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Equipment

It’s easy to place too much emphasis on equipment and time is better spent improving on the more artistic aspects of photography. However equipment is an important part of the photographic process and if you would like to read more about the equipment I have used then this is the place


September 20, 2014

A New Perspective

NOTE – This article was featured in the September edition of PIX magazine. Many parts were edited, which left other areas nonsensical. All the images weren’t featured alongside the right text and some of the images that the text refers too aren’t there at all. Please read my original version for things to make sense.

A New Perspective

I haven’t written anything meaningful in ages, because my travels and business are eating up the last few scraps of free time I still have. When I don’t put my thoughts out there and get constructive feedback, it gets stowed in the ‘thoughts and ideas’ closet. This closet is on the verge of exploding with potentially catastrophic consequences for my mental state. So before that happens, I need to get some of my thoughts out of the closet. I’ve mentioned a thing or two about my Namibian revelations with a longer lens, but I would like to elaborate on the subject.

Landscape photography and a wide-angle lens go together like gin and tonic. It allows the photographer to create immersive depth using relatively small areas of the landscape as a foreground. It converges the lines of land and sky to create a feeling of being pulled into the image by an unexplained force. It is very often the only way of capturing all the elements of the landscape: from the wave breaking over the rocks to the turquoise waters of the lake, on to the towering snow-capped peaks and up to the heavens above. Like the image above. When I started photography I got a 400D with the kit 18-55mm lens. I immediately had a liking for landscapes and it only took me a few weeks to come to the conclusion that I needed a wider lens. I was 19 at the time so money was a scarce resource. I joined shutterstock, saved every cent I had and sold everything from a playstation to an old fish tank to save up the $600 that a Sigma 10-20mm cost back then. I placed my order and sat by the door like an over-eager guard dog for three days, waiting for the courier to deliver my new pride and joy. When it arrived I might as well have thrown the 18-55mm away, because the wide lens stayed on my camera until both met their end about a year later.

 

Landscape photographers seem to have the same problem with a wide-angle lens as stereotypical old ladies have with gin and tonic – they abuse it a bit! If you go onto 500px or wherever you get your fix of landscape photos, you will notice that there are many photos consisting of an amazing middle and/or background, composed with a boring or detracting foreground. In the past few months I’ve seen far too many shots of mountain ridges in amazing cloud and light, as a backdrop to a rock. Not a rock with amazing lines that takes the viewer through the scene. Just another, boring rock that holds no contextual relevance to the rest of the scene. Like a hopeless vagrant who has given up on life and is sucking the well-being and affluence out of an ambitious society, that rock sucks the potential and life out of what could have been an amazing photo. So why would any photographer in their right mind choose to place Rufus the homeless rock below a background of inspirational light and land? The answer is simple: that photographer is addicted to a wide-angle lens. They’re mind is locked in ultra-wide mode and when the light performs they start scanning for immediate foregrounds. The photo of the year may lie within their composed shot, but it isn’t in a beginner’s frame of mind to get out the 24-70mm and subtract the crap rock right in front of them. Please don’t see this as hate speech against rocks as a foreground, I’m simply using a rock as my example of choice. All types of subjects can make crap foregrounds.

 

I make my derogatory metaphor as if I’ve never been guilty of creating such photos, but all lessons are learned with experience. I am of course 100% guilty of having composed horrible foregrounds to brilliant middle- and backgrounds. I have wasted precious light and opportunity with foregrounds that were simply never ‘created’ to be photographed. When this realization started to manifest in my creative mind, my financial mind decided it was time for a longer lens and so I started saving and selling again.

 

At the end of 2008 I got my first full frame and Canon’s 24-105mm and so the learning curve started. I was going through that phase where image quality was more important than clean drinking water or oxygen, so I soon got a 24-70mm for better IQ at my beloved new focal length. After about two years of exploring all corners of the 24-70mm universe, I found that in many situations I would zoom to 70mm and feel that I’m still shooting far too wide. I tested a D800e in October of 2012 and the next generation dynamic range combined with a 36mp sensor, made the choice to switch obvious. Many years of hard work lay behind me and for the first time I didn’t have to save and sell to purchase equipment. In my shopping bag was a D800, 14-24mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm, lots of accessories AND a 70-200mm. So the next phase in my photography started.

 

I wasn’t very fond of the 70-200mm in 2013, but it really came to life over the 7 weeks I spent in Namibia this year. All of a sudden I could explore a lot of potential that I had seen previously, but was unable to reach with a 24-70mm. The main aspect of this is the scale of Namibia’s desert landscapes. A long lens just does a ten times better job of revealing how big things are. Unfortunately it is not as easy as just taking what you are familiar with and switching the wide-angle for a long lens. There were many new lessons to be learned and I found that many opportunities came and went in the blink of an eye as the light moved across the landscape.

 

The Dunes of Sossusvlei

The first and most obvious are the dune spines of the Tsauchab Dune valley, where even the 200mm often fell short. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, there’s something in the human psyche that bluntly refuses to believe that a heap of sand can be that high. Photograph it with a wide-angle lens and it looks like it might be 20 meters high. When the light is just right and you can find the right subject below the dune, the scale of these sand mountains just jumps out of the frame at 200mm. In the shot below they seem to almost climb to the clouds.

There are so many great shots at Sossusvlei, but if you’re thinking wide then you’ll never even see half of them. When the sun is relatively low, it creates a deep black shadow on the Eastern side of the dunes and a vibrant orange on the other side. If you choose the right trees and isolate them with a long lens, the result can be spectacular. I tried to photograph these dune spines with my 24-70mm in 2012 and the results were deleted from my archives without much hesitation.

Just How Big is Big Daddy?

Big Daddy is the dune at the Southern end of Deadvlei and it climbs to a mind-boggling 1000ft. Attempting to give scale to Big Daddy is a task that very few have succeeded at. It isn’t really possible to do it in a shot with one of the iconic trees, as one can’t get far enough from the trees and thus they will always look too large in relation to the dune. This doesn’t mean that one should opt for the wide lens in Deadvlei. If you look to the Southern corner right below Big Daddy, there is an amazing spectacle that unfolds on the right mornings. On hazy days, a giant beam of light shines in below the dark backdrop as the sun climbs in the East. On very windy days this light won’t be visible in the clear air, but if you watch closely as sand gets blown into this light you will witness something amazing.

