Year end musings

As 2015 draws to a close, it's time for a short review of my state of the photo nation.
  1. I'm down to three camera systems: Nikon FX, Nikon CX, and Fuji X. M43 has gone away, and hasn't been missed.
  2. The D3 is now on its eighth year, and still going strong. The batteries are due for a replacement though, as they are at the end of life per the indicator, and don't hold as much of a charge.
  3. The D5200 gets the occasional use when I need the extra resolution. I'm still not as impressed with the high ISO IQ though.
  4. The V1 is gone, replaced by the V2. I haven't had much time to use this camera, and plan to save it mostly for surfing and video. There is already a flaw in the plan though as the Sigma 500mm won't work with the FT1. I don't know if this is a problem with the V2 or with the FT1 as  I upgraded the firmware on the latter. The firmware upgrade allowed the FT1 to do continuous AF with the V2, but it seems at a cost. I'm waiting for a response from Sigma to find out if there is a fix. If not, I'm stuck with the 70-200mm + TC-14E for surfing (756mm 35mm-equivalent). Still not a bad combination, but not quite the 1350mm 35mm-equivalent I'd get with the Sigma.
  5. The V2 also has some weird restrictions when shooting at 15fps. There's an aperture limitation (no greater than f/5.6) in this mode. Nikon wants me to call them to discuss this, but I haven't had the opportunity over the hectic holidays.
  6. The V2 IQ is a bit grittier than the V1. Looks like I need to work on my sharpening settings.
  7. The Fuji X-E1 has been a great walkaround camera over the last five months. Yes, the AF is dog slow, but I've been mostly using it with adapted lenses, so that hasn't been an issue. The IQ from the camera has been very good though, and it's a good balance between the IQ of FX and the portability of CX. Nikon, where is your mirrorless DX body?
So overall things are looking good for 2016. No new hardware is in the cards, for now at least.

From the V1 to the V2

Earlier this year I was looking at getting a used Nikon V2. As much as I enjoy using the V1 for surfing photos, the damned image review that can't be turned off has cost me quite a few shots. I've been waiting for Nikon to make that oh so small change to the firmware, but that's been a waste of time.

In the meanwhile, I got distracted by the Fujifilm X-E1. The IQ is so much better than the V1, although AF speed can't compare. Despite that drawback, the X-E1 has replaced the V1 as my small, carry anywhere body.

So where does that leave the V1? Well, it was going to remain my surfing camera (which means selling the 10mm, 18.5mm and SB-N5), but then I found a V2 body with the 10-30mm PD lens going for a decent price (thanks again, Craigslist).

A few observations:
1. The V2 body is smaller and lighter. It's not that much smaller than the V1, but being thin with that big grip gives the impression that it's much smaller. Being lighter also helps, but that is at the expense of battery life.
2. The PD lens is very convenient. Turn on the camera and the lens opens and extends, no need to remove a lens cap and then push a button to extend the lens. Hopefully the mechanism doesn't break down.
3. The grip makes it easy to hold the camera, but it gets uncomfortable after several minutes. The corners are not as rounded as on a Nikon DSLR body, which is probably one reason my fingers start hurting after using the V2.
4. There are some surprising missing features compared to the V1, such as no battery status (really, Nikon?), no interval timer, and no option to independently turn the AF confirmation and shutter sounds on or off.
5. Auto ISO is still not correctly implemented with a minimum shutter speed setting as on Nikon's DSLR bodies. I thought the algorithm was favoring lower shutter speeds in aperture priority, but a quick test with the V1 shows similar exposures.
6. There's no way to manually select between the electronic and mechanical shutters (aside from picking silent mode). With the V1, I tend to shoot using the electronic shutter, even at slower speeds.
7. I found out my FT-1 was one firmware upgrade behind when I was unable to focus continuously at 15fps. I did a rough test using the same lens on both the V1 and V2, and the V1 feels like it's focusing faster (or refocusing more often) than the V2. 

Not having image review is a relief though. I'm looking forward to the next trip to Hawaii so I can test the V2.

The V1 is off to another Nikon fan. It will get some good use and will still be loved, but by a new owner.

Ultron on the D3

I've been itching to see how well the 50mm Ultron does on an FX sensor, but unfortunately the flange focal distance of the M42 mount is a little over 1mm longer than that of the Nikon F-mount. Add the extra mm or so from a converter, and the Ultron turns into a macro lens. 

The adapter I bought did have a glass element to compensate for this, and it did give me infinity focus, but the IQ was really, really bad. So off came the glass element (well, more like hammered away). You would think that 2mm or so wouldn't make much of a difference, but the Ultron was barely able to focus to four feet.

I took a few photos, and that was that. Maybe one day I'll find a Canon FX body at a bargain price and give it another go.


