Breaking News From The CDC Today. If you are fully vaccinated you can toss the masks and the social distancing. We're fully open for business now.

We've spent well over a year here being masked 
and following all the safety guidelines. 
Guess what? It worked. 

I'm still not sure how it's all going to work but the CDC announced today that fully vaccinated people in the USA will no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors, and no longer need to diligently practice social distancing. This is a tremendous change after a year of fogged up glasses, curbside deliveries and extra hot Summer walks with a mask firmly covering my mouth and nose. 

I'm hoping it will also be a tremendous incentive for the unvaccinated to get in and get their FREE and CONVENIENT, no appointment necessary, vaccines so we can really attain herd immunity and move through life more freely. The virus is still out there and running free so unvaccinated, asymptomatic carriers can still infect other unvaccinated people. And those unvaccinated people who become infected can still suffer horribly and even die tragic, and now preventable deaths. 

While I am certain that a sub-group of people will lie and cheat and pretend to be vaccinated to unfairly enjoy society's ground breaking achievement I'm equally certain that they will, statistically, only hurt, infect, damage, and kill others who are also not choosing to get vaccinated. I wish it wasn't the case but I guess everyone gets to choose between good and evil in their own self. Vaccine Karma?

What this means for us, personally,  is more travel, more restaurant dinners, and more face-to-face work with clients. 

This will positively affect lots and lots of professional photographers who have been hanging on, financially, by thin threads. Now people will be able to have traditional weddings, go to conferences and trade shows, and generally bring back event photography for a wide range of photographers. This will smooth a transition back to real work.

I hope that everyone who reads this is vaccinated or intends to get vaccinated as soon as possible and that you'll (metaphorically) twist a few arms of your vaccine hesitant friends and get them to understand the benefit to everyone. The more people who get the vaccines the less chance we have of going into another lockdown in the near future because unvaccinated people have become incubators for new and more virulent variants of the virus. Variants that are not fought off nearly as well by the existing vaccines. 

If we all work together we'll be back at our chosen trades/crafts/arts/professions and having fun in no time. 
Can't imagine how much fun we could have in the year(s) ahead! A big sigh of relief and a thumbs-up for all the people who are doing their part by lining up to get a small shot and become wonderfully immune. 



Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG DN Lens. Early Days Review.

Leica SL2 + Sigma Art Series 24-70mm f2.8

All the portents for success lined up yesterday afternoon. The birds flew from north to south, the tea leafs were auspicious and the swirl of the clouds indicated enlightenment. The sun was shining. Oh, and the batteries were fully charged; which is cogent to this review of the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DG DN lens. So let's get on to it.

I'd been reading accounts of the new Leica version of this lens all over the place. The debates were already raging over whether or not the Leica was an exact optical copy of the Sigma lens or if it had extremely valuable additional features (not including the logos...). I've lived through most of Leica's history with non-rangefinder film cameras having owned, at one time or another, the original Leicaflex with its aerial viewfinder image, the Leicaflex SL, the SL2 Mot, the R3, R4, R4S, R4SP, the R5 and the R8 cameras. In the same arc of time I had to put lenses in front of those various cameras so I bought what was available at the time, from Leica. And, prior to the late 1990's, if you wanted to use a zoom lens in a Leica mount you needed to understand that you were buying a re-badged (or in the case of several Angenieux products, non-re-badged) zoom lenses that originated in other manufacturer's lens lines. There were a number of re-badged Minolta zooms, including a 35-70mm f3.5 and a 70-200mm f4.0. There were Sigma optical designs dumped into Leica branded housings. I currently own one, it the  R Vario Elmarit 28-70mm f3.5-4.5 and it's a very decent, though not exemplary, performer. 

When Leica came back to the non-rangefinder cameras (in the digital age) with their mirrorless SL camera line they started making their own lenses in earnest. The primes lenses in their lineup are supposed to be remarkable. They are large and heavy but the optical qualities are supposed to eclipse the performance of all predecessors in each available focal length, across all brands. But a real standout in their catalog are the two zooms which Leica designed and built totally in-house. Those are the 24-90mm f2.8-4.0 ($5595) and the 90-280mm f2.8-4.0 zooms ($7295). 

