Fixing Chinese Focal Reducer to fit on BMPCC

I bought a focal reducer to use with my Nikon 24mm 2.8D on my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera.  Getting an effective 0.7 * 24mm, or 17mm starting at 1.8 (1 stop reduction) intrigued me. Andrew Reid, the genius behind EOSHD, is a big proponent focal reducers.  As a hobbyist, I couldn’t justify the cost of a Metabones adapter.  So I bought a Chinese knock-off on Ebay from C. Kee for $96, shipping included.  It was shipped within 24 hours and arrived exactly one week later.  Off to a good start!

Unfortunately, it would only turn a few millimeters onto the BMPCC, just enough to mount, if I handled it very gingerly.   If I forgot about it for a second, the lens would go crashing to the ground.  Anyway, I had promised Andy Lee, an expert on lenses and the Panasonic g6, who gives great advice on the EOSHD forums, that I would shoot some test footage.  First I shot Focal Reducer on BMPCC then Focal Reducer on Panasonic GF3 (which the adapter fit on perfectly).  He approved and said he was going to order one (he shoots Panasonic so wasn’t worried about fitting it to a BMPCC).

Then richg101 on the forum talked about taking it apart and checking the lens distance into the body.  When I did that I realized I could take the whole thing apart.  I studied it some more and the best I could figure is the flange on the adapter was getting stuck on the mount-flange.

Here is what the adapter looks like, looking at the MFT mount side.  Obviously, the adapter didn’t look like this when it arrived.  I had sanded it a bit trying to get it to fit.

a4_AdapterFlange2_StraightOn
Here’s another view.  If you look closely, you can see three flanges that twist under the mount flanges (which have springs underneath).  When the lens turns far enough a small bolt on the camera inserts into the adapter and locks it into place.

a2_AdapterFlange1
Here you can see a flange in profile.

a3_AdapterFlange2_Profile

In the BMPCC you can see there is a slight ridge/block that probably holds the spring into place.  I believe the adapter flange hits against this, ever so slightly.

a1_BMPCC_MountFlange

First I take off the Nikon mount of the adapter.  There are 3 little screws.

a6_TakeOffMount

After unscrewing a small locking screw,  I screw the lens out

a8_TakeOutLens2

Here are the three parts to the adapter.

a9_FocalReducerParts

And now I sand the inside of the adapter flanges down a bit.  I did a little, tested, until it fully locked into the camera.

a91_AdapterFlange5_Dremeling

Some advice.  Wear glasses.  You don’t want grit in your eye.  Eye doctors are expensive.  Also, make sure you wash/blow all grit away from the adapter before mounting it on the camera.  The smallest particle can show up on your sensor.

I may have ended up with a “bad” copy of a BMPCC mount or adapter.   These adapters don’t have names, so it is hard to see who is buying what on Ebay and Amazon, etc.  I’ve read reviews of what looks like the exact same adapter working on someone else’s BMPCC.   The good news is that all is not lost if you experience the same problem I had.  I hope you don’t though!

Now that I have it working, I ordered a Zenit 16mm.  With the adpater, I’d have 0.7 x 16 = 11mm time the 2.8 crop of the BMPCC, or 32mm.  Test footage to follow later!

Sigma X3F TIFF Conversion Issues For Blown-out Skies

The Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) software, which must be used to open X3F files, has trouble exporting to TIFF, clipped or blown-out parts of an image, like a cloudy sky, unless you manually adjust exposure and fill.  If you let SPP export in “auto” mode, there is a high risk that you will not be able to recover highlights, from the TIFF, in Photoshop(PS) or other editing software.

A long-time Sigma user pointed out that Foveon sensor files are more diifficult to work with because “They (Sigma) have two problems. (1) The layers have strongly overlapping color response that is not matched to the color theories used for RGB color management. (2) the third layer is very noisy.”

At this writing, there is no X3F to DNG converter and I doubt, for long-winded technical reasons, there ever will be.

If you must have details in the blown-out areas of the image, you must export for that (adjust exposure in SPP for the clouds), then, in PS, bring up the exposure in the part of the image that had it’s exposure reduced to bring out the sky.

Adobe Camera Raw does a significantly better job with bayer sensor images, good enough that one can often use the “raw” TIFF (many even work with JPGs) to post process with little loss of image information.  However, if one can, only usually loads the image into Photoshop through Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)

The root problem is that you can open RAW files in Photoshop from just about any camera but the Sigma.  This means that you have to convert Sigma X3F RAW files to TIFF files first, if you’re going to use other image editing software.  Or put another way, you have to adjust exposure and fill twice.  First in SPP, then in PS.  For Sigma images, the TIFF becomes the “RAW” file for PS.

