12.26.2016

A modest and short list of the three most useful interchangeable lenses I used in 2016.

Sony 18-105mm f4.0 G lens.

 Hot cameras and fast, fast glass seem to get all the attention but I wanted to talk about the two top lenses that I used this year and what makes them special. They aren't sexy or fast and in both cases the web-based reviews are quite mixed. Don't just read mine, if you are in the market for one of these either shoot it and test it yourself or, at least, read a bunch of different reviewers and decide which ones you trust most. 

My top award for usefulness and profit-enabling is the middle of the road, Sony 18-105mm f4.0 G lens (which is also the "kit" lens for the Sony FS-5 video camera...).  It's not a small lens but it is much lighter than its bulk might suggest. It's part of a new generation of lenses that are pretty sharp but designed with (seemingly) no regard for actual, optical distortions. But, it's also of the generation of lenses that is designed from the ground up to be corrected by in camera and in software lens correction magic. My copy is nicely sharp in the middle and more than adequate on the edges. The optimal stop for balancing most of the parameters and giving good performance, is f5.6. I routinely shoot it wide open for both stills and videos with no ill effects. Most of what I shoot has a subject in the center part of the frame and background stuff on the edges. Unless I'm willing to shoot everything at f16 the background of nearly all my images is going to be somewhat out of focus anyway, making discussions about edge sharpness a bit silly. 

If you need a lens with which to shoot perfect brick walls or test charts with straight lines to the absolute edges of the frames this is NOT the lens for you. If you need a very versatile lens that covers a wide range of focal lengths well this might make you happy. I like it because it has a nice, variable response power zoom for video, it focuses silently, and the image stabilizations works as well as anybody else's stabilized lenses. Another nice feature (mostly for video but still shooters who use manual exposure will like it as well) is the fact that it's a constant aperture zoom lens. The f-stop doesn't change as you zoom. A downside for some videographers is the focus-by-wire nature of this lens. You won't be using this with a follow focus rig. That's okay, we have other lenses for those uses.

For about $550 it's, I think, one of the bargain lenses in the Sony APS-C lineup. I'd buy it again and, for paying work, it seems to stay glued to the a6300. It's a great combination for shoulder mounted and handheld video. It's probably my most used Sony lens in 2016. The one issue I have? It's not full frame....

Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 lens.

My second choice, based on the amount of use it gets and the amount of billing it helped to engender, is the 24-70mm f4.0. When I first bought it I'll admit to rushing into the system and not reading enough about the Sony lenses. In retrospect, I am happy it turned out that way because if I had read the reviews of this lens I probably would never have bought it. The biggest strike against it was, again, the edge sharpness. Probably not the optimum choice for shooting flat documentation of circuit boards....

A common, negative refrain was that it just didn't have the overall performance to demand the high price... What I found in day-to-day use was a good, medium range, standard zoom lens that created very nice images. It is, again, a lens from the new generation of firmware tweaking and software corrected systems. But it's nicely sharp (instead of clinically sharp) and seems to be a well behaved lens for photographing people and events. I've used it as the primary lens (along with the A7Rii) on eight multi-day advertising shoots and have never found it wanting. But again, I'm not shooting flat, perfectly rectilinear test charts, I'm photographing lifestyle images that have depth to them. 

The one stop difference in aperture between this and the new G Master lens means that this lens weighs less than half as much, is much smaller overall, and, according to DXO is about one point off the performance of the faster, fatter and heavier G Master f2.8 version. You get to spend about $1,000 more to get a very, very small amount of improved performance. The f2.8 might have been vital in the days of 400 ISO being the top sensitivity you'd be willing to use in digital imaging but now? With the amazing cameras we routinely shoot with the difference is a rounding error. 

The benefits of our lens is that it can be handheld for a lot longer because it doesn't make your (smallish) Sony camera too front heavy, the OSS (image stabilization) is very good and, you'll probably need to start at f4.0 and go to smaller apertures if you want to get enough in focus to satisfy most clients. It's as sharp as I've ever needed, even when photographing product in the studio, by the time I get to f8.0. The final point is that it's a congenial lens to carry along with you as a daily walk around lens. Not something I would ever say about its faster sibling...

Again, on the "con" side, the focus is focus-by-wire and that's always dispiriting and I'd love the lens even more if it was $895 (there I go, slagging it on price with the other reviewers....) but the reality is that you only pay for it once and you'll soon forget the premium you paid if it gets you the kind of images you need to make your clients happy. It's primary advantage over the 18-105mm is that the 24-70mm covers the full frame of full frame...

And, YES, I would buy it again (but I'd try to find a mint copy, used...). 

And that brings me to my "runner up." This is a lens I've been using more and more for portrait work. I use it instead of all the nice manual focus Rokinons and Contax Zeiss lenses for one simple reason: It works well with eye autofocus on the A7Rii and the a6300. Every frame with a person is tack sharp exactly where I want it; right on the eyes. 

