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Lomo LC-A 120: same disillusion, bigger package

When I was a second-year high school student, my English teacher came in, opened his copy of Adventures in American Literature to a poem, and (purported to) read the following:

I think I shall never see /
A poem as lovely as a tree /
Blah blah blah. Bullshit /
I hate Robert Frost /

It obviously was Joyce Kilmer and not Robert Frost whom he was skewering, but he was making a point. Although teaching methods like this might not seem as radical today, it’s hard not to have that Robert Frost feeling about “Lomography.” Some talent. But mostly boring pictures that are made interesting by lens defects, art defined by intentional and random flaws in raw materials, and a semiotic that has become so routine as ot disappear into the noise of Flickr.

The Lomo LC-A 120 fails of its one essential purpose. Its lens is actually excellent. When you think about wide-angle lenses for 6×6 and up, the 38mm f/4.5 Minigon XL is quite wide. I use a 35 APO-Grandagon on a Horseman SW612, so I have some pretty developed ideas both about what is wide and what is good.

The spoiler alert here is that the LC-A 120 is a combination of a phenomenal lens with what might qualify as the worst $450 camera. In the history of ever. Not the G.O.A.T. but an actual goat.

Lens. Let’s start with the 38/4.5 XL. It is not a real XL like a Schneider 38mm; this barely covers 6×6 at anything but the smallest apertures. But it does have a couple of principal virtues when you shoot it with TMY: it has virtually no barrel distortion and is sharp from edge to edge when stopped way down. You almost have to wonder if this is an Arsat PC lens repurposed into a medium format one.

With black-and-white film, one comment on lateral color shift, which seems to be what gives Lomo pictures their unique “color.” That and film that is way past its color prime.

Click on the picture below and then scan from side to side. Yes, it’s scanned on a Flextight and straightened slightly. But holy frijoles, it looks a lot like a $2k lens on a pano camera (granted, such a lens would cover a frame a lot larger than 55×55).

Focus. Focus is a bit more problematic, having steps of 0.6m, 1m, 2.5m, and ∞. The focusing lever snaps from position to position with a non-reassuring plastic “pop,” does not exactly match the marks, and stays put(!) when you slide the lens cover (and focusing scale!) upward to close the camera. The difficulty of zone focusing when you don’t know the shooting aperture is an unknown margin of error. A 38mm lens on medium format does not exhibit pan focus except at very small apertures. I did test operation with a Contameter external rangefinder (the late plastic one that actually goes to infinity), but if you drop four hundred and fifty on a camera and another hundred on a rangefinder, you might as well buy a Fuji GA645w.

Exposure controls. The original LC-A was zone-focused and aperture priority. With that setup, at least you know what will be in focus. The LC-A 120 has fixed program exposure that only has one combination of shutter speed and aperture for any EV. The nominal spec is “unlimited” time to 1/500 second, but it’s unclear whether the stopping down is linear to the light level or not. You would think that on a camera like this, you might want to keep the shutter speed low to keep the aperture small. Sometimes the unintentional shallow depth of field works:

You effectively can apply exposure compensation (important when using Diafine) by changing the star-shaped ISO dial on the front.

Viewfinder. The viewfinder is clean and clear. And plastic. And lacking any horizontal or vertical reference marks that would tell you if the camera is level (or square to objects in the picture). This would make architectural photography difficult absent either a tripod and level – or a shoe-mount electronic leveling device. On a half-press of the shutter button, one light means the camera is reading and two means underexposure. Coverage looks like it is about 90%.

Shutter. The shutter operation in the camera is like a press shutter – pressing the button cocks and fires. If you engage the MX switch, you can repeatedly make exposures onto the same piece of films. You can even do it by accident, like this:

You will actually need the MX button for those situations where you mostly press the shutter (releasing the wind and locking the button) but don’t actually take the shot.

Flash. Flash is actually a place where aperture control is important. Lomo has no explanation for how you should use flash except that you should set your automatic flash for 4.5 (as if any automatic flash doesn’t just jump from 4 to 5.6). Shooting with flash does not trigger a short synch speed; everything is essentially rear-curtain.

Build quality. Burying the lede, or not. It is terrible. Horrible. The camera body is plastic. It’s not flexible, but it has all the charm of the pebbled plastic around the back seat of a family sedan. The camera back compensates for its lack of sophistication with wide foam seals.

The film tensioning leaf springs (note to Lomo: thank you for including these, unlike the foam blocks in the Belair) are attached to the film gate, which popped out of the camera the first time I tried to load it. The film gate has two significant (and apparently intentional) light leaks at its upper corners. Oddly, these were not plugged with foam seals. They should be.

Loading is not easy. You need to release the hubs with little switches. Pull the hubs down to release the spools. When you install a spool, at least theoretically, as long as the ramped portion of the hub is facing you, it should be possible to snap the film in. It’s not that easy. This seems like another place where a simpler mechanism (like a metal hub on a leaf spring) would work better and make people happier.

The frame counter does not depend on the movement of the film, just the movement of the takeup spool. Many LC-A 120 users seem to get fewer than 12 pictures on a roll. Presumably this is the product of fat-rolling the film, worsened by the imprecise frame counting that does not compensate for thicker films and backing papers.

I was able to nail it by putting the start mark of TMY right at the right “edge” of the lower-left film guide (i.e., halfway to the camera’s own start mark). I was lucky. Twelve frames took you to within 1cm of either end of a 120 film. Frame counting would better have been left to a red window here. At least the framing would be consistent.

But where from here? The heartbreak of this camera (if you can call a feeling about an inanimate object such) is that like the Lomo Belair 6×12, the camera started with some good bones and a great concept and was executed terribly. The Belair had bad light leaks and poor focus but decent lenses an an automatic shutter. Looks like Lomo landed in the same place here: great lens, functional autoexposure system, rickety everything else.

Maybe the fault is that the lens suggests the camera is better than it is. Maybe I just received an unusually good copy. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic.

You might think for a hot minute about remounting the lens, but when you add up the cost of a (controllable) Copal shutter and a focusing mechanism, plus whatever you are attaching it to, it’s far too much money. It’s also unclear how this lens is mounted in the camera – you might have to replicate a fair amount of the physical setup of the Lomo to make it work. Two of these lenses in a twin-lens setup? That would be neat, but you’d probably be close to the price of a bargain bin Rollei when you finished with it. Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.

Cameras like this are bought by fools like me /
But only F&H can make a Rollei.

The 51.6% solution

This is just a quick note on a technical problem that plagues digital Leica cameras when used with older Nikkors: back focus. It is gratifying to know that Leica has finally recognized that many of its lenses don’t work so well on digital Ms due to “focus errors” that allegedly compound over the years. The real reason is probably more that film planes are actually and unintentionally curved, and a lens that makes the grade at the center there back-focuses elsewhere.

I was struggling a bit with a 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor, which though absolutely lovely aesthetically is one of the worst-engineered Leica lenses ever from a mechanical standpoint. And it back-focused. It back focused more with some Leica M adapters than others, but still.

Strike one with this lens is that the aperture unit rotates along with the entire optical unit. This means that if you adjust the collimation washer (for reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s always 0.05mm needed with any lens – just about the same thickness as Scotch tape), you also then have to reset the aperture ring to read properly. Also not 100% sure that infinity optical focus was really the problem.

Strike two is that the amount of front cell movement needed to compensate for back focus is absurdly great. So here, you’re messing around with focal length, but this the same way the MS-Optical Sonnetar gets calibrated…

Strike 3 is that the RF cam is not adjustable at all, with the tab pushed by a plunger running on a wheel that fits in a spiral track in the helicoid. Guess how this tab was adjusted for infinity at the factory? With a file. It makes sense, in a way. Calibrate the fixed infinity point on the focal plane by shimming the optical unit, calibrate focus at infinity by grinding the RF tab, and fix close focus by shimming the front cell. But it utterly sucks when you find out, 60 years later, that the tolerances that looked good on film with a Leica IIIc look like holy hell on digital.

So when you are dealing with focus errors, you have to imagine that the standard is a 51.6mm lens. At that focal length, if the RF matches the film-plane focus, the focus will always be correct, even if the infinity stop of the lens is beyond “infinity” on the scale.

For a telephoto lens, the rear cam still pretends it moves like a 51.6mm lens, but the actual optical unit moves much further. Hence, in a lot of cases, you can simply use a thinner LTM adapter (I think I’ve written about this before… somewhere). Most cheapo ones are thinner than the 1.0mm they are supposed to be.