The fittest and bravest of tourists visiting Sossusvlei climb to the peak of Big Daddy at sunrise. After enjoying the view, they run down and then walk back across the deceptively large Deadvlei pan. This finally presented me with an opportunity to show just how large Big Daddy is. It may not be the most interesting photo, especially not viewed so small on the Internet. It is however the only photo I’ve ever seen that does the scale of Big Daddy justice.

If you’re shooting these things with a wide-angle lens, you will end up with a load of useless shots. If you visit Namibia with a wide-angle state of mind, then you will miss all these opportunities.

The Dune Streets  

There’s a certain combination of elements that is just undoubtedly unique to the Namib Rand. The dune streets lined with grass, dotted with beautiful acacia trees, all against a mountainous backdrop. Its one of those landscapes that no matter how hard you try, you just fall short of capturing the grandeur and unique feel of the landscape. Turns out that my mistake was once again my choice of lens. I spent 11 days in the Namib Rand and over the course of my stay I got to know the landscape through the long lens. I had to learn how the elements combined at different times of the day. It wasn’t easy finding a functional combination of elements as the trees can often be too cluttered, but on the last day my efforts were rewarded. I have images of these dunes with double rainbows in the sky and these telephoto shots can’t compete with those wide-angle shots when it comes to internet popularity. I do however feel that the telephoto images do better justice to the feel of the landscape.

Kokerboomkloof/ Quiver Tree Valley

This narrow, deep and steep valley in the Richtersveld is an absolute treasure chest of photographic opportunity. While it’s undeniable highlight is the little tree on top of the rock hill, the valley is dotted with Quiver Trees that just beg to be photographed with a long lens. I didn’t realize it when I visited in 2010, because I had no experience with a long lens. Driving into the valley this year, I couldn’t wait to go exploring with the 70-200mm. The shot below was a momentary spot of luck. As I was walking around I saw that there was a slight shadow behind the Quiver Tree that would make it stand out against it’s backdrop. As I set up the shot I noticed that the shadow was gaining height rapidly and that the tree wouldn’t be in light much longer.  When the shadow was near the bottom of the tree I got my shot and about 15 seconds later the shot had disappeared. I would never even have noticed this opportunity if I were in a wide-angle state of mind.

I am by no means trying to convince you that you should burn your wide-angle lens. I am simply saying that it is very easy to get addicted to a wide lens and that when the time is right, you should give it some rest. My long lens is still the one I use the least, but if I didn’t take the time to familiarize myself with it then I would continue missing the amazing opportunities that if offers. If you’re headed to Namibia, make sure you have a 70-200mm in your bag!

Filed under: Equipment — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — Hougaard Malan @ 9:39 am

September 18, 2013

The Perfect Wide-Angle Lens

The first wide angle I ever owned was the Sigma 10-20mm. It was a revolution in my photography and I can still remember the excitement of waiting for the delivery, unwrapping it and walking around the house with my eye glued to the viewfinder. A Wide lens is a compulsory item for landscape photography, as you usually need a wide field of view to capture all the elements in a scene. It was only a short while before the enjoyment turned to discontent with the image quality of the lens.

Choosing the best wide-angle is one of landscape photography’s biggest headaches. Wide-angle lenses are a nightmare to design because of the optical challenges of capturing such a wide view.  It would be great to have a single wide-angle lens that performs well in all aspects, but such a lens doesn’t exist. If lens manufacturers design a lens to excel in some aspects, then the other ones suffer. Those aspects are the following

  • Max Width
  • Max Aperture
  • Corner Sharpness
  • Lens Flare
  • Filter Thread
  • Distortion
  • Chromatic Aberration (CA)
  • Price (not a technical aspect, but one of the biggest ones to consider when buying)

That is quite a list of factors to consider, but when spending the money on a proper wide-angle lens, it is well worth your while to do the necessary research before making your decision. Over the years I have owned and/or used the following lenses.

  • Sigma 10-20mm – R5595,00
  • Canon 10-22mm – R7695.00
  • Canon 17-40mm – R9195.00
  • Canon 24mm f/1.4 mk II – R19195.00
  • Canon 16-35mm mk II – R16195.00
  • Canon 14mm mk II – R26695.00
  • Nikon 14-24mm – R21395.00
  • Nikon 16-35mm – R17995.00
  • Zeiss 18mm – R16595.00

(Prices listed from ORMS in September 2013. Photography gear’s prices are very dependent on the ZAR/USD FX rate)

Crop Sensor Wide-Angle Lenses

I won’t go into too much detail on the crop-sensor lenses because I have only used two of them and when it comes to image and lens quality, full frame equipment wins by a mile! All I can say is that the Sigma 10-20mm (f/4-5.6) is good value for money, but the Canon 10-22mm is worth the price difference. If you have had plenty of experience with specific models, please comment and I’ll add it to the post with a credit if I feel you make a fair point.

Full Frame Lenses 

Here is a short description of each criteria to consider and why it is important.

Price - Generally, the more you pay for a lens the better the image quality, but there are one or two exceptions to this like Canon’s 14mm f/2.8 mk II. Looking at the image and build quality that you’re getting for your money is crucial.

Max Width – The ideal focal length is a range of about 14-24mm. It’s nice to have something slightly longer, but if you spend 20k on a wide angle then you’ve probably got a 24-70mm in your bag as well so it’s better to have a wider range than a longer one. If you want to go longer, just put a longer lens on.

Max Aperture – Before shooting stars became so popular this was pretty irrelevant because landscapes always need good depth of field. Nowadays if you shoot stars, then f/4 simply doesn’t cut it.

Corner Sharpness – This is one of the biggest criteria for a wide-angle lens and it is the Achilles heel to some lenses, like Canon’s 17-40mm. A lens’s sharpness degrades from the center of the frame going into the corners and it’s an effect that’s very bad with some models. You can often lose critical detail in the corners if your lens is subject to this problem. See how the detail fades in the lower left corner of the frame?

Lens Flare – Shooting into the sun makes for very dramatic photos, but if a lens has bad flare then it can make it impossible. This is more an issue of zooms vs. primes than any brand or model against each other. The only way of mitigating flare is using the finger-blending method.

