Friday, June 28, 2013

Comparing the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 G lenses
a hands on review 

The two fast aperture f/1.4 and f/1.8 85mm G lenses are usually rated as the best lenses made by Nikon. I was curious to know if one was any better than the other in terms of image quality. After all, the f/1.8 G version at $496 costs less than one third the price of the f/1.4 ($1650). Is 2/3 of a stop worth that?  Is the build quality that much different? What about the resolution?

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I have been shooting with the 85mm f/1.4 ever since it was introduced.  It is a perfect focal length for a portraits, and I use it mostly for that. I rarely use it wide open for a portrait.  At f/1.4 the depth of field is so shallow that if I focus on an eyelash, the pupil of the eye will be out of focus. Rarely do I use the 85mm at its maximum aperture. For portraits like the samples shown here I tend to stop it down around f/2 give or take one third of a stop. 

I prefer to use this lens for informal portraits where I want the face to be mostly sharp and the background not to interfere by being completely out of focus. My favorite lenses for accomplishing that effect are a fast 85mm or either of the defocus Nikkors (105 or 135mm).

Side by side, the two lenses do not appear that different in size. It isn't until you compare the front lens elements that you really notice the difference.

The f/1.4 model weighs in at 1.45lb (660g) compared to .78lb (350g) for the f.1.8. The f/1.4 takes 77mm filters, has a 3.4"(8.64cm) diameter and is 3.3" (8.38cm) long compared to the f/1.8 model with a 67mm filter size, 3.1" (7.87cm) diameter, and 2.9" (7.37cm) length. The minimum focus distance on the f/1.4 is a tad longer at 3' (91.44 cm) compared with 2.62' (80cm) for the f/1.8.

Both lenses have auto and manual focus modes with manual override. The biggest difference between the two is in the number of diaphragm blades. The f/1.4 has 9 and presents a round opening, while the f/1.8 has 7 and is not quite as round. 

These lenses shine when used for situational portraiture by creating a very soft, out of focus flattering background while keeping the face ultra sharp.

In my sharpness tests I found these lenses to be equal at all apertures. They are very sharp with only a slight softening in the corners when used wide open. Their fast aperture aids in speedy focusing. When I do serious beauty portraiture I rely on the 105mm micro Nikkor lens, but for a more casual, natural look, often shot in available light, I prefer a fast aperture 85mm lens. If you are like me and prefer to use them stopped down a bit to around f/2.2 then the f/1.8 model should work just fine. 


Both of these lenses are very highly rated for sharpness. After putting both of them through their paces for awhile, I can see why.  For all practical purposes they are pretty much neck and neck. If you need the extra 2/3 of an f/stop and the extra bulk and weight -- not to mention cost -- is not a deal breaker, then get the f/1.4. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with the smaller, cheaper, lighter f/1.8 -- plus it's much easier to tuck into your gadget bag, and I'm sure you can find some other gear to buy with the $1000 you'll save.

After putting the f/1.8 through its paces in our studio recently, all of us who tried it really fell in love with it as a first choice. It focuses quickly and very accurately, has minimal distortion, and its size has a comfortable feel. The two photos below, taken under studio circumstances that we know always cause us problems with focus and color fringing, convinced us that the f/1.8 model is an exceptional piece of glass, definitely the best I have ever seen in its class.  I know I will be reaching for it as my first lens choice in the future.

This is a studio situation I do a lot where the illumination comes only from the two north facing windows you see in the background. It is very tough for any lens, and we usually only use our fastest lenses here because the light is so dim and the backlighting so intense. Whenever a subject is placed directly in front of one of the windows we always have a lot of color fringing to deal with.  This photo was taken with the f/1.8 lens. It had very minimal fringing and it was tack sharp -- the best performance of any lens we have ever used in this situation.

After being impressed with the results of the photo above this one, I decided to push the limits a bit and lit the model from behind with both a window light and a tungsten shining directly into her hair to emphasize its redness. This is the photo with the f/1.8 lens before any retouching. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

New Sony RX-100M2 camera

My favorite little camera just got better. An improved version of the popular Sony RX100, called the Sony RX100 II, has been announced.

