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.
I recently visited Kuala Lumpur on a business trip. As with all my trips, I always carry a small camera to take some travel photos. Particularly when it is the first time that I visit a particular place, as was the case. It is a 12 hour+ travelling time from Portugal, where I live, so when I landed at around 3pm local time, with a 7 hour time difference, I was pretty knackered!
Of course to take photos outside of business hours involves waking up early and staying out late, and walk, and shoot a lot, on the street. Let me tell you that KL in late October means rainy season, high humidity, strong showers, and nice temperature (around 30 Celsius). The good news is that there are plenty of photographic opportunities even if you don’t have much free time; the bad news is that during my visit, the atmosphere was hazy due to fires in Indonesia, so I hardly saw the sun.
Anyway, the best way to know a new place is to simple walk around, so that is what I did. Friendly people everywhere, street food stalls with a lot of tasty foods, modern shopping malls and interesting architecture (both old and new), there are many things to see and visit.
To tackle all of this, I took a highly competent little camera with me, the Canon Powershot G7X. It packs a lot of power and image quality potential, with a relatively large (for a compact that is) 1 inch sensor, a bright 24-100mm lens, and a touch screen. I spent all the time in aperture priority mode, auto-iso, and touch focus on screen. The image stabilization helped immensely when the light levels were low. All in all, a great little camera for travel. Of course I shoot RAW all the time, to get the most bits from my bucks.
In the end, after 5 days in KL, I came away with some photos that I am happy with, and that is the most important thing.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
Notice your surroundings. This may seem obvious, but how many times, as photographers, we do not pay enough attention to our environs? Even when you do not have a camera, take mental, or written note, of potential places to photograph.
This is what I did recently, when travelling by coach between Lisbon and Milfontes, on Portugal’s southwest coast. The driver took a different than normal route, and I was soon noticing some interesting places before arriving at the village of Cercal: there were the typical rolling hills of Alentejo, golden from the summer, with plenty of majestic “sobreiros” (the tree from which bark cork is made), small farms with hay bales, and even abandoned schools. I took note, and in a late summer afternoon last August, I drove there to explore the area.
Cercal is just about 20 km from the coast, but the feel is of a true “interior” village, making a living from farming and agriculture. From there, is a short drive to the even smaller villages of Espadanal and Fornalhas, with many interesting stops along the way. I took photos of characterful trees, abandoned farm houses and schools, empty roads, and hay bales in the hills.
The light was a bit challenging, with the late afternoon sun playing hide-and-seek… but the clouds made for some interesting long-exposure shots.
Of course the coast and the beaches beckon, but if you visit the region, make an effort to stop and appreciate the countryside also, it is well worth your time.
This past August in the Alentejo coast has been characterized by somewhat cool and misty mornings, and breezy afternoons. Not so good for beach goers, but wonderful for photographers. One of the mandatory spots in this region is the Ilha do Pessegueiro, located just slightly south of the well-known village of Porto Covo.
This island is the result of the last post-glaciation sea-level rise, about 18,000 years ago; at the time, a vast sand dune complex was developed. These dunes are now consolidated, of course, and make an important geologic formation in the area. The Romans established a post on the island (for salt trade), and much later on (around the 18th century), the Portuguese built two forts, one on the island, one onshore. These were built to defend the area against the North African pirates.
Trusting in the weather forecast, I planned for a visit in the early morning, to take some photos of the island and beach in the mist. Indeed I was not disappointed, as the fog/mist was abundant, but for short periods it was possible to see the island.
All in all, a very pleasant morning and photographic session. This was also one of my first outings using the Sony FE 70-200 f4 lens, a focal length range that I always found very useful for landscape photography. This lens is, in my opinion, a must have for users of this system.
Today I just to post some images I made recently in a place that I love: Almograve beach, in Portugal’s southwest coast. I have known this region for almost 40 years, but it always seems new and fresh to me. When I was a kid, I used to dive from some of these rocks. Today, that is not possible during the summer, because the life-guards will not allow it.
The rocks have been eroded for sure, but at our human scale and time frame, we cannot spot the difference. What we can appreciate is the change in the beach profile, which changes every year, as the sands are shifted along the shore. This year is one of high sand content, and many rocks are buried under it.
One morning, very early, even before sunrise, I went out to photograph the beach at low tide. This is in August, so one has to go really early to catch the best light, and to avoid the high number of people that flock to the beach. The weather was cloudy, which is good for photography, but bad for beach goers… Lucky me, I managed to get some nice images, with interesting sky and clouds.
Portugal’s Southwest is home to some of the most beautiful beaches anywhere, many of them still in pristine condition. Justifiably, that is where most people end up spending their time, hopping from beach to beach. However, just a few kilometres inland, it is possible to find many small farms, where life still goes on at a leisurely place. Actually, it is this dichotomy of land and sea that makes one of the fundamental characters of the region, underpinning its classification as a Natural Park.
One of the various interesting subjects to shoot while visiting the region are the typical hay bales that cover the fields. At sunrise and sunset the light is best for these landscape shots, as the light changes from soft pastel tones (just before sunrise) to more strong side lighting, leading to long shadows.
Below are some photos from a recent shoot at sunrise. Of course, during the summer, this means getting up very early, but it is well worth the effort. These photos were shot with 20mm and 90mm lenses; the wide angle provides more sweeping vistas, but the tele allows the isolation of some interesting parts of the landscape.
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.
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).