Photoessay: Mono street photography from Singapore

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Shadows

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t shoot that much street photography by either time or output; it just appears that way because a lot of the work I do can’t be published for some time (or at all) due to client embargoes; and by the time I can make it public, I’ve honestly just forgotten or realized that the shoot was so rushed that I didn’t get a chance to shoot any ‘making of’ b-roll. Hence the large quantity of street photography. By a similar token, I don’t believe in a conventional definition of street photography; I think of it as something on the documentary spectrum but towards the end where you don’t have a set objective or assignment, and just record what you see. In some ways, that makes it more difficult because you have to make or interpret your own story from a bunch of usually discordant pieces.

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Review: The Pentax 645Z, part II: compared to the 645D, Nikon D800E and Hasselblad CFV-39

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The contenders. From L-R: Pentax 645D, Pentax 645Z, Hasselblad 501CM with CFV-39 digital back, Nikon D800E.

Four cameras, 166 megapixels, no sensor smaller than 36MP and 36x24mm. It’d have been nice to get the Phase One IQ250 and Leica S along for the ride too – sadly there’s no Phase distributor in Malaysia and nobody from P1 has ever replied any email I’ve sent though. So we’ll make do with four: two from the old CCD guard and two from the new CMOS challengers. Lining up on the right are the Pentax 645D (33x44mm, 40MP) and Hasselblad CFV-39 on a 501CM body (49x37mm, 39MP) against the Pentax 645Z (33x44mm, 51MP) and Nikon D800E (24x36mm, 36MP). Perhaps we should have gotten one of the 41MP Nokia PureView phones along for kicks, too. That said, the rationale behind these choices is as follows a) I had access to them; b) to build a more or less complete system would be roughly the same price; Nikon and Pentax new lenses are more expensive than the used screwdriver Pentax FA or Hasselblad V glass; by the time you add everything in, the 645Z is obviously the most expensive option – but also arguably has the highest IQ potential. Welcome to part two of the Pentax 645Z review – the first part can be found here.

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Photoessay: The people of Taipei

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An obsession with things on sticks, I

Whenever I travel, I find the people more interesting than the location: they give a place character, and say a lot about the local culture. It is therefore natural that we photograph people as part of a travel photography set, and seek to capture a little bit of everything: some culture, some uniqueness, some context – in essence, the spirit of the location. Things that stand out are behaviours that I find unfamiliar or inexplicable; but this must be balanced with normal people going about their lives to avoid a biased view of extremes and stereotypes. I found Taipei to be a quirky blend of China’s modern awkwardness at attempting to copy the west; Japan’s tech-obsession, and a little of that old dynastic elegance. Enjoy! MT

This set was shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E and Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon.

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Photoessay: Underground workers in mono

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Today’s photoessay contains images I initially shot for a client much earlier in the year; the German tunnel-boring specialists Herrenknecht and MMC-Gamuda for the greater Kuala Lumpur mass transit project. The project itself will bring a unified rail system to Klang Valley over the next five years; in the meantime, it’s utter chaos while everything is being dug up or diverted so overhead pylons can be put up. I was hired to document some of the underground work.

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Rational love: the D800E long term report

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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.

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On Assignment: back to the hospital

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This hospital has turned into one of my regular clients – I went back for another couple of shoots. Incrementally, we’re working our way through the departments and refreshing their image banks. I’m also hoping to shoot live surgery at some point in the future, but no idea if that’s going to be cleared by their board or not – there are so many things that might be unacceptable both from a hygiene point of view – you can’t autoclave a camera – as well as privacy etc. Still, it’ll be an interesting experience. At least light shouldn’t be a problem, given those fantastically bright operating theatre fixtures. (Side fact: one of the reasons why I didn’t go to med school was because I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But oddly enough, operating a camera makes me focus on shooting and completely ignore everything else – the resultant being that I’m happy to shoot in places which I’d never even think about visiting ordinarily.)

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But, I digress. With this post, I wanted to talk a bit about lighting on location. Hospital lighting in the wards tends to be uniform, flat and uninteresting: fluorescent tubes, more fluorescent tubes, and yet more…you get the picture. If you’re lucky, they might even be color matched. Fortunately, to keep patients feeling comfortable with the ambience, most of the time they’re at least daylight-balanced tubes (this is important, because it means you don’t have to gel your flashes to balance out ambient).

