Admiring Light http://admiringlight.com/blog Photography Reviews, Photos, News and Musings Thu, 21 May 2015 14:20:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 Review: Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar T* http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-zeiss-fe-55mm-f1-8-za-sonnar-t/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-zeiss-fe-55mm-f1-8-za-sonnar-t/#comments Thu, 21 May 2015 01:38:27 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=5031 The Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar has been around since the beginning of Sony’s full frame E-Mount launch, and a lot of people consider it an outstanding lens.  I thought about not doing an FE 55mm f/1.8 review, as it’s been out for a while, but after using the lens over the past two weeks, …

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The Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar has been around since the beginning of Sony’s full frame E-Mount launch, and a lot of people consider it an outstanding lens.  I thought about not doing an FE 55mm f/1.8 review, as it’s been out for a while, but after using the lens over the past two weeks, I simply have to share my thoughts and feelings on this lens.

Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar on the Sony A7 II

Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar on the Sony A7 II

Construction and Handling

The FE 55mm f/1.8 shares the same all-metal construction that is found on essentially all the Sony Zeiss lenses.  The smooth aluminum barrel has no creaks or movement at all, and the only control is the finely ribbed focus ring. The lens is reassuringly solid and has a subtle heft to it.  It’s not a huge lens, though it is a bit longer than most normal prime lenses.  Overall, the 55mm f/1.8 balances well on pretty much any Sony body. One somewhat interesting, though inconsequential fact about this lens is that the front element is concave, rather than the typical convex elements seen in most lenses.  This doesn’t affect use in any way, but I thought it was somewhat interesting.

Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar T*

Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar T*

The manual focus ring is well damped and very smooth to operate. Like all the Sony E-mount native lenses, the focus is fly-by-wire, so there are no hard stops and no focus scales present.  The lens comes with caps, a case and a lens hood.  The hood is somewhat large in comparison to the lens body, but provides good shading and protection. It’s nicely constructed of plastic with a metal band around the base near the lens.  This band doesn’t do anything, but it feels nice and a bit more premium as a result.  It’s a nice touch. The bayonet mount for the hood is recessed slightly, and is similar to the hood attachments for many of the other Sony/Zeiss E-mount lenses.

The FE 55mm f/1.8 isn't the most compact normal lens, but it's not large either.

The FE 55mm f/1.8 isn’t the most compact normal lens, but it’s not large either.

Autofocus

The FE 55mm f/1.8 sports a very fast and quiet autofocus motor.  The lens locks focus very quickly on both the A7 II and the APS-C a6000 in good light, and slows somewhat it dimmer light.  However, that slowing is relatively minor for the most part, and speed is still pretty good when shooting higher contrast subjects in low light. I have noticed that when shooting people in lower light situations, that sometimes the lens will hunt through the range a bit, which can slow things down somewhat.  Part of this is that I found it best to use the smallest focus point setting on the camera, due to the relatively shallow depth of field that an f/1.8 lens can generate on a full-frame body.  Using larger focus points, especially when shooting closer up to people, would often have the lens focus on eyebrows instead of eyes, which can be notable in these situations.

The lens does not feature an optical image stabilizer, which is common among normal prime lenses.  It would have been nice, given the APS-C normal prime from Sony has optical stabilization, but I don’t view it as a major downside, especially if you’re shooting on the A7 II.

Continue: Image Quality

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Review: Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Distagon T* http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-zeiss-fe-35mm-f1-4-za-distagon-t/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-zeiss-fe-35mm-f1-4-za-distagon-t/#comments Wed, 13 May 2015 01:01:25 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4979 Sony’s been fleshing out their full frame FE lens lineup for E-Mount fairly quickly over the past year and a half, as the total FE system is now up to 11 native AF lenses.  One of the newest lenses to hit the street is aimed squarely at the professional and enthusiast with the no-compromises Zeiss …

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Sony’s been fleshing out their full frame FE lens lineup for E-Mount fairly quickly over the past year and a half, as the total FE system is now up to 11 native AF lenses.  One of the newest lenses to hit the street is aimed squarely at the professional and enthusiast with the no-compromises Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon.  In stark contrast to the slower and significantly smaller Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar, released at the launch of the FE line, the 35mm f/1.4 is a huge lens with a large aperture, and promises top-flight image quality.  With a $1,600 US price tag to go along with the large size, the lens will need to be an optical gem to be worth the price, size and weight penalties.  Let’s see if it meets the mark.

Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 Distagon on the Sony A7 II

Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 Distagon on the Sony A7 II

Construction and Handling

The Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 is a robust fast wide-angle lens that looks more like a telephoto lens than a mirrorless wide-angle.  Sony and Zeiss have thrown any pretense of size reduction out the window with this optic, and have instead focused on premium build and premium image quality.  The lens certainly lives up to expectations with regards to construction.

The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is a large, moderately heavy lens with a solid all metal exterior construction.  The lens is very tightly assembled with a flawlessly finished matte black metal lens barrel and a wide ribbed focus ring for easy manual focus.  The focus ring is well damped and silky smooth to operate.

The lens includes a metal and plastic lens hood, which adds another two inches to the length.

The lens includes a metal and plastic lens hood, which adds another two inches to the length.

The lens is unique in the Sony world, being one of only two native lenses for E-Mount with an aperture ring.  The relatively wide aperture ring features 1/3 stop detents that are individually marked.  Damping on the aperture ring is almost perfect.  It’s stiff enough to avoid accidental aperture changes, but not too tight to make changing the aperture difficult.  In a very nice nod to video shooters, the FE 35mm f/1.4 includes a switch to remove the detents for the aperture ring, allowing the aperture to be changed smoothly and silently.  The only real issue I had with the aperture ring is the area marked with f-stops and hash marks does not have any ribbing on it, which can make it hard to grip with the left hand in some positions.

The aperture ring can be 'de-clicked' for silent aperture adjustment during video

The aperture ring can be ‘de-clicked’ for silent aperture adjustment during video

In my introduction, I’ve mentioned the size of this lens several times, and for good reason.  Optical quality can sometimes come with a size penalty, and such is the case here.  The lens is larger than many 35mm f/1.4 lenses for DSLRs and significantly larger than its slower sibling, the FE 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar.  Of course, with an aperture two stops faster, you’d expect a notable size increase.  In this case, the increase is triple the length and over five times the weight.  That’s right, five times heavier.

When the lens is mounted on a body like the A7 II, the overall package is anything but discreet.  However, the ample grip on the A7 II does allow the lens to handle fairly well in the field.  Balance is a bit front heavy, but when supporting with two hands, the lens feels good.  It does, however, begin to wear on your wrist after a day’s shooting if you are like me and shoot your mirrorless cameras by carrying the camera and using a wrist strap.

