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Hasselblad X1DII - so far

crazy camera, crazy money

in GAS , Thursday, January 07, 2021

Back in August, I took a big step into the photographic unknown with the purchase of a Hasselblad X1DII. In order to afford this extravagance, I sold off my Sigma sdH, several Olympus bodies, my Linhof 612 and my Voigtländer Bessa III. This allowed me to buy the X1DII body, an ex-demo refurbished 45mm f/3.5 lens, and a 90mm f/4 lens on special offer. In addition to those I got an adaptor for my 3 XPan lenses. This is far, far from a casual purchase for me, and will probably be my last major investment in camera gear.

So, do I have buyers remorse? Was it worth it?  Short answers: no, and yes, probably.

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The Hasselblad X1DII (X1D from now on) sits alongside my now somewhat reduced workhorse Olympus OM-D kit. Essentially, to earn its keep it needs to let me do things I want to do that the OM-D cannot.  Superficially this shouldn’t be very hard - after all the X1D has a huge 50 megapixel sensor against the OM-D’s small 20 megapixels. So, the average brick wall or cat should turn out much better with the X1D. Well, with some caveats - although brick walls don’t move all that much, cats do (especially our neighbour’s cat which I’ve yet to successfully drench with a bucket of water). The OM-D can, more or less, focus track. The X1D can’t. The OM-D has zillions of focus points. The X1D has considerably less. The OM-D has stabilisation, and fast lenses. The X1D has neither. And anyway, I’m not in the slightest bit interested in brick walls or cats.

So, it’s not looking good so far for the X1D. But wait…  once it does get its few ducks in a row, the output is just flat out gorgeous. It isn’t quite Portra 400 level sublime, but its the closest I’ve ever seen from a digital camera. 

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The size (especially) and weight of the X1D with 45mm f/3.5 and the OM-D E-M1 MkIII with the roughly equivalent 17mm f/1.2 lens is very close. The X1D is really remarkably compact. Of course the OM-D wins out in low light - the X1D is only about 1 stop better in noise performance, and the OM-D has on-body stabilisation.  In hand, the X1D is actually noticeably heavier, but it is very, very comfortable to hold for a lengthy period - and it has strong competition here, the E-M1 grip is so well designed I can dangle the camera from my fingertips quite safely. So from a physical ergonomics point of view, it’s close. From a user interface point of view, there’s no competition - the X1D is a very clear winner. The touchscreen-based menu system is a masterpiece. The few physical controls are well placed and easy to use, with the possible exception of the focus mode button which is a bit of stretch to reach. The primary mode of focus point selection is through the touchscreen. This is the thing I like least about the X1D. I can’t get on with this way of working when the camera is up to my eye. The E-M1 has the same mode, as an option, but I disabled it as soon as I changed the focus point with my nose for the first time.  But the E-M1’s alternative is a very convenient joystick, whereas on the X1D you have to long-press the hard-to-reach focus button, and then use the two dials. It’s not ideal.

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Speaking of the viewfinder - until I used the X1D, I thought the OM-D’s EVF was perfectly ok. Now, in comparison, it looks like a 50s TV set at the end of a long tunnel. The X1D’s EVF is stunning.

My previous attempt of supplementing my “shooting envelope” was with the Sigma sd-H. This just didn’t work out. The camera is a delight, but the lenses are massive and very heavy, and of course anything over ISO 200 was risky territory. Also, the Quattro sensor has quite some eccentricities, alongside its amazing resolution. Really, the sd-H is too unwieldy for me, and I had higher expectations of the Sigma “Art” lenses after using the dp fixed lenses.  The X1D, however, is almost as comfortably as a walkaround camera as the OM-D. Of course there are limitations with lens reach, and you have to keep a close eye on the shutter speed, but it is leagues ahead of the Sigma. So from that point of view, I’m happy.