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A typical scene involves some equipment, a doctor/ technician, and a patient. And the interaction is what we’re trying to capture, along with some sense of context, along with a bit of ‘ooh, look at the fancy machine’. This means that lighting is a bit of a challenge because you’ve got to have a nice diffuse source to make the humans look good, as well as something a bit punchier and more directional to give the machines some depth and dimensionality. On top of all of this, there often isn’t that much room in which to set things up, and ceilings aren’t that high. Oh, and it’s also a working hospital, so time is very much of the essence.

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Composite shot – the glass was far too reflective and dark (it was a sleep lab, after all) so I had to shoot one of the monitoring post, another one of the computer screen, and a third inside the sleep lab itself from approximately the same angle of view of the operator and line of sight.

The setup I go with is a pair of speedlights on stands with umbrellas; either shoot-through (for the primary light on the humans) or bounced reflector (for the machines). Sometimes I’ll add a third speedlight as a catchlight or to brighten up the background a bit. For the most part, Nikon’s CLS/ iTTL system works pretty well, though the background speedlights sometimes don’t trigger due to being out of the line of sight. But a little tweak to position and usually all is well again. I was considering radio triggers, but then I was told that they weren’t allowed in the hospital as they might interfere with critical equipment such as pacemakers and life support machines (!) – probably best not tried, then. MT

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Setup. This room was luxuriously huge.

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This one, not so much.

I don’t quite remember what I shot what with, but a typical loadout for this kind of job goes:
Bodies: Nikon D800E (primary), Nikon D700 (secondary; now D600); Sony RX100 (B-roll)
Lenses: Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon, Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar (sometimes).
Lighting: 4x Nikon SB900s and plenty of batteries; shoot-through and reflective umbrellas; stands.
Support: Manfrotto 1052BACs for the lights, and a Gitzo GT5562 GTS Systematic with Manfrotto Hydrostat head for the camera.

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Mid term report: The Nikon D800E

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I’d long ago intended to post a full review of the Nikon D800E, but somehow that got lost in a flurry of work, left-side AF problems, and repeatedly having to answer the question of ‘which camera should I buy?’ – note that this has now gotten even less straightforward now that the D600 is an option, too. And then there was the fact that it wasn’t really that different to the original D800, which I already reviewed here (I believe it was the first complete one up on the internet, actually). But now, I think enough time has passed, and I’ve used the camera under enough situations (and somewhere in the region of 20,000 images – almost all of them on-assignment) that I think it’s about time for a mid-term report card. This won’t follow the form of my historical reviews; rather it will take the form of a series of annotated comments. Some apply to both the D800 and D800E.

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Apples. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

One general observation is that it seems Nikon got the product mix wrong – most of the photographers I know bought the D800E over the D800, figuring that if they were going to go all out with resolution, they might as well really go for broke. I suspect this is contributing to the limited availability of the camera, despite the D800 being in stock – Nikon’s facilities were probably geared up to produce more D800s, but the demand is in favor of the D800E. I was recently told by NPS in Malaysia that while the D800 is readily available, the D800E is still back-ordered for a month or more.

I’m going to start with the bad first, to get all the negativity out of the way upfront.

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Dragonfly. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

Something still doesn’t feel right with the autofocus system.
Although my camera no longer exhibits any asymmetry with its focus points following the recalibration and fix by Nikon Malaysia, it just doesn’t seem to be as positive or accurate as the D700 was (or D600 is now). There are situations in which the camera nails everything perfectly, and situations under which it just seems to miss by a hair; far more of the latter exist than the former. And no combination of AF settings seems to work; this means that the D800 is effectively an unviable proposition to me as a documentary/ reportage camera. Bottom line: I’m not 100% confident that it’s going to focus where I tell it to.

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Up or down? D800E, 28/1.8 G

The viewfinder is nearly useless for manual focusing.
Sure, it’s big and bright and covers 100% of the frame, but the problem is that it just doesn’t have enough focusing ‘snap'; it’s very difficult to tell when things are in critical focus or not, which is made doubly critical by the extremely high resolution of the sensor. It seems that all modern focusing screens are really just optimized for brightness with slow zooms. I would have done the same thing I did to my D700 – namely, cut and fit a custom screen from one of the other cameras I like – the F6 type J and FM3A type K3 are my favourites. However, the D800’s focusing screen is so enormous that this simply isn’t an option – I think it actually has the largest focusing screen of any Nikon to date, which means there are no suitable donors. I’m trying to get hold of an original screen to see if I can make it more matte on my own, perhaps by grinding it down with 1200 grit sandpaper. (You’re probably wondering how I use the camera at all without AF and a good finder – since most of my work with this camera is tripod-based anyway, live view comes to the rescue.)

