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in GAS , Saturday, August 08, 2020

Drm 20200807 EM570040



(as previously hinted :-) )
 

Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO review

well, my idea of a review, that is

in Product reviews , Wednesday, July 22, 2020

So, here’s a gear review. It’s not tongue in cheek, nor is it sarcastic, but it is purely subjective, is grounded solely on my own needs and desires, and has absolutely no measurements or “tests”.

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I didn’t need the (deep breath) Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO lens. I’ve already got far too many Olympus lenses, including the near-overlapping M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2:8 PRO, and the M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ (“AMATEUR” I assume). And of course I don’t actually “need” any of this stuff. However I have long wished for Olympus to break out of the “high quality lenses have to be fast and heavy” mindset, and offer smaller lenses that do not compromise on quality (either optical performance or handling). To some extent they made a move towards this with the 12-100mm f/4 PRO, although nobody would describe that lens as small or light - even if relatively, it is. So, given all of this, when this 12-45 PRO was announced, I was interested.

IMG 6540

The new tiny 12-45 f/4 PRO versus the giant 12.40 f/2.8 PRO. Take your pick.

While the rough direction of my photography tends towards relatively exotic travel, especially the higher latitudes, clearly I don’t do that everyday. But photography is part of my everyday life, and while I don’t necessarily share much of my day to day, mundane photography, I still do it, still enjoy it, and it keeps me in practice. So, having a compact but quite nice and high-ish quality system is enticing. On the camera side, the OM-D EM5 Mkii fits the bill, but the existing 12-40mm PRO lens is a touch unbalanced on that body, especially without the various bolt-on grips and baseplates.  And the 14-42 EZ isn’t very inspiring, at least my copy isn’t, although it was probably better before it had a fairly traumatic trip around Colombia.

Yes but. The 12-45 PRO lens is quite expensive, and from my point of view, hardly essential. However, when shopping at my favourite online store the other day (for mosquito repellent) I noticed a very interesting “open box” offer for the lens, some 30% off standard price. At that price I thought it was worth a go, especially right now it might be a good idea to buy up Olympus lenses while we still can.

So here it is. I’ll skip the unboxing ritual, although it is worth pointing that this lens comes with a rather nice soft cloth wrap, rather than a clumsy pouch, which could actually be useful. As opposed to all other PRO lenses (and a number of AMATEUR ones), it has no “manual focus clutch”. This is no big deal - in my opinion this is only really useful on prime lenses. I can switch to manual focus on the flick of a switch on the camera body anyway. Otherwise it is clearly a member of the PRO family, both by design and heft. Addressing the number one question, is it really that much smaller than the 12-40 PRO? Well, side by side there is less in it than you might expect. But when mounted on the EM-5 MkII, the difference is very noticeable. While the 12-40 PRO unbalances the handling (to some extent, let’s not exaggerate), the 12-45 PRO feels absolutely perfect.

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So, I bolted the the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-45mm f/1:4 PRO lens on the front of OM-D E-M5 MkII body (sorry, I seem to be drifting slightly towards the Sarcasm Sea here, I’ll try to stop it) and took it for a brief walk while waiting for a doctor’s appointment (I’m fine, thanks for asking). Unfortunately - or not, who knows - I didn’t notice that the camera was still set to use a custom colour setting I’d been playing around with, and to record in JPEG. Just as well I’m not into “tests”.

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My initial impression was just it was just seamless to use. It fits perfectly onto the E-M5, and is a really nice, flexible walk around lens. The zoom range is very useful, and it does have one special trick up its sleeve in that is has a very short minimum focus distance of 12cm at all focal lengths. This gets close to macro range. It’s sharp - at least as sharp as the 12-40 PRO - and as far as I can tell at all focal lengths, starting from wide open. Of course, wide open is “only” f/4, which some bespectacled angry geek will pop up and correct to “f/8”, but that’s part of the design. Frankly f/4 is good enough for me. I’m far more often struggling getting enough depth of field rather than complaining I’ve got too much.  Of course it could be brighter, but then it would be a 12-40 f/2.8, and, well, start at the beginning if you didn’t get the message on that yet.