The big 72mm front element of the FE 35mm f/1.4

The big 72mm front element of the FE 35mm f/1.4

The bigger issue to size is in the added heft to your bag and the sometimes greater intimidation for your subject that can come with larger lenses.   While I definitely noticed the weight and size every time I pulled the 35mm f/1.4 out of my bag, the size wasn’t as big a detriment as I originally envisioned it would be during actual shooting.  Still, for those looking for a light flexible setup, you may want to look to the 35mm f/2.8 or the manual focus Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2.0.  This is not a lens you’re going to grab for a casual single lens outing.

Autofocus Performance

The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon features a very fast and quiet autofocus motor capable of locking quickly onto your subject with good accuracy.  Overall performance in most lighting situations was quite good, though I found the lens slowed down quite a bit in lower light and especially in backlit scenarios, where I’d sometimes get full-range hunting before finally locking on.

Scooter - Sony A7 II with Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon @ f/1.4 (continuous AF)

Scooter – Sony A7 II with Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon @ f/1.4 (continuous AF)

I tested the lens for continuous autofocus using the A7 II, and the 35mm f/1.4 was able to turn in a decent performance in this area. While I can’t say that almost all the shots were in focus in this scenario, I was getting around a 50-60% hit rate at f/1.4.  While not the greatest performance in the world, some of this is likely due to the A7 II’s capabilities as well.  The shot above was captured in continuous focus mode at f/1.4.

Continue: Image Quality

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Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 vs. Fuji XF 23mm f/1.4 http://admiringlight.com/blog/sony-zeiss-fe-35mm-f1-4-vs-fuji-xf-23mm-f1-4/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/sony-zeiss-fe-35mm-f1-4-vs-fuji-xf-23mm-f1-4/#comments Sat, 09 May 2015 02:31:59 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4954 Ok, so this is one of those comparisons that really isn’t particularly fair.  You’ve got a $1,600 Zeiss prime up against a $900 Fuji prime, and the test bed cameras aren’t the same resolution.  There are lots of problems with testing like this, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Why?  It’s fun!  Today I’m …

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Ok, so this is one of those comparisons that really isn’t particularly fair.  You’ve got a $1,600 Zeiss prime up against a $900 Fuji prime, and the test bed cameras aren’t the same resolution.  There are lots of problems with testing like this, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Why?  It’s fun!  Today I’m comparing the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 (reviewed here), mounted on the Sony A7 II and the Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 (reviewed here), mounted on the Fuji X-T1.  Both of these lenses have approximately the same field of view, and they both have the same fast f/1.4 maximum aperture.  They are also both highly regarded lenses for their respective systems, so let’s see how they stack up.  And please, please take these tests with a grain of salt.  This is a fun comparison, and both of these lenses are really quite excellent.

Sony A7 II with Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 - Fuji X-T1 with Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4

Sony A7 II with Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 – Fuji X-T1 with Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4

The Contenders

Fujinon XF 24mm f/1.4

Diameter: 72mm
Length: 63mm
Weight: 301g
Price: $899

Sony Zeiss Distagon FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA

Diameter: 78.5mm
Length: 112mm
Weight: 630g
Price: $1,598

From the picture and specifications above, you can see that the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 is roughly double the, well, everything, of the Fuji 23mm f/1.4.  It’s nearly twice as long, over twice as heavy and almost twice as expensive.  It’s a monster sized lens, especially considering it’s a mirrorless optic.  The Fuji is considerably more compact and easy to carry.  It’s worth pointing out that the two lenses share the same maximum aperture, but due to the focal length differences, the Sony should provide around 1 stop shallower depth of field at the same aperture, allowing for greater subject separation.  Some would say I should be comparing the Fuji to the Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2.0 instead.  It’s a valid point, but again…this is for fun: the two flagship lenses at this angle of view for each system.

The Test

This is a simple test, taken at a focus distance of approximately 2 meters.  This is a general focus distance that is good for environmental portraiture and other similar shots.  The lenses were tripod mounted and the blocks in the crops you’ll see were set at the center and the very left edge of the frame.  The full frame examined can be seen below (this is the Sony 35mm shot at f/2.0):

The Test Scene - Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/2.0

The Test Scene – Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/2.0

I took images focused on the center set of blocks, at full stop apertures, starting at f/1.4, and crops are presented below.  Now, let’s talk about the difference in test bed resolution.  The A7 II has a 24 megapixel full frame sensor, while the Fuji X-T1 has a 16 megapixel APS-C sensor.  I could compare full resolution between the two, and you’d see a pretty big difference.  Let me clue you in: The Sony combo shows more detail.  In some cases, a LOT more detail.  There’s just more detail that can be captured.  On one hand, this is certainly a big advantage to the Sony system, and we shouldn’t discount it.  On the other hand, it’s not really helpful to compare lenses when the sensors behind those lenses are of differing resolutions.

So, for the 100% crop comparisons below, I have resized the Sony images to the same pixel dimensions as the Fuji files.  This should still give a slight advantage to the Sony, but makes comparing the two a bit easier.  Don’t worry…I’ll post a few full size crops at the end.

So, let’s look at the center.  Click on the image, which will bring you to a full size image in a new window.  You may need to zoom in after the image loads to see the images at full size.

100% Crops - Center (Sony resized to 16MP) - Click to view full size

100% Crops – Center (Sony resized to 16MP) – Click to view full size

A few things can be seen here.  First, at f/1.4, the Sony is clearly sharper, even when reduced to 16 megapixels.  There is incredible contrast and clarity to the image straight from f/1.4.  If you compare the f/2.0 Sony shot to the f/1.4 Fuji shot, which would provide comparable depth of field, the difference is perhaps even greater. Looking at the top edges of the blocks, you can see that the Fuji controls CA slightly better, as a light-colored fringe can be seen along the top edge of the block at f/1.4. Stopping down improves the Fuji quickly, such that by f/2.0, the two are quite close, and by f/4, it’s hard to really pick between them.  The Zeiss still may hold a slight edge here, but it’s very close indeed.  I only show to f/4 on the center crops because neither lens improves upon stopping down further.

Now let’s look at the far edge crops.

Edge Crops - Click to View Full Size

100% Edge Crops (Sony resized to 16MP) – Click to View Full Size

Here things are a fair bit more lopsided.  The FE 35mm puts in an absolutely stunning performance here, with still extremely sharp images even right at the frame edge from f/1.4.  The Fuji does OK here, but simply can’t keep up.  Stopping down helps equalize things, and by f/2.8 both lenses are producing very strong resolution.  By f/5.6, the Zeiss still has a very slim edge, but it’s very close at these smaller apertures.

