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October 2009

In progress: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS

With the first sample showing clear problems, one of the first things I did with the replacement EF 100/2.8L was to check infinity sharpness across the field. Based on perfunctory checks, this 2nd sample looks to be vastly better, so I can now proceed with the review. The partial review to date is in DAP, and it includes details on the behavior of the bad sample, including a comparison with the Leica 100mm f/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R.

B&H Photo now has the 100/2.8L Macro IS in stock BH Photo Video as I write this.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS sharpnes across the field
Looks sharp left to right
Canon 1Ds Mark III + EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS

The rose example below is well out of gamut in sRGB, looking flat and dull, nuances lost, a nuance lost on those who think sRGB jpegs are fine. It’s even slightly out of gamut in Adobe RGB, which is why I present it in ProPhotoRGB colorspace: you should be using a wide gamut monitor with 12-bit internal calibration, like the NEC LCD 3090WQXi. Otherwise, you just cannot see what’s there, a severe problem with reds, a fact that hits one over the head when what couldn’t be seen is revealed! Especially with today’s wide-gamut DSLRs, like the Nikon D3x, you’re looking at a crude approximation on some monitors.

If this rose image looks either garish or grayish dull, it’s because you’re not using a browser that is not colorspace-aware. Firefox 3.5.3 displays this image badly, even though it’s supposed to be colorspace-aware. I recommend Apple Safari 4 (for Windows and Mac).

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS sharpnes across the field
Approximately 1:1.5 magnification
Canon 1Ds Mark III + EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS @ f/2.8, 1/8 sec handheld

This backyard scene below won’t grace any calendars, but I made a sharp image handheld with image stabilization at 1/8 second (3 shots, two were blurred). Like the previous image, tones just turn into undifferentiated dull red mush in sRGB, so this image is also presented in ProPhotoRGB. Be sure to use 16-bit mode when working in ProPhotoRGB.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS sharpnes across the field
Approximately 1:1.5 magnification
Canon 1Ds Mark III + EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS @ f/2.8, 1/8 sec handheld

JPEG whacks the reds somewhat also (or maybe it’s an 8-bit thing), even though this is saved at quality=80.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS sharpnes across the field
Actual pixels

Focusing screens for your DSLR

split-prism focusing screen for Nikon and Canon DSLRs
Katz Eye™ split-prism screen for D700

I’m often asked, particularly with Zeiss ZF and ZE lenses, whether there is a split-prism focusing screen for various Nikon and Canon DSLRs.

Canon and Nikon do not offer a split-prism focusing screen for their DSLRs, but KatzEyeOptics.com does for some cameras (but not all). There is a split-prism screen for the D700 for example, but not for any Canon 1 series or 5D* cameras; they are all for the smaller-sensor models. At least not at present.

Nikon and Canon both offer alternative focusing screens for some models. In general Nikon offers few choices (if any) and Canon has more. If you want to try a different screen, my preference is either a super-matte variety or a grid screen (for composition).

I have good success with the standard screens on Nikon and Canon.

When feasible, stick to Live View, which is most accurate of all. Get a Hoodman Hood Loupe BH Photo Video for Live View focusing. When you install a different screen there is often some other compromise made; whether it’s an overall win will depend on your own usage.

Update — reader reports

Reader Murray O reports “I had Katz Eye place one in my D700 (I sent it in; well worth the nominal fee for the quick turn around time); what was lost was spot metering. Otherwise, it works like a charm.”

Reader Chris D reports “I use brightscreen for my d3 and have a katzeye for my d2x. Katzeye does not offer a screen for the d3/x. I like both although I think I will try the diagonal split screen. The horizontal one is just not critical enough for me”

Reader Sten R reports sanding a Canon screen to fit Nikon: “I bought the a split prism screen from Brightscreen (large split prism version). The split and prism area is huge and very convenient for the purpose of getting things in focus, but the drawback is that it totally messes up the spot- and to a certain degree the CW- metering. A modified Canon EC-B works much better (although spot metering is affected a little with this too). When verifying achieved focus using the matte area, subjects pop into focus much easier with the Canon screen compared to the two Nikon screens available for the D3.”.

Reader Mihai B reports getting a split-prism screen for Canon at FocusingScreen.com.

Checking data integrity of your files and backups

I’m interested in reader feedback on my new IntegrityChecker tool. If you find it intriguing and are willing to spend some time testing it and giving coherent and useful feedback, please contact me.

Apple’s new MacMini — good for photographers?

I discussed the new iMac a few days ago.

Photographers are under financial pressure (who isn’t?!), and so some look towards the MacMini as an alternative to higher priced Apple offerings. My goal in writing this blog entry is to lay out the issues with the MacMini for those who might be considering such a move.

I reviewed the spring 2009 MacMini in Apple MacMini 2009 — the Green Machine. According to OWC, that spring model and this fall’s updated model can both use 8GB memory with Mac OS X Snow Leopard (see review). While that memory is currently expensive, it’s nice to know that an upgrade path exists.

The updated October 2009 MacMini adds appeal: more memory, more storage, dual displays and a faster CPU. The small form factor appeals for uses such as a low-power file server in a nook. The MacMini can plausibly work for a photographer, but there’s a catch: configuring it for solid performance means an escalating price tag.

After adding a keyboard, mouse, monitor, extra memory and storage, the cost balloons relative to the cost of the MacMini itself. Consider the total cost carefully before committing to the MacMini, especially as compared with an iMac or MacBook/Pro. Here’s what I see for those of us in the USA:

MacMini 2.53GHz, 4GB, 320GB: $799
2.53GHz => 2.66GHz: + $150     (5% faster at best for 19% more money)
320GB => 500GB: + $100         (5400rpm = slow, see Green Machine)
8GB memory: + $476             (from OWC, Apple doesn't offer it)
Apple keyboard and mouse: $98
Applecare: $149
Monitor: $300 - $1800

You can get the MacMini the same place you get your camera gear: B&H Photo BH Photo Video.

Don’t waste your money on the CPU speed upgrade or the 500GB drive upgrade. The 500GB drive upgrade is overpriced and underperforming, you can get a 7200 rpm 500GB drive for about $135, install it yourself and get 25% faster drive speed. With the shared video memory, the $150 for a 5% faster CPU is something you won’t even notice except when you pay your credit card.

If you already have a keyboard and mouse and monitor, the cost equation might work for you. But even forgetting the monitor and AppleCare, the pimped-up price goes to $1623. You can get an Apple-certified refurbished MacBook Pro for about that price, and the $1623 figure is in striking range of a $2149 refurbished Mac Pro (neither comes with a monitor). Or a lightly used Mac Pro from someone you can trust. The great MacMini feature set defeats itself on a cost basis.

CPU speed and memory

Clock speed is now up to 2.53GHz (2.66GHz option). The shared-with-video main memory means that you won’t see 2.53GHz performance on memory intensive tasks. Think Photoshop and Lightroom here: memory speed matters, because the CPU will twiddle its thumbs waiting for it.

You can install 8GB memory as two (2) 4GB modules, same memory type as the iMac and MacBook/Pro. You can get 8GB as 2 X 4GB at OWC. At about $476 as of this writing, that jacks up the total system cost substantially, but perhaps the cost will decline over time.

Dual internal drives

One attractive feature of the new MacMini is with dual 500GB drives. You could use them as a RAID 0 stripe for high speed and 1TB capacity, or a RAID 1 mirror for reliability (500GB). With a stripe, speeds approaching 200MB/sec are possible with 7200rpm 500GB drives, such as the Seagate Momentus 7200.4. The big appeal of two internal drives is speed; running off SATA internally is much faster than Firewire 800 (2-4X faster with a RAID 0 stripe). Apple supplies 5400rpm drives, so the Apple solution will offer performance well below what is possible with 7200rpm drives (about 25% slower).

There are two catches with the dual drive setup. The first catch is that an external USB superdrive is another $99, so it’s really a $1099 purchase in all (plus keyboard, mouse and display). Also, the only configuration offering this is with Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server. I’ve purchased and tried Mac OS X Leopard Server, and it just gave me headaches for my purposes, so I wiped it out and used regular Mac OS X. Third-party vendors might offer kits to accomplish the dual-drive thing at lower cost anyway.

