PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

5Aug/091

Unboxing, part 1

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31Jul/097

Moving to Leica Soon

As you may know I have been watching Leica for a while. I have nothing but admiration for their optical designers and factory workers. Contrary to some, I think the company is really going somewhere now.

Lately a big part of my Leica-watching involved tracking the used-equipment market on FredMiranda and GetDPI forums. After 6 months of daily forum-scraping I could tell you which lenses come up most often, which are most rare, and what a ballpark asking price is for each of them. Which are rare? The 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH is up there on the list, with the 21mm Elmarit ASPH and 35mm Summilux ASPH not far behind. The 50mm Summilux ASPH is noteworthy in the trends, because it is both relatively common and yet its price premium holds because it’s also in high demand.

One of the big surprises for me was to see how heavily-discounted pre-owned Leica gear can be (overall) as compared to Nikon and Canon gear. You’re not going to find a current-model professional Nikkor lens for 50% less money than new (more like 20-30%, usually) but you will find several Leica-M lenses with that kind of discount. Particularly there is a cultural backlash against lenses that haven’t been updated with 6-bit coding from the factory, and so really good deals can be found for those lenses that are current and in good condition but not “factory fresh”.

It’s also the case that there are a few individuals in the Leica community who will try every single lens that Leica makes, through purchasing new or like-new lenses and then dumping them on the used market with very little wear. Some of these guys depreciate their lenses by 5% per week, so far as I can tell. If you hang around the right forums you can snatch up one of these gems for 30-45% less than they cost from the store, and most of them are even still under warranty.

The happy ending to this market observer’s story, is that now I have my first body and 2 lenses coming to me in the next 2 weeks. Which Leica lens made it to the top of my chart, to become my first Leica lens? You might be surprised. Stay tuned…

Not Really Leaving Nikon

Although I do think I’m “done” with Nikon for now, my D700 isn’t going anywhere. It’s a trusty sidearm that will not fail when the pressure is on and there’s only one chance to take the shot. I unloaded the heaviest and least used piece of my Nikon kit to make financial room for my Leica lens and I’m freezing spending on Nikon.

What could get me to spend again (if you’re listening Nikon)…

  • A 24-100mm f/4G VR zoom in a weather-sealed internal-zoom/focus metal barrel. For sure I’d buy this.
  • A 17-40mm f/4G zoom in a weather-sealed internal-zoom/focus metal barrel. There’s a good chance I’d buy this.
  • A good 70-200mm f/4G VR or 200mm f/2.8G VR or 300mm f/4G VR prime. Maybe I’d buy one of these.
  • A D700x with a 25+ MP sensor. I’ll only buy this if you have an upgrade/trade-in program from the D700.
  • An EVIL version of the D700x with a mount register not to exceed 2.5cm. I will beg on my knees so you’ll allow me to buy it from you.

Yep, I’m on record saying I could buy automagic zooms again. Believe it.

With the ZF lenses and upcoming ZM and Leica lenses… I’m getting close to being all-primed-out, and all-manual’ed-out. I’ll start taking some automation back eventually, for balance, sanity and other people’s comfort with my camera (which is going to hit bottom soon).

More to come...

- Olivier

31Jul/096

Belated Nikon Commentary

Big launch from Nikon this week. Nothing really surprising happened, unfortunately. We’ve got a new bottom-end camera and a refreshed super-zoom lens, yawn and yawner.

The D300 needed video and it got something of a compromise there. This is something we were waiting for I think impatiently as a community. There is slow AF (instead of zero AF) but it’s still the 720p from the D90 while the competitor did an excellent implementation of 1080p last year. It’s okay… certainly Nikon’s “A-team” didn’t spend 2 years on this so some other projects must be ongoing there. In other news, the dual card slots are pretty cool, I wish I had this on the D700 so I could put JPEGS on the SD card.

The 70-200VR also needed an update and it got its due. No real compromise here though, because even the price got a huge boost (sic).  They managed to make the lens another 5% heavier or thereabout, continuing down the march to the inevitable 2kg 70mm lens of the future.

Here are the old (top) and new (bottom) charts for the two lenses…

70200vrcharts

There is a boost in contrast at 70mm, which in practice I can tell you that's where the old lens was strongest already. I think those are very nice curves, there's hardly any difference between 70mm and 200mm, impressive! I don’t really see a reason for DX shooters to upgrade though, as the older generation lens was fantastic there already and will now sell at a stiff discount on the used market.

