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March 2013

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM: Focusing and Image Stabilization

I've added working notes on focusing and notes on image stabilization to my review of the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 DG HSM.

Sigma 150mm, 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM
Sigma 150mm, 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM

Spring Green with the Nikon D7100

Spring is in full swing in northern California. So I took the 24-megapixel Nikon D7100 out for a spin.

Nikon D7100 comments

Terrific sensor color and resolution (best yet in DX sensor), but the D7100 body has usability flaws that make it a hassle for the way I work: totally unnecessary booby-traps for making mistakes. How Nikon manages to screw up something with every new DSLR is baffling.

I took the Nikon D7100 out for a spin, expecting to benefit from a Live View feature that does not suffer from the mangled subsampled Live View seen with the D800E. But the D7100 proved more troublesome to focus than the D800E: that weird half-second blur delay along with a contrast issue made focusing more difficult than I had anticipated (based on studio conditions). In spite of the D800E limitations, I quickly concluded that I preferred the D800E over the D7100 Live View. And that D7100 screen sure is shiny.

Next I noted a frustrating bug with the D7100: set the camera to (for example) ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/2, enter Live View mode with a bright scene, and the camera simply ignores the aperture and closes down to ƒ/4 or so. Completely defeating the focusing accuracy of using the wider aperture. If you happen to notice—which at first I did not. No warning is given. Adding to this, the camera won’t change apertures once in Live View mode. So one has to exit Live View, put a hand over the lens to fool the brightness algorithm, then enter Live View mode at ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/2, then remove the hand. Uggg.

Since one can’t always predict when the D7100 will engage in this behavior, it requires checking for it every time Live View is used. Oh, and then there is the lack of an AF-ON button, which drove me crazy. More specifically, one can use custom setting f4 Assign AE-L/AF-L button to assign AF-ON, but when one does that it disables autofocus via the shutter release. I can find no AF Activation= Shutter/AF-ON option in the D7100 as is found in the D800. Yet one more case of capricious changes to make using a mid-range body different from a semi-pro body.

I use Live View all the time, so this camera behavior turns me off to the D7100. But I suppose if one shoots the D7100 with autofocus and so on and doesn’t use Live View, then who cares as it won’t come into play.

850 | 1700
Spring Green Nikon D7100
Spring Green
Nikon D7100
850 | 1700
Eucalyptus Nikon D7100
Eucalyptus
Nikon D7100
850 | 1700
Eucalyptus Trunk and Branches Nikon D7100
Eucalyptus Trunk and Branches
Nikon D7100

Compared at Distance: Sigma 180/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM vs Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R

The Leica 180mm f/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R has a cult following among Nikon and Canon users (converted for Nikon or with an adapter for Canon). I bought mine some years ago brand-new (latest variant), back when it was still in production.

Previously presented were the doll's comparison and the rulers comparison, but these were at close range and could be expected to favor the Sigma, which is presumably optimized as a macro lens, while the Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R is presumably optimized for medium and long distance.

This demanding planar comparison was shot meticulously, with seven focusing series for the Leica and three for the Sigma with cross checks to be sure of the results. I consider the results definitive for anyone looking to choose betweem these two lenses. But with both lenses, there is a fly in the ointment.

DAP: a comparison of the Sigma 180/2.8 APO vs Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R.

Guide to Leica: comparison of Sigma 180/2.8 APO vs Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM Leica 180/2.8 APO-ElmaritR
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM, Leica 180/2.8 APO-ElmaritR
Leica 180mm f/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R @ ƒ/2.8
Nikon D800E + Leica 180mm f/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R @ ƒ/2.8

Using the Sigma DP3 Merrill for Stitching: 66 Megapixels of Biting Sharpness

I hesitated to show this stitched image due to things being cockeyed; I shot it in a hurry using a tripod, but without doing the proper leveling or using the proper multi-shot stitching or panoramic hardware like that from Really Right Stuff.

The image below is 66 megapixels (9170 X 7300) after stitching and cropping the stitched result, stitched from 10 frames (probably I could have done it with fewer frames).

One can automate the taking of the photos with the Gigapan Epic, though for myself I prefer not to lug along such bulky things, so I’d prefer something like the Really Right Stuff PG-02 package.

Stitched image of 66 megapixels from Sigma DP3 Merrill
Stitched image of 66 megapixels from Sigma DP3 Merrill

The actual pixels crop below represents the sharpness of the entire image— I’m not seeing any weak areas, or stitching seams. The point being that with a point and shoot camera on a tripod with proper hardware and some care for rotating about the lens entrance pupil, one can make images rivalling (or exceeding) detail of the highest resolution medium format cameras available today. Weak spot: the dynamic range of the DP Merrill sensor has its limits as the blown-out sky shows (I could have brought the exposure down to save the very bright sky, but opted not to).

The best camera for high-res stitching is the Sigma DP3 Merrill with its 75mm (equiv) lens. Shoot it at ƒ/5.6 preferably, or ƒ/8 if more DoF is needed.

The best part? The autofocus nails the focus spot-on with scenes like this; just press the button to autofocus, switch to manual for all the frames, shoot.

Stitched image of 66 megapixels from Sigma DP3 Merrill
Actual pixels
(from stitched image of 66 megapixels)

Reader Asks: Optical Viewfinder for Sigma DP Merrill?

Reader John R writes:

Tell Sigma to put in a viewfinder, even a simple optical one. I'll buy all 3 models tomorrow. But until then: inconceivable.

DIGLLOYD: I’ve suggested many things to Sigma. Perhaps someday some of them will be implemented.

An electronic viewfinder (EVF) would be ideal, but Sigma does not offer one.

However, the Sigma VF-11 optical viewfinder (28mm) and Sigma VF-21 optical viewfinder (41mm) are suitable for the Sigma DP1 Merrill and Sigma DP2 Merrill.

There does not appear to be an optical viewfinder for the DP3 Merrill with its 75mm (equiv) focal length.

The viewfinders mount in the hot shoe of the camera as shown. Naturally as with any such viewfinder (as on the Leica M9), there is a parallax issue at close range, but they are reasonably accurate for framing at medium and far distance.

Any brand 28mm viewfinder ought to do for the DP1 Merrill (Zeiss, Leica, others), but the Sigma viewfinders are priced about as low as one might hope for. I used one on the original Sigma DP1 (non-Merrill) about two years ago, and it works well enough to be useful for some types of shooting.

Sigma VF-11 optical viewfinder Sigma VF-11 optical viewfinder Sigma DP Merrill with optional optical viewfinder
Sigma DP Merrill with optional optical viewfinders VF-11 and VF-21

Nathaniel P writes:

Wanted to drop a line on the question of viewfinders for the DP3M: Voigtlander makes/made a Voigtlander 75mm viewfinder to accompany their (LT)M-mount 75/2.5
Heliar. Bright and compact, I'll attest.

DIGLLOYD: sounds like a match for the Sigma DP3 Merrill.

Samuel L writes:

I don't use the Sigma DP Merrill cameras myself --- just not the right tool for me, as I need to take pictures in very low light.

What I am very happy with, however, is the Ricoh GV-2 28mm optical viewfinder. I went to B&H and I tried the Sigma VF-11 and Ricoh GV-2 OVFs side-by-side. There is no comparison. The Ricoh is a little more expensive, but is so much better. The view is clearer and larger; the framelines are much more visible and the whole object is much more solid, and they are the same size. Highly recommended. Of course, up close there's significant parallax error.

I am planning to sell the EPM-1 soon, and I won't have any more need for the GV-2 viewfinder. I'd be happy to sell it for $200, with free shipping.

DIGLLOYD: There is also the Zeiss Ikon Viewfinder ZI 28mm / 25mm for ZM.

Sigma DP3 Merrill Sharpness

Had your “holy cow” moment today?

Posted in my review of the Sigma DP1/DP2/DP3 Merrill cameras is a Sigma DP3 Merrill aperture series from ƒ/2.8 - ƒ/16 with generous crops.

The sharpness is astonishing, but if one wishes to dispel any doubt, LensRentals.com rents the Sigma Merrill. The Sigma DP Merrill cameras just never, ever disappoint on the sharpness front unless you somehow manage to misfocus— the AF is actually very good, indeed I used AF for this series— razor sharp accuracy.

Also added are several new examples with the DP3 Merrill.

Sigma DP3 Merrill @ ƒ/4, ISO 100
Sigma DP3 Merrill @ ƒ/4, ISO 100

A Lizard’s Risks—Life Fills Every Niche

Early yesterday morning I was waiting for someone in town when I spotted a shape that did not quite blend in, nestled up under one of those concrete stops at the front of a parking space.

This poor guy was stiff and cold (not able to move as yet), waiting for the warming rays of the sun. But what a high risk life—in one direction squashing by car tires and in the other a constant flow of feet. Life fills every niche.

850 | 1700
Lizard nestled under concrete parking stop iPhone 4Gs
Lizard nestled under concrete parking stop
iPhone 4Gs

LensRentals HD Rental Program: a $79 value FREE to First Three “Everything Deal” Subscribers

See the details on the LensRentals HD program. LensRentals.com is a first-class outfit I use myself, and the HD rental program is a steal if you rent three or more times per year, or even twice for some locations.

First three subscribers to the diglloyd “everything deal” (either one or two year term) get a FREE subscription to Lens Rentals HD. How it works:

  1. Email me to confirm “first three” status.
  2. Promptly subscribe to the everything deal (new or existing subscribers, any duplication of existing subscription(s) adds to existing term).
  3. I’ll forward your name and email (nothing else) to LensRentals.com, cc'ing you, and they take it from there.

What is LensRentals HD?

LensRentals HD is a shipping discount program. By signing up, you’ll get free Standard Shipping on all the orders you place for one year, and you’ll even save 50% on all FedEx Overnight shipping.

No items are excluded from the program: if we carry it, we’ll ship it free. Need a jib in Los Angeles? It’s free. Need 10 tripods in Miami? Totally free. More...

Everything deal

diglloyd “Everything Deal”: all six guides and publications
diglloyd “Everything Deal”: all six guides and publications

Reader Comment: Sigma DP3 Merrill from LensRentals.com

Stephen P writes:

The DP3 is TFA. Totally. Freaking. Awesome. I thought my Nikon D800E files were sharp, they are but pale versions of the files from the DP3 Merrill I rented from LensRentals.com.

I took the dogs for a walk right after I got it today and, apart from canine induced blur, the files were absolutely incredible. I am only curious on one issue, are the images from a DP1 Merrill as good as those from the DP3? I tend to shoot wide angle the vast majority of the time (~75%).

PS. Sigma Photo Pro is a dog but no more than the write time of the files to the SD card.

DIGLLOYD: It is true that the DP Merrill sensor offers sharpness on a per pixel basis that cannot be matched by any conventional Bayer-matrix sensor. Also, the lower pixel density is subject less to diffraction. All of the DP Merrill cameras share the same sensor and all have high quality ƒ/2.8 lens, as my review of the Sigma DP Merrills shows.

An alternative RAW converter is the well-written Iridient Developer.

Compared to conventional

The Nikon D800E delivers substantially more total detail, something easily seen by resampling to a common resolution.

The D600 and Canon 5D Mark II offer marginally more detail, but generally do not have the same visual impact for that detail, and the Sigma sensor has none of the digital artifacts produced by a Bayer-matrix sensor.

See the two comparisons in in Guide to Mirrorless:

Rebates and deals on Nikon and Canon End March 30 (?)

The best “word on the street” I have is that many of these rebates will not be extended beyond March 30.

Zeiss ZE 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar on Canon 5D Mark III — Examples

Added my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss are some initial examples of the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar on the Canon 5D Mark III.

I’ll have a comparison of the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar to the Canon 135mm f/2L shortly.

Backyard photos are about all I can manage right now, as I am still recovering from a nasty viral pulmonary infection which drains my energy by mid-afternoon.

Canon 5D Mark III + Zeiss ZE 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Pondering Gophers
Canon 5D Mark III + Zeiss ZE 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2

How to Safely Transfer Photos or Verify Backups: IntegrityChecker for OS X

IntegrityChecker verify command
IntegrityChecker
  • Suppose that you are switching to a new system
  • Or that you have upgraded to a newer and larger hard drive.
  • Or that you burned files or photo to a DVD or BluRay and want to know if the files remaing “good” a year or two later.
  • Etcetera.

That’s why I wrote IntegrityChecker years ago. It’s part of diglloydTools for OS X: to avoid “bit rot” and corruption from transfers. It removes the worry from the process.

Using a cryptographic hash (SHA1) IntegrityChecker makes a record in each folder for each file in that folder of its hash. This saved hash detects the tiniest change in content (or of course, length of the file too).

The type of file does not matter: image files, Lightroom catalogs, JPEGs, raw files, spreadsheets, mail, word processing files, music, videos, databases, etc—anything that you create and has value to you.

The process

The process is simple and can be run on a single folder or entire volume.

  1. Run Update on the original files (computes and writes the hash values for every file in each folder into a hidden “.ic” file in that folder).
  2. Make the copy or backup or burn the DVD/Blu Ray or whatever (this naturally carries along the hidden “.ic” file in each folder).
  3. At any later time (tomorrow or a year later), run Verify on the backup / copy (this recomputes the hashes and compares to the values in the “.ic” file).

IntegrityChecker can verify any files on which 'Update' run before, even without the originals (there are alternatives such as “diffing” source and backup, but those are far slower, and require the original and the copy).

Some pro photographers burn DVD or BluRay discs containing files with IntegrityChecker support; these discs can be verified at any time. There are numerous such uses.

See How to Safely Transfer Data or Verify Backups.

Usage

Both command line (Terminal) and GUI versions are provided (command line version recommended for routine efficient automated use).

The GUI is not fancy, but the internals are what counts: it is one of the most efficient multi-threaded programs of any kind you’ll ever find, capable of utilizing CPU cores to the maximum extent that I/O speed allows. Not only that, the command line version can be used to verify any number of folders or volumes sequentially or simultaneously. It doesn’t get any more fast or efficient.

