Two of the most interesting cameras in recent memory – the 645Z and RX100III, at completely opposite ends of the imaging spectrum but both pushing image quality – are arriving this week and I have a fundamental problem: a lack of light. Kuala Lumpur is blanketed in a horrible 100+API haze again that’s eating light and turning the sky into a giant drybox; right after two weeks of fantastic crystal-clear weather during which we had stars every night. I’ve made the most of the windows of opportunity, but in an ideal world I’d have liked to push the dynamic range of the thing a bit more.
This will be the first in my new review format for ‘light’ reviews – pieces of equipment that perhaps don’t necessarily need a full blown magnum opus, but benefit from some context in deployment and typical usage. A short piece on the D4 will follow next.
One of the few lenses in the Canon system I’ve long been jealous of is their 70-200/4 IS (in addition to the 17TSE). Until not so long ago, Nikon users have been missing a light/ compact high quality telephoto option. Sure, there’s been the 70-300/4.5-5.6 VR, but that was only a decent performer up to 200mm; anything else was emergency territory. And it simply wasn’t that good on the D800E, nor a pro build. Finally, we have the AF-S 70-200mm f4 G VR ED IF (what a mouthful). I’m going to address two questions in this review: firstly, is it any good, and secondly, f2.8* or f4? I suspect the latter question is going to be of interest to many still sitting on the fence.
*It’s important to note there are two versions of the 70-200/2.8 G VR. I’ll go into the differences in more detail later.
Caveat: this review was produced with a final production beta camera and lenses; this means that whilst we’re probably 99% of the way there, there will almost certainly be some small changes before the camera finally ships. All sample images were shot in DNG and converted via ACR, with the 18-56 and 23mm native T-mount lenses.
Let me say up front that whilst I have been very clear that innovation has been somewhat lacking in the camera industry across the board of late, there have been a few standouts that do so precisely because they push various aspects of the game – be it image quality or more rarely, ergonomics. I’ve long had the feeling that Apple’s latest camera implementations – touch once to lock exposure and focus, again to shoot – have really distilled the essence of the camera down to its bare minimum. It uses technology not to pad out a spec sheet, but to free the photographer to concentrate solely on composition. Shame then, that none of the more capable cameras have really gotten this implementation right – until now. I believe the Leica T is the first generation of a paradigm shift in the way we control and interact with our cameras.
Image from Pentax UK.
A couple of days ago, Pentax threw down the gauntlet to the other medium format digital camera makers in the form of the 645Z. It uses the same ~50MP 44x33mm CMOS as the Hasselblad H5D-50C and Phase One IQ250, but with one critical difference: unlike the Hasselblad and Phase One, it’s feasibly within the reach of a whole load more people. And it isn’t just the shocking price – $8,500 plays $29,000 (Hasselblad) or $37,000 (Phase) – it’s the UI and operating gestalt, too. I think what we’ve just seen is an early game changer.
There are quite a number of medium format digital cameras available today; the vast majority are designed to handle like oversize DSLRs, and in some cases, there’s very little difference size- and control-wise between these cameras – take the Leica S, for instance. This makes them both familiar and easy to use, but also somewhat liable to catch out the unweary. My digital field work with medium format is done with a Hasselblad CFV-39, mounted on a 501CM body. The method of operation constantly reminds you that this is most certainly not another DSLR; not least because you have to wind the camera after every shot to recock the shutter and lower the mirror! The intention of this article is to look at the practicalities – or impracticalities – of using medium format digital in the field or while travelling as a DSLR replacement, and more importantly, in a way that lets you actually see enough of a difference to justify it in the first place.
It’s been nearly two years since the D800E was released. In the meantime we’ve dealt with left focusing issues, comparisons with much more expensive cameras (here, and here), the fact that most of the Nikon lens stable doesn’t really match up to the capabilities of the sensor, focusing issues with MF glass – now that we have lenses like the Otus and 2/135 APO, and its use as a scanning device for film – amongst other things. It’s become my go-to camera when an image needs making, under any circumstances, and with any given set of requirements. Yet it’s honestly taken me two years to warm up to it. Here’s why.
