8.09.2010

An irreverent, emotional and nostalgic review of the Leica M9 and the latest 35mm Summilux.

Leica M9 with latest version 35mm f1.4 Summilux M lens.  The current flagship of the Leica M Series digital cameras.

It's very important for you, dear reader, to understand that I don't review lenses and cameras in the analytical way that scientists do.  I'm interested in how sharp an optic is but I'm also interested in how it handles.  What the ancient greeks called "haptics".  What modern culture refers to as ergonomics.  On another level I'm constantly trying to figure out where an lens fits into the way I see the world and how I would use it.  I put the lens on an appropriate (and sometimes also inappropriate) camera and go out and shoot and shoot.  I make a mental notes of the things I like and the things I don't.  I look at the final photographs.  I even pixel peep.  But here's the deal in 2010:  We have to look at the whole system, we can't really assess the lens on it's own.

If every lens could be fitted to a very high resolution camera such as a Nikon D3x we could designate that camera as our test camera and make some sort of objective appraisals.  But there's no way Leica M lens or Olympus SHG lens would work on the majority of cameras that have deeper distance between lens flange and sensor.  In the days of film testing was easier because the tester could choose one kind of film and use it in every camera.  It afforded a good objective measure.  Now we have to evaluate a given lens in the context of its intended "system".  That would include the body and sensor as well as the firmware and, finally, the RAW conversion software.

Finally, FTC housekeeping:  1.  I am not an employee or subcontractor of Leica.  2.  I have not been given or promised any product of consideration in exchange for writing this review.  3.  I have been loaned the lens being reviewed directly from Leica and they expect me to return it promptly.  4.  They are not holding my family hostage in order to leverage positive comments.  5.  I borrowed the M9 body from Precision Camera in Austin, Texas in order to test the system.  Points 1, 2, and 4.  pertain to Precision Camera, as well.  In the spirit of total honesty I have, over the years, walked out with at least a dozen of their promotional, ball point pens.  I asked the staff if I could take the pens.  I think they were just being polite when they told me it was okay.......

What I am  ostensibly reviewing is the brand new, best in the universe, 35mm Summilux f1.4 lens that was just released by Leica in July of 2010.  What I am in reality reviewing is my long term, on and off again, affair with Leica M series rangefinders, and the confusing and perhaps ultimately useless pursuit of perfection.  The question at the heart of every recent Leica discussion, if distilled down to its core, is:  "Does it make sense to spend a small fortune in order to get the last 5% difference in ultimate performance?"  It's not a logical exercise.  I will presume I just lost all the people with accounting and business degrees.  And yet, there are people in the world who are sensitive to the last 5% of anything.  You see it in quarter million dollar Bentley cars,  half million dollar home sound systems and in any number of pursuits where craftsmanship, art and technology become intertwined.  We could just as easily be talking about shotguns or yachts.  But, as the world expands the opportunity to have brushes with perfection seem to be shrinking.  And where does the Leica M system fit into the whole mix?

I am not new to Leica M cameras and lenses by any stretch of the imagination.  I wrote an article for Photo.net back in 2001 that sparked nearly a decade of comments and, for me, hundreds of e-mails from Leica lovers and haters around the world.  You can read it here:  http://photo.net/equipment/leica/m6

I was asked to review the M8 and three Summarit lenses back in 2008 and you can read that here:  http://photo.net/equipment/leica/summarit-m-lenses/review  In the 1990's and the early  years of this century I shot many of my corporate event photographs with a system that consisted of several variants of the Leica M6 ttl and a bag of M lenses that included:  21 Elmarit, 28 Elmarit, 35mm Summilux 1.4 (two versions ago) 50 Summicron, 50 Summilux,  75mm Summilux and a 90 Summicron.  Over the years I probably shot somewhere near 100,000 frames through various Leicas.  I started out with an M3 and a dual range Summicron and have owned most of the models between that and the M7.  Once I started shooting digital for clients it became harder and harder to justify shooting and developing film.  But handling the Leica M's is like riding a bicycle.....

Belinda at TacoDeli on Barton Skyway, Austin, Texas.

Let's cut right to the chase.  I'm not a big fan of 35mm focal length lenses on full frame cameras.  I don't currently own a prime 35m lens for any of my cameras.  They're there on the zoom lenses but so are a lot of other focal lengths that I seem to like better.  Give me a 50mm any day.  But......the above photo is what 35mm 1.4 lenses do very well and why they are so important to photojournalists.   They show unfiltered context.  A 50 mm lens would exclude so much more of the frame.  A 24 or 28 would include so much that the lack of filtering would,  I think, reduce the impact of a single subject within a frame.  What the Leica lens adds to this is twofold.  It adds a fast aperture, 1.4, which yields a very narrow depth of field for this focal length.  In some ways it tricks the viewer.  Most of us are used to shots taken with lenses of this angle of view having much deeper focus.  The quick fall off of focus incorrectly cues one part of our brains to regard this as a telephoto shot.   The second thing the Leica M lens adds is sharpness at this wide open aperture.  That reinforces the power of the illusion created by the limited depth of field.

I don't usually do this but I included a 100% crop of Belinda's right eye so I could show you the sharpness from this shot, which was handheld at a 1/125th of a second.

I don't put much credence in 100% crops like this on the web because I think they are pretty meaningless.  If I were being rigorous I'd find a file shot at ISO 100 instead of ISO 400 and one that was made on a tripod instead of handheld after a cup or two of TacoDeli's strong and delicious coffee  (also not holding my family ransom....).  But I do see impressive performance for a wide open aperture.Here's another example,  it's an image of my friend, Will van Overbeek, being a bit silly at Trianon Coffee House.  If you blow it up a bit you'll see how detailed his face is and how quickly and elegantly the background goes out of focus.  
Internationally famous advertising and editorial photographer, Will van Overbeek, playing to the camera at Trianon Coffee House in Westlake Hills.


This is a jpeg that right out of the camera.  We're sitting in a coffee house with windows on two sides and mixed lighting coming from florescents and MR 39's in the ceiling.  While the M9 is sometimes critiqued for color balance issues I sure didn't see that in my tests.  The colors were very accurate.

