Tuesday 26 June 2018

It's Not The Gear

The Creek 
D200, Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6

I've a tendency to focus on gear, largely because I'm still searching for the camera/system that truly fits me perfectly. I've not found it yet, although the A7II is working well.

But the reality is pretty much any DSLR or Mirrorless body from the last 10 years can produce more than acceptable work for 90% of situations. Maybe not in the real edge cases, where you need the speed, high ISO capability or some other aspect of the newer, higher-end bodies, but otherwise any reasonably skilled photographer can deliver the goods with most anything.

That's worth calling out, because too many chase the latest & greatest because it's 'Better'. But most only actually need 'Good Enough'. If you're looking to upgrade something, the first question that should be asked is 'what will it give me that my current body can't?'

For me, with both my upgrades this year, I'd had that pretty much nailed down.

When I got the D800, it was going to give me better compatibility with my manual focus lenses than my D300 did (specifically the angle of view & rendering I expected). I was also gaining high ISO performance (significant) and dynamic range (less important but still quite useful for a landscape/cityscape shooter like myself). It delivered on all three expectations, and also proved to be generally a better DX camera than the D300, which I didn't expect.

When I swapped the D800 for the A7II, it was to give me a better hit rate when manual focusing, as well as a smaller, lighter carry kit when not using my Zeiss 85/1.4. It's also delivered in spades.

So if you're looking at the shiny new toy, be sure you know what you're going to get. The quickest way to be disappointed in your new camera is to have unrealistic expectations of what it can deliver.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Lost Crown

Lost Crown
A7 II, Zeiss ZF.2 1,4/85 Planar

This image hit Explore on Flickr recently and is a great example of what I love about the 85 Planar's rendering. Such a lovely lens.

Monday 18 June 2018

First Takes on the A7 II

The Vent 
A7 II, 28/3.5 H

The above shot I'd never have gotten with the D800. Just too hard to get reliable focus with the 28/3.5 H.

The A7 II is really a mixed bag for me. It's a little odd, as it's a camera with a whole lot of issues, but very few of the problems get in my way.

What's wrong with it? Well the menu's are a mess, battery life is terrible, there's a few things at the firmware level that it should do but doesn't, the button layout is adequate at best and it's really not all that refined.

However for me, and how I shoot, there's really only 3 issues.

1. Terrible battery life (solved with A7 III). The small (1050mAh) battery combined with how power hungry mirrorless bodies inherently are gives a 3-400 shot battery life (vs around 900-1000 with the D800). The larger Z series battery in the A7 III solves this, but a few extra 3rd party batteries get me enough life for it to be a non-issue in practice.

2. Overly-sensitive EVF/LCD auto-switching. This is a problem for a couple reasons. The first is that it makes waistlevel shooting an issue unless I manually set it to LCD, which I can only do in the menu (no way to assign this to a button, unlike the NEX-7 or the SLT bodies). The second is that the detector keeps the camera awake, meaning I need to hold the camera in a particular way for it to go to sleep (and preserve precious battery). The A7 III solves the first (it disables the sensor when the LCD is flipped out) but not the second.

3. Card formatting. I can deal with all the rest of the 'buried in random menu section' issues, but reformatting cards is a right PITA. For now I've solved that largely by a change in import workflow, I'm now using the option to delete on import completion to eliminate the need for formatting in-camera.

Admittedly the fact it doesn't write IBIS focal length to metadata is annoying, but not really a show-stopper (Nikon gets this more right with Non-CPU lens data settings)

Now what's right about the camera?

For me, there's a lot.

1. Size. With my smaller lenses I get a much smaller/lighter package than the D800 was. This is a big deal for me given my right shoulder issues. I have problems carrying heavy kit in my right hand. And it just doesn't scream 'Pro with Camera' like the D300 and D800 do.

