Sunday, 17 October 2010

A moment of Nostalgia

I've been doing a lot of research on the Olympus Pen (see previous post) and it's got me all nostalgic for film and retro-looking cameras.

So this weekend I pulled out a few of my old Canon cameras, and decided to shoot some film on the camera that started my passion - the T70.

The Canon T70 wasn't the very first camera I ever used - but it was the very first camera I ever owned. The first camera I used was a Nikon (FM I think?), handed to me by a friend when we went to a car rally. I fiddled around with the camera all day, desperately trying to freeze cars in a single frame as they went hurtling past me at a great rate of knots. I didn't get many good photos, but it didn't matter. I was hooked on photography from that day on, and it's been my passion/obsession ever since.

I had a love-hate relationship with my original T70, the camera that launched Canon into the 'computer age'. I loved the way it handled, the up-to-date interface (this was the 1980s) and its ease of use. I hated the top LCD screen that kept dying on me which meant that my T70 was in for repair more than it was out in the field. It was truly frustrating for someone trying the immerse themselves in photography and I think I would have eventually given up on Canon if they hadn't come to the party with a brand new T90! Now that was an amazing camera.

I don't own a T90 anymore, but have managed to buy a very good condition T70 (and T80 pictured behind it). This weekend I popped a couple of batteries in the T70, loaded up some Velvia 50, and went out with a Canon FD50mm f1.8 and Sigma 28mm f2.8 manual focus lenses. 

The family went for a walk along a local beach and I snapped away with the T70. Got to admit it felt good using a manual focus camera again. Although I wouldn't be too keen to take it to a sporting event with much accuracy. Auto focus really has spoiled us as photographers.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Will your next camera be EVIL?

There's a new category of camera hitting the market - one I suggest you take a very hard look at if you are looking at buying a new point-and-shoot anytime soon.

They're being called EVIL camera's (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) and most are based around a new 4/3rds sensor - although some (like Samsung's NX100) are even using an APS-C sized sensor taken from digital SLR's.

The very first of these EVIL cameras (I just love that term) was the Olympus Pen EP-1 - a camera I am seriously considering as my next 'travel' camera.

Olympus pioneered the 4/3rd's system (with an image sensor smaller than the APS-C sized, but much larger than those found in today's point and shoots), first seen in the Olympus' E-1. As solid and professional as that camera was, the 4/3rd's system failed to capture the imagination of most other manufacturers (with the exception of Panasonic) - until the release of the Pen.

It was with the Pen EP-1 that Olympus defined their 'micro' 4/3rd's camera. Beautifully built, and stunningly retro (harkening back as it does to the original film version of the Pen from the 1950's), the EP-1 almost literally rocked the camera industry, and Olympus built a very loyal following that now includes the EP-2 and (more consumer driven) EPL-1.

The 'micro' in Micro 4/3rd's doesn't relate to a smaller chip - the chip size hasn't changed from that which Olympus uses in their digital SLR's. It's the bodies of the cameras themselves that are now smaller (micro) because they have done away with the prism viewfinder experience of a digital SLR - to the more point-and-shoot experience of using the LCD to compose and shoot (although optional Electronic Viewfinders are available - hence the EV in EVIL).

Panasonic released their first Micro 4/3rd's camera, the G1, soon after the Pen - although they took a slightly different tact. The G1 was a much more SLR-like camera (with a built in Electronic Viewfinder) - and have since released a much more compact model - the GF1 (seen here) to compete directly with Olympus.

Both systems use a Panasonic 4/3rds sensor, and both have interchangeable lenses (the IL part of EVIL). Popular among these is the 'pancake' lens with a fixed focal length (17mm for Olympus and 20mm for Panasonic) which makes the EVIL system 'almost' pocketable (but still much larger than the smaller point and shoots that are available).

So why would you want one of these new EVIL camera's. It's all about the sensor baby. Bigger sensors (generally) mean better, noise free images - especially at high ISO's, and the reviews of these cameras are bearing this out. At ISO 800 the images are very useable, and the Olympus can even shoot up to 6400 for 'OK' results (the Panasonic stops at 3200). This is much better than even the best point and shoot, which is why serious amateur's and professional photographers alike have been flocking to buy these cameras.

With so much interest being shown in this new line of EVIL camera's, it's not surprising that more manufacturers are coming on board with their own offerings.

Korean electronics giant Samsung is the newest kid on the block, with the NX100 released this year (2010) at Photokina. And Samsung have upped the anti further still by putting an APS-C sized sensor in the NX100 which should produce even better high ISO performance (although we'll have to wait and see).

The 'other' electronics giant who I haven't mentioned, but who also recently released their own EVIL cameras onto the market are, of course, Sony. The NEX 3 and NEX 5 are, as you would expect from Sony, beautifully designed cameras that 'stand out' from the crowd, but have received slightly mixed reviews so far.

With all this flurry of activity and interest around the new EVIL camera system, it's surprising that there are two notable absences from the party. What are Canon and Nikon up to? the two camera giants might be silent at the moment, but they are certainly not sleeping. Both were heavily rumored to release their own EVIL cameras at Photokina - although it didn't happen. Why? Well, I can't say. But Nikon have already indicated that they will be coming out with their answer 'in due course' - and whatever Nikon does...

What this all means for us, the consumer, is better/smaller/lighter cameras fitted with decent sized sensors - FINALLY! Thanks to Olympus and the 'Micro' 4/3rd's concept, life in digital camera land just got a whole lot more interesting.