Filter Thread – The wider the lens, the more bulbous the front element needs to be. When you go wider than 16mm, it becomes so bulbous that it sticks past the front of the lens casing and thus you cant attach a filter or graduated filter holder system. Many people with a knack for Photoshop argue that luminosity blending and HDR have made Graduated filters redundant, but I strongly disagree. This is the Achilles heel of a lens like the Nikon 14-24mm and Zeiss 15mm. If it can’t take filters, then it renders it useless in many situations. The Lee SW150 system is flawed and impractical in my opinion. It’s gigantic and a pain to carry around. It certainly doesn’t fit comfortably into a hiking backpack. The gap between the filter and the lens is much too large and thus causes ghosting by light that leaks in. I don’t consider it a solution and I advise people against buying it.

Distortion – This is something that is a natural trait of wide-angle lenses because they try to capture such a wide field of view, but some lenses are better at mitigating it than others. This can also cause very unsightly effects in photos.

 

landscape photo of a lighthouse showing rectilinear distortion

Chromatic Aberration – Also known as fringing, this problem has been solved to a great extent by editing software. Most new camera models can even correct it in camera on JPEG files. It is still something to consider when choosing the right lens.

a photo of branches of showing chromatic aberration

I would love to give a more comprehensive review, but I can only cover the lenses that I’ve used. Luckily I have used all the most popular ones, except for the Zeiss 21mm. I will list them in order of price, give each lens a rating out of 10 and list it’s pros and cons.

Canon 17-40mm f/4

This was the first full frame lens I owned, it is excellent value for money and puts Nikon to shame as their most affordable FF wide-angle is almost double the price. The build quality is good, it can take filters and it is sharp in the center of the frame. Distortion, corner sharpness and chromatic aberration are horrible. It’s an f/4 and 17mm isn’t always wide enough.

Rating – 6.5/10

Pros – Price, Build Quality, Filter Thread

Cons – Corner Sharpness, CA, Distortion, Max Aperture, Max Width, Flare

Zeiss 18mm f/3.5

This was my only wide-angle lens for just over two years and it was a bit of a love-hate relationship.  It’s build, corner sharpness, distortion, CA and flare are better than the Nikon 16-35mm and the Canon 17-40mm and 16-35mm. When I bought it in 2010 it was also very competitively priced at R14000, but that is no longer the case. It is manual focus, but it has focus confirmation, which helps. I was very often in situations where 2mm wider would have made a big difference. Its biggest downside will be revealed if you try to shoot stars with it. At f/3.5 it’s only half a stop slower than an f/2.8 lens, but I’ve seen how two different copies of it perform next to two different copies of a Canon 16-35mm mk II on 5D mk II bodies and it’s as if 2-3 stops of light just go missing in the lens. It’s for this reason that I didn’t shoot any milkyway photos for almost two years. I was happy to let it go after two years.

Rating – 7/10

Pros – Corner Sharpness, Filter Thread, Build Quality, CA, Distortion

Cons – Aperture, Max Width, Mystical Light Dissapearance…

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 mk II

This was the third FF wide-angle I owned and it still remains a favorite of mine despite its weaknesses. I would like to say that this lens has no cons, but the 14-24mm outshines it in 7/8 criteria. If I gave the 14-24mm 10/10 then I would have to give this lens 9/10. Due to the fact that 14-24mm can’t take filters and costs R5000 more I have to give it a 9/10 and thus this lens a 8.5/10. This lens has a good focal length of 16-35mm, but I would happily sacrifice that longer 11mm for 2mm more at the wide end. Its max aperture is f/2.8, it can take filters, it handles distortion and CA well and its flare is what can be expected of a zoom lens. The corner sharpness of the copy that I had wasn’t that good, but I have seen the results of other copies that were almost on par with the 14-24mm. It costs R5195 less than the 14-24mm, which is a big difference. One other thing to consider is that it has a starburst/sunburst, which simply outshines all other lenses. This lens a very good all-rounder, but simply not as good as Nikon’s 14-24mm. It is worth every cent of difference between the 17-40mm. The image below shows the lens’s beautiful starburst.

Rating – 8.5/10

Pros – Price, Build Quality, Filter Thread, Max Aperture, CA, Corner Sharpness, Distortion, Price

Cons – Max Width, Flare

photo of fishing boats showing the starburst of the Canon 16-35mm mk II

Nikon 16-35mm f/4

I currently own this lens and comparing this lens to the Canon 16-35mm falls in favour of the Canon due to price and the max aperture. I would say that they perform equally in distortion, flare and CA. They have the same focal length range and they both have a filter thread. The Nikon is slightly better in the corners, but it is an f/4 where the Canon is an f/2.8. The Canon costs R2000 less, but the Nikon has VR which goes a long way when shooting handheld. Conclusively I would rate this lens’s build and image quality equal to the Canon 16-35mm, but the Aperture and Price difference robs it of a point.

Rating – 7.5/10

Pros – Price, Build Quality, Filter Thread, CA, Corner Sharpness, Distortion, VR

Cons – Max Aperture, Price, Flare

Canon 24mm f/1.4 mk II

I was so impressed with this lens that I couldn’t omit it from my list. I haven’t used Nikon’s but according to the reviews that I have read it performs as well, if not slightly better. The main advantage and disadvantage of this lens is very obvious; at f/1.4 it’s a full two stops faster than an f/2.8 lens. That means a lot when shooting stars because you can open your aperture further instead of boosting the ISO, but 24mm is seldom wide enough. Panorama stitching easily fixes that problem because you can take multiple shots and merge them together to capture a wider field of view. I tried it at all apertures, but at f/1.4 the vignetting is quite bad and the corners too soft. The corner sharpness increases substantially when stopped down to f/1.8. I got the image below by merging three images exposed at ISO3200 and f/1.8 for 20 seconds each. While it certainly opens a lot of doors, it is a lot of money to pay for a very niche use.

Rating – 8/10

Pros – Max Aperture, Corner Sharpness, CA, Filter Thread, Distortion, Build Quality

Cons – Max Width, Price

landscape photo of a boabab tree under the night skies

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 I have said almost everything that needs to be said about this great piece of glass. Apart from the fact that it can’t take filters and it’s the most expensive wide-angle zoom, it outperforms all the other zooms in all areas. The corner sharpness is amazing and so is the build quality. It handles CA great and distortion is standard for such a wide lens. Its max width is class leading because it is the only zoom that goes as wide as 14mm. This lens is the most expensive of all the wide-angle zooms, but it is worth every penny.