So, the reason to own this lens is to do sharp images with defocused backgrounds.  The selling and value proposition is that it is sharper, constrastier and has other, less tangible but no less valuable, optical characteristics that other optics can't match.  Can I prove it?  Nope.  I can compare it with shots I've taken on the copy I had from two generations back (the first aspherical)  and from images I've taken with a 35mm Summicron but most of my images from those optics are on film and, after scanning and film quality constraints I think we'd be comparing apples and oranges.  I think it's an impressive lens.

I shot several hundred test shots with the lens and I did dumb stuff with it too.  Like shooting at meaningless apertures like f8 and f5.6.  Most lenses do well there.  Here is another image.  This is a shot of me taken by fellow professional photographer and part time psychiatrist, Keith Kesler.  It's his first time shooting a digital Leica M.  He usually shoots with Nikon D3x's.  But he nailed focus like he'd been using it for a while.......
Your somber author, sitting patiently while another photographer plays with the "Leica on Loan."

And to prove it,  I've also included a 100% crop of my left eye in the image directly below......

I focus with the other eye.  I use this one to look seriously at people.....

Uh-Oh,  need to do something about those bushy eyebrows.......  But you can see that the lens is very sharp and well behaved wide open.  By the time you get to my ears they are going out of focus and the background is wonderfully unsharp.

Sure it was 102 degrees today but who could resist tooling around town with a black M9 and a 35mm Summilux.  I shot the image below at the Texas capitol.  The young woman was there to have photos taken for her quinceanera (sweet sixteen celebration).  I used an aperture of around f3 at 1/1500th of a second in the open shade of the building.
An innocent bystander at the state capitol building gets included in the Leica mania.


It's got the two attributes that will make this lens one that journalist will be able to rationalize:  High subject sharpness with lots of context and it falls out of focus quickly and elegantly.....

Just for grins I thought I'd snap a few interior shots at the capitol.  I didn't know what to expect.  You assume that great depth of field is generally required for architectural shots but I just went ahead and shot it wide open so I could handhold at a reasonable shutter speed.  I was fairly amazed when I went for the 100% crop to show detail.  See below:
I'd focused on the second level of the rotunda so I grabbed the 100% er from there......

But then I decided to shoot some stuff outside and to see what a lens like this might look like at it's middle apertures.  I was thinking that you'd be a little nuts to buy a lens that's this expensive if you weren't going to use the speed but I figured if I bought one it would end up being my only 35mm so I'd hope that it was at least as good as my older Summicron when stopped down to f6.7......

Here's our magnificent state capitol from just across the street.....

And here's the 100% crop of the Lady of Liberty on the top of the building.....

The one thing I can see in the englarged portion of the image is some aliasing.  This is happens because Leica has used a compromise that I endorse.  They are using an 18 megapixel, full frame, sensor from Kodak that DOES NOT have an anti-aliasing filter on the front.  We've seen this in previous Kodak professional cameras like the DCS 760 and the SLR/n and it's brethren.  Here's the compromise:  You get incredibly sharp files.  Much sharper than my Canon 5Dmk2.  Maybe as sharp as the Nikon D3x.  Incredible amount of detail.  But, with some scenes you might get some aliasing artifacts.  These can be removed via software.  It's a design feature that allows you to squeeze out the full optical potential of the Leica lenses.

Then I decided to do something decidedly naughty.  I took the Leica 35mm Aspherical Summilux off the M9 body.  I walked across the hallowed halls of the Kirk Tuck Studio and, using an adapter, I put the Leica lens on the front of another manufacturer's body.......The Olympus Pen EPL.  $500 body,  meet $5,000 lens.  A perfect fit.


With the crop factor the 35mm makes a snazzy 70mm portrait lens equivalent for my Pen EPL.  It works perfectly!!!!  With live view magnification I can zoom in to check critical focus and then go back to reckless shooting.  I walked into Medici Coffee shop later today with the LeicOly around my neck.  I ran smack dab into a committed and serious Leica aficionado and watch his eyes bug out.  He stammered, glared at me and then walked away.  It was priceless.   But it's fun.  Mating one of the world's finest lenses with a camera body that's one step up from a point and shoot.  But such a nice step up.  I didn't spend a lot of time doing comparison photos because, again, it's apple and oranges.  The focal length changes so the lens philosophy changes.  The sensor on the EPL is the ultimate limiter in the equation.  It's good but it sure doesn't challenge the Leica optic.  You can see than when you look at the relentless detail in the M9 files....All you see in the EPL files is relentlessly beautiful files....
Belinda.  In the garden.  Camera:  Olympus EPL.  Lens:  Leica  35mm 1.4 Summilux      Aspherical with adapter.  Wide open.  ISO 200.

I've been giving you 100 % crops all along.  Why stop now?
100 % crop.  Belinda's Eye.  Olympus EPL.  Leica 35mm Summilux.

Long and rambling wrap up.  These reviews never seem to end well, do they?  You wind up thinking, "What the hell is he trying to say?"  "Should I buy the lens or not?"  "Will this purchase launch my career as an artist?"  "Is there a god?"  "What's on the other side of infinity?"

Well,  I'll wrap it up for you as neatly as I can.  This lens is probably the finest high speed 35mm focal length in the entire world at this point in time.  Nikon has a 35mm 1.4 and I used to own it.  It was designed in the 1970's and it was well thought of in its day.  Now,  ho hum.  It's still reasonably good and you'll need good technique to make images that better it but if you do use good technique it shows its age.  Canon introduced a 35mm 1.4 in 2002 but it doesn't get a lot of attention.  It's huge and I'm sure it's pretty good.  The two friends who own them tell me they vignette like crazy and that the corners are less than great at wide open.  I'm betting I'd be pretty happy with it.

Everyone makes a 35mm f2 and all of them are pretty good but you don't get the same look at 2 that you do at 1.4.   That sharp subject, soft background, ample context look is so different.  Especially to a generation of zoom lens users.