And for me. Well, the Olympus Pen EP-1 that started it all remains a very attractive camera - literally! Look at it - it's gorgeous! And while it's auto focus system isn't reported to be the fastest, the images it can produce are classic Olympus - beautiful colour, great sharpness - with very good ISO performance. That may be something I find very hard to resist. My next camera will be EVIL. Will yours?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Down 'n Dirty Home Studio

I was commissioned this week to shoot some jade (pounamu - pronounced po-nar-moo) for the local Polytechnic Jade Carving School. I used to shoot jade for collection purposes when I was director of the Left Bank Art Gallery here in Greymouth, and this was a fairly similar gig - just record shots mainly. They also however, wanted some more 'advertorial' images to use for brochures, advertising etc.

 To achieve the look I wanted that suits jade (very backlit) I set up a home studio in my living room. Very D.I.Y - but it works :-)

I went to the local fabric store in town and bought a meter of black velvet for the backdrop ($20NZ), which I taped to the top of a plastic pipe strung between two light stands. In front of this I placed a small table with my SB600 flashgun pointing up from behind to give the strong backlight.

Then I set up a boom arm on another lighting stand from which I hung the jade using nylon fishing line (I will photoshop this out afterwards).

My Nikon D300 was placed on a tripod, with the 105mm macro attached, and the camera set for wireless flash mode so that it is acting as a commander to fire the SB600.

Fairly straight forward - and it works a treat. I reckon the result speaks for itself.

BTW - the 'studio' shot was taken with my iPhone. My first 'published' camera phone image :-)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Nikkor 105mm f2.8D Micro lens for Portraits

Having run my 'new' Nikkor 105mm Macro lens through its paces in the 1:1 macro magnification (see last post), I also wanted to see how it would perform as a 'portrait' telephoto lens.

I grabbed my usual model (my gorgeous daughter Emily) and took her outside on a warm spring evening to use the 105mm wide open - as I would for a bride on her wedding day.

My Nikon D300 was set to ISO 200, opened the aperture to f2.8, changed the lens to autofocus, and set the limit switch on the telephoto so it wouldn't focus through the whole macro range.

My early initial impressions of the autofocus was confirmed with my first few photos - quick, quiet and sure focus locked on easily with the D300 (using the central focus point). In fact, it locked on so quick that I had to re-check my focusing to make sure that I hadn't left it on manual focus! Nice.

And the results when the images were downloaded and checked on the computer in Aperture afterwards? Just fantastic. Very, very pleased with the results wide open. I will definitely be using it for my wedding work.

And what about the bokeh from the lens (the quality of the out-of-focus background)? Well, I'd have to be honest and say it isn't as creamy or as smooth as the Nikkor 85mm f1.8 I used to have - but then again it isn't completely horrible either.

On a scale of 10, I'd give it a 7 - probably on a par with the Nikkor 50mm f1.8. You can see for yourself the slightly hexagonal and blurry highlights you get from lit areas in the background - and you can also see the incredible sharpness you get from the actual subject (the side of Emily's hair) at f2.8.

I wouldn't hesitate at all to use this as a fast telephoto portrait lens wide-open, and stopped down a little for bride and groom 'couples' shots.

So am I please with the Nikkor 105mm f2.8D micro lens? Absolutely. An incredibly sharp macro lens, and a great wide-open telephoto prime for portraits. Who could ask for anything more?

Friday, 1 October 2010

Nikkor Micro 105mm f2.8D

My 105mm f2.8D Micro (Macro) lens has arrived and I got a chance to take it outside this morning for a quick test.

Here it is attached to my D300 and focused out to 1:1 magnification. It's a solid feeling lens, and the auto focus is quick and reasonably silent  - although for macro use it's more likely to be used in manual focus.

To facilitate said manual focusing, the 105mm has a large rubber focusing ring that is nicely ribbed, with a smooth action (as you would expect for a macro lens).

It uses 52mm filters, which you can see in the picture already attached to the front of the lens. And, as you can also see, it's a reasonably hefty lens - bigger than my 18-70mm zoom lens, and a lot heavier (although I wouldn't call it a 'heavy' lens at all).

Since I haven't done a lot of this macro stuff, I wasn't expecting too much from my first attempt. I read a few on-line articles that suggested setting the lens to 1:1 magnification and using your body to move the camera/lens in and out of focus. So that's what I did. And it worked - although it's a very tricky manoeuvre because even at f22 the depth of field in the viewfinder can be measured in millimeters! Breath and the insect you're focusing on goes out of focus.

I chased a white butterfly around the garden for a while, and eventually managed to snaffle a few quick shots. With an ISO of 400 and aperture of f22 I was getting 1/250th shutter speeds, so I took several shots in quick succession, hoping that at least one of them would be sharp! Fortunately, one or two were.

To calm the nerves I also took some flower photos (they don't move as much as insects). It was still tricky staying at 1:1 magnification and moving the camera in and out to achieve focus, even for flowers. Next time I think I'll use a tripod for the flowers. That should increase my rate of 'keepers'?

My favorite (and most successful) shot of the morning (IMHO) was a fly sitting on a leaf having a drink of dew. It looked to me like he was blowing a bubble, and that's exactly what my daughter said when she saw the shot on the computer later that morning. I'm very happy with this shot, and deem my first shoot with the Nikkor 105mm f2.8D Micro lens to be a success!

I'm also going to try it out as a 'portrait' lens, and see how it performs around the f2.8 to f4 region for my wedding work. If I'm pleased with the results using it as a fast telephoto at f2.8, then I'll be a very happy camper! A stellar macro lens and a fast portrait prime in the same lens... what more could you ask for?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Update and iPhone

Well, I'm still a Nikon user... and I don't say that with any regret. I'm proud to be a Nikonian, and have even added to my Nikkor lenses in the last few days (more on that later).