On the horizon soon are 1TB laptop drives. Assuming they fit into the MacMini, you could have a screaming-fast 2TB RAID 0 stripe inside a MacMini. Now that's a nifty little server.

Dual monitors

The MacMini has both a Mini DVI and Mini Display Port. Why you’d want to buy two monitors for a MacMini escapes me (ones you already have I suppose), and the memory to drive those displays is shared main memory. The sharing is a drag on performance, and it reduces usable memory for applications by 256MB or more.

Caution of the need for video cable adapters; I’ve had bad luck with them myself on the 30" Apple Cinema Display.

Your smart move

Consider the total system cost. The MacMini might not be so cheap with add-ons. It’s a dead-end Mac; that’s fine, but don’t assume it’s anything else, buy it for the right reasons with your eyes open.

The MacMini has two CPU cores, a seriously limiting factor for Photoshop or Lightroom. Any used Mac Pro with 4 cores will run rings around it; find one from someone you can trust that’s still eligible for AppleCare (and get AppleCare), or get one refurbished.

Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED

I just started shooting the Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED. It has been available for some time, but it’s now finally on active review duty. It’s a relatively large lens, and not too unlike Canon’s 100mm f/2.8L IS in bulk and weight. I’ll have at least a modest writeup in DAP on it, which of course includes many much higher-res samples than I show here in this blog. You can get the 105/2.8VR for about $900 BH Photo Video.

My initial impressions are favorable in terms of optical quality, though the autofocus hunting quickly proved how counterproductive AF can be for macro work. Bokeh seems particularly nice, with a creamy smoothness, though there can be some curious rainbow discoloration on highlights which I do not like.

The field shots show very impressive sharpness, at least in the central ares. Out-of-focus magenta/green color is there as one would expect from any non-apochromatic lens: see What color is your background? APO Lenses.

Working distance is a problem for close-ups, with the large lens hood shading the subject as 1:1 is approached; it must be removed. It’s probably really a 75mm lens or so at 1:1, a trick employed quite commonly as part of the optics, but not one that is helpful. I observed that wide-open the D3x was showing f/4.8 at 1:1, in line with that idea.

Did you know that potato bugs (Jerusalem cricket) will stand and defend like a boxer? Or roll over and play dead? I didn’t know that until I started prodding this guy with a leaf after moving a large wood round, and exposing him. Very complex behavior, this guy seemed almost smart. Potato bugs scare the crap out of my daughter, and they've bitten me at night and they do stink when you smack ’em. Still, they have a sort of beauty all their own.

Nikon D3x + Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-ID
Potato bug defending like a boxer
Nikon D3x + 100/2.8 VR macro @ f/8
Nikon D3x + Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-IDCanon 1Ds Mark III + Zeiss ZE 28/2 Distagon
Potato bug moving soil
Nikon D3x + 100/2.8 VR macro @ f/8

Well, it’s that marketing bonanza time of the year again, and K-Mart is already advertising their lay-away plan for Christmas. The color and bokeh here work rather nicely I think.

Nikon D3x + Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-ID
To pie or not to pie?
Nikon D3x + 100/2.8 VR macro @ f/3.3, 1/30 sec

Trying to use autofocus on this flower was a disaster, so I resorted to manual focus. this is pretty close to 1:1 magnification. There is a curious double-image effect on out of focus areas which I have to investigate.

Nikon D3x + Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 IF-ID
Dandelion in October
Nikon D3x + 100/2.8 VR macro @ f/8

H1N1 swine flu — update

Following up on yesterday’s swine flu post, I received a number of comments, thank you everyone.

My second daughter, while sick, has tested negative for H1N1. Of course that means she could still get H1N1 elsewhere. I'm still sick also, but it seems to be whatever she has. But it does mean that I'm not in Yosemite shooting new lenses with this beautiful and warm California weather!

Swine flu and hog
Happy Hog

I’m informed by MD and reader Steve F (whose comments I value and appreciate) that knowing whether one has H1N1 is of no value because the treatment is the same regardless. I have several thoughts there. First, knowing what ails oneself has distinct psychological value. Second, if one has already had H1N1, then the vaccine should not be needed, thus saving a dose for someone else, as well as any associated vaccination risks. Third, there is no guarantee that treatment will remain the same for H1N1 should it mutate in any way, or develop resistance to some drugs, etc, such as the discovery of a strain resistant to Tamiflu not long ago. Fourth, knowing the infection is H1N1 could be useful in self-protection strategies should there be an outbreak “close to home”. Those reasons are valid to me; I’m not talking about public policy (which cares not a whit for an individual, trying to balance cost for a large population) so much as taking care of myself and my family, and helping others to do the same.

I was admonished for saying the virus could “mutate at any time” (“not proper biology speak”). I’m a little baffled by that criticism, I was writing in English, so I plead guilty. What I meant was that infection among hundreds of millions of people increases the odds of a lethal new strain emerging, much as a Tamiflu-resistant strain has emerged (see also).

I should also clarify that what I meant by “trusting my instincts” is not in any way to say I’d be going by gut feeling instead of a doctor’s advice. I simply meant that public policy and official statements won’t dissuade me from taking in all reasonable sources of information to arrive at a decision based on analysis, not sound bites. Physicians do their best, but they are not infallible, and I maintain that the medical community (in general) is slow to move even when new evidence presents itself.

It's clear that concern about the vaccine lingers, especially questions about mercury (thimerosal) in it. I certainly have concerns about any mercury compound, and assurances even from an MD that it is “OK” in tiny amounts enter the “we think so” domain for me; it’s clear that it’s toxic and medical science is only beginning to understand toxicity levels of many compounds especially when combined with personal genetics and health. The vaccine is still unavailable to the public in my area, so it's not an immediate concern. At any rate, there are single-dose syringes available, and I would insist on one of those if you get the vaccine. Don’t let public policy trump your own personal health; you have a right to your

Does Vitamin D combat illness?

Vitamin D won’t get drug company attention because no one can patent it and charge billions, but research has emerged in recent years showing a wide variety of positive effects for Vitamin D, and it’s especially important for those in the winter at northern latitudes, who are often deficient.

The medical community at large has been slow to take this up, do your own research here, you might like what you find. The Vitamin D Council is one credible resource.

Vitamin D3 in spray form
Vitamin D3 in a spray

I use a Vitamin D spray offered by Dr. Joe Prendergast (I buy it, no free samples or relationship there). I don’t know if the spray is sold to the public at large via mail, but you can try. I’ve also used the capsules from Bio Tech Pharmaceuticals. I'm rarely sick anymore, and I think the Vitamin D contributes to my health. I’m a natural skeptic of most supplements, but Vitamin D3 is one that has me convinced of its value.

What’s coming for the Apple Mac Pro?

Several clients and readers have asked me what about a revision to the Mac Pro, because it has been some time since the last introduction.

I think the time is past for a “speed” bump of the Apple Mac Pro (eg to a top speed of 3.2GHz using current chips). So be it, since I can swivel my chair between my 8-core 2.93GHz Mac Pro and my quad-core 2.66GHz Mac Pro and hardly tell the difference.

Of much more interest is the next revision of the Nehalem processor, the “Westmere” architecture using a 32nm “process shrink” instead of the current 45nm used for Nehalem. This means lower power usage and (probably) higher clock speeds. The chips will be suitable for two and four chip servers...16-core Mac Pro anyone? (seems unlikely that Apple would do this).

Perhaps more interesting for some is the likely appearance of a quad-core MacBook Pro, perhaps putting the “Pro” back into the line. But a quad-core MacBook Pro would be crippled without the ability to install 16GB memory and ideally two hard drives or SSDs, standard. If those three things happen, and Apple restores the ExpressCard slot or adds eSATA port(s), then the MacBook Pro might be a truly viable desktop replacement. I expect Apple will choose form over function though.