But there is a different way to hack this with the 135mm, 105mm, and 85mm Nikkors: simply apply a thin and even coat of clear nail polish to the RF tab on the lens. This is a trick that you could theoretically do with lenses that have a rotating RF coupling ring (not tab), but it works exceptionally well with the Nikkors because the camera’s RF roller simply rests on the tab and doesn’t roll along it. This means that you only need to get the coating thickness right over a very short distance. Materials needed:

  • Sally Hansen clear top coat (not “nail nourishing,” just the hard kind).
  • CVS Beauty360 brand Nail Polish Corrector Pen (essentially a marker full of acetone that you can use to thin or remove extra nail polish).
  • LensAlign focusing target (if you own a Leica, you really want one of these anyway, just to figure out what the devil all your lenses are doing as you stop down).
  • Reading glasses.

So basically all you need to do is put a very thin coat of polish on the polished surface of the tab. Let it dry for 20 minutes. Here is the goal:

  • At f/2.5, your focus should be such that the 0 point is barely focused, with most of the DOF in front.
  • At f/2.8, your focus should be dead-centered around 0. The lens is actually way sharper here than at f/2.5. Doesn’t seem like much of an aperture change, but it is.
  • At f/4, your focus will be such that 0 will barely be in focus, with most of the DOF to the rear.
  • From f/5.6 down, the DOF will grow so that 0 is always in focus.

If it works, you’re done. The focusing errors this might induce further out are subsumed by depth of field increasing. If you need another coat, add one. If you are now front-focusing too much, use the Corrector Pen to remove some of the extra (or use a very fine nail buffer to remove some).

Never file or try to grind down the tab if your lens is front-focusing. Unless you can do it totally square, your lens will behave differently on different cameras. Leave this situation to a pro.

Konica 35/2.0 L/UC Hexanons

uc35f2-1
The above is #0000 of the UC; Fujisawa-Shoukai (which commissioned the lenses) gave me explicit permission, back to 2001, to use this product picture for non-commercial use. This isn’t a commercial site, and F-S is gone from this earth, so here we are!

This is an article originally written in 2001; with a lot of updates.

How did these things get started?

The former Fujisawa-Shoukai had quite a bit of pull over Konica. Recall that by 1992, Konica had made what was seen as its last serious film camera, the Hexar AF, with its legendary 35mm f/2 lens. F-S, as we will call it here, commissioned in 1996 a run of Hexar lenses in Leica thread mound (LTM). This was long before the what people in the U.S. called a “rangefinder renaissance;” in fact at the time, very little in LTM was being produced in Japan, with the exception of the Avenon/Kobalux 21mm and 28mm lenses.

The first product of this program was the 35mm f/2L Hexanon, which looked like this:

IMG_0644_2.jpg

This lens is simply a clone of the Hexar AF lens, right down having the same filter size. The coatings look identical, which is not a surprise. Consistent with some other contemporaneous LTM products, it did not have a focusing tab. On close inspection, the scalloped focusing ring looks like that on a Canon 35mm f/2 rangefinder lens, or more contemporaneously, the 21mm Avenon/Kobalux lens. The chrome finishing on an alloy body is reminiscent of modern-day ZM lenses. None of this, of course, will disabuse you of the notion that the Japanese lens production industry revolves around common suppliers. This lens shipped with a black flared lens hood (no vents) and a bright sandblasted chrome “Hexanon” lens cap that fit over the hood.

F-S would then go on to commission the 50/2.4L (collapsible) and 60/1.2L Hexanon lenses. The latter is famously expensive now; I have an email from F-S where it was 178,000 yen (about $1,400). The 50/2.4 will get its own article here.

In 2000, around the time that Avenon was re-releasing its 21mm and 28mm lenses as “millennium” models, F-S had another run of the 35/2 made. These were at least superficially different from the silver ones:

  • At the time, black paint was all the rage, so the lens was executed in gloss black enamel and brass. The enamel in the engravings is almost exactly the Leica color scheme.
  • The filter size decreased to 43mm, the aperture ring moved back, and the focusing ring thinned out to give the impression of “compactness” and justifying the “ultra compact” – UC designation that was historic to some Konica SLR lenses.
  • The focusing mechanism changed to a tab (which helped justify the thinner focusing ring and lighter action).
  • The coatings changed to a purplish red to help support the notion of “ultra-coating.” As you might know, multicoating can be customized for color.

The close-focus distance (what would be the third leg of a UC designation) and focusing rate of the helicoid (0.9m to ∞ in about 1/4 turn) and overall length did not change. The new lens was priced at 144,000 yen, which in dollars would have put it at just under the cost of a clean used 35/2 Summicron v.4 (at the time, these ran from about $700-1,200) and about half of what a Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH would cost.

Handling versus Leica lenses

Since both of these are optically identical, it might make more sense to discuss the ways in which these are similar to, or different from, the vaunted Summicron v4 King of Bokeh License to Print Money®. They are both like the Leica version but in different ways.

The UC has the same smooth tab-based focusing as the Summicron. It is very smooth and fluid. That said, the aperture ring is very “frictiony.”

The original L has a focusing feel a lot like a Canon RF lens, owing to the similar focusing ring, which has more drag and no tab. The aperture ring, however, has the same “ball-bearing-detent” feel as the Leica.

The overall length of all three lenses is similar, though as noted above, there is something of an illusion that the Leica and UC are smaller than the L.

Optics

The Konica lens, like the Hexar lens it was based on, is a clone of the 3.5cm f/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens, but for all practical purposes, the Hexanon is the same lens as the Summicron 4. As you can see, there is a very smooth falloff from center-to-edge wide open and pretty much eye burning sharpness at f/5.6,

Whoah. That looks familiar! Below is the Leica 35/2 v4 as shown in Puts, Leica M-Lenses, their soul and secrets (official Leica publication). Except the Summicron’s optimum aperture is a stop slower.

On interchangeable-lens bodies, all three lenses have the same focus shift behavior, requiring a slight intentional back-focus at f/2 and front focus up to f/5.6. It’s not like on a 50 Sonnar, but it’s there.

Should I?

The original chrome version is a lovely lens and a nice match for chrome Leicas, at about 1/3 the price of a chrome Summicron v4 (yes, they exist…). If you like Canon lenses, you’ll be right at home with it. On the other hand, the UC version is smooth and sexy but getting to be as expensive as a 35/2 Summicron ASPH, which is actually a better lens.

Leica Monochrom Typ 246 x PC-Nikkor 28mm f/3.5

People understand why tilt lenses exist – making super-expensive Canon DSLRs produce pictures that look like they were taken with a toy camera (or making the subjects themselves look like toys). No one knows, though, why shift lenses were once a thing. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The truth, from a certain point of view

Photography always has (and always will) present this problem: needing to fit a large object into a frame that is constrained by lens focal length. Conceivably, with a superwide lens you could, but then you end up with a lot of extra dead space in the frame. Which defeats the purpose of using large film or sensors.

Solution?

If you want to get the whole thing in frame with the minimum number of steps or expenditure of time and money, your choices are to use a really wide-angle lens, tilt a camera with a more moderate wide-angle up, learn to fly. All of these  are sub-optimal. First, the really wide-angle lens is great in that you can capture the top of the object without tilting the camera. The problem is that making an engaging photo with a wideangle is actually extremely difficult – because it tends to shrink everything. Depending on how the sun is, it also stands a better chance of capturing the photographer’s shadow. Second, tilting up a camera with a more moderate wide-angle lens “up” turns rectangular buildings into trapezoids, which works for some pictures but definitely not others. Finally, learning to fly is difficult. But watch enough Pink Floyd concert films, toke up with the ghost of Tom Petty, or study Keith Moon’s hotel swims, and you might.

Do you skew too?

Assuming you are reasonably competent, you can correct perspective using software, by skewing the canvas. This is a take on the old practice of tilting the paper easel with an enlarger. This was a limited-use technique, generally practiced by people who could not use view cameras and tripods but still had to come up with a presentable representation of a tall object.  There were (and substantially still are) three issues here: crop, depth of focus, and dis-proportion. First, the crop came from the fact that tilting an easel meant that the projected image was trapezoidal and not rectangular, meaning that from the get-go, it had to be enlarged until the paper was filed. This still happens with digital. Second, the depth of focus issue is related to the fact that enlarging lenses are designed to project to a surface that is a uniform distance from the enlarger (i.e., projecting one flat field onto another). You would have to stop down the lens severely, or use a bigger focal length, which in turn required a taller enlarger column to maintain the same magnification.

The digitization of perspective correction uses computation to project the flat image onto a skewed plane, using interpolation and unsharp masking. This solves the apparent sharpness issue, but it degrades quality. Finally, dis-proportion comes from the fact that straightening converging verticals starts from a place where certain details are already compressed via the original perspective. For example, looking up at a tall building from a short distance, the windows look shorter (top to bottom) than they would if you were looking straight at the window from its own level.

So even when you manage to re-skew the canvas/field/whatever, you now have an image that is too “fat.” On enlarging paper, you would be forced to make a cylindrical correction to the negative (which is not practical in real life). On digital, there are specific transformations that you can perform to correct (for example, the adjustable ratios on DxO Perspective and Lightroom.

