4.30.2021

I read, with amusement, nearly a dozen breathless reviews yesterday.....of a single focal length lens. Mercy, the bloggers and v-loggers have run out of stuff to talk about.


 There were four "articles" and one long video review of the "new" Sigma 35mm Art lens on DP Review alone. An unexciting new version of a classic.  Can't imagine they couldn't have compressed all the sloppy information into one cogent article but I guess they need the "gray space" to fill the void. Gerald Undone, usually a favorite tech-leaning, video reviewer with great info spent about 12 minutes of YouTube "airtime" picking microscopic nits off the lens with analytical tweezers, and then the usual slow-witted crew on the rest of YouTube did their usual five minutes of b-roll video; fast cuts picking up their laundry, complaining about their lives, and gushing about how cool it is to be "an online edjukator" all set to the unguent melodies of over-used, quasi rock, stock music, before finally getting around to their own distinctly unscientific and highly subjective ramblings about the lens. All of this presented in a "Might this be the lens to change the WORLD???" gush-fest delivered in mostly center-framed, lifeless, video narrative. 

It's almost as if Sigma had courier services all around the camera buying world ready to deliver hundreds and hundreds of copies of the new lens to "influencers", all those "creators" who seemed to be in a content production lull until this particular product arrived. None of them, as far as I can see, have had more than a day or two to work with the lens, or much chance to take in-depth test photographs before rushing to their keyboards and selfie-cams in order to post mostly drivel. And stuff regurgitated from the sites they aspire to compete with.

At least Gerald did his research, found something to dislike about the lens and then polished up his dissonance into many minutes of grousing that the lens wasn't quite razor sharp when used at f1.4 combined with the closest focusing distance. The legions of lesser V-loggers rushed to adapt his reference and research about this shortcoming into full-on spasms of dismay. But as far as I can tell few or none of the "reviewers" actually used the lens to make photographs in their own inimitable styles. Such a tragedy. So much lost potential.

From the vomitting rush of "reviews", all arriving simultaneously on the first day after the embargo lifted, like ever-falling dominos, one would conjecture that the world at large has been waiting breathlessly for someone, anyone! to deliver a usable 35mm lens. Almost as if we've been wandering in a lensless desert for too long and this was our first oasis of wide angle joy to come along in quite a while. It's....embarrassing. 

I can forgive Gerald Undone. At least he provided samples, tests and comparisons. The rest provided... self indulgent video footage. And affiliate links galore. Gerald's usual fare is great. But the rest? Ah well.

Not to be left out of the scrum I'll add my mini-review

I've never used the lens. It's slightly smaller than the last version. It has two more controls, which I will probably never use, on the barrel. It's slightly though not appreciably lighter that the last version. It's cheaper than the same kind of lens with the same specs from other manufacturers of note. It comes in a white box which has type on it. For now it's only available in L mount and E mount. It's $895. 

My take: If you have a 35mm lens you like (and who doesn't?) then you probably won't get any additional utility out of the this one. If you want this style of lens you might be able to find the optically better, older version for a bit more than half the price out on the used market (more arriving quickly!). You will find both to be too big and too heavy for many uses. Neither are optimal "travel" lenses.

You probably have this focal length well covered with various zoom lenses you own and likely won't see a shred of difference at f5.6. You will shoot once or twice at f1.4 before realizing that it's an odd focal length to shoot at f1.4 and that getting interesting images with that f-stop and focal length is....always challenging and only sometimes vaguely rewarding. 

"Okay. I think we're done here....."

added note: Do you think it will eventually dawn on reviewers and product manufacturers that they are putting all their marketing eggs in a "one day" or "one week" basket and that spreading out access to test products might help spread out the media coverage over time? And that might give their products a longer shelf life? A longer tail? And do reviewers understand how transparent their reliance on advertiser links becomes when everyone rushes to review the same product in the same way at the same time? Maybe that the group  onslaught, the mosh pit of reviews, degrades their credibility? Ah well. Maybe there's site for marketing that everyone overlooked.


Walking around in the drizzle. Making photographs with a vintage lens.

Yesterday seemed like a good day for walking around aimlessly. A huge rolling caravan of dramatic thunderstorms had rumbled through Austin the night before and yesterday promised easy temperatures, impromptu rain showers and a background of constant, light drizzle. The pool was closed and around mid-afternoon I think my spouse was getting a bit tired of me walking into her office every 30 minutes to "see what's going on!?" Too much extrovert energy in a decidedly introvert dominated house.

The Leica SL seemed like a perfect choice for a walk in indeterminate weather. It's supposed to be well sealed for weather resistance and I like the feel of it over my shoulder. I wanted to take along a "beater" lens because I never really know how well all the lenses are really weatherproofed. If I took an older lens I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about it. 

I chose the Leica R 28-70mm lens and made some quick weather oriented modifications to it, just in case. I wrapped electrical tape around the juncture of the camera's lens mount and the lens adapter, figuring that any moisture intrusion would cause the most damage there. I did the same tape sealing to the juncture of the adapter and the lens. With those two weak points sealed at least the camera a body itself would be well protected. 

Photographic intent was secondary to just burning up some excess energy via walking but I tried to be observant and I stopped from time to time to grab a frame when opportunity presented itself. I like photographing on cloudy and overcast days and I'm really warming up to shooting mid-storms. 