Okay, so the lens rocks.  It's three times the price of a Canon or Nikon 35mm 1.4 but so what?  There are ten dollar steaks and sixty dollar steaks and there are people who can tell the difference.  And who are willing to pay for the difference.  Why should it be any different with lenses?

The magical thing is the interplay between the rangefinder concept and optical supremacy.  Neither is obviously superior on their own.  Today I remembered why I liked the M's so much.  When you focus with a well calibrated rangefinder and a moderately wide angle lens you are getting an acuity of focus that is largely unbeatable.  You can nail the exact spot you want sharp with no second guessing of the little computer.  Once you set an exposure in a wide scene with a medium f-stop you can shoot and shoot without touching the focusing ring and you'll come away with sharp images.  I instantly abandoned the need to check AF.  I hit the rangefinder once for a medium distance and I could concentrate on framing and know that I'd always be in sharp focus.

And when I focused right up to the close focus limit of the lens I knew that I could shoot wide open and not be concerned that the lens might be soft, or that it might be front or back focusing.  I could count on a zone of sharpness that I don't encounter with lesser lenses in the same way.

But it's all part of a system.  The lens is great, yes.  But it would be meaningless if left to the untender mercies of the typical anti-aliasing filter.  You win some you loose some.  Especially with optical systems.  Nikons and Canons rarely show any sort of aliasing.  But when you compare their files to a camera that doesn't include that one step of unsharpening (later fixed in software, kinda) you can see just how sharp a lens can really be.  And that may be the unfair measure in all of this.  It is possible that the Canon 35mm 1.4 is remarkably sharp.  But with the influence of the AA filter we'll never know in the same way we know that the Leica lens is bringing the A+ game to the table.

So, would I buy it? Would I invest in the system?  I'll admit.  I can't justify the $9000 for the camera and the $4900 for the lens at this point.  I would also need the 90 aspheric and the 50mm Summilix and a back up body and.........just figure on around $30,000 for a system for me.  I know the lenses outperform my Canon zoom lenses.  They do.  You can see it.  But the argument becomes, "Is it enough of a difference to make a difference?"  And there, you have me.  It depends on what you do.

If money were no object I'd own everything in the Leica catalog in a heartbeat.  I'd sign a contract not to touch another brand as long as they kept producing.  But nothing in this world is so cut and dry.  I'm not another David LaChapelle, and, at 54 years old I finally have to admit that I'm not the next Richard Avedon.  I'm pretty much a regional photographer with a mortgage, a bunch of really nice regional and local clients, a kid to put through college and feeling the impact of the 2009 recession.  I forgot to get a trust fund.  Haven't won the lottery.  Didn't take that "self-actualization" class that would have helped me charge a million dollars a picture.  So when I look at my budget and then I look at the gear I want there is always a disconnect.  Let's call it a chasm.  I want the best stuff in the world but I'm only going to see the difference when I shoot in a way that I don't usually shoot.  I love the look of the 35mm Summilux wide open but I rarely shoot that way.  I love the way the Leica lens and a camera blow up.  But my clients are looking for work that fills magazine pages and websites.

Here's my final distillation:  If you are just getting started as a commercial photographer and you don't have rich parents to support you,  cover your eyes and run away before the siren song of the world's best lenses snares you and drag you in.  You can't rationalize this in any commercial way.... But... if this is your passion and you were lucky enough, through advantageous birth or clever choices or hard won professional acclaim so that this kind of expenditure won't cause you lost sleep, panic or indecision; jump in with both feet.  This stuff is wonderful.  Having the best lens in a focal length in the world puts the onus on you though.  You have no more technical  excuses not to come back with spectacular stuff.

But you'd better like working with rangefinder cameras because that's the only way you'll squeeze that last 2 to 5% of perfection out of these lenses.  And it takes practice.  In many ways all the DSLR's we normally use are just variations of a Toyota Camry or a Lexus.  They are nice and well behaved and easy to drive.  But driving a six speed Ferrari well actually takes skill, practice and talent.  More people wreck high performance cars in the first month of ownership than any other type of car!!!!  You won't wreck your Leica but it will demand a level of skill you haven't had to deal with yet if you've always worked with DLSR's and AF and AE.  The rewards?  The Leica system may just be in the midst of recapturing the high end of the 35mm format world and the medium format camera world at the same time.  Amazing.  These aren't your father's Leicas.  And yet, in every sense, they are.

For me?  I'm pretty amazed by one thing this week.  In years past I would have been filled with adrenalin to be handed the current top Leica and their ultimate 35mm lens to test.  Excited and filled with inspiration.  But I think I'm over an important hurdle.  I find that I just don't care about sharpest and best any more.  I'm not rushing after the best technical gear.  I'm pretty happy just looking for the images.  For the emotion of the image.  For the power of a connection.  And I'm finding that, while it's nice to have the very best......it's in no way "mission critical" for my work.  YMMV.

Go out and have a great week.  Shoot some stuff, just for fun.

   Red cup at Taco Deli.  Austin, Texas.


8.07.2010

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CLIENT?

Anna Devere Smith for Zachary Scott Theater.