So skewing is a useful technique, but it’s still better to skew less.

Shifting your thinking: the mirror years

View cameras have used the concept of shift and tilt to adjust for situations where the viewpoint was wrong (shift) or depth of field was insufficient (tilt). Raising the front standard of a bellows-type plate camera was always standard practice to improve photographs of tall objects, especially in an era where wideangle lenses were not super-wide by today’s standards. Lens board movements were easy to achieve because there was always some distance between the lens mount and film plane in which to insert a mechanism to raise the lens relative to the film. And because there is no control linkage between the lens/shutter and the rest of the camera, you’re not losing automation. You never had any!

But these cameras were not small. The smallest bellows-type camera with lens movement features was the Graflex Century Graphic, a delightful 6×9 press-style camera. On many bellows-type cameras, though, there was no real provision for using a shifting viewfinder. The press-style cameras had wire-frame finders that provided a rough guide, but nothing could tell you whether the lens was actually level outside a gridded ground glass. Later in the game, the Silvestri H would present as the first camera with automatic finder shift, as well as a visible bubble level. Linhof used a permanently-shifted lens assembly (and viewfinder) on the Technorama PC series, and Horseman provided shifted viewfinder masks for the SW612P, though these were available only as “all the way up/down” or “all the way left/right.”

The shift mechanism, though, could not be adapted to SLRs easily due to three constraints:

  • Most SLRs lenses are retrofocal – meaning that the nodal point of the lens is more than the stated focal length from the imaging plane. It takes a ton of retrofocus to insert a shift mechanism into an interchangeable lens that has to focus past a mirror box. More retrofocus means bigger lenses So when perspective control lenses began to appear for SLRs (35mm and 6×6), they were huge. Maybe not huge by today’s standards, but a 72mm filter size is pretty big for a Nikon SLR whose normal filter size is 52mm.
  • To achieve an image circle large enough to allow shift around what is normally a 24x36mm image circle, it is necessary to use a wide field lens and stop it down severely (illumination with almost any lens becomes more uniform as it is stopped down).
  • Most cameras can only meter PC lenses correctly in their center position, wide-open. Where shift mechanisms eliminate direct aperture linkages to the camera, you’re back to the 1950s in metering and focusing – then shifting – then manually stopping down to shoot (now corrected by the use of electronic aperture units in $2K plus modern Nikon and Canon PC lenses).

Viewing is not a lot of fun with 35mm SLRs; when stopped down, PC lenses black out focusing aids (like split prisms and microprisms) and still require careful framing to keep parallel lines parallel. So you need a bright screen – plus a grid or electronic level. Suffice it to say, a lot of people regard perspective control to be a deliberative, on-tripod exercise when it comes to SLRs and DSLRs. Maybe it’s not.

A new perspective: full frame mirrorless?

So here come mirrorless cameras (well, they came a while ago). Now you can fit any lens ever made to any mirrorless body. The optical results may vary, but at least physically, they fit.

— Getting the lens in place

So I grabbed the nearest available PC lens I could find, which was a 28/3.5 PC-Nikkor. Not AI, not even from this century. Released in 1980, it is a beast. I plugged this into a Konica AR body to Nikon lens adapter, and from there into a Imagist Konica lens to Leica body adapter. Why all these kludgy adapters? The answer is actually pretty simple: the Imagist has the correct tolerance to make infinity infinity, and the Konica adapter does the same. This is not a small consideration where you might be zone focusing a lens.

Then I plugged this kludgefest into a Leica M typ 246 (the Monochrom). Because why not start with the OG of mirrorless camera platforms? Of course, you can’t use a rangefinder with a Nikon SLR lens, so I plugged in an Olympus EVF-2 (which is the ‘generic’ version of the Leica EVF-2.

— Getting it to work

The Nikkor has two aperture rings. One is the preset, where you set your target aperture. The other is the open/close ring, which goes from wide-open to where the preset ring is set.

I turned on focus peaking and set the preset for f/22 and the open/close for f/3.5. I was able to establish that infinity was correct.

Next, I stopped down the lens (both rings to f/22), expecting that just as on an SLR, the EVF would black out. Worked perfectly.

I hit the “info” button to get the digital level, and it was off to the races. The lens has a rotation and a shift.

— But how well does it actually work?

The functionality is actually surprisingly good. On a Leica, it’s just stick the camera in A, stop the lens down to f/16 and 22, and point and shoot.

The digital level obviates the use of a tripod or a grid focusing screen, and you really just frame, turn the shift knob until the perspective looks right, and there you go. There are a couple of limits

You can’t use maximum shift along the long side of the film, but the only penalty is a little bit of a tiny shadow in the corner. And that’s with a full-thickness 72mm B+W contrast filter. You get 11mm shift up and down (i.e., along the short dimension of the firm) and 8mm left and right (nominally; as I stated, you can get away with more under some circumstances).

Aside from that, there are some minor annoyances like making sure you haven’t knocked the aperture ring off the shooting aperture. Or knocking the focus out of position (it’s a very short throw…).

BUT THE DUST! And here is the rub – shooting at f/16 and f/22 brings out every dust spot on your lens. Normally, you would shoot a Leica M at f/5.6, f/8 max. But PC lenses – like their medium and large format cousins – are designed to max out their frame coverage at very small openings. So I had never cleaned the sensor on my M246 in four years, and I got to spend an evening working on a hateful task that included swabs and ethanol and bulbs and the Ricoh orange lollipop sensor cleaner.

— And how sharp?

Very. Diffraction is supposed to start becoming visible at f/11 on this combination at 1:1, with it showing up in prints at f/22.

Pictures stand up to the old 1:1 test, except in the corners where you have over-shifted along the long side. Recall that in lot of situations, two of the last bits of corner are usually sky, where a tiny amount of blur is not going to be of any moment.

How well this will work on a color-capable camera is a question, especially since lateral color would come out. But right now, this is posing the most acute threat to 6×4.5 cameras loaded with TMY.

Bokeh gonna burn your eyes

bokehlicious.jpg

Mark my words (as if they are that important): the future will not look kindly on the gimmick-bokeh that dominates the aesthetic of 2000s photography, just as we get a chuckle out of 1970s pictures with excessive sunsets, lens flare, and nipples. People yet to be born will wonder why photographers in the 2000s took insanely expensive lenses, better than any ever designed to date – and cheaper – and then used them to simulate astigmatism, near-sightedness, and macular degeneration. The most charitable explanation will be that photographers were trying to show solidarity with the visually impaired.

The buzzword (today) is subject isolation. But why are we isolating a subject from its context? What’s wrong with the context? Are we creating millions of pictures of the same peoples’ faces with nothing else in the shot? Are they people or products?

In the present, good composition can still be shot at f/16. Small apertures are also obligatory on larger-format film cameras because a lot of those lenses have serious light and sharpness falloff at the edges at their maximum apertures, especially with the focus at infinity. Nobody buys a $3,000+ 6×12 camera to get the types of pictures you could see from a $250 Lomo Belair.

There is a reason that early autoexposure SLRs used shutter priority: if you had to make a choice for what would be in focus, it would be your subject; if you had light to spare, you’d want use as small an aperture as your lowest desired shutter speed would support. And that thinking underpins historic picture-making. Intentionally shallow depth of field is not a feature of most of the world’s most iconic images. Arnold Newman did not need shallow depth of field to shoot Stravinsky. Eugene Smith did not shoot Spanish policemen as an exercise in subject isolation. And David Douglas Duncan captured every crease in the face of an exasperated Marine captain. How about Richard Avedon with his Rollei and every celebrity on earth? There are exceptions, but throughout history, wide apertures were primarily driven by a need to keep shutter speeds high enough to avoid blur. Light constraints are not such a consideration when ISO 6400 is a thing on digital cameras.

The worst part about bokeh, and the one no one talks about, is that it can actually be unpleasant by causing eyestrain (or maybe brain-strain). In many ways, a human eye – if you looked at the whole image projected on the retina at once – resembles a cheap Lomo-type lens: sharp in the middle (the fovea) and blurry at the edges. It even has a complete blind spot (the punctum caecum). The eye has a slow aperture, estimated by some to be f/2.8. But, dammit, everything looks like it is in focus. That’s because your eyes are continuously focusing on whatever you are looking at. Your brain is continuously piecing together fragmentary information (the blind spot thing is incredible – vertebrate biology beat Adobe to content-aware fill by about 500 million years). The end result is what looks (perceptually) like a scene where everywhere you look, things are in focus. It’s actually pretty amazing that this works.