My Canon 5D is still away at the repairers, and the prognosis is not great :-(  He has never seen this sort of problem before, and is unsure as to how to proceed with the repair at this stage. He has a couple of theories as to what 'might' be wrong, but until he gets another 5D body in for repair, can't really 'test' these theories out. So we (I) play the waiting game, and the jury is still out on the 5D.

So, with decisions about which kit to continue on with (almost) made, I decided on my next lens purchase... an iPhone!

Wait - let me explain. It's not really as crazy as it sounds. Well OK, maybe it's a bit crazy. But as per usual, there's a (little) method to my madness.

No, it's not really my next lens purchase. In fact, it's not really a lens purchase at all - even though it has a 2MP camera (I'm not going to be using my iPhone as a backup at weddings anytime soon).

Having sold a bunch of lenses, and with money in my account to purchase a lens with, my thoughts had been geared towards getting a super wide angle for landscapes. I though seriously about the Tokina 14-24mm f4, but couldn't find anything second-hand in my price range. Same with the Nikkor 14-24mm f4 as well, which was even more expensive.

Being an Apple enthusiast, I've always wanted an iPhone - but have never had the money to drop down on one. But now I did... And the smart phone I was using (Palm Treo) was a very old model, on the old network, which Telecom (NZ's major phone carrier) is due to terminate in the next year. So a new phone was in the pipeline anyway. Why not make it an iPhone?

To cut a long story short, that's what I've done with half of the lens money - purchased a 16Gig 3G iPhone on Trademe. And I'm in love! What took me so long? Well OK, I know what took me so long ($$), but I'm now glad I've finally got one. What an amazing phone!

And as for the other half of the lens money... well, you know that lens purchase I mentioned earlier... it should be turning up any moment. A 105mm f2.8D Nikkor Macro lens - another bargain off Trademe.

Don't ask me how I can turn money for a super-wide angle lens into an iPhone and a macro lens? It's just a gift I have... :-)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Canon vs Nikon

I don't mean to be boring... I HATE the whole Canon vs Nikon debate. But unfortunately, that's what it's boiled down to for me in the last day or so. Let me explain...

I've talked about reassessing my camera kit in the last few posts - and I'd gone a good way to achieving just that. The 24mm f2.8 Nikkor has been sold, as has the 85mm f1.8, 75-300mm f4/5.6 and the Sony A200 DSLR with Minolta 35-70mm f4. I've just got the Tokina 19-35mm f3.5/4.5 to go.

I'd decided that with the money I made from the sales, I would get a wide-angle lens for my Nikon D300 (the Tokina 12-24mm f4 is the front runner). I've been looking around on the internet for a few days while all the selling had been going on, and was almost going to make a purchase, when I came across my Canon 5D body. It's been in storage for about a year because the top LCD and inside viewfinder info had stopped working, but I didn't really have the money to get it checked out/fixed. But now I have...

So, having been convinced just a few days ago that I was a happy Nikon shooter, the Canon 5D has thrown a spanner in the works!

I've sent the body away to a camera repairer and asked him to give me a quote for repair. If it's not astronomical then I will go ahead with the repair - and then I really will have a decision to make.

Fully functional, the Canon 5D is a beautiful camera to use, with a full framer sensor and ergonomics that I really love using. And given the fact that I'm still paying the thing off (and will be for quite some time), I really need to be using it - don't I?

What makes the decision even harder - especially for wedding shooting, is the fact that my assistant who helps me when I shoot weddings owns some of the best glass you can get for Canons (24-70mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8) and I'm sure she would let me use them. So I wouldn't necessarily have to buy any glass for the 5D (although I would). That's the kind of quality glass that I can't even dream of getting for  my Nikon - not in the foreseeable future at least.

Of course this is all dependent on the cost of the 5D's repair. If it's a few hundred dollars then I'll go for it. Any more than that, and I'll have to think even more seriously. But even so, I really should get it fixed while I can.

If I get it fixed, and if it's a reasonable price, then I may be moving back to Canon! Boy oh boy. Never say Never!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Nikkor 24mm f2.8D lens review

Nikkor 24mm f2.8D on the mighty Nikon D300!

As per my previous post, my beloved 24mm f2.8D is up for sale - and as of today, has actually sold! So before it goes to it's new owner :-(  I thought I'd better do a quick review of it!

This won't be a brick wall and newspaper type pixel-peeper review, but more of a practical user-experience review of my impressions of this little lens. And the first comment to make is that it is, indeed, a small lens. It doesn't make much of an impression on the semi-pro D300, and all but disappears when you put the vertical grip on the camera.

That said, because it is all metal and glass (made in Japan, not plastic from Thailand), it has good heft and weight, and is very useable on the heavier mid-range to pro Nikon bodies. On the DX format bodies such as the D300 it has a field-of-view equivalent to a 36mm lens in traditional 35mm film camera terms, while, of course, on the full frame FX bodies like the D700 or D3x, the 24mm is - a 24mm!

Although thought of traditionally as a wide angle 'landscape' lens, the 24mm on a DX body becomes more of a 'standard' photojournalist lens (many photographers were famous for using 35mm prime lenses in the film days) and can easily be used for portraits - even wide open.

This shot of my son Joshua (at home recovering from the flu), was shot at f2.8 - and is tack sharp on his eyes and face. As an 'environmental portrait' lens, the 24mm on a cropped sensor digital camera is superb.

