Friday, 21 June 2019

Long exposure iPhone images with Spectre

When I wus lad (he said, using his best cockney accent) there was a hair cream advert on TV that used the catch-phrase "I never thought I'd see the day..."

Fast forward forty years, and this phrase is playing over in my head as I sit to write this post.

I've written previously, probably many times in this very blog, about my dismissal of the iPhone (and mobile phones in general) as a 'serious' image capturing device. Nevermind that the weight of popular opinion would suggest otherwise. Flickr's 2017 data has the iPhone as the most used camera with 54% (over half) of the top 100 cameras used by photographers. Canon is next with 23%, and Nikon is 3rd with 18%.

Now granted, Flickr probably isn't the powerhouse photography app it used to be, and probably only a tiny fraction (if any) of those statistics relate to professional photographers. But still, it's a very impressive win for the iPhone in the 'every-day' photography category - which we all know makes up the bulk of today's plethora of image taking.

Does that mean, therefore, that my opinion of using an iPhone/mobile phone for photography has changed? Well yeah, it kinda does. And actually, it changed a couple of years ago when my daughter got her new iPhone 7Plus. The dual 12MP rear cameras (one 28mm wide and one 56mm telephoto) are capable of taking stunning photos. So much so, that the iPhone 7 was the 'camera' Emily used to create her Yr13 Photography portfolio.

I have an iPhone 6, with a 8MP rear facing single camera (about 30mm wide), so it's not as good (not surprisingly). In good light it's not terrible, but it's also no Canon 5D Mk4 (although neither is the iPhone 7 to be fair). Yet if we look at mobile phone companies like Huawei, who are partnering with Leica to produce a 40MP camera on their phones, then it's quite obvious that it's only going to get better and better. Will the camera phone seriously challenge the DSLR eventually? Probably.

Spectre iPhone app - an AI powered 'long exposure' app
Where am I going with all this? (Yes, for heaven's sake, get to the point man)! All that is to say that 'yes', I am using my iPhone more for taking photos (and certainly for capturing video). And a perfect case-in-point was just the other night when I went to my local camera club's monthly meeting. I was there to push (err, I mean discuss) my 'advanced' photography workshop running this weekend (as I write this). But it just so happened that this coincided with a hands-on practical session photographing dancers.

I didn't have my camera with me (big shot advanced photography teacher who doesn't bring a camera to a photography club gathering), but I did have my iPhone (of course). The lighting in the hall where the meeting was being held was tricky (some spotlighting, some dark shadows, some bright colours), so I decided to shoot long exposures on my iPhone using a recently acquired app - Spectre. Yeah, I know, sounds very cool - right? Very James Bond. And it is very cool - for an iPhone camera app.

Dancers. iPhone 6 with Spectre app. 3 second long exposure.
The app is actually designed to help you create long exposure shots of waterfalls and such so you can achieve that silky smooth smokey water effect or long light trail images. You can choose between 3, 5 and 9 second exposures, and can even get away with the 3 second exposures hand-held if there's enough light around. Pretty impressive in theory, but I'd never actually used it in practice.

At the Bar. iPhone 6 with Spectre app. 3 second long exposure
Because there definitely wasn't enough light around, I knew I was going to get a lot of blurring in the final images. So I chose a 3 second long exposure time and tried to use the blurring of the dancer's movements in my favour. Using the app was as simple as choosing the 3 seconds on the dial, pushing the shutter button, and watching while the image blur built up on the screen. Very cool.

If there was too much subject and camera movement, the final result was almost unrecognisable. But if I timed it so that there was a short period of static pose before movement, then the resulting image seemed to make more sense.

Twirling Dervishes. iPhone 6 with Spectre app. 3 second long exposure
I'm a huge fan of ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) photography, so this was right up my alley. I wasn't worrying about taking sharp, clear images - in fact just the opposite. If there was a lot of movement happening in front of me, then I just held the camera reasonably steady and captured the movement of the dancers. If the scene was more static, then I moved the phone itself to create the motion blur.

Ethereal Dancers. iPhone 6 with Spectre app. 3 second long exposure
I love this last image, especially converted to black and white. It has a beautifully spooky yet graceful quality to it. Could I have taken the same shot with my DLSR? Yes, of course I could. You might even argue that it would have been even better, since I would have had even more control over shutter speeds (you're limited to just the 3, 5 and 9 with Spectre). And yet, looking around the room at the other images taken that evening - all on DSLR's - there weren't any that looked quite like the ones I'd managed to capture on my iPhone using Spectre. There were some great images, don't get me wrong. But mostly they had gone for telephoto, close-cropped, sharp results. Everything I couldn't do on the iPhone 6, even if I'd wanted to.

Using Spectre on the iPhone was also just a whole heap of fun! Far too often we, as 'serious' photographers, disregard the fun factor. I know I do. The simplicity of whipping out your phone, clicking on an app, and creating beautiful images in seconds - with the minimal of fuss and gear - is also quite liberating and can't be stressed enough. It was actually being limited by the gear that I was using that forced me to think differently, and thereby craft images that I might not otherwise have considered taking.

