Archive | April 2014

That $15 Kaiser job, or, a brief history of lens caps

Jar lids, my friends.

Jar lids, my friends.

As Vincent Vega once said, “That’s a pretty fucking good milkshake. I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars but it’s pretty f—ing good.”

There are only two reasons to buy a $15 lens cap (item plus shipping). One is that you are filthy rich. The other is that it’s a pretty f—ing good cap.

Over the thousands hundreds of years that optical manufacturers have been making lenses, caps have been an afterthought. In the beginning, they were leather and promoted mold. Through the late 20th century, they were beautifully finished metal (or infrequently hard plastic) and predominantly relied on a friction fit to stay in place – and became useless as soon as they were dented or their felt linings became loose, grit-filled, or otherwise nasty. The 1980s brought the pinch cap; a thin plastic plate with spring-loaded tabs that engaged maybe 2 cm total of the circumference of the lens. This was easily knocked off and did not even effectively keep dust out.  The 1990s version was the center-pinch variant, where the release mechanism could be operated even if a lens hood prevented the user from reaching the side-tabs. One almost has to wonder if the utter failure of lens cap design drove the UV-filter-as-protection craze, since it’s much easier to keep a filter screwed on than it is to keep a lens cap on.

To get back to the point, the Kaiser 206951 lens cap ($15 shipped at the usual places) is an excellent alternative. It is made of a semi-flexible plastic and basically stretches and suctions onto your lens. Size it 2mm larger than your filter size, and off you go. In testing so far on an X100, it fits snugly over a B+W F-Pro filter and creates an airtight seal that prevents pocket lint from getting in. Although it is not shown in the picture, many sizes of the 2069xx have lanyard loops so that they can be tied to strap rings or otherwise tethered so they don’t get away. This is a great example of a product that is well-designed, simple, and functional. Does it cost a little more than some Chinese pinch cap that you can buy for a buck, airmailed, because both the manufacture and shipping is heavily subsidized? Yes. But is it better? Absolutely.

Lens caps might seem like something simple and silly, but they fit into a category of product whose only value lies solely in its functionality. We would be lucky if every accessory were as well designed as that $15 Kaiser lens cap.

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Fuji X100: Into darkness with the B+W 093 filter

We have been in dark places with an infrared-converted X100. Sometimes these dark places have been in bright sunlight; it’s just that what the camera sees is another world, defined by light humans can’t see. The Marche du Nain Rouge, a parade through some of the world’s most non-gentrified areas, is an excellent place to demonstrate the capabilities of this fully operational battle station device.

The B+W 093 passes an insignificant amount of visible light and creates monochrome infrared; at this wavelength, light pretty much slices through the RGB filter array (and we have been able to test this using a beta of Accuraw Monochrome). With a converted camera, sensitivity is a couple of stops less than with visible light (and about 8 stops higher than trying to use an IR filter on an unconverted camera). We have noted this before but are noting it again: the 1/4 wave multicoating used on modern cameras is completely ineffective against flare and ghosting from infrared frequencies. This makes lens hoods important and imparts a little bit of glow to everything. It is not the hazy, slightly out-of-focus effect you get with DSLRs that can’t focus IR and older IR film. It is more the look of an old Tessar on Plus-X. That said, with no color information, there is no color-specific tonal correction or false color work.

First up: your standard foliage picture, taken just before local noon. Yawn. You know what might spice this up? A pale “art nude.” Oh wait, that’s been done like a million times already.

This is your standard 930nm foliage shot. Yawn. This would be better if it had some pale nudes in it. Wait, that's been done only one million times.

Next: dragons. Yes, large mechanical dragons that travel on wheels and belch huge orange flames. Check out the reflectivity of average winter wear. Architectural details are rendered mostly normally, though red objects show up white.

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And now the Nain Rouge addresses his attackers:

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Whose winter coats are dazzling:

 

All of this happens in the shadow of the world’s largest Masonic temple..

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…which is located in a neighborhood that may be completely mowed down for a new hockey stadium and entertainment zone.

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This is the kitty-corner, limestone.

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Up the street is the old Chinatown.

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Leica T: chi comanda?

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Is that Sony’s red-bullseye movie button?

April 24th has come and gone, and Leica has once again dazzled and/or disappointed close to 100% of its owner and/or fan base. As usual, there are four faces to the old kabuki:

Felicitations. The Leica T (Typ 701) has finally satisfied the Leica-vangelists who have, for years, suffered gut-wrenching doubts about whether their ownership of a Sony NEX or a Samsung NX would damn them to spending all eternity in some fiery place. It has also cheered up the long-suffering M tribe, which was no doubt relieved to find out that the April 24 product release was not a new M body that was somehow better, had more exotic finishes, or omitted the Leica bindi. A third group wants back into the fold, but it does not want to drop $10K for an M body and lens or to suffer 1950s focusing techniques. A fourth (which may overlap the other three) has already put its orders in.