At f5.6 to 8, optimal sharpness across the whole frame is achieved, and I couldn't imagine many other lenses would be sharper. The 24mm f2.8D is well known as a sharp optic, and I can see why. Colour, tone and contrast is also excellent, and flare is well handled due to the relatively simple construction of the lens elements.

I should also mention that though not quite silent, the screw-type autofocus isn't overly noisy - and is quick and accurate given the small distance it needs to turn to obtain focus. As with all earlier Nikkor AF lenses, the 24mm f2.8D has an actual aperture ring so f-stops can be selected manually if needed, and it also has a distance scale window with an infra-red focusing mark, and distance markings for f11, f16 and f22. the manual focusing ring at the front of the lens, although smallish, has a chunky rubber surface, and rotates smoothly. It only takes a quarter turn from closest focusing to infinity. And speaking of close focus, the 24mm focuses down to  30cm, as can be seen in the shot of the 'Viento' logo on the back of my car. This was also taken at f2.8 and as you can see, the background blurs out of focus smoothly - creating reasonably creamy bokeh (although admittedly this isn't probably what this lens was designed for).

The Nikkor 24mm f2.8D really is a beautiful lens that produces fantastic results. Stopped down to f5.6 or 8 it's sharp across the frame, producing true colours and great value in a very small package. If I was shooting landscapes with a D700 full frame camera, or was a photojournalist who took a lot of environmental portraits with my D300, then I wouldn't even consider selling this lens, it would be on the camera 90% of the time.

But as a landscape and wedding shooter, who isn't interested in street photography, the 24mm focal length is an 'odd' size for me - so it is no longer in my bag.

I will be sad to see it go, but I also hope that its next owner gets a lot of use out of it and takes some cracking images with it. It's capable of all that - and more.

Pssst... anybody wanna buy a Sony A200?

For the last few posts (and over the last month) I've been raving about the Sony A200 digital SLR. And with good reason. It's a cracker of a camera, and I've thoroughly enjoyed using it. So why the heck, you might ask, am I selling it!

Very good question... and one answer might be "Because that's what I do". I buy and sell cameras. Mostly.

Another answer might be "Because I really needed to qualify what I used, and why I used it." And the logical conclusion to this technological naval-gazing, ultimately, was that I'm a Nikon shooter (love my D300), so the Sony A200 - as much fun as it was - had to go.

And really, that's my answer, and I'm sticking to it.

Winter is always a time for me to take stock of my gear (quite literally), and look back over the last wedding season to decide what worked, what didn't, and what I can improve on. Perhaps because I purchased the Sony, I've also been looking very seriously at my whole system - what I'm using, what I'm not using - and maybe even more importantly, what I'd like to be using. Quite frankly, the answers surprised me.

I've decided that 1.) I am a Nikon shooter. So the Sony has to go. If I want a second body it will be a Nikon - and in the meantime I will continue to take my wife's D70 with me on shoots as backup. It's been working fine like this, and I see no reason to change it for the next wedding season. Together with this decision is the fact that I am still very happy with the D300, and see no reason to 'upgrade' the camera at all. I don't feel the need to go 'full frame', and have always been more than happy with the quality (and file sizes) I get with the APS-C sized sensor - so that's another decision in the D300's favor. Nor do I yearn for HD video capabilities in my SLR's - so that gives me another few years grace from upgrading. I'm sure that the next camera I get will have HD video capability, but not because I want it - simply because all cameras will have it as standard whether we want it or not :-(

I've also decided that 2.) Most of my lenses are redundant! I've finally realised (after 25 years) that there is a huge difference between lenses I want to own, and lenses I'll actually use. If I'm being brutally honest (and I am), there are currently only two lenses that I use (regularly) when I go to a wedding - my Nikkor 18-70mm standard zoom, and my Nikkor 50mm f1.8 prime. If I use any other lens, I make myself get it out and use it. So what am I carrying the rest of them around for?

My 24mm f2.8D is a gorgeous lens - but it isn't wide enough for landscape work on a DX body like the D300, so I don't use it. Likewise, my 85mm f1.8 is a beautiful lens, but again I find the focal length (135mm) on the D300 less than practical for my style of shooting. I much prefer the 50mm (75mm) view and so find myself using that instead. On traditional 35mm film cameras, the 24mm and 85mm prime lenses are 'classic' lenses to own and use - so I own them. But I'm finding that, on a DX digital body, I'm not using them.

Do I keep them for when I go 'full frame' with a Nikon D700? Well, no, because I've already decided that I have no intention of changing to a full-frame camera anytime soon (never say never), so I need to look at what I might actually use on the camera I have.

So the final decision is that 3.) I need to buy an ultra-wide lens for my landscape photography. As mentioned I can, and do, shoot weddings with just two lenses - and I am more than happy with the results. But when I go out to take my own landscape images, I am constantly wishing I could go wider. My current lens collection is lacking an ultra-wide for my landscapes.

After a week or so of internet trolling and review reading, I've decided to sell my 24mm, 85mm and 70-300mm f4/5.6 ED - and get a Tokina 12-24mm f4 ultra-wide angle lens. Why this particular lens? Well, for a start, with the money I get from selling the other lenses, the Tokina will be in my price range (the Nikkor 12-24mm won't be) - and of all the third party lens manufacturers, I like Tokina's quality the best (Tokina was started by ex Nikon lens engineers who wanted to make their own range). I'm not an ultra-wide junky, so the 12-24mm (18-36mm 35mm equivalent) focal range is a good compromise (as opposed to the 10-20mm Sigma which was the other lens I was interested in).