So maybe it isn't the iPhone that's going to revolutionise photography or our images going forward? Maybe it's using the tools we have at our disposal and then thinking creatively, outside the box, to craft images that stand out from the crowd, no matter what we're using to create them with? Just a thought...

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Traveling to Christchurch - Landscapes on the Road

My wife and I have been traveling to Christchurch regularly over the last two months (overnight trips every fortnight) for medical appointments, and have been enjoying playing 'tourist'. We both spent our 20s and early 30s living in Christchurch, so know it very well. But having lived on the West Coast for the last 18 years, we've been 'rediscovering' areas that we havn't been to in a good long while.

I don't 'do' selfies, but when in Rome (as they say), if you're going to play tourist you may as well act like them. So with iPhone in hand, we posed for a very rare selfie in the recently re-opened Christchurch Arts Centre (closed after the Christhchurch earthquakes). The front-facing camera on the iPhone 6 isn't the greatest camera in the world, but you get the idea, and it's only for posting on the web anyway. Fortunately, I've also been bringing my Canon 50D with me as well.

It's mid-winter here in New Zealand (as I write this), and on our last trip 'over the hill' (as we locals call it) - the Southern Alps were spectacular. Dusted with a layering of snow and lit by beautiful winter light.

Southern Alps towards Arthur's Pass. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8. F8 @ 1/400th, ISO 200
This is a scene I have driven past many times and always wanted to stop and photograph. Often it hasn't been practical to do so (kids in the car, time constraints, horrible conditions), but on this trip the photography planets aligned and I had the time, conditions and obliging travel companion (thanks honey). What has always caught my eye in this scene are the braided rivers leading towards the mountains. Add with a dusting of snow, crisp light and blue skies, you have the right recipe for my kind of photo!

The Great Alpine Highway. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8. F8 @ 1/320th, ISO 200. Cokin Polariser
Sometimes leading lines and perspective works in your favour. In the above image, the road, fence posts, icy puddles, car and power lines all lead your eye towards the hero of the image - those beautiful snow covered hills. This is a shot I've stopped and taken before, but never in quite these conditions. I find the clarity of the light quite intoxicating.

A light dusting. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm
This is from the same spot, but an entirely different angle. In this image I was attracted to the clumps of snow in the grass that lead the eye up towards the hill and sky. Similar in effect to the image with the braided river and Southern Alps above.

I'm a bit of a fare-weather photographer if I'm being honest. I love blue skies with white clouds, crisp, clear days and deep greens and blues. Some photographers look for the dark, stormy and moody, preferring to go out when it's wet and wild. There was a popular catchphrase among Youtube photographers in the UK recently that said "Embrace the Grey". One photographer I follow even grumpily announces on his videos that he 'hates blue skies'. Not me. I love them.

Don't get me wrong, I like a bit of drama in some of my images - of course I do. But I prefer a clear day to a rainy one. In fact if it's wet and rainy (which it often is here on the West Coast), then I don't go out at all. And yes, that does mean that there are many weekends that I don't go out and shoot. So be it.

Mid-Winter at Castle Hill Sheep Station. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8. F8 @ 1/100th, ISO 200. Cokin Polariser
Castle Hill is one of those well-photographed locations. Hundreds of people from all over the world visit it every day (probably thousands in Summer) - especially since it appeared in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies (minus the sheep).

This is about as picture perfect as it gets and I'm delighted to now have the shot. Picture perfect images, or 'chocolate box' photography as it is often derogatorily referred to, has gotten a bad rap for many years. Probably still does to be fair. For decades in the artworld, 'beauty' was a taboo word. "Embrace the beauty" I say. I'm lucky enough to live in a jaw-droppingly beautiful part of the world, and be damned if I'm not going to try my best to capture and honour that in my photography. Chocolate box be damned!

Gondola ride, Avon River. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8
And it doesn't get more Chocolate boxy than a Gondola ride on the Avon River at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens! Maybe it's a bit late in the season for the complete chocolate box package - some more autumnal leaves on the trees would be nice. But I've got some autumn colours there, and the light is gorgeous.

My wife and I spent a lovely morning wandering around the gardens. Me snapping away at random gondola riders, and she patiently stopping every five minutes for me to take said snaps. She got her payback later in the morning when we discovered the Botanic Gardens gift shop which is a new addition we hadn't visited before. A pleasant hour was spent looking around the gift shop, oohing and ahhing at the wonderful products they have on display there. Many of the gifts are garden themed (a lot of William Morris products), but all were rather beautiful (there's that word again). Well worth a look if you are ever in Christchurch and visiting the Gardens.

Homeward Bound. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8. F11 @ 1/250th, ISO 200
I've called the last image Homeward Bound for fairly obvious reasons really. This was taken on our trip home, the next day, with conditions almost as good as the previous days trip up. Almost, but not quite. I still like the image, and I'm glad I stopped to take it, but I don't think it will win any awards.

