Late autumn afternoon with the ZEISS Batis 25 lens

Finally, I managed to get hold of the elusive Zeiss Batis 25 f2 lens. The waiting was long, but was it worth it? After using it in the field for the first time, and after processing the images, the answer is a solid yes. Zeiss have a winner in this lens, as already reported by many photographers, but it is always nice to be able to confirm it personally. Since I started using the Sony Alpha 7 system, I have tested a few options for a wide angle landscape lens; these included an old (but excellent) Nikkor AIS 24 f2.8 lens, as well as a (more recent) Nikon 20 f1.8 G lens. Both are very good choices, but the Zeiss delivers much more, in terms of colours, contrast, edge and corner performance. Plus, the whole haptics of using the lens in the field is very different: non-fuss and smooth operation.

So I went to my local testing grounds, Carcavelos beach, near my home. The late afternoon was nice, with interesting clouds and sky, plus a lot of surfers. I shot some long exposures, which I always like to do, plus some more mundane scenes.

For the future, the Batis 85 is alluring, and I hope that Zeiss keeps introducing more of these high quality lenses for the Alpha system.

Sand, sea, and sky
Sand, sea, and sky
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Boards
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Into the water
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The horizon
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Ghost surfer
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Sky show
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Blue
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Late stroll

 

High quality “macro” on a budget

I have always enjoyed shooting macro, or close-up, photos, in the field: flowers, insects, and interesting details. The best way to do this type of photography is by using a dedicated macro lens; most macro lenses come in focal lengths of 50mm, 100mm, or 200mm, with reproduction ratios varying between ½ and life size. For the Sony Alpha E mount, there is a very good option with the FE 90 f2.8 macro lens. This lens is no doubt very good, but it is also expensive, of course.

In the past, and because I do not necessarily need to shoot at life size, one of the combinations I would often use would consist of a 70-200 zoom (almost everybody using any system is likely to have such telezooms) plus a high quality close-up lens or “diopter”. When I was using Canon, I had the zoom plus one Canon 500D close-up lens. This allowed me to have sort of macro capabilities without spending a large amount of money.

The other day I remembered that I had this lens lying around being unused, so I gave it a try with the Sony FE 70-200 f4 zoom; even the filter thread is a match, at 72mm. This lens looks like a thick filter that screws onto the front of the lens, allowing it to focus much closer, thus resulting in a higher magnification. Canon’s literature states that “The Type 500D is more suited to lenses with focal lengths from 70mm to 300mm”, so no problem. Plus, the “D” in the name of the close up lens stands for “double element”, which means better correction of aberrations, compared to single element ones.

At the 200mm focal length, the magnification ratio with the close-up lens is around ½ life size, which is good enough for me in most situations. Of course the image quality compared to a true macro lens is not the same, especially in the corners of the frame. But in most instances, the subject of interest is not in the corner, so no big problems there.

In the end, with the simple addition of a high quality close-up lens, I can add another whole dimension to my telezoom, without the extra spend or weight of a dedicated macro lens. Many times when I am out photographing landscapes, I note an interesting flower or insect, and I know that this combination works very well.

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Long exposure in landscapes

The long exposure technique (LET) has been used by landscape photographers for many years. One of the best examples is to leave the shutter open for a long time to blur movement in the water, thus creating a “milky” rendition. Quite often, this is achieved with a neutral density filter. These filters are normally dark pieces of glass or resin, that block the light getting into the lens; they come in rounded threaded form, or as part of a rectangular/square filter system, and in several “strengths”.

If you want to have a long exposure during the day, you will need a filter that cuts the light by about 9-10 stops. For instance, if your normal exposure is around 1/30 second, a 10 stop filter will allow you to go up to 1 minute. This can give a very different result, say for a seascape at sunset. Below is an example of using a 10 stop filter:

No ND filter used.
No ND filter used.
10 stop ND filter used, exposure time 1 minute.
10 stop ND filter used, exposure time 1 minute.

Besides turning the water into a foamy medium, these filters are also interesting to use to achieve similar results for cloud movement. With dramatic cloudy skies, exposing for a few minutes can add a lot of interest to your shot.

30 second exposure.
30 second exposure with 10 stop ND filter.

 

13 second exposure with 10 stop ND filter.
13 second exposure with 10 stop ND filter.

