Monday, October 26, 2015

Fuji's 90mm f/2 lens for controlling focus in lifestyle photography

Once upon a time in the old days of film the 135mm (full frame) focal length lens was a mainstay telephoto lens of every photographer. It was a little on the short side for a long reach for sports and wildlife, but came in handy for adding a telephoto effect to closer subjects. This was especially true if the lens had a fast aperture, but few of them did.

I like using a fast aperture 135mm lens for lifestyle photography for achieving a pin point focus on the subject that is separated from a heavily out-of-focus background or foreground. This is especially important where I want to leave a substantial neutral area in which art directors can work when they use my images for their ads.

In a recent shoot with a hand model, I used the Fuji 90mm almost exclusively because of its ability to focus in really tight and deliver very soft abstract patterns in the out of focus background. 
One of my favorite lenses was -- and still is -- the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC, where the "DC" stands for defocus control. This control could be used to adjust the amount of out-of-focus in front or in back of the focused point. It did work, but was quite a mild change. I never found it to be too useful. I did, however, really love the lens. It was very sharp and gave a pleasing bokeh. But this lens was made in 1990, and, although still in the Nikon lineup, is definitely due for an update to improve its performance with today's high res digital sensors.

I had pretty much given up on using this focal length until Fuji introduced its 90mm f/2 lens. This lens quickly became a game-changer, and, once again, I found myself back in love with the 135mm focal length. To make matters even better, the Fuji lens performs beautifully even wide open at f/2, which is where I use it most of the time.

The lens is exceptionally sharp wide open at f/2, which enables me to let the front and back of a scene to completely blur out.
One other feature of the Fuji 90mm lens that really expanded its usefulness, was its ability to focus in very close. It gets in to 1.97' (60cm) for a magnification of .2x. That's good enough to come in quite tight on a subject.

When I pull back a little and keep the aperture set to f/2 I can use an out-of-focus foreground to give a sense a depth to the scene. 

Integrating out-of-focus props such as this iv placed in front of the doctor, allows me to tell the story without much interference from the object.

I even like using the Fuji 90mm for some still life photography because of the pleasing bokeh effects. 

All of the samples above were taken at an aperture of f/2 to juxtapose the sharp subjects with a softer, story-telling scene. I am not a wedding photographer, but I would think this lens would be a perfect accompaniment to a wedding photographer's lens kit. It is quickly becoming one of my favorites for shooting lifestyle.

On a recent shoot outdoors, where I generally use a 70-200mm lens on a Nikon, I picked up the Fuji X-T1 with the 90mm on it just to see how it would perform in a severely backlit situation with the sun. The difference between the 90mm and the Nikon 70-200 was startling-- way more than I would even expect.

The Fuji 90mm f/2 lens is definitely one of the best optical performers in a Fuji lineup that includes some very heavy competition for that title.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Highlights of PhotoPlus Expo 2015

Yesterday was the opening day of PhotoPlus Expo 2015 in New York. There were very few bombshell announcements, Among the biggest was the new, full-frame Leica SL (Typ 601) camera. The SL has a 24MP sensor coupled to the latest version of the Maestro II processor. It can shoot at 11fps, has 4k video at both 4096 x 2160 (24p) and 3840 x 2160 (30p),  It has an incredible 4.4k EVF viewfinder.

Dials and buttons are the utmost simplicity with a readout screen on top of the body. I wasn't prepared to like this camera as much as I did, particularly the econometrics, but at a body price of $7450 I don't think I'll be rushing out to add this one to my arsenal of equipment any time soon.

The SL is shown here with its custom Leica-M adapter and Leica M lens. This is the way I would want to use this camera.  Best thing about this adapter is that it passes the lens data to the camera where the camera can make necessary corrections for the lens in order to produce optimum results. In a sense, this feature makes the camera a meaningful pro-alternative to using the Leica M itself. 

The design is minimal. If you are familiar with the Leica M menu system, the SL menu system will be a natural for you. It is quick and easy to navigate. My favorite feature on the camera is the small, ball toggle for moving the focus points. It is the quickest, easiest, most responsive focus system I have seen to date. 
While there are only going to be very few dedicated lenses initially available for the SL, it also accepts all other important Leica lenses -- Leica M, S, R via a dedicated adapter. The kit lens -- if  you can call a $4950 lens a "kit" lens -- shown here is a very practical focal length Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-4 Vario-Elmarit

Fuji didn't have too much new to announce at the show. They did show their new 35mm f/2 lens and the 1.4x teleconverter.

The 35mm f/2 Fuji lens.  At $399 it is a smaller, weather-resistant, less expensive alternative to the current Fuji 35mm f/1.4. Reports coming in make mention of its quick and quiet auto focus and high image sharpness. It weighs just a tad less than the f/1.4 model, and does not focus quite as close (13.78" or 35cm for the f/2; 11.02 or 28cm for the f/1.4), but the magnification is not that far off.  

