11.09.2021

Cheap Chinese Lens Arrives. Early Tests Surprise and Delight User. More exhaustive testing to continue.

 


Hot on the heels of acquiring my TTArtisans 35mm f1.4 comes my copy of the same company's 17mm f1.4. Both of these lenses are designed to work on APS-C cameras and both will vignette massive parts of the frame if you use them on a full frame camera. But hey! if that's the look you're going for...

The whole reason I was originally tempted to pick up first one and then a second TTArtisan APS-C lens is because of the surprising performance of the very first lens I bought from this maker. It was the 50mm f1.4 L mount lens which covers full frame. 

That lens was relatively inexpensive and at the same time, even wide open, it was sharp and contrasty and much, much better than I expected for the price. Once I got a taste of good optical quality mixed with super low prices it was just logical that I'd try a few even cheaper APS-C lenses on the recently acquired Leica CL.  The 35mm 1.4 was so much better than I thought it would be...even when used wide open. After using the 35mm for a while I headed to YouTube to get some perspective from different V-Loggers who seem to be on much the same wavelength as I am about the 17mm. They found some faults with the 17mm lens (unsharp corners at wide open aperture and some color fringing when used wide open) but to a person they strongly recommended it. Since it was just a tad over $100, and since the dollar seems to be dropping in value by the day, it was simple logic to click on the button and buy one. It's the same reason why we signed a contract today and paid a deposit on new windows for the house now, even though they won't be installed until May 2022. Lock in the future price when inflation rumbles and the value of your currency starts dropping.

The 17mm got delivered today and I spent an hour walking around and shooting with it. I photographed subjects at close range, at a comfortable range (6 feet?) and also near infinity. Then I came back to the office to take a closer look. But, I guess we'll save that for later in the week. It's my turn to prepare and serve dinner and I'm already running behind schedule.  TLDR? If you are shooting APS-C you should probably buy one of these. It's the equivalent of a 25.5 mm lens on full frame. And it's actually sharp in the center of the frame; even wide open. More later. And, yes. Replacing all the windows in the house. Just for the fun of it... The joys of home ownership...


All the cameras are better than you are... (me included). Revisiting a post from seven years ago. Did the crystal ball work?

 All the cameras are better than you are…


Join the blog----already in progress. I originally wrote this in March of 2014 but posted it somewhere else. Just wondered how it would read nearly 7.5 years later...



If you are ancient enough to remember the early days of digital photography you might remember that Kodak (the people who largely invented digital imaging...) announced that the "Holy Grail" of digital would be to match the performance of slide film.  Estimates varied but most experts at the time figured that the number to hit was about 6 megapixels. When we hit that number with the Kodak 660 and 760 cameras a lot of professionals and well heeled amateurs figured we had arrived, dumped the film cameras and stared bravely into the future. And that's when the whining started....

.....There were few arguments about having hit the original metric. We had achieved the goal of replacing the cameras most of us used to shoot film with cameras that would shoot digital files equally well but at that very moment the marketing race lunged off the starting mark and began dragging the marketing carrot around the track with vigor. Was 6 megapixels enough? Well, of course, but it didn't take long for Canon and Nikon to realize that this was a new game and one they could rig by playing to our uncertainties. Our insecurities as artists. After all, if your competitors only had 6 megapixels wouldn't you be more....infallible with 8 megapixels? And then 10? And then 12? And then....


I remember when we hit the 12 megapixel mark. Canon had their 1Ds (full frame) camera and Nikon had their D2x camera. Both were superb. Both could knock images out of the ballpark when used appropriately. What do I mean by appropriately? Well, if we shot them the way we did in the film days (when we were more than reasonably happy with the performance of our film+cameras) that would mean using good techniques. And good techniques meant using the lowest ISO possible, choosing the optimum aperture and providing a stable base for the camera. Easy stuff.  I looked back recently at some portraits I'd done on the D2x and wonder why I fell for the next campaign of fear and uncertainty and "upgraded" from there. 


But I know why we upgraded. The camera companies did a remarkably good job at creating the appearance of competition between photographers. When they ran out of megapixels they turned their attention to another area they could exploit; the ability to deliver cleaner files at high ISOs. With a Nikon D2xs you were safe shooting anything under 400 ISO but you were definitely on shaky ground once you passed the ISO 800 mark. And anything over 1600 qualified you as a photo-pointilist. The Seurat of imaging.  And rather than embrace and hug our tripods or turn up the volume on our plentiful flashes we followed right along and bought the cameras with the cotton candy ISOs. Everywhere we looked people were shooting mediocre, unlit images at 3200 ISO. So many crappy images were shot with no noise that it actually changed (by sheer inertia) the basic styles in which we shot. Everything became poorly lit and had tiny planes of sharp focus.


