Dec 172013
 

I visited the Merseyside Maritime Museum at Liverpool’s Albert Dock at the weekend and enjoyed a fascinating couple of hours learning about Merseyside’s maritime history.

The Second World War’s Battle of The Atlantic figured prominently and the displays charted Britain’s struggle against the threat posed by Germany’s U-Boats and surface fleet of pocket battleships.

The term “pocket battleship” flashed through my mind when I called in at my local camera store and handled one of Sony’s  latest compact system cameras — the Sony A7 and A7R.

The A7 and A7R are diminutive cameras, when compared in size with the likes of the Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800, but offer the same kind of fire power as their larger cousins – a full-frame sensor, with 24 Megapixels for the A7 and 36 Megapixels for the A7R, as well as a weather-sealed body. Pocket battleship therefore seems an apt description.

Sony A7R camera and  Zeiss lens.

Sony A7R and Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 lens. Picture courtesy of Imaging- Resource. com

The A7R also differs from the A7 in that it dispenses with the anti-aliasing filter for greater resolution and so is on a par with the Nikon D800E. But whereas the Nikon weighs in at 31.75oz, the A7R is only 16.4oz, almost half the weight of the former and both cameras are made from magnesium alloy. In size, the D800E measures 146 x 123 x 82mm, while the A7R is only 127 x 94 x 48mm.

While it may be hard to get your head round those dimensions, I can say the A7 and A7R are not that much bigger in size than a Ricoh GR, although they are roughly twice the weight. They really do have to be seen and handled to appreciate just how small they are.

For me, and photographers of my generation, the presence of an EVF is something that provokes a sharp intake of breath, although it is the direction in which camera manufacturers seem to be heading.

I tried a Fujifilm XPro-1 a few weeks back, Fujifilm has a generous offer until January 31, 2014, and it was most definitely worth checking out. But as I peered through the EVF, something just didn’t feel right. The XPro-1 does come with the option to switch between an EVF and OVF. The latter was worse as I could see the barrel of the lens protruding into my field of vision. My left eye is my shooting eye and for people whose right eye is the stronger, it may not be such a problem. I don’t know. I only have the one pair of eyes.

The EVF of the Sony A7 is quite a different proposition. I could live with the A7’s EVF and no doubt in time become comfortable with it.  Full marks go to Sony for their EVF.

In some ways, a Sony digital camera should have been a natural progression for me. My film SLR was, and still is, a Minolta XD7 and we all know that Sony benefited from Minolta’s digital camera technology when it absorbed the camera–making arm of Konica Minolta.

I am also a big fan of Carl Zeiss lenses and Sony has a partnership with Carl Zeiss dating back to 1996.

Hitherto, Sony never quite had the product that I was looking for that would allow me to benefit from their Zeiss lenses. With the launch of the A7/A7R cameras, all that has changed. A Sony A7R and a Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 lens now head my wish list, displacing the illustrious Canon 5D Mark III.  And in the fullness of time, I am sure Zeiss will be extending their range of FE mount lenses for the A7/A7R and its successors.

A recent review called the A7/A7R a game-changer on a par with Apple’s introduction of the iPhone and Ford’s development of the Mustang. I can fully identify with that analogy.

Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape has already called the A7R’s sensor the best in the world and the A7/A7R is garnering favorable reviews.

Is it the perfect camera? Of course not, no such product exists. Some reviewers are not overly impressed by the autofocus or shutter sound; others moan about battery life, although I think some reviewers are a little unrealistic in their expectations; and over on Fred Miranda someone has noticed strange orange-peel effects when an image is magnified 11x. Angels dancing on a pin springs to mind but each to their own. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

For a camera to challenge the dominance of Canon in my thoughts speaks volumes for what the A7/A7R offers. I am impressed and it takes a lot to impress me.

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May 172012
 

Last week’s announcement of the Leica M9- Monochrom camera sparked off the Leica bug in me again. Whereas the new camera with its dedicated B&W sensor does not hold all that much appeal, despite my love of B&W photography and the great many images that I convert to B&W, I would still want the colour option in any camera that I might own.

