25 February, 2014

Sony 70-200mm f/4, E-Mount

The Sony FE 70-220 f/4 E-mount

Last year, Sony announced its 70-200mm f/4 for the full-frame, E Mount. It should be
available soon. As a native E-Mount lens it will work for the APS-C "NEX" cameras as well, albeit as a 105-300mm, but probably with less chromatic aberration, vignetting and distortion.

I'm not a "long shooter," and I prefer primes. So why am I talking about the upcoming 70-200mm zoom?

I think primes are more robust, more compact, lighter, usually sharper, and brighter, and often less expensive—and you can usually "zoom" with your feet. So, for me, most of the heavy lifting is accomplished with the three usual suspects: A moderate-wide 24mm (36mm equivalent), a standard 32mm (48mm equivalent), and a moderate-telephoto 55mm (82mm equivalent).

At the periphery, however, there's still some work to do. It seems to me that's where zooms make the most sense: The 10-18mm (15-27mm equivalent) at the really wide end, and at the longer end....

The professional, 70-200mm workhorses (still Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Tamron) are usually f/2.8s. Nevertheless, when you're looking to save a little space and weight, going with a f/4 makes some sense. But at f/4, the Sony will have to be pretty good wide open. No one wants to stop down from there to find the sweet spot. 

It's great to see a zoom that's strong across its range. But, alas, that's often not the case. If the new Sony favours one end, I'd rather it be on the short end; to be the the most useful extension from the territory of the primes.

It's a Sony "G," so they want us to know that they're taking it seriously. Sony really needs this lens to be a strong competitor. But we'll just have to wait and see; and, perhaps, start saving.

19 June update: The DXOMark review has been in for a little while. I won't steal their thunder, except to say they call it a "Classy Contender." And, yes, I bought one.

19 February, 2014

Epson ABW, Is it better? Pt3

Bowman Park, Brisbane Queensland

This is the third, and final, installment in my experiments with Epson's Advanced Black and White (ABW) printer driver.

In Part 1, I started with A4, Canson Baryta Photographique. Then, in Part 2, I used that same paper, but in A2. And now, in Part 3, I'm having a look at the results with a matte paper: Epson's Hot Press Natural.

But first, a slight digression:

Epson produced a series of videos to advertise their "Signature Worthy" papers. And, Hot Press Natural is one of those. The photographer in Epson's HPN video is David Lynch, who most people know for his movies. At one point Lynch says of the paper,

It feels very organic and proper. And the image that pops up off of it is phenomenal. This Hot Press Natural is, I think, a paper that I've been waiting for all along.
Before I tried the paper, I thought of his comments as advertising hyperbole. It's now my favourite matte paper. It's warm, so it's outstanding for portraits. It's a very smooth paper, unlike the Cold Press papers that have more texture. It's free of optical brightening agents (OBAs). And it feels like paper. (Epson, feel free to send me a couple of boxes of paper for the plug. Aw, go ahead, I dare you.)

Back to ABW.

This time the comparison was only between the black and white print from the usual Epson driver printing out of Lightroom (using the canned Epson color profile), and ABW (with the printer managing the colour). I couldn't produce a third candidate (a profiled ABW print) as there's no B&W ABW profile from Eric Chan for HPN. Eric has one for Hot Press Bright, but that would have been more experimentation than I was looking for.

I think that in images with more subtle transitions, with fog or mist for example, there might be advantages using ABW. But in the image I used for this exercise ("The Wall," shown in Part 1), I couldn't see an ABW advantage.

Once again the native resolution was 241ppi, that I "rezed up" to 360ppi. At the A2 size, the apparent resolution was on a par with the Canson. The detail in the shadows held in both prints and there was no banding and no colour cast in either print.

So, after using more paper and ink (on the Epson 3880 there's an additional ink impost of a few mils in switching from photo black ink to matte black, and then a couple of more mils when I go back the other way), what's the verdict?

Unless I have a special case, I won't be using ABW. I didn't see an ABW benefit in this matte paper; and the benefit in papers that take photo black ink, seem minor to me.

11 February, 2014

Are we there yet?

To use the DXO interactive chart, you need to go there.

Sony's NEX-7 has been around since 2011, so Sony watchers have been awaiting a replacement for a little while now. And, now we have the a6000 — the "NEX" name is gone. The new camera seems to provide incremental (rather than groundbreaking) improvements to the Sony line. This has given me a chance to think about the situation more generally.

DXOMark provides sensor ratings for most digital cameras. And, while not perfect, the DXO scores afford some useful comparative information about camera sensors (and their processing engines). But, in considering these "scores," it's important to remember that 2 or 3 points either way are insignificant.

So let's have a look.

The NEX-7 has an impressive, overall DXO sensor rating of 81. (We'll have to wait for the new A6000's DXO score.) [Update: the A6000 came in with a score of 82.] And, as I've looked at the field, there seems to be a barrier at around 85. For example, no APS-C camera breaks through that barrier. And, not even the Leica full-frames get to 85: The Leica Type 240 scores an 84, the Leica 220 is at 69, and the Leica M9 comes in at 69. No tested Canon, full-frame or otherwise, scores above 82.