If, between now and then, a used Nikkor 12-24mm comes on-line in my price range, then I'll probably grab that instead. But if I buy brand-new, then it will be the Tokina.

So my Nikon kit will go down from a 6 lens kit to a three lens kit - but it will be three lenses that I will actually use. The other good news? A much lighter camera bag :-)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Landscapes with the Tokina 19-35mm and A200

Finally got a chance to get out and take some landscapes tonight with the new lens. It's been pouring down with rain over the weekend, so I spent a frustrating time watching the rain instead of out taking photos. But tonight that was all forgotten.

Went out after work to a beach not too far from hone - along the coast road. It's a place that I have taken wedding photos at before, but never explored it for my own landscape images.

I went out there with a pre-conceived idea of what I was going to capture - and as per usual, as soon as I arrived all those ideas went out the window. There are some very cool tidal pool areas to explore, but when I arrived the tide was in, and the waves were pounding against the shore (not surprisingly given the amount of aforementioned rain we've had).

So I had to re-evaluate what I was going to shoot, and came across this very cool log formation well above the tide. A perfect subject for the Tokina to really sink its teeth into!

I was getting some very dramatic sky, and had fortunately fitted the lens with a Cokin Grey ND Graduate filter. I use the larger 'P' type filters, so there was no vignetting in the corners, even with the Tokina set to its full 19mm (which is pretty much where I left it all evening).

I also put the A200 on a tripod (turning Steady Shot 'off' on the Sony),  and set the aperture to f16 for plenty of depth-of-field. I also focused manually on the log to make sure that was my sharpest area of focus.

As expected, the Tokina captured some beautiful images (matched with the Sony A200 of course), and was a joy to use. Even with the sun full in the frame, flare wasn't too big of an issue (the ND Grey Grad filter helps to cut down glare as well), and the resulting images are sharp, punchy, contrasty and bang-on in terms of color rendition.

The more I use the A200, the more I enjoy using the A200. I'm getting used to its quirks, and loving the images I'm getting out of it.

Sony have a host of new cameras soon to be released (at Photokina at the end of this month), and the buzz about them is very positive. Match that with some fantastic, but cheap, Minolta and Tokina lenses, and you have a winning formula as far as I'm concerned.

Sony, I think you may have a new convert...

Friday, 30 July 2010

First images with Tokina 19-35mm f3.4/4.5

Lens arrived this morning, and I was able to take a few quick shots at lunchtime to get some very quick first impressions.

First, my copy looks mint - very clean body and exceptional glass, so I'm very happy on that score.

Also, the quality of the fit and finish on the Tokina is indeed impressive for a third-party consumer-grade lens offering. It looks, and feels, like it is built to last. Even the lens hood seems to be made from a thicker, tougher plastic than many of the Nikon hoods I own. Very nice.

The lens handles nicely on the A200 - it's about the right size and weight, and the rubber grip around the zoom is, well, nice and grippy :-)  It doesn't make too much noise when focusing (no more than my Minolta 35-70mm f4) and latched on to focus quickly (outside in bright daylight). So far, so good.

I've purchased this as a landscape lens, so my initial test was with this in mind. I set the A200 to ISO 100, shooting RAW, and worked in aperture priority with the aperture set to f8. This should give me a fairly good idea as to the overall sharpness on the Tokina when used for landscapes. When I actually get it out into the field for some real landscape work, I'll probably go to at least f11 or f16 - and use a tripod - but for a quick test using the lens hand-held, f8 was fine.

As you can see from the few images posted here, f8 was more than enough for back-to-front sharp images. These were all shot at the 19mm setting - although as other reviewers have noted about this lens, the metadata would suggest that the Tokina is actually shooting at 20mm?

That would mean I'm getting an equivalent field of view of a 30mm lens in traditional film terms - not 'ultra' wide, but wide enough. And because the Tokina is a full-frame compatible lens, once I upgrade to a full-frame Sony camera, then the 19/20mm will really be a 19/20mm!

But talk of 'ultra-wide' aside, the first few images I've taken with this lens on the A200 have been very positive. Really nice colors, good contrast, lots of detail, and great front-to-back sharpness from the f8 aperture. Initial impressions are that the Tokina 19-35mm well deserves its legendary status as the 'plastic fantastic'.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Tokina 19-35mm coming

After much deliberation, and a good deal of internet searching, I weakened and purchased a Tokina wide angle lens for my Sony A200.

And here it is, the Tokina 19-35mm f3.5-4.5 wide angle zoom lens. And although it's considered to sit at the 'consumer' end of the Tokina line, the general consensus form internet reviews and actual users is that this lens consistently punches above its weight, and is a match for many of the more expensive wide angle zooms on the market.

Made largely of plastic, but with a metal mount, the lens does have ED elements, and Tokina uses Hoya glass (I've always been a big fan of their filters) for relatively true colours.

It's also internal focusing, so the barrel doesn't change length when zooming, and the front element doesn't rotate - making the use of filters for landscape photography (my prime reason for getting this lens) a pleasant experience. That's pretty impressive for a lens that sits at Tokina's 'consumer' end, and cost me $200NZ in mint used condition.

Of all the third party branded lens manufacturers, Tokina has the best reputation for building solid, built-to-last lenses that can take a lickin and keep on tickin. And even though this isn't from their 'pro' line, I have no doubt it will be a solid, well built unit that will last a lifetime.