There's a trail around Lady Bird Lake that's about 3.5 miles and it starts (for me) at the Barton Springs Pool. There were few people out, mostly dedicated runners or daily walkers who weren't about to let a bit of extra moisture dampen their resolve.

Back when I bought the old, used, Leica zoom lens I got off to a rocky start with it. I got some vignetting from a loose and sloppy retractable lens hood but cured that with some judicious use of gaffer's tape. But the first few forays, with the ailing lens hood and the hard distortion at the short end gave me pause. In the interim I discovered that both Leica SL cameras include lens profiles for their R series lenses and actuating that, at least in Jpeg, made the lens more likable as far as barrel distortion and some natural, wide angle vignetting was concerned. But I have had the lens on the "back burner" for a while and looked forward to trying to correct my faulty technique on an unhurried outing. So yesterday was the day.

If anyone paid attention they would have thought I cobbled together an old lens with nothing but tape; fortunately there were no obvious camera buffs sharing the trail. No one to cast a judgmental look at the bandaged inventory.

One thing I did want to see was how well the lens would do for close up stuff. So when I saw these water droplets on long green leaves I went for it. I had the lens set for f8.0 and shot everything else on auto.

When I got back to the studio I was happy to see that the lens is actually quite nice and sharp at its close focusing limit. And that the color and contrast were really good. I think this lens would make a very acceptable one camera / one lens travel set-up. Not as flexible and feature-rich as the 24-105mm Lumix but charming in its own totally manual way. See full frame and tight crops below. 


End of day photos.


The ongoing pleasure of photographing with the older, Leica SL. 
Such a different camera than all the ones I've used before.













 

4.29.2021

An interesting shot from the archives of marketing.... And art.


The tight shot. 
The wide shot. 

Dave Steakley, the artistic director at Zach Theatre, wrote a play and produced it in 2005. It was called, "Keeping Austin Weird" and it showcased a number of interesting and/or eccentric characters from around Austin. My assignment for the project, both for show content and marketing, was to go around, meet some of the people Steakley had written about, and photograph them. If we could photograph them with their art or in their usual environment then so much the better.

This gentleman (whose name is lost to me in the moment) lived in South Austin and made all kinds of toys and art pieces. He was an engineer by profession. 

One of the things he liked to do was to collect doll heads, put small LED lights into their eyes and put them on stakes out in his garden. He "welcomed" a new next door neighbor once by turning all the heads in the direction of the neighbor's house and then, in the twilight of evening he turned on all of their eye lights. Some blinked on and off, others just shone. 

The neighbor started building a tall privacy fence between the two properties the next day. 

And, if I can find it, one central Austin family painted their entire lawn green and then painted a big Twister mat on it. But that's another story. 

Olympus e300 + 14-54mm. 

Busting up some of my own camera prejudices in light of recent rediscoveries.


I've been on a bit of a jag lately concerning just how good or how bad "ancient" digital cameras were. I'm also trying to get all my old theater files up online for easier sharing and also to gather stuff together from across a range of storage strategies that now seem precarious and inefficient. 

One of the cameras I found myself disparaging in the first decade of the 21st century was the Nikon D200. 
It was a ten megapixel, APS-C camera that, from my point of view at the time, had a noisy and not very good sensor, focused too slowly and had an anemic raw buffer (but then again, which camera back in the pre-2010s didn't?). I couldn't move on from the D200 quickly enough. And often I ended up pairing it with a zoom that I had decided was novel and fun but not very sharp. That would have been the 18-200mm Nikon zoom which had the first really dramatically good (for the time) image stabilization. 

So, yesterday I found a DVD of a performance of the play, "Crowns" at Zach Theatre. This was from a time before they raised the money to build the big, state of the art Topfer Theatre and the show was performed on a much smaller and more modestly lit stage. It was all filtered, tungsten light back then.

As I pull the images off the old CDs and DVDs I'm going through and color correcting some stuff, working the tones on other images and generally cleaning up the files we never used back in the day. Back in 2006. There was never enough time, in the moment, to do the kind of work on all 1200 files shot on a typical evening rehearsal shoot when only 20 or 30 would see the light of day. I would send over the images and after selections were made I'd tweak the "keepers" and file the rest of the photos on DVDs and then move on to my next project. 

Photoshop was more primitive then. Lightroom was just gathering steam. Making individual corrections to files we'd never use was akin to tossing time down a dark hole. 

But now I'm discovering that there are more good images in the initial "take" than I had earlier imagined. And as I go through and clean stuff up in preparation for uploading to the cloud I'm taking time to look more carefully through the images and see what I had missed the first time around. 

In addition to finding "new" images I'm also in a process of reappraising the quality of the cameras and lenses of that time period. The two images included here were both done with the Nikon D200 and the camera was used at ISO 800. I had to use ISO 800 to freeze the action because I was using a fairly slow lens (the 18-200mm) and stopping it down to f5.0 to get good sharpness. But to my eye, the images are much better than I remembered them. The noise is not overly intrusive (no noise filtering was done in post) and the camera's ability to hold detail in the highlight areas is far better than I recalled. In fact, it's quite good. 