Award winning photographer Edmond Terakopian has had the chance to put the Leica M9-M through its paces and without a doubt the results are mightily impressive.

I have seen some people say that they will now carry two Leicas, the M9 and the M9-M, citing the days of film when they carried two cameras – one loaded with colour film and one with black & white film. In those days, there was little option but to carry two cameras if you wished to shoot both colour and b&w shots but digital photography has freed photographers from that constraint or should I say burden. People are strange.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The Leica M9 prompts the old head versus heart dilemma in me. The head tells me that in terms of value for money far better cameras than the M9 are to be had. Who in their right mind would pay nearly $7,000 for a camera that boasts a 230,000 dot LCD screen, no AF capability, no live view and a top ISO of 2500?

The heart tells me that the Leica M9 offers unsurpassed full-frame image quality and one only has to look at images shot by skilled photographers to see that they have an image quality often referred to as the “Leica look”.

Factor in the weight of the M9, a mere 585g or 20.64oz, and its size — 139 x 80 x 37 mm or 5.47 x 3.15 x 1.46 ins – and suddenly the heart appears to be winning the argument.

The Canon and Nikon fanboys on DPReview take great delight in slagging off the Leica M9 as an overpriced under-featured camera, the plaything of doctors, dentists and lawyers who can afford the Leica price tag.

I would hazard a guess that many of those same fanboys have no direct experience of film SLR photography and are digital through and through. When they rant and rail against the Leica M9, as they often do, they are missing the point and one that came to me in a moment of epiphany after reading Thorsten Overgaard’s treatise on the Leica M9.

Leica is the only camera manufacturer that made a seamless transition from film cameras to digital ones. It kept the size, shape and form of the Leica M film cameras but gave them a digital heart. Thus those shooting film with a Leica M could switch to a Leica M8 and later M9 with a relatively shallow learning curve and without having an extra pound or two added to the weight of the camera.

For more than 25 years I shot with a Minolta XD-7 SLR camera, known as the Minolta XD-11 in the United States, which weighed 560 g or 19.75 oz and measured 136mm x 86 x 51mm or 5.35 x 3.38 x 2.01ins. My Canon 40D weighs in at 822 g or 29.0 oz and measures 146 x 108 x 74mm or 5.75 x 4.25 x 2.91ins and without the luxury of a being full frame. To achieve comparable performance with the Minolta, I would have to look at the Canon 5D Mark III, all 33.51 oz of it, or the 48.85-oz Canon 1Ds Mark III.

It is easy to see why so many photographers of my generation would love their Minolta XD-7, Nikon FE or Canon AE-1 fitted with a digital sensor. Those people who used to shoot with a Lecia M3, M4, M5 or M6 got exactly that with a Leica M9.

We can also cope with manual focus lenses and centre-weighted metering because that is how we learned our craft. AF is a convenient option but not an essential one if a camera has focusing aids in the viewfinder, which the Leica M9 has unlike the Canon models mentioned above. That being said, I still manage to focus manual Zeiss ZE lenses on my Canon 40D. Admittedly , it is a lot harder than focusing with the Minolta but it is still achievable.

Back in my film days, I kind of negated the weight benefits of the Minolta XD-7 by shooting with a 70-210 mm zoom lense. With age has come wisdom and the decision to only shoot with prime lenses. My days of lugging heavy camera equipment are long gone. If I miss a photo opportunity because of the focal length of the lens on the camera, so be it. I am no longer answerable to the demands of a picture editor. I shoot what I want to shoot.

Leafing through Thorsten Overgaard’s guide to the Leica M9 and reading how he shoots with it – set aperture priority, ISO at 200, manually focus on the subject and fire the shutter – reminded me of shooting with the Minolta XD-7, even down to the centre-weighted metering. And in a Road-to-Damascus moment, I could see the obvious appeal of the Leica M9 and why so many photographers value it so highly.