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The ZR012. D800E, 60/2.8 G Micro

Demands on lenses and technique are high.
It’s not the pixel density, but the pixel density for a given angle of view – this is the highest it’s been for any consumer/ prosumer level camera (i.e. non-medium format) to date. I think a lot of people confuse this with pixel pitch. The bottom line is that if your lens covers say 90 degrees horizontally, then the D800E puts much more resolving power per degree in the hands of the average photographer than they’re used to; this places corresponding demands on lens quality and technique (focusing, camera shake etc) than the vast majority people can manage handheld except under good light. I can’t even get a consistently sharp image unless I’m over 1/2x focal length – and I’m certain I’ve got better technique than average. This, and the size of the files (a throughput issue) make it impractical for a documentary/ travel/ journalism camera. Oh, and you’ve got to use good lenses too, which tend to be large and heavy – not ideal for walking around with.

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Eleven. D800E, 28/1.8 G

The live view exposure implementation needs work.
If you shoot manual exposure, live view mode always shows you a preview of the actual exposure. Guess what this means if you’ve got things set up for a studio strobe exposure with zero ambient: a black frame! You’ll have to toggle back and forth between P and M modes to focus, which wastes time and is unnecessary – especially since they fixed this on the D600. I hope it’s something that gets addressed in a future firmware update. Or, at least give us an option…

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Bored. D800E, 28-300VR

There are a few ergonomic fails.
The mode button is more and more annoying the more I use the camera – it’s just impossible to reach without contorting your grip, and muscle memory from using every other Nikon pro body means that you will almost inevitably try to change exposure with the video record button and back dial. The D-pad lock switch is too loose, and easy to activate, meaning that you may not be able to change focus point at a critical moment – and then be left wondering why, while your shot disappears. By a similar token, the metering mode switch is too stiff, and difficult to operate with the edge of your thumb. Aside from that, ergonomics are spot on. What I don’t understand is why Nikon seems to make minor changes between generations to both things that need fixing, and things that work fine as they are…

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Polo. D800E, 28-300VR

The shutter appears to have a vibration issue around 1/30s or so.
I’ve noticed a strange blurring/ double image that occasionally pops up in the 1/20-1/40s range; even with everything locked down on a heavy – Gitzo 5 series systematic – tripod and studio lights; the only conclusion I can come to is that somewhere in the shutter or mirror mechanism, something is vibrating at that natural frequency and creating a bit of camera shake. The solution around this has been to use live view and the self timer when required; it of course doesn’t require the mirror to cycle.

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3T MRI. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

File handling is…chunky.
This isn’t a flaw of the camera. But the increased amount of detail means even larger files than the D800; you’re looking at 40-50MB routinely for a compressed NEF. It would be a waste to shoot jpeg with this camera, of course. This is one of the reasons why I tell prospective buyers to think very, very carefully about whether they really need such large files: it has a knock-on effect on everything else from processing to storage. I usually open my raw files in batches; with the D700, my current laptop can happily handle 20; for M9, OM-D and RX100, it’s about 15; for the D800E…I think a threshold has been crossed somewhere, because it’s more like five.

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Sarpaneva Korona K0. D800E, 85/2.8 PCE

Now for the good news:

Visible diffraction is offset somewhat by the lack of an AA filter.
My work requires small apertures on a regular basis; the diffraction limit for the D800 was visibly between f8 and f11, with all other things equal. The lack of an AA filter allows you to claw back some perceptual sharpness (though remember that diffraction is a property of the pixel pitch, and still sets in at the same point for both cameras) – all other things being equal, this allows a D800E image at f16 to have the same perceptual sharpness as a D800 one at f11 or thereabouts. Handy. Needless to say, at smaller apertures, the D800E provides a noticeably crisper image – there isn’t necessarily more resolution, but the pixel acuity is definitely higher.

