equipment review

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 EZYBOX 24×24″ softbox (Amazon). 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 Rapidbox – 26′ Octa Softbox (Amazon) 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 (Amazon)
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM for Nikon mount (Amazon)

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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Fuji X100s – best manual focus camera

As mentioned in my review of the Fuji X100s, they really did improve the AF compared to the X100. Paradoxically enough, just as the AF speed and accuracy of the Fuji X100s gets glowing mention everywhere – it’s just as exciting to discover that the changes they made to the manual focus mode, turns the Fuji X100s (Amazon) into possibly the best manual focus camera there is.

Now some will say this camera’s AF is so good that you don’t need manual focus. I’m not convinced of that. The AF is pretty good, but there are times (such as with strong back-lighting), where even my Nikon D4 struggles. Then manual focus can be a huge help. And it makes sense to be familiar with the manual focus options on your camera.

Anyway, here is why I think the way that they implemented manual focus on the Fuji X100s, is so good …

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review: Litepanels Sola 4 LED Fresnel Light - (model: Ulorin Vex)

The dramatic look that video lights lend to photographs, is a regularly explored topic on Tangents. I also cover the use of video light in my book Direction and Quality of Light.

The video lights that I have been favoring, are the Lowel ID-Light (B&H), but like other halogen video lights, it tends to run hot. Of the LED lights, I have used the Litepanels MicroPro LED video light (review) and now the Litepanels Croma – variable color temperature LED video light (review). The LED lights tend to be under-powered for some uses. Also, video lights tend to be  small light sources, and hence quite contrasty. So there are some limitations.

So when Litepanels contacted me to ask me if I’d like to try out the Litepanels Sola 4 LED Fresnel Lights (B&H), I was quite keen. Especially because the arrival of these lights coincided with one of my favorite models, Ulorin Vex, visiting the East Coast for a few weeks. Ulorin Vex’s dramatic style and clothing would be very well suited to this kind of lighting.

Also check out the behind the scenes (but hopefully quite instructional) video clip about this 3-part photo session.

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re-appraising the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II

I know this is going to amuse many of you. Since my less-than-excited review of the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II, I did end up buying the the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II (B&H) for myself after all.

My daughter has developed an interest in photography, and fell in love with my 5D mark II (and Canon 24-105mm f/4) that I lent to her. So I ended up giving her the camera and lens to keep as her own. However, this left me with just the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II, and no camera body. And no mid-range zoom.

Even though I use Nikon as my primary system, I do feel it is important that I remain au fait with the Canon system – specifically their flash system. This is necessary for the various articles on the Tangents blog, and for the workshops that I teach. It looks less convincing if I ramble on about the Canon flash system and have a Nikon in my hands. That’s how I rationalize reasons to have a lot of toys.

So I followed my own advice in that review, and tested my copy immediately on purchase … and I’m happy with it. The sharpness wide open is stunning. Even better, that mushiness that I see in other Canon wide-angle zooms when used at widest aperture, isn’t there. This lens has remarkable sharpness and contrast at wide aperture when looking at the edges. The two photos here were taken at f/2.8 and I am very happy with the sharpness at that aperture.  I can happily live with this lens.

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review: Profoto BatPac portable battery pack

For on-location work, I’ve been using the Profoto AcuteB2 600 AirS/R Power Pack (B&H), and it works like a charm:
shooting wedding photos in the mid-day sun
wedding photography – lighting large groups with a large light

The only downsides to the AcuteB2 600R is that it only has one output. For many situations where you use a simple lighting setup (ie, just one large light source), it is perfect. The battery of the AcuteB is rated to give 200 bursts at maximum power, Again, for most uses, that is plenty.

But I’ve been considering future shoots where I would like to use two lights. For that the Profoto BatPac portable battery (B&H) would be ideal, offering two AC outputs – enough juice to run two Profoto D1 500 Ws monolights for quite some time.

I’ve tried the BatPac out in the studio just to see how it works, and that it does indeed work. But that’s nowhere near as satisfying as using it on an actual photo session. For this part of an individual workshop at my studio, we didn’t really need more than just one light … but still, it felt good to take this puppy out and try it on an actual shoot.

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review: Fuji X100s

April 1, 2013

review: Fuji X100s

One of the most compelling cameras in recent years, was the Fuji X100. It had a slick retro look, solid build, and some interesting features such as the hybrid optical viewfinder. The camera looked quite sexy slung over your shoulder, and felt great in your hands. But it had a few flaws. Sluggish handling at times, and more crucially, erratic auto-focus. It tended to grab the background when focusing in low-contrast light. I loved my Fuji X100, but eventually sold it.

Well, the Fuji X100 was just updated with the Fuji X100s (Amazon).
To sum it up: the Fuji X100s is what the original Fuji X100 should’ve been!

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review: Litepanels Croma LED video light

For one of the mini-workshops in Las Vegas, I used a Litepanels Croma LED video light (vendor). This photo of our model, Gwen, shows the typically dramatic light from a video light. The pronounced light fall off can work to our advantage.

What sets this hand-held / on-camera LED video light apart from most, is that you can vary the color temperature. I have, and still use, the Litepanels MicroPro (vendor). I prefer the MicroPro over many of the cheaper LED lights that I have seen because the WB is daylight, without a nasty color cast.

Litepanels Croma LED video light (vendor), goes even better. You can vary the WB between 3200K and 5600K by dialing a knob. No more need for a gel to be clipped in and out. The gel (or lack of gel) would mean a specific WB with the LitePanels Pro. With the variable adjustment of the Litepanels Croma, you have every color balance setting inbetween. For this photo at the top, we were at 3200K, but I changed the WB to 3300K in post-processing.

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using the Canon EOS 6D in movie mode (model: Anastasia)

To test the Canon EOS 6D  camera (B&H) and the Canon 24-70mm f4.0L IS lens (B&H), I met up with Anastasia Z in New York. She had such presence and confidence, that while shooting stills of her earlier in the day, I had an idea of a video sequence we could do. And with that, here is an overview of how well the Canon 6D fares as a video camera.

So when the light levels starting falling this afternoon, we went to Times Square, which is always insanely lit up by the numerous billboards. An ever-changing flood of light from every direction.

This 30 second clip is an edit from about 12 clips I shot of her. We had to work fast since it was freezingly cold, especially with the wind blowing. We’d work out a sequence while she had her warm jacket on, and then she’d hand it over to my friend, Peter Salo, who assisted us. Then we’d shoot a sequence quickly, before she popped the thicker jacket on again, and tried to warm up a little bit again.

Even with having to shoot fast, and only being able to shoot limited sequences, I am very happy with the results. It definitely shows what an energetic and sensational model, Anastasia Z is. (If you’re a New York photographer, check her out on Model Mayhem.)

More techie info about the video clip, and about the Canon 6D …

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