Equipment

Comparing the Nikon D800

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Nikon D800, Nikkor 18-35 lens at f/14 for 15 seconds. Lee 10 stop ND filter.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 18-35 lens at f/14 for 15 seconds. Lee 10 stop ND filter.

I would like to start this blog post with an apology. It’s taken me far too long to publish my first thoughts about the D800 and how it compares to the Olympus EM5. But there is a reason for this in that I have wanted to get used to the D800 given that it’s a new camera. It usually takes me a number of outings to begin to understand a camera and then quite a few more to start producing work that I am pleased with.

I have now had exactly three outings with the D800 and I feel that I am starting to understand it and get “the feel of the camera”. Despite this I c

an’t keep you all waiting any longer so I will start to discuss my findings. First though I should outline the equipment that I have been using and the technique I have adopted when using the D800.

As you may be aware I purchased the D800 used as it was an absolute bargain. I also purchased two lenses to use with the camera:

  • Nikkor 24-85 f/2.8-4D IF
  • Nikkor 18-35 f3.5-4.5G ED

Neither of these lenses are the top rated in their category but they are more reasonably priced than the pro lenses. Price wise they compare with the lenses I use on my Olympus EM5 for similar focal lengths although the 12-40mm Olympus is a little more costly than the Nikkor 24-85. Of the two Nikkor lenses the 18-35 is sharper and produces better results although you do need to be peeping at those pixels in 100% magnification to notice.

In terms of using the D800, I have been shooting almost entirely with the camera mounted on a heavy Manfrotto 055CL which is one hell of a sturdy and robust tripod. I have also been using a cable release to minimise vibration. When shooting landscapes I have been using 100mm Lee ND Grad filters.

My mode of operation with the D800 on the tripod is to shoot in Live View and with the lens set to manual focus. Using this I will select the point of focus, zoom in to 100% magnification then focus the lens manually. I have found this will provide a better and more reliable result than relying on the camera’s auto focus system. A couple of observations I would make here are:

  • You need to use Live View in order to gain the flexibility of the focus point positioning. Only in live view can you position this anywhere in the frame. If you are using the optical viewfinder you will be limited by the cameras autofocus points. This is rather annoying as these points don’t extend sufficiently into the frame to obtain the best focussing.
  • When shooting in this way you need to remember to close the rear curtain on the viewfinder or you will get exposure problems as you can see from the image here. The light leak look is quite appealing but I don’t want it on every frame.
Nikon D800 showing light leak caused by not closing the rear curtain on the viewfinder
Nikon D800 showing light leak caused by not closing the rear curtain on the viewfinder

So now you know a little about how I am working with the D800, my next post on the subject will start to compare some of the factors such as image quality. I would also like to make this quite interactive so if anyone reading this has a comparison characteristic they would like to know about, just ask.

As a parting comment, I would like to point out that the EM5 is far more forgiving as a camera than the D800. I can use it hand held at ridiculously slow shutter speeds and still achieve a very sharp image. I can also work with it in very flexible and creative ways where with the D800 I am fighting with the tripod for most of the time. This has cut my shooting rate to about 1/10 of the EM5.

My most disappointing camera is…

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The hills and moors above Dovestones in Saddleworth
The hills and moors above Dovestones in Saddleworth

I should actually say my most disappointing camera was because there has been some remarkable changes with it. But first you need to hear a story to understand my disappointment.

Back in 2009 I purchased a Sony R1. For those of you don’t know, the R1 was a bridge camera with a fixed lens that was the size of a small DSLR at the time. It was very expensive new and had quickly lost favour with the general public. It was quite a weight really due in part to the huge lens. This was a 24-120mm lens made by Zeiss which was razor sharp. The 10Mpx sensor was the same one as used in some of the Nikon DSLRs at the time and was good at ISO 200 (base ISO) but quickly became noisy. The camera also lacked image stabilisation.

Despite its limitations the camera was a joy to use and produced amazing images. There are many fine art photographers who used this camera at the time and indeed I sold mine to one in 2011. Despite loving this camera I had become convinced that the Sony NEX5 was going to be a direct replacement for it but much smaller. Needless to say it wasn’t and I ended up switching to Micro 43, which I’m very pleased I did.