In every photo, there is a compression of three dimensions into two. More depth of field allows your eyes to wander and allows you to process the scene fairly normally. When you look at bokehlicious pictures, definition is concentrated on one object (and often just a piece of it). You might find your eyes (or visual perception) constantly trying to focus on other aspects of the scene besides the subject. But neither your eyes nor computational photography can remove extreme artifacts once they are “flattened.”

Scroll back up to the picture at the top. Same composition, shot at f/8 and f/1.5 with a 50mm ZM Sonnar. Look left and look right. On the left, you can look almost anywhere n the scene and see whatever visual element you want to scrutinize, at at least some level of detail. On the right, you are always and forever staring into the Contractor Ring®. You can try to focus on other elements of the picture on the right, but the information simply is not there. Need an aspirin?

And it can be fatiguing, more so that the aesthetic is played out and that anyone with an iPhone X can play the game. Pictures with ultra-shallow DOF don’t look natural. They are great every once in a while, or if you need a 75/1.4 Summilux to get an otherwise-impossible shot, but otherwise, get off your ass and move the camera (or your subject) into a position with a reasonable background.

# # # # #

Opiates of the masses: bokeh

26.jpg

As close as you will ever get to bokeh with the Konica Genba Kantoku DD (@40mm)

[2008-11-02] I have heard only one good argument for hunting marine mammals to extinction.  It came from my friend Leo, who pointed out that mammals spent millions of years evolving from sea life – so what kind of perverse animal wants to go back to the ocean?

The idea of perversity comes to mind when people criticize current optics as being attacked as “too sharp,” “too contrasty,” or having “bad bokeh.”   This seems to happen most with new rangefinder optics coming out of Leica and Zeiss.

As a preliminary matter, it is totally OK to buy a previous-generation lens because it is all one can afford (or all one wants to spend for a particular focal length).  But now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the seals and the whales.

The inexorable tide of history

Query whether at any point in optical history any optical designer pulled back because a design exhibited too much sharpness, too much contrast or too little uncorrected spherical aberration.  To the contrary, if Berthele, Berek or Mandler had been able to incorporate mass-produced aspherics, they no doubt have been building aspherical Summicrons and Summiluxes instead of Sonnars, Elmars or 35mm pre-aspherical Summicrons.  By the standards of yesterday’s optical designers, today’s multicoated, aspherical, retrofocus wideangles would seem like gifts from the gods.

One can always dumb-down a lens that is sharp or contrasty by stopping it down until it diffracts, using a softening filter, diluting your developer, going down a grade in optical printing, changing the RAW development curve, or even simple mis-focusing.  If you are consistently do the opposite of any (or all) of these, you probably really want a lens that is sharper and more contrasty.  One would wager that of all of the Photoshop or Lightroom controls, the most popular are the ones that make pictures more snappy.

Some people would make the argument that lower-contrast optics maximize dynamic range on digital cameras, but this is an argument that only carries water in scenes with 500:1 contrast ratios – and even then would assume that anything of interest lay in the shadows (hint: take a look somehow how JPG compression is set up – to preserve highlight detail, which perceptually is where the interest generally is).  Uniformly low-lighted scenes generally call for higher-contrast lenses because those scenes actually have a very limited brightness range.

Bokeh or baka?

If the justification for looking at old lenses is “bokeh,” question why it is even a concern.  Bokeh seems to have become an end only in the past 15 years – and it is legitimate to question why it merits so much internet bandwidth.  My personal observation, based on the existence of things like the Nikon Thousand and One Nights site, is that it originated in the nostalgia of some older photographers in Japan: “When I was 18, I really wanted a Nikon SP…”

But there are practical reasons to ignore the bokeh question altogether.  First, most of the discussion of bokeh seems to revolve around the use of lenses 50mm and shorter (or 35mm or shorter on a camera with a crop factor) for purposes of taking close-range pictures.  Many of these pictures just as easily could be taken with  lenses twice as long at twice the distance (example: a portrait at a meter),  Consider that:

– A 50mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2 and a meter has a depth of field of 36mm (about 1.5 inches)

– A 90mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2.8 and 1.8m has a depth of field of 50.6mm (about 2 inches).  Even shot at f/2 (assuming it has that aperture), it would still have 36mm depth of field.

With a longer lens, one is not crowding human subjects or hitting their faces with the unflattering distortion that comes with short lenses.  And we don’t see systemic complaints about bokeh with longer lenses (no doubt because with four or five elements they are less corrected in general), so if one has the light to use one, why not?  What’s that you say?  You don’t have enough light?  Can’t afford a telephoto?  Even if your only available optic is a short, fast, hypercorrected aspherical lens, the look of the background can be vastly improved by manipulating the relative distances from camera to subject and subject to background.

Second, many photographers appear to emphasize (and rely on) bokeh to make up for what are really severe compositional defects in photographs (point light sources in frame, relatively busy backgrounds, etc.).  The use of bokeh for this purpose goes hand-in-hand with the “wide-open, close-up” school of photography that not only leans on bokeh to tidy up backgrounds but also uses shallow depth of field to increase interest in what ordinarily would be unremarkable subjects.  Shooting with a camera on shutter priority is an excellent discplinary exercise.  With far less conscious control over depth of field, one composes far more carefully.

Finally, perhaps best way to forget about bokeh as a factor is to ask oneself just how many of the great pictures in history were ruined due to bad bokeh.  The answer is is, “none.”  No one even thought of the concept until the late 20th century, and it is arguably more wrapped up in romanticism than anything that has ever been validated as sound photographic practice.

Konica Hexar (AF)

hexar-af

This is the text of the page that had its debut in 2001 and (for better or worse) helped trigger Hexar-mania. Last update was late February 2018.

Overview: (Scratching off where there was grime)..”H-E-X-A-R.” Captain, HXR is a Canonet that was sent out of our solar system in the late 1960s. It encountered a machine planet where the computers examined it, understood its mission, and elaborated on its mechanics. It grew, and it evolved… and gained consciousness.

Generalities: Autofocus camera with high-speed 35mm f/2 lens and leaf shutter. Form factor is similar to a Leica M.

History: the Hexar came about in 1992, reportedly a last vanity project for the Konica engineers who worked on the FT-1. Or so the story goes. Some of the key technologies on the Hexar, such as a sealed lens barrel, projected brightline finder (zoom on some models, albeit always with fixed framelines), and tri-window AF showed up first on the 1988 models MR640 (weather resistant) and shock-resistant Genba Kantoku (“Site Supervisor”), a ruggedized camera designed for construction sites. In fact, the wind motor of the Genba K. sounds like the Hexar in “loud” mode.

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Do you also see a resemblance to the Fuji GA645 with the autofocusing side-pod module?

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Tokina’s site, oddly, was the only one that had a picture of a clean GK. Most examples of this camera, including mine, look like holy hell. This is the fixed 40mm version, which has a shallower silver protrusion.

Before you confuse the Genba K. with a poor man’s Hexar, understand that the lens and operation are totally different; the Genba Kantoku has a 40/3.5 (3 elements, 3 groups) or 40/3.5-60/5.2 bifocal lens (3/3 and 6/6) of completely different construction. And on the Genba Kantoku, here are your controls. All of them: flash on. Flash off. Self-timer. Manual rewind. No nonsense here.

Later models of the Genba Kantoku (the 28mm and 35mm second-generation models in 1994) apparently acquired the Hexar’s funky electronic shutter and accordingly had maximum shutter speeds of 1/280 sec.

Construction. The construction is all metal, with the exception of the top and bottom covers, which are a period-typical black chrome (or bright chrome) plated on polycarbonate. Which is a good thing because if they were brass covers, this would be a very heavy camera. Konica made a big deal about the front barrel being a heavy alloy casting to add the retention of precision in focusing.

Lens. The lens is the Hexar’s raîson d’etre. In fact, it is legendary.

The 35mm f/2 Hexar (actually, Hexanon) lens has the imaging qualities of the 35/2 Leica Summicon-M and the general design of the Nikon 3.5cm f/1.8 W-Nikkor (the rangefinder lens from the 1950s and 60s – you know, the one whose Leica screwmount version sells for $1,800 and up today). Konica won’t go further than to call the design “Gaussian,” but Nikon has acknowledged on its 1001 Nights Site that this is a Nikkor derivative. Konica’s own technical materials reflect this design intent, although they also mention a slight recomputation aimed at allowing an electronically controlled aperture and shutter to be inserted between the lens groups. The aperture has 6 blades that form a perfect circle down to f/5.6, after which point, aperture shape is not that important.

This lens has been revised slightly and rereleased as the 35/2L Hexanon (chrome) and its optical twin, the 35/2 UC Hexanon (black paint), both in Leica mount. These are beautiful lenses run in limited numbers (1,000 and 2,000 respectively).

The lens out of the original Hexar AF has been independently converted by many into a Leica M lens (though this takes a lot of work and frankly is not as elegant as Konica’s own ported versions). But it is a lot cheaper way to do it.

