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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

July 15, 2013

Free Web Sharpening Action

There can be many good and bad things said for photography’s great migration to the Internet, but no matter what you say, that migration has happened. Getting your images to look their very best on the Internet has become as crucial as the ability to print was in the old days. Luckily, as with everything else in the digital era, preparing an image for web presentation is much simpler than film printing.

I can’t claim that any of the knowledge I have on web sharpening is mine as I learnt all of it from other people’s tutorials. It does make it easier to be able to cross-reference everyone’s techniques, take the best from each and put it together. I wrote a set of actions about 2.5 years ago and haven’t updated my knowledge or techniques since. Over the past week I took it upon myself to look at what’s new and what I’ve been missing. I was very relieved to see that I haven’t missed anything, but there are one or two things I have now been able to improve.

Everyone still uses the same basic formula with minor differences. That formula is to resize the image 3 times, using a factor of 1.66x. Why 1.66x specifically works so well is anyone’s guess…whether Fibonacci or chance or flying beavers, it works.

Choose the resolution you want and multiply it twice by 1.66. If you want your final image to be 1000px, then the second resize should be to 1666px and the first resize to 2775px. Apply a select amount of sharpening on a duplicated layer at each stage and refine it at the end. At this stage some people do something to minimize halos, compensate for lost saturation or add slight highlight diffusion. Either way it’s not that complicated, even if you’re a Photoshop beginner. If you do it step by step a few times you’ll quickly be able to program actions that resize to a resolution of your preference and add a touch of your own.

Here’s exactly what my action does.

 

  • It resizes using File>Automate>fit image instead of image size because fit image works on both portrait and landscape images. You just enter the same size in both fields and it will resize the image’s longest side to that. For a 1000px image that first size would be 2775px.
  • Duplicate the original layer
  • Apply an unsharp mask of 200%, 0,3px, 0 threshold.
  • Fade the unsharp mask to minimize halos. Edit>Fade Unsharp Mask, set the mode to luminosity, zoom in to a contrast edge at 100% and play with the slider until your happy. The image should still be sharp. 50-70% works well.
  • Fit image to 1666px
  • Duplicate the sharpened layer
  • Apply an unsharp mask of 200%, 0,3px, 0 threshold.
  • Fade the unsharp mask to minimize halos. Edit>Fade Unsharp Mask, set the mode to luminosity, zoom in to a contrast edge at 100% and play with the slider until your happy. The image should still be sharp. 50-70% works well.
  • Fit image to your final size, in this case 1000px
  • Merge the top two layers (You should still have your background layer below it)
  • Set the layer blending mode of the top layer to luminosity
  • Apply an unsharp mask of 200%, 0,3px, 0 threshold.
  • Apply Fade Unsharp Mask one last time, again luminosity mode. This time its crucial that you watch the sharpness at 100% when adjusting the slider. The imge may only be a tad oversharpened.

That’s the end of the sharpening. Now all that’s added is a bit of highlight diffusion. I desaturate the cyans and blues by -10 because blues always end up oversaturated in my opinion. Then I add vibrance of 25 to compensate for the bit of color lost in all the sharpening.

  • Get the light lights selection (CTRL/CMD+click on RGB channel>CTRL/CMD+ALT+SHIFT+CLICK on RGB channel)
  • Duplicate a layer of the selection (CTRL+J/CMD+J)
  • Apply Gaussian blur of 3px
  • Set the layer blending mode of that layer to soft light
  • Add an adjustment layer and boost vibrance by 25

That’s it, now you just fine-tune the amount of each layer to your satisfaction and you’re done. If you want to make an action of a custom size, all you have to do is the following.

  • Duplicate the action of the closest size by clicking the drop down tab on the top right corner of the actions palette and selecting duplicate
  • Rename it to your new size.
  • Open the command structure of the action by clicking the little play button to the left of the text
  • Look for the lowest fit image command
  • Double click it and enter the size you want

I’m not going to post a million samples here of how sharp it makes it, download the action and use it on your own images. Feedback/critique is welcome!

 

 

Download Action on CapturEarth

July 10, 2013

Six Months Six Images

 

One of the most difficult bridges that photographers have to cross is the one between passion and profession. Crossing isn’t quite the right word for it. I think a more apt description would be that you are never fully on just one side. As financial pressures mount (most of the time) you find yourself more on the profession side of the bridge. You produce what the market wants and you put your own dreams on hold for the sake of money. When there’s more money and time then you give a bit of your soul back to the other side and just when you’re about to have a creative breakthrough it is sucked back by a tornado of money driven ambition.

 

So the bit of you on the passionate side has to make do with what resources and opportunity are available. Amazing light on workshops, the odd few days in the year that you can escape the admin or a trip that you earned with blood, sweat and tears. When you do finally do these things and achieve these goals, your brain seldom has the time to realize that you just achieved a dream from two years ago. Ambition and impatience are best friends and the less results you see, the harder you work. I always find myself reminding myself that things take time and that I need to be more patient and give myself recognition for what I have achieved. If I don’t do this I end up hitting a low and feeling like I’m getting nowhere. So perhaps this blog post could just have been an argument with myself to show me that I have taken a few good photographs over the past 6 months.

