Saturday, December 19, 2015

How Do JPEG's Work?

It's something that we take for granted, but if you are interested in how your camera works, a fairly easy to understand series of videos from Computerphile on the working of JPEG image compression.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Canon PowerShot G5 X Review

One of the expectations of consumer electronics is that over time, you will get more power for less price. That is certainly true for computers, but there isn't a "Moore's Law" for cameras. If you want a better sensor, then you have to pay more money.

The problem is that people don't necessarily want a better sensor camera, but if they want a camera, it has to be better than their cell phones, which have also been getting better nonetheless. And so, the 1/1" sensor format, which was once considered "large" and premium, is now pretty much the mainstream standard for compact cameras. The 1/1.7" format, which was once the largest format for premium compacts, is now defunct, and so is the premium positioning for cameras built around this format. To that end, the venerable Canon S120 and G16 are now gone, replaced by the G9X and G5X respectively. Of the two, the G5X is the more appealing to enthusiasts. Whereas the G7X is obviously derivative of the Sony RX100 cameras, the G5X is a more unique design... at least for Canon. The overall design could easily have come from Nikon's V3 team, and the pronounced flash/hotshoe/EVF hump is reminiscent of Fujifilm bridge cameras of years past.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Leica SL (Type 601) Review: With Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 mm f/2.8-4 ASPH

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me..."
                                                              - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rich Boy

It is difficult to enter any discussion regarding Leica without at least once visiting the reality of the prices that they charge. That has never been more true with the SL (Type 601), which commands one of the starkest prices of any Leica south of the medium format S series. For the purposes of this writing, it will remain the elephant in the room.... these days, one merely has a Leica or one does not. It's not rational to justify it. If you come across somebody and this is their camera, then there will probably be some truth to the fact that they will be "different from you and me".

The SL is like the Leica Q in that it is a surprise. The Q is a harbinger of a more automated and user-friendly form of the M-series rangefinder format... the surprise was how willing Leica was to go in this direction given it's history. Likewise, the SL is ostensibly another dive into uncharted waters for the company; the Leica T was one experiment, and the SL feels like another. For a "conservative" company, the SL shows a surprisingly willingness to be modern. That said, even if the concept of the SL feels like a grand experiment, it's form and operation are already evident in the S-series medium format cameras: the SL is that in miniature. This is a camera with a much heft as a Nikon D810 or Canon 5Ds, and it's "kit" lens is just as imposing. As cliché as it is, this is a camera that would not be out of place in a fashion shoot out on the streets of Monaco.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

How Does Light Travel Through Glass?

This will be a bit of a diversion post. Photographer's these days are concerned with many technical things... how many megapixels their cameras are, how much dynamic range they can fit in an image, how many stops of aperture they can manage. On a deeper and more edifying level, there is a lot of science behind how modern cameras work, but perhaps the most elemental is the fact that glass is transparent. "It just is" you may say, but the physics of why some things like camera lenses let light through, and why other things don't, is explained in this link to Brady Haran's excellent Sixty Symbols channel on YouTube. Professor Phil Moriarty explains:

But camera lenses don't just pass light through unimpeded.If if the photons do make it through the glass, they will travel through the glass 40% slower than they would in a vacuum. This is where the concept of diffraction comes in, the basis of how camera lenses work....

Monday, October 19, 2015

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Review

Even though photography is a "classic" pursuit,,,timeless and discovered by each new generation... the commercial market for photographic equipment is driven by novelty. We, as photographers, tell each other that the smart money is in lenses... that lenses will be useful long after bodies have become obsolete. If that were true - and it mostly is - then the camera manufactures would have a tough time selling anything. The truth is that lenses don't become obsolete, but they are getting better as time goes by.

Unfortunately, "better" also means more expensive. Working with precision optics isn't like working with electronics... there isn't a "Moore's Law" of camera lenses. If you want a better camera lens, i8t will almost invariably be more expensive. Today's lenses are sharper and better corrected than their predecessors, but the average selling price has gone up accordingly. Which brings us to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. Not a red-ring lens. Not a new lens. No fancy coatings. No aspherical elements. Not sexy like the Sony Batis 85mm f/1.8, yet this is almost a no-brainer as far as portrait lenses go for Canon users.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Nikon Camera Settings: ADL, Sharpening and Clarity

Nikon D7200 with ColorChecker Passport

Camera manufacturers sets their image defaults differently from each other. This leads to the general impression that one camera will have one particular "look" compared to another, or that one brand has better skin-tones than the competitor. While this can be the case, the truth is that much of a camera's default JPEG output can be tuned to one's taste with a quick dive into the menus. The following is with regards to Nikon cameras, but the principles apple to all digital cameras.

We'll be focusing on three specific optimizations: Active D-Lighting (dynamic range optimization), and from within the Picture Controls menu, sharpness and clarity. The reason why is that all three settings can be used to produce a crisper and punchier looking image, but at a cost of low-level image quality. The key is knowing how much to use and when to use it.

(Just as an aside, the use of the ColorChecker Passport is a bit of a camera-reviewer joke. These things have a proper use, but you almost always see them as part of ISO targets.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sony RX100M3 vs Sony A6000

Left: Sony A6000       Right: Sony RX100M3

The Sony RX100M3 and A6000 are two of the best received cameras for first time shoppers and young families looking for something to take quality photos with...

If you think that these are supposed to be cutting-edge enthusiast-oriented cameras, you would be right. Neither are inexpensive, but since the very beginning they have been universally well regarded. The funny thing about well-reviewed serious-level products is that the good word filters down to the general consumer level as well. Even if they are loaded with specs that appeal to hardcore enthusiasts, both product lines have successfully crossed over from high-end enthusiast to mass-market consumer. This is is no small feat; there are many good cameras, but few at the higher end compel casual shooters.