Always set the startup drive to speed boot time
IntegrityChecker reporting on scan results

A Finder Shortcut for Organizing Photos or Files Into New Folders

These two simple shortcuts save me time every time I drop new photos onto my Mac:

How to create a new folder containing existing selected files in the Finder
How to create a new folder containing existing selected files in the Finder

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM at 1:3 (Poppy, Nikon D800E)

Added my review of the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro in DAP is an aperture series at 1:3 at ƒ/4, ƒ/8, ƒ/11, ƒ/16. This example is about overall rendition.

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM at 1:3 @ ƒ/8
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM at 1:3 @ ƒ/8

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM at 1:1 Life Size (Doll, Nikon D800E)

Added my review of the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro in DAP is an aperture series at 1:1 (life size) from ƒ/5 (wide open) to ƒ/32.

Additional aggressive sharpening is shown for the crops in order to evaluate the ideal tradeoff of sharpness versus depth of field.

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM at 1:1 @ ƒ/11
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM at 1:1 @ ƒ/11

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM at ~1:2 (Half Life Size, Nikon D800E)

Added my review of the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro in DAP is an aperture series at 1:2 (half life size) from ƒ/5 (wide open) to ƒ/32.

Color correction, micro contrast and additional sharpening for ƒ/16 and ƒ/22 are discussed.

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/5.6
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/16

Robert F writes:

Thanks so much for your testing of the new Sigma 180.

I have had the lens since December and use it (along with a Nikon 300 f4) exclusively for butterfly photography.

This morning (after viewing the comparative doll shots) I was SHOCKED to see the performance at f22 – I have been afraid (and never considered) using the lens at such a small aperture.

Your subscription price is a bargain!

DIGLLOYD: Yes, on a D800E, ƒ/22 is best avoided for most purposes. See MTF at ƒ/22 with the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar.

Spring Poppy

I confess to having little patience for close-up (macro) photography. But it can be fun to play with simple compositions. This one captures the essence of the California Poppy in three ways: a flower bud amid its foliage, and an active flower, which closes late in the day, and opens in the morning.

California Poppy Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/8
California Poppy
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/8


+ Sigma 180/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM
+ Sigma 150/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM
+ Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R
+ Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar
+ Nikon 70-200/2.8G VR II APO.chromatic: + Sigma 180/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM + Sigma 150/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM + Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R + Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar + Nikon 70-200/2.8G VR II

In DAP is presented a comparison of five APO/ED lenses:

Also documented is focus shift, with some surprising findings.

A variant of this comparison minus the Sigma 150/2.8 is presented in Guide to Leica.

The test scene was set up specifically to ferret out secondary longtinudinal chromatic aberration in particular, but also lateral chromatic aberration.

An apochromatic lens should greatly reduce or eliminate both longitudinal chromatic aberration (LOCA) and lateral chromatic aberration (LCA). As related bonuses, it should also minimize secondary longitudinal chromatic aberration, spherical aberration and spherochromaticism. See Optical Aberrations in Making Sharp Images.

There is no marketing definition for “APO”, nor does the term guarantee better performance than a lens lacking the APO designation. Each vendor is free to correct for color to the extent deemed appropriate and to apply or not apply the APO term to its lenses. For example, many Canon and Nikon lenses with special types of glass (“ED” and fluorite) would quality for the APO label, but Canon and Nikon choose not to do so.

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Leica 180/2.8 APO-ElmaritR
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM
Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
Leica 180mm f/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R
Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar (not shown)
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/5.6
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/4

Apochromatic: Sigma 180/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM vs Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R

The Leica 180mm f/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R has a cult following among Nikon and Canon users (converted for Nikon or with an adapter for Canon). I bought mine some years ago brand-new (latest variant), back when it was still in production.

Given the stellar reputation of the Leica 180mm, can one reasonably expect that a Sigma lens might compete with it? Using the expression “when pigs fly” (foreign readers might find that one odd), well, pigs are airborne as we speak.

In DAP is presented a 3-way APO comparison of the Sigma 180/2.8 APO vs Leica 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R vs Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar.

The comparison is also cross-posted in Guide to Leica.

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM Leica 180/2.8 APO-ElmaritR
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM, Leica 180/2.8 APO-ElmaritR
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/5.6
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro DG HSM @ ƒ/5.6

Reader Comment: Macro Shooting, Sigma Macro Lenses

Reader Jeff L writes:

My 4 primary macro lenses are the 100mm Zeiss ZF, 100mm Leica APO, 120mm Hartblei/Zeiss, and 200mm ED micro Nikkor. Last summer I learned that the coatings on the 200mm Nikkor make the lens all but unusable for any kind of side lighting or backlighting. [DIGLLOYD: agreed, lousy bluish coatings]

Something with the Zeiss macros handle with aplomb. The 200mm ED micro Nikkor holds its own against the Zeiss macros in standard lighting. I still like the feel of the images from the Zeiss or Leica better. But when I need the working distance and the lighting is not extreme the Nikon is no slouch.

I have rented the 150mm Sigma macro from LensRentals several times. With one exception I got good copies of the lens that were well centered with no out of whack corner or edge softness. I feel the lens is as good or better than the 200mm ED Nikkor. But when I have gone to buy a 150 sigma on my own I get HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE copies. One was so bad I thought they had purposefully built in a 5 degree tilt. The lens skew as among the worst I have ever seen.

I DO NOT KNOW what to do with Sigma. I have tried in the past to get them to take a lens in return, recollimate it so it is a good copy. They just refuse to acknowledge. Usually I end up being told to send it to that place in Arizona. They claim they recollimate but I know they DO NOT EVEN DISASSEMBLE the lens. I know for sure because my years in camera repair taught me how to finagle screws and such before returning an item for service so I can tell if it has been opened. One time they simply insisted my problem was I need to use AF adjust. Which is ridiculous since I never use lenses in AF. I could not even get them to understand the issue was related to element decentering and not AF. Sigma has no clue as to how to deal with the demands of a pro or serious amateur. 5 times I sent items into Sigma and I know for a fact that on 2 occasions the lens was not opened or disassembled. That is just shameful.

I would love to buy and use Sigma gear in the course of my work. But even if I do get a good copy. What happens if I drop it or damage it? I have ZERO confidence they can return a lens to me in a condition without major lens skew and/or decentering.

As of now the only hope I have of getting a Sigma lens that is not out of whack is to rent as needed from lens rentals. And even that is not a 100% guarantee. As good as they are they do make mistakes. In addition to a bad 150mm sigma I rented a D3X from them that had a sensor so far out of alignment it was ridiculous.

DIGLLOYD: Unfortunately I must confirm that Jeff L’s statements on perceived Sigma quality and support echo what I’ve hear from other readers, including pros, some of who refuse to consider Sigma based on past experience. See Lens Repair Data 2011 over at LensRentals.com for hard data on repairs.

However, my recent experience with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM establishes that Sigma is capable of producing best-in-class optics. And many place offer 30 day returns, so there is some leeway. Resale value? Probably not so great versus Nikon or Canon.

My initial impression of the Sigma 150/2.8 APO and 180/2.8 APO is highly favorable in some respects, but I have only started my evaluation and I have not yet checked for alignment issues at distance (typically the worst case). THAT said, I have seen left/right symmetry issues at infinity with brand-new Leica M, Leica S, Zeiss ZF.2, Nikon and Canon. What I cannot determine is with what frequency these issues occur.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
Sigma 150/2.8 APO, 180/2.8 APO

Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Distagon and 135/2 APO-Sonnar and Build Tolerances

Jeff L writes:

Zeiss is bringing out a new high end line starting with the 55mm F1.4 distagon. The performance of this 135mm APO is so spectacular it makes me wonder why that lens is not part of the new line? It makes me think that they have even higher standards of performance in mind for the new lens line. I can't wait to see how it develops.

DIGLLOYD: The new Zeiss 55/1.4 Distagon is the first of a new ultra high performance line targeted at professionals with very high performance expectations, which in part means ultra low sample-to-sample variation (extremely tight build tolerances).

Extremely tight build tolerances tend to produce a high reject rate (non-saleable and/or rework required), and that means greatly increased costs. Hence a business decision must be made based on expected sales volume versus price. My guess is that the price of the 55/1.4 Distagon reflects anticipated challenges in building the design to the demanding tolerances that are required for all its optical magic to work—high performance requires high precision in every way.

The 55/1.4 Distagon is expected to be priced at an expected US $4500. My guess is that a large part of the cost accounts for an expected high reject rate, with the rest of the cost going to aspherics and special types of glass to deliver unprecedented performance in an ƒ1.4 “normal” lens. Apparently Zeiss felt that the 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar was more appropriately produced at a lower price point, which does not rule out a tight-spec variant in the future, but expect the cost to double.

It is also particularly difficult to produce perfectly symmetrical image rendition when the focusing helicoid is both moving and rotating the lens elements (as with all ZF.2/ZE lenses). The mechanical precision alone is extremely demanding on top of the required optical precision in grinding and assembly. Modern autofocus lenses typically only move a few small lens elements, yet even they have plenty of symmetry issues and significant variation in performance sample to sample.

As a current apropos example, the new Leica 50mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH remains extremely difficult to obtain; only a handful have reached the USA six months after the official shipping date (which was delayed 4-5 months, and I have no idea when I can get one). The delay and supply disappointments are almost certainly from difficulty in building them to tight tolerances: a very high reject/redo rate. And yet Leica builds these lenses by hand! It is very hard to design an ultra high performance lens and then actually build real lenses that meet specifications without an excessive reject rate.

In short: for a 36 megapixel or 56 megapixel DSLR, expect to pay 2X to 10X the price for lenses that perform to very high levels. Or to obtain multiple samples and test for a “best of 3/4/5”. Case in point: not long ago, I had three copies of the Canon 24-70/2.8L II, a very high performing zoom. All three showed significant variation; none were bad, it’s just that all of them were better here or there on the same scene (symmetry and alignment variation). I sent my own sample in and it came back as operating within specifications. And of course specifications are stipulated such that “pass or fail” makes almost all samples meet specification. Or the price goes up to account for a lot more “fail” samples.

Zeiss super-high-spec 55mm f/1.4 for Nikon and Canon DSLRS
Zeiss super-high-spec 55mm f/1.4 Distagon for Nikon and Canon DSLRs
(due out late 2013)

Reader Comment: Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar
Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar

Jeff L writes:

I want to congratulate you on your fast and superb coverage of the 135mm Zeiss APO-Sonnar.

I consider your coverage of the 135mm Zeiss APO-Sonnar and Nikon D800E combo to be landmark and required reading for anyone thinking of purchasing the lens.

DIGLLOYD: The Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar is one of the finest lenses available today for a DSLR. Any Canon or Nikon shooter should consider it a must-have for that focal length range.

I have a Canon ZE version of the 135/2 APO-Sonnar arriving Monday and I plan on doing a comparison with the Canon 135mm f/2L on the 5D Mark III. I also just received my own personal copy of the ZF.2 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar, so I suspect this means that the lens is just about to arrive at dealers.

Reader Comment: Sigma DP3 Merrill

Reader Jeff L writes:

You often mention lighting conditions in regards to the Sigma DP3. How do you feel the camera would perform, off a tripod at closer focusing distances when shooting closeups of flowers and large insects in very low light levels at base ISO setting at shutter speeds of 1 or 2 seconds?

Last year I tried a DP2 but the software drove me to near insanity. Geeze if only the files could be converted to DNG or better yet if Sigma could just provide decent software. It is freaking ridiculous.

DIGLLOYD: As for lighting, the Sigma/Foveon sensor performs very nicely in daylight, ideally near 5000°K. It is not so happy in tungsten light or strongly blue light. In those extremes, color accuracy will suffer due to the nature of the filtration for color on the stacked photosite design. Filtration as with film might possibly help for lighting conditions that are outside a reasonable daylight range, but as yet I have not done such tests.

Terminology: that 'Merrill' suffix is all critical: it means the current 14.75-megapixel APS-C sensor, the previous generation being low-res and generally not acceptable. Hence (my shorthand): Sigma DP1M, DP2M, DP3M.

That said, I prefer to think of the Sigma/Foveon sensor in the DP Merrill cameras as having a unique personality. Just as photographic films varied in their characteristics (consider Kodachrome, vs Fuji Velvia vs Fuji Astia vs Agfa), the Sigma DP Merrill has something to offer outside the ordinary. Which one can criticize or embrace.

Morever, the sheer clarity of imagery is something to behold, and so color accuracy is almost beside the point—for many uses. I would dearly like to see a ~30 megapixel full-frame Sigma/Foveon sensor, or even a 30MP APS-C version with a base ISO of 50 (for quality). The lenses on the DP Merrill camera can be said to be equal (or better) in performance to most high quality DSLR lenses. Sigma made the right choice by sticking with ƒ/2.8, keeping optical performance very high.

I take “off a tripod” to mean “shot on a tripod”—the image quality can be spectacular at ISO 100 or ISO 200 (ISO 100 is technically superior with careful exposure). The tulips image which I printed 40 inches wide was an 8 second exposure.

The recent Sigma DP3M examples are also gorgeous, and were shot handheld (faster, much more variety possible in one shoot versus slowing down to use a tripod). The DP1M and DP2M offer similar quality. But for overall sharpness and bokeh “feel” I think the DP3 Merrill is now my favorite.

Software

Yes, the Sigma Photo Pro software has some serious usability and reliability issues, but usually I can (eventually) get the job done. I do like the output quality.

Iridient Developer is another alternative for Sigma DP3 Merrill files, with some unique features too, such as an XDR monochrome mode. Noise reduction needs to be done explicitly in IrDe (it is implicit in Sigma Photo Pro, always a minimum amount).

Perhaps ACR will soon support the DP Merrill cameras also, because the previous DP cameras were/are supported.

Spitting llamas

Llamas spit. Hence the DP3M is a much better choice for Lorenzo. Poor creature— some mentally ill M*F*r poisoned the sheep that Lorenzo used to stand watch over (who did it is known, but unprovable to the police). He’s probably stressed and lonely now, as he has no company; he never used to spit at me.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
Lorenzo the Llama
Sigma DP3 Merrill, 1/60 handheld @ ƒ/2.8

The actual pixels crop below (shot wide open at ƒ/2.8) shows why I like the Sigma DP3 Merrill for close-ups; it focuses to 1:3 if need be. With a tripod and ƒ/8, the detail here would have been incredible (as shown, depth of field is razor-thin). This is also a very difficult color of flower to reproduce, especially getting fine detail with color-on-color.

