Last (massive) update: 2 February 2015 – 25 items added
All photographers love gear, myself included. And I frequently get asked questions about gear. A lot of questions. So, to save you having to ask, and to provide a reference source, this page will eventually hold a concise opinion on every piece of gear I’ve ever used. I’ll start with current equipment, which will be indicated by asterisks**. It will be broken down into sections for cameras, lenses, accessories and bags, and organized alphabetically within that, with the date of the impression or last use in brackets. If there’s a full review, it will be linked. If you want to find something, try using the search function on your browser (for now). Consider this a living document that will be regularly updated as time goes on.
The rating (number out of ten, with ten being the best for that category) – is a highly subjective measure of what I think of a lens. It’s relative to everything else in that lens class I’ve used, and everything in general, so it might change if a new ‘super lens’ is introduced – this is why the date is also important. I also take price-performance into approximate consideration. Things I haven’t used enough to give a fair rating to have NA next to them. MT
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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved
Apple iPhone 3GS (Mar 2010, 5/10) The first phone I thought was good enough to use as a camera, albeit occasionally. Useless in low light, also useless in bright light because of the contrast. Still, better than nothing.
Apple iPhone 4** (May 2012, 7/10) – The first phone whose image quality I actually liked. Crisp, detailed files; limited dynamic range – as expected from this kind of sensor – some kind of rudimentary spot metering. Color accuracy is horrible in anything other than bright sunshine, and way off indoors. Doesn’t seem to have the range of shutter speeds to cope with very dark or very bright conditions. Also, noisy. Needs a physical two-stage shutter button. Nevertheless, it’s produced images that went into the Getty library, so no complaints. Oh, and I can make calls and blog off it, too.
Apple iPhone 5 (Feb 2013, 9/10) – As a smartphone camera, it’s surprisingly good: AF is fast, there’s semi-spot metering, and auto white balance is accurate. Dynamic range isn’t too bad so long as you pick an intelligent metering point. File quality is surprisingly good, with high acuity and relatively low noise considering the pixel pitch. Altogether a significant improvement on the iPhone 4, but almost the same as the 4S. Note: HDR mode doesn’t produce horribly tone mapped results; instead it offers a little bit more DR in the shadows and highlights; often just enough to stop things from clipping in an ugly way. Use it for very bright scenes, don’t bother in low light since you won’t be able to hold the camera still for that long. Still needs a raw file, or at least an option for uncooked jpegs.
Apple iPhone 6 Plus** (Feb 2014, 9.5/10) – Camera phones have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. I was impressed with the 5 and 5S cameras; the 6+ doesn’t add much other than image stabilisation, phase detection pixels and more processing power, but the results are surprisingly impressive even under very marginal conditions. You can be quite careless with shot discipline (I experimented out of curiosity) and still get a sharp image; I suspect there’s also some clever software fusing multiple images in conjunction with the optical stabiliser. Composing on the enormous screen is a joy, even if the new editing app built into the Camera Roll is terribly unintuitive. Short of fitting it with a larger sensor or an optical zoom, I’m not sure how they can make it any better. It’s even fast by serious camera standards – both in responsiveness, maximum frame rates, buffering and focusing. It means you really need to be using something with a much larger sensor or longer lens to justify carrying an additional camera these days. Still no raw files, sadly.
Arca-Swiss F Line 4×5 metric** (Feb 2014, 7/10) – Difficult for me to rate this one as it’s the only view camera I’ve ever used. But the controls move smoothly, things are logical, and the camera is very well built; there’s not really a lot else that can go wrong, but I suppose it would be nice if it folded flat like the Linhof Technikardans. Very clever groundglass/ film holder system; the ground glass frame itself works as the tension element to keep the film holders in place.
Canon SD780IS (Early 2010, 6/10) – Last used early 2010, still going strong with my mum. Great pocket camera by the virtue of its size, fairly fast AF, and reasonably controllable interface. Doesn’t have anything beyond P mode, and frankly compacts don’t require it. Image quality is good up to ISO 400, don’t go beyond that. Lens range so-so – 33mm equivalent is a useful starting point but one often wishes for wider.
Canon IXUS 220HS (Nov 2011, 6/10) – Had it for two weeks, wanted the spiritual replacement to the SD780IS; never quite bonded with it and didn’t like the lens’ image quality very much, so off to the used market it went. Useful 5x range, though. perhaps my expectations of a pocket camera have moved on in three years.
Canon ELPH 520 HS (Apr 2013, 7/10) – An interestingly compact camera – fits inside a pack of cigarettes – but packs a significant punch in the form of a 28-330mm optical zoom. Surprisingly sharp throughout the range, too. It uses folding optics and a zoom that extends both out and inside the camera body to keep things compact. The sensor is tiny – a 10MP crop out of the middle of an original 16MP sensor, but provides decent results at up to ISO 800, best kept below 400 though. For the price – $130 or so – it’s great bang for the buck, and lots of fun.
Canon G1X (May 2012, NA) – Handled one briefly but put off by its enormous size. Files looked clean, however. Leaves me wondering why you’d go for this over a smaller, more flexible M4/3 body such as the Pen Mini.
Canon 1000D (Mar 2010, 6/10) – Bought ‘accidentally’ out of curiosity on the used market. Wanted something cheap and semi-disposable for occasions where I didn’t want to risk the D700. Image quality was disappointing, kit lens horrible, and frankly felt like a cheap appliance overall. Not happy with the feel at all. Landed up selling it after a month and used the D700 anyway.
Canon 1DIII (May 2007, 7/10) – Used extensively prior to D3 announcement; I had a full set of gear on loan from Canon while contemplating a system switch. Didn’t experience any AF issues, even for birding use. Speed and high ISO performance felt pretty revolutionary at the time, especially coming from the D200. Good up to ISO 3200 without too much thought.
Canon 1DsIII (Mar 2008, 8/10) – A hugely impressive camera at the time, with great resolution, not-bad high ISO performance (prints looked great because of the number of pixels) and not-bad color. Let down by some of the lenses, especially the older 16-35/2.8; the 17-40/4 worked much better.
Canon 5DII (May 2012, 7/10) – I think this actually feels nicer in the hand (the grip, at any rate) than the competing D700; image quality isn’t as clean at high ISO, and the colors are all over the place and require a lot of work afterwards to retain accuracy. Fantastic video output.
Canon 5DIII (April 2012) – A friend handed me a bag containing this and the 50/1.2 L and told me to knock myself out. I nearly did out of frustration at the controls; whoever designed the menu system ought to be shot. I can usually figure out a new camera in a few minutes, but this left me baffled after half an hour. I persevered and got some test shots off; noise is pretty impressive – I’d say at the level of the D3 even at the pixel level, which is good considering there’s a lot more pixels. Acuity remains high, color is better than the 5DII but not as good as the Nikons. AF system is a huge leap forward over the 5DII but the points are still far too clustered together for my liking.
Contax T3 (Feb 2013, 8/10) – One of the great ‘luxury’ film point and shoots, it has several things going for it: an outstandingly good Zeiss 2.8/35 lens, reasonably fast AF, and a very clear viewfinder. Produces great negatives and offers a reasonably degree of control – aperture priority and exposure compensation is really all you need. Has viewfinder info display for shutter speed, but isn’t terribly visible and tends to flare out. Solid, hefty build quality – it’s made of titanium, and the viewfinder outer windows are synthetic sapphire. Not cheap, but a joy to use.
Fuji X100 (Jun 2011, 6/10) – Great idea, lousy execution. Hybrid EVF should allow for accurate frame lines, but doesn’t. Excellent sensor and image quality let down by clunky, slow firmware and glacial focusing. Clean images with nice tonality and color even to ISO 3200; I wouldn’t go beyond that, though. Completely unusable manual focus. Lens excellent at 2.8 and upwards; f2 a little hazy (internal flare, coma?). Nice feel to it, too.
Fuji Finepix X10 (Mar 2012, NA) – The little brother to the X100. Not that little, though. Larger 2/3″ sensor gives great image quality for a compact; handy 28-110 lens range, and clever integrated power switch into the zoom ring. However, the one thing that lets it down for me is the little stutter and freeze while focusing; in that half-second or so, you have no idea what is going on in front of you because the LCD freezes. Has an optical finder, but is kinda worthless due to size and coverage.
Fuji Finepix X20 – (Apr 2013, 7/10, quick look, full review) – Much faster to focus now that it has PDAF photosites on the sensor; however, the sensor itself isn’t that fantastic despite a relatively low pixel count and 2/3″ size. One of the few small-sensor cameras to still have an optical finder, and the only one I can think of that has both shooting/ exposure info and boxes to mark the AF point in use. Very nicely built and has a great tactile feel; the metal lens cap and mechanical zoom ring are nice touches. The trouble I have with this camera is that the image quality/ size tradeoff isn’t as good as you’d expect; this is a neck strap camera rather than a pocket one.
Fuji XF1 (Nov 2012, 8/10)** – A rather neat little point and shoot with a unique collapsing mechanical zoom. Very configurable, has RAW, and a surprisingly sharp lens that reaches f1.8 at 25mm; sadly it gets pretty slow pretty quickly thereafter. Surprisingly good high ISO quality and dynamic range for a 2/3″ sensor – I suppose that’s some of the Fuji special sauce talking; also retains a good amount of dynamic range with its trick DRO modes. Nice JPEG output; makes me wonder why one would use RAW. I bought it for the wife; or at least that’s my excuse.
Fuji X-Pro1 (May 2012, 6/10) – Supposedly the Leica M-killer. I don’t think Leica needs to worry. Image quality is superb, as are the lenses – however, usability once again lets the whole package down. It has the inaccurate finder from the X100, the AF-freeze from the X10 and the horrible menus of both. It also somehow manages to feel hollow and light despite being solid metal. It just doesn’t feel like a camera I’d want to pick up and use, if I had the choice of a few in my arsenal. Price is eye-watering, too – in this country, the body and kit lens runs to more than a D700 – and I know which I’d rather have.
Fuji X-T1 (Feb 2014, 8.5/10 with the right workflow, 6/10 without) – With the exception of the slightly firm/recessed buttons, the X-T1 body is one of really quite excellent haptics. It has the right heft, the right grippiness, a huge EVF and lots of mechanical controls; unfortunately that was also its downfall for me. The aforementioned mechanical controls only rotate in the marked direction (obviously) – and that direction is opposite to twelve years of muscle memory ingrained from shooting Nikons; I was missing too many shots because I turned the dial the wrong way. Changing the Nikons meant I missed even more shots, and after three weeks, I gave up out of frustration. Previous encounters with X-Trans had not been positive, but recent updates to ACR (post 8.6) appear to have significantly improved things. Note that you do need to take care with sharpening and exposure (shadows don’t have much recoverable detail compared to other Bayer-pattern APS-C cameras, let alone full frame) and color calibration can be a little tricky. But once the camera is profiled, it can deliver really quite impressive results – and perhaps a stop more usable high ISO than the competition.
Hasselblad 501C (Jan 2013, 9/10) – I’m probably not the second, or even third owner of this camera; yet on picking it up, my first reaction was: now this is a real camera. Built like the proverbial tank, solid, a generous, enormously massive and bright finder – the 6×6 ground glass is actually larger than most LCDs at 3.3″, and definitely of better resolution – it’s also part of a very clever system that lets you change prisms, backs and lenses on the fly and mid-roll; has interlocks to prevent user stupidity, but forgetting to remove the dark slide, or that the shutter release button is in an odd position may result in wasted frames or missed opportunities. Important to always remember to keep the shutter cocked – both for removing/ attaching backs (failure to do so will waste a precious frame) as well as when mounting/ dismounting lenses to prevent snapping the leaf shutter drive shaft. I ding it one point for ergonomics – the thing was designed in the 40s – it’s difficult to hold/operate, and you will have trouble aiming the camera downwards if you don’t have one of the prism finders. Furthermore, the 501C doesn’t have the 503’s gliding mirror, that causes part of the frame to black out with longer lenses or high magnification.
Hasselblad 501CM** (Feb 2014, 9.5/10) – Fixes the one thing that needed work (in my mind) from the 501C: portions of the finder blacking out with very long lenses or high magnification ratios. Otherwise, as per the 501C.
Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back (Jan 2013, image quality 9/10 with caveats; usability, 5/10) – If you get everything right, the 39-megapixel, 1.1x crop (in 645 land) sensor is capable of delivering stunningly natural images – you don’t have to do anything to the files to make things look fantastic. However, if you miss, not only won’t you know until it’s too late (the LCD is horrible, as is the UI) but you’ll also have precisely zero latitude to recover. Note that the camera also becomes a 645 because there’s no square sensor; alternatively, a 1.6x crop square. You’ll have to shoot it in portrait orientation at some point, and then find that the V series simply aren’t designed for that, and it’s physically very difficult to accomplish. Too bad you can’t rotate the back. Notional ISO ratings seem to be a bit less sensitive than film, too. My particular sample had a power on/off issue which made it very difficult to consistently turn on or off; consequently, missed shots ensued, as well as very quickly drained batteries – oh, one Sony video camera battery will last about 50 shots before calling it a day. Best shot tethered in a studio with very big lights and an LCD that’s indicate of the final output. Also, check alignment of the back to ensure proper focusing…
Hasselblad H4D-40 (Nov 2012, Image quality, 9.5/10; usability, 5/10) – Outstandingly good image quality if used with adequate light or support – one clear notch up from the Leica S2 and Nikon D800E. Not really hand-holdable because of mirror slap; locking the mirror up first and using the leaf shutter helps a lot, but then you can’t perfect framing if you’re not on a tripod. It’s slow to focus, slow to operate, and the menu system feels as though it needs a few more buttons on the back and a bit more integration of custom functions, but oh boy, the pixel quality of the files is superb. Color is accurate, dynamic range at base ISO is not bad, but most importantly – the tones just look right. Curiously, good RAW files require very little work, but bad ones are effectively unusable. Noise at ISO 800 and above is visible, but tight and monochromatic – much like film grain. I actually think you can get a nice mood out of it even if you use it as a handheld documentary camera in moderate light. Focusing might be frustrating, however. The Leica S2’s lenses seem slightly better to me – especially when it comes to CA and edge quality – and usability is definitely better. But I don’t think the file quality is quite as good…
Hasselblad Lunar (Nov 2012) – Much, much nicer in person than images/ drawings. Feels very ‘right’ in the hand. No comments on image quality as yet, I’ve only played briefly with a prototype.
Leica D-Lux 5/ D-Lux 5 Titanium** (May 2012, 8/10) – Actually won a regular one in a competition; wasn’t impressed and sold it fairly quickly thereafter. However, extended time with the camera has made me change my mind. Not only is the image quality excellent, the pixels are surprisingly robust and stand up to a decent amount of post processing. Excellent macro mode that makes it a good food camera. Also, great stabilizer. Color output needs a lot of work though, and I see that customary Panasonic cyan tinge. Still, makes a great backup/ pocket/ M-companion camera.
Leica M6TTL (June 2008, 7/10) – Bought to finish my film, thoroughly enjoyed, and left me wondering why the shutter in the digital Leicas is nowhere near as smooth and silent as this one. I’d gladly trade the manual rewind for the digital noise. Plus, the lever gives you somewhere to hook your thumb. Crappy rangefinder patch though – flared far too easily for my liking.
Leica M8/ M8.2 (Jan 2010, 7/10) – One of those cameras I didn’t like at first. Then, while reviewing the 8.2 for a magazine, everything clicked. I dumped my D3 and most of my Nikon system to pay for one M8 body and one lens – it changed my way of shooting and seeing that much. I shot nothing but Leica M from 2009-10, and loved and hated it at the same time. It’s a slow camera, can lock up easily if you over-shoot the buffer – I treat it like a revolver; count 6 shots and then wait a bit; and you need to watch the accuracy of the rangefinder. Oh, it was also noisy as hell and not useable past ISO 1250, and even then only for emergencies. Having said all that – a used M8 (I’ve seen them as low as US$1750 now) makes a great entry point into the M system to let you decide if you like the experience enough to go for an M9 or not; if not, you can resell it for not much money lost. I’d consider another one (that would be my third) if I didn’t have access to spare M9s.
Leica M9/ M9-P** (May 2012, 7/10) – The M9-P is one of those cameras that just feels right. Tactility and the ‘want to use it’ factor are high. Image quality is superb, so long as ISO is kept below 800; 1250 is still okay (about a one stop improvement on the M8) but still nowhere near the other FF DSLRs. The lack of an AA filter gives images tremendous bite – just watch your rangefinder calibration. It’s very easy to shoot fast lenses and then wonder why they’re soft, when in fact it’s probably due to a misaligned rangefinder. Most of the woes with the M8 are gone (lockups etc) but you have to be very careful with what cards you use; faster ones can cause corruption and crashes.
Leica M Type 240 (Feb 2013, 8-9/10 pending color profiles and final fixes) – Leica is back in the game. The new sensor appears to have the tonal qualities of a CCD, but the noise and dynamic range of a CMOS; color profiles nonexistent/ not final though. The sensor outresolves anything this side of a D800/E, and appears to be very close in dynamic range and noise at the pixel level. The camera itself has a huge number of improvements and is now much snappier and more responsive; these add up to a big difference in feel and overall usability over the M9. EVF and live view take the guesswork out of critical focusing and make the M an interesting option for cross-system shooters. Has full HD video and very impressive battery life, too. Finally, they fixed the vertical RF adjustment cam so it’s both easily accessible and uses the same hex spanner as the horizontal one!
Leica M-Monochrom (May 2012, 8/10) – If you only shoot B&W, then this is the camera to have. Outstanding resolution – rivaling the S2 and D800E – and acuity that goes beyond that of a Foveon sensor. Demands the most of its lenses, and rangefinder alignment is critical. Has about 1-1.5 stops more useable high-ISO performance than the M9, and doesn’t suffer from the same detail loss at higher sensitivities. Tonal rolloff in shadow and highlight zones is smooth and gradual; however the files need bit of tonal work to get the most out of them Most of the time, sharpening isn’t required. Note that it is a luminance-only camera, so you’ll have to learn how to see a bit differently if you’re used to shooting with color cameras and converting. B&W film users will feel entirely at home.
Leica S2** (May 2012, 8/10 absolute, 5/10 relative value for money) – One of the most complete feeling systems out there – one of the few where the lenses were designed for the camera and vice versa, from the ground up. Very clean, but very intuitive and customizable UI; the only thing that drives me mad is that you can’t change the direction of the command dial. Other than that, image quality is superb; the lenses are nearly flawless at every aperture. To top it off, the form factor isn’t much larger than a D800, the battery lasts for thousands of shots on a charge, and it’s got a useable AF system that also uses focus calibration data built into each individual lens. Build quality is outstanding – a tangible notch over even the D4 – and it’s weather sealed, too. It’s all very useable – feels more like a FF DSLR than a MF camera, and one often tries to use it as such but then remembers CCDs aren’t known for their high ISO image quality. CS leaf shutter lenses delayed but would provide increased flexibility for use with flashes.
Leica T Typ 701 (Apr 2014, 7.5/10) – An interesting idea which I think foreshadows the future of camera UIs: simple, intuitive, and easily configurable. Speed and responsiveness could be improved, however, and the lens selection is dire – one 35/2-e and a 28-85 slow zoom. Very nicely built – somewhat like an Apple product, in fact. I’m confused as to the target audience though: dilettantes will be wowed by the looks and feel, serious photographers may find it an interesting companion to an M for tele or tripod work, but it’s not really that well suited to either. Wait for version 2…
Leica X1 (Nov 2010, 6/10) – Don’t be put off by it’s light weight and hollow feel; the image quality from this little thing is utterly superb. The 24/2.8 Elmarit is reportedly the same optical design as the M mount version, and it shines on the smaller sensor (which is the same one shared with the Nikon D90). Focusing is very slow, though the firmware update improved things a little. There’s a useable MF wheel and DOF scale, however, if you want to zone focus. Battery doesn’t last that long – 300 shots at most – and the camera heats up after prolonged use. Leaf shutter means 1/2000s flash sync and very low vibration, which is great for low light work.
Leica X2 (May 2012, 8/10) – An evolutionary upgrade to the X1; has a very similar sensor to the one inside the Nikon D7000, which is a very good thing because it means more resolution, better dynamic range, lower noise, and 5fps shooting. The lens remains an excellent performer at all apertures on this sensor; it’s really quite an exceptional optic. Focusing speed has been improved markedly – it’s now faster than the Fuji X100 and X-Pro1, and probably about on par with the NEX-5 or NEX-5N. Not as fast as the Olympus M4/3 cameras though. ISO3200 is acceptable, ISO 6400 is useable in emergencies. Camera also gains a redesigned popup flash (apparently the old cylinder used to jam frequently, or refuse to stay closed) and EVF, the latter which has a very high resolution – probably in the 1.44M dot range – and smooth refresh rate. It really does make quite a big difference to how the camera feels in use, as well as saving power; practical battery life is probably close to double what it was on the X1.
Leica X Typ 113 (Feb 2014, 8.5/10) – One of the sexiest cameras I’ve seen recently, especially in chrome/brown leather. New lens now non-collapsible and a bit faster at f1.7 (though limited to smaller apertures at nearer distances, presumably because performance isn’t that great wide open) and it also inherits the X Vario’s really great manual focus system – AF is at one end past a detent, then distances are mechanical. Trades outright sharpness across the frame for a warm, cinematic rendering with a hint of flare – it produces very very nice looking results, though the sensor is the older Sony 16MP unit and it’s really begging for an EVF.