Zeiss 28mm f/2 Distagon (on Canon)

I’ve begun shooting/testing the new Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon (Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses has long covered the ZF/Nikon mount version in detail). Like the 21/2.8 Distagon, the ZE 28/2 Distagon offers near-macro capabilities. My first impression is that I prefer the extreme perspective of the Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon, but both lenses attain a very similar magnification.

But first may I say that one of the true pleasures in life of the late fall is picking a juicy red ripe pomegranate off one’s own tree, which I planted 17 years ago. Work and effort should always be rewarded, and nothing beats the literal fruits of one’s own labor.

Canon 1Ds Mark III + Zeiss ZE 28/2 Distagon
Fresh from the tree (image cropped from original)
Canon 1Ds Mark III + Zeiss ZE 28/2 Distagon @ f/8

The ZE 28/2 Distagon feels absolutely rock solid sturdy on Canon EOS, nicely balanced and with luxuriously damped focus along with ample “throw” for fine adjustments. This is a pleasurable lens to work with, one that will never go out of style if you like such things.

I’m also struck by the color rendition and contrast, which come through as very lively and pleasing. This comes as no surprise really, but impressions are always worth noting.

Bokeh is very pleasing with nice “motion”. Shooting the lens wide open offers creative possibilities by exploiting the vignetting and shallow depth of field. I focused tonight’s shooting on close-ups at f/2. Like the 21/2.8 Distagon, I’ll likely post a whole new page of high-res examples in Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses.

Wilson, Kansas, by Martin Doudoroff

This portfolio of photos of Wilson, Kansas captures a real sense of the place, it reminds me in some ways of my own small town upbringing, and it’s so different from the world I live in today. Martin Doudoroff is my behind the scenes designer for this site.

H1N1 swine flu — what’s the reality?

I'm no MD, so this is a layman’s view, consult your doctor for advice. Then again, MDs make plenty of mistakes and/or disagree with each other, so I’ll trust my own instincts.

My daughter tested positive for H1N1 swine flu 4 days ago. High fever (up to 104.3°), but the fever broke after a day or two and fortunately did not stay that high very long (we cooled her with a bath and medication). Recovery is slow but steady. Another daughter (with asthma) is seeing a fever now, so we are vigilant, and she has started Tamiflu. I’m sick too, feeling crappy with a raw set of lungs, but no fever as yet. We are watching for pneumonia, which is one risk several days into infection.

The advice we received from our health care provider is that we can send a child back to school 24 hours after the fever breaks, assuming the child seems ok. Seems like poor advice to me, when a new flu variant is little understood, and could mutate at any time (it has already crossed the species barrier showing that is is highly adaptable). Trust your own good judgment— it’s public policy to avoid inconvenience for the parents of sick children. If you have to, keep your well children home to avoid infection from others during an outbreak.

An understated risk of H1N1 is a “hiccup” a few days later where bacterial or other pneumonia sets in; H1N1 can weaken and inflame the lining of the lungs. Asthmatics are particularly at risk. Pneumonia can turn on you in hours and it ain’t fun. Be vigilant until completely well. I had pneumonia a few years ago, and it took me 3-4 months to recover. Get your pneumococcus vaccine, which protects you against one cause.

So why do I say “what’s the reality”? Because my daughter attended a field trip with 80-90 other students, a Wed - Friday trip. A lot of weak-looking children got off that bus. My daughter became ill on the trip, and the following Monday there were 36 absences out of ~88 student body. That’s about 40%, indicating an especially infectious bug! Mind you, some parents send sick children to school anyway, so the chances of all the Monday attendees being healthy is next to nil, so the actual figures are probably low. One sick child was diagnosed (lab results) with H1N1 that Friday (probably the vector) and this was reported by the school district in an email 3 days later (all the time it takes for full-blown H1N1 to develop). We reported our daughter positive for H1N1 on Tuesday based on a lab test. Since then, an eerie radio silence from the school district, on H1N1 or anything about the huge number of absences. Those 34 student absences remain unexplained.

Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon for Canon
No testing = no problem

So I called the woefully understaffed county health department. They were completely unaware of the unusual number of student absences at our school, insisting that they were helpless to do anything but take confirmed lab reports of H1N1 (the idea of proactive tracking/testing apparently escapes them). In my view, any rapid-fire infection with an apparent infection rate of 40% is cause for alarm, and immediate investigation. Isn’t that what a public health department should do? But they were not informed by our school district. Probably the same problem exists in every other school district too, so no surprise there. It’s very, very strange how our district just doesn’t want to talk about it.

In short, there is no tracking system in place to see rapid-fire infectious disease, no “heads up” alerts in one of the most critical places, our schools. At least in my school district and county. Yet schools are a major vector for disease transmission, with germ factories (kids) being in close proximity for 7 hours a day. Pity the teachers.

I pressed the health department to look into the student absences at our school. They took a verbal report from me, and I’m told that a committee might look into it soon. The report for my county (San Mateo, CA) reports that “For week 40 (ending 10/10/09) of the current 2009-10 influenza season, a total of 203 specimens were tested for influenza, of which 30 (15%) were positive.” Read that again: 203 tests for a county with millions of people. My daughter’s grade had 36 absences alone. The amount of testing means that official H1N1 statistics are for your amusement only, just for giggles.

It was like pulling teeth to get our daughter’s doctor to test her for H1N1 (they are clearly overwhelmed), and it took hours of waiting with other sick people, another risk. There are some very ill people out there, entire families that looks miserable, and the numbers show that very little testing occurs. No one can know what is actually happening in reality, except indirectly by those who show up in the hospital, or perhaps the morgue.

We took our second daughter in today, and the doctor tried every possible way to dissuade us from the H1N1 test, but we prevailed. In other words, the county health department will take only confirmed lab tests, but tests are strongly discouraged! Truly a recipe for ignorance, obviously officials don’t know shit about this epidemic because there is no test data other than hospital admissions. There is also no mad cow disease in the USA because the government makes it illegal to test for it (“Creekstone”).

My view: H1N1 is underestimated by a gross factor. When hardly anyone is tested we are all ignorant, and therefore at risk. When people start showing up dead more often, our “leaders” will act to diagnose what went wrong with the system, and then pledge to fix it with some stimulus money after they are re-elected.

Protect yourself — Especially for those with asthma or other health conditions, get the annual flu shot, the H1N1 shot (when available), and avoid public places— Joe Biden was right even though he was pressured to correct himself (it’s a pity he caved in, but Nancy Pelosi is happy to see you take risks). News flash to politicians: H1N1 spreads through the air. You can trust that the government will lie and mislead to the extent needed to avoid public panic, so take care of yourself and your family.

Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon or Canon 24/1.4L II?

One question that Canon EOS users might be asking themselves is whether to go for the Canon 24/1.4L II or the Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon. The ZE 21/2.8 is easily the standout in the wide angle Zeiss ZF/ZE line, especially for Canon users. The most-similar Canon alternative is the 24/1.4L II (reviewed in DAP).

A 24mm f/1.4 offers low-light versatility, but 21mm offers distinctly wider coverage than 24mm. Both lenses are superb, both have idiosyncrasies, yet I have little hesitation about either. A distinction of note is that the 21/2.8 Distagon is a flat field lens, whereas the Canon 24/1.4L II has a curved field (wavy), which requires stopping down for some subjects, as well as awareness of its behavior. I don’t see them as competing except in a glancing way. In terms of build quality, the Zeiss 21/2.8 is pure elegance, but that is immaterial to optical performance and should not be the top consideration for making images.

To oversimplify, get the Canon 24/1.4L II for all around handheld shooting, especially indoors, or anywhere you might need fast speed and autofocus (eg crowds and people, fast-moving subjects). I see the Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon as more of a landscape lens, and one where wider coverage is needed. But ironically, I also see it as more appropriate for night shooting because of its reliable flat-field excellence wide open at f/2.8 (a page of night examples is presented in my review). I also greatly prefer manual focus feel for close-up shooting (a page of macro examples is presented in my review).

Autofocus might really matter for some shooters. While the “green dot” focus confirmation works well with the Zeiss 21/2.8, anyone with less than 20/20 vision should stick to autofocus, eg the Canon 24/1.4L II.

