Sunday, December 28, 2008

Canon's 28mm f/1.8

I got the Canon 28mm f/1.8 lens a few weeks back in anticipation of my daughter's birth. My thinking was, I'd need a fast lens that would give me a wide enough field of view on my APS-C 40D, but still be useful for full-frame work down the road. My only other fast lens is the Canon 50mm f/1.8, which has served its purpose but has survived a nasty fall in recent weeks and can no longer be trusted for serious work. Plus, on the crop sensor I simply had to step back too far to take a photo sometimes, not helpful when you're looking to take a lot of photos indoors.

In the meantime, I was also lucky enough to get in three weeks of time with the full-frame 5D Mark II, on which I had the 28mm lens most of the time. It's a vastly different lens on the two cameras. Not because the 40D's a dog compared to the shiny 5Dmk2...far from it. It's just that it's a wide-angle lens on the new camera, and a normal lens on the 40D.

Performance-wise, I noticed no difference in the 28mm on either camera. It uses Canon's ultrasonic focus, of which I am a huge fan, and locks focus almost instantly. I'd compare it to the 85mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses.

I didn't do any pixel-peeping on the corners of 28mm files, nor did I conduct any tripod tests. I did notice some vignetting when I used it on the 5D Mark II, but it tended to be under extreme conditions (and is easily dealt with in Lightroom). All I know is this: it's my favorite lens in my collection, and I'd say that it's well worth its $420 price tag.

Here's why I like it:
  • build quality on par with Canon 85/1.8
  • super-fast focus
  • focuses really close
  • full-time manual focus override
  • very sharp starting at f/2.8 or so (not tested, just my impression)
  • nice bokeh
  • 7 aperture blades make nice sunstars when stopped down
  • small and lightweight, makes a wonderful walk-around rig
Cons? There have to be some, right? Alright, here goes:
  • no hood included
Seriously, it's a nice little lens which is a step up from the more flimsy and slower-focusing f/2.8 Canon primes. I've heard some folks say the 28/2.8 or 35/2 primes are sharper than the 28/1.8, and I can't argue since I haven't (and won't) test this lens. Hell, its design is many years old at this point and any testing I do would be redundant, anyway. On my 40D it's a nice, fast, normal lens. Down the road it'll be a nice, fast, moderate wide-angle lens. How can I lose?

A similar lens is Sigma's 30mm f/1.4. A buddy of mine has that lens and loves it - it's on his camera most of the time, focuses fast, and is 2/3-stop faster than the 28/1.8. But it only covers crop sensors, so for me the choice was easy.

It fits all the criteria I set down for it: pictures look great wide open, it focuses faster than I can shoot, it's small and light. At f/1.8 pictures are slightly soft, but since when does a picture have to be sharp to be good?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sunday, December 21, 2008

High resolution

As I shoot baby pictures, I'm noticing that the 5D Mark II shows pretty much every skin blemish you have, and a few you may not have known about. I guess that's life in the world of 21-plus megapixel cameras.

I'll spare you visual evidence, you just gotta trust me on this one.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Welcome to the world

12/19/08 — Mila Quinn joins the real world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lightroom 2.2 and more

In case you missed it, Lightroom 2.2 is here — it adds RAW support for the movers and shakers in the camera world, like the 5D Mark II, Powershot G10, Panasonic LX3, Leica D-Lux 4 (which is an LX3 with a Leica sticker on it for $400 more), etc.

David duChemin wrote a great post showing his "vision-oriented workflow" in Lightroom. It's a great read from an interesting photographer. His blog is always worth reading, because he goes to a lot of interesting places and emphasizes leaving a better world than he found, along with developing relationships with the indigenous peoples he photographs.

The Online photographer weighs in on perhaps the hottest topic in photography right now, the full-frame shootout between the Sony A900, Nikon D700 (and D3), and the Canon 5D Mark II. I like his perspective, too, because he's a photographer, not a spec-head punk.

And last but not least, check out Ken Rockwell's eBay tips.

