Monday, December 31, 2012

Wishing you a Happy New Year!

In a specialty food store I saw these quail eggs and thought they would make a nice photo subject.

This photo is a composite of nine images done similarly to the photo of port wine I did for the December 26 blog post.  Each image was focused at a different point and all were  assembled later to achieve a sharp area from the foreground to the last egg.

What to do with quail egg props after you are finished photographing them?  Fry them, and put them over some left over ham, ciabatta toast with olive oil and ground pepper.  Very tasty props.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hands on Review:
Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3  DG OS HSM lens

The Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens on a Nikon D600.

I came upon the Sigma 150-500mm zoom while researching for a long telephoto lens that would be small enough to be portable, stable enough to be hand-held, and sharp enough to deliver quality images capable of high magnification.  I use the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens for this purpose.  I also have the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 which I use for more serious work, but it is a heavy, tripod-bound lens -- definitely not something to stick in my back pack for occasional use. 

The lens has a substantial tripod collar that can double as a carry handle. The base of the collar has the popular Arca-Swiss style tripod mountSo an auxiliary mounting plate won't be necessary if your tripod head accepts this popular plate.

There is a sliding lock button on the side that locks the lens in its closed (150mm) position for transport.  This prevents the lens from extending itself when it is being carried face down.

The OS (optical stabilizer) allows you to hand hold the lens even at long focal length extensions.  I am very conservative when it comes to hand holding long telephoto lenses at slow shutter speeds, and particularly so with a lens as long and heavy as this one.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how well the OS system allowed me to take hand-held shots with full extension to 500mm and shutter speeds down around 1/125 second. 

This hand held image shot at sunrise and 500mm shows very good contrast and detail in the deep shadow areas.

This photo of New York City wild life was taken hand held at 500mm and the lens wide open at f/6.3.  Click here for a larger version of this image.

I ran a series of tests to see how the Sigma stacked up optically against the Nikon 80-400mm lens, its closed competitor with image stabilization.  The Tamron 200-500mm would also be interesting to compare, but it is not image stabilized so I did not include it.

These photos show the difference in size between the Nikon 80-400mm zoom and the Sigma 150-500mm.  The upper image shows both lenses in their closed position, while the bottom image shows them extended with their lens hoods attached.  To make the comparison more accurate, I only extended the Sigma to 400mm in this photo.  The Nikon is a substantially smaller and lighter coming in at 2.99lb (1.36kg), 6.7" (17.02cm) length, and 77mm filter size.  The Sigma weighs 4.19lb (1.9kg), is 9.9" (25.15cm) long, and takes an 86mm filter. 
I tested the lenses with both wide open and stopped down apertures.  In all cases, the Sigma returned superior results.  It was noticeably sharp in the center and had much better performance in the corners.  I have always found the Nikon lens to be very soft in the corners.  The Sigma, while not perfect in the corners, did return acceptable results even with the aperture open full.  As you might expect, the results improved as the aperture was closed down one or two stops. Of course from f/6.3 this means working at f/9 and f/13. Click here to see the image larger.

Close up detail of the terra cotta friezes on the Flat Iron Building in New York taken at 500mm and f/6.3.

I decided to see how the Sigma zoom compared to the Nikon 300mm f/4 prime lens, which has always been one of my favorite telephotos for hand held shooting.   I thought this test would be completely unfair, and heavily biased in favor of the 300mm.  But I was completely surprised when the Sigma came in equal if not even slightly better when both lenses were used at 300mm.

This comparison shows the Sigma zoomed to 300mm on the left compared to the Nikon 300mm f/4 lens on the right.  Click here to see the image larger.
Nikon cameras and lenses are excellent performers when it comes to quick, accurate auto-focus.  I wanted to see how the Sigma would compare in this category, particularly because I anticipate using it quite a bit for capturing wild life images with moving subjects.