I’ve heard photographers and advertising people joke for years that these industries would be a lot more fun and effective if only they could get rid of the clients.  What they are really saying is that the client’s demands can impinge on the creative impulses of image makers and content creators.  It’s true.  There is always a friction between the goals of photographers (goal: to have fun taking really creative images) and clients (goal: cost effectively acquire images that reliably help to sell product).
Many in the creative industries routinely couch the relationship between clients and themselves as an adversarial one.  They describe their negotiations as heated battles where each side attempts to conquer the other.  Some photographers even seem convinced that clients are out to squelch their creative output and force photographers to create staid and boring work instead.  They go so far as to believe that clients are acting against them because they are jealous that they are not in a “creative” industry like ours.
So, what does this adversarial point of view buy you?  Generally ulcers, migraines, early death and little else.  I hate to be the one to tell you but clients are the most important single thing in your whole business.  More important than the latest cameras and lenses, much more important than that brewing debate about lighting styles on your favorite blog.  Even more important than the overall economy.  They are your sole financial resource.  They make everything you eventually do in your business possible.
If you step back and think of your clients as business partners, research their industries and try to put your feet in their shoes, you’ll come to realize that they are really seeking a collaboration or a blending of their skills and insights with yours to try and achieve a successful outcome for their business goals:  maximum profit.  When you drop the adversarial approach and become a truly integrated part of their team (whether in editorial, advertising or weddings) you’ll be in a position to better sell your creative ideas, maximize your budget and build the kind of long term relationships that create a good framework for consistently getting assignments and making real money from them.
If food service is an industry you serve you’ll want to subscribe to their trade publications to stay knowledgeable.  Knowledge is profit.
Here are the three most important things I do to build my relationship with clients:
1.  Understand their industry and their position within that industry.  This should mean that you’ve read everything available about your client’s business from the mission statement on their website to the last page of their annual report.  From the current news in the Wall Street Journal to the blogs that flame the company.  You should also know what their competitor’s photography and use of advertising looks like.  You’ll have a better understanding of what kinds of budgets are reasonable and even when their business is going (hopefully temporarily) into the toilet, prompting you to get busy building relationships in other industries
2.  Build my relationship with the person I collaborate with.  This can be as simple as sending interesting articles about intersections between our industries (articles in Photo District News Magazine or Advertising Age) clipping newspaper comics that are relevant to their industries as well as pointing them to interesting webcasts.  It can escalate to monthly lunches where you meet and discuss big issues, present fun new work and generally get to know your client as an individual.  Anthropological research has shown time and time again that sharing food creates bonds between humans.  The more bonds you can build with your client the better you’ll understand their needs and the more disposed they will be to award you work.  This can be especially important with clients who are constrained by their companies to solicit competitive bids.  In a surprising number of cases you will build genuine friendships that will last over the long course of your career.  Constantly remind yourself that it’s far easy to nurture an existing relationship than it is to “beat the pavement” looking for new work.…….
 3.  Go into every negotiation looking for ways to sell your vision or style without alienating those you should be collaborating with.  In my mind this means accommodating the other person’s point of view.  If you feel you are always right or that you always have the best solution for every project you need to take a few moments to consider that,  you may be wrong!  In many instances where, in the past, I would have vehemently argued my position I have learned to listen first for all the details.  When I do that I realize that I sometimes argue from a position of “ego”.  If I have all the facts I can more clearly see my client’s point of view and we can then work together to create a collaborative work that effectively combines the best of both our skills.  I have a little note attached to my computer.  It’s helped me retain many clients over the years.  And it’s helped me to generate more profits.  The note just says, “What if the other guy is right?”
4.  If you become a “commodity” you’re dead meat.  The most important single thing you need to get across to your clients is that you bring a very unique vision and a unique set of attributes to your projects.  If you compete just on price,  and you offer the same styles and types of images as everyone else, your potential clients will be inclined to look at all photographers as commodities.  When a product or service becomes a commodity (an interchangeable product like wheat or machine screws.…) the clients immediately reduce the parameters of their selection process to price.  Competing on price alone means that your business has entered a “death spiral” from which it is hard to ever escape.  You must have powerful differentiators that add value to your photography for clients.  Only then will you succeed financially.
Learn right now to befriend, nurture and educate your clients and you’ll find that they do the same for you by smoothing your working process within their company and by connecting you with people in their social and business networks who can offer you additional work.  You might even make some nice friends.
This was excerpted from my third book,  Commercial Photography Handbook, published by Amherst Media and used as a textbook by Austin Community College's Photo Dept.  I think it's a very good book for anyone who might want to make a living as a photographer.    Thanks.

8.05.2010

Kirk's personal review of the Canon 7D and some lenses.



Let's get the persnickety housekeeping stuff out of the way:  when I review a camera I'm basically telling you what I think it does well and what it does less well.  I'm telling you how it fits in the hands of a five foot, eight inch tall guy.  I'm subconsciously and consciously comparing the camera or the lens to all the hundreds of cameras I've bought, borrowed and used over the last 25 years.  I'm not going to do technical testing.  If you need to know how fast the camera powers up or how many grams the thing weighs or exactly where the noise falls on a scale you'll probably want to supplement my ramblings with some largely objective measures from a site like www.dpreview.com.  Just do yourself a favor and stay out of the forums; it can get pretty savage in there.......

First a bit of history that will, in a tangential sort of way, explain how I ended up with a Canon 7D in my hands and what the thought process was.

Last Summer I was shooting everything with Olympus cameras and lenses.  I liked them and they worked fine for most of the stuff I shot.  I was thinking (incorrectly) that the bulk of our work was heading for the web and that the 12 megapixels and overly agressive anti-aliasing filters of the current Olympus cameras wouldn't present a problem.  But then the economy started to recover in Austin.  My favorite art directors started to re-discover the joys of designing double truck (two page) spreads in their advertising work and my favorite graphic designers started designing wrap around brochure covers and spec'ing really nice,  high res offset printing on their projects.  I'd shot something this Spring in the studio for my biggest client and he called me to talk about technical issues.  (A very rare occurrence as most AD's don't care what gear you use as long as it works for them.....).  He mentioned that he was comparing what I'd just shot for him with some stuff we'd shot a year earlier using a Kodak SLR/n  (full frame, 14 megapixels) and told me that the Kodak stuff was much, much sharper and more detailed.  He also mentioned that he'd just shot in Dallas with a photographer who was using a Canon 5Dmk2 and the evidence of magnificent detail in the files was obvious.  He went straight for the juglar.  He said,  "I'm not going to tell you how to run your business ( a lead up that almost guarantees that someone is going to tell you how to run your business )  but, if your files aren't as detailed as those I'm getting from these other suppliers I'm going to have to send more business to them."  

Before the surly and self-righteous among you scream into the comments that I shouldn't let this person dictate to me I want to mention that he paid me enough in fees in a bad year to buy a nice new car......and he's been one of my best friends for the better part of 20 years.  It's the first time he's given me direct, technically inspired business advice.  And,  in retrospect, my pessimism led me to believe the market was heading in a direction (the web) that didn't match what was happening on the ground in my part of the market.  We're still kicking out a bunch of print....and a lot of it is big print.
I love the quick screens on the new generation of cameras.