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This camera featured in a Konica white paper that discussed the camera’s total control of chromatic aberration. It also posts some impressive MTF compared to the lenses whose formula and optics it replicates. Wide-open, it exhibits a very smooth falloff from the center; at f/5.6 it is uniformly great.

hexar-mtf

Viewfinder: The viewfinder is a 0.7x window, with crosshair reticle for 2-channel infrared autofocusing, green light for focus confirmation, focused-distance indicator, shrinking-field, parallax-corrected projected framelines, and +/- indicators for over/underexposure. The front and back covers are glass, which is good for durability.

Rangefinder and limitations:  It is probably not a stretch to say that this camera has the most sophisticated active autofocusing system ever put in a camera.  The heart of the system is a unique 2-channel infrared rangefinding system that gauges distance in 290 steps out to about 10m.  It uses a central emitter and two receptors to help eliminate errors caused by parallax or subject reflectivity.  If the camera fails to see a return IR beam, it focuses to 20m, which is the hyperfocal distance of its 35mm f/2 lens.

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That is already insanely good, but the camera then applies an aperture-specific focus correction to account for focus shift (also described in a Konica white paper). The Hexar’s lens is optimized for wide-open operation; its spherical aberration causes the focus point to shift as the apertures get smaller.  The Hexar calculates this error and corrects as its goes.  Too bad AF SLRs don’t have this feature.

But wait.  This camera also can automatically compensate for 750nm or 850nm infrared film, too.  No IR marks, no guesswork.

And for the free set of steak knives, the camera’s AF system is temperature-calibrated as well.

If you need true infinity focus, you hit the MF button once. If you hold it down, you can set your distance manually (and the camera remembers every time you come back – useful for hyperfocal technique).

Nice design features: Programming, programming, programming. This camera is built around a first-rate lens and two key concepts. One is hyperfocal focusing. The other is perfect balancing of flash using a combination of techniques, including traditional distance-aperture programming, rear-curtain synch, and stopping-down mid-exposure. It is important to note that the Hexar cannot use high-voltage flash units like the early Vivitar 283. Only modern, low-synch-voltage units should be used to avoid frying the internal circuitry.

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The black model features a silent drive that slows focusing and advance to the point of being absolutely silent. Even in that mode, it still focuses and advances faster than you can. In fact, this camera can focus, compute exposure, and control flash in complete darkness. Instantly. You can add silent mode and a number of other advanced features to the Hexar Silver, etc. through a control sequence that you can find on the ‘net.

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Odd design limitations: 1/250 second top speed. Not that odd, really, if you consider the clear aperture those shutter blades have to cross and the fact that electronically-controlled shutters have different design limitations. Did you really think your Canonet QL17 shoots 1/500 at a true 1/500? Didn’t think so. Some people complain that you can’t use 800 ASA film with this camera outside. That misses the point, which is that you use lower-speed film to take advantage of the lens’s resolving power. Even 400-speed film is pefectly adequate, as in the big picture below (Kodak Supra 400). There is no cable or remote release, but I am not sure if this is a problem in a camera without a mirror to cause vibration. It does have a self-timer.

  • For the complainers about the top shutter speed, the workarounds should be fairly obvious: for outside shots (or inside with flash) get an ND8 filter, which takes a 3200-speed film down to 400. You will have to make sure that you change the ISO setting.
  • Another way is to just change films mid-roll, which is easy on this camera. When the camera reaches the end of the roll (which takes a lot longer than you think), it rewinds the film. Or you can use a ballpoint to press the manual rewind button. When the leader is about to be sucked into the canister, the camera pauses for 3 seconds, displaying [–]. This is your cue to open the back and take the leader-out cartridge. Otherwise, it finishes rewinding and displays [0]. The film advance is precise enough that the camera can be shot with one roll of film, rewound, loaded with another type, switched back to the first, and advanced (lens cap on) to the same spot on the first film (hence the leader-out). Go two frames past where you left off (you can actually do one).

In Operation: With a very short learning curve, this camera is a snap. Ergonomics are identical to an M6 with a grip. On P, you set it to your preferred aperture and it stays as close as it can without blowing your lowest hand-holdable shutter speed. Metering is dead-on, and the whole thing is so quiet most people think it’s digital — or ask when you are going to take the picture (although you already had). The shutter is completely vibration-free. Flash operation is perfect every time, even more accurate than TTL, because it is not thrown by subject reflectivity.

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Balance/feel: This camera balances really well and feels really solid, which is all you really need. The wheel that controls the aperture is on the top, and accessible by your right forefinger. It feels… good. It could use textured grips, but it’s not a big deal.

Durability: It’s a tank. Well, two (major) incidents. First was pulling the camera off my desk. Camera hit two drawer handles, put a nick in the floor. No damage. Christmas — got really loaded at the family party and dropped camera in the snow on the way back into the house. My sister came in the next day with the camera frozen in a sheet of ice. I chipped the ice off and very thoroughly dried it. No damage – and no fungus or haze 7 years later. It took the picture above after all of this! Because you have the luxury of a 46mm filter size with this camera, I strongly recommend screwing a B+W KR1.5 into the lens and leaving it there. When you have a filter screwed in, the lens barrel becomes almost completely air- and water-tight (all movement is within). As you can see above, it does not degrade lens performance to do so.

Long-term issues: Note that the 2-position shutter switch (focus… shoot) is rated for about 30,000 cycles – and it will eventually wear out. If you started with a new camera today, you would never physically be able to hit this limit. But since the oldest Hexars are now almost 25 years old, watch for this. The symptom is that the focus does not lock when you push the button halfway down in “loud” mode – and it becomes a problem for off-center subjects. To some extent, cleaning the switch can help, but the ultimate fix is to replace the dome switch with a similar DSLR part, which will set you back $100-150. But once you have that done, it seems unlikely that you will wear out the next switch.

Accessories: Hexars are no different to accessorize than any other compact, fixed-lens camera. But here are some suggestions:

  • Flash: HX-14 flash is the default choice. Not much flexibility, insecure mounting, no thyristor. Very tightly integrated with the camera and can automatically activate flashmatic mode. A Nikon SB-20 is a more powerful, more flexible option, but you need to set the PFL mode. Recently, I have had great success with the Nikon SB-30, which is small, power-efficient, flexible,
  • Filters: I would recommend a B+W MRC nano. Thin and repels everything.
  • Case: avoid the soft case.
  • Strap: get a wrist strap or a very thin neck strap. I would think about a Peak Designs modular strap that can exchange for a wrist strap or a neck strap.

Bottom Line: I think the ultimate test of the best all-around camera is what you would grab if told that you were leaving on an around-the-world trip and you had five minutes to pack. This would be mine.

 

 

 

Half Frame + Full Fun: Canon Sure Shot Multi Tele / Prima Tele / Autoboy Tele 6

canonautoboy6

I’ve got so many names! But why don’t you call me Mr. Strange?

Introduction

The penalties for doing drugs in Japan are quite severe; nevertheless, the use of recreational marijuana seems to have worked well in Canon’s 1980s design room. Imagine and point-and-shoot camera that could be switched from half to full frame (with viewfinder masking) for two different focal lengths – and a third with a dedicated teleconverter that does not throw off autofocus. Oh wait, throw in an optional intervallometer, time-computer, frame number imprinter back. With Nikon pro-style spatter paint. But while you are doing all of this, build a metering system that only goes down to EV9 and heavily uses flash. There is a business case here, I swear to God!

Half frame! When this camera is in half frame mode, you get a 50mm f3.5 equivalent and a 90mm f/5.6 equivalent. That is very unusual in a space dominated by fast-aperture focus-by-guess cameras (like the Canon Demi), small and unreliable designs like the Konica AA35/Recorder, and bulky “subminiature” systems like the Pen. To say nothing of full-sized cameras that are masked down to shoot 18×24 (Hexar 72, Konica FT-1 Pro Half, Konica Autorex).

By the specs

(from the Canon Camera Museum, whose summary/overview page actually contains some inaccurate information):

Type Fully automatic 35mm Lens-Shutter autofocus camera with two focal lengths
Picture Size 24×36 mm, 17x24mm (not switchable in midroll)
AF System Triangulation system with near-infrared beam. Prefocus enabled.
Lens 35mm f/3.5 (3 elements in 3 groups) and 60mm f/5.6 (6 elements in 6 groups).

* With the optional Teleconverter, a maximum 75mm focal length (110mm for half frame) can be set.

