equipment review

updated review: Manfrotto 1004BAC lightstands

You’d think that light-stands are light-stands. They hold up studio lights or speedlights and any kind of light modifier. But what sets light-stands apart from each other, are the other features – such as portability and ease of use.

I mostly use the Manfrotto 1051BAC  / 1052BAC  and 1004BAC light-stands. My review of the Manfrotto light-stands explains this. What I like most about them, is that they are stackable. They clip together in quite a compact set of light-stands. Easier to carry with one hand. The clipping-together feature also means they don’t rattle as much as other pieces of metal gear banging against each other in the back of your car.

But there’s another feature of the tall Manfrotto 1004BAC  (B&H / Amazon USAUK), that I never quite was aware of. That there’s a certain poking-ability with them. You can extend it and poke stuff with it. Or in this case, lift the bride’s veil out of a tree.

At a wedding this weekend, as the bride and groom were posing outside on the steps of the church, a gust of wind grabbed the veil and wafted it away. It lodged in a tree. The limo drivers were onto it immediately, looking for something to dislodge the veil – and there was my light-stand. Look at the reach! And there was still one section to go. They hadn’t even gotten to the limit of that beast!

So there it is. These light-stands are awesome. They are fairly light-weight, they are very tall, and they stack together – and you can poke and dislodge stuff with it. Neat.

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review: Sony Alpha a7R camera

February 21, 2014

review: Sony Alpha a7R camera

Sony is still on fire with their new camera releases. There is the delicious full-frame compact  Sony RX1 (B&H).  (Read my review of the Sony RX1).  For a relatively long while, the best compact camera on the market was the Sony RX100 (B&H) which was improved with the Sony RX100 II (B&H). The full-frame Sony A99 DSLR also received great reports.  So no doubt about it – Sony makes great cameras.

Another trend that has gained momentum in the last year or two – Mirrorless cameras. Without the bulk of the mirror and prism, the mirrorless cameras are more compact and weigh less. But instead of that direct optical view of the world around you, there’s an electronic viewfinder (EVF).  The EVFs tended to show lag – but great improvements have been made where they show nearly real-time what the scene unfolds in front of your camera. For some, it will be a huge adaptation working with these.

But I digress. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras have become more popular. Or at least, the photo industry has been pushing these really hard, creating a buzz about these cameras. The photo industry are obviously keen on new markets that are created.

Until now, mirrorless cameras have been crop-sensor cameras. Until now – Sony has released the 24 megapixel Sony Alpha a7 camera  (B&H) and the 36 megapixel Sony Alpha a7R camera  (B&H). The a7R is interesting in that it doesn’t have an optical low-pass filter. (Anti-aliasing filter.) This allows for greater image sharpness, at the expense of occasionally risking moiré  patterns.

I had my hands on a review copy of the Sony  a7R camera (B&H) and the Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens (B&H) for a few weeks to give the camera a test run. My verdict? I kinda like it, but there are also a few surprises …

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85mm – the first lens that could change your portrait photography

If that hat seems familiar, yes,  Elle was the model in the series of photographs for the Nikon Df review article. For some of the sequences of photos that we shot, I used the 85mm lens, wide open. This had the effect of just melting the background. You can pretty much shoot anywhere, and make the background look good and non-intrusive.

While a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens can be even more effective in controlling the background, the shorter focal length, an 85mm lens can make this somewhat easier in some respects. Specifically, it’s a smaller lens and less intrusive when you photograph portraits. It’s less “threatening” to the person you’re photographing, and easier to carry around.

Just how well can you blur the background when shooting wide open with an 85mm prime lens? Compare the photo above with the pull-back shot, taken with an iPhone from the same spot …

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camera review: Nikon Df – the steampunk Nikon D4

The anachronistically retro styling of the Nikon Df (B&H), along with the digital trappings, really makes this the steampunk D4. Especially so since it has the same top-notch sensor as the Nikon D4 (B&H).

If you have used a film camera, and specifically one of the F-series cameras, this camera will catch your eye. It’s obvious that Nikon is aiming at the same sector of photographers who found the  Fuji X100s (B&H) so appealing. That vintage look and styling definitely brings a certain cool factor into play. I bought the original Fuji X100, and then the Fuji X100s partly because it looked sexy. It looked like a fun and eye-catching camera, that also happens to be a serious machine.

Now we have the Nikon Df, and it takes all your Nikon lenses and accessories. Perfect for those photographers who would find this styling interesting, and already have an array of gear. I really think this camera is meant for the connoisseur – someone who wants a camera that is stylish looking, and a superb image-making tool.