I immediately went camera shopping.  I bought a Canon 5Dmk2 for three main reasons:  1.  It was cheap compared to all the other high resolution options (I looked at the Sony's but didn't like the limited choice of optics or the lack of video...).  2.  All of my professional photographer friends shoot Canon and like it a lot. And they (my friends)  are a rich source of gear loans.  They've got T/S lenses, weird wide angles and so much more.  3.  I could put together a system that worked for me without worrying about when they might get around to refreshing the products I'm most interested in.

I've worked with the client many times since then and he sees a big difference in the files.  I admit I'm impressed by the files from the 5Dmk2 as well.  I still shoot a lot of stuff with my Olympus Pen cameras and I always pack an e1 when I'm shooting in the rain, but............there is something fundamentally different about a lot of pixels.  You really see a difference in file detail if you do your craft right.  That means careful focus, good lenses, shooting at optimum f-stops, using tripods when necessary, etc.

I've made my money back on whatever I spent for the Canon stuff and that's the way it should work in a professional business.  But for a while I carried both systems with me on jobs because I think it's not professional to shoot deadline intensive work without a back-up strategy.  Kinda dumb though, to carry a full back up system of non-compatible gear.  And wow,  those SHG lenses get heavy quick.

I knew I needed to get a Canon to back up the Canon and to shoot with when I shoot with two different lenses at the same time.  I didn't want to blow the rest of my budget and get another 5Dmk2 so I started looking at cheaper alternatives.  I almost got a Rebel T2i.....until I held it in my hands and looked thru the finder.  I almost bought a used 40D but they use different batteries than the 5D2.  Then I started reading about the 7D and it seemed just right.  When I held one in my hands I was sold.

I should mention that I thought about buying a used original 5D but the LCD is just awful and the handling seemed kludgy compared to the new model.

I bought mine at Precision Camera, here in Austin, because they quoted me a price that was lower than B&H and Calumet,  I could walk out the door with the camera in my hand,  go back to them if I needed service, and finally I knew that the bulk of the money I spent there would go right back into my own community.  And into our local tax base.  And to my child's school.  Etc.
The button on the top left is the quick menu selection button
and the button next to it is an immediate raw+ or Jpeg+ button
for one frame special captures.


But none of this explains why I like the 7D so much and reach for it before I reach for the 5D2 almost every time (there are exceptions...).  That's what this review is for.  First off I'll mention one of my favorite things about this class of camera (and that includes the equivalent model from Nikon, the D300s) I love the way the shutter sounds and feels when it goes off.  It's muted,  it has very, very low vibration, and it seems quicker in it's action than the full frame camera shutters.  I never liked the sound and feel of the Nikon D700 shutter by comparison and I'm equally unfond of the "feel" of the Canon 5D2 shutter as well.

The much smaller size and weight of the 7D (and Nikon 300s) shutter, while housed in a body with even more mass than the 5D2 means that the whole device feels more solid and stable than the full frame cameras.  This makes me believe that the camera is more responsive and, by dint of it's higher perceived rigidity, more stable during the exposure which might lead to sharper results, all things considered.  Notice that I say "The much smaller size and weight of the 7D shutter..."  but not the body itself.  If you weigh them the 7D is actually just a bit heavier than the 5.  Better construction?  It feels like it.  But that may be my subjective prejudice coming to the fore.

Now to all the little things.  Ken Rockwell makes a big deal about how much better the power switch is on the 7D.  I immediately agree,  the three position combination locking and power switch on the 5D2 is fiddly and to small.  It requires too much leverage on such a small control.  Makes me think I'll accidentally break it some day.  Funny how the position and feel of one tiny switch can change your feelings about a camera.

The next thing most people notice is how good the LCD screen on the back of the camera is.  This is a neutral for me vis-a-vis the Nikon D700 I used to own.  It too had a brilliant screen.  Coming from the Olympus e3 though it was a big step forward.  You can actually use it to judge sharpness and focus with.  Nice.
One button stop/start for video recording.  I like that.


One thing that makes me happy to use most cameras produced in the last few years (Nikon and Olympus included) is the inclusion of quick menu or data screens.  You push a button on the back of the camera and all of the most commonly needed settings appear in one screen and can be easily set from that one screen.  Beats the hell out of the old days when you'd have to scroll around through menus to find the stuff you needed.  But I can't put a star in the "glorious" column for the Canon since it's quick screen date display and implementation is no better or worse than those in a number of other cameras.

I'm very happy Canon included on "on camera" flash and I'm even happier they made it able to control off camera flashes in the same way Nikon uses the built in flash on the D300 to control their CLS flash system.  I use it, along with a 580 EX2 to do simple lighting set ups with a single off camera light blasting into a large, white umbrella as a main light source for quick portraits.  People can talk all they want about how much better one companies flash control is compared to another companies flash control but it's all moot to me.  I use the flashes on manual, usually at 1/2 or 1/4 power.  All flashes seem equally good on manual.  As long as they trigger the rest is up to me.  The Canon off camera flash control system has a totally different menu interface than the Nikon or Olympus and it's not nearly as clear and obvious.  If you are buying the system primarily to use off camera flash controlled by the 7D be prepared to drag along the manuals for both the flash and the camera on the first five or six shoots,  just to be safe.

I practiced it all in the studio until I was comfortable with the set up.  Even then I made a series of laminated notecards with the major steps on them to carry in my camera bag.  None of this really matters if you are using the camera with a dedicated TTL cord or using the flash directly in the hot shoe of the camera.  You just use it the same way we've been using TTL flash since digital came along.  That is:  take a test frame, dial in some correction one way or the other and start shooting.  I've been a proponent of Jpeg as a standard use file format since I started shooting Olympus cameras but when it comes to flash and paying clients I always shoot RAW for the extra insurance it provide.