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All about the hair. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

Moire is a non-issue for the majority of circumstances.
I don’t shoot a lot of fabrics or repeating patterns, but on the occasions I have done, I’ve seen very, very little moire. And these tend to be studio situations anyway, which means that I’m at small apertures; I can always have the option of removing any aliasing by stopping down a little bit more and letting diffraction take care of things for me should the situation arise. Conversely, I can’t add the acuity back to the D800’s files.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Moon detail. D800E, 60/2.8 G Micro

Image quality is impeccable.
After working regularly with good D800E files, it makes me feel as though my other cameras are all lacking something; however, the knowledge that you really have to have all your ducks lined up in a row to make the D800E sing is enough for me to remain happy with the image quality from the rest. That said, the D800E is easily the best DSLR at the moment for any form of controlled lighting or tripod work; color accuracy and dynamic range are both superb; pixel acuity is beyond reproach (with the right lenses, of course) and – barring the aforementioned issues – usability is excellent.

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Spiral. D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Battery life is outstanding.
Both the D800 and D800E have excellent battery life – easily 2000+ shots per charge without use of flash, or 1500+ if the built-in is used as a CLS trigger – which means that I only have one spare battery. This is a first for me: even my D3 had two spares. In fact, I think the real-world battery life of this camera is bested only by the D600.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300. D800E, 85/2.8 PCE

It doesn’t feel that heavy.
Even though the camera isn’t much lighter than the D700, you do notice the difference after a day of shooting with it – my hands just don’t feel as tired as they did when I was using the D700. Perhaps it’s also a function of grip shape. I don’t know if this has negative consequences for camera shake and stability, though – probably not, since the D600 is even lighter and seems fine (though admittedly it also has a much lower-vibration and slower shutter).

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How the other half live. D800E, 28/1.8 G

Overall, the impressions are good: very seldom is there a camera which I would consider perfect or close to it (the D700 was probably the last one) – the D800E pushes the image quality envelope forward by a significant margin, and with this necessarily comes compromises. The mistake I think most people make is in thinking that if you used the D700 with great results, you should be able to do the same with the D800E; no. Even for somebody who pays constant attention to shot discipline, you will find situations under which the demands of the sensor exceed your ability at that moment to achieve a pixel-level, critically sharp image. I know, because it’s happened to me several times.

This brings me to the final portion of this report card: I want to conclusively answer the ‘what should I buy?’ question once and for all.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude. D800, 60/2.8 G Micro

Buy the D600 if:

  • Size and/or weight is a priority.
  • You are coming from a DX body that doesn’t have the same controls as the pro bodies (anything except the D2H/D2x/D300/D200)
  • You just want a general purpose FX body, and getting the large sensor ‘look’ is your priority.
  • You want resolution for large prints but can’t afford a D800E.
  • You shoot mostly handheld
  • You shoot a lot of live view work in the studio
  • You don’t print larger than 40×60″ or so

Buy a (or keep your) D700 if:

  • Budget is a priority – second hand D700s are abundant now, and cheaper than new D600s. They’re still capable of producing excellent images – I still use mine for reportage work.
  • You need speed or AF tracking ability – it has more coverage than the D600, and (I feel) higher precision than the D800E. It also runs at up to 8fps, which none of the others can.
  • You do a lot of low light or marginal shutter speed work – it’s just more forgiving for handholding.
  • You shoot in hostile environments
  • You don’t print larger than 20×30″ or so
  • Workflow throughput is a priority – events, weddings, sport etc.
  • You shoot mostly handheld
  • You don’t need video or live view

Buy the D800E if:

  • You need to have the absolute best image quality in a DSLR available now (due to lenses, or budget vs MF, or whatever)
  • You don’t mind using studio lights and/ or a tripod to maximize image quality
  • You don’t mind re-evaluating your lens lineup
  • You shoot a lot of video – it has manual exposure controls and power aperture than none of the other cameras do
  • You need to print larger than 60″ wide
  • You don’t mind (and have the hardware to) handle enormous files

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Nadiah. D800E, 45/2.8 P

And what about the D800? Well, I honestly can’t see why anybody would bother unless money is super-critical, or you shoot a lot of fabric –  the price difference to the D800E isn’t big enough to be a factor if you’re already committed to spending that much money, and it requires almost as much shot discipline and lens quality anyway. Finally, if you do a lot of long lens work – wildlife or similar – then you should probably look at a DX body instead; cropping isn’t going to up your frame rate much, or improve AF ability; the D600 and D700 probably won’t have enough resolution for demanding applications in DX crop mode, either.

