Closing Out 2019 – The Year In Review

30 December 2019

Alas we have arrived at the last days of the decade. There’s lots of retrospection going on across the net with respect to technological developments in photography across the 2010-2019 decade (mostly waxing ecstatic about mirrorless technology), but I will keep my own retrospective firmly grounded in 2019 and will try not to be too gear-centric.

Speaking of gear (hey, I said I would try)... Reinforcing my cheapskate approach to the acquisition of photographic toys and my genuine desire to find true bargains, I do have to mention three gear success stories for the year. On top of my list would be the Samyang FE 45 mm AF lens. I’ve used it extensively on two APS-C bodies and an original A7 and I am blown away by the image quality even wide open. Great lens. Unexpectedly, I have to give a substantial nod of acceptance to the cheapest of the cheap 28-70s; the Sony 28-70 mm 3.5-5.6 OSS for FE. I got a used copy in mint condition for my birthday this year. It works much better than I could have ever believed as an all-rounder on the A7 (Gee, I guess that’s why it’s the chosen kit lens?), but where I have been most impressed is when using it in conjunction with the APS-C bodies where its 42-105 mm equivalent reach and genuine macro capabilities turn it into a whole different proposition and with very good image quality even when compared to much more expensive glass. With my econo-box a3000, it’s a terrific walk around combo for street and nature and the OSS simply rocks. Finally, I have spent some quality time with the LightPix Labs Q20ii compact wireless flash system. The Q20ii’s utility outdoors is still in debate, but the performance indoors – and tremendous flexibility – is quite impressive especially at the $80 price point! I will hopefully do some sort of write-up on the Q20ii in the year ahead.

Indian Gardens – via Samyang 45 mm @ f/8 on an A7

Moving on to the important part – the time spent out-and-about and actually being a photographer, it was very good year overall. One highlight was the great experience of taking a friend and colleague on a road trip across my home state this year. It’s genuinely rewarding to see someone who has never spent time in the desert appreciate the beauty of my home and I enjoyed the photographic opportunities that followed during our excursion. Closer to the place I currently call my residence, there were some good days of summer where people watching and street photography was rewarding. I also managed to visit a couple of the ancient monastic sites in Co. Galway and Co. Clare this year that I had not visited before. The highlight is probably the Ross Errilly Friary on the border of Galway and Mayo. This friary is one of the best preserved and the remaining details are quite interesting, indeed, even after being in ruin since 1760. Projects have been started (but not completed) and a lot of great social interaction with photographers and subjects has been part of this year as well.

Friendly Flyer – via Sony 28-70 mm OSS on an a3000

To close out the decade, Happy New Year. Let us hope that 2020 brings more peace and stability across this planet.

Instant - More than just a book about a camera company

17 October 2019

A few years back, I saw a write-up in a photography magazine for a book by Christopher Bonanos, who is city editor at New York magazine. That book was Instant: The Story of Polaroid. While it seemed mildly interesting at the time, I wasn't pushed to go out and get it. Last week, I bumped into a copy at my favorite bookstore here in Sunny Galway.

Bonanos did something quite remarkable with Instant; he analyzed about 100 years of relevant historical fact (from Edwin Land's birth in 1909 to the date of publication in 2012) and condensed it in a way that conveys a massive amount of information in a concise package. I picked up Instant only twice and managed to read the entire book cover to cover. The book was truly engrossing to me and the story is quite full of interesting details.

Perhaps one of the most interesting bits I gleaned from the book was the story about Land's very-late-to-the-table introduction of Polacolor in video form. Conceived in the 1940s, but not developed sufficiently to be called a product until 1976, the Polacolor motion picture format was an epic failure produced by a revolutionary company led by a truly visionary man that should have seen that it didn't have a chance. It was almost as though Edwin Land was still living in the 1940s in his own mind when he pushed his engineers to develop and release Polacolor. Land simply refused to see a future where videotape would soon dominate home recording. It was the beginning of the unraveling of Polaroid the company and, in many ways, also of Edwin Land.

There's a lot to learn from Polaroid's rise and ultimate demise. For one thing, it's easy to see how companies become trapped in time and why they fail because they cannot or are not willing to change with the times. We often mourn the loss of iconic companies (Kodak, Sears, and a bunch of others come to mind), but the reality is that, when they fail, many of them simply don't fit into a "modern" world anymore. Such companies are anachronisms in their ways of operation, the products they produce and their importance to a world which has simply moved on.