Leica X Vario (Typ 107) (Jun 2013, 8/10) – A halfway point between an M and an X2; the body is a mix of both with the thumb rest and upgraded LCD from the M 240, and the aperture dial of the X2. It now has a zoom – a 28-70/3.5-6.3 equivalent; not particularly fast but pretty good optically (though it appears some software correction is responsible). Same 16MP sensor (with AA filter) as the X2, Coolpix A and GR delivers predictably solid results; a good thing as you’ll find yourself in the high ISO realm more often than you might think given the slow maximum aperture at the long end of the zoom. Interestingly, the lens reaches minimum focus distance – 30cm – at the 70mm end. Focus is fast enough but not truly quick; manual focus implementation is perhaps one of the best ever – pick your distance on a nicely-damped focusing ring, or go to the detent past infinity for AF, making zone focusing easy, as well as setting up your camera before you power on – focal length, distance, aperture, shutter can all be set with the power off on pleasingly tactile mechanical dials.
Nikon Coolpix A** (Apr 2013, 8/10) – This is a camera you buy for its image quality; has an upgraded, anti-aliasing-filter-less version of the D7000’s sensor, which is to say it’s excellent. The fixed 28mm equivalent lens might be of moderate aperture at f2.8, but it’s excellently designed and clearly matches the sensor well. Performance is excellent at all apertures even into the corners. AF speed is this camera’s achilles’ heel; it’s acceptable, but not fast. Doesn’t remember MF distance when power is cycled, which makes zone focusing difficult. Fast to start up, though. Menus are identical to the DSLRs, right down to the My Menu options. Build quality is excellent, and even the buttons have good tactile feel. Battery life is ~400 or so per charge.
Nikon D2H (Aug 2006, 6/10) – Possibly the most maligned and underrated camera out there. With ‘only’ 4.1MP and a noisy sensor, it was already old when it was released in 2004 – to be hammered by Canon’s 1DII which had double the pixel count, and lower noise to boot. Yet, most people who bothered to shoot with the camera and get to know its quirks were rewarded by outstanding image quality, which punched way above its MP class – easily matching the 6MP D70 on resolution. I actually went from the D70 to this camera, and was both seduced by the feel and responsiveness, as well as forced to improve my game because of its very unforgiving exposure latitude – half a stop either way or wrong WB and it’s game over. Required hot mirror filters for super accurate color, too. AF system was both fast and responsive, with good frame coverage; however, there were gaps between the points where tracking failed if the subject fell in those gaps. Not good past ISO 1250, and required a good half stop overexposure at that ISO to maintain low noise, too. Ironically, mine died because of water damage – condensation inside the battery compartment after shooting in torrential rain and changing out battery packs.
Nikon D2Hs (Aug 2006, 7/10) – I was loaned one of these for a week while my D2H was at Nikon and they determined if it could be repaired post-water damage; I didn’t really bond with this camera but did appreciate the introduction of customizable auto-ISO, as well as the extra useable stop of high ISO performance – 3200 was probably okay with a little care. Oh, and the buffer became enormous at 40 RAW files.
Nikon D2x (Aug 2006, 7/10) – Huge increase in resolution over the D2H; but somehow even worse high ISO performance, with boost modes kicking in at just ISO 1600. However, base ISO image quality was astoundingly good, with very clean shadows and a surprising amount of dynamic range. Still holds up til today. Frame rate drop to 5fps with an odd 2x 7MP crop mode at 8fps.
Nikon D200 (Jan 2008, 7/10) – I used a pair of these as my workhorses from mid 2006 until early 2008; they just kept going without complaint, in any weather. Great image quality up to ISO 1600, but definitely a little noisy by that point and frankly unusable after that; matching the D2X at lower ISOs. Buffer could have been bigger, though. Color required a bit of work to maintain accuracy because of 12 bit limitations. The AF system did have 11 points, but the outer points were only useful in good light, and frankly not that accurate; I almost always used the center point only. My first extensive experience with built-in flash for use as a commander – I don’t think I can go back to sacrificing a primary flash after that, and now prefer the vertical grip-less bodies for this reason.
Nikon D3 (Apr 2009, 8/10) – Blown away by its high ISO capabilities; first camera where I could set AUTO ISO to 6400 or even HI1 and forget about it. Never missed a shot because of insufficient shutter speed. Amazing dynamic range, too; a full 13 stops with some careful work on the raw file. However, I could never seem to get mine to fire at 9fps with full AF tracking; only when AF was locked. Never managed to figure that one out. Ergonomically, a huge improvement over the D2 series despite increased size and weight thanks to the FX prism; very well balanced especially with larger lenses like the 24-70. The new AF system didn’t have as much frame coverage as the older CAM2000, but it did have uncannily accurate subject tracking that used the metering cell to track objects by color. Also introduced AF fine tune. In fact, this was the first camera that made me think photography was getting a bit too easy. Still a great second hand buy today (May 2012).
Nikon D3s (Sep 2009, 9/10) – Even crazier high ISO capabilities than the D3; I’d say at least 1 stop and possibly 1.5 stops over the D3. I always felt that this introduced an odd plasticky look to the files that the D3 didn’t have; some of the bite was gone. Still the reference for high ISO performance. Use 25,600 with impunity if you need to. In fact, you’ll probably run out of light to see/ compose before you run out of handholdable shutter speeds.
Nikon D3x (Apr 2012, 7/10) – I used it when it was launched, and lamented the speed; just 1.5fps with a very noticeable lag introduced when shooting 14bit RAW. The original sensor – shared with the Sony A900 – was not 14bit native, and it showed. In 12 bit mode, the D3x worked just like a D3 – but you could tell the color and DR weren’t quite as good. Using it immediately after the D800, it struck me that it feels very much one generation behind; the D800 shunts around the 36MP, 14-bit files with impunity and responds instantly; the D3x not only has shooting lag, but menu lag, too. And not to mention lower resolution, poorer color accuracy, and less dynamic range. Amazing how far we’ve come in one generation.
Nikon D300 (Jul 2007, 7/10) – Only used briefly; much like a D700 only smaller and non-FX. Image quality a cut better than the previous 10MP D200, on par with the D2X (but with another stop of useable high ISO) and out-done by the D90. Fast, responsive, and a much better implementation for CAM3500 because of the increased frame coverage.
Nikon D3100 (Mar 2011, 7/10) – I wanted a small, light DSLR. As usual, my fascination for compact size and high IQ lead me to the D3100; oddly I chose to pair it with the 24/1.4. Never quite liked the color – I think it was the last of Nikon’s 12 bit sensors, and shared with the NEX-5; plenty responsive but video was choppy as hell. Still, a good value for money offering. Superseded by the 24MP D3200, which I think goes beyond overkill for the target market.
Nikon D4 (Jul 2014, 9/10)** – Bought on a whim second hand at a silly price and not regretted. It feels sharper and more responsive than the D3, ergonomics are perfect (those backlit buttons are very cool), and it goes and goes on a charge – I’ve seen up to 6k images on the same battery. Just feels solid and confidence-inspiring. Some early samples suffer the left-AF issue of the D800E (they share the same AF system) but later examples are fine. Still the camera to have if you have to do everything with it. If only they’d put the D800E/D810’s sensor in it…
Nikon D40 (Jan 2007, 6/10) – Infamously, Ken Rockwell’s favorite camera. I can see why – small, responsive, light, and producing great images from the final and best iteration of the 6MP Sony APS-C sensor. Basically, a simple cut down camera and nothing more. Pretty much as close to a point and shoot as any SLR can get. I used the 18-55 VR kit lens on it.
Nikon D50 (Sep 2006, 6/10) – My travel camera; lightweight and paired well with the Sigma 30/1.4; produced good results up to 1600, and useable even if underexposed a bit and brought up in ACR for a pseudo-ISO 3200. Small buffer of just 4 RAW files, though.
Nikon D5100 (Jun 2011, 7/10) – Bought specifically for the swivel screen and video capability, but turned out to be a very capable lightweight body, too. Works surprisingly well with the 28-300VR; didn’t expect that because of its so-so performance on the D700. Shares the same sensor with the D7000, and thus the same great image quality too – the best balance of resolution, dynamic range and low noise available at the moment in an APS-C sensor. MUCH better color than the D3100 because of the 14-bit pipeline. Unlike the D5000, it isn’t much bigger than the D3100, either.
Nikon D600** (Sep 2012, 8/10) – Full frame for the masses. A bit of a Goldilocks camera: combines a solid all-round feature set which will cover 99.9% of usage situations with an excellent sensor and good responsiveness. Amazing battery life; a slight ergonomic downgrade from the D700 and D800, as well as not being fully magnesium-bodied, but something had to give at that price point. Better that than the sensor. No AF issues, though those used to the coverage of the current DX and FX AF arrays might be in for a bit of a surprise: the covered area is very tightly clustered around the center of the frame, and doesn’t cover the rule of thirds intersection points. This means you’ll be doing the center-focus-recompose dance a lot. Fixes the LV manual metering issue of the D800 where you can’t see the subject if your selected exposure is too far off (i.e. for flash use). Also adds the very useful U1 and U2 positions. Not noticeably smaller or lighter than the D800 – until you put them next to each other. The best current travel camera? Perhaps, it’s a close run against the Olympus OM-D.
Nikon D70 (Sep 2004, 5/10) – My first DSLR. Introduced me to the world of bokeh and the addiction of interchangeable lenses. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get anywhere near its performance limits before an accident at Schipol airport saw it hit the ground, crack, and subsequently suffer some alignment issues internally that led to me repairing and selling it. It just didn’t feel the same after that. Replaced by the D2H. This camera started the affordable DSLR revolution for the masses – and proved to Canon that cheap didn’t have to mean cut in quality and features, too.
Nikon D700** (May 2012, 9/10) – My workhorse since late 2009, and the end of the First Leica Period. Shares the incredibly versatile sensor and AF system from the D3, and delivers identical image quality and performance for almost all purposes. Capable of hitting 8fps with the battery grip and suitable power source, too. I can’t think of a better value camera today – there isn’t anything that delivers the same image quality, same usability, customizability and durability for the price. Along with the D3, the first camera where I felt that I was now the limitation in the imaging chain, and would have to progress substantially to change that. Mine has done over 70,000 actuations and remains in my arsenal for available light reportage work, and as a backup body to the D800E. Smart move by Nikon to keep in production (at least for a few months) and on sale; I would actually recommend this over the D800 if you don’t intend to print enormous (D700 files still look great at 40×60″) or require video. Save the difference in price and go buy some glass instead – and enjoy the wider choices, because the larger pixel pitch is very forgiving indeed.
Nikon D750 (Feb 2014, 9/10) – Personally, I think this camera is just about Goldilocks. It is probably the closest we’re going to get to a true D700 successor in performance, if not build. Put another way, it balances all of the attributes you’d want in a general purpose camera perfectly: image quality, speed, file size, ergonomics, physical size, video capability. A weak AA filter is retained which limits ultimate resolution, but makes for the best video output I’ve seen out of a DSLR. The shutter is silent and low-vibration. Hell, even the mirror arrived perfectly calibrated (a first for any camera for me). The grip is exceedingly comfortable and the AF system finally returns the sentient 3-D tracking ability that the D700/D3 series cameras had. And it seems to be just as clean at the pixel level as my D4 was, with a bit more resolution and dynamic range to boot – what’s not to like? Note on the flare issue: I never saw it in 4,000 frames though I could induce it with the camera body I had; I consider it a non-issue, and it’s actually almost impossible to recreate if you’re using an appropriate-length lens hood. Interestingly, it’s actually a bit smaller than the original D70 was, and a lot smaller and lighter than the D700 thanks to its carbonfibre body.
Nikon D7000 (May 2012, 9/10) – The best APS-C camera available at the moment, in my opinion. The first of Nikon’s non-pro APSCs that doesn’t have a compromised AF system; in fact, in some ways it feels just as good or better than the CAM3500 system used on the pro bodies. (The D7000 uses CAM4800). It’s got a magnesium body and is weather sealed, which makes it more of a D300 replacement than the D90 replacement it was supposed to be; in fact, if you shoot things that benefit from extra reach – wildlife, macro – then this is probably the body for you, because it offers the highest pixel density (and thus highest magnification) of any Nikon at the moment – only the D800 comes close. Reaches 6fps, too. Fantastic value for money at the price, and frankly makes buying the Nikon V1 a little pointless.
Nikon D80 (Oct 2006, 7/10) – A very, very solid upgrade to the D70; 60% bump in resolution and at least another stop of useable ISO. Improved AF system from the D200, and the same sensor, too. In some ways, the only difference was the frame rate and body build quality.
Nikon D800 (Apr 2012, 9/10) – Best dynamic range of any 35mm format DSLR at the moment; incredibly accurate color, and shunts around those enormous files like it’s nothing. Video quality catches up to Canon 5DIII, and offers headphone monitoring, adjustable audio input and uncompressed full HDMI out feeds. This camera has moved the bar for 35mm DSLRs. In fact, it’s so good that most lenses can’t keep up with the sensor – every optical flaw is revealed. The lenses that work well on the camera are just as surprising as the ones that don’t (compared to the 12MP FX cameras); the 85/1.8 G for instance is better than the 85/1.4 G, and the 28-300VR becomes pretty good. Pixel-level noise performance is probably a stop behind the D700, but you’re actually going to lose a bit more than that because of the shutter speeds required to negate camera shake at these pixel densities. A non-issue if you downsize, but then why would you do that after having to suffer huge file sizes? Highly recommended to spend some time calibrating your lenses using the AF fine tune function. Watch out for AF issues with side focus points.
Nikon D800E** (May 2012, 9.5/10 – AF issues stop me from giving this camera a full 10) – The comments that apply to the D800 also apply to the D800E, if not more so; it’s even more demanding on lenses, and shows up CA more than the regular D800; it will moire, but you’re saved by the high resolution which means moire doesn’t kick in until much finer structures are resolved. This camera takes the Oscar for Best Image Quality in 35mm Format at the moment – by a long, long stretch. It makes the D3x feel like positively old, slow technology by comparison (even though the images it produces are of course still the same as the day it was released). It just makes achieving results like this so effortless and accessible, than you forget how many pixels you’re actually packing. And did I mention that the battery life is better than my D3 ever was?
Nikon D810** (Feb 2014, 9.5/10) – Sometimes you don’t intend to buy a camera because on paper, it’s just a minor upgrade. Then you hold it, try it for a while, and can’t give it back. It’s better than its predecessor in pretty much every way, but it’s difficult to quantify where the big changes are. The shutter/mirror mechanism is a lot better damped. Live view magnification is much more detailed. The grip is more comfortable. Video is now up to 1080P60. It has an electronic front curtain shutter for zero vibration. And the tonal response is now highlight-biased and very, well, natural. I’ve come to like the output and ergonomics of this camera more and more to the point that it’s gone from being the backup to the D800E (which I know inside out over more than 80,000 frames with two cameras) to the primary. It is the camera I reach for when I need results, and no uncertainty. It is also the benchmark against which I compare against everything else. So yes, I’d say it’s pretty darned good. But we still need a better way to focus manual lenses: be it an EVF or better focusing screen, or buying a Zacuto-style LCD hood. Still the one to beat.
Nikon D90 (Jan 2010, 8/10) – Another very competent evolution in the enthusiast line of cameras; gained an improved sensor over the one in the D300, and was the first DSLR to offer a movie mode – albeit with both being rather kludgy. A subtle game changer of a camera, and harbinger of technology to come. Interesting that Nikon chose to put this bit of technology into its enthusiast camera rather than its professional ones. Useable up to ISO 1600, with 3200 being okay in emergencies. A nice pair with the 18-200VR, though corner quality left something to be desired. Last camera in this range to use 11-point CAM 1000 (which really only had a useable center point).
Nikon F2A (Jun 2006, 8/10) – The camera that would work until the end of the world and keep going afterwards. Built like the proverbial brick s***house. Incredibly heavy and solid for its size, with not a single loose feeling component. My sample dated from the mid 70s, and had never been serviced – why would you, if it never needed it? Metered variant (A and AS, with aperture priority) had accuracy good enough for Velvia. If you shoot film, or have been curious to, this is a no-brainer. Buy one and enjoy, then let your grandchildren enjoy, too. I’d like to think mine is still out there and kicking somewhere. Cloth shutter.
Nikon F2 Titan** (Jul 2013, 9/10) – The rating is highly subjective, but personally…it is one of my favorite cameras, ever. I’m now lucky enough to own a near-mint example. Now I just have to get over my nervousness with it and shoot the bloody thing – it feels familiar, but not – much like the F2A I used to have. The standard prism head with this camera is also meterless, so you’ll have to either use a light meter, or carry a point and shoot and use that as a meter instead. But it doesn’t matter. Possibly the greatest film camera ever made, but that’s just me. And yes, I will write a review of it once I have some images shot with it.
Nikon F3/T (Dec 2012, 8/10) – If there’s a trend here, I don’t like it. If the F5 Limited Edition enters my collection (with titanium prism and top plate) then I probably ought to admit some form of psychological issue. For the meantime, I’ll just continue to enjoy my old cameras. The F3/T is as solid as a brick but loses out to the F2 Titan in sheer dependability simply because it needs a battery to operate; without that you get 1/60s and that’s it. But at least it does have a meter – an oddly weighted 80% centerweight with a very small center portion – and the ability to run in aperture priority without a mutant finder. Speaking of finders, the eye relief and magnification of the HP finder (standard) are awesome, easily putting my D800E to shame; what I can’t figure out is how something that tightly sealed also fills up with dust in a way you can’t easily clean. Reportedly one of the most reliable cameras ever produced. Mine appears to have gone through at least one major conflict, but still works perfectly. They really don’t make them like they used to.
Nikon F6** (Jul 2013, 9/10) – Possibly the best film camera ever made. Very low vibration mirror/ shutter thanks to tungsten balancers; smooth advance, and a neat trick of being able to print EXIF data in the gap between film frames. However, used expensive CR123 batteries and ate them by the dozens. Felt very much like a film D2H, except somehow even more solid. The only film camera I can think of with an LCD on the back for plain text custom functions.
Nikon FM3A (Oct 2004, 8/10) – All mechanical camera with battery-override that allowed for metering and aperture priority. Lighter than the mechanical single digit Fs, but still well built and solid. Metal bladed FP shutter allowed for surprisingly high shutter speeds; great for use with fast aperture lenses and slide film. Amazingly easy to use focusing screen; bright and snappy. I don’t know why Nikon doesn’t put these screens into its newer DSLRs. Interestingly, used prices are very high; higher than for an F5, and nearly as high as for an F6. Something to be said about being able to run without batteries, I suppose.
Olympus OM-D E-M5** (May 2012, 8.5/10) – The most impressive new camera I’ve used so far in 2012. Not because of any one of its features, but because of its combination of features. It’s a game changer in its ability to combine excellent image quality – I’d say very close to the D7000 in every way, including high-ISO performance and dynamic range – to a very compact body, which also happens to be weather sealed (though perhaps not as thoroughly as one might like; mine died and subsequently revived itself after shooting in extremely high humidity conditions) and able to shoot at 9fps. EVF is finally good enough to use, though has limited dynamic range and of course can’t replace a good optical finder. In the tradition of Olympus cameras, it’s highly customizable, too. The only thing that lets it down is AF – yes, it’s blazingly fast, but not always accurate especially at longer distances with fast wides. And continuous AF is nearly worthless – good thing single AF is so fast. Also available with a two-part battery grip that makes quite a big difference to the handling and overall usability of the camera – but it’s still positively tiny. No built in flash, but they give you a little weather-sealed one that can also double as a wireless commander for other flashes. Olympus still hasn’t learned that putting the strap eyelet in the middle of your palm is uncomfortable. Sigh.
Olympus OM-D E-M1** (Jul 2014, 9/10, with caveats) – In my opinion, the best compact system camera available at the moment; and one of the most versatile cameras available, period. Spec is closer to the D4 – it’ll run at 10fps for 50+ raw files – than the D7100, despite having something closer to the price point of the latter. First generation of Olympus cameras with PDAF on-sensor, for hugely improved continuous AF performance. Inherits and improves on the same excellent stabiliser as the previous E-M5. Usable ISO range to 6400, gains a stop of dynamic range over the E-M5, too. No AA filter. Quite possibly all the camera one would ever need. I’m dinging it a point however because tracking AF could still be better, and the camera has put on enough weight to almost be kicked out of the ‘compact’ category and into full-sized DSLR territory. That said, I can’t think of any DSLRs at this size which have this level of build quality, or this big a viewfinder – the 2.4m dot, dynamic-brightness EVF with 0.74x magnification is larger than the D800’s, and easier to focus on because it shows real time DOF. Built in wifi, too – for the social media crowd. UPDATE: shutter shock issues at 1/160-1/320s mean that you have to be very careful with your shutter speeds or risk getting a double image. A firmware update adds a 0-second anti-shock mode and electronic front curtain; it works well, but restricts you to single image shooting only – unfortunately defeating the point of the camera for documentary or fast moving work. If you don’t need it for that, the original rating applies. If you do, sorry, look elsewhere.
Olympus E-1 (Feb 2014, 5/10 – present day; 8/10 – when new) – Ergonomically, the E-1 is still excellent. It’s pretty responsive too, and the shutter is one of the smoothest I’ve encountered of any camera, let alone one with a mirror. The sensor produces excellent colour and tonality – a Kodak unit related to the M8, M9 and CFV CCDs; unfortunately the AA filter is very heavy, and my particular unit appears to have some AF calibration issues – all of which mean I don’t feel as though I’m getting the full resolution out of it. That’s a shame, because 5MP really isn’t that much to begin with. Like all CCDs of that era, forget using it above ISO 800 if you want clean results. Built like an absolute tank and quite a pleasure to use – even today.