Actual pixels Sigma DP3 Merrill, 1/80 handheld @ ƒ/2.8 , ISO 200
Actual pixels crop
Sigma DP3 Merrill, 1/80 handheld @ ƒ/2.8 , ISO 200

Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR

B&H Photo has the new Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR in stock for about $2697 + free shipping + 2% rewards.

My general commentary on such a slow (dark) lens is that it had better be really good at ƒ/5.6. Because as my D7100 results prove unequivocally, ƒ/5.6 is the last aperture at which a high-grade lens is not visibly degraded by diffraction for a DX camera with 24 megapixels. Or a future 56-megapixel DSLR. Which makes the lens virtually a single-aperture lens, if all goes well on such cameras. Of course, a 36 megapixel camera will be just fine to ƒ/8 and a 24-megapixel camera to ƒ/10 or so.

The 80-400 is most appropriately mated to a 16MP (Nikon D4) or 24-megapixel (Nikon D600) full-frame camera in terms of likely “return on sharpness”. For those lusting for extra “reach”, keep in mind that on the 24MP D7100 (DX sensor), stopping down quickly degrades per-pixel detail, assuming the 80-400 is in fact is a high-grade performer at ƒ/5.6.

But that’s all assuming high-grade performance at ƒ/5.6 for the 80-400. If it’s not at its best at ƒ/5.6, then ƒ/8 will probably be just fine in comparison to ƒ/8 on the D7100. But given the price, there is a reasonable expectation of very high performance at ƒ/5.6.

Well, that's all one way of looking at it. The other equally legitimate way is oversampling: the lens doesn’t care what sensor is in the camera, so while the maximum detail is limited by diffraction when stopping down on very high resolution cameras, oversampling nonetheless delivers superior overall image quality (at any given aperture) by reduction of digital artifacts. Might as well get used to it, as this is the future.

Usability

My other thought is how this thing balances on a tripod; most recent Nikon tripod collars are abject design failures, making the whole rig vibrate like jello (check out the old Nikon 50-300 f/4.5 ED for a properly engineered setup). At 400mm, there is no room for even a whisper of vibration at lower shutter speeds; even the shutter itself becomes an issue. Handholding with VR on might actually be better than a tripod at reasonable speeds.

And why can’t Nikon (and Canon) implement an Arca-Swiss style dovetail directly into the tripod foot? Head over to Really Right Stuff for replacements for the toy tripod foot Nikon sells with most lenses, or for a plate to bolt onto the tripod foot.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Rebates and deals on Nikon and Canon

The “word” is that many of these rebates will not be extended beyond March 30.

Apropos Apochromatic: Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar vs Leica 100/2.8 APO-Macro-Elmarit-R and 180/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R

The Leica 100mm f/2.8 APO-Macro-Elmarit-R and Leica 180mm f/2.8 APO-Elmarit-R rightfully deserve respect for their outstanding performance. But now along comes the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar, for which I’ve previously had praise.

There is no agreed upon definition for what APO means in marketing. Zeiss doesn’t spell out the meaning of APO, nor does any other major vendor: it can be taken to mean “a high degree of correction for lateral and longitudinal chromatic aberrations”. And generally a high level of correction of spherical aberration and spherochromaticism (spherical aberration by color/wavelength).

So for those users out there looking for the best, including those shooting video and looking for that “look” that accrues to a lens superbly corrected for color, how does the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar compared to two of Leica’s finest APO “R” lenses?

In Guide to Zeiss.

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar Leica 100/2.8 APO-Macro-Elmarit-R Leica 180/2.8 APO-ElmaritR
Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar, Leica 100/2.8 APO-Macro-Elmarit-R, Leica 180/2.8 APO-ElmaritR
Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2.8
Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2.8

How Does the Zeiss 135mm ƒ/2 APO-Sonnar Perform on a 56-Megapixel DSLR?

Zeiss 135m f/2 APO-Sonnar
Zeiss 135m f/2 APO-Sonnar

The Nikon D7100 happens to have a sensor pixel density that makes it equivalent in resolution requirements to a 56-megapixel full-frame DSLR. It also lacks an anti-aliasing filter and thus allows peak lens performance to be recorded without any artifical blurring of detail.

Naturally I’d like to know: when that 56-megapixel (or similar) Nikon D4x arrives, perhaps later this year, just how will the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar perform?

Now in Guide to Zeiss is perhaps the most interesting study of diffraction and MTF that I’ve yet published: Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar on 56-Megapixel (equiv) DSLR.

Included are several generously-sized crops from ƒ/2 through ƒ/22 along with MTF charts from ƒ/2 through ƒ/22 as measured from an actual production lens. Hence one can directly relate the MTF charts to the actual performance as seen in real life—for every aperture.

It’s only a matter of time before we actually have a full-frame 56-megapixel DSLR (or 50 or 70 or whatever it actually happens to be). This carefully made and definitive study is thus not abstract at all, but directly relevant to the near future.

Also published in Making Sharp Images is a condensed version of the same study (fewer crops, but just as instructive). Also the San Francisco series with the Canon 1Ds Mark III has been redone with more and larger crops.

Nikon D7100 + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4
Nikon D7100 + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4

Nikon D7100 Initial Impressions

Does Nikon deliberately damage usability with the low and mid-range cameras, making arbitrarily stupid changes in behavior? It sure seems that way in some respects (idiotic Live View aperture behavior and obscure access to focusing points that took me 15 minutes to find what I wanted— it’s an exercise in not reading the manual, intentionally).

Live View ROCKS (at least for the image quality)

There is some encouraging news for a future pro model: Live View on the Nikon D7100 is WAY better than the subsampled mangled mess seen on the Nikon D800/D800E. I mean that fine details are there, clear as day. Except that in the field, I found the clarity wanting, versus under controlled conditions.

Not only that, my impression is that the screen quality is also superior. There is one distracting oddity which I have never before seen on a Nikon DSLR: zooming into high magnification is blurry for about 2/3 of a second, then the view goes crystal clear. I did dial up sharpening as per my Live View tip for the Nikon D800, but that does not play a role (I checked).

Is this the new Nikon D4x 56-megapixel sensor?

Recall that a little birdie told me about an upcoming Nikon D4x with 56 megapixels, already in the wild so to speak. I also speculated on a D4x nearly a year ago.

Now let’s do some math and scale up the D7100 sensor to D4x resolution:

24 megapixels * (35.9/23.5)^2 = 56.0 megapixels

An interesting piece of math no doubt, and maybe it just happens to fit. After all, 24 megapixels on a DX sensor is now fairly common. But just maybe the D7100 (which to my eye is easily the best DX sensor yet) might just be the basis for a full frame version of the same pixel density.

And just maybe Nikon has done away with the anti-aliasing filter on the D7100 because it’s no longer needed, even with the best lens I own: the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar.

Image quality

Sensational with some limitations in tonal transitions. But unfortunately I cannot process the files with ACR and thus have to use Nikon Capture NX2 (unusable sharpening, great color) plus Topaz InFocus sharpening.

Nikon D7100
Nikon D7100
850 | 1700
Nikon D7100 + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar
Nikon D7100 + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar

Converting Kodak PhotoCD 'pcd' Images to JPEG or TIF or DNG

PCDMagic
PCDMagic

The last time Photoshop supported opening PCD files was way back in CS3 via a Kodak plugin. With Kodak defunct and Photoshop no longer supporting PCD files, I looked around for an OS X converter program and found PCDMagic.

PCDMagic can batch process PCD files to JPEG or TIF or DNG.

I chose JPE output, because the quality of regular PhotoCD scans is marginal to begin with, and the output JPEGs appearly to be minimally compressed (around 6-8MGB for the 3072 X 2048 six-megapixel scans). And I could see not improvement with TIF.

The program did exactly what I wanted it to do; I selected 1934 PCD files and started it running. In 30 minutes or so, it was done, dropping '.jpg' files neatly into place alongside the original '.pcd' files. Perfect: now I have both the PCD files and readily-viewable JPEG files.

PCDMagic has a few minor oddities: file names have to have a proper extension (“.pcd” or “.PCD”), there can be no oddball characters in the file name, and one has to select the actual images (not a folder). No big deal.

850 | 1700
PCDMagic file browser
PCDMagic file browser
PCDMagic conversion settings
PCDMagic conversion settings

Film quality

Film quality never was very good, though the color could be lovely on a chrome.

Today I enjoy carping about cameras. As a teenager I loved to go carping.

850 | 850 | 1700
Carping, circa 1982 or so
Carping, circa 1982 or so
“Velcro”, an old allergen of mine
“Velcro”, an old allergen of mine

Sigma DP3 Merrill: Color Different from DP1 / DP2 ?

There is a review of the Sigma DP3 Merrill out there which makes an unsubstantiated claim (no evidence whatsoever) that the color in the Sigma DP3 Merrill is improved over the DP1/DP2 Merrill: “The DP3 Merrill's colors are more accurate (by far); the color modes do not work like older models leading to even more room to work your raw files”).

I have not yet observed a color difference among the DP Merrill cameras, and I have all three of them. If I were to make such a claim, I would back it up with evidence as a matter of professionalism.

I asked Sigma about this.

...not aware of any specific changes in the DP3M that would result in this effect.

Now we all know that companies can do things and not self-inform, and so I have asked for an official statement on the matter, just to be certain.

Flowers Freshly Rained Upon Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200
Flowers Freshly Rained Upon in Red
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200

Sigma DP3 Merrill Examples

Posted in my review of the Sigma DP Merrill cameras is a new page of Sigma DP3 Merrill examples.

Flowers Freshly Rained Upon Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200
Flowers Freshly Rained Upon
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200
Flower Spikes Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/125 sec handheld , ISO 200
Flower Spikes
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/125 sec handheld , ISO 200

Just Peachy

With a little luck, these intensely colored peach blossoms on my backyard tree will produce something tasty this year—if the yard rats (deer) and squirrels leave me some.

Some of the blossoms are pale, others are an intensely saturated magenta. The Sigma DP3 Merrill has handled them quite well.

850 | 1700
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200
Peach Blossoms, March 20 2013
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/100 sec handheld , ISO 200
850 | 1700
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200
Peach Blossoms, March 20 2013
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200
850 | 1700
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/80 sec handheld , ISO 200
Peach Blossoms, March 20 2013
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/60 sec handheld , ISO 200

The cherries are not to be left out of the show.

850 | 1700
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/160 sec handheld , ISO 200
Cherry Blossoms, March 20 2013
Sigma DP3 Merrill , ƒ/2.8 @ 1/160 sec handheld , ISO 200

Sigma Photo Pro: Unacceptable Stability

I’ve been sending crash reports to Sigma since late last summer; one (1) crash problem was fixed. Yet many more remain and often make the software all but unusable. As I was preparing the last blog entry, I had 4 crashes in 5 minutes.

Readers know I like the Sigma DP Merrill cameras, but I want action on this software which even putting all of its other design flaws aside, cannot be used for more than 5 minutes without crashing (OS X, 12-core Mac Pro). One current alternative is Iridient Developer, which is much more reliable, but I have a goal to maintain continuity in how I present my images, so I am loathe to switch.

As a 25-year software engineer who takes intense pride in writing bulletproof code (no such thing but as close as one can), I would feel deeply embarrassed to release software of this caliber to customers. Heck, I would be embarrassed to ask an internal QA team to deal with it in this condition! There are build tools out there to instrument code and to track down memory leaks and threading errors. Fix it, Sigma.

Multi-core machines tend to flush out software threading and memory management bugs. The SPP software apparently has a strong distaste for my 12 core Mac Pro, but it crashes frequently on my 4-core laptop and 6-core Mac Pro also.

Does the Sigma development team have a 12-core Mac Pro to test on? Do they realize that on the fastest Mac available (12-core 3.33 GHz Mac Pro with 80GB memory and PCIe SSD) that the software is slow as mud? I could live with the speed, but not the crashes.

Yet another Sigma Photo Pro crash
Yet another Sigma Photo Pro crash

Dale P writes:

Your images are wonderful…..but I thought Sigma Pro Photo was not functional on a Mac now?

DIGLLOYD: The *output* from Sigma Photo Pro is delicious, so I put up with it.

Sometimes it crashes 10 times in 10 minutes (VERY frustrating), typically when changing white balance. At other times, it will let me process 10 images before crashing. In general, it is is painfully slow, and the user interface severely impedes an efficient workflow. And it crashes a lot. Probably it is more stable on Macs with fewer CPU cores, but I’ve had plenty of trouble on my 4-core laptop and 6-core desktop also. Bottom line is that code bugs can be provoked by mysterious events: timing of user actions, system activity, memory in use, etc.

File Size as a Measure of Image Detail

As discussed for the Nikon D800E, file sizes with lossless compressed images are larger for images containing more data, and hence the file is a crude measure of the amount of image detail present in the file. Of course, an image with a blurred background naturally has less detail, so context must be included.

RAW file size (lossless-compressed variants) for the same scene across apertures is an excellent measure of the total detail recorded, which includes the effects of depth of field, diffraction, exposure, and overall lens performance.

Some cameras don’t offer lossless compression (a troublesome waste of space); the Leica M cameras are of this type. Don’t confuse lossy compression (can be OK, but has potential issues) with lossless compression (same as original).

On a shoot today, I made 138 images with the Sigma DP3 Merrill. The average file size was 48.7MB, but observe that one whopper was 72.3MB (!). The smallest was 44.14MB.

Sigma uses lossless compression (good) to store the files, which is why the size varies: image content is more or less compressible for each image. The compression might also account for why saving a file takes so long.

Brightness

Thanks to reader Samuli V for pointing out that in general, brighter images also are larger (less compressible). This is true and worth stating explicitly on its own. However, it can also be thought of as detail: an underexposed image has less numeric precision; a brighter one greater numeric precision (e.g. an average of 8 bits used out of 12 bits possible on the sensor, versus 11 or 12 bits for a bright exposure).

Hence the value of ETTR: it increases the detail (numeric precision) which also tends to create greater variance in values (less compressible, higher Shannon entropy).

With a darker image the high-order bits are likely to be zero, and thus can be compressed away, reducing file size.