But then again, photography's not always about the awards, is it? At least it shouldn't be. More often than not it's more about capturing memories. Memories of a trip away with my wonderful wife, on a beautiful mid-winters weekend. Of picture-perfect scenery, gorgeous light, crisp air and blue skies. My kind of photography heaven.

Iboolo 8-in-1 Mobile Phone lens kit review

Since deciding to vlog more often with my iPhone 6, I've been considering the limitation of using just the wide(ish) lens. I don't want to use the digital zoom function on the camera - it just turns the footage to mush - so telephoto shooting is out. And the only way to get a 'wider' angle, especially when using the front-facing selfie camera, is to physically move the phone further away. This creates problems, not only in terms of using something like a selfie stick (perish the thought), but also for audio quality. The further away the camera is from the subject talking (i.e me), the harder it has to work, and the more the gain needs to be ramped up. Not ideal.

There are two solutions to this problem. First - get a new phone 😁 Something like the iPhone X with its dual camera setup - one wide angle and one telephoto - both image stabilised. Nice. Unfortunately, a new iPhone X isn't in my future (present or distant). I'd like to stay married. And at currently $1,500.00NZ it's more than I'm ever going to be able to justify spending on a phone. I am thinking of upgrading my iPhone 6 to a 6s Plus (hi honey) for better video quality (noteably 1080p for the front-facing camera). But that's also in the future. And it still won't fix the wide angle or telephoto shooting issues.

Enter solution number two; lens accessories for the iPhone. This is by far the cheaper, and probably easier solution to the problem of getting different focal lengths on any mobile phone - and it might just mean I stay married for a bit longer 😜 But are they any good? Great question... read on to find out how 'good' the cheaper lens accessory kits are.

First, we need a 'control' image for our little experiment - a shot taken with just the iPhone 6 main rear-facing 8MP camera - 'naked' (ooh-err) as it were - sans lens adapters. And here it is...

iPhone 6 8MP rear-facing main camera
Not bad - and gives a field of view (fov) roughly equivalent to 35mm on a full frame digital camera. Wide, but not excessively so. What if we want to go wider?

iPhone 6 with the Iboolo wide angle (0.63x) lens attachment
That's much better. We're now looking at a fov of roughly 28mm, which is certainly better wide-angle coverage, and should make vlogging much easier by including a little more 'breathing space' around the frame. What about image quality though? When you attach any extra glass over a lens you run the risk of softening the image and adding unwanted fringing.

Well, actually, it's not too bad. Centrally, it's about the same as the unadorned lens, and would certainly hold-up for video footage. It's the edges of the frame where things start to look a little soft and distorted, but not alarmingly so. I would happily use the lens for vlogging. Might keep my DSLR setup for my important landscape images though 😉 Can we go even wider still?

iPhone 6 with the Iboolo super wide angle (0.36x) lens attachment
Sure can, and it is certainly much wider. I'd say about 18 to 20mm in standard DSLR terms. However, going 'super' wide is pushing the limits of the lenses capability somewhat, especially at the edges.

Top right corner with the 'super' wide. Nothing but mush!
As can be seen opposite, the corners and edge of the frame basically turn to mush, and for print images are pretty much unuseable. Still, for video work it probably isn't a deal-breaker, as long as the main subject is kept fairly central in the frame. In fact the blurry and smudgy edges could be seen as 'artsy' and something that was done in post-production to produce a vintage lens type effect. Or am I making a silk purse out of a sows ear?

Just looking at the two wide-angle options, I think I would be more inclined to use the standard wide adapter on a daily basis, and keep the 'super' wide for those time when I simply have to go wider and damn the consequences. Also, it's worth noting that placing the lens attachment as centrally as possible over the phones lens is absolutely critical if you want to avoid edge distortion. I placed the clip onto the phone without any lenses attached first, so I could align the hole centrally. Then I screwed the attachment lens in place when I was happy that the holder was positioned perfectly.

iPhone 6 with Iboolo x2 Telephoto lens attachment
Ok, so that's the wide angle side of things. What about telephoto? The 8in1 kit I purchased has one telephoto lens in it - a x2 - which I guess means an equivalent 60 to 70mm reach in traditional film terms? As with the standard wide attachment, the telephoto holds up well centrally, but has a little edge distortion. Once again, probably a pass for video footage, but not stellar for actual photography. I compared this image with simply cropping tighter on the original file sans lens attachment, and the original file was actually crisper. Especially around the edges of the frame.

iPhone 6 with Iboolo Polariser lens
One of the lenses that I might end up using most often is the polariser. It made quite a difference to the colours when I attached the polariser and twirled it around, without compromising on the quality of the phones in-built lens. Everything is nice and sharp, but the image exhibits a bit more 'pop' than without the polariser. Not surprising really, since that's exactly what a polariser does! Unfortunately, you can't stack the lenses, so it's the polairser or the wide angle - it can't be both.