Once gifted lighters became, almost overnight, "available light" photographers. That just meant that even though they knew that "motivated" lighting was superior they were willing to be lazy and just depend on whatever (usually crappy) light they found on whatever location they were working. My friends in the film industry call this "New York Lighting" which suggests that a New York D.P. walks into any room/location, no matter how heinous the light, and if there are enough aggregated photons floating around (no matter how green or uni-directional), they consider the room "well lit" making the effort of additional lighting unnecessary.


Almost overnight all of the best practices of generations of photographers were thrown out the window and an endless cascading chorus of, "DON'T WORRY, WE'LL FIX IT IN POST" resonated in advertising agencies and Starbucks hosted photo offices almost overnight. The sad thing is that most of us bought into this "space race" mentality and slavishly followed along. 


But a few years ago the myth all started falling apart. A company called Olympus chummed up with a company called Panasonic and they introduced a tiny new format called micro four thirds ( a really dumbass name, to be sure...) and they started making cameras that reminded us of the fun, smaller cameras we used to have. The ones that didn't weigh a ton. And we started to use them. At first they weren't as good as the cutting edge "fat boy" digital cameras of the day but over the last two years they have become almost unimaginably better. Surely within striking distance of everything in their price class. And while the adaptation rate in the U.S. (lower education standards than most of the rest of the world) has been slow many parts of the world are snapping them up and eroding market share of the conventional mirrored digital cameras. This is even more interesting since the smaller cameras had the misfortune to be launched during the biggest financial meltdown of our generations (yes, plural!).


But recently, when some well known photographers compared the best of the m4:3 cameras to the newest generation of full frame, high megapixel cameras they came to an interesting conclusion: The files from the smaller cameras looked just as good or better. Russell Rutherford (famous fashion and sports shooter) went into a store to buy a Sony A7 and came out with an Olympus EM-1. People started leaving D800s at home in deference to Sony, Fuji and Olympus mirror less cameras. And the people who did this found out a very interesting fact: Since about 2008 all of the better cameras (non-budget, non-point&shoot) made files that were.....good enough. Really. For every use other than critical work at huge sizes the files---when used with identically good technique--- they were the equals of each other up to about 16x20 print sizes. But really, who is still printing large prints on a regular basis?


The other realization that seems to have sunk in is that most people----make that nearly all people--- who profess to be photographers end up sharing the bulk of their work on the web. Not just half their work but something like 95% of their work. And that includes everyone from advertising photographers to photojournalists. The only group not included here is fine art photographers who live and die by print sales. They haven't quite figured out how to monetize the web...(but few other photographers have either...).


I looked around the web and was stunned to find that the vast majority of pros and demi-pros who show work on the web show it at 1500 pixels on a long side or less. What happens to the other 4000+ pixels on that long side? The ones we paid so much for, over and over again? They get tossed. Just tossed. Oh, we all have the good intention of going back and making "amazing" prints from the files but the numbers just aren't there. While we've been focused on the overall decline of camera sales we seemed to have missed the numbers that point to a decline in high end ink jet paper sales and the slow down of ink jet printer ink for the high end of the market. We've finally admitted that though the print was the gold standard of the film age that quantity and relative quality of the web is the standard of the digital age, and though we grouse about it, we all seem to be accepting that and showing work there and doing our commerce there. And, for the most part, you are paying fast and loose with the truth if you say you aren't. 


Being a good consumer I bought into all of the endless megapixel hype. I rushed to buy a Canon 5Dmk2 and when Sony camera out with a higher megapixel camera, the a99, I rushed to buy that one too. But then I made two critical errors. The first one was buying a Sony a850 camera made in 2010 but based on the technology of the a900 introduced in 2009. Then I shot the cameras side by side in the way I had always shot my cameras---in the studio with lights---working at the optimum apertures and optimum ISOs (native). And amazingly the cameras' performances were nearly identical. If anything the a850 has better color separation. Or finer discrimination between colors. It's a camera that amazes me with its image quality in the same way that the Nikon D2x still amazes me. According to DXO the D2x is a piece of crap. If shot correctly it's largely still competitive for most working photographers who don't "need" to work at high ISOs. And for even most print applications the camera works well...