I think what says the most about this camera is the fact that I only use it on assignment – it isn’t my first choice when I’m shooting personal work, or teaching (except in studio), or just going out for a while and feeling like I want to do some photography; something’s missing. And I don’t know if it’s the file sizes and processing that subconsciously puts me off, or something AF-related, or perhaps I’ve just moved on from feeling the need to carry a big camera for reassurance. Bottom line – I’m just not bonding with it in the same way I did with my D700, or even D2H for that matter – and those were even larger and heavier cameras. All of that said, I wouldn’t dream of using anything else for critical commercial work. MT

The Nikon D800E is available here from B&H and Amazon and the D600 here from B&H and Amazon.

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On Assignment: concert photojournalism

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Tompi. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

I recently played the role of official photographer for a producer friend’s concert – it was a moderately large affair featuring a good number of famous local musicians. The nice thing about this event was that it was large enough to have professional acts, decent lighting and good organization, but not so large that I didn’t have access to everything – and I mean everything, including the stage itself during the performance*.

*One thing a good concert photographer should never do is interfere with the act; so even though the stage might be open to you, one should never get between the performers and the audience unless it’s absolutely necessary, and even then only for the shortest possible period of time. Oh, and remember that the shutter sound carries quite clearly through any microphones that have been placed near equipment.

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Through the legs. Nikon D700, 28/1.8G

Although I’m not normally a huge fan of the types of music being played, I have to say this was one of the more enjoyable events I’ve attended and shot; I guess I’d be the restless type of concertgoer who’s only happy with a camera in hand and backstage pass – not so much to meet the artists, but to shoot. Although it’s the first photojournalism assignment I’ve done in quite some time – and the first concert assignment in many years. (In 2005/6 I was the house photographer at one of the jazz clubs in Kuala Lumpur, but I eventually stopped because I wasn’t getting enough sleep after gigs and before work the next day.) This job made me realize just how much I missed photojournalism.

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Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

There were a number of photographers there from other local/ national media and international agencies; the locals were mostly using midrange APS-C bodies, kit lenses and off-brand flashes; you could tell the major agencies by their standard issue pro bodies and f2.8 zooms. Interestingly, the proliferation of lower end cameras amongst media/ newsmen – at least in Malaysia – has been getting increasingly common as these organizations seek to cut cots. I can understand the bodies passing the threshold of sufficiency and being capable of producing great results in the hands of any competent photographer, but the use of slow kit zooms just hamstrings the ability to create a picture that preserves the ambient light and feel of the scene without resorting to a flash.

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In the moment. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

From experience, I know that when wearing my photojournalism hat, the lighter you can go, the better. I was carrying my D700/ MB-D10, 28/1.8 G and 85/1.8 G for close distance coverage; the OM-D and 100-300 rode shotgun for more reach. (I was also carrying the 12/2 and 45/1.8 as backup in case the D700 developed a problem, plus an SB900 for balanced fill which I didn’t land up using. My motto is go light, but not so light that you have no insurance when it comes to equipment failure.) Many of you will know that the new Nikon 28/1.8 G has proven itself to be a very capable lens even on the demanding sensor of the D800E; I’m pleased to report that both the 28 and 85 f1.8 G lenses performed flawlessly on the D700, both in terms of focusing accuracy and optical performance. The 85/1.8 G does exhibit some moderate flare with strongly backlit point sources (the hood makes almost no difference here), but I personally don’t mind it as I feel that it adds to that atmosphere and pictorial value of the image somewhat.

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Keyboards. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

The big surprise of the night was the OM-D and 100-300 combination, however. I didn’t use AF-C; most of the time careful timing, a short burst and the extended depth of field for a given FOV due to the smaller sensor was enough. It’s rather counterintuitive for DSLR shooters, but I find that with the OM-D, just depressing the shutter all the way down and trusting the camera’s AF system yields a considerably higher hit rate than using AF-C, or worse, AF-Tracking. The 100-300 delivered excellent optical performance, even out to the 300mm limit; due to the lighting conditions I was working wide open the whole time. The lens did hunt somewhat above 200mm, but so long as I was in the ballpark, focusing was reasonably fast.

