Monday, July 24, 2017

Black and White photography in the Digital Age

Back in the day (yes, I'm that old, but I can assure you I only walked up hill to school in one direction) all I shot was black and white.  Color was too difficult to control and the costs too high.  After years of working in black and white my "eye" became conditioned to a certain "look".  The mid-tones of a nice gelatin print could be a big beautiful sea of wonderful grays.

Time marches on, as they say and I've been less than happy with my digital images when I've tried to convert them to black and white.  I wasn't sure what the problem was, but every conversion and every filter and every film type I applied left me less than satisfied.  Try as I might, I couldn't figure out what the problem was.

So... I shot digital color and found I love it.

However, recently, Mike Johnson on his The Online Photographer blog posted two articles.  The first is titled "How to Cure the Digital B&W Nasties."  Well, there we have it.  The complete problem statement of what I felt I've been encountering since Day One of my transition to digital.  The second blog entry added a few details on how to make a decent B&W image using current tools.  It's titled "Look at Tone as Light."

Moving from "digital nasties" to a near perfect match for old film is much much easier than I'd ever imagined.  The key, for me, was in reading how a photographer who's work I greatly admire dealt with a student's image.

greg brophy: "... I once asked Carl [Weese] to help me with a B&W photo and he basically lifted the midtones."

There you have it.  The Answer.

Certainly there are many things a photographer can do in converting a color digital image into a decent black and white photo.  There are color channels you can manipulate.  There are "S shaped tone curves" you can apply.  And, yes, there are pre-canned film presets you can select.  I've tried them all and was not at all happy with any of them.

After having reconsidered the topic thanks to The Online Photographer, I think I've finally made peace with digital cameras and black and white imaging.  And I'm finding I'm enjoying working in black and white again.

Here is a Flickr album that illustrates my current understanding of the conversion technique.

Audelange, Jura, France

Monday, July 10, 2017

Comparison ~ Sony 16mm, Sigma 19mm, and Nikon 24mm

It seems I'm not yet over the Madness that's taken hold.  Here is a comparison of Sony, Sigma, and Nikkor wide angle lenses.

The lenses being compared include a Sony 16mm f/2.8 SEL "pancake" that sold with the first line of NEX-5 cameras.  Mine came as a reconditioned kit and I can't seem to find a reason nor a way to jettison it from my wee-collection of toys.  Then I added a Nikon Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 Ai-S to the comparison.  My thoughts were that I could put it on a Zhongyi Lens Turbo II and get higher image quality than the 16mm Sony.  I was hoping that this setup would match the very nice Sigma 19mm EX DN E f/2.8 (included here as my control optic).  There are times I like the full frame equivalent of 24mm's and the Sigma is more like working with a 28mm full frame lens on APS-C.  And lastly, two Sony kit lenses are included here.  One has 16mm's on the short end.  That is, of course, the Sony 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS.  The other has 18mm's on the short end and is the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS.  Both are little valued in the marketplace and have received a lot of criticism.

Comparison setup -
  • Some pages out of a local newspaper taped to the bedroom wall 
  • Sony A6000 set to "A", 100 ISO, 2second delay 
  • Massive Manfrotto tripod 
  • No sharpening applied to the RAW output 
  • 500 pixel sections were taken from the various images and organized below 
Here are the center and edge of the scene comparisons. As a control, I added a Sigma 19mm EX DN E into the mix. As always, take a look at the following image a full resolution to note the differences between the various focal lengths and apertures.

16mm to 24mm Wide Angle Comparison (Nikon, Sony, Sigma)

Starting with the lens shown at top and moving down to the bottom, here are my comments.

The Sony 16mm f/2.8 SEL is soft wide open.  Every comparison I've performed confirms my copy is less than stellar at that aperture.  However, stopped down one click the lens starts to "wake up."  The center is sharp from f/4 on.  The edges don't sharpen up until f/5.6.  If you're a "critical photographer", this is an inexpensive, widely available, great little "pancake" lens that shoots best from f/5.6 to f/11.

Back in the day, Nikon's Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 Ai-S was taken to be a wonderfully sharp and versatile lens.  As we can see in this comparison, the center is sharp from wide open.  However, when mounted on a Zhongyi Lens Turbo II focal reducer to work on an APS-C sensor'd camera, the edges never ever sharpen up.  I've shot this in the wild and there's just no way of getting the edges sharp.  So much for the idea of using it with the Zhongyi focal reducer.