 

It’s certainly difficult choosing, but here are 6 of my most sentimental photographs from the past 6 months. I say sentimental because a photo might be my favorite because it’s very popular, but that might be the only meaning it has to me. Sentimental photos are images that tell a story to me about achieving a creative vision or a goal. Not about satisfying market demand and earning money.

 

Crystal Clear Canyon

 

I’ve visited Blyde River Canyon 5 times over the past 5 years. That may not sound like much, but keep in mind that it is 1800km from home. It is one of South Africa’s most iconic landscapes and no matter what you have to say about it, it’s an amazing landscape.

 

If you want to photograph iconic locations then you better make damn sure that you do it better than everyone else, because you didn’t discover it and there’s usually no more space for originality in composition.  Over the years the Canyon really screwed me with weather. It was always hazy and it took all those failed visits to realize what the ideal time is to visit. This year I finally visited in that time to host a workshop there. We had two amazing mornings in a row and I got more than just one image that I will be content with for a long time.

 

Crystal Clear Canyon

Magoebaskloof in Flood

 

I know that 90% of the people who read my blog posts know my Magoebaskloof story. Searched the country for forests, got Malaria and tick fever, found amazing indigenous forests in Magoebaskloof, bla bla bla. I may have found the forests last year, but what is a forest photo without a fairytale-like stream flowing through it? I first visited Magoebas last year in May, which is the dry season. There was barely a stream and I never got anything close to a stream flowing through a forest.

 

On the same workshop that I got the Blyde shot, we had monster thunderstorm move over the escarpment on the last afternoon. The workshop participants were comfortable shooting on their own and I could wander off to a spot I had scouted earlier. The river was pumping with brown mud-washed water and the mist was thick below the canopy. I finally got a shot that I can happily hold next to a Columbia River Gorge shot by one of America’s talented scapers.

 

Magoebaskloof in Flood

Autumn in the Free State

 

The Free State is one of South Africa’s provinces that have been eluding me big time. I have one great shot of Golden Gate, but I’ve never been a big fan of Golden Gate NP. The frank truth is there isn’t that much in the Free State that makes for great landscape photos.

 

For a great landscape photo you usually need a great landscape paired with great weather. Every now and then you’ll have a 3/10 landscape and 15/10 weather and the result is amazing. Exactly that happened on a trip to the Parys area and I got a shot of amazing low-lying mist over the Vaal River with a softly diffused sun on the horizon. I’m not quite sure what’s so special about this shot. It puts a Free State cracker in my portfolio and its nothing like anything else I have. For me it stands out amongst the rest.

 

Autumn in the Freestate

Hole in the Wall

 

I have three reasons for putting a Hole in the Wall image on the list. It’s not so much the specific image, but the visit as a whole.

 

The first thing is that just like Blyde River Canyon, HITW is damn far away from home and all my previous visits had been fruitless. This year I was there for three weeks and the weather played along very well. I have HITW images to feed the publishers for a good few years to come.

 

When I started photography the slightest heights made me dizzy. Many hikes and encouraging words from friends have helped my fear of heights a lot. While at HITW I climbed a cliff that I previously thought was not climbable, the weather played along and I plucked the fruits of years of small progress.

 

It’s obvious that if you ask any professional photographer if he/she enjoys teaching others they’ll falsely tell you that they do. It’s not necessarily that its not fun, its just that I’d rather be shooting by myself. I hit a turning point in this attitude on my Hole in the Wall workshops this year. It’s a great location, I had amazing groups of people and for the first time ever I really enjoyed teaching. If I look at the images that is what it reminds me of. I had an amazing time while teaching others, getting great photos and making a living. It made me appreciate my job.

 

Hole in the Wall

Proper Alpenglow

 

South Africa may have amazing diversity, but it lacks scale in many areas. You can argue as you wish for the Drakensberg, but it just doesn’t give the peaks of Patagonia a run for its money. South Africa’s biggest lack is definitely proper snow-capped mountains and that amazing red Alpenglow that goes with it in the right circumstances.

 

Seeing that blood-red glow on the peaks of Torres del Paine more than an hour before sunrise was a moment of accomplishment for me. About two years ago I decided that I want to work towards visiting one of earth’s best mountain landscapes. I decided on Patagonia and I saved and worked my ass off to earn the time and money to go. While shooting that sunrise I was not only excited for the extra bit of exposure that image would give me, but it made me look back at the road that got me there.

 

Patagonian Alpenglow

Keeping it Natural

 

When I criticize people that process excessively I always ask myself if I would have gotten where I am today without photoshop. The scary thing is that the answer is often no. Many of my best photos are dependent on digital blending, but I have to argue in my favor that if photoshop didn’t exist I’d use my filters a lot more. Every now and then nature gives you a little gift in the form of unbelievable natural light that you can capture in a single exposure. Those images make me feel liberated from Photoshop.

 

This is one of those images, just a touch of saturation and contrast from the RAW file.

Natural Light

 

The next six months may not be as productive behind the camera, but I hope they will be behind the computer. Long hours behind the computer are what make trips to places like Patagonia possible.

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