Taking a step back, the camera industry has gone through a sea-change these past few years. It used to be that if you wanted quality you bought a DSLR, and if you wanted portability you bought a compact. Mirrorless and high end compacts have changed that and made for more choice in between. Whereas before casual shoppers spend somewhere between $500 to $700 USD for an entry-level DSLR, they are now more likely to spend the same amount on a mirrorless camera or a RX100M3. It's a rational choice; for almost the same quality as a DSLR from 3-4 years previous, you get a smaller and more compact system.

The Dilemma:

Which to choose? The RX100M3 is physically smaller and has better lens specs, albeit with a smaller sensor and no fancy motion-tracking phase-det4ection autofocus. The A6000 is one of the smallest of the APS-C mirrorless cameras on the market, but would be considered large to a user accustomed to point-and-shoots. It's only serious weakness is the SEL1650 kit lens that it is paired with, which is one of the most electronic-0correction reliant lenses on the camera market. In fact, the A6000 menu blanks out the option to turn-off in-camera lens corrections when this lens is mounted.

Both are good, both are small. One is smaller, one is more capable. If you wanted one camera, which to chose and which trade-off is better?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

iPhone 6s and 6s Plus Camera Launch Review

Apple iPhone 6s

With every new iPhone release, Apple has placed a greater emphasis on photography, though in truth, for each new feature that is announced there are a number of small iterative improvements that may or may not impact day to to day use. This year's significant changes are:

  • 12mp still photos
  • Improved phase detection autofocus
  • Deep trench sensor construction for better signal/noise
  • "Live Photo" capture
  • 4K video recording (3840x2160)

Obviously the fundamental changes are the bump in resolution and the addition of 4K. However, the key idea is "day to day" use: do these changes meaningfully benefit the consumer or has Apple joined the traditional camera industry's predictable iterative parade?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR Review

When it comes to APS-C, the different camera companies seem to have different thoughts as to what the majority of the customers want... at least if  you go by the composition of their product lineups:

  • Canon seems to have woken up to the possibilities of inexpensive but comparatively good performing consumer-grade STM lenses like the EF-S 24mm f/2.8 or the EF-S 10-18mm . In fact, their lens lineup looks better matched to the consumer-level market segment than their camera bodies are.
  • Sony seems to only want to produce mid-grade consumer-zooms for their E-Mount cameras. There might be one or two good zooms or primes in the lineup, but overall the selection is competent but uninspiring.
  • Fujifilm is solidly replicating the enthusiast-level experience of the high-end DSLR market with their XF line of lenses. Virtually nobody thinks of the XC lenses when they think of Fujifilm

And there is Nikon, who seemingly proliferated every possible variation of the 18-xxx kit lens possible. The AF-S DX 16-85mm was a setup in build and image quality for anybody who wanted something better than the kit lens but who didn't want to stray from the convenience of having a wide zoom ratio. In other words, it was a lens that edged up to the enthusiast level but which primarily appealed to the consumer segment of the market. That's a tough proposition, but truth be told, Nikon sold quite a few of these and the 18-200 convenience zooms, as apparently consumer behavior is not as hardcore as internet forum chatter would have you believe.

The AF-S 16-80 is a the continuation of that idea, but with more actual hard-core credentials in the virtue of being essentially a stop brighter in terms of maximum aperture throughout the zoom range. For something that isn't a constant aperture f/2.8 zoom (or even better, ala Sigma 18-35mm DC HSM) the Nikon 16-80mm's price of $1066 USD once again tests the limits of how much money convenience shooters are willing to pay for quality.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Canon G3 X Review

Canon G3 X

One of Canon's most popular compact cameras is the SX series (SX710 HS, SX700 HX, etc.). In a compact rectangular box form, you get lots of zoom... more than the competition even. The SX 710 HS and cameras like it  are generally casual shooter cameras, made for photographers who like the idea of a "big spec" camera but who aren't in love with the larger size requirements of a traditional DSLR-like bridge camera. Very often, the buyer of a big zoom EVF-less compact really only wants a compact camera, but is lured by the promise of the big spec number... E.g. "30x zoom, 50X zoom, etc.

To that end, the Canon G3 X is the high-end version of this concept, much like how the G7 X is the high-end embodiment of the S120. Canon, being the largest player in the camera market can afford to do multiple segments as such, whereas the rest of the industry is consolidating onto a few key products. From a casual consumer perspective, a smaller EVF-less large sensor camera seems like a good idea, but from an enthusiast shooter's point of view, the point-and-shoot style layout would be viewed politely as a brave choice. Given the sales success of the G7 X, can the G3 X do the same?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Nikon D7200 vs Sony A7 Mark II

Left: Nikon D7200 with Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS   Right: Sony A7mII with FE 24-70mm f/4

Following the previous post that looked at the Nikon D750 versus the Sony A7 Mark II, two initial conditions can be roughly established:

  • The Nikon D7200 is roughly one stop less in image quality (noise, dynamic range) relative to the D750 by virtue of its smaller sensor. Both cameras show JPEG rendering improvements over their predecessors due to the current generation of Nikon EXPEED processors.
  • The Sony A7 Mark II, even though it is using a similar (but not identical) sensor is not as good as the Nikon D750 with out of camera JPEG's, and is limited by its compressed 11-bit RAW format

One wonders: how does the crop-frame D7200 compare to the full-frame Sony A7 Mark II? That might seem like a absurd question; of course full frame is better than APS-C. What's really the crux of the issue is whether or not Nikon's execution of APS-C can keep pace with Sony's implementation of full frame. The results might surprise you....