The lure at the time (2006) was the promise that increased resolution in the cameras would make a big difference in how the images looked when printed or worked when published. And at the time we were still printing things and sending out brochures and big postcards to promote the plays. But the main usage for the photographs was in the (printed) local newspapers and on the websites, and for that the D200's resolution was more than good enough. 

Once cameras like the D700 or even the later D610 came out my hindsight from the year 2021 would tell me that we'd absolutely hit the sweet spot for just about everything and that the ONLY reason to grab for more megapixels might be if I were one of the less than .05% of serious photographers who routinely made very big prints for wall art. Or if I was a cropping addict who could never seem to compose in camera. If only I'd figured that out at the time...

Funny what a bit of backwards time travel does for my perceptions. And my second, somewhat depressing realization is how much better the composition and content of the images can be when shooting in small space where we can photograph a dedicated rehearsal with NO audience and complete freedom of photographer movement. The golden days?
 

Ms. Judy Arnold in "Crowns." Circa 2006.


 Photographed during a performance of "Crowns" at Zach Theatre.

Camera: Nikon D2x

Lens: Nikon 85mm f1.8 D

Exposure: 1/250th, f2.2, ISO 400

4.28.2021

Some stuff just looks better in black and white.


 Thunderstorms tonight...just trying to get one more thing posted. Then I'll worry about the rain.

Early Digital Theater Photography. I'm doing a deeper dive into my archives. Interesting question from Michael Matthews.


I've been "clocking in" and working eight hour days in an attempt to get a handle on my overflowing collection of past client files. Photos I've taken since the dawn of digital (at least the dawn of it in my studio) up until the point when more and more stuff went more or less directly into the cloud. That was around 2015. 

A few days ago, when I mentioned my intention to come to grips with the overabundance of images I used a recently found photograph from 2001 or 2002 to use as a header photo for the post. Reader, Michael Matthews examined the photograph of magician, Ray Anderson and thought it looked pretty darn good, considering it's genesis as a 6 megapixel file from a now woefully "obsolete" camera. It was from a Fuji S2. He asked if I thought all the time, money and focus on ever-newer cameras had been worth it. Did the newer and newer cameras represent better and better tools for image production. 

That stopped me in my tracks for a while and led me to look for some of the older folders of images, mostly resident on CD-Roms. After spending a couple of long days going through files from cameras such as the Olympus E-1 (five megapixels), the Nikon D100, D200 and D2x, the Kodak DCS SLR/n, and even older cameras such as the Olympus E-10, I've got a few ideas and I guess I'd like to share them here; even though I expect a lot of "scientific sounding" push back from parts of the audience.

There is an easy answer. If you are looking for endless resolution then you'll definitely be a fan of the latest and greatest cameras even if you do find the differences in steps of resolution harder and harder to discern as the race goes on. But, if you are looking for good, pleasing color, good file integrity, and the appearance, when used on the web, of highly satisfying sharpness? Then no, every step forward has been pretty much a wash. There are specialty exceptions I guess. If you are looking for extended dynamic range then I guess current camera sensors with their lower noise floors will better satisfy people who need it. But really, the dual pixel design of the Fuji S2, coupled with the latest processing software, will get you pretty darn close to the current crop of cameras. 

I was amazed at how good the initial waves of digital cameras really were. The Olympus E-10 camera is a good example. It was a 4 megapixel camera with a permanently attached zoom lens. I used it once at the theater to photograph a run through of "Streetcar Named Desire." At the time the color was difficult to correct with mixed theater lighting. We also shot film that day and that's what we ended up using for press. But today when I came across the ancient CD I thought that, for posterity's sake I should go ahead and create an online gallery for the files. When I started playing with them I thought it might be a good idea to convert a couple of the images to black and white. And as soon as I did I had a new respect for that camera. And that experiment led me to find an even older folder from one of the very first all digital jobs I did for my friend, Mike Hicks. His design firm needed to create a brochure for a big, new, mixed use office park and he was open to me experimenting with the zany E-10 camera. By putting it on a tripod and being very careful to use the camera's lowest ISO I was able to get images that were technically very, very good. We even tried our hand at making photos with a mixture of late twilight and early dawn illumination which mixed with the landscape and parking lot lighting. 

The long exposures worked well, the colors were great, the images were sharp and ended up gracing a nice website and brochure for the property. It was only the promise of getting better files from higher resolution cameras that pushed us along to spend ever more money on cameras and lenses. 

The images here are from that old E-10, taken in low theater light back in 2000. I converted them to black and white so I could ignore the off color. But I have plenty of images from the next few generations that are deliciously good. 




The one place where the newer cameras does help is in their better noise performance at high ISOs. That said I just uploaded a folder of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" photos and was surprised both by the color rendering and the lower than I remember noise of the Nikon D2X. I probably should have held onto that camera for another five or ten years....

Everything is a trade off. Smaller files seem sharper (see the essay in Michael Johnston's blog today) and bigger files can be wasteful. And the money spent is money gone. The one thing every generation of cameras does have in common is that none of them depreciate slower than any other generation of cameras. 

Here's two from the D2X in 2005. ISO 500. 17-50mm f2.8-4.0. 





 

4.27.2021

Esther's Follies. Setting up for the next shot... Always.