Although a Bayer / Photoshop workflow is much easier than working with Sigma images, I still prefer Foveon. As nice as the D600 is, there is a 3-dimensional look to Sigma images that, IMHO, it just can’t replicate.  That said, the dp1m is not the best choice for low-light or fast photography.

Here are some images that I hope illustrate these issues.

First, a Sigma DP1M photo.  This is a JPG copy of a TIFF created by Sigma Photo Pro, at its default setting (that is, no auto or manual adjustment)

a01PembertonLong_SPP_AdjustX3F

Second, a photo from a Nikon d600.  A TIFF was created by Photoshop’s Camera RAW filter, again, no adjustments

a02PembertonLong_NEF_TIFF_NoAdjust

Here I reduce the exposure on the dp1m image by 1 in PS.  

a03PembertonLong2_X3F_SkyDown1Exp

Yes, doesn’t seem bad. Now I do the same for the Nikon version (I’m quickly selecting using a wand, so excuse the jaggy nature)

a04PembertonLong2_NEF_SkyDown1Exp

Dropping the exposure doesn’t give me an image I want, for either camera.

Now, here is the Sigma where I have tried to adjust the sky using a curve, to suit my taste.

a08PembertonLong2_X3F_SkyCurveToTaste

Doesn’t get me where I want to go.  Now here I do the same thing with the Nikon TIFF

a09PembertonLong2_NEF_SkyDownCurveToTaste

As you can see, I am able to recover the sky pretty well in Adobe’s default TIFF creation.  The bottom line is the Adobe camera RAW created a much better TIFF in default mode than Sigma Photo Pro did with the X3F file.

What if I try to do this with the X3F generated TIFF?

a07PembertonLong2_X3F_CurvePushedFar

No matter what I try, I can’t get the clouds to look healthy.

However, I can get a good image from the dp1m image, by adjusting the X3F’s exposure in SPP to favor the sky then bringing up the houses with curves in PS (reverse selection to sky).  In the end, I can get to where I want to go, but I can’t sleep-walk through RAW processing with Foveon images like I can do with bayers.  Probably for the best because I should pay attention anyway!

a06PembertonLong2_SPP_AdjNegExpo_BringUpHouseInPS

Here is what the TIFF looked like

a05PembertonLong2_SPP_AdjNegExpo_TIFFoutput

I believe I may be able create better “default” TIFFs by generating two sets from SPP, a normal, and one with the exposure set down 2 stops.  I can then let Photoshop merge the images and get the best of both worlds.  For another day…

In the meantime, here is Ted’s workflow, as explained on a DPReview forum:

I use SPP to produce a neutral image adjusting only the exposure comp. slider to get the histogram as wide as possible, checking each color in turn. Some might leave a little space each end, others might not. Very important, IMHO, to use ProPhoto working space for the review image. Some back off SPP’s sharpening as it does sharpen at zero setting, particularly visible at sharp edges. I also back off the saturation slider a smidgeon. The aim here is produce a neutral image, not one that pleases the eye! Then save as a 16-bit TIFF, still in ProPhoto color space.

So, for me (SD9, SD10, SD14, SD1), all SPP 3.5 sliders at zero, except:

Exposure comp: as required

Saturation: -0.3

Sharpness: -0.7

Any proper editor has much better tools for tone curves, color adjustments, sharpening, re-sampling and conversion to color spaces other than ProPhoto.

If you don’t already, you might want to try editing in PS, but staying in 16-bit ProPhoto, until the time comes to ‘save as’ (for me) sRGB JPEG. A 16-bit neutral TIFF in ProPhoto color space is the best for flexibility, IMHO.

Photographing Old Homes – Part I

Old homes are beautiful to look at, yet they seldom photograph well. Our brains perform a marvelous trick when looking at homes.  For example, they see through all those ugly telephone, power and cable lines.  In the following photo, most of the major culprits of unfortunate-house photography are in view. First, a blown out sky. It was bluer, more nuanced. Trees have covered of up much of the house.  Modern street signs that don’t match old home architecture.  Lastly automobiles. Not only do they block the view of homes, and neighborhoods, almost all of them are ugly.

Except in the early morning, and late evening, houses do not light well. If you expose for the outer exterior, the porch and shadows go dark. If you expose for the shadows, the rest of the house over-exposes. And again, the sky, is always too bright in normal shooting conditions.