Rating – 9/10

Pros – Max Aperture, Corners Sharpness, CA, Distortion, Build Quality, Max Width

Cons – Price, Filter Thread, Flare

Canon 14mm f/2.8 mk II

I used this lens extensively for two months and while it is a magnificent piece of glass, nothing on this earth justifies the monstrous price tag. The Nikon 14-24mm outperforms it in every single aspect except flare while offering the versatility of zoom and costing almost R6000 less. I think that this lens really puts Canon users in a bad position because they have to fork out that much money to have access to a 14mm field of view.

Rating – 7/10

Pros – Build Quality, Max Width, Flare, Corner Sharpness, CA, Max Aperture

Cons – Price, Filter Thread

Now that you know all these things, what should you buy?

If you’re a Canon shooter then the 16-35mm mk II ticks almost all boxes. It’s just not on par with the 14-24mm on max width and corner sharpness. Is there a solution? Sort of…if money is no object you can get the 14mm prime for that extra 2mm and look at a Zeiss for better corner sharpness and flare. Perhaps even look at the R35000 Zeiss 15mm? I think that the Canon 16-35mm is a better all-rounder than the Nikon 16-35mm or 14-24mm, but it’s still not an all-in-one wide-angle. While I was a Canon man I had 5 different wide-angles over the years because I was simply never satisfied with a single one.

If you’re a Nikon shooter then you face very much the same problem. The 14-24mm offers amazing image quality, but not the use of filters. The 16-35mm offers the use of filters, but it’s an f/4 and it doesn’t have that super wide 2mm extra. The solution is to have both, which I do. The conclusion is that if you’re serious about your landscape photography, you have to deal with the fact that you’ll have to buy two wide angles! I hope that somewhere in the future Nikon or Canon (preferably Nikon) unveils something like a 15mm with the IQ of the 14-24mm that can take filters. We can just wait and see!

There are some great sites that chart the performance of lenses using laboratory-controlled comparative testing. They very precisely show the performance of a lens using graphs and grids that vary in understandability. These tests’ results are subject to bad copies (some lenses of the same model are better than others due to factors like assembly/calibration/handling that might ‘damage’ it) and I’ve found that these tests are overly analytic. What you see in those charts doesn’t always translate as a fair review of the user experience and overall image quality. That is just my opinion and I openly encourage anyone to have a look at the more precise reviews on those sites. See the two links below

The Digital Picture

DXO Mark

Filed under: Equipment — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — Hougaard Malan @ 7:57 pm

March 2, 2012

5D mk III Announced

Last night the highly anticipated 5D mk III was announced and all official specs confirmed the rumours that have been doing the rounds on the internet. My first impression is that Canon followed the exact same recipe as with the 1Dx (low resolution, improved peripherals) and for that I’m thankful. I knew the launch of these cameras would be interesting, but I don’t think many people saw this reverse of roles in the pixel race. The pixel race is something that degrades image quality by making camera manufacturers money off people’s lack of understanding of true resolution. It’s like an abscessed sore in the camera development world that will hopefully be healed one day.

Nikon has now taken the lead with its 36mp D800, but it wasn’t willing to compete in the pixel race with the model that won it the global sports and journalism market?? They’ve  increased the resolution of the D700 by 1.73x, while upping the resolution of the D3 only by 1.22x. There are obviously the speed, focus and noise areas where the D4 needs to perform much better than the D800, but looking at this fact I suspect the D800 is a confident throw of the dice to try and get their foot in a market that is dominated by the 5DmkII. I may have stuck faithfully to Canon over the past 3 years, but the way in which they compromise IQ for specs that sell cameras really pissed me off. The companies obviously just want to make money, but it’s insulting when they sacrifice the performance of their cameras for high pixel-counts that appeal to the Tom, Dick and Harrys that don’t know squat about resolution.

It’s been proven time and time again through many models from every brand that the higher the pixel density, the worse the image quality gets.  Nikon faithfully stood by this knowledge and produced cameras with low resolution, great speed and focus that resulted in a great overall camera. Apart from the 1Ds III and 5D II, I can’t say I ever desired one of the non FF Canon cameras. The 1DmkIV was killed on launch by the D3s. The 7D’s pixel density was more than twice that of the 5DmkII and while its IQ did surprise me, it was a very useless 18mp.

Now it seems that Canon has taken the lessons it learned from those over-rezzed models and applied it in the development of what I hope will finally be their comeback from the knock that they’ve taken from Nikon over the past 4 years? They’ve been surviving off the consumer market and the 5D II. The money may be in the consumer market, but it’s the pros that build your reputation and 3 years ago it was like Canon pro bodies were Polish Jews all taken to Auschwitz under the rule of the D3.

 

Rape Victim of the D3s

 

Enough speculation, there are solid facts to look at.

22.3mp – I’ve had 21mp for 3 years now and I honestly can’t say I want more unless it’s on a larger format. In what situation will you truly benefit from 7-8mp more? I’m still very doubtful of whether Nikon’s new technology can truly pull out that much detail from a 35mm format lens, BUT, if the D800 can prove me wrong then I’ll get in my car and go buy one.

New AF system – I focus manually most of the time using Live View because you can zoom in 10 times to any part of the frame and make sure focus is dead on. I do however shoot on AF when shooting handheld and I know the focus isn’t reliable, so while it’s not a make or break issue it is a useful improvement for me.

Light metering, video functions and higher fps don’t really tickle my fancy, but it has all been considerably improved.

Improved Weather resistance – After a year of risky seascape shooting and one final wave giving me a sunset shower, my 5D II kicked the bucket. Upon analysis it was constant exposure to sea air and water that corroded the circuit boards around the buttons, so improved weather sealing is very welcome.

New sensor cleaning – They’ve added something at the bottom of the shutter box that absorbs the dust after it has been shaken from the sensor? I’d love to get a better understanding of how this works. All I know is that everyone HATES dust!

Larger, better LCD – Always welcome.

New HDR function – In camera HDR processing…I don’t want to say much about this, but I suspect the results to be very photomatix-like. I’ll wait and see.