It’s clear that both lenses are very good, but the Zeiss is simply in a league of its own.  I’ve never seen a 35mm lens (or equivalent angle of view) with such a wide aperture perform this strongly.  it’s quite remarkable.  To get an idea of the full advantage this lens on the higher resolution sensor gives you, take a look at the f/1.4 edge crops at full size:

100% Edge Crops, f/1.4 - Click to Enlarge

100% Edge Crops, f/1.4 – Click to Enlarge

Bokeh

With a fast moderate wide-angle, the quality of out of focus blur is also of great importance.  While the full frame lens will allow for about one stop shallower depth of field due to the longer focal length, both lenses are very capable of providing for excellent subject isolation.  Below are crops showing how the background is rendered in this scene:

100% Crops - Bokeh (Sony resized to 16MP) - Click to view full size

100% Crops – Bokeh (Sony resized to 16MP) – Click to view full size

You can clearly see the depth of field differences here, but if you want to compare for similar depth of field, then simply look at crops down diagonally (f/1.4 on Fuji, f/2 on Sony and so on).  Both lenses are fine here, but the FE is once again a cut above.  It’s really quite remarkable that the lens designers were able to make this lens as sharp as it is while still providing for excellent background blur.

Another Note:

I also took one other scene, though crops don’t make much sense here, and it led me to discover something.  Focus breathing is a phenomenon that many lenses experience, and often it is due to a lens shortening actual focal length the closer one focuses.  Close up, I was able to see that the FE 35mm exhibits rather pronounced focus breathing, except it lengthens the focal length.  I’d estimate that the FE 35mm is actually closer to a 42mm lens at close focus.

The shots below I originally took tripod mounted again, but the FE shot was considerably tighter in framing and also produced blur that was more pronounced than the usual 1 stop difference.  I retook the Fuji shot at the lens’ minimum focus distance (which is the same as the Sony’s), but it still didn’t match.  This can actually be seen in the magnification factors.  The Fuji at MFD is 0.1x (0.15x framing in full frame terms), while the Sony is 0.18x at MFD.  In any case, here’s what you can expect when going for maximum subject isolation with these lenses:

Purple and Green - Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Purple and Green – Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

 

Purple and Green - Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/1.4

Purple and Green – Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/1.4

Final Thoughts


I said up front that this wasn’t really a fair test, and it really isn’t.  The Zeiss was tested with a higher resolution body, and the lens itself is nearly double the cost.  However, despite the resolution difference, it’s easy to see that the FE 35mm f/1.4 is exceptional.  It takes an extremely good Fuji 23mm f/1.4 and makes it look mediocre in comparison.  Zeiss has done something rather incredible with the lens.

Of course, this performance comes at a cost.  Two costs, really. The first, of course, is actual cost.  The Zeiss will run you an extra $700 more than the Fuji.  The second cost is in size, with the lens being nearly twice as long and more than twice as heavy.  If you’re willing to carry the weight, it’s a lens that may very well be worth the cash.  However, size can really make a difference, both in your comfort shooting and even the way your subjects react to the camera.  Pick what’s right for you.  The FE 35mm f/1.4 is an incredible optic, though I personally would rather have something like the Fuji 23 to carry on a daily basis.  The Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2.0 is also worth a strong look for those in the Sony camp who want a fairly fast lens but don’t want the bulk.  But I have to give credit where credit is due: Bravo Sony and Zeiss.

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Using the Sony A7 II as a Digital Canon FD Camera http://admiringlight.com/blog/using-the-sony-a7-ii-as-a-digital-canon-fd-camera/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/using-the-sony-a7-ii-as-a-digital-canon-fd-camera/#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 20:20:47 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4944 I’ve written in the past about adapting old manual focus lenses to mirrorless cameras, something that I think that most everyone should try out from time to time. With the release of Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras, using old manual focus lenses becomes even easier, as these lenses were designed for a 35mm frame, and so …

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I’ve written in the past about adapting old manual focus lenses to mirrorless cameras, something that I think that most everyone should try out from time to time. With the release of Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras, using old manual focus lenses becomes even easier, as these lenses were designed for a 35mm frame, and so the native fields of view are intact.  With the release of the Sony A7 Mark II (reviewed here), using adapted lenses becomes even more exciting, as these old lenses suddenly become image stabilized lenses.

My Canon FD system with the A7 II - 24mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 70-210mm f/4, 50-300mm f/4.5L

My Canon FD system with the A7 II – 24mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 70-210mm f/4, 50-300mm f/4.5L

I use my A7 II with predominantly Canon FD lenses, though I have the FE 28-70mm and will likely soon add the FE 55mm f/1.8 to the stable, but the FD glass makes for a great kit for a few key reasons, and I thought I’d share them with you.  The reasons below will, in many cases, be similar for any other adapted lens system.  I use Canon FD because over the years I simply happened to pick up quite a few FD lenses, so when adding the few remaining gaps, it made sense to stick with FD. Your experience would be quite similar with, say, Contax/Yashica mount lenses, or Nikon F, Leica M, Leica R, Minolta MD or Olympus OM.  All of these systems had some seriously excellent glass.  So, let’s cut to the chase.

Lens Size

One thing that is somewhat lost when moving from a Micro 4/3 or APS-C mirrorless camera to the Sony A7 series is that the lenses start getting large.  The major benefits of full frame are the ability to have shallower depth of field, as well as some improved dynamic range and high ISO noise control. However, these advantages largely disappear if you are using slower lenses on the full frame kit.  Sure, a 35mm f/2.8 is still a small lens, but something like Fuji’s excellent 23mm f/1.4 will still have the capabilities for shallower depth of field. Fast full frame AF glass isn’t particularly small, with even something like the FE 55mm f/1.8, which is a fairly compact lens, being still larger than something like the Fuji 35mm f/1.4 or the Olympus 25mm f/1.8.  It’s simply a matter of physics.  However, manual focus lenses, especially those from rangefinder systems or older SLR systems, are significantly smaller than their modern AF counterparts.  The FD 50mm f/1.4 is only 235g, which is lighter than the FE 55mm, despite being 2/3 stop faster.  Of course, the FE is a significantly better lens optically, but the FD 50mm is actually quite good.  It’s even better than the EF 50mm f/1.4, despite being an older design. This goes for any of the other systems.  A LOT of the manual focus 50mm or 55mm lenses are really good optically, with some, such as the Zeiss 50mm f/1.7 for Contax/Yashica mount, being nearly on par with the FE.   Similar size reductions are available throughout the lenses.

To give an example, my daily carry for typical use covers me from 24mm wide-angle to 85mm short telephoto, with excellent image quality and generally fast lenses.  I carry the FD 24mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2.0, 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.8.  All four lenses are very good wide open and outstanding stopped down, and each lens is pretty lightweight. All except the 85mm f/1.8 are less than 300g, and the 85mm is only 345g. The lenses are small too, with all sharing a 52mm filter thread size. The overall feel is still of a small kit.  If you’re an Olympus OM or even a Leica M shooter, you can even dramatically go smaller than this.  While a native FE lens lineup with primes can be made fairly small, it’s simply nice to know that if you go the adapted route, you’ll keep the size of the kit very small.