It has a tilt screen and hot shoe for optional accessories, such as an EVF (electronic view finder), external flash, or microphone.

It has a new Exmor R®sensor, similar to the current model at  20.2mp and 1" size, but improved noise control with an increased low light capabilities and an ISO range of 100-12800. The new sensor also has faster response time and throughput to the processor resulting in increased speed and faster focusing. The larger sensor in a camera of this size is primarily accounts for its high image quality, making it the perfect, pocketable carry-along lens with enough image quality for even pro shooters. Both RAW and JPG images are supported.

Lens will be the same focal range as the current model:  f/1.8-4.9 and 10.4-37.1mm (29-105mm equivalent).  That is a zoom range of 3.6x. The zoom range can be increased with the 2x Clear Image digital zoom feature that purportedly has intelligent interpolation to double the effect zoom range with minimal loss of quality.

Other features include built-in WiFi  and NFC to communicate with smart phones, and a 3" tilting LCD monitor, built-in HDR capacity, and the same changeable aspect ratios of 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, and 16:9.

Video has been improved to cover 1080i/p at both 24 and 60fps.

Price of the new camera will be $749 which is $100 more than the current model.  Delivery is expected around July 24-26.
Legends: Robert Capa and his D-Day camera

On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, the photographer Robert Capa went ashore with one of the first assault waves to land on Omaha beach, and recorded the soldiers landing there. On overly enthusiastic darkroom technician ruined most of the film by overheating them while the film was drying. All that was salvaged were eleven grainy, high-contrast images. Nonetheless, the accident lent the photos a moody air that made them instant icons of the moment. The surviving photos became known as the magnificent eleven and can be seen here.

A question many photographers have, myself included, is what camera Capa used for this event. From the research I have done and photos I have seen of Capa in that era and during the Spanish cival war, it is most likely he was using a Contax II camera. For lenses, I'm guessing he would have had the photo-journalist's favorite arsenal including a 5cm f/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar, 3.5cm f/2.8 Zeiss Biogon, and 13.5cm f/4 Zeiss Sonnar. He probably didn't need a light meter for shooting black and white, but could have had a Zeiss Helios meter like the one in the photo below.

A typical WWII photo-journalist's outfit for a Contax II camera might include 3.5cm, 5cm, and 13.5cm lenses like those pictured above.  The small light meter off to the right is a Zeiss Helios.

One of Capa's surviving photos taken with a Contax II camera on D-Day.
Capa had a saying: "If your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough". He was definitely close enough on D-Day.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Fuji X-Pro1 X-E1 firmware updates

Fujifilm announced two new camera body updates for the X-Pro1 and X-E1. The first update available today, June 25th, allows for one-handed operation of the focus selection frame by pressing the function button. A second function button, the down arrow on the command dial, has also been added so you do not have to give up you current fn setting.

For me, this update is a huge improvement in the operation of this camera. One of the drawbacks of the older version was that it took two hands and a cumbersome move to change the focus point selector. The procedure was very slow and awkward. Now, with a single press of the down arrow you can quickly turn on and move the focus point selector. This is a one handed operation and can be performed without moving your eye from the viewfinder window.

A new function button, the down arrow indicated by the red 1 arrow, has been added. Press it once and you can move the focus selector frame (2) to any point on the overall image frame. 

This update also enables control of the aperture for the new lenses, such as the 27mm and 16-50mm, that do not have an physical aperture ring.

You can download this new update here:


and read about them here:

A further firmware update is scheduled for July 23rd and will add focus peaking to manual focusing. I am already familiar with this feature on the new Leica M (240) and find it to be very helpful for pinpoint focusing accuracy. In addition to another improvement in autofocus speed, this update will also improve the speed dial magnification feature in manual focus mode by allowing you to press the dial and alternate between 3x or 10x simply by turning the dial right or left.