Roll forwards to December of last year and Sony launch the RX10. I didn’t pay much attention at the time based on past experience but then I say a picture of the RX10. It was clear that it was a reworked R1 with the same huge Zeiss lens. I did have some reservations about the 1″ sensor but already owning the RX100 I knew the sensor was quite capable. I purchased one immediately having traded in a very poor Panasonic 14-140mm lens.

The new RX10 was everything I wanted it to be. It reminded me so much of the R1 but improved. It handled well and meant no more lens switching. The lens range was now improved to 24-200mm with a fast f/2.8 constant aperture. I was so pleased.

But then came the let down. On paper this camera should perform brilliantly but when I processed the RAW files I couldn’t attain the sort of legendary image quality as the R1. At the time I was comparing this to the Olympus EM5 which is my main workhorse camera. The RX10 just seemed a bit, well soft in comparison. I tried all sorts, even convincing myself that the files were good enough. Once or twice I even came close to selling the camera had it not been for the excellent handling and convenience. In the end it was relegated to be my walking camera.

I hope you can now understand my disappointment.

Then to surprise recently I decided to open some of the RX10 RAW files in CaptureOne 8 (more on this some other time). The results were excellent. Image quality was not as “crisp” as the EM5 but then the images appeared more natural. The colours were also amazing.

At this time I also decided to update the firmware in the Sony as it was version 1.0 and version 2.0 was now available. Whilst the firmware talks about improvements to video, I’m sure they have done something to the focusing and image stabilisation. The camera now handles much better and I am getting much less shake than previously.

Over the past couple of weeks I have made a number of A2 prints from the RX10 files and they are really nice. There is a good feeling of depth to the images and they don’t feel so crisp that they appear unnatural.

In summary, a camera that was often left at home as it was disappointing has turned into one that I am happy to use and pleased to have purchased.

And the new camera is…

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Nikon D800. Not the easiest camera I have ever used. Watch out for interesting comparisons coming soon.
Nikon D800. Not the easiest camera I have ever used. Watch out for some interesting comparisons coming soon.

Big and heavy. It’s a Nikon D800.

But don’t hit the unsubscribe button just yet, there are some valid reasons for this and some really interesting results.

Firstly, this was an absolute bargain. It’s like new and was a fraction of the cost of the new camera. I don’t know about you but I just can’t resist a bargain.

Secondly I was curious. Not a little but a lot. You see I keep hearing that Micro 43 is not a real camera and that you can’t shoot serious landscapes with it. If you want to shoot landscapes you need a great camera with lots of high quality pixels in full frame. In short you need something like a D800.

So I bought one and want to use it as a benchmark against which to compare and judge my Olympus EM5 and the even smaller sensor of the RX10. Whilst I have only had two outings with the D800 I promise you the results are interesting and will surprise. I will also own up that I am struggling a little with the D800. I think shooting with Micro 43 has made me a little lazy; but more on that in future posts.

So now you know, I will be posting some interesting comparisons over the coming months.

Don’t buy a Micro 43 lens until you read this – Part 5

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Olympus EM5 with a 25mm Olympus lens.
Olympus EM5 with a 25mm Olympus lens. 1/50″ @ f/2.8 and ISO1600

Over recent years the range of prime lenses for the Micro 43 system has expanded greatly. For anyone who’s unsure, a prime lens is one with a fixed focal length for example 25mm. Again, what follows is a review of the lenses I have or have used (I have owned all of them at some time).

Panasonic 14mm

I still have this lens and it is a good performer. It was once a kit lens for one of the Panasonic systems (I forget which) so there is a ready supply of these second hand. I purchased mine second hand but it was sold as having been part of a kit but unused. The lens quality is very good with very little distortion. It doesn’t have a very wide maximum aperture but it’s better than the Panasonic 14-45 kit lens.