The following photos are what I’ve taken in trying to figure out how best to photograph houses. I don’t love any of them. They are here only to illustrate my learning process so far. Since it is the winter, I’ve taken these photos in the middle of the day, when it is warmest. When I go for the photos I want, in the Spring, I will take them in the morning or evening when the light is best.

In the following photo I have abused the image adjustments quite a bit to get balanced lighting. Some like the effect, I find it artificial and, though pleasing, phony.

In the following photo I have Photoshop’d out the telephone wires and darkened the sky. The lighting is good. However, the tree, though not overly distracting on its own, casts shadows on the house that greatly compromise the image.

As you can see, snow will almost always over-expose.  I could do HDR, but I’d like to avoid it if at all possible.

I pass this home almost every day, walking to, or from, Davis Square. I know the owners spend a lot of time on it and its garden. Unfortunately, old homes have a lot of detail and the detail over-whelms the photograph.  So far, the most important thing I’ve learned it the biggest obstacle to pleasing house photography is overwhelming detail.

Many photographs are taken of a house at an angle. They look pleasing because they create perspective lines; lines that converge into a distant point. My problem with them is they do not give the real feel of the house, as seen in person.

The more photographs I take, the more I believe that good photographs are always simplifications of something we like in a view. If you can’t simplify the image, it doesn’t generate the same emotion as what you experienced while viewing the scene. The following photo doesn’t do anything for me, though if you were to stand in front of this tree and house in real-life, you would find it quite wonderful.

There is probably a way to take this scene and make it into a good photograph. My point is that the more stuff going on in the scene, the more difficult that is.

The following is a house that is fairly simple. I’ve taken countless photographs of it and have yet to find one I really like.  The problem with this house, I believe, is the light next hits the front of it during the winter.  I’ve already started consulting the direction of the sun throughout the year to dictate which houses are best to shoot in each season.

Here is a close-up, which I feel is close, but not there.

Shoot from directly in front of the doorway, while adjusting the perspective of the image in post, is what seems to work best for me. If you shoot directly in front of the house, but not directly at the door, the house is less inviting.

However, for a house that is balanced, squarish, the image looks okay

The bushes, the snow, and the house to the right of the following, overwhelm the fine detail of this house.

 

Here’s another house, where dirty snow, which makes winter shooting difficult, kills the image.

One way to reduce the number of distractions is to shoot with a lens that vignettes. The following is shot with a Fujian 35mm 1.7 CCTV c-mount lens on a Canon EOS-M.

I love these types of photographs. But the blur also makes one lazy in finding the best sharp image for the whole house.

Current Workflow

  1. First, spend as much time as you can, in front of the house, looking through the viewfinder. Move around to find the best position and angle—through the camera—that gives you the feel you want. I wish I could visualize what the camera will do, but I never can. I need to experience the house as the camera sees it.
  2. Try to get an image where the objects in front of the house, like telephone lines, signs, etc., can easily be removed (through Photoshop say) in post. A telephone line over a window, for example, is a lot more difficult to remove than when it is over siding. Of course, don’t take a shot just to get rid of distracting power lines, the distractions are just something you don’t want to overlook.
  3. In post, use perspective tools to straighten the house. As a camera purist, I don’t like this, but I’ve concluded that you can’t get the emotional feel of a house through camera/lens alone. Auto adjustment sometimes works, but generally you have to play with the horizontal, vertical and distortion adjustments until you get an image that you respond well to. Our eyes are very sensitive to crookedness. A photo needs a plane, either vertical or horizontal, that our brains can rest on.
  4. Use dodging tools to create brighten the windows and porches; that is, brighten and darken areas of the house to move the eye to where you want it to rest.
  5. Usually, select the sky and make it darker

January 2014

I could never get Magic Lantern to run on the EOS-M without some difficulty.  So I bought a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC).  What I didn’t expect was how easy it is to shoot with the camera.  Davinci Resolve, software primarily designed to color grade footage, can now create time-line edited videos.

There are many blogs that point out shortcomings of the camera.  The people at Blackmagic must cringe and scream every time they read one.  I’ve been shooting film/video since super-8.  The last time I witnessed such a jump in technology is when Sony came out with Video-8.  That was in the 1980s I believe.

What I’ve come to realize, over the past six months, in working with RAW video, is that most people, for one reason or another, don’t want to engage in the technology.  It’s still a small world.  Also, video is, at heart, a narrative medium.   A well-written, prepared video is more important than the recording medium.

Anyway, I just wanted to post something to say, I’m still as deeply distracted in the tech as I ever was.