Yup, it’s all quite interesting. But let’s have a look at how the Nikon Df (B&H) performs and handles in actual use. At the same time we’ll see how it stacks up against the bigger super-awesome Nikon D4 (B&H)

You can pre-order the Nikon Df now from B&H. It comes in a Silver and Black style.
You can also buy the Nikon Df together with some Nikon lenses (B&H)

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review: Nikon 58mm f/1.4G lens

November 15, 2013

review: Nikon 58mm f/1.4G lens

The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G (B&H) is an odd focal length. It’s not-50mm. More than that, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G (B&H) is only $440, and this new 58mm lens is $1,700 … yup, that’s a pretty hefty difference! The price of the 58mm lens is in line with the 85mm f/1.4G … so could one expect improved performance?

I have to admit that the 50mm f/1.4G is my least used lens, along with the fish-eye. I’m just not that excited about using it. The focal length is just not wide enough (like a 35mm might be), nor tighter like a 85mm lens might be. So while the 50mm lens is affordable, it doesn’t set my creativity alight. So here’s a new version, which from the outside, looks like it is only slightly different. So what would set this new 58mm apart?

Looking at Nikon’s info about the lens, a little more is revealed:

Its fast f/1.4 maximum aperture produces outstanding evenly lit images with edge-to-edge sharpness—virtually no sagittal coma or light falloff. Its unique design and rounded 9-blade diaphragm produce stunning bokeh and depth of field control from f/1.4 to infinity—equally useful in daytime portraits and nighttime cityscapes.

So we’d expect a crisply sharp lens with minimal optical aberrations when used wide open. This would make the lens geared towards low-light photography (with pin-point light-sources that are controlled well.) And this lens is designed to have great bokeh.

That it handles coma very well, would indicate that this lens might be seen as a successor to the Noct Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 which is a legendary performer.

I was fortunate in being able to try out the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G (B&H), and took some photographs at night in Manhattan. I also did a few comparison shots with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G (B&H). Now, I didn’t shoot that much because it’s cold out there! So I’m only posting a few images for now, but they should suffice to show the optical performance of this lens.

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review: Profoto B1 off-camera TTL flash – 500 Ws

I’m a bit of a fan of Profoto gear. When I first started looking at the more serious on-location lighting systems, my initial purchase was the Profoto 600R. I was drawn by their reputation for reliability and features such as consistent color balance even when you change power settings. The wide variety of light modifiers, as well as the ease of use and setup also had me favor Profoto, even thought it is the more expensive system on the market. Of course, the sleek elegant look of Profoto gear also counted. As far as lighting gear goes, Profoto even looks sexy.

Profoto just released the Profoto B1 500 AirTTL flash units (B&H). With 500 Ws output, and various features which make them exceptionally suited for on-location work, Profoto really brought something exciting to the market. I believe this is going to kick them onto another level with photo enthusiasts.

Let’s look at some of the spec, and then how the Profoto B1 flashes performed during actual photo sessions.

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thoughts on using a beauty dish as a single light source

A beauty dish is one of those light modifiers that sound attractive just by name already. And when photographers start exploring other options than direct off-camera flash and umbrellas or a softbox, a beauty dish is usually one of the first alternate light modifiers that catches attention. Mine too. Right after I bought my first Profoto kit, I purchased a beauty dish for it and started exploring using a beauty dish.

A beauty dish is ideally used at a closer distance for portraits, with the light “focused” on the face, creating a gradient where the light rapidly falls off between the lighter and darker areas – yet looks soft where the light is focused. But there’s more to it than that – a beauty dish is best used with a grid to help control the light. Or used with a sock, but then the beauty dish acts very much like a round softbox, and some of its specific qualities are lost.

Quite a few of the softbox options for speedlights offer a way to create a beauty dish-like effect. An example is the Westcott Rapid Box Octa Softboxes (B&H), as mentioned in the review: Westcott Rapid Box 26″ Octa Softbox. You can take the front diffuser off, and add the Westcott 2030-DP Deflector Plate (B&H), turning it into a beauty dish of sorts. But the same limitations appear.

Looking at the portrait of David above, you’ll notice a semi-circular band of light to the left. This is because, even though the light from the beauty-dish-ified softbox focuses light on him, there is light that spills from the edge of the speedlight. The detail photo of the Westcott RapidBox will explain it better …

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review: Westcott Rapid Box – 26″ Octa Softbox

Don’t you just hate it when something you use becomes obsolete? Well, you’d think that lighting equipment have a long lifespan. A softbox is a softbox. Well, if you can’t replace a damaged part of it because the manufacturer discontinued that part, then you’re stuck.

My preferred softbox is (or has been), the Lastolite 24×24 Ezybox softbox. I have three, since I use them for my photography workshops. But with use, the outside baffle tore loose from the velcro with two of the soft boxes. No big deal; entropy will have its way. But now you can’t replace these baffles. They were available on B&H, and I ordered two, but was eventually notified that Lastolite discontinued making the baffles. Great. Well, not really that great. I now have two nifty softboxes that were rendered less than useful. So I had to look at other options.

