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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Lens review: The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon, part II

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Continued from Part One

Clearly, no expense was spared in the making of this lens. Unfortunately, this is also reflected in the price and size: a rather steep US$4,000, and a kerb weight (it actually sometimes feels like you’re aiming a tracked weapon) of around a kilo. It’s the size of a 24-70/2.8 from any of the big brands, and somewhat fatter, too. What you get for that money – aside from the outstanding optics – is a smooth, curved, all-metal housing and hood that mates flush with the front of the lens; rock-solid build, and quite possibly the best focusing ring I’ve ever used. This is of course very important for a manual focus lens, but it really is something else in terms of feel, feedback and haptics. Throw distance it’s perfect; it has enough resistance to stay put, but turns smoothly and has zero backlash – you can adjust focus with a fingertip. It also has a pleasingly tactile and grippy rubber ring, which is duplicated for the aperture setting ring. The mechanical aperture ring is of course only present on Nikon mount versions, which means that it’s also back-compatible with other mounts via adaptors – though you’d need a pretty darn good adaptor not to interfere with the planarity of the optics. Both Canon and Nikon mount versions have full electronic communication with the camera.

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Lens review: The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon, part I

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I’ve used a lot of 50mm and near-50mm lenses in my time*. I’ve had the privilege of owning or having on long term loan some of the legends – the Leica f0.95 Noctilux, for instance, the 50/2 APO-Summicron-ASPH; the Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor; the Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar. However, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is quite possibly the best of them all.

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Interviewed on the official Zeiss blog…

I was interviewed recently by some of the folks at Zeiss about food photography – you can find the excellent (and very comprehensive) feature article here. Enjoy! MT

Review: The Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T*

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One of the legendary wideangles for SLR users, the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T* (referred to simply as the ’21’ after this) is a fairly complex – by Zeiss standards, anyway – telecentric design with 16 elements in 13 groups and a floating rear group for close range correction. As with most of the modern Zeiss lenses, it’s based on a derivative of the older Contax/ Yashica 2.8/21 Distagon (however, that was a 15/13 design). It’s currently available in Canon (ZE, fully electronic) and Nikon (ZF and ZF.2, the latter of which is fully electronic) mounts.

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Like all Zeiss lenses, this is a piece of glass that is extremely solid, moderately heavy (~620g) and very well built all-round – it’s like an old-fashioned scientific instrument, in a good way. There is no plastic on this lens; except perhaps some of the baffling at the front and rear. The barrel is black-anodized aluminium, with chrome front bayonet for the hood, and chromed brass rear mount. My two minor complaints about build quality relate to the hood lining and mount – like all Zeiss lenses, the mount seems to wear very quickly, showing brassing after just a dozen or so lens changes. The hood is metal, solid, and locks into place on the front bayonet thread with a reassuring click – and doesn’t move thereafter. However, it also has very crisp edges that are prone to denting, and the felt lining can easily start peeling around the front edge if you get it caught on something. A thin rubber bumper lip around the front edge would solve both problems handily (and if I’m not mistaken, the hoods for some of the Sony Alpha Zeiss lenses have this).

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One curious design quirk is the front portion – it reminds me very much of a martini glass. Although the glass itself appears to be able to fit within a similarly-sized housing as the 2/28 Distagon, the front filter thread is a whopping 82mm. I presume this is so one can stack filters without worry for vignetting, but it could also be because some parts such as the hood and bayonet are shared with the similarly martini-like 4/18 Distagon. Unfortuantely, this makes the lens rather cumbersome to pack as it occupies virtually cube-like dimensions.

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Boats, stored. Le Sentier, Switzerland. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

This is, of course, a manual focus lens – apparently the tale goes that all of the autofocus patents are held by the Japanese, except for Hasselblad, who bought technology from Minolta. Needless to say, these patents are being kept very closely guarded; I honestly can’t think of a reason to buy a large portion of Nikon and Canon’s lenses if I could get autofocus with Zeiss. Industry politics aside, the manual focus ring is perfect – spinning freely enough to change focus distance quickly, but not so loose that you can’t set the distance precisely. The amount of damping is perfect. Why Zeiss can’t make all of its other lenses feel like this is beyond me – they’re mostly a bit too heavy in feel for my tastes, especially in a fast moving reportage scenario.

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Spiral. Sasana Kijang, Kuala Lumpur. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

The near focus limit is just 22cm, which makes for some very dramatic closeups indeed; however don’t be expecting fantastic magnification because it is, after all, a 21mm lens – which means you’re looking at 1:5 or so. More importantly, however, is that optical performance across the frame is maintained even at this focusing distance; undoubtedly thanks to the floating rear group that compensates for near aberrations. I personally can’t think why I’d use it at this range, though it might make an interesting lens for food photography on the OM-D – being a 42mm equivalent.