For this test, I set extended the lens fully to 500mm and locked onto a taxi cab coming straight towards the camera.  This is the most difficult subject movement to track.  The lens was mounted on a Nikon D600 shooting at 6 frames per second.  I ran the test quite a number of times, even switching focus from one cab to another occasionally.  The Sigma did not let me down.  It maintained a sharp focus well over 90% of the time, and the few times it missed could just as easily have been due to my own tracking error.  I have to admit I did not expect such a good performance.  It may be the test that puts me over the edge on deciding to purchase this lens.
Shooting directly into a mid-day sun is a difficult situation for any lens.  The Sigma managed to maintain good detail in the shadow areas with a pleasing amount of flaring in the highlights.
This photo of the Statue of Liberty was taken with a Nikon D800 set to its 1.2x crop mode.  This resulted in an increasing the 500mm focal length to 600mm.
Putting the Nikon D800 into its DX crop mode with a 1.5x magnification resulted in a focal length of 750mm for this photo of the moon.

Detail of the upper friezes on the Flat Iron Building taken at 300mm focal length.  Aperture was f/11; camera was on a tripod; resolution is superb.  This photo demonstrates what this lens is really capable of producing when used under ideal conditions.  Click here to see a larger version of this image.


I have to admit I had some serious doubts about the performance of this lens before I began these tests.  A lens with a zoom range of 150-500mm is a very difficult optical system to compute, and when you factor in the relatively low price point, the task is all the more daunting.  I was prepared for compromises along the way.  I have to say, however, that all things considered, this lens is a solid performer.  It exhibits and overall sharpness beyond what I would expect.  It is solidly constructed, focuses quickly and accurately, can be hand held even at full extension.  Its size and weight, while not diminutive, are convenient enough to make it readily portable.

This lens delivers its best results in the f/8-f/11 range.  Admittedly, it is not always possible to work at such a closed aperture, particularly when shooting hand held.  As the Flat Iron detail photo above illustrates, doing so will return excellent results.  Since the newer FX cameras such as the Nikon D800, D600, and D4 are very capable of going to high ISO levels with little loss in quality, I think my preferred tactic would be to keep the lens stopped down and boost the ISO.

In the past I had been skeptical about using off-brand lenses on high end pro cameras. Generally, the build quality was so low they could not take the same beating pros are inclined to give their equipment in the field.  I have tested several of the newer Sigma lenses recently, and have to say their construction has vastly improved.  This lens, in particular, feels quite sturdy and smooth.  Of course, the real test of this will be with use over time.

I suppose the true test of any performance results is whether they would make you run out and purchase the lens.  In this case, the answer is a definite "Yes".  I plan to add this lens to my arsenal of serious equipment.

Mid-town New York photographed at sunset with the Sigma zoom set to 220mm

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

With the Christmas holiday over and cleaned up it's time to sit down and relax with a nice glass of port wine, some walnuts, and Stilton cheese.

Special thanks to Chuck and Christine for supplying the celebratory prop!

To achieve a focus area that included the foreground walnut, glass of port, and plate of cheese sharply  focused, while the entire background went completely out of focus, I combined seven images, each with a different focus point. The aperture was set to f/5.6 on a 60mm Nikon macro lens.  5.6 was not sufficient to gain the enough depth of field to keep the objects in focus, but stopping the lens down would not have given me the soft, casual feeling I wanted to achieve with a shallow depth of field. So I resorted to the technique of combining images with different focus points.

The first image was focused on the foreground walnut.  The focus was then stepped backwards for each of the subsequent six shots until the cheese was the main focus. The images were then stacked together. The combined result is a very sharp mid-ground with an abrupt focus drop-off into the background.  The camera was a Nikon D800.  A candle hidden in the background provided a warm, cozy glow to the glass of port.

Monday, December 24, 2012

This is a group of grab-shot holiday images created around our apartment.