As far as zoom lens performance goes these two are the cream-of-the-crop and sharp + contrasty at all focal lengths and apertures. Roger Cicala had a veritable gush-fest over a teardown of the shorter zoom here: https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2016/02/a-peak-inside-the-leica-vario-elmarit-sl-24-90mm-f2-8-4-asph/ 
so I was surprised when the Leica 24-70mm f2.8 was announced recently at the bargain basement price of $2700, until I looked a bit further and saw that Leica had gone back to the old playbook in order to backfill a popular product niche for most users, and one that they may have not had the bandwidth to quickly address. Or, perhaps Sigma has come so far in lens design and implementation that Leica didn't think it was cost effective to compete directly by bringing a much, much more expensive product, designed and built in Germany, into the crowded marketplace. I think this is the most likely scenario

If you compare the optical system specs of the Leica Vario Elmarit SL and the Sigma Art you'll see that they are, for all intents and purposes, identical. Just identical. All the differences seem to be external to the core lens design. And, since the 24-70mm is an intriguing product segment I thought I'd check out the optical design that obviously made the Leica folks sit up and take notice, so I purchased the Sigma version, and did so for the magic sale price of $950. About the price of three Leica batteries for the SL cameras....

Yesterday I started putting the Sigma lens to the test. 

I put the lens on the SL2 so I could take advantage of the in-body image stabilization feature. The lens is heavy and the camera is as well so the package was...a bit weightier than I'd like for a "walking around" system. For a couple of hours it's not problematic but after a day of carrying it I think I'd reconsider my options. That's not really fair since this configuration would likely be used mostly on job productions and that's a whole different deal. 

Since we're testing the lens as part of a system and not necessarily testing the image sensor alone I decided to use the SL2 in a Jpeg mode, selecting the "natural" profile and shooting in medium sized at 24 megapixels. (And isn't it strange to write that 24 megapixels is the "medium" sized setting?). 

The lens focuses quickly and silently in the AF-S mode and I used the center zone (a nine box grid) AF target for the most part. I have not yet experimented with subject tracking or C-AF since I rarely use these settings but I'll try both at an upcoming, outdoor swim meet and see what the camera and lens can do. In AF-S mode the lock-in is quick and accurate. Not much different  than any number of modern cameras I've used and at least as quick and sure as the lenses and cameras in the Panasonic L system. 

I've shot samples of the same subjects below but in all four of the major focal length ranges, including 24, 35, 50, and 70mm. If you really want to see what the lens can do be sure to look at the images on a big monitor and click on them to enlarge.

Since one of my favorite lens review sites, Lenstip.com, paid a lot of attention to two faults of the lens I was prepared to be disappointed by the Sigma. The two things that stood out as negatives to them (and to other, lesser reviewers) were lots of vignetting and also lots of distortion at the widest focal length, as well as some pin cushion at the very longest focal length. Since I shot Jpegs, and the lenses across the L mount alliance are supposed to share their profiles with any cameras in the system (as long as the firmware in the cameras is current!) I supposed that there would be in-camera corrections of both but thought I might see some artifacts of the correction. Less sharpness in corners? A bit of residual distortion? I was satisfied to see that these detracting effects were invisible to me in my hands-on testing. 

The Lenstip.com tests for resolution, checking both centers and corners, and found the lens to be just adequate when used wide open (f2.8) at 24mm but that rarely negatively excites me since my use of most lenses is to resolve a composition in which the most important parts are within safe areas of the frame and not dependent on the performance of the far corners. If I shot mostly architecture I might shy away from using this lens, especially wide open, but then again I rarely shoot architecture and when I do I like for most of the image to be in sharp focus. To accomplish this I work at f8.0 or f11. Sometimes even f16 !!!!! Anything smaller than f4.0 sharpens this lens up nicely.