One neat thing about an attached Canon flash and the 7D (also on the 5D2) is the ability to see and control all the things on the flash menu on the LCD screen of the camera.  You get more information and can make clearer choices when setting up the flash via the camera.  I'm also happy to have an admittedly antiquated PC terminal on the camera.  Having a desperation back-up for the regular hot shoe is very nice and I sometimes grab for an old fashion sync cord when too many cell phones and Nextel radio phones are messing with my radio flash triggers on location.  (Quick note:  I did a demo at a college photo class last month.  Noticing that I used Elinchrom lights the instructor pulled me  aside during a break and let me know that they were having a lot of trouble with misfires and non-fires with their Elinchroms and the radio Skyports.  I asked for a show of hands of people who's cellphones were on and live at the time.  It was 15 for 15.  We tried the flashes and were able to duplicate the problems.  I asked everyone to turn off their cells and we tried again.  100% flash trigger performance!  No misfires.  I don't know why but this is what worked.  If you have trouble with your radio triggers the first thing to check after the batteries is radio interference.  My next guess would have been ER from the banks of florescent lights.....).

The 7D's smaller, faster shutter syncs at 1/250th.   Makes fill flash and sunlight a bit easier.  I'd still carry around a two stop ND filter if you do a lot of that kind of work.  If you like shooting HS you'll want to hunt down the menu control that allows the camera to do HS.  It's under the first menu on the left of the row of menus.  Look for "flash control".

All the usual stuff for flash is available: first curtain/second curtain,  changing parameters for minimum and maximum sync speed, dialing in compensation (which you can do on the "quick" menu) and all the rest.  Most of it is meaningless to me except the HS flash.  I have been doing a lot of that in the last week or so.  That also makes me happy to have ISO 100 but I would prefer the ISO 50 I can get on the 5D2 if I do much HS in earnest....
Yummy.  A dedicated locking button instead of the confusing arrangement on the Canon 5D2.


Let me tell you three things that this camera does very, very well.  1.  Autofocus.  It rocks.  It's so much faster and surer than previous Canon cameras.  It more customizable than any of my Olympus cameras and the integration of graphical information on the focusing screen is great.  So far, every lens I've tried on this particular picture taking machine locks in quickly and accurately.  But you might want to take what I'm saying with a grain of salt and try it yourself if you are a sports shooter.  I tend to stick with single focus points,  mostly in the middle,  and shoot on "S" single frame with "one shot" AF.  I have tried the AI autofocus setting on continuous in a dark theater with fast action and was happy to see that the lens focus followed the subject and locked in every shot with perfect focus.  I can't speak to football or race cars because I don't do that.  I like that you can change the strength of the tracking focus lock on and make it more or less responsive to abrupt changes (like someone moving between your camera and your main subject) but again,  not something I do a lot of.  2.  Frame rate.  Kind of a corollary to autofocus but the frame rate is fast, fast, fast which means the viewfinder "black out" time is well minimized.  I think a faster frame rate and a lower black out time go hand in hand with the smaller sensor geometry and the lower mass of all the associated mechanisms.  3.  Battery life.  It just goes on forever.  If you take Canon at their word and you do the full drain and recharge cycle three times before you use the camera in earnest, you'll find that the batteries can last up to 2,000 frames.  That's only true if you don't "chimp" a lot, use the read LCD as an iPad substitute or shoot a lot of video.  But if you use the camera as we film cameras, with little review,  the battery life is superb.  The charger is also very good, gives you more complete info that most other makers and does it's job quickly.  I like that the charger has a folding plug and doesn't require a cord.

Anyone who uses this camera will probably tell you they have the same favorite feature.  And that would be handling.  It fits my hands perfectly.  It shoots perfectly and it feels solid and reliable.  People who don't handle cameras all the time don't get why this is such an important parameter to me.  But honestly,  I'll take a camera with worse ISO performance or less resolution rather than work with a camera that doesn't quickly become intuitive and ortho-adaptive.  A camera should settle into your hand in a way that doesn't leave a nagging feeling that a control should be moved over half an  inch or a button should be in a different spot.  The stuff I use is where I think it should be and the stuff I don't use stays far enough out of the way that it doesn't cause me any trouble.  

People laughed when I said I gave up the Nikon D700 because it lacked soul.  What I really meant was that the camera just didn't feel right for me.  There wasn't the people/machine connection that comes from a camera that's been rigorously designed for feel instead of just raw function.  In some ways I regret selling the D700 because the files were really good.  But I just never warmed up to holding it and shooting it.  I always reached for the D300.  I love the files I get from the Kodak SLR/n but the ergonomics are porcine and medieval compared to the older Kodak DCS 760.

The Olympus e1 may be the sexiest camera I've ever held if you are judging a camera solely on feel.  Light years ahead of the e3.  And I'm sure in each of these examples someone will say that they feel just the opposite way.  They may be right for them but no for me.

In the Canon line the 7D is the current camera with soul.  The shutter sound is satisfying.  The finder is fine.  The feel of the body is like solid steel in your hand.  The buttons are just right.  It's got the feel that eludes the 5D2.  I'm willing to be that the 1D series of cameras is in the same ball park but the cost to someone who doesn't abuse their bodies is just too high.  

But just because the 7D has soul doesn't mean it's files are magical.  The 5Dmk2 is a much better file producer.  When I compare raw to raw in the Lightroom 3 I can see smoother gradations, higher sharpness and more resolution in the 5.  With both cameras set to ISO 100 the differences are slight but they are still there.  The 7D files are just a little harsher.  Harsher?  Yes.  Harsher.  The 5D2 files are smoother and accept manipulation with more grace.  All things being equal the 5 wins in every category.  But the differences aren't enormous.  If you didn't have the files side by side in the same raw converter chances are you wouldn't notice the differences.

Our blessing and curse is that humans are great visual comparators.  We can see incredibly fine differences in color and texture when two objects are placed side by side.  Incredibly subtle nuances.  But take away the ability to do direct, side by side comparisons and you're in a whole different ballgame.  We accomodate quickly to single samples and our mind makes them whole.  It's the same thing as being in a room lit entirely with green florescents.  Our eyes, or rather, our brains quickly make an accommodation that makes the light appear neutral. It's the same thing with cameras.  In the absence of comparators all cameras look pretty good.  It's only when you compare them with identical images taken with other cameras that you begin to really notice color shifts and noise signatures.  