Centennial Morning - Sony A7 II with Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 @ f/11

Centennial Morning – Sony A7 II with Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 @ f/11

Price

For some lens mounts, this won’t really be an advantage (I’m looking at you, Leica), but for the most part, you can pick up excellent lenses for a fraction of the cost of a native solution.  That four lens kit I mentioned above can be had for under $700 in excellent condition, providing outstanding optical quality and lens speed for a fraction of what the native lenses would set you back.  It’s a great option for those who want a lot of the benefits of full frame, but don’t necessarily need autofocus.

It forces you to slow down

This may be seen as a negative by many, but I know I get my best shots when I’m using a tripod, and part of the reason is that the process of setting things up meticulously lets you slow down and really concentrate on the composition.  The same is true here.  You can’t just spray and pray when using manual lenses, and focusing on composition and precise focus placement and correct aperture can result in tangible benefits to your images.

Ultimately, my little experiment with FD glass on the A7 II has been a success.  There are certainly many reasons to favor the native glass.  Many of the native FE lenses are simply spectacular optically and have modern lens coatings and more precise design to limit aberrations.  You also get quick autofocus for times it’s really needed, among others.  But the ability to use these cameras as essentially a new digital mount for an old lens system is a great way to bring new life into old lenses you may have, or simply to help get great results while keeping the kit small and your pocketbook heavier.

Skyward - Sony A7 II with Canon FD 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8

Skyward – Sony A7 II with Canon FD 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8

Milk - Sony A7 II with Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Milk – Sony A7 II with Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park - Sony A7II with Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 @ f/11, 1/2s, ISO 100

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park – Sony A7II with Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 @ f/11, 1/2s, ISO 100

Driveway - Sony A7 II with Canon FD 35mm f/2 @ f/2

Driveway – Sony A7 II with Canon FD 35mm f/2 @ f/2

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Waterfall Season http://admiringlight.com/blog/waterfall-season/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/waterfall-season/#comments Thu, 23 Apr 2015 19:52:50 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4928 Spring is in the air, and the world is turning green once again.  Spring is also the time when many waterfalls tend to run at their fullest, so now is an ideal time for photographing waterfalls. I’ve taken advantage of some of the flow already, though a few weeks more will bring brighter and more …

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Spring is in the air, and the world is turning green once again.  Spring is also the time when many waterfalls tend to run at their fullest, so now is an ideal time for photographing waterfalls. I’ve taken advantage of some of the flow already, though a few weeks more will bring brighter and more lush vegetation surrounding these lovely natural features.

If you haven’t tried your hand at shooting waterfalls, or are looking for some help in getting the most out your waterfall photos, here are some important things to keep in mind.

A Tripod is a Must

It may seem obvious, but waterfalls are one of the subjects that really requires a tripod for the best images.  Not only because many waterfalls look best when shot with longer exposures to provide a nice smooth look to the water, but also because the best compositions for waterfalls are very often in positions that are extremely awkward to hand hold.  Having a good tripod is also a necessity.  Often the terrain will be uneven, and often the best compositions come from standing in the stream itself, so being able to precisely place the legs and having a tripod that will keep the camera steady even with the flow of water around the legs is essential.

A solid tripod can get you the angle and stability needed to get the shot

A solid tripod can get you the angle and stability needed to get the shot

One major point: if you’re going to go into the stream, please make sure that it is both safe to do so, and that your actions won’t damage the banks or any vegetation.  You’re there to record the scene, not leave your mark on it. The above shot shows my tripod while I was shooting images at Blue Hen Falls. The stream has a slate rock bed, so I felt comfortable in my waterproof boots shooting down in the stream.  If there are soft banks or fragile plants, please keep to any trails. See the image below that was captured from this position.

Blue Hen Falls - Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 @ 15mm, f/16, 20s

Blue Hen Falls – Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 @ 15mm, f/16, 20s

Polarizing and Neutral Density Filters

Polarizers and neutral density (ND) filters are the two filters that both truly still have a place in any photographer’s kit in the digital age.  While other filters can have their effects replicated with digital postprocessing tools or multiple exposures, these two filter types can’t be faked, and both come in very handy for shooting waterfalls.

First off, let’s talk about the polarizing filter.  A circular polarizer is something every outdoor photographer should have in their bag.  The filter works by cutting out light of a certain polarization that is reflected off of surfaces.  Rotating the filter allows you to choose which angle of light polarization is cut out.  The result is the ability to remove glare from water, darken blue skies and increase saturation on damp or glossy vegetation.  When shooting around waterfalls, almost all the surfaces will have some moisture on them, and therefore reflecting glare is very common.  While images without a polarizer will look fine, being able to cut that glare can dramatically improve the look of a photograph.

For a prime example of the effect of a polarizer, take a look at the images below.  These images were taken from the exact same location within 20 seconds of each other.  The only difference is that I attached my polarizer between exposures.  The first image shows the scene without a polarizing filter.  It’s a fine shot, but the colors are muted, only green and brown come out, and there is pretty heavy glare off the sides of the rocks and a strong reflection in the pool at the bottom of the image.

Corkscrew Falls - No Polarizer

Corkscrew Falls – No Polarizer

Now, take a look at the result with a polarizing filter.  The processing on the two images is nearly identical (I did some finer color correction on the one below, since it was the one I finalized for print).  The glare on the rocks is gone, showing the texture of the stone. The glare on the water is also gone, allowing the blue color of the water to shine through as well as extra detail in the sandstone gorge bottom.  The overall effect is striking.

Corkscrew Falls - With Polarizer

Corkscrew Falls – With Polarizer

Another filter worth packing for waterfall shooting is a neutral density filter.  Simply put, an ND filter simply lets less light into the lens, without altering color balance.  ND filters are available in a variety of strengths, from 1-2 stop filters useful for cutting back the light a bit, all the way to 10 stops or more that can allow for minutes long exposures in mid-day sunlight.  Using these filters can allow for longer shutter speeds to blur water movement, even when it’s bright outside.  For most shooting of waterfalls, a 3 or 4 stop filter comes in quite handy.  This should allow for exposures of at least 1/2 second in daylight, when stopping down the lens to f/11 to f/16.