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Nikon D750 vs Sony A7 Mark II

Left: Nikon D750     Right: Sony A7 Mark II

The Nikon D750 and Sony A7 Mark II  are the zeitgeist of the 2015.... at least as far as the camera manufacturers would prefer. Nikon and Canon have been trying to move their enthusiast shooters upmarket as far as possible, and for Nikon, that means switching users from APS-C to full frame. Sony, even if they aren't being accused of it, is also doing the same thing, as there as been a marked proliferation of full frame FE-mount lenses in 2014-2015 at a time when their traditional APS-C E-mount lens range has remained stagnant. In other words, these two cameras are representative of how the camera companies are trying to shape the camera market.

For all of the little stumbles (shaded flare issue and one firmware update) that the D750 has gone through, it is probably the best refined concept of what a DSLR could be at the moment.... capable, full featured and most importantly in this day and age, smaller and lighter than what came before. It's not perfect, but it is pretty much excellent at the core of what it is.

The Sony A7 Mark II is a more ambitious device, and arguably representative of what the future of cameras will be. It is an improvement over the first A7, a good camera that had more than a few Version 1.0 traits, but compared to the many, many times that Nikon has iterated their serious DSLR range, the Sony is still the new comer on the black. Smaller body, built in image stabilization, on-chip phase detection during live view. All of these are useful and crowd pleasing, but do they add up against the tried-and-true DSLR form factor?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sony RX100 Mark IV Review

Sony RX100 Mark IV

The Sony RX100M3 was one of the best received cameras for first time shoppers and young families looking for something to take quality photos with.

Wait, what?

The RX100 cameras have never been inexpensive, but since the very beginning they have been universally well regarded. Even if they are loaded with specs that appeal to hardcore enthusiasts, the product line has successfully crossed over from high-end enthusiast to mass-market consumer. This is is no small feat; there are many good cameras, but few at the higher end compel casual shooters.

Taking a step back, the camera industry has gone through a sea-change these past few years. It used to be that if you wanted quality you bought a DSLR, and if you wanted portability you bought a compact. Mirrorless and high end compacts have changed that and made for more choice in between. Whereas before casual shoppers spend somewhere between $500 to $700 USD for an entry-level DSLR, they are now more likely to spend the same amount on a mirrorless camera or a RX100M3. It's a rational choice; for almost the same quality as a DSLR from 3-4 years previous, you get a smaller and more compact system.

The RX100M4, however, will likely not follow in that tend. When it comes to high end products, Sony deliberately aims for the top of the market with their halo products. That was true for the previous iterations of this camera, but there are diminishing gains to contend with. the RX100M4 has cutting edge technology and performance. Conceivably, one day it too will be an older camera that is overshadowed by the next biggest thing, but even when that day comes, its  biggest competition will still be its predecessor.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Nikon ME-W1 Review

Nikon's ME-W1 is an affordable wireless microphone that has some interesting options. The device works by BlueTooth and has a transmitter with an omni-directional microphone; both transmitter and receiver have input ports for hooking up other microphones to the apparatus. It's a promising option for the hobbyist, but does it deliver?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fujifilm X-T1 vs Nikon D7200

Fujfilm X-T1

Time for a check-up. Fujifilm's X-Trans sensor was introduced back in 2012 and allowed for a 16mp APS-C sensor to punch above its weight in terms of image quality. If you took a X-Pro1 when it first came out, there was something about it that made it stand out from the the Nikon D7000... and a case could be made that it could stand its ground against the 1st generation of APS-C sensors from the likes of the Sony NEX-7 and Nikon D3200.

However, amongst enthusiasts, the benefits of the image output was contentious depending on who you talked to, but amongst the general population the X-Trans sensor is a crowd pleaser. Since then, there have been several iterations of higher resolution 24mp sensors from the competition, whereas X-Trans has remained at 16mp. If it were purely about the numbers, it would be one story, but when it comes to image quality it is never that simple.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

So You Want to buy a Leica: A Beginner's Guide to the M240

Leica M240, 35mm Summilux and Ona Berlin messenger bag

One does not simply walk into a Leica store.

Unless you are a person of means, buying a Leica M camera is usually not an easy decision. There are many reasons to own one; some of them aren't particularly good or beneficial to your wallet. If you can get past the shortcomings, then you can arrive at a place where you no longer need to justify having one; you simply enjoy it. Yes, that means a Leica M is an indulgence. The extravagance isn't that the camera is merely expensive, it's that it is expensive in an impractical way. Nobody needs a Rolex, but that doesn't stop many from appreciating them. A Ferrari is obviously under-used when it is crawling through city traffic, but that won't stop people from turning their heads when one goes by. The same applies to Leica cameras: everybody has their indulgence and if you are photographer, this might be yours.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Canon EOS 5Ds vs Nikon D810

Left: Canon EOS 5Ds   Right: Nikon D810

There's a phrase that is used every so often around here, and that would be "beyond the scope of this blog". As in "getting the best out of the Canon 5Ds and the Nikon D810 are beyond the scope of this blog". If you know why you need one or the other of these cameras you likely will have decided by now; otherwise, if you have to ask, you probably don't need either. Nonetheless, lets see how the very best stack up against one another.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Leica Q (Type 116) Review

Leica Q (Type 116)

While the classic M camera is an enduring given for Leica, the German company has been quite adventurous with expansion into new niches outside of its traditional mainstay. They have gone higher to the S medium format series, but more often than not Leica has ventured lower to more accessible luxury. If the M is for the 1%, cameras like the X and T series are for the aspirational 19% that follow. However, nothing seems to endure like the M; the forays into accessible luxury always seem temporary at best. With the D-Lux and V-Lux cameras, it is very plainly about reaching as large a mass market as tolerable for a premium luxury brand. The X series was innovative at the time of its introduction, but as larger sensor cameras have becomes the normal, Leica has had to look higher to differentiate themselves from the mass market. The Leica T fits that bill, but is so innovative it's quite a bit off the beaten path.

