Tempest. Kirk's low light test of his 5D2.

So.  Based on reviews and DXO tests and anecdotal evidence I had a reasonable expectation that the Canon5D2 would perform acceptably at 3200 ISO but you never really know until you fire up the camera and go shoot in your own style.  3200 ISO can look great if all you shoot is high key stuff with lots of sparkle and snap.  But I figure I'd put it to my typical worst case scenario and go shoot some theater with it.

I got a call from Ann over at the Austin Shakespeare Theater asking me to shoot the preview show of The Tempest.   I said, "sure" and packed a small bag.  Here's what I took:  One 5D2 body, one 70-200mm f4 L (not the IS) and my newly acquired Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE lens.  I had many questions:  Would the f4 zoom be too slow?  Would I regret not getting the IS version?  Could I still manual focus the Zeiss even though I had not yet gotten the Eg-S screen?

To answer each question in turn:  No,  the f4 zoom was just right.  The light levels at 3200 gave me a comfortable 1/180 or 1/250 to play with and the benefit (based on painful years of buying f2.8 versions of these lenses from Nikon, Canon, and Leica ) was that the light weight and small size was very manageable for a two hour long shoot.  That little sucker is pretty sharp right at f4 and it handles side light and flare very well.  On to question #2.  I am not the steadiest handholder the world has ever seen and I like my lenses with the IS but in this case I came equipped with surprisingly good, after market IS (image stabilization).  It was at least as good as the Canon version.  Maybe better, because it worked with every single lens in the bag!!!  It's called a monopod.  I've pooh poohed them before but I decided to grab one of the three that sit in the umbrella bucket next to the door and give it all another shot.  You know what?  They work well.  And they work best with lenses that have tripod collars......like my Canon 70-200 f4.  I was able to shoot at least three stops slower than I could handhold.

My favorite monopod is a Leitz  Tiltall monopod that Belinda gave me as a birthday present back in 1980.  It's a very lightweight, all aluminum stick with knurled leg locks.  That makes it slower to set up and adjust but it's so minimal and black and tactical looking.  I ended up taking a Bogen/Manfrotto model which has (unfortunately) a bright metal finish.  It uses flip locks for the leg extensions so it's quicker.  I used a quick release on the top.  It's nice enough.  It's just not as cool as the Leitz Tiltall version.
Finally, there's the question of whether or not I'd be able to focus the manual focus, Zeiss 50mm 1.4 lens on the Canon 5D2 which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, set up to make manual focusing easy. Actually, it came back to me pretty quickly.  I don't this you can spend years peering down into a  dark Hasselblad screen trying to focus a slow 50mm wide angle without retaining some chops.  Ditto with the decade or so I spent under the dark cloth of the 4x5 view camera, gazing at the Stygian screen, rendered at f16 trying to find pinpoint focus.  When you've focused in hell, focusing in the modern world doesn't seem as tough......
I find that truisms in photography die hard.  When most people think of taking photographs of live theater they immediately engage a part of the photographic brain, stoked by the lore from yesteryear, that they must use the fastest lenses available.  They rush to find the 85mm 1.4's and 1.2's.  The 50mm 1.2's and 1.0's and the long fast glass as well.  I was just as guilty because I always remembered the days when we shot with ISO 400 films and every photon gathered was precious.  But it's all changed.  And I'm happy.  Fast lenses aren't always good lenses.  At least, they are never as good wide open as a cheaper, smaller, lighter lens can be at f2.8, f4 or f5.6.  If you've got one of the new generation of cameras that does really decent ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 like the Canon 5 or the Nikon D3 you can rid your lore books of much old treasure.

I seem to be getting better files because the lenses can be better corrected if they aren't speed demons.  Several lens specialists, and especially Erwin Puts, haven't written volumes about how many times harder it is to design and produce faster lenses when compared to tamer designs.  The new Canon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom cracks the credit card at nearly $2500 while the older f4 version is a very affordable $650.  What do you give up?  A pound or two in weight and one stop.  Locked on a tripod and compared side by side it would be an imperceptible difference in quality between the two at every aperture.  And I'd be willing to bet that the little Canon is a bit sharper at f4 than it's new big brother is at f2.8.

The second reason for speed back in the old days was all about focusing accuracy and finder brightness. Focusing was real work and took real skill.  People practiced focusing in their downtime. Now that's so much less important because it's the rare photographer who flips the switch on the camera body or the lens barrel and goes into the manual focusing mode.

Yesterday I upgraded the Canon 5D2 screen to the Eg-S screen and there's a little bit of difference.  Mostly it's all down to practice and acclimation.
There's not a lot to say about the ISO performance of the 5d that hasn't be said elsewhere.  It's a great camera for low light shooting and I'm very pleased with the files.  The nice thing for  me is that, even with the high speed noise reduction set to standard, there is a lot of detail preserved in the files.  It really does look nice.  Next time I'll be brave and try the 6400 setting.