Other factors including noise (think high ISO) also affect file size. Noisy files are hard to compress because the low-order 4-5 bits vary randomly.

File sizes across aperture for Sigma DP3 Merrill
File sizes across aperture for Sigma DP3 Merrill

Here’s our bad-boy 72.3MB image— it’s chock full of single-pixel details. With the Sigma/Foveon sensor, each pixel is 12 X 3 bits (36 bits) and can record a true color value. Finished images are 14.75 megapixels, but there’s also an embedded JPEG and other stuff in the file. Anyway, 14.75 X 36 bits * 1 byte/8 bits = 66.375MB of data.

Sigma DP3 Merrill , 1/50 @ ƒ/5.6
Sigma DP3 Merrill , 1/50 @ ƒ/5.6
Sigma DP3 Merrill , 1/50 @ ƒ/5.6
Actual pixels

Photographic Film Really Was Not Much of a Performer

Film was never all that sharp. Real sharpness (in spite of silly calculations) was not anything close to what a D800E can do with good glass, and film dynamic range was terrible.

This blog entry became too large and has been moved to its own page in the free articles section.

See Photographic Film Really Was Not Much of a Performer.

Fort Bottom Overlook, Green River  Linhof 6 X 17 S III, 90mm lens
Fort Bottom Overlook, Green River
Linhof 6 X 17 S III, 90mm lens, Fujichrome Velvia 50

Zeiss 135mm ƒ/2 APO-Sonnar: Just How Good Is It?

The Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar (reviewed in Guide to Zeiss) might fairly be called the best lens for a DSLR on the market today. It offers performance at the level of the best Leica R APO glass (or Leica M APO) yet offers the native mount capabilities for Nikon and Canon DSLRs. And on a 36-megapixel Nikon D800E, it suggests that a 56-megapixel Nikon D4x would not be too demanding, not at all.

Wide open at ƒ/2 the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar outperforms many lenses at any aperture, and by ƒ/2.8 it can be fairly be said to outperform all but a handful of DSLR lenses on the market today. Actually, I would not be comfortable stating that I know of a lens that can outperform it, though this is possible.

In the field, the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar is superlative. It is a must-have optic representing the very best optical performance of the Zeiss ZF.2 / ZE lens line.

The Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar is about $2129 at B&H Photo.

MTF

Perspective is useful; shown below is the MTF chart for the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar and the vaunted Leica M 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH.

Unlike MTF charts from most vendors, the Leica and Zeiss charts can generally be compared fairly (not so for Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Sony.fantasy).

Note well: the Zeiss results here are MEASURED from an actual production lens (mine). The Leica results are from Leica’s official data sheet, and it’s unclear if they are “real” (from an actual production lens as opposed to computed).

So what does MTF tell us here?

At ƒ/2, the Zeiss 135/2 easily outperforms the Leica 90/2 APO for fine structures (40 lp/mm), showing MTF across the field that is 10% or so higher. My field shots with both lenses leave me no doubt that the Zeiss is a superior lens at ƒ/2.

At ƒ/5.6 the Zeiss 135/2 APO shows higher overall and peak contrast for fine structures and overall, but some astigmatism to the edges and corners. Both lenses are at a very high level, call it a draw with the Zeiss stronger centrally and the Leica 90/2 APO a bit stronger in the corners if one discounts the Zeiss 135/2 for astigmatism. Still, I’d place my bet overall on the Zeiss 135/2 APO, based on what I see in field images.

Which brings us to another practical issue: a 36-megapixel Nikon D800E blows away anything from Leica in terms of achievable detail and image quality, and at a far lower price. Yet another consideration: the Leica 135mm f/3.4 APO is 2/3 of a stop slower than the Zeiss 135/2, costs $1200 more and performs at a notably lower level.

MTF for Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar at 10/20/40 lp/mm
MTF for Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar at 10/20/40 lp/mm

MTF for Leica 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH below. At ƒ/2 it underperforms the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar at ƒ/2. Stopped down to any aperture, it cannot match the peak central contrast of the Zeiss at ƒ/2.

MTF for Leica 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH at 5/10/20/40 lp/mm:
MTF for Leica 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH at 5/10/20/40 lp/mm:

The Leica 135mm f/3.4 APO-Telyt-M ASPH is 2/3 stop slower and cannot perform to the level of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar at any f-stop.

MTF for Leica 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH at 5/10/20/40 lp/mm:
MTF for Leica 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH at 5/10/20/40 lp/mm:

MTF at ƒ/22 with the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar

In Making Sharp Images, it is demonstrated that stopping down can improve image quality. But also as shown, stopping down too far damages image quality, particularly for high resolution cameras like the Nikon D800E. The issue is a law of optical physics: diffraction. The diffraction 'hit' is no different from film days.

Let us take one of the very best lenses on the market today: the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar (reviewed in Guide to Zeiss). The Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar offers performance at the level of the best Leica R APO glass, yet offers the native mount capabilities for Nikon and Canon DSLRs.

MTF at ƒ/22

What happens when you stop down the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar to ƒ/22? Can it evade the damaging effects of diffraction?

Manufacturers rarely publish MTF for the full aperture series, let alone ƒ/22. But shown below courtesy of Carl Zeiss are ƒ/2, ƒ/5.6 and ƒ/22 MTF charts. These are actual measured MTF charts from a production serial-numbered lens (mine). Not computed charts. Not fantasy charts with skewed wavelength measurements. No, the real deal from a real lens.

The ƒ/2 and ƒ/5.6 charts are superb, the only necessary comment being “wow”.

The ƒ/22 chart shows strongly degraded contrast on coarse, medium and especially fine details (10, 20, 40 line pairs/mm). This is diffraction at work, and on the D800E it becomes visible at ƒ/8 with a top-grade lens, or even ƒ/5.6 (subtly) with the right choice of subject matter. By ƒ/11, diffraction dulls things visibly, ƒ/16 looks soft, and at ƒ/22 a gray haze permeates the entire image and destroys micro contrast. Of course, ordinary lenses don’t seem to fare so badly, because a mediocre ƒ/5.6 makes ƒ/11 look just peachy.

Because the MTF starts at such a high level to begin with, the 135/2 APO holds up better than most lenses, essentially bumping up against the limits of diffraction.

Observe that MTF for fine details (40 lp/mm, bottom pair of lines) drops from about 84% (world class) to about 48%, a dulling that few would find acceptable. In fact, 50% MTF is the cutoff for what one deems acceptable to be perceived as sharp to the eye. So we can see that ƒ/22 cannot deliver any sharp detail by that standard.

 

In this example at very close range, ƒ/2 suffers from having so little depth of field that I could not decide on focusing on the surface of the eye or the iris just below it (ƒ/2 can be very sharp, it’s essentially mostly out of focus here). The ƒ/5.6 result shows peak sharpness and contrast; compare to ƒ/22. All apertures well-sharpened as shown here. A massive dose of sharpening along with a contrast whack can make the ƒ/22 image usable, but it lacks all brilliance.

Actual pixels from Nikon D800E.

Stephen P writes:

This is one of the simplest explanations of diffraction I have ever seen. Seeing truly is believing!

DIGLLOYD: excellent.

LensRentals rents the Sigma DP Merrill

I’ve written about the Sigma DP Merrill cameras quite a bit lately, including all three models, as well as the software and ETTR and so on.

My suggestion for those trying to understand if the Sigma DP1/ DP2 / DP3 Merrill might fill a space in their repertoire: rent a Sigma DP Merrill (along with a few extra batteries).

Even if you might think the DP Merrill is not for you, the images are distinctly different enough from conventional cameras that understanding a “true color” sensor versus a conventional Bayer-matrix sensor can be considered part of one’s photographic education.

I like all the DP Merrill models, but the best all around model for pure sharpness and flat field is probably the DP2 Merrill (30mm f/2.8, 45mm equivalent). The lenses are first-rate on all the models, on par with the best DSLR lenses for full frame cameras.

Lupine Betty R, and Betty TL Flashlight for Photography

I previously wrote on using the Lupine Betty R for photography; see also Lupine Betty R Color Rendition for Photography. I’ve just learned that the new Betty TL flashlight model will have attractive features for photography:

The new Betty TL will have a modified area on the backside which fits for the standard foto threads to be used as a foto light. It will also have an inner thread inside the frontcap you can screw on different standardized foto filters.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine at dusk Lighting by Lupine Betty (older version of Betty R)
Ancient Bristlecone Pine at dusk
Lighting by Lupine Betty (older version of Betty R)
Canon 1D Mark III + EF 15mm f/2.8 fisheye @ ƒ/4, 30 sec, ISO 400

Programmable LED Lighting for Photography: Lumapad Kickstarter Project

See also using the Lupine Betty for photography.

General comment: the Kickstarter.com funding idea is an enabling technology sure to result in many interesting products over the years to come, because it affords the “little guy” the opportunity to develop an idea and simultaneously test its appeal. Applying the ingenuity of even a tiny fraction of 5 billion human beings in such a manner surely has massive power over time. As well as bringing opportunity to those who might have the brains and motivation, but not the money: the removal of one key barrier.

The Lumapad

Here’s an interesting LED lighting project over on Kickstarter.com, the Lumapad.

8000 Lumen output is SUPER BRIGHT!

With the success of this project, the Lumapad will be one of the brightest LED lights made with all these incredible features. Thirty two (32) ultra bright LEDs are positioned in a landscape array to provide bright, even and controllable lighting on any subject. It is truly unbelievable how bright this thing is even though it draws only 88 watts.

Light any scene with soft, even lighting

A built in electronic dimmer makes the light intensity adjustable to suit any environment. Great for studio and stage lighting, special effects, experimentation or anywhere an ultra-bright 8000 lumen lighting system is needed.

...

Open Source, Ultra-Bright LED Lumapad with WiFi & Arduino micro controller
Open Source, Ultra-Bright LED Lumapad with WiFi & Arduino micro controller

Cliff L writes:

I wonder how much of the funds raised by the Lumapad Kickstarter project will end up being spent on legal fees? Litepanels holds a fairly broad patent covering the use of LED lighting for photography.

http://nofilmschool.com/2013/01/litepanels-wins-patent-case/

DIGLLOYD: I can’t speak to this in any particular.

Commenting in general— patents play an important role in commerce, but the recent changes in patent law (first to file not first to invent) pretty much lock out the little guy. Another lock-in for established businesses: you can invent something first, but not having the (realistic) $20K or so it takes to file, you get literally be legally prevented from using your own invention. Another obscene moral corruption of the “system”.

LensRentals.com: “LensRentals HD” $79 for Free Shipping for a Year

I use and like LensRentals.com— first class operation.

The new LensRentals HD program looks like a heck of a deal if you rent more just a few times a year: free standard FedEx shipping for $79 for a full year. Wow!

What is LensRentals HD?

LensRentals HD is a shipping discount program. By signing up, you’ll get free Standard Shipping on all the orders you place for one year, and you’ll even save 50% on all FedEx Overnight shipping.

No items are excluded from the program: if we carry it, we’ll ship it free. Need a jib in Los Angeles? It’s free. Need 10 tripods in Miami? Totally free.

Who is LensRentals HD For?

Everyone that wants cheaper shipping to the contiguous US. (Sorry HI & AK!)
At only $79 a year, LensRentals HD makes sense for everyone. Only rent a few small orders per year? You’ll still save money with LensRentals HD. You only expect to place a single large order this year? You’ll still save. You rent all the time? You’ll save even more.

What is Standard Shipping?

Standard Shipping is the most cost-effective FedEx service that will arrive by your selected arrival date — assuming there is a FedEx service that can arrive by that date other than FedEx Overnight. Standard Shipping may take the form of FedEx Ground, FedEx Express Saver or FedEx 2nd Day Air.

What about UPS?

Because we only ship via UPS upon customer request, we do not have sufficient volume to offer LensRentals HD on UPS shipments. If you select a UPS shipping service, you will receive no LensRentals HD discount.

Can I share my LensRentals HD subscription?

For now, we are unable to allow a single LensRentals HD subscription to be shared across multiple accounts. However, some businesses with multiple employee accounts may qualify for special pricing. Please contact us for more details.

Can I cancel LensRentals HD?

You can cancel LensRentals HD before your first discounted order is shipped. Once your first discounted order is shipped, LensRentals HD is non-refundable.

Sigma 150mm and 180mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM

I was impressed enough with the Sigma 35/1.4 DG HSM to want to at least take a look at two of Sigma’s telephoto macro lenses, the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM and Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM.

It is not necessarily my intent to do an in-depth study of both lenses, but at the least I want to get some sense of the potential of each lens for both closeup and distance work.

The APO designation is always appealing, even if the meaning of APO varies by manufacturer. And for the 180mm in particular, there really is no other high performance* all-around 180mm lens out there today, unless you count the non-macro Nikon and Canon 200mm f/2 offerings. And 180mm is also enough spacing from the 135m focal length (Zeiss APO-Sonnar).

For Nikon users, the main candidate is the Nikon AF-Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4 IF-ED, which is a sharp lens (but I haven't tested it on the D800). The 200/4 is a full stop slower, so that at macro range it approaches ƒ/5.6. And it has lens coatings that are less good than on today’s best Nikkors, and screw-drive focusing. The Canon 180mm f/3.5L was a disappointment even when I tried it on lower resolution cameras, but it would be the nominal choice for Canon users, albeit 2/3 stop slower.

Basicallly, if I’m going to shoot a ~180mm lens for macro, they’re all big and heavy and the Sigma 180mm, if it delivers, doesn’t really lose in any size contest. And for true macro, ergonomic factors like manual focus do come into play and as yet “no comment” there until I try it out.

Both Sigma lenses are available in Nikon, Canon, Sony and Sigma mount.

* High performance meaning ƒ/2.8 with AF-S style focusing and a high level of color correction with high performance lens coatings.