Today’s review is of a pair of lenses that you don’t see very often, nor do you read/ hear much about – the Schneider PC-TS 2.8/50 Super-Angulon and PC-TS 4.5/90 Makro-Symmar. There’s a third lens, a 28mm, which has been announced but as of March 2014 is not available. Given that there aren’t too many perspective control options for 35mm DSLRs, and one is always on the lookout for optics that better match the resolving power of cameras like the D800E, it made sense for me to try these two…
If ever there was a convincing argument for Micro Four Thirds, this camera and the Olympus E-M1 would form the vanguard. One lets you shoot under incredibly demanding conditions and extends the shooting envelope significantly over the competition; the other is so darn small that it puts most compact cameras to shame. In fact, the body is no larger than it needs to be to accommodate a 3″ touch-sensitive LCD, and a tiny bit of real estate to accommodate a few buttons and a vestigial thumb grip. To put things into perspective: the body is the same size as the ultra-compact Canon Ixus I used to have; the one so compact that it doesn’t even have a d-pad. Size does of course carry some compromises. But I admit that I was curious to find out just what they were; there are times when I need a bit more flexibility than the fixed 28mm of the excellent Ricoh GR, and this seemed like just the ticket…
2003 was an exciting year for digital cameras. I remember it as being the turning point just before the DSLR became accessible to the masses; professional image quality was now theoretically within reach of everybody – well, assuming you had the knowledge to use it. If not, you could theoretically keep shooting until you did; and that’s just what I did. It’s also where my personal photographic journey began in earnest. APS-C dominated as the best compromise of sensor size and cost; the D1X and 1DS were king. On the high-speed, responsive, general purpose front were the Nikon D2H, Canon 1D and Olympus E-1 – though the latter raised a lot of eyebrows with its smaller sensor. In mid 2004, I remember putting heavy consideration into both the E-1 and D2H as a replacement for my broken D70; I remember liking the way the E-1 felt and shot, and especially the smoothness of the mirror, but I didn’t like the limited variety and cost of lenses, not to mention the relatively slow 3fps and limited AF system compared to the blazing-fast 8fps D2H and CAM2000 – on top of which, you had a huge variety of lenses – a lot of which were cheap and excellent. I went Nikon again, but have always had a seed of curiosity towards the E-1. It’s been ten years now. Olympus Malaysia managed to find one in a cupboard somewhere, and kindly lent it to me…
Sony are known for pushing the technological envelope; the first NEX-5 showed us just how small an APS-C camera could be – with decent frame rates and AF speeds, no less. However, the rules of optics are not so easily breakable: lenses still have to be a certain size to cover a certain image circle at a given aperture and focal length. The NEX kit lenses were no smaller than APS-C DSLR lenses – because that’s pretty much what they were. Unfortunately, Sony are also known for serious attention deficit disorder when it comes to products and systems; recently one of their executives (Kimio Maki, GM of Sony’s Digital Imaging Business Group) was quoted as saying he wanted to do something new every six months. A good example is the RX1, superseded by the RX1R a year later, and effectively killed by the A7 and A7R now; new RX1Rs that sold for approx. US$3,300 in Japan plummeted to just US$1,300 or thereabouts in used value the day after the A7 twins were released. I don’t know whether that represents a relentless commitment to innovation at all costs, or whether it’s just sticking it to your customers. Nevertheless, the like the NEX-5 (which I owned, didn’t mind the limited controls, but found pretty good except for tonal palette) – the A7R pushes things a bit further; far enough to be in interesting territory. We now have full frame – and the best full frame sensor at that – in an E-M1-sized body. Surely there has to be a catch somewhere?
Images in this review were shot with the A7R and Zeiss 55/1.8 FE. An extended set on flickr with more samples is here.