Attached to the standard wide angle (screwed in below it) is the Macro lens. The image opposite is the standard close-focusing you can get from the iPhone 6, which isn't bad, but it isn't great either.

Using the macro lens attachment (by unscrewing the standard wide angle lens that's on top of it) means you can get closer - a lot closer - for some rather impressive macro images. In fact, you can get so close, that I thought the front element of the lens was in danger of touching the plant I was photographing! When I first put the macro lens on the phone I thought it was broken - the image was all blurry, fuzzy, and out of focus.

iPhone 6 with Iboolo Macro attachment
Then I realised that I wasn't placing the lens close enough to the subject! Once I figured this out, and started placing the lens directly on top of the subject, the macro image jumped into focus. I love the image of the flower stamen above - an impressive, and clear result with some lovely background blur.

So that's five lenses down - three to go. The final three are what I would categorise as 'novelty' lenses. To be used sparingly (if at all). The first of these is the Fisheye lens.

iPhone 6 with Iboolo Fisheye lens
Fisheye lenses are fun, no doubt. But lets face it, they are also limited fun. Too much fisheye is like too much Wasabi paste. A little goes a long way. So although kinda fun, the fisheye accessory lens has limited use. But uses it does have. Unlike the next novelty lens which, having used once, I don't think I'll ever use again...

iPhone 6 with Iboolo Kaleidoscope lens attachment
That's just strange. Seriously. It's not even so bad as to be kinda good. It's just bad. So scratch the Kaleidoscope attachment off the list of useable attachment lenses.

And the last one is also really only a novelty attachment. It's a Starburst filter effect - again not something I think Ill ever use. Haven't even bothered trying it out yet to be honest.

So of the set of eight, I'm probably going to use two of them quite a bit (the wide and polariser), two occasionally (the super wide and macro), one every so often (the x2 telephoto), and three probably never (guess which three 😉).

Quality-wise, the wide and polariser are the best of the bunch, producing the cleanest and sharpest images. The super-wide is pushing it for quality, although it will still probably be ok for video footage, and the x2 telephoto is ok, but probably no better than digital cropping of the original file.

Was it worth the $30.00NZ I paid for the kit? Absolutely it was. They may not be the best quality attachment lenses ever made, but it's given me a taste of phone attachments, so I know what I'm looking for if I want to spend a little more for a better product later on. You can get some more impressive (read more expensive) wide angle attachments made specifically for the iPhone, and that might be where I'm headed in the future. But for the time being, the 8in1 lens kit from Iboolo will do the job nicely.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

iPhone Vlogging Setup

Recently here in New Zealand we had 'TechWeek' - a week-long series of events held up and down the country to promote the use of technology (as if that really needs promoting?).

I actually taught a couple of events this year (an Introduction to Adobe Photoshop and an Introduction to Adobe InDesign CC), but was also lucky enough, through work, to actually attend one. 'iPhone Video Making Made Easy' was run by John McKenzie of Enthuse Media and Events (Hi John), and work thought it would be good to send a few of us along to see if this could be incorporated into the marketing team.

I've been vlogging for a little while now - trying out a few vlogging setups and editing solutions - with varying degrees of success. I've written about my trials and tribulations here, but needless to say, the 'perfect' solution has eluded me up to this point. I'm also willing to admit that I never really considered vlogging with my iPhone. I didn't really think it would be good enough quality, and just assumed that a DLSR or mirrorless camera would be a better solution?

Thanks to John, however, my eyes have been open to the incredible potential we have for video creation built directly into our iPhones. Shooting in hi-definition 1080p (4k video on iPhone 7 and later) and editing directly on my iPhone 6 with iMovie, I was blown away with the quality of video I could produce straight from the phone! No external editing on the computer required (although you could if you wanted to).

Sevenoak iPhone Smart Grip SK-PSC1
I've been so inspired by the training session we had with John, and the quality of the results we achieved in just a morning, that I've decided to jump all-in and set up my iPhone as my vlogging camera. First step - some sort of grip or video mount so you can hold the iPhone in a more comfortable/stable grip for filming.

I did a bit of on-line research before coming across almost the perfect solution: the Sevenoak phone grip SK-PSC1. Other vloggers had used the product and filmed glowing reviews, and it seemed to tick all the right boxes (stable, solid, versatile and well priced). Most important of all was the inclusion of a cold shoe on the top of the grip to attach an external microphone.

I have a Rhode videomicro - external microphone, that I bought when I was doing some video with my Olympus OM-D EM-5 II. I had also used it on my first vlog with the Canon 650D, but havn't used it since. The Olympus EP-3 I've been using for video more recently doesn't have an external microphone port (!), and neither do the video camcorder options I have. Good audio quality is make or break in video production, and although I've played with some work-arounds, I'd much rather have the ability to just plug in an external microphone and go. Guess what. The iPhone 6 lets you do just that... with a slight modification.