Specifications for Sigma telephoto APO macro lenses
Focal length: Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO-Macro EX DG OS HSM Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO-Macro EX DG OS HSM
Special glass: SLD three FLD elments
Construction 19 elements in 13 groups, 9 blade aperture 19 elements in 14 groups, 9 blade aperture
Aperture scale: f/2.8 - f/22 f/2.8 - f/22
Focusing range: 15 in / 38cm - infinity
internal focusing
18.5 in/47cm - infinity
internal focusing
Angular of view: 16.4° 13.7°
Image ratio at close range:            1:1 1:1
Filter thread: 72mm 86mm
Features: Optical Stabilizer (OS), Hypersonic Motor (HSM), Super Multi-Layer Coating Optical Stabilizer (OS), Hypersonic Motor (HSM), Super Multi-Layer Coating
Weight: 3.1 pounds / 1150 g

5.7 pounds / 1638g

Dimensions (with caps): 3.1 X 5.9 inches 3.7 X 8.0 inches
List price: $1099 (street price) $1599 (street price)

The small difference in focal length does not account for the very large difference in size (and weight) as can be seen below. Given the large difference, one wonders what gains are possible with the 180mm lens, which apparently is more highly optimized, but the differences are not explained by Sigma.

Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM and Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM
Sigma 150mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM and Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO-Macro DG HSM

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar: Examples (Hakone Gardens)

To my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss is added a page with examples in Hakone Gardens.

Several of the examples include more than one aperture to the goal of showing aperture usage for various scenarios.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4


(Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar)Tulips #10 @ ƒ/13 Finished Print (Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar)

Just back is a 36 X 24 inch gallery wrap canvas print with gloss finish made by Picture Element from the Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar (no saturation has been added, that is the unaltered color).

I had a chance to examine both a 36 X 24 and 30 X 20 print of Tulips #10 ƒ/13 side by side (made for clients, signed and numbered gallery wrap prints are available). I also had a 36 X 24 made for myself.

See the full aperture series of these tulips from ƒ/2 through ƒ/13 in my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar.

I am delighted with the final print. The finished canvas print imparts some texture which contributes to the effect of an oil painting rather than a photograph print, though the lack of brush strokes dispels that idea upon inspection.

The final image has a very strong visual impact due to the subject matter itself, with the canvas medium exercising a certain synergy with it. The color saturation contributes another level to this effect.

This style of presentation is distinctly different from other types of photographic prints; it is more 3D in effect and directly accessible to the viewer (no glass, no matte surround, nothing in the way). Walk into any public place, doctor’s office, etcetera and no conventional print has quite this type of impact. It is perhaps too strong an effect if the goal were for an innocuous photo that is hung but asks for no conscious awareness.

At 36 inches wide, the D800E resolution is ample at just over 200 dpi. But it’s clear that a 45 X 30 would be no problem on the resolution front; that’s not really an issue in the print quality. Appropriate viewing distance is at least one meter for a 36 X 24 print; if one wishes to stand 18 inches away this is no different than critiquing a zoomed-in version on a large computer display; it has little meaning on its own as a metric for a finished print.

See my Printing on Canvas article for details on the outstanding work done by Picture Element in Santa Clara, CA. I prefer my prints to be “gallery wrap”, ready for hanging.

Click for a larger version. Image below is a scan of a proof using my cheap Epson Workforce flatbed scanner. The scanner did a good job overall, but it picks up some reflections from the texture of the canvas (these are not seen by eye when viewing the print). Scan is slightly cropped since the scanner cannot accommodate 15 X 10.

Scan (partial) of “Tulips 10” of canvas print using Epson Workforce scanner  Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135m f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/13
Scan (partial) of “Tulips 10” of canvas print using Epson Workforce scanner
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135m f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/13

How Big Can Sigma DP Merrill Print?

How well does a 14.75 megapixel image Sigma DP2 Merrill image print?

Just back is a ~40 X 26 inch gallery wrap canvas print with gloss finish made by Picture Element from the Sigma DP2 Merrill image shown below (no saturation has been added, that is the unaltered color).

If you haven’t had a good canvas print with high quality coating made, give Picture Element a try. Mike Chambers (no relation) does a first-rate job with all his work (see details on canvas printing). There are other media also (I’m also partial to Ilford Smooth Pearl paper mounted on DiBond).

The finished print is remarkable; one could easily imagine that it has been made on medium format due to the clarity of the image. This is not a statement that one can stare at fine details at close range (~20 inches) without seeing resolution limits (~117 dpi), but rather that the fundamental per-pixel quality, total absence of digital artifacts, and acutance of details lends the impression of a result from a much higher resolution camera.

At an appropriate viewing distance of 1-2 meters, the image practically jumps off the wall. Would this be true of a landscape scene with very fine details? Perhaps that kind of scene would show the limits of detail sooner (as with any camera), but I suspect that the same per-pixel quality would lend itself to a similar visual impact.

My small criticism in seeing the Sigma DP2 Merrill print as compared with the Nikon D800E Tulips #10 print is that the color of the Nikon image seems more nuanced in the more intense orange/red/yellow transitions. This one might fairly expect, given that the 14-bit sensor of the full-frame Nikon D800E is the best sensor on the market today, but the lighting was not the same, so that idea is a supposition, not a proof.

8 sec @ ƒ/10, ISO 100 Sigma DP2 Merrill
8 sec @ ƒ/10, ISO 100
Sigma DP2 Merrill

Reader Comment: “Brilliance”

Samuli V writes:

In many discussions on fredmiranda.com forums I have needed to explain "brilliance", but the only good definition I know is from you and it's inside your paid content, due to which I can't link to it.

Could you consider adding that text to some of your public content? If not can I get permission to quote that part (of course clearly identifying it's your text and you have copyright and I have asked permission to quote your text)? The part I'm talking about is copy pasted below my email signature (from 1997 downloadable "Guide to ZF").

From the Subtleties of Rendition page:

Reading the descriptions written by Zeiss (and Leica) of their lenses, the term “brilliance” is often seen. The term is a bit maddening because it lacks an explanation, and the dictionary is only of modest assistance.

  • Maintenance of detail in highlights, mid-tones and shadows even under adverse lighting conditions including “muddy” or “flat” light;
  • Accurate and pleasing color rendition with subtle color nuances maintained;
  • High contrast in the finest details (“micro contrast”);
  • Flare control, particularly veiling flare.

When all these qualities come together, an image comes alive. Lenses that don’t have these qualities produce images that look like pictures of things, not the things themselves. It’s hard to “go back” once you’ve gotten used to the effect.

Even in infrared, this brilliance shines through. Call it the Rice Krispies effect (“snap, crackle, pop”)."

Actual pixels below straight from raw conversion.

ACTUAL PIXELS  Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4

ACTUAL PIXELS
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4

Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, CA (a relaxing venue to shoot)

I spent a few hours shooting the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar today at Hakone Gardens. For an entrance fee of $8, you can shoot away as long as you like, and with a tripod (don’t block paths of course!). If it’s commercial as in model portraiture, a wedding party or videography, then one needs a permit; inquire appropriately (I did to be sure).

Hours are 10-5 weekdays and 11-5 weekends, a pity since the best light develops at 6pm or so. But I’m told that it might be possible to arrange entrance outside normal hours, which is something I could see doing with a group sometime.

Hakone Gardens is a relaxing place to shoot on week days, with only a few people here and there; weekends are busier and probably best avoided. The garden includes a waterfall, koi pond, bamboo grove, some short trails, Japanese maples and similar.

Everything was just (barely) starting to bud out and the cherry blossoms are due in 7-10 days. I took my time and studied the place, moving slowly and playing with different apertures and framing— more of a challenge than I thought with a near absence of leaves and flowers.

Today’s lighting was hazy overcast, yielding low contrast light, not bad, not great. Shots from the bamboo forest:

850 | 1700
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
850 | 1700
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/11
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/11
850 | 1700
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar: Peach Blossoms

To my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss is added an aperture series at close range (Peach Blossoms).

Sharpness, bokeh and color correction are of interest in this pseudo-macro range with these delicate blossoms.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4

Bruce Z writes:

Lloyd, that looks like a real, as in "LIVE" outdoor blossom. You know, posting an image like that could be considered cruel and unusual punishment for most of us living in the rest of the world, where snow on the ground is still common!

DIGLLOYD: I put in my “time” growing up in Wisconsin with the long cold winters. Yes, these are real live peach tree blossoms on a backyard peach tree. They’ll probably set fruit this year (young tree), and then the yard rats (deer) will eat the green fruit. So I wish the tree would grow taller so I actually get some peaches.

Sigma DP Merrill: Monochrome Mode in Sigma Photo Pro

The new monochrome mode in Sigma Photo Pro seems to produce just about flawless black and white images from the Sigma DP Merrill. Three retina-grade examples now posted in my review of the Sigma DP Merrill cameras.

Please note that while these example conversions were done with Sigma’s Sigma Photo Pro software, Iridient Developer offers a special “XDR Monochrome” mode for very high quality conversions to black and white, with claimed improvements in noise, dynamic range and fine detail rendition.

Side note: more flexible (true RGB sensor), autofocus, better easy of use, and 1/10 the cost of the Leica M Monochrom. Of course the Leica MM is full frame and will do much better at high ISO, but I see no reason to complain about the DP Merrill monochrome ability

f/8 @ 13 sec; ISO 100, SPP monochrome conversion Sigma DP3 Merrill
f/8 @ 13 sec; ISO 100, SPP monochrome conversion
Sigma DP3 Merrill

Really Right Stuff L-Bracket for Sigma DP1 / DP2 /DP3 Merrill with Grip

I just got the Really Right Stuff BDP2 Set: Base + L-Plate + Grip for the Sigma DP3 Merrill. This is a really nice handling piece of gear for the DP Merrill, and it also affords a lot of protection to the camera. The grip fits my hands very nicely.

See also L-bracket with grip for the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

The Really Right Stuff L-brackets are available for most cameras. An L-bracket offers the following advantages:

  • Instant mount in landscape or portrait mode on clamp style tripod head (the only kind worth considering for normal field use).
  • Protection at bottom and left (e.g., for bracing against rocks and the like.
  • Optional grip attaches to the base plate (not shown, not yet available, coming soon).
  • High quality anodized perfect-fit construction with unobstructed access to the battery and storage card.
  • Easy on/off with supplied allen wrench.
  • The “L” part of the plate is easily removed (e.g. for cycling, etc); for all around shooting, I might do this, retaining the the bottom plate and grip portion (which I am looking forward to, enjoying the RRS grip very much on my Olympus E-M5).

The grip makes handling the Sigma DP Merrill a very secure thing. I like it a lot when shooting. It adds some bulk and weight, so when I don't need it, the whole L-bracket and grip unbolts as a unit in just a few seconds with the supplied allen wrench.

Really Right Stuff: BDP2 Set: Base + L-Plate + Grip
Really Right Stuff: BDP2 Set: Base + L-Plate + Grip

Shown below is the Really Right Stuff L-bracket for the Sigma DP2 Merrill (on my personal Sigma DP2 Merrill).

Sigma DP2 Merill with Really Right Stuff L-backet on the diglloyd Signa DP2 Merrill
Sigma DP2 Merill with Really Right Stuff L-backet

Nikon D7100 Deal, Ships tomorrow

B&H Photo has two options on the new Nikon D7100, which ships tomorrow:

Personally I’d opt for the new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED Lens as a zoom lens for the D7100— sharper lens and usable on FX format also.

Nikon D7100 (rear)
Nikon D7100 (rear)

Sigma DP Merrill: ISO 100 or 200?

To my review of the Sigma DP1 / DP2 / DP3 Merrill is added an Sigma DP3 Merrill ISO 100 vs ISO 200 study.

I wanted to prove which ISO really delivers the best image quality, ISO 200 being the nominal native ISO of the Sigma/Foveon sensor, and ISO 100 ostensibly less recommened. Because I never just assume things on faith.

This carefully researched study includes an analysis of micro contrast, noise, color saturation in darker areas, detail in darker areas, and general image quality at ISO 100 vs ISO 200.

This study should be considered a MUST READ for any Sigma DP Merrill user. But it should probably be read by any digital camera user to stimulate thought about the choice of ISO.

Image below is a partial crop.

Portion of test scene, Sigma DP3 Merrill
Portion of test scene, Sigma DP3 Merrill

Bruce Z writes:

Great article on the Sigma DP 100/200 ISO comparrison. I would never have seen that much of a subtle difference until you posted such a finely tuned test scene. Once I see it, it becomes glaringly obvious. (Especially the near monochrome loss of color in the shadows of the Red material at 200 ISO) It's interesting to see the VERY slight difference in the specular highlights of the gold thread weave. Very subtle.

I am learning to see more as a photographer by following your postings. The real value of your work is the degree of intensity in the accuracy of the work.

DIGLLOYD: it’s what keeps it interesting: looking for insights.

Pentax 645D Rebate

Pentax has announced a rebate on the 40-megapixel Pentax 645D:

Photographers who purchase a 645D camera body between March 11, 2013 and March 31, 2013 will receive a free D-FA 55mm lens.

They will also be eligible to receive a $500 PENTAX VISA® PREPAID CARD on the purchase of the Pentax 645 25mm D-FA lens and HD 90mm lens when purchased at the same time as the body, for a total savings of up to $1,000.

Effectively, the rebate makes the Pentax 645D with its D-FA 55mm lens about $8600 for the kit. This is “not bad” indeed for a medium format camera body.

My review of the 40-megapixel Pentax 645D dates back to Dec 2010 - Feb 2011. The sensor is quite nice, but even here in 2012 the system remains underserved by top-performing lenses, though the 25mm and 90mm lenses predate my review, and might in fact offer high-grade performance. As I wrote back then:

The 39.5 megapixel 7264 x 5440 Pentax 645D breaks new ground in both price and functionality for the medium format market.

The Pentax 645D uses a 40 megapixel Kodak KAF-40000 full-frame CCD sensor producing 7264 x 5440 pixel images on a chip that is 44 X 33mm, with 6 micron pixels — a pixel size almost identical to the Nikon D3x and Leica S2. The sensor is 68% larger than a Nikon D3x, and 7% larger than a Leica S2.

The 645D does not use an anti-aliasing (blur) filter, so the actual per-pixel detail is improved over conventional DSLRs, especially on low contrast details.

Pentax 645D
Pentax 645D

Reader Asks: Leica M Typ 240 / M240 + 50/2 APO or Sigma DP2 Merrill?

Scott R writes:

I've enjoyed subscribing to your site for a couple or more years because of your technical approach in evaluating photography equipment and sensible techniques.