From all that I've read, sharpness is decent, even wide open, but gets bitingly sharp at around f8 (as do most lenses) - perfect landscape f-stop territory.  And although not a 'fast' or 'silent' focusing lens, it will be plenty fast enough, and plenty silent enough, for all the landscapes I'll want to take with it :-)

It's arriving tomorrow, so I'll get a chance to use it over the weekend (all going well weather-wise). Will then post a hands-on user report, with images. Can't wait.

Monday, 19 July 2010

A few more reasons to love the Sony A200

Continue to be very happy with my new Sony A200 and Minolta 35-70mm f4 combo. Went to Reefton (an hours drive from where I live) this weekend with the family, and we stopped at on old train memorial to have lunch. The kids started to play on the train and I couldn't help myself - perfect photo opportunity!

The sharpness of this lens is just crazy - and the colours are fantastic.

Having said that, the Alpha 200 isn't the fastest at processing images - takes a while to write to the card, even in jpeg mode. I do find myself having to wait for the images to write before I can review - which would be annoying if I was using it to shoot a wedding as my main camera. It won't replace my Nikon D300 anytime soon shooting weddings.

This image of Joshua has an almost HDR quality to it - even though it's pretty much straight out of the camera. I have the Dynamic Range Optimiser on the Sony set to 'Standard', and I don't think it's applied to the RAW file anyway? Anyway, the colours zing from this lens/sensor combination. Couldn't be happier with the results.

While we were having lunch, a very well-fed Weka (NZ native flightless bird) came out of the bush to 'share' some of our food. Must be my week for bird photography as well. He wasn't shy, and came within a couple of feet of us to get the food we dropped for him.  I easily filled the frame with the 75mm end (105mm equiv.) and took a few 'portrait' shots of him as well. The 35-70mm f4 is turning out to be a great portrait lens. I'm sold!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Cookie came to Visit

Got a shock on Thursday afternoon when my daughter came in from outside saying there was a parrot in our garden!

I grabbed my camera, and sure enough, a parrot (Rainbow Lorikeet to be exact) had perched itself on top of some trellis fencing we have in our back yard. It posed there for a while while the kids and I snapped away (using my 70-300mm Nikkor on the D300), and then proceeded to follow my son inside the house! A very tame parrot indeed.

I found it some apple to eat - which turns out was the right thing to give it - and then it spent the afternoon using me as a tree (it took a liking to me for some reason), and pooping everywhere in the kitchen.

Turns out, her name is 'Cookie' and she belonged to friends of ours (not that we knew this at the time) who had lost her the night before. A quick call to the SPCA, and a follow up from an advert left by Cookie's rightful owners in the local paper, and she was back with her rightful family before tea.

Almost felt sorry to see her go. We kind of bonded over the course of the afternoon. Being used as a tree and shat on by a friendly parrot, makes a guy feel closer to nature somehow.

We won't be getting a bird anytime soon.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Minolta 35-70mm f4 Quick Test Pt2

Went out this afternoon to put the a200 and 35-70mm through their paces with the other side of my photography - landscapes.

I set the camera to f11 to give me good depth of field, and probably the sweet spot in terms of overall lens sharpness. Then I headed out to the coast road, and to our local wharf area.

There was some nice low late afternoon winter light coming in off the sea, so I stopped at a popular spot along the coast to take grab a view of the coastline. Even though the 35mm end equates to around 52mm (normal field of view) in traditional terms, I still got enough of the scene in to suggest an expansive landscape. It may not be ultra-wide, but it's good enough.

Although only really a 'grab' shot, I do like the light coming in from the left, forming those shadowed curves in the sea from the breaking waves. And not surprisingly, at f11 everything is super sharp - from front to back. I'm liking this little lens more and more every time I use it.

Then it was off to the wharf. There are a couple of old cranes that have been a part of the Greymouth urban landcsape for as long as anyone can remember - but they are in danger of being torn down now by the council. They are old - and probably dangerous (they are fenced off from the public), but make a great subject. I decided I'd better photograph them before they disappear. 

One criticism leveled at the 35-70mm f4 lens is that it's prone to flare. The lens hood that is supposed to go with it is very small and doesn't give much protection from glare, so I decided to use a deeper rubber one instead. I shot with the sun just outside the frame to 'torture-test' the lens, and although I did get flare in some of the images, overall I thought it handled my 'worst-case-scenario' very well.

I also decided to shoot with the sun full in the frame, and was surprised with the result. The sensor on the Sony handled it beautifully, and I got my favorite shot of the evening.

The late afternoon sun was casting some beautiful golden light, ideal for shooting this building down at an historical park at the end of the wharf. Still on f11, the 35-70mm is a beautifully sharp lens, and I really love the colours it produces. Very true to life - yet quite vibrant at the same time.

As I was leaving, I saw that the building silhouetted nicely with a couple of cabbage trees, and I couldn't resist taking a few last shots. I have the a200 set on 'standard' Dynamic Range Optimiser, yet I was still surprised at the amount of detail retained in the black shadows of the RAW file - even though the histogram of the jpeg on the lcd screen showed clipping.

So I've used the Sony a200 over the weekend now, paired with the Minolta 35-70mm f4 lens - a combination that all-up cost me $350.00NZ. I've used it to take portraits, landscapes, and macros - tortured it with sun, and checked it out for sharpness. And as far as I'm concerned it's passed everything with flying colours (almost literally :-) Am I happy with the purchase? You bet I am.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Minolta 35-70mm f4 Quick test

Was busy at home today, but managed to get out this afternoon and fire off a few quick portrait shots with the 35-70mm f4. Since the 35 to 70mm on the A200 relates to a 50 to 105mm (roughly) in 35mm film terms, it's really the ideal portrait/candid style lens. And it's so tiny! Uses a 49mm filter thread. Here it is attached to the A200. Doesn't look too out of place because the A200 isn't that big either!