The Rhode videomicro, as purchased off the shelf, comes with a cable that connects the microphone to a DSLR and draws power from the camera itself. This is a TRS to TRS cable and works with all digital cameras that have an external mic port. An iPhone, however, has a TRRS port and requires the purchase of the correct jack to transmit the sound from the microphone to the phone. It's the Rhode SC7 TRS to TRRS Patch Cable and is also, fortunately, relatively inexpensive. 

So with the Sevenoak grip, Rhode videomicro, and proper adapter cable, I'm pretty much good-to go. Total cost (not counting the iPhone) only $175.00NZ.

The Sevenoak grip is super versatile; it can be used as-is hand-held, or the bottom can screw off and a monopod/tripod/selfie stick can be screwed on instead for more stability or extra reach. The cold shoe can hold an external microphone or video light, or you can do what I intend to do and add another cold shoe bracket for even extra versatility!

My 'ultimate' iPhone vlogging rig.
Another cold shoe bracket, and LED video light, will set me back another $60 - giving me the 'ultimate' rig opposite - for a grand total of $235.00NZ. Not bad (in fact pretty damn amazing) for a very light-weight, portable, and yet very powerful, video production outfit.

Are there any downsides to all of this? Really, I can only think of two - lens selection and image stabilisation.

The iPhone 6 only has a wide angle (22mm?) fixed-lens camera - the digital zoom is absolutely unusable. So it's either zoom with the feet, or don't zoom at all! And the stabilisation is digital - not optical (this came in for the iPhone 7), so more care needs to be taken to capture steady footage.

But I think I can work within these limitations (we'll see won't we) and still capture video that will tell the story that I need it to tell.

Also, initial impressions of iMovie are favourable, but I havn't really given it a good work-out processing a video with a lot of footage, photos, sound, music and transitions. Storage may end up being an issue as well (my iPhone is a 32GB, with about 20GB free), and I may have to transfer all the files to my computer once the video has been edited and saved.

I'm hoping that these are only minor annoyances (or maybe good reasons to upgrade?) in what will be an exciting and fun vlogging experience. The weather here has been terrible all week, but the weekend is looking promising. I might just have to try out the new iPhone vlogging rig this weekend? I'll let you know how I get on...

Friday, 26 April 2019

Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 HSM OS initial review

In my last post I discussed my brief experience with the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC blah de blah (insert lots of other abbreviated letters here). I also talked about why, in the end, I swapped it for the Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 HSM OS.

In the previous post to that (see here) I wrote about why I was even getting a new lens in the first place, and about swapping back to Canon after using an Olympus micro four thirds system for the last two years. I had a wedding coming up, and just a week out from the big event, I was prompted (literally) to trade in all my gear and move back to a DSLR kit.

Of course the most important component of any camera system is.... the lens (shame on you if you said camera body). Shooting a wedding is a one-off event. So I wanted to know that the gear was going to stand up to the pressure of the day, and perform. The Canon 50D is a known entity - I've owned and used all the mid-range Canon DLSR's from the 10D upwards to the 50D, and used them on many weddings. And, of course, I took two 50D bodies with me on the wedding day, so that I would have back-up if one failed (it didn't).

The Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 however, isn't a lens I've ever used - and except for a couple of quick snaps in my lounge, I wasn't going to have time to really test it out before the wedding day. Scary stuff (and not something I advise to be honest).

Blue eyes. Sigma 17-50mm. 1/60th @ f2.8, ISO 1000
Well, I needn't have worried. The Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 HSM OS is a stellar lens. A fantastic piece of kit. If you can't tell already, I'm chuffed to bits with it as a lens, and I have a weddings worth of fabulous images to prove why.

You don't get a constant aperture f2.8 lens to shoot it at f8 all day, especially when light levels are low - so for most of the wedding day I shot the Sigma wide open at f2.8 (or there abouts). From the very first image the results were spectacular! Look at the image on the right, shot wide open at f2.8. The front eye (that I focused on and recomposed) is razor sharp and the background blur (bokeh) is smooth and creamy. This is one of the first images I took on the wedding day, and a quick check by magnifying the image on the rear lcd screen of the camera confirmed that the Sigma/Canon combination had nailed focus. I was very happy, and this one image gave me the confidence to shoot the Sigma wide-open for the rest of the day and not worry about sharpness.

I did get a few slightly unsharp shots mixed in with the rest during the day, but I'm quite happy to put that down completely to user-error and not the fault of the equipment, which worked flawlessly.

Make it Quick! 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 OS. 1/25th @ f8, ISO 1000
I did occasionally take the aperture off of f2.8, especially if there were large groups involved. The image of the bridal party isn't the greatest wedding image ever taken, but it was raining quite heavily and so we ran outside under a tree to take literally one quick shot.

What the photo does demonstrate is the Sigma's corner sharpness, at 17mm, with an f8 aperture. This is ideal landscape photography territory (I'm a landscape photographer first and foremost after all), and the result is very pleasing. Very good extreme corner edge sharpness, and very sharp overall - considering the shutter speed of only 1/25th sec! The OS (optical stabilisation) system is really proving its worth in this image, and is smooth and quiet in operation (unlike Tamron's noisy and clunky VC implementation). As with all wide angle zoom settings, there is some edge distortion, but this is to be expected and probably easily corrected for in post. Besides, the Sigma probably won't be my 'go to' landscape lens - I have the Canon 10-22mm ultra-wide for that (which, as an ultra-wide, also has a lot of distortion).