I think with a Leica M9, two or three Zeiss ZM lenses and possibly the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 lens, I would be set up for life. With my Minolta XD-7, I never experienced a moment of camera lust because I had what I considered to be the best camera for my photographic needs. I think the same would hold true for the Leica M9.

The only problem with using Zeiss ZM lenses is that they are not 6-bit coded. I am not sure how much of a disadvantage that would be, especially since I would shoot RAW rather than JPEG. And by not using Leica lenses, I probably wouldn’t achieve that 100 per cent Leica look but I think I would get close enough for my tastes.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

All that remains is to find the several thousand dollars it will take to make a photographic dream come true. I have already checked out a couple of secondhand Leica M9s to reduce the potential outlay, one of them being the M9-P, which appeals because of its understated appearance – it doesn’t carry the red dot or M9 motif – but, more importantly, because of the virtually unbreakable sapphire crystal covering on the LCD screen. This camera would be the last one that I would ever buy, so I would want it to last in good condition for as long as possible.

With that all settled, I am off to buy a lottery ticket or two. Wish me luck!

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Apr 062012
 

With the new Canon 5D Mark III in the hands of early adopters, some indications of this camera’s ability are beginning to emerge. Since Canon announced that it would not be possible to change the focusing screen on the 5D Mark III that brought into question its compatibility with the Zeiss ZE manual lenses.

Quite a few hearts fell when camera enthusiast and former software engineer Lloyd Chambers pronounced that the focusing screen on the 5D Mark III made it impossible to achieve accurate focus, although he did concede that the green dot focus assist worked well for chipped lenses, such as the Zeiss ZE lenses.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The difficulty I have with people like Chambers is their lack of credentials. He is simply a self-appointed expert answerable to no-one. The sheeple flock to his site and hang on his every utterance as if he were some kind of a technology shaman.

I do not for one minute doubt the technical competence and knowledge of Chambers but he is simply expressing his opinion as a camera enthusiast, a more knowledgeable hobbyist, if you will, than most hobbyists who frequent the Internet.

But it took a hobbyist on the Alternative Gear & Lenses forum at Fredmiranda.com to reveal that the Canon 5D Mark III is perfectly suited to the manual Zeiss ZE lenses.

Philippe, based in France, who posts under the name of Philber wrote:

I do not find that the standard VF screen makes it any harder to focus than my 5DII’s Eg-S. BUT the much improved AF is a game changer for MF! Now I haven’t had the time to micro-adjust my lenses, or to select the best AF configuration for my needs (essentially landscape). I just turned noise reduction off, and started shooting JPEGs to see if I could focus my MF lenses. And the result blew me away, because of the MF assist. The AF will focus even in an almost dark room. It will lead the camera in P mode to go for f:1.4, 1/80s and ISO 12.800 with my ZE 85, and the focus is spot on every time, something that was simply not possible on the 5D II.

Bob Israel went even further and posted some photographs taken with the Zeiss ZE 2/100 Makro shot wide open.

Tongue-in-cheek, Bob wrote:

According to some recent writings, I must have been one lucky SOB to nail the (manual) focus!

With Bob’s photographs, the proof of the pudding is there for all to see. And it seems that the fears many Canon 5D Mark II shooters had about the 5D Mark III have proved to be unfounded.

Canon has at long last rectified the poor AF system associated with the 5D Mark II. The 5D Mark III borrows the AF system of Canon’s flagship model , the soon to be released Canon 1DX, and it appears to deliver the goods.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

In a comparison between the Canon 5D Mk III and Nikon D800, Calgary-based fashion and portrait photographer Nathan Elson said that AF focus on the Canon was faster and more precise than the Nikon. For the record, Nathan shoots with Nikon cameras.

And, as a working photographer, Nathan considers both the Canon 5D Mk III and Nikon D800 to be fine cameras. One can almost hear the cries of “Sacrilege!” emanating from the respective forums of DPReview.