Took my model (my ever willing daughter Emily) outside and stayed about 1.5meters away to gauge how a subject would fill the frame at 35, 50 and 70mm.

The first image was shot at the 35mm end, and this equates to about a 52mm (normal) focal length in traditional terms. Opened the aperture up to f4, cause I always shoot portraits wide open - and had a reasonable distance between Emily and the background (about 6 meters). Not surprisingly, f4 hasn't blurred the background out hugely - but man-oh-man is she sharp! Great overall sharpness, even wide open. Oh yeah, that's what I like.

Now we have f4 at 50mm (75mm equiv). Still amazingly sharp, and now, because of the change in focal length, the background bokeh is starting to work for us. Still not great, but softening nonetheless. Nothing else has changed in terms of mine or Emily's position. I simply zoomed in closer with the lens. Really great colours for an overcast day, and did I mention how sharp the image is overall!?

And finally, f4 at 70mm (105mm equiv). Background has softened up more - although it's fairly harsh in terms of bokeh. But Emily is still tack sharp, and I would have no hesitation in using this lens wide open for portraiture. Of course I still haven't used it extensively, but early indications are that it is as good a lens as the user reports on would indicate it to be. Very pleased :-)

Also finished with a quick test of the stabilisation that Sony uses - Steady Shot. And early indications would suggest that this too works as it should.

Took one shot inside at 10th of a second without Steady Shot turned on..

and then another shot straight after with Steady Shot turned on...

The results are - quite plainly - clear :-)  Steady Shot does make a measurable difference, with pretty good results down to one 10th of a second (using the 35-70mm zoomed all the way to 70mm). You can't actually see any difference while you are taking the shot, although when you turn Steady Shot on, a small bar graph appears in the viewfinder to show you that it's working. Wait until the bars move down to the smallest, and take the shot (it's easier to do that it is to explain). Anyway, seems to work a treat, and I intend to simply leave it on all the time, unless I mount the camera to a tripod (in which case it is recommended that you turn it off).

Friday, 2 July 2010

First shots with Sony A200

The Minolta 35-70mm f4 arrived yesterday, and I got a chance at lunch time today to get a couple of quick shots with my new kit.

The lens has a quasi 'macro' function - when you flick a switch at the 70mm position it takes you into 'macro' mode, which you then have to focus manually. There is a hack for this that requires a little lens surgery so that you can use autofocus in the macro mode - but I think I'll leave it as it is. I don't think macro is something I'll use the lens for a lot, so I don't mind focusing manually the few times I have to.

But having said all that, it was the macro mode on the lens that I decided to try out at lunchtime.

I've been reading a few lens user reviews over at (great site for Minolta/Sony users), and many write about the Minolta 'look' to certain lenses. If that's true (and the 35-70mm f4 is said to have 'the look'), then I like it - very much. Clear, saturated, yet true-to-life colours - the 35-70mm performed very well. I only took a handful of shots, but the ones I took were very pleasing. And the macro mode worked well, even with manual focusing - although the manual focus ring itself is very small. Workable, but small.

The shots here were taken in macro, ISO 100, f8 @ 125th (or there abouts), and while the depth of field is pretty shallow, the area of focus is bitingly sharp! Bokeh looks good too. Reasonably creamy and not too harsh.

The A200 handled the colours - especially the vibrant purples, exceptionally well, and overall I was very pleased with my first few shots. I will take more this weekend, using the lens in its 'normal' range (i.e. not macro), to give it a full test of sharpness etc.

And in one final note: I've set the A200 to shoot in Adobe RGB, using the single central focus point, auto ISO (which will limit its range from ISO 100 to 400), auto WB, and shooting RAW. Pretty much how I set up all the cameras I use - although I play around a lot more with these settings on my Nikon D300. I'll probably tend to leave the Sony pretty much as-is? Anyway, more soon.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Sony Alpha 200

Just bought a new 'toy' - the Sony Alpha 200 DSLR. Couldn't help myself, as it was going for an absolute song, brand-new, at a local electronics store. They were selling it without the lens (body only) so were basically giving it away. Picked up the body for $299NZ (about $200US).

Did a bit of reading up on it before handing over he cash, but for that price it was really a no brainer! And even though the a200 is now a discontinued model, it's got everything I want in a 'back up' system, and then some.

Obviously based on the Minolta DSLR's of old (like the 5D and 7D - yes, Minolta had them before Canon did), the Sony is packed with all the features I like, and none of the features I don't like. For example - no Live View (yeah) and no Movie mode (double yeah). But it does have 10.2 MP (just about right I reckon), image stabilisation - Sony call it 'Steady Shot' - built into the body (yeah), a self cleaning sensor (double yeah), and a very sexy vertical grip that I will get eventually (triple yeah)! It's also compatible with all the Minolta AF lenses as well as the new Sony ones (of course).

Speaking of lenses - because it doesn't come with one, I've purchased an old Minolta 35-70mm f4 macro AF lens off of Trademe just to get me going. The lens has very good reviews on the minolta users sites, and is known as the 'mini beercan'. If you know anything about Minolta lenses, you'll be aware of a 70-210mm f4 lens known affectionately as the 'Beercan' because of its looks and size. It also has great optics. I owned the 70-210mm f4 Beercan for a short time when I had a Minolta 600si film camera (what an amazing film camera that was), and am looking forward to getting another one now that I have the Sony Alpha 200.