Jess. Sigma 17-50mm f2.8. 1/80th @ f2.8, ISO 200
What the Sigma will be used for, is as my general, all-purpose lens. And as a 17-50mm (27-80mm equivalent) this is where it excels. It was the only lens I used on the wedding day, going from 17mm wide angle for group and ceremony shots, to 50mm telephoto for portraits at the flick of a wrist. The autofocus is accurate and the HSM mechanism quick and deadly silent.

The body is manufactured from high quality polycarbonate plastic, with a metal lens mount and all-glass lens elements. These include two FD elements (similar to flourite) as well as Aspherical moulded lenses to correct for abberations - which they seem to do admirably. My copy is tightly constructed, with no obvious seems or joins, wobbles or creaks. As other reviewers have mentioned, there is a slight 'rattle' from the lens if it is shaken (don't shake the lens) that comes from the OS system. This is normal, and is consistent with other Sigma products. I had a Sigma 60mm f2.8 OS telephoto for my Olympus micro four thirds that rattled like a baby's toy, but performance was excellent.

At 77mm, the front element is rather large, which unfortunately means big $$ for filters. But I already had a 77mm UV for the Canon 10-22mm, and the camera store threw in a 77mm Polariser to make up the price difference with the Tamron I had purchased, so I've come away with the filters I need anyway.

Trav & Jess, Rapahoe. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8. 1/200th @ f3.5, ISO 200. Canon 430EX III flash
Am I happy with how the Canon 50D and Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 performed on the wedding day? I think you can tell that I am. The Sigma is a fantastic lens - sharp, well balanced, with excellent colour rendition and contrast (no warm colour cast that I can detect), and sharp - did I mention sharp? I think I did 😉 In fact, on some of the close-up bridal portraits I thought that it was actually too sharp! So much so that I applied some skin softening in post to reduce the effect. Now that's sharp.

I'm aware that people talk about copy variance with third-party lenses. Some Sigma's (and Tokina's and Tamron's) have been known to suffer from back or front focusing issues so that images don't come out sharply focused on the intended area. I must have a good copy, because I'm not seeing any focusing issues that would cause me concern. It also seems that maybe Sigma have 'uped' their quality control game over the years? Their 'Art' series lenses are getting amazing reviews - for build quality and IQ, although so they should, since they come at a premium.

The next lens I'm actually interested in is the Sigma 50mm f1.4 HSM DG. Again, it gets great reviews for sharpness and build quality - even surpassing the Canon 50mm f1.4. We have one of  these where I work, so I can feel a 50mm lens comparison test coming on...

Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC Mini Review

Last post I mentioned my somewhat brief experience with the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC lens (or the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 XR Di II VC LD IF lens to give it its full and proper title - whew!). Although I only had it for a few hours, and returned it due to some internal lens element issues (some fungal blooming was developing), it was long enough to take some test images and formulate some opinions of the lens in general. Opinions I'm going to share here... 😀

First, let me repeat that last sentence. 'Opinions' I'm going to share here. These are just my opinions, from my admittedly brief time with this lens. Of course a few hours with a lens isn't enough time to give an in-depth review (hence the 'mini review' in the title of this post). But it's also more than enough time for me to formulate an opinion on any piece of gear, one way or the other. Oh, and spoiler alert - I would have returned the lens even if it didn't have fungus issues.

Initially though, I have to admit to being impressed by the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC. At 570g it's a fairly hefty and substantial piece of kit, and certainly has a 'presence' to it. It looks the business, and the fit and finish is of a reasonably high quality. Nothing wobbled or creaked on my second-hand copy, even though it looked as if it had a reasonable amount of use.
There is a lot of plastic involved in the lenses construction, but it has a metal lens mount, and the plastic feels extremely dense and solid. As mentioned, it really does feel very substantial in the hand (and on the camera).

Unfortunately, this also happens to be my first grumble with this lens. I actually think it's a bit too hefty. Yes, seriously. Maybe I've been a bit spoilt using mirrorless over the last two years, but even the all-metal constructed M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro I was trading in for this lens only weighs 382g. I also think that some of the issue I had was because it seems to be a very back-heavy lens. A lot of the weight felt as if it was concentrated at the mount-end (rear), making it a very unbalanced lens. Attached to the Canon 50D body, the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC gave me the impression that it was placing a lot of strain on the cameras bayonet lens mount. I'm sure this isn't an issue - I haven't heard of any camera mounts being destroyed by the tamron. But it's certainly the feeling I got when I used this lens, and I can't say I've ever felt that way with a lens before - ever.