The 52mm filter adapter for the Ultron from eBay finally arrived after a false start (wrong item shipped, had to get a refund and re-order). It's a nicely machined piece, and fits well into the B50 mount. The tabs are a bit on the thin side, something to keep in mind. I'm now able to mount 52mm screw-in hoods and filters.

I tried several hoods, and unfortunately it takes a pretty deep one to minimize the appearance of the rainbow flare. Note that it isn't totally eliminated; I don't have a 52mm screw mount hood that's deep enough for that. Adding the adapter and a hood on the lens makes it pretty big, and doesn't quite look right on the X-E1. I've also covered that nice chrome finish on the nose of the lens. Function over form.

Going German

Craigslist is a dangerous place. While reading a post in the Fuji forum about the Zeiss 50mm Ultron, I ran across a craigslist posting selling a copy of this lens with an Icarex body. Met up with the seller, and after a little negotiation, I welcomed another lens to the stable.

From what I can gather from the web, this lens is a Voigtlander design that was given the Zeiss label when Voigtlander was purchased by Zeiss. It has a concave front element (again, German engineering answering a question that was never asked). My copy has an M42 mount, but it was also available in the native Icarex bayonet mount.

This is my first piece of German glass. I don't count the Voigtlander 58mm Nokton I owned several years ago as it was a Japanese built and designed lens. It's a hefty piece of glass, but it's also the smallest 50mm I've owned (that makes it the most dense) short of the Nikon 50mm f/1.8E pancake lens. The aperture ring is clickless, which makes it difficult to set the aperture on the fly. Filter mount is an Icarex B50 bayonet (don't confuse this with the Hasselblad B50), which makes filters and hoods expensive. There is a B50 to threaded 52mm adapter available.

The lens is wickedly sharp, especially in the center. Contrast is strong (is this the micro contrast that every talks about when they discuss German glass?), especially in bright sunlight. Focusing is relatively easy, although I usually find myself reaching for the wider aperture ring instead of the focus ring. Both rings are about the same width and because of the small size of the lens, are close to each other. Nothing that more use won't be able to correct. There isn't that much CA, which is a pleasant surprise for such an old lens.

Bokeh is nervous though, and can get a bit swirly under the right conditions. It's a look that I find a little disturbing (does it make me nervous?). Flare is also very weird, with a rainbow curve (possibly due to the concave front element) and reduced contrast. It's prone to this if the light source is outside of the viewfinder, but not when it's visible in the photo. Veiling flare is a problem, with even blue shirts showing quite a bit of glow. There are only five aperture blades (that overlap in the most complicated pattern I've seen), leading to pentagonal highlights. The pentagons have rounded corners and fuzzy edges, so they're not very distracting. 

Rainbow flare, light source up and to the right. Contrast adjusted in post
Despite all the drawbacks, there are moments when this lens sings and the subject pops out of the frame. It's a combination of the contrast, sharpness and color. Just don't examine the bokeh too closely as the dizziness will start. You do have to identify the situations when this lens will give you an image that sings versus one that croaks.

How does the lens compare to my other "normal" primes? On the plus side it has the most contrast and is the sharpest wide open across the frame. On the minus side it has the worst bokeh and flare characteristics.

Back to the Voigtlander 58mm; the IQ of the Ultron reminds me of that lens, although the Zeiss is sharper wide open. I wonder how that lens performs on the Fuji? I sold mine because normal isn't really a range that I like on an FX body, not because of the IQ. I've ordered an M42 to Nikon F adapter as I'm curious to see how the Ultron performs on an FX sensor.

So now I have a surfeit of ~50mm lenses. Which one to sell?

More from the air

Just a few shots from 35k feet in the air. I still haven't figured out how to fix the color cast of photos taken through a plane window.

Coming home to Fuji

Fujifilm has been a part of my shooting history for a long time. My first film SLR was a Fujica ST-605n, in all its match needle glory. That was followed by an AX-5, the poor man's Canon A1. I loved the multiple exposure modes of that body, and its small, 1980's modern design (despite what Fuji says, I don't see the resemblance in the X-T10). I only had two lenses (the kit 55mm and a 200mm), but managed to take some good photos with it. I also preferred the warmer skin tones of Fuji for color negative film over Kodak film (they haven't aged well though, losing the blue channel on my older strips).

My first digital camera was a Fujifilm MX-1700. A compact camera with a huge 1.5MP of resolution, it served me for a little while, but at its heart it was a p&s. My next p&s was a Fujifilm F45fd, gifted with a sensor that had decent high ISO capabilities for a p&s. I considered some of the Nikon-bodied Fuji DSLRs, but their higher price and weaker specs made them a poor choice. 