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Blue note. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

So far, no surprises – I’d shot with the 100-300 in good light conditions, and been pleased with the results. The OM-D, on the other hand, seems to excel under tricky mixed-light or strong-color situations; to get a sufficiently high shutter speed – I was in the 1/45-1/60s region most of the time, at 300-400mm equivalent – I was solidly in the ISO 3200 to ISO 6400 band. In all honesty, I don’t feel the files were noticeably more noisy than the D700 for a given ISO; the only place where the smaller sensor made itself known was in dynamic range – the D700 had probably two stops extra on the OM-D. I can definitely see where the 75/1.8 would be useful though – 100mm was a bit long at times, and the extra 2 1/3 stops (probably more in transmission) would have pushed image quality even higher still.

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Strumming out. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

All in all, a very satisfying nights’ work. Come work delivery time, the litmus test is always the client; I’m happy to say that this one passed with flying colors. “I can’t stop looking at the pictures, they’re amazing!” was the text message I got a few days after delivery. So, anybody else need a concert photographer? MT

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One – Ramli Sarip. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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This is what rockers do. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The loud pedal. Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Thank you to my band. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

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The hair. Nikon D700, 85/1.8 G

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Olympus OM-D, 100-300

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Backstage with the fans. Nikon D700, 28/1.8 G

Photoessay: The Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Ultra Thin Moon

From the horological files. MT

Set shot with a Nikon D800E, several SB900s, the AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and one shot with a Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE via adaptor – see if you can spot which one!

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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May 10, Part 3: Bayer vs. non-Bayer: Leica M-Monochrom vs. Nikon D800E

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Nadiah. Leica M-Monochrom, 50/2 APO

The final part in this triptych aims at examining the differences between Bayer and non-Bayer sensors. Part one was the review of the M-Monochrom; part two, the APO-Summicron 50/2 ASPH.

Note: I’ve been informed by Leica that both camera and lens are prototypes, and there may be changes between now and the final release product.

Operational and system differences aside, the aim of this portion is solely to look at how the sensors render images in black and white, and to examine pixel-level files and resolution advantages of the non-Bayer sensor. It’s frequently claimed that the Bayer matrix removes between 30-50% of the real resolving power of the sensor – i.e. a non-Bayer sensor of the same pixel count will have somewhere between 1.5x and 2x the resolving power. Since the M-Monochrom’s sensor is 18 MP and full frame, what better to compare it against the 36MP (2x) also full frame Nikon D800E? Both cameras have no antialiasing filter, which evens out the playing field somewhat. I’ll also go on later to look at noise, tonal rendition, and ultimate image potential, which is to say, what I can do with those files in the conversion.

A note on testing methodology: for the direct A-B comparisons, both cameras were shot in lossless compressed RAW and converted via ACR 6.7 final release. The D800E files were converted to black and white with a straight desaturation in ACR, and the M-Monochrom files upsized via bicubic smoother to match the output resolution of the D800E for the real image comparisons, and the D800E downsized for one set of the noise/ resolution comparisons to see if the comparison holds both ways. If sharpening was applied, it was applied consistently to both sets of images (and very minimally at that). The lens used on the MM was the 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH (50 AA), the best lens that Leica currently makes; I didn’t have anything comparable to use on the Nikon (a Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar would have been perfect) – the closest thing I had was the Nikon 45/2.8 AI-P pancake, which is actually a fairly competent lens. The 45P resolves well at the focal plane, but lacks the flat-field and cross-frame consistency of the 50 AA – for all but the portrait comparisons, both lenses were shots at f5.6 or f8 to achieve maximum resolution. The D800E was focused with live view and magnification, and where possible, the camera moved to match framing (obviously impossible for the distant shots).

As usual, go by what I say; do not make any conclusions from the actual images (which are there for illustration purposes only) – I’ve been looking at many full size, uncompressed images on a calibrated monitor.