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Boutique interior. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Sharpness and resolving power are excellent; this is one of the few wides that really does the D800E sensor justice – even into the edges. The center is already extremely sharp from wide open, and the extreme corners catch up at around f5.6 or so. There are very mild traces of lateral CA wide open in the corners with high contrast subjects and the D800E; they’re not visible at all on the D700 and DX bodies. And there’s no odd color smearing, either – everything resolves in the same spatial location, which can’t always be said of wide angles (the Sigma and Voigtlander 20mms come to mind). Interestingly, this lens has an extremely impressive MTF chart* – almost flat by f5.6 – made even more impressive by the fact that Zeiss MTF charts are measured averages not theoretical maximums.

*The interpretation of which will be the subject of a future article.

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Dreaming of the high seas. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

What of the other optical properties? Well, there’s some vignetting; around 1-1.5 stops in the corners at f2.8, but it’s almost entirely gone by f4. There’s distortion, too; up to 2% taking an odd moustache or sombrero-shaped pattern that isn’t so easy to correct manually, but can be taken care of easily by ACR’s built in profile for the lens. Bokeh is neutral and pleasant, with no hard edges; that is, when you can get enough subject separation to see any bokeh in the first place. You’re pretty much going to be at hyperfocal from 2m if you set f5.6.

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Gallery. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Finally, a quick word on that famous Zeiss microcontrast – it’s present as expected. Microcontrast is the visible result of several optical properties: high resolution; even and high spectral transmission, and as little chromatic aberration as possible. The 21 has all of these things. Resolution and chromatic aberration are functions of the optical design; transmission dependant on the glass types and coatings used. As with all Zeiss lenses, the transmission of this lens is very high thanks to the excellent coatings – note how in the images above, the front few elements mostly disappear; this is due to the surface coatings not allowing reflected light. It’s especially important for maintaining contrast; good coatings manifest themselves in a deep, saturated look that I like to think of as ‘tonal richness’. But I digress: the T stop of the 21 is 2.9, which is just 0.1 stop down from the physical aperture of 2.8. It means that you’re pretty much going to get as much light as you can out of the optical design.

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Boats, in use. Lac de Joux, Switzerland. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

All of these technical qualities are useless if the lens doesn’t produce great images; it does. The 21 somehow manages to be an excellent balance of technical competence and personality; it’s not entirely a transparent lens, but its personality definitely lends a positive influence to any images shot with it. And despite the distortion, you can use it for architectural work uncorrected if you don’t put any straight edges too close to the frame border – in practice, it’s not that noticeable; far more obvious will be whether your camera is level or not. For critical applications, correct the distortion with ACR/ Photoshop. The drawing style of the 21 falls somewhere between the 2/28 Distagon and the 2/50 Makro-Planar; both resolve at very high levels, have excellent microcontrast and transmission, but the difference in ‘personality’ here seems to be related to the amount of field curvature and distortion; the 21 is not perfectly flat field, but it’s pretty close – which is a surprise for an ultrawide.

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MRI machine. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon with flash

One of the things I like very much about the way this lens renders – and perhaps more generally about the 21mm field of view – is that it’s about as wide as one can go without the perspective starting to render subjects unnaturally, so long as you carefully place the foreground in your images. It’s wide enough to convey space – especially in tight interior quarters – but not so wide as to appear unnatural, which is a problem I’ve always found with ultrawides. It’s simply impossible to achieve anything approaching a natural-looking perspective with anything wider because of the configuration of our own eyes: 21mm is roughly equivalent to your peripheral vision. Psychologically, our brains just aren’t conditioned to interpreting anything wider on a regular basis.

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Solidity and transparency. Sometimes perspective distortion is actually useful to add a bit of abstraction to an image. Sasana Kijang. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon.

I want to add a quick note on compatibility: thanks to it being a telecentric design, the lens actually works very well on smaller formats – Micro Four Thirds, for instance. Carrying say a Nikon FX body, a M4/3 body and the 21 and 100mm lenses gives you an optically excellent and reasonably light landscape kit covering 21, 42, 100 and 200mm – a nice spacing of perspectives. I did this for several early-morning walks in Switzerland whilst on my last assignment, except I had the 1.4/85 Planar instead of the 2/100 Makro-Planar.