When I work with any zoom lens I try to work at least a stop down from wide open. With the Sigma lens I'm writing about here I think I'd be safe working wide open as long as I wasn't overly concerned about extreme corner performance. But in my actual shooting I didn't see any big deficiencies in the corners anyway. 

I worked at shooting some subjects at around 6-10 feet. I looked for stuff with a lot of texture and then shot at the four major focal length settings; the one's marked on the lens barrel. I inspected the corners and the centers and found most frames to be as close to perfect at I would want. When I shot closer subjects I noticed a bit of corner softness wide open so I diverged from my usual center focusing practice and put the focusing square directly into the corner. The corners were more than adequately sharp which led me to think that any unsharpness I might see in the corners would be a result of shooting a flat field subject in conjunction with focal lengths that might have, as part of their design, some field curvature compromised in. 

The cure for this is to stop down. Field curvature is not a "fault" it is a compromise in design that allows the center third of the lens to be insanely sharp but at the expense of a bit of corner focus. Part of my testing is always to find the "sweet spot" for the lens. I'd say if you use this lens as an enhanced "normal" lens by sticking to a range of 35mm to 60mm you'll rarely, if ever, come across a prime lens that is appreciably sharper than this zoom. Especially if you are already one stop down with the zoom lens. The reason to own primes is currently boiling down to how well they deliver good images at super wide apertures.

I shot one image of the sun reflecting directly off a reflective glass panel on a building to see how badly the lens might flare. What I found is that it doesn't flare. I'm sure you could induce it to do so if you tried but in normal and general use the lens is very much flare resistant. 

So, all in all it's a very good performing lens optically. But how is the handling? That's where I had some issues. Nothing that practice and familiarity might not solve but still, I was frustrated on a number of occasions yesterday and haven't had similar problems when using the Panasonic S Pro 24-70mm f2.8 or the Panasonic 24-105mm lenses. 

First up, the zoom ring turns in the opposite direction from all the Leica and Panasonic lenses. That's a pisser because it's an operation you performance consistently and regularly with zoom lenses and it brings you up short and interrupts the flow of your photography. My biggest wish for this lens, if I keep it, would be for the zoom ring to turn in the other direction. If I only shot with this zoom and no others I might get used to it but I'm regularly using four other zooms and it's just not possible to retrain my brain and create some sort of divergent decision tree just for one optic. You are forewarned. 

The next thing that made me less than happy is that the focusing ring is positioned so that more often than not the fingers of my left hand come to rest on it when I'm holding the lens; when I am supporting it with my left hand. When you touch the focusing ring the camera and lens assume you are heading into manual focus operation and instantly pop into magnification mode. The AF stops and suddenly the finder image becomes highly magnified. It's jarring and always unintentional so it always takes me by surprise. I can turn that off in the camera but I like having it on for those times when, shooting through dirty glass, you really need to manually focus and don't want to spent time messing with the menu. I don't know how I'd fix the haptics on this if I were the designer of the lens. I might make the zoom ring a bit narrower and put more space between the zoom ring and the focusing ring to solve the problem but that's all I can think of without making the lens even bigger than it already is. I guess I'll turn off this switching feature in the camera and just depend on the M-AF button on the left hand side of the lens. Or just start manually focusing at all times.... (not going to happen). 

These two issues are aggravating but, if you like the rendering of the lens, not overwhelming. If you still have some mental flexibility left you'll probably figure out some workarounds. Still, it's less than perfect. 

But here's my early take on the lens; especially after seeing a bunch of images that I find to be really sharp and almost transparent in their presentation: Optically the lens is capable of making really great photographs at all the apertures from at least from f3.5 on down.  For portraits and similar subjects it's more than sharp enough to shoot wide open in the sweet spot. It's heavy and big but no heavier or bigger than most competing lenses and smaller by a bit than the Lumix S-Pro lens with the same gross specs. 