In terms of sharpness, it is marginally better than the 14-45 kit lens but you really do need to make a side by side comparison to see this. Where this lens does score highly is in its size and weight. It’s very light and very small. If you like to use a wide angle lens for your street photography, this is great. It’s also very useful for Landscapes as it gives the equivalent of a 28mm lens on full frame. Although many would suggest this isn’t wide enough for landscapes, it’s a very pleasing focal length. For around £100 used, this is a bargain lens.

Olympus 17mm f/2.8

There are two Olympus 17mm lenses and I have owned both. The distinguishing feature when looking at the description is the maximum aperture. The cheaper of the two has a maximum aperture of f/2.8. This version is very cheap at around £100 or less but I have seen people trying to pass these off as the more expensive f/1.8 lens discussed below. The two lenses do look different and certainly perform differently so beware. Be sure you know what you are buying.

Whilst this lens is cheap, small and light, I can’t really recommend it. It doesn’t perform anywhere near as well as the Panasonic 14-45 kit lens. Yes it has a wider maximum aperture but only just. In all honesty, if this is all you can afford and desperately want a 17mm prime lens, save your money and put it towards the next lens listed below – it’s worth the wait.

Olympus 17mm f/1.8

This lens is the complete opposite of the f/2.8 discussed above. I suspect some of the poor reviews you sometimes see listed are from people confusing it with the cheap version. This lens is beautifully made, performs amazingly well and just oozes quality. It has a metal construction and a reassuring weight whilst remaining small and compact. It will produce sharp images from wide open. It gives a beautiful shallow depth of field and is sharp into the corners with virtually no distortion. It really is a pleasure to use.

It also has a nice feature in that the end of the lens barrel will pull back to switch the lens into manual focus mode. When you do this it also reveals a nice depth of field scale; not quite as nice as a traditional manual prime but still very helpful. In short, this is a great lens and whilst a little more costly, the money shows in the quality of the lens and results. Highly recommended.

Panasonic 20mm

Some people rave about this lens and I have owned two of them now (but mine were the initial model and not the latest MKII model). I honestly can’t understand why people rate this lens so highly. The versions I have owned were very, very slow with autofocus and also quite noisy. Whilst the centre of the lens was a little sharper than the Panasonic 14-45mm kit lens the edge performance was worse. The lens is nicely compact but I couldn’t get on with it.

I acknowledge there is a strong following for this lens and I could have been unlucky enough to have two poor samples. I would urge caution if you are considering this lens and consider the Olympus 25mm discussed next as an alternative.

Olympus 25mm

This is a relatively new addition to the Olympus range of primes. All I can say is wow. I love this lens. It’s small, light, compact and really sharp. Performance is excellent as is the price. If you are considering the Panasonic 20mm prime mentioned above, do a side by side comparison with this lens. I find myself turning to the Olympus lens quite often now.

Olympus 45mm

This lens looks very similar to the 25mm Olympus mentioned above and is equally sharp. Again, this lens is highly recommended. This is a great lens with a lovely shallow depth of field.

Olympus 60mm Macro

If you want a dedicated macro lens then you don’t have many options. This lens looks unusual and is rather long. It is however an ideal focal length for a macro lens and super sharp. I really like this lens a lot although understand when some people say they can’t get on with it. Focus speed is OK but not terribly fast. I suspect this is why there is a range switch on the side so you can limit the range it tries to focus over. The only thing I don’t like this lens is the 1:1 magnification switch. Once in this mode you really need manual focus and if you accidently press the shutter button you can lose this level of magnification. You do really need to be focussing manually at this setting. Despite this the lens produces wonderful results and also makes a very capable 60mm prime for general use. You don’t need to use it as a macro lens all the time.

I hope this miniseries has helped people and if anyone has any additional comments on lenses not covered I would be delighted to hear them.

And I haven’t forgotten about revealing what my new camera is. More on that in the next week.

Don’t buy a Micro 43 lens until you read this – Part 4

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Captured with an Olympus OMD EM5 and Panasonic 45-200 lens.
Captured with an Olympus OMD EM5 and Panasonic 45-200 lens.