Olympus E-P3 (Oct 2011, 6/10) – I’ve never liked the Pen body style, but at least it now has a built in flash. Same sensor and AF system as the E-PL3 and E-PM1; adds external controls and a touch screen. The body is metal outside but plastic inside, which seems back to front to me. Not very ergonomic, either. I personally wouldn’t buy one because it doesn’t give me anything I need over its cheaper siblings. Interestingly can only manage 3fps because of its older shutter design – the others hit up to 4.5fps.
Olympus E-PL3 (Oct 2011, 6/10) – Pen Mini with a tilting screen and mode dial. Yawn. Not worth the money unless either of these things is mission-critical for you.
Olympus E-PL5 (Sep 2012) – OM-D image quality and responsiveness, now a bit smaller and cheaper (and without the EVF). Also has a 180deg tilting LCD for narcissists. IBIS still not as effective as OMD, probably the same system as its predecessor.
Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini** (May 2012, 7.5/10) – The best value M4/3 camera out there today. Decent image quality; great color and acceptable noise at ISO 1600. Very responsive and lighting fast focusing – same system as in its more expensive siblings. Incredibly compact body means you can slap a pancake on it, chuck it in your pocket and call it a day. And not notice it’s there until you need it. Surprisingly customizable once you find the hidden custom function menu – I can’t think of any other cameras of this size (or even professional DSLRs) which let you change the color temperature of the LCD. Great battery life, too – easily a thousand shots before you need to swap out packs. Design *looks* great but could use refinements – why on earth would you fit a 16:9 LCD to a camera whose native aspect ratio is 4:3? Most of the LCD is black and unused; the strap lugs are still idiotically positioned (this seems to be an Olympus design hallmark) and the ring on the back is fiddly. Other than that, I really do love this camera. It’s largely taken over from my Ricoh GRD-III.
Olympus XZ-2 (Nov 2012, 7/10) – A not-so-compact compact with a body the same size as the E-PL5; fast 28-112/1.8-2.5 lens, same great controls and customizability as the E-PL5. UI has come a long way since the original XZ-1. Good image quality to ISO 800; 1600 for emergencies. Sensor clearly outdone by the larger 2/3″ types in the Fuji XF1 and X10, not to mention the 1″ unit in the Sony RX100. I like the camera, but the size and steep price are difficult to justify. Annoyingly charges in-camera only, like the Sony RX100.
Panasonic FZ1000/ Leica V-Lux 114 (Feb 2014, 8/10) – This camera surprised me, both because a review unit turned up unexpectedly and because performance is a lot better than you’d expect for something with a 25-400mm lens. The optics are actually quite excellent, and the relatively large 1″ 20MP sensor shared with the RX10 and RX100 series cameras. If shot with care, results can rival the APS-C DSLRs. If shot with sloppiness, results are terrible. It was a very appliance-like camera to use and felt quite cheap/plasticky – especially for the price and compared with the RX10 – but surprisingly capable.
Panasonic G1/2/3 (Oct 2011, 7/10) – A great camera hiding behind a horrible UI designed by somebody who obviously never used the camera to take photographs. I had to review several of these, and frankly, they all just felt like appliances. Focusing speed doesn’t keep up with the Olympuses (Olympii?), either.
Panasonic GH3 (Feb 2013, 6/10) – Great image quality – same sensor as the OM-D – and very fast AF; so-so, hollow-feeling build quality and a terrible UI and button layout. Terrible EVF due to poor quality optics; the add-on LVF2 for the GX and LX series cameras is much, much better, and neither matches the clarity of the OM-D. The target market of videographers are bound to be unhappy as rolling shutter artefacts are terrible. Personally, I just couldn’t get along with this camera – it felt more like a consumer appliance than a photographer’s tool.
Panasonic Lumix GM1 (Feb 2014, 7/10) – The smallest M4/3 camera, and not much bigger than a) a credit card b) the Pentax Q, which has a much smaller sensor. Has a surprisingly rich feature set and is very customisable – despite the size of the thing. I didn’t have handling issues with it, other than the spot meter locking exposure with a half press but showing exposure for what’s under the spot – NOT the locked exposure. The one tiny control dial was a bit fiddly but still acceptable. Smaller than an LX7, even. Almost the same image quality as (and a sensor related to) the E-M1. Kit lens – the 12-32 – is excellent. Overall, this is a fun, take-anywhere bit of kit.
Panasonic Lumix GM5 (Feb 2015, 8/10) – Basically a GM1 with an EVF and a couple more function buttons; LCD gets squashed and shrunken (because of aspect ratio) compared to the GM1. But doesn’t gain much in size; unless you’re particularly on a budget it actually makes sense to get the GM5 since you can be much more stable and brace it against your face when shooting. Not to mention see the screen in bright light…
Panasonic LX3 (Sep 2009, 7/10) – The first pocket camera whose image quality I was happy with – but at the same time lamented its size and un-pocketability thanks to that lens bulge. Clever variable aspect ratio switch that actually maintained diagonal angle of view due to sensor being larger than lens’ image circle. Surprisingly good dynamic range – 11 stops or so. Great lens, f2-2.5 meant useable telephoto indoors – could do with a bit more reach, though.
Panasonic LX7/ Leica D Lux 6 (Feb 2014, 8/10) – A cracker of a lens (f1.4, anybody?) unfortunately limited by a very old sensor that has both limited resolution and performance. Much better with (unfortunately optional) EVF. However, sometimes shows up very cheap at the usual places – in the $300 range – and a bargain at that price…
Panasonic LX100/ Leica D-Lux 109 (Feb 2014, 9.5/10 ergonomics; 7/10 image quality) – This was one of the most enjoyable cameras I’ve used in some time from a shooting perspective; size, ergonomics, tactility and balance between mechanical and electronic controls are perfect; however, it’s let down by image quality. Lens QC is all over the place – from five samples, I had one excellent lens, two so-so ones, and two plain duds (asymmetry, softness). It’s not really M4/3, either – rather somewhat smaller because of the variable aspect ratio and shrunken lens whose image circle doesn’t quite cover the full M4/3 sensor. So we get 12MP – which is fine so long as those are 12 really perfect MP, but a lot of the time, they’re not. For some odd reason, it doesn’t seem to have the high ISO performance you’d expect, either – being about a stop down from the other M4/3 cameras at the pixel level – and the IS isn’t quite as effective as the other Panasonic cameras. Still, it isn’t much larger than its predecessor, manages to pack an f1.7 lens, and does have 4K video an electronic shutter that syncs to silly speeds with non-smart flashes…
Panasonic TZ3 (Dec 2007, 6/10) – A great travel camera whose strengths were an excellent 28-300 lens (variable aspect ratio, too) and 5fps continuous shooting. Limited to ISO 400 for good image quality, but delivered nice tonality at lower ISOs and surprisingly useable dynamic range, too. Excellent stabilizer and battery life.
Pentax 645D (Jul 2014, 7/10) – Possibly the cheapest, most straightforward entry for 35mm DSLR users to dip their toes into medium format, if a second hand body is purchased. Great IQ, sensor performs better than the average MF CCD at higher ISOs, nice color. Note 14 bit files only, but that doesn’t really matter. Excellent ergonomics and construction. The only downside is that it feels slow in operation: you only notice that because you think it should respond like a conventional DSLR, and you’re not benchmarking it against normal digital backs.
Pentax 645Z (Jul 2014, 9/10) – An incredibly flexible tool capable of delivering extremely high image quality. Same Sony CMOS as the Hasselblad H5D-50C and Phase One IQ250 at about 1/3rd the cost, or less. Delivers outstanding image quality at all ISOs, with no caveats; you could use this at ISO 51k if you downsized to ‘normal’ DSLR output sizes of ~15MP and still have more detail and less noise. Build and ergonomics are similar to the 645D, and it’s also weather sealed. Except it’s now significantly faster, and I don’t really notice much difference in operational and AF speed compared to even my D800E – impressive considering the RAW files average 70-75MB. Also has live view and video, though video readout is cropped to ~36x24mm – use a full frame DSLR for this instead.
Phase One IQ250 (Feb 2014, 8/10) – Uses the same Sony 51MP 33×44 sensor as the Hasselblad CFV-50C, H5D-50C and Pentax 645Z; however, unlike the others, has a very strange color profile and some serious moire issues that mandate more postprocessing than is ideal. Seems to resolve ever so slightly more than the 645Z, though this may also be down to the lens options available. It’s difficult to justify the 4x price premium over the Pentax, though…
Ricoh GR-Digital I (2006, 4/10) – The first of the mini-pro cameras. Hugely configurable and with a great feel; clearly designed by a photographer. I bought one on these strengths, and was never happy with the image quality. DNG writing was painfully slow, color was horrible, and the only thing going for it was DIY noise reduction (i.e. none) and interesting B&Ws out of camera – many liked it for that purpose, but I prefer to do the conversions myself.
Ricoh GR-Digital II (2007, 6/10) – Something about the first one compelled me enough to buy another one; maybe it was the user experience, maybe it was the promise of a new sensor and 3-shot DNG buffer. Anyway, it worked – I personally felt this was a huge improvement over the last one.
Ricoh GR-Digital III (May 2012, 9/10) – Round three. This iteration of the ultimate pocket PJ camera increased lens speed to f1.9, brought the sensor from the LX3 and G9, and more speed. Still remains hugely customizable. You could now shoot DNGs like JPEGs and not pay any usability penalty; focusing got faster; ISO 800 was now useable, and 1600 OK for emergencies. However, the lens’ notional f1.9 speed brought more improvement than expected – I rarely have to go over ISO 400 indoors, which makes me think the lens design and coatings are truly excellent. Files are surprisingly good for such a small camera, and up to A3 indistinguishable from larger sensors; plenty of latitude for processing and capable of both excellent B&W conversions and color tones. My favorite point and shoot, at this moment in time. No impulse to buy the GRD IV because I don’t see anything that camera would give me over the GRD III. If I had to take only one camera with me for a trip, this would probably be it – and was, on several occasions.
Ricoh GR (Digital V) (May 2013, 9/10, part one and part two) – Finally, a larger sensor and upgraded resolution lens to match; retains all the customizability of the earlier cameras. Ergonomics like a dream. Amazingly, isn’t much larger despite the 16MP APS-C sensor. Goes head to head against the Coolpix A; doesn’t do color as well, but seems to be biased towards great B&W conversion tonality; very filmic tones and surprisingly fun in square crop mode – much like a miniature Hasselblad. Focus is blazing fast in good light, glacial in low light or low contrast. Coolpix A is somewhere between the two but closer to the fast end of the Ricoh’s performance.
Ricoh GR1v** (Feb 2013, 8/10) – A competitor to the Contax T3 et. al, the GR1v is a slightly different approach to the same problem. Firstly, it’s lighter, not as solid-feeling (magnesium case, slightly more weak-sounding motors) and the viewfinder lacks the clarity of the Contax; however, the frame lines and information (shutter speed, focus distance, focus point) are much easier to see, and also automatically backlit under dark conditions. Has fast phase-detect AF with multiple points (!), hyper focal and manual focus modes; winds film backwards to avoid losing images if you open the back partway through. Runs aperture priority or program – adjusted off a dial – with another dial for exposure compensation. Very, very easy and fast to use. Lens is dual-charachter: low contrast but sharp wide open, and punchy and contrasty stopped down slightly. Has a great tonal range and slightly softer microcontrast than the Zeiss in the Contax T3, but nevertheless has character.
Ricoh GXR-A12 50mm Macro (Mar 2010, 5/10) – You’d expect this to be a GRD-III on steroids, right? The body certainly looks like it. But somehow, it wasn’t to be. Although the lenses are excellent, focusing is incredibly slow, and you have to change the lens AND the sensor if you want a sensor upgrade. What they should have done was make sensor modules, lens modules, and body modules – that way you can choose to upgrade one or all as you please. Unfortunately now you’re stuck with the same old sensor if you want to use a particular lens. Didn’t like the EVF (tillable, but felt flimsy) or poor battery life either. Still, it’s a fairly good (by 2009 standards) sensor; shared with the Nikon D90. It retains the configurability of its more junior sibling, but loses the speed. Sad to say, but not recommended.
Sigma DP2 Quattro (Feb 2014, 9/10 image quality; 5/10 practicality) – These cameras are a paradox: unparalleled image quality at the size/ price (you’d have to go to a D810 + excellent lenses to match and beat it) but some seriously horrible issues around software/workflow, ergonomics and battery life. You can’t really get decent results above ISO 800, and you’re going to have to a) figure out how to hold it, and if you can hold it; b) purchase the LVF-01 LCD finder to have any modicum of stability or ability to see the screen in sunlight when shooting. SPP is a disaster – it’s incredibly slow and the adjustments not very intuitive; there’s also no way to color manage or profile the camera. You still have to use PS for final processing. If you are a slow, deliberate, tripod-based photographer who doesn’t shoot that much, I think the Quattros are actually a very good choice because they’re not very big (even with lots of spare batteries) and give you image quality that plays close to medium format territory. But if you’re looking for something responsive, fast and good in low light – this is not your camera. Still, when the prices inevitably fall, it might make an interesting experiment.
Sigma DP3 Merrill (Jun 2013, handling 5/10, image quality 9.5/10) – Like all of the Sigmas, very quirky. Controls are highly configurable, but not very ergonomic or responsive; files take forever to write and AF is truly glacial. Image quality is the camera’s saving grace: the 15MP Foveon sensor resolves very nearly as much as the Nikon D800E; files are wonderfully detailed, richly textured and toned. They require little work, and make excellent B&W conversions. Note however that colour is not accurate; the red channel appears a bit thin as it sits at the bottom of the sensor stack. High ISO noise isn’t as bad as popularised; you can use ISO 800 for colour, 3200 for B&W. It isn’t so much noise that’s the issue as colour accuracy and dynamic range. The lens – a fixed 75/2.8 macro – is excellent, and more than a match for the sensor. It can be used wide open at normal distances without reservation, and close up (down to 23cm) from about f4 onwards. Nice bokeh, too.
Sony A900 (2009, 5/10) – Brought cheap full frame to the masses; all 24 MP of it. Made the D3x very difficult to justify – but somehow there was still a huge difference in image quality despite using the same base sensor. ISO 1600 on the A900 was noisy as hell, but perfectly OK on the D3x. The camera also lacked live view, which the D3x had. One of the designs which Sony got ergonomically very right – actually, felt a lot like the old Minolta Dynax 9 – however, it was let down by the rest of the camera. Great at low ISO, though; would probably still be fine as a studio camera today.
Sony A7R (Jan 2014, 8/10 if you don’t have the vibration problem, 5/10 if you do) – Resolution in spades, in a small but surprisingly ergonomic and quite customisable body. Problem is, that sensor also demands the very best lenses; none of which are very ergonomic on the A7R, and it also demands stability – again which isn’t the A7R’s strong point. The camera exhibits serious shutter vibration issues at 1/150-1/250s or thereabouts; these transient speeds are smack bang in the middle of where you’d be during daylight, and result in a very slightly blurred image that looks like poor print registration. It’s not bad enough that you can see it on the LCD when reviewing, so you won’t know to take another one – but it’s very obvious on screen. Battery life is pretty poor, too.
Sony A7 Mark II (Jan 2014, 5-8/10, depending on how much you push the ends of your histogram) – I really wanted to like this camera, but Sony have shot themselves in the foot and made a near miss – again – by making a great body (excellent ergonomics, IS, general configurability and usability) then crippling it with 11+7 bit compression that’s very visible in shadows and highlights, limiting usable dynamic range. On top of that, it’s noisier than other cameras that use the same sensor like the D610 and D750. Battery life is pretty poor – you’ll need at least three batteries to get you through a heavy day. Dear Sony, please just fit the thing with the D810’s sensor, don’t compress the raw files, and call it a day. Thank you.
Sony RX10 (Jan 2014, 8/10) – The very definition of sufficiency. Possibly all the camera – and more – than most people will ever need. Covers 24-200mm at 2.8 constant with an excellent Zeiss-derived lens; build and finishing quality isn’t top notch, but ergonomics and usability are excellent. Sensor is 1″ and the same as the RX100II, which means surprisingly usable even in low light. An impressive amount of video functionality – peaking, zebras, stepless aperture, headphone and mic ports – make this a pretty good choice for videographers. Some decent DOF control too, given the sensor size and lens speed…
Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100** (Jan 2013, 8/10) – I was constantly surprised by just how good the image quality was. I expected compact camera level, I was given constantly CSC-level, though not quite as good as the latest generation of M4/3 bodies like the OM-D. In many ways, it felt like an entry level DSLR crammed into a compact body. It’s incredibly fast and responsive, and shunts around large RAW files at 10fps without a hiccup. The lens is definitely an excellent performer, and a notch above the kit zooms for most DSLRs/ CSCs; not to mention being faster at both ends and having a bit more reach. Better with full ACR support, though there is limited latitude for recovery/ adjustment due to the relatively small pixels. The biggest improvements are in color and tonality since it produces 14bit RAW files. I suspect this might be the best pocket camera, ever – and it’s actually pocketable, too!
Sony RX100 M3** (Jul 2014, 8.5/10) – Sony have crammed a lot into this camera – EVF, f1.8-2.8 zoom with decent (much better than the M1 but not excellent) corner performance wide open, tilting LCD, decent frame rates, useable higher ISOs – to the point that it actually feels a bit fiddly in use. Controls are still very small and not tight enough. EVF pop-up mechanism is solid, but the image itself is small and could be brighter. Helps with stability, though, when used braced against your face. Image quality is very good for a 1″ sensor with that many pixels on it, but not much of an advancement over the M1 and not really competition for M4/3 when the light starts to get a little lower.
Sony NEX-5 (Dec 2010, 6/10) – The lure of APS-C inside that tiny body was too great to resist. 18-55 kit lens surprisingly good, but very slow optically; 16mm pancake crap in the corners. Any larger lenses defeat the point of the small body. Overall, fast, responsive, and with decent focusing speeds; control interface was minimalist, to say the least. You could get used to it, though, and the last firmware update brought some customization that made it more useable. Still, could be improved by allowing further choices for button configurations. Never very happy with the color, though – I think it was due to the base sensor (same 14MP unit shared with the D3100) and 12-bit limitation. Great video quality.
Sony NEX-5 ‘MT’ (Jan 2013, image quality, 9/10) – A standard NEX-5 body with UV, IR and anti-aliasing filters removed; the sensor is naked silicon. Capable of outstanding black and white output directly from the camera – just shoot raw and desaturate, no other work required – the camera is not useable for colour without UVIR blocking filters in front of the lens. Consequently, visible light blocking filters may be used to shoot UV/IR images. Sensitivity gain of about 1-1.5 stops due to reduced sensor filtration. Word of caution: must be used with apochromatic lenses to see the full benefit of AA filter removal; you will otherwise see plenty of spreading and haloes off-axis; this is chromatic aberration rendered in monochrome.
Canon 16-35/2.8 L II (2007, 7/10) – Sharp in the center, less so in the corners. Need f5.6 or smaller to be at its best. Much better than version I, but never really fell in love with this lens.
Canon 17-40/4 L (2008, 7/10) – Much better optically than the 16-35, and gives you a bit more reach, too. Good already at f4 even on the 1DsIII, and excellent value for money. Makes a good standard zoom for APS-C cameras except for the f4 bit – I think the T-stop is probably closer to 5.6.
Canon 24-70/2.8 L (2008, 6/10) – Never liked this lens; must be used at 5.6 and up for optimum image quality. Inconsistent throughout the zoom range, suffers from CA at wide angle at both highlight edges and in the corners; improves markedly past 50mm. I believe there’s a new version in the works with IS and a revised optical formula.
Canon 70-200/4 L IS (2008, 8.5/10) – One of the best compact teles out there, bar none. Nikon needs one of these. The only restricting factor is the relatively slow f4 max aperture, but at least it’s constant. No optical penalties from using it wide open, either.
Canon 70-200/2.8 L IS (2009, 8.5/10) – Like the 70-200/4 L IS, but offers one more stop. It isn’t quite as sharp at 2.8 as it is at f4, but it’s very, very close and you could probably make up the difference in post processing.
Nikon AFS 10-24/3.5-4.5 DX (2009, 5/10) – Didn’t like this lens at all. Yes, it goes wider than the 12-24, but has horrible distortion, odd field curvature, and frankly isn’t consistently sharp across the frame because of it. I suspect it’s also a rebadged design OEM’d by Tamron. Best avoided – go for a second hand 12-24 instead.
Nikon AFS 12-24/4 DX (2009, 7/10) – Unlike the 10-24, carries the gold ring and a constant aperture; considered pro glass by NPS. Performance is actually pretty good even at 12mm; by 24mm it’s as good as you could want. Some mustache distortion, but fortunately there’s a lens profile in ACR that fixes the worst of it. Only cons are slow T stop and you’ve got to watch your focus distance especially at 12mm; for some odd reason has a tendency to default to infinity focus. Supposedly weather sealed but zooming produces a puff of air from a gap in front of the focusing ring.
Nikon AFS 14-24/2.8 G N (2010, 8/10) – The best ultrawide zoom ever made, period. Sharp all over the frame at every focal length and aperture; works great on the 12MP FX cams, utter overkill for the DX cams. On the D800 you need to stop down to f4 and smaller for best results; the edges aren’t so hot and you might see focusing issues on the left side with some bodies. Surprisingly flare resistant despite the enormous front element; same front element is very front heavy and makes cameras feel imbalanced. Hold it by the lens and watch that you don’t hit anything with it. Produces very contrasty images, but somewhat lacking in micro contrast; the Zeiss 21/2.8 for instance is much better in this regard. Won’t take filters without an unwieldy attachment. Weather sealed.