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One of those falling trees in the forest that nobody ever hears about. Olympus OM-D, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Up until fairly recently, I’d done my wide architectural work with either a Voigtlander 20/3.5, whose low contrast and lack of bite I didn’t like very much; or the Nikon AFS 24/1.4G, which didn’t have the same microcontrast as the Zeiss. All I can say is that I have no idea why I didn’t get the 21 sooner; it’s another one of those truly outstanding lenses that is a must if you’re a wideangle shooter. It isn’t the most discreet lens for documentary work, but the pictorial results are excellent; but it is an absolute no-brainer if you’re an architectural or landscape photographer. Highly recommended! MT

Get your Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon is available here from B&H and Amazon


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Old factory reflections. Olympus OM-D, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Workshop photoessay: first of the Carl Zeiss food photography masterclasses

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Last Saturday saw the first of the Carl Zeiss food photography masterclasses for this year, held at Hanare under chef Kenny Yew. The participants were mostly professionals from other genres of photography – weddings, pets, video, portraits. In attendance was also Philip Ong from Shriro, the Asia-Pacific representatives for Carl Zeiss, Profoto and Gitzo. I normally avoid using conventional flashes for this kind of work because of the heat; however, as the distances were small, and base ISO on a DSLR a lot higher than a MF camera, we had plenty of light to work with and the strobes were run at close to minimum power most of the time. The large softbox wasn’t much of a surprise, but served as a nice substitute for window light; more interesting was the little ProBox, which is a beamsplitter-cum-diffuser device that fits over the end of the head to provide a very even cube of light. I suppose it’s designed for product photography, but I can see it being useful for food as an alternative to my usual LED panels; it felt very intuitive to set up and use.

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What did surprise me was that all of the participants were shooting Micro Four Thirds – and not just that, all Olympus cameras! I was the only one working off a Nikon D800E and tripod. Good thing we had a F-M43 adaptor – not surprisingly, the 2/50 Makro-Planar and 2/28 Distagon work very well on the smaller format (I guess I should know, because I use them myself on the OM-D for food photography too).

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A good lunch was enjoyed by all – the menu included a number of seasonal specialities freshly-delivered from Japan the previous day, including ayu (river sweetfish), anago (conger eel), pumpkin and of course various kinds of sushi fish – apparently autumn is the best season for the firmer white fish such as yellowtail, as they’re just starting to put on the pre-winter fat.

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Note that I’m not in any of the shots because I was either shooting, demonstrating or talking…images from this set with a Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon, 2/50 Makro-Planar and 2/100 Makro-Planar with lighting by Profoto.

The next workshop will be on the 6th of October at Bistro a Table, SS14, Petaling Jaya. Please send me an emailif you would like more details or to reserve a place. There are also more details in this post.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Photoessay: The immigrants of Kuala Lumpur

Developing countries have just as much, or perhaps even more immigration going on than in developed ones. For starters, border controls are a lot more lax; as is visa enforcement. At a recent visa amnesty, the Malaysian government granted over 600,000 national identity cards – representing permanent residency or citizenship – to previously unregistered foreign workers or illegal immigrants. Put that in perspective for a moment: that’s nearly 2.5% of the people in the country who were previously operating under the radar. What do they all do? Well, mostly provide cheap labor or services for the jobs the locals don’t want to do; and as the immigrant community expands, many have started businesses providing a bit of home for their own people, too.

There’s one part of Kuala Lumpur that’s mostly home to the Bangladeshi, Burmese and Nepali immigrants of the city – it’s the area around Leboh Ampang and the older portion of the city. I took a walk around with a student a little while back, and this is a short series on the other side of Kuala Lumpur. Understandably, a lot of them are still nervous about being photographed, because I suspect some are not officially supposed to be here…MT

Shot with a Leica M9-P and Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Distagon. Exif data is intact, click through to Flickr to view.

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On Assignment: Time factors and big magnets

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MRI machines are a lot thicker than they look on TV. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

I’ve shot for hospitals before, though not under these conditions. The day – well, night – before the shoot, I didn’t know I was going to be shooting the next day. Turns out that the hospital ordered a new MRI machine, at a cost of just RM13,000,000 – making it by far the most expensive object I’ve ever photographed. Here’s a bit of background on MRI machines: they’re so heavy that the room has to be purpose built to accommodate it, and the machine settled in then the rest of the place completed around the outside. (The control booth wasn’t operational or in place when I went there.) Apparently the magnet has to be cycled when it’s new to run in; during breaks in the cycling when the magnetic field strength dropped to zero was the only time we could go in to shoot it – they never fully turn the thing off. The upshot of all of this was that I had about half an hour to complete the shoot before they had to gas the MRI machine up with helium and start the cycling process again.

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Inside the donut. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon. Single SB900 with an umbrella outside to illuminate the patient and room. I don’t know why, but I kept thinking of Star Wars whilst I was inside here shooting.

There were about ten shots to complete inside the room – several of the room and machine itself, a few with a patient in it, and a couple with doctor-patient interaction. Needless to say, everything required lights to be brought in; not because ambient wasn’t bright enough, but because even, flat light is great for soothing patients but utterly crappy for providing definition on white objects. I used two SB900 speedlights for this shoot, triggered by the built in on my Nikon D800E. One was the main key light on a stand using an umbrella, and the other was placed to provide background fill. Whilst they work fine with line of sight, I do find myself wanting to hide them in ever more creative places; the inside of the MRI’s donut hole being one. I think I must be one of the few people to ever stick a flash inside an MRI machine. Perhaps I’ll pick up a set of Pocket Wizards at some point.