 


I've been trying to get organized. It's a chore. And a bore. But sometimes you find little treasures in the folders.

Ray Anderson. Magician. Esther's Follies. Austin, Texas

(Wow. That's a Fuji S2 file from 2002. They had the color sorted out just right!!!)

I got a call from a university professor who is writing a book about some aspect of live theater costume design. She really wanted to use several photographs I'd taken many years ago for Zach Theatre. The only information she had was the name of two different shows and the year in which they were produced. She also had two tiny thumbnails which had been renamed. They no longer had any metadata or identifiers. Before I could commit to licensing the photographs to her and her publisher I thought it would be a good idea to make sure I could put my hands on the photographs. 

The images were taken in that odd time frame which occurred after I stopped photographing shows with film and before I started making huge web galleries for the marketing team at the theater to use. In those early days I'd shoot raw, convert to large, fine Jpegs and then send over the images to the art directors on either a DVD or a small, portable hard drive. Lots and lots of "sneaker" transfers until bandwidth got fast enough and I got organized enough. 

From about 2001 to 2012 no matter which way I delivered the files I was careful to back them up to DVDs. I'd keep copies of a show's photos on a hard drive and also on two identical DVDs. That way, if all hell broke loose at least one of the back-ups would work. 

I looked at the photos I was taking from a photographer's point of view. By that I mean that I was hellbent at the time of making sure we'd have access to these images even twenty years later, if we needed them. The staff at the theater saw them in a different way. Once the show was produced, and tickets were sold, and the run was over so was their need for photographs. There may have been some attempt to archive the images at their offices but if there was it's still a mystery to me. Their attention span, where images were concerned, was fleeting, at best. 

That never bothered me since I kept my work filed away close by.

Somewhere around the end of 2012 we were able to procure fiber based internet service and along with the tremendous boost in speed and the newfound stability I discovered that I could now (more or less ) efficiently upload all the show files to a gallery on Smugmug.com and also send a full set of images from Smugmug.com to the client by means of a full gallery download. Links generated by Smugmug.com

This more or less coincided with a halt to DVD production almost across the board. My expenditures on DVDs for long storage fell to zero and was replaced by a commensurate spend on external hard drives. A major difference though was that I now, via Smugmug.com, had a full back-up in the cloud and that helped me feel less dependent on DVDs as the "third leg of the stool." 

But the recent request has me going back into the DVD archive and it's a mess. I had DVDs filed by year in folders that would hold 144 disks. But sometimes we used the DVDs and they didn't always wind up back in the right place. It was a busy time for daily production ten years or so ago. 

Yesterday I pulled all of the binders from 2000 to 2015 and pulled out all the DVDs (and some CDs!!!) that were related to theater photography to find the shows connected with the two desired images. And all at once it dawned on me that I could pull all of the images off the DVDs into a small hard drive and the  upload each production, show and marketing project into the cloud galleries. Then, in the future, when requests come in (which they regularly do...) I can just direct the requestor to the appropriate gallery and go about the rest of my day. 

I also noticed a dozen or so DVDs for the Esther's Follies troupe and I'm doing the same with those files. 

There is stuff I haven't seen for nearly 20 years but I'm amazed at how well the files stand up. Especially the set up shots which I metered pretty carefully and also shot in raw. I'm pulling those show files into Lightroom so I can convert the Kodak, Fuji, Nikon, and Olympus raw files into nice Jpegs to upload. 

The film projects are all in 8.5 by 11 inch envelopes and the envelopes have the show names, dates and any pertinent technical information written on the front with black pen. 

After I get through with the DVD work load I'll start pulling all the image folders from a motley collection of hard drives and make sure they are all intact and have had their images uploaded. It's a chore but at some point someone at the theatre will understand that these are the only visual documents of several hundred shows, done over decades. Hmmmmm. Maybe they'd be interested in buying the material and the copyrights? Naw, I'd just go buy something silly with the money....

At any rate, after a good swim with the combined swimmers of the two morning practices at one long session, and a three mile walk with Belinda, I think I'm ready to spend this gray and dismal looking day doing some long overlooked organizing. Either that or I'll start a bonfire and make short work of the "filing." 

4.26.2021

Anxious to go see art again. What do you think the chances of visiting museums in Paris will be in late October, early November?

Passport ready. Vaccinations complete. Credit Card in hand. But will be we be able to go?

What is the wisdom of the VSL reader brain trust?

 

Another reappraisal of the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens for the L-mount.

 


When I started in photography I bought a Canonet QL 17 iii camera which came with a permanent 40mm lens. Since I was mostly interested in making casual portraits I was always wishing for a longer lens and never, or almost never, for a shorter one. For most of the ensuing 45 years the only times I've reached for wider lenses was to satisfy a client need; never because I thought using wide angles was a good aesthetic choice for me. But in the last 20 years the industry, and cultural taste momentum seems to be driving toward adapting wider and wider lenses as "normal." 

To be frank, I was a bit shocked when Leica introduced the original Q2 and stuck it with a 28mm lens. I don't really care how incredible (or un-incredible) the lens is I will always think that it's too wide an angle of view to be truly useful for the work I like to do. I presumed they'd stick with a 35mm lens since that seem to be the compromise between long and short that most users aim for. It's one of the primary reasons I chose the Fuji X100V cameras over the Leica Q2.