Because I believe a blog post on a photo site should have a photograph.

I'm working on my general thoughts concerning the 5D Mark II, which unfortunately will be returned soon. Actually, it's a blessing in disguise because I like it better when only one camera is in play.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kitty and Christmas tree

Here's little Charlotte, posing in front of our Christmas tree.

She always wraps her tail around her paws like that. Is it for warmth?

Holiday self-portrait

Canon 5D Mark II, 28mm, f/1.8, ISO 1600

Monday, December 15, 2008

Autofocus mirror telephoto

The Luminous Landscape has posted a review of an intriguing lens — Sony's 500mm f/8 mirror telephoto. It differs from other mirror telephotos in that it can autofocus. And mounted on a Sony DSLR, it's image-stabilized.

I borrowed a Sigma 600mm f/8 mirror lens from my Dad a year or two ago (he has yet to ask for it back). It'll get you in close, but manual focus is a crapshoot. It requires at the least a monopod, preferably a tripod to get anything good. Last week I hauled it out to try and take a picture of the moon, and ended up getting much better results with my 100-300mm Canon lens at 300mm, f/5.6, and a 2x teleconverter.

I find it interesting that Sony would even attempt to make this lens. I guess it allows them to say "750mm equivalent" for hundreds or thousands of dollars less than major brand lenses of the same length, and it adds a lens to Sony's small (but growing) lens lineup. Just a guess, though. The problem with that line of thinking is that it's the kind of message aimed at less experienced amateurs, who may or may not possess the patience it requires to work with this type of lens.

The Luminous Landscape has fairly nice things to say about it, so it must be an improvement over the one I've used. It's an interesting product for sure.

Weekend 5D Mark II snapshots

I went out looking for a Blue Heron again today, but there were none about. I didn't want to leave the woods completely empty-handed, so I snapped the shot below of some backlit leaves.

The sunlight is directly behind them, so it's quite a high-contrast edge...I peeped in at 300% but didn't see any black dots. I'm giving up on that.

I snapped the shot below near work, driving around at lunchtime.

And this one on my way home:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

5D Mark II black dots

I've been shooting with the 5D Mark II for a solid week now, and haven't seen any black dots. I even aimed it straight at the Moon last night, using Live View, and none came up. Could it be that my loaner is some magic version of the camera?

As I've been poking around the web reading up on the black dots "catastrophe" it seems to me that it's yet another problem caused by extreme pixel peeping, as much as anything. I certainly wouldn't be too worried about it, but most of the "sky is falling" comments are coming from those who are reacting to 200% crops from other people.

A lot of the more concerned people have yet to actually use the camera themselves. Some commenters are people who probably never had any intention of getting their own 5D Mark II to begin with. But that's life on the internet, right? I'm just saying, be careful what you read out there.

If this is indeed a huge problem — and I have to reiterate, that after a week of snapping frames, many at high ISOs, I have not seen this — then it'll be corrected by Canon. For some balance in your research, read this explanation by Ken Rockwell. Say what you will about him, Ken knows his stuff.

I guess I'm just lucky, or I haven't been trying hard enough to reproduce the problem. I've also been shooting in RAW, so perhaps that's the answer, though I took a few hundred jpeg shots one day without seeing it.

It'll blow over soon, so everyone can get back to arguing about high-ISO performance, lines of resolution, chromatic aberration statistics, and the usual.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Moon shots

Tonight's a special night — the closest full moon since 1993. So I wandered outside to take the best shot I could. I shot the one below with my 100-300mm lens at 300mm, f/8, with a cheap-o Quantaray 2x teleconverter at ISO 200, 1/250.

I used Live View on the 5D Mark II — at 600mm, it was tough to focus, because on my crummy tripod the image was bouncing around like crazy. Sharpening was applied. I chose the 10-second timer because it took a good 7 seconds for the lens to stop bouncing.