Shutter Electromagnetic programmed shutter and aperture. For 35mm: EV 9.5 (f/3.5 at 1/60 sec.) – EV 15.5 (f/11 at 1/350 sec.) For 60mm: EV 11 (f/5.6 at 1/60 sec.) – EV 17 (f/19 at 1/350 sec.) Built-in electronic self-timer. Bulb provided (max. 4 sec.).
Viewfinder Variable-magnification, direct viewfinder with automatic switch of picture size. 0.42x – 0.63x magnification and 85% coverage. Within the image area are the AF frame, parallax correction marks, and OK-to-Shoot lamp.
EE CdS cell for full-auto program EE. Metering range of EV 9.5 – 17 (at ISO 100). Film speed range: ISO 25 – 3200 (with DX code).
Built-in Flash Guide No. 10.5 (at ISO 100 in meters). Fires automatically in low-light conditions.
Power Source One 6 V 2CR5 lithium battery
Film Loading &
Advance
After opening camera back, align film leader at mark, then close the camera back for auto loading. Automatic film advance with built-in motor. Film advance speed of 0.6 sec. per frame.
Frame Counter Seven-segment LCD on camera back. Counts up. Resets automatically when camera back is opened. Counts down during rewind.
Film Rewind Automatic rewind with built-in motor. Midroll rewind enabled.
Dimensions &
Weight
133 x 72 x 50 mm, 330 g (with battery)

Shooting it

Startup. Startup is instant, in part because nothing really happens until you take the picture. The flash powers up (somehow) almost instantly, and you are ready to go.

Grip. This is a fairly substantial point and shoot, so you will have no problem getting or keeping your grip.

Viewfinder. The viewfinder is reasonable for a camera of this type, and it has a single parallax line and square bracket reticles. It masks down automatically in 72-frame (X2) mode. The finder snaps from one focal length to the other. Little or no distortion is visible, which is nice. There is just a green light that comes on when focus is locked. It also comes on when the focus is not locked. Or when there is imminent underexposure. There is no orange or red light for failure modes, which puts the internal computer at a notch below the usual 4-bit processor in the Stylus Epic/mju-ii, Yashica T4, etc.

Half-press. Pressing the shutter lightly, you get a loud click. Not sure how that classifies as “prefocus,” since the lens is still firmly inside its hidey-hole when you press down. May just be that the AF measures the distance.

Shutter impulse. This camera has something of a lag because the act of shooting it retracts the lens cover, extends the lens, shoots, retracts the lens, and closes the door. This makes it almost impossible to throw a camera with an un-capped lens into your bag. All of this happens inside the teleconverter tube when the teleconverter is on.

Autoboy6-2.jpg

Flash. Get used to it. It is almost always on.

Bulb mode. This is for fireworks. That’s it.

Macro mode. If you get too close, the camera goes to 30mm, stops down, and fires the flash. It makes out-of-focus pictures fairly difficult to achieve. You can still do it. Maybe you’ve met my children.

The date back. The unicorn-like Multi Tele Date, instead of just having a frame counter on the back, has a multifunction back that is not unlike what you would have gotten on a pro SLR (not DSLR) back in the day.

autoboy6-3.jpg

  • Date/time/etc. imprint (good to 2027, which is way longer than any of these cameras are going to last).
  • Frame number imprint.
  • Calculation of time from a fixed point. This will compute the difference between today’s date and a date you input. As such, if your child is 4 years and 6 months old, it can print that in the frame.
  • Intervallometer. When you want to shoot that flower opening, the Canon has your back.

 

Canon AF Teleconverter. The AF Teleconverter automatically turns this into a(n even more) weird and wonderful camera. It screws into the tripod socket, flaps over the front, and snaps over the back. It activates a small rubberized switch that tells the camera to adjust focus. It can flip off almost immediately like an everready case. The 40.5mm filter thread opens things up to a lot of mischief, including special effects and contrast filters.

Having a 110mm-equivalent lens for half frame that actually focuses quickly and accurately makes this a pretty compelling portrait machine. It shoots at f/7, but that’s within easy flash range. Take that, Konica AA35/Recorder!

The teleconverter also has a quite undistorted view (see the architectural pictures below). It is very well engineered.

The pictures

Quite good. Here is a sampling taken with the teleconverter (which makes this a fantastic portrait machine), shot on TMY with an orange filter (hint: tape over the DX code on the film cartridge), and scanned on a Pakon F135 plus:

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Conclusion

This is an oft-overlooked gem in the half-frame world. It is low-maintenance, easy to use, and has a very broad ASA range to work with. It also has unique portrait capabilities in the half-frame space. But wow, 72 frames take a long, long time to shoot.

Sony a6300 and Techart LM-EA7 II

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Sony a6300 with Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and LM-EA7 II

Sony a6300: love to hate you

There may not be any point, six months after the fact, to writing anything about the Sony a6300 compact camera. Well, maybe there is. Sony APS-C cameras are something that Fuji fans love to hate. And what’s not to hate from their perspective? Sony doesn’t make cameras that look like old rangefinders or SLRs, Sony lords it over Fuji with sensors that are slightly ahead (Fujifilm buys sensors from Sony, so it is not going to get the pathbreaking product immediately), Sony lenses are supposed to be terrible, and despite all this, Sony still outsells Fuji by an order of magnitude. How could this be?

— Sony strengths relative to Fuji in the mirrorless arena

The two possible answers are video and AF performance. Video on the a6300 is nothing short of phenomenal: 4K, 120fps HD, and just about every type of video gamma geekery that you could want. The Multi-Interface Shoe allows for some interesting snap-on microphone options, including XLR and wireless. The worst thing anyone has said about the a6300’s video is that it has rolling shutter problems, and the answer to that is really, so what? It’s an artifact of any mirrorless camera when used for video. And since Fuji sources its sensors from Sony, you’re not going to do any better. In fact, no one outside the Fujisphere considers Fuji’s video in any way significant.

The focusing speed and accuracy a NEX/Alpha has always been somewhat incredible. Even back to the old NEX-5, Sony could make lenses that silently and smoothly achieve focus on faces. The a6300 with its kit lens posts some insanely fast times, and Sony’s claims about continuous focus tracking are largely true, at least as far as this author has been able to reproduce the right photographic, ahem, “needs.” In fast action, a camera with poor lenses but a responsive system does much better than a more ponderous camera/lens combination that misses the forest for the trees.

One thing that is clear from the dpreview.com tests is that with whatever mystery lenses the site used to test the X-Pro2 and A6300,* there is almost zero difference in image quality, anywhere on the frame.

*Never disclosing the lenses used is dpreview’s second-biggest failing. The first is retconning itself into the time before the internet and digital cameras existed. Sorry. That was a mistake. The first is allowing itself to be bought by Amazon. Then the second is retconning. Then the third is mystery lenses (apologies to Steve Martin).

— Handling

The A6300 is fairly easy to handle. The grip section of the camera is substantial, and in general, it is easy to operate. No one, though, understands what the second command dial is doing on the top deck. It’s not comfortable to use with the camera at your eye. Controls are snappy and solid, as is the general build.

— Viewing

The A6300 has the latest OLED high-density electronic viewfinder that features a 2-axis level (pitch and roll) and more information display possibilities than you want to admit you want. Battery life is helpfully provided by percentage (and if there is one nice thing about Sony batteries, they are good communicators. Shooting does not black out in continuous mode. The EVF senses heat (infrared radiation); hence, its eye sensor does not react to glass-lensed glasses or sunglasses. If you don’t like the EVF, there is a big LCD on the back. Knock yourself out.

— Shooting

This is mostly unchanged since the a6000. The big thing is silent shooting, which uses a front and back electronic curtain (you can also choose electronic front or mechanical front). Silent shooting has two failure modes: first, in any situation with fast-moving objects, the progressive read of the sensor will cause typical “rolling shutter” artifacts. Second, dimmed LED lights (dimmed at the wall switch) flicker, even at full brightness, and can cause light banding in the finished frame (rolling shadow).

— Legacy lenses

One big note is that it is not particularly easy to engage viewfinder magnification on a shot-to-shot basis. You either have to learn to live with focus peaking or slow way down if you want to focus older SLR lenses, for example.

— Accessories and cutting corners

If you are accustomed to older NEX cameras, you will marvel at how Sony expects you to charge this camera with a USB connection to something else. The better solution is the Sony BC-TRW, which is a microscopic dual-voltage charger. It actually has four charging indicators (1-3 and off – meaning “fully charged.”). But yes, you still get a useless camera strap in the box.

 

An exit from the closed system

The problem with APS-C camera systems, whether Sony or Fuji makes them, is that they are closed, highly proprietary systems. You can’t stick a Fujinon on a Sony; you can’t get a Sony Zeiss lens onto an X-Pro2. Change systems? Get ready to pay the price when you sell your old system’s lenses.

There are two tired retorts:

  1. But the system has all the lenses you’ll ever need.
  2. Why don’t you just mount legacy lenses on an adapter?

The first argument is disposed of easily: what if you don’t like the one lens with your preferred angle of view and preferred maximum aperture? What if you don’t want to shell out for new lenses? What if you need the money for booze?