To be perfectly honest, all of the downmarket forays have had to deal with the stigma of not being "real Leica's"; the fact that they aren't always made with the latest technology hasn't helped matters. However, that's not the point; for the users of these cameras, it's about the enjoyment of the camera rather than about outright perfection.

The Q is different. It is as contemporary and up to date as anything that has come out of Japan, but still maintains the core virtues of simplicity and superb optics. If it were a person, it would be the capable and self-assured new comer to the office, the one whose ambition and confidence come across in a palpable but understated way.  It's a camera that is comfortable at what it can do, but at the same time has the haughty air of timelessness that Leica cameras tend to portray.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Review

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

The  Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II is something of a joke in the photographic world... a light-hearted positive joke but a joke nonetheless. The punchline is that it's a remarkably sharp lens with toy-like build quality that comes at absurdly low retail price. It's the closest thing in the camera world to a piece of fast-fashion clothing; you never get the sense that they intended fro you to keep it forever. Many people who bought this lens did so with a smile on their face because of how little they were paying. It's a lens that was in dire need of upgrading... and in a way it wasn't. While it is true that you need to continuously improve in order to maintain brand loyalty, there is something to be said about offering ridiculously low prices.

The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is a fitting step up from the older f/1.8, and in every conceivable way, improves upon the previous lens. It's still cheap, just not as jokingly cheap as the the last time. So has Canon maintained the magic "so cheap it's good" formula or has something changed during the upgrade?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD Review

Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD

Image stabilization is the closest thing photographic-wise to Pavlov's conditioning stimuli experiments. Just the mere mention of it gets people salivating, even with lenses that don't particularly suffer without it. Normal-zoom lenses fall into that particular category; the two pro-spec lenses by Canon and Nikon don't have it and many people get by well with out it. Still, the thinking goes that more must be better; if a constant f/2.8 zoom is good than adding image stabilization must be better.

To that end, we have the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD, the first stabilized full frame professional-quality 24-70mm lens, though likely not the last. If you read between the lines, neither Nikon or Canon have introduced image stabilization into their designs because of compromises that it would introduce into the optical quality of their lenses. This also seems true for crop lenses as well; early Fujfifilm roadmaps had the XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR including an image stabilization feature, only to be left out in favour of outright optical quality. Tamron themselves are perhaps the most classic example of this; the venerable original  17-50mm f/2.8 was a near-pro quality lens, at least in terms of image quality; the VC version lost a bit of something and became more of a hobbyist's lens.

So, we all want image stabilization and a fast aperture. Did Tamron get it right this time?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Nikon D7200 vs Nikon D750: Full frame vs Crop Guide, 2015

Left: Nikon D750     Right: D7200

DX versus FX, crop vs full frame: it's a question that's been on many shooter's minds since the dawn of the so-called "affordable" full frame era. It's a false dichotomy, really. There's no question that full frame is better but the dilemma for many is whether or the cost can be justified. If you are being paid to do photography, even if it's the odd weekend wedding gig, then the answer is easier to arrive at: go with full frame, because that is where most of the competition is already at.

For the non-professional shooter, Nikon has moved the goalposts since the D7100/D6100 era. The D7200 and the D750 are both extremely capable cameras, but the value proposition has been altered somewhat. The D600 (and D610) were designed to be extremely easily "step-up" solutions for DX users: they were more or less the same camera, but with upgraded sensors. Comparatively, the D750 is more when compared to the D7200.

  • Comparatively slimmer body
  • Group Area AF
  • Higher resolution exposure meter
  • Additional highlight priority spot metering
  • Power aperture control during video and live view

Because of these additions, the gap in price between the two tiers has increased. Ordinarily, this would discourage some shoppers from looking at the more expensive option, but the situation is made less clear by the apparent lack of interest Nikon has given the serious DX market in recent years.

Update, August 2017: Interested in how the D7500 stacks up? Click here.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Canon EOS Rebel T6s (760D) and T6i (750D) Review

Canon Rebel T6s with 18-135mm STM

The Canon Rebel DSLR as a concept is pretty much the Toyota Corrolla of the camera world. It's inexpensive, it's dependable and it's a known quantity that is easily accessible for new-comers. However, like it's automotive counterpart, it also doesn't do much to excite enthusiasts. This might sound like the typical internet snobbery of mass-market blandness... it's very much not the case. If every camera was as capable as the 7D Mark II there would be a large contingent of people who would be turned off of the cost of digital photography. Cameras like the Rebels are important, as everybody has to start from somewhere.

Wait long enough and there will be a new digital Rebel. This time there are two new cameras; the T6i which is almost a straight up upgrade of the T5i, and the T6s, which fills in the (narrow) niche just below the EOS 70D. Specs that are common to both cameras are:

  • 24.2mp sensor, anti-aliasing filter present
  • 19-point autofocus system
  • Hybrid CMOS AF III live view focus
  • 7560 pixel RGB + IR metering sensor with skin tone detection
  • 3" flip-out touchscreen LCD
  • 5 fps continuous shooting
  • 1080/30p video
  • Wi-Fi with NFC

Features that are unique to the T6s and not found on the T6i are:

  • Eye sensor for optical viewfinder 
  • Top LCD display
  • Rear control dial 
  • Servo (continuous) AF in live view 

Compared to the T5i, both cameras are a significant upgrade in terms of autofocus and exposure meter capability. That's a low bar to cross, as the T5i was essentially a re-skinned T4i. The truer test of these cameras is the competition from outside the Canon family.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Leica M Edition “LEICA 60”

"A picture is worth a thousand words." I swear, despite the obvious allusion in the title, this is the first time  the saying has been used in this blog. It's a appropriate saying for the Leica M Edition "Leica 60"; you will no doubt have formed an opinion about the very existence of this camera by now...