Half an hour and one haematoma on my finger later (I clipped it between the leg joins of my Gitzo while rushing to pack up) – good thing I was at a hospital – we were done. Possibly the most rushed shoot I’ve ever done, but also rather fun.

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The Mammomat. Has a rather neat carbon fiber um…rack tray, too. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar. SB900 with umbrella from top right. The bluish color is actually a big glass panel that’s part of the machine; it changes color which supposedly helps keep patients calm.

The session actually started off here, in Mammography – it’s challenging to make a room that’s designed to have some separation between the x-ray source and the operator booth look cosy and inviting. And even more challenging was to show the process with a model patient in a way that didn’t reveal any skin.

The trick with lighting here was to balance the mid-warm ambient fluorescent with flash to provide definition and shadows; I shot manual for all of the exposures at about 0.5-1.5 stops under ambient. A SB900 with umbrella behind and above the subject provided face definition, with a second naked one on the floor provided room fill.

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Showing everything while showing nothing. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar


Enter our August 2012 competition – Compact Challenge – here!

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Photoessay: A Swiss landscape or two

On a recent assignment in Switzerland, I had the occasional break, and the even more occasional bit of interesting weather – fog or sun, it was either 5 C or 25 C with nothing in between – so I made the most of it by doing a spot of landscape work. I was surprised to discover that the Swiss countryside in summer really does look like the postcards – intensely blue skies, emerald meadows, and lots of cows. It’s positively bucolic, but in a good way.

Landscape photography is tough without a car or sufficient time to do some hiking. Part of the time was spent outside Geneva in the very scenic Vallee du Joux, home to a number of the old watchmaking manufactures. The big body of water is the Lac du Joux, which is as still as a mirror in the early mornings, but can get quite choppy once the mid-afternoon breezes start to blow. I’m told that as idyllic as it seems in summer, it hits -20 C at times in winter, and there’s nothing to see but white. I suspect I might have some problems with the small buttons on the OM-D in that weather, though.

This was the second time I’ve used Zeiss lenses on M4/3 – I actually find the ZF2s work better than the ZMs because they’re mostly telecentric designs. The 21/2.8 is particularly good, actually – it has very refined contrast that the Panasonic 20/1.7 lacks. (You’re probably wondering why I didn’t use that lens – I can put the 21 on the D800E and the 85 on the OM-D, swap them, and have a very nicely spaced set of 21, 42, 85 and 190mm :) I still maintain that so far, the best color I’ve seen comes from Olympus bodies and Zeiss lenses…now if only they’d make some M4/3 AF glass. Preferably a fast 28mm equivalent…MT

This series was shot with an Olympus OM-D, Panasonic 20/1.7, Zeiss ZF.2 21/2.8 Distagon and ZF.2 85/1.4 Planar via adaptor.

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One of those trees that fell in the forest which we never hear about

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The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 – a somewhat comparative review

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All images in this review are clickable for larger versions, via the flickr host. The EXIF data is also intact. Apologies in advance for the lack of variety of sample images; the weather over the last few days just hasn’t been cooperative. No matter, I’ll continue to use this camera regularly as my pocket camera, and will be posting images both here and to my flickr page.

After receiving a number of emails asking if I’d review the Sony RX100, I decided to check one out for myself. Up to this point, I admit I hadn’t paid much attention to the latest round of compact camera offerings – I’ve got several excellent compacts, CSCs, SLRs – basically, all my bases are covered. Could I use something that might perhaps bring the next image quality notch closer to being pocketable? Sure.

Note: throughout this review, the product shots have had the logo taped over to prevent them being lifted and used without permission (which has happened before, often for dodgy internet merchants or ebay sellers). It seems image theft is a reality of the internet. Making a dime comes before any kind of ethics, which is rather sad.

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My first encounter with the camera was in Hong Kong, oddly enough at a little store catering to second hand gear – yep, even before most of the world gets to have a camera in stock, there are people here already deciding that it’s time for the next best thing. I played with it for a bit, was hugely impressed by the focusing speed, and equally impressed by the low light capabilities of the camera. But I left to sleep on it overnight, and by the time I’d realized a few days later that the camera was constantly on the back of my mind, it was too late because it’d been sold.

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No matter. I figured I could get one locally – wrong! In any case, a fellow photography friend in Hong Kong and Fedex came to the rescue; a day after asking him to hunt for one, it arrived on my doorstep.