Fuji's XF1.4X TC WR teleconverter has a limited use, currently working only on the 55-140mm f/2.8 zoom. It is also intended for the 100-400mm telephoto zoom and 120mm macro coming out in 2016. 

Among the other do-dads I saw and liked were straps and a messenger bag with a really unique fastening system -- all perfect for a Fuji-X or Leica camera system.

Cecilia straps come in a variety of width from just the strap itself up to a 1.5" neck band. They are made of leather and also come with Peruvian woven designs. The leather was very supple, a perfect accompaniment to a Fuji X camera. 
Celicia also makes leather wrist straps of the same leather. 

One of the most inovative camera bag fastening designs I have come across lately is made by Peak Design as part of a Kickstarter project.

The Peak Design Everyday Messenger bag features a unique, brushed metal clasp. Pull the square loop down to unfasten the top. Simply touch the loop to any of the four fasteners and the top flap locks with a distinct snap. The bag is rather large for a small camera system. I only wish they made one or two smaller versions. 

The GigaPan Epic Pro is something I have been considering for some time to use in my panorama work. It is a very precise machine for taking multiple pictures to stitch into ultra-high resolution panoramic images. Considering what it does, the $995 price tag, it is a reasonable enough. What has kept me from jumping in is the size. It is a large, extra piece of equipment to lug around. It does have a dedicated accessory back pack, but when I add in the camera, tripod, and lenses, the total package is getting quite cumbersome to transport.

The GigaPan comes in three sizes, the largest, and the one with the most features is the Epic Pro. It can support most any full-frame or smaller camera. This was the first time I actually saw one of these devices. I found it to be smaller than I had pictured it to be. I came very close to placing an order for one right at the show. 
The GigaPan works fully electronically. The photographer marks the starting and ending points of the image sequence, enters the lens focal length data and percentage of required over-lap, and the Epic Pro does the rest. You can use any stitching software, such as PTGui to assemble the images later.  Hardly seems fair to even take credit for taking the photo. 
Drones were everywhere at the exhibit. I liked this new one from ProDrone. One of the nicest things about it is that it folds up into a very compact package for portability, and opens up in an instant ready to fly.

The ProDrone can be ordered with a 2k or 4k camera, or mount your own. It has a very long battery life (30 minute flight time). The drone has a very compact, easy to use flight controller. Two controls, one with over ride, can be used for flight training. 
The ProDrone folds up into a compact 169.5 x 240cm package. 

As for lenses, I've had my eye on the new Zeiss Milvus lineup for Nikon, in particular the 50mm f/1.4 or f/2 macro so I can use them for creating panoramas. These lenses are hitting the market now so I will be testing them out soon.

I liked the smaller size of the Milvus 50mm f/2 macro. It is a manual focus lens only, but that does now present any problem in using it for macros, or for panoramas where I always turn AF to off anyway. I was told by someone at the show that it is Nikon and Canon who do not allow Zeiss to make AF lens models for their cameras. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Classic sunset views of New York City

There are a few spots where the most iconic panoramic city views of New York City are taken. The Top of the Rock is one, and the view of lower Manhattan from along the East River just north of the Brooklyn Bridge is another. The photo in my prior blog post was taken on the promenade near the ferry stop just below the Brooklyn Bridge. Last night, however, I braved the forest of tripod legs set up along the water front by visiting tourists and wedding photographers taking picture of the happy couple against the city.

I have been taking photos of this view literally for decades. It is a fairly simple shot providing you get the timing right. In 2011, however, a large, brightly lit carousel was added to the park just below the tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, and, if you don't compensate for it with your exposure or in post processing, it looms as a large, blown-out, distracting white blob that mars the image. I have learned to always grab a 2+ underexposed shot of the scene to gain a correctly exposed shot of the carousel that I can add into my shot later.

It is difficult to see these very horizontal shots in this post so, once again, I am including a higher res version of it by clicking here. It is only about half the original size, but large enough to see the details. 
Having pretty much given up -- at least temporarily -- on shooting with my new Sony A7RII I used my Leica M 240 and rated it at 42MP for the stitched panorama shots I took.  This 40" panorama is made up of only two horizontal images taken with the Leica-M 35mm Summilux lens set to f/5.6. To gain an even larger version for giant panorama capable of making prints up 7-8' wide I also created an even larger version of the scene by stitching four vertical shots taken with the Leica-M 50mm Summilux lens.