There's absolutely no chance that out of camera sample shots will be possible for this post. So rather than offer thousands of words about a camera that few will ever afford... let alone see in the flesh... here are a few pictures to satisfy your curiosity:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sigma 24mm 1.4 DG HSM Art Review

Sigma 24mm 1.4 DG HSM Art

This is the Sigma 24mm 1.4 DG HSM ART lens. It costs less than the equivalent Nikon or Canon, and is just as or is nearly as good. For many people, that is enough to know....

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nikon Coolpix P900 Review

Nikon COOLPIX P900

Here's an idea: the Nikon Coolpix P900 is the digital camera equivalent of the Simpsons' character, Sideshow Bob.

...No, Really. Watch as I try to explain....

Friday, April 10, 2015

Standard-Zoom Lens Guide for Nikon D7000, D7100 and D7200

The old saying goes that pros don't use normal zooms. Yes, the lenses that  pros supposedly don't use because they are too busy trying to make their pictures not look like they were taken by normal people with normal zooms. Concession to rationality... real people using stand zoom lenses is a thing.Also: pros are real people.

There is some truth to the saying, though... but it's a subtle truth. Professionals most certainly do use stand-zooms; it's almost unthinkable to work a wedding with a D810 without a 24-70mm f/2.8 in the kit. What the saying should mean is that professionals don't use normal-zooms in the way that amateurs do. The actual truth is that if you are using a standard zoom and are contentiously thinking about quality photography, you will be gravitating towards either the towards the longer or wider ends of the lens, and using the middle portion of the zoom less. Conversely, if used thoughtlessly, normal zooms can encourage a certain amount of sloppiness in controlling subject perspective

Note that this is primarily concerned with DX-specific lenses. It goes without saying, pairing the Nikon D7100 or D7200 with an AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 ED will be awesome, but not having a real wide angle option with that combination will get tiresome eventually. With Nikon's tepid love for DX  many people might be thinking off accumulating full frame lenses for an eventual jump to FX, possibly a DD750, maybe a D810 if they are really ambitious. This is not an inherently bad idea, but you tend to get more joy out of the equipment by matching DX specific focal lengths to DX equipment rather than trying to make FX focal lengths work. You may, in fact, never make the switch to FX, but you will always be using whatever equipment that you have in the here and now.

 (Updated April 2015.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Sigma AF 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM OS Review (Canon/Nikon Mounts)

Nikon D7200 and Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 HSM OS

The Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II LD IF was one of most venerable lenses in the crop sensor DSLR world. For a fraction of the cost of the Nikon and Canon alternatives, a photographer can have a f/2.8 normal lens with almost all of the sharpness of the first-tier lenses... albeit sacrificing a bit in terms of vignetting and lateral chromatic aberration, but not enough to matter in most situations. The Sigma AF 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM OS in many ways is the spiritual successor to that particular Tamron... even more so than Tamron's own VC update of that lens, which traded away some image quality at wider apertures in exchange for image stabilization.

Constant f/2.8 zooms are always popular, especially when they are as small as these third-party alternatives. So, is the Sigma 17-50mm OS the proverbial walk-around, go-anywhere normal-zoom that so many photographers are looking for?

April 2015 Update: Additional information about compatibility with different Nikon bodies added. 

tl;dr: This lens does not display the infamous "scroll bug" and accelerated battery drain when mounted on a D7200 or D5500.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nikon D7200 Review

Nikon D7200 Body

In the most fitting way possible, we begin the this review of the apparently not-so-changed  D7200 by recycling the opening to the D7100 review from 2013:

"It must have been something of a sinking feeling for those waiting for a successor to the Nikon D300s to see the arrival of the very well spec’d D7100.  Though some may argue against, I hold that the D7000 was indeed the commercial successor to the D300s whether or not Nikon admitted to it and that the D7100 is now the second camera to carry the line forward."

Wash, rinse and repeat. Along this line of reasoning, the D7200 is now the third "successor" to the D300s. There may be yet a full-metal body pro-spec serious DX camera yet that can assume the mantle of the D300, but if it ever comes it will be so late as to be likely called the D500, especially given how often the number "5" is creeping into the Nikon's current model names. Until then, Nikon was iterated the D7100 in the most literal way possible; by recycling the core concept and apparently much of the packaging. The specs are:

  • 24MP APS-C sensor
  • Larger expanded ISO range (to ISO 102,400)
  • 6 fps burst, larger buffer 
  • 51-point MultiCAM 3500DX2 autofocus system
  • Improved low light focusing to -3EV, one stop better than D7100
  • 2,016 pixel RGB sensor exposure sensor (like D610, unlike D750)
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
  • Upgraded video (like D810 and D750), including Flat Picture Control
  • 1080p video at 60fps, but it 1.3x crop mode only
  • Battery life up from 950 to 1110 shots per charge
  • Body only price: $1,199.95 USD (Unchanged from D7100)

The problem with modern discourse... of any kind... is that subtlety is a dying art. In the way that things are perceived, they are either superlative or they are lacking. That is to say, in the vernacular of the internet, things either rock or they suck. (Cue George Orwell: Double plus good, comrade!) This is unfortunate, as reality always falls in between these two extremes. This is very much the case with the Nikon D7200. It's not  full frame, it's not smaller and lighter and to be quite honest, it's barely a change over its predecessor.  And yet, it's a good camera. A very good camera. Expectations shape perceptions of course. If you perceive the D7200 as being a letdown, then it's because you have a certain set of expectations. If you approach the D7200 with no expectations, then it's a great performance bargain, just as the serious Nikon DX cameras before it.

Update, August 2017: Interested in how the D7500 stacks up? Click here

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II Review

Left: Version 1    Right: Version II

As the old saying goes, small cheap good: pick two but you can't have all three. If it is small and good, it's not cheap. If it is cheap and good, it generally isn't small. If it is small and cheap, it's not necessarily good. This is a good adage to remember when you shop for camera gear, as it keeps your expectations in line and helps you set a budget for the gear that you need and can afford.