And the second mistake? Recently I've been working with smaller and smaller cameras like the Panasonic GH3 and even the Sony RX10. And what I keep seeing is that at most of the settings I routinely use the limiting factor is not my camera but my laziness with technique. I've written it before but it bears repeating: 


A bad camera on a good tripod generally delivers better image quality than a much better camera that's handheld by an adult who drinks coffee. 


A mediocre imaging sensor shot at its native ISO will nearly always outperform a much better sensor that is pushed to extremely high ISOs. Translation: A Canon G10 will deliver a better file when shot at ISO 80 than a Leica M240 with a $5,000 lens pushed to 3200. 


An image with great content, shot with a shitty camera, will always beat an image of your cat sleeping on the carpet shot with a medium format digital back and priceless German glass. 


A current m4:3 camera with brilliant image stabilization will almost always produce a more detailed handheld image than a full frame, 36 megapixel camera. (If the small camera is competing with an A7r with the non-optional shutter shock then make that "twice as detailed.").


What I am essentially trying to say here is that all of the cameras I've come across in the last two years, from the Nikon D800 to the Olympus EP-5 to the Fuji EX2 to the Sony  Nex-6 and Nex-7 and, yes, even the Pentax K-01, can deliver results that are nearly always better than the technique and capabilities  of the person holding them. 


In fact, we the users have become the lowest common denominator in the camera performance equation. We are the filter. We are the limiting factor. And in a nutshell that's why the market has slowed down/declined/entered free fall. We consciously or unconsciously know we have been manipulated into buying the "$200 dollar marathon racing shoes" when we know we can barely run a mile. We've bought the Lamborghini only to find that it bottoms out on our driveway and then, minutes later enters the crawl of rush hour traffic. We've bought the ultimate cameras only to point them at our cats and that pot of flowers while holding the cameras in our shaky hands and setting them to automatic... We slavishly buy better and better cameras and then wonder why our images don't improve.


Now, that doesn't apply to all of you. I'm sure that you (you know who I'm talking about) always use the lens two stops down at the ultimate aperture. I also know that you use the biggest Gitzo tripod on the market and then hedge your bets by locking up the mirror before shooting in order to squeeze the last millimeter of sharpness out of your images. And I'm equally certain that you---that one reader out of every hundred---carefully sets a perfect custom white balance every time you shoot since you know that color balance also effects exposure. And I'm certain that you never trip the shutter unless you have a wonderful image, worthy of sharing, in your sights. Right?


So, here we are. All the cameras have more megapixels than any of us ever get around to printing with. The color out of all the cameras is gorgeous (or can easily be made to be so...) and the noise in even the tiny sensor cameras is pretty good for most rational use. Why then the persistent interest in "the next camera?"  Ahh... the elegant body design. Is that it? Insert laugh. 


Wouldn't it be cool if we collectively decided that everything we have is already good enough for what we want it for and we all stopped buying cameras for a year? That might spur camera makers to: A. Lower their prices. B. Introduce useful features. C. Focus on lenses. Etc. But then it would put the burden on most of us to actually go outside and make interesting images. 


I'm thinking of a T-shirt. It's got a slogan on the front. It says, "My camera is crappier than your camera."  And on the back it says, "But I'm a better Photographer than you are." And we'll give them out to everyone who is able to make great image without having to rush out and buy the newest and greatest camera of the moment. 


Berlin. Opera House. Sharing lunch and music.


It is kind of wonderful to know that we've hit a bit of a plateau and that we really can relax a bit and enjoy the bounty for a while without feeling left behind. Once the equipment barriers fall down it really does help level the playing field. Maybe we'll see some real new talents rise up. Maybe we'll have time to learn how to use what we've got and how the menus work before we trade it in or sell it. That would be novel....


Reality: If you shoot at ISO 100, 200, 400 or even 800 just about any interchangeable camera on the market will do a really good job making images. If you make reasonably sized prints every camera with 16 megapixels or more will do the job well. If you don't shoot sports for a living all of the current camera models will focus quickly enough to make most of us happy.


There are outliers. There really are people who love to shoot sports. There really are people who want to shoot in super low light just to say they could. And there are people who want to carry around the latest big camera because it's generally cheaper than buying a really cool car and more portable too.


But I am not one of them and I'm pretty happy with what we've got now.

Batteries and Chargers Everywhere. Why prepping for a shoot now is mostly all about charging batteries...

A window view from Roswell, NM. This image has nothing to do with the post.

 Tomorrow evening I will head over to the Four Seasons Hotel and spend four hours photographing an event. A gala. A fundraiser. 

This will be the 30th year I've been the photographer for this combination  of VIP reception, regular reception, dinner and speeches. We missed out in 2020 for obvious reasons. But to say that I am out of practice is an understatement; this will be my first event photography job since the pandemic started and I'm frantic trying to decide on just the right gear and just the right way to proceed. 