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A close focussing test.  At focal length 12mm.

I’m pleased I bought this lens, although the special price had a lot to do with it. It has its own niche, and for me that will be getting glued to the front of my E-M5 MkII. This, and just maybe the 17mm f/1.8, will fit very nice into a corner of my small Domke shoulder bag, and be a perfect companion for casual photography. Which is most photography, for me.

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IMG 6541

All photos taken around Mendrisio, Ticino, Switzerland.

 

Sigma sd quattro H

take it, or leave it ?

in GAS , Wednesday, June 05, 2019

A couple of months ago I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying a Sigma sd Quattro H. Ever since the camera was announced, some years ago now, it intrigued me.  As a sometimes delighted, sometimes frustrated owner of the Merrill and Quattro dp fixed-lens series, this new interchangeable lens Foveon sensor mirrorless camera seemed like something I could put to good use.  Of course, it being a Sigma, things are not as simple as they could be. The camera is indeed mirrorless, and fairly compact, but it is designed to take Sigma’s DSLR lenses. This is not totally bad news, as the recent generations of Sigma lenses have been gaining a strong reputation for Zeiss-like levels of optical performance and build quality at a quarter of the price. Unfortunately, they are not a quarter of the weight, or the bulk, and a quarter of Zeiss prices is still a lot of money.

But anyway, here I am, with a sd Quattro H body (let’s shorten that to sd-H from now on), a 35mm f1.4 Art lens, and a 24-70 f2.8 Art lens. The latter is really huge.  And now I need to be convinced all this was a good idea.

IMG 5741

The Sigma sd Quattro H with 24-70 f/2.8 lens next to the Olympus E-M1 with equivalent 12-40 f/2.8

I have used the Quattro dp0 quite extensively, mainly as a “panoramic” camera with the 21:9 ratio. That, together with previous Merrill dp2 & dp3 experience meant that I was not blind to the potential issues. In suitable conditions these cameras can be jaw-droppingly effective, but the range of conditions that can be reliable considered suitable is narrow, to put it mildly.

Although the usual claim by enthusiasts of these Foveon sensor cameras is of remarkable resolution (which they have, but let’s not go overboard), for me the killer feature is (and again, in the right conditions), a film-like delicacy of colour and colour transition. This can justify me packing the dp0 Quattro as special-use secondary camera, but the question is, are the results clear enough to justify the sd-H and 24-70 lens, four times heavier and bulkier?

Before following up on that, let’s just have a quick recap of what the sd-H offers. There’s a full, in-depth review at DPReview, so I’m not going to spend much time on technical stuff here. The body is very well built, and feels like it cost more than it did. It is comfortable to hold, despite its unconventional shape.  The controls are well laid out and easy to reach, although I would prefer the QS Quick Menu button to be in a similar position to that on the dp body. The menu is a paragon of good design - it’s a pity so few people will see it. The back of the camera has a typical Sigma quirk, with two screens side by side. The second, smaller one is used to display shooting parameters. And unlike the dp series, there is an electronic viewfinder, which is quite large and comfortable, but suffers from the difficulty of getting a high rate video stream from the Foveon sensor. Still, it is serviceable. Basically from an ergonomic point of view things are pretty good.  Oh, and there is an option to produce linear DNG output instead of X3F Raw files, which means you can open them directly in Lightroom, etc. Although I’m not sure I’d recommend that. Oh, and the autofocus can only be described as “****** hopeless”.

I have used the sd-H properly now on 4 outings. One to Venice, which didn’t go well, two quick trips to the local Valle Verzasca, and just recently a long weekend in Tuscany. It’s still all a bit inconclusive. I got some nice results in Verzasca, but I was very constrained by the lack of Depth of Field preview. Also the lack of an orientable screen or finder can be very restricting. Basically it’s not a lot fun using the sd-H on a tripod, but generally that is where it works best.