Of course, the key word is expectation. The AF-S DX Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II is small, cheap and good... if your expectation of what "good" means is kept in check. To make it clear, this isn't damning with faint praise, as the second version of this lens is better in every regard over the original 55-200VR. That lens in itself was an improvement over the original non-stabilized 55-200mm lens, and was (and is) a good lens by virtue of being compact and offering reasonable image quality at an affordable price.

However, time moves on. Because of the rise of mirrorless cameras, the 55-200mm VR, which is mall for a DSLR lens, is "big" for a generation that is only accustomed to only travelling with nothing more than a smartphone. Nikon addressed that by adding a retracing mechanism to the lens body. This was first seen on the Nikon 1 kit lenses; a retracting version of the 18-55mm VR kit lens is sold with later versions of the D3200, D3300 and D5300.

Left: Version 1    Right: Version II

Truth be told, with the lens retraced, this is an impressively small package to reach 200mm on the DX format. That said, it isn't what makes this lens good.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

DSLR VS Mirrorless: The Camera Market in 2015

Left to Right: Olympus E-M5II, Sony A6000, Fujifilm XE-2, Nikon D5500, Canon SL1

What you see above is an assortment of mid-tier DSLR and mirrorless cameras. They occupy different price points and serve different target markets, but all can be said to be "smaller large-sensor interchangeable lens cameras" which also have good image quality and/or handling in a portable package. Crudely speaking, these are cameras for people who love the act of picture-taking but who don't like carrying stuff around. This is a tricky market segment for the camera companies. People who love cameras tend to also like stuff... as in buying it and carting it around to places. Your typical Nikon D7100/7200 or Canon 7DmII user is unlike the typical buyers of the above 5 cameras. If anything, advanced enthusiasts are atypical of the market in that they tend to buy multiple lenses, whereas the mid-tier group may buy one or two extra lenses... over the entire lifetime of their camera ownership.

For this reason, the mid-tier is a tricky market to serve because the customers know enough to go for the better quality of a large sensor camera but aren't so fully committed to photography that they want to accumulate extra gear. This is a sticking point for many entering the camera market; for a generation that came of age during the smartphone revolution, anything bigger than an iPhone is "big." This is a demographic that is simply not used to carrying stuff around. Look at all of the things that a smartphone replaces: it's not just cameras, a smart phone also takes the place of a watch, a calculator, a music player,a day planner....

So ostensibly, the message to the camera manufacturer's is that people want smaller cameras. To that end, the conventional wisdom is that mirrorless cameras are the future. That';s been the sentiment for a number of years now. It's more true than ever before, and in two ways its still off in the future. The first reason is practical: mirrorless cameras have obvious size benefits over traditional DSLR's, but the second reason is more problematic. The issue with forecasting the future is not so much a matter of "what will happen", but "who will make it happen"... and "who" is a matter of who is willing and who is capable. Therein lies the problem, as Canon and Nikon, being heavily invested in the DSLR route and are not willing, whereas the mirrorless camera makers, with the possible exception of Sony, are not able. Not at the rate things are going.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nikon D7200 Launch Review: First Impressions

Nikon D7200 with AF-S 18-140mm lens

The Nikon D7200 is the inevitable successor to the D7100. Despite all of the attention that Nikon hopes that you will pay to their FX lineup, the truth of the matter is that a larger proportion of their consumers are DX users. Since this is an unavoidable fact, Nikon has finally turned their own attention to serious-DX again. The headline specs are:

  • 24MP APS-C sensor
  • Larger expanded ISO range (to ISO 102,400)
  • Body is similar (same as?) to D7100 
  • 6 fps burst, larger buffer (Huzzah!)
  • 51-point MultiCAM 3500DX2 autofocus system
  • Improved low light focusing to -3EV, one stop better than D7100
  • 2,016 pixel RGB sensor exposure sensor (like D610, unlike D750)
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
  • ME-W1 wireless microphone option
  • Upgraded video (like D810 and D750), including Flat Picture Control
  • Battery life up from 950 to 1110 shots per charge
  • Body only price: $1,199.95 USD (Unchanged from D7100)

It goes without saying that owners of the D7100 will get better value by holding off an upgrade until the next generation... or biting the bullet to jump to full frame. This is just common camera sense, and has applied since the beginning of the DSLR boom. However, on its on merits, the D7200 is a feature laden camera that can perform in multiple roles. Despite the fact that full frame is "better" and that mirrorless is "the future", the D7100 (and cameras like it) was one of the best all-around cameras available. It wasn't as big, expensive and heavy as full frame, had much better focusing and metering than most mirrorless cameras, and had competitive image quality. What it wasn't, though, was the flavour of the day. The serious-enthusiast portion of the DSLR market is still probably the biggest segment in terms of market value, but its been a long time since the heyday of the D200 and D300, so it isn't as talked about. Nonetheless, the D7200 inherits its predecessor's virtues, so it will likely again be a value-packed "serious" camera. In the (probable) words of Ken Rockwell, it's "The World's Best Camera to Date (asterisk)". Actually, that would probably be mostly true...

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Selfie Stick Through the Ages

Credit: Alan Cleaver, via The BBC

There is no arguing that the selfie-stick is a silly idea, yet that doesn't stop millions of people who apparently lack in terms of self-consciousness. There is a rational economic reason for their popularity given how expense a stolen smartphone is to replace. However, the unlikely acceptance(?) of selfie-sticks can't be explained by our love of smartphones, as the first such devices predate the iPhone... let alone digital cameras as the above example shows. It was taken of (and by) the grandparents of freelance reporter Alan Cleaver in 1925 in central England. It's not that this was the first self-portrait using a camera, but it's deliciously reminiscent of the countless selfies taken today. The intrusive inclusion of the stick poking out of the photo is just icing on the cake.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Nikon D5500 Review

With each passing year comes new camera updates, some updates being more often than others. The Nikon D5500 and it's predecessors fall into the "more often" category.On paper the differences are minor and iterative:

  • Touch screen LCD
  • Flat picture control
  • Re-profiled body
  • No more built-in GPS.

