Category Archives: equipment

equipment

Sneak peek from the Nikon D600

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I did a shoot with the new Nikon D600 today. Had a great time with it, and lots more to come very soon, but I can’t wait until my favorite RAW converters start supporting it. Luckily I use custom camera profiles in-camera, and the JPGs aren’t too shabby.

My first pet peeve is that you can’t make the photographic Live View reflect the exposure how the photo will actually look, but I’m finding some work-arounds.

Camera: Nikon D600
Lens: Nikon 85mm f/1.4G


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Review: Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

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Specs and pricing info

It was not all that long ago that Nikon prime users had few good options. There was a slew of old manual-focus glass, but if you wanted fast, wide lenses you were either stuck with kludgy older lenses like the 35mm f/2 or the extremely expensive, and then discontinued, 28mm f/1.4. But things quickly turned themselves around with first the 24mm f/1.4 and then the 35mm f/1.4, among others. Combined with cameras like the Nikon D3s, it was literally night and day from the low-light shooting experience of Nikon gear just a few years before, as well as opening the world to depth-of-field control.

But these lenses, as well as others like the 85mm f/1.4G, were priced well out of the hands of most shooters. Luckily, once the professionals had been taken care of, Nikon started to update their more compact primes list as well, with the recent releases of the 85mm f/1.8G and 50mm f/1.8G. So what would they do with the wide-angle? Would we get a 24 f/1.8 and a 35mm f/1.8 (Nikon already has one, but it’s DX only — although it works well in the 1.2X crop of recent pro Nikons). No, they split the difference, releasing a 28mm f/1.8.

Which leads us to the most important thing to understand the 28mm:

It’s a 28mm lens.

Honestly, with computer-aided designs today, you can learn about 90 percent of what you need to know about most lenses just from the specs — what is the focal length and maximum aperture, weight, filter size, etc. It’s really rare for companies to release prime lenses that are optical duds these days, so what’s left to figure out is which are the true optical standouts — lenses like the crazy Zeiss 100mm f/2 — and general usage notes, especially autofocus performance. With Nikon especially, while I trust the optics of their lenses, some recent designs like the 50mm f/1.4G have had slower autofocus than I’d like.

I used to use the 28mm f/1.4 fairly regularly (a secret that I didn’t want to tell anyone at the time is that, while it was $3500 to buy, you could rent it for three days from Adorama for less than $20.) But most Nikon prime users probably aren’t all that used to shooting at 28mm. I’ve spoken to people who simply can’t get used to it — and indeed, if I were shooting with just one camera at a time, I’d prefer the 35mm for a more general usage. But I am almost always shooting with two cameras, one with a wide-angle and one with a telephoto lens, generally an 85. And I’ve often found myself doing a dance of “24mm or 35mm?” with that wide-angle. The 35 produces cleaner images with less worry about the nuances of the frame, but when things get really active and emotional I want a wider lens. For example, I’ve spent many weddings running to my bag to make sure I’ve had a 24mm lens on in time for the horah.

So for me, the 28mm has hit a sweet spot. Ever since I got it, it’s stayed on my camera for most of the day. It’s wide enough for great dance shots, once I adjusted my brain a little bit, but not too wide for general coverage. Again, though, this is all personal preference. If you haven’t used a 28mm much, make sure to buy from a store with a good return policy (like … hey … the store where all these links go…) You may love it or not.

I dig it.

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Usage and performance

Size and weight:

As you can see here, the 28mm is smaller than the 24mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 (which flank it), but not precisely tiny:

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But what this doesn’t show is how light it is: It is just over half the weight of either lens. It’s really the first thing you note when you pick it up. Even on a heavy camera like the D3s, when I handed the combo to a second-shooter of mine for the first time, he said “Something feels different … did you leave the battery out?” Pair it with a camera like the D600, and you have a lightweight powerhouse. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of the morning dreaming of a lightweight wedding combo of two D600s, the 28mm, 50mm, 85mm, and Sigma 150mm.

Because here’s the deal: Weight matters. The Internet is filled with macho nostalgic types who loathe any tiny bit of plastic in any photography equipment, and want everything to be big, heavy, metallic rocks. I also love the feel of old equipment as a collector’s piece, but if I’m doing work, I want my gear to be as light and ergonomically sound as possible without causing severe structural weakness. I keep very fit — I do five or six hard workouts a week, not counting the 10 or so miles I walk every wedding day. My photo backpack tops out at more than 55 lbs, and I can do multiple dead-hang pull-ups with it on my back. So I feel I’m the one that needs to say this: Heavy cameras are a problem. Lift a five-pound camera and lens combo? No problem. Do it for 12 hours? Maybe you start to get sore. Do it for 12 hours a day, for 30 years? Now you’re talking severe problems. I’ve been in the business long enough to start looking forward in terms of decades, and whatever gets me the same quality in a lighter weight is fine by me, and I can leave the totally metal stuff on my collector’s shelf.