When I was able to cobble together enough money in my early career to expand beyond the Canonet I picked up a Canon TX (very basic SLR) and two lenses. One was the normal 50mm f1.8 FD breach lock lens that actually came with the camera and the other was a Vivitar 135mm f2.8 telephoto. When it came time to buy a wide angle I thought long and hard about which lens would give me the most use when photographing for a wide range of clients and I chose the Canon 24mm f2.8 FD lens. It seemed, at the time, that most of my need for wide angles was to photograph houses. Inside houses and the outsides of houses. 

I could never justify buying tilt-shift lenses but I worked around that on exterior architectural shots by putting myself and my tripod on the cab roof of my ancient Chevy pick-up truck. A struggling photographer's workaround for the front rise on a T/S lens. 

The 24mm was about as wide as good taste would allow one to go when doing interior photos but now people are using insanely wide lenses for interiors even though most people know that the images leap over the red line in the sand that divides useful representation with willful fantasy. And good taste from trashy exuberance. 

Since I didn't need a 35mm I didn't get around to buying one until Canon moved to the EOS system and I bought a surrogate for the 35mm. It was the first iteration of their 20-35mm L lens. Once the tipping point had been broached and, not coincidentally, my budget grew to allow some slop, I bought an actual, single focal length, 35mm. 

Now I've more or less bought into the idea that I should cover the focal length range from about 20mm to about 200mm with good lenses to be a "real" professional photographer. I use zooms all the time but vanity demands that I also have the fast aperture primes which, in truth, mostly gather dust. Oh, they are great when you need them, it's just that for most of my work, with the exception of the key portrait focal lengths of 70-135mm, I rarely need the special talents of the fast, specialized, wide lenses. But I labor as valiantly as I can to understand them and to try and press them into use. If for no other reason that to prove to myself that I can. 

And so the Sigma 35mm Art lens was a natural choice for rounding out my lens selection when I tumbled into the L-mount system. It was a smart enough choice given that my other option at the time was the $5000 Leica SL 35mm Summicron. And that's a lot of money to pay for a lens that doesn't get used much.

I traded in the one I originally bought on some other stuff a while back. It didn't sell for the retailer and recently I bought the identical lens (same serial #) back for a bit less than what I got on the trade-in. Worked for me. Not for them. A rare occasion. But having bought it back I am now trying to justify it and hence, this review. 

When I first got the 35mm Art lens I thought it was too big and too heavy. But then I started photographing with the Lumix S-Pro 24-70mm when I needed to cover the 35mm focal length and that reset my understanding of "big" and "heavy." In truth, while it's much bigger than the older lenses I've been adapting for use on the L mount cameras, it's not much bigger or heavier than the fast 35mm lenses from the big names. It's actually slender enough to feel comfortable while I hold it up in my left hand; right hand on the camera grip. And, if you are in decent shape, the weight isn't an issue for the first two or three hours of a walk with both camera and lens over one shoulder. But why carry the weight at all?


The reason to carry it around is the 35mm Art lens's optical performance. It was one of the first Art lens focal lengths to be introduced and it was meant to be a serious shot across the bow of Nikon/Canon/Sony. A way for Sigma to say: "We've changed gears and we're out to produce the best lenses on the market as far as optical performance is considered." They wanted to make the first few lenses a dramatic statement of arrival and I think they did the job. N/C/S scrambled to respond; each in their own way. 

The Sigma 35mm uses one FLD element, four super low dispersion elements, and two aspheric elements in its construction. It also uses complex floating element construction to assure maximum performance through the focusing range. The lens features a rubber gasket around the mount for dust and weather resistance. Altogether it adds up to a very high performance package. And it's been on the market long enough to see a price drop when compared to newer lenses in the line up. 

So, how do all these performance features add up? At the apertures I usually photograph, f4.0, 5.6 and f8.0, the lens is pretty much flawless. Used properly it yields tremendous detail and sharpness along with good color saturation, a neutral native coloration and above average contrast. I have used it from time to time in Zach Theatre's wretchedly lit rehearsal space, where f1.4 became a godsend, and it performed even better than expected wide open, assuming you focused correctly.

Like most of the recent Sigma wide angles, if you turn off in-camera lens corrections you'll see that the one big compromise Sigma made in order to get the other critical performance parameters right was leaving in a lot of vignetting when used wide open or near wide open. If one is using an L-mount alliance camera the vignetting is corrected in the camera's software. Ostensibly, this can cause a bit more noise in the corners of the frame as the camera "lifts" the exposure there to compensate and even out the field. Since this is a routine compromise in many lens lines I don't think Sigma should be dinged for it. I don't mind the vignetting much at all and, where available, I often opt to turn the in-camera correction off. 

There are two things about focusing with this lens that are often mentioned in reviews; one stemming from the use of an art lens on DSLR cameras.  The=is lens, and in fact the whole original Art series, is not the fastest auto focusing lens you can get. It's moving a lot of elements and can be a bit ponderous. Also, some Nikon and Canon DSLR users had issues getting accurate focusing while using AF. Especially with C-AF. I blame most of this on the DSLR designs as I had issues with many different lenses when using a handful of recent Nikon DSLRs. That's a detraction but as we move more and more to mirrorless platforms the issue seems to not affect current cameras at anywhere near the same rate. 