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this kind of detailed, softly lit scene is where the Sigma cameras do excel

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For my trip to Tuscany I went well prepared. The area is one I know extremely well (I even published a book about it) and there’s absolutely no stress to get the shot, because either I’ve already got it, or I’ll get it next time. I also made a DNG colour profile for the camera, and took along my MacBook Air to be able to do some on the spot verification.

So, I did some handheld shots, and some tripod shots, initially all in DNG, and imported them into Lightroom. I was pretty disappointed. For example, the clichéd shots of Tuscan poppies were just smudges, with reds either overblown to flat areas with no detail or clipped to white. Just like digital cameras 20 years ago.  A shot where the ISO crept up to 800 looked like some Chernobyl aftermath. Some shots were inexplicably soft (the 24-70 lens is stabilised, but it’s no Olympus), which I’d also noticed in Venice. And generally the resolution and sharpness was not impressive at all.

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Foveon colour at ISO 800. Ouch.

Oh, and the classic Foveon green flare made a unwelcome appearence.

Sdh green flare

the classic Foveon green flare

But then… when I got home, I opened the same images on my desktop computer, which has a fully calibrated Eizo monitor attached to it, and there a rather different picture emerged (literally!). The overblown reds turned out to actually hold detail. The softness in some cases turned out not to be so soft. Some of the poppy field shots turned out ok. And the photos which I took in X3F format are technically not so catastrophic. So the lesson there is that perhaps my 2011 MacBook Air is not the best tool for evaluating image quality.

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Foveon colour at ISO 200. A bit better.

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Hardly a portfolio shot, but technically this one worked ok.

Since there was quite a lot of mountain bike touring involved on this trip, I didn’t limit myself to the Sigma. I also took my Olympus E-M5ii, with my old and travel worn 14-42EZ pancake zoom. This, unlike the sd-H, could happily travel in my backpack. Oh, the shots show a somewhat alarming softness on the right bottom corner, but if you don’t look too closely, the combination actually works pretty well.  Of course, putting a “proper” lens on the Olympus narrows the gap quite a lot, making me question the sd-H even more.

When quickly reviewing photos to illustrate this post, I noticed some shots taken in previous years in Tuscany using the dp0. That camera has a smaller sensor than the sd-H (APS-C rather than APS-H), but a fixed precisely matched (and ultra wide) lens. And even as thumbnails, the shots just pop off the screen. I expected the sd-H, with Art lenses, to have the same effect, but so far, it doesn’t. I’m not quite ready to put it on eBay, but as it stands at the moment it could not justify its place in my camera bag on a real trip.  I guess we still need to work on our relationship.

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This is beginning to get there.

 

 

Using the Flextight X5 scanner

Those grapes up there, they’re sour

in Scanning , Wednesday, September 20, 2017

This is an addendum to my two previous posts comparing the Plustek OpticFilm 120 to the Hasselblad Flextight X5. The X5 is supposed to be the nirvana of desktop scanners, a dream machine with a nightmare price tag, which provides the benefits of a drum scanner with none of the downsides, such as fluid mounting, even huger cost, and elephant-level proportions.

IMG 4213

X5 workstation at Light & Byte

So, what’s the X5 actually like to use ? Well, overall, it’s pretty nice. The hardware is on a completely different level. It is easy to use and very fast in operation. It scans a 6x12 frame in under a minute. But there are some drawbacks. First of all, the film holders. They’re a little weird, to be honest. The heavy rubber masks remind me of the protective shroud things you have to wear when being X-rayed! And actually they’re not that easy to use. The problem is, you lay the film on a base plate, then lower the flexible mask, which has an aperture corresponding to the frame size. But there are no guides to align the film on the baseplate, so getting it to fit correctly in the aperture is quite fiddly. Maybe with more than two hours’ experience I might realise that there is a better way to do it, but actually I find that the Plustek holders are much easier to load accurately. And them the fixed aperture size is a bit of an issue: although in theory Medium Format film has defined sizes, different cameras have slightly different film gate dimensions. So, my Bessa 667 seems to expose slightly more area in the cross-film direction, and the Linhof 612 is more like a 612.5. Actually the Plustek holders are a bit narrow in the cross-direction too, but they are fully adjustable in length. The X5 holders have no adjustment whatsoever, although I believe Hasselblad will be delighted to sell you a custom holder. Once you’re loaded, though, it’s really smooth: just slide the holder forward between the guides until the magnets latch on, and it disappears into the scanner and does its stuff.
IMG 4214