I didn't have time to do these files on Thurs. because we were engaged in a corporate shoot.  We shot from 8 to 11 am which is what? Three hours.  But I've been editing the 1300+ files, doing global color corrections, processing to smaller jpegs and uploading to Smugmug for most of this day.  Amazing how much back end work there is for a typical photo assignment and how little that part gets talked about.

On Sunday I start another two day project so I want to make sure I process as I go.  Nothing worse than getting behind when there's money to be made.

Two more photos and then I'm off to D.J. Stout's book signing at the Steve Clark Gallery.  Should be fun.


Dave Jenkins said...

The Canon 70-200 f4L Lens is a wonderful lens and will probably be the last one I own unless I drop it or something. I say this, having owned at one time or another five of the eight lenses Canon made for the EOS system in the 70-210 range

I started with the 70-210 f4 non-L, but it was never sharp enough at the long end, although very good around 135mm. Next was the 80-200 f2.8L “Magic Drainpipe.” I loved that lens, but the auto-focus died and it was so old Canon had quit repairing them. I replaced it with the 70-200 f2.8L-IS, but absolutely hated the weight, and didn’t feel the IS was all that much help. So I swapped it for a 70-200 f2.8L non-IS and some cash, but still hated the weight and bulk. Finally, I got the 70-200 f4L. I was home.

The three lenses in this range that I’ve never owned and have no plans to own are the now-obsolete 70-210 f3.5-f4.5, the 70-200 f4L-IS, and the 70-200 f2.8L-IS II.

My camera is a 5D, not a 5DII, but I have absolutely no hesitancy about shooting at ISO 3200. With proper exposure, it will make a 16x20 print that looks as if it might have been shot on a very good 400-speed 35mm film. (I don’t, however, usually go beyond ISO 800 for my architectural work.)

Bold Photography said...

That review echoes my experiences so far with the 5DII -- and I still hesitate to go as high as 3200... I'm so used to shooting at 100 that 3200 seems so foreign to me. That said, these high ISOs are proving to be useful in my macro shooting where I want *some* background to appear - I don't want every macro to have a blacked out background from the flash!

In some cases, I can even hand hold without the use of flash... quite remarkable, really.

As for the 70-200/4 non IS - I think that's the best bargain in Canon's arsenal!

Jess said...

Looking at the 5D MkII files makes you realize that the extra $1000 you spent on good 2.8 glass could have been avoided by spending that money on a body that allows you to shoot at f4 in low light. When you are talking multiple lenses, that makes sense quickly in cost-effectiveness. Your ISO3200 shots with the 5DII are very similar to ISO 1600 shots with my 50D: good show!

zijon said...

Nice bunch of useful information and impressions. Thanks, Kirk! However, looking at the photos makes me remind your quite fresh experience in theatre photography. Namely,



What is different, at least to my eye, is colours, sharpness and that resemblance of film grain Dave had mentioned above, and, of course, all that reasoning behind. :)


Anonymous said...

It's not the camera. It's the photographer.


Wolfgang Lonien said...

Interesting. That camera & lens combo seems to be on par - for my eyes at least - to the E30 and 35-100mm combo at f2 and ISO1600. Sure there are differences in color rendition, resolution, and maybe also in dynamic range (referring to those other two articles of yours which Zilvinas mentioned), but I'd be hard pressed to judge which ones are better. So I'm with Stephen's comment as well...

Also did my first attempts in stage shooting lately, and for that I also used old school thinking, and brought and used the fastest I have so far, which is an OM Zuiko 1.8/50mm. Yes it was a bit hard to get sharp shots with the ISO set to a maximum of 400, but still I got some:

Tumultus Simplex

E-520 50mm 1.8 1/50s ISO400; more photos there in case you're interested.

Thanks, and cheers,

kirk tuck said...

I think Zivlinas and Wolfgang are correct, the fast Olympus lenses with the latest bodies seem to be pretty much equivalent to the Canon with the slower lenses. I think the Olympus glass, in addition to being two stops faster than my lens and one stop faster than the 2.8 variation from Canon, are better lenses overall.

Nice that people can compare previous theater stuff to last week's......

Hope the style shows thru......

SS Buchanan said...

@Bold Photography: try using a second flash for the background :)

Bold Photography said...

@SS - I did try that - I used a y cable and my 540ez for fill on the background, but it appeared rather clumsy and inelegant - maybe I need a better bracket system. That said, not having the weight of the second flash and simply using a higher ISO to effectively drag the shutter is working in many cases.

I see both techniques as another set of tools in the toolbox that works in some cases and not others.

I really like the idea of using the slower L zooms, and using the higher ISOs to compensate for light until you get to the situation or lighting where you need more granular control of the lighting.