I have used Leica M cameras for over twenty years with the last iteration being an M8 and a host of lenses all in the 28mm to 50mm focal lengths. In fact, the focal length I keep bouncing between is 35mm and 50mm, so the 45mm equivalent of the Sigma DP2M is enticing.

Your stunning Sigma DP2&3M photographs are causing me to reconsider my preordered Leica M Typ 240 and 50AA. It's an expensive order totaling over fourteen thousand dollars, but I've got the resources to spend on whatever I want but the pragmatic side of me dislikes spending money on items not necessarily needed.

I do not require fast shooting and use a tripod for scenic shots, so chances are the slowness of the Sigma will not be major frustration to me. And, I'm nearing fifty years old now and my eyesight is compromising the speed of my draw with the rangefinder, so autofocus is becoming of interest to me for the first time in my life.

You mention the Sigma DP2M corresponding to the sharpness of 24 megapixel cameras, so do you think it is neck-to-neck with the combination Leica M Typ 240 and 50AA, or does the Sigma trump it?

DIGLOYD: Ouch! This has got to hurt if you’re Leica having someone ask about the latest flagship body and lens in comparison to a $799 point and shoot.

But it’s a perfectly legitimate question on the image quality front.

It’s also a perfectly legitimate question on the usability front also (autofocus).

In this case the question as stated yields a very simple answer: with the Sigma DP-2 Merrill costing about $799 after instant rebate, it’s an accessory: the Leica M Typ 240 + 50/2 AA plus EVF plus grip is around $16K or so, probably $18K with tax here in California. In other words, buy the DP2M and try it. You can’t lose. And it makes a great companion to the Leica M in any case.

In general, the 14.75 X 3 megapixel Sigma/Foveon sensor cannot resolve to the level of a 24-megapixel camera. But image quality involves more than resolving power, as discussed further below and as one’s own eyes can tell when seeing the images.

Leica 50/2 AA and M240 general

The Leica 50mm f/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH lens can be expected to outperform just about any lens. I say that both from its MTF chart and based on some high quality images shared with me privately by a reader. Also, I have the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux and 50/0.95 Noctilux and I have used the 50/2 Summicron, and it’s clear that the 50/2 AA is better than any of those.

The Leica M Typ 240 offers a miserly 24 megapixels, a glaring mismatch in lens performance to sensor resolution when the lens clearly could do wonders on a ~70 megapixel sensor, which would also likely do away with the ugly moiré and other digital artifacts while simultaneously delivering unprecedented detail. How many years to wait?

Based on images I’ve seen, the actual resolution gains of the M240 CMOS sensor over the M9 CCD sensor are marginal to modest, and to my eye the CCD sensor of the M9 shows more appeal. But a big caveat applies: I have not had both cameras in my own hands for an A/B test, and thus I hope to prove to myself that this impression is incorrect. As I see it, the big advantage of the M240 over the M9 is its Live View feature especially with the optional EVF wart— precise framing/composition and an ability to focus precisely under more conditions.

Resolving power

In terms of resolving power, the Leica M Typ 240 or even M9 or any other 24-megapixel camera will outresolve the 14.75 X 3 megapixel Sigma DP2 Merrill, at least under conditions favorable to the RGB Bayer-matrix sensor. See the Nikon D600 and Canon 5D Mark III vs Sigma DP1 Merrill comparisons.

But not by a huge amount and not as cleanly on a per-pixel basis. The subject matter exerts an influence, and on a black and white resolution chart just about any 24-megapixel camera will easily outresolve the DP Merrill. Which decides the matter if one likes to shoot resolution charts.

Still, the Sigma DP Merrill compares reasonably well even to the Leica M Monochrom, which has none of the Bayer-matrix limitations of a color/RGB camera. And as proven, focusing the Leica MM with a colored filter can be a losing game (focus shift), so the reality of real world usage can degrade the Leica MM results all too often. See Leica MM vs Sigma DP1 Merrill in Guide to Leica. And of course a true RGB image provides a ton more post-shot flexibility for black and white conversion if monochrome is one’s thing.

Focusing is actually a BFD (Big Fun Deal). Meaning that I've had plenty of Leica M9 images ruined by small focus errors. Resolution is what you actually get in the final image: lens + sensor + focus accuracy. Reality vs theory. So if eyesight begins to degrade the odds, autofocus means a sharper image on average. I would say AF is quite accurate on the DP Merrill, with the usual AF weaknesses which apply to AF systems on most any camera. But on balance, Live View with the EVF and diopter adjustment on the Leica M Typ 240 should mitigate the focus issue considerably.

But there are other issues that go beyond resolving power that ultimately contribute (under certain conditions) as much or more to image quality:

  • Moiré — some of the Leica M9 images I’ve seen with the 50mm f/2 APO ASPH show truly hideous moiré. While moiré is usually a non-issue, it can be a horrible mess with some subject matter. It’s just a question of the subject matter; the moiré is inherent to the Leica M9 or M240, unlike the Nikon D800E which tends to avoid the issue due to its high resolving power.
  • Jagged edges (“jaggies”)— slanted and diagonal lines suffer from jagged edges with all Bayer-matrix sensors. Effects range from clean to ugly— depending.
  • Color artifacts — red and green speckles dotting high contrast edges, snow polluted with such speckles, fine twigs and branches all can exhibit such pixel-level degradations that make absolute resolving power a close second.
  • Color resolution— fine color detail, especially fine red or blue detail which cuts Bayer-matrix resolution in half. The dubious premise of most testing is to use black and white resolution charts (or color on white), which artificially favor Bayer matrix resolution.
  • ISO — the main weakness of the Sigma DP Merrill. I shoot mine at ISO 100 or 200, and I’m reluctant to use it beyond that. With the Leica M9, ISO 160 or 320 were all I wanted to use, but perhaps the M240 improves upon matters.

The Sigma DP Merrill with its Foveon sensor does not suffer from either moiré or color artifacts or color resolution issues, and so far I’ve seen no jaggies either. This is why a well done image from it looks so amazingly crystal clear.

So one might fairly ask: what is “resolution” when actual per-pixel image quality is considered? Worst case or best case for a Bayer-matrix camera? How does it print? Or at least what is the immediate visual impact?

The absence of digital artifacts and the resolving power for fine color detail with the Foveon sensor is not easily quantified, but is immediately apparent to the eye, as the recent tulip examples and portraits show. I would characterize the Foveon sensor in the Sigma DP Merrill as being like a somewhat finicky film emulsion— expose it well for its best attributes, and the results are eminently rewarding. Go outside the comfort range, and a conventional sensor might be more appealing.

Sigma DP2 Merrill
Sigma DP2 Merrill
Leica M240
Leica M Typ 240

Portraits with the Sigma DP3 Merrill

To my review of the Sigma DP1 / DP2 / DP3 Merrill cameras are added six retina grade portrait images from the Sigma DP3 Merill.

The detail seen with the tulip images is manifest in these examples as well— stunning.

f/2.8 @ 1/100 sec handheld; ISO 200 +0.3 push Sigma DP3 Merrill
f/2.8 @ 1/100 sec handheld; ISO 200 +0.3 push
Sigma DP3 Merrill

Luis C writes:

Aaaaaamzing this DP3. Also, there´s a macro function isn´t it? Real macro (1:1) or just close-up?

I´ll pay attention on your blog for a macro example… please .-)

If I wasn´t in the process of upgrading my 5D mark II to III, as my workhorse, I just go and buy the three Sigmas.

DIGLLOYD: the Sigma DP3 Merrill focuses to 1:3 on an APS-C sensor. The image above is around 1:10 or so. From what I’ve seen so far, the lens is optimized for closer range, and might not have a flat field at distance.

Playing with RAW

I was using the Proxel X3F tool to look at the actual raw data in a Sigma X3F file and decided to play with the extracted image.

I extracted a TIF with a gamma of 1.0, then applied a tonal curve. The results almost remind me of a faux infrared rendition.

diglloyd:x3f lloyd$ ./x3f_extract -gamma 1.0 test.X3F
READ THE X3F FILE test.X3F
Load RAW from test.X3F
Dump RAW as TIFF to test.X3F.tif
min = 13
max = 3581
gamma = 1.000000e+00          
850 | 1700
Sigma DP3 Merrill , raw extraction at gamma 1.0
Sigma DP3 Merrill , raw extraction at gamma 1.0

The color version is far more appealing in general, but it’s always useful to keep in mind other possibilities for unusual purposes.

850 | 1700
Sigma DP3 Merrill
Sigma DP3 Merrill

Sigma DP1/DP2 Merrill at $799

Through June 30, the Sigma DP1 and DP2 Merrill are $799 with instant rebate at B&H Photo; click through the regular price see the price after instant rebate.

The DP Merrill cameras have various limitations (speed, high ISO), but they excel in sharpness, and the straightforward controls appeal. See my review of the Sigma DP Merrill cameras.

Iridient Developer from Iridient Digital Iridient Developer from Iridient Digital
Sigma DP1 Merrill, Sigma DP2 Merrill

Iridient Digital 'Iridient Developer' Now Handles Sigma DP Merrill X3F Files

Iridient Developer from Iridient Digital

Iridient Developer from Iridient Digital supports Sigma DP Merrill X3F raw files.

Iridient Developer is a general purpose raw-file converter which works with many types of raw files, offering a lot of fine-tuning controls, multiple sharpening algorithms, and generally fast operation.

How Big Can Sigma DP Merrill Print?

The Tulips #10 ƒ13 from the Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar is being printed for two clients.

But how does a 14.75 megapixel image from the Sigma DP2 Merrill hold up for a very large print? In progress is a 40" wide canvas print made by Picture Element (highly recommended is gallery wrap with gloss finish).

I’ll report on the final print quality when done, but I’m expecting good things in spite of pushing a ~15 megapixel camera into medium format print size range.

8 sec @ ƒ/10, ISO 100 Sigma DP2 Merill
8 sec @ ƒ/10, ISO 100
Sigma DP2 Merill

What Happens if the Sensor is not Exactly Plane Parallel to the Lens Mount? (UPDATE)

See the March 1 post on the topic.

My Nikon D800E is back from service and I have also consulted with Zeiss. My update on the observed asymmetry is now detailed on the 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar Alignment page.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2.8
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2.8
Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar
Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar

Sigma DP3 Merrill Examples

Added to my review of the Sigma DP1 / DP2 / DP3 Merrill in Guide to Mirrorless are:

The results are stunning, and that’s saying something, since I’m generally jaded on digital camera image quality.

Tulips Waning Sigma DP3 Merrill, 8 sec @ ƒ/10, ISO 100   
Tulips #5
Sigma DP3 Merrill, 8 sec @ ƒ/10, ISO 100

Reader comments

Guide to Mirrorless: see the comparisons of the Nikon D600 and Canon 5D Mark III to the DP1 Merrill. Also the Comparisons Across Format.

Guide to Leica: see the comparison of the DP1 Merrill to the Leica M9.

Howard C writes:

I am simply astonished at the overall image quality of these sample images from the DP3. There is a three dimensionality to the files that just makes them seem to come alive. This not just about resolution.

The Sony image of the same flowers at 109mb doesn't look nearly as "alive" as the DP3 image. I have seen JPEGs from medium format cameras with 40+ MP that do not look as good.

DIGLLOYD: Indeed. Sigma DP Merrill shooters know firsthand that the visual impact is strong. As with almost any tool, one wishes for operational improvements, but the image quality is rewarding.

Stephen M writes:

Good morning. I just thought I'd write to compliment you on all the great work you do. I just looked at your fantastic tulip shots done with the new Sigma DP-3 Merrill. The Tulip #6 photo is absolutely incredible. That image is begging to be printed out as a 40x60 canvas and hung on your wall. Very well done! Wonderful light, composition, and detail...the detail! WOW! I've been watching your reports on the Merrill with great interest.

You've proven that the Sigma DP3 Merrill is an amazing camera capable of outstanding results in the right hands. In my opinion, the lack of decent raw workflow software, and an EVF is a deal killer, at least for me.

Really wish that the RAW Merrill files could be used with Capture One Pro, as that is what I use for my work. I'm a commercial photographer who shoots Canon full frame bodies. I always look forward to seeing your reports and images on all the equipment you work with and test. I can't wait until Canon's next flagship body with a sensor greater than 21mp. As we all know, it's been awhile, but I'm sure this new body will be spectacular!

DIGLLOYD: Yes, spectacular image quality from a point and shoot. I regularly get skeptic emails from those who have not tried... I strongly recommend renting one to see for oneself, and B&H Photo has the DP Merrill cameras in stock.

It’s of interest to me to hear the reactions to specific images. I like both #6, but perhaps #2 a bit more. Unfortunately, I am out of wall space, already storage of prints is a problem in my small house. But I get to see what a few clients are printing of same.

The lack of an EVF is a bummer, but not a show-stopper for me given the compact camera size of the camera and outstanding results.

The poor state of the software is a huge time sink for me—I’ve been griping to Sigma on the software for some time now, but progress is glacially slow on improving it. Finished images from it are excellent; the issue is mind-blowing interface design failures, some so basic that the thought “you can’t make this stuff up” applies, and frustrating bugs and crashes. Sigma Corporation doesn’t seem to realize that the SPP software degrades the entire product. Note that Iridient Developer 2.0 ow has X3F support, and I’ll be looking into that soon.

Of course what I’d really like is for a full-frame Foveon sensor of 33 megapixels: scaled up at the same pixel density, the existing APS-C sensor would produce 33 megapixel images which would blow away any existing DSLR resolution.

Ernst H writes:

Thanks for the great work with different cams and lenses. Thus I could compare a lot before trying myself. Especially the tests with Nikon D800e were helpful for me.

Recently more accidentally I got my fingers on a DP2M. I ordered one after one day of trying an also bought the Dp3M as well. Thus probably I also will buy the DP1M.

My only problem now I don´t like the Bayer sensor of my D800e anymore.

This 3D look and per pixel sharpness of the Foveon sensor reminds me the good old time with my 4x5inch large format camera. The color correction of the D3PM is better than everything including all Zeiss and Leica lenses I´ve had and tested during the last years. If you look at the full resolution files in my flickr account the camera makes me speechless. The best thing I almost have to do nothing with the files to make them look best.