This is our Christmas tree at home.  I photographed it hand-held at a low shutter speed of 1/6 second while moving the camera to create interesting patterns with the lights.  Here the blurs look like candy canes hanging from the tree.  The bottom blur is the tree reflected in the dining room table.

A plastic Santa is sits in one of the antique toy Jeeps we have in a collection of red Jeeps.

This is part of what we call our "tacky Santa" collection, made up of vintage, plastic Santa statues -- the tackier, the better.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

As Christmas approaches I continue shooting seasonally themed scenes.  Here are a couple of shots with greens done in the studio with the Nikon D800.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

This week I have been testing the new Sigma 150-500mm zoom lens and used it to photograph one of my favorite New York scenes, the Statue of Liberty at sunset close to the time of the winter solstice.  At this time of year the sun sets directly behind the statue so it can be included in the photo.  I like photographing this scene with a very long telephoto lens because it squashes the perspective, and as a result brings in all the industrial background to form a tableau with the statue.

Photo was taken with the Nikon D800 set to its 1.2x crop mode, which resulted in an effective focal length of 600mm with the Sigma 150-500 zoomed out to its full 500mm magnification.
This is a panorama of the scene made after the sun set by combining three images in Photoshop so the resulting file is very large with extremely high resolution.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Getting ready for the holiday!

Here are a few pictures we took in the studio in the past few days.

This was taken on the studio roof terrace at sunset using the Nikon D4 and 70-200mm lens.

This photo and the one below were taken in our daylight studio.  A tungsten lamp was added to the background to flare out the scene, lower the contrast, and provide a warm hair light.
Using the 85mm Nikkor lens wide open at f/1.4 resulted in the strong blur to the foreground Christmas lights.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Neale!

Every celebration is an opportunity for a stock photo. 

 ... and sometimes you can have your photo and eat it too!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Another instance where I was lucky to have the tiny Sony RX100 camera in my pocket when I happened upon this safe.  After effects were added in Photoshop.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Empire State Building was shrouded in swirling fog, and the scene was totally gray except for the purple glow and a few red lights around the top of the building spire.  The only camera I had with me was the Sony RX100.  Taking a hand held shot at ISO 1250 added motion blur to the lights.  I put the camera into a 16:9 frame format to gain a strong vertical with the framing tree branches.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This week I will be testing the new Sigma 150-500mm APO zoom lens.  I used it to take this photo from our studio terrace of the setting sun reflecting off the buildings in mid-town Manhattan.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Last week I installed some new memory chips into my computer to speed it up.  What to do with the old chips?  Shoot them for stock, of course.

All were photographed with light from a single tungsten studio lamp on a Nikon D4 and 60mm macro lens.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wet Collodion and Daguerreotype

In January I will begin a year long project of photographing Walden Pond.  This is where Henry David Thoreau lived for two years in 1844-45 to find the meaning of life, and was the subject of his book published in 1854.  Recently, I was speculating on what images Thoreau might have taken of the area had he used a camera at the time.  Out of curiosity I used some of the photos I took for my previous blog and converted them using Alien Skin's Exposure 4 software that can mimic older photographic processes.

The four images above are what the photos might look like using the wet collodion process.  This process began in 1850 and would have been available to a photographer who went back to capture images to illustrate Thoreau's book.

The photo below mimics the Daguerreotype process.  This was the first photographic process and was in existance in the United States by 1840.  It would have been available when Thoreau lived in the woods near the pond.

We've come a long way technically in 150+ years of photography, as a comparison of these images with the modern digital versions below illustrates.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Autumn's last gasp

I love photographing nature towards the end of autumn when the colors have lost their early showy brilliance and have begun settling into shades of muted, decaying browns.  I spotted these leaves on a bike ride along the Hudson River and went back to photograph them the next day with a Nikon D600 and 60mm macro lens.  For the most part, I used the lens at a wide open aperture to achieve a very shallow depth of field.  An overcast day helped tame the colors with a lower contrast.