On my way home from work I drove up an access road near the airport and snapped the one below, hand-held at 300mm, ISO 3200.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Low-light shooting

The 5D Mark II is amazing in low light. I don't have a D700, or a D3, an A900, or a 1DS Mark III on hand to compare pixels to pixels. Nor do I care. I like experiential reviews that talk about actually using a camera, not comparing spec sheets, DxO rankings, MTF charts, or other quantifiable things which have nothing to do with taking photos.

I do have a 40D. And I'm very happy with the 40D. But the 5D Mark II is on another planet in low light.

I can shoot in ISO 6400 without batting an eye — it's like ISO 1600 in my 40D. It lets me shoot my slow 28-135mm IS lens around the house with no problem.

ISO 6400

I'm serious, it blows me away every time I look at the files — the ones I post are down-rezzed to 800 pixels, so take that as you will. But given what I'm used to, I am blown away.

ISO 6400

Zoomed in at 100%, there is noise present. But I'd be up on top of a 3-meter print with a loupe to see it in real life. Who cares? I'll bet at 11x14 I wouldn't notice it at all. And if these pictures aren't hanging on my wall, what are they, really?

I'm reading a lot of opinions lately about the 5D Mark II — most of them have been formed without having ever shot with it. Or even holding it in their hand. Trust me, as someone who has actually been using the camera lately, it'll help you make some amazing photos. With this camera in hand, your bad photos are your fault.

I plan to write up a detailed post after I have to bring it back. And I'm no Canon fanboy, despite the fact that I'm a Canon shooter; I could care less what sort of camera and lens collection everyone else has. All I can say right now, as a photographer, is that I feel lucky to live in a day and age where photos like the ones above are possible in such little light.

Oh, and the "black dots" controversy I'm seeing out there...haven't seen it in any of my shots after a week of shooting. I'll certainly address it if I actually see it. Take that problem with a grain of salt — if it's widespread, Canon will correct it. And lots of people seem to slag off the 5D Mark II's autofocus capability. I'd ask you all: have you tried it? Over the past week I've been using it, I feel like the AF works great. I think sometimes people get caught up in quantifiables, like that the 5D Mark II and original 5D both have the same number of autofocus points. It is what it is.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Playing with video

Video in DSLRs has a lot of potential. Larger sensors, interchangeable lenses, and so on. To me, it's all about a couple of things: shallow depth-of-field, and the ability to pull focus. The little clip below shows off my burgeoning focus pulling skills:

I've always found that consumer-grade video cameras do for video what point-and-shoots do for still photography — everything's in focus. I like the ability to blur the background to draw the eye to my subject.

You can see the background flicker when the glass is pulled away — the light changed, and the 5D Mark II made an adjustment. I should have locked the exposure before shooting. The Nikon D90 doesn't let you do that, so its videos tend to flicker like crazy.

It's important to remember that being a good videographer is just as hard, and takes just as much practice, as being a good still photographer. Just because DSLRs will be able to shoot video doesn't mean everyone's videos of their kids, pets, and whatever else will get any better. They may look better in some ways, but we shouldn't fool ourselves.

And right now, these are hardly suitable replacements for camcorders. Without the ability to track focus quickly and accurately, it's little more than a novelty. Just to take those simple videos above, I had to put the camera on a tripod and lock focus before starting the shot.

Image stabilization works with the 5D Mark II's video mode, but the grinding noise IS makes in my 28-135mm is very audible. It would be wise to take advantage of the 3.5mm mic input if you wanted to record audio. A shotgun condenser mic mounted on the hotshoe would do wonders, and besides, the bulit-in mic only records in mono.

I'm obviously no videographer, but I must admit, it's fun to try.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bye bye, Polaroid

2008 is the last year Polaroid will keep making film. You should be able to get through early 2009 until the stock runs out, but there's likely to be a rush on what's left by instant photo enthusiasts.

I never was into Polaroids, but I think they're cool, and certainly they've become a part of pop culture. I've heard of fashion photographers using Polaroid backs on their Hasselblad cameras, checking exposure before a shoot.