The second fails due to the kludge factor. Yes, it’s possible to mount other lenses on these bodies for use with cheap Chinese adapters and your old lenses. It’s also generally miserable. Both Fuji and Sony allow focus magnification, but Sony makes it difficult to use when a non-Sony lens is mounted. Both makes have focus peaking, but that’s not as definitive as you think. And although Fuji offers a phase-detect driven split-image manual focusing function, it’s not that much fun and not that fast to use.

The “out” provided by Sony was to enable phase-detect autofocus with third-party lenses. This enabled things like the TechArt LM-EA7 II adapter, which in theory allows the autofocusing of any M mount lens (or lens that can be adapted to M, provided it physically fits the adapter). If this works, it would be a game-changer, since it would bypass the usual foibles of adapted lenses (focus difficulty and inaccuracy of focus peaking being two big ones). Is this true?

The good, the bad, and the ugly with the LM-EA7 II

The adapter comes in a nice, foam-padded box and includes a NEX/E-mount body cap and rear lens cap. This is a nice touch, since people who bought the a6300 with a kit lens will have neither.

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50mm f/1.5 ZM C-Sonnar with LM-EA7 II

The good news is that with the sweet spot for Leica lenses: 35-50, the LM-EA7 works like a charm. The noise is a faint whirring, and the Sony phase-detect system fairly effortlessly computes and reaches the focus point (provided, of course, that your lens would ordinarily need 4.5mm or less of travel between infinity and minimum focusing distance).

Some observations:

  1. Focusing is through the lens, at shooting aperture. ***This forces the camera to automatically adjust for focus shift on fast lenses, again making the a6300 more accurate and repeatable than a Leica M body, which can only have accurate focus at one aperture.
  2. The camera plus adapter can focus on an off-center subject using (for example) wide AF. Face recognition works with this adapter, even though the adapter supports phase-detect only. ***This is significant because it means that the a6300 can more accurately focus fast Leica lenses on off-center subjects than a Leica body can.
  3. The camera plus adapter rarely misses, even off-center. In fact, the focus with things like the 50/1.5 ZM Sonnar (the modern version) is better than can be achieved with a rangefinder (naturally, due to focus shift).
  4. The adapter is serviceable with 75mm and longer lenses, provided that you pre-focus to somewhere at least near the expected focus point.
  5. The adapter, by virtue of its inbuilt extension, gives you slightly closer close focus with 35mm and shorter lenses.
  6. There is little or no color shift with adapted wides. Depends on the lens, but even the ZM Biogon 4.5 seemed to do ok.
  7. Flash works with the adapted lenses.
  8. The multi-shot vibration-reduction mode works (JPG only).
  9. The weight limit for the objective assembly (lens plus any adapters to M mount) is 750g. This is well beyond what you need for almost any Leica-mount lens and covers most DSLR prime lenses (if you go lens – to M adapter – to LM EA7 – to camera.
  10. The artistic effects, such as “Sad Clown with Single Tear Airbrushed onto Sweatshirt” still work with adapted lenses.

Now, what’s the catch? Well, there are seven.

  1. PDAF does not work for video, and the adapter does not do contrast-detect.
  2. Due to some clear limits in the Sony PDAF software (which is probably set up to look for big focusing changes), wide lenses (≤21mm) and lenses with maximum apertures of f/4 or smaller do not focus well. Granted, why do you need AF with these lenses?
  3. The motor part of the adapter hangs below the camera, making it hard to set the camera down. This is not entirely negative because it also makes a nice grip.
  4. Not all SLR mount to M mount adapters work. In general, you have to use the Leicaist versions because they taper enough to miss the motor unit. Konica AR is one of the couple that work with the adapter, and even then, it’s just the typical Chinese adapter with a relief milled into it to clear the autofocus adapter.
  5. Taking the camera’s aperture setting off f/2 or 2/8 tends to cause overexposure.
  6. The system for selecting and recording lens-specific metadata is confusing, pointless, and possibly both. Your best word may be to record everything as 15mm.
  7. It does take a toll on your battery.

Tips and tricks

  1. Disengaging AF. For some reason, there is a lot of internet kvetching about how it is difficult to disengage AF. This is probably based on old firmware that requires you to use Aperture Priority and turn to a small f/stop. It is actually very easy to disengage the AF temporarily. If you press and hold AE/AF-L on the a6300, the adapter will park at its “infinity” setting, the focus peaking will come on, and you can then focus manually. When you let go of the AE/AF-L button, the adapter goes back to normal AF operation (make sure the lens is set to infinity before you do this!).
  2. Quickly overriding face-detect or wide area AF. If you have the camera set to wide AF, and you press the center of the back wheel, it will go into spot AF, center area only. It will also automatically focus in that zone. There are many possible green boxes, so it’s not like spot AF – but it suffices in most situations where you need an arbitrary focus point.
  3. Minimum focusing distance. With a travel of 4.5mm, and the lens set to infinity, the adapter does not have extension enough to reach minimum focusing distance with any lens over 50mm. The slight exception appears to be some zooms, since their designs often obviate a direct relationship between focal length and extension while focusing. Minimum focusing distance, though, is all in your mind with the A6300, whose narrower angle of view causes you to back up to get the same field as with an FX/35mm camera.
  4. Prefocusing longer lenses. With long lenses the quickest and easiest way to get to a range where you can achieve focus is to press AE/AF-L (which parks the lens), turn focus peaking on, and focus to a point where focus is just behind the intended subject. Once you are there, let go of the AE/AF-L button to reactivate AF. Because you focused behind the subject, and because the adapter extends (thereby moving the focus point closer to the camera), you have now put your lens exactly in the right place. Needless to say, the longer the lens, the less frontward subject movement this technique will tolerate.
  5. Marking your close-focus point with long lenses. If you habitually shoot at 1-1.5m, find the right “parked” focus distance (see above) and then mark it on the focusing ring with a dot of colored paint.

Compatibility

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Konica 57mm f/1.2 Hexanon AR, shot by the Konica 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Hexanon AR ($50), the “plastic fantastic” in its quasi macro mode, on the LM-EA7II.

Yes. In general the performance of this adapter depends on two major variables: lens weight and maximum aperture.  The former degrades focusing speed; the latter, certainty of locked focus. As noted above, Hexanons were tested due to the availability of an ulterior SLR adapter (plus I had a bunch sitting around).

  1. 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-ASPH M (pre FLE)
  2. 40mm f/2 M-Rokkor
  3. 50mm f/1.1 MS-Sonnetar
  4. 50mm f/1.5 ZM C-Sonnar
  5. 50mm f/1.5 Jena Sonnar (prewar)
  6. 50mm f/2.0  M-Hexanon
  7. 50mm f/2.4L Hexanon
  8. 50mm f/2.8 Jena Sonnar (with Amedeo dual-mount Contact to Leica adapter)
  9. 50mm f/2 Jena Sonnar collapsible prewar
  10. 50mm f/2 Carl Zeiss (Opton) Sonnar, postwar
  11. 75mm f/1.4 Summilux-M (prefocus)
  12. 90mm f/2.8 M-Hexanon (prefocus)
  13. 10.5cm f/2.5 PC Nikkor (LTM)
  14. 40mm f/2 Hexanon (AR) (Konica mount via Leicaist adapter)
  15. 57mm f/1.2 Hexanon AR
  16. 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom-Hexanon AR
  17. 85mm f/1.8 Hexanon AR

Kinda. For wide-angle, medium aperture lenses the adapter does not do so well because Sony’s phase-detect AF isn’t set up to split hairs.

  1. 24mm f/2.8 Hexanon AR

No? Here, the details are too small and/or the depth of field too much to get an easy lock (or sometimes, any lock) with the A6300 [edit note: this appears to be due to the camera’s having difficulty in deciding where the focus point should be – and even in its “spot” modes, the a6300 is picking a focus point]. The behavior on these is more deliberate focusing, almost as if the camera had switched into contrast-detect].

  1. 18mm f/4 ZM Distagon [too wide, too small an aperture]
  2. 21mm f/4.5 ZM Biogon [too wide, too small an aperture]
  3. 21-35mm f/3.4-4.0 M-Hexanon Dual [too wide, too small an aperture]
  4. 50mm f/1.5 Carl Zeiss (Opton) Sonnar [aberrations that Sony AF can’t understand?]

Conclusion

The Sony A6300 is a pretty formidable camera for video and not a slouch for stills provided either that your style does not exact ultra high performance from kit lenses or provided that you are willing to invest in better Sony or Sony/Zeiss glass.

The LM-EA7II may never be good for sports or high-intensity moving work, but it provides some fun with old lenses, or as much of it as you can take! It’s actually a bit irritating that I did not have an A7-series camera on hand to try it.