Exposure Tips

Since we’re on the subject of lengthening shutter speeds, let’s talk about exposure time.  There’s a few different schools of thought when it comes to how long you should expose a waterfall, with quite a lot of people enjoying the silky look of a long exposure, while others find that look cliché or ugly.  I personally quite enjoy the smooth water look for most waterfalls, but it really depends on what you’re trying to show in your final image.  Freezing the motion of a waterfall can often be rather ugly aesthetically, while in other cases a long exposure will eliminate too much detail. However, in both cases, it’s up to the photographer to judge based on the scene in front of them.  The shot below was shot at 0.4 seconds, which was about the longest I wanted to let the shutter open on this shot.  The falls had extremely heavy water flow, and anything longer just blurred far too much detail out of the image.

Indian Run Falls - Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 @ 10mm, f/8, 0.4 sec

Indian Run Falls – Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 @ 10mm, f/8, 0.4 sec

For my own shooting, I often end up shooting very early in the morning, especially in areas where there’s a fair amount of tourism, as I don’t have to deal with people walking in and out of my frame.  As a result, I often deal with long exposures by necessity.  For most of the waterfalls in Ohio, which often don’t have a super-high flow, the silky look of a long exposure works best anyway.  I do think, however, that heavy flowing waterfalls demand a shorter shutter speed in most cases.  First off, a shutter speed of 1/2 second or so will still show plenty of motion, but will also help capture some of the power of the falls.  For really huge waterfalls crashing on rocks, very short shutter speeds might be desired to really capture the power of the water. Often, exposures of 1/2 to 2 seconds are great. For a serene or sometimes surreal feel, longer exposures can also be excellent.  Experiment and determine what you like best.

Composition Tips

Here are a few other things to keep in mind when shooting waterfalls.  First of all, shots of the main cascade of a fall can be very nice sometimes, but often they can be sterile or boring if there’s nothing leading your eye into the frame.

Keep an eye out for minor cascades below the main falls.  Often these will switch back and forth, creating far more interesting patterns than the main cascade.  It’s worth exploring lots of different angles, trying to visualize how your eye leads into the frame before setting up and taking the picture.  The shot below, taken this morning, illustrates this perfectly.  I took shots from about 6 different angles in this area today, and then I’d review the image and try new compositions, though most were small refinements on this scene.  I finally managed to find the angle that reached the proper balance, with lots of foreground interest leading your eye into the frame.

Blue Hen Falls - Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 @ 12mm, f/18, 15sec

Blue Hen Falls – Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 @ 12mm, f/18, 15sec

Second, context for an image can also help set the scene.  Perhaps there’s a bridge nearby, or leading rocks.  Often there may be a stark clifside next to the falls, or ferns or other interesting plants along the stream bank.  Using these elements to help frame the waterfall can add another dimension to the shot. For the shot below, I positioned the camera very low, sitting on the frozen pond below the falls, focusing on the patterns in the ice, helping set the scene of winter despite the lack of snow.  Experiment with different scenes and different looks.  There are times I’ll work a single waterfall for two hours, finding all sorts of different ways to look at a scene.  Don’t forget to have fun!

Ice at the Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 19mm, f/18, 0.8s, ISO 100

Ice at the Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 19mm, f/18, 0.8s, ISO 100

Image Samples

Finally, I thought I’d share a few more waterfall shots of mine from this year so far.  Click an image to enlarge. Happy waterfalling!

Devil's Bathtub, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/11, 15s, ISO 100

Devil’s Bathtub, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/11, 15s, ISO 100

Honey Run Falls - Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 55-200mm @ 200mm, f/16, 2.1s

Honey Run Falls – Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 55-200mm @ 200mm, f/16, 2.1s

Side Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic 35-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 35mm, f/11, 1/2s

Side Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic 35-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 35mm, f/11, 1/2s

Honey Run Falls - Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm @ 20mm, f/16, 20s

Honey Run Falls – Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm @ 20mm, f/16, 20s

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 28mm, f/18, 1.3s, ISO 100

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 28mm, f/18, 1.3s, ISO 100

Middle Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 29mm, f/14, 13s, ISO 100

Middle Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 29mm, f/14, 13s, ISO 100

Honey Run Falls - Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 @ 48mm, f/11, 2.6s

Honey Run Falls – Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 @ 48mm, f/11, 2.6s

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Review: Panasonic Lumix 35-100mm f/4-5.6 OIS http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-panasonic-lumix-35-100mm-f4-5-6-ois/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-panasonic-lumix-35-100mm-f4-5-6-ois/#comments Mon, 20 Apr 2015 22:22:05 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4892 This past fall, Panasonic made several announcements in advance of Photokina, but one that flew under the radar a bit was the addition of a very compact 35-100mm f/4-5.6 lens. The new 35-100mm is a slower option that sits alongside the excellent 35-100mm f/2.8 from Panasonic. This new lens, which gives the same field of …

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This past fall, Panasonic made several announcements in advance of Photokina, but one that flew under the radar a bit was the addition of a very compact 35-100mm f/4-5.6 lens. The new 35-100mm is a slower option that sits alongside the excellent 35-100mm f/2.8 from Panasonic. This new lens, which gives the same field of view as the classic 70-200mm telephoto zooms on 35mm cameras, is exceptionally small, making it an ideal choice for inclusion in super-lightweight travel kits. If you’re like me, though, such a lens is only really a useful option if the optics are good as well. Let’s find out how good small can be.

Panasonic 35-100mm f/4-5.6 OIS on the Lumix GX1

Panasonic 35-100mm f/4-5.6 OIS on the Lumix GX1

If you’re not familiar with my reviews, I review from a real world shooting perspective. You won’t find lens charts or resolution numbers here. There are plenty of other sites that cover those. I review products on how they act for me as a photographic tool.

Construction and Handling

The first thing that strikes you when you first see the new 35-100mm f/4-5.6 is its size. The lens is almost impossibly small. Most telephoto lenses, by necessity, are relatively long lenses. The smaller 4/3 sensor size has allowed many telephoto options for the Micro 4/3 system to shrink the overall lens size, but none compare to the miniaturization that the 35-100mm achieves.

The lens is a collapsible design, and when collapsed, it’s no larger than the collapsible 14-42mm kit zoom from Olympus. It’s the same diameter as the Micro 4/3 lens mount and only about 1.5 inches in length. As such, the lens works extremely well on any of the Micro 4/3 bodies, and seems geared towards the smaller cameras such as the Panasonic GM1 and GM5 or the Olympus E-PL7. I used the lens on both the OM-D E-M5 and the Panasonic GX1, and it felt great on both bodies.

The 35-100mm is a collapsible design that extends during use

The 35-100mm is a collapsible design that extends during use

The lens isn’t a high-end lens with regards to construction, but it’s fairly well assembled. The 35-100mm has a metal lens mount and lightweight metal exterior. The inner lens barrel, which extends when put into shooting position, and extends further when zooming towards 100mm, is made of plastic. The inner tube can wobble a bit if pressure is applied, but there’s very limited play in general use. The zoom ring opens the lens into shooting position, and is well damped for zooming through the focal range. There is a semi-hard stop at 35mm to let you know you’ve reached the end of the zoom through. Proceeding past this stop will collapse the lens. The focus ring operates smoothly, but is only lightly damped.