Funny thing is that I sold my 70-200VR the day before this new one was announced. It would have been quite a coup if I was thinking of upgrading, imagine that lucky timing. But I’m not, I don’t want another medium telephoto zoom.

22Jul/095

Semi-pro, grrr

Somebody looked at my camera this weekend and called me a “semi-pro” photographer. She meant it as a compliment and I welcomed it as that, but I hate the term. I think Will Ferrel’s movie by that name evokes the right feelings. I would infinitely prefer to be called a passionate photographer.

At the most, the term “semi-pro” ought to indicate the status of/or suitability for a part-time job. I suppose that applies to me as a photographer (indeed I was there to shoot a wedding, though I wasn’t paid) but how this relates to my camera and/or lenses I don’t see. I didn’t buy this camera to work, and never used it that way before.

As it pertains to photography equipment, I think the term “pro” is weak enough that “semi-pro” is just absurd. Where does “art” equipment come in? What if I had showed up with an FE-2 instead of a D700? – I really considered going with that.

Coarse-grained labels like T-shirt sizes (small, medium, large) simplify the message for marketing. Camera industry watchers tend to speak this way too and so the system exhibits a self-reinforcing behavior: traits that the market identify with “pro” equipment become purified over time (exaggerated) to make sure products are met with the right labels. If it’s small and light (or not black) it’s for beginners, then if it’s a colossal fear-striking instrument it’s for professionals.

The model that is promoted by internet photography forum dwellers is one of linear progression like this:

Beginner -> Amateur -> Semi-Professional -> Professional
.

If you’ll let me, I’m going to transpose this progression with the real hidden meaning based on how the labeled equipment feels to me:

Embarrasment -> Curiosity -> Frustration -> Resignation
.

Let me explain how a forum dweller progresses:

  • At first you’re ashamed of what your camera produces, you’ve got no idea how to make it work because it’s designed to look like magic, probably nobody could make it work.
  • Then you get a more serious camera and you discover all those wonderful features that make photography actually work reliably, except there’s no depth.
  • So eventually you outgrow that camera and you move up to progressively bigger equipment, there’s always a faster lens or sensor out there that you must have.
  • Finally you just groan under the load of 15 lbs of heavy byzantine tools that don’t perform as well per dollar, on the belief that there’s just no other option.

What if there were high-end products that wouldn’t immediately be perceived as “pro” or “semi-pro”?  What if the “curiosity” stage just kept on going?

How do you characterize the K7D? -- I wish it’s not semi-pro, but it probably is.
What about the E-P1? -- too bad it’s not so great for manual lenses.
What about a digital rangefinder? -- we need alternatives…

I try very hard to walk the line of eternal curiosity.  It's a minefield out there laid down by labels like "semi pro".

- Olivier

6Jul/092

I can't resist commenting on the E-P1

ep1-top
Launching with a prime! Kudos Olympus!

First off, I have to say that I haven’t seen one in person yet. These are just my thoughts based on having read a lot of comments from people who have seen one. You should also know that I’m not looking for the same things in my cameras as most people do.

Definitely A Milestone

Yep, it makes history. The E-P1 is a milestone camera in a similar way as the D1, 300D, 5D and D3 were (*). I classify the E-P1 as the first Digital P&S camera with interchangeable lenses, possibly the first P&S ever with interchangeable lenses (including film here) but I might be wrong.

ep1
This is really what makes the E-P1 special.

It’s also a “meta-milestone” by being the least expensive milestones we’ve ever seen in digital photography, with inflation adjustments probably the least expensive ever. That potentially means that a lot of people will get one. If that happens then it has a shot at being yet another kind of milestone, the one where Olympus recovers to their former glory (but I won’t hold my breath).

(*) For those keeping tracking that’s: first ground-up DSLR, first affordable DSLR, first affordable FF DSLR, first Nikon FF DSLR.

But Is It Any Good?

Oh yes. The pictures look great. I think it’ll please everyone who’s attracted to it.

I don’t think I have anything more to add. I have no doubt as to the quality of the camera itself, and the pictures it outputs.

Am I Attracted To It?

No. The glowing LCD isn’t discreet enough for my taste, and it won’t make a good platform for operating manual-focus lenses hand-held. I don’t see myself shooting at arms’ length, ever.

I have these scenarios in my head that my next camera needs to handle. The camera needs to basically reflect and emit no light itself, make essentially no sound, and have very-small manual moderately-fast wide-angle lenses of ridiculous quality. The E-P1 fails too many of these criteria.