Resolution and pixel acuity

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Full test scene. Leica MM, 50/2 APO

MM vs D800E 1 copy
Center crop. Full size

MM vs D800E 2 corner copy
Corner crop. Full size

It’s pretty clear that the MM is very much holding its own against the D800E; or perhaps that should be the D800E is holding its own against the MM – at least in the center. The corners tell a very different story; this is more a testament to the resolving power and cross-frame consistency of the 50 AA than anything. Even at f8, the 45P lacks the bite and crispness of the 50 AA; note especially definition of the crane cables. Slight magnification differences aside, I’d say the M9/ 50 AA combination is resolving ever so slightly more than the D800E and 45P; look closely at the antenna sticking out of the roof box. It may be a different story if I’d had a better lens, but I doubt we’re going to get much more center resolution out of any combination on the D800E – I certainly haven’t seen it with any of my other lenses, including the 85/2.8 PCE.

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Second scene, full image. Leica MM and 50/2 APO

MM vs D800E 4 copy
Center crop. Full size

The second scene appears to be much closer in terms of resolution; it was shot at f5.6 on both lenses. The 50 AA actually has a slight advantage here as the lens is now three stops down from maximum, but the 45P is only two stops down. Both cameras resolve the foliage well, and texture in the pavement and road is retained – just. If you take a close look at the motorcycle’s wheel spokes and license plate, it seems like the MM is once again resolving a hair more detail, but there’s really not a lot in it – in fact, it could well be false detail due to aliasing at this point. I wouldn’t pick one combination over the other at this point.

I did a number of other comparisons of various scenes, and could only conclude that the MM resolves at least as well as the current state of the art 36MP Bayer sensor. But for the most part, there’s not a lot in it – I would not pick one camera over the other on the basis of resolution alone.

Noise

MM vs D800E ISO comparison copy
First set of noise crops. MM enlarged to match D800E native resolution. Full size. I didn’t bother with ISO 320 because they both looked almost identical to the ISO 640 crops, which is to say essentially noise-free. Highlight and shadow recovery were both set to 10/10 for each camera.

It’s hard to say which way this comparison should go – one one hand, the MM has a much higher native ISO than the D800E (320 vs 100), and no added noise from the de-Bayering; on the other hand, it does use a CCD rather than CMOS sensor, which is known for having a higher noise floor to begin with. Once again, resolution appears to be a toss-up between the two cameras; the D800E clearly retains more useable resolution at higher ISOs.

At the pixel level, the D800E begins pulling away from ISO 1250; the MM is probably a stop behind by ISO 2500, and nearly two stops behind by the time we get to ISO 5000. I’d put ISO 5000 as being okay on the D800E, with ISO 10k being useable for emergencies. This lowers by a stop on the MM. It’s interesting to note that despite the MM exposure being slightly brighter – the exposure settings for both cameras were identical – the noise affects not just the shadows (as with the D800E) but also clearly encroaches on the midtones, too. Lowering the exposure a fraction on the MM may have helped, but it wouldn’t reduce the amplitude of the noise – there are clearly noisy pixels that have been amped far enough that they are affecting the fine detail structure of the image.

MM vs D800E reduced low IS copy
Low ISO crops. Full size

MM vs D800E reduced high I copy
High ISO crops. Full size

For the second set of noise tests, the D800E’s files have been reduced to match the size of the MM. I’m also looking at the highlight portion of the image. I’d say there’s no difference in noise or resolution to ISO 1250; the D800E’s files downsize reasonably well, but you can see some stairstep artifacts on the fine detail of the label – this is more likely a Photoshop artifact than a reflection on the resolving power of the camera. The story for high ISO is once again similar to before: the D800E has less noise, by 1.5-2 stops again. Curiously, the downsizing (bicubic smoother) has also reduced acuity of the D800E slightly.

Intermediate conclusion: downsize or upsize files to match, it won’t make any difference.

Dynamic range, tonality and a quick word on bokeh

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Reference bears again, full size image from the above crops.

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

MM vs D800E 3 copy
Crops; full size

Although there is a huge amount of subjectivity introduced by the B&W conversion method, it’s safe to say that in general, a straight desaturation results in the lowest contrast image. Yet the MM images always land up being less contrasty than the D800E’s; it doesn’t appear that this results in there being more dynamic range – in fact, I’d say there’s if anything slightly less useable dynamic range (look at the noise in the lens barrel that isn’t there on the D800E image). What I’m seeing is a different tonal response curve that’s more shadow-biased; it’s probably something to do with the inherent differences in sensor architecture more than anything else. Is one better than the other? Only you can answer that, because it depends very much on your intended output.