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The things that frustrate me with the OM-D are the way that background details sometimes disintegrate into a nasty mush, and a certain coarseness in colour transition in darker and lighter zones. The X1D provides huge improvements in both areas. It also brings noticeably better colour depth and accuracy, and of course detail.  The OM-D’s advantages are deeper depth of field and overall versatility. The great thing for me is that they both have the same native 4:3 ratio, and that the X1D can go to “digital XPan” mode at the flick of a switch, meaning in general I have a coherent reference for composition across 3 camera types.

So, in conclusion, there’s absolutely no buyers remorse. I have two interchangeable, fully complementary camera systems that fully cover all I want to do in photography. Was it worth it? Well, it would be, if only I had somewhere to travel to fully exploit the X1D, but that’s a general problem right now.

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The last roll of the dice

finally, good photos!

in GAS , Thursday, August 13, 2020

So, as hinted in my last post, I've gone off at the deep end. I have renounced common sense, fiscal rectitude and a bunch of other things and bought into the new-ish Hasselblad X Medium Format digital system. I'd been eyeing this for a long time, and when a very good offer came up for a new X1DII boy and factory reconditioned ex-demo 45mm lens, I decided it was now or never. I rapidly flogged off a bunch of other stuff that was clogging up my shelves, and just about scrapped together the money, so from that point of view I could tell myself I was being reasonable. I also got an adapter to use my XPan Lenses (they provide full coverage, not just "XPan crop mode"), and finally I chanced upon another very special offer on a new 90mm XCD lens, so I got that too. That is probably as far as I can go, or indeed want to go, for now.

So, WHY (and of course, "why not Fuji")? Well, to answer the Fuji part, I have tried out their MF cameras, and impressive as their are, I just don't like them. They are too complicated, the lenses have a reputation for hit and miss quality control, and the retro nonsense gets in the way. And they're ugly. If I'm paying that much money, and anyway it's strictly for my own pleasure, then how it looks and feels is not a trivial factor. The Hasselblad X1D is above all a fantastically usable camera. It has a modern, totally intuitive user interface, as few buttons as it needs, a very, very nice viewfinder, and it fits my hand like a glove. Yes, I'd like to have tilt screen for tripod use, but I can manage without.

But WHY? Well, obviously: it will make all my photos better and make me a better photographer! (What? What do you mean it won't??). Basically for most of the time I've been making photographs, off and on I've been mildly frustrated by my inability to capture and reproduce subtle gradients in colour. Maybe tonality as well, but I'm fundamentally, in my own way, about colour. Actually I have found that in some circumstances I could get what I wanted through medium format film. I've also discovered that very frequently, work by published photographers that appeals to me was done on medium format film. Of course it isn't just film - medium format lenses play a significant part too. The problem with this though is that I have never found a medium format film camera I actually like, and in any case, for several reasons, medium format film photography is unwieldy and impractical. So, I hope to find at least some of the character I'm looking for in (small) medium format digital. The 50 Mpix resolution is nice to have but not a necessity. The extra dynamic range is very nice to have. The Hasselblad colour rendition on the other hand is a key factor.

So, essentially, because I wanted to.

So far all I've just been getting familiar with the camera, the required technique, the depth of field and other aspects that need to become second nature, but some initial results have been quite encouraging.

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Handheld shot in Bedigliora, just up the road. XCD 45mm f3.5, handheld



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Near Ponte di Aranno, Magliasina, also just up the road. XCD 45mm f3.5, tripod



This does not mean I'll be giving up my Olympus system. Far from it. The two are very complementary, and the fact that both have the same native 4:3 aspect ratio is a major plus. I'm very used to seeing in 4:3, and indeed this aspect ratio was a key reason I bought into the Olympus system in the first place, many hundreds of years ago.

I've had a few failed and fairly costly experiments on the gear side in recent years, in particular the Linhof 612 and the Sigma sd-H. Hopefully this time I've finally got a camera which will enable me to take the photos I see in my head. Certainly I have no more dice to throw on this front.

The next question is finding an opportunity to use it. Getting to Greenland (for example) has become a lot more complicated. Then again, there is plenty of potential in my own back yard.
 

No more excuses

A picture speaks a thousand words

in GAS , Saturday, August 08, 2020

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(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.

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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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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.

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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.

 

 

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