I don’t hold that against the E-P1, I’m also willing to pay 5x more than an E-P1 kit costs for my kit. So the E-P1 is simply a fantastic camera that I do not desire.

17May/092

Op-ed: What’s next for Zeiss?

It looks in the last year Zeiss went around and tied all their loose ends. The 21mm Distagon is back, they embraced Canon’s EF mount and their rangefinder line-up is looks like a complete system now. So what’s next?

That’s the topic of this speculative article. This is 100% fiction, but looking at the past as a predictor of the future.  I'll even include some prices I think Zeiss might shoot for.

First I think that there are a few classic lenses still open for renewal:

  • 8/16mm Hologon super-wide-angle lens for rangefinders ($1100).
  • 2.8/16mm F-Distagon fisheye lens for SLRs ($800).
  • 2.8/200mm, 4/300mm, 5.6/400mm Tessar telephoto lenses for SLRs ($1400 each).

I think that in time we’ll see all of these. The first two are slam-dunks that could ship and sell today. The tele-photo lenses have a more difficult position in that they could not offer IS/VR on the Pentax/Nikon mounts without an electronic update of the Zeiss mount. I suspect the Canon version would not have this problem and could ship even now – I pray they will not split and leave ZF behind now that they have their shiny ZE mount.

Second, there are also some spots for innovative new lenses:

  • 1.4/50mm ASPH lens for ZM ($1800).
  • 2/28mm ASPH lens for ZM ($1600).
  • 4/24-100mm and/or 5.6/100-400 zooms for ZF/ZE ($1400 each).
  • 2.8/200mm APO-Makro lens for ZF ($1600).

Zeiss hasn’t made a serious pass at the high-speed lens market for a while. Leica is ahead in this area by a commanding and ever-increasing lead. I want to see some competition on this front, so we can all benefit from aggressive development and pricing.

Third, we’re all dying to see some innovative digital cameras:

  • Digital Ikon ZM, color and monochrome versions ($2400 each).
  • Digital equivalent of Nikon FE, color and monochrome versions ($1800 each).

Oh we wants it my preciousss, the Digital Ikon! There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hope to see some rumor of it pop up. Get here already!

26Feb/09Off

Your D700 shoots video too

…and probably also your D3/D300.

I’m announcing the availability of a BETA-quality video capture application for live-view capable Nikon DSLR cameras.  I provide this application "as is" for your enjoyment only.  I'm not offering any support with it.

In a nutshell, the application “nkvid” simply allows you record the live-view feed of your Nikon D3/D300/D700 camera. This is really the extent of nkvid’s functionality, as it does not aim to be “remote control” application. The product of running nkvid is an AVI movie file in the standard MJPEG format recognized by many playback applications, such as Apple Quicktime and Microsoft Windows Media Player.

Visit the download page to obtain a copy of nkvid.

Using nkvid

Before using nkvid, make sure that you have read and understand the terms on the download page.  These terms, along with basic instructions and troubleshooting tips are included in the README.TXT file included with the download package.

When you run nkvid, it will immediately trigger live view on your camera and display the live view feed in a simple window. Each run of nkvid records exactly one video. Launch nkvid again to record another. Successive runs of nkvid record sequentially-numbered files to avoid overwriting your videos by accident.

The recording state is bound to the state of the CAPS LOCK key. When CAPS LOCK is on, nkvid is recording. Trigger recording at any time while nkvid is running by enabling CAPS LOCK. If CAPS LOCK is on before nkvid starts, it will start recording immediately. When you turn CAPS LOCK off, nkvid will finish writing the video file and close.

If you encounter difficulties, refer to the README.TXT file included in the nkvid download.

Feedback

Feel free to comment on this post or the download page.  Note that at this point I do not plan to take feature requests that go beyond fixing glaring bugs.

22Feb/090

Leica Talks

I came across a particularly interesting blurb from Mr. Kaufmann:

LFI: Just to be clear, the development of an heir to the R will not lead to the redundancy of the digital M?

Dr Kaufmann: On the contrary. The M system has yet a lot to offer and we're bound to see it evolve. There will probably always be the classic Leica M. Just like there will always be millions of classic Leica M lenses circulating in the world of photography. However, we're also thinking about what else we can do with elements of the Leica M, particularly its bayonet. The possibilities become endless. What would happen if we were to reinvent the viewfinder, moving beyond just optical? What if an automatic lens recognition mode were capable of always displaying the corresponding frame? Suddenly we're thinking zoom lenses. And what would happen if a camera were compatible with both M and R lenses? You see, these are the dreams of the future. You know how it is when you're brainstorming. The imagination goes wild.