Telephoto (Long) Zooms

Continuing this miniseries, it’s time to take a look at telephoto lenses. I class these as lenses that have a focal length beyond 45mm. And please do remember, I only cover lenses that I have used. As I haven’t yet tried any pro level lenses in this class I haven’t included them in the review. If anyone does have experience with these please add your thought to the comments section. I for one would be interested in the Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 or Panasonic 35-100 f/2.8. Lens titles include links to amazon.co.uk to view the lens and ensure you know which I am refering to.

Panasonic 45-150mm

This is my current long lens having switched from the 45-200 below. The reason for my switch is because of the size and weight. This lens is actually tiny when you consider its focal length. It’s only very slightly bigger than the 14-45 kit lens so is very easy to carry. This is a huge advantage over the typical telephoto DSLR lens which tend to get bigger and heavier.

Performance in image quality ranges from excellent at the 45mm end to very good/excellent at the 150mm end of the range. At the 45mm end I would say that my example is sharper than the 14-45mm kit lens that I love so much. It also performs well from wide open, displaying little colour fringing but does improve slightly when stopped down.

A lens of this quality for such a low price is a real bargain.

Panasonic 45-200mm

This is another good performer which achieves results similar to the 45-150 lens discussed above. Beyond the 150mm lens the image does soften slightly but it’s still very good and beyond what many DSLR lenses can achieve at this focal length.

As I mentioned above, I recently sold this lens because I found I wasn’t using the additional reach beyond 150mm, given the additional size and weight of the lens.

Panasonic 100-300mm

I have seen some negative commentary on this lens but have found this difficult to understand. From my experience, I have wondered if the problems are more to do with technique than the lens. With a lens of this focal length, small vibrations can be a problem as they are significantly magnified.

The downside to the lens is that it’s quite costly and also quite specialised, giving the equivalent of 600mm at the long end. Whilst this is a good focal length for getting close to action, the maximum aperture is quite slow, making it less suited for low light work.

Next time we will look at prime lenses where there are a few surprises.

Don’t buy a Micro 43 lens until you read this – Part 3

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Shot on a GX1 with Olympus 9-18 lens as part of my Cloud Structures project
Shot on a GX1 with Olympus 9-18 lens as part of my Cloud Structures project

In this posting we will look at the lenses falling in the super wide angle category. I define this as being those that are wider than 24mm (full frame equivalent) or 12mm (Micro 43). At the time of writing there are only two zoom lens options which are described below. Headings are links to amazon.co.uk to see the lenses.

Super Wide Angle Zoom

Olympus 9-18mm

If you need a wider angle lens than the 12mm standard zoom you don’t have much choice. It’s either this lens or the Panasonic 7-14mm mentioned below. I own the Olympus 9-18 and really like it. It’s a sharp lens that performs well. At the wider angle end of the zoom range it will distort but the lens retains its sharpness. Some chromatic aberration is apparent but no more than you might expect from such a wide angle.

The lens is very light and small. It also collapses down on itself when not in use. This makes it very easy to carry and suitable for all sorts of camera design. Most importantly you can easily use filters on this lens, something that can be tricky with the Panasonic.

Panasonic 7-14mm

I can’t deny this is a sharper lens than the Olympus and is most certainly pro quality. The downside when compared to the Olympus is that it’s larger and quite a bit heavier although it’s still much smaller and lighter than a DSLR wide angle lens.

Despite its amazing performance, I opted not to buy this lens because of one key problem. The front element of the lens protrudes beyond the front of the lens making it very difficult to attach filters. If you can overcome this limitation and don’t mind that it’s quite a lot more costly than the Olympus then this is a great lens.

Don’t buy a Micro 43 lens until you read this – Part 2

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Captured with an Olympus 12-40 at f/3.5. This lens is sharp across the entire frame and shows little distortion (although that could be down to Lightroom auto correction)
Captured with an Olympus 12-40 at f/3.5. This lens is sharp across the entire frame and shows little distortion (although that could be down to Lightroom auto correction)

In this post I am going to share my thoughts on some of the Standard zooms I have used. As there isn’t really a definition of what can be considered a standard zoom, I view these as a zoom that will go from moderate wide angle (24mm or 28mm) through to short telephoto (80mm to 100mm). Don’t forget as you look through the list below that the Micro 43 sensor has a magnification factor of 2x. This means a 14mm lens will become a 28mm lens on a Micro 43 camera.