I have been photographing city scenes like crazy these days because it is an ideal time of year when the sun has moved to add color to the southern part of the sky and leaves are still on the trees. In another few weeks the trees will be barren and scenes like this will not look nearly as good, unless you want to capture it in a newly fallen snow.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Last night I decided to put my latest discovery of shooting the Leica M 240 as a 42MP camera. I took the mid-town ferry down the East River to Dumbo in Brooklyn to capture a full sweep panorama of lower Manhattan and both the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges after sunset. I used my 21mm Leica Elmarit-M f/2.8 lens and ended up with three horizontal shots to stitch together. I usually prefer to use a longer focal length to avoid distortion, but the wide 21mm allowed me to extend the photos into the sky and water in a panorama that was getting a bit too narrow otherwise.

These panoramic images don't display very well in my blog format so I've included a higher res version to download by clicking here. The download version is about half the original size, which is 48" wide. 

This technique seems to be working quite well. Not sure I really need the A7RII after all. 

Yesterday, Sony announced its new RX1R II and it comes with a variable  optical low-pass filter system that can adjust voltage on a liquid crystal layer. This allow adjustment of the light-splitting properties of the array so the user can adjust the filter more for detail or more for elimination of moire. Sounds like this filter would be a perfect solution to the problem of using third-party lenses on the A7RII. Why they put it in the RX1R II instead is a mystery to me.  

One of the side benefits of riding the ferry down the East River to my destination was picking up a few unexpected shots along the way. I captured this rather misty view of the Brooklyn Bridge through the Manhattan Bridge by shooting through the scratched and dirty plexi window on the ferry with my 50mm Summilux lens. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Catching the light -- things I like about the Fuji X100T, part III

Photography is really an abstract creative process of capturing light. Often times that light is fleeting, as it was this morning at sunrise when the warm rays entered our apartment window and played upon the petals of a bowl of sunflowers. It wasn't going to last long, and I wanted to capture the light effect if I could. This is where my Fuji X100T comes in handy.

The X100T is a small, light-weight camera with only one lens -- nothing complicated, just a basic photographic instrument. But the image quality is excellent and the more I use the camera, the more I realize its potentials. It is also capable of getting in very tight on a subject, which, when coupled with a wide open aperture, produces a mellow look that is unique. Plus, it has the added of always being ready to be put to work. No lens to change, not much to do but pick it up and shoot.

It is no wonder this camera has such a devoted following.

Sometimes I think it would be a good exercise for teaching someone photography. Its one lens imposes restrictions that force us to think more creatively about adapting what we have to our subject without being overwhelmed by choices in equipment.  As Thoreau said, "Our life is frittered away by detail ... simplify, simplify".  

Monday, October 12, 2015

What the Sony A7rII taught me about my 42MP Leica M 240

Yes, you read it correctly. I am writing about my 42MP Leica M 240, and, yes, I know that a Leica M 240 has a 24MP sensor. The main reason I purchased my Sony A7rII was so I could use my Leica M lenses on a 42MP camera with an adapter in order to achieve very high resolution images for making extremely large prints -- prints capable of going to a 6-8' width. What I discovered in the process was that I could use by Leica M at 42MP and achieve even better results.

But I getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

If you've been a follower of this column, you know that, among other things, I also take photographs to make into very large (5-8' width) prints. Achieving high resolution at this print size while using modern, full frame digital cameras puts a strain on the camera sensor as well as the optics, not to mention the photographic technique itself. For the first part of the equation, I have been using two cameras for most of this work -- the 36MP Nikon D810 and Leica M 240. I have been using the D810 because of its exceptional sensor, and the Leica M because it takes Leica-M lenses. One thing I have noticed is that the images coming from my Leica camera always appear to be noticeably sharper than images from any other camera I use. I attribute this primarily to the optics. Then D810 is also very good, but its quality comes primarily from its sensor. Nikon optics, while really good, are not on a par with the best lenses being made by Leica and Zeiss for digital cameras.

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The advent of Sony's A7rII camera and its new back-illuminated structure 42MP sensor started me thinking that I might be able to combine to two high quality digital components by coupling Leica-M lenses with the A7rII camera. This system worked well with a long lens, such as the Leica-M 135mm APO Telyt, but when I moved to shorter focal lengths my theory fell apart. The lenses, normally very sharp on my Leica M, exhibited a definite softness along the edges and corners with the A7rII. Obviously, Leica was specifically adapting its sensor and processing software to achieve the highest results with its own optics, whereas Sony could not do that.

One thing I have learned from using high resolution sensors is that they are not forgiving. If you don't have the best optics and exhibit meticulous technique -- tripod only, no hand-holding -- the results are going to be terrible, often even worse than using a camera with fewer megapixels.

I ran some specific experiments using the same Leica-M lenses on both cameras and, sure enough, Leica-M lenses on a Leica M body produced sharper overall results. I became discouraged to the point of considering selling off my new A7rII. This is not to say the A7rII is not a great camera, despite the numerous short-comings I find in the way it handles. The sensor is exceptional. But the sensor is only half of the equation. Using the lenses Zeiss makes specifically for it would probably deliver the results I require. But putting the same lenses on my D810 would probably achieve similar results and, although touted for its diminutive size, the bulk of an A7rII builds rapidly as you mount quality Zeiss optics on it.