The extremely small size makes this lens an ideal travel companion, and it fits in very well with lenses such as the Olympus 9-18mm and the Panasonic pancake zoom 12-32mm. In fact, all three lenses together weigh less than 400g and would cover an incredible range from ultra-wide angle to medium telephoto.

Autofocus and Image Stabilization

The 35-100mm f/4-5.6 focuses very quickly and accurately. The autofocus motor is virtually silent and the lens was sure and confident in focusing on both camera bodies used for testing.

The lens also features Panasonic’s optical image stabilizer, dubbed Mega OIS. The OIS on the 35-100mm is surprisingly effective, especially sing the ‘Mega OIS’ moniker is Panasonic’s standard level IS system. The ‘higher-end’ stabilization is named ‘Power OIS.’ The optical stabilizer allowed me to achieve sharp images consistently at around 1/15s, which equates to a shutter speed around 3.5 stops slower than what normally is needed for sharp shots.  Like many stabilizer systems for Micro 4/3, you do need to watch when using the optical stabilizer at speeds around 1/60s, as it can be prone to some blurring due to shutter shock around that speed.

Continue: Image Quality

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A Mysterious Morning http://admiringlight.com/blog/a-mysterious-morning/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/a-mysterious-morning/#comments Thu, 16 Apr 2015 11:58:08 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4887 Two weeks ago, I got up rather early and went out to take a few photos before work, as I often do.  It was a very dark and somewhat foggy morning, and everything was calm.  The spring greens hadn’t quite sprouted yet, and so I went out knowing I’d be shooting for black and white.  Found …

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Two weeks ago, I got up rather early and went out to take a few photos before work, as I often do.  It was a very dark and somewhat foggy morning, and everything was calm.  The spring greens hadn’t quite sprouted yet, and so I went out knowing I’d be shooting for black and white.  Found this composition near one of the railroad bridges.  If you look carefully, you can see the light from a train crossing the bridge in the distance.  Click to enlarge.

Divergence - Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm @ 10mm, f/5.6, 18s, ISO 200

Divergence – Fujifilm X-T1 with Fujinon XF 10-24mm @ 10mm, f/5.6, 18s, ISO 200

 

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Review: Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-olympus-12-40mm-f2-8-pro/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-olympus-12-40mm-f2-8-pro/#comments Tue, 07 Apr 2015 01:27:14 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4865 In late 2013, Olympus released the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens.  It was their first foray into the ‘PRO’ line, which has now been joined by the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO and will soon add a 7-14mm and a 300mm f/4.  I didn’t get a chance to review the 12-40mm back when it was released, but …

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In late 2013, Olympus released the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens.  It was their first foray into the ‘PRO’ line, which has now been joined by the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO and will soon add a 7-14mm and a 300mm f/4.  I didn’t get a chance to review the 12-40mm back when it was released, but seized the opportunity when I had the new OM-D E-M5 Mark II in for review.  The 12-40mm f/2.8 has been highly touted by many in the industry, and I was eager to get my hands on the lens and see if it lived up to the strong reputation.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

If you’re not familiar with my reviews, I review from a real world shooting perspective. You won’t find lens charts or resolution numbers here. There are plenty of other sites that cover those. I review products on how they act for me as a photographic tool.

Construction and Handling

The 12-40mm f/2.8 is a solidly constructed high-end optic featuring weather sealing against dust and moisture. The lens is bigger than any of the slower standard zooms for Micro 4/3, but quite compact for a wide to telephoto standard zoom with a constant aperture of f/2.8. The lens has a focal range that gives a field of view similar to a 24-80mm lens on a full frame camera, encompassing a versatile range from super-wide angle to short telephoto.

The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO with hood

The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO with hood

For the most part, the lens lives up to what you’d expect in this department, with a tightly assembled body with high-quality plastics and a metal shell over most of the lens body. However, I felt that it fell a bit short of what I would generally consider a ‘Pro’ build. The inner lens tube rubbed slightly when turning the zoom ring, and the extending tube has a small amount of play. Overall, it’s a well-built lens, but the sister to this lens, the 40-150mm f/2.8, has a more solid construction in my opinion.

The lens extends during zooming towards the long end of the range, and very slightly at the widest focal lengths, with the lens at its shortest length at 16mm. The zoom ring moves smoothly, though damping is less than on many other lenses. The focus ring is very smooth and precise, and features a manual focus clutch mechanism, allowing for quick switching to manual focus, complete with focusing scale. It’s worth noting that the focus ring still turns when the ring is pushed forward for AF operations, which allows for full-time manual focusing, or manual focus when manual focus is engaged via the camera.

The 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO comes with a reversible lens hood that locks into place and requires pinching two side buttons to release the hood. Frankly, I though the locking mechanism was a bit clunky and unnecessary, and slowed down storing the lens. The 12-40mm also has an Olympus L-Fn button on the side, which adds an additional programmable button for use with any Olympus camera. As not all of my Micro 4/3 lenses have the L-Fn button, I typically don’t use it, as I operate on muscle memory while shooting most of the time, and having a button that’s only there on certain lenses tends to slow me down a bit.

The lens at its shortest length (left) and longest (right).  The manual focus clutch is also pulled back to reveal the focus scale in the right hand image.

The lens at its shortest length (left) and longest (right). The manual focus clutch is also pulled back to reveal the focus scale in the right hand image.

Autofocus Performance

The 12-40mm f/2.8 features a very fast and very quiet focus motor. I tested the lens on the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, and in most situations, the lens was extremely fast to focus and very accurate. I had a few situations in dim light where the camera thought the lens was in focus when it was clearly well out of focus, and I had trouble getting it to sweep through the full range to lock on, but this only happened a few times during my testing. In all other cases, even in lower light, it locked swiftly and surely on my subject.

As I noted in my review of the E-M5 Mark II, the 12-40mm f/2.8 was excellent for continuous autofocus as well, and had a good hit rate while tracking moving subjects.

Unfortunately, the lens, like all Olympus lenses, doesn’t have an optical stabilizer. This is fine if you’re shooting with an Olympus body, as the outstanding in-body image stabilization of any recent Olympus camera negates any need for an optical stabilizer. However, if you own a Panasonic camera other than the GX7, you’ll want to consider the lack of lens-based stabilization in the 12-40mm.