Panasonic 14-45mm

This is the old kit lens from the GF1 and you can still buy it new for quite a reasonable price. Now just because this is a kit lens doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad. In fact I have owned 4 of these (all purchased second hand) and all were excellent. The lens will produce sharp images even wide open and will become very sharp from around f/4.5. It does start to drop off slightly from around f/8.0 but still performs well until near to the minimum aperture.

In case you’re worried about getting enough depth of field and think you need to stop the lens down to the minimum aperture, don’t. At 14mm, setting the aperture to f/7.1 usually allows you to achieve sufficient depth of field for most landscape shots, providing you don’t get in very close to your subject. You also need to take care to pick a good point of focus to maximise depth of field, but you would need to do that with any camera system.

This lens is an excellent workhorse and will serve you well in a wide variety of situations. Best of all you can buy these used at very reasonable prices, sometimes with a very serviceable GF1 attached (which you could always have converted to shoot infrared).

Panasonic 14-42mm

There are various versions of this kit lens on the market but I would suggest you treat them with care. I have tried a few but none come near to the 14-45mm mentioned above. These appear to have been made to a budget and it shows in the soft images. Now I don’t have any significant experience with the Olympus version but as a budget kit lens I would still be cautious.

If you’re thinking of buying a Micro 43 system consider buying body only and purchasing the Panasonic 14-45mm (used). Or perhaps if you do have one of these lenses consider trading it in. There are better options.

Panasonic 12-32mm

This is the kit lens that comes with the Panasonic GM1. It looks to be too small to be stabilised but it does have stabilisation. Whilst it’s not the sharpest lens, it is surprisingly good. Mine doesn’t have much edge distortion and chromatic aberration appears well controlled. Its real advantage though is that it’s surprisingly small and light as well as being a great little performer. If you happen to come across one at a reasonable price give it a try. Or if you are thinking of buying a GM1 and have some existing lenses, don’t automatically go for the body only option to save money. When I bought my GM1, buying the body only would have saved just £20. Compared to the value of this lens, that’s a tiny saving.

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

This is by far the most expensive of the standard zooms I have used. This is the Olympus Pro quality lens and benefits from a large fixed aperture across the zoom range. It performs superbly well from wide open and both distortion and chromatic aberration are very well controlled. As you might expect from a pro lens, it is very sharp and an excellent performer.

The downside to this lens besides the price is the size and weight. It’s still smaller than a standard DSLR lens but it’s probably a similar weight although a little smaller. For some cameras you might find it feels a little unbalanced. [Having used this lens quite a bit now I would say the sharpness can also be a problem. Some of my prints (even A2 prints) show so much sharp detail that it can look false. On occasion I have found myself applying a very slight blur to the image to give a nicer, smooth feel to the print.]

Whether this lens deserves the high premium over the Panasonic 14-45mm, only you will be able to decide. Panasonic also have their version of this lens which is 12-35mm and at the time of writing is even more costly than the Olympus.

Olympus 12-50

This is the kit lens that comes with the Olympus EM5 and EM10. It’s not actually a bad lens but it definitely isn’t a great lens. The focal length range of 24mm-100mm equivalent is great and very useful. The downside and reason that I sold mine is that the image quality just isn’t as good as the Panasonic 14-45mm. I would rather lose a little flexibility at either end of the zoom range for the comfort feeling of knowing image quality is good.

One area that isn’t very good with this lens is the maximum aperture. As soon as you start to zoom in, the maximum aperture drops very quickly. This makes it a poor choice for lower light situations and almost forces you to select a more sensitive ISO. Now the aperture on the Panasonic 14-45mm isn’t great but it is easier to work with than with the 12-50.

Something I did find very annoying about this lens is the electronic zoom. It’s easier to work with than the Panasonic power zoom switch as you still use the zoom ring on the lens, but it’s just not a nice feel. I never felt comfortable zooming in and out using this feature of the lens and trying to fine tune the zoom was very difficult.