Would I take the extra 300 grams to make this a 28mm f/1.4G? Possibly — I do like my depth-of-field control. But I don’t miss it much, and this has gotten a lot more use than either my 24 or 35 in recent weeks.

Performance: Happily, the autofocus on this lens is nice and snappy, and locks well in low light. It works significantly better than my 24mm f/1.4 at locking focus during dancing, but of course my 24 has been around a few blocks. I find myself stopping down a couple notches to make sure everything is nice and sharp by default, but wide-open it is much sharper and more contrasty than Sigma’s 28mm f/1.8, which has a sort of veiling haze around things when shot wide-open. 28mm and f/1.8 gets you enough depth-of-field control to give things a little “pop,” but overall this is just a workmanlike lens, and it’s the moments in front of you that will make the image strong or not (and moments are important). If you want a lens that does most of the work for you, shoot with something like the 85mm f/1.4.

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Flare is pretty well-controlled with this lens, like most recent Nikon lenses it’s almost too well-designed and nano-coated to give very interesting flare, but it’s nice in the end to be able to have a flash firing back at you or the sun in the frame without losing much contrast, and you can see both below:

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Like all Nikon Nano lenses I know, color transmission is very good, slightly on the warm side, which ends up being great for skin tones:

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Overall, this is a great little gem. It might not survive being hit with a baseball bat (though I haven’t tried), but it balances extremely well on the D600. (It’s almost too light for the D3s — when I put it down, the weight of the lens doesn’t make the camera tip forward like I’m used to, and it once almost fell backward off a table because of that).

My highest recommendation is that I bought one, and I almost didn’t want to tell you about how much I liked it, because I wanted it all too myself.

More photos with the 28mm:

Buy it here!


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Review: Olympus OM-D E-M5

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E-M5 with Olympus 12mm f/2

120813 124559 25mm f1 4This year, with the help of some sponsorships — B&H Photo in particular — I’ve had the opportunity to test pretty much every hot camera that’s come down the pike. I’ve been amazed by all the new technology this year coming out to serve professional and advanced photographers. So which of these cameras did I decide to keep for myself (and thus pay for) at the end of the review period?

None.

Every camera had new advantages, but also trade-offs that made me happy sticking with my trusty D3s and X100 for a while. Go with what works, and nothing seemed to out-and-out transform my photographing experience in a way that made it worth the hassles of change.

Until now. Not to give away the ending of this review, but I’ve already bought the E-M5 for myself, along with the Olympus 12mm f/2 and Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4. I also tested the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95, which was a delight in its own way but which I did not keep. Why, out of all these fantastic cameras, did I make these choices?

First, let’s understand some context

The search for the perfect little camera, and the Micro 4/3rds universe

For a long time, I’ve been faced with a dilemma — I am a photographer who walks around without a camera. I have this amazing camera system that I love, but it’s way too big and cumbersome to take everywhere, and when you do, you’re always “that guy” with the giant DSLR — it feels more like you’re a photojournalist covering your own life than a person actually living it. Yes, I’ve got my iPhone, and yes, you can take compelling photos with that, but I want more versatility, a LOT more control … and, of course, I want RAW. And I wanted as big a sensor as possible in as small and unassuming a package as I can get.

Lots of great things are happening on that front. The RX100 is truly pocketable and has great image quality from its one-inch sensor. Sony’s NEX-5n looks like a point-and-shoot, but it has the same sensor size as the old big, honking D2x (and MUCH less noise.) But I was also looking for a versatile system, and that means high-quality lenses. This has been the Achilles heel of the NEX system so far, which is mostly variable aperture zooms. Meanwhile the micro 4/3rds system, led by Olympus and the Panasonic-Leica team is pumping out these beautiful little gems of fast, light lenses left and right. But none of their cameras seemed too tempting to me, largely because of the relatively high levels of noise of their sensors.

Enter the E-M5. I’ve been using it for the past few weeks in a mix of my personal life — hanging out with friends and family as I travel between jobs — and on wedding days and portrait shoots when appropriate. And even in casual snapshots it impresses me. Take this photo (with the 25mm f/1.4)…

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Not too bad … a little noisy but pretty clear, especially since it was taken in very warm light. Whaddaya think it was shot at? ISO 800 maybe? No. ISO 8000.

While this is a particularly good example, it’s clear that this sensor is a game-changer for micro 4/3ds the same way that the Nikon D3 solved Nikon’s noise problem back in 2007. Even if it was in a mediocre camera these results would be turning heads.