Happy Easter!

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Mar 302012
 

I took delivery of a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens last Thursday, my first autofocus lens. I had planned to shoot with it quite a bit this week but unfortunately I was laid low with a viral infection that can best be described as 48-hour flu. I am over the worst of it but its effects are lingering on in the form of feeling listless and lethargic. I did manage to get out and about at the weekend and was mightily pleased with the results.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Using an AF lens has involved a learning curve for me, albeit not a steep one. I am using back button focus, a method I read about a while back and considered by many to be preferable to half pressing the shutter to achieve focus. My thumb has quickly learned the position of the AE Lock button and I must say I enjoy this method of shooting. It did involve making a couple of adjustments to the Custom Functions of the Canon 40D and I have also set one of the camera settings C1 to shooting with AF.

When I go back to my trusty manual focus Zeiss Planar T*, I will simply switch back to Av mode.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

A few weeks ago on this blog I was lamenting the way that camera manufacturers do not seem to cater to the wishes of photographers like me by producing the digital equivalent of the Nikon F2, Nikon FM, Canon AE-1, Minolta XD7 or Pentax K1000.

My photographic friend Bob, in England, echoed my thoughts when we were corresponding about the specifications of the new Canon 5D Mark III.

Bob wrote:

It all seems so far removed from my type of photography (and I use the latter word to describe the whole exercise/experience in the field). The phrase “great quality sound” just about sums it up. How have we managed to get to the point where these three words apply to a Single Lens Reflex camera!!! If this were an old-fashioned letter, this would be the point at which my pencil broke on the page.

I wonder if anyone will ever take something like a Pentax Spotmatic F as a model, simply put a sensor where the film plane used to be, bung some elementary digital electronic gubbins and a battery where the film/cannister was and market it as the “Jurassodigimatic”. Race you to the front of the queue.

Bob is a down-to-earth Lancastrian who has been photographing for more than 40 years. He specializes in landscape photography, industrial photography and railway photography, particularly steam locomotives. His work has been published in British steam railway enthusiast magazines. His approach to photography often involves meticulous planning and the use of a tripod and is diametrically opposed to my journalist on-the-fly hand-held approach.

Imagine my surprise this morning when I read an interview with one of my favourite contemporary photographers, David Burnett, on The Online Photographer Web site. I admire Burnett’s reportage work immensely and he also comes across as a genuinely nice guy.

While the kindergarten classes on DPReview are arguing the merits of the Canon 5D Mk III versus the Nikon D800, Burnett is still shooting with a pair of the original Canon 5D cameras. To Burnett, and any self-respecting professional photographer, cameras are simply tools. It is how those tools are used that separates the men from the boys.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Burnett admitted that he does not own a digital camera capable of shooting at 100,000 ISO but did say that he had recently acquired a Leica M9 and went on to extol the virtues of rangefinder photography.

Burnett said:

I have been quite amazed, actually, that neither Canon nor Nikon has come out with their own re-creation of one of their classic rangefinder cameras. In all the advances in photo technology, it just surprises me that none of the traditional makers other than Leica (the preeminent) has seen fit to create a camera (please, no harping about the Epson) which recreates all those great 1950s cameras.

The interview garnered plenty of comments, many from young photographers admiring Burnett’s work. As befitting the man, he added a comment to the interview, acknowledging those kind comments.

He went on to say:

My issue with the RFDR cameras is take a Nikon D700/Canon5D chip (proven, capable, cheap) put it in a new SPdigi, CanonP/7 digi body, put a screen on the back as good as any $400 point/shoot (there are plenty), and PUT A FRICKEN RANGEFINDER with an M mount on the body. It’s not rocket science though perhaps it’s being seen that way. God bless all the x100/X-Pro1, Sony 5NEX, etc., etc., etc. cameras. Let them all fight for the wannabe crowd but make a $1500 RFDR body, (no need for video, let it just be a PHOTO camera) and you will be a) Camera of the Year; b) unable to keep up with demand; and c) loved by a very loveable group of shooters.