DIGLLOYD: The Nikon D800E still has considerably more resolving power than the DP Merrill sensor, but it is true that no Bayer-matrix sensor can deliver the same per-pixel sharpness especially for color-on-color detail. Downsampling a D800E image to DP Merrill resolution makes it clear that the D800E quality is superlative with a lot more detail. But who should expect that 36-megapixels would not win out; even a Bayer sensor with its RGGB layout wins from a huge pixel count: oversampling.

The Foveon sensor does very well in sunlight for color rendition, but in my experience it does not have as wide a color gamut, and it has color rendition issues under some types of lighting (tungsten). This is basically becuase of the stacked design has trouble with strongly biased colors of light as the stacked photosite layers filter out a big chunk of wavelength. Also, the D800E dynamic range is wider.

haslat writes:

The DP2M and DP3M are just incredible cameras. Picked up my DP3 Merrill at B&H yesterday and took it to Grand Central Station for a tryout. The resulting images are unbelievably sharp.

My decision to purchase Sigma cameras was based on your analysis of the results that could be achieved with this sensor and glass - spot on. Your tulips are some of the best flower pictures I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing.

DIGLLOYD: this is typical of what I hear from those who try the DP Merrill.

Tulips #2 Sigma DP3 Merrill, 13sec @ ƒ/9, ISO 100   
Tulips #2
Sigma DP3 Merrill, 13sec @ ƒ/9, ISO 100

Sigma DP3 Merrill Initial Experience

Sigma DP3 Merill   
Sigma DP3 Merrill

The Sigma DP3 Merrill arrived today. See my blog entry Four Cameras for the price of One?

See also my review of the Sigma DP1 / DP2 / DP3 Merrill cameras in Guide to Mirrorless. I’ll be adding material on the DP3 Merrill soon.

Sharpness

The DP3 Merrill uses the same Foveon true-color sensor as found in its DP1 and DP2 Merrill siblings, a sensor capable of fantastic per-pixel detail, and especially superior to conventional cameras for color-on-color detail (like red on blue or blue on yellow, etcetera).

The DPM image sharpness is unapproachable by anything less than a 20-24 megapixel conventional sensor— unrivalled in its megapixel range (14.75 megapixel finished images). The DP Merrill (any model) is also the best compact camera on the market for monochrome images, because it records true color at every pixel.

Downsides

Like its siblings, the DP3 Merrill has perhaps the worst battery life in the industry (it ships with two batteries!) and slow save speed, in part because its raw files approach 60MB each (12 bits per pixel X 3 layers). And no EVF and a high resolution but mediocre LCD and a few other quirks.

That said, the DP Merrill control layout and menus offer a straightforward layout that I find more usable than most all compacts.

The DP3 Merrill lens

My initial impression of the 50mm f/2.8 lens (75mm equivalent) is highly favorable. Sharpness and bokeh appear to be lovely indeed. I do intend to press the 75mm (equiv) focal length into some portrait tests. The 50mm lens can focus quite closely for near-macro work down to a reproduction ratio 1:3 (70.5mm X 46.8 coverage, nominal).

The longer focal length is ideal for stitching multiple images together for higher resolution images by tiling a scene and then assembling.

Tulip Riot Sigma DP3 Merill, 13 sec @ ƒ/9, ISO 100   
Tulip Riot
Sigma DP3 Merrill, 13 sec @ ƒ/9, ISO 100

The image below is a multi-frame stitch. It results in a 27-megapixel finished image after being assembled and cropped as shown.

Tulips Sigma DP3 Merrill, 2 sec @ ƒ/9, ISO 100  27-megapixel stitched image   
Tulips
Sigma DP3 Merrill, 2 sec @ ƒ/9, ISO 100
27-megapixel stitched image


(109 Megapixel Sony RX100 tulips)Oversampling for Image Quality (109 Megapixel Sony RX100 tulips)

Stitched image of 109 megapixels from Sony RX100   
Sony RX100 compact (20 megapixels)

Capturing an image at a much higher resolution than needed for the end result is of great value in obtaining a clean and noise free result.

This oversampling is true for images just as much as it’s true for audio.

I’ve discussed the oversampling concept before, and I’m going to be publishing (in DAP) some examples soon of this important concept, because the future involves DSLRs in the 100+ megapixel range. Not for the sake of resolution alone, but for image quality.

DSLRs ought to come on the market relatively soon whose image quality will be spectacular even without downsampling to lower resolution.

But the oversampling will make possible images in the 70 megapixel range (from ~140 megapixel sensors) that will rival any medium format camera available today. Pick any numbers you like, the idea remains the same.

Sensor existence proof — Sony RX100

Even native pixels without downsampling should be excellent, the Sony RX100 being an existence proof (its main failing being a weak lens).

The Sony RX100 is a 20-megapixel camera whose sensor if scaled to full-frame DSLR at the same pixel density would be 148 megapixels. Yet its per-pixel image quality is first-rate.

Still, let’s make a point of complaining that the RX100 sensor quality is not good enough, and assume we would downsample those 148 megapixels in half (70.7% linearly) to reach 72 megapixels— would it look pretty awesome? Indeed it does.

The stitched image below is close to our theoretical size— 109 megapixels. Even on a per-pixel basis (before any downsampling), its quality is excellent, with proper ETTR exposure only making it better.

Click for a larger version.

Stitched image of 109 megapixels from Sony RX100   
Stitched image of 109 megapixels from Sony RX100

The crop below is actual pixels from the 109 megapixel image above, showing that if we had a DSLR with simply the same per-pixel quality, it could be stunning.

Actual pixels from 109 megapixel stitched image above   
Actual pixels from 109 megapixel stitched image above

The image doesn’t need downsampling to fix any quality issue (it’s already excellent). But this might not always be the case (noise, poor exposure situations, etc).

Shown below is an actual pixels crop from the 54-megapixel downsampled image (downsampled from the 109-megapixel image).

Actual pixels from 54 megapixel reduction of 109 megapixel image   
Actual pixels from 54 megapixel reduction of 109 megapixel image

Zeiss Lenses for Sony NEX and Fuji X

I’ll be covering the new Zeiss lenses for Sony NEX and Fuji X sometime in late April / early May.

My plan is to test both on the 24-megapixel Sony NEX-7 for it higher resolution, or the NEX-9 or whatever newer and improved top-end NEX becomes available.

The lenses will also be offered for Fuji X mount. But at 16 megapixels and with sensor artifacts, the Fuji X platform is less attractive for testing lens performance, though ergonomically I prefer the Fuji X body style over NEX.

Both the 12mm f/2.8 and 32mm f/1.8 will be offered from Zeiss, but the existing 24mm f/1.8 remains a Sony product:

The 1.8/24 is sold directly by Sony and they will continue to manage the product.

The 12/2.8 and 32/1.8 are both autofocus and have won the IF Product Design Award.

12mm f/2.8

Equivalent to an ~18mm lens on a full frame camera, this is an ultra-wide angle design. My expectation is for it to outperform most full-frame designs by dint of being newly designed and optimized for the APS-C format and lack of need to design around a DSLR mirrorobx.

32mm f/1.8

Equivalent to an ~49mm lens on a full frame camera, this is a moderately fast normal lens. The ƒ/1.8 aperture and new design give some hope for a very high performance design.

Zeiss 12mm f/2.8 and Zeiss 32mm f/1.8 for Sony NEX and Fuji X    Zeiss 12mm f/2.8 and Zeiss 32mm f/1.8 for Sony NEX and Fuji X
Zeiss 12mm f/2.8 and Zeiss 32mm f/1.8 for Sony NEX and Fuji X

Printing on Canvas: Tulips #10

A client requested a large fine-art print of the ƒ/13 variant of “Tulips 10” from my Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar tulips shoot (signed and numbered gallery wrap prints are available).

The proof is gorgeous—I’m thrilled— canvas printed well and properly coated has a look that to my eye beats any conventional matted-and-glassed presentation. For this image, I used the glossy finish that Picture Element offers. (Be clear that uncoated canvas is not particularly attractive and that the kind of finish/coating is essential to the final result, so throw away your preconceptions if you’ve been disappointed with canvas in the past).

See my older Printing on Canvas article for details on the outstanding work done by Picture Element in Santa Clara, CA. I prefer my prints to be “gallery wrap”, ready for hanging.

The image below is a scan of a proof using my cheap Epson Workforce flatbed scanner. The scanner did a good job overall, but it picks up some reflections from the texture of the canvas (these are not seen by eye when viewing the print). The scan is slightly cropped since the scanner cannot accommodate 15 X 10.

Click for a larger version.

Scan (partial) of “Tulips 10” of canvas print using Epson Workforce scanner  Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135m f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/13
Scan (partial) of “Tulips 10” of canvas print using Epson Workforce scanner
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135m f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/13

Why an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is Not Optional, and Not Sufficient Either

Olympus VF-4 EVF
Olympus VF-4 EVF

With the trend to high quality compact cameras, there is a glaring flaw in many designs: the lack of a viewfinder, namely an electronic viewfinder variant (EVF).

There are optical viewfinders slotting into the hot shoe on some cameras, but they are costly for good optics, crude for composing, make it guesswork to place the AF sensor precisely, TOTALLY useless for manual focus, and are without parallax correction or diopter correction or any display of settings. An EVF is a vastly better solution and the discussion below continues with EVF as the goal.

The lack of an EVF degrades versatility significantly for image making.

DSLRs from Canon and Nikon ought o have optional EVFs in addition to the standard built-in optical viewfinder. The video signal is already there (on the rear LCD). It just has to be routed to an EVF, also.

Camera shake

A camera with only a rear LCD forces the camera to be held away from the body.

Held with arms extended, the success rate for sharp images plummets at 1/125 second and lower (varies depending on focal length). But mass-coupled to the body with a viewfinder, the odds rise by at least 2 to 4 shutter speeds.

See How to Hold a Camera Steady in Making Sharp Images.

With my Nikon D800 or similar DSLR, I can generally make a sharp image as low as 1/8 second with proper technique and several attempts. And I have a fairly high success rate at 1/30. By success, I mean for truly sharp images, not sort-of-sharp almost usable images.

With a camera like the Sony RX1 (without its optional EVF), I found that anything 1/100 or slower comes with poor odds— holding the camera out at arm’s length is a recipe for blur.

Presbyopia

A camera with a rear LCD (only) is literally a blur for some users.

An EVF with a diopter adjustment also mitigates having less than 20/20 vision.

As we age, our eyes lose their flexibility, pushing the close-focus distance out farther an farther:

  • A child can focus on its own nose or thereabouts and in very dim light too.
  • In my late 40's, I can focus no closer than about 30cm under dim lighting, somewhat better under bright lighting (depth of field from pupils). I have contact lenses for vision correction to 20/20, but this moves out my focus distance.
  • Someone in their 60's or 70's might be effectively at infinity for eye focusing, making it impossible to ever see the rear LCD clearly without reading glasses.

Correcting for near-sightedness move the focus distance out as is my situation. Glasses might be used for some, but this does not address glare or camera shake.

Glare

A rear LCD suffers from glare.

Even when immaculate there is glare. With a little finger grease, sunblock, sweat or similar on the rear LCD, the glare can become a real impediment.

Examples

A sampling—

  • The Fujifilm X cameras have built-in EVF. This is the way it ought to be done.
  • The Sony NEX-7 has a built-in EVF; most other NEX models and the Sony RX1 make it optional. Ditto for most Olympus models— optional VF-2 EVF.
  • The Sigma DP Merrill cameras have no viewfinder and no option for an EVF. An optical viewfinder is possible, but as discussed earlier, this has severe limitations.
  • The new Nikon Coolpix A has no option for an EVF, nor does the Canon EOS M.

An optional EVF “wart” is much better than no option, but the right solution is a built-in high resolution EVF, as with the Sony NEX-7 or Fuji X cameras.

Shown below are three cameras: built-in EVF, optional EVF, no option for an EVF.

Fujifilm X-E1 — built-in EVF
Fujifilm X-E1 — built-in EVF

The Sony RX1 offers an optional (and expensive) EVF that mounts into the hot-shoe. Fortunately, it also has a built-in flash.

Sony RX1 — optional EVF not shown
Sony RX1 — optional hot-shoe EVF not shown

Obviously Sigma would have to rethink the LCD screen size and placement to incorporate a built-in EVF into the DP Merrill (below), hence an optional one on the hot shoe area would be reasonable.

Sigma DP3 Merrill — no provision for an EVF (but optical option)
Sigma DP3 Merrill — no provision for an EVF (but optical option)

Matt G writes:

An LCD screen loupe is the best solution to cameras lacking an integrated EVF - as good or better quality than a bolt-on EVF and considerably cheaper to boot. The only problem is mounting. Screwing into the tripod mount or using rubber bands sacrifices pocketability. What you want is 4 small magnets in the corners of the LCD screen so you can have the loupe on a string round your neck and quickly detach quickly it when you want to pocket the camera. Sadly as no manufacturer offers this feature you have to resort to DIY, though Zeikos offer what looks like a fairly neat kit which includes a self adhesive magnetic mount.

I use a Hoodman loupe with an IR converter 450D for manual focusing and it works like a dream in strong sunlight compared to trying to use the rear LCD.

That's why I think a magnetic mount combined with a super-lightweight loupe would be ideal, then it's no extra bulk on the camera as it stays round your neck when not shooting (though it may not be appropriate for some activities, such as biking).

It is a last resort though for when no alternative exists (for camera or viewfinder) like with the DP1/2/3 Merrill. Otherwise a built in EVF is a must or I'll look elsewhere.

DIGLLOYD: Yes, a quality loupe is a terrific piece of gear. I prefer the 3X Zacuto for its pleasant magnification which is notably easier on my eyes than the Hoodman (and better quality optics too). But especially for smaller camera, a loupe effectively make the camera considerably larger, and is simply not viable for many situations, even if a mounting solution can be found. So I end up using it mainly post-shot for inspection (or for focusing) because of the mounting issue.

A small camera is no longer so small if one has to carry it and the loupe. With a DSLR this doesn’t seem so bad, but the Zacuto loupe I use is roughly as bulky as (for example) the Sigma DP Merrill camera.