On the camera front.  Nikon replaced the shutter assembly of my D600.  I keep wanting to sell the camera because it’s big and I like to travel light.   However, every time I pick up the camera it whispers in my ear, ‘don’t blame me when you need to shoot low light or want a super-rich portrait and your other cameras fumble around’.

I now have a 24mm, 85mm and 24-85 (amazing how much distortion is in that lens; I just have to get over it and fix in post).  Miss the Tamron 24-70/2.8.  Was that lens sweet!

My Sigma DP1 is acting weird.  I’m close to pulling the trigger on a DP1M.

I absolutely love the EOS-M with the c-mount adapter and $30 Fujian 35mm 1.7 lens.  Yes,  I now reach for the cheapest camera I have for most of my shots!  Though I still use the Sigma DP2S a fair amount.

I’ve noticed that you can’t get discount Sigmas on Amazon from the U.S. anymore.  Canon doesn’t sell the 11-22 STM lens in the States.   Andrew Reid of EOSHD pointed out that Americans like big stupid cameras (or their iPhones).  So sad and true.

I still want a take with me everywhere camera.  Been considering the X100s, but it’s a little bit too cute for me.  Maybe the GX7?  Most likely I’d end up with the Sigma DP1M.  No other camera brings tears to my eyes, both joy and sorrow, like those cameras!

Magic Lantern and Blackmagic RAW Video

Why RAW? The short answer is video that has a film look, natural light and color.

RAW video can provide a look and feel that consumer video can’t. It accomplishes this by saving the original color detail and brightness information. Consumer video, what I’ll call H.264, the name of the most popular compression CODEC in use today, is designed to deliver a pleasing moving image—sharp and with rich colors—at a data rate that does NOT exceed most consumer electronic devices’ maximum bandwidth (usually under 4 megabytes per second, or around 30 megaBITs per second).

Here is a frame taken from H.264 video shot with an EOS-M.  Study these images closely.  They are straight from the camera, on a light-table, with controlled exposure.

Here is a frame from Magic Lantern RAW shot with the same camera:

Notice how the “RAW” colors are evenly bright, unlike the H.265 where the more primary the color, the brighter it is (because compression adds contrast).  You will notice more noise in the RAW image, but with it, more detail and dynamic range.

Why can’t you get both, contrast or deep colors? It comes down to convenience and size. RAW video requires the latest memory technology, around 80 megabytes a second for 1080p, or in Blackmagic, which performs some compression, about half that. RAW takes up a lot of storage space. Everything about it takes more time and effort.

Some background.

The total pixels in a frame of 1,920 pixels wide, and 1,080 pixels high, is 2,073,600, or about 2 million pixels. In one second, we watch 30 of those frames, so that 2 million times 30, or roughly 60 million pixels per second. For a minute we’d need 60 million times 60 seconds, or 3,600,000,000 pixels per minute, or 3.6 billion. Yes, when you’re watching your HD TV your eye is viewing 3.6 billion pixels every minute.

What makes up a pixel? A color of course. Colors are often described in their red, green and blue components. That is, every color can be separated into a red, green and blue value, often abbreviated RGB.  When most digital cameras take an image, whether a Panasonic GH4 or Canon, each color is assigned a brightness value from 0 to 16,383 (14 bits). So you need three sets of numbers, red (0 to 16,383), green (0 to 16,383) and blue (0 to 16,383) to numerically describe ANY color. Some simple math tells us that we need a value that might reach 16,383 times 16,383 times 16,383 or 4.3 trillion  As expected, a single 1080p RAW frame from a Canon camera is about 4 megabytes.  

In the above images, the H.264 frame ended up as a 114k JPEG (leaving no extra image data in the H.264 stream).  The RAW frame, a 256 JPEG, originated from a 2.4 megabytes RAW file, which means you can choose less contrast, or more detail and noise.

Even 8-bits (1 byte) per color “channel” is enough to create 24-bit (8+8+8), or 16 million colors. The human eye can see about 12 million colors at best (so we don’t need those 4.3 trillion “RAW” colors).  That allows an H.264 to throw out over 96% of the original pixel data.

A consumer video camera can quickly figure out what we can see, and not see, in an image, so this isn’t difficult.  It takes the “brightest” data and saves it–AND THROW OUT THE REST.  However, the overall brightest image is not always the image we want!  Sometimes we want a dim image with a lot of detail in the shadows.