The Westcott Rapid Box – 26″ Octa Softbox (B&H) caught my attention, even among the huge variety of light modifiers available for off-camera speedlights. I bought one of these softboxes to try out at the most recent on-location photography lighting workshop in New York. And I like it a lot!

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review: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM wide-angle lens

I have to admit upfront that I am a lens snob. Not so much for a lens being esoteric or collectible, but rather that I have a particularly strong preference for the name brand lenses. When I shot with Pentax way way back, I only used Pentax lenses. Similarly, I only have Canon lenses for my Canon bodies, and Nikon lenses for my Nikon cameras.

Part of it is that the styling of the lens and camera is more consistent. Yes, I do like my cameras to have a certain aesthetic appeal. I know, I know … how pretty a lens looks has no real correlation to how spectacularly it performs. But actually, there is a correlation of sorts. The spendier equipment (which performs well), tend to be designed to look good. But I digress.

The main reason though why I keep within a certain brand, is that the top names tend to have the top lenses. A recent test I did between the Sigma, Tamron and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 zooms, showed once again that the Nikon optic had the edge: photography: how good do your lenses need to be? Therefore, most often, it is a simpler choice to just get the lens which has the brand name, and forego a lot of testing. Of course, there is always the possibility of an expensive disappointment. But generally, staying with the big camera brands is a decision that can be made with confidence.

My interest was piqued though by the news that Sigma is releasing new lines of lenses, and tightening up their quality control. From Sigma’s website: “all newly produced interchangeable lenses from Sigma will be designed for and organized into one of three product categories: Contemporary, Art and Sports. Each line has a clearly defined concept to guide shooters in the selection of the right lens for their photographic interests”.

One of the first lenses to be released, is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG wide-angle prime lens, and I was able to get a copy for review purposes.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM for Canon mount (B&H)
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM for Nikon mount (B&H)

The lens has a noticeably different look than Sigma lenses in the past, and actually looks quite sleek and modern, but this all wouldn’t mean much, if the lens didn’t perform spectacularly, and was at a more affordable price point than the Canon and Nikon equivalents:

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ISO comparison – Canon 5D mkII, 5D mk III, Canon 6D, Canon 1Dx, Nikon D4, Nikon D600

I had a number of people ask about more details about the Canon 6D and whether I would recommend the Canon 6D (B&H), or Canon 5D Mark III (B&H). It’s tough enough to give advice at best of times, since the decision to buy a top-notch camera is a nuanced one. There are so many factors that come into play – your budget, weight of the camera; ergonomics; features & specification. Everyone has a different requirement of their camera gear.

So when I was able now to get my hands on a broad enough selection of Canon cameras (Canon 5D mark II /Canon 5D Mark III  / Canon 6D / Canon 1Dx (B&H) simultaneously, I decided to also add the Nikon D4 (B&H), and Nikon D600 (B&H) into the mix. One would expect that the Canon 1Dx would beat the Canon 5D mark II hands-down since there is a generation difference in technology as well as a massive difference in price. Similarly, one would expect the Canon 1Dx (B&H), and Nikon D4 (B&H) to compare favorably to each other.

Now, as I said, the choice between cameras depend on a number of factors – but one of them that becomes important in certain areas of photography, is high-ISO performance. Instead of relying on my say-so, and a few 100% crops, I decided it might be interesting if everyone does a bit of homework for themselves, and scrutinize the relevant RAW files. This would help in making the decision a personal one.

Download the RAW files from here. Right-Click and Save-As to your computer. They have been renamed in an self-evident way. (The last 4 digits are from the original file-name.) Be prepared though that this might hit your bandwidth limits with your internet service provider, since these files are quite large!

I shot sequences of images (of the same castle), with all 6 cameras, starting at 400 ISO all the way to 6400 ISO, in full-stop increments. The cameras were on a tripod. I used the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II (B&H)  and the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G (B&H) on the respective bodies. I tried to keep the framing as exact as I could. In terms of camera settings, I changed the shutter speed in full-stop increments as I changed the ISO. I kept the aperture at a constant f/8 and do keep in mind this isn’t a lens test.

I purposely photographed the shadow side of this castle, so you can see how the high-ISO noise looks like in the darker shadow areas. There is also enough detail in the image so you can figure out how the higher ISO settings affect image detail.

You will notice that for some images, I changed the shutter speed by 1/3 stop lower. This is because despite me working as fast as possible, the light did change subtly in the 3 or 4 minutes in which I shot the initial sequences for each camera. So I repeated several sequences. Therefore, the images you see here, are images that to my eye looked to have the same brightness. In other words, I tried to compensate for the slight change in light levels as I shot the sequences. I know, I know, it’s not scientific, but this is as fair as I could make the comparison.

Also, be aware that I shot with Shade WB, and this differs quite a bit between how Canon and Nikon interprets that. So for your own comparison, change the images to some specific Kelvin setting. (The beauty of RAW files – these parameters aren’t fixed.)

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