Price— the Canon EF 24/1.4L II is about $1699 BH Photo Video, and the Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon is about $1540 BH Photo Video, which doesn’t simplify the decision! Your shooting style will likely decide the issue.

Zeiss ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon for Canon EOS now shipping

You can place an order for the Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon at B&H Photo, as well as the 18/3.5 Distagon. I was told by Zeiss that Oct 20 was the release date for these two lenses, so I expect that if you place an order you’ll get one quite soon.

You can read about both lenses in last month’s blog, or in Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses.

Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon for Canon
Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 Distagon for Canon

Apple’s new quad-core iMac — analysis

Photographers need a computer workstation, even those shooting film, because film today means scanning and Photoshop.

Apple today announced new iMacs and MacMinis. It appears that Apple will be waiting to update the Mac Pro, but how long remains to be seen.

I’ve not been a fan of previous iMacs because of limited expansion options and dual cores and limited memory, crippling its possibilities. Today Apple addressed all those issues except one: storage.

Note well that I still favor the Mac Pro for its expansion options; and it’s still a much better investment for serious work, but the new quad-core iMac closes the gap, and will therefore appeal to some users, and not without merit.

Here is my quick take on the new 27" Apple iMac—

CPU speed — go for quad-core; this is mandatory if you want good Photoshop and/or Lightroom performance now and moving forward. Also, hyperthreading works extremely well with most programs, so it is well worth the +10% cost bump to go with the 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 instead of the 2.66GHz Intel Core i7; you get a 5% faster clock speed, and you get eight virtual cores instead of four, which will serve you well over time. With the 2.8GHz Core i7, speeds should be very comparable to a Mac Pro, assuming disk I/O is not a factor.

Memory — it’s great that the iMac now has four memory slots which allow 16GB. It also means that 8GB is now inexpensive using 2GB modules, a boon for many iMac users. Your smart move is to get a 4GB kit for about $88 to add to the 4GB that comes with the iMac, try out your workflow with 8GB, then move to 16GB later if you really need it.
Getting 16GB (four 4GB modules) is a $1400 upcharge from Apple. That money buys 32GB for a Mac Pro from OWC with money left over. OWC already has a 16GB kit for the new iMac.

Storage — unless Apple has changed the design, swapping the internal hard drive will remain a horrible exercise that very few users should attempt. Get the 2TB drive option for speed and to put of the day when you need more space, because external drive speed via Firewire 800 is mediocre to poor.

Want a fast Time Machine backup, a fast external drive, a fast mirrored internal drive, a striped RAID for Photoshop? You’re out of luck with the iMac. It’s a two-legged table in terms of performance possibilities.

Storage expansion — with only one internal hard drive, you cannot increase reliability (RAID mirror) or performance (RAID stripe) internally. External storage means Firewire 800, which is slow, a problem RAID can’t solve. Worse, Firewire 800 implementation bugs mean that real world speed for writes can drop as low as 45MB/sec (especially for volumes > 1TB), about 1/3 the speed of a fast SATA drive. So this area is the Achille’s heel of the iMac. There is no option for fast external storage for the iMac.

Display — the 27" display is 2560 X 1440, the same horizontally as the Apple 30" display, but a separate 30" display is 1600 pixels high, versus 1440 for the iMac. That’s a substantial difference, and vertical is more useful. Many users will find the 27" display great for photos because more detail can be seen, but beware the high pixel density, which makes text quite small. Individuals with less than perfect eyesight might find the pixel density problematic; it’s already a bit dense on 30" displays.

Total system cost

Pleas see Total system cost. Keep things in perspective.

What does an iMac configured to play like a Mac pro cost? Assuming OWC memory and hard drives (Apple charges a premium ), here it is:

2.8GHz iMac, 16GB, 2TB apple drive: $3400 ($2449 + $950).
2.66GH Mac Pro, 16GB, 2TB + 640GB: $3330, or ~$2979 if refurbished

Save 10-15%: buy refurbished direct from Apple
Save yourself ~15%

Some users certainly work well with 8GB, so that would drop the cost of the iMac by $700 or so, and therein lies the iMac’s appeal with its 27" display: big screen quad-core for a decent price.

But some users also have existing displays, so a Mac Pro is an easy swap. The decision is a personal one, but the Mac Pro will likely hold its value better, as well as offer future possibilities for expansion.

Hard drives and RAID

Note that with the Mac Pro configuration above, you have both a 640GB drive and a 2TB drive, so you can separate system from data. You can’t do that with an iMac internally (partitioning is the same drive), all you get get is sluggish Firewire 800, and beware > 1TB volumes which are very slow for writes, in the range of 40-50MB/sec. Bear in mind that the 2TB HItachi 7K2000 is capable of ~128MB/sec, but Firewire 800 maxes out at ~85M/sec. So a striped RAID pair on FW800 runs at about 1/3 the potential speed. In a Mac Pro, you get all the speed, ~250MB/sec. That’s a big deal for anyone whose files are large, or when total data is 500GB or more.

Other items

With the iMac you get a 27" display (2560 X 1440) not quite as large as a 30" display (2560 X 1600) for the Mac Pro, nor as accurate as top-notch displays like the NEC 30". You lose storage expansion options, you have no PCI expansion slots, one firewire port instead of four, etc. For a 30" display for a Mac Pro, you'd spend $1799, or $1400 more than for the 27" iMac. That will be very appealing from some, but personally the storage issue is far more important to me.

Protect your Mac from power surges

Either investment should be on a UPS, like the iDowell iPack; I purchased one of these recently for my second Mac Pro and it has ample power for the Mac Pro and a 30" monitor and some extras. It is also silent, something I value.

Canon announces EOS 1D Mark IV

There was something special about the 10.1MP Canon 1D Mark III sensor that I really liked, but will the Canon 1D Mark IV retains that quality? Or render more like the 1Ds Mark III and Canon 5D Mark II? Canon’s press release certainly makes the new EOS 1D Mark IV out to be a very promising camera.

Highlights:

  • 16 megapixel sensor (size not specified in press release);
  • improved sensor circuitry to reduce noise and a more transmissive color filter array;
  • ISO up to HI-3 (102,400);
  • a “new autofocus system that starts with 45 AF points including 39 high-precision cross-type focusing points capable of tracking fast moving athletes or wildlife accurately at speeds up to 10 frames per second” (let’s see if it avoids the bugs the plagued earlier models!);
  • 1080p HD video and 720pp at multiple frame rates;
  • 14-bit files that “use the entire 14-bit space” when converted to 16-bit TIF;
  • “extensive” dynamic range;
  • 10 frames per second and up to 121 large JPEGs;
  • high-resolution 920K dot screen and wide viewing angle;
  • new WFT-E2 II A* wireless file transmitter;

The 1D Mark IV certainly looks like a fantastic camera. One wonders if a 1Ds Mark IV is in the pipeline anytime soon.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS in Yosemite
Canon 1D Mark IV

Reviewed: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS

Just posted to DAP is my partial review of the new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS. Direct link for subscribers.

While it appears to be a superb lens in potential, my review is only partial because my sample had blur issues on one side, which I document. I intend to procure another sample to finish the review in the next month or so.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS in Yosemite
Unicorn (left) and Cockscomb peaks
Canon 5D Mark II + EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS

B&H Photo now has the 100/2.8L Macro IS in stock as I write this.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM: now in DAP

Canon 1Ds Mark III for sale

No one wants to buy my low-mileage Canon 1Ds Mark III for $4750? It’s Canon’s best DSLR and I include the original box, manuals and accessories. It doesn’t matter of course that I bought it at $7999. Ouch. Makes me want to go back to my view camera. But if you’re in the market for a Canon Pixma Pro 9000/9500 printer, Canon is offering a $700 rebate on the 1Ds Mark III, which you can see at B&H Photo.

Or maybe I should sell the 5D Mark II instead, the 1DsM3 is such a solidly built tank err... camera. I really prefer the 1Ds Mark III, but it’s heavy enough that I end up carrying the 5D Mark II most of the time.

My Nikon D3 held value much better than the Canons; my D3 sold for 87% of its original price 18 months later.