Let’s go back to the optimum image we’d like to see, 3.6 billion pixels per minute times 24bits (3 bytes). That would be 10.8 gigabytes per minute. As you know, you’re not streaming 10 gigabytes of video to your TV every minute. Video compression does a marvel job of cutting that down to a manageable size

HD 720p @ H.264 high profile 2500 kbps (20 MB/minute)
HD 1080p @ H.264 high profile 5000 kbps (35 MB/minute)

It is the limitations of our computing devices that we can’t have what we really want–10 gigabytes of video data every minute.  If for the sake of argument we had unlimited storage and speed we’d all save and view images without compression.  That’s when they have the greatest fidelity.

Consumer video cameras record video using a “distribution” CODEC, not a photographic storage method. This means they’re making an immediate decision of what part of image to save, and what to throw away. The top image is what they end up with. The bottom image is what the sensor recorded BEFORE being put through H.264.

The benefit of RAW video to me, is that I can decide how to compress the image after it has been taken.  I can make the decision of what the image should look like.  I can get a photographic look.

The new 4K cameras coming out will offer more resolution (4 times more), but resolution will not give me more color depth.  That isn’t to say 4K is phony; only that it doesn’t fix the color-depth problem inherent in consumer-level compressed video streams.  4K RAW is a different matter, of course.

Wasting Time On DSLR Video

But A Used $100 Panasonic GF3 and $30 Lens Win My Heart

For the past couple of weeks I have been looking for a small video camera to complement my Sigma DP1 and DP2S, which take superlative photos, but unusable video.  Knowing I’d want short focal-length, shallow depth of field, I ruled out a camcorder. Having an all-around utility camera to complement the Sigmas, and the ability to use separate lenses, would also be helpful.

Having read a lot about Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras, especially the Panasonic GH2, I bought Panasonic’s lowest-end camera, a GF3, with 14mm pancake lens, for $245 on Craigslist (CL).  I then subscribed to Vitaliy’s PersonalView.  For $10 (you can do $5) and downloaded and installed a hack (first Cake 2.3, then Driftwood) for the GF3 which can double, even triple the bit-rate.

I was very impressed with the GF3, but noticed on a YouTube video, Kim Letkeman’ s Video Hacks Compare Four Panasonic Bodies — VLOG4  that the G5 provided as-good, if not better video, without a hack.  It also has a viewfinder and articulating screen.  Since Panasonic has a new G6, the G5 were being dumped on Amazon.  I picked one up with the kit lens for $350.

[Dear GH2 users.  I understand that none of those cameras is a match for a properly hacked GH2.  However, I'm going for small and cheap here].

I also bought a $20 adapter for my old Nikkor 50mm 1.4, siting in a drawer.  Wanting something less telephoto, I found a Minolta-mount 28mm/2.8 lens for $30 on CL, bought the adapter, and now had a couple of MFT cameras with a 14mm/2.5, 14-42mm, 28mm/2.8 and a 50mm/1.4.

Santo, who I met buying the 28mm lens from CL, uses an un-hacked GH2, and put up some very impressive videos on Vimeo.  Here’s one of a model train and the NMRA Model Train Show.  I watch his videos and think, ‘Max, you waste all your time comparing cameras instead of just using them!’

Then I saw an Olympus E-P1 for $150 on CL, that had a c-mount lens and Olympus 50mm/1.8 with adapter.  I bought it mostly for the c-mount lens (not knowing it was only $30), figuring I’d give the body with a lens to one of my children.  It turned out that the Olympus lens didn’t flare as much as the Nikkor, all the way open, and the E-P1 is a nice piece of metal hardware.  My daughter even said she wanted it!  Nice going Olympus.

I discovered that the C-Mount TV lens (Fujian with effective 35mm 1.7 for $30) delivers beautiful video, which is fun and easy to shoot.  I never would have tried that lens if it weren’t for the inspiring GH2 Shooter’s manual from Andrew Reid’s EOSHD blog and mini-publishing company.  I highly recommend his blog and publications.

There is only one limitation that bugged me.  On the GF3 (or, I believe, any Panasonic consumer MFT below the G6, you can control aperture, shutter speed, but not ISO).  In other words, if you expose for a brightly lit porch and pan to a darker area the camera will boost the ISO to better expose the picture.  In “iA” mode, you can slow the camera’s desire to change ISO if you pan from one level of light to another. Except for that exposure-lock limitation, everything else about the GF3 is superb (as a really inexpensive camera that does video).

With the GF3 I can use almost any lens, and it even has focus-peaking before I shoot.  For a couple of hundred dollars more, the G5, provides a view-finder, hot-shoe and articulating screen. (The current G6 adds true exposure lock and a mic input.  Currently, it is a hot camera so I’m waiting for prices to drop.)

