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The Digital XPan ?

in Sigma , Thursday, December 03, 2015

Well, it’s here. The (maybe, possibly) “Digital XPan”. As I mentioned yesterday, I found that Amazon Germany was selling the Sigma DP0 Viewfinder kit for €780, if I followed an advertising link on an external site.  Going direct to Amazon, it was listed at €1000. Very strange, but I grabbed the opportunity, and they delivered. And it arrived this afternoon, and as soon as I could charge up the battery, I managed to escape from work for 15 minutes and took a couple of test shots, using the 21:9 aspect ratio.

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The camera has a very unusual shape, but I find it quite nice to hold. It’s built like a tank, like the Merrills, but perhaps with a touch more elegance. The manual is totally unnecessary: the controls and menu on the Sigma are second to none, and the QS “Quick Select” button brings up a page which is even improved on the Merrill version.  I accidentally shot at ISO800, which would have been a disaster on the Merrills, but it’s ok here. The Foveon colours are as delicate and realistic as ever.

So, is it an approximation to a digital XPan? My very, very, first impression is that it might just be.

Posted in category "Sigma" on Thursday, December 03, 2015 at 06:32 PM

The Margin

in Sigma , Thursday, November 19, 2015

This is a bit of a geeky post, but whatever. I’ve always been attracted to the more marginal aspects of whatever topic I pursue. Probably because the margins are less crowded, and I don’t have to talk to people. Photography is no exception. I’ve never owned a Nikon or Canon DSLR, although my earliest film SLRs were Canons, initially “borrowed” from my father. In the digital world I backed the Olympus horse early on, and have only ever owned Olympus interchangeable lens cameras. These days they’re getting uncomfortably popular, but I found the solution to that by settling on the black sheep PEN E-P5 rather than the much more popular (rightly so) OM-D series. Oh, I can rationalise my choices, no problem.

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But my choice of the less popular range of what is still a marginal brand is totally overshadowed by what could really be my favourite cameras ever - and due to a eccentric decision by an eccentric, loss making wing of an eccentric company, it is cameras, plural - the Sigma Merrills. I’ve got two of these fantastic (in every sense of the word) devices, the DP2M and DP3M, with, respectively, equivalent 50mm and 75mm lenses. These cameras are the essence of the best in Japanese culture, but they also exhibit some of the weaknesses of small companies. Sigma is a private company run by enthusiasts for the love of photography and fine optical craftsmanship. They manage to turn a profit, too, and recently some of their lenses have been favourably compared to the best of Zeiss, and under a quarter of the price.  The lenses which are bolted on the front of these strange little “Merrill” boxes are exquisite. As, in my opinion, are the boxes.

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The Merrill cameras (there are 3, but I don’t own the 28mm DP1) produce absolutely stunning output. The colour, the liquidity, the depth, the detail all remind me of the very best of slide film, only without the ultra narrow dynamic range and total lack of exposure latitude. Unfortunately, they also share the dislike of slide film of anything over 400 ASA (on a good day).

The handling is a mix of excellent and appalling. The excellent part is the electronic and physical control: the buttons, dials and menu work together to produce the smoothest, most intuitive user interface I’ve ever encountered on a camera, or indeed any other device. But then comes the rest: the camera itself is basically a rectangular box with a lens bolted on the front. It’s a very solidly constructed box, but it’s not terribly comfortable to hold. In particular the DP3M feels very unbalanced, with its relatively large, heavy lens. But the worst part is the viewfinder, or rather the lack of one. Sigma do sell optical viewfinders. I have one on the DP2M, and a Voigtlander viewfinder on the DP3M. But both offer approximate framing, and of course no readout or preview of any kind. The focus acquisition light is visible while looking through the viewfinder, but you have no idea what it has locked on to. But anyway, since there are only 9 AF points, all quite closely clustered in the middle of the frame, so actually it doesn’t much matter.

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The LCD is ok, quite good actually, but my eyesight, while ok, is no longer good enough at close range to use a screen for focussing without glasses, and since I only use glasses for reading, it gets really, really awkward. Fine on a tripod, of course, but otherwise a total pain. Also, for me accurate framing is important - composition is maybe one thing I’m not too bad at, and for me it’s a very instinctive thing. Getting the framing right in camera is a major contribution to my enjoyment of photography - it’s a subconscious thing, I don’t make a big deal out of it, but when I can’t quite get connected in that way it’s very frustrating. And the Merrills really, really get in my way in that respect.

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Which, ultimately, is why they spend a lot of time on the shelf.  But when I do decide to take them out, and they get all their many, chaotic ducks in a row, and they don’t decide to produce totally haywire, irrecoverable white balance interpretations, they astonish and delight me every time.  When the time finally comes to drop film, they’ll be waiting.

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All photos from a wander last weekend around the area of the Lucomagno Pass, Ticino.

Posted in category "Sigma" on Thursday, November 19, 2015 at 08:53 PM

The Photo Fundamentalist

in Recommended web sites , Monday, August 10, 2015

During my daily random wander through the photographic interwebs on my way home on the train, I came across a very nice site, new to me, entitled The Photo Fundamentalist. It’s the work of photography Tom Stanworth, a person with a very interesting background, and plenty of tales to tell. And he certainly can tell them well. This is a site which covers a wide range of topics, not only his own photography (which is excellent), but also reviews of and interviews with other photographers, book reviews, and indeed gear reviews. Seems to be the kind of photographer I’d enjoy spending an evening in a pub with. Very highly recommended.