SPOT personal beacon saves an injured hiker

SPOT personal tracker/beacon
SPOT personal beacon

Following up on my October 6 discussion of the SPOT personal beacon, I received this interesting email from a reader.

As luck would have it, one of our photography group was deep in a wilderness yesterday here in Arkansas and fell and broke a leg and collarbone. Sent a 911 message via Find Me Spot that he just purchased. A SAR team reached him six hours later and have spent the entire night trying to get him out - still not out this morning. It is a tough location and no heli access since it is heavily wooded. They've literally had to cut their way through the dense forest. No doubt the Spot saved his life.
— Tim E, Arkansas

What a great story! Young and foolish I was for many years, but SPOT makes sense to me as I hike solo a lot. SPOT is just starting to ship a new model, but the old one is less expensive. You do have to sign up for their service— that’s the game.

Update Oct 17, 2009

An update from Mr. Ernst in Arkansas.

See the last paragraph on finding the injured party— I almost always carry my Lupine Wilma (or Betty), because my excursions frequently return near dusk or after dark; as a bonus it is capable of emitting an alpine distress signal or SOS for a week or longer, depending on the battery used. Lupine lights are also used by search and rescue teams. You get get Lupine products at Gretna Bikes.

Regarding the 1/4 mile off, all GPS units I’ve used have trouble in densely-wooded areas, and my guess is that the SPOT used its last good signal for starters.

A couple more facts that have become known about the photographer and FindMeSpot that might interest you. The first pings from the unit were inaccurate - about 1/4 mile off (I assume from the unit just being turned on - it took a while for the signal to take hold). The rest of the pings coming from the unit were good, and remained stable. Even with the GPS coordinates though, the rescue team had trouble finding him at first - it was dark by the time they reached the immediate area where he was, which was extremely rugged to begin with. The only way they located the injured photographer was by SEEING the blinking light on the FindMeSpot!

We also now know that the photographer fell off the top of a waterfall and landed in the shallow pool below and broke his pelvis and other bones. He was unable to pull himself completely out of the water, and so he remained in the water for more than six hours before being found. Luckily he had his FindMeSpot on his person instead of in his camera bag. So a note to other photographers - be sure to carry your FindMeSpot in your vest or pocket and not in your camera bag!

It took them 12 hours to EVAC this guy (nearly all in darkness), a total of 18 hours after he first fell before he made it out to the helicopter.

One last bit of info - another photographer came within 100 yards of the injured man four hours after the fall and never saw him.

Reviewed — 2TB Western Digital RE4-GP

review of the 2TB Western Digital RE4-GP
Performance

I’ve posted my review of the 2TB Western Digital RE4-GP, a 2TB low power enterprise grade hard drive.

While I like the RE4-GP, I recommend taking a look at the Hitachi Deskstar 7K2000 as a speedier and less expensive alternative

Click to read the full review.

 

Reviewed — Hitachi 2TB Ultrastar A7K2000

review of the 2TB Hitachi Deskstar 7K2000  and Ultrastar A7K2000
Performance compared

I’ve updated my review of the 2TB Hitachi Deskstar 7K2000, a high performance 2TB hard drive. Newly added is a comparison between the Deskstar 7K2000 and the Ultrastar A7K2000.

I like the Hitachi 2TB offerings a lot, so much that I decided to buy four of them for my own Mac Pro.

Click to read the full review.

Nikon D3s — an improved Nikon D3

Nikon D3s digital SLR
Nikon D3s (12.2MP)

The just-announced Nikon D3s looks like a nice incremental upgrade to an already superb camera, the Nikon D3. Improvements of note:

  • Anti-dust capability;
  • new Hi-3 ISO of 102,400 (what’s the point of the "400" part?);
  • Video mode of 720p

Other minor improvements have been added also. The video capability is a testament to the crossover to DSLRs for professional film-making. The full-frame sensor allows shallow depth of field, something just not possible with smaller sensors. Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses are already popular in this nascent area, because of their outstanding ergonomics compared to autofocus lenses (video uses manual focus, very important for professionals).

The whopping 15% US $700 MSRP price increase over the D3 is sure to give some buyers pause. One wonders if a D700s is to emerge, though I’d personally prefer a D700x (D700 with a D3x sensor).

Canon 17/4L in stock at B&H

Nikon D3s digital SLR
Taken with Canon 17/4L

The Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L is in stock at B&H Photo as I write this (new lenses tend to be out of stock a lot). You might also find it at Amazon.

The TS-E 17mm f/4L is reviewed in DAP.

I was favorably impressed with the TS-E 17/4L, though my particular sample had a problem, which I document in my review.

Architectural and landscape photographers in particular should be looking at this lens, but landscape shooters will find it a highly versatile optic.

The 17/4L would be the first Canon TS-E lens that I would buy, were I in a buying mood for such a lens; it’s excellent and absolutely unique. I’d love to own one, and only the price holds me back.

Carl Zeiss announces ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS

Filling in one more of the Distagon line for Canon EOS, Carl Zeiss today announced the ZE 28mm f/2.8 T* Distagon [datasheet]. Like all the ZE lenses for Canon EOS, the mount is electronic, with full aperture control and “green dot” focus assist as with any Canon EF lens (manual focus of course). The ZE and ZF versions are optically identical.

Worth noting is the 1:4.7 reproduction ratio, which allows a bit closer imaging than even the 1:5 capability which I’ve enjoyed with the Zeiss ZF 21/2.8 Distagon. While not true macro, a ratio of ~1:5 is very close, and makes for great creativity with close-ups, extending the versatility of the lens.

The ZF and ZE line are also very well suited to videography because of very high image quality wide open, excellent manual focus feel, and minimal “breathing”.

I’ll be covering the ZE 28/2 Distagon in the coming weeks, including new sample images as I have with the ZE 18/3.5 and 21/2.8 Distagons. I expect a test sample this week.

As documented in Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses, the 28/2 Distagon is an outstanding performer, but with some field curvature at close range — see my Dec 29 2007 blog entry for an example image.

Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS review
Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon T* (Canon EOS mount)

Thornwood, NY – Carl Zeiss introduces the wide-angle lens Distagon T* 2/28 ZE with EF bayonet, suitable for all analog and digital EOS camera models. With an initial aperture opening of 1:2, it is among the fastest lenses of its kind in its focal length. From landscape photography at dawn to interior shots under available light, the Distagon T* 2/28 ZE offers photographers plenty of room for creativity for hand held photography. Following the recent introduction of its two ultra-wide-angle lenses, the Distagon T* 3,5/18 ZE and the T* 2,8/21, the new Distagon T* 2/28 ZE is Carl Zeiss’ first moderate wide-angle lens with EF bayonet.

Despite its fast aperture and complex retro-focus construction, the Distagon T* 2/28 ZE has a compact build. These characteristics make the lens a highly versatile and performance-driven tool for all types of photographers. Even with its wide angle, the lens enables photographers to play fully with an image’s depth of focus. With a wide aperture opening, for example, one can effectively separate the motif from its background. With a small aperture opening, photographers can use the sharpness of the lens system for the entire image range. It is also ideally suited for shooting HD video due to its wide focus rotation, superb image quality and minimal breathing characteristics.

The floating elements design guarantees high imaging performance each time, from close-ups to infinity, enabling the photographer to make razor-sharp close-up images of even the tiniest objects. Thanks to the Carl Zeiss T* anti-reflective coating and meticulously crafted lenses, the new Distagon T* 2/28 ZE deals effortlessly with reflections and stray light. Brilliant pictures work every time, even under tough lighting conditions such as a breaking dawn.

The Distagon T* 2/28 ZE will begin shipping on October 20th for a suggested retail price of $1,080.