Pruning. Canon 50D with Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC. 1/320th @ f3.5, ISO 100. (at 17mm)
The other annoyance I noticed straight away with the lens was to do with the VC (vibration control). It makes a very audible 'clunk' sound as the vibration control kicks in - which is very annoying. The VC works - no doubt - it's just quite noisy, and quite noticeable while it's doing it! I don't know if this is the same with all Tamron's VC lenses, but it was certainly the case with this lens.

Tree - Opawa. 50D with Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC. 1/250th @ f3.5 (at 17mm)
And finally (I did say this was a 'mini' review), we come to IQ (image quality). It's ok. Really - just ok. Centrally it's sharp from f2.8, but the corners are very soft, especially at 17mm. It also exhibits quite a high level of purple fringing, and stopping down doesn't really help in this regard. Purple fringing was clearly evident in areas of high contrast, even at f5.6.

There's obvious distortion at the edges at 17mm (look at the lean on the house at the edge of the frame), but I won't hold that against the lens - it's fairly common for standard zooms at the wide angle end.

Finishing on a positive - vignetting seems well controlled at the wide angles, wide open, and autofocusing was quick and responsive (albeit with a little noise from the focusing motor).

No, as I said at the beginning, I didn't do exhaustive tests. Don't need to. Wandering around a park on a Monday morning, taking 'snaps' of anything that took my fancy, at apertures that I would normally shoot at, tells me everything I need to know about the lenses image quality and performance. And for me, it was a lens I struggled to like and get along with. So I went back that morning and exchanged it for the Sigma 17-50mm f2.8. And I have to say, the performance is night and day different.

Outside Springfield - Canterbury. Canon 50D with Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 OS. 1/60th @ f11, ISO 100
I prefer everything about the Sigma, when compared to the Tamron. Ironically, at 565g, it's only 5g lighter than the Tamron - but it feels a lot lighter because it's a better balanced lens. The front element is even bigger (77mm vs 72mm) which would normally suggest a lens would be heavier, but the Sigma is a fraction lighter despite the bigger front. In operation the Sigma is quieter and faster, and has a much better (i.e. silent) image stabilisation system (Sigma call it OS - optical stabilisation). It's also considered a sharper lens that the Tamron, and while I can't confirm this with a side-by-side comparison, images I've taken with the Sigma have been crazy, insanely sharp. On par with the Canon 17-55mm f2.8 I owned once upon a time ago. And corner sharpness on the Sigma does seem significantly better than on the Tamron.

I'm not a Sigma fanboy, or a Tamron hater. When I walked out of the camera store with the Tamron I was a very excited and happy camper - until I actually used it. The Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC lens I used was an unbalanced, noisy beast that I didn't get along with (lens element issues aside). Images from it were just so-so, and I would have a hard time recommending the lens to anyone.

Ironically, when I was returning the lens the next day, a woman was purchasing a brand new Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC over a Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 HSM OS. Apparently the Tamron was $100 cheaper. I would have paid the extra $100 bucks for the Sigma...   

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

And back to Canon again... again

I've been re-reading my blogposts from the last 10 years (yes, I really have been blogging for that long), and I think I've used the title of this particular post on at least three other occasions (apart from the extra 'again' at the end).

And yes, it's true. After about 2 years as an Olympus micro-four-thirds mirrorless user, I've once again moved camps and switched allegiances back to Canon DLSR's. "How come"? - I hear no one ask. Well, it's slightly bewildering to me as well, but let me explain as succinctly as I can....

I loved using my Olympus E-M1, and E-M5 II. They are truly outstanding cameras.I've extolled the virtues of said cameras on this blog (and in other guest posts) and will continue to do so. But, I have also written on this blog about my continued (and almost impossible to shake) love affair with the DLSR. And even though I've pretty much used them all, the one system I seem to keep coming back to, is Canon.

As the top dog in camera manufacturers (sales figures and Sony be damned), everyone loves to hate Canon. They have, as the saying goes, the furthest to fall. Yet in the same breath, almost everyone praises Canon's IQ and colour science. They just produce beautiful image files. Not to mention the ergonomics.

But I will - mention the ergonomics I mean. Because the ergonomics of a Canon enthusiast range to top end DLSR are exceptional. The large back control wheel and joystick combination on most of their cameras is ingenious. Best end user-experience bar none (IMHO). And this is where I think the Olympus E-M1 and E-M5 was let down a little - ergonomically. At least for me. Even with the grip attached, my E-M1 just didn't feel all that comfortable in the hand. Canon's DLSR's, however, certainly do (again, to me).

Also, looking back on my previous blogposts, I always seem to come to a crucial decision over camera systems when wedding season is approaching. I might not be a wedding shooter anymore, but it seems that this trend has continued. Because I have a wedding coming up - next weekend in fact (as I write this), and here I am, changing back to Canon just before I have a wedding to shoot.

I was quite happy - and would have been quite happy, to shoot the wedding with my Olympus E-M1. I had no intention of changing a week out from the big day. Honest. So why did I, and what changed my mind?