Digital has killed any hopes Polaroid once had to continue as a viable film camera company; one instant medium has been supplanted by another. RIP, Polaroid pictures. Keep on refining your PoGo printer, it looks like a promising little niche product.

Monday, December 8, 2008

ISO 12800

Not too shabby! I'm pretty happy with this one, considering I was shooting with my right hand while manipulating the cat toy with my left. And all I needed for lighting was the overhead.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

In the woods

I went for a walk in the woods yesterday with the 5D Mark II and my 28-135mm IS lens. It was a gray day, and all the plants are stripped bare now, so it wasn't the most colorful trip. I decided to shoot jpeg instead of RAW because the files are much more manageable — RAW files are 20-25MB, vs. 6-12MB for the jpegs. I have an older computer, so the RAW files really gum up the works.

The little stream near where I live.

I've always felt Canon threw a useless battery meter into the cameras I've had: it tells you that it's full, or that it's about to run out. The 5D Mark II has a nice battery meter. The icon you see in the viewfinder now has 4 different levels, so there's not so much guesswork involved.

There's also a "battery check" function, but it's buried in a menu somewhere. No problem, I just assigned it to "My Menu" for easy access. It tells you remaining capacity (in a percentage), shutter count (for the current battery charge — this is reset upon removal of the battery), and has a 3-bar "recharge performance" meter which indicates the overall health of the battery.

I walked around for 2.5 hours in 35-degree weather yesterday, and the battery's sitting at 84% today. I was doing a lot of chimping as I went, played around with live view a bit, too. I've never had an issue with battery performance with any Canon DLSR I've had.

The 5D Mark II uses a new battery, so the BP-511 and BP-511A batteries are incompatible.

The reason you want a camera with a full-frame sensor is so you can shoot wide. The widest EF lenses I have are 28mm — which is a normal field of view on APS-C sensor cameras like the 40D. But on the 5D Mark II, they're moderate wide-angle lenses. Nice! I really like 28mm as a walk-around focal length.

Stepping stones

One thing I do miss from the 40D, however, is its fast burst mode. I encountered numerous deer on my walk, and would have liked to been able to shoot faster. The 5D Mark II's burst feels like the slow burst on the 40D (or, for that matter, the 300D). It's understandable, given the sheer volume of information accumulated with each shot.

I failed to photograph a deer, but I don't blame the camera for that. I just like how fast the 40D can shoot.

Foam swirling in the stream

Friday, December 5, 2008

5D Mark II

Hey, that image quality sucks! Oh, wait, it's a 100% crop at ISO 1600, taken from the snapshot below.

The RAW files are incompatible with PS3/Lightroom 2 right now, so here's a workaround: download the latest DNG converter, convert your files to DNG, then import into Lightroom or open in PS3.

It looks and feels a lot like the 40D. The buttons on the back which are below the screen on the 40D have returned to the left-hand side. The vestigial print button now activates Live View, which as you all know shoots 1080p movies. The movie controls are miles ahead of the D90's (for one thing, autofocus and exposure lock are possible), but this is no camcorder: it will require some planning ahead to make a watchable video. More on that later as I fiddle around with it.

The shutter button feels slightly different than that of the 40D; it takes a little less pressure to press halfway, and a little more to press the shutter. the shutter makes slightly more noise, too.

Base ISO is 100-6400, expandable to 50-25600. Here's one at ISO 6400:

Down-rezzed for the web, but 6400 sure looks usable. I can't wait to take it outside tomorrow. More to come.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Christmas spirit

My wife and I love "tacky light tours" at Christmastime. Charlottesville is a hilly little city, and now that the leaves are all gone it's easy to spot those "special" houses where people go completely overboard with their lights. This one is near our place:

I used a tripod, ISO 100 at f/8, 28mm. The long exposure revealed a pleasing characteristic of my new 28/1.8 lens: 14-point sunstars, thanks to a 7-blade aperture. Check out the tight crop below:

That house was a good start. But just around the corner, someone else was full of holiday cheer.