The 612 holder latched up and ready to roll

Then, there’s the software. Really, I have yet to meet a simple, straightforward and well-designed piece of scanning software, and Flexcolor is no exception. For example, if I select the 6x12 film holder, would it be unreasonable of me to expect the scan size to default to 6x12 ? Obviously it would: it took some time for me to realise that the bloody thing was producing two scans (overlapping, fortunately).  Why it does this for 6x12, but not 24x65, or 6x7, will remain a mystery. Another unattractive thing about Flexcolor is that it only responds to adjustments after you let go of the respective control (slider or whatever). This makes it exceedingly annoying to use. And I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is that makes it show a full resolution rather than horribly pixelated low resolution preview - but then again, Silverfast still hasn’t figured out zooming. Flexcolor includes a fairly limited set of negative profiles, a bit like Silverfast Negafix. However, they are much less extensive, far less adjustable, and too my eyes less accurate than Silverfast, although they do produce very flattering results.
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X5/Flexcolor interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

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Plustek/Silverfast interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

I don’t think either are fully accurate (actually, the Silverfast version suffers from using Multi-Exposure, which doesn’t play nice with Negafix - the marketing material doesn’t tell you that). So, I could do better “out of the box” from the Plustek. Even as it stands, to my subjective eyes the Plustek/Silverfast version looks more like how Provia is supposed to look, The X5/Flexcolor version is almost Velvia, and too neutral. Of course, Silverfast is regularly updated. Flexcolor isn’t.

On the plus side, Flexcolor coupled with the X5 can really pull out clean shadow detail to an extent I’ve never seen before from a film scanner. Of course that is limited by the exposure range of the film, so it is more useful for negatives. But still, the difference is clear.

Generally Flexcolor feels old and fairly clunky, but I suppose that is because it is old. The X1 & X5 scanners are just rebadged Imacon Precision 848 and 949 models, which Hasselblad inherited when they bought / merged with Imacon to get digital back technology. They’ve carried on selling them, but they certainly haven’t tried very hard. I reckon they could drop the price by 50% and quadruple their sales, and still make a decent profit. They’re just not interested. The only update to the hardware is case redesign and a Hasselblad logo. The backplate is still branded “Flextight Precsion”. And the backplate also features a Firewire 400 interface, the one and only port, fully obsolete. At least it isn’t SCSI. The Mac Pro running the X5 at Light & Byte is running Mac OS X Snow Leopard, which must be 8 years old or something.

So, is the X5 worth €25’000 ? No, unless you’ve got a business model which will subsidise it, or you work for a Swiss bank or something. Is the X1 worth €16’000, then ? I don’t think so - it loses the X5’s diffuse light source, it’s slower, and (if this matters to you) it can’t do batch scanning, or, indeed reflective scanning (which I really doubt is a major selling point of the X5, but whatever).  If Hasselblad were showing some sign of continuing development, even if just to add a USB3 interface, and updating Flexcolor, then just maybe it could be considered a long term investment, but I would even be concerned that it will continue to work with current operating systems for much longer.

After all, Hasselblad recently named their new pride and joy camera the “X1D”. Presumably they didn’t even remember they’ve already got an X1 in the catalogue.

 

The Great Pano Bake-off

mirror mirror on the wall…

in Scanning , Monday, July 31, 2017

Having now added a Linhof 612 to my arsenal of wide-screen photographic tools, the time has come for a showdown. Which, if any, is the best? 