Technical specifications:

Focal length: 28mm mm
Aperture range: f/2 - f/22
Number of elements/groups: 10/8
Focusing range: 0.24m – infinity
Angular field (diag./horiz./vert.): 74/64/45°
Coverage at close range: 18cm X 12cm
Image ratio at close range: 1:4.7
Filter thread: M58 x 0.75
Mounts: ZF (Nikon), ZE (Canon EOS), ZK (Pentax)
Lens hood included
                    
Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS review
Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon T*, front
Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS review
Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon T*, rear
Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS review
Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon T*, optical design

Zeiss ZE 18/3.5, 21/2.8, 28/2 to be available in USA October 20

The newly announced Carl Zeiss 18mm f/3.5 Distagon, 21mm f/2.8 Distagon and 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS will be available in stores on October 20, according to Zeiss USA. Check B&H Photo for availability; they should show up soon.

When you buy, using the B&H Photo ad at page left of this blog takes you right to all the ZF and ZE lenses at B&H Photo. Thank you for using my links to B&H when buying.

Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS review   Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS review   Zeiss ZE 28mm f/2 Distagon for Canon EOS review
On sale October 20: Zeiss ZE 18/3.5, 21/2.8, 28/2 Distagons (not to scale)

 

Carl Zeiss on lens distortion

Just posted is a new white paper on distortion by B. Hönlinger and H. H. Nasse. You can also read a brief summary of distortion.

One of the lowest distortion lenses available is the Zeiss ZF 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar. The Zeiss ZF/ZE 85mm f/1.4 Planar is also very low distortion. For details on both, see Guide to Zeiss.

When we talk about distortion with wide angles lenses, it’s all relative; “low distortion” can mean “quote noticeable warping” with some subjects. Very few wide angle lenses are free from distortion; the most common is barrel distortion (outward bowing), but “wave” or “moustache” distortion is becoming much more common with advanced designs. Remember, optical design is all about compromises, and it’s hard to banish distortion without resulting in some other reduction in performance; lens designers would eliminate distortion if it were easy!

Shown below is the distortion graph for the Zeiss ZF/ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon. On a smaller sensor (Nikon DX or Canon EF-S), distortion will appear as barrel distortion. On full frame, distortion will be visible as wave-type distortion. Compare the distortion graph to that of the Zeiss ZF/ZE 85/1.4 Planar and ZF 100/2 Makro-Planar, then see the examples that follow.

Zeiss ZF/ZE 21mm f/2.8 distortion
Distortion graph for Zeiss ZF/ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon: wave type distortion
Zeiss ZF/ZE 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar distortion
Distortion graph for Zeiss ZF 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar: ultra-low distortion
Zeiss ZF/ZE  85mm f/1.4 Planar Planar distortion
Distortion graph for Zeiss ZF/ZE 85mm f/1.4 Planar: ultra-low distortion

The examples below show the wave-type distortion which can be of concern for architectural photography, whether at distance or closer range.

Zeiss ZF/ZE 21mm f/2.8 distortion
Architectural photography raises concerns about distortion
Note the visible reversal (“wave”) from barrel to pincushion in the horizontal black line
Zeiss ZF/ZE 21mm f/2.8 distortion
Man-made objects are the most problematic due to their regularity
Ignore the bent area about 1/3 down, but the rest is lens distortion

New Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 and 18/3.5 Distagon examples

For subscribers to Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses, I’ve posted a new page of landscape examples from Yosemite for the ZE 21/2.8 Distagon and some additional examples (since yesterday) from the 18/3.5 Distagon.

The ZE 21/2.8 Distagon is an outstanding lens, clearly a standout with few peers in the ultra-wide realm. It’s will be available in stores by late October.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Glacial erratics near Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite

New Zeiss ZE 18/3.5 Distagon examples

For subscribers to Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses, I’ve posted a new page of landscape examples from Yosemite. Examples from the ZE 21/2.8 Distagon and more are in the works.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Closed road near Tioga Pass in Yosemite

Where is infinity focus?

Please see yesterday’s entry on moonlight photography below.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Light to see by

Accurate infinity focus can be a challenge. The 280mmm moon shot required the use of Live View and minute focus changes to “nail” the focus. A reader wrote to ask:

To photograph the moon is not a matter to focus at infinity? Is there another option?”

The infinity mark is not. With many lenses today, especially APO ones or super-teles, there is no hard infinity stop. The Leica 280/4 has a range of “infinity” to account for temperature changes that affect the optics; you’ll see the same ambiguity on super telephoto lenses from Nikon or Canon. Many zooms that are well corrected for color aberrations have no infinity stop, consider the Nikon 14-24 as one example. There are many others. This makes night-time photography a challenge, because precision focus is mandatory, yet the light is dim. The moon is relatively easy because it’s bright, but with a 280mm lens, a tiny change in focus causes blur.

While an autofocus lens might be able to focus accurately on the moon, there’s no guarantee it will do so perfectly. And of course focusing with greatest accuracy demands use of the central focusing sensor, so you’ll have to focus, disable AF, then recompose. Focus, confirm with Live View, then disable AF so you can shoot more than one frame without having to focus again.

Lenses with mechanical infinity stops aren’t guaranteed to be perfect, how could they be? Nothing mechanical is ever made exactly the same for every copy! With film, this slop fell into the film thickness range; with digital a 5-10 micron error means a very noticeable reduction in contrast, followed by blur. That said, I’ve had extremely consistent results with Zeiss ZF lenses in terms of infinity, though I have seen some subtle variations. Actually, the lens mount itself really is inadequate for the precision required with today’s DSLRs, this can be seen by applying slight pressure on the lens side-to-side and observing gapping between the lens and mount.

Lens adapters introduce another variable: cheap ones especially might be off significantly so that infinity focus falls a little off of where it should be. Even a quality lens adapter has this issue, though my luck has generally been good shooting Zeiss ZF on Canon EOS using CameraQuest lens adapters.

Finally, each camera body varies slightly in its lens mount to sensor distance, so a “perfect” lens might be slightly blurred on some cameras! And of course, lens mount to sensor alignment can be skewed, as it was with my D3x!

If you want a sharp picture at “infinity”, do not assume it’s a simple matter to focus! Verify each lens with your camera body using Live View to check its mechanical infinity setting (if it has one).

Moonlight photography with Leica and Zeiss

What do you do when lodging for the night means the back of the SUV, the temperature is dropping rapidly towards the single digits (°F) and it’s dark at 8pm? If there’s a full moon, get out the camera and try to keep your hands warm.

Even a 280mm lens doesn’t get you very close to the moon; an 800mm or 1200mm lens would be useful, but then focusing and aperture become problems.

Below is an actual-pixels crop using the Leica 280mm f/4 APO on the Canon 5D Mark II (with a lens adapter). It appears that I got the focus right.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Actual pixels
Canon 5D Mark II + Leica 280/4 APO

Shown below, this 30 second exposure at ISO 400 was pushed 2/3 stop in processing. Regrettably, a full moon can also mean that the brightness of the sky is high enough to hide most of the stars; the moon was also in this general area of the sky.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Mt Dana
Canon 5D Mark II + Leica 280/4 APO , ISO 400, 30 seconds

I focused using Live View on the Canon 5D Mark II, I’d say this shot is about as good as the 5D Mark II sensor can deliver. Too bad the 5D Mark II introduces all that color noise that pollutes blacks and whites.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Actual pixels from above

This image of the Saddlebag Lake dam was taken before dawn with the Zeiss ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon, the first hints of day were kissing the peak at left. It is crispy-crunchy sharp, and holds the subtle blue tones extremely well (a challenge for most lenses). It’s a spectacular performance simply not available with any Canon wide angle. I’ll be posting a high-res version soon in Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Moon before sunrise, Saddlebag Lake
Canon 5D Mark II + Zeiss ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon @ f/5.6, 30 seconds at ISO 100
Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Actual pixels — if only the sensor had more resolution!

Climbing Mt Dana in Yosemite

With the Hwy 120 (Tioga Road) closed on Monday October 5 and blocking the way home, I resolved to test whether my two-year-old knee injury to both the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments had improved. That’s a little nutty under the winter conditions, but I figured if I could make it up (and down) Mt Dana then I’d have some confidence that my knee was in reasonable condition.

Not being completely crazy, I took my SPOT beacon, visible in orange at lower right, busy transmitting an “all OK” message. More on SPOT.