I feel Instant is a book that many people would enjoy - from photography enthusiasts, to history buffs, to entrepreneurs and beyond. It's well worth a read.

Everything they say is true: Samyang 45 mm f/1.8 for Sony FE

14 September 2019

I’m a slow adopter by nature. While the rest of the world was using their smartphones, I kept on using a Nokia 6300 until I couldn’t find replacement batteries for it anymore. I have been the same with cameras. Although one could say I moved into digital pretty early, I stuck with camera formulations largely built from film technology for a long time (DSLRs). The move to mirrorless is not yet complete, but I have to admit that I use the DSLR less and less as the experience with the MLCs is getting better and better.

I like small cameras and the Sony Alpha series is very attractive to me for that reason. Problem is, a significant amount of the best glass available for them is giant. I mean, who wants to hang a 50 mm f/1.4 the size of a whiskey cask on the front of such a small camera? I don’t, that’s for sure. Doing that is utterly silly, in my opinion.

So, lenses like the 24 and 35 mm f/2.8 primes released by Samyang have been very appealing, but the 45 mm f/1.8 really caught my eye because it promised to provide so much in one tiny package and at a more usable focal length (for me). Reports of this little lens' silent and fast autofocus, a bright (and fully usable) f/1.8 max aperture, great overall sharpness, and a great manual focus capability called to me like a siren. I was initially skeptical, but after seeing Dustin Abbott wax ecstatic about the Samyang 45 mm, I thought I might buy one. Just by chance, I found a “used” one (obviously a demo or a return – it was in mint condition) for considerably less than full retail and bought it without a second thought.

After about a month of use, I’m proud to say everything (positive) the others have said is pretty much true – this little lens rocks. It has terrific overall performance on a 24 MP FF sensor that leaves little to be desired most of the time. I have rarely been as happy with an impulse buy as I have been with this lens.

Outside of it being compact, what do I like about it? I think it has loads of character when used at f/1.8-2.8. It does have a slightly warm color cast and it does add the “Samyang look” to many images, particularly used wide open. But it’s incredibly neutral at f/5.6-8 and just delivers a great image from edge to edge in my opinion. The only drawback to this lens I have really discovered is its minimum focus distance. However, this lens does work great with my Sigma achromatic close up lens on it, so it's a workable compromise for semi-macro compositions. Here are a few examples from the Samyang 45 mm paired with an A7.

Losing too much resolution? – The Sigma 30 mm DN and Sony A7 (I, II or III) combination

18 August 2019

I bought an “original formula” Sony A7 specifically to use it with a variety of my older, manual-focus lenses. It’s been great for that particular purpose and, surprisingly, a rather beat up Minolta MD 50 mm has become my favorite lens on that camera.

However, there are times when I would just really like to have something physically smaller on the camera, without using an adapter, and also with autofocus. An obvious choice would be one of the tiny 35 mm lenses available from Sony or Samyang. But, I already own a copy of the excellent little E-mount Sigma 30 mm DN for APS-C cameras, so the thought of using that lens for this purpose can’t be avoided. The only problem is that such a combination is restricted to using the APS-C crop on the A7 which only provides a 10 MP image, effectively slicing off 14 MP of the A7’s sensor real estate. Is this too great of a sacrifice for the Sigma 30 DN to be considered a legitimately useful lens for the A7? I'm certainly not the first to write about this, but this is the first time I've personally had a reason to look at this situation.

Sure you could, but should you? The Sigma 30 mm DN Art lens on an A7

To help answer this question, I took a quick mental excursion back to 2007 – a time when a Canon EOS 40D had a 10 MP sensor and hardly anything else, except flagship cameras, had more resolution. Until I purchased a 12 MP Pentax K-x in 2009, I didn’t have a camera with more than 7 MP resolution, and 7 MP was certainly useful for many applications as long as cropping wasn’t necessary.

Below, I’ve taken a photo of a plant with the Sigma 30 mm DN on the A7.

Here is a 420x630 (0.26 MP) crop from the preceding image represented at full resolution. In my opinion, 10 MP still gives a lot of detail to work with. Of course, one isn’t going to be able to use the 10 MP image for big prints, but at 300 DPI, one would still easily make an 8"x12" print without any compromise.