For a frugal photographer the Sigma, especially during a sale that drops the price to $950, is a bargain. If most of  your work can be well done within that focal length range you'll have a lens that competes on performance with prime lenses at nearly every focal length, but does so in one package. The Sigma Art series is becoming a reliable choice for people who value optical performance over camera brand. Every Art lens I've used is at least as good as the camera makers' lenses which are generally offered at 1.5 to 2X the cost of the Sigmas. As I used the lens over the course of the day yesterday I became more and more comfortable with it; especially from the perspective of appreciating its optical performance when used in conjunction with the Leica SL2 (which has amazingly precise and accurate white balance!). 

I'm probably going to add this lens to the inventory and thin out the selection by getting rid of the 28-70mm Leica R lens since it becomes irrelevant when compared to the newer lens. There are also a few other legacy zooms that need to vanish. 

Now, on to the last system "con." I'm not sure what it is about Sigma and Leica's mutual (mis)understanding of what it means to be in "an alliance" but they need to get their shit together about power management between the SL cameras the Sigma lenses. The SL was almost unusable with the Sigma 45mm until the camera and lens both had their firmware updated. The battery indicator would drop shortly after initially turning on the camera and deplete quicker than an ancient Kodak DCS 760 with its infamous and huge NiMh batteries. The Sigma 45mm+SL is much better with the updates. 

But the Sigma zoom, coupled with the SL2 is a lot more spendy on battery juice that I would have expected. I was out shooting for about an hour and a half yesterday, not chimping much at all, and noticed the drop of one bar on the battery indicator within twenty or so minutes. By the end of the walk the battery indicator showed only two bars lens. I'm sure it's the combination of autofocusing and image stabilization but it's a much quicker drain that I ever see with manual focusing lenses, and even more rapid than when I use the Panasonic 24-105mm f4.0 lens in the same fashion. I'll keep checking for firmware updates but don't expect to get more than a couple hours of casual shooting or more than 300 random frames out of a battery. 

With the SL2 it's always a good idea to carry a second battery with you. Better "power safe" than sorry. I guess if I was an "all day long" street shooter I'd just find a good, external battery bank and cable it to the USB-C connector on the camera. But this is 2021 and that's a bridge too far. 

Anyway, it's an good lens optically. It has some handling issues on the SL2 that don't rise (at least for me) to "deal-killer" statues and the price, compared to the Leica version of the lens, is very, very reasonable. If I didn't now have a standard zoom, and I lived mostly in the L mount world, this would be my strong second choice, right after the Panasonic 24-105mm lens which, while a bit more expensive, is also more flexible and covers a better range. 

If you shoot with Panasonic cameras the 24-105mm adds its image stabilization to the I.S. in the camera bodies and gives you an amazingly stable shooting platform. That alone is worth skipping the extra stop and choosing the slightly more expensive Panasonic product. But if you really need the extra stop and you are more interested in the wide end of a zoom than the maximum long end then this one is a good bargain. 

I've made a few notes on some of the samples below....

a flat wall with no real vignetting issues or horrifying curvature.

this was one of the first frames I shot with the SL2 and 24/70 combo and when I pulled it into Lightroom I was stunned to see all the individual petals on the flowers of the right hand tree. The Sigma Art lens has significantly good resolution. At f5.6 it becomes almost perfect. 

24mm and no real sign of apparent vignetting. 
I'm sure it's being fixed by the camera and lens profiles but
it's a nice, clean frame and highly usable. 

Below is a series of three building shots from 24mm to 70mm.
I don't see much performance shift through the focal lengths. 
the consistency is reassuring. 

The bright spot on the right hand building is a direct reflection of 
4 pm sun. I looked all over the frame for ghosting artifacts and flare 
but came up empty handed. No veiling flare either....

Again, below is a set of four frames showing the same subject and ranging 
from 24mm to 70mm. The final, fifth frame, is the same subject also taken 
at 24mm but using a wide open, f2.8. I think it's good.

24mm at f2.8 in full sun.

the images below are the same range; from 24mm to 70mm...

A much closer focus at 70mm and f2.8 to show off some out of focus background.