The biggest weakness of MFT cameras is their color depth.  However, they are as equally sharp as any DSLR (if not sharper after hacks are used).  Also, you can get shallow depth of field with a fast lens (the $30 c-mount lens is f1.7 !).

CurrentLineup

DP1 28mm, DP2S, 42MM, Panasonic GF3 with Effective 35mm TV lens, and the D600 for a sense of size.

Can’t Leave Well-Enough Alone

Instead of going deeply into my new GF3, G5 and lenses,  I broadened my tests and began comparing them to my D-600.  Big mistake!  Here is some video I took during my honeymoon period with the D-600.

A DSLR is capable of better quality video, but in real world use, I ended up with problem-filled footage that, net-net, is worse than that from the MFT cameras (like Panasonic). Almost every time I shoot video with the D600 I score it ‘10 for color saturation, 2 for focus and 2 for basic exposure, white-balance, etc.’  When I shoot with the GF3 I score it 8,8 and 8.  Again, that’s now a $100 used body!

I wondered, would Santo’s work have been improved if he used DSLR video?  I think the answer is no.

The more I tried to get good footage out of the DSLR, the more disappointed I became. As many bloggers have said before me, DSLR video quality is a mixed bag.  The cameras work against you, not with you.

The following is a quick test, the Nikon D600 vs the G5 indoors. The Nikon has the Tamron 24-70mm/2.8 and the G5 the 14mm/2.8 pancake.  I don’t caption either video with which camera is being used.  If you’re a video nut like me, you’ll know which is which.  If you can’t figure out which is better, then believe me, stay away from DSLR video ;)

Here is a test of the two cameras outdoors.

FULL-FRAME DSLR VIDEO IS A TEASE

Yes, coming from camcorders, shooting slow-moving subjects, with shallow depth of field, during a nice bright day, and using LiveView under the shade of an apple tree, brought near tears of DSLR joy to my eyes.  In every other situation I cursed a whole range of annoyances and shortcomings: moire, rolling shutter, artifacts, false colors and equipment not really designed to shoot video.

Perhaps I could work around all that.  However, it would never cure the fact that I’m used to getting perfect RAW images in photography.  At the end of the day, DSLR video is a string of middling-quality JPEG images (video).  And the rolling-shutter effect is very irritating.

Perhaps only RAW video, from the 5D Mark III, hacked Canon 50Ds or Blackmagic will give me the real color look I want.  As much as I am amazed at the video that comes out of the D600 on a good day, it is still no match for the video that others are getting from raw-based video.  DSLR video, especially of faces, is blotchy and pasty.

For now, I’m sticking with Panasonic MFT cameras for video (and photo backup).  RAW beckons, however.

QUICK FINDINGS

Nikon D600

PROS

CONS

DOF (large sensor, shallow depth of field)

Very large

Lock Exposure

Very heavy (seriously, a brick)

Saturation

Lenses very expensive (and big)

Mic Input

Non-articulating LCD

Low Light (large sensor)

No video viewfinder focus

Fast Operations

Expensive!

Great Photo Stills

Remote Tethering

Stabilization

G5

PROS

CONS

Light

Limited Exposure Lock

Small

Poor Color Saturation

Articulating Screen

No Mic Input

Inexpensive Lenses (with adapters)

Stabilization weak

GF3

PROS

CONS

Really cheap (used $100 body)

No viewfinder

Very light and small

Limited exposure lock

Takes Hacks

Low color saturation

Cheap lenses (with adapters)

No mic and weak stabilization

Back to Full-Frame

I was standing on line at Microcenter, waiting to buy a Canon SL1 for $750.  Got tired of waiting and left (note, I love Microcenter, this was a cosmic sign!).  I sold my Nex-7 and 50mm 1.8 prime because I wanted to do more portrait type work.  Manual focus on mirror-less cameras is a frustrating affair. I figured the SL1 would be a good compromise–DSLR type focusing and hopefully passable auto-focus in video. That afternoon I e-mailed about a Nikon D600 and Tamron 24-70mm/2.8 lens I saw on Craigslist.  The owner said the lowest he’d go down to $2,500.  You can see where this story is heading!

Part of the reason I bought a new camera was to take photographs of my wife (photography is an insatiable consumer of laughable rationales).  She started a fashion blog for women over the age of 50.

I took a comparison shot between the D600 and my Nex 5N with kit lens.  I shot at 2.8.  According to Cambridge In Colour I’d need a 50mm at f/2 to achieve a similar depth of field (unfortunately, sold lens before I could test that).  However, the smaller sensor would lag in color saturation.

Here are the photos.  No processing. JPEGs that came out of camera.  First, the APS-C.

