There are quite a number of medium format digital cameras available today; the vast majority are designed to handle like oversize DSLRs, and in some cases, there’s very little difference size- and control-wise between these cameras – take the Leica S, for instance. This makes them both familiar and easy to use, but also somewhat liable to catch out the unweary. My digital field work with medium format is done with a Hasselblad CFV-39, mounted on a 501CM body. The method of operation constantly reminds you that this is most certainly not another DSLR; not least because you have to wind the camera after every shot to recock the shutter and lower the mirror! The intention of this article is to look at the practicalities – or impracticalities – of using medium format digital in the field or while travelling as a DSLR replacement, and more importantly, in a way that lets you actually see enough of a difference to justify it in the first place.
It’s been nearly two years since the D800E was released. In the meantime we’ve dealt with left focusing issues, comparisons with much more expensive cameras (here, and here), the fact that most of the Nikon lens stable doesn’t really match up to the capabilities of the sensor, focusing issues with MF glass – now that we have lenses like the Otus and 2/135 APO, and its use as a scanning device for film – amongst other things. It’s become my go-to camera when an image needs making, under any circumstances, and with any given set of requirements. Yet it’s honestly taken me two years to warm up to it. Here’s why.
Today’s review is of a pair of lenses that you don’t see very often, nor do you read/ hear much about – the Schneider PC-TS 2.8/50 Super-Angulon and PC-TS 4.5/90 Makro-Symmar. There’s a third lens, a 28mm, which has been announced but as of March 2014 is not available. Given that there aren’t too many perspective control options for 35mm DSLRs, and one is always on the lookout for optics that better match the resolving power of cameras like the D800E, it made sense for me to try these two…
If ever there was a convincing argument for Micro Four Thirds, this camera and the Olympus E-M1 would form the vanguard. One lets you shoot under incredibly demanding conditions and extends the shooting envelope significantly over the competition; the other is so darn small that it puts most compact cameras to shame. In fact, the body is no larger than it needs to be to accommodate a 3″ touch-sensitive LCD, and a tiny bit of real estate to accommodate a few buttons and a vestigial thumb grip. To put things into perspective: the body is the same size as the ultra-compact Canon Ixus I used to have; the one so compact that it doesn’t even have a d-pad. Size does of course carry some compromises. But I admit that I was curious to find out just what they were; there are times when I need a bit more flexibility than the fixed 28mm of the excellent Ricoh GR, and this seemed like just the ticket…
2003 was an exciting year for digital cameras. I remember it as being the turning point just before the DSLR became accessible to the masses; professional image quality was now theoretically within reach of everybody – well, assuming you had the knowledge to use it. If not, you could theoretically keep shooting until you did; and that’s just what I did. It’s also where my personal photographic journey began in earnest. APS-C dominated as the best compromise of sensor size and cost; the D1X and 1DS were king. On the high-speed, responsive, general purpose front were the Nikon D2H, Canon 1D and Olympus E-1 – though the latter raised a lot of eyebrows with its smaller sensor. In mid 2004, I remember putting heavy consideration into both the E-1 and D2H as a replacement for my broken D70; I remember liking the way the E-1 felt and shot, and especially the smoothness of the mirror, but I didn’t like the limited variety and cost of lenses, not to mention the relatively slow 3fps and limited AF system compared to the blazing-fast 8fps D2H and CAM2000 – on top of which, you had a huge variety of lenses – a lot of which were cheap and excellent. I went Nikon again, but have always had a seed of curiosity towards the E-1. It’s been ten years now. Olympus Malaysia managed to find one in a cupboard somewhere, and kindly lent it to me…
Sony are known for pushing the technological envelope; the first NEX-5 showed us just how small an APS-C camera could be – with decent frame rates and AF speeds, no less. However, the rules of optics are not so easily breakable: lenses still have to be a certain size to cover a certain image circle at a given aperture and focal length. The NEX kit lenses were no smaller than APS-C DSLR lenses – because that’s pretty much what they were. Unfortunately, Sony are also known for serious attention deficit disorder when it comes to products and systems; recently one of their executives (Kimio Maki, GM of Sony’s Digital Imaging Business Group) was quoted as saying he wanted to do something new every six months. A good example is the RX1, superseded by the RX1R a year later, and effectively killed by the A7 and A7R now; new RX1Rs that sold for approx. US$3,300 in Japan plummeted to just US$1,300 or thereabouts in used value the day after the A7 twins were released. I don’t know whether that represents a relentless commitment to innovation at all costs, or whether it’s just sticking it to your customers. Nevertheless, the like the NEX-5 (which I owned, didn’t mind the limited controls, but found pretty good except for tonal palette) – the A7R pushes things a bit further; far enough to be in interesting territory. We now have full frame – and the best full frame sensor at that – in an E-M1-sized body. Surely there has to be a catch somewhere?