But now with the X-trans bodies, it's time to go back home. I whetted my taste for a smaller system with the V1, and got good pictures out of it. Its poor high ISO IQ and limited lenses (where is that 35mm-equivalent lens, Nikon?) made me look at Fuji's X system, with its 16MP X-trans sensor. Scouring craiglist, and doing some negotiation, snagged me an X-E1 body, an 18-55mm kit lens, and 27mm prime for a small amount of money.

The body and lenses are bigger and heavier than my V1 kit, but a lot smaller than the D3 and FX lenses. The battery doesn't last that long because of the EVF, akin to the V1 experience. The lenses mount in the opposite direction to a Nikon F-mount or CX mount.

There's quite a learning curve with the X-E1. The UI isn't as familiar or developed as that of Nikon. For example, you can only zoom in if the focus mode is set to MF, even if the body knows it doesn't have an AF lens connected. There's no mode to allow the rear LCD to come on for menu use yet restrict shooting to the viewfinder. The 27mm doesn't have an aperture ring, so you have to use the command dial to set the aperture (similar to a Nikon DSLR). The 18-55mm on the other hand has an aperture ring, which threw me off one day as I tried to set the aperture using the command dial. The aperture ring is also very loose and electronic with no fixed click stops, requiring constant verification that the aperture hasn't moved by accident. 

Being part of the original X-trans bodies, AF on the X-E1 is a leisurely affair. It is faster than I expected it to be, but it's still a slug compared to Nikon's 1-series, let alone a D3. Native lenses are a bit on the expensive side, even used ones due to the young age of the system. The lenses I have are very good though, and haven't disappointed (although the 27mm needs a hood, something Fuji hasn't released).

The image quality is also very good. High ISO results are up there with the D3200 and D5200 that I've used recently. Colors are on the vibrant side. I haven't played too much with the film simulations; something to do in the future. Out of camera JPGs are excellent, sometimes better than what I get from converting RAW files using ACR. There's a little grittiness to converted images that I have yet to figure out. 

The fun part with the X-E1 is using older lenses. Switching to MF with an EVF requires you to slow down and focus. It's not the run and gun camera like the V1 and D3; it's a throwback to my film days. Not always a good thing, but not always a bad thing either. So far I have an F-mount, an M42, and an X-Fujinon adapter. There's a bit of play with all the adapters I've bought, and my 55mm f/1.2 will only go on the F-mount adapter with a lot of force. I almost bought a Metabones Speed Booster, but after thinking it over, I'm better saving up for the Fujinon 23mm instead of adapting my Nikon 35mm without AF.

I would love to have the Fujinon 23mm f/1.4 lens for general shooting, but at this point in time it's a bit too expensive. Down the road I can see myself upgrading to an X-T1 or X-E2 for the faster AF, but for now I can make do with slow AF.

Additional nits to pick:
1. The lens release button is too small and too close to the lens mount. I have small fingers, and I still have to use two hands to release the lens, unlike with my Nikon bodies. Not very convenient for lens switching.
2. The viewfinder is all the way off to the left, another thing to get used to.
3. I haven't found much of a use for the shutter speed dial; Nikon's command and control dials make switching aperture and shutter so much easier without having to look away from the viewfinder (in fairness the X-T1 has two dials).
4. The battery door is hinged on the wrong side and makes it difficult to remove the SD card (again, despite my small fingers).

Overall, I am enjoying the X-E1, and am looking forward to getting the most out of it. It's been a long time, but it's great to be back.

Olympus body cap fun

Craigslist can sometimes be a source of fun spending. I ran across an Olympus 15mm f/8 body cap for a good price, and found a Panasonic Lumix GF2, also at a good price, to mount it on. 

I decided to set the camera to a square crop as a challenge. It's been a little difficult. I started out shooting obviously square things, but that didn't really work out. I've tried different things such as centering the subject, offsetting to the bottom or to the side. I'm not that happy with the results, but this is an ongoing challenge to stretch. 

 The body cap is an odd lens. There's some distortion, the corners aren't that good, and shooting at f/8 is best left for bright sunlight or web viewing. I've also cranked up the saturation to give the images that playful, toy camera look. 

Using the GF2 reminded me of why I gave up on the Olympus EP-1 a few years ago: I still can't compose using the rear LCD screen. But the combination of the two can be fun. Small and very pocketable, more so than the V1. Not having to worry about focus can make for some fast, discreet shooting.

The challenge continues. In the end I'll probably give up on the GF2 as I don't need a fourth system (hmm, F-mount, CX, m43, and what's the fourth?). But the two cost so little that it's fun just to have another option.

Manual focus for sports

Make that for one sport. I snagged a trio of Nikon E lenses a few months ago (the collection is growing), and finally had time to give one of them a try. With the 100mm f/2.8E in hand (along with the 35mm f/1.8G ED), I did my usual tour of the city.

