Saturday, March 28, 2009

Zeiss 50mm F/1.4 review

Zeiss is one of the oldest and legendary optical manufacturers. They were pioneers of most of the lens designs. The 50mm lens is also one of the oldest and most used focal length range in photography. The initial 50mm designs were Tessars followed by Sonnars. The Planar design was developed, as the name implies, to limit distortion. This was more than 100 years ago. Today most 50mm lenses by any manufacturer is based on a variation of the original Planar design.

This is about the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. There are mainly 2 versions. The Contax version (Z/Y mount) and the Nikon F mount.I have used both and do not find any difference in image quality. The Nikon F mount is made by Cosina and is mostly similar in design to the older Z/Y mount.

As expected of any manual focus lens the build quality is excellent. It will survive normal usage and some occasional bumps. (It may surprise you that the so called cheap "plastic" lenses by Nikon and Canon will do exactly the same in similar situations and because of the plastic, they may actually fare well in certain situations, more on this on some later blog). The Zeiss is not weather proof, meaning that though the lens may survive, the camera may be damaged if water leaks on to the electrical contacts. (This would not happen if you use weather sealed camera/lens combo).

This is a manual focus lens and you have to set the aperture on the lens. The focus and feel of the lens is excellent. Focusing is smooth and if you are shooting wide open for the most part, you need a focusing screen to get accurate focus. But as far as manual focus lenses go, this lens is excellent.

The first thing about any Zeiss lens is its image quality. This is all Zeiss is about. Zeiss has the reputation of having a certain "look" and a 3D appearance to the images. As far as the Zeiss 50mm planar is concerned, it does have a distinct look but whether you get 3D appearance or not depends on your subject and this lens has little to do with it apart from the fact that it is fast with shallow Dof at f/1.4 which helps. Zeiss has a lot of reputation built and some are real while some are not. The true Zeiss strength is resolution and in that respect this lens is exemplary. Todays DSLRs demand high resolution due to the very efficient sensors and this lens provides all the resolution that is needed. At f/4 the resolution is nothing short of stunning. From f/4 to F/11 the images are sharp and offer plenty of resolution. Diffraction sets in at f/16 and beyond. The lens is contrasty true to its Zeiss origins. Colors are punchy and natural. You should be happy with the image quality.

Now wide open at f/1.4 the lens is plenty sharp and has excellent resolution in the center but soft in the corners. You will have to stop to f/2 or f/2.8 for corners to catch up.

No one can talk about a lens without mentioning Bokeh. (Check out Bokeh rant for my thoughts about this) So here it goes, the bokeh of this lens is decent. It is going to be a bit harsh but nothing that would distract your subject if you are capable of composing carefully, appreciative of what you intend to get out of it. The transition of sharp areas with out of focus background (or foreground) is short but again decent without attracting undue attention.

The lens exhibits minimal distortion that is average and similar to most 50mm lenses. The CA is present wide open and is a little bit more than I would expect from a 50mm lens. But is manageable easily with RAW converters. Light fall of or vignetting is significant wide open and needs to be stopped to f/2 or f/2.8 for DX cameras and to almost f/4 for FX cameras. This can again be easily eliminated with RAW converters so I wouldn't worry much about this. Flare is well controlled and is excellent in this regard.

Overall this is a very good lens with exceptional resolution, excellent build quality, smooth focus mechanism and a great manual focus lens. It is average at far as CA, vignetting and distortion goes. This lens will provide you with amazing photos provided you have the right subject and you are a capable photographer. But it does not create magic, it will not make average photos better. To extend it further it will not produce any distinguishing look to most photos. Sometimes when things work as far as subject, composition etc goes, the resolution will make it look exceedingly good but never magical rarely 3D. So do not spend your money if these are your expectations. The Zeiss look reputation is more from its Sonnars than planars. This is a good lens but there are better lenses in the Zeiss line up. As far as competition there is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, Leica summicron 50mm f/2 ( if you willing to use adapters). My next blog is a comparison of the zeiss planar 50mm vs the Nikkor 50mm /1.2 lens. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fuji F200EXR review

I was a brief owner of the Fuji F200EXR for 2 days. I was tempted by the potential of this camera considering its touted high ISO capabilities and higher dynamic range. So I bought this even though it did not have RAW which is an essential feature of my usual work flow.