Multiple Exposure Function – This I’m very excited for…Something you could do in the film days to create very interesting results. If you don’t know the potential of this then you don’t deserve to get excited about it!

If you go read the page on Canon’s website you’ll see that there are many other cool new functions like comparative playback, in camera processing, variable aspect rations…the list goes on!

100-25600 Native ISO range – Canon says that newly designed photodiodes, a better signal to noise ratio and improved image processing has upped noise performance by two stops. To most people that doesn’t mean much, but for landscapers wishing to go to the night skies it means a lot. I’ve always shot at 3200, which is good enough for web viewing but I wouldn’t print it. Two stops more will mean you can print ISO3200 files and you can shoot at ISO12800. Imagine this…pitch black wilderness sky, a milkyway so bright it casts a shadow under a Namibian tree…ISO12800, 30s, f/2.8. To say that the thought of that gets me very excited is an understatement. If you use a 24mm f/1.4 lens you can get another two stops, and if you’ve got a 1Dx (100-51200 native range) then you’ve got another stop. I’m confident that these new cameras are about to open one massive door to night sky photography and that is the thing I’m most excited about.

 

Conclusion

 

I’m going to try and type my conclusion  as short  as possible without elaborating on points. I would love to hear people’s arguments for or against certain things.

Megapixels – I don’t think that on the medium term the way forward for 35mm cameras is resolution. Even the sharpest lens can only project so much detail in a 36x24mm area and Nikon has gone upstream from their recipe for success of low res, high IQ. I can’t wait to see hi-res samples from the D800 because it will confirm or bust this theory. If you’ve seen the detail that LF film or MF digital produces, you’ll understand.

Live view – Up until the D3s, Nikon’s live view was very 3rd world compared to Canon. The ability to meter and zoom to x10 anywhere in the frame is a brilliant function. If Nikon has improved on this they’ve won serious brownie points from me.

Noise – Canon has a native ISO range going two stops higher, but Nikon has dominated noise performance over the past years. This is going to be interesting.

Highlights – Most readers of my blog know my passionate hate of Nikon’s highlight tones and colors in skies. If this hasn’t improved then there’s no chance of me buying a D800.

Price and availability – The canon is set to be a few $100 more and history has shown that Nikon is better at getting things on the shelf on time…

 

I honestly don’t know what to expect. These cameras will come packed with 3-4 years of R&D. My main standing point is that I’m doubtful about 36mp in a 35mm sensor. The proof will be in the pudding, so lets hope the pudding hits the shelves ASAP!

Filed under: Equipment — Tags: , , , , , , , — Hougaard Malan @ 9:49 am

January 7, 2012

Canon 1Dx vs Nikon D4

It’s been long overdue, but both Nikon and Canon’s new flagship cameras (official specs) have landed and it’s certainly created a frenzy on the internet. There has however been no comparative testing whatsoever so it’s hard to say if these new pro-bodies are something revolutionary or just a minor upgrade. What will decide that for me is whether the cameras have made positive strides in the areas that their nemesis previously shamed them?

Most people have welcomed the fact that canon have finally decided to make the move to full frame, which has been the main difference between the two in the past. Now for the first time both brands are simultaneously releasing a fast, full frame, high resolution camera with near identical specs. If you look at the past timeline then it’s obvious that it took both companies longer than usual to develop these cameras and my guess is that they were so obsessed with the pixel race in the past that they fell behind in keeping the peripheral systems of their cameras on par with the pixels.

Even after 4 years of R&D they’ve had to settle for sensors of 16 and 18mp for the Nikon and Canon respectively, when both have had massive success with their 24 and 21mp sensors in slower cameras. So the peripheral systems are still far behind the pixel technologies. I’m especially interested to see how this new sensor from Canon will perform because Canon pushed the pixel race much further than Nikon with production models like the 7D featuring sensors of a monstrous pixel density and new individual-pixel designs. I’m confident that they learned quite a few lessons from that sensor which they’ve been able to apply in creating the ultimate “low” resolution full frame sensor.

 

Canon 1Dx

If the 4 years have been worth the wait, then these two new cameras will raise the bar on everything from dynamic range to noise performance and they’ll be doing it at a resolution just slightly under the 20mp we’ve been enjoying in much slower cameras. One needs to stop looking at individual specs of the cameras, but at what they will mean when combined to push the boundaries of what can be captured in nature. Faster processors, higher native ISO’s, better metering and focus systems and brand new sensors should open doors to photographers who have been technically limited in their creativity.

The rumour sites will now obviously turn their attention to wild guesses about what the yellow and red will produce on the slower high res side of things, but I’m of the firm belief that there needs to be some revolutionary technological advancement before sensors and lenses can truly resolve more than 25-30mp of detail in a 35mm sensor. Until solid facts can change that view, I’m not really interested in a 35mm camera with a 30 megapixel sensor.

Nikon D4

I can only speculate about how these cameras will perform in the fields crucial to me, but the past models of each brand have always held strong pros and cons and how the companies have improved on the cons will determine which one I’ll be buying. Below are my main problems with each system, which will be the crucial factors in determining which camera I favour.

 

Low Light Performance

In January last year we were three photographers shooting side by side in Deadvlei at night. There was a 5D II, a 1D4 and a D3s and we all had f/2.8 lenses shooting wide open at ISO3200 for 30 seconds. While the settings were identical it’s just as if the Nikon pulls an extra stop of light out of nowhere. The Milky Way came out brighter, the subtle blues and yellows in the sky were stronger. The D3s is just undeniably superior in that field.

 

Highlight Performance

3 months later I was hosting a seascape workshop in Arniston…I was shooting with my 5D II and between my clients there was a  D700, D3s and D3x. It was a beautiful sunset with strong oranges and we were all shooting into the sun. My camera captured the sky as I saw it with my eyes with perfect white-orange-yellow tonal graduation, while all the Nikons produced a muddy clipped white-yellow graduation. We all know Nikon’s highlights are more yellow while Canon’s are more red, but that is a relatively incorrect way of stating it if you ask me. I would put it as Canon’s colours are true and Nikon’s are too yellow.

One of Nikon’s tricks to getting cleaner images is that the photo is slightly overexposed in the pre-raw stage which produces a cleaner image which is then darkened again to produce a raw file of the intended exposure. Because the image is slightly overexposed, the cleaner image comes at the cost of the quality of the highlights.