Indifference. When the dust clears, the dispassionate observer sees that Leica has again devoted millions of Euros to creating a product that, if only on the numbers, has little to differentiate it from competition running down to 1/4 the price: sixteen megapixels, arm’s-length shooting, and a baby built-in flash. Although some True Believers insist that one should keep an open mind before damning a camera like this, hundreds of thousands of people already own very close antecedents of this camera, which in 2011 was called the Sony NEX-5N. The real question for the open-minded is whether undoubted optical supremacy can overcome the handling limitations of a viewfinder-free body with contrast-detect AF.

One larger challenge is that the market today is awash with similar camera bodies, some of which have extra features like stabilized lenses (important for video), tilt screens (also good for video), electronic viewfinders (for more stability), advanced split-image focusing with legacy lenses, and fast primes right out of the box.  For functionality, it is hard to beat a Fuji XE-2; for video, the NEX/Alpha cameras reign supreme (HD video poses no challenge to APS-C lenses – it just doesn’t require very high resolution). The similarities between the Leica product and its substitutes are not just visible in the specifications: the control layout is derivative of the NEX-7 (see photo at top), and the overall design looks like a sharper-edged version of a Samsung NX200. To be fair, a mirrorless body has a set of irreducible components and a limited set of design alternatives – but Leica’s choice of a “minimalist” design is hardly unconventional in the photo industry (in fact, it lowers manufacturing costs, leading to wide adoption), and it gives the T an unintentional resemblance to low-end product.

And query whether those who already adapted M lenses to mirrorless bodies will take on a $400 M adapter that does the same thing for the T that $25 M adapters do on cheaper mirrorless bodies: cropping wide lenses and giving awkward and slow manual focus. There is a reason why manufacturers of mirrorless bodies make autofocus, electronic-aperture lenses: these systems perform best with optical and electronic systems actually designed mirrorless bodies.

Bitterness. Some M owners no doubt will grouse about the fact that every design innovation at Leica is on some kind of perverse “trickle up” design program: better strap lugs, batteries that don’t require baseplate removal, better electronic viewfinders, bigger screens, touch controls. Only things never actually trickle up due to what seems like a complete disconnect between the compact camera team and the M design team. This has been long time running; Leica’s M line has always been pitched on craftsmanship; its 4/3 and compact lines (and now APS-C lines) have been pitched on technology and design. But sadly, M cameras are not allowed to evolve, and enthusiast cameras are not allowed to succeed.

Entertainment. At the end of the day, the Leica T has one undeniable merit: it brings out the spectacle of Leica factions turning on each other: (i) M users dismissing T users as tyros, (ii) T intenders talking about the demise of M, (iii) T reviewers trying to say nice things to continue the pipeline of loaner items from Leica, (iv) old-school Leica commentators talking about change; and (v) M3 users talking about the nouveau riche. But the deeper (and possibly more interesting) question it raises is this: at what level in the Leica corporate structure are long-term strategies discussed?

Zeiss C Biogon T* 4,5/21 ZM – and removing the reds

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This lens is perfectly usable on the M240. It doesn’t even take that much work.

The Leica M typ 240 presents some unpleasant choices in terms of 21mm lenses: you can spend $3,000 on a Super Elmar 21mm 3.4 and get the sharpest 21mm ever made for Leica – but suffer complex distortion and red edges. The 21-35mm M-Hexanon Dual (which is not a lot cheaper these days than a used Super Elmar) gives you two focal lengths, awesome sharpness and no color shifts – but it gives you a touch of geometric distortion. Everything else presents varying combinations of bulk, color vignetting, low resolution, and general misery. Here at the Machine Planet, we have a certain inbuilt arrogance to try things that conventional wisdom says should not work. The 21mm f/4.5 Biogon is a case in point. And yes, we made it work with a couple of off-the-shelf tools and less than a couple of hours of trial and error learning the ropes.

The good. If this were the film era, the 21mm f/4.5 would be the champ. It is small (barely bigger than a 40mm M-Rokkor), sharp (testing in some reviews to 3000 lines per picture height), well-made, and has about as close to zero distortion as any wideangle lens ever made (for example, it’s lower than the 35/1.4 Summilux ASPH). It also takes normal-depth 46mm filters common to the rest of your lens collection. Here is basically everything you need to know about its stunning performance:

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The bad. In terms of conventional performance, the lens is relatively slow in terms of maximum aperture and has the usual light falloff from the center, often exaggerated by digital sensors. You can see from the chart above that it does not get much better as you stop down.

The ugly. The worst thing is that the lens has color shift at the edges. It’s quite severe at first glance. These are the particulars:

  • The red edge extends a couple of MM into the frame, from top to bottom, green and red on the left and red on the right. In the days of the Kodak DCS Pro 14n, this was called the “Italian Flag” effect.
  • The intensity and intrusion of the edges is dependent on selected lens aperture and focused distance. Closer focus and wider apertures mean that the edges are far less obtrusive.
  • There is an overlay of standard brightness vignetting that is characteristic of any symmetrical 21mm lens.