The camera is purely intended for Auto all consumers, nothing wrong with that but I expected atleast some flexibility with regard to manual override of the auto features. But they have made this too complex and very limited in use. For example in AE(aperture priority) mode, you can either shoot wide open or stopped down, nothing in between. ISO cannot be adjusted in D-range priority mode. The file size is limited to M(medium) and S(small) in most modes. Well unlike the Canon G9 the auto mode is not as accurate with regard to focus, ISO, exposure and Flash, so it is a bit limited in that you cannot change certain parameters.

As far as the images are concerned, the resolution is fine at 12MP. The 6MP images are also good enough but do not try to look at 100% and compare to 12 or 14 MP cameras. The 6 mp photos are very good for 10x8 prints which is the only one I made in my use of this camera. The color accuracy is average, with a slight reddish tilt. The chromatic aberration is at moderate levels and without RAW it is difficult to get rid off.

The speed of the camera is average with start up time of around 2 seconds and shot to shot time of 2 seconds. This is not going to be the darling of street photography or photo-journalistic enthusiasts.

High ISO is OK, may be one or one half stops better than the Canon G9 or panasonic LX3. I have the G9 and so i pixel peeped a bit. The Fuji F200EXR is not going to challenge even the entry level DSLRs. The Fuji F30/31 was groundbreaking with regards ISO performance of compacts in its days. But that was 3 years back and this is 2009 and ISO performance have improved in all cameras, including compact, hybrid or DSLRS. This camera in 2009 is not going to be a FujiF31 of 2009. The ISo performance upto 400 is decent, ISo 800 may be acceptable, ISO 1600 and above has very little practical use unless you are aiming for a artsy noise smoothened water color effect. I guess this effect can be produced with any digital camera you own. I think the incamera noise reduction is a bit high handed but i think fuji is forced to do it to tout the ISO capabilities.

If there is something positive about this camera then it is the Dynamic range mode. There is definite visual increase in dynamic range compared to normal modes. One thing you need to note is, that the improvement in dynamic range is in highlight areas and not in shadow areas. The shadow regions of the image remained the same whereas the highlights showed worthwhile improvement. My advise is then to expose to the right, get the shadow region exposed to your liking and let the EXR take care of the highlight areas. Do not expect magic though, you will still see blown highlights but the range is as good as DSLRs which itself is a feat for a compact camera. This is were the lack of RAW is solely felt and RAW would have definitely helped pull even more details and extended the dynamic range even more to very impressive levels. there is potential in this region and we should watch to see if Fuji can use this sensor/technology implemented in a better camera.

Well I genuinely tried to like the camera but I could come up with any excuse to keep the camera. I am passing this to my family friend as a gift which was my plan anyways even if I liked it. But i would not be getting one for myself. But I will definitely keep my eyes open for Fuji to do something different with this technology.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sigma DP2 A Non Review

This is not a review but just my impressions about a camera which has the potential to be promising. This camera was announced around Photokina 2008 and now at PMA 2009, more details are emerging.

The Sigma DP1 was released in Q1 of 2008. This is a compact camera but what distinguishes it from other cameras are its Foveon Sensor, Fixed focal length lens and APS-C size of the sensor. Many of us want a compact, light weight, carry everywhere camera. We also want the camera to have very high image quality, one that is fast and responsive. The Sigma DP1 with its large sensor, excellent lens and with a lot of useful controls and available RAW capture had exactly the combination that would interest a broad range of enthusiast and professional photographers. But personally I felt that the camera itself did not live up to the promises. Now we are in 2009 and once again we are tempted with an upgraded version of DP1.

Lets digress from the present and see what the Sigma DP1 had to contend with in Q1 of 2008. The DP1 had to compete with compacts like the Canon G9, Panasonic LX series and Ricoh GRDs. The DP1 had advantages in the image quality but the price was 1.5 to 2 times that of the competitors. It also faced competition from compact entry level DSLRs which were priced similar to DP1 but offered competitive image qualities and other useful features unavailable in DP1.

The reason why the DP1 did not achieve the success that it had intended was due to the following reasons.

1. The total MP was 4.7 (Sigma claims it to be 14 but it is not). Granted due to its unique sensor, the per pixel quality was good and uprezzing the images produced almost comparable but not better results than competing compact DSLRs.

2. Focusing in low light situations was another problem due to non availability of AF assist light.

3. Speed, The camera was slow, extremely slow than even its competing digicams. It took 10-12 sec to write a RAW image that it was useless immediately after you capture a photo.

I also feel that personally a focal length choice of 28mm (35mm equivalent) is not ideal to appeal to broad range of photographers. Something like a 35mm or 40mm was better.

