.2014

A Strictly Hypothetical Question: Which Full Frame Digital Camera (Under $2000) Is the One You'd Buy Right Now?


There you are, sitting around with a stack of APS-C cameras and a bigger stack of micro four-thirds cameras with glorious, jewel-like lenses, and in the back of your mind, no matter how logical you are and no matter how many times you've proven to yourself that your selection of cameras does exactly what you want it to do, you start to think you just might really need a full frame camera. You know, mostly for those times when you'd really like that depth of field to be......tiny. For those portraits like the one above that was done with some sort of esoteric, ultra fast 85mm lens on some splendid, old 35mm film camera.  Maybe you were digging through boxes of prints and some random image just grabbed you by the short hairs and made you uber nostalgic for a look you thought you'd have gotten over by now.

We'll leave out whatever personal or psychological reasons might be driving you to even consider getting back into that full frame....situation and we'll consider the whole exercise to be entirely hypothetical, Okay? This isn't (necessarily) an admission that as soon as I finish typing that one of us might be jumping up, grabbing the credit card and the car keys and heading out to acquire one of the cameras under discussion.  Rather it's intended as a high minded discussion of the various attributes of three different cameras that might appeal to someone who might be considering adding a bit to the kit. 

Just above I mentioned that I was thinking of three different cameras. That's because, to my knowledge, there are just three that can be purchased brand new for under $2,000 each. The candidates I want to discuss are: The Sony A7, The Nikon D610 and the Canon 6D. All three feature full frame, 35mm area, sensors but all three of them are different enough so that a person with no allegiance and no ties to any particular brand might have a hard time choosing. 

When I look at them this is what I see:

The Sony A7 is the odd man out. This is because the camera is designed as a compact, mirror less design and uses contrast detection auto focus. The pros of the camera are (because of its shallower dimension between lens flange and sensor plane) its ability to use just about any full frame lens from any system and from just about any decade. At one point I fantasied about buying the camera along with a Nikon 20mm, a 55 Micro Nikkor lens and the much adored (but probably over romanticized) 105mm 2.5 ais lens and having a wild system that spanned the ages. And probably at the lowest cost of the three system choices. 

The sensor in the A7 most probably shares its DNA with the sensor in the Nikon D610 and both of those sensors are highly rated. The 24 megapixel sensors have AA filters in front of them so I suspect that the performance of both is much like the overall performance of the Sony a99 camera with each company changing the secret sauce of file processing to hit the tastes of their respective markets. I'm sure each sensor resolves plenty of detail and does so even at high ISOs. But I think the reason most cognoscenti are looking at full frame isn't necessarily for performance as much as it is the look of the lenses at particular angles of view. The selling point of any larger sensor camera (at least to me) is

7.23.2014

Taking time off even from time off.

From a shoot on Monday. The GH4 hardwired to a big strobe box.

I have what I suspect is a nasty habit and I'm further convinced that most of the people I know have it too. It's the need to be constantly busy even when there's no need to be constantly busy. I've worked a bit in June and July and ample cash is flowing through the business. My body and my spirit want to take time to sit and contemplate and enjoy just being on the couch in the sun drenched living room, drifting in and out of sleep and tickling the Studio Dog's tummy with my bare toes. I don't even want to pick up the novel I've been trying to read through and "get some reading done." In fact, I don't really want to participate in anything that requires me to think about a process that ends with "done."

But my usual way of being is to keep my plate full of commitments. If I'm not writing I'm marketing. If I'm not marketing I'm shooting and when I'm finished shooting for clients my frenetic mind wants me to keep on moving like a perpetual motion machine and so when free time comes along I let my linear brain boss me around and send me out into the world with a camera and a lens and an agenda that's loosely predicated on "experimenting with new photography". Getting some practice in. Grabbing some images that I can use on the blog. But sometimes the forced photo leisure just flies apart and becomes a forced march through a landscape denuded of interest by my own lack of engagement. 

I think that certain strata of our culture feel useless if not wearing the yoke and plowing the fields of commerce. And yet, our underlying ideal; at least the one we give lip service to, is that one day our work in the vineyards of commerce will produce the wine of leisure and we'll enjoy it. 

But will we (collectively) ever know when to let go? I think it's all tied to worry. I'm sure I worry, on some level, that if I am not constantly available to my clients they'll find a path of less resistance and come across someone who can be available 120% of the time. I am certain on some level just below the surface of rational thought that if I buy something like an expensive lens or a computer all work will cease and all cash will stop flowing in some balancing action of nature that's meant to punish my hubris in buying these things in the first place. 

I worry that if I don't write a blog a day that my readership will slowly fall off and the community I've worked to build will relocate to a livelier location on the web. Someplace where they can be guaranteed constant action and adventure. I'll lose whatever audience I've earned and become isolated and bounded by physical geography. 