Congratualtions to Fuji on these firmware updates. They are definitely moving the X-series cameras in a positive direction by adding features photographers will find helpful for operating the camera controls quickly and efficiently with the least amount of interruption to the picture taking process.
Legends: Alpa 9d Reflex camera

Alpa was the brand name for high end reflex cameras made by the Swiss company, Pignons S.A. The original 1940's design by Jacques Bolsky was revolutionary for its time. It was a high end camera with a reputation for precise elegance, much like that of a Leica M cameras of the time. The front facing ratchet advance lever worked opposite to most other cameras. The shutter release was mounted on the front of the camera where it could be coupled to lenses thereby stopping down the aperture at the same time. The camera back was removable allowing accessory backs to be mounted.

Although Alpa continued making reflex cameras until production ceased with the model 11 in the 1990's, for me the 9d was the pinnacle of the Alpa Reflex design both in terms of its looks and features. Made in 1964, it introduced an SLR view finder with a built-in CdS TTL meter.

A black Alpa 9d with 90mm Schacht Alpa-Altenar lens and a 135mm Schneider-Kreuznach Tele-Zenar next to it.
Alpa did not make its own lenses, but instead relied on other high-end optical companies such as Kern of Switzerland, Enna, Old Delft, Angenieux, Schneider, Schacht and Kinoptik to produce lenses with an Alpa mount. Even the camera lens mount was unusual, having a shorter lens-to-film distance than most SLR cameras of the day.

Here the 9d is fitted with a rare Angenieux Alpa Retrofocus 24mm f/3.5 lens. Note the aperture ring mounted as a ring on top of the lens. The lens has a shutter release button. When pressed it closes the lens diaphragm and then trips the camera shutter button beneath it.
An early 80-250mm Enna zoom lens is mounted on this silver 9d. 
Here a 9d is fit with one of the most renowned macro lenses of all time, the 50mm f/1.8 Kern Macro-Switar. This was replaced with an f/1.9 version in 1968.  I found a Leica M adapter for this lens and will be trying it out and posting results in a future blog post.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

New beginnings

The birth of a child has become a multi-media event today with the first images immediately splashed over the internet on Facebook, Instagram, blogs and Youtube. Here are some photos I did over the past few days in the hospital, where I captured the birth of a baby girl. To record the event I used a multitude of cameras, including a cellphone, Sony RX100, Fuji X-Pro1, and the granddaddy of them all, a Nikon D800. Everything was shot with a softly filtered window light and an ISO ranging from 640-1600.

One of my favorite shots is this one of the back of an RX100 displaying an image of the first minutes of the baby's life. I converted the photo to black and white but kept the display image in color. The exact time and date of the original photo are part of the display and help record the baby's birth moment for posterity.

As the German architect, Ludwig Meis Van der Rohe once said: "God is in the details".

Good things come in small packages.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Rainy day shooting in the park

After our experience with the harsh mid day light when shooting models in the park a few days ago, we decided to book our next shooting later in the day, from 4-7, to take advantage of the late sun just before sunset. Problem was a thunderstorm rolled in and it clouded over with a light rain falling just as we began to shoot. Clouds are not a real problem. In fact they can be a blessing when shooting with a foliage background by reducing the contrast between shadows and highlights. And warming up the colors of an overcast day is easy today in post-processing.  We managed to shoot for an hour and a half of our schedule before it began raining really hard and we had to quit.

Unpleasant shadows on the models face are always a problem on a dull day. We use large reflectors of a gold-silver mix and hold them at a very low angle to the models face to reflect the cloudy, white sky up into the shadows.

Dressing the model in light, warm colored clothing helps to counter act the dulling affect from an overcast day. 

Our shooting script called for a lot of action shots so it was necessary to boost the ISO to 640 or 800 to gain sufficient action-stopping shutterspeed. I shot at f/2.8 with on Nikon 70-200mm lens and 24-70mm zooms.

What you don't see here is all the streaks from rain drops falling around the model. I removed them with Photoshop.

We always include a gray card in every scene when shooing. Once click on the white or gray in Adobe Bridge is all it takes to restore the colors to standard or warm daylight. This is particularly helpful on an overcast day such as this one. The card I use is the QPcard 101 shown here.