Now the Nikon full-frame.

Here’s the full-frame image lightened a bit.

Although much lower resolution, I believe the Canon 5D and 85mm 1.8 prime would have taken as good a photo, for the web.  In fact, I considered just getting that setup again.  But I try not to go back to a camera I have already owned.

I took some video with the D600.  In shallow depth of field situations it looks much better than the Nex.  However, high f-stop shots are more difficult to tell apart.

Sony NEX-7 Tips

I bought a Sony NEX-5N on close-out, from Best Buy, and was impressed enough to get a NEX-7, used, from Amazon.  With the 5N I need my reading glasses to see the LCD screen.  The Nex-7 has a viewfinder (plus the LED screen).  I also wanted an external mic input.   Before I go on, here is my video on how I setup and use the camera.

On Craigslist, I saw someone with a similar setup to mine, selling it.  I asked him why.  He said he wasn’t happy with the focusing and the menus were confusing.  He wanted to get a Nikon D800.  DSLRs focus better, of course, but they are considerably larger than the NEXs.

I made a video of my settings with the idea that it might make the camera more useful to him and others.  At first I thought he was expecting too much from the camera, focusing wise.  However, after more use, I agree that the camera often “hunts” when focusing in low-light.  You need good lighting and contrast-y subjects.  I don’t believe any mirror-less camera has solved this problem.  In other words, if you want a large-sensor, fast focusing camera in a small size you’re not going to get it, no matter what camera you buy.

The choice?  Large DSLR with quick focus (though slower image snap waiting for mirror) or mirror-less camera with slow focusing, though quick shutter release AND small size.

My experience with all the mirror-less cameras I’ve owned is that manual focus is much better (unless your subject is far away).  Unfortunately, out of the box Sony doesn’t make it easy to manually focus the NEX-7.  You  have to go into the menu and set the AF/MF button to “Toggle.”  In that way you can quickly change the camera from manual focus, to auto focus, and back, with a simple press of that button.

Once in manual focus, you need to get nimble at moving the “flexible box” around to your subject, then focusing using the focus assist, going back to full-image, and then taking the photo. This is especially crucial if you like your subject to the left or right third of the image.  Center spot won’t do.

The NEX cameras take amazing video.  That’s why I’m using these cameras.  I’m willing to compromise on a DSLR’s focus-speed for a smaller size with good video.  Unfortunately, the NEX cameras, like DSLRs, must be used within certain limitations to work well.  Fast movement causes rolling-shutter (broken lines moving through frame).

When I first starting using large-frame sensors for video I was intoxicated by the shallow depth-of-field.  The limitations in CMOS (rolling shutter), focus and audio have been making me think more about camcorders again.  After a while, these cameras make you re-appreciate modern camcorder technology.

If you want a camera you can throw in your bag, the NEX line works.  If you aren’t facing the above mentioned limitations, they deliver fantastic results.

UPDATE 2/24/2013

Video Limitations

o. The viewfinder is helpful for taking photos (I have old eyes), but using it in video mode, it may add your heavy breathing to the audio. Does for me. Without the viewfinder, I might as well use the 5N, which is smaller.

o. Once you’re recording video, focus peaking (zoom) is disabled. That means if you set your focus, manually, to someone on the left, and then start recording, and then pan and focus to someone to the right, say closer, you can’t go into focus peaking. You have to focus using the standard view. The viewfinder is not sharp enough to do this perfectly. In short, you can only use focus peaking once in video, before you start it.

o. For both photography and video, getting into focus peaking in manual mode is a pain. It only pops up when you change the focus with the lens. I often forget, then end up getting lost in menus (because I was trying to use them to move my flexible focus spot around).

o. You can’t set focus by looking at feet marker on lens, or display. There are none; that is, nowhere will you read that your lens is focused on something 5ft away.

o. Screen does not flip out to do self-videos. (just in case you miss that in product description).

o. In auto-focus mode, the camera won’t always refocus on you should you step in front of the camera. It expects you to half-press the shutter.

o. Whenever you half-press the shutter, to refocus (again, in video mode), it does it fairly quickly, but it goes in and out in a way that is not what you’d see from a professional video camera.

o. Like all CMOS camera, the rolling-shutter/jello effect, when you pan the camera, is very disconcerting.

All that said, the camera takes superb quality video.  I don’t believe there are any cameras, at this size, that don’t have these issues or more.

UPDATE 7/10/13

I sold the NEX7  to fund the D600.  I want to take more portraits and the Nex (mirrorless) camera can’t compete with a DSLR focusing-wise.  If I wanted a carry-around camera on vacation; however, the NEX7 would be my first choice.