2. Focusing. While it's not perfect, I can much more reliably hit focus manually with the A7 II than a DSLR. This is most notable with the 85/1.4, but a big deal with both the 28/3.5 and the 300/4.5 as well. After trying the 300 on the A7 I was surprised that I was getting acceptable results, which I didn't on either the D800 or the D300. It by no means makes the 300/4.5 into a great lens, but it's surprisingly usable at f8, to the point where it's likely to actually get used semi-regularly (it got one test run on both the D800 and D300). I tend to use a mix of both peaking (for faster shots) and magnification for focusing. Peaking gives a hit rate around 75% or so with my most difficult setup (ZF.2 85@f2-2.8) while magnification is around 95% (beating <50% with the OVF+AF Confirm on the D800).

3. Seeing exposure. You get a pretty decent preview of your exposure in the EVF and LCD. I find the LCD not really useful for fine exposure tuning, but it's good in the EVF. And of course I can always bring up a live histogram to get an even better idea of what I'm dealing with.

4. Flip-out LCD. So useful for low-angle and high-angle shots that are really just a guessing game with most DSLR's, especially since the LV experience is wildly better with any mirrorless than a DSLR.

So overall, the A7 II is decidedly less well sorted than the D800, but very well sorted for my uses. I'm quite happy with it and hope to keep shooting it for the foreseeable future.

Friday 15 June 2018


The Bun 
A7II, Zeiss ZF.2 T* 1,4/85 Planar

First a quick shooting update. I passed 4000 shots for the year at the end of May and am now less than 1000 shots under what I shot in 2014, the last year before my shooting collapsed. And I continue to actively shoot several times a week. I'm very happy with this and expect the full year will bring me back to my typical 10k or so shots for the year. Mostly it's walkabout shooting city & macro work, but a little nature & street too.

That said, I became increasingly frustrated with the D800. Not because it's not a great camera, but for two other reasons.

1. It's heavy. It's just too large & heavy for regular walkabout days of shooting. It's fine when I'm carrying the full kit and headed out for some serious shooting (since a bag full of lenses weighs a lot more than 1 body), but it's a pig for days when I just want to throw the 50/1.8 or 55/3.5 and go explore.

2. Increasing frustration in using the 28/3.5 and 85/1.4 on it, especially the latter. The 28 is one lens I just could not get to work well on the D800, although I knew from my film bodies that it was actually pretty good. The low contrast wide open was just too much of a challenge to use with the D800's somewhat sketchy AF confirm. The focus shift on the 85/1.4 made focusing wider than f4.5 a crapshoot unless I was wide open. A pity, since I love the results at f2-2.8 when I hit focus.

The NEX-7 could solve the first one, which is why I traded a D300+lenses for it. For the second it was either replace the lenses or the body. And I'm almighty fond of my Zeiss 85, regardless of its flaws.

But a week after I bought the NEX-7, I found a Sony A7II in the same store for an irresistible price. So after some deliberation, I returned the NEX-7 and traded in the D800 for the A7II, and came out cash even (actually, a little ahead, but I bought a spare battery for the A7II, since I know it's bad on batteries).

This nets me a main camera light enough to do light carry with my smaller lenses, and with the ability to accurately focus my 85/1.4 at working aperture. The above picture was at f2.8 with the Zeiss 85 and focus is dead on. That shot would have been a complete gamble on the D800 but focus peaking & EVF magnification made it dead easy on the A7II. As much as I like the OVF view, focus accuracy is more important.

Overall I shot just shy of 3000 shots on the D800. And I loved shooting it, I just didn't love coming home to 50% out of focus shots. don't get me wrong, it's actually a great camera (and IMHO a better overall camera than the A7II for most applications), just for my uses and lenses, the A7II can deliver in focus shots where the D800 cannot for reasons that really are the fault of the lenses in question, and that seals the deal. Bodies come and go, but lenses are the core of the system. As a bonus, I now have a body for my beloved Nikkor-S.C 5cm f1.4 LTM lens. That's my cold dead hands lens, and I've not had a good body for it in several years.