Proper first impressions, in the cold light of day: it’s small. Very small. Especially considering it’s packing a 1″, 20.2MP sensor and 28-100mm lens; sure, it’s f4.9 on the long end, but that’s better than almost all kit zooms (I’m looking at you, Nikon 1, with your bulky 28-80/3.5-5.6 equivalent) and an extremely impressive f1.8 on the wide end. In effect, this camera makes the Nikon J1 look utterly pointless – it’s cheaper, has a better lens than both the kit zoom and the ‘fast’ pancake prime, and both better specified and more controllable. It’s actually nearly 1cm narrower and several mm shorter than the Ricoh GR-Digital III; and only 2mm thicker. The Leica D-Lux 5* I’ve got looks positively chubby by comparison. Of the three, only the Sony doesn’t have a hotshoe (and the Leica’s also doubles as an EVF port). Design-wise, it feels very much like Sony just duplicated the Canon S90/95/100 series of cameras, adding a prominent seam around the middle of the camera almost as an afterthought. Lineage-wise, however, it’s clearly a descendant of the V1 from 2003 and later the V3 from late 2004; both enthusiast compacts with bright Carl Zeiss lenses and plenty of manual controls. There’s also a bit of R1 DNA in there too, with its large sensor and fixed lens. However, the RX100 loses the various eye level finders of its predecessors. I don’t miss it too much; those little optical tunnel finders are nearly useless for precise composition anyway, and there’s no way to know what the camera has focused on, either.

*Comments also apply to the Panasonic LX5. The LX7 is going to be even larger; even though the lens gains a stop in speed, the sensor remains approximately the same size (1/1.7″ instead of 1/1.63″).

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The body may be tiny, but the lens is by far the largest of the lot.

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Of course, that isn’t the whole story; both Ricoh and Leica will focus down to 1cm at wideangle, where the Sony is limited to 5cm, and something much further at telephoto – nearly two feet. The Leica will go wider, and faster at f3.3 at the long end; the Ricoh of course has no long end, but it’s party piece is the excellent fast fixed 28/1.9. If this is starting to feel a bit like a comparison, it is; realistically, I’ve got these three serious compacts in my arsenal as options for when I need something truly pocketable. And taking two along would be utterly stupid (and defeat the point of a compact at all) – so there can only be one choice.

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Urban painting in progress. Sony RX100

Sometimes, little quirks of handling can make or break a camera. The Ricoh excels here – it’s probably the best handling compact ever; two fully programmable control dials, a rocker switch, locking mode dial, and a wonderfully large pill-shaped shutter button that has both a well-defined half press, as well as a clean, soft break. Combine that with sticky rubber and rough magnesium, and it’s a handling dream. The Leica is a bit smooth for my liking; it’s slippery and easy to drop, and the rear control dial is stiff and difficult to press. But it does have an aspect ratio and focus mode switch, which gains it points in my book. However, the physical lens cap is definitely not a good thing – the Sony’s lens is much, much larger, and they’ve still managed to fit a retractable shutter in there.

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Available light portrait – ISO 2500. Sony RX100

That said, I find the Sony’s controls both small and fiddly; ‘delicate’ is perhaps the best word to describe them. Firstly, the shutter button’s travel is far too shallow; the half press is stiff without much feedback or travel, and full press feels somewhat like half press on most compacts. Still, it’s very soft, which means it should be easy to activate without exciting too much camera shake. The camera does overall feel very responsive when shooting, and I suspect that shutter button feel has something to do with it. The rest of the buttons are small and similarly lack tactile feedback; the Ricoh meanwhile is exemplary in this regard. The RX100 actually has two control dials – one around the lens, which lacks any physical detents, and one around the four-way controller, which is used to control exposure parameters. I personally think the missing detents on the lens ring are a mistake; it makes it difficult to set exposure parameters (or any setting that has discrete increments) accurately. This limits its usefulness to only two things – zoom control and manual focus, which is a shame, really.

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How the other half live. Sony RX100

There are a few other things I don’t like about this camera – let’s get these out of the way first, because they’re all relatively minor.
1. Charging in-camera – this makes it impossible to maintain two batteries; the camera needs it, because you’re definitely not going to make it through a whole day of shooting with only one. Battery life is about 300-400 shots per charge depending on how much chimping you do. Sony, at the price you’re charging for this thing, how difficult would it be to include a charger, or a battery-cap if you insist on just supplying a USB cable?
2. No shutter speed limits to auto ISO – I suppose it’s using 1/focal length, but there’s no way to be sure.
3. It’s slippery as hell and far too easy to drop. It would have been nice if the bottom portion (after the central groove) was wrapped in sticky rubber or something.
4. No raw support* (not really a Sony flaw, and I suppose it’s coming soon from Adobe)
5. No hotshoe – not really a big deal actually – I don’t think I’ve ever used the hotshoe on a camera like this, other than to hold an external optical finder – and if used at 28mm, this camera is just crying out for one. Sadly, there’s absolutely nowhere to put it.
6. The ‘?’ button isn’t reprogrammable – that makes it basically useless for advanced users when shooting, because it brings up a kind of ‘how to’ for beginners. That and it deletes images – which is bound to be supremely confusing for the novice, because instead of having his or her questions answered – their image will disappear!
7. While the camera is pretty fast to start up, it’s inexplicably very slow to turn off – and sometimes, won’t turn off at all if you suddenly move it. (Apparently this is the ‘drop sensor’ feature designed to freeze everything and prevent damage in case you do happen to drop it. It seems that somebody on the engineering team thought the design was too slippery…)
8. No manual included, print or CD – some settings are just not obvious (like manual WB for instance), and having to use the online HTML manual is a royal pain.
9. The meter tends to underexpose; I understand why this is useful to protect highlights especially for a sensor with small pixel pitch, but according to the histogram it’s by as much as two stops in cases.