The variable nature of the color shading – why has no one else noticed this? – may well be the cause of claims that the problem “can’t” be corrected or that conventional tools result in under- or over-correction. Once you understand this, it’s easy to solve the problem. Never declare defeat prematurely!

Fixing things up. All solutions to this problem involve some kind of reference image, which is a test shot you make using a white field. You can shoot a white wall, shoot a ceiling with a flash, or use a diffuser. If you shoot through a diffuser, you need one that lacks texture (at small apertures, the ZM 21 can pick up the texture of the paper, even if you have it pressed right up against the lens. Your resulting references will look roughly like this:

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One very good diffusion material is Yupo polypropylene watercolor “paper,” which, being plastic, has no grain. You can find this in most art stores.

  1. Layer Masks. Some, like Lloyd Chambers, advocate the use of Photoshop adjustment layers and masks to cancel out color and brightness shading. Although this demonstrably works, its shortcoming is that it needs a separate template and action for every permutation of shading (you can, most of the time, get away with four settings: f/4.5 and f/8, at 1m and ∞). It also presents a clumsy workflow that involves leaving Lightroom, going to Photoshop, and then back to Lightroom (and at that point, with a TIFF and not a DMG). For your most OCD applications, this is a workable solution; it’s just not the most batch-friendly or space-efficient solution.
  2. Cornerfix. Long the go-to solution for Leica M8 and M9 users, Cornerfix was originally designed to address the green shift that occurred when you put a UV/IR filter on an M8. This green shift was generally uniform and radial. Cornerfix takes the reference imageand then computes a mathematical mask. Cornerfix works with DNGs and exports DNGs (suffixed “_cf”)Unform, and it has a tremendous range of settings for addressing color shift, brightness vignetting, and the artifacts that result from correction. Cornerfix also shows you the effect of the selected mask on the current image. It also supports batch processing. The shortcoming of Cornerfix, though, is that because it does correction via equation, there are some kinds of color shading that it struggles with.
  3. Adobe Flat Field plug-in. The strangely named Flat Field plug-in is available on the Adobe Labs site. This plugin has virtually no controls and seems to be an automated variant of the layer mask technique. You select the image you want to correct, activate the plug-in, and then give it the reference image. The only controls are for “Color” or “Color and falloff,” which lets you leave in brightness vignetting if you want. The plugin is slow and kicks out another DNG, stacked with the first one, suffixed “_ff.” It does work very well – much better with the 21mm than Cornerfix – and it does not require you to exit Lightroom, but it’s a black-box solution that requires you to select your reference image carefully (because you can over- or under-correct by choosing the wrong one).

The winner: Flat Field. As the only solution that (a) works and (b) does not require shifting from program to program, Adobe’s free Flat Field plug-in for Lightroom is the best solution. Here is precisely how to use it:

  1. Shoot your profiles. Take your sheet of Yupo paper, hold it right in front of the lens (the easiest way is to sandwich the paper between your lens and the glass of a window). Pick your reference distances. We used 1m, 2m, 5m and ∞, but you could also pick your favorite hyperfocal distance. Shoot a test at one f/stop, all distances. Then switch to the next f/stop, all distances.
  2. When you are done, import the files into Lightroom. Immediately rename these with a designator that shows lens, aperture, distance. This will result in a name like “2145-80-inf” for 21/4.5, f/8, at infinity. Export all of these as original DNGs to a folder that is easy to find (think about “profiles” in your “Documents” folder.
  3. Install the Flat Field plugin.
  4. When you want to do a correction, select the picture(s) you want to fix. All of the ones you do together should have the same shooting aperture and distance (the M240 records a computed aperture value, and you should be able to tell by the composition where the lens was focused).
  5. Go to File–>Plug-in Extras–>DNG Flat Field–>Apply External Correction. This will pop up a Finder or Explorer window to select the profile from #2 (Lightroom does not let you choose from the catalog).
  6. Choose “color and falloff.” Although vignetting may seem cool in theory, symmetrical lenses need all the help they can get.
  7. Run it.
  8. You will then get a new file adjacent to the original with the “_ff” suffix. You can now manipulate this as if it were the original.
  9. If you get too much correction, try a reference photo shot at a closer distance. If you get under-correction, go for a farther distance.

Upshot. It is tragic that so many people started unloading these lenses based on a red-shift issue that is so simple to correct with modern tools. The ZM 21/4.5 is a fantastic optic that can now make the jump to modern digital Ms. And there is no reason why the same techniques could not be used to adapt other wideangle lenses to Ms or wideangle M lenses to things like the Sony A7 series.

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