That many of Nikon’s lenses are sharper is no rumour. Lens design is a trade-off between contrast/colour and sharpness and while Canon sticks to a balance between the two, Nikon opts for sharper glass, sacrificing colour in the process. To compensate for it, the colour, specifically the yellows are then oversaturated. They can then do more pre-raw noise reduction to produce a cleaner image because their systems produce slightly sharper images.

The end result of these two things is that Nikon’s extreme highlights in red skies are clipped, yellow and have bad tonal graduation compared to Canon. While it is not really an issue in most photographic genres, it plays a big role in natural colours in landscape photography. Sunset skies come out too yellow and it’s not something that can be easily corrected in processing. Let’s face it, landscape photographers live in eternal pursuit of red skies.

 

Live View

Whether you like it or not, live view is here to stay and many people including myself have embraced it. It makes shooting ten times easier and gives you an exact preview of your image and how graduated filters will affect the exposure before you’ve even pressed the button. When you’ve set up a composition on your tripod, you can take a Light reading anywhere in the frame thanks to the metering block that can move to any position in the frame. You can also zoom in ten times and check that your focus is spot on within any part of the frame. Nikon’s live view is just plain terrible in comparison and I hope that they’ve worked on this area.

 

Conclusion

Things that immediately caught my attention are the 1Dx’s whopping 100-51200 native ISO range and the D4′s Iphone/Ipad wireless control function. If by some miracle the Canon can produce a ISO6400 image at the quality of a ISO3200 image of the D3s, then the D4 stands no chance on my shopping list!

If this new Canon sensor can give Nikon a run for its money in capturing a night sky, then I’m definitely not changing brands. If it doesn’t and Nikon has improved on its highlights and live view then I will most probably be joining the dark side. While it’s fun to speculate and waste away your nights arguing with people you’ve never met, I prefer to wait and see the real results. It’s taken 4 years, but I’m sure these cameras are building the next plateau in digital still photography. Let’s hope that both hit the shelves on time and that the companies have placed them in the right hands for testing…

If the 5D III is as good value for money as the 5D II was, then I know I’ll rather buy two of those than either of these pro bodies. It’s going to be an exciting year in this field and I can’t wait to see what Canon and Nikon deliver!

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Equipment — Tags: , , , , , — Hougaard Malan @ 9:33 pm

October 19, 2011

Graduated ND Filters for Landscape Photography

After the umpteenth request about which filters one should buy for landscape photography I have decided to put it in a blog article. You should know by now what the filters are for so I will briefly elaborate on the various components of the system. In most cases I will be referring to Lee’s range of products as it is the globally preferred brand.

The effect of an ND grad

I’m writing this after about 4 years of experience on using grad filters which started with a Cokin P system, went to their Z system and those were quickly discarded for a basic Lee kit after which I decided to invest in a full Lee kit.

I want to give people good advice on my blog and I feel that I would be dishonest if I said that Cokin filters are useful for anything more than a temporary learning experience. The holder system feels and functions like it was made in a chinese toy factory and their filters completely ruin that golden light that landscape photographers put so much effort into finding. The color cast is horrendous. If you disagree then I think you should have your eyes calibrated. If you like that magenta, good for you! What I will however say is that shooting with Cokin grads taught me a valuable lesson about natural colour…by that I don’t mean true color. I’m referring to the variation of colors that natural light can produce in different weather. When I shot with Cokin filters I always saw that the colors in my image weren’t what I saw with my eyes. No effort in Photoshop could get them back to how I remembered the scene. This spurred me on to do research into better products and it led me to Lee filters. Do Lee filters have NO color cast? Of course not…they also have, but it’s not nearly as bad and it’s a more natural brown than Cokin’s awful magenta. I should probably also mention to the uninformed that Lee filters are about 3-5 times more expensive depending on where you buy, but if you’re serious about landscape photography then it’s worth every cent.

Luckily for all of you, I learned that lesson so you don’t have to waste your money on a set of Cokin filters.

The Lee holder

So where do you start when looking at purchasing a Lee filter kit? The first thing is obviously to understand how the filters are attached to the lens…You have an adapter ring that screws into the filter thread of the lens and the filter holder clips onto the ring by means of a simple spring tensioned mechanism. Unlike the Cokin holder which is a solid piece of molded junk, the Lee holder is an assembly of high quality plastic and brass parts that can be customized to your needs. So if you’re shooting with a wide angle lens and vignetting is an issue then you can attach just one slot to the holder or if this isn’t an issue then you can attach all three.

There are a vast amount of different filters, but only two that you really need to focus on. Graduated ND filters and solid ND filters. Based on what I use the most, I’ve listed three kits below depending on what you want to spend. Each item is hyperlinked to the product page on www.robertwhite.co.uk…I’m not endorsing them as a retailer, their website is just well structured and gives you a good idea of what you’ll be paying. The prices below are purely an estimation…with the volatile exchange rate the prices I post today will be irrelevant by next week anyway. Remember that you’ll have to add shipping and import tax to the foreign prices as well for S.A.  Do your own calculations.

The Basic Kit – R3000-R4000 ( $500)

This kit is good for starting out and will be fine for most situations with a linear horizon. You can easily expand to the novice kit by simply adding the multi filter pouch and soft and hard sets when the time is right. The proglass solid ND is an excellent tool for manipulating your shutterspeed to get motion blur from moving elements in a landscape like a river or wave or even people in urban shots.

The Novice Kit – R8000-R12000 ( $800)

This kit is pretty much the same as the basic kit except that you’ve got all six of the basic grads which you gives you finer exposure control for more versatile situations. Protective storage of the filters is essential which is why you should get the multi pouch. With the 15% difference in price, there’s really no justifiable reason to get the normal ring. Vignetting will always be an issue with grad filters so get the wide angle ring/rings.