I've put this on a straight-through adapter and can use it as a 35mm equivalent focal length lens on APS-C.  When used this way it's sharp to the edges from f/4 on down.  While not exactly inexpensive (they're currently running between 100 and 200Euro, depending), it does give that Nikon "look."  To me it's not worth buying a full frame camera to use just this one lens to achieve a single goal, so, I guess I'm not sure what I'll do with it.  Maybe I'll stop looking for a cheap Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 and simply keep the 24mm Nikkor on the non-focal reduced adapter?

Next, we come to the control lens in this comparison.  The Sigma 19mm f/2.8 EX DN E is sharp from wide open straight across the field from the center to the very edges.  What's not to love about this little lens?  It's inexpensive (just a tick north of 100Euro at this point, used in mint condition), light, and comes with AF that's nearly as quick as the Sony 16mm SEL.

The last two optics in this wee-comparison are the two Sony kit lenses.  Starting with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS at 16mm we see that the center is sharp from wide open.  The edges are, however, nearly as bad as with the 24mm Nikkor mounted on the Zhongyi focal reducer.  They never seem to improve, regardless of aperture.  This lens is a bit more expensive than the earlier kit lens.  Maybe people like it because it's nearly a "pancake" optic?  If this were the only lens you owned, I'm sure it'd do a decent job of getting you where you want to go.  But for similar, or possibly less money I'd buy a Sigma 19mm and call it good.

Finally, the Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS remains the surprise lens of the comparison. It's sharp from wide open and is only slightly less sharp than the Sigma at the very edges.  This is surprising to me as so many people have "trash talked" this lens across the internet.  What I've learned from doing these comparisons is that if there's sufficient sun (or a tripod on hand) that shooting this lens at f/8 or f/11 is the equal (or very nearly the equal) of more highly praised fixed focal length optics.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Comparison ~ Sony APS-C mirrorless kit lenses

Since I'm on a roll... let's take a look at how Sony's kit lenses compare, shall we?

Kit lenses are traditionally viewed by the punters as being horrid things to be avoided at all costs.  The "common wisdom" is that a "serious" photographer ditches the kit lens as soon as they can to replace them with more "serious" optics.  Since I have two such kit lenses for my Sony APS-C mirrorless cameras, I thought now would be a good time to look at them more closely.

The first is the original 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS.  I used it for years before I found a beautiful trio of Sigma Art DN lenses.  The lens came with the very first NEX5 that I picked up "reconditioned" off Amazon less than a year after the camera was first introduced.  These days I'm not sure I'd give 50Euro for the lens, that's how bad it's reputation is.

The second is the newer Sony 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS "pancake" optic.  I've not used the lens, but since it offers 16 mm's on the wide end I got to thinking that it might be a good, flexible lens to use when I didn't want to carry the Sigma DNs nor the Sony 16mm f/2.8 SEL.  The optic came as part of a Sony NEX-5T kit I recently picked up for a rather attractive price.  For the lens alone I see them going for around 100Euro, but I'm not sure that's warranted, given that the wonderful Sigma Art DN lenses can be found in mint used condition for around that price.

Comparison setup -

  • Some pages out of a local newspaper taped to the bedroom wall 
  • Sony A6000 set to "A", 100 ISO, 2second delay 
  • Massive Manfrotto tripod 
  • No sharpening applied to the RAW output 
  • 500 pixel sections were taken from the various images and organized below 
Here are the center and edge of the scene comparisons. As you can see, I looked at the lenses zoomed to their widest focal length, 30mm, and then at their longest focal length.  As a control, I added a Sigma 30mm Art DN into the mix. As always, take a look at the following image a full resolution to note the differences between the various focal lengths and apertures.

Sony Kit Lens ComparisonVariousFocalLengths

My observations are as follows.  The Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN E is a very fine optic.  It's sharp to the very edges of the frame when shooting the 2D comparison subject.  This is why many times I use it as my comparison control.

By comparison, the Sony 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS is just OK when shot wide open.  It's nearly the same OK-ness at the three focal lengths I looked at.  The center sharpens up as the aperture is stopped down.  The edges, however, never really sharpen up with the copy of the lens I have.  In fact, it's pretty bad at 16mm's.  There may be a lot of field curvature at that focal length, so don't write this lens up completely.  Still, my thoughts are that no amount of distortion nor CA corrections will bring back the edges of the field.