Nikon AFS 16-35/4 G VR (2010, 8/10) – Optically excellent, able to compete with the 14-24 and offers a slightly more practical focal length; same issue with great macro contrast but poor micro contrast – seems to be a feature of any Nikon lens design with a complicated number of elements these days. Slow T stop, probably 5.6 or smaller. VR does help, despite it being a wide-angle; you can handhold to 1/4s quite easily. Although this is great for scenics, it’s completely useless for people because they won’t stay still. It isn’t as small as you would think, either – lighter than the 14-24 yes, but smaller, no. Frankly it’s a similar size and weight to the 17-35. Weather sealed.
Nikon AFS 16-85/3.5-5.6 DX VR (2011, 7/10) – An optically slow lens, but delivering great results across the frame at all apertures, even on the 16MP DX cameras. Great alternative to the kit lens if you don’t mind spending a bit more. Not really suitable for available light, though.
Nikon AFS 17-35/2.8 (2010, 6/10) – Long been the wide-angle pro workhorse for Nikon shooters. Acceptable at f2.8 in the center, though the corners need f8 to hit peak sharpness. Untested on D800. Personally not one of my favorite lenses. Known to have the ‘AF squeak’ issue on early copies, this is a precursor to the AF-S motor dying, and a very expensive repair! Be warned. It also isn’t weather-sealed because of the physical aperture ring at the mount. One of the few AFS-D lenses.
Nikon AFS 17-55/2.8 DX (2007, 6/10) – Standard zoom workhorse for DX. Still good, though corners at 17mm leave something to be desired. Mostly useable wide open; not tested on the 16 and 24MP DX bodies, so this might not still be the case.
Nikon AFS 18-55/3.5-5.6 DX VR II (2007, 7/10) – A surprisingly good kit lens. Seems that Nikon might compromise build quality and features (it’s all plastic, including the elements, I’m told) but not optics; then again, it’s not that hard to design a slow variable aperture zoom that’s also sharp. If you don’t need very shallow DOF or low light capabilities, it’s actually all the lens most users will need.
Nikon AFS 18-70/3.5-4.5 DX (2007, 5/10) – Kit lens for the D70, and far more than most buyers expected after seeing the Canon 18-55. It’s actually a surprisingly good lens, though a bit weak in the corners and suffering from heavy vignetting. Not tested on 16/24 MP DX bodies. A cheaper alternative to the 16-85, but of course not as good optically.
Nikon AFS 18-200/3.5-5.6 DX VR (2010, 5/10) – The DX Swiss Army Knife. A very useful range, capable of covering the needs of almost all users. Sharp on center but not sharp at the corners; above about 135mm never gets sharp in the corners – diffraction takes over before you can stop down enough to bring corners into line with center. First version tends to extend on its own if pointed down; VR II and lock switch added to second version. Note that to allow close focusing to 45cm at all focal lengths, it shortens its actual focal length hugely at the telephoto end; you’re probably not getting more than about 105mm at the 200mm position and minimum distance. It does get pretty close to 200mm at infinity, though. Again, slow T stop due to complex design means that it isn’t really an indoor lens. Huge amounts of distortion everywhere and not flat field. CA as expected. Great for travel, though. Also, I hear there’s an 18-300mm on the way, if 200mm wasn’t enough for you.
Nikon AFS 24-70/2.8 G N (May 2012, 9/10) – My workhorse on the D3; used mostly at the extreme ends of the range, however. The first zoom I’ve used that delivers comparable image quality to primes; it’s almost flawless throughout the zoom range and sharp wide open out to the borders. Edges and corners require f4 or f5.6 for optimum quality, however. Minimal CA. Not flat field, but fairly close. Holds up very well on the D800, too – even wide open. Makes great sunstars when stopped down, too.
Nikon AFS 24-120/4 G VR II N** (Jan 2013, 8/10) – A surprisingly competent, moderately-fast zoom that works well on the D800E, but appears to be most at home on the D600. Surprisingly good at all apertures providing you get the AF-fine tune calibration correct. Has large amounts of distortion (fortunately easy to correct) and some slight field curvature, but sharpness is very good across most of the frame except the extreme corners. Notable chromatic aberration in the corners and with high contrast subjects. T stop seems quite a bit slower than the advertised f4, but it does have a reasonably effective VR system. Note that there appears to be odd interference between VR and the shutter at 1/90s (only) on the D800E which creates a double image, and results in images that are never critically sharp at this speed, regardless of the focal length. Shooting without VR or shooting slower/ faster with VR all produce images that are fine; more investigation is needed.
Nikon AFS 24-120/3.5-5.6 VR (Dec 2005, 6/10) – A lot of noise on the internet about the lens being soft or astigmatic; my copy was fine, and did OK on the 6MP DX bodies. Tried briefly again on the D700 once; its large pixels were forgiving and again the lens was an okay (but not spectacular) performer. Replaced by the 24-120/4 VR in 2010, which I haven’t had a chance to use yet.
Nikon AFS 28-300/3.5-5.6 VR II (June 2012, 5-7/10, depending on the body) – The FX equivalent of the 18-200VR, and the replacement for the original 28-200 Swiss Army Knife. Delivers acceptable quality between 35 and 200mm on the 12MP FX bodies; 300mm is soft even at f8, and 28mm is both haloed and soft until f5.6 – it almost seems that there’s a slight focusing issue only at 28mm. Strangely, delivers sharp results everywhere in the range on the 16MP DX bodies; it’s actually very, very good on the D800, and excellent by f8. Who would have guessed? If you travel, and want to go light but maintain resolution, buy this and a D800. Note that it has a very slow T stop thanks to the 20+ elements inside it, so don’t expect it to be a low light lens. VR is quite effective but you’ve got to give it a second or two to ‘lock down’ before shooting, and turn it off above about 1/500s or it will just cause a double image. It’s not on Nikon’s recommended list of lenses for the D800, but they bundle them as a kit in Japan – I can see why. Notice I haven’t talked about D800E: that’s because on this camera, somehow the same lens performs like it did on the D700 – hazy wide open, and not pretty at all at 28mm. However, stopping down by one stop improves things dramatically, and we’re nearly back to the same level of resolution it produces on the D800. Odd.
Nikon AFS 55-200/4.5-5.6 DX (Jun 2006, 7/10) – Nikon’s cheapest telephoto is also one of its sharpest; vignetting is horrible, but that’s fixable. Great central performance wide open, edge performance matches just one stop down. And it’s conveniently small and light, too. Replaced by the 55-200 VR and 55-300 VR.
Nikon AFS 70-200/2.8 VR I (Oct 2007, 8/10) – A decent fast telephoto zoom. Long and thin, not the easiest lens to balance and hold still. VR reasonably effective but clearly not as good as later versions; this was one of the first VR lenses. Turning off VR if you have enough shutter speed makes a huge difference. Vignettes quite a lot on FX, and isn’t that sharp in the corners. Center is great on FX and DX at all apertures, improving noticeably at f4 and peaking at f5.6.
Nikon AFS 70-200/2.8 VR II (2010, 9/10) – Much improved on the old version; not just corner sharpness but also vignetting. Bokeh is also somehow smoother; has the feel of a fast prime rather than a zoom. Image quality wide open is also improved by a notch – it almost feels like a veil was removed from in front of the image. Yes, it does shorten at 200mm to about 150mm or so at minimum focus distance; that’s how they brought it down to 1.4m. Sadly you can’t get the same magnification as the old lens, so if this matters, then this isn’t the lens for you.
Nikon AFS 70-200/4 VR (Jul 2014, 9/10)** – An excellent, flexible, lightweight telephoto option for Nikon users. Sharp wide open across the frame, microcontrast (but not resolving power) improve slightly through f5.6-8. No LCA or LoCA that I can see. VRII is very effective in this implementation. If you don’t shoot wide open, there’s no need for the f2.8 version, or the tripod collar; the lens is light and manoeuvring and handles well without it. The optional tripod collar itself is a bit of a disaster that’s neither very sturdy nor does it lock down in a convincing way – and it’s also expensive.
Nikon AFS 70-300/4.5-5.6 VR II (Oct 2010, 7/10) – A very good lightweight telephoto; great sharpness at any aperture up to 200mm; beyond that you need to stop down a bit to get decent results. I’d avoid 300mm. Used only on 12MP FX cameras, can’t comment on the higher density sensors. For those complaining Nikon has no 70-200/4 L equivalent to Canon, this is it – don’t be fooled by the price, it focuses just as fast, is weather sealed, and delivers comparable image quality. Oh, and it gets out to 300mm in a pinch, too.
Nikon AFS 80-200/2.8 D two ring (Jul 2006, 6.5/10) – Only buy this if you can’t afford the 70-200 in either flavor. It’s very soft below 3m focusing distance and above 135mm; otherwise it’s good but not great until stopped down til f4. Focusing isn’t that precise because it’s a screwdriver lens.
Nikon AFS 80-400/4.5-5.6 G ED VR II (Apr 2013, 8.5/10) – Excellent optics – even on the D800E – and surprisingly fast focusing. Very minor CA, great flare performance thanks to N coating. Larger than you’d expect. Suffers from some focus breathing; 400mm is much more like 350mm or less at minimum focus distance (which is now shorter than the old version, but has lower magnification). VRII is excellent and makes even 400mm hand-holdable with moderate shutter speeds. Tripod collar is a disaster, however; a cheap injection-moulded piece of metal that doesn’t rotate smoothly and wobbles even when locked down.
Olympus ZD 12-50/3.5-6.3 EZ** (July 2012, 4/10) – A multitalented Swiss army knife of a kit lens that feels a lot more complicated than it needs to be – motor zoom, 1:3 ‘macro’ mode locked at 43mm, weather sealing, fly by wire focusing…sadly, the optics aren’t really up to par for the OM-D it’s bundled with. It will do fine if there’s enough light, but you’re going to need a lot of light to make the f6.3 end work well. The plus side is that it focuses very quickly indeed.
Olympus ZD 12-40/2.8 PRO** (Sep 2013, 9/10) – The best zoom available for M4/3; sharp at all apertures and focal lengths, this lens is already near maximum performance wide open. Minimal CA and smooth bokeh; none of this double-edged nonsense you see on the Panasonic 12-35. Stopping down induces some slightly odd field curvature, but nothing major. The lens is largish for a M4/3 lens, but it is also fully weather sealed, focuses to 20cm from the sensor plane at all focal lengths (1:3 magnification) and has the neat manual focus clutch that lets you instantly skip to any distance by just pulling back on the focusing ring. It also has hard stops at near and infinity limits, too. The ring also works in fly-by-wire mode.
Olympus ZD 14-42/3.5-5.6 IIR** (June 2012, 7/10) – The standard kit lens for the Pen cameras – it’s actually pretty good, with decent sharpness over the entire field even wide open. I much prefer this to the 12-50. It has very…er…lightweight construction, which means plastic mounts, thin plastic sections on the barrel, and generally you want to be careful because I don’t think it’ll take that much abuse. Good optics though, even if (as rumored) none of them are actually glass. Focuses fast.
Olympus ZD 14-54/2.8-3.5 II (Feb 2014, 7/10 with caveats) – The standard zoom for 4/3 back in the day – 28-110 equivalent, at a fast aperture. Decent optics, but mine seems to be soft and suffer from CA at the 14mm end, even when stopped down – it could be a bad sample. Resolution is decent, but not up to the level set by the modern zooms – the 12-40/2.8 for M4/3 comes to mind, which is smaller, sharper, faster, and better built.
Olympus ZD 14-150/4-5.6 IIR (Dec 2010, 4/10) – Not recommended other than for convenience. One of the weakest superzooms I’ve used; plagued by bountiful CA and soft corners throughout the range, with things taking a serious nosedive above 100mm. Very, very disappointing results. Center is acceptable but never excellent even stopped down; it’s barely okay at 100mm and above. Sweet spot is somewhere in the middle of the range – from about 20mm to 70mm or thereabouts. The rest is best avoided.
Panasonic Lumix Vario 7-14/4 G (June 2013, 9/10) – The widest rectilinear lens currently available for Micro Four Thirds; not cheap in the slightest, large and heavy (for M4/3) – but worth every penny. Easily the optical equivalent of the Nikon 14-24/2.8; the lens has excellent resolving power across the entire frame and minimal CA. Does pretty well when shot into the light, too. If you need wide, this is pretty much your only choice: just as well it’s a good one.
Panasonic Lumix 12-32/3.5-5.6 G Pancake** (Feb 2014, 9/10) – I give this one a high rating because it promises little, but delivers much. The lens is the size of perhaps two M4/3 rear caps stacked together, yet it packs a fast, silent AF motor, OIS elements and a collapsing set of optics that cover a very useful set of focal lengths. It’s even cheap. The compromise is that a) it’s not available separately from the GM1 outside Japan) and b) the aperture is pretty darn slow. But the good news is that optics are excellent, and it focuses down to just 0.2m at all points in the range. Probably the only *useful* lens that turns the E-M1 into a pocket camera…
Panasonic Lumix X Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 OIS ASPH** (Apr 2013, 7/10) – An interestingly compact kit zoom that’s the size of the 20/1.7 pancake when collapsed; has no mechanical rings but a zoom lever instead. Reasonably sharp and surprisingly contrasty, but lacking in microcontrast. Some CA on bright edges. Comparable to the regular Olympus 14-42 kit zoom. Paired with small body, makes an interesting alternative to a compact. All in all, not bad considering it’s the same size as an Oreo…
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 14-140/4-5.8 (Feb 2013, 7/10) – A surprisingly good optic, sharp across the frame in the midrange, but soft at the extreme ends due to lateral CA and what appears to be internal flare or ghosting at times. It’s definitely useable wide open – and it’d better be, because the very modest maximum aperture means that you’re already pretty much at the diffraction limit without stopping down. This lens has a reputation for being versatile for video work, and I can see why; however it wouldn’t be my first choice for stills, as it’s both expensive and heavier than a 12/2+45/1.8 (or 60/2.8) pair, without offering anything close to the same optical quality.
Panasonic Lumix G 100-300/4-5.6** (June 2012, 7/10) – 200-600mm equivalent zoom for M4/3, topping out at a very useable f5.6 at the long end – what’s not to like? Sharpness is very good to excellent everywhere in the range, with the 300mm end being (predictably) the weakest. Optical stabilizer works well. Focusing is reasonably fast, but not as fast as the Olympus MSC lenses. (Actually, it feels about the same speed as the Nikon 70-300VR). Best used with an EVF camera for stability; you can’t really mount it on a tripod because of the lack of a collar and resulting imbalance (which is a shame).
Rokinon/ Samyang T-5 3.5/24mm (June 2013, 7/10) – Tilt shift on the cheap. At a fraction of the cost of the Nikon or Canon 24mm PCEs or TSEs, the Rokinon offers the same degree of perspective control, and goes one better by having independently rotatable tilt and shift axes. On-axis, the lens is surprisingly good optically; once you start tilting or shifting, you’ll need to go to f8 or smaller to retain edge resolution and minimise lateral CA, which never fully goes away. On top of that, the lock knobs are small and plasticky; the geared knobs to move the independent axes are too small to provide sufficient leverage – no doubt so they wouldn’t hit each other when rotated, which makes precise adjustments difficult. Finally, it’s stop-down metering only: the aperture ring actually moves the aperture; there are no electronic or mechanical connections to the camera body, which makes it a good option for film users, but not those who like EXIF data or full electronic compatibility. Still, did I mention it’s really, really cheap?
Tamron 18-xxx DC whatever (2009, 3/10) – Avoid like the plague.
Tamron 28-300/3.5-6.3 VC DI, 2014 silver barrel version (Feb 2015, 7.5/10) – I was surprised – no, shocked – by how good this lens was. Granted, it’s no prime, but for the range it’s covering, price and size, I expected it to at least lose out to the Nikon version – nope. It’s better; quite a bit better, actually. If you must have only one lens to do it all – T8 or worse be damned – then this is the one.
Canon 35/1.4 L (2007, 7/10) – A handy multipurpose lens, sharp in the center at f1.4, but you need to watch focus accuracy. Edges and corners need f4 or better to be fully sharp. Some CA wide open.
Canon 50/1.2 L (May 2012, 7/10) – Very fast, but in actual terms doesn’t deliver that much greater a T stop than the 50/1.4; it’s several times more expensive, though. OK-good on center at f1.2, needs f2 to be critically sharp in the center and f4 to be critically sharp in the corners. Comes close to matching the 50/1.4 stop for stop, but of course offers that extra half stop.
Canon 85/1.2 L I and II (2007, 9/10) – Incredibly good bokeh and nice planar separation of the subject from the background; sharp but lower contrast at 1.2, incredibly sharp by f2. Very slow to focus, not really suitable for fast moving subjects because the AF motor can’t keep up. This is a much larger and heavier lens than you’d expect; there’s a huge amount of glass inside it moving around. One of the ‘must haves’ if you shoot Canon.
Canon 500/4 L IS (2007, 9/10 optics, 5/10 build quality) – Great optics (are there any superteles with bad optics? If so, I haven’t seen any, even amongst the vintage lenses). My sample had a defective tripod collar that broke off; fortunately the lens wasn’t mounted to it at the time.
Fuji XF 18/2 R (Feb 2014, 7.5/10) – Good in the centre, falls off towards the edges because of field curvature until you stop down a bit. Visible CA on high contrast edges, but no longitudinal CA. It is small and fast, though. I think this lens excels as documentary lens specifically because the field curvature helps to separate central subjects (much like the 2/28 Distagon) but not for landscapes or architecture.
Hasselblad Carl Zeiss CF 4/50 Distagon T* FLE** (Jan 2013, 8.5/10) – A reasonably well-corrected wide angle lens with floating element group (FLE); still some minor CA visible on high contrast edges, especially with the digital back. Low, almost absent distortion and good sharpness across the frame. A surprisingly heavy lens for its size and focal length (approx. 28mm diagonal field of view). Very low propensity to flare.
Hasselblad Carl Zeiss CF 2.8/80 T* **(Jan 2013, 9/10) – The standard lens for the 501C; it’s an excellent fast (for medium format) normal prime, equivalent to about 50mm diagonal. Almost zero chromatic aberration and distortion; excellent sharpness across the frame and punchy microcontrast. Has the signature Zeiss rendering and low flare susceptibility thanks to the T* coating. Nice bokeh, too.
Hasselblad Carl Zeiss CF 4/120 T* Makro-Planar** (Jan 2013, 9/10) – This lens’ ‘Makro’ designation is a bit ambitious; without extension tubes, it barely reaches 1:4 on 6×6’! Still, with a 55mm tube, handily reaches 1:1 and looks as though it could go quite a bit beyond; the lens remains well-corrected and plenty sharp even at close distances. Excellent cross-frame sharpness and microcontrast; very flat field of rendition and almost no distortion. A good lens for repro work.
Hasselblad Carl Zeiss FE 2/110 T* Planar (Feb 2014, 9/10) – Also known as the Noctilux for medium format, and with good reason. Originally designed for the Hasselblad 200 series cameras with built in shutters, maximum aperture wasn’t limited by the size of the leaf shutters. I used it on the Pentax 645Z, and even at f2 resolving power was impressive (though microcontrast was slightly low and there were both traces of fringing and coma) and rendering quality incredibly smooth. Stop down a bit for clinical sharpness. A rare, heavy and expensive chunk of glass, but totally worth it if you shoot portraits with medium format. 35mm users are probably better served by the 2/135 APO-Planar though.
Leica M 16-18-21/4 Tri-Elmar (2009, 7/10) – An interesting lens that is actually a zoom, unlike Leica’s previous 28-35-50 MATE which was a step lens that didn’t have intermediate focal lengths (I think 50mm was the middle position (!)). Great optics, but large, unwieldy, and if you unscrew the hood, don’t put it front element down – it will hit the table. There’s even a red ring to remind you precisely not to do that. Must be used with either the universal wide angle finder (enormous big square thing) or the zoom 21-24-28 finder for the M8. It is RF coupled, but will scale focus to 0.5m – and frankly at 16mm and f4, there’s so much DOF there isn’t a lot of point in focusing anyway. I prefer the Zeiss 18/4 ZM or the Voigtlander 15/4.5 and taking my chances with the framing.
Leica M 21/1.4 Summilux ASPH (Jan 2010, 9/10) – The fastest, widest FF 35mm lens available. I shot pretty much only this lens for most of 2009 with my M8; it was a convenient 28mm equivalent, but shot like a telephoto – great bokeh, even at moderate subject distances. A little clinical compared to the Zeiss 21/2.8 Biogon, but with optics on par sharpness-wise and of course two stops faster – saved my bacon many times. Flare resistance is excellent; shoot into the light with confidence (and sunglasses) – makes great 16-pointed stars. Used with the Voigtlander 28/35 external mini-finder, which I very much regret selling. No other options if you need the speed and angle of view, and why would you need any, anyway?
Leica M 21/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH (May 2012, 9/10) – Actually has better optics than them 21/1.4; less distortion and slightly better micro contrast – but we’re splitting hairs here. At f3.4 maximum aperture, it’d be better be good – there are few design compromises here. Happy to report that it handily beats the old Angulon, but introduces the somewhat clinical perfection of the modern Leica asphericals. You may or may not like this; I personally do, which means this lens is one of my favorites. Actually feels very similar to the 35/1.4 ASPH FLE in size, weight and handling; they even use the same hood. Doesn’t seem to have a very high T stop though, probably closer to 4.5.
Leica M 28/2.8 Elmarit ASPH (Jan 2012, 8/10) – Sharp, small and very easy to get your fingers in the picture because you forget it’s a 28mm and hardly protrudes. Doesn’t zone focus well, has to be RF-focused on the M9. Doesn’t have much of a personality of its own, best described as competent and transparent. Not a night lens, it’s too slow – and the T stop also seems a higher than 2.8.