Continue: Image Quality

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Testing the new Fujifilm Firmware Updates http://admiringlight.com/blog/testing-the-new-fujifilm-firmware-updates/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/testing-the-new-fujifilm-firmware-updates/#comments Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:02:17 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4847 Fujifilm released several firmware updates today.  There are updates for both the X-T1 and the X100T that fix a few issues.  The X-T1 updates focus on fixing flash not firing if the mechanical+electronic shutter setting is on, even with the shutter speed below sync speed, along with a few other remote and tethering fixes.  The X100T …

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Fujifilm released several firmware updates today.  There are updates for both the X-T1 and the X100T that fix a few issues.  The X-T1 updates focus on fixing flash not firing if the mechanical+electronic shutter setting is on, even with the shutter speed below sync speed, along with a few other remote and tethering fixes.  The X100T fixes the flash issue above as well as some viewfinder improvements and settings with the conversion lenses.

The Fuji X-T1 and XF 10-24mm f/4 both received firmware updates today, along with other XF zooms and the X100T

The Fuji X-T1 and XF 10-24mm f/4 both received firmware updates today, along with other XF zooms and the X100T

But for me, the most interesting was the release of new firmware for four OIS lenses, the 10-24mm f/4, the 18-55mm f/2.8-4, the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 and the 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8.  This new firmware promises “improvement of stability of OIS function.” Given the broad range of what that can encompass, I thought I’d do a somewhat informal test before updating my lenses. For this somewhat unscientific test (true results need a much larger sample size and mechanically similar shake for each shot.)  Since I don’t own a calibrated hand shake rig, I had to rely simply on shooting the images myself and seeing where they ended up.

I own three of the four lenses that have updates here, so I took sample images sitting in my chair, but with arms free, using the EVF of my X-T1.  First, I took images at a variety of shutter speeds to determine effective stability under the old firmware, with three shots at each shutter speed setting.  I then updated the firmware (including the X-T1’s firmware), and did the test again.

Results are below.  The number out of three is the number of shots that were sharp at that shutter speed setting under the new and old firmware, to see if there was any marked improvement.  I consider getting 2 of 3 shots sharp being successful at that shutter speed.

Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 OIS @ 10mm:

Firmware v. 1.00 Firmware v. 1.01
1/4s
3 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/2s
3 of 3 sharp
2 of 3 sharp
1s
3 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1.8s
None of 3 sharp
1 of 3 sharp

Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4 OIS @ 24mm

Firmware v. 1.00 Firmware v. 1.01
1/20s
2 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/10s
2 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/5s
None of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
0.4s
None of 3 sharp
2 of 3 sharp
0.8s
None of 3 sharp
None of 3 sharp

As you can see above, while the firmware update had minimal effect at 10mm (the OIS is already incredible here, with 3/3 shots at 1 full second sharp), there was dramatic improvement at 24mm. With the original firmware, the IS was only effective in this test to approximately 2 stops slower than unstabilized.  Following the firmware update, I’m getting close to 4 stops at 24mm.  I’m very pleased with this improvement.  One thing to note, that doesn’t show up in the chart is that, especially at 10mm, the ones that weren’t sharp at 1.8s with the new firmware were much closer to being sharp than the 1.8s exposures under firmware 1.00.  This, plus the fact that I was able to get 1 out of the 3 sharp at the insanely slow speed of 1.8s, tells me there is still some minor improvement at the 10mm end as well.

Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS @ 55mm

Firmware v. 3.11 Firmware v. 3.12
1/20s
3 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/10s
3 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/5s
2 of 3 sharp
1 of 3 sharp
0.4s
None of 3 sharp
1 of 3 sharp
0.8s
None of 3 sharp
None of 3 sharp

With the 18-55, the improvement is less clear.  I had less success at 1/5s, and more success at 0.4 seconds, but a difference of 1 either way is certainly in the realm of chance with a sample size this small.  The minor improvements here are most apparent with the level of sharpness in the ‘sharp’ shots.  They appear to be much better on the new firmware, with an almost tripod-like crispness.

For an example, below are two crops from the sharpest example of each set at 1/10s.  The v3.11 firmware on the top, and v3.12 firmware on the bottom.  Click to view at 100%.  Note that while there isn’t any notable motion blur, the earlier firmware image is just a very slightly bit soft.  The new firmware keeps that rock solid, and gives the same sort of performance that I am used to when shooting with this lens on a tripod.  The OIS always felt just slightly ‘off’ on the 18-55 (and I’ve actually shot with 3 copies, with similar results)…with the new firmware, that ‘off’ feeling is gone, replaced with very good, solid images.  This was the case for essentially all the shots with the 18-55mm on old vs. new firmware.

100% crops of 1/10s images from 18-55mm @ 55mm, f/4.  Firmware 3.11 on top, Firmware 3.12 on bottom. (Click to Enlarge)

100% crops of 1/10s images from 18-55mm @ 55mm, f/4. Firmware 3.11 on top, Firmware 3.12 on bottom. (Click to Enlarge)

Fujinon XF 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 OIS @ 100mm

Firmware v. 1.10 Firmware v. 1.12
1/20s
3 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/10s
2 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/5s
1 of 3 sharp
2 of 3 sharp
0.4s
None of 3 sharp
1 of 3 sharp

Fujinon XF 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 OIS @ 200mm

Firmware v. 1.10 Firmware v. 1.12
1/15s
2 of 3 sharp
3 of 3 sharp
1/8s
1 of 3 sharp
1 of 3 sharp
1/4s
None of 3 sharp
1 of 3 sharp

With the 55-200mm, again, we have minor improvements.  I was able to get one sharp shot more per sequence at 100mm at 1/10, 1/5 and 0.4s, showing some minor improvement, but again, in this small sample size, it’s hard to say too much definitively here.  It certainly doesn’t hurt the quality, and some minor improvements can be seen.

Conclusion

Overall, the firmware updates for the Fuji zoom lenses appear to provide some benefit in all cases.  These can range from fairly minor improvements, in the case of the 55-200mm, to a nice increase in sharpness for the 18-55mm, and a dramatic improvement with the 10-24mm.  Again, this test isn’t perfect, and is somewhat limited by the small sample size, but I think it points to some nice improvements from Fuji with this latest round of updates.

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Review: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-olympus-om-d-e-m5-mark-ii/ http://admiringlight.com/blog/review-olympus-om-d-e-m5-mark-ii/#comments Sat, 28 Mar 2015 23:24:24 +0000 http://admiringlight.com/blog/?p=4787 It’s been three years since Olympus first rolled out their highly successful OM-D line of cameras with the E-M5.  That camera redefined what a mirrorless camera could be, and was the first mirrorless camera that truly made a push for the enthusiast photographer.  Since then, the exceptional E-M1 has followed as well as a lower …

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It’s been three years since Olympus first rolled out their highly successful OM-D line of cameras with the E-M5.  That camera redefined what a mirrorless camera could be, and was the first mirrorless camera that truly made a push for the enthusiast photographer.  Since then, the exceptional E-M1 has followed as well as a lower cost E-M10.  This year, Olympus has updated the original, and today I review the E-M5 Mark II.  The E-M5 II is a camera that stays true to its predecessor, but adds a number of key features, including one that breaks serious new ground for Micro 4/3.  Let’s dive in and see what Olympus has managed to do.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

If you’re not familiar with my reviews, I review from a real world shooting perspective. You won’t find lens charts or resolution numbers here. There are plenty of other sites that cover those. I review products on how they act for me as a photographic tool.  I am not a videographer, so my reviews concentrate on the still imaging capabilities of a camera.