Last weekend, my wife and I had to go to Christchurch for a medical appointment. I was planning a trip to Photo and Video in Merivale to check out (drool over) the new Olympus E-M1x. Simple enough. But, literally the night before we were due to head off, I woke up at 4am with one thought in my mind - 'trade in your Olympus gear for a Canon DLSR before the wedding'. Try as I might, I couldn't get this thought out of my head, and I couldn't get back to sleep. I honestly hadn't thought about anything other than checking out the new E-M1x prior to waking at 4am - but there it was, and it wouldn't go away.

I've written previously about how, as a Christian, I believe God often leads me with my photography. Whether you believe this or not, I do believe that he is interested in all aspects of our lives. As a creative God, I feel his presence most deeply when I'm outside being creative myself. And I also believe that if the Holy Spirit prompts you at 4am, then you would do well to listen.

I eventually got up a couple of hours later and had a workout on the exercise bike. While cycling on the spot, I looked up Photo and Video's website to see what they had available in their second hand department. I had decided that if I couldn't walk away with an almost identical Canon kit after trading in my Olympus gear, then I wasn't interested (I was listening to God's prompting, but I'm not stupid! 😇). Not surprisingly (sorry God), they had everything I wanted in stock (second-hand) if I could get the right price for my trade-in.

I decided on a Canon 50D body (I already have a very well-used one on permanent loan) with a Sigma 17-50mm HSM OS f2.8 lens and Canon 430EX II flash. This would basically give me like-for-like (roughly), and actually get me a more comprehensive kit because I already have a Canon 10-22mm EF-S, Canon 90-300mm f4.5/5.6 USM and BG-E2 vertical grip for the 50D.

As mentioned earlier, I love the ergonomics of the 50D. It's the last of the pro-sumer magnesium-alloy bodied XXD cameras (released in 2008). From the 60D onwards they've changed the materials and control wheel design slightly, and I like it less. So it's the 15MP, magnesium alloyed 50D for me!

The 50D at Photo & Video was in good condition, with a low shutter count (just over 9000 actuation's), at a great price. The Canon 430EX II speedlite was similarly in good condition at a good price - and even more importantly, it looked like they were going to offer me a great deal on my Olympus kit (in absolute mint condition). So, much to my surprise (and growing excitement), the deal was almost done! And now to the lens...

Again, I was adamant that I didn't want to loose out on the quality that I had, so a constant f2.8 mid-range zoom to replace the outstanding Olympus Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro was a must. Trouble is, these lenses don't tend to be cheap - even the third-party offerings. But the website indicated they had a couple of Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 lenses available, and a quick check of lens reviews for the Sigma on Youtube looked promising. To my surprise, however, the salesman helping me out with the deal (thanks Adam) reached in the case and pulled out a Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC lens. I hadn't even considered a Tamron (it wasn't listed on their website), but what a beast! Attached to the 50D it's a monster of a lens - exceptionally well made, very heavy, and quite imposing. Almost - dare I say it - a little 'too' heavy? Yeah, I know - what did I expect. Isn't it what I wanted, after all? But I was coming from micro four thirds remember - and even I have my limits for weight in a camera 😳

Regardless, I was willing to take his advice, and so the deal was struck. An Olympus OM-D E-M1 with HLD-7 Grip and M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro (plus camera remote release, spare battery and accessory flash) traded in for a Canon 50D with Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 VC lens and Canon 430EX II flashgun. Good deal!

That night, back at the Hotel, I checked over my 'new' Canon kit and started to set up the 50D how I like to shoot (I may do a post on that another time?). Looking over the Tamron, I was still impressed/surprised at the weight of the lens, but on closer inspection I thought I could detect quite a few blemishes on the front lens element. Nothing a quick clean wouldn't fix - I thought. But... on even closer inspection, it appeared to me that there was the start of some fungal blooming on the inside of the front lens elements. Not good!

Long story short - I returned the lens the next day, and swapped it for the Sigma 17-50mm f2.8 that I thought I would go for in the first place. The Sigma is in pristine condition, has an even bigger front lens element (77mm rather than the 72mm of the Tamron), but is, in fact, lighter than the Tamron - and apparently a little sharper if the online reviews are to be believed. I am much happier with the Sigma lens over the Tamron - fungal issues of the Tamron aside. The Sigma just seems to be a better match with the Canon 50D. Quick example; the Tamron lens doesn't 'talk' to the Canon 430EZ flash for distance information when zooming the flash head, whereas the Sigma does. Go figure?

So yes, I've made the switch back to Canon - again. And, as I've written quite a few times on this blog, I couldn't be happier. With the 50D body and grip, Sigma 17-50mm f2.8, Canon 10-22mm EF-S, Canon 90-300mm f4.5/5.6 USM and Canon 430EZ II Speedlite, I've got a comprehensive system for the wedding this weekend (it's a 'freebie' for friends). I've even got a little store credit at Photo & Video left over than I might put to good use soon if/when a fast prime (nifty 50?) turns up in their second-hand department. I'm already thinking about possible future lens purchases (fast prime, macro, fisheye). Good times 👍