This resembles an email exchange I had recently with Sean Reid on the subject of inexpensive rangefinders. One of the things that Mr. Kaufmann describes is also promoted by Sean in his OV1 proposal: project the frame-lines using electronic means rather than mechanical ones.  I think it's very likely that our much-anticipated Digital CL will incorporate something like this.

I’ll attempt decoding the Kaufmann response in more detail:

• There will probably always be the classic Leica M. Just like there will always be millions of classic Leica M lenses circulating in the world of photography. Means: we’re thinking of introducing a new camera which will look like it competes with the M, but it won’t be like the M you know.

• However, we're also thinking about what else we can do with elements of the Leica M, particularly its bayonet. The possibilities become endless. Means: this new camera will be natively compatible with M lenses, but the all-mechanical rangefinder mechanism is probably going to stay with the M.

• What would happen if we were to reinvent the viewfinder, moving beyond just optical? Means: we’re looking to simplify the rangefinder mechanism by replacing delicate parts with simpler electronics, but the viewfinder itself is going to remain optical.

• What if an automatic lens recognition mode were capable of always displaying the corresponding frame. Means: the first mechanical components we’d like to do away with are the frameline indexing cams, the brightline window and its associated optics.

• Suddenly we're thinking zoom lenses. Means: electronic framelines will enable us to offer some lenses with this new camera that won’t be backwards compatible to the M camera, and these will probably include an electronic coupling as well.

• And what would happen if a camera were compatible with both M and R lenses? Means: the electronic coupling will be based on the same protocol that R lenses use, and we will provide an adapter for the mechanical differences.

I'm hoping that Mr. Kaufmann isn't hinting a modified G1, but rather an original Leica design based on optical viewfinders.

Finally, I’m going to leave you today with a visual comparison of the new Super-Elmar and its Elmar sister. Note the rear lens group (4-8) is mostly the same. The front lens group is related but all changed, with stronger converging power in the front group (1-3).

elmar
24 Elmar-M ASPH.

superelmar
18 Super-Elmar-M ASPH.

 

18Feb/090

What a ridiculous proposition

Someone at Leica doesn't get flash, or at least not how flash might be combined with the M camera.  I guess they think flash ought never be combined with the M camera... which turns out is a self-fulfilling prophecy when they do stuff like this.

WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?  These are just ridiculous proportions, it must constantly want to tip over and point South.  It's an even worse fit than a D40 with an SB-900.

I think I unsderstand the product though.  Its true purpose is obviously to work with the upcoming S2 and further-upcoming R10 cameras.  Why didn't they use the S2 to launch it?  I guess they thought it would send the wrong message - to wait before buying it.  Do they think this is a better message?  Mind boggling.

Before I am reminded that Leica makes a smaller flash, I'll point out that the SF24D is (1) still too big, (2) cannot bounce and (3) eats special expensive batteries.  I think Leica needs to buy a box of SB-400 and clone them.  The SB-40o would be absolutely perfect on an M8.

14Feb/093

Bad news for the G1/Leica-M combo

Recently Sean Reid (pay-for review site) tested the innovative and popular Panasonic G1 with some of his Leica lenses. While I’m not going to copy his protected images or repeat his lengthy and insightful discussion, I can tell you that it put a damper on my excitement for the G1 as an entry-level M camera. It might explain why we don’t have a Leica G1.

Sean’s most revealing test pitted the G1 against the M8 in a micro-contrast face-off, using the same lens on the same subject under controlled conditions. In theory the G1 should have an advantage here if the lens resolves finely enough for its pixel pitch, as does Sean’s 28mm Summicron ASPH. This is popular wisdom because the G1 doesn’t record pixels as far from the center as the M8 does (2.0x versus 1.3x crop), and hence stays in a comfort zone.

The outcome? It wasn’t close, the M8 humiliated the G1 in the corners.  I mean the Summicron looked like a bargain-bin lens on the G1.

I think we have a good explanation for why that is, and it goes back to the M8’s launch material. Look at the diagram for offset microlenses:

 
Image credit: Leica, via Dpreview.com.

 The G1 obviously doesn’t have these micro-lenses because it is designed for lenses that project rays that are more parallel - at least it's clear it's what it works well with.  The Leica telephotos are likely to work well and the wide-angles not so well.  This is a shame because the 2x crop factor invites the use of wide-angle lenses.

It's possible that when we see a Leica camera come out in the Micro4/3 format, it will have offset microlenses.