Leica M 28/2 Summicron ASPH** (Feb 2013, 9/10) – A little larger than the f2.8 version, but gains you an extra stop with seemingly no optical penalties. Hood is enormous and useless; I use it without. No issues with flare. Some lateral CA wide open, goes away by f5.6; detail resolution is outstanding. Microcontrast isn’t quite as punchy as the 35/2 ASPH, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, 50/2 APO or 50/1.4 ASPH; pretty close though. Neutral color rendition and bokeh.
Leica M 28-35-50/4 ASPH Tri Elmar (Dec 2011, 7/10) – Designed as three separate lenses, and corrected as such; horribly complex optical formula that meant it was too expensive for even Leica to keep producing. Surprisingly great optics – doesn’t feel compromised at all – but you pay for it by the daylight-only maximum aperture, very little DOF control, and 1m minimum focusing distance. Also, the variable length lug to change frame lines sometimes doesn’t work properly – check carefully before buying. I love the idea of it, but I don’t like how limiting it is – to me that defeats the point of having a Leica.
Leica M 35/1.4 Summilux ASPH FLE (May 2012, 9.5/10 – my Mar 2013 review on the site is here, and on theLeica Blog) – Possibly the best 35mm lens, ever. Incredibly sharp all over the frame even at 1.4; supposedly shares an almost identical optical design with the outgoing 35/1.4 ASPH VI (no floating elements, notorious for focus shift). Bokeh and overall personality of the lens reminds me of the 50/1.4 ASPH, but wider; it has that unique ability to separate the subject cleanly from the background. Neutral color rendition. New vented screw-on hood that’s a lot more compact than the old one, but still obstructs the finder. I use it with the blanking ring instead. And yes, the focus shift issues are gone completely. Build quality overall is excellent, with the focusing ring having just the right amount of resistance. However, my aperture ring is a bit loose – which seems to be a common problem amongst all of the other 35 ASPH FLEs I’ve tried, too.
Leica M 35/2 Summicron ASPH (Sep 2009, 9/10) – Until the 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, this would have taken my title for best 35mm. It’s still excellent – as good optically as the 35/1.4 – but just one stop slower. This was the lens that convinced me to buy an M8, actually. Focus ring has perfect weight and resistance; easy enough to move with a fingertip but won’t run away unless you want it to. Actually, if you’ve got largish hands, you can shoot one handed with it mounted – focus it with your right ring finger.
Leica M 50/0.95 Noctilux ASPH (May 2012, 9/10) – King of the 50mms; finally has wide open performance to match that of the 50/1.4 ASPH; amazingly sharp even at f0.95. Warning: you need to have your RF calibrated to match your particular sample, else it’ll be worthless because you can’t use that extra stop of performance you paid 3x the price of the 50/1.4 ASPH to obtain. Requires patience to use. it loses the old ‘swirly bokeh’ which identifies a shot as a ‘Noctilux shot'; this is a good and bad thing – personality wise, it’s like the bastard child of the Zeiss 85/1.4 Planar, and the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux. An incredibly cinematic lens and a black hole for light. T stop around 1.2. The hood is a slide out thing that twists a little to prevent it from retracting, but doesn’t really lock into place. In any case, it’s far too short to be of any real use. There’s also a 1m near focus limit, which restricts its usefulness for portraits.
Leica M 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH** (Apr 2013, 9.5/10 if you get a good copy) – Best every day use 50mm lens, but subject to some sample variation. The good samples are incredibly good – this is a normal lens that has the feel of an 300/2.8 super tele. Bokeh and subject separation are incredible (thanks to a very fast transition between in and out of focus), as is sharpness. It has the ability to separate the subject from the rest of the frame easily, all the time, at any subject distance – even 20+ meters. Once again requires good RF calibration to make the most of it. T stop around 1.7. Near focus limit of 0.7m, which feels hugely more flexible than the 1m limit of the Noctilux. Works great on M4/3 cameras if you can focus it precisely; delivers a very cinematic rendering wide open.
Leica M 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH (May 2012, 9/10) – Claimed to be the best 50mm lens out there, and probably is; it certainly is the most optically perfect one I’ve used. However, it can still be made to flare and exhibits minor vignetting up to about f5.6. Sharpness, however, is outstanding – on the M9/ M Monochrom you only use the aperture ring to control depth of field; stopping down doesn’t appear to have any impact on sharpness, which is consistent all the way into the far corners. CA is of course absent, and micro contrast is both finely structured and extremely pleasant. Best described as Zeiss 50 Planar meets Leica 50/1.4 ASPH in terms of overall rendition and character. Great bokeh, too. One big flaw though: it’s very prone to flare if any light hits the front element obliquely.
Leica M 50/2 Summicron (Jan 2012, 7/10) – A competent, surprisingly cheap 50mm; best described as neutral. Bokeh is neutral but not outstanding. Color is neutral. Sharpness is there, but it has a low contrast ’roundness’ to it that’s lacking from the aspherical 50/1.4 and 50/0.95. Does focus shift a little when stopped down, but you probably won’t notice it in practical use unless make a habit of focusing at minimum focus distance all the time.
Leica M 50/2.5 Summarit (Nov 2011, 8/10) – Great value for money; if you shoot street, you don’t need anything faster than this because you’ll always be stopped down anyway. Excellent optics, okay bokeh. A little known fact about the Summarit line was that the designs are all tele centric and designed for mirrorless cameras; performance on the M4/3 cameras is excellent. Just be careful not to misplace that little slip-on lens cap, it has a tendency to fall off at the slightest provocation. Build quality isn’t quite as good as the mainstream M lenses.
Leica M 90/2 Summicron pre-AA (Mar 2009, 7/10) – Very difficult to use on the digital Ms without a magnifier; the RF patch occupies so much of the 90mm frame that it’s a bit hit and miss as to what’s actually in focus. Capable of delivering excellent results if used with care; sharpness is excellent. Focus ring is a bit stiff, which doesn’t help focusing accuracy, either. It’s also incredibly heavy for an RF lens – probably pretty close to the 0.95 Noctilux.
Leica M 90/4 Macro-Elmar (Apr 2012, 9/10) – One of the simplest optical designs ever; it has just 4 elements in 4 groups, and collapses to be even more compact. Delivers excellent sharpness at any range; capable of focusing down to 0.7m on its own, or 0.5m and 1:4 reproduction ratio with the appropriate goggles. Works very well with the Visoflex-III and Bellows-II. On the M9, it reaches peak sharpness from f5.6-f11; at f16 you hit the diffraction limits in a big, sudden way. Best to avoid the last two stops.
Leica S 30/2.8 Elmarit (May 2012, 9/10) – Like all of the S lenses, I can’t find fault with it. That’s all there is to say. I was told the lenses were designed to be at maximum sharpness from maximum aperture; you use the iris only to control DOF and nothing else. It certainly seems that way. Bokeh is excellent too, by the way. One of the best lenses I’ve ever used.
Leica S 35/2.5 Summarit (May 2012, 9/10) – Same comment as the 30/2.8 – can’t fault it.
Leica S 70/2.5 Summarit (May 2012, 9.5/10) – My favorite lens on the S system – it gives the perspective of a normal, but has the subject separation and feel of a short tele. If only it were a little faster aperture-wise. Once again, it’s as close to perfection as you can get in a lens.
Leica S 120/2.5 APO-Macro-Summarit (May 2012, 10/10) – An amazingly good lens, with almost no longitudinal CA (and definitely no lateral CA) – I’ve never seen this in any other macro lens I’ve used. The best of F-mount 85/2.8 PCE matches it in resolving power, but not micro contrast or chromatic aberration performance. It’s huge though, and requires almost one complete turn to reach just 1:2 magnification on the S2 sensor – which means a minimum frame size of 60x90mm.
Nikon AFS 20/1.8 G** (Feb 2014, 8/10 provisional) – Not shot with it enough to give it a firm ranking, but it appears that it is not far off the Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon from 2.8 onwards in raw resolution (microcontrast isn’t quite as good, of course) but with the bonus of a usable f1.8 (in the central region at least) and autofocus. And cheaper, too.
Nikon AFS 24/1.4 G (May 2012, 7-9/10 depending on sample and body used ) – A controversial lens at the moment. Performs superbly on the D700 and other 12MP FX cameras, with consistent cross-frame performance and sharpness even wide open. Center is excellent on the D800/ D800E, but if your AF module is even the slightest bit misaligned, then you’re in trouble because one side will appear astigmatic. Focus using the center point, lock and recompose appears to be a workable solution for those suffering this problem. The edges visibly degrade a little at f1.4 on the D800/ D800E, but improve rapidly through 2.8. Like the other modern Nikon lenses, has a very complex optical design, resulting in great macro contrast but poor micro contrast and lower than expected T stop – I think this one is around 1.8-2. Recommended without hesitation on the 12MP FX cameras, cautiously so for the D800.
Nikon PCE 24/3.5 (Sep 2013, 8/10 as tested) – Optically pretty good, but with noticeable resolution falloff towards the edges of the frame. Axes can be easily rotated parallel (a much more useful configuration than orthogonal as supplied) for landscape and architecture work. Not quite as good as the 85, but the focus ring is much smoother. Worth noting that the lock knobs for T/S axes are inadequate for real security and frequently blocked by the camera’s prism.
Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G (June 2012, 8/10)** – A very light, relatively small lens. Focuses fast. Weather sealed, but doesn’t have any metal in it apart from the mount and some screws. It’s sharp in the center at all apertures on the D800E, but isn’t flat field; you’ll have to take care for edge subjects – it can be sharp if you get the focus plane right. Doesn’t have the 3D microcontrast of the Zeiss 28/2 Distagon, but surprisingly offers better transmission f-stop for f-stop. Neutral bokeh and color. Now if only they’d make an f1.4 version.
Nikon AFS 35/1.4 G (Apr 2012, 6/10) – Great lens on the 12 MP FX cams; consistent cross-frame sharpness and really smooth bokeh. Not good on the D800/ D800E; it’s okay in the center, but the edge and border zones aren’t sharp – there appears to be a lot of coma/ or smearing until f4 or so. I’d suggest looking at the Zeiss 35/1.4 or Samyang 35/1.4 as an alternative if you want to use it on the D800/ D800E.
Nikon AI 45/2.8 P** (May 2012, 8/10) – Currently on my second copy. I had one of the much rarer black versions with my FM3A back in 2004; stupidly, I sold it. I’m rediscovering the joys of the simple Tessar optical formula with the D800 – the center zone is always bitingly sharp, and progressive ‘rings’ of sharpness open up as you stop down; by 5.6 it’s great everywhere across the frame. I suspect this is actually field curvature rather than softness, because you can focus on an edge subject, recompose and the edge subject will be perfectly sharp. I have a feeling I’ll find this to be one of those lenses with personality, like the similarly field-curvy Zeiss 28/2 Distagon. Color transmission is neutral, there’s a tiny hint of longitudinal CA, and bokeh is very nice indeed. Unfortunately it won’t make sunstars, though. Oddly the edge focusing points seem to work inconsistently for focus confirmation on this lens; the center point works much better and focus holds if you do the center-focus-and-recompose thing. Now if only there was an AF f2 version! Pentax was on to something with its Limited series of pancake lenses.
Nikon AFS 50/1.4 G (Mar 2010, 6/10) – Had three of these, never really liked them; have to stop down to f2 to remove that veiling flare that robs sharpness and micro contrast. CA remains at high contrast edges. It’s also slower to focus than the AFD version, but more accurate as it’s got a proper AFS motor that can move the optics around in small, precise increments.
Nikon AFD 50/1.4 (Jan 2009, 6/10) – Sharp if you a) stop down to f2.8 or smaller and b) there is a large enough change in focusing distance that the camera can move the lens precisely – it’s a screwdriver focus type. Not my favorite, to be honest. Adds a distance scale over the super-cheap 50/1.8 D.
Nikon AFS 50/1.8 G (Jul 2011, 8/10) – I think the best AF fast 50 for Nikon mount at the moment; it does have that biting sharpness wide open, thanks to an aspherical element. This would be my choice of 50, if I used 50, and didn’t already have the 45/2.8 P. Great value for money, too. Makes an excellent portrait lens on the DX bodies.
Nikon AFD 50/1.8 (Jan 2009, 6.5/10) – Cheap and cheerful; note that it needs a body with a motor to focus, so it won’t work on the lower end cameras. Capable of excellent results, more so when stopped down a little. Even has a metal mount, which is lacking from the Canon equivalent.
Nikon AI 55/1.2 SC (2006, 4/10 for sharpness, 8/10 for pictorial value and build) – Optically terrible – suffering from massive internal flare wide open, coma at point light sources, and a weird color transmission spectrum. But I loved its personality, and despite its lack of contrast, it was sharp, and very friendly to the low-dynamic range digital sensors of the 2004-5 era like the D70 and D2H. Great for portraits; produced wonderful skin tones. Not so good for other things. I had to convert mine from a pre-AI version by filing down the flange on the aperture ring. Don’t confuse this with the legendary AI 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, which had a hand-ground aspherical element and was capable of some stunning results wide open – coma free.
Nikon AI-S 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor (Nov 2012, 8/10 for sharpness, 10/10 for pictorial value and build)** – The legendary Noct-Nikkor with hand polished aspherical front element still largely lives up to its reputation today; performance – sharpness and microcontrast – at maximal apertures on the D700 and D600 is outstandingly spectacular providing you can focus it adequately; mirror alignment is critical. The D800 is less forgiving, and here the resolution appears to fall apart wide open, unsurprisingly. You need to focus on your subject, not venter-and-recompose as the lens has strong field curvature. Yields spectacular bokeh and very little coma as advertised. Horribly expensive, but then again not so much if you think about how much a Leica Noctilux costs – and this was assembled by hand, with a hand polished element. Needless to say, build is superb.
Nikon AI 55/2.8 Micro 1:1 (2006, 9/10) – One of the early macro lenses; optically great on the 12MP DX and FX bodies, and a relative bargain if you can find one used. Macro is done properly by choosing your magnification first and then framing, anyway – so the loss of AF isn’t that much of an issue. Love the optics and contemplating another one to use on a bellows.
Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro** (May 2012, 9/10) – This lens is one of my two studio workhorses, the other being the 85/2.8 PCE. This one gives me the convenience of AF, 1:1 and higher potential magnification with extension tubes. I switched to this lens from the 105/2.8 VR due to the huge amount of lateral chromatic aberration (bokeh fringing) present in the latter; not great for product shots as it required some often very tricky retouching to remove the color casts without affecting the color of the underlying subject. I feel it’s also a touch sharper, too. The 40/2.8 and 85/3.5 VR macro lenses do not make any sense to me; the latter is not much cheaper, and the working distance of the former is terrible. Bokeh-wise, it’s neutral to good; color wise, it’s neutral; all in all, it’s a very transparent lens that does its job and avoids imprinting its personality onto the picture, which is great. Note that it doesn’t change length with magnification, but it does shorten focal length a little, so working distance at maximum magnification isn’t more than about 5cm. Not suitable for photographing biting insects.
Nikon AFD 60/2.8 Micro (2007, 8/10) – An excellent lens optically, but let down by its slow autofocus and elaborately nested telescoping front element. You really have to be careful not to whack the front of the lens into the subject as it extends a lot – about two inches – at maximum magnification. Best used with manual focus (selected by a slightly fragile feeling switching ring) as autofocus often struggles to move it in the small increments required to change focus distance, especially towards infinity because the helicoid pitch is geared very fast – barely ten degrees of travel between one meter and infinity.
Nikon AFS 85/1.4 G (August 2012, 7-9/10 depending on which body you use) – Much better on D800E than D800; I would say for D800, it’s 85/1.8G > 85/1.4G; the difference is less on the D800E, but the 1.8G still takes the cake by a hair. You do lose out about 2/3 stop transmission for a given aperture, though. It’s a very cinematic optic that has excellent foreground and background bokeh; one of the few equals to the Zeiss 85/1.4 Planar in this regard. It’s also sharp consistently across the frame, even at the edges and wide open; the huge amount of CA of its predecessor is gone, too. All in all, a wonderful lens – one of my favorites on the D700, but less so on the D800/D800E.
Nikon AFD 85/1.4 (Jan 2010, 7/10) – Sharp wide open with exceptions: if you’ve got a high contrast subject, you’ll get several pixels’ worth of CA on the 12MP FX cams; I imagine it’d be worse on the D800/ D800E. Focusing precision is critical because of the extremely shallow depth of field; sadly this is difficult because it’s a screwdriver design. Edge sharpness isn’t as good as the center until f2.8 and smaller. Has that odd switching ring to engage manual focus.
Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G** (Nov 2012, 9/10) – An impressively sharp optic on every body I’ve tested it on, including the D800 and D800E; no CA, edge to edge perfection even at f1.8. Sharp and contrasty all over, probably thanks to the small number of internal elements. I have no idea how they do it – the optical design is incredibly simple, and has no aspherical elements, no ED glass, no IF/ RF groups and no fancy coatings. The T stop is about half a stop down on the 85/1.4 G for the same aperture, though – must be the effect of the Nano Crystal Coating on the 85/1.4 G’s elements. I think this may be the best general purpose/ fast 85mm out there at the moment, and I don’t say that lightly. Beats the 85/1.4G and Zeiss ZF.2 85/1.4 handily for sharpness. Its one weakness is a high susceptibility to flare. Highly recommended if you don’t already have the 85/1.4 G, and recommended for D800 users even if you do.
Nikon AFD 85/1.8 (Dec 2011, 8/10) – I’d say this was best bang for buck until I tried the 85/1.8 G – although the 85/1.8 D is sharp and fairly neutral, wide open it feels like a very ordinary lens. Must be used at f4 or higher for best performance, but in all fairness, at that point it shines. Also a screwdriver design, so it won’t work on the lower end bodies.
Nikon PCE 85/2.8 Micro** (May 2012, 9.5/10) – One of Nikon’s sharpest lenses. Full movements, and a macro to boot! Nothing to complain about optically, at any aperture. However, the tilt and shift axes should be parallel; the way they are installed from the factory not only does not permit easy rotation like the old version, but there’s also a PCB and ribbon cable that has to be changed at the cost of US$300 or so – for something that shouldn’t have been design that way in the first place. My other issue is that the focusing ring on all of the samples I’ve tried is extremely stiff; no amount of working it in or lubrication helps that. I dismantled part of my lens to find that there are a few friction rings between the top keeper that stops the focus ring from slipping off, and the ring itself; the problem is when the focusing ring is moved, it naturally exerts force on the friction ring and keeper because of the focusing cams. It’s actually so stiff that it requires less force to rotate the lens about its movements axis, which means you’ve got to be careful when using it. It isn’t a fluid or easy lens to use, but produces excellent results. PCE version means an electromagnetic diaphragm that stops down with a button instead of a lever; unfortunately it also means you can’t use it on a non-electronic body or bellows, other than wide open.
Nikon PC 85/2.8 D Micro (old version; 2006, 9/10) – Appears to have a very similar or identical optical formula to the newer PCE version, but requires stop down metering with a plunger. You can, however, use it on a bellows, and rotating the tilt and shift axes to be parallel is a simple matter of undoing the four screws that hold the mount section to the body of the lens, rotating through 90 degrees, and reattaching. I seem to remember it had a much smoother focusing mechanism, too.
Nikon AI 105/1.8 (2005, 6/10) – A wonderfully cinematic but not particularly sharp lens wide open; low contrast and high flare looks great for people shots, but can be a bit unpredictable when odd light sources are in the frame. Plenty of CA at high contrast edges, too. Nevertheless, one of my favorite lenses on DX because of the feel.
Nikon AFD 105/2 DC (2005, 8/10 if you can get it to focus right) – One of a pair of lenses with Nikon’s Defocus Control (DC) mechanism; a control which allows the photographer to control the amount of uncorrected spherical aberration produced by the lens by moving a few elements around; in essence, it lets you control the in-focus to out-of-focus transition and move its emphasis to in front or behind the focal point. Best used with the DC setting matching the selected aperture, otherwise you can overdo the spherical aberration and land up with some odd coma. Notorious for front- or back-focusing because of the DC elements; not an issue now thanks to the AF fine tune setting on all current Nikons. Optically spectacular if properly focused; great bokeh (even with the DC setting at neutral) and that wonderful separation between subject and background.
Nikon AFS 105/2.8 VR Micro (2009, 8/10) – A very easy to use macro lens with great optics; stick the focus limiter on and it works as a portrait lens too, with fast focusing thanks to the short focus throw from 0.5m (the limiter distance) to infinity. It’s sharp at f2.8 but noticeably better at f4. Nikon’s first macro lens with all the bells and whistles – Nano Crystal Coating, VR, AFS and internal focusing. Unfortunately suffers from longitudinal chromatic aberration, especially obvious on OOF highlights at macro distances. The stabilizer is very effective, but this diminishes at macro distances simply because the relative magnitude of shake is much higher. AF-C is somewhat skittish because I believe the lens tries to compensate for camera movement to-and-fro the subject, in which it’s somewhat successful. I swapped this for the 60/2.8 AFS due to the better optics, but miss the working distance. Note that the lens does not change length as it increases magnification; there is some focal length shortening at work here, and at 1:1 it’s probably closer to 85mm than 105mm.
Nikon AFS 200/2 VR N (2006, 9.5/10) – A massive front-heavy beast of a lens, that is somehow much bigger than you’d expect (feels more like a 300/2.8 than an enlarged version of the 70-200). Delivers a very, very unique look that somehow manages to separate the subject into planes in a much more decisive way than the 70-200 does at 200mm; it’s slicingly sharp at all apertures. You can’t handhold it, definitely best used with a monopod. Works well with all teleconverters; almost as good as the prime telephotos. I can’t actually see much use for this other than indoor sport and catwalk fashion – it’s too short for wildlife and too long for most types of portraiture.