The surprise is the Sony 18-50mm f/3.5-5.6 SEL OSS.  I remember reading something on about how bad this lens was on a NEX7 they tried.  Yet, check out the results from copy I have in my hot little hands.  This lens appears to be as good at f/8 as my Sigma 30mm control lens.  Even wide open, this little kit lens appears to hold it's own.  Looking at the comparison images I feel that this kit zoom would make a great f/8 lens.  If you're a critical photographer who simply can not abide slightly soft corners, set the aperture to f/8, float the shutter speed and ISO, and let 'er rip!

There you have it.  Two cheap, unregarded, commonly available Sony APS-C mirrorless kit lenses.  One is just OK.  The other?  Well.  There are no excuse for not being able to make a very fine image with that one.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Nikon 80-200mm f/4.5 N Ai - a quick look

In keeping with my now standard way of looking at resolution and contrast in lenses, I thought I'd put an old Nikon Nikkor 80-200mm f/4.5 N Ai through it's paces and see how it did with le canard enchaine.

I picked this lens up for around 80Euro.  I know.  I paid way too much for it.  To make matters worse, it's well used and the push-pull zoom barrel does not slide entirely smoothly.  It's not bad, but it's definitely not as silky smooth as the 80-200mm f/4 Ai-S that I recently foolishly sold.  Oh well, I was in a house cleaning stage and was looking to downsize my collection of lenses.

Comparison setup -

  • Some pages out of a local newspaper taped to the bedroom wall 
  • Sony A6000 set to "A", 100 ISO, 2second delay 
  • Massive Manfrotto tripod 
  • Zhongyi Lens Turbo II focal reducer 
  • No sharpening applied to the RAW output
  • 500 pixel sections were taken from the various images and organized below
Here are the center and edge of the scene comparisons.  As you can see, I looked at the lens zoomed to 80mm, 105mm, 135mm, and 200mm.  As always, take a look at the following image a full resolution to note the differences between the various focal lengths and apertures.

Nikon 80 to 200 f/4.5 N Compar

So, what do we see here?  Simply, Nikon's old zoom is a very fine objective at all focal lengths and all apertures.  Only at 80 mm's did the lens suffer at the extreme edges of the frame.  Everything else is tack-sharp across the frame.

Looking at the other comparisons that I've performed, can you tell any difference between this lens and fixed focal-length lenses?  Think about that a moment.  Impressive, isn't it?

The primary thing that is given up by using this zoom is maximum aperture speed.  If you want to blur the background by shooting at a wide aperture, use a fixed focal length lens.  If you want sharp images from a variety of focal lengths but only want to carry one lens, it'd be hard to beat this zoom as a one package solution.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Comparing Nikon 50mm and Helios 44 58mm lenses

Now that time has passed and several 50mm lenses have, well, passed through my hands, I thought I'd take a look back to see if I could figure out which was the sharpest wide open.

I used comparison images of -

  • early '70's Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 pre-Ai
  • c.1970 Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/2 H pre-Ai
  • c.2000 Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S
  • mid-'80's Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E-series
  • Helios 44-M 58mm f/2
Comparison setup -
  • Some pages out of a local newspaper taped to the bedroom wall 
  • Sony A6000 set to "A", 100 ISO, 2second delay 
  • Massive Manfrotto tripod 
  • Zhongyi Lens Turbo II focal reducer
  • No sharpening applied to the RAW output 
Here are the center of the scene comparisons.  I made no attempt to look at the corners of the frame for this comparison.  Look at this image at full resolution to note differences between the various elements.

50mm Lens Comparison

I found this little exercise rather interesting.

To start, the Russian made Helios 44-M was sharp from wide open.  The lens is typically found for 20Euro or 25Euro.  I had disassembled the lens to tighten various things that had come loose over many years of use.  Once inside I found the Russians had packed the lens with an amazing amount of grease.  So I removed the excess and once reassembled, the lens felt like any well-made optic from Japan.  The lens required it's own set of adapters to work on my Sony mirrorless APS-C cameras, so I sold it.  I didn't want the hassle of carrying a duplicate set of adapters around.