So, what gets across that line? Three medium-format backs and twelve full-frames. All of the full-frames are either Sonys or Nikons (i.e. Sony sensors).

Until the beginning of 2012, only four cameras had scored above 85: The three Phase One medium-format backs and the Nikon D3X.

Many people's choice for 2013 camera of the year, the impressive Olympus OMD E-M1, comes in at 73—the best score for a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Thinking about it, I don't know what I was expecting. (Even if they could, there's no chance that Sony is going to let it's APS-C cameras encroach on their full-frames.)

So, are we there yet? If by "there" we mean having cameras that can capture images that will make any photographer's/printer's heart sing, Yeah. 

Do those cameras need to be above that arbitrary line? Nope.

I'm sure that Sony and the other sensor makers will continue to work overtime to develop the next generation of sensors. It just doesn't look like that's going to happen this week.

10 February, 2014

Epson ABW, Is it better? Pt2

Rockhampton, Queensland

This follows on from my experiment with ABW in January. ("ABW" is Epson's own "Advanced Black and White" printer driver. You might need to read that January post to understand what's happening in this one.)

Once again, I printed the same black and white "Wall" image; but this time on A2 Canson Baryta Photographique (with 1.5 inch borders). Printing at that larger size brought the native resolution down to 241ppi (that I "rezed up" to 360ppi). As before, there was a non-ABW print, an ABW print made with the Eric Chan profile, and a "plain" ABW.

To my eye, the differences narrowed a bit between the regular colour workflow B&W and the ABW print made with an Eric Chan profile. And the gap between plain ABW (still in third place) and the ABW with a profile seemed negligible. 

At the larger size some of the shadow areas opened up a bit, and there was neither banding nor colour casts in any of the prints. Admittedly, there's not much of a gradient in the image for making a judgement.

As before, if I had only made one print using the usual workflow, I would have been happy with it. My tentative conclusion is that I would need an image that I thought really deserved the extra attention of using ABW before leaving the familiar rails of Lightroom's printing module. So, yes, the convenience of the regular colour workflow seems to be trumping the quality of ABW.

I've only been comparing un-colour-toned images. For individual black and white prints I often add a bit of colour tone, or even a split tone. In those cases the Lightroom workflow seems the easy winner. (ABW can add a color tone, but can't do a split tone.)

I admit that I'm a bit uneasy with this, seeming, outcome; because I don't like to let any print quality simply slip through my fingers. (If I was going to do a lot of black & white work, I'd think about skipping ABW and investing in the ImagePrint RIP. And, no, I'm not going to test that.)

I'm a little weary of grinding through paper and ink, but I still have one question: Will using matte paper at A2 narrow the already small difference? 

My matte paper is Epson's Hot Press Natural. So, I'll have another shot when I have a bit of time. Unfortunately, I don't have an Eric Chan profile for HPN, so that test will only be between ABW and non-ABW. Stay tuned.

04 February, 2014

Short journey, long distance

Camberwell markets

In 2009, when the Panasonic GF1 came out, I was ripe for the picking. I'd been using the great LX-3 and the GF1 seemed the natural progression.

But time and sensors moved on and it didn't seem that there was going to be a worthy Panasonic successor to the GF1. Of course the PENs were great, but I wanted an in-body EVF.

I was sorely tempted by the Fujifilm X100. If Fuji had brought it out with a 50mm (equivalent) lens, they'd of had me.

But then came the NEX-7. I didn't like the look of it when I first saw it. But after the extended production delay (floods—not their fault), when I was finally able to handle one, it was incredible. The tri-navi controls were outstanding. It had the best EVF I'd seen. And it had a ground-breaking sensor. The lens selection was limited, but I'm not a long-lens shooter, so there were enough.

There was a difference in sensor size between the NEX and M4/3, but it wasn't the slight size difference that attracted me to NEX. Quite the contrary, it seems to me that above APS-C, the attendant lenses, particularly fast and stabilised lenses, pick up size and weight at an alarming rate.

It's fashionable, at this point to say something like, "I've never looked back." But that wouldn't be quite true.

I watched the Fuji X-Pro1. I was very impressed by its optical/electronic viewfinder, classic controls, and the initial, high-quality lens line-up: 18, 35 and 60mm. And, the X-Trans sensor array seemed to provide a neat trick for avoiding moire; but I was scared off when Adobe couldn't seem to come to grips with effectively de-mosaicing the RAW files.

Since then I've looked back at M4/3 a couple of times. I'm glad that Panasonic moved forward in 2013 with the GX7, but I still prefer my NEX-7 from 2011.

Of course the OMDs fluttered their eyelashes in my direction. Stabilisation, weatherproofing, size, sensor — what a combination. And there was also the nostalgia factor, as my last SLR was the OM2-S. But the OMDs just didn't have the right feel for me — perhaps because I'd owned an OM2-S.

The Zeiss Touits and Sigma offerings have since filled the Sony E-Mount gaps, except for an 85mm.

Nothing's perfect; but if this isn't a "Golden Age" of photographic tools, I don't know what is.