All that being said, the 7D is not far behind the 5D2 in quality.  I feel comfortable shooting the 7D at ISO 800 and I feel totally comfortable shooting it's big sister at 1600.  They can both go higher and they both become less than perfect.  But, for me, high ISO performance isn't nearly as important as it might be to a nightclub photographer or a photojournalist.  I've had the 5d2 since April and the only shoots that haven't been done on a tripod or with supplemental lighting are the technical dress rehearsal shoots I do for Zachary Scott Theater.  That's about once a month.  Tops.  The rest of the time high ISO just never comes up.  If I compared the 7 to the 5.2 at 6400 ISO I'm sure I'd see a huge difference.  But that's not the stuff I do.

My jobs go like this:  Go on location.  Set up lights, diffusers, giant softboxes, things that personalize my vision.  Set camera at the slowest ISO I can (commensurate with the best file characteristics....) and blaze away.  Or, go on location in the great Texas outdoors and sync up a big flash and blow away the sunlight.  Usually with ISO 100 and a two stop ND attached to the front of the lens.  High ISO?  Don't think so.

Head to head, at more Burgheresque ISO's I find the 5.2 files to be a bit more detailed and nuanced.  I use it for everything that's got to be big and perfect.  The rest of the time I reach for the 7D.  It works better.  For me.

Here's how I use it:  The 7D loves three lenses and I'm gonna bet it's a long spell between new lens adventures.  My "go-to" lens is the zonky 15mm-85mm f3.5 to 5.6.  It's sharp but it vignettes like black paper wrapped around the end of the lens and it's got more curvature than Madonna.  So why am I remotely interested in the lens and why do I like it so?  First of all, it looks cool.  Bad reason?  Yeah.  But it's also the equivalent of a 24 to 136 mm zoom that's pretty darn sharp, wide open on each end even more so thru the middle.  And, if you are using the latest rev of Photoshop or ACR or Lightroom or the Canon software you have at your fingertips automatic correction of the things you might not like about the lens.  Push one button and the software fixes most of the geometric issues while evening out the exposure to the edges.  This is something that Nikon's newest cameras are capable of doing on the fly but I'm just as happy to do it in software.  Truth be told, I'm not averse to a bit of creative vignetting.....

The attribute that makes this lens a real keeper, though, is it's impressive Image Stabilization.  I don't have anyway to measure the real accomplishments of this system other than to say that I'm able to get a number of keepers at exposure times all the way down to 1/8th of a second.  It's pretty credible performance and works as long as the subject's not moving too much.  

It's important to say that I spend a lot of time and energy shooting portraits and I like the look of a sharp subject surrounded by a softer background.  I don't spend a lot of time analyzing the corner performance of any of my lenses.  If I shot architecture like my friend Paul Bardagjy I'd do what he does and spend time finding the optics that are sharp across the full field.  Then I guess my favorite lenses would be tilt shifts and flat field wide angles.  And, like Paul, I'd spend more time buying up Zeiss and Leica R lenses and adapting them to the Canon cameras.  Okay.  Enough on the 15-85mm.  It might be an acquired taste, like anchovies and brussel sprouts.
Yes.  A traditional flash sync, PC connection is provided.

My next favorite lens/tool is the EFS 60 mm macro.  If you are new to Canon or you've always shot full frame you might want to know that EFS lenses are made specifically for the smaller sensor cameras and won't even mount on the full frame models.  I like what Nikon did with their APS lenses on full frame bodies.  The just show the smaller APS size crop in the finished files.  Works great in a pinch but not available on the Canons.  

The 60mm focal length is the equivalent of a 96mm on a full frame camera.  I like the focal length and I like the fact that this lens is sharp wide open (and I mean very, very sharp) and has really nice contrast and resolution.  Currently, this lens and my 100mm f2 (on the 5D) are my two favorite portrait lenses.  The focusing is silent and quick.  My one complaint?  I wish it came with Image Stabilization.

Rounding out my lens choices for this part of the system is the 70mm-200mm f4 L zoom lens.  I works equally well on both full frame and APS-C cameras and provides a lot of reach with very little weight and bulk.  I've owned everyone's 70-200mm f2.8's and I'm so over the weight and the intimidating appearance, not to mention the cost of the behemoths.  At f4 this lens rocks.   It's about as sharp as you can make a zoom lens and it's not much bigger than a 100mm 2.8 macro lens.  Erwin puts once wrote an article about lens design that gave me pause.  (He's an expert in Leica lens design...)  He explained that for every one stop increase you must increase the front element diameter by a factor of two.  The engineering requirements to get the same precision grind and finishing tend to increase by a factor of 8 for every doubling of effective aperture in a given focal length.  The bigger the front element the tougher the manufacturing process.  In other words it's easy to make slower glass much sharper and much better for a lot less money that faster glass.  The 70-200 f4 is a shining example of this principle as are most macro lenses which tend to be slow but sharp and evenly illuminated across the frame.  I don't dread carrying this lens around with me during the day the way I dread carrying around the Olympus 35-100mm f2.  The slower Canon lens even fits into the standard pockets of my Domke camera bag.

I bought the Canon tripod collar for this lens since I was unwilling to spend twice as much money to get the IS version of the lens.  It balances beautifully and I've been very happy with all the images I get with this combination.  On the 7D it gives me a reach of 112mm to 320mm at f4.  I'm happy with that although I don't find many situations in which to use the longest focal lengths.  And the lens is white which reflects heat.  It's a good lens all the way around.  

While the rest of my Canon stuff works on the 7D some of it becomes less useful, like the 85mm 1.8, which I love on the 5d2 and have no feeling for on the smaller sensor camera.  Ditto the 20mm lens.  I can't get over the feeling that I'd be compromising on resolution with the 20mm.....

So,  the files are pretty good.  At least on par with its direct competitor, the Nikon 300s.  The high ISO's are very decent for a small sensor, 18 megapixel camera.  It responds quickly and diligently.  It feels perfect in my hands.  I've found some lenses I really like to use on it.  It's pretty cheap compared to the Nikon D2x's and Kodaks and big Canons I've dropped change on over the years.  The finder is the best I've seen in the smaller framed cameras.  So what have I left out?