The Professional Kit – R15000-R25000 ( $2000)

This is the ultimate kit and offers the best combination of all filters. Using the 0.6+0.9+big stopper solid ND filters in combination with ISO and aperture you can achieve virtually any shutterspeed in golden light from 1/10s to  30 minutes. The 6 basic grads allow you to balance the exposure of almost any landscape and the front-attaching polarizer enables you to rotate it independently from the grads so you can cut out glare or get that cobalt sky. The polarizer ring screws into the front of the holder and the polarizer screws into that. The reason I suggest you get the professional holder kit with two holders is for a vignetting problem with the 105mm polarizer, which is quite thick. I have one holder with three slots and this gives me no vignetting on my Zeiss 18mm. Then I have one holder with only one slot and the polarizer ring on. With the polarizer attached this doesn’t show up in the frame either and this suits 95% of situations I’ve encountered. If you need to add another grad, you can just bracket and blend for the rare 5% of situations.

Holder with CPL ring attached and CPL

Valuable Lessons

Some things I’ve learned over the past three years

  • SW150 system – I’ve had a play with these on Nikon’s 14-24mm lens and I wasn’t impressed. The setup is very complicated and the filters are gigantic, using it is very far from convenient. There was also ghosting from light reflecting in between the filter and lens, but I’ve read that Ian Plant uses the system and if he’s happy with it then I was probably just not using it correctly. Perhaps he can comment on it…
  • Don’t underestimate how easily the resin filters scratch – don’t put them in your pocket or on any surface if they’re not in the wax paper or velvet pouch. You may not be able to see it, but the resin gets micro scratches and before long you can’t shoot into bright light anymore without getting very ugly flare.
  • Don’t underestimate how easily the glass filters shatter – I’ve lost two proglass ND’s to shattering. Luckily my insurance was happy to replace it for me which brings me to my next point.
  • All risk insurance – I’ve broken two glass filters by accident and lost a whole holder full of filters from shooting on high sea cliffs in freezing winter weather, but then again I may just be very clumsy.
  • Combine soft and hard – If the difference is 3 stops and a hard grad is too hard and a soft is too soft, why not use a 2-stop hard and 1-stop soft or vice versa…
  • Resin is warm, glass is cold – The grads have a brown cast and the proglass ND’s have a blue cast. With some ingenuity you can counter color cast by combining them in situations where shutterspeed isn’t a major issue.
  • They scratch easily so look after them extremely well (I know I repeated myself)
  • In 51% of situations HDR will suffice, but it will never be a true substitute.
  • Owning them doesn’t mean you know how to use them so don’t get a shock when you just spent a fortune but your landscapes still suck. There are NO shortcuts in photography. It takes a lot of practice and experience to utilize such a system to it’s full potential. After a while you develop a natural intuition for it and metering the exposure difference in a scene becomes redundant.
  • Singh Ray filters – I have heard from knowledgeable sources that their color cast is worse than Lee’s. On top of that it’s more expensive and their distribution network is more limited so it’s harder to come by.
  • Hitech – apparently sort of halfway between Lee and Cokin? <— Notice the question mark, I don’t know anything about it so I can’t give a reliable opinion.

0.9 Proglass ND...What's left of it after a fall

If you’re all excited about getting your Lee filters I have to unfortunately burst your bubble. You’ll be one of thousands of people who have jumped on that bandwagon over the past two years and caused a supply problem for Lee. The demand for their products has risen exponentially and there is a 3-9 month backorder on almost everything. They are currently in the process of expanding their production capabilities in order to meet demand. You can read more about the situation on their website.
@ South Africans – The local distributor is camquip, you can mail Marieann at marieann@yebo.co.za or call her on 011 465 8331
Feel free to add your opinion or questions below!
Filed under: Equipment — Hougaard Malan @ 2:29 pm

January 10, 2011

Linhof 617s for sale

I’ve had my fun with this and I would love to continue, but my focus lies elsewhere at the moment.

Its the older 617s model with the fixed 90mm Schneider lens. It comes with a 90mm rangefinder, 105mm centre filter, original aliminium carry case, original manual, neck strap, two rolls of velvia and one roll of ilford bw film.

It’s in good condition and has recently been serviced. It has some cosmetic damage, but the optics are as new.

Local selling price is R20 000 + Shipping fee

International price is $3800 U.S or 3000 euro and I’ll include international shipping with that.

Image taken with the camera

the camera

August 15, 2010

Super ND Filters

The world of long exposures is one hidden to the human eye, a world that can reveal amazing visual scenes when the movement of dynamic elements are smeared across an image captured on film/sensor. The images below explain it all.

Captured with Lee Big Stopper

Captured with Lee Big Stopper

Due to the minimum light sensitivity of cameras, we can only capture long exposures in natural light when the sun isn’t out. That’s why there are super strong ND filters like the Lee big stopper, Hoya ND400, Singh-Ray Vari-ND, B+W 110 and others. These are simply very dark glass filters, designed to allow only a fraction of the available light through, allowing the photographer to take much longer exposures in bright light. The main challenge in the design of these filters is to make them color neutral. It’s very hard to dye the glass so dark without affecting it’s color balance.

Solid ND filters come in many strengths and in both screw-in form and the square format designed for filter holder systems like those of Lee and Cokin graduated filters. Some companies make everything from 0.3(1-stop) to 1.5(5-stop) solid ND filters, but the most common one is the 10-stop (the filters vary from 9-11 stops). These filters can be combined to get ridiculous exposure times, because the exposure time increases exponentially with each stop of ND filter. An exposure of 1 second becomes 16 minutes with a 10 stop ND filter, add another 10 stop filter and you’re exposure becomes almost a day long. If you can find a constant light source, it is theoretically possible. If you want to know more about ND filters, the internet is full of information so just google and I’ll get to my review.

To avoid confusion I will use the following two terms appropriately throughout the article

  1. Vignetting – When the edge of your filter holder appears in the image when using a wide angle lens
  2. Light fall off – When the edges of the image is slightly darker than the center (common occurrence when shooting with wide lenses at their maximum aperture)

Singh-Ray Vari-ND

I have no experience with this filter, but it is far more expensive than it’s competitors, only availably directly from SR and I’ve seen some nasty ghosting problems caused by it from another photographer.

B+W ND110

I’ve had one of these and the color cast was horrific. It rendered all warm colors with a magenta cast that was impossible to correct in post processing. Unless you’re doing black and white photography, I wouldn’t recommend this filter.