Images in this review were shot with the A7R and Zeiss 55/1.8 FE. An extended set on flickr with more samples is here.
Does a fairly bulky/ heavy, expensive – $1,300 – fixed-lens, (relatively – 1″) small sensor camera have a place in the current camera ecology? Sony seems to think so. The RX10 is all about its lens: a fixed-aperture 24-200/2.8, Zeiss-branded unit that’s about the size of an 85/1.8 for a full frame camera. It is definitely not small. Sensibly, Sony have scaled the rest of the camera to match. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to figure out whether this is perhaps one of the smartest products of late, or fighting an uphill battle. The sad reality is that it probably will disappear as a footnote, overshadowed by its illogical A7 and A7r brethren.
Note: Welcome to the new review format. I’m going to tell you what I think, nothing more, nothing less. I shoot raw and process with ACR/ PS CC with the intention of subjecting the files to my normal workflow and finished-shot standards. If you’re looking for rigorous technical tests, there are other sites who have the time and resources to do it more comprehensively than I do. What I do is actually use the equipment to make photographs – after all, isn’t that the point of a camera?
My initial thoughts on the Nikon Df (which can be found here) were not positive, mainly due to the way the camera was marketed and executed. I’ve changed my mind somewhat after using it for the last week or so. However, it is simply a camera that does not work for me, even though it should tick every single box – I love my F2 Titan, D800Es pay for most of my bills, I’ve used or owned just about every lens produced in the last ten years, and I admit to secretly coveting the D4′s sensor – but there you go. It is a camera which doesn’t quite make up the sum of its parts.
Note: This is not going to be written in the style of my past reviews. For a start, there aren’t any images. And there’s a good reason for that.
Continued from Part One
Clearly, no expense was spared in the making of this lens. Unfortunately, this is also reflected in the price and size: a rather steep US$4,000, and a kerb weight (it actually sometimes feels like you’re aiming a tracked weapon) of around a kilo. It’s the size of a 24-70/2.8 from any of the big brands, and somewhat fatter, too. What you get for that money – aside from the outstanding optics – is a smooth, curved, all-metal housing and hood that mates flush with the front of the lens; rock-solid build, and quite possibly the best focusing ring I’ve ever used. This is of course very important for a manual focus lens, but it really is something else in terms of feel, feedback and haptics. Throw distance it’s perfect; it has enough resistance to stay put, but turns smoothly and has zero backlash – you can adjust focus with a fingertip. It also has a pleasingly tactile and grippy rubber ring, which is duplicated for the aperture setting ring. The mechanical aperture ring is of course only present on Nikon mount versions, which means that it’s also back-compatible with other mounts via adaptors – though you’d need a pretty darn good adaptor not to interfere with the planarity of the optics. Both Canon and Nikon mount versions have full electronic communication with the camera.
I’ve used a lot of 50mm and near-50mm lenses in my time*. I’ve had the privilege of owning or having on long term loan some of the legends – the Leica f0.95 Noctilux, for instance, the 50/2 APO-Summicron-ASPH; the Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor; the Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar. However, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is quite possibly the best of them all.