Zoom lenses: good vs. not good vs. both

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This simple feeling… is beyond V’ger’s comprehension. No meaning… no hope… and, Jim, no answers. It’s asking questions: ‘Is my kit zoom lens good enough?’

In reality, we actually know little about zoom lenses except that the best ones (from a numerical standpoint) are very large, heavy, and expensive. Once you move into the enthusiast and kit versions, the question of whether or not they are good (or, more to the point, useful) is complex, subjective, and somehow optimistic.

General limitations

The struggle of zoom lenses, since basically forever, is designing a multifocal, focus-maintaining lens that is at least as good as any lens of the focal lengths covered, without being massively heavy or unimaginably expensive. This struggle is driven by four conditions of design, manufacturing, physics, and software.

  1. Design. Fixed focal length lenses have an inherent advantage because they are always going deliver high performance at low prices. Such lenses require computations at one focal length, have fewer parts, need less assembly labor, and require less glass. A zoom has to be good at a theoretically unlimited number of focal lengths between two extremes and has to maintain focus as it focal length changes.
  2. Manufacturing. The difference between a good lens and a great lens can be 0.01mm. Zoom lenses have numerous glass and precision molded plastic elements that have to work in formation at an infinite number of focal lengths between two extremes (say 14mm and 24mm). It is more difficult to make larger-diameter glass elements with great precision, and the more mechanical linkages exist in a lens (for example, ones that maintain focus through focal length changes), the more tolerances add up. Sometimes low moving mass and “slop” is built in to make lenses focus faster.
  3. Physics. More glass means more flare and dispersion, and zoom lenses have tons of glass. Flare can be mostly tamed via muticoating, but even so, dispersion adds up with the element counts. A 13-element lens with modern multicoating (losing ~1% per air-glass surface) can have a total loss of 25% of all the light coming into it.
  4. Software. This enters the picture in two ways: focus correction and image correction. On DSLRs and some mirrorless cameras, the AF Fine Tune function helps correct focus errors that occur with particular lenses and phase-detect autofocus. The difficulty with zooms is that the nature of focusing errors can change with each focal length, and dialing in a correction for one focal length for a lens can greatly improve images there but degrade images shot at other focal lengths. The second limitation arises in software correction of lens aberrations (distortion, vignetting/falloff, and sharpness). One cheat (or innovation, depending on how you look at it) is to let the camera make corrections that the lens design itself does not permit. This provides more freedom to design smaller, lighter, and cheaper lenses. But you can’t really reconstruct data that isn’t there – or bend it infinitely.

Why many enthusiasts have been suspicious of zooms

It mainly seems to be a thing with people 40 years old and up, who remember the bad old days. As to the history, in the 1970s, optical correction was not what it is today, and zooms got a really bad rap because things like the 43–86mm Nikkor were convenient but not optical superstars. The original zooms were two-touch, which allowed the easy setting of focal length and focus with two separate rings. If a lens mostly held focus as you changed focal length, it was a true “zoom;” if not, it was a varifocal (Nikon is, and long has been, an offender in calling varifocal lenses “zooms”). Zooms of that era were difficult to design, and it was a time where lens design was transitioning to more computerized methods. They worked for a lot of purposes, but given the natural male inclination to over-spec and compete with equipment, they were not taken very seriously.

In the late 1970s, manufacturers went to one-touch, where you could adjust focus and focal length with the same grip. The temptation was to conclude that you could just re-zoom, re-compose, and fire away, but the reality was that focus drift followed focal length changes, and if you didn’t bother to refocus, you could get slightly soft pictures. One-touch zooms also suffered from zoom creep: eventually, as the lens loosened up, pointing the camera up or down would cause the zoom mechanism (governed by front-back movement of the ring) to move on its own. This too, did not help perceptions, though there are some very good zooms of the 1970s and 1980s, including some third-party offerings like the Vivitar Series 1.

SLR manufacturers rediscovered the two-touch in the 1990s, when it became an advantageous design for autofocus lenses (an AF motor could turn a focusing ring but not also a zoom ring). And that is when they all backslid into selling varifocal lenses as “zooms;” the assumption being that the camera’s AF would correct the focus anyway. Although questionable from a marketing standpoint, autofocus helped assure that the new “zooms” would  be

The rise and fall of zooms (1999-2005)

If zooms had a heyday, it was from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. Several things came together to make this happen:

  • Vis-a-vis prime lenses, zooms were more heavily telecentric than prime lenses. In simple terms, their design created the straight-on light rays that digital sensors like.
  • Advances in lens coating took away some of the performance penalties of using a large number of lens elements for image correction.
  • Prime lenses were getting little in the way of updates. This meant that the best ones were standing still, and others did not work as well as zooms with digital. Consider that it took Nikon 50 years to update the formula of its 50/1.4.

The prototypical lens of this era was the AF-s 17-35mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which was designed for the D1 cameras but was usable with contemporary film cameras too. This lens outperformed most primes within its focal length range, was solid, fast-focusing, and very  popular.

But just as every pendulum swings, the 2010s to the present are where the optical (but not necessarily total) performance level of cheap zooms took a little bit of a dive.

  • In a market with softening demand, maintaining competitive MSRPs for entry-level cameras and lenses required simpler and cheaper designs.
  • The processing power of digital cameras increased to the point where it became possible to correct for distortion, light falloff, and sharpness in-camera.
  • Increased emphasis on video, especially from mirrorless, demanded lenses that could focus quietly and continuously, driving toward lower moving mass.
  • The move by the market toward camera phones meant that the “burden” associated with separate cameras had to be minimized.

In other words, the ethic was (and is) using technology to make cheaper, lighter, and easier-to-make lenses acceptable, not so much to make good lenses better.

At the high-end of the lens lines, updated primes also began to exert pressure on the more expensive zoom lenses, especially where trends push toward small and light.

What is the quick and dirty way to identify “good” zooms?

When shopping for a zoom lens with high potential, this is the general hierarchy to predict (with some but not total certainty), where a lens fits on the performance curve.

— By effective aperture

  • Constant f/2.8 aperture – this generally means a pro-level lens. It also means big, heavy, and expensive.
  • Constant f/4 aperture – this is the high-end amateur or lower-end pro zoom. It takes a lot of engineering to keep the aperture constant on a zoom, and this type of lens generally has the best balance of performance, weight, and cost. Canon and Nikon both make this style of lens. These are not cheap, but they are much easier to live with than monster pro zooms.
  • Variable f/2.8-4  or 3.5-4.5 (1 stop aperture shift) – this lens type of lens generally has been optimized for compactness over speed. F/2.8 is really a bragging right; it’s only half a stop faster than f/3.5.
  • Variable f/3.5-5.6 (or f/6.8) (1.5+ stops) – when a manufacturer lets the maximum aperture float this much, it is generally an indicator that you should not be expecting world-beating performance. But you will get a lens that will do well in most circumstances and not break your back or budget in the process. These are actually the lenses that are fun to shoot with.

— By zoom range

This may sound deceptively simple, and maybe it oversimplifies, but it is a fairly good bet that where a modern lens has a zoom range of greater than 2.5-3x from short to long, it is is probably a “convenience” zoom rather than one oriented toward absolute performance.

Can “not-good” be good?

Yes. Despite having performance a notch or two below pro lenses, kit zooms can be quite good within some limits. First, in an era where photos are overwhelmingly likely to be shared on social media, and not printed, kit zooms are actually complete overkill. In fact, anything beyond an 8mp iPhone 6 might be complete overkill – the same way that a lot of expensive pro equipment in the 1970s was used by amateurs to generate 3.5×5 inch prints.

Second, even if you print, you only need about 6mp of real-world performance out of a lens to print a nice 8×10, which again is bigger than most prints made today. “Real world performance” means type of system resolution that DxOMark measures (lens performance plus body performance, moderated through focus accuracy). That might be a 12mp body and a midrange lens.

Third, you will still get really good results – though optimum performance may be ~3 f/stops from wide-open (f/8 vs. f/3.5 maximum) as opposed to (f/4 vs. 2.8 maximum). There is an old adage, “f/8 and be there,” but in reality, once a lens is stopped down even to f/6.3 (let alone 8), even a plastic meniscus lens will have performance approaching an expensive coated lens. Like vampire tears, the pro-lens advantage evaporates in bright sunlight.

Finally, especially for mirrorless cameras, some lenses have video performance that vastly outweighs whatever perceived deficiencies they have for other purposes. For example, you might conclude that the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 power zoom lens that comes with a Sony a6300 is terrible. It’s not terrible for still pictures (in no small part because it is one of the fastest-focusing lenses ever invented), but it really shines in video, where it can silently and reliably track moving subjects without introducing noise. And it’s also tiny.

Conclusion

To wrap up: the performance, utility, and fun factor of zoom lenses is actually pretty subjective. Try as many as you can. Pick the one that you like the best, so long as it does what you need it to do.