Oh, and I get IBIS (stabilization) for all my lenses.

So for now I'll have the A7II with adapted F mount glass as my main camera, and the D300 for speed/beater usage. We'll see how things evolve from here. I'm not planning any investments, so far everything's really been just horse-trading. I've been lucky in that.

Wednesday 13 June 2018

A Brief Sojourn - NEX-7

Burst of Purple 
NEX-7, E 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 OSS

A couple Friday's ago I traded one of my D300's as well as my 10-20 and 35/1.8DX in on a NEX-7.

Why? Well, I needed a light carry body and hadn't been seeing what I wanted show up in Nikon mount. The NEX-7 is another body I used to own and got along with very well and I found a great deal on one with the 18-55 kit lens.

So I did the trade. And then I spent a week shooting with it, clocking 244 exposures during that week.

It reminded me mostly of what I liked about the body. Sure the AF is pedestrian, the high ISO performance marginal and the battery life on the short side, but it handles well, has a nice viewfinder and rear LCD, great focusing aids and the low & mid ISO performance is excellent even by today's standards.

In particular, the control dial setup is IMHO better than the newer A6x00 bodies (I see little need for  a mode dial over having an extra control wheel).

I could be pretty happy with the NEX-7 as my light carry camera, complementing the D800 (serious shooting camera) and D300 (speed/beater).

That didn't happen, as I ended up returning the NEX-7 in favour of something else. The answer to that riddle is coming Friday.

Monday 11 June 2018

Mini Review - Nikkor K 300mm f4.5 AI'd

Redwing Blackbird 
NEX-7, Nikkor K 300mm f4.5 AI'd

I've owned 2 of these, the first a really beatup one with a cracked foot that I used back in my pre-digital and early digital days and the second a cheap one I picked up as a telephoto for mirrorless bodies back in 2012 or so. I still own the latter.

These are extremely cheap on the used market. There's a reason. Frankly, it sucks. Most every semi-modern 70-300 is as good or better at 300mm.

What's wrong with it?

Low resolution. You can see detail smearing on the cattails even at web resolution
CA and purple fringing at wide apertures. It's bloody useless at f4.5 and merely poor at f5.6. It's usable at f8
Poor MFD. Yeah, it doesn't focus close at all. Unlike most every 70-300.

What's good about it?

Very well built
Includes tripod foot
Easy to focus

If you still shoot film, and have a body that takes AI lenses but not G lenses, it's not bad for what it costs if you aren't a regular long-lens shooter. If you can use G lenses, even the cheapest 70-300G is as good, and probably better stopped down.

Skip this one. Only reason I still own it is that it's the one 300mm option I own that works on every body I own, which is occasionally useful. And it's worthless on the used market.

If you really must have a slower 300 with an aperture ring, look for the ED or ED-IF versions. They're FAR better. Or just get the original AF-S version, it's a D lens with an aperture ring and also FAR better. I'd skip the regular AF version, it's not enough cheaper than the AF-S to justify not getting the AF-S version instead of the screwdriver version, and the AI-S ED-IF is the same glass with better manual focusing.

Friday 8 June 2018

Mini Review - Zeiss ZF.2 T* 1,4/85 Planar

Faked Fenced 
D800,  Zeiss ZF.2 T* 1,4/85 Planar

The ZF.2 85 is a complex lens to review, and one that's driven most of my gear decisions of late.

In short, it's a brilliant but flawed lens that requires care and thought to get the most from it, but the end results are well worth it.

Fundamentally the design is an evolution of the 85/1.4 Planar from the Contax SLR system, with about 25 years of experience injected.

Wide open it's a little soft, especially at close focus distances, and subject to very noticeable CA. Stopped down it's sharp, with excellent contrast & resolution. It's in between the two where things get awkward.