*If you’re wondering why I didn’t use the supplied software, I did – but I stopped soon after starting, because frankly, like every other manufacturer-produced converter, it’s crap. Excruciatingly slow, doesn’t give you as much flexibility as ACR, and just doesn’t integrate into the rest of my workflow. It takes me less time to compensate for JPEG limitations than work around the raw converter, and in the end, the results are still better.

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While waiting for the wife. Sony RX100

Still, at least we’re not restricted to only Memory Stick media, I suppose. There are a lot of things to like about the RX100. I’m going to ignore the trick multishot, face detect and scene modes (panorama, low light stacking etc) and just focus on the things that might be of interest to photographers. From a usability point of view, focus is both fast and accurate – even at the long end of the zoom, in lower light. I think it might be because there’s some form of continuous pre-AF always going on in the background; this definitely can’t be good for battery life. There is an AF assist lamp, but as with all ‘conveniences’ of this sort, it’s obnoxious. I turned it off. I keep being fooled into thinking it’s a small sensor compact because of its size; it isn’t, and you do have to watch your focus point – especially at nearer focusing distances, and with the lens wide open. As with all contrast detect AF cameras, continuous autofocus is best avoided, though the tracking mode works pretty well in static scenes – hit the center button to activate it, put the box over the thing you want to track, then hit it again to lock on. I can see this being useful for posed portraits, but little else. There’s also manual focus with peaking and magnification, though AF is so fast and flexible that I can’t see why you’d want to use it.

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Construction break. Sony RX100

It’s worth saying something about the LCD, too – the ‘Whitemagic’ LCD has 1.2 million dots, but VGA resolution; there’s an extra white pixel in there to boost the brightness of the panel under daylight. The upshot is that this is one of the best LCDs in the business – it’s sharp and fluid, and you almost can’t see the pixels. It should be a little brighter, but it seems that you can’t gain up the auto-brightness setting – either manual or nothing. Sony deserves some praise for including a shooting mode where there aren’t any icons cluttering the framing portion of the display; instead, critical exposure settings are displayed in a black bar at the bottom of the screen, very reminiscent of an SLR finder. Without this, it would be impossible to compose – there are just too many darned icons littering the screen, taking up almost the entire left third of the display.

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Iron horse without a rider. Sony RX100

I do have one complaint about the LCD and metering system, though – it’s not consistent, or representative. Firstly, you can’t accurately judge exposure from the LCD like you can with some other cameras (the Nikon DSLRs and Olympus OM-D come to mind); secondly, matrix metering is rather unpredictable. Though it mostly tends to underexpose (presumably to protect highlights) – sometimes it does so hugely, by as much as two stops; yet there are other times when it does the exact opposite. I think this is Sony’s attempt at trying to replicate the actual scene as closely as possible, but it instead limits your dynamic range and increases noise – not to mention being a colossal pain given we have no proper RAW support at the moment, so post-capture adjustment latitude is limited. I’ve reverted to the centerweighted meter for any tricky lighting situations, because I simply have no certainty over how this camera’s matrix meter is going to respond.

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Hood reflections. Sony RX100. This shot turned out VERY overexposed – far more than you’d expect for a scene of this type. Beware the meter.

This type of camera would probably benefit from a well-implemented touch panel to change settings or at very least select focus point; the economy of buttons doesn’t help when it comes to changing settings quickly. Having said that, the lens ring and Fn button functions are programmable; the latter holding seven customizable items. It also has three memory banks that remember all camera settings, and occupy the MR position on the mode dial. The one thing that really needs to be changeable isn’t – that’s the rear dial rotation. Somehow it just feels back to front to me, which results in a few fumbles before reaching the desired setting. Still, it lets you jump between zoomed-in images when in play mode, which is handy for comparing shots. (You can also power up the camera in playback mode without extending the lens by holding down the play button.) For the most part, camera functions – menus, navigation – are all snappy and occur without lag. The overall impression is of a very responsive camera indeed.