The thought has crossed my mind that if I don't learn how to disengage at times when it's appropriate I may never be able to enjoy doing nothing. I'll be unable to sit quietly and meditate and push out all the restless activity of my mind in a quiet quest to find some balance and harmony. 

In so many ways photography becomes an analogy for my life. When the jobs are flowing I see myself as successful. When the jobs stop I have failed. When I buy new gear I am bolstered and a bit more invincible. When I don't buy new gear and don't "keep up" I feel like I am diminished and vulnerable. When clients call I feel appreciated and valued. When the phone doesn't ring and the e-mail is empty I feel abandoned and sidelined. 

This can't be a good way to look at life. There have to be moments of recharge and rest. It's good to step away and come back with new energy. I took a step forward today. After lunch I put away all the cameras and turned of the studio phone and the cell phone. I put the computer to sleep. I took a nap. I hung out with no agenda on the couch. I made it through the afternoon without doing one traditionally "constructive" or "productive" activity. Nothing that moves anyone's ball forward and nothing that will "move needles" or "create new synergies."  The postman came by late in the day with various notices, letters and bills. One was a bill for the new computer. I went out into the studio, wrote a check and then left and locked the door. I headed back to the couch where I am planning to do something I so rarely do......I am going to "waste time" and watch something mindless on TV. 

Being busy and productive can be highly overrated. 

The big strobe box hardwired to a Panasonic GH4.

First actual image with the Panasonic/Leica Nocticron.


It was a warm and muggy afternoon. I'd spent most of the day working on accounting and then choosing images for a hardback book I'd promised to make for a client. Frank called to see if I wanted to take a break from the drudgery of work and have a cup of coffee and a nice conversation. Who could say no to that? We agreed to meet at my neighborhood Starbucks. Just before the appointed time I stood up from the desk, grabbed an Olympus OMD EM-5 with a Panasonic/Leica 25mm lens on the front and hustled out to the VSL ultra-performance Honda CR-V.

Since it's a stock car I had to use my imagination to hear the throaty growl of the tuned exhaust. I also had to imagine that I was shifting at the perfect moment in the power curve since, of course, the car has automatic transmission. I also imagined the smoke coming off the tires as I accelerated and  pulled out onto Bee Caves Rd. because I was actually following an older person from the neighborhood who was pushing their Volvo wagon right up to around 15 miles per hour....

I arrived at the agreed time, uncharacteristically I ordered a coffee frappucino, and then joined Frank at a table. I placed my camera over to the side and Frank reached into his camera bag and pulled out the 42.5 mm, f 1:1.2 Nocticron lens. It's a beast. It's dense because it is built with a certain amount of rare metal called, unobtainium. It appears to be completely constructed from metal and glass and, on the camera, it feels like the lenses I used to own for the Leica R system. How does that feel? It feels like you are using the best lenses made anywhere for any money.

Frank allowed me to put the lens on an Olympus OMD EM-5 and play with it to my heart's content. I turned 30 degrees to one side and snapped the image above. While it may not come across on the web (especially if you are reading this on your phone...) the image is crisply sharp and the out of focus areas are subdued and calm.

Frank offered to let me borrow the lens for a week or so for an extended evaluation but I'm afraid I will have to decline. Just having it in my hands created such desire that I know a week of use will make any resistance to buying it as futile as resisting being assimilated by the Borg.

If you are using the Olympus or Panasonic systems and you have buckets of cash sitting around on the floor which you don't have pressing need for you might consider evaluating this lens. It's an ultra fast (an eminently usable wide open) 85mm equivalent, has a real aperture ring (operating on the Panasonic cameras only) and has Panasonic's image stabilization built in. The image quality wide open is, to my eyes, stunningly good.

I am not putting a link to the lens from a camera store because I would feel too guilty pushing you over the edge. If you don't have the budget to spring for one right now and you are weak when it comes to luscious gear then do not handle this lens. If you do, and you are partial to short telephoto lenses, the probability that you will be drawn into its gravitational field is high. You've been warned.




A computer progress report.


The 27 inch iMac arrived on schedule last Thurs. All programs migrated successfully from previous machine with the exception of Adobe Creative Cloud Desktop Application. This is the little program that serves as the gate keeper for updating and loading new software. It's also a key piece of Adobe's security for managing authorized and unauthorized users. When we finally got everything loaded up there was a little red triangle on the tool bar icon that caught my eye.

I was able to open and use all my Adobe software but I figured I needed to take care of this. I spent over an hour with a very impatient support person from Adobe trying to figure out why the program wouldn't load correctly. We finally escalated and the problem was resolved by going through the hard drive and removing every single piece of Adobe software, running Adobe Installer Cleaner, booting up in safe mode, running disk permissions, re-booting, and then re-installing all of the Adobe software. I am happy to report that everything is up and running well.