On the subject of mounting solutions, I hang the Zacuto around my neck when photographing, and I hold it against the LCD for viewing an image and/or for Live View focusing on a tripod. But for handheld shooting, one really needs a mounting solution for each camera. Zacuto’s older style stick-on snap-on solution worked pretty well for that purpose, but they’ve moved primarily to video-oriented brackets which are bulky and do not play well or at all with a camera L bracket.

Sigma Photo Pro: Setting White Balance

The Sigma Photo Pro software is more complicated than one might think when it comes to setting white balance with Sigma Photo Pro using a neutral gray target.

Using a neutral gray to establish white balance
Using a neutral gray to establish white balance

56-megapixel Nikon D4x?

Apparently my previous blog entry was too circumspect and obtuse.

A little birdie suggests that we will see a 56-megapixel Nikon D4x this year. The term “D4x” is used loosely of course; it could have a different designation than D4x. And of course corporate strategic decisions can affect actual release dates.

Sigma DP2 Merrill: Tulips Examples

I thought I’d shoot these gorgeous tulips again before they expired. A different version of these same flowers was already presented using the Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar.

The Sigma DP2 Merrill delivers sharpness with these images that 20-24 megapixel DSLRs are hard pressed to match, courtesy of the true-color Foveon sensor. Hence my praise for the DP Merrill cameras in yesterday’s blog entry. No camera of similar megapixels can deliver the level of sharpness possible with the DP Merrill Foveon sensor, let alone do color-on-color detail as shown with these examples. Really, the results are stunning.

Presented in my review of the Sigma DP Merrill in Guide to Mirrorless are eight retina-grade images of orange tulips with the Sigma DP2 Merrill, along with the usual generously sized actual-pixels crops. Sorry, no mint julips.

B&H Photo has the Sigma DP1/DP2/DP3 Merrill available.

Sigma DP2 Merrill @ ƒ/10, 8 seconds, Sigma flash at -1.7 stops
Sigma DP2 Merrill @ ƒ/10, 8 seconds, Sigma flash at -1.7 stops

Color with the Sigma DP2 Merrill

A lot of color variation is possible here, but the Sigma DP2 Merrill seems to do quite a pleasing job on the color of these tulips.

I should have the Sigma DP3 Merrill with its 75mm equivalent lens with a few days.

B&H Photo has the Sigma DP1/DP2/DP3 Merrill available.

850 | 1700
Sigma DP2 Merrill @ ƒ/11
Sigma DP2 Merrill @ ƒ/11

Choosing another white balance (“Sunlight” above, “Auto” below) can produce a quite different color effect.

850 | 1700
Sigma DP2 Merrill @ ƒ/11
Sigma DP2 Merrill @ ƒ/11

Is there a New Trend in Compact Cameras? (fixed lens, large sensor, Nikon Coolpix A)

Nikon has announced the 16.2-megapixel Nikon Coolpix A, a compact camera with a fixed lens and APS-C sensor and what appears to be a fairly decent DSLR-like button layout (remains to be seen if it “works” or not). But apparently no provision for an EVF. Size looks to be attractive, apparently the main selling point: high quality and small size.

Is this a new trend? A large APS-C or full frame sensor with a fixed lens. The Sigma DP line, the Leica X2, the Fuji X100/100s, the Sony RX1 all iterate that idea. It’s a good idea, and I hope to see this genre expand in 2013. See Where Go We With Digital?.

The other emerging feature sub-trends are GPS and wireless support. These remain add-ons at present, but soon we might expect to see these two features go mainstream built-in.

At this point, Sigma has this genre nailed in terms of focal length coverage, with its 3-camera offering at 28mm, 45mm, 75mm (equiv), and when sharpness and price are both considered in the equation, there is as yet no competition with the DP Merrill line, though the alternatives have their own strengths which might have higher priority for some. I suspect that the Sony RX1 and Nikon Coolpix A are trial balloons from each of those companies.

B&H Photo has the about $1097 Nikon Coolpix A digital camera available for pre-order.

Nikon Coolpix A
Nikon Coolpix A

The Nikon COOLPIX A Digital Camera is a 16.2MP advanced point-and-shoot camera with a DX-format (APS-C) CMOS sensor, which is the sensor format utilized on many Nikon DSLR cameras. This handsome camera with a slightly retro style looks to be a real breakthrough for Nikon, with its compact form and large-camera sensor. A DX sensor provides superior image quality and is particularly effective in producing low-noise images. In addition to a DSLR-sized sensor, the COOLPIX A utilizes the EXPEED 2 Image Processor and a 28mm equivalent fixed focal length lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. The combination of this large sensor and fast lens in a compact body should impress many. And if that alone does not, its low-light performance and ability to focus fast and create images with sharp details and fine tonal gradation will.

Full HD 1080p video with built-in stereo sound is supported by the COOLPIX A, and with the included EG-CP16 cable you can connect your camera directly to an HDTV to immediately view your videos (and photos) with remarkable clarity. A 3.0” Ultra-High Resolution LCD with a 921k-dot pixel count provides clear image composition and playback, while its integrated panel structure and glass structure make for clear visibility even in bright sunlight. An electronic virtual horizon and grid display assists in keeping your images at straight angles and the optional WU-1a Wireless adapter allows you to connect the COOLPIX A to your smartphone or tablet for instant image sharing.

With 14-bit RAW file format, manual exposure control, 4 fps continuous shooting, a hot-shoe mount and Nikon’s Active D-lighting, as well as an aluminum-alloy body with a magnesium alloy top plate, the COOLPIX A reads more and more like a DSLR than a point-and-shoot, but its compact form factor and numerous assistive features leaves no doubt that despite its impressive spec list, this is Nikon’s next great compact camera. It is available in silver and black.

Image Sensor DX-Format CMOS (24 x 16mm)
Effective Pixels 16.2MP
Lens Prime NIKKOR Glass Lens
Focal Length 18.5mm
Focal Length (35mm Equivalent) 28mm
Maximum Aperture f/2.8
Image Stabilization Lens-shift VR (Vibration Reduction)
Focus Auto/Manual
ISO 100-6400
Continuous Shooting Up to 4 fps
LCD Type TFT LCD with anti-reflection coating
LCD Size 3" (7.6cm)
LCD Resolution 921k dots
14-bit RAW (NEF) Capability Yes
Video Capture Full HD 1920 x 1080p with stereo sound
Built-In Wi-Fi Optional (WU-1A Wireless Mobile Adapter required)
Eye-Fi Card Support Yes
Dimensions (WxHxD) Not specified by manufacturer
Weight Not specified by manufacturer

Four Cameras for the price of One? (Sigma DP Merrill X 3 vs Sony RX1)

You can buy the Sigma DP1 Merrill (28mm) and DP2 Merrill (45mm) and DP3 Merrill (75mm) for $2600, which is $200 less than the Sony RX1. Worth a thought for sure.

See my review of the Sigma DP Merrill cameras in Guide to Mirrorless. I expect to have the Sigma DP3 Merrill in for testing very soon. I already own the DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill. Almost certainly I’ll buy the DP3 Merrill. The sharpness is superb, which derives from the true-color Foveon sensor and first-rate lenses.

To continue the three-versus-one thought, the Sony RX1 really needs some extras for a complete system, so add in the fun and diminutive Sony RX100 to those three Sigma DP Merrill cameras and you can pretty much have four great cameras covering 28/45/75mm and the RX100 compact with its 28-100mm zoom for $3300, versus about $4000 for the RX1 system.

Just sayin'.

Which is not saying one has to buy 4 or 3 or even two cameras, though that is certainly an option if one feels compelled to spend all that money— but then it’s possible to head out with a nice choice (e.g., 1 or 2 at a time out of 3 or 4). That offers some value. And I personally like two DP Merrills very much. It yields range, redundancy and still is a great value. And I sure would like an EVF and better battery life, but batteries are cheap and $800 is not $2700. Yes, the EVF and longer battery life of the Sony RX1 are a plus that must be weighed against other factors. But that has not proved to be the issue for me in the field, on foot or on a bicycle.

Here’s the bottom line: the Sony RX1 is a very well done camera that nonetheless left me with no desire to buy one. It wasn’t the price, it was the experience. Oddly, while the Sigma DP Merrill is simple and limited in several ways, and the Sigma software is a headache for usability, and battery life is poor (but batteries are small and cheap), the Sigma images are ultra-clean and the camera feels like “back to basics”. And so my real recommendation is to not assume based on specs. The whole goal here (for my readers) is to disrupt assumptions. Readers might well decide that the Sony RX1 is the cat’s meow— the point is to not assume.

It’s all about value and problem-solving one’s own photographic goals. I did not buy the Sony RX1 as I don’t think it solves anything in particular for me, and the cost is too high for a fixed 35mm lens, but the bottom line is that it did not feel compelling to me. And I find the unique Sigma DP Merrill sensor sharpness never, ever disappoints. See Five Appealing Cameras. Be sure to read my reviews of all these cameras in Guide to Mirrorless to understand their differences, since I cannot provide more than a snapshot of my context in one blog entry.

Pricing comparing Sigma DP Merrill cameras to Sony RX1
Pricing comparing Sigma DP Merrill cameras to Sony RX1

Nikon and Canon Rebates

Nikon lens rebates have been extended: NIKON Lenses : Save Up to $350

  • Recommended zooms: 70-200/2.8G VR II, 24-70/2.8G,
  • Recommended fast primes: 24/1.4G, 28/1.8G, 85/1.4G or 85/1.8G.
  • Top pick for handy close range all-around fast-shooting lens: Nikon 60/2.8G ED.
  • Top pick for good 'n cheap: 50/1.8G, 85/1.8G.

NIKON Buy Together & Save Up to $750.

Savings on Nikon lenses and camera + lens bundles
Savings on Nikon lenses and camera + lens bundles

 

CANON Lenses & Speedlites: Save Up to $300 • CANON Buy Together & Save Up to $400

Savings on Canon lenses and camera + lens bundles
Savings on Canon lenses and camera + lens bundles

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar vs Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar

To my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss is added a comparison focused on primary and secondary longitudinal chromatic aberration of the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar vs the 100/2 Makro-Planar.

An aperture series with large crop is shown from ƒ/2 through ƒ/11.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4    Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar
Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar and Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar
(not to scale)

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar vs Nikon DC-Nikkor 135mm f/2D

To my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss is added an extensive comparison of the Zeiss 135/2 APO-Sonnar to the Nikon DC-Nikkor 135mm f/2D.

The test scene is not particularly appealing, but it is highly instructive.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/4

What Happens if the Sensor is not Exactly Plane Parallel to the Lens Mount?

Four lenses with skew, two camera bodies (Nikon D800E, D800 both previously adjusted).

To my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss is added an example of what happens when a camera system does not have everything perfectly aligned.

Such problems are particularly acute with high megapixel cameras plus high performance lenses and infinity focus. I’ve seen it with every brand now, and it’s super frustrating.

A comparison with the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC now follows. It shows the same issue, but this does not prevent unequivocal conclusions from being drawn about its performance relative to the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar.

According to Nikon, specifications and tolerances for the flange distance and similar are not made public. My suspicious is that tolerances are too loose for a 36-megapixel sensor. Based on MTF through-focus graphs I’ve seen, there is room for no more than 5 microns of variation from corner to corner at ƒ/2.8, a figure that might be unattainable by mechanical adjustment.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2.8
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2.8
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2

Michael M writes:

I have been paying much closer attention to your site as subscriber as I begin to re-engage with photography. After giving up my Hassy's, Leica's and Ebony 4x5 film systems I quickly became disinterested in the digital world given the huge optical shortcomings vs. emulsion-based systems. I concluded back in 2005 that digital was a real stinker and I was never going to get the Zeiss or Leica feel to an image. My stomach still churns when I see chromatic aberration, though I have learned to scrub out most of it.

Within the past year, things are getting good enough again and digital darkroom tools and related necessary MW's of processing power are now reasonably accessible that I have begun to re-engage, in particular with the micro 4/3 world. Your frequent, thorough and thoughtful analyses - full frame and otherwise - are terrific; they pay out pros and cons and always remind us the balancing act that makes a camera tool rather than a "be all, end all" device. Most recently, your article on the lens mount alignment tolerance issue impairing the resolution of the new 36mp and above sensors is timely. I suspect we are seeing the design process in the major makers fragmenting: different subsystems are all striving for "break out" advances that the marketing folks can spin without thought as to how these advances work or often do not work with other subsystems. Sadly, very very very few users and even fewer writers and critics have the technical chops to shine the light where it belongs. Thus, thank you for doing so! It will be fascinating to see if and how the "interchangeable" lens world comes to grip with the notion that you might very well need a more robust mount or fixed mount approach so great glass can help the new sensor refinements bring out the best image. DP2 looks very interesting form that perspective, but is still in clunky Version 1.x mode I think.

Anyway, enough prattle: thanks for the great great product you produce.

DIGLLOYD: My Nikon D800E is off to Nikon. Maybe it really is off (just a little) and maybe it will be rectified— I don’t know yet.

36 Megapixels: Flip That “3” to a “5”

Surely it is time for Nikon to flip that “3” to a “5” in a professional body (aka D4x). With un-mangled Live View and tighter tolerances one would hope.

It would make eminent sense: Canon does not appear to have any big megapixel body coming for eons (in internet time), and Nikon’s D800 rules the roost on image quality.

So what does a smart company do in such a position? Squeeze the vise tighter and eat its own young with better products. Make waves. Force the holdouts to sell the other brand lenses and go for lock-in. Well, that’s what I would do anyway.

Maybe a little birdie flew around looking for cherry blossoms and saw and heard things still only whispered in hushed tones over yonder Pacific. Readers situated appropriately nokin know for sure, but might keep eyes open.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/8
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/8


Tulips at ƒ/2Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar: Tulips at ƒ/2

To my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss is added my Tulips at ƒ/2 shoot, with thirteen retina-grade examples with actual pixels crops.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2


How Does ƒ/2 compare to ƒ4?Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar: How Does ƒ/2 compare to ƒ4?

To my review of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar in Guide to Zeiss is added a practical comparison of ƒ/2 vs ƒ/4.

Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2
Nikon D800E + Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar @ ƒ/2

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