equipment review

portrait & headshot photography: studio lighting tools – Westcott Eyelighter

With portrait lighting for head shots, there are so many configurations – all the way from dramatic lighting, to very even light - but always keeping in mind that the lighting needs to look flattering. It is all in how we balance the various lights, and how we add fill-light.

Westcott has released a curved reflector, the Eye-lighter (vendor), and it is quite versatile:

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review: Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS – Canon redeems itself

The title there is quite an exclamation - Canon redeems itself. And you may well wonder what Canon had to redeem itself for. Well, my experience with Canon over the years has been a clouded one. A number of years back I moved back to Nikon again when I couldn’t handle the Canon 24-70mm f2.8L going out of calibration every so often. Then, there was the untrustworthy AF performance of the Canon 1D mark III. In fact, I’m still waiting for Canon to send me an apology note for that camera. In fact, for all three bodies that I owned.

But I digress … we’re talking about Canon wide-angle zooms. The final straw for me with regards to Canon, was when I had worked through five copies of the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II and all five copies had issues and were soft to the edges. It’s all detailed in this post: Canon and Nikon. Then, I finally got to use the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S (vendor), and my struggles with soft Canon wide-angle zooms were over. I finally had a wide-angle lens that was razor sharp to the edges. And a zoom, to boot!

So with that, I was done. I had given up on Canon ever producing a wide-angle zoom that could perform. Sharp to the edges. No optical smearing. Just do what it is supposed to do – be a wide-angle zoom lens. Something the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8G excelled at. And that is something the Canon 17-40mm f/4L and the Canon 16-35mm f/2.L II didn’t quite do as well.

Then the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS (vendor) arrived, and I was curious. Could this finally be? And yes, Canon has redeemed itself. Finally, here is a Canon wide-angle zoom that is an excellent performer. You know, worthy of that red stripe.

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review: high-ISO performance Nikon D4S vs D4 / D3s / D610 / D700

Judging image quality between different cameras, is most often quite subjective when we have equal glass with each camera. The reason for this is that the pixel count has an effect. For example, how do you compare the high-ISO noise performance of the 36 megapixel D800 vs the 12 megapixel D3? You can’t just simply zoom in to 100% and go by that. You would have to print to a specific size, or at least down-size the D800 image to 12 megapixels to fairly evaluate the images. So there’s a bit of a murky area here in fairly comparing cameras of different sensor sizes.

We now have a new King of awesomely awesome high-ISO noise performance – the Nikon D4s (Amazon). I posted one image in the review of the Nikon D4S auto-focus / AF performance, which was shot at 8000 ISO. In my opinion it looked remarkable.

So how does the Nikon D4s high-ISO noise compare to the other Nikon cameras? Well, I chickened out here. Instead of doing comparison photos and then processing them the same, and figuring out some kind of baseline in terms of image size, etc etc … I wimped out. I’m giving you the high-ISO RAW files, shot from 800 ISO and up, for various cameras. Download them from that link via a right-click and save-as.

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review: Fuji XT-1 camera

Pentax used to have a slogan that said simply, ‘Just hold a Pentax’. Such was their confidence that they could win you over with a Pentax SLR. Just hold it, feel it and you will already like it. A lot! For me, that mantle could be placed on Fuji these days. With the X-series cameras, they’ve built up a range of cameras that are very appealing. They look good. They feel good … and they give stunning results.

Yes, I am somewhat of a Fuji fanboy. But then, I love quality products. I’m a fan of that. My walkabout camera is the sexy Fuji X100s that I carry with me every where in my shoulder bag. I’ve been following the releases of every Fuji camera since the first X100. It was obvious Fuji was on a mission then.

And now we have the Fuji XT-1 – the latest in the Fuji X series. I immediately loved the camera. With this review of the Fuji XT-1 (vendor), I want to give an impression of the actual user experience.

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review: Nikon D4S – auto-focus / AF performance

The Nikon D4s (vendor) updates the already-awesome Nikon D4. The short summary lists some improvements, which while they may appear incremental, overall make for a solid new release by Nikon:
- a newly designed sensor, offering better high-ISO performance,
- an additional AF mode has been added – Group Area AF – for more accurate subject tracking,
- 11 fps continuous shooting with continuous AE/AF (compared to the 10 fps of the D4)
- ‘small’ Raw size of 8 Mpx,
- 1080/60p video
- faster processing with the new Expeed 4 processor
- improved battery performance,
- Multi-CAM 3500FX Autofocus Sensor Module with “thoroughly recalibrated AF algorithms”

For this review, I want to highlight the auto-focus performance. AF speed and accuracy is in a way subjective. There’s no numerical value we can attach to it that will tell us in discrete steps how much better the “thoroughly recalibrated AF algorithms” with the new AF sensor module will improve on the D4 camera.

My friend Yasmeen Anderson specializes as a fitness portrait photographer in NJ, and I asked if I could tag along on some of her shoots. With this photo session of actor / model Joe Monbleau, we shot in a colorful urban area in NJ. Joe tirelessly sprinted and bounced and jumped for numerous sequences. Enough time for me to fire off the D4S and see how it perform in grabbing crisply sharp images of someone moving fast.

And yes, I am very impressed. The Nikon D4S is noticeably more responsive with auto-focus on moving subjects. I’ll blame those “thoroughly recalibrated AF algorithms” in the new AF sensor.

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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 (vendor), 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 (Amazon).  (Read my review of the Sony RX1).  For a relatively long while, the best compact camera on the market was the Sony RX100 (Amazon) which was improved with the Sony RX100 II (Amazon). 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 (Amazon) and the 36 megapixel Sony Alpha a7R camera (Amazon). 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 (Amazon) and the Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens (Amazon) 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 (vendor), 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 (vendor)

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 (vendor) 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 (vendor) performs and handles in actual use. At the same time we’ll see how it stacks up against the bigger super-awesome Nikon D4 (vendor)

You can order the Nikon Df now from Amazon. It comes in a Silver and Black style.

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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 (vendor) is an odd focal length. It’s not-50mm. More than that, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G (vendor) 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 (vendor), and took some photographs at night in Manhattan. I also did a few comparison shots with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G (vendor). 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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