I had a love/hate relationship with the 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor.  I wasn't sure it was sharp wide open.  At near infinity, spherical aberrations seriously clouded the image and there was seemingly no way to "smart sharpen" them away.  However, when used on subjects a meter or two from the lens, wide open the old Nikkor seemed to perform admirably.  Further, by f/2.8 the lens was as sharp as any Sigma Art DN I used.  But I didn't buy it to use it at f/2.8.  Somewhat frustrated and confused with it's performance, I sold it.

A few years ago at the Bievre Foto Foire I picked up a 25Euro Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E.  It was cute.  It was light.  But wide open it just didn't seem all that great.  As with the Nikkor f/1.4, I had a love/hate relationship with the little E-series lens.  I wanted to love the lens, but when shot stopped down, the out of focus rendition was jittery and unpleasant.  So, in a recent fit of housecleaning I sold it.

Which brings me to yet another Round of Insanity.  Reading somewhere on the "internets" that double Gauss design lenses "write" an image differently than other optics (see claims by Zeiss and others), I did a bit of research.  It turns out that the most "pure" renditions of a double Gauss design that I could find in a Nikon mount were the early/old Nikkor 50mm f/2 H/HC and the much more recent rendition found in the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S.  The f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses are more complex (hence not "pure" to the original flint/crown design concept) versions of the double Gauss.  With careful searching, the f/2 and f/1.8 lenses can be had for a lot less than 40Euro each.

In the center of the scene, the c.1970 f/2 H is really quite sharp.  Image quality drops off dramatically toward the far edges of the frame, but the center holds up quite nicely.  Stopping the aperture down cleans up the corners fairly well.  I was more than a little surprised.  I'm not yet sure how I'll use this lens, but outdoor/environmental portraiture comes to mind.

The f/1.8 Ai-S, on the other hand,  in terms of resolution seems just barely better than the Helios, f/1.4 Nikkor, and f/1.8 E wide open.  In addition, it seems to be very slightly better than the f/1.4 Nikkor at f/2.  What's interesting to see from an earlier comparison is just how well the Ai-S performs across the field and right out to the edges of the frame.  It's as good, if not slightly better than, my much vaunted Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN E.

One last note about the Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S.  There are at least two different barrel lengths that Nikon made.  One looks like just about any old 50mm lens and the other is a "pancake" version.  It looks nearly identical to the cheaper f/1.8 E-series lens.  In fact, many of the vendors I encountered in Bievre did not realize there was any difference.  Those who did priced their lenses accordingly.  If you look carefully for the word "Nikkor" on the front ring, you might get lucky, like I did, and you might be able to score a brilliant little Nikkor-grade optic for E-series lens kinds of prices.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

50mm lenses - Nikon f/2, Nikon f/1.8, Sony f/1.8 SEL

Just before heading out south of town to the Bievre Photo Foire I'd read where double Gauss lens designs "draw" better than other designs.  I'm not sure what "draw" means, but I'm intrigued and want to find out.

As luck would have it, I picked up a pair of Nikon Nikkor 50mm lenses that implement the classic double Gauss design.  So I thought I'd start my investigation by looking at their resolution and compare them to my now standard reference, a Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN E, as well as the beautiful Sony 50mm f/1.8 SEL OSS (APS-C only).

The Nikon lenses in question are Nikkor 50mm f/2 H pre-Ai and Nikkor f/1.8 Ai-S.  These are inexpensive and commonly available. 

While I had them out I though I'd also see how they behaved when combined with a Zhongyi Lens Turbo II focal reducer adapter.  

Here is the nice, boring, but richly detailed 2D (ie: flat) comparison setup.

Nikon 50mm Double Gauss comparison

Camera setup -

  • Some pages out of a recent mailing from a local newspaper taped to the bedroom wall
  • Sony A6000 set to "A", 100 ISO, 2second delay
  • Massive Manfrotto tripod
  • No sharpening applied to the RAW output

Here are the comparisons.  Look at this image at full resolution to note differences between the various elements.

Nikon 50mm Double Gauss comparison

My observations are that the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S is a very fine optic.  It's just a touch softer wide open than it's older sister, the 50mm f/2 H pre-Ai.  The f/1.8 lens is sharp to the edges, which means it has a very flat field, just like the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN E.

The Nikkor 50mm f/2 H pre-Ai is very slightly sharper wide open than it's younger sister.  The edges never really match the other lenses compared here, but this might be due to field curvature.  As we've seen with the copy of the Sony 16mm f/2.8 SEL I've looked at, field curvature can play an important role in how a sharp a scene appears at the edges.