One thing I did in this shot and all the others shown here, it to punch the background color up a bit. To do this I switched the color space from RGB to LAB in Photoshop and used adjustment curves to intensify the A and B channels. I then painted the intense color out of the models skin so it wouldn't be overly enhanced. Finally, I brought the image back into RGB.  I prefer color enhancement using LAB because it is the most extensive and non destructive color space, and does not tend to posterize the colors.

The clouds began to darken, the rain intensified, and things were getting quite wet. This was the last shot we were able to do before we quit. You can see how wet the stone steps are from the rain. Nonetheless, the colors are bright, the shadows are under control, and the exposure is evenly lit. It is interesting to compare this shooting with the one I posted a few days ago. That was the same location, but on a very brightly lit sunny day.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Using the Voigtlander 12mm and 15mm lenses on the Leica M (240)

I use my Leica mostly for travel and landscape photography and like having very wide angle lenses available for dramatic, sweeping effects tying in the foreground and background. My widest Leica lens is a 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit. While it is my favorite for this type shot, I sometimes want something even wider. Leica makes an 18mm but that is not significantly different from my 21mm, plus it is expensive.  Enter the Voigtlander 12mm and 15mm lenses.  Both are relatively inexpensive at $799 for the 12mm, and $599 for the 15mm -- actually downright cheap by Leica standards.  The electronic viewfinder on the new Leica M makes these lenses all the easier to use, and save you from having to purchase an optical finder for them.

The maximum apertures on these lenses are nothing to write home about, but for the price, I'm willing to work around that problem, especially since I use them mostly outdoors and like to work with them stopped down to achieve maximum depth and sharpness. And after all, you're not exactly seeking good bokeh from a super-wide angle lens.

A Voigtlander 15mm Super Wide Heliar lens mounted on a Leica M (240) with a Voigtlander 12mm Ultra-Wide Heliar next to it.
The 12mm f/5.6 Ultra Wide Heliar, delivering a 121° angle of view, is the widest rectilinear focal length available for full frame cameras.  The 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide Heliar has a more practical 100° angle of view.  By comparison, my 21mm lens has a 90° angle of view. Both Voigtlander lenses produce sharp images, even into the corners of the frame, particularly when stopped down a bit.

Sounds good so far.  So where's the catch?

The first problem is that ultra wide angle lenses and digital sensors have a hard time mixing. This is particularly true of the Leica M cameras where the sensor and sensor software are computed to deliver perfect images with Leica lenses.  My 21mm Elmarit works flawlessly. When other super wides are used strange things happen. Heavy vignetting takes place along with color shifts in the corners and edges of the frame.  It is so bad with the Voigtlander lenses that it would be a deal breaker were it not for a handy piece of share-ware software called, Cornerfix.  Cornerfix does what the firmware built into most camera does: It corrects for the aberrations between the lens and the sensor. Admittedly, this adds an extra step in the post processing of images, but I find it a small price to pay for the results it delivers.

Here is how it works: With the lens in question mounted on the camera and set to infinity (focus doesn't matter),  you take a photo of a large white card surface that is evenly lit, preferably with soft daylight. Next you open this image in Cornerfix and use the "Create" option under Lens Profile to analyze and correct the image to pure white. You save this lens profile for future use. Then, when you have a lens that needs correction, you open it, open the corresponding lens profile, and the image is corrected in no time at all.  What is more, Cornerfix has a batch processing feature so you can correct an entire directory of images with the same profile.  Nice!

This shows the Cornerfix correction of a white card photo taken with the Voigtlander 15mm lens.  It has heavy vignetting and red tinting on the sides.  The white image on the right is the same photo after Cornerfix has corrected it.  This corrected image will be saved as a control for future shots taken with this same lens.
You will notice that the vignetting on the test image is quite heavy. This can cause noise problems with actual images. The corners are often several stops darker than the central area. In opening up the dark corners, you  are effectively boosting the ISO and so adding a bad type of noise to the area. To counter act this I set my Leica to over expose by at least one full stop. Cornerfix can be the set to both open the shadows and lower the central highlights at the same time. This will even out the overall exposure and not result in as much noise in the corners.