Click the image below to see field-of-view examples from the Zeiss ZF 21/25/28/35/50/100 lenses (sorry, no ZF/ZE 18mm, gear was already 25 pounds or so, I would have had to also take the ZE 18/3.5 and the crappy Canon 5D Mark II, I don’t own the ZF 18/3.5). All shots handheld in a hurry, as I was getting sweaty-cold.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Click to see 21/25/28/35/50/85/100mm examples (handheld)

Mt Dana is a 13,061 foot peak. The trailhead is right at the Tioga Pass entrance station (east side of Yosemite), at just under 10,000 feet elevation. I had last climbed Mt Dana on October 15, 2007, on a beautiful and relatively warm October day.

Leaving at ~ 7:30 am, the temperature was a crisp 9° F (-12° C). I hoped for a warmer summit, but it proved frigid. With sweat-soaked clothes at the summit, I quickly donned a down vest and windproof jacket over and above my other clothing. I had little enthusiasm for photography at that point, and getting cold while alone and 3000 feet up is not a good plan, so I stayed only briefly at the summit.

The fresh snow was powder-dry and easy going at lower elevations. And I was really disappointed to find the trail already tracked— was I not the first that day? My disappointment turned to delight as I realized the tracks were those of a large black bear, which does shit in the woods. These tracks are about 10" long! I observed numerous other tracks right up to the summit (Pika).

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009, black bear footprints in snow
Black bear tracks

It’s darn hard to take interesting photos on summit climbs. But I captured some which I think are interesting, at least to anyone who likes this sort of thing. These shots all used the Nikon D3x and Zeiss ZF 21/2.8 Distagon, a fabulous lens. Shooting the Canon 5D Mark II was not in the cards, even though it’s significantly lighter. It would not have handled the contrast, and its images in harsh lighting are just plain ugly.

Shown below is the trail shortly after leaving the trailhead. Puffy light snow was a delight at first. Most of this snow once exposed to the sun did melt by 5pm, but most of it in the shade did not. It rose to a balmy 37° F by 4pm.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
The Way Up, insignificant sub-peak of Mt Dana at upper left

Wear sunscreen (I foolishly did not). The sun fries you frontally and from reflection off the snow— a double dose. Going up here wasn’t too bad, but still required great care.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
A long way up

This might look easy, but it still required care with rocks to slip on at every step.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Looking towards Mt Conness wilderness

This stuff below was really difficult— every time I put a foot down, a new surprise lay under the snow. Very slow going, literally feeling with the foot each and every step whether it was safe to bear weight. Then the terrain steepened and became more difficult, with deeper snow. Once in a while I found the “trail” but all that meant was that the snow had drifted to 10-16 inches deep.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Difficult conditions going up: slippery and hidden surprises

Shown below, the Dana summit is visible, still a grunt to get there. The beautiful glacier-carved valley at left contains deep blue pools of ice water, so blue it’s almost black.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Dana summit at upper right, still a ways to go

Mono Lake, nearly destroyed by years of taking too much incoming river water for Los Angeles lawns, is seen at top right in the image below.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009, Mono Lake from summit
With a few hundred vertical feet to go, Mono Lake appears in the distance

Saddlebag Lake is see at top center, with Tioga Lake below and to the left.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009, Saddlebag Lake and Tioga Lake from summit
Near the summit, looking north

The summit provides an expansive view, worth spending a few hours if conditions allow. I did not sign the registry because I didn’t want to dig through the drifted snow. Ski runs at Mammoth are visible if one walks a bit further.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009, summit looking south-east
Dana summit, looking to the south-east
Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Lloyd, sans wool hat, self-portrait

And my knee? I was delighted to find that it performed very well, a great relief, knowing that future adventures won’t be limited by a weak joint as much as I had feared.

Snow doesn’t last with full sun in October, but ice lingers, portending winter— Lloyd

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Lingering 4pm ice

SPOT personal tracker for saving your ass

SPOT personal tracker/beacon
SPOT: click to buy at Amazon

After a major October 4 snowstorm, I set out to climb Mt Dana in Yosemite the next day. Solo. With Highway 120 (Tioga Pass Road) closed, I was the only climber, indeed the only person even to head that way, as the snow confirmed upon my return.

Not being completely crazy, I took my SPOT beacon. It’s the save-your-ass device that everyone going solo should absolutely, positively have, especially under winter conditions as I encountered here on Mt Dana (9° F leaving the Tioga Pass entrance station). Your smart move even with a group is to have one along.

Operation of SPOT is simple. You set it up in advance, along with your email contacts to receive email when you press the OK button. If you are in serious trouble, you press the 911 button, and hopefully some nice folks show up before things get really ugly. If you bang your head on a rock, be sure to press the 911 button before doing so.

Below is what an “all OK” email looks like, as resulted from pressing the OK button at the summit of Mt Dana. The email includes a link you can click to view in Google Maps.

Latitude:37.89979 
Longitude:-119.22114 
GPS location Date/Time:10/05/2009 12:25:53 PDT 

Click the link below to see where I am located. 
http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&
geocode=&q=37.89979,-119.22114&ll=37.89979,-119.22114&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1 
Message:All OK.
                			

SPOT requires both the device and a subscription, and also offers an inexpensive insurance plan for paying the costly search and rescue fees. My father, age 71, goes solo hiking, climbing, etc, but he’s always concerned about spending money on himself, so I might have to get him one.

UPDATE: there apparently is some controversy over the reliability of the SPOT service. For life and death situations, perhaps a time-proven PLB (personal locator beacon) might be a safer choice. However, every single “OK” message I’ve sent has gone through on the two trips I used it on (I got it in June). I’ll be using it more, and I suppose only years of experience can yield a fair assessment.

Clbiming Mt Dana in Yosemite October 5 2009
Click to view google map

Back from Yosemite high country — snowstorm!

All outstanding subscriptions to DAP, Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses and Guide to Digital Infrared Photography have been taken care of.

High Sierra fall color? To wit: “white”!

I’m back from Yosemite. My return was delayed a day because of the closure of highways 120 and 108 from a major snowstorm.

Saturday was a challenging day: violent winds which ripped leaves off many Aspen trees (so much for color), and unusually cool temperatures for early October. Going to bed Saturday night with clear skies, I never would have guessed what Sunday morning would look like.

I had hoped for snow, but my High State of being happy with whatever I got was rewarded in spades: an absolutely awesome October snowstorm, with up to 10" of puffy, dry and cold snow, not “Sierra cement” — delivered in near white-out conditions at times, with brief outbursts of faint blue and sunlight, only to be followed by more snow. To say I enjoyed it would be an understatement, though shooting under such conditions is a serious challenge.

Shown below is the view towards Tioga Pass. Buildings and quonset huts at Tioga Pass Resort (highly recommended) are visible. TPR closed for the season today.

Tioga Pass Resort snowstorm October 4, 2009
Sunday October 4, 2009 snowstorm near Tioga Pass
Nikon D3x + Zeiss ZF 85/1.4 Planar

At times, visibility was very low, and at 10,000' near Saddlebag Lake, my tire tracks (the only ones) were mostly obliterated in 30 minutes, with big chunky gobs of powder wafting down. Fortunately, I had by sheer luck arrived with snow tires, so I enjoyed driving around in up to 10" of fresh snow! I know it was at least 10", because my Cayenne has 10.75" clearance in high mode, and the snow was being scraped along.

Saddlebag Lake snowstorm October 4, 2009
Winter wonderland with blue-sky interlude
Saddlebag Lake (near Yosemite)
Nikon D3x + Zeiss ZF 21/2.8 Distagon

The storm brought snow as low as about 4000 feet, while the Mono Lake area stayed largely clear of the fray.