Admittedly,  it's not a particularly blood-stirring update. That's sort of the point with cameras in this segment, though... the D5500 is not exciting at the moment but give it time and it will age into a value-packed mid-tier product. However, to get a true gist of this camera, you have to look past the specs and to see it in person; it's more of a change from the D5300 than the D5300 was to the D5200.

March 2017 Update: Much of this review also applies to the D5600; the only significant difference is the inclusion of Nikon SnapBridge; outside of the connectivity the shooting experience is largely similar with some small differences. Be aware that the D5600 kit lens uses 55mm threads, so kit-lens filters and caps are not cross-compatible between generations.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Canon EOS 5DS and 5DS R Launch Review

In time for the 2015 CP+ Japanese tradeshow, Canon announced the 50mp EOS 5DS and the 5DS R variant. The internet is naturally abuzz, proving that "big number" product marketing isn't dead in the camera industry. What has changed since the 5D Mark III:

  • New 50.2MP Canon-designed sensor 
  • 150k pixels exposure meter (RGB+IR, like 7DmII
  • Reinforced tripod mount
  • Electronic first curtain shutter option in Live View
  • Dual Digic 6 processors
  • Artificial light flicker reduction (like 7D Mark II)
  • New mirror mechanism (like 7D Mark II)

What hasn't changed:

  • 61-point AF module, 41 cross-type, 5 double-cross type
  • 1080/30p video (7DmII can do 60p)

What's worse:

  • No headhone jack
  • No clean HDMI output
  • Battery life slightly worse

The end result is a mixture of ultra-high resolution feature set combined with features that seem curiously...crippled. The exposure meter is upgraded from the 5D Mark III, which is synergistic with the increased resolution. Though the 5D Mark III autofocus system is good, a (theoretically) better unit now exists in the 7D Mark II. The fact that video hasn't changed at all and is arguably worse than the 5DmIII indicates that Canon is being more single-minded about the EOS 5DS' mission than it was with the general-purpose predecessors.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Fujifilm XF 50-140 mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR

Fujifilm XF 50-140 mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR

One thing that doesn't seem to translate well between full frame and crop-frame shooting is the use of the classic 70-200mm f/2.8 workhorse zoom. This is a versatile focal length that does well for portraiture and event photography, but the equivalent crop-frame focal length of 50-140mm has never quite caught on. Crop users tend to be more casual in how they use their gear; as a collective group they tend to prefer longer focal lengths over mid-range quality. You often see DSLR users mounting those 70-200 f/2.8 onto crop-frame cameras, but that gives the effective field of view of 100-300mm on full-frame, which is somewhat awkward to use if you are moving in and out of a crowd during a social function. This comes back to the idea of the field of view for a classic working-zoom; it isn't so much about dealing with distance as it is with creating compression and isolation. To that end, the Fujifilm Fujinon XF 50-140 mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR fits the bill.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 XF R Review

 Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 XF R

The Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 XF R is a "normal" lens that approximates the field of view that a 50mm lens (52mm, actually) gives on a traditional film/full-frame system. Though there is a convincing argument that this field of view is not exactly what the human eye sees, it nonetheless is a useful one as it can be used for many situations. There is also a convincing argument that this field of view isn't "creative" enough for stand-out photography as it neither opens up a scene like a wide-angle lens, nor does it compress the perspective that a portrait length does. However, there is no denying that this is a popular focal length, and for good reason; 35mm equivalent brings you too close to the subject for portrait work and 85mm is far too tight for landscape.  

To that end end, 50mm (or 35mm on APS-C) is a happy medium. Even though it isn't the "right" focal length for dedicated photography, it is the "right" lens for many people. People are rational beings, and when budgets are limited, the choice will often narrow down to multitasking tools rather than uni-taskers. As such, the XF 35mm f/1.4 R is often the first lens that many Fujifilm X-system users choose to supplement the kit lens.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4R

Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R

Camera systems are defined by their lens selection, but not all lenses are "definitive" of their respective systems. The Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH is often the first lens that an M system user will acquire, but arguably the Leica experience is better defined by the Summicron 35mm f/2. The same could be said for the Fujifilm system, which is ostensibly a Leica system in spirit, but one made to be attainable. The Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R seems to get' all of the glory, but the XF 23mm f/1.4R is more in keeping with what the Fujifilm X-system is all about. For those keeping score, 23mm and f/1.4 is roughly the equivalent of 35mm full-frame at f/2; in other words, the Leica analogy applies quite a bit when describing this lens.

Sony SEL 50mm f/1.8 OSS Review

Sony SEL 50mm f/1.8 OSS Review

It's because of a historic market quirk that 50mm lenses are still sold as "low-light" options for APS-C cameras. Before the rise of mirrorless cameras, 50mm lenses were inexpensive hold-overs from the film era for DSLR's. Because Canon and Nikon were slow to offer meaningful crop-frame prime lens options for their respective systems, the first lens that many people supplemented their kit lens was with a "nifty-fifty". This doesn't truly apply to the mirrorless era, as most mirrorless cameras either have stabilization in the body or have stabilized lens options. The Sony E-Mount cameras are such a case; the kit 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS PZ lens has a very pedestrian aperture range, but it does have image stabilization. If you assume that the image stabilization system gives you three stops of hand-holding advantage, then the kit zoom is roughly as good as a 50mm f/1.8 in low light... for non-moving subjects anyway.