The candidates are, then:

  • Linhof 612 Medium Format film camera
  • Hasselblad XPan 35mm film camera
  • Sigma dp0 Quattro digital camera with Foveon sensor, 21:9 frame ratio

Now, you may say that I could substitute any digital camera for the dp0, and “just crop”. Well, you could, but I can’t, because accurate composition through the viewfinder is important to me. The dp0 comes close to the XPan with its wider lenses, but as far as I know all Sigma Quattro cameras, so dp0, dp1, dp2, dp3, sd and sd-H offer a 21:9 crop. I don’t know of any other cameras which do.

I’ve compared the dp0 with the XPan in the past, and concluded that the Sigma is certainly a valid contender for the title of “digital XPan”. Indeed, it replaced the XPan in my camera bag on my last trips to Iceland and Antarctica. But the Linhof, surely, with its huge frame size, should come out of top ?

For the film cameras of course we have another factor in the equation: the scanner. I’m pretty sure that the OpticFilm 120 at 5300dpi extracts at least 90% of the potential resolution from the exposed film, but I’m not fully convinced that it reaches 100%. Possibly a drum scanner or a Hasselblad Flextight could do marginally better, but if it takes a €15000+ scanner to outdo a €900 Sigma camera, then we’d be be getting into the realms of insanity.

Of course, the relative file sizes are a bit scary.  But I’ve got lots of disk space.

  • Linhof: 24533 x 11245 pixels, 1.5Gb
  • XPan: 13516 x 4986 pixels, 395Mb
  • Sigma: 5424 x 2328 pixels, 73Mb

For the test, I trudged up (and down) to a local valley stream, set up the tripod, and shot frames from each camera. The scene was initially framed using the Linhof. The Linhof was loaded with Fuji Provia 100F, and had the 65mm lens mounted. The XPan, sadly, was loaded with Rollei Variochrome, set at ISO 200, in a parallel test described previously. I shot XPan frames with both the 45mm and 30mm lenses.  The Sigma of course had its fixed 14mm lens, which is roughly equivalent to 21mm for so-called “full frame”.

I was interested in two aspects: the different frame coverage, and the comparative resolution of each system. Colour was not really relevant in this particular exercise, although the differences are interesting.  But anyway I haven’t even attempted to try to match colour.

So, here are the “results”.  First, the comparative frame coverage.

panocompare_fullwidth

Clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm, XPan 30mm.

It’s difficult, but please ignore the horrendous colour of the XPan frames. The scans are all “flat” from Silverfast - I have not attempted any kind of colour correction. The first thing that jumps out for me is how close the Sigma and Linhof are. I could get even closer by shooting a 2:3 frame on the Sigma and cropping it. The Linhof is just a touch wider. The XPan 30mm is the widest of all, and its vertical coverage is very similar to the Linhof. The XPan 45mm, in this company, and for this scene, is a bit neither here nor there.

Note, any attempt at choosing a “favourite” shot here is rather pointless. As I said above, the shot was framed for the Linhof, with the tripod remaining fixed for the other three, so I would expect (and indeed hope) to prefer the Linhof composition.

Working with the Linhof over the past month or so has confirmed my attachment to the (almost) 2:1 ratio. The Sigma ratio is actually closer than I expected, because the actual size of the exposed film on the Linhof is 12 x 5.5, so somewhat wider than a nominal 2:1. The Linhof has just one trick up its sleeve, but its a good one: the 8mm shift is hugely useful for this kind of shot. Note the difference between the Linhof and XPan 30mm frames: thanks to the shift (negative in this case), I’m able to put the extra vertical coverage to better use, without tilting up or down and hence distorting the perspective.  This limitation has always frustrated me with the XPan.

Now for resolution. Remember, with the Sigma, it being a digital camera with a Foveon 3 layer sensor, we can magnify up to 100% and expect sharp results.  With the film cameras it is way more complicated.  We need to factor in focussing (hyperfocal in this case), film flatness, film curl when scanning, scanner lens quality, scanner depth of field, and all the general characteristics of an analog to digital conversion.  Suffice it to say, film looks best on the light table, and goes downhill from then onwards. All we can do is damage limitation.