The Photo Fundamentalist

The only problem with the site is that it is feeding my feelings of gear inadequacy. As somebody who could nominally at least describe himself as a landscape photography, since I sold my Olympus E-5s, I don’t really have anything that quite fits the bill as a landscape camera. Everybody and his dog - Tom Stanworth included - is going on about these Sony A7 things, but having looked at them again yesterday during a stopover in Heathrow airport, I’m really not convinced. The lenses are so big and heavy that I might as well go back to a DSLR, and I really do not want all that weight and clutter anymore. I also tried an Olympus E-M1, and was not all that excited. Given that I’ve been using Olympus digital cameras for well over a decade, I should have been able to switch it from Manual to Auto Focus, but it defeated me. I could get the Live Control Panel up, but I couldn’t change the focus mode. Possibly it was defective. Or possibly somebody had customised it out of existence. But anyway, it’s ok as a camera, and it is the “common sense” choice for me, but fundamentally it doesn’t offer much over my E-P5 apart from improved handling. Really, there’s nothing on the market which gives me much of a buzz right now.

So anyway, great web site, but it’s made my gear paralysis worse!

Posted in category "Recommended web sites" on Monday, August 10, 2015 at 08:34 PM

Camera of the Week #2

in Film , Friday, June 19, 2015

Hot on the heals of Camera of the Week #1 comes another fabulous new addition to my range of state-of-the-art imaging machines! Actually, this one is, sort of, state of the art. It is a Voigtlander Bessa III 667 medium format rangefinder, released just a few years ago, and featuring probably the best RF viewfinder I’ve ever seen, along with an excellent metering system and great ergonomics.

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Don’t let the quaint-looking bellows deceive you, this is the most modern - and compact 6x7 camera ever built.

I was attracted to this, in it’s alternative Fuji GF670 clothing, when it was first released, but the list price was - and is - a little north of excessive for my budget. But I was very fortunate to win a bid for this example on eBay, complete with lens hood and leather case, for well under half the retail price. It was absolutely spotless, but as it has just spent two weeks trolling around Norway (geddit??), and had to put up with the way I generally treat cameras, it isn’t quite perfect anymore.

I’ve shot 7 rolls of film so far, three Portra 400 and four Provia 100.  They came back from the lab today, and here below are the first two frames shot with the camera.

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It’s great fun, and easy to use, and the film looks fabulous on the light table.  Scans at full optical resolution of my Opticfilm 120 weigh in at over 900Mb, so I might have to dial back to something more reasonable.

If you like shooting film and can find one of these (or a Fuji GF670), or indeed the wider angle, and more expensive, 667W, grab it. You won’t regret it.

Posted in category "Film" on Friday, June 19, 2015 at 06:17 PM

A Shift in Perspective

in GAS , Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I’ve always found tilt/shift lenses very desirable, or at least shift (or PC, for Perspective Control). I never found the tilt part all that useful, or indeed easy to control or understand. Back when I owned a Hasselblad ArcBody, I had plenty of opportunity to experiment and learn, but that is long gone. The availability of high quality PC lenses is one huge attraction, to me at least, towards the Canon/Nikon world, but I own neither. There are also some very expensive third party lenses from the likes of Schneider available for Canon/Nikon, but again, out of my league. And there are some cheap adapters, which by and large don’t work very well. But generally, these adapter solutions are the only options for my system, Micro Four Thirds - with, however, two exceptions.

Back in the 1980s, Olympus made two PC lenses for the OM system, a 24mm f3.5 and a 35mm f2.8. The 24mm is sought after, rare, and very, very expensive. The 35mm is less celebrated, a little easier to find, and much more affordable second hand. And I found one.

Although PC lenses tend to be used for architecture, in confined spaces, and therefore benefit from short focal lengths, 35mm is still quite useful. However, on a Micro Four Thirds camera, that corresponds to a 70mm equivalent field of view, which might seem less useful. This is mitigated by the fact that Canon make an 90mm TS lens, so it can’t be totally useless, and anyway, nothing was going to get in the way of a serious bit of retail therapy.

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The best known application of PC lenses is to “stop buildings falling over”. However, there are several other uses. One is creating sets of photographs to stitch into a high resolution composite. By shifting laterally and vertically you can gather a set of images without moving the camera, and with no nodal point or parallax issues to worry about. Another is giving more latitude for composition when using a tripod in an awkward space. For the photo below, the tripod was resting, just, on a jumble of boulders, adjacent to a torrential stream, with very little latitude for adjustment. The vertical and lateral shift allowed me the frame an image I otherwise could not easily (or safely) have captured. I do own a Gitzo Explorer tripod with a fully articulated central column, which is also useful for working in tight spaces, but that has some stability issues, and I still need to get behind the camera in it’s probably precarious position.

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The shift movement on the lens is achieved just by pushing. There’s no lock, no gearing mechanism. It all works by friction. Obviously on a tripod this could be a disaster, knocking the tripod out of place when giving the lens a hefty shove to shift it. But actually Olympus got the level of resistance just right. Enough to hold the position steady, and not so much that you have to push too hard. It helps to make it surprisingly compact and light for a PC lens.

In terms of optical quality, it’s pretty good. No vignetting at full shift, wide open, although on a Four Thirds sensor, only the centre of the lens is actually being “seen”. But even so, the results are impressive. It will be interesting to see what photos taken with it on my OM-4Ti look like. The lens is also beautifully built and just demands to be fondled. And what better retail therapy can there be?

Posted in category "GAS" on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 09:41 PM

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