Fundamentally it does have the classic Zeiss signature. Lovely colour, lots of microcontrast in the in-focus areas, a drop in microcontrast as you transition to the out of focus areas and the resulting 'Zeiss 3D' look.

But between f1.6 and f4, it suffers horrendously from focus shift. This is where the act of stopping down the lens to shooting aperture from wide open shifts the plane of focus away from its position wide open (which is focusing aperture on a DSLR). There's a couple ways to compensate for this, mostly in using DoF preview (awkward), using Live View (if your DSLR supports LV at shooting aperture) or simply adapting it to a Mirrorless camera and using the EVF & focus aids to get around focus shift (since you are always focusing at shooting aperture, most mirrorless systems don't suffer from focus shift).

That said, I do love the results when I hit focus. It's just brilliant. But I can't recommend it to folks shooting high-MP DSLR's due to focus shift. You simply have to stop it down to smaller than f4 so DoF covers the shift, and there's better options for slow lenses in this range.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

Mini Review - Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR G

Around the Corner 
D300,  Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR G

Introduced in 2006, the 70-300VR G was Nikon's first real consumer VR telezoom (the earlier 80-400 was out of reach of most consumers). It was also a brilliant value, sharp to 250mm, acceptable at 300mm, fast AF, great stabilization.

It isn't anymore.

The short answer is this is quite a good lens on bodies up to 14MP or so, and increasingly mediocre on newer bodies. It's a little soft at 300mm, but at 250mm or below it's very good on low and mid megapixel bodies (or film for that matter, if you have one of the few film bodies that support VR, AF-S & G lenses)

Over the last couple years Nikon released 2 new AF-P 70-300's, a cheap f4.5-6.3 DX version (in VR and non-VR form) and a more expensive f4.5-5.6 FX version. In short, both are better than the VR G, and noticeably so on any body with AF-P support. Given the low cost of refurbs on the DX VR version, that's the way to go today unless you have an old body. Get the FX version if you have any FX body other than the D3/S/X or D700 (none of which support AF-P). Skip the VR G unless you shoot FX and need a telezoom on a serious budget.

That said, if you own one, I wouldn't toss it. Just don't expect it to hold up to 24MP DX or 24+MP FX.

Monday 4 June 2018

Mini Review - Micro-Nikkor 55mm f3.5 AI

The Kids 
D800, Micro-Nikkor 55mm f3.5 AI

For a couple decades the 55/3.5 Micro was the answer for Nikon shooters to the question 'I need a really sharp normal lens'. Not fast, but extremely sharp, reasonably priced and a great focal length for many uses on 35mm and DX crop bodies.

I've had at least 2 of these over the years, maybe three (I don't recall exactly). The current one was a gift from my Aunt, who had bought it new with an FE body around 1980 or so (I also have that FE body, it's my last film body).  

In short, it's a brilliant little lens. It can be a bit finicky to get accurate infinity focus via an optical viewfinder, but at any other shooting distance it's quite easy to focus accurately. It is a daylight lens, at f3.5 it's just not bright enough for real low-light work off a tripod, unless you have an EVF and world-beating high ISO (think A7SII and maybe an A9 or A7III). The issue is focusing more than anything else. Surprisingly, it's also a pretty good portrait lens on DX, if you can live with manual focus. You don't really need f1.8 or faster for portraits and the 55 is a nicer length for portraiture than the 50's (it's 82.5mm-e vs 75mm-e, closer to the classic 85 FL).

Overall though, this is my go-to lens very everyday use. I've definitely used 2 other lenses more of late (My 85/1.4 and 70-300), but when I pick up a single lens to put on the camera for walkabout or any sort of general shooting, it's the 55/3.5 that gets the nod 9 out of 10 times.

If you shoot F mount, or shoot something that you can readily adapt F mount lenses to, this cheap & cheerful lens is well worth adding to your kit. Possibly more so than a 50/1.8.