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Man, chair and door. The extremely low prefocus shutter lag allowed me to position this man perfectly. It’s so fast the camera almost feels wired into your brain.

Adding to the feeling of speed is the 10fps continuous shooting mode, which works even in RAW+JPEG; there’s a small amount of lag between bursts as the files are written to the card (I’m using a 32GB UHS-1 Sandisk Extreme HD SDHC card), but there’s a seriously impressive amount of data being shunted around here. Somehow, the Sony engineers also found space to stuff in a couple of gyros too – there’s a level display, plus optical image stabilization. To be honest, the stabilizer feels a bit less effective than that in the Panasonics, and much less effective than the Olympus OM-D – surprising, because I believe it’s a lens-based system. It’s probably good for 1-1.5 stops.

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B&W portrait. I’m pleased with the tonality, despite being a) shot at ISO 3200 and 1/30s, so it was dark; b) being a JPEG; c) having most of the bottom halftones seemingly crushed into the shadows, and the highlight detail ‘stretched out’.

Image quality breaks down into two parts – the lens, and the sensor. Let’s talk abut the lens first.

Given the incredibly small pixel pitch, best working apertures are at below f5.6, and ideally around f4; this however is a bit of a problem as the lens only reaches f4.9 on the long end. Still, I don’t see much evidence of diffraction softening. For the most part, this is a reasonably good lens despite its ambitious specifications – the only place where it’s let down is close focusing distance (say under 20cm or so) and maximum aperture at the wide end. You’re going to have to be at f2.8 or preferably f4 to get critically sharp images when shooting close; before that point, there’s a lot of flare and coma going on that robs sharpness. At normal distances, it’s an decent performer. Mine’s does better in the corners at telephoto than wide; in fact, the corners are pretty soft at f1.8, which leads me to suspect a degree of field curvature. The top edge is also softer than the bottom edge of the frame – it’s difficult to build a retractable lens with consistently high resolving power cross-frame due to the required tolerances; not that this is any excuse. The lens also remembers your last used focal length when the camera was turned off – there doesn’t seem to be any way of disabling this though. There is a bit of bokeh available, though not much – but what you do see is relatively smooth an inoffensive (though I haven’t had any extremely harsh lighting conditions under which to shoot the camera yet).

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Still life I. Sony RX100, uncorrected for vignetting.

Distortion and vignetting are minimal, and I didn’t see any evidence of CA, but since there’s no way to open the RAW files without the effects of Sony processing (I don’t count the supplied raw converter), it’s impossible to say how much of these optical limitations are being removed by the in-camera processing. I suppose we’ll just have to wait for an ACR update to find out. In the meantime, I’m making a ‘raw’ jpeg by turning off NR, reducing saturation and contrast to the minimum levels, and upping sharpening one notch (to preserve detail).

Does it have the Zeiss magic? Honestly, I’m not seeing it in the JPEGs – raw files might be a different story. It’s definitely a notch above the compact camera lenses I’ve used up to this point (with the exception of the GRDIII’s lens) but don’t expect it to have the same 3D pop as the ZF/ZE/ZM glass. It’s not a depth of field related thing either; the larger format glass pops even at hyper focal. (It could very well be a sensor limitation though).

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Still life II. Maybe there is a little of that Zeiss ‘pop’ and tonal richness after all – but it did require some post processing. Sony RX100.

The sensor is another story. Ostensibly, it’s a relative of the 10MP 1″ unit found in the Nikon 1 cameras; it’s a CMOS sensor with RGB filter array (curiously, not one of Sony’s four-color arrays). Pixel pitch is 2.4 microns compared to around 2 for the 10MP 1/1.7″ types, sub-2 for most normal compacts, 3.38 for the Nikon 1, 4.2 for the OM-D, and 4.88 for the D800E. Thus we’d expect slightly better performance than the current crop of prosumer compacts – perhaps a little more, given the generation gap. Not quite – it seems that this sensor is another generation ahead of the sensor in the Nikon 1, because it delivers similar noise levels, dynamic range and color accuracy despite having twice the number of photosites crammed in. In fact, from a noise point of view, it’s probably a bit better than the 12MP M4/3 sensor used in the E-P3 generation. Not quite what you expected huh? And all this from JPEG output. It seems Sony has upped their game there, too – unlike the oversaturated, over-contrasty, strange-hued JPEGs of the NEX-5, the RX100 generates remarkably natural looking files. Noise reduction – it cannot be completely turned off – when turned down, does a decent job of balancing texture/ detail and noise. My one complaint is that auto white balance is all over the place, and the camera doesn’t seem to like doing manual WB from a gray card – either it fails entirely, or delivers a very strange hue shift.