Nikon AI 200/4 (2005, 7/10) – Cheap, light, small, and surprisingly sharp. Will produce CA on contrast edges until f4 or so; works well on the lower pixel density sensors. Good for video work too, flares in a cinematic way.
Nikon AFS 300/2.8 VR II (Feb 2008, 9.5/10) – Nikon hasn’t made a bad 300mm optically. This is no exception; I used it with a D200 and 1.4x or 2x TCs as my primary wildlife lens. Focusing is so fast you can hear the air displacing inside the lens; it literally pops into focus. One of Nikon’s best lenses optically; sharpness even at 2.8 is stunning, color is both saturated and neutral, and it has wonderful bokeh and microcontrast. Nothing to complain about except the price!
Nikon AFS 400/2.8 VR II N (Mar 2010, 9.5/10) – Similar comments to the 300/2.8 VR II. Optically flawless, solidly built and capable of stunning results. However, the lens is so physically big that you need to have good support otherwise you will suffer from both wind-effects (the nested hoods especially act like a sail) and blur due to camera shake. Why Nikon chose to put the tripod foot so far away from the lens body on an unstable extension, I’ll never understand – the tripod foot of the 300mm is much better in that it’s both close to the lens and thick, allowing for a much more rigid connection to your support.
Nikon AI 500/4 P (Sep 2007, 8.5/10) – Reach on a budget – this lens is electronic and will provide metering, focus confirmation and auto-exposure with any modern body. It will not focus by itself, of course – but with a lens this long, DOF is shallow and subjects pop into focus quite easily. There are also mechanical focus limiters that physically stop the focusing ring from rotating if you desire. Optically excellent, if a little lower in macro and micro contrast than the modern AFS version – probably due to the coating – but that helps to preserve dynamic range. However there is also a small amount of lateral CA visible on high contrast subjects. Haven’t tried it on FX so can’t comment on the optical quality of the corners. It’s long and thin, and the tripod foot is rather small, so you need to watch overall stability of the system – it’s easy for the whole thing to start rocking up and down especially if the tripod collar is left undone.
Olympus ZD 12/2** (May 2012, 7.5/10) – The best of the wide angles for M4/3 at the moment; it’s fast, sharp, and doesn’t have any obvious optical deficiencies other than slightly nervous bokeh (but chances are you’re not going to see bokeh with this spec anyway). It does distort a bit, so it probably isn’t that suitable for architectural photography. I don’t think the T stop is quite f2 – feels like it needs a higher shutter speed than you’d expect for a given lighting condition. The lens does have this interesting focusing ring which can be either fly by wire or mechanically linked manual; the latter has distance and depth of field scales and everything! However, it may not be fully mechanically coupled as it seems there are only five or six distinct focus ‘zones’ you can select, which means hyper focal use isn’t quite as easy as you’d think. I tried it a few times and was disappointed by the inexplicably out of focus results I got at times until I discovered the previous fact. Use it in autofocus mode and be happy (it’s one of the newer, fast MSC designs anyway).
Olympus 15/8 body cap lens** (Sep 2012, optics 5/10, fun 10/10) – Literally the same size as a body cap, and with a three-element 30mm equivalent (close enough to 28 for me!) focal length. Single lever activates small shutter cover and moves elements back and forth to focus (down to 30cm). It’s a fixed f8 lens, so critical focusing isn’t an issue. Optically not too bad, but obviously not stellar, either. Turns any Pen into something pocketable. Looking forward to using it on my Pen Mini as a super stealthy shooter.
Olympus ZD 17/1.8 (Nov 2012, 8/10) – Much better than the 17/2.8, optically on par with the Panasonic 20/1.7 but with better microcontrast and fine resolution power. Still suffers from some corner CA, but quite a bit of LoCA too. Focusing is fast and mostly accurate – watch out if you’re shooting wide open at infinity, sometimes the lens ‘sticks’ at 6-10m. The MF clutch ring is much improved over the 12/2 and now offers a continuous range of distances – the 12/2 seemed to only have five or six discrete settings, rending it quite useless for zone focusing.
Olympus ZD 17/2.8 (Nov 2012, 5/10) – The only thing this lens has going for it is its size. Optically slow yet somehow a poor performer especially in the corners – soft with horrible CA, both longitudinal and lateral – it’s also extremely slow to focus and makes a noisy grinding noise whilst doing so. Best avoided.
Olympus ZD 25/1.8 (Feb 2014, 8/10) – A solid fast normal with a similar rendering style to the 45/1.8; it’s very good but nothing really special. Sharp wide open but slightly hazy; benefits from being stopped down to f2.5 or smaller. It’s better towards the periphery of the frame than the 20/1.7 and focuses faster, but it’s also twice the size.
Olympus ZD 45/1.8** (May 2012, 9/10) – One of my favorite lenses for M4/3. Optically, it’s superb. Sharp, moderate contrast, excellent color, neutral, smooth bokeh, and a great microcontrast structure the helps to generate that 3D look and feel to images. Sharp already wide open, but improves to peak at around f2.8-4; don’t go past f8 on M4/3 bodies because you will run into obvious diffraction effects. The price is spectacularly good for what you’re getting, but the compromise is a plastic, somewhat flimsy-feeling outer shell, no lens hood, and an easily-lost blanking ring at one end to cover the hood bayonet.
Olympus ZD 60/2.8 Macro** (Sep 2012, 9.5/10) – The new reference lens for M4/3. Amazing cross-frame sharpness at every aperture; 1:1 reproduction ratio with quick selection of focus zones; very low to non-existent longitudinal CA, and no lateral CA. Very neutral color transmission, and excellent bokeh. Reasonably fast to focus, especially with focus limiter on and at longer distances. Full review coming soon.
Olympus ZD 75/1.8 (July 2012, 9/10) – An optically excellent lens with few, if any flaws; great bokeh and sharp anywhere in the frame at any aperture you care to use. It has a luminosity and transparency to it that reminds me of the Zeiss 85/1.4 Planar. Excellent build quality, though they should really include the hood at that price – and a lens cap that you can actually use with it. Joins the pantheon of great lenses.
Panasonic Lumix 14/2.5 G (Aug 2012, 6.5/10) – A very tiny pancake lens (not much bigger than the rear cap, actually) for M4/3, and usually bundled as part of a two lens kit. Optically okay in the center, but poor in the corners – the lens somehow manages to be soft, smeary-sharp and lateral CA-riddled. Not recommended, but sadly the only 28mm-EFOV option available to M4/3 users now. I suppose we serious 28mm shooters will either have to wait for the rumored Ricoh GXR lens/ M4/3 module, or the hideously expensive Schneider 14/2.
Panasonic Lumix 20/1.7 G** (May 2012, 8/10) – One of the must-haves for M4/3 because of its small size and reasonably high optical quality. It isn’t the sharpest or fastest-focusing lens out there (in fact, it’s one of the original lenses that was launched with the system) but it does seem to hold up well on the newer 16MP cameras. My only complaint is that it’s a bit too contrasty, and the micro contrast structure lacks the same refinement of say the Olympus 45/1.8. Not expensive and worth having around; makes a good two-lens kit to pair with a zoom for travel.
Panasonic Leica Lumix 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit OIS** (May 2012, 9/10) – The only real macro choice for M4/3 at the time of writing this; good thing it’s an excellent lens. Reaches 1:1 on the M4/3 sensor size, which means close to 2:1 equivalent magnification on full frame. I’ve not done any serious shooting with this yet, but my early watch tests and casual shots suggest that it’s one of those rare ‘transparent’ lenses that just does a great job at faithfully reproducing the subject. A cautious favorite, so far. The OIS system also seems more effective than the in-body stabilization on the OM-D – and no, don’t use them together because there’s some weird interference going on.
Samyang 24/3.5 Tilt Shift (Sep 2013, 6/10) – There’s a reason this lens is cheap: the optics are poor, there’s no electronic communication so everything must be done manually – including stopping down the aperture – and the build quality is terrible. It feels cheap. The results look cheap and have a strange colour cast – good if you like cross processing, I suppose. The lens one sole redeeming grace is that the T and S axes are independently rotatable – the Nikon 24/3.5 PCE’s are not.
Pentax D-FA 25/4 SDM (Jul 2014, 9/10, beware sample variation)** – An impressive lens if you get a good copy. I’ve seen mild to mid decentering/ astigmatism and failure to focus to infinity. Excellent centre even wide open, edges get pretty close by f8 – not bad considering it covers full 645. Best thing about this is the rendering: it’s very wide (19mm-e on the 645D/Z) but doesn’t render like it; in fact, it feels much like a 28mm lens. Build quality is excellent; it’s all metal and weather sealed. Very large and heavy, though. Uses drop in 40.5mm filters, but only very slim ones will fit – good thing it comes with CPOL included, and a mechanism for rotating it externally. Now to find a variable ND that’ll fit too…
Pentax D-FA 55/2.8 SDM (Jul 2014, 9/10)** – The ‘kit’ lens for the 645D/Z. A solid choice with good optics; centre sharpness/ resolution is excellent wide open, but beware some field curvature towards the edges. It’s not soft per se, but f5.6 improves things dramatically and so does precise focusing via live view. Relatively light and small, and a natural 43mm-e on the 645D/Z. If you must have one lens, it’s probably this one. Also weather sealed like the other two 645 D-FA SDM lenses, but not metal (or not that I can tell). At least it helps keep the weight down.
Pentax D-FA 90/2.8 SR SDM Macro (Jul 2014, 9.5/10)** – Probably the best lens for the Pentax 645 system at the moment. Only reaches 1:2 (unlike the 1:1 FA 120/4) but blisteringly sharp at all distances/ apertures, at all points in the frame. No LCA that I can see and almost no LoCA even on highly reflective subjects. Some improvement to f4-5.6, but pretty minor and only in the extreme corners. The only optically stabilised medium format lens; it’s helpful but not as good as the current generation Nikon/Canon VRII/IS lenses or Olympus’ 5-axis IBIS. No reservations other than size and price; it’s also metal, weather sealed and hefty. Great bokeh, too.
Pentax FA 75/2.8 (Jul 2014, 7.5/10, beware sample variation)** – The ‘pancake’ – a handy lens to have around when you want to pack small. Some haze/ internal flare wide open, softish corners on the 645Z; needs f5.6 to be critically sharp and ideally a bit more. Have tried a few samples, and some require more AF fine tune than is available on the bodies; you need to match the lens to your camera. However, a no-brainer at the prices they go for second hand – $300-350 range – even if you have to try a couple.
Pentax FA 200/4 (Jul 2014, 7.5/10)** – I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. On one hand, it’s capable of some impressive results (though not up to the Hasselblad/Zeiss CF 4/150 or 4/180), but lack of precision and backlash in the body-driven AF mechanism means that it doesn’t always hit focus perfectly; this can be problematic with small changes in subject distance, or in low light. Occasionally things can be so out of focus that the AF system thinks it has a lock even though nothing is remotely close. Not bad wide open in the centre, best at f8.
Schneider PC TS 4.5/90 Macro-Symmar (Feb 2014, 7/10) – I’m conflicted with this lens. Optics are excellent, but calling it a macro is misleading: 1:3 is pathetic. And the mount, which seems clever – allowing precise geared movements of both T/S axes, independently – is actually very fiddly in practice because the lens is so bulky/ heavy that it carries a tripod mount, which you have to use unless you want to tear the one off your camera. Far too fiddly to use in practice, which is a shame. Despite the mount, I can’t figure out why it’s so huge as there’s very little glass in it – peering down the front reveals a) why it doesn’t come with a hood, and b) what the business end of a funnel looks like. There’s easily 3″ of empty space in there.
Schneider PC TS 2.8/50 (Feb 2014, 5/10) – Shares the same clever mount as its larger 90mm sibling; this one actually has a lot of glass in it. Unfortunate, as the optics are terrible. Soft and hazy wide open, and lacking microcontrast even when stopped down. It is no match for the Nikon PCEs, and frankly, I’m surprised it’s this difficult to design a slow 50mm with a decent image circle for a small format; the Hasselblad Zeiss 4/50 CF FLE is MUCH better, and has a larger image circle.
Sigma 24/1.8 (Feb 2010, 6/10) – If it looks a bit too good to be true, it generally is. The lens is only critically sharp in the center from 2.8 onwards on the D700; requires f5.6 or more to hit stride in the corners. Has the usual odd Sigma warm cast. I don’t think it would be suitable for use on the D800 at all.
Sigma 30/1.4 (Sep 2007, 5-8/10 depending on your sample) – Filled a gap which the camera brands left open with APS-C DSLRs; a fast normal didn’t exist except in the form of hideously expensive FF wides (35/1.4 L, anybody?) or old manual focus glass (AI-S 35/1.4). Can be an excellent performer on all DX bodies, but there seems to be a huge amount of sample variation; some lenses are sharp, some aren’t. I have no idea why. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for samples to drift out of calibration; my copy (chosen from six, which were all slightly different optically) started off excellent but subsequently went soft – on the same camera. Rubberized coating on the barrel peels off easily reveal metal barrel below. Well, at least it’s metal, I suppose.
Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 (Jan 2014, 8.5/10) – Possibly the best native lens available for the A7/A7R at the moment. There’s some LCA and LoCA wide open as well as minor veiling flare, but significantly improved by f2, and by f2.8, it’s an excellent performer. By f4, you struggle to tell the difference between this and the Otus. If you don’t need the wide-aperture performance, this is a much better choice both ergonomically (it has AF) and price-wise. Actually, a no-brainer if you’ve got either one of those cameras…
Voitlander M 15/4.5 Super Wide Heliar (Jul 2009, 8/10) – Great way to go wide for cheap, especially on the M8/8.2; it vignettes a bit, but even more so on the M9. Also has some minor cyan shift issues if not coded with a Sharpie. But optically great – very sharp everywhere – and with snappy microcontrast. Has a focusing tab, but I have no idea why you’d need it on a lens whose DOF markings at f22 go all the way around the barrel…
Voigtlander 20/3.5 AI (Jul 2010, 7/10) – An interesting option to go wide on a budget. It’s a very low contrast lens, but that’s not a bad thing on digital; sharpness is excellent from 5.6 onwards, but you have to watch the corners – they need f8 or smaller. Note that there is some veiling flare wide open, which makes for interesting skin tones, but not very good architecture. It distorts, too.
Voigtlander 25/0.95 MFT (June 2012, 7/10) – If you need speed for your M43 bodies, then you’re only going to feel satisfied by the Voigt 25 and 17.5mm lenses – they both get you to f0.95. Although early reports of the 17.5mm say it’s very useable (and sharp) wide open, the same can’t really be said of the 25mm; it’s sharp but has serious coma/ haze/ flare (it’s too complex to describe well) that prevents it from delivering an impression of crispness wide open. Basically, it rates ‘OK’ in the center at f0.95; excellent by f2, but the corners really don’t become acceptable til f2-2.8. Bokeh is a little nervous and not the ‘wall of cream’ that you’d expect. Basically, this lens has a rendition you’ll either love or hate – it does feel great to use from a tactility standpoint, though, and focuses to just 17.5cm from the sensor plane.
Voigtlander 28/2.8 AI (Nov 2012, 7/10) – Pancake 28 that’s only slightly larger than the Nikon 45P. Great for travel, but unfortunately manual focus only; at least it’s chipped for direct aperture control from the camera body. Reasonably sharp in the center wide open – even on the D800E, improving notably when stopped down. Corners are never perfect because of coma and field curvature. Very contrasty, slightly warm color. Focus ring is smooth, precise and easy to turn – very tactile. Difficult to mount/unmount the lens without turning the aperture ring too, unfortunately – a design consequence inherent to pancake lenses. Aperture ring needs a lock mechanism of some sort.
Voigtlander M 40/1.4 Nokton (Dec 2010, 4/10) – Only tried on the NEX-5; didn’t perform very well at all. Not sharp, full of flare and bloom, and poor contrast. Odd color transmission to top it off. It would likely do better on the Leicas. Not recommended for mirrorless.
Voigtlander M 50/1.1 Super Nokton (Jan 2010, 7.5/10 – let down by bokeh) – The poor man’s Noctilux. Yes, it has the T stop and f stops to match, and it’s sharp at f1.1 if your rangefinder is properly calibrated and you’re able to focus it accurately, but what lets it down is the bokeh and focus transition zone. Bokeh is somewhat harsh and double imaged; there isn’t the ‘nice soft wall of blur’ you’d expect from a lens of this aperture. The transition between in focus and out of focus is surprisingly gentle, in the sense that subjects aren’t ‘cut out’ from the background. The lack of microcontrast doesn’t help, either. It can do the job of a Noctilux, but you have to watch the backgrounds carefully. Build quality is excellent – no play in the focusing ring, which is smooth and precise; the aperture detents in nice easy click stops (unlike some Leica lenses, which can be loose).
Voigtlander LTM 50/1.5 Nokton (Jul 2009, 5/10) – Rated very highly by most rangefinder users; I must have had a dud, because frankly I wasn’t impressed by my copy at all. The very short focusing throw and lack of mechanical precision – it felt like there was some focus backlash – didn’t help things, either. I don’t remember getting very many critically sharp images with this lens.
Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar SL II (Jul 2014, 8.5/10)** – Too bad this one is manual focus only and out of production; an interesting option to pair with say the Zeiss 2/28 and Nikon 45/2.8P for a very flexible yet lightweight kit. Resolving power is very good to excellent wide open, but like all Voigtlanders, contrast and microcontrast improve noticeably when stopped down – in this case to f5.6-8. Sharp across the frame and has a handy trick of focusing very close – about 0.5m – without any adaptors. Lives up to its APO-designation with almost no visible CA of any sort. Bokeh is not bad but doesn’t split your scene into planes like other lenses; it’s more of a gentle/ smooth transition. There are also 125/2.5 and 180/4 APO Lanthars in the same series, but they’re even rarer still.
Voigtlander SL 180/4 APO-Lanthar** (Feb 2014, 8.5/10 depending on body) – A rare lens (estimated under 1,000 made) that has tripled in price since launch, but still can be had around the $1,100 mark. You get a lot for your money: truly apochromatic performance and reach in a very small package that completely negates the excuses of size and weight against reach. Almost impossible to use unless on a tripod because focus throw is quite short close to infinity, the ring is a little stiff, and small errors can make an enormous difference to the result. Lens is sharp but of moderate microcontrast wide open; incredibly good by f8. Watch out for flare though – it doesn’t like being shot into the sun. The optional (and even rarer than the lens) hood is a must. Do yourself a favour and get a 49-52mm step up adaptor to use more conventional-sized filters and lens caps; the screw-in 49mm metal cap is a beautiful thing but completely impractical.
Zeiss Touit 1.8/32 (Feb 2014, 8.5/10) – It might really be made by Fuji in Japan, but it has the character, drawing and microcontrast of a ‘proper’ Zeiss lens. And unusually, autofocus. Sharp from wide open with a touch of CA, it gets really impressive by f4 and holds that til diffraction kicks in. Very cheap if bought used or when the US dealers are having a two-for-one sale with the 12mm, too. Hood is not really necessary – it doubles the size of the lens and the T* coatings are very flare resistant already. Clean bokeh and nice separation.
Zeiss ZF 18/4 Distagon (Jan 2011, NA) – Tested briefly on a D700 as an alternative to the Voigtlander 20/3.5; much nicer microcontrast rendition and better cross-frame sharpness consistency. Would have bought this instead of the Voigtlander if I had the money at the time. Note – takes enormous 82mm filters, despite the lens being physically quite small.
Zeiss ZF 21/2.8 Distagon** (Jun 2012, 9.5/10) – Possibly the ultimate wide angle lens, period. Sharpness is excellent across the entire frame even wide open on the D800E; there’s noticeable vignetting, but it goes away completely by f5.6. More importantly, the lens has a rich, 3D saturation and microcontrast structure that makes fine textures (e.g. landscapes) pop. This is how all lenses should be constructed – focus throw and weighting is utterly perfect, with just enough resistance, plenty of smoothness and no backlash. The only thing I don’t like is the enormous filter size – the front element is much, much smaller than the filter ring; why on earth did they have to use 82mm? It makes the lens very difficult to pack because it’s almost conical.
Zeiss ZF 28/2 Distagon** (May 2012, 9/10) – This is one of my favorite lenses of all time; has the same optical formula as the legendary C/Y ‘Hollywood’ so beloved of filmmakers (hence the nickname). I know I keep going on about Zeiss microcontrast; this has it in spades. I’m convinced it’s all in the coatings. You know the transmission of a lens has to be good when you can’t see the first few elements – that’s a sure sign that there isn’t any light being reflected back out of the lens (or worse still, around inside the lens, causing internal flare). Color transmission is on the warm side, but very rich and saturated throughout the spectrum. It’s worth noting that this is not the best lens for reproduction or architectural work; not only does it distort, it also has highly pronounced field curvature (concave with edges closer towards the camera). It is this field curvature that both gives the lens its unique character – exaggerated subject separation from the background, as the background is effectively more out of focus than if the lens were flat-field – as well as its horrible test charts.
Zeiss ZF 35/1.4 Distagon (Jul 2012, 8/10) – Provides a very cinematic rendering with great bokeh and subject separation; however, isn’t critically sharp even in the central zone until about f2 on the D800/D800E due to trace chromatic aberration. Looks great on the 12MP FX cameras, however. A superbly constructed but massively huge and heavy lens. Was only able to test one sample, so it’s possible that this one may not have been perfect.
Zeiss ZF 35/2 Distagon (Jun 2010, 9.5/10) – Very similar in personality to the 28/2 Distagon, except minus the field curvature; this makes it even sharper. It retains all of the good optical properties, ditches the bad, but in the process loses a bit of character. Difficult to choose between the two lenses. I kept the 28 in the end.