I have found it best to code the lenses so that the Leica M will read them as a 21mm f/2/8 11134 and make some corrections to them accordingly. Of course this means that the image data lists them as a 21mm lens, but it does provide the correct f/stop info.

Below are a few images taken with the 15mm Super Wide Heliar. As you can see, one of the things I like to do with these lenses is include a sun burst. Links to the hi res files are included below.

This image and those below are sharp all the way into the corners. Due to the extreme lighting differential between the sun and the deep shadows in the World Trade Center on the left, there is residual noise in the lower left corner where Cornerfix lightened the dark vignette. In the building on the right you can also see a typical sample of moiré, a result of the Leica not having an anti-aliasing filter over its sensor. Click here to download the hi res version.

Click here to download the hi res version.

World Trade Center construction site.
The image below of a church interior was taken with the 12mm Ultra Wide Heliar. Some correction had to be done for fringing on the blown out windows along the edges of the frame, but this is typical with any lens in a situation such as this and easily corrected in Photoshop.  Even at f/5.6 the depth of field is astounding with this lens.

This interior church view was taken at 1600 ISO. I could not use a tripod and needed to keep the shutter speed high enough to hand hold the camera. For this reason I did not over-expose the shot to brighten the vignetted corners, and excessive noise did build up in those areas after treatment of the image in Cornerfix. I fixed some of the noise when bringing the RAW image in through Photoshop Bridge, but left the rest of it uncorrected so you can see the problem in the hi res download.  Click here to download the hi res version.
If you are planning on purchasing either of these lenses, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

The Voigtlander Heliar Ultra Wide-Angle 12mm f/5.6 is available at:  BH-Photo   Amazon  
The Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical II 15mm f/4.5 is available at:  BH-Photo  Amazon 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Feijoada -  and the Sony RX100

Feijoada is a traditional dish in Brazil, served typically on Saturdays around mid-day so you could pass out afterwards and wake up later in the day ready to finish celebrating the weekend. I lived in Brazil for three years and had a feijoada almost every weekend. It is made with black beans simmered overnight along with some parts of beef and pork that you were afraid to inquire about. It comes with sides of collard greens, oranges (to soften the taste), and farofa, a seasoned manioc flour to be sprinkled over the rice and beans to add texture. The complete meal pictured below is served along with great Brazilian music at Miss Favela in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Saturdays, as tradition demands. Fabuloso!  Fortunately I have the Sony RX100 with me at all times so I don't miss recording these culinary experiences.

Rumor has it that there will be an update announcement later this month for this popular Sony camera, called the DSC-RX100M2.  The specs on the new version remain largely the same except that there will be an addition of a hot shoe, a flip screen, wi-fi capabilities, and increased ISO range of 100-12800 (up from 100-6400). I am wondering if the addition of a hot shoe may indicate an accessory electronic viewfinder on the horizon.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A brief moment as a street photographer

My Leica M is back from Solms so I took it and a 35mm Summilux lens out for a test drive. These reflection shots are self-portraits of me pretending to be a street photographer in the big apple.  Hmmm...judging from the results, becoming a street photographer may not be a smart career move.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Back to Central Park

We had some very overcast weather in New York this past week so I was able to go back into Central Park to work on my "Solitude" project.  An overcast day gives me the blown out sky that I like. In addition, it provides much lower contrast and more colorful detail in the vegetation.

Each time I go to the park I cover only one specific area.  I made two trips this week, both in the very northern end where the landscaping is natural and remote.

The first place I covered was The Ravine, a naturally wooded area with streams and waterfalls.

On my second visit I went to The Pool, a small, irregularly shaped pond, quiet and remote enough to attract considerable wildlife.


In addition to a limited edition book, I am planning on making some large prints of this series so I photographed it exclusively with a Nikon D800 on a tripod and with a low ISO.  For most of the scenic images the lens was stopped down to either f/22 or f/16.