Now come march 2009 and we have an upgraded Sigma DP coming in the form of DP2. This camera comes with an upgraded Processor, faster normal lens (41mm f/2.8), a new 3 inch LCD monitor and upgraded, Increased frame rate, selectable color mode, in camera image tweaking, Custom My settings Dial and other ‘fine tuning’ of controls.

Now let’s see what we are sure about the Sigma DP2.

The lens is absolutely wonderful even when looking at the handful of images available. Considering what Sigma achieved with the 30mm and 50mm DSLR lenses, the DP2 lens (41mm) should be excellent. It is also faster than the DP1 by one full stop (f/2.8). The images produced by this lens has excellent clarity with smooth background transition. There is very little distortion and the images have good contrast and color saturation.

The DP2 sensor is the same as that of DP1, only the image processor is different. The good side of this is that this sensor has superb per pixel image quality and yields very good results with uprezzing. The color rendition, especially in RAW images are absolutely brilliant. Better in camera image tweaking will satisfy jpeg lovers.

The faster processor should help in the speed and responsiveness of the camera that was sorely lacking in DP1. The availability of Custom My settings and fine tuning of controls should also help in the camera’s responsiveness.

Thus far it looks good. But this is 2009 and the competition is also evolving. There is first the Micro Four thirds format which has exactly the same target audience and there is a lot going in their favor. Then there are the entry level compact DSLRs. Heck even small sensor digicams have 12-14 Mps. These cameras may not have the per pixel quality of the DP2 but they produce huge file sizes (real 12-14 Mp) and by their sheer size they are going to have better image quality since you have to significantly upsize the DP2 images to reach the level of their competitors. Sure megapixels are not “the all and be all” but when the difference in size is so huge, it may matter to some if not a lot of potential users. Then there is also the issue of noise. The DP1 sensor is not exactly a noise champ. Sure it trumps other small sensor digicams but not so much with compact DSLRs and Micro FTs. In fact looking at some DP2 images at ISO 200 to 400 there is some chroma noise in the shadows that concerns me. Minimal luminescence noise is not a big deal and can be easily removed but not so with the chroma noise. The noise of the DP2 needs to be better than the competition if it hopes to capture the interests of a broad base of photographers. The processor is improved but how significant is it to affect the responsiveness of the camera remains to be seen though I am hopeful that there is going to be some definite improvement in this regard since the file size is the same as DP1. Then there are also additional features like image stabilization, swivel screen are some of the factors that are going in favor of the competition.

Last but not the least of importance is price. How is Sigma going to price and position the DP2? The price is definitely going to play a role in deciding it’s competition. If it is priced at $300-400 it is going to compete with compact digicams and then it is in a good position but if priced at $800-1000 then it is going to compete with the compact DSLRs and Micro FTs not to forget that the midrange DSLRs like the superb canon 40D and Nikon D90 are also in this price range though exactly not so compact.
(Update: Available for pre-order for $650 from Amazon and Adorama).

Finally the key is that buyers need to justify the purchase of this camera with regards to the competition. The Sigma DP2 brings in lots of promises especially for a niche audience who have been waiting for the perfect compact carry everywhere digital camera. The DP1 did not cut it but Sigma is taking another chance at it with the DP2. The expected release date of Sigma DP2 is probably April or May in US and it will be interesting to see what the full production camera brings to the table.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bokeh Rant

We all know that the term “Bokeh” refers to the rendering of out of focus areas of an image. Mr. Johnston claims credit for the Americanized spelling and this term has been increasingly used since the millennium. Before this time, though there were some references to this quality of a lens, very few photographers showed deep interest in it. But recently I have noticed that this is now a rage in various forums and lens tests.

I have used a range of lenses from primes to zooms and manual focus to autofocus lenses. I have used Planars, Tessars, Sonnars among others. I have used lenses from the 1950s to the latest nano coated versions. I also love to look at photographs. I love to analyze the photographs especially in the context of the lens used to capture it and more so if the aperture is wide open. Usually prime lenses have a signature and sometimes it is possible to identify the lens used, case in example, Leica Noctilux wide open. The bokeh is an important aspect of lens rendering and its signature. But it is not the only parameter of a lens.

My concern is that the photographic community’s recent overtures to this single characteristic of a lens has gone to a state of obsession. There is also lot of misconception about bokeh especially the idea that the more blurred the background the better the lens.

My take on this.