Having said all that, let’s look at a 100% section of each shot:

panocompare_100

100%: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

In terms of numeric resolution, the Linhof clearly wins, but the level of actual information is debatable. There has been no sharpening applied here, so for the film shots what you see is what you get out of the scanner. What does appear to be the case is that the XPan lenses are actually sharper than the Schneider 65mm lens on the Linhof. One thing I’m finding with the Linhof is that objects at infinity seem to be quite soft, regardless of the focussing. I have no idea why this should be, but since focussing is by scale only, it isn’t straightforward to verify. Again, there are a lot of variables in the system.

Another way to compare is to try to adjust zoom to get roughly the same field of view, as follows.  Since the Sigma has the lowest nominal resolution, it defines the baseline.

panocompare_match

Matched view: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

Now there’s not so much in it. The XPan with 45mm trails slightly, at least in this example, but otherwise the level of detail is close. Probably if the XPan had been loaded with Provia 100F then the difference would be smaller. With the Sigma there is a higher level of micro-contrast and acuity, but appropriate processing of the film images can close the gap.

Note, when printing these images at the maximum size I can achieve on my A2 printer, in all cases there is quite sufficient resolution, so this exercise in pixel peeping should be taken with several grains of salt.

However, the clear conclusion is so far that the Sigma dp0, which is more practical, lighter, considerably less expensive and offers immediate feedback, is pretty much a match for either of the film cameras on a technical level. To be honest it is probably the best of the three, in purely technical terms, and in the right conditions.

Let’s briefly compare the dp0 just with the Linhof:

panocompare_dp0_linhof

Top: Sigma dp0, Bottom: Linhof 612 65mm

The Sigma definitely seems to give slightly more real resolution, although there is a hint of some variation across the frame from the Linhof. But in the best case scenario, the Linhof / Plustek OpticFilm 120 combination is a match for the Sigma dp0 in terms of effective resolution - no more.

So why use the Linhof, and why use film at all? Well, all is not rosy in the Sigma world. Although it is not too apparent in this frame, it transitions to over-exposures in a very harsh and unpleasant way. With scenes featuring flowing water, for example, you need to be extremely careful with exposure.  And since the Sigma’s output is nowhere near as malleable as that of almost all other modern digital cameras, you have to very careful indeed. Actually it is this poor handling of highlights which makes more hesitate about investing in the Sigma sd Quattro system.

Of course, you also have to be careful with slide film, but even slide film with its aversion to highlight overexposure handles transition to burn-out much more naturally.  The Linhof also features one of the absolute best viewfinders ever made. If in-the-field composition is important to you, as opposed to fix-it-in-Photoshop, then this is a big deal.  And finally, the killer feature, the “permanent shift” lens, which avoids the Achilles’ Heel of panoramic photography, vertical entering of compositions.

And what about the poor old XPan? Well, it too has its advantages. First, the 30mm lens gives a wider field of view than either of the other two (although a Linhof 612PCII with 58mm lens would be wider).  The XPan also has a rangefinder, making manual focus very simple, and very reliable auto exposure.  And it is a quarter of the size of the Linhof 612. I’ve been using it for 17 years, and it’s not for sale. Yet.

And finally colour - although I like the colour output of the Sigma, it can be a little weird. Actually in the example here I used a custom colour profile in Lightroom. The rendition of Provia 100F, once the blue shadow cast is removed, is to my eyes more natural.  There is also something ever so slightly sterile about the Sigma output.

But finally, all three are great cameras which give me a lot of satisfaction.  If I was pushed to produce something on a tight deadline, if the subject permitted it I’d probably use the Sigma.  If I wanted the best control of composition I’d use the Linhof, with Provia 100F for landscape or Portrait 400 for urban work.  For maximum flexibility and discretion, the XPan.  In all three cases, I’d be able to print as large as I am able to with no compromises.

But I would love to see a drum scan of a Linhof 612 shot…

 

 

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