On reading that, I immediately thought of Bob’s e-mail and my own wish for a digital version of the great SLRs of the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, it begs the question as to why major camera manufacturers will not produce such a camera but continue to produce the behemoths that full-frame DSLR cameras have become and why a generation of photographers, those of us 45 years and plus, is being ignored by the camera giants.

Over to you Canon, Nikon, et al!

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Feb 242012
 

I seem to be going through something of a stressful period at the moment and one thing I have learned in life is that too much stress and worry curbs creativity, at least when it comes to writing. It also makes you forgetful.

Two days ago, I suddenly thought back to my last trip to St Marys, Georgia, on February 4, and wondered why I hadn’t posted any of the photographs. Simple answer — I had never gotten round to processing them.

Canon 40D and Zeiss Planar T* ZE 1,4/50. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

On the camera front, the Canon 5D Mark III or 5DX will be announced in four days time if the rumours are to be believed. I think it is fairly clear Canon does have a replacement for its 5D Mark II in the pipeline but I will only believe it when I see it or details of it. Fingers crossed that it is next Tuesday.

Olympus has answered the plea I made in my last post by announcing the OM-D EM-5 camera and it has been well received by digital photography pundits and photographers. Based on the film camera classic, the OM-4 SLR, it is naturally small and compact but like its predecessor has a system of lenses built around it. That system is also destined to grow in the future. And of course, it can avail itself of the lenses produced by Panasonic for its Micro Four Thirds cameras.

I could easily be tempted by the M.Zuiko ED 12mm f/2,  M.Zuiko ED 45mm f/1.8 and Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH Micro Four Thirds lenses, which would give a kit comprising the equivalent of 24mm, 50mm and 90mm focal lengths in 35mm format.

A lot of people have been waxing lyrical about the Olympus OM-D, saying it is the future of photography and people will be abandoning their DSLR cameras in droves. However, with a lot of those camera sages, it seems to be a question of do as I say and not do as I do. For some strange and inexplicable reason, they all hang on to their full-frame DSLRs. I wonder why?

Canon 40D and Zeiss Planar T* ZE 1,4/50. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Tempted as I am by the size, capability and lenses of the OM-D, I am afraid I have reservations about the Micro Four Thirds format and size of sensor. I know the sensors of the latest cameras are head and shoulders above those of the early variants of this system but I am old school and firmly believe that sensor size does matter. Yes, APS-C sensors of today can match the full-frame sensors of a camera introduced three years ago in terms of picture quality, at least that is the boast of the Sony NEX.

But isn’t it logical that the latest incarnation of the older camera — the Canon 5D Mark III or Canon 5DX — is likely to show similar improvements in image quality and raise the bar again?

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Jan 202012
 

I am a regular visitor to The Online Photographer Web site. I admire the writing style of founder and editor Mike Johnson, and the site provides a valuable  insight into the wide spectrum of photographic subjects. This week saw a piece by guest contributor Ken Tanaka who wrote about January being a time for self-assessment.

Ken posed the question: How do you feel? He went on:

This may seem an odd question but the answer is fundamental to realizing how you can best pursue photography.  How is your health?  How’s your weight, your energy, your mobility, and most importantly your eyesight?  Are you unrealistically pursuing a style of photography that’s become too physically demanding for you?  I don’t mean just arduous treks with heavy kits but also long hours on your feet in a studio or darkroom.

More than ever, photography offers virtually everyone with eyesight the opportunity to participate.  Indeed, today’s small, light, powerful cameras enable you to achieve spectacular success even with rather restrictive physical limitations.  You no longer have to carry heavy camera kits to get good technical-quality imagery. So if you’ve not already done so, now’s a good time to evaluate if your equipment, subjects, and style are really good choices for your age and physical condition as well as for your goals.

Now for you  20-, 30- and 40-year-olds these sentiments probably do not strike a chord and rightly so. Barring misfortune, you are good to go for 20 years at least. But for someone who will be 60 in 18 months time, Ken’s words hit home.