You can also achieve good results without any filters, if you shoot during the blue hour, when light levels are low, and the light quality higher for landscapes or seascapes. Also, try shooting at night under moonlight, the results can be surprising and very good. Especially with today’s sensors capabilities, sharpness can be high and noise levels low; but we are talking multi minute exposure times, often around 20 minutes at ISO 400.

No filter used.
No filter used.
No filter used.
No filter used.
No filter used, around 20 minute exposure.
No filter used, around 20 minute exposure.

Finally, one other classic type of long exposure is shooting for star trails, but that is a different topic. Today, I just wanted to give some examples that can be easily achieved to enhance your landscape photography. Of course, you will have to use a tripod!

 

 

 

 

Wide angle lens for Sony A7 system – another option

In the search for a high quality wide angle lens for my Sony A7 system, a friend of mine recommended that I look at the Nikon AFS 20 f1.8 G lens. It is well known that so far, there are no options below 25mm (Zeiss Batis) for the system. The Sony 28 f2 lens accepts a converter that gives 21mm, and of course there is the Sony Zeiss 16-35 f4 zoom. None of these fit my requirements of a high quality, fast wide angle lens below 24mm, to shoot landscapes and night skies. So far, as illustrated in my previous post, I have been using a Nikkor AIS 24 f2.8 lens, which is a very good option. But I need something a bit wider and faster for some of my photography.

Thus, I started to investigate about the above mentioned Nikon lens, which is a recent introduction into the f1.8 Nikon lens line for FX (Nikon’s name for full frame 35mm format). Reading some reviews, it quickly became apparent that the lens is arguably Nikon’s best 20mm so far, which is saying a lot. Then the chance presented itself to use the lens for testing in one of my preferred areas, southwest Portugal coast; and with a new moon night sky, some star trail and Milky Way photography would provide a good testing ground.

Now, it needs to be said that using a Nikon G lens (no aperture ring) on a Sony A7 means that setting the aperture is done via a ring on the adapter (I have a Novoflex). At first, this a bit awkward, but after a while, there is no problem, as one can count stops easily by noting the changes in shutter speed, while using said ring. Another thing is, the manual focus ring is not as smooth as a true manual focus ring (no surprise there), the focus throw is not large (short turn of the ring between close focus and infinity), and the depth-of-field scale is, shall we say, not very useful (f16 marks only). Oh yes, and there are no hard stops at close focus and infinity.

Regardless of the above (normal) limitations, the lens delivers very good results. Below are some initial test shots: a general photo to illustrate the location where I set up the night sky shots (taken at about 9.30 pm), plus a star trail and Milky Way panorama. I had a bit of concern about being able to achieve precise infinity focus, but using magnification in the LCD, I was able to quickly and easily focus on a bright star.

I will keep testing the lens in similar situations, but so far, it is looking like a winner. In terms of handling and ergonomics, the lens is not heavy, it has the common 77mm filter diameter, and comes with a lens hood. If Zeiss ever comes out with a wide angle Loxia (say 21mm or there about), it needs to be pretty good optically to outperform this Nikon.

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View of shooting location

 

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Star trail of around 120 minutes total

 

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Milky Way panorama – 8 photos

 

 

 

Sony A7 system – in search of a wide-angle lens

 

 

 

It is well known that for Sony A7 series users, the options for wide-angle lens are not abundant. Say you need a lens that is below 35mm, the only native FE lens is the 16-35 f4 zoom, or the 24-70 f4 zoom. Zeiss has just announced a couple of lenses for their new Batis AF line, including a 25mm f2 lens that shows high promise (and concurrent price…). There are also expectations for a wide-angle lens coming this year in their Loxia MF line (18mm? 21mm?). We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of reports and user experiences about adapting and using both RF and SLR mount wide-angle lenses in the Sony A7 cameras. Evidence shows that many wide-angle RF lenses show varying degrees of problems with these sensors: corner smearing, colour shifts, and so on. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the Leica WATE (but at very dear prices), or the more recent Voigtlander 15 f4.5 MkIII VM lens (which has a fixed lens hood, so not much luck in using a square filter system – unless makers like Lee Filters come up with a special adaptor, like they did for the Nikon 14-24 zoom lens).