But there are many more reasons to like this lens. It has very good image stabilization. The f4.0 max aperture keeps it from being too heavy and too big. Sorry, I just won't carry a 70-200mm f2.8 around anymore. There's no optical advantage and nothing but a cluster of handling issues. According to DXO, this is the sharpest zoom lens in Sony's entire lineup. Amazingly sharp for me, even at f4.0. And it's off white like the groovy lenses that Canon makes and I'm certain this gives comfort to my clients as they think they are getting something on par with the Canon lenses (dripping sarcasm...). 

The only reason this is not my first or second choice is that I've only started using it a lot recently. Given the results I've gotten I know I'll press it into service a lot more frequently in the year to come. As far as I can discern it has NO flaws at all. Not even the price. The only reason I can think of not to buy one is if you don't shoot with Sony cameras....

One more note about this lens; I don't have anything longer than 200mm for my full frame camera precisely because I have this lens and the amazing sensor in the a6300. The combination gives me great 300mm equivalent files with good, dense details as a result of the resolution of the sensor. It's the perfect combination of the strengths of full frame and APS-C, used across the system. Much like the combination of something like the Nikon D500 and the D5. Nearly equal image quality but with more reach on the smaller format. 

Sony 70-200mm f4.0 G lens.

These are the lenses that have been getting my attention this year. Not nearly in consensus with the majority of other users and reviewers but that's part of the rich stew of subjectivity. A lens is more than just sharp it is. Usability, color, contrast and, of course, NANO-Acuity are also vital features.
We could all be shooting with an 85mm Otus lens but the overall handling would cause us to end up hating photography and taking up some other passion. Not everything Zeiss makes is designed to really be used in the field. At least from my point of view....

Curious to know what your favorites are. If you have a moment, let us know.

The Day After Christmas and We're Back to Work.

Amy. At the ready with the best of Kodak, circa 2002.

I came into the studio today and the first thing I did was click on the air conditioning. It's the day after Christmas and it's already eighty degrees at noon. The humidity is also quite high. Not that unusual for Texas, although we broke a record yesterday morning for the highest recorded morning low on December 25th.

I also had a call from a friend/art director who was just calling to chat. I asked her what she was working on and she chuckled and told me that she was revising a series of ads that we had first worked on 14 years ago. Seems the client (a national pharmaceutical testing company) loves the original images we created back in 2002 and just goes back to update logos and type treatment, as well as written information, every couple of years. The photos seem to be solidly withstanding the tests of time.

The photographs in question were a series of studio still life shots that were a backlit medicine cabinet filled with generic pill bottles and pills, as well as so props to finish out the styling. The images have been used in print ads, on the web and in posters.

The thing that seems so funny to me is that, in this day and age of compulsive camera upgrading (and we always hear the rationale that clients are demanding that we spend money to energize our "hobbies"..."client MUST have the 42 megapixel files!!!!), is that the images were all created with a six megapixel, Kodak DCS 760 camera that had no Jpeg capability (added later via firmware) and the top useable ISO was really the same as the base ISO = 80. The camera specs seem like something from a million years ago. But, in fact, I'm once again amazed at just how well the files stand up even now, in the most modern of times.

This was a funny year. It's the first time in nearly 30 years that I have not rushed to the camera store in late October (my birthday) or middle December (Christmas) to buy myself a new camera. I seem to have broken a cycle. The last new camera I bought was much earlier this year and it was the Sony RX10iii. I've been tempted a couple of times but each time I checked back in with what I already owned and found it at least adequate and most times perfect for the kinds of images I want to make.
In any event, every camera I own is up to the task of making images for clients that are only limited by my own imagination, and ability to translate expressions and lighting into photographs.

Nice to step back in time and realize how much we were able to do even with the most "primitive" of digital cameras. With a Sony A7Rii and a drawer of really, really nice lenses my attention has moved from still photography cameras to the world of dedicated video cameras. But even there, every time I consider purchasing a video camera to use on a project I go out and test a hybrid camera I already own and find that, once again, any limitations in quality will come from my inability to direct or even conceive of the correct visual story to tell. It won't be because the cameras I already have aren't up to making moving pictures that will almost inevitably be compressed several times and showcased on the internet instead of on big screens.

Right now, where video is concerned, the spot I'm working to improve is my facility with recording sound. I get the underlying engineering ideas, it's putting them into fluid practice that needs the work. That, and having support gear that gets the job into the ballpark. I'm loathe to spend a fortune on high end audio gear but at the same time I don't want to be let down by the gear. It's a tricky pathway but one that seems as fun as puzzles at this point.

I hope it's okay with everyone if we spend a little time in the next week or so talking about good, inexpensive microphones of all kinds and about digital audio recorders. It's a source of renewed interests for me. And, well, that's what the blog is all about.

Still a week to go in this old, weathered year. I hope to finish it out with five more good swims, a couple of good runs and some nice family meals with Ben and Belinda. And Studio Dog. Always with Studio Dog.