I do have health issues — blood pressure that is kept in check with daily Lisinopril — but that is not going to impinge too much on my photography. I also have  issues with the optic nerve in my right eye as well as the onset of glaucoma. Those issues obviously do concern me as a photographer. Luckily, my left eye is my sighting eye, the one I use to gauge focus when manual focusing my Zeiss lens.

Canon 40D and Zeiss Planar T* ZE 1,4/50. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

After reading Ken’s article, the balance once more swung towards the Ricoh GXR with the A12 M-mount. Ricoh, like Sony with the Sony NEX, has incorporated focus peaking to assist in the nailing the focus with manual lenses. That function appeals to me a lot.

In the course of this afternoon, I received an e-mail from a friend in London who had visited the Landscape Photographer of the Year 2011 exhibition at the National Theatre. She said she was disappointed not to see any of my photographs on show. Right!  She did go on to mention that the work of photographer Sandra Bartocha appealed to her greatly.

Checking out Sandra’s portfolio, I can understand why. Sandra’s landscape photography does not go in for sweeping vistas but tends to concentrate on a single element of the landscape, exploring colour and texture. Sandra is a hardy soul, regularly venturing out in the cold and snow to capture exquisite shots. Her portfolio is well worth a view.

Sandra’s work also shows that you do not have to live or visit some great scenic area of the world to produce fantastic landscape photography. Great opportunities are probably right on your doorstep or just a short drive away. It is knowing where to look and seeing the potential for a great photograph. Sandra possesses this talent and an abundance of it.

I read up a bit more about Sandra and discovered that she shoots with a Nikon D700 and her favourite lens is the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 VR.

You can probably see where I am heading and you are absolutely right. The balance has swung back to the acquisition of a full-frame DSLR and my case it would be a Canon, preferably the still-to-be-announced Canon 5D Mark III, rather than a Nikon.

But by this time next week, I will probably have found another article and good reason to swing back to the Ricoh GXR M-mount again. Like the old joke goes: I used to be indecisive, now I am not so sure.

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Jan 132012
 

Canon 40D and Zeiss Planar T* ZE 1,4/50. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Over the holiday period I seemed to accumulate a lot of images that are still awaiting processing. The backlog is partly explained by the acquisition of new software — Photoshop CS5 and Silver Efex Pro 2 — and the learning curve associated with them.

On Wednesday, I happened to notice this American Sycamore leaf on the back deck and it struck a chord. I think it was a mixture of the angle of the leaf against the legs of a wooden table and the muted brown colour from Nature’s wonderful palette. I went back inside to fetch the Canon 40D and so record my first image of 2012.

I posted a B&W version on another of my Web sites — Tägliches Foto.

I am still wrestling with the issue of where I move next with regard to upgrading my photographic gear. At the moment I am sticking with the Canon 40D and hoping for an announcement in March regarding the Canon 5D Mk III. I remember being in the same position this time last year when those “in the know” — don’t make me laugh — were predicting an announcement in March 2011. Well, it didn’t happen and I am not holding my breath on the Canon 5D Mark III.

As the saying goes — All things come to he who waits.

I like the idea of the Ricoh GXR and an assortment of M-mount lenses. In fact, I tracked down two secondhand lenses — an M-Rokkor Minolta 28mm f/2.8 and Leica Summicron 40mm f/2 — at a fraction of the cost ZM lenses would cost, if you could get hold of them. But I still have my doubts about working with an EVF and one that is attached to the camera rather than being an integral part of the camera body. Besides, like Zeiss ZM lenses, the GXR A12 M-mount is also hard to come by. Ah the joys of supply and demand.

Checking out the specifications of hoped for photographic acquisitions is all very well — it would be foolish to embark on expenditure of a couple of thousand dollars without doing research — but photography is not about lens availability and camera specifications. It is about photographs and too many people seem to forget this fundamental fact.

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