Anyway, for someone like me, who likes to use a prime MF lens around 21-24mm focal length, the options are more open when looking into SLR options. After some search and browsing the used market, I ended up getting the Nikkor 24 f2.8 AIS lens in very good condition (pristine glass). Using it with a Novoflex adaptor, it is very nice to operate in the field for landscape shots off a tripod. This Nikkor lens used to be (still is?) a classic for landscape shooters, so I suppose it is good enough for me. There are many other possibilities, from Canon FD to Olympus OM mounts, and this is just in the MF world.

My sample had a problem when I received it, it would not focus to infinity; so I sent it for a CLA job, and it is now fine. The focusing ring is not as smooth or as nice as a Leica or Zeiss lens, but then, I normally shoot at hyperfocal settings at f11 or f16, checking the focus on magnified LV; so no problem there. The glass is what counts, and this little lens (52mm filter diameter) delivers sharp and contrasty images with good flare control. Plus, it features Nikon’s famous CRC (close range correction), to ensure sharpness when focused close (via a rear floating element).

Below are some images I recently shot near where I live, in Carcavelos beach, at dawn. I like to go there and try out long exposures (say 5 or 6 minutes).

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The Leica X (Typ 113)

The “serious compact” camera segment has always been a lively one. From the film days (Leica CM, Ricoh GR1, and many others) to the digital age, several cameras have been made from many manufacturers. In recent years, Fuji in particular seems to have hit the nail in the head, with the X100 series: retro-look, hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder, fixed 35mm f2 lens, resulted in a classic hit. Sony has made the first full-frame compact with the RX1 camera, with an enticing Zeiss 35mm lens (but no integrated viewfinder). I have tried the former for a while, not the latter (too dear for my pocket).

Recently, Leica has introduced their “X” series of fixed lens compact cameras, with APS-C sensor, and with a 35mm equivalent field of view lens. Hence the X1, X2, and now the X (Typ 113). The X is a more serious proposition compared to the other two, as it sports a 23mm f1.7 lens, giving us the above mentioned 35mm equivalent field of view. It also looks and feels more like a mini-M Leica, with bare minimum dials to adjust the basic settings.

Since I like 35mm focal length a lot (for travel, reportage, and landscape), and the X is actually not exorbitantly expensive (for a Leica, that is…), I borrowed one for testing. I have to say that the camera handles very nicely, the lens is superb, the controls are responsive, and the files look very good. All in all, a nice shooting experience, as the camera does not get in the way of one’s photography.

I only wish the camera or lens had image stabilization (always useful), and an integral viewfinder (optical or electronic). As it is, one needs to cough up more for the accessory EVF – Visoflex. Well, it seems that Leica responds to “complaints” from their user base, as the new “Q” has both an integral EVF, and image stabilized lens (plus full frame sensor, of course). But it also costs double of the X, and has a 28mm lens, not my favourite focal length.

The images posted here were made during a short morning stroll near the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, which has some nice gardens and interesting subjects to photograph. In the end, I will be keeping the camera.

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Spring in Odemira, southwest Portugal

The region of Odemira, in southwest Portugal, is full of interesting places and things to photograph. In one of my previous posts, I wrote about the town market and the town itself, which in its laid back ways is quite nice.

Recently I was driving nearby in the early morning when I noticed a nearby hill covered with yellow flowers, and some sobreiro (cork) trees, a trademark of the region. The hill was facing west, so I knew I had to go back in the late afternoon to do some photography.

The results are below, a mix of various attempts of exploring different viewpoints, focusing distances, depth-of-field, and some black-and-white conversion. Again, I took these with the Sony A7II and Zeiss C Sonnar 50mm lens, which is proving to be a fantastic combination to use. odemira_3_4_15_10_net odemira_3_4_15_11_net odemira_3_4_15_12_net odemira_3_4_15_6_net odemira_3_4_15_10_bw_net

The Mutrah Souk in Muscat, Oman

The Mutrah souk in Muscat is one of the mandatory places to go for visitors. It is a very traditional place, with various shops lining the narrow alleyways. It is actually quite small, but still one can feel “lost” inside, due to the narrowness of the streets, and the ambience inside: traditional fares like incense and spices are available, as well as all other types of products. Be sure to visit one of the juice stands for a really good natural fruit juice, or the more traditional teas and samosas.