My dilemma led me to try an experiment in post-processing. I always shoot in camera RAW and process my images into 16-bit tif files using Adobe Camera Raw. I find this program to be exception and do most of my processing with it, leaving only minor adjustments to be made in Photoshop later.

When outputting a file from ACR, you have the option of changing its size. One way of doing this is to change the megapixel count. Doing so will obviously result in a larger file size. What I have noticed is that the results from this up-res are better than by trying to increase the size later in Photoshop.

This is where I choose the megapixel size to output from ACR. 
I decided to try outputting a Leica-M file over-clocked at 42MP just to see what would happen. Eureka! The results were fantastic, and the images looked even better than those I had been taking with the A7rII.

In addition to the sizing the image to 42MP, I also add a tiny bit of sharpening. Over-sharpening a Leica image is very noticeable so be careful with this.  It must be done sparingly. How much depends upon the individual file.

The samples below illustrate a comparison between a Sony A7rII and Leica M 240 over-clocked to 42MP. Both cameras used the same Leica 50mm Summilux lens at f/5.6.

This is the entire scene photographed. The excerpts below show the lower left corner at 100% magnification. 

You can download this comparison photo here. I chose to use a corner because it is an area that is less forgiving in terms of sharpness. 
The results of rating my Leica M 240 at 42MP were good enough for me to give up trying to adapt the Leica lenses to the A7rII. Guess this means I'll be selling off the A7rII, and perhaps using the funds to purchase some new Zeiss Milvas glass for my D810.

The photo below, a composite of ten vertical images taken in two rows of five photos each with the Lecia M 240 and Leica 50mm Summilux lens is typical of the results I need to achieve for my large prints. The final print size for this image is 28x60".

Download a high-res sample of this image here. I had to make it smaller than the full 28x60" size so as not of over-tax my file server.  Nonetheless, it is still large enough to give an idea of what this technique is capable of delivering. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Smoothing out a sky in combined panoramas

Last night I did a panorama cityscape by combining eight photographs of mid-town Manhatten taken from across the East River. One of the problems dealing with so many images, especially when the sky is smooth and cloudless, is that the panoramic stitching software often delivers blotchy results  in the sky tones when putting the images together. That happened to me last night. Attempting to smooth out such a large area of constant tonality is not a fun post-processing task.

The time-exposure photos were taken with the 42mp Sony A7RII camera and Leica-M 135mm APO Telyt lens at f/8. Lately, I have been using PTGui program to combine the panoramas, but this time the results were so blotchy from the eight photos that I decided to go back and give Photoshop's photomerge a try.

The photomerge feature in Photoshop CC has been considerably improved. While it took much longer to complete the merge, the results were well worth the time. The sky was much smoother in its transitions than the sky produced by PTGui.

The resulting image file is 600MB and 7' wide. The detail from the 42mp sensor is incredible.

This panoramic of the city from across the East River showing the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and United Nations is a merger done in Photoshop from a combination of eight vertical images.

Even in the tiny photo assembled in PTGui you can see the variegated results in the sky tones from one side of the panorama to the other. 

These are the original eight vertical images that were combined to form the panorama. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Fuji X100T plus Classic Chrome -- a winning combination

The day was overcast with light rain. I went to the Union Square farmers market to pick up a few things for the week, and, as is often the case, I had my Fuji X100T with me. I love the look of the close-up look from this camera. The overcast plus the rain added up to a dark somberness to the colors -- an absolutely perfect combo when coupled with the Fuji Classic Chrome look.  I ended up adding even more muting by dialing down the color vibrance and saturation in Photoshop post processing.

In the shots with shallow depth of field, I used the lens wide open at f/2. Otherwise, I kept it at f/5.6 for most of subjects.

There is a bit of deep softness added to this photo, the result of a Photoshop action I created several years ago. 

Next to the market is a cobblestone road. When wet, it takes on an eerie look enhanced by the reflection of daylight from down the street. With the Classic Chrome the colors are muted and the contrast boosted with dark shadows.  

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Photographing horses with a Nikon D810

This past week I was in Pennsylvania photographing horses for my art portfolio. Since the prints are intended to be quite large, It would have been nice to use a Nikon D4 with its super-fast drive, but I opted for a high resolution camera instead. In this case I chose the Nikon D810 and equipped it with the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, 105mm macro, and 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses. For the most part I stayed with the long zoom and even added a 1.4x telextender at times so I would fill the frame with the horse.

The photographs will be printed in an editioned set of two sizes with the Piezographic monochrome inkjet process which uses seven shades of monochrome inks to deliver exceptionally rich tonality.  Below are a few of the images taken on my trip last week.