Since many parts of the country and many other nations are still deeply affected by Covid-19 I should take a moment to talk about the safety precautions my client is taking. 

In order to attend the event, either as a paying guest or part of the support crew (which is me and the team from the non-profit holding the gala, as well as the lighting and sound people, etc.) you must show proof of being fully vaccinated or having had a negative test for Covid-19 within the last 72 hours. Masks are mandatory when not eating and/or drinking. I'm not sure how they will broadly enforce the mask requirements in a group of 400 but it does bring up questions for me about how I will be able to take the popular "grip-n-grin" photographs during the receptions. It will seem so strange if I'm to photograph everyone while they are masked. But maybe not. Maybe it will be seen as a statement or a funny historical marker of the times. At any rate I'll have a collection of face masks ready for action.

For the first hour and a half of the event I'll be circulating through an atrium in which the cocktail receptions are held, trying to group people together, quickly, for small group shots and couple photos (with an on-camera flash). During the dinner I'll be hopping up from our "crew" table in the back, working my way through the other tables  to a close proximity of the stage so I can photograph (without flash) each speaker and presentation at the podium. At the end I'll linger around to make casual photographs of the honoree and spouse  greeting and chatting with friends and fans. 

Usually I am confident about my ability to choose the right gear and piece it together for efficiency and reliability. I've done the same event for this friendly client so many times and with such different gear (year to year) that you'd think I'd be calm and collected about doing it one more time. But in the past this event was one of many done each year and there is a proficiency that comes from practice and repetition. This time the event seems, to me, amplified by the very singularity of it, in the context of the last 18 or 20 months. And I worry that months of relative isolation will have dampened my ability to generate the right rapport and connections with the people I want to photograph.

Right now, today, I think I've settled on a good selection of cameras, flashes and lenses. But indecision is rampant. I'm charging a bunch of different batteries in anticipation that I'll change my mind at the last minute. Will I shoot with the Leicas? Will it be a Panasonic camera and TTL flash instead? Or, how about those Fuji X100V cameras I mentioned. I'm leaning one way but charging batteries for any which way.

The floor in one corner of the studio looks like a nest of wires. Each flash I use now has its own proprietary Li-oN battery (and charger) and since I'm adamant about the need for back ups each flash has an additional battery. But while I think I've settled on one system I'm charging batteries for the other two....just in case. 

And then there are the camera batteries. I'm trying to stay the course and shoot with one particular system but across two cameras I'll want four batteries. They are all percolating on the chargers as we speak; along with batteries for two other camera types. The sad thing is that I know I'm overthinking all of this. But that's a side effect of spending so much time photographically idle. At least in the event arena. So...a quieter and more indecisive Kirk?

I know most of you think I'm daft for vacillating so much. You probably think I should have one way of doing the work and never vary from what worked well in the past. But without a bit of challenge, introduced one way or the other, how would a project like this be as much fun? If I stuck to one set of gear and one method I'd still be photographing this event with a couple of Leica M6 cameras and a Vivitar 285HV flash...along with some Kodak color negative film...

Batteries are the linchpin for everything. I'm equally comfortable with fully manual flash or full TTL automation. Any camera in the storage case is more than adequate for this kind of work. But it's all about the batteries. At least that's today's excuse. The more I have in the case the more comfortable I become.

On another topic, as I become more and more comfortable with the Leica CL and the TTArtisan 35mm f1.4 lens I continue to observe that the battery in the CL lasts for a long, long time when you use the camera and that MF lens together. Apparently not having to autofocus a lens, or provide battery power for image stabilization, makes an enormous difference in power conservation. 

I have the camera set to only show the working, shooting image in the EVF and to use the rear screen only for image review or menu diving. I also have the "power save" function turned on which shuts everything down if you don't touch any controls for 30 seconds. It's actually a lovely way to work for anyone who started in the days of film. It's a method that actively works against the dirty baby diaper method of camera handling. As I "come to grips" with the CL and the manual lenses I feel in some ways like I've come 180° back to earlier times. Except that the images are technically better now. And, since I take the combo everywhere there are photographic benefits to being. I sometimes come across images I would never have seen. 

Can't wait until the TTArtisans 17mm f1.4 arrives. That, and along with the 50mm f1.4 and 35mm f1.4 I already own, will make a nice foundation for small, light and potent travel kit. 

Now I have to go and see if I still have a suit and some ties in the closet. Oh, and some shoe polish...

Back to work.