Luckily, the E-M5 is far from a mediocre camera. After all, the Fuji X1 Pro also has extremely good high-ISO quality and a really nice and growing lens line-up — but it’s also a bit quirky, especially in the autofocus department. The photo above was taken at EV 0.6, well below candlelight, and the AF system had no problem at all. For snapshots like this, with the increased depth-of-field of the smaller sensor, even face-detect autofocus works surprisingly well even at f/1.4. Continuous tracking isn’t nearly as good as on a phase-detect autofocus DSLR system, but otherwise this is a camera that works with you to take in-focus photos at a moment’s notice, not against you. Combine that with a body that’s smaller than it looks in photos and a very quiet shutter, and you have a camera that’s a dream for catching moments without calling attention to yourself:

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The AF is so good that I decided to send the 25mm f/0.95 back and get the 25mm f/1.4. For a camera I use mostly casually, I’d rather have the speed of photo acquisition over the stop of light.

Other things I love:

A great EVF: I am a huge fan of EVFs (electronic viewfinders). I keep my X100 in EVF mode about 98 percent of the time, and cannot wait for professional DSLRs that have a similar EVF option. Once the refresh rate is negligible it solves one of the biggest technical problems in photography — as cameras get better and better, the lagging factor is the human eye. The E-M5 can see in the dark better than I can, especially with the 25mm f/0.95 mounted. When I dial in the white balance, I can walk around the darkest of wedding receptions and through the EVF it looks like daylight. I can see the nuances of expressions better than I can just walking around. The EVF introduces a tiny bit of extra delay, just enough that it takes getting used to but not so much that you can’t get used to it.

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E-M5 with 25mm f/0.95

An EVF also allows you to see the effects of shooting at exposure settings that differ from the normal ambient reading. You can actually see a silhouette or high-key effect before you shoot it, and the position of the exposure compensation dial makes this extremely easy to do in aperture mode, making sure you have the exact exposure you want before taking the shot.

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As a not inconsiderable bonus to people like me who’d like to do this for decades to come, it also means you can shoot backlit into the sun — silhouette or not — without burning holes in your retinas.

•The unobtrusiveness: When I started mixing it in for part of the wedding day, I thought I would attract more attention than normal simply for the “Uh … why is your photographer using such a tiny camera?” factor. But given its unassuming profile and a shutter than is almost inaudible in a room with normal conversation in the background, I noticed people immediately paying less attention to me. As a photojournalist, this is invaluable, allowing me to get real emotions and unforced moments even from very close to my subject:

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•Great colors: This is actually a great JPG camera. For almost all of these shots, using the RAW was more a matter of general principle than something I felt the files desperately needed. Throw in an Eye-Fi card, and you have a camera that can output very good photos straight to the Web. There are also lots of “art filters,” but those aren’t really my scene, man.

•Perhaps the best in-camera image stabilization of any camera, anywhere. I’m so used to not having this (and shooting moving people) that I haven’t used it much, but expect me to talk about it more as I review m4/3ds telephoto lenses.

The back screen pops out for off-angle review, but still feels sturdy. So sturdy that I didn’t even realize it popped out until I read the manual. Good when you need it, and not flimsy the rest of the time.

Anything I didn’t like?

The RAW isn’t raw: Like a number of recent RAW-using point-and-shoots, Adobe seems to have partnered with the camera-maker to automatically hide some of the worse defects of the lenses. I really like the sharp, speedy, and light 12mm, but it definitely has barrel distortion, and Lightroom corrects this without even letting you know it did. Here’s the same file processed by Lightroom on the left and Capture One (which shows the original distortion) on the right. This is a worst-case scenario for barrel distortion, but for other scenes I’d like to be able to choose how much I want to correct:

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•The menus are a bit wonky: There is a very handy Info menu overlay that allows you to quickly change common settings, but the way you interact with it isn’t completely user-friendly — including having to press different buttons to do the same thing depending on which camera mode you’re in when you call up the menu. I’ve definitely spent more time accidentally turning the interface on and off than skillfully navigating it, and camera menus are basically my first language. More casual users may be stymied for a good while before they get used to it.

•Battery life is OK, but way less than my other DSLRs. This is a case of me being spoiled by big honking batteries. But especially if you like to use the Live View, stock up on extras.

•A built-in flash would have been nice: I never use it for professional stuff, but this is also a very handy personal camera in between serious work. Sure I can mount an SB-900 on it and shoot manually, but that kind of defeats the whole portability thing.

These are fairly niggling details, though, and I know I’m going to continue to love this bad boy. Expect more micro-4/3rds lens reviews to come!

Some more photos with the E-M5:

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Buy it here!


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