Lee Vining Canyon snowstorm October 4, 2009
Up Lee Vining Canyon
Nikon D3x + Zeiss ZF 85/1.4 Planar

Off topic sidebar — the Porsche Cayenne with the advanced offroad package (rear+front differential, transverse lock, skid plates, etc) I’ll wager has no rival in production SUVs for offroad capability (Jeep, Land Rover, Mercedes, etc can’t compare— I checked ’em all out and owned a Jeep Grand Cherokee for 10 years). Well, I'm excluding turds like the Hummer. Except for an economically difficult 2008 where I was car-less for 9 months, I’m speaking from 5 years of beat-it-up usage in places like Death Valley, through water, deep sand, miles of mud, snow, steep grades, really nasty sharp rocks, etc. I’m probably the only person in CA who would subject such a vehicle to such things. But that’s what it was made for, too bad Porsche has started pimping the 2009 models — stick to 2006 - 2008 so you can (also) run 18" wheels for offroad use.

Saddlebag Lake snowstorm October 4, 2009
Winter on October 5!
Nikon D3x + Zeiss ZF 21/2.8 Distagon

With 22" of wading depth and 10.75" clearance (real clearance, across the entire undercarriage) and electro-smarts for all of the differentials and goodies, you can get yourself in trouble — there are limits. But the last time I was in Death Valley during a good storm, all the Jeep Wrangler guys were bummed-out and parked while I was driving through 3 miles of mud near Stovepipe Wells. Another time I drove across a rain-swollen Amargosa river near badwater (I measured 18" deep, which is a lot for that river!). Poor Jeep guys got stuck and would not try again. To be clear, the Cayenne is too big for rock-crawling and narrow spaces and gnarly offroad stuff like the Rubicon trail — that's not where I’m at. I’m talking snow/mud/sand/loose rock, fording water; I want to get to places to shoot.

I had to look through every dealership’s inventory in the country to find my used Cayenne; only 1 in 200 or so have the offroad package; that’s why I drove from Colorado last May, after negotiating a killer deal for one with 26K miles. Be sure to get Certified Pre-Owned for a 7 year/100K warranty. You also need a set of 18" wheels with the Pirelli Scorpion A/T tires.

Canon EF 100/2.8L IS macro lens bad sample

See my Oct 1 comments on the EF 100/2.8L.

I took the new Canon EF 100/2.8L IS to Yosemite, along with the Zeiss ZF 100/2 Makro-Planar and Leica 100/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R. Now those are two of the world’s finest, and built with metal and glass, not plastic and glass like Canon. More importantly, their image quality dazzles.

My intention was to have a 3-way shootout against the new Canon 100/2.8L. Mind you, this was a brand-new lens, right out of Canon’s perfect box. And what a terrible turd: most of the right half of the frame was badly blurred on every shot I took, whereas the Zeiss and Leica lenses were stunning. I’ll be writing up these findings in DAP, because it’s important to understand just how bad lenses can be, and what to look for. I do intend to get another copy of the EF 100/2.8L to finish my review. In spite of the glaring problems, central sharpness looks terrific. Whether another 100/2.8L can deliver off-center sharpness remains to be seen.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM: great specs, problem build

This is not the first time I’ve gotten crap-in-a-box from Canon, see Brand-new Blur. The lens arrived late the day before, so I had no time to do a quick check before I left. To be clear, I’ve had similar problems with Nikon lenses.

Lens design can paint a pretty picture. The only problem: lenses must be manufactured! Real lenses you can hold in your hand are what matter to photographers, not a design which delivers a few good samples once in a while from the mass-assembly factory.

How should it be done (quality)? Zeiss MTF-tests each and every lens they sell, rejecting those that don’t meet the spec. And they stand behind their product with 1st-class service. Those MTF charts Zeiss publishes? They are from real lenses, not fantasy-land computed charts like Canon ones. And the Zeiss charts are 10/40 line pairs/mm, not the wimpy 10/30 line pairs/mm Canon uses.

An autofocus lens makes no sense for real macro work anyway. And the manual focus of the EF 100/2.8L is twitchy; get a lens with a focusing helicoid if you want usable manual focus. As for IS (image stabilization): yawn.

Finding a pair of hiking shoes

I’ve just about worn out a solid pair of hiking shoes from the North Face, a store I’ve frequented over the years. But I went back there recently for a new pair of hiking and all-around shoes and was aghast at how just plain crappy the styles were — apparently designed for pimply-faced 20-somethings with no taste.

I’m not into the variegated look or the gang look, or the look-at-my-shoes thing. What a disappointment. I wear a US 10 1/2 and have wide feet, any ideas send 'em along, thanks! I’m looking for an open-ankle shoe with a sturdy vibram sole that will look decent in jeans for casual outings and that I can also hike down a canyon with, and that will stick to a 45° granite slope and hold up well. And please, no narrow round laces if possible. Round laces are surely one of the most most annoying steps backward in footware in the past 10 years.

OWC Mercury Elite AL-Pro QX2 4-bay RAID enclosure
NOT looking for a butt-ugly shoe like this

Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens

Courtesy of B&H Photo video, I now have the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens in hand, which I’ll be testing for DAP, and comparing to at least one other 100mm lens.

Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM

With 15 elements in 10 groups, this appears to be an extremely well corrected lens. Focusing to 1:1, it could be a great portrait lens, and with autofocus and image stabilization, quite possibly one of the most versatile 100mm lenses around. Weight is reasonable at 705 grams with lens hood and caps, but it’s a large lens, and the lens hood is 8cm long so that when mounted the whole affair at 21cm long looks like a long telephoto!

The Canon MTF chart looks unbelievably good, with extreme central sharpness holding well across most of the frame, but with the very extreme corners going slightly softer. Ultra-high macro contrast suggests this lens will have some serious “bite” to its rendering.

Oddly enough for a 100mm macro lens, there is significant astigmatism, which indicates an unusual and probably new design. There are many aspects to a lens besides MTF, but it’s rare to see a Canon EF lens looks this promising, short of the super teles. Assuming I have a good sample, I suspect it will prove a spectacular performer, perhaps giving some relief to Canon users who have been lusting over the Zeiss ZF 100/2 Makro-Planar. Then again, compromises must be made with every lens, and the ZF 100/2 combines exceptional bokeh with exceptional contrast and sharpness.

Zeiss ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon example
MTF Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM

Reviewed: 4-bay RAID enclosures

Posted today are my review of the Other World Computer Mercury Elite AL-Pro QX2 4-bay RAID enclosure and my review of the Data Robotics Drobo 4-bay RAID-like enclosure.

Photographers should take a close look at the capabilities provided by these units, but the choice of which to get is clear, and it’s about reality once the slick marketing hype is bypassed.

I advise using the QX2 in RAID 5 mode, which allows one drive to fail with no data loss. Use eSATA for vastly superior performance over Firewire 800.

OWC Mercury Elite AL-Pro QX2 4-bay RAID enclosure
OWC Mercury Elite AL-Pro QX2 4-bay RAID enclosure

Beauty is more than skin deep, and sometimes it’s a thin skin (literally) and not really very beautiful upon closer inspection. The Drobo might be the world’s slowest Firewire 800 enclosure, or at least the slowest one I’ve ever used.

Data Robotics Drobo turd 4-bay RAID-like enclosure
Data Robotics Drobo 4-bay RAID-like enclosure

Off to Yosemite high country

I’m off to Yosemite on Friday, where I hear that fall color is peaking. Maybe I’ll climb Mt Dana again, though that 3:30 am start is pretty rough on a middle-aged geezer like me.

Subscriptions and renewals to DAP, Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses and Guide to Digital Infrared Photography will be responded to upon my return late Sunday, or early Monday morning, unless it’s too amazingly gorgeous and I defer it one more day.

Someday I’ll just hang out there for a month (I hope!), because October is just stunning in the high country, even forgetting the transient fall color. Later in October, it’s fun watching red-bellied spawning Brook trout scatter while walking on the iced-over small streams.

I’ll be taking the new ZE 18/3.5 and 21/2.8 Distagons (for Canon), and all my other ZF lenses where I hope to make some decent images in between some tedious but necessary comparisons with the new Canon EF 100/2.8L macro. Naturally I intend to post a new crop of sample images to Guide to Zeiss ZF/ZE Lenses using the Canon 5D Mark II and Nikon D3x. And I hope for a few lazy hours each day, sometimes I do get a bit worn working 14 hours a day 7 days a week.

Mono Lake from Mount Dana before sunrise
Mono Lake from Mount Dana before sunrise

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