The lens is tiny, as are most MF lenses compared to their AF counterparts. It's a bit unbalanced on the D3, and would make a better fit on a DSLR without a vertical grip. Using the aperture ring on the lens to set the aperture brings back fond memories of the old days with my EM and Fujica film bodies. The focus action is smooth, although not up to the level of a Nikkor lens. The E lenses were Nikon's attempt at challenging the proliferation of third party lenses, and so don't have the same build quality and optical performance of their regular lens line.
Nikon 105mm f/2 DC and 100mm f/2.8E with HB-31 hood
Nikon 105mm f/2 DC and 100mm f/2.8E with HB-31 hood
As I wandered through the city, I decided to zigzag around Chinatown to look for some corners that I hadn't photographed before. I ran across several volleyball games going on at the Willie "Woo Woo" Wong Playground, and thought I'd try to take a few shots.

The only time I tried MF for sports was a painful 30 minutes trying to capture surfing with the V1 and Sigma 500mm. Painful because that combination results in very, very tight framing, and is unwieldy when you're trying to MF.

I did a lot better this time. Yes, I missed focus quite a lot, shooting at f/5.6 through the fence. Timing of course is an issue, but I never said I was a pro. Some of the shots have the player's hand right on the ball, making it look more like a basketball game than volleyball. It took me some time to remember that I was shooting action and switch to manual exposure to keep the shutter speed up.

But I did snag some keepers, leaving me pretty happy. 

Hit rate: 27/732, or 4%

First outing with the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G ED FX

After over a month of waiting, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G ED FX lens finally arrived. I had already sold my 35mm f/2 AF, and have been making do with the DX version. Oddly enough, I hesitated on buying the lens when the sale started in February, and by the time I did buy it, the lens was out of stock. Snooze you lose.

So it's off to the How Weird Street Faire (my first time) with the challenge of using a 35mm lens instead of the usual 70-200mm. It's difficult for me to get that close to a subject when taking a photo as I don't like to be in your face, but it's good to push yourself every now and then.

The results weren't bad. There were a few times when I was too far for my taste, and I had to crop the images to get the result I liked. The lens didn't disappoint though, with nice sharpness, acceptable OOF, and spot on AF. I like the results better than the AF version.

Next step is to try it out on the V1.

In the meanwhile, here are some choice shots from the event.

DX travel

I recently had the opportunity to spend a little over a week in the island paradise of Bali. Since this would be my first (and probably last) time there, I obsessed over what kit to bring for this one shot deal. I settled on bringing both the V1 and the D5200. 

Lenses became the next issue. I had two options for a wide lens on DX: the Sigma 12-24mm and the Nikon 18-55mm VR. I chose the latter as it gave me the option to go really wide (18mm FX equivalent) if needed. I ran a few tests at home and was satisfied with the result. For reach, I chose the 70-300mm VR as this would work well with both cameras.

Off I went on my long journey. First thing, the Sigma is a heavy lens. I'm used to traveling with the V1, which makes for a light and small kit. The Sigma weighs about as much as the whole V1 set. I did manage to fit most of the kit in a Lowepro Transit Sling 250.

Second issue: The Sigma has problems in the corners. The results were all over the place, varying with aperture and focal length, corner to corner. Sometimes one corner would be OK, then it would be bad on another photo, with the difference between the two being one or both of the two parameters. Yes, I should have tested this more before I made the trip, but I was pressed for time. And looking back at the test shots that I made, I can see the same issues, although not as bad.

Here's a sample taken with the Sigma at 24mm and f/8. Note how the three photos from the lower part of the image don't have the amount of detail that can be seen in the upper corners.

Third issue: Flare and the lack of a polarizer. The Sigma with its huge, curved front element is plagued by flare, even with the extra hood. This is a problem in an always-sunny, tropical location like Bali. I was also surprised to see vignetting in two corners with the extra hood attached. Keep in mind that I use this lens mostly on an FX body, and rarely use the extra hood. I thought it wouldn't be an issue on DX because of the sensor crop, but again I should have done more testing. Thankfully the lack of having a polarizer for the Sigma was solved by using the V1.

In hindsight, the 18-55mm would have been the better choice. There were very few instances when I needed to go really wide, and I could have just done a stitched shot instead.

Fourth issue: My 70-300mm VR won't VR with the D5200. Turns out VR doesn't work on the D3 either. It works fine on the V1 (which was the last body on which I used this lens); something to do with having VR always active that forces it to work. Not too much of an issue as I didn't hit any good surfing spots on this trip.

Overall, the bodies and lenses that I brought accomplished the task. Could the photos have been better? Yes, but it's too late for that. Lesson learned: don't use a once in a lifetime opportunity to test lens and body combinations.