Sigma DP2s Vs Sony Nex5 with 18-55mm

I’m about to do more video, so I bought a Sony NEX 5N with the 18-55mm kit lens.  I was going to buy the Canon G1X, but many have said the Sony does better video. In any case, when the Sony kit went on sale for $500 I sold my Canon 5D (cry-sob) and Canon VIXIA HFS20 (hardly knew ye) and bought it.

At first I didn’t like the NEX.  Couldn’t understand why I felt that way.  Images are great. Powerful features.  Then it hit me.  Sony cameras are not camera-ee.  They feel more like clever gadgets then photographic equipment.  Can I hold that against them?  I told myself, ‘get over it’.

The last Sony camcorder I had I returned because the touch screen wasn’t always responsive (same problem with Canon VIXIA by the way).  I haven’t had that problem with the NEX.  So far, the controls have been very responsive and you can assign quick settings to a few of the buttons.

I went out to compare the Sony with the Sigma.  I found that the NEX is much closer to the DP2s than my G12.  No surprise there, with its larger sensor.   I don’t know how the NEX would perform with a prime lens.  In any case, it’s close enough that I’m going to sell the DP2s, only to free up time to focus on video.  If I have the DP2s I’ll keep using it.  I still have the DP1, which I’ve been using more lately anyway (oddly enough).

Here are my quick and dirty comparison shots. No processing.

Sharpness, both cameras seem the same to me.  What is different, and I’ve noticed this from the first Sigma I bought, is it nails the color, as I saw it, perfectly.  However, the NEX isn’t unpleasing.  If I didn’t have the Sigma to compare to I doubt I would notice or care.

Sigma DP2s

Sony NEX 5N

They’re different.  I can’t say which is better to me.

NEX 5N

These photos show another difference between Sigma cameras and others.  The Sigma colors are richer.  The NEX colors are more washed out.  Yes, you can boost them in post-processing, but they never attain exactly the right color (to me).

NEX 5N

DP2s, actually, there is more detail in the grilling pattern on the sign.  More dynamic range, and subtlety.

NEX 5N

DP2s

NEX 5N.  Sorry, I always feel Bayer sensors are a bit washed out and the colors bleed a bit.

This photo is where the Sigma camera is strongest.  Whenever there is light bouncing off an object, almost glaring, the Sigma gets the 3-d feeling better.  I took this shot purposely for its glare.

DP2s

See how the NEX 5n’s colors are washed out.  It just doesn’t have that pop.

Here I tried to make the Sony look closer to the Sigma.  It actually gets close enough for my tastes (if I didn’t have the DP2s to compare it to).

The bottom line is that I think I can have my video, and get the NEX to get close enough to the DP2s for my needs.  Though again, if it was absolute photo IQ I was after, the Sigma DP2s still remains the best camera I’ve used at that focal length.

Sigma DP2s vs Canon G12 at ISO 800 Street Photography

I recently read this enjoyable blog post 102 Things I have Learned About Street Photography.

I especially enjoyed 53. “Creepiness is proportional to focal length”. Don’t shoot street photography with a telephoto/zoom lens

Or as I would shorten it for humor’s sake, “zoominess equals creepiness”.  

Anyway, he inspired me to try to shoot with my Sigma DP2s at street photography settings.  He suggests 1600, but 800 is max on the DP2s, so I set it on that, and f/8 (because the max aperature on the G12 is that) and took some pictures while taking a stroll to Davis Square.   Took my Canon G12 for comparison.

Once again, at first glance, both cameras seem to take similar images until you start looking at color and detail.  Here’s the G12


Canon G12 ISO 800, f/8
Now the Sigma DP2s

Even at ISO 800, I’d take the DP2s over the G12.  I understand that ISO on a sunny day is absurd, but I just want to see what would happen if I was out doing street photography and today happened to be sunny.  I didn’t process either of those images. 

Sigma DP2s ISO 800 f/8

Next, I did a couple of 2 image stitches using Microsoft ICE.


G12 2-image stitch ISO 800
Sigma DP2s 2-image stitch ISO 800


Also, the Sigma DP2s was as fast, if not faster, then the G12 in taking street photography shots.  I’m looking forward to doing more photos after reading Eric Kim’s inspiring blog posts.  

By the way, he uses a $10,000 Leica.  On a budget? I bet a used Sigma DP1* or 2 for $300 would give it a serious run for the money.  Unfortunately, I’ll never know! :) 


* And keep in mind these Sigma cameras are not “toys” (a nice way of putting it, I hope).