I saved the best for last.  I know.  I know.  All of you are "pure" photographers and you think that video sucks and we should demand that they take it out of our cameras and stop charging us for it.  But you're wrong.  At least as far as my business and my art are concerned.  I'm finally starting to wrap my head around the multidisciplinary nature of our business going forward.  And that means wrapping my head around the tools as well.  This is the best DSLR video camera on the market today.  I like it better, out of the box, than the Canon 5D2 because it's easier to use as a video camera.  There's on button to set and push on the back.  Once you've enabled video and set the desired resolution and frame rate all you have to do is push one button on the back of the camera to start and stop the video.  You'll want a Hoodman or Zacuto loupe so you'll be able to watch the footage your shooting on the rear LCD.  You can shoot in full manual or with as much automation as you'd like.  But you'll probably want to do your focusing before you start rolling because the camera is not going to do follow focus on it's own like a dedicated video camera.

The footage is clean and highly detailed.  I can make the camera "jello" if I pan quickly but like the doctor says, "If it hurts when you do that, stop doing that."  This camera, coupled with a good microphone is a formidable video making machine.  So much so that Dirck Halstead's Platypus Workshop (video training, week long boot camp) will be using the 7D as their camera of choice in their classes this year.  I've been using mine with a Rode VideoMic and it's pretty darn good.  Most of my projects are little ones that we've been editing on iMovie but they sure look great on client websites, via vimeo.

If you think that you're getting a camera that's pretty much light years ahead of nearly all cameras more than two years old and you're getting monster good video performance in one water resistant, dust resistant, easy to handle package you'll come to realize that this camera is one of the bright points of the current market.  I haven't played with the new Nikon D300s but I'm betting I'd like that as well.

So this whole journey started because I was looking for a sensible back up to a 5Dmk2.  I wanted a camera I could swap batteries with.  I wanted something with pretty high resolution for those shoot with the client who pushed me to go higher res.  And I wanted something I would enjoy using alongside the 5D2 when I was shooting multiple cameras.  I think this pretty well fills the bill.  Much as I like the 7D I think, in retrospect, that it would have made a lot more sense just to buy a second 5Dmk2.  Then the body functions and the menu choices would be indentical.  I'd also be backing up with the same quality as my primary camera.  That would make a lot more sense.  But I'm rarely sensible.  And in my pig headedness I've discovered a camera that is robust enough for tough play.  Has enough resolution to keep nearly anyone happy and has given me a more efficient video rig.  I'm not going to switch now.  But I do reserve the right to add a second 5 (or a 1DS mk 4) at any time.


People seem to like "pro and con" lists so here I am at my pickiest:

Cons.  

1.  I wish it had all the mechanical performance and specs (8 fps, fast AF) but with the full frame 21 megapixel sensor.....

2.  When I'm in a hurry it's still hard to hunt down the setting for HS flash with an external flash unit.

3.  I have to use faster, UDMA CF cards to get the full speed performance and write performance that the camera is capable of.  Don't expect a deep raw file buffer if you are using a slower card!!!!!!!!!!!!

4.  I wish the AF settings were more intuitive.  I might use more of them.  But maybe not.

5.  I would like to have a second card slot.  And I'd like it to be a CF instead of an SD slot.  The camera takes CF's now but I know the pro models also have a secondary slot that uses SD.

6.  Here's my biggest complaint!!!!!!  Unlike Nikon and Olympus, Canon won't let you rename the files in the camera.  I used to rename my Nikon files in a way that showed what camera they came from. If all the camera names were different there was never the chance that I'd have identical file names in my computer folders.  Canon lets you do custom names on their 1Dxxxx version cameras but not on any of the others.  I think this royally sucks.  Yeah.  Yeah.  I know you can rename them in some programs.  Just what I need, one more step in post.  One more app to keep up with.  One more labeling system to devise.  We've talked about it before and a bunch of the IT guys got really excited about telling me how to proceed with the post processing rename.  It just cemented their stature as nerds.  The cameras can do this.  The Canon people just want to punish us for owning two of their non-professional cameras at a time.......  Stop enabling them.

Edit:  Saturday afternoon.  Reader and blog member,  Gordon supplied us with a url that will take you to a Canon document.  Gordon wrote a cheat sheet that explains Canon's mysterious flash menu.  Go here to download:  http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=3466  Many thanks!!!  KT

Pros: 

1.  It's a sexy body.  It feels good in my hand.  Looks good on the strap.  Nice curves.  Good buttons.  

2.  Fast reflexes, fast throughput (with UDMA cards) and very responsive handling.  Hmmmm. Maybe it's an AMG Ford Fusion..... Some kind of mixed car metaphor.

3.  The files are really, really good.  Especially if you keep the revs,  I mean the ISO, under 800.  

3a.  Not bad at 1600 ISO either.

4.  Love the built in flash that doubles as a wireless flash controller.  

5.  The trade off to a smaller sensor means that the shutter sounds nicer, works faster and causes less shake.  Gotta love that.

6.  Here's my biggest positive point.......This is the best $6,000 video camera you can get for under $2,000 dollars.

7.  Great battery life.

8.  Weather and dust gaskets.  Try not to spill but if you do maybe you won't cry...

9.  The meter is right on the money in most situations.

10.  I could watch movies on the screen.  It's so good.

Final recommendation?  Have lots of cash?  Need the highest quality you can get your hands on?  Do you work carefully and with good photocraft skills?  Are you already a great photographer? Are you highly critical of my choices?  Then stop reading this and buy yourself a Leica S2.  But if you need a great camera for most normal stuff and you're sloppy sometimes and you drink too much coffee and your spouse has you on a restricted optical mechanical budget.......this is a pretty darn convincing camera.  I've made some good money with mine.  I'll probably make some more before I'm through with it.  And when it gets superseded as a still camera I'll keep it around for more video....Final summation:  a Canon DSLR with legitimate soul.  I'd buy it again.

I'll stick some photos in tomorrow.  Stay tuned for my Leica M9+35mm Summilux (yes, the model that got released in July of this year......)  Best, Kirk