The Sony 50mm f/1.8 SEL OSS (APS-C only) is a very nice optic.  I can see why people like this lens.  It's sharp from wide open, offers AF and OSS (image stabilization), and while we can't see it here, wonderful out of focus rendition at all apertures.

There you have it: Two inexpensive lenses what perform rather well from wide open, with or without the Zhongyi Lens Turbo II focal reducer.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Portraiture ~ Art Logic

I debated writing more about the art of portraiture.  In the back of my mind there was something that begged to be said, so here are a few additional thoughts on the topic.

In the original blog entry on Artistic Considerations I said "Viewing Position is, perhaps, the most important feature of any portrait you will ever make.  What I mean by this is you must make a conscious decision as to exactly where you place the lens with respect to your subject. "

I found that over my 50 years of taking pictures of people that I completely ignored the importance of making a conscious decision as to exactly where to place the lens with respect to my subject.  Simply said, I would stand in front of my subject and snap the shutter.  Where the lens was placed was quite often at eye level.  That is, the lens was placed at the level of my eyes and I would frame the subject from this point of reference.

There are a couple problems with taking this approach.  One of the more obvious problems is that to take a photo from the subject's waist to the top of their head, the lens needed to be pointed down.  This causes what we call keystone distortion.  The waist of the subject is narrower than if you looked at the subject from a position that does not introduce image distortions.

A second, perhaps more subtle, problem is that the power of the subject photographed at eye level never matches the power of the portraits of the Old Masters.  Where the artist views his subject from (ie: at which height) is a key difference between a painting (or photograph) and the thing we call art.  It's an effect of psychology and if you are a serious artist or craftsperson you need to be fully aware of it. 

The prior paragraph is a complex one and is filled with important truths.  It might take time to work out exactly what I mean.  It took me 50 years, so don't worry.  Here are three ways illustrations that might help.

"Selfies", at one extreme, tend to be filled with image distortions which are direct consequences of where the lens is placed in relation to the subject.  Cell phones tend to be placed at or above the subject's eye level and the torso and waistline are heavily keystoned.   If the lens is too close to the subject, features such as the nose and lips take on a certain distorting prominence. 

Fashion photography is another extreme example.  I remember reading an interview with Francesco Scavullo where he said he loved photographing models full length at floor level, or sometimes from inside an orchestra pit as a means of making their legs appear longer than they are in real life.  Optical distortions, for him, were a stock and trade item.

One more example of what I'm referring to when I say it's important to consciously place the lens with respect to your subject can be seen in Hollywood movie posters.  Action films, in particular, try to convey as sense of motion, purpose, and power.  Photographs of actors and actresses in these kinds of posters and promotional materials are seemingly never photographed at eye level nor from the position an Old Master would have chosen.  Comic book or graphic novel based movies tend to photograph their subjects at near fashion points of view.

Once recognized and understood you can now quickly sort through images (painting or photographs, it doesn't matter) and recognize Masterworks by where the subject was viewed from at the time the artifact was created.  This shouldn't be confused with where a portrait is placed on the wall (painting or print) or on display.  What I'm talking about is where the artist or craftsperson (at which height) viewed the subject.

There are two photographers who have photographed from an Old Masters points of view.  The first photographer might not have intentionally placed his lens where he did.  He might have stumbled onto this effect by using cameras that he looked down into the viewfinder (such as Rolleiflex or Hasselblad).  Still, Robert Mapplethorpe's portraiture is well known and well received.  Look carefully at what height he placed the lens.

The second photographer who I feel embodies the spirit of the Old Masters is Joel Grimes.  In at least one of his YouTube videos he very briefly talks about why he places the lens where he does.  He is the first photographer I've listened to who consciously places his objective exactly where he wants it.  It's not a haphazard "artistic", "feeling", "emotional" decision.  Yet his work can invoke strong emotional responses.

Understanding what we do as artists and applying appropriate solutions is, to me, always the preferable starting point.  If you want to make beautiful portraits or if you want to be an iconoclast and "break the rules" of art in pursuit of your own fame and fortune, perhaps it would help to fully understand what the rules are.

I hope this series of blog entries on portraiture has been helpful.

Sœur Vampire ~ Paris