The second thing about focusing that I rarely see mentioned is this lens's really nice manual focusing settings. When switched to MF the lens has a very well damped focusing ring which is a fairly short throw and also has hard stops at the minimum focusing distance and also at infinity focus. It's such a pleasure to use. Especially in conjunction with the Leica SL and Panasonic S1 series cameras because they feature large, high resolution EVFs as well as good focus peaking. The combination brings joy back to manual focusing and also means that one can take advantage of zone focusing and the use of hyperfocal distance settings. 

I used the lens yesterday in an unchallenging shooting scenario just to see how the files look when all the planets line up. I think the lens is a winner; spectacular even, and I'm trying to imagine more and more situations for which it's a perfect solution. I was on the hunt for a smaller, lighter and slower 35mm  lens option but I think I'll put that on hold for a while and just savor what Sigma has given me with this package. It's so good. 






 
The unreversed KRT.

4.25.2021

Contax/Zeiss 28mm f2.8 Y/C. A Nice Lens for Mobile Methods of Photography.

 


In my little world there are two kinds of photography I practice. One is the "no holds barred" commercial method in which I select the cameras, lenses and lights not by how little they weigh or how many I can carry before inducing hernia but rather by their ability to do the business impelled projects in a way that makes paying clients happy and ensures more work in the future. Nearly all these kinds of jobs, for me, consist of packing up cases of gear, loading the cases in the car, taking them into a client location on a cart and then putting the lights on stands and the camera and lens on a tripod. Point being that I'm not usually fighting gravity tooth and nail for hours on end....

In cases like these the size and weight of cameras and lenses is among the least important of considerations. It's more important to be able to light well and to assure that I'm getting the best quality I can while I'm making images which are aimed, mostly,  at moving the client's enterprise forward. Big, fat, Art series lenses from Sigma? No problem. Cast iron Leica SLs? The more the merrier. Because the sandbags will always be heavier.

But when I go out for a long walk on a Sunday afternoon and cavalierly practice my alternate kind of photography, I most certainly won't be dragging around a wheeled cart; or a cart of any kind. I will have to carry whatever I bring for at least a couple of miles and, on a good and compulsive day, maybe five or six miles. There are no assistants on walks and no gear lockers along the way into which I can store burdensome gear and pick it up again later.

In those situations I like to lessen my burden by choosing lenses and cameras that are less hefty. I might opt to use a familiar camera body like the SL, which is weighty, but I'll cut down on lens bulk whenever I can. The reality is that most walks take place in the middle hours of the day and on routes with ample daylight. I never need to work at f1.4 and prefer the relative imaging convenience of f5.6 or f8.0. If a lens is wide enough I might not even have to focus; if I've made the right choices. 

Yesterday I took a walk in downtown and it was hopping everywhere. There were hundreds and hundreds of high school and college aged people and, since it was a warm day, many of the guys were shirtless, a large number of the women were in swim wear and they were all either trying to figure out which bars might bend the rules and let underage people in or they were of legal age and scoping out the bars to see which might have the cheapest drinks. They were loud, rowdy and sloppy. And they were jammed together, maskless, in and out of the bars, like land-based sardines. Tossing a bit of gasoline on the pandemic fires again! You can thank our awesome governor for  that!

But my goal here is to write about an old, used, but still worthwhile lens. The Contax/Zeiss Y/C 28mm f2.8 lens is an older, manual focusing lens that was made for the Yashica Contax system which featured the Contax RTS (1-3) SLR cameras (and a slew of other cameras)  and the system was introduced to the market back in the 1980s. The lens is small and discrete in the manner of most 50mm nifty-fifties of the time period but it is built entirely out of metal and glass so it still has density to it. The lens I have was purchase for $175 from Precision Camera and I mated it to the Leica SL body with an Urth Y/C to L-mount adapter which set me back about $20. Since there is no communication between the body and the lens it operates only in the "A" and the "M" modes but the camera seems entirely capable of divining the perfect exposure in the "A" mode about 95% of the time. 

The lens is in great condition, the glass is clean, the focusing and aperture rings work very smoothly and, cosmetically, the lens looks as though it's always been well cared for. 

On my first few forays out with the lens I was a bit sloppy with my focusing technique and therefore disappointed with the results. I can only blame myself. This time around I was much quicker to take advantage of the camera's ability to "punch in" to a super tight crop in order to focus with great accuracy through the EVF. Now that I've slapped myself on the wrist and tidied up my focusing technique I'm finding the lens to be a very decent optical tool. I've been shooting around f5.6 and sometimes at f8.0 and the lens delivers modern, sharp results. I have tried a number of images at f2.8 and they are fine. It's what you'd expect, the center is pretty sharp and then sharpness falls off a bit as you head towards the corner of the frame. I'd use it wide open if it meant getting a shot but on a nice walk the middle apertures seem to be all I really need. 