Up close, I could hear a whirring sound as various mechanical things swung left and right. Or was that the little arrows spinning that keep track of kilowatt hours?

I'll be tracking down more over-the-top homes all month long! Wait until you see the one near my work — I'm heading over there this weekend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Final thoughts on the G10

The borrowed G10 I've been playing around with the last two weeks is going back tomorrow. It's been a lot of fun to use — tons of manual controls, wide angle (for a compact), great macro mode. It's a well-designed camera that mostly just gets out of your way and lets you take nice photos.

I love the screen on the back. You can zoom way in your pictures and see nice, sharp details. But there were a few times I thought a picture looked amazing on the screen, then was less enthusiastic once I was looking at the 14.7-megapixel file on my computer. I suspect the screen is a little more contrasty than real life, and of course being so much smaller any flaws in the photo are hidden. This is a very minor quibble, obviously. The screen really is nice.

Charlotte looks so serious!

It has a "My Menu" setting that comes in really handy — you set the five functions you use most often so you don't have to dig around the menus so much. However, this isn't the first thing that comes up when you hit the menu button; it requires another click to the left to get to it. And you can't add "format memory card" to My Menu! Geez, that's the first thing I do after I download all my pictures.

Nor can you assign formatting the card to the little print/bonus button in the upper left-hand corner. You have to drill through the wrench menu every time to get there.

The viewfinder is a joke, it's like one you'd find on an old Polaroid Land Camera. You can even see the lens barrel when you're at 28mm! And obviously, there's no feedback visible. I'd have to be in some serious sunlight to even think about using it.

Those are minor flaws, though. The G10 is a powerful photographic tool. In nice light, it will surprise you with how much detail it records. The shot below is a pretty tight crop:

Not quite a 100% crop, but close.

In light that's not so nice, it reminds you that it's a point-and-shoot. The limitations of cramming 14.7 million pixels onto a 1/1.7" sensor really start to show at ISO 400.

Noise is pretty evident at ISO 400.

Since you can only stop down to F/8, there's a Neutral Density feature for slowing down your shutter speed in daylight. It works well! You can go for silky water shots.

You can read dpreview if you want to learn about all the available features; the sheer number of them boggles the mind. It's pretty amazing what cameras can do these days. The G10's not really for me, I like to shoot in available light and use shallow depth of field a lot. You can't do either of those things with the G10, or any other compact for that matter. It goes to show you that in the end, for all its bells and whistles, it's still a point-and-shoot camera.

That said, I could have a hell of a fun time with the G10 if I were trekking around Europe or something. It's a fabulous daylight landscape camera. And it's a lot of fun to play with, which has to count for something, right?

My pros:
  • lots of manual controls
  • exposure compensation has its own dial
  • wide angle (28mm equivalent)
  • IS works great
  • feels good in my hand
  • macro mode and virtual ND filter work great
  • wonderful screen
  • captures amazing detail in good light
  • hotshoe; works great with 430EX II flash
My cons:
  • noise is irritating starting at ISO 400
  • lens isn't fast enough
  • can't assign "format card" to a shortcut
  • useless viewfinder
I'll pass on the G10, but you could do a whole lot worse if it were your only camera. It's far and away the best compact I've ever used.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New toy

My Canon 28/1.8 came today. I have been eying the lens for awhile now, since my wife and I are about to have a baby, and I knew I'd need a wider (and better) low-light lens for taking baby photos. I haven't even looked at any test shots yet, but I'll post a few soon.

One thing that's obvious right off the bat is that it's well-constructed, and the USM focus will be appreciated. But why does Canon insist on making those lens caps that pinch on the outside? How am I supposed to get the cap on and off with a hood attached? I ordered this little neoprene sock that fits over the end of the hood, so I'm going to give that a shot. I hope it works out, because I lost the cap to my 100-300mm lens trudging around in the woods last weekend. It has a 58mm front element, just like the 28/1.8.

The lens looks and feels a lot like the 85/1.8. If it performs like that lens, I'll be pretty happy.