However, 50mm on APS-C is the equivalent of 75mm on full-frame, so it's not a good focal length for general purpose use. It is good for portraiture (though some will argue that even that is too short), and to that extent, the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS fits the bill.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Cavalcade of Lens Manufacturing Videos

Camera advertising falls into a number of predictable tropes... "flirty fashion shoot", "EXTREME! SPORTS!", "hipster urbania", etc. However, one trope that gets repeated often happens to be one of the most meditative and calming... the process of how lenses are manufactured. The ideal selling point is the precision and rigour that the manufacturers put into creating camera lenses, so the pacing is often meditative and deliberate. These are often some of the most fascinating videos that the camera companies produce.

It goes without say that you can't mention lenses without mentioning Leica:

If you are unfamiliar with the manufacturing process, you might be struck by how much hands-on work the Leica video alludes to. Leica is a low-volume manufacturer, so a greater reliance on human assembly is expected, but this is true of much of the camera world. Camera parts are intricate and numerous, even when the scale of automation is increased, the necessity of human skill never goes away.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sony A7 Mark II Review

Sony A7 Mark II

These are interesting times for Sony. The corporation as a whole has seen better days, but the camera division has been arguably one of the most innovative competitors in the digital still camera field since the introduction of the A7-series of cameras, which started off life with much fanfare and interest at the end of 2013. What followed were two iterations, the ultra-high ISO A7s and the in-body stabilized A7 Mark II. The headline specs this time around are:

  • 5-Axis sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Improved autofocus speed and tracking
  • XAVC S video codec, 50Mbps
  • S-Log2 picture setting  à la Sony A7s
  • Redesigned front grip
  • Front command dial relocated,  à la Nikon

For most cameras, this would be enough to create a distinction in model iterations. However, it's important to note what hasn't changed:

  • 117-point phase-detection and 25 contrast detection AF points: This is the same as the A7. By comparison, the Sony 6000 uses 179 phase detection points.
  • RAW format unchanged (14bit data mapped to 11-bit file)
  • Same NP-FW50 battery. For reference, the A7 is rated at 340 shots under the CIPA testing standard
  • Rear control cluster unchanged

The benefits of the new features speak for themselves, but they also don't address all of the issues that serious photographers would have hoped for in a second iteration of the A7. Without even going further, its obvious that the A7 Mark II is a good camera, easily better than the A7. However, if we speak about the essence of the camera... the soul if you it a case of the worst of for technology's sake... or does it represent the best of the company by being a technological high-water mark?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sony A7 Mark II vs A7: High ISO Noise

Sony A7 Mark II with Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA

This is a quick look at high ISO performance between the Sony A7 Mark II and its predecessor. When camera body updates are issued, they invariably come with improved noise performance... at least in JPEG rendering. The camera buying public is conditioned to expect continual improvement; this is a camera that would have been competent even without a sensor update, but the market moves on.

Note: The full review is available here.

Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR Hands On First Impression (Pre-Production)

Fujifilm 16-55mm on X-T1 Graphite Silver Edition

Fujifilm's X-system began life as a rangefinder analogue, the anti-DSLR system if you will. It's the system that many DSLR users go to when they look for lighter weight, but don't want to give up image quality. However, the introduction of the X-T1's mini-DSLR form factor signalled that the X system was maturing, diverging and expanding back into some of the photographic territory covered by traditional DSLR's. One hallmark lens of the DSLR space is the 24-70mm f/2.8 (full frame equivalent) normal zoom lens. Like some of the other crop alternatives on other systems, the XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR approximates this type of lens on Fujifilm's crop X-Trans format.

It's a familiar and unfamiliar lens; in fact it's both if you work back and forth between mirrorless cameras and DSLR's. Fujifilm enthusiasts will most definitely find it big and heavy for an X-system lens, but DSLR users will find the heft similar to lenses like the Nikon AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED or the
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM. There isn't a lens quite like it in the current X-system lineup, so can a DSLR-esque lines find a home in the Fujiflm lineup?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Beginner's Guide to Canon Flashes

Left to Right: Canon 320EX, 430EX II and 600EX-RT

Modern DSLR cameras can lull you into a false sense of security. Because low-light performance is so good on modern digital cameras, many forego the addition of a dedicated flash unit. Flash units seem to fall down the priority list for many people... out-ranked by other more lust-worthy items like fast primes and long telephoto lenses. This is a shame; many people make the mistake of going for a fast prime to keep up with equally fast-moving children for low-light situations, but soon find out that moving subjects and ultra-narrow planes of focus don't go well together. What would work well is a dedicated flash unit in these situations, as a bounced flash would provide a gentle splash of light while allowing for the user to stop the lens down for more depth of field, all the while "freezing" movement for the exposure.

It's natural for the uninitiated to be adverse to flash photography because of the horrid results that the pop-up fill flash gives. That all changes when you go to a proper flash unit; with just a bit of instruction you can get amazing-looking results in situations where you would normally have been resigned to high-ISO muddiness, all without getting the deer in the headlights look that the dead-on beam of a pop-up flash gives.

Therein lies the reason why flash photography is a worthwhile pursuit for the aspiring photographer; it's not just about adding more light, but about shaping how it falls on your scene and subject. Flash photography isn't just about modulating brightness, it's about shaping the contrast and directionality of the light as it falls on the subject. Adding a flash doesn't just mean adding more capability to your camera, it will also open a whole new creative path to explore. Naturally, the first question is: which flash to go with first?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Launch Review: Nikon D5500 and AF-S DX Nikon 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR II

It's a new year, and of course there are new camera updates. Blink and you'll miss the differences between the D5500 and D5300:

  • Touch screen LCD
  • Flat picture control
  • Re-profiled body
  • No more built-in GPS.

Admittedly,  it's not a particularily blood-stirring update. That's sort of the point with cameras in this segment, though... the D5500 is not exciting at the moment, but give it time and it will age in to a value-packed mid-tier product.