Bokeh is determined by the spherical aberrations of a lens. All lenses have some spherical aberration. A good lens will have less of it. But this is over simplification and completely erroneous if you believe this is the only parameter which determines Bokeh. Any bright point in the out of focus area is going to be a disc. Whether the edges of this disc appear bright or is smooth is determined by the spherical aberration. So spherical aberration primarily determines the edges of point source of light in out of focus area. It has very little role in the transition characteristics of the in-focus and out of focus areas or the rendering of points which are not bright in the out of focus areas.

Factors which really Affect Bokeh

1. The most important determinant of bokeh is the focal length of the lens. The longer the focal length, the smoother the bokeh. (You can see this easily even in a zoom lens where the bokeh at the long end of the zoom is smoother compared to the bokeh at the wide end.) If you simply want a smooth bokeh use a telephoto lens you will be happy for the most part. But there are exceptions as there are other factors which play a role in bokeh. (Please note I have used the term “smoother” and not “better”). There are also other factors that affect bokeh.

2. The aperture of a lens is another important determinant of bokeh. The character of bokeh of the same lens changes with the aperture. Some lenses have good bokeh wide open, some stopped down a bit. If ever there is a generalization then the sweet spot of any lens for bokeh appears to be f/2 (in 35mm format). I have observed the following

  1. An f/2 lens will have a better bokeh than a f/1.4 (or wider) lens even if the lenses made by the same manufacturer.
  2. Even if a lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.2 or f/1.4 (or any other below f/2), the lens will have its best bokeh at f/2.

3. Next Bokeh is affected by lens design. A sonnar based design is going to have a better bokeh compared to a double gauss planar based design. I am a big fan of Sonnars. They are the best designs for portrait lenses.

Factors which do not significantly affect the Bokeh quality.

1. Contrary to popular belief the number of aperture blades do not significantly affect bokeh. But lens design does.

2. Zoom lenses do not necessarily mean bad bokeh and primes do not necessarily mean good bokeh.

Finally bokeh rendering of the same lens with the same camera changes with different background conditions and bokeh is very subjective so what works for one photographer may nor for another. A good bokeh for fashion portraits is not necessarily a good one for news or sports coverage.

As far as I know there are only 2 lenses designed give photographers the option of changing the bokeh rendering. These are the Nikon 105mm and 135mm DC versions. These lenses are unfortunately difficult to use and suffer from bad reviews from users who did not use it as it is intended. I have the 105mm DC Nikkor and as far as bokeh is concerned this lens represents the pinnacle of lens design.

A Gaussian blur like effect is the most sought after by many photographers but it is not the best. It may work occasionally for some portraits but it has nothing to with creating a dimensional (3D) look. In fact, it does the opposite, it flattens the image. Heck if this diffuse Gaussian blur like bokeh is what you like then please do not waste your money. Buy any cheap lens and shoot. To get the Gaussian blur for the background buy this software. You will be happy and save a lot of money at the same time.

Finally a word about Dimensionality or 3D look. Yes you can get this look if you know how to get it.

1. You need a wide angle lens to get 3D look. You may be do with a standard or short telephoto but a lot depends on the subject. The best focal length is 35mm for this.

2. The bokeh is important for 3D in the sense that the lens should render the background with a slight blur where you see the background and identify elements in but should not distract the subject.

3. The most important aspect is your subject and composition. Without this nothing can compensate to produce a magical 3D like rendering.

It seems that much of the lens evaluations online including the forums concentrate too much on bokeh and whenever a photo is posted the comments are mostly about the bokeh. There are very few who show concern for the subject. Are we forgetting the picture for the background?

Your comments are most welcome.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

PMA 2009

  Today was day 1 of PMA 2009. Last few years saw release of DSLRs and/or lenses at every major photography show. This year PMA is sure to be the least interesting in recent years, without any significant product launches by the major Marques aka Canon/Nikon.

  This year PMA's most interesting announcements were the panasonic GH1 and Sigma DP2. Sure the recent photokina and a slew of new DSLR/Lens launches at this time and the slowing economy plays a significant role. 

  A lot of rumors were circulating before PMA and though these sounded like some body's wish list, there a lot of people eagerly anticipating new product launches. There is going to be disappointment for some but it should also be a relief. In recent years the product life cycle has become so short that new DSLRs were launched every 12-18months.  This cannot last long and the message is slowly dawning on the manufacturers. With the current state of economy, product obsolescence is delayed and cannot be artificially created by incremental improvements in products. 

  Anyway my thoughts are that some products may be launched in summer if there is any sign of atleast the economy stabilising if not improving.

  My thoughts on the Panasonic GH1 and Sigma DP2 in my upcoming blogs.