Construction and Handling

The Olympus E-M5 Mark II stays true to the original E-M5 in its design, but features some notable upgrades in construction.  The camera is still made of magnesium alloy, but it feels harder, denser and simply more solidly built.  It’s the same feeling of quality that I got when I picked up the Sony A7 II.  This is a very sturdily built camera with a nice stippled matte finish. The camera is available in both black and silver.  I reviewed the black, but I have to say, I think the silver version of this camera looks downright amazing.

In any case, the solid construction extends to the dials and switches.  The two main dials sit atop the right side of the camera, allowing for easy access with the index finger and thumb.  Both dials are very beautifully knurled and move smoothly and positively, with nice clicks between settings.  The shutter button sits on top of the front dial and is also metal, unlike the original E-M5’s shutter button.  The buttons on the top and rear of the camera are fairly small, but they are notably bigger than the original E-M5’s, though they don’t have quite the polish and solid feel of the rest of the camera.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

Despite a very similar appearance, Olympus has made some changes to the main grip of the camera, and those changes are a bit of a double-edged sword.  The grip retains the same subtle curve to grip, but instead of the vertical ridge that the original has, the Mark II features a curving edge as it moves up the body, which allows for a small finger hold near the top.  Combined with the new rubberized covering, the E-M5 Mark II’s grip is notably more secure than the original’s.  However, this comes at the expense of comfort. Despite the better purchase, the grip forced my middle and ring fingers down and towards the lens, making the it feel cramped.  The rubber is less slippery than the original mesh weave grip of the E-M5, but it’s also a very hard rubber, so there’s no cushioning to the cramped grip.  The result is a camera that is easier to hold on to, but less comfortable in the hand.

The E-M5 Mark II features the same improved weather sealing that first appeared on the OM-D E-M1.  The camera is sealed against dust and moisture and is freeze-proof to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  I didn’t get a chance to shoot in the rain during my time with the camera, but knowing the robustness of both the original E-M5, which I’ve owned since it came out, and the E-M1, I have no doubt the camera would hold up very well when used with a weather sealed lens.

Operation and Controls

The top controls of the E-M5 II

The top controls of the E-M5 II

The OM-D E-M5 Mark II features a number of control updates to the original E-M5 that make it a more capable camera in the field.  First, as I mentioned earlier, the two main control dials are positioned perfectly.  The rear thumb operated dial is moved to the same position as on the E-M1, which makes it far easier to reach when the camera is to your eye.  The PASM mode dial is still on the left side of the camera, but it’s gained a push-button lock that allows you to keep the dial from moving if desired. Bizarrely, it also has switched orientation from the original, so that the selected mode is on the far left of the dial rather than the far right as on the E-M5.  The power switch is on the left side of the viewfinder hump, just like on the E-M1.  I’m not a huge fan of this position since it requires two hands to turn the camera on, but it didn’t pose a problem either.

The big adjustments come in the far greater number of controls available to the shooter without going into the menus.  The original E-M5 featured two programmable function keys, plus the four tiny directional buttons of the rear four-way controller.  The E-M5 Mark II retains these controls, but adds two additional programmable function buttons and adds another button in the center of the 2×2 Dual Control switch that sits above the screen. The top of the camera has the Fn2 button and movie record button in the same places as the original E-M5, but the new Fn3 and Fn4 buttons (which default to EVF control and HDR mode) also sit on top, to the left of the main dials.  All of these buttons are easily accessed with your index finger, though the movie record button is the hardest to press.  However, that is very likely intentional, as it makes accidentally pressing it difficult as well.

The rear of the camera features the four-way controller which has larger and easier to press buttons vs. the E-M5.  The E-M5 II’s 2×2 switch is tucked above the screen to the left of the rear dial.  Surrounding the four-way switch are the Menu, Info, Trash and Play buttons. All of the controls, save for one, are easy to access and difficult to press accidentally.  The control that isn’t easy to use is the 2×2 switch.  While the switch is easily moved from position 1 to position 2, flipping it back isn’t as easy.  The lever gets extremely close to the top of the screen, and there’s very limited space to flick the switch upward.  With bare hands, it’s not too bad, but it becomes very difficult to operate while wearing gloves.

The rear controls and screen of the E-M5 Mark II

The rear controls and screen of the E-M5 Mark II

If you haven’t had a chance to use the 2×2 Dual Control system on an Olympus camera before, it’s a very nice method of doubling the easy to access parameters using the main dials.   You can customize the operation of the dials in each position of the switch, but by default, when the switch is in position 1, the two dials control exposure parameters (shutter speed and aperture in manual mode, aperture and exposure compensation in aperture priority mode, etc).  When the switch is moved to position 2, the dials change to controlling ISO and White Balance (by default).

The overall degree of custom controls that can be had with the E-M5 Mark II is impressive, and after setting up the camera to your liking, it minimizes the amount of time you need to dive into menus during regular shooting.

The incredibly detailed main menu

The incredibly detailed main menu

Speaking of menus, there are two main interfaces for detailed settings on the E-M5 Mark II, and they both should be familiar to existing Olympus shooters.  First is the Super Control Panel, which is finally activated by default.  Pressing the OK button in the center of the four-way brings up this handy menu that allows one to change most of the main shooting settings, from In-Body Image Stabilization modes, self-timer, anti-shock, electronic shutter and High Resolution mode, AF point, Face Detection, JPEG settings, drive mode and more.

More detailed customization settings are found in the main menu. This too should be familiar to Olympus shooters and infuriatingly confusing to those new to the camera.  While it’s admirable that Olympus provides the ability to change behavior on an extremely wide variety of option, but despite their best efforts at organization, the sheer volume of options can be overwhelming until you become intimately familiar with the system.  There are five main sections of options, but the Custom Menu (gears) is where the real meat comes in, with a simply staggering number of options.  If this becomes your main camera, however, you’ll eventually become proficient in figuring out where things are.  The biggest reason to not worry too much is that after initial setup, you really don’t need to delve into the menu system that often, due to the customized buttons and the Super Control Panel.

Continue: Viewfinder, Performance and Flash

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