On the plus side, this lens does have a very useful macro button. I think it gives 1:2 life-size enlargements and allows you to get quite close to your subject. If you are on a budget, this can be a useful lens, just don’t expect it to match the optical performance of the Panasonic 14-45 or the quality of the Olympus 60mm macro.

Next time we will take a look at Super Wide Angle options.

Quality costs but it also pays

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Olympus EM5 with 14-45mm lens. Lee Seven 5 0.9ND Graduated filter. Post processing with Nik Color Efex and Viveza. f/11 at ISO200 for 1/13" handheld.
Olympus EM5 with 14-45mm lens. Lee Seven 5 0.9ND Graduated filter. Post processing with Nik Color Efex and Viveza. f/11 at ISO200 for 1/13″ handheld.

Looking back some 3 to 4 years, I was a devoted user of Lee Filters although they were far from perfect. I didn’t think the quality was great and I can point to examples of colour shifts in my work. When I moved to Micro 43 I found the Lee 100mm filters were too large so I switched to using Hi-Tech 85mm filters and then more recently the Hi-Tech 67mm.

I was very pleased with the Hi-Tech filters and they were also much better value than the Lee equivalent. That was at least until I purchased the Sony RX10. When I use the 85mm Hi-Tech filters with this camera (the 67mm filters vignette badly) I find the sky takes on a purple tint. I can correct this in Lightroom using the grad tool but it’s annoying. What’s interesting is that this isn’t a noticeable problem when I use the filters with the Olympus EM5.

Now enter the GM1 and I found a similar problem was now occurring with the 67mm Hi-Tech filters. It’s not as strong an effect as the 85mm filters on the Sony but I can still notice it. Again, the effect isn’t noticeable when using the filters with the Olympus EM5.

It was this small but very frustrating tint that has taken me back to the Lee filters. I decided to bite the bullet and invest in the Lee Seven 5 filters, and I’m so pleased that I have. These filters and holders are very well made indeed. Best of all there is no discernible colour shift on any of the cameras I use. What really hit home for me was when I used the 0.9 Grad for this image and found the effect to be perfectly natural. If there was going to be a colour shift it would be with this filter but the results are excellent.

If you are thinking of investing in the Lee Seven 5, my view is that the expense is well worth it.

Sony RX10 Colour Profile for Lightroom

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Image captured on the Sony RX10 and converted in Lightroom using the new Colour Profile I created.
Image captured on the Sony RX10 and converted in Lightroom using the new Colour Profile I created.

I have finally managed to find a little time to produce and upload a new Colour Profile for the Sony RX10. The profile can be used with Lightroom and gives a nice improvement over the standard Adobe profiles that come with Lightroom. The improvement isn’t quite as marked as some of the other cameras I have profiled but it’s still better. Blues have more punch and the reds are more natural.

You can find the free download on my Lenscraft website.

I hope you like it.

I was editing this and noticed

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Olympus EM5 image shot with Olympus 45mm lens
Olympus EM5 image shot with Olympus 45mm lens

After I published the Friday Image No 20 I decided to review my Olympus EM5 shots. I had taken a few of the same location with the extremely sharp Olympus 45mm prime. You can see one particular example above.

What I noticed, that took me completely by surprise, is that I can see traces of noise in the EM5 image which isn’t present in the GM1 shot when viewed at 100% magnification. I have always been impressed by the EM5 images and just how clean the images are, but the GM1 appears to surpass this when both cameras are used at their base ISO.

Olympus EM5 image at 100%. ISO200 with some processing applied in Nik.
Olympus EM5 image at 100%. ISO200 with some processing applied in Nik.

 

Panasonic GM1 at 100%. ISO200 with similar processing in Nik to the EM5 sample. Notice also the different colour handling of the two systems. I need to profile both of these cameras.
Panasonic GM1 at 100%. ISO200 with similar processing in Nik to the EM5 sample. Notice also the different colour handling of the two systems. I need to profile both of these cameras.

If you are wondering why I find this so important, it’s because this noise becomes amplified in post processing, especially when enhancing images with structure and dynamic contrast tools. The less noise is present, the higher the quality of the finished image and the less noticeable any image artefacts are.