Sony RX100 noisetest
For a 100% version, click here

I feel there are only two areas in which the sensor’s smaller pixel pitch starts to show – that’s dynamic range, and edge acuity at higher ISOs. While dynamic range is a bit better than the prosumer compacts – perhaps 9.5-10 stops useable JPEG (and hopefully 11-11.5 in RAW) – the highlights and especially shadows clip quite abruptly (a lot of the tonal range seems bunched up in the bottom third of the histogram), so one must take care with exposure – not something easy to do when you have to contend with the camera’s erratic metering*. If you push the shadows too far in post, you start to get splotchy, low frequency (but random) yellow-blue pattern noise depending on the ambient lighting. There are also a few hot pixels thrown in for good measure, too. Edge acuity is another thing altogether – there’s visible erosion of fine detail structures beginning at ISO 1600, and getting more obvious as you go higher. Dynamic range doesn’t suffer quite as much as you’d expect, though. Overall, I’d put the high-ISO limit of this camera at 3200 – this is about the same as the Pen Mini, and a 1-1.5 stops more than the LX5, GRDIII et al. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this camera performs once we have a way to put the raw files on a level playing field…

*It’s also possible that I’ve been spoiled by the nice, linear RAW files from today’s CMOS-based DSLRs and CSCs. But then again, that’s unlikely, because the tonal response of the M-Monochrom’s CCD is quite similarly biased towards shadows and highlights and I didn’t have any problems processing those.

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Taxi drivers. Note the mark of JPEG: irretrievable highlight clipping. It was either this or lose the deep shadows. I suspect the image would have been saveable in RAW.

On the whole, two things left their mark on me during this review and while using the camera – firstly, 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; not to mention being faster at both ends and having a bit more reach. The second, less positive impression felt as though some useability had been sacrificed for size, usually unnecessarily – there’s no reason why we can’t have detents on the lens ring, an external charger, or even a printed manual (especially important given the complexity of the controls). There are ways to adjust things from both menu and shortcuts, but seemingly odd inflexibilities like the useless ‘?’ button and lack of an AF-point reset key (you have to move it back to the center with the D-pad). In some ways, the camera does feel like an experiment; which is surprising given the maturity of compact camera designs these days.

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Untitled workers. Sony RX100

But on the whole, the RX100 gets it right – it is undoubtedly the best compact camera available today, especially from the point of view of image quality. And I still feel as though it hasn’t shown its full potential yet, hampered by the lack of RAW support. I’ll be taking this camera with me on holiday at the end of the month – and only this camera. (It’s a family trip, not a shooting one; I usually bring the GRDIII for occasions like this). It’ll be interesting to see how it performs, and if I feel like anything is missing – look out for an update early next month. Hopefully we’ll get ACR support by then too.

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Still life III. Sony RX100

I didn’t think I’d have quite so much to say about quite so small a camera; the overwhelming feeling is that we’re very nearly at the point where there aren’t that many good reasons left for a larger sensor or even interchangeable lenses for most users – but perhaps that’s another generation out. What I do notice is that the improvement in smaller sensors has also had an effect on the way I compose – rather than seeking shallower depth of field, I’m looking for just enough to give the right amount of separation of subject from background; sometimes, a fast wide on a smaller 1″ sensor is enough; other times, you have no choice but to use 300mm on medium format because of the required perspective. One final point worth noting: this isn’t a cheap camera. In fact, it’s a good 50% over a Pen Mini kit, and comparable to a GX1 kit. It seems that you’re paying double taxes for minaturization and Zeiss optics; but the very few compromises mean that if you already have a large, fully-featured CSC or DSLR, then this is the ideal pocket companion for the times when you just don’t want all that weight. The RX100 isn’t a mature replacement for a larger camera, but the number of reasons to have one around definitely just got smaller. The limitations now rest squarely on the photographer; for most people, this is all the camera they’ll ever need. This is the king of the hill when it comes to compacts – I’ve not yet shot with anything else this size that has such great base ISO image quality and can handle ISO3200 with impunity and minimal consequences to image quality, whilst not holding you up with either focusing or continuous shooting speed. Highly recommended. MT

Coda: I’ve taken to putting some cloth tape on the front of my camera’s grip area for a more secure hold, because as handsome as the smooth anodized aluminium looks, it’s a slippery little bugger. Looks hideous, but I’d rather that than drop a very expensive point and shoot.

One reader also made a good comment on video: I’ve left it out. Yes, the camera can do 1080P 50/60, which is astounding considering its size; I tried it briefly and it looks fantastic, however I lack the expertise in this area to make any comments of weight other than to say that a) I don’t see much, if any, visible artefacting; b) you can zoom while recording, and it’s silent; c) the camera records stereo sound.

The Sony RX100 is available here from B&H and Amazon.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Still life IV. Sony RX100


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