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.