For now, I'm going to spend a bit of time using the A7 with the 30 mm Sigma attached and see what happens. It could be a waste of time (and potential opportunities), but since it's guaranteed to be a less-frequent pairing than, say, the A7 with my full-frame manual-focus lenses, it might just be worth the sacrifice.

Looking at what's around me every day

22 July 2019

Galway's summer of 2019 continues to underwhelm (as it always does). It's nearly predictable year-upon-year that once people have time to enjoy the long days of the Irish summer that the sky will turn ugly and gray - if not liquid (as it is much too much of the time).

When it's like this, I find there's little point in spending time looking for strong images with bold contrast in tone and color because so much is lost in the gray light. Instead, I find myself having a closer look at the familiar to spy something I might have missed before. Suddenly, I'm looking more for subtlety than punch. Simply working to get out of the house without any photographic intentions helps keep me alert to the unexpected. Eventually, even the gray gives up something that is at least interesting in my viewfinder. Working at it every day is tough, but it's worth doing.

Working with Sam – Samyang 12 mm f/2.0 NCS

8 June 2019

I have attempted to do some astrophotography with some fairly slow wide angles like Sigma’s 12-24 mm EX and Pentax’s 10-17 mm fisheye. I got some images that were acceptable to show the night sky and the foreground with enough clarity to easily see what it was I was photographing, but the Milky Way was just a faint smudge.

Based on numerous reports of the Samyang 12 mm f/2.0 lens for APS-C being a strong night sky grabber, I purchased one. It is, indeed, a good lens for astrophotography and it’s f/2 maximum aperture is definitely a big part of that.

Small but potent - The Samyang 12 mm f/2 next to a 12-24 f/4.5-5.6 zoom.

However, I’m surprised by how much I actually use the Samyang for general photography. It’s great for indoor images as long as a bit of stretch isn’t going to impact the look. It’s not a macro lens, but it focuses so closely that one can get really interesting compositions on relatively small objects and still have them occupy a significant amount of the frame. I’ve even been guilty of using it for unconventional portraits in really low light. The lens is so bright and sharp wide open that I don’t often miss image stabilization in many low light situations.

To paraphrase Christopher Frost when he reviewed the Samyang 12 mm f/2.0; it just delivers and does so with loads of character. I find that the pleasing qualities of the images – especially wide open and with a little bit of vignetting and a touch distortion – are what really sets this little lens apart from some of the other ultra-wides I’ve used and this includes the Sigma 12-24 and 10-20 lenses that are probably “better” in quantitative terms. I just really like to use the Samyang 12 mm wide open or nearly so.

Here are a couple more examples of the Samyang 12 mm's output on a 20 MP Sony mirrorless body.

Especially considering what it costs, the Samyang 12 mm f/2 is a lens that leaves me with few reservations. If you're looking for a versatile wide angle for your APS-C mirrorless, I don't think this lens can be beat even next to some of the really expensive wide-angle glass, provided of course that you don't need autofocus capabilities. Highly recommended!

Ok, Just a Little Pin Prick - WPD 2019

7 May 2019

With great enthusiasm, I participated in this year's Worldwide Pinhole Day on April 28th. I decided to go digital with my WPD attempt(s) again this year because I didn't think I would be able to get a roll of film exposed, developed and scanned in time for the May 31st deadline.

As of today, there has only been one entry from Ireland (mine). It will be interesting to see if more images from people on the Emerald Isle are added in the next three weeks.

Overall, I'm happier this year with my entry than last year. This year's was pretty spontaneous; I picked up the camera, put the pinhole on it, set it for "see in the dark" ISO and proceeded to capture an image of a vase sitting about five feet from where I was standing. It took longer to upload the image than it did to do the rest!

(Above) Morning Still Life - Pentax K-5, COMA 0.25 mm pinhole, 12800 ISO, 1/5 sec.

I even managed to get out and take a few more pinhole pics on the 28th than I had planned. But, in the end, I liked the very first image I made with the pinhole on that day the best and that's the one that I uploaded to the WPD gallery.

In the year ahead, I doubt I will do much pinhole photography, but I am actually just a bit tempted to make one of those large-format paint can pinhole cameras just for the hell