The machine is much faster than the one it replaces. The screen is four inches bigger and has not seen the ravages of time that my old, faithful cinema screen survived. The new screen is much sharper and is much easier to calibrate. I timed the two computers running a folder of DXO raw file conversions and the new machine is at least twice as fast. I am also now able to open and work on 4K files without hesitation in Final Cut Pro X. This is a nice thing.

The one issue I have with the new computer and the new, jumbo sized screen is that watching movies from Netflix has become so much more fun that I may quit working and just catch up on all the movies I have missed.

Unlike cameras, now that I've done the replacement and gotten everything squared away, all desire for anything computer appliance-y has faded back into its usual, very low level stasis.  To all those who wrote to tell me that I could have gotten the same performance for about $50 if I had built my own windows based machine I can only say that, while I may be very eccentric, I am happy to pay the extra $1750 for the beautiful design. After all, if history is a guide, I'll be looking at it every day for the next four or five years....

7.22.2014

Loving older lenses and enjoying the heck out of using them.

55mm Micro Nikkor lens. On two adapters.

I am uncomfortable calling older lenses "legacy lenses." I don't really know what that means but the common usage in photography circles is meant to convey that these are lenses left over from something---usually the film days. They are being re-purposed on cameras for which they were not originally designed. However uncomfortable I am with the nomenclature I am comfortable with the practice of using older lenses on newer cameras. That's one of the (fulfilled) promises of the new wave of mirror less cameras. The lens flange to sensor plane distance is so much shorter than the distance on cameras with mirrors that just about any lens can be easily adapted while maintaining infinity focus. 

As a portrait photographer there are a couple of focal lengths that I find comfortable and "just right." I like the angle of view that matches an 85mm lens on a 24 by 36 mm camera but sometimes I find it too short. That's why I'm hesitating in buying the Nocticron with its 42.5 mm focal length. It's right at the edge of almost too wide for me. I bought the Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens and I think it has very good performance but when I shoot on the 4:3 format I find myself wishing the lens gave me just a slightly narrower angle of view.  But by the time I get to 60 mm's, and especially 75mm, I feel like I'm getting a lens that's just a bit too long. Goldilocks and the Three Bears strikes again. 

So I've been playing around with something in the 50mm to 55mm focal length range. I did a job a while back in which I shot all the portraits with an older, manual 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens and it was pretty good. A totally different feel that the modern lenses. The colors felt heavier. The images were technically sharp but something was off. 

Last weekend I was out and around and I found a 55mm Micro Nikkor (f2.8) lens, used, at Precision Camera. I remember that lens well because back in the film only days we got a lot of good use out of it. I remembered it as being very sharp. And one of the ideas in choosing lenses for smaller formats is that they need to be both sharp and of high resolution in order to fill the hunger of those little pixels.

I had always remembered the 55mm as being very sharp, even wide open and I was intrigued by the focal length. The price was modest (under $200) and I already had an assortment of adapters back at the studio to test it with. If it passed I might invest in a dedicated Nikon lens to M4:3 adapter just to cut down on the number of parallel surfaces in the mount. 

I am happy to say that the lens does well on the body. I've been using it wide open on a few portraits and by f4 it's pretty amazing (but really, what good, modern lens isn't amazing when it's shot two stops down?). It has a different color rendering and a different tonal character than my more current lenses but I've started thinking that the lens character is something we often confuse with the difference between digital and film---wrongly. It may be that a good part of what makes images from film cameras look different from digital cameras is the way the two different sets of lenses are designed. 

A big problem in early digital imaging is that many of the lenses designed in the film days didn't have the right coatings on the rear element as it faced the sensor. This allowed the light coming through the lens to be bounced off the somewhat reflective sensor and return to the back element as flare or as a hot spot. But there may be other more subtle effects to different lens design that all add up to a different look. Most sensors now are coated with their own anti-reflection coatings and some of the initial problems have vanished. Some lenses have such a weak rear element coating that they still make trouble for sensors when strong light sources are near enough to the lens axis to have light rays touch the front elements. It's still a matter of trial and error. 

Even in digital designs there are differences between manufacturers. It's a known problem to use the Panasonic 7-14mm lens with some Olympus bodies, including the OMDs. The encroachment of any strong light can cause hot spots in the images. This doesn't happen with the Panasonic bodies. I'm sure then coatings tell the story but, of course, all the information is proprietary to each maker so we'll probably never know exactly what the disconnection is. 

So far the Micro Nikkor exceeds my expectations but be warned that I haven't walked around pointing it at the sun (yet). For studio work with soft and gracious lighting it provides exactly the focal length I was looking for along with a little "bite." Next up? Probably my fourth or fifth go around with a 105mm f2.5 Nikkor. They are plentiful and I remember every one I owned as being really nice. Too long for the m4:3 (at least the way I shoot them) but wonderful on a full frame Nikon body---should one catch my eye.