The color from the lens is nicely neutral and the contrast at f5.6 is nice with well defined edges. I looked at a Leica SL 28mm lens which is a stop faster but it's also five thousand+ US dollars more. I think, for the way I use 28mm lenses, that this one will be just fine. If you see one of these out in the wild you might want to snag it; especially if the selling price (in good condition) is under $200. There are adapters available for Sony E as well as L mounts and there are probably adapters out there for Nikon Z and Canon RF as well. 

It's a nice little package and I'm glad to have it. 


If you look at the edges of the frame you'll see that there's very little distortion.
At least not for a lens with this angle of view. Also, vignetting is 
nicely controlled and by f5.6 is mostly absent. 

I don't mind using it wide open. 
A stop down would make this shot a bit crisper but 
then again I'd have to drop down to ISO 12,500.....

Compromises everywhere. 

4.22.2021

Storm Clouds on the Horizon. Walk Down Third St. What's Next?

©2021 Kirk Tuck. Please don't re-purpose. All rights reserved.
 

I always dread these words: "The pool will be closed for three days next week for maintenance." Especially when they are coupled with: "We're trying out a new pool maintenance company for the first time in 25 years. I'm sure everything will work out just fine..." 

So, if you happen to see me curled up in the fetal position after Friday of next week you'll know that something has gone horribly wrong with the plan. Horribly wrong. And the three days will have stretched out to three weeks or worse...

Our beautiful pool will be closed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week for "routine" maintenance. The more dedicated (compulsive?) among our masters swim team are already researching and planning for trips to alternate pools. We hope to stay wet and out of breath throughout the closure.

Storm Clouds Indeed. 

Speaking of storm clouds, it's been unnaturally cold here lately. This morning it was in the upper 40s when I got up for swim practice. It's been chilly all day. So I checked the weather forecast only to find that we'll have a strong weather front sweeping through the area tomorrow around midday. Wouldn't you know it? I've got a new car and the forecast includes "likely" enormous hail, torrential rain and even possible tornados. But the risks exist only in a thin, two hour slice of time. Say from 11 am till 1 pm. It's the hail that bothers me. As a reader of ancient Greek literature I can't help but wonder if I'm being punished for the obvious hubris of having bought a new car.

Photography: Yesterday I had a wonderfully fun and uplifting photoshoot with my good friends at Esther's Follies. Esther's is a comedy troupe that does laugh till your sides cramp skits about current culture, politics (both sides get skewered equally) and celebrity shenanigans. There is also a magic show. They are an Austin treasure and have made people smile and laugh for going on 50 years! They've made it through the pandemic and are getting ready to open again in the early Summer. I'm sure they'll do it safely and with reduced audiences but it's thrilling to see their perseverance pay off. I asked them if they needed new visual content and off we went!

We used to shoot the rehearsals with whatever props or set pieces were on the small stage but lately their advertising and marketing designer has gone down the deep rabbit hole of image compositing and from what I've seen he's got talent. So yesterday I came by, in the maiden work voyage for the Subaru Forester, grabbed a free parking space on Red River St. and dragged my usual case of lights and stands into their theater. While doing so it dawned on me that I've been photographing their shows a couple times a year for nearly the last 20 years. 

The cast had a nine foot wide green screen set up on the stage and the plan was to shoot everything in front of the green screen. Now, at the outset I should say that these folks move quickly. This is not like a corporate shoot where we can test and test and tweak and tweak. We shot something like 35 set ups in a bit under three hours...and that included my initial lighting and exposure tweaks and the tear down at the end. It's a brisk pace and it calls for lighting that works well without further major adjustments. 

I lit the stage with two 300 W/S lights (monolight electronic flashes) from the front, positioned about eight feet away from my central camera position. I got them up as high as I could and put smallish soft boxes on these two fixtures. Then I put up two more lights (same kind) at more rakish angles to the stage and used them direct with 7 inch reflectors. I set the ratio between these side lights and the center lights at about 1.5:1. I admit it; the light ratio was flatter than I usually work but it felt just right for the space, the stage, the actors and the final use. 

I used the Panasonic S1 camera and it surprised me. I'd almost forgotten two things: First, how good the camera is and how well it works for this kind of project. And second, that I hadn't used it since I did the most recent firmware update which tweaked the AF and more fully implemented the dual ISO feature of the camera. I chose to use the low ISO range and set the camera to the top of that range at 800. 

The 24-105mm f4.0 zoom from Panasonic was perfect for this photo-adventure since I could go from a wide stage shot to a "waist up" personality shot while standing in one position. Nice. The lens was set to f7.1 (based on an incident light meter reading from the center position on the stage, facing the camera) and the shutter speed was set to 1/100th of a second. Since we were pretty tightly tested and locked in, and I had set a custom white balance for the flashes, the client and I decided to try our luck and shoot the entire project in Large, Fine Jpegs. No horsing around with raw files yesterday! 

And, interestingly enough, this is the first theater shoot I have ever, ever done where in post processing I didn't have to tweak anything. No changes at all to the files as they were shot!!! Instead of making tweaks here and there and then saving out a whole new set of Jpegs the files I uploaded to the theater client (all 1500+) were camera originals. SOOC. Inordinately large time savings. Much happiness. 

Now let's talk about autofocusing. 