Zeiss ZF 50/1.4 Planar (Jun 2010, 5/10) – Used briefly in the hunt for a cinematic 50mm; didn’t really like the rendering wide open; too much internal flare resulting in low-mid contrast, and slightly flat microcontrast compared to the other Zeiss lenses. Very sharp in the center zone by f2, and edges by f4; however, if you’re going to shoot it at f2 all the time, might as well get the 50/2 Makro-Planar.
Zeiss ZF 50/2 Makro-Planar** (Sep 2012, 9/10) – The fastest short macro lens currently available, but only goes to 1:2 reproduction; 1:1 would have been nice. Working distance is a little short, and there’s some spherochromatism/ longitudinal CA wide open on high contrast subjects. Optically, it delivers nice separation and ‘bite’ at all distances. Has a very long focus throw, with far distances a bit too bunched up. My problem with it is that the white front lettering and silver ring are very obviously reflected in shiny subjects. Downgraded slightly in light of M4/3 performance compared to the Olympus 60/2.8.
Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon** (Feb 2014, 10/10) – This lens not only qualifies for the rarefied pantheon of greats, but forces me to seriously reconsider the evaluations for the other lenses I’ve previously given full scores to as it beats them all. Optically, the only flaw is vignetting a larger apertures. Other than that – it has such a transparent, clean rendering that every single flaw of the camera and photographer is revealed; at any aperture. It translates what you see in the scene, and adds no bias of its own. This is a reference lens in every way – including build and ergonomics; the focus ring is perfectly weighted and has the right throw for precise focusing. The only thing Zeiss needs to do is a) include a decent focusing screen in the box, and b) put a rubber bumper around the end of the hood. I’ve never been a big fan of the normal perspective, but I find myself shooting with the Otus more and more – both because of the results it gives, but also because the results just look somehow natural. It has an extra ‘bite’ – clarity, perhaps – that I’ve not seen elsewhere. And it doesn’t focus breathe. At this point in time, the best lens I have ever used.
Zeiss ZF 85/1.4 Planar (July 2012, 6-9/10 depending on your body) – A very, very cinematic lens. Very sharp wide open in the center, less so in the corners – especially noticeable on the D800E – improves to the point of consistency when stopped down to f4, but why would you want to do that when the bokeh wide open is so superb? Is known for focus shift stopped down – just one more reason to shoot it wide open. I would consider this to be a moderate contrast lens, but with a delicate microcontrast structure that responds well to curves and unsharp masking. Nicely spaced focus throw, too – the longer distances aren’t all bunched together, which makes precise focusing easy. Use this lens on the D800/ D800E more for rendition/ style than resolution.
Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/85 T* Otus APO-Planar** (Feb 2014, 10/10) – The best 85mm lens ever made, period. Shows no longitudinal, lateral CA or coma; resolving power at f1.4 anywhere in the frame exceeds the D810. Incredibly transparent rendering like its 55mm sibling, and great clarity of color. Bokeh is spectacular but does show occasional artefacts of hybrid aspherical elements with bright distant OOF point sources. Some vignetting wide open but easily correctable. Impressive consistency of performance from minimum focusing distance all the way to infinity; when used with extension tubes, matches and betters the dedicated PCE 85/1.8 Macro. Too bad about the size and price though…and those seriously inconvenient 86mm front filters. The rendering is positively addictive, though.
Zeiss ZF 100/2 Makro-Planar** (July 2012, 9.5/10) – Reputed to be one of Zeiss’s highest resolving lenses for F mount; I can believe it. Switched to this from the Nikon 105/2.8 VR in the hopes of lower longitudinal chromatic aberration; sadly, it was not to be. Interestingly, there’s no lateral CA, though. However, the lens doesn’t shorten its focal length when focusing close, which means framing stays the same on focusing. It’s also constant f2 throughout the magnification range, which makes for some spectacular separation. Reaches 1:2 on its own; 1:1 would have been nice. Only downside is that once again like the 50/2 Makro Planar, the further distances on the focusing ring are very close together, which makes precise focusing a little tough. I acquired a second one of these recently to give me something with longer working distance for the D800E – and it’s utterly superb. The lens is capable of outresolving the sensor everywhere in the frame wide open. I may have an exceptional copy, though I doubt it because my previous one was similarly spectacular. Highly recommended.
Zeiss ZF.2 2/135 APO-Sonnar** (Feb 2014, 10/10) – Perhaps the closest thing you can get to the Otus that isn’t an Otus; not surprising as it’s still a Zeiss. It has 99% of the bite and sparkle and everything else the Otus has, but it does exhibit some trace LoCA occasionally with high contrast out of focus objects. It’s a monster of a lens – enormous, heavy and full of glass – and doesn’t quite handle as well – but the results are worth it.
Zeiss ZM 21/2.8 Biogon (Jul 2009, 9.5/10) – The workhorse lens that convinced me 28mm was the wide focal length that worked for me (on an M8). Used as primary lens for the better part of 2009, until I upgraded to the 21/1.4 ASPH. To be honest, I prefer the 3D look and microcontrast of the 21/2.8 to the 21/1.4; can’t put my finger on why, but one produces flat but sharp images, and the other produces ‘separated’ images. Very sharp everywhere, but distort straight lines somewhat. Highly recommended though.
Zeiss ZM 28/2.8 Biogon (May 2012, 8/10) – Although sharp, the lens somehow doesn’t have the optical magic of its 21mm brother; there’s some slight internal flare that reduces crispness wide open. Great by f4 and excellent by f5.6, however. I bought this lens to use as my go-to 28mm on the M9-P, thinking it would replicate the 21 Biogon’s signature, but it has hardly seen any use since the arrival of the 35 ASPH FLE.
Zeiss ZM 50/1.5 C-Sonnar (Jul 2009, 5/10) – This lens has many tradeoffs, and only one redeeming factor. To keep the design compact, near focus is 0.9m instead of 0.7m; that makes a huge difference in practical use. On top of that, it’s known to focus shift; the lens is either optimized for wide open use, or stopped down use – shooting it the opposite way and trusting your rangefinder will result in soft images. On top of all of that, it isn’t that sharp at f1.5 even when calibrated for wide open use. However, if you actually like that classical, slightly hazy look – perhaps for portraits – then this is the lens for you.
Zeiss ZM 50/2 Planar (May 2012, 9/10) – Optically, a much better lens than the 50/1.5 Sonnar; it’s bitingly sharp wide open out to the borders; the edges and extreme corners come into line at f2.8. Neutral bokeh and pleasing (slightly warm) color rendition; has that Zeiss ‘pop’ in the microcontrast. No complaints overall – just one of those transparent lenses that doesn’t get in the way of your picture-taking, or impose a signature of its own.
Apple LED Cinema display 27″ (Oct 2011, 9/10) – An excellent wide-gamut monitor for Mac users; won’t work with most PCs due to display port interface. I wouldn’t buy one, however; for about $300 more you can get a whole iMac which is a computer and the same excellent monitor.
Apple LED Thunderbolt display 27″** (Dec 2012, 9/10 or 3/10, depending on your point of view) – Same panel as the Cinema display, but with Thunderbolt connectivity. NOT back compatible with Mini Display Port devices; you MUST have thunderbolt to even use it as a monitor. A known problem with the screen is flashing/ cutting on and off; my first one had this issue but the replacement (so far) hasn’t. In hindsight, I probably should have bought the Cinema display.
Apple Macbook Air 11” Late 2010 (May 2012, 7/10) – What I use when I’m on the road. I have the 1.4 C2D, 2GB, 128GB SSD configuration. It’s more than fast enough for everything except the most heavy duty video or image editing tasks; in fact, it’s the first computer which doesn’t make me feel like I’m carrying a computer. Also, it looks cool. Much preferred to an iPad because I can actually do work on it. However, I don’t do editing on this machine for one big reason: the screen. It’s both too small and too inaccurate (even after calibration) to do critical color work. Battery life is excellent – I can actually hit 5h with moderate brightness and wifi on; more if I turn it off and dim the monitor.
Apple Macbook Air 11″ Mid 2012** (Dec 2012, 9/10) – I have a custom configuration with the 2.0 i7 quad, 8GB, 256GB SSD. The only thing stopping this computer from getting a full 10/10 is the display: the gamut is crap, as are viewing angles. It’s a shame, because this is probably the ultimate travel machine. It’s got more raw horsepower than the 15″ Pro (below) it replaces – the late 2010 11″ Air Geekbenches at about 1800; the 15″ Pro below 5,600 or so; this Air…7,000. And that doesn’t take into account disk write speeds, which skew things even further in favor of the new Air. The thing boots in under 9 seconds, for crying out loud…needless to say, it has no problem handling a few D800E files. Doesn’t appear to have the same wifi issues as the older 11″ Air after 10.8.2 update.
Apple Macbook Pro 15″ Mid 2010 (May 2010, 9/10) – My primary editing machine. I have the 2.66 i7, 8GB/ 512MB and 500GB/4GB SSD hybrid HDD configuration. I use it with CS5.5 and Snow Leopard; upgrading to Lion would be too painful to patch all of the little add-ons etc that I use. Handles 12MP 16bit raw files just fine; in fact, I can open about 20 in Photoshop before noticing any slow down. Curiously though, I can’t open seven 36MP files at the same speed; there’s definitely some nonlinear effects going on here. Four is about the max before things start to hit traffic. Could well be the way Photoshop is allocating resources, however. Battery life is okay – 3-4 hours for web browsing etc, probably closer to 2 if running processor heavy tasks like Photoshop (which also uses the discrete GPU).
Apple Mac Mini Late 2012** (Dec 2012, 9/10) – Once again, there’s only one thing holding me back from giving this little machine a full 10/10: inconsistent wifi. Under 10.8.2, it won’t find wifi when it wakes from sleep, and upload speeds seem to be very sensitive to device placement. This is a shame, because not only is the computer very cheap, it’s also the most easily upgradable mac other than the full blown Mac Pro. Everything is held in by screws and is easy to remove; mine started life as the standard high-spec 2.3 i7 with a 1TB drive and 4GB RAM; a day later, it became a dual-SSD monster with 16GB RAM. And it absolutely flies – you can run a 2000px 100%-feathered brush in Photoshop on a 50MP file with no lag. With a whole bunch of other stuff open in the background. In terms of raw processor power, this machine Geekbenches at hair under 12,000 – about the same as the previous-generation Mac Pro. Not bad for $799…
Arca-Swiss C1 Cube** (Aug 2013, 9/10) – The ultimate tripod head; precise, geared, beautifully designed and finished. Moves the camera about a central point in three axes. Two pan heads (top and bottom) and a bubble level. Comes with built in QR base, but no plates; the QR clamp itself is sadly badly designed and can release your camera onto the floor if you’re not careful; I’d get a replacement if you were going to buy one. Rigidity and free play are absolutely top notch – it’s stiff and has zero backlash. The other thing that’s stiff is the price; other than that, this thing is simply exquisite, and a joy to use.
Arca-Swiss P0 Monoball** (Aug 2013, 9/10) – A lightweight, upside-down ballhead with incredible gripping power, zero droop, and a neat locking system. One of the lightest serious heads around at under 300g, but capable of holding a fully loaded medium format rig with ease. Also a relative bargain at the price…
Fotodiox AV1000PRO LED panels** (Jul 2012, 7/10) – Enormous 1.5-foot square LED panels with a high CRI and reasonable amount of brightness; runs off wall power with an optional battery pack. Great for food work as the temperature doesn’t affect what you’re shooting. Not as bright as you’d expect, though.
Gitzo GT1542 Carbon 6x Traveller** (Jul 2012, 9/10) – My new travel tripod – it’s so unbelievably light, yet sturdy thanks to the leg locking mechanism. Unlike Gitzos of old, you no longer have to undo the locks one by one – you can undo all of them, extend/ retract, then tighten. Much faster. I think it’ll easily hold more than its rated weight capacity. Legs fold up to reduce overall size. The only downside I can see is that there are only two leg positions – flat, and 30deg. An intermediate position would have been nice. Makes an excellent pairing with the GH1780QR ball head.
Gitzo GH1780QR ball head** (Jul 2012, 8/10) – A compact, low-profile ball head that pairs well with the GT1542 Traveller. Holds a D800E, 85 PCE and focusing rail sturdily with no play; doesn’t quite lock down as decisively as the Manfrotto Hydrostat, but it’s more than good enough. Slightly fiddly quick release locking system with tension adjustment, but in practice works well, and most importantly, prevents camera from reaching the floor in the event of an accidental bump. Has now replaced my Hydrostat for travel, because as good as the Hydrostat is, it weighs more than the GT1542 tripod…
Gitzo GT5562LTS Carbon 6x** Systematic Geant (Jul 2012, 10/10) – My new studio tripod – even though it has six sections, it feels completely rigid because the largest section is about 2″ in diameter. I can even use it as a makeshift stool without too much trouble (sans head and column, of course). Easily the most sturdy, yet compact and portable, support system I’ve ever used. Weighs about 3kg or thereabouts. I imagine it’d be pretty useful for birders, too.
Hasselblad PM-5 45 degree prism finder for V series** (Jan 2013, 8/10) – It’s an ugly blob that makes an elegant camera into an elephant, but sometimes necessary especially for any work that involves pointing the camera downwards. Has a good eyecup if you don’t wear spectacles, but it’s a complete pain if you do. Note that it’s only available black, so the finish doesn’t match the chrome cameras at all. Still, it provides an enormous, high-eyepoint view and makes for very easy focusing; things are also the right way around left-right. I’m worried about getting too used to this finder, as any 35mm SLR/DSLR by comparison is a minuscule tunnel.
Kenko Pro DG extension tubes** (May 2012, 7/10) – A critical part of my watch photography kit. So critical and heavily used that I actually wore out the contacts on my first set after about six years; it wouldn’t communicate the aperture properly to the lens (or AF for that matter) – a new set joined the arsenal earlier this year. Now if only Nikon would make a bellows with electrical contacts and a tripod mount…
Leica Bellows II (Jun 2012, 9/10) – The only way to get more magnification for the Leica M system; it has M mount on one side, and a large threaded Bellows II mount on the other. There is an adaptor – the UOOND – to mount M lenses on the other side. Any focal length works, because all of the designs are symmetric, even the wides. For some inexplicable reason, the UOOND is hideously expensive and quite rare – more so than the Bellows or Visoflex. Beautifully made, it feels like an old microscope instrument or something; the gray hammertone finish is particularly attractive and would go well with a Ginza Edition Hammertone M9-P (if you’re lucky enough to have one). Be careful of the paper bellows though, most examples are 30 years old or more; a misplaced finger will spell the end of the line.
Leica Visoflex III (Jun 2012, 5/10 – clumsy and cumbersome…) – I used one of these successfully with my M9-P and the Bellows II for a watch photography assignment and exhibition. It’s an old attachment designed to provide TTL viewing for the Leica rangefinders; you need to have the version III in order to have enough clearance not to crash into the top plate on the M8/M9. It mounts to the camera by rotating the mount on the Visoflex instead of turning the housing – you just can’t do it because the prism would hit the top plate. Downside is that the prism also blocks the flash hot shoe, which has no easy solution, unfortunately. You’ll probably also need to check the mirror rest position alignment because you can be sure that it isn’t plane with the digital sensor. Fortunately, that’s easy to adjust with a small eccentric screw underneath the mirror. The small knob at the base of the release mechanism allows for mirror lockup, snap release or gradual release. Note that if you don’t hold the button down for gradual release, you may land up with a black line at the bottom of your frame. Even though the Visoflex has an M mount, it acts as an extension tube, so you won’t get infinity focus with regular M lenses. There were Viso-mount lenses made, but these are fairly rare. The optics are said to be excellent, though, and oddly they’re not that expensive, either.
Leica UOOND/ 16596 Bellows to M adaptor (Jun 2012, NA – it’s an adaptor ring, what were you expecting…) – It’s just a screw in adaptor ring, but is absolutely critical if you want to put M mount lenses on the other end of the Bellows II. Not all of them work well close up; the 90/4 Macro-Elmarit is the best of the modern lot because it’s also the only one optimized for near focus distances. I suspect the 50/2 AA wouldn’t be too bad, either.
Manfrotto 345 Mini Tripod Set** (July 2012, 8/10) – This amazing little tripod can hold large and small loads alike; it’s also great for holding flashes. Folds down to a compact pouch that reminds me a little of one of those leather tool rolls. The only mini-pod that I’d put a proper camera on. (The tripod is what’s supporting that D2H and 500/4 in the photo above).
Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head** (Nov 2012, 8/10) – A geared head at a decent price. Only supports 5kg, but that’s enough for most rigs that don’t involve telephoto or large format cameras. Has a neat quickset knob for each axis that allows fast coarse positioning, and knobs for fine positioning. There is some fine play/ backlash in the gearing, though, so it’s not completely motion-free when locked down. All the gearboxes are sealed and concealed, which means that it’s hostile-environment friendly and you probably don’t need to worry about dust getting in – unlike say the Arca-Swiss Cube. It’s also cheap and readily available, which is another bonus. Large RC4 plate means a good contact area with the camera and no slip; needless to say, the whole assembly doesn’t droop. The camera doesn’t rotate about one central point though, which means that for really critical positioning, the head should be combined with a focusing rail – possibly even in two axes. Has largely replaced my 468MGRC0 Hydrostat. Note: needs a spacer ring to be used on tripods without a column and still allow full depression – the top deck of my Gitzo 5562 is much larger in diameter than the base of the head.
Manfrotto 444 Carbon One tripod* (July 2012, 6/10) – one of Manfrotto’s first carbon fiber numbers; it’s strong, but not particularly light. Extends to just below head height with the column down. Capable of holding a 400/2.8 without breaking a sweat. I pair it with the 468 RC0 Hydrostat head. One complaint – the column doesn’t lock down very well; the friction clamp doesn’t have enough friction to stop the column from rotating if you apply torque to the camera, but have locked down the head. Not a big issue for most uses, but can get annoying at times.
Manfrotto 468 MG RC0 Hydrostat ball head** (July 2012, 9/10) – I firmly believe the Hydrostats are probably the best ballheads currently made. They use a vacuum system to lock down the ball, which is Teflon coated aluminum (I think; it could also be ceramic). The body of the head itself is cast magnesium. This is the only head I’ve used which doesn’t droop when you lock it down – it’s binary; either the head is locked or it isn’t. This is especially important for high magnification macro work as predictable fine positioning is critical. Has a separate pan lock and tension adjustment for the main ball. Not at all lightweight (about a kilo, I think) – but is rated to 16kg; I know it can hold far more than that as I’ve used it and the tripod as a stool on occasion (with another rail on the head to make it less pointy, of course). Perfect partner for my Gitzo 5-series Systematic studio tripod.
Manfrotto 1052 BAC light stand** (May 2012, 7/10) – I use these to hold my flashes and LED light panels. Lightweight and made of aluminum, but able to reach up to 7ft whilst carrying moderate (probably not over 2kg or a couple of speedlights) loads. Tubes fit together very precisely, and have some sort of gasket that prevents the loaded section from falling uncontrolled into the base, but instead uses the air trapped inside the bottom tube as a pneumatic cushion. Neat. Also folds flat to stack together multiple stands with ease.
Manfrotto 5001B compact light stand** (Jun 2012, 5/10) – They’re light and compact (about 45cm long when folded) but not capable of supporting much more than a flash – good for travel. The leg extension mechanism isn’t as smooth as the 1052s because they have to fold out through 90deg rather than just extending downwards. A bit fiddly to set up and can’t take that much weight. Still, to the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any alternatives.
Manfrotto Super Clamp** (Jun 2012, 7/10) – Does what its says on the box – it’s a standard lighting mount with a clamp on one end, and a ballhead with cold shoe on the other. Useful for holding flashes in position in awkward places, or for holding things on stands which don’t have standard mounts.
Michael Tapes Design Whibal cards** (Jun 2012, 9/10) – A little piece of gray plastic that happens to be perfectly gray, and invaluable for ensuring perfect color (or as near as you can get to it given current sensor technology). Use either with your lights to set a manual WB, or add a frame with the card in it to eyedropper and sync WB off afterwards in post. Highly recommended.
Michael Tapes Design LensAlign** (Jun 2012, 9/10) – A graduated tool to calibrate focus for lenses and AF systems – shows you exactly how much front or back focus you have, and how to make adjustments accordingly. Has come in very, very useful now that the D800/ D800E is far more demanding on lenses and its focusing system…
Nikon DK17M** (May 2012, 9/10) – 1.2x magnifier for threaded Nikon professional camera eyepieces; will fit the D700, D800, D2 series, D3 series and D4 series cameras. Makes precise framing and focusing a lot easier, but note that it reduces eyepoint, so if you wear glasses, you may no longer be able to see the corners of the frame easily anymore. Works well with the DK-2 eyecup (which is rare, out of production, and has been superseded by the less snug fitting DK19).
Nikon DK21M (2012, 7/10) – 1.17x magnifier for the cameras that use a slide-in eyepiece. Reduces eyepoint a lot – not recommended if you wear glasses. Useful if you don’t, however. Not that secure and sticks out quite a bit, so there’s a risk of it falling off – I’ve lost more than one in my time.
Nikon MD-4** (Dec 2012, NA) – Battery pack and motor drive for the Nikon F3 series. Adds considerable bulk and size to the camera, swallowing 8 AAs and allowing up to 6fps. Power rewind is available on the two interlock switches on the back, with a counter showing how far back your film has been rewound – I suppose this would theoretically allow you to leave the leader out, but I haven’t figured out how. Includes a neat storage space for the bottom plug cover from the F3, and supplies power to the camera’s meter and shutter too – meaning you can use AAs if you can’t find any LR44s in a pinch. Unlike modern grips, it doesn’t have a vertical release. I doubt I’d buy one separately, but mine came free with the camera…
Nikon ME-1** (May 2012, 5/10) – Stereo shotgun microphone for video-capable Nikon DSLRs. Mounts to the hotshoe and is powered via the microphone jack. Sound quality is definitely better than the built in mic, but nothing to write home about. There’s a wind cut switch, rubber isolation mount for the mic portion, and a small foam dead cat. If sound is absolutely critical you’re probably better off using collar mics or a dedicated audio recorder.