Less known to visitors are the streets located just a stone throw’s away from the more commercial streets; in here it is possible to find busy men unloading merchandise for their shops, and traditionally decorated wood and steel doors. Away from the hustle and bustle of the commercial activity, I was able to concentrate on capturing some of the “flavour” of the souk, the details that often go unnoticed.

In this regard, the Sony A7II and Zeiss C Sonnar f1.5 50mm lens are a wonderful combination, for this more contemplative type of photography. Having visited this place so many times before, this time I wanted to obtain some different results, other than the more “normal” shots inside the souk proper.

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The Sony A7II with the Zeiss C Sonnar f1.5 50mm ZM lens

This is just a quick post to share my experience with the above combination. The Sony A7II is the second iteration of a very successful line of mirrorless full frame cameras. Main improvements over its predecessor are: a larger grip – thus better ergonomics, at least for me; a more robust build (the camera features more metal in its chassis); and of course, IBIS (image stabilization via the sensor, so all lenses can benefit). Two things are a bit of a let-down: loud shutter noise, and lack of touch screen.

But most importantly, the camera handles beautifully in the field, where it counts. I use it for documentary, street, and travel photography, with a trusty Zeiss C Sonnar f1.5 50mm ZM lens. This is Leica M mount lens, and as such, it requires an adapter to be used on the A7 (I have opted for the Novoflex adapter, solid and reliable). Much has been said about this lens, basically people hate it or love it; I am in the latter camp, otherwise I would not be using it, right?

The lens renders in its own special way: (near) wide open it delivers a “softer” and “dreamier” look in the areas that are not in focus, with a rapid and smooth transition between your subject and the background. Stopped down, the sharpness increases over the image area, but in the corners, the image is perhaps not sharp enough for “sharpness crazies”. To me, it is more than enough, and I am quite happy with it.

Of course the lens is not auto-focus, but manual focusing with the A7II is a breeze, thanks to some assisting tools. These are focus peaking and zoom/magnification of the user selected focusing area. The lens itself has a “true” manual focus ring, smooth as butter, plus an aperture ring; really “old school”.

Finally, I post some images taken with this combination, from Lisbon, Fatima sanctuary, and Batalha monastery.

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Sony RX10 goes to Abu Dhabi

I recently went to Abu Dhabi on a business trip, to attend a conference. As always, I wanted to take a “small travel” camera with me. Recently, I had been looking with increasing interest at the Sony RX10. Actually, I had been looking at this camera since it was introduced in 2013, but the original high asking price cooled off my interest. With the price going down with time, I ended up getting one; after all, it is hard to resist the package: Zeiss 24-200mm f2.8 lens, 1 inch Sony sensor, good ergonomics, image stabilization, plus the other bits and bobs.

So when the time came to choose a camera to take with me to Abu Dhabi, the choice was obvious. I carried the camera plus a 13 inch laptop in a shoulder bag, no problem. I know Abu Dhabi well, but being on non-leisure trip means getting up early and staying up late, to make the best of the light. I was also travelling without a tripod this time, even my small travel one, so I was totally relying on upping the ISO and image stabilization. I went out mostly to photograph along the Corniche, close to the hotel where I was staying. The skyline in getting more impressive by the day, and makes for interesting photographs at sunrise and sunset.

The camera performed as expected. Zooming the lens is indeed slow, but after a while one gets the hang of it, and anticipating the focal length required makes up for it. Auto focus worked well, even in night scenes I always managed to find something to focus on, quickly and reliably. The ISO performance from the camera is acceptable, considering the size of the sensor. I was typically shooting in aperture priority mode and auto ISO up to 1600. This managed all the situations I encountered.

Now, at ISO values 800 and 1600, the image starts to degrade if you examine your images at 100% on screen. Careful sharpening and noise reduction can help up to a certain point, and the images end up being acceptable for most uses. In the end, I was able to take the photos, and it is marvellous how much technology has progressed.

I would say that the RX10 is a camera that will serve many photographers well, and that delivers high quality images if you understand its operational limits. It even allows you to step out a little bit from those limits and take photos that otherwise would not be possible, while maintaining a certain file integrity and quality. In the end, as a general purpose fixed zoom lens camera, it more than delivers.

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ISO 1600 and f2.8
ISO 1600 and f2.8, not bad

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