I didn't bring a tripod and I worked with the camera handheld yesterday afternoon. It's vital on people shots, and even more vital for people shots done on green screen, for faces, eyes, etc. to be in sharp focus. It's far easier to composite images with sharp edges and then soften the transitions than trying to start with a soft image to composite into a background. I opened the S1 menu and went to my usual AF mode which is usually "1 area." I typically work by moving the little AF square around the frame, trying to put it over people's faces to get good AF. I had never seen the ability to modify the single area control before. 

When I've used face detect in the past I've done it by selecting the control on the far left of the row of options; the one with the person and bird icons in it. When I'm selecting that mode I have a choice of face or eye detection. But when I saw a new sub-menu of controls come up under "1 Area" I thought it would be interesting to give it a try. It's obviously a new update to the system so we gave it a spin. 

Here is the menu set up in the traditional way I use the AF modes.
Single area. Movable focusing target. 

Now you can select "1-Area (Human Detection) and....

We can also choose "1-Area (Human/Animal Detect). 

I swear, these additional menu items were not there the last time I used this camera! I went with Human detection and also found out that you can still set the default AF square's size. The camera will default to the area in that square if it doesn't find a human to lock onto, so you are basically covered. 

When the first person walked on to the stage to be photographed I brought the camera to my eye and pushed the shutter button half way down (don't forget, I still use S-AF and not back-button-mania) and, as it was a full length shot, the camera positioned a large outline box completely around the subject and turned the box green (AF confirmation). I spent the afternoon with the camera set to this setting. 

If I was photographing a waist up or closer shot the camera would detect the face and put a box around the face. If there were multiple faces on the stage at one time it would lock on the closest one but I could override it by tapping the face that I actually wanted to be in perfect focus on the rear screen. If I was closer still the camera would automatically default to focusing on the closest eye. 

Now, I was not shooting under bright stage lights. In fact, we didn't have a theater lighting tech on tap so I was focusing using the illumination of 150 watt modeling lights, all of which were about 20-25 feet from the stage and two of which were shining through soft boxes. Not an optimal way to shoot face detect in AF  but contrary to almost everyone writing camera dreck on the web the Panasonic camera nailed every single frame. We were 1500 for 1500. 

Okay, so it always looks good on the screens on the back of the camera but how well were the frames really focused when we popped them open on a 5K Retina screen at 100%? Well....they were perfect. Every eye on the individual shots was right on the money. All the group shots were perfect compromises and all the people were sharp. I even zoomed into some of the full length shots and looked at the eyes and they were perfectly sharp. 

The web seems to pick up a meme about particular cameras and brands so as to slot them into some hierarchy and no matter how much the cameras improve it seems they are always destined to wear the tag they caught when an early reviewer casually tested and then tossed in a  throwaway review with little science or experience behind it. The slag for the S1 series of cameras is twofold but only one of the parameters is objective. Yes, they are bigger cameras than most of their competitors. If you must have a lightweight system you'll need to look to one of the other brands and also limit yourself to slower lenses. 

The second ever-prevailing black mark on the S1 cameras is to say that they struggle to focus. My experiences show me that they focus very, very well. Accurately and quickly. At least in every still photography assignment I have used them on. 

This particular outing with the S1 was another reminder to me about just how wrong online reviewers can be and how they often find a small nit and then sabotage a great set of tools in service of their own favorite brands. The only issue I found with focusing on S1 cameras was when trying to do AF-C in video, in low light situations. The first few firmware fixes helped but didn't cure the problem. But the issue was never one that should have caused concern for the enormous majority of photographer who aren't doing video or the subset of professional videographers who understand that AF and most kinds of video production are oil and water. 

Yes. I want good C-AF I'm going to put a camera on a gimbal. But a smaller, lighter camera works better in that use case. (hello Fuji X100V). For just about everything else I do in video we're well enough lit to make focusing a breeze. Even manual focusing!!! Heaven forfend.

Bottom line for me is that for the way I shoot the focus for photography is perfectly fine. Just as good as I need it to be. And the same goes for the two Leicas as well. Perhaps it's because I mostly use the 24-105 in fast moving situation like the one I described above, and it's probably the fastest focusing of the native Lumix S1 lenses, but I've also used the 50mm S-Pro for a number of shoots and it does fine as well.

When all is said and done the proof is in the tasting, or the integrity and look of the finished files. I'm happily satisfied. 

Now, what to do about the hail?

A related post from last year: https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2020/02/a-quick-after-action-report-on-hybrid.html

4.21.2021

Bokeh Monster. The Nikon 105mm f2.0 Defocus Coupling Lens. Wanna see the background disappear into a luxurious blur? Maybe get one...


 Two interesting tools. The Kodak DCS 760C camera with its amazing 6 megapixel CCD sensor and the Nikon 105mm DC lens. I photographed this person for an ad campaign for the Austin Lyric Opera. The background is way, way far away. It's lit with a 1,000 watt tungsten light shining through two layers of 6x6 foot silk on a frame. The background is also lit with a tungsten light. 

It's a nice look even now. Today's highly corrected lenses are too linear in the way the background focus falls off. It looks too "cookie cutter" even with (or maybe even more!) with today's highly corrected lenses. The sharp is too sharp and the transition to "blur" seems too obvious.

The Nikon 105mm and 135mm DC lenses had it just right. Designed at a time when unique-ness was more highly valued?