Nikon SB-R200 and R1C1 kit (2008, 5/10) – Not recommended. Expensive, cumbersome, and uses disposable CR2s (!) at an alarming rate. Yes, you could mount eight of the SB-R200s together to make a ringflash, but why would you? It’s not only not that powerful, but also incredibly heavy and will put a dangerous strain on both the filter ring and lens mount.
Nikon SB400 (2006, 6/10) – Nikon’s smallest flash; auto-only. It bounces up (if in landscape position) or to the side (in portrait position), and that’s about it. Handy for fill or if you’re not trying to do anything crazy with your flash. Uses 2 AA batteries and small enough that you won’t notice you’re carrying it. To be honest, somewhat redundant for cameras with a built in-flash unless you need to bounce.
Nikon SB600 (2008, 6/10) – Not a bad secondary flash; useful as a CLS slave but has no commander functions. Not that powerful, either.
Nikon SB700** (May 2012, 9/10) – Best value flash for Nikon users at the moment; serves as a good primary, and works well as a CLS commander. Physical switches for modes make it faster to use than digging through the softkeys and menus of the SB900. Has one annoying trait; the lock button on the power/ mode switch is difficult to press and rotate simultaneously – similar design to the SB900, but somehow it doesn’t have this problem. I’d rather have two of these than one SB910; functionality is almost the same and the price isn’t that different, either. Note that TTL only (not TTL BL) mode is gone from this flash – I don’t know why. Has one of the most stupidly designed cases ever – looks like a washbag – Unlike the SB900’s case, it isn’t a holster you can put on your belt; when you open it up, the contents all fall out because it isn’t rigid and the opening is huge. Good for storage but nothing else.
Nikon SB800 (2008, 7/10) – A lot of people I know swear by these because they don’t overheat as fast as the SB900s; my experience is the opposite. I’ve had two of these die completely – one blown flashbulb, the other capacitor problems – and I notice their power output drops steadily with heavy repeated use over time. Able to serve as CLS commander and slave, and take a fifth AA battery for faster cycling time.
Nikon SB900** (May 2012, 9/10) – I’m slowly acquiring a small collection of these as people dump them in favor of the SB910s; I’ve never had overheating problems despite fast, hard use in the studio. Recycle time is a lot faster than the SB800 even with the extra battery pack. Unfortunately it’s physically larger than the SB800, which makes it a bit challenging to pack; you get a bit more power and a much larger zoom head range, which means you can do interesting things like spotlight effects with the head set at 200mm (and your lens presumably much wider). Allows you to control the beam pattern (not that it seems to make a lot of difference) and communicates color temperature to the camera via the hotshoe pins. Also uses some sort of optical filter to recognize what color gel or accessory you have clipped over the head to alter output accordingly.
Nikon SB910 (May 2012, NA) – Gains backlit buttons and supposedly improved thermal cutout endurance properties over the SB900; also, a price hike. Frankly, I’m not convinced.
Nikon SG31-IR** (May 2012, 9/10) – Most of you probably have never heard of this little gadget, let alone seen one; it’s a little IR-only transmission panel that mounts on the hotshoe and flips down in front of the built-in flash to prevent seeing the built-in flash in the exposure if you’re using CLS commander mode. A very specific tool, but for people like me who use the built-in for exactly that, it’s a godsend and beats having to put your hand in front of the flash all the time.
Nikon SD8 (2007, 8/10) – High voltage fast-cycle pack for the SB800; takes 6 AA batteries and reduces cycle time considerably. Good if you’re doing event work.
Nikon SD9 (May 2012, NA) – Same as the SD8, but for the SB900. The flash on its own cycles so fast already that I don’t know why you’d need this. Perhaps if you want to cook things using light output alone.
Novoflex Castel-Q** (Feb 2014, 9/10) – I suppose these are the Rolls-Royce of macro rails; they are machined from two solid chunks of aluminium and have Arca-compatible clamps built in on the moving top portion, with an Arca rail on the bottom; you can attach two for X-Y positioning. No backlash at all in the gears, and everything locks down very smoothly. Note: the gear tracks are a hard plastic (I suspect that works more smoothly with the brass worm gear and negates thermal expansion issues), and care should be taken as the plastic seems soft-ish.
Olympus FL-600R (Sep 2012, 7/10) – A very compact speedlight with good functionality – in addition to the regular exposure modes, it also serves as both wireless commander and wireless slave, with full TTL metering and control directly from the camera. Unlike the Nikons, the camera can control three groups with its built-in/ mini-flash. Fast recycling time, neat LED in the front (presumably for video, but much better to use as a modelling light providing the head is pointed in the same direction as the body). Let down massively by a very unintuitive UI and insufficient buttons.
Optech foam neckstrap** (July 2012, 9/10) – I don’t know the exact model, but it’s the one with rubber dots on one side, thick foam rubber core, elastic suspension stitched into the top, and a system of buckles to let you remove it if you put the camera on a tripod or shoot in the studio. I used to use the C-shaped model, but now have a couple of the NPS-special versions instead. A must for heavy cameras.
Really Right Stuff TVC-33 (Feb 2014, 8/10) – A stout tree of a tripod. Goes to moderate height (just reaches my eye height at about 165cm with camera and head) but doesn’t collapse enough to fit into a normal check-in suitcase. Very, very sturdy though.
Really Right Stuff TVC-24L** (Feb 2014, 9.5/10) – My current tripod of choice – small and light enough to be packed into a check-in suitcase, but rigid enough to take medium and large format gear without complaint. Rock solid even with all sections extended; if I pull out the first two sections, my camera’s finder is precisely at eye height with one section to spare in case the lower leg has to go downhill or I need to get taller. Surprisingly light, and beautifully made. Everything feels precise, well-damped and has zero play. Not cheap but you get what you pay for, I suppose. I use mine in conjunction with a Sunwayfoto 66mm levelling base, Arca-Swiss Cube, and Novoflex Castel-Q (or two, depends if I’m doing panos or macros).
Ricoh GW-3 wide converter** (Aug 2013, 8/10) – Takes your 28mm GR down to 21mm equivalent; a surprisingly heavy multi-element converter that also requires the GH-3 hood adaptor to mount. Comes with a useless rubber hood and cap; ditch both of those and just use a Nikon centre-pinch cap. The optics are excellent: little degradation or CA is introduced; critically sharp corners happen from f4. There’s a bit of distortion added, though – I suspect this was unavoidable. Still, at least it maintains the lens’ excellent base characteristics and f2.8 aperture. Also works on the Sigma DP Merrills, I’m told.
Sandisk Extreme Pro SDHC UHS** (May 2012, 9/10) – Fast and reliable, I use these in all of my SD-based cameras except the M9; this card is on the watchlist and is apparently ‘too fast’ for the camera.
Sandisk Extreme Pro CF UDMA** (May 2012, 9/10) – I use these in my D700.
Sanyo Eneloop AA** (May 2012, 9/10) – The best rechargeable batteries ever; has the best of both worlds of lithium and NiMH – it’s rechargeable, can support high discharge rates, but at the same time doesn’t self-discharge and has no memory effect. Perfect for flashguns, especially if you don’t use them that often. I’ll get around 700-800 shots on an SB900 per fully charged set of four.
Transcend Class 10 SDHC** (May 2012, 8/10) – Currently using this in my M9-P, to avoid card corruption issues – it seems that the fast Sandisk cards still aren’t fully reliable.
Voigtlander 28mm Brightline viewfinder (Apr 2013, 9/10) – Everything you want in a viewfinder – good eye relief, a bright frame line and solid metal construction. Could use a chunkier rubber eyepiece.
Voigtlander VC-Meter II** (Feb 2013, 9/10) – A tiny, hotshoe-mounted (or slip in a pocket and forget about it) meter that uses two rotating dials and a couple of indicator LEDs to display exposure +/- two stops. Very handy for shooters of mirrorless cameras, or to play ‘guess the exposure’ as a game to train your eyeball-meter. Tiny and very well made – highly recommended and a must for any manual film shooter.
Wacom Intuos 3 M – Proper illustraion/ retouching tablet with customizable softkeys and a great feel; surface seems to be a lot more durable than the Intuos 4, which marks easily.
Wacom Intuos 4 M** (May 2012, 8/10) – Upgraded to this in early 2010; I was seduced by the OLED shortcut display and the promise of more sensitivity levels. The former has turned out to be pretty useless because of muscle memory, and the latter is true, but it’s more about ease of control than actual additional pressure levels. I feel that the build quality on this version isn’t quite as good as the previous one – the button feel is not as positive, and the actual surface itself is very easily marked by the pen tip. To make things worse, the pen tips seem to wear faster on this surface; I used perhaps two in the four years I had the Intuos 3, but in two years with the 4, I’ve already gone through six. And no, I don’t think I’m doing any more retouching than before – but all the same, the active area of my tablet is mirror-reflective in places. In fact, you can probably figure out the layout of my Photoshop palettes by looking at the tablet surface alone. Still, highly recommended – an invaluable tool for any photographer that has to do serious retouching.
Wacom Cintiq13 HD (May 2013, 8/10) – A tablet the size and thickness of the Intuos 4 M, but with a 13″ full HD display built in. Very useful as an editing device on the go; reasonable screen gamut and excellent resolution for the size. Tablet can be used as a regular tablet for a dual/ large monitor setup, with the tablet’s LCD acting as a secondary display. Display surface is a bit rough-textured, which makes resolution a little fuzzy. Gets quite warm though after prolonged use; also reliant on a hydra-like proprietary cable with many plugs. Lose or break that – it does seem a bit fragile – and it’s game over. Note: requires independent power source.
Western Digital EX4 NAS (Jul 2014, 2/10 NOT RECOMMENDED)** – Seems like a good idea, but unreliable and very slow. The RAID array rebuilt itself twice during the first week, taking two days each time. Takes forever to transfer data, and connections don’t seem that reliable when the computer comes out of standby. Long startup and shutdown times Gigabit ethernet connection only. You’re better off getting an enclosure with firewire or thunderbolt connectors if you plan to use it as a single-computer array.
X-Rite Color Checker Passport** (Feb 2014, 9/10) – An indispensable piece of plastic with color-accurate swatches. Used to calibrate color (either to set camera defaults) or under strange lights to ensure that subjects are accurately represented. Heavily used for product photography and for nature; greens are notoriously difficult to get right for some reason.
Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 2.5x** (Feb 2014, 9/10) – The most accurate way to focus a demanding manual lens – like the Otuses, for instance – on a camera that has an optical finder but live view. Ability to brace it against your face is a bonus, and good for both stills and video. Effectively turns your LCD into a giant EVF; most are high resolution enough that you can actually hit critical focus in all areas of the frame without having to magnify; expands the usability envelope for manual focus lenses enormously. Certainly a much higher percentage of the time than with the optical finder, at any rate. Very solidly built and with an anti-fog eyepiece, but makes the camera really large and unwieldy.
Billingham Hadley Pro (July 2012, 9/10) – My favorite day bag – it’s reasonably roomy, very well made, and most importantly, does not look like a camera bag. Has enough pockets to organize things, but not so many that they can get lost; unlike the other Hadley models, it has a handle – very important because sometimes you don’t want to use the shoulder sling in case it ruins your jacket. Made of waterproof canvas with a plastic liner, saddle tanned leather trim, and put together by hand in England in what is presumably a traditional manner. Lovely. I had a problem with my first one where one of the straps holding the buckle on at the front broke off, but that was replaced by Billingham under warranty; their customer service is excellent.. The inner padded insert is detachable too, which is very handy if you just want to use it as a satchel; you’ll be surprised how much gear it can hold if you just put things in pouches and wraps. Even with the insert in place, there’s enough room down the back to slip in an 11″ Macbook Air without you noticing it’s there, or a 13″ with a bit of a squeeze. My only gripe is that the rear document pocket isn’t that useful; you can’t easily get an A4 page in there. Random thought – what is it with Leica owners and Billinghams? The Hadley Pro seems to be the model of choice.
Billingham Hadley Small** (Feb 2015, 8/10) – Beautifully made, as with all Billinghams. Also, as with all Billinghams, you’ll get less stuff in it than you think because of the way the bag’s internal padding is arranged. Fortunately, said padding is removable and you can get a lot of stuff in if you just use it with padded wraps or pouches.
Billingham 307** (Feb 2015, 9/10) – An alternative to the Hadley Pro if you’re seeing too many around your usual haunts. A bit larger, a bit stealthier, and has a proper laptop pocket. Good for getting from A to B but probably a bit too big to carry on an outing unless you need to stuff your 4×5 in it.
Billingham 555 (Feb 2013, 9/10) – The mother of all photo bags – this thing is enormous, and fully-loaded, difficult to carry. I didn’t buy it as a photo bag; I bought it because it’s about the same size as your maximum allowable carry-on luggage for most airlines, and it serves as an excellent weekend or short trip bag. You can also use it to carry cameras, of course.
Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home v1 (2006, 5/10) – A great looking bag, but impractical to use – the velcro was noisy as hell when you opened it, the top didn’t fully close – it just has a couple of flaps that tuck over the contents; and worst of all, the central buckle was just that – central. Pick it up by the handle and the edges of the flap would open, and the bag begin to gape. You really have to use the sling with this one. Looks bigger than the internal capacity actually is, and a difficult bag to live out of in general.
Kata DL 272 Owl (Jul 2014, 9/10)** – A black hole of a bag that can be loaded beyond the point of comfortable lifting, but doesn’t appear that big. It has a pocket for everything, which is easily accessible. Intelligently designed access and zippers for working out of, sling use, or daypack use with upper/lower compartments and a completely removable camera portion. Will also accommodate a 17″ laptop. Includes tripod holder straps, rain cover, and even a lens beanbag. I can comfortably fit my entire Pentax 645 kit and laptop/ chargers/ ancillaries in there with room for a D800E and three more lenses.
Kata LPS-217 DL** (Nov 2012, 9/10) – a very low profile, nondescript backpack with comfortable padding, straps and the ability to carry a surprising amount of gear – a 15″ laptop, various stuff in the top compartment, and a bottom load-through compartment that would take two D800s with a lens each. Has a zip-through floor in the top compartment for loading of longer lenses. Front organizer pocket for small objects.
Kata Prism U (Oct 2011, 8/10) – A deceptively capacious bag with clever internal compartments; you can divide up top and bottom sections, or make them into one big section. Has a rear compartment that’ll fit a 13″ Macbook Air. I’ve carried a D3, 14-24, 24-70, 70-300VR, 50/1.4, laptop, chargers, spare hard drives etc all in this bag. Made of wetsuit material. Unclear how waterproof it is, however.
Lowepro Compudaypack Polar Bear edition (July 2012, 6/10) – I bought this because of the damn polar bear. It’s actually not a very good bag for several reasons – externally, it’s large; it’ll swallow a 15″ laptop and tablet in a rear compartment and not expand at all. There’s an upper compartment for odds and ends – this only has one zipper, which goes all the way round and makes it far too easy for stuff to fall out. The bottom camera compartment is an odd size – it’s not quite deep or tall enough to take the width of a D700/D800 body, which means you have to put it in without a lens or stuff things a bit; the volume is there but the space is tough to use. I suppose I could put my lenses in the bottom and the camera up top in a wrap instead. It also doesn’t really like to stand up straight, with an odd tendency to fall over backwards. Maybe I just got a dud.
Lowepro Dryzone 200 AW (2006, 7/10) – I wanted something waterproof to ski with – and I got it. This bag has two sets of zips, the exterior one is a massive TIZIP and creates a full waterproof (and presumably submersible) seal. There’s an external mesh pocket inside and outside the outer cover, but I wouldn’t put anything in there because it’d obviously get wet. The one huge problem with this bag is that it’s, well, huge; especially given its limited capacity. I put this down to far too many unnecessary layers (outer ballistic nylon shell, waterproof plastic (?) layer, inner nylon shell, an inch (I kid you not) of padding, lining. You could probably lose about two inches from the thickness of the bag and retain the same internal capacity with some clever design. Does the job, though.
Lowepro Micro Trekker 200 AW (2006, 7/10) – A small bag with limited capacity, suitable for up to a D700 size camera and a couple of lenses. Does the job, but the padding is a bit on the thin and soft side; I also find the harness to be uncomfortable for longer periods of time as it isn’t well padded.
Lowepro Rolling Computrekker Plus AW (2006, 4/10) – An enormous rolling bag with a lot of wasted/ unusable space, that was also unable to stand up on its own thanks to front stud stands that were mounted on the soft portion of the bag. About two inches of wasted depth at the rear due to the removable/ stowable backpack harnesses; odd internal divisions thanks to the single rail trolley handle (and the associated inability to put anything on top of the bag); finally, a laptop compartment that wasn’t anywhere near padded enough and required a separate sleeve to protect your computer. Would accommodate a 500/4, but that was about its only redeeming feature. Fail.
Lowepro Slingshot 200AW (July 2012, 8/10) – Another one of those deceptive bags – looks small, but capable of packing in a huge amount of gear (two D700s, 70-200/2.8, 24-70/2.8, a large fast prime, some accessories) if you configure the internal compartments well. Not so comfortable with large loads because of its single shoulder strap. Much easier to work out of than a backpack though.
Lowepro Stealth Reporter 100AW v1 (2005, 7/10) – Bearing a curious resemblance to a loaf of bread, this bag would hold a pro DSLR body and a couple of lenses with ease. Not very big externally. Had a useless top zip aperture (too small) but otherwise kept close with a lid flap and buckles. Removing the bottom stiff padding a must, otherwise the bag is both bulky and oddly shaped.
Lowepro Stealth Reporter 400AW v1 (2007, 8/10) – Just nice for a 13-15″ laptop, if they provided sleeves! I jury rigged a divider with some spares from another bag. Fits a D700-size body comfortably plus lenses and laptop; upgraded fat shoulder pad highly recommended. I actually bought this after the 500AW – that was just too big. Top handle nearly useless, though. Ditto the bottom padding – ditch it.
Lowepro Stealth Reporter 500AW v1 (2006, 7/10) – It’s possible to load this bag up to the point that you can no longer carry it; I did so for a while and found the cast metal of the shoulder strap hook attachments slowly wearing down and deforming; I took this as a cue to both carry less gear, and get a smaller bag. You could probably fit a 17″ laptop in here, if only the internal compartment had the right dividers. Ditto the bottom padding – ditch it.
Manfrotto MBAG120PN** (July 2012, 9/10) – An enormous 1.2m long padded bag – much like a golf bag – I use it for my lighting stands, assorted gear and odds and ends. Does the job; inexplicably expensive, however. Maybe I should just have gotten a golf bag in the first place.
Manfrotto MBAG80PN** (July 2012, 8/10) – 80cm long version of the above; home to my Gitzo 5-series systematic tripod. Oddly small internal volume despite the size – perhaps I should have bought the version without the padding. Hard to pack into a suitcase (an important criteria when traveling on assignment). Zips aren’t very smooth, unlike most Lowepro bags.
Think Tank Airport International v1 (July 2012, 9/10) – My staple assignment bag; it’s carry on-legal, fits one metric s***load of gear – bought to carry my 500/4 and 300/2.8 when I was still birding – and now allows for two bodies, three flashes, a huge assortment of lenses and accessories, and a laptop in a front elastic compartment (but requires a sleeve for protection). Two issues – the front document compartment is not useful because it doesn’t stretch, and as a result you can’t get your hands into it. New version fixes this. Also, the zips seem to be a little short, so I feel like I’m stretching the zipper even when the bag is empty. Provided with a very generous assortment of padding, and superb build quality (like all of Think Tank’s gear) – have you ever seen a roller bag with alloy wheels?
Think Tank Airport Navigator** (Feb 2015, 9/10) – A rolling bag you can actually work out of because it has a zippered top access in addition to front access. Has internal pouches for laptop and tablet. Because the extending handle is on the outside, the internal volume is larger than it looks – usable space is similar to the Airport International despite it looking quite a bit smaller. Unfortunately, it’s also thicker, so it may not fit under some seats or in some overhead lockers. It also doesn’t seem to be quite as sturdily built (thinner materials) as the Airport International. Note: you will need a cable type lock as there is no longer a TSA combination lock built in.
Think Tank Chimp Cage** (July 2012, 9/10) – A little pouch that either goes on a belt or one of those accessory belts; has a couple of compartments, minimal padding, but the ability to swallow an M9 and three lenses, or a large DSLR lens and a spare CSC/ large compact. Handy front pocket and internal pocket for passport, accessories, spare batteries, lens cloth, pen, phone, etc. In my newfound shooting minimalism, this is what I usually use when traveling in warm weather (in cold weather, I use a shooting jacket).
Think Tank Urban Disguise 60 v1 (July 2012, 9/10) – The spiritual replacement for my Lowepro Stealth Reporter; has a dedicated laptop compartment, doesn’t look huge, has proper handles not attached to the lid, and plenty of space. Similarly can be loaded to the point of non-carryability; it’s between the Stealth 400 and 500 in size. Comes with an excellent shoulder strap as standard. I think this bag actually has too many pockets – external flap pocket, hidden sub pocket inside that, internal pockets under flap, internal pockets inside main compartment, rear pocket outside (with bottom zip to use as trolley attachment). It’s actually possible to lose things inside this bag – you can just about feel them through the padding, but you can’t actually locate and extract them. Fewer pockets would make it thinner, too.
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