Told you the vertical grip was sexy! I like more area to hang on to with any camera, but especially with the lighter, more plastic cameras. And the a200 is a light, plastic camera - but in a good way. Of course, I have to qualify all this by saying I actually haven't shot with it yet :-) The 35-70mm f4 hasn't arrived. But I do have the body in my hands - and I have used its younger sister, the Sony Alpha 100. I reviewed it for D-Photo when it was first released (about 4yrs or so ago), and really enjoyed the experience. Gave it a very positive review (from what I can remember). So I'm expecting as good, if not better things, from the a200.
Yes, I know that the low-light, high ISO capabilities of the Sony could be better (I'll try to leave it on ISO 400 or below), but it's all relative. I still remember shooting film and never daring to go past 400. And for those times when I go over 400, I've got Noise Ninja to deal with it anyway. And RAW - always shoot in RAW for better noise control.

I love the styling of the Sony (Minolta) DSLR's - with clever touches such as eye control AF (bring the camera to your eye and the lens begins to focus), a beautiful lcd display that automatically adjusts its orientation when you switch between portrait or landscape composition, and, of course, the in-built image stabilisation that means every lens you own is now an IS lens. OK, it's debatable as to whether in-lens or in-camera stabilisation is better - but at least with the Sony you get it ALL the time. With Canon and Nikon you pay extra to have it in the lens.

I'm looking forward to using it (this weekend), and posting some images, together with my initial shooting experiences. But as I said right at the start of this post, for $200US you can't really go wrong!?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Lens rundown & new landscapes.

Ok, so the studio didn't actually happen.

Trust me, I looked at it very long and very hard - and was almost to the point of signing up for a space to lease. But I did the math several times, and the best case scenario (in the short term at least) was only break-even, for a heck of a lot more work! So I decided - rather wisely I must say in hindsight - to flag the idea for now. Just as well too, because since then my design work has gone crazy and there aren't enough hours in the day just doing that. Starting a photography studio on top of that would have been crazy!

So I've been getting out and taking some landscapes - now that the wedding season is over. And I've got someone joining me on some my excursions now too. My 10yr old daughter, Emily, is still excited about photography, so I decided to encourage her further by taking her out with me a bit more, and getting her a 'real' digital camera, a Canon 10D.

We've gone out a couple of times, and I'm really glad I got her the 10D. It's still a great camera, with a 6MP sensor and the rugged DSLR chassis that will take the knocks without being too heavy for her. The 'pro' thumb wheel on the back for quick selection is also a big plus.

Her 10D came with a Canon 50mm f1.8 prime, which is a great combination. Granted she is a little limited in terms of focal length compared to what a zoom could offer her, but at the moment it's just about getting used to using the camera and all its controls. Eventually I will get her an 18-70mm zoom - probably the Sigma f2.8-4.5. Something light, but still with decent image quality.

For my own gear, I've settled on a middle-of-the-road kit for the time being - although that's been peppered with some very nice primes. I am still using the Nikkor 18-70mm f3.5-4.5 'kit' lens with my D300, and still enjoy using it. It's a light, fast focusing, silent lens which I have no problem using wide open at any focal length. It's on the D300 80% of the time, and I can't really fault the images I create with it.

Recently (like two weeks ago) I added the Nikkor 70-300mm f4-5.6 ED zoom to my arsenal, to give me more telephoto reach in a zoom lens. I haven't used it all that much yet, but I owned this lens a few years ago when I had my D70 kit and found it to be a very good performer - especially up to 250mm. I don't do a heck of a lot of long telephoto stuff - but it's nice to have the option now for when I do. I'll do a lens test and post that soon, giving my impressions and some examples of what it can do etc.

So my zoom range now covers from 18 to 300mm with mid-range glass. I'll find it hard to replace the 18-70mm - for the price it's just a heck of a good lens, but I will eventually replace the 70-300mm with the 'pro' Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8. That will probably be my only lens purchase next year from the wedding season takings.

To supplement my zooms, I have a trio of primes: 24mm f2.8, 50mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8. On my D300 the 24mm becomes a 35mm (still ok for wide-ish landscapes, and a great walk-around street lens), the 50mm becomes a 75mm f1.8 (fantastic for portraits), while the 85mm turns into a 130mm f1.8 (roughly).
I got the 85mm towards the end of the wedding season, so didn't really use it as much as I would have liked, whereas I use the 50mm all the time, and surprisingly have been making good use of the 24mm as well.

I got the 24mm really cheap because it had been banged on the front and a chip taken out of the filter thread. I 'ummed' and 'arred' over getting it, but in the end thought 'what the heck' for the price I was paying for it. Turned out to be a bargain, and a great lens. Because it's a prime, which doesn't use many lens elements, and because it's so small and well-made, it can take the knocks and come out smiling. I even dropped it myself on the first wedding I shot! No problems though. Just put it back on the camera and away it went. Sharp, clear, contrasty images every time.

I'm very happy with the primes I have, matched with the D300 Nikon body - using the 18-70mm as my main zoom lens. The only lens I will 'eventually' replace will be the 70-300mm - with the 70-200mm f2.8 VR. The 'second generation' of this lens was released this year, so a lot of first generation lenses are finding their way to the internet trading sites. Because I shoot with a D300 I don't need the newer lens, so I'll save myself a couple of grand and opt for the first generation model.

And as much as I would like to own a 17-55mm f2.8 Nikkor, i really don't want to pay the $2500.00NZ that it would cost to get one. Are they really $2000 better than my 18-70mm kit lens? Maybe. But somehow, I don't think so.