Hoya ND400

Some of my favorite photographers use the Hoya ND400 and have gotten brilliant results with it. The only downside of it is that it’s a screw in filter, because you have to screw the ND filter in, then the adapter ring into the ND filter which results in the holder sitting further forward and the chances of the holder’s edges appearing in the image is very good in most wide angle lenses. Andy Mumford, the photographer of the two masterpieces below did something quite ingenious. He removed the glass from the screw-in ring and fixed it inside a Lee wide angle adapter ring, thus getting rid of all vignetting problems. Practically simple, but something tricky to do with an expensive piece of glass!

Palafitico by Andy Mumford

Captured with Hoya NDx400

Purple by Andy Mumford

Captured with Hoya NDx400

The Blanket by Philip Perold

Captured with Hoya NDx400

Here are two unprocessed images, one taken with the ND400 and one taken without it. The only  RAW adjustments was to set the white balance of the ND400 image identical to that of the one without it. Images are courtesy of Philip Perold

Lee Big Stopper

I bought a Lee big stopper about 2 months ago and I have now shot enough landscapes and waterscapes to do simple a comparative review. I won’t go into detail, but rather just provide a short list of it’s aspects and enough images for you to draw your own conclusion.

  • I have owned a B+W ND110 and Hoya  ND400 prior to the big stopper and so far I like the Big Stopper the most, by far.
  • I don’t think it is optically superior to the ND400, but the fact that it’s a square filter is very convenient. There are always vignetting issues with screw in filters as mentioned above.
  • It does have a cast, but it is blue, which is much easier to correct in post processing than magenta.
  • It has a seal ring at the back that prevents any potential light from leaking into the filter holder.
  • The images below clearly show light fall off, a blue cast and that the filter robs the image of some contrast, which are the downsides of using this filter.

The blue cast is quite evident, but it is easily removed in the RAW processing stages. Having used the nd400 and ND110 and seeing how the Vari-ND performs, I would highly recommend this filter of as the best one!

August 2, 2010

617 Experiences

I bought a 645 system earlier this year to try and answer my questions about the world of film photography. It went with me to the mountains of the Southern Drakensburg, the dunes of the Namib Rand and the heart of the Richtersveld. After about 15 rolls of exposed velvia it was time for the next step – The 617 format. I sold the mamiya 645 and started the search for a 617 camera. After about a month of looking around I came across a Linhof technorama 617s with fixed 90mm lens in South Africa.

It would seem that landscapes were meant to be captured in a panoramic format…why? I’m really not sure. I suspect it might be because our eyes see subjects at about the equivalent length of a 100mm lens on a 617, with a wide field of view? Whatever the reason may be, the images you can compose within a 617 frame are just amazing,  and in my opinion far superior to the 3×2 or 5×4 format. It’s much easier for the eyes, and there’s usually a lot more interest on the diagonal axis than on the vertical one.

The Mamiya I used had a built in light meter, autofocus and it transports the film by itself at the push of a button. It was pretty much the same as digital, except that you didn’t see the result straight away.

The Linhof has nothing.

It doesn’t even use a battery, which gives you an idea of its simplicity.  It’s a box with a lens and some dials and levers you can adjust. You have to compose the image through a rangefinder, which is like a detachable viewfinder that has a mount on the top of the camera. The rangefinder’s frame is only about 90% accurate, so you’ll always get a little more than what you composed and because you’re looking through the rangefinder and not the lens, you have no idea whether  your graduated filters are on the horizon or not.  The other problem with the linhof is that it has a 105mm center spot ND filter which makes the use of normal size Lee filters impossible, so it’s either heavy vignette or a bad exposure. There are solutions like 130mm filters or Lee’s new 150mm system, but I would much rather prefer to have one set of filters for both systems, which is possible with the Fuji gx system. Another problem is that these larger filter sets are only available in limited options like normal grads. No color sets, no polarizers, no strong ND’s.

So after you’ve composed your image and positioned the grad filter to the best of your judgement, you set your desired aperture, you estimate the distance of your subject and set the focus on the lens. Now you put your aperture and ISO settings into your light meter (5D II in my case), meter the various areas of your landscape and try to determine what part you’ll expose for, then you get your shutter speed, compensate for the centre ND filter and graduated filter on the front of the lens. In a dawn/dusk situation you’re usually well into the seconds by now so you set the shutter speed dial to bulb (max exposure is 1 second), cock the shutter, release it, count the exposure time in your head or on your watch, close the shutter again…you have  your image.

Linhof Technorama 617s with 90mm f/5.6 Schneider lens, velvia 100, f/32, 4 seconds, 0.6 hard grad, no center filter, E-6 processing, Hasselblad flextight X5 drumscan

If you want to take another image, you have to transport the film into position for the next exposure and repeat the majority of the process. I found out during one of the best sunsets of the year that it takes about 3-4 minutes for a single exposure.

This may sound like it takes all the fun out of photography, but for me it makes it even more of an art when so much effort goes into producing a single image. It truly feels like you captured the moment in the film and looking at it afterwards evokes the emotions that the moment had. The more effort you put into something, the more you appreciate it.

That’s the philosophical and sentimental side of things, the practical side is another story. How do you go from a slide to a print or file that is commercially usable?

Can you handprint a 617 slide? I would appreciate any feedback on this, please mail me or comment below!

I had the flaming sunset above scanned at a studio in Cape Town on their Hasselblad flextight X5 scanner. R300($45 U.S) later I had a monstrous 148 megapixel 16bit TIFF file. To keep it short, 148mp is overkill, but the image didn’t really have much detail to judge. The scanning introduced a lot of grain and a magenta cast to the image. It is also well known that Velvia has reds and pinks that don’t exist digitally, so no matter what you do, the scan can never stand up to the slide no matter what. Once you come to this realisation, it becomes apparent why it’s so sad that film is a dying era, despite the fact that it can capture light better than any digital camera, it simply isn’t practical or convenient. It is still worth it for me, even if nobody ever sees my transparencies. I think that’s the beauty of analogue photography, you do it for yourself and not to impress other people.

I will still decide if I am going to continue with the Linhof, I would very much like to get a Fuji GX system because of the filter dilemma. In the meantime I’ll be getting the best of the 645 slides from Namibia, the mountains and Richtersveld NP hand printed on Fuji crystal archive paper to see how viable hand printing is as opposed to scanning and giclee printing. If you are interested in purchasing the camera, please contact me.

Check out Koos van der Lende’s website – One of the world’s best panoramic photographers

Filed under: Equipment — Hougaard Malan @ 1:45 pm
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