I don’t want to talk too much about bokeh, because that’s a property of the lens, not the camera, but in the crops, both lenses are delivering a pleasing out of focus rendition.

Output potential

And now is a very good time to talk about output potential: what can the cameras actually do, when the files are processed properly, in a real-world scenario? The portraits were lit by a 1000-LED daylight balanced panel (not that it matters for B&W conversions), with brightness adjusted to give a reasonable exposure to simulate daylight or indoor lighting – 1/90th at f2.8 ISO 640 or thereabouts. I’ve put a fair amount of work into the output of both cameras – basically, enough to the point that I’d be happy with the finished image.

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Nikon D800E and 45/2.8P

No matter what I did to the D800E’s images, they were always slightly contrastier – especially in the skin tone highlights, which required quite a lot of tweaking to avoid borderline harshness. The MM’s files just feel tonally smoother – look at the frame contents in the bottom left corner of the image, and the model’s dress. (Clicking on any image will bring you to a the Flickr landing page, from which you can view a larger version.)

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Nikon D800E and 45/2.8P

The tonal difference mentioned above – manifested as a sort of ‘lightness’ if you will – is again apparent here. I personally find the MM’s rendition a bit more pleasing to the eye, but there really isn’t much in it. Full size crops of the image follow below (you will need a screen with more than 1200 pixels across to view them); take your pick for resolution – I can’t say that one has more than the other. Microcontrast is slightly better on the MM/ 50 AA image, though.

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Nikon D800E and 45/2.8P

Conclusion

Often when we are writing reviews, comparing gear, or reading reviews, it’s very easy to get carried away and land up making a huge deal out of small differences. It’s pretty clear – to me, at any rate – that both cameras are capable of producing outstanding image quality, minor differences aside. Yes, the D800E does offer a stop more useable ISO, but then the MM makes up for it with lower shutter vibration and an easier method of focusing (if you’re using manual focus lenses on the D800E) – these somewhat cancel out when you’re handholding. The biggest difference again is going to be in the method of working – I’ve continuously found the D800E requires a bit more care to get the most out of it – it doesn’t really feel like a casual, fluid camera in the same way as the Leica Ms do. However, even though it’s more fiddly to focus, it’s also a lot easier to determine whether the image is in focus or not – using both back to back really reinforces how poor the MM’s screen is. And as mentioned in the MM review – you’re going to have to recalibrate your internal vision to see luminance values rather than contrasting colors and perceptual luminance. The MM does not see in the same way as you are used to with traditional B&W conversions, which take into account some of the color information when performing the conversion.

Tonal rendition is a subjective thing; some may prefer the D800E and others the MM; personally, I feel the MM’s files have a bit more luminosity to them – it’s difficult to describe, and it could very well be a lens thing; this is definitely an endearing trait. If you do a lot of black and white work, I’d seriously consider adding the MM to your arsenal; just make sure you also have the right lenses to do it justice. For the rest of us who are content to make conversions from our conventional Bayer cameras – with the channel mixing flexibility that enables – I’ll be posting an article on black and white conversion options in the near future. Stay tuned! MT

Coda: There have been a huge number of people asking why I chose to use the ‘inferior’ 45P against the 50 AA. I want to clarify this logic here, and I continue to stand by the results of this test.
1. Aside from the single corner crop included out of curiosity, the center performance of both lenses at f5.6 or f8 at the pixel level is as good as I’ve seen out of any lens.
2. This is a sensor comparison. So we look at the center resolution of the sensor, which is the same as the edge resolution. We look at noise, dynamic range, tonal response etc – note I did not include color or microcontrast (those are also influenced by the lens). The former three properties aren’t.
3. Yes, I could have used a worse lens on the MM or a better lens on the D800E. But the reality is that nobody pays me to write these things, so I wasn’t about to go out and buy a lens I didn’t need for the sake of one test.
4. Finally, it’s a real world comparison. If I did have the MM and 50 AA, I probably would look into the camera cabinet and try to decide between that and the D800E/ 45P combination if I wanted that focal length. In the end I would select on a) noise, if I needed low light performance, b) if I needed color and c) weight. Both combinations are capable of stunning images. Both are also capable of utter rubbish. The biggest difference is the photographer, not the camera.

The M-Monochrom is available here from B&H, and the D800E is here from B&H and Amazon.

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