What’s in the bag – USA workshop tour

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One last minute change: I went with a Think Tank Airport International roller instead of the backpack – less fatiguing.

I’m on the road for three weeks. I’m teaching a Masterclass and a Making Outstanding Images workshop. I’m shooting for myself. I’m shooting an architectural assignment, and then capping it off with a private teaching session. These are a lot of very, very different objectives. So what did I bring, and why?

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Lens review: The Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar

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One year after the 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon, Zeiss is back as promised with the second installment in the new line of super-lenses: the 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar. Announced unofficially on facebook several months back, the lens makes its official debut at Photokina. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with a final-pre-production prototype for the last two months; in fact, through pure coincidence, I got the email from my contact at Zeiss saying they had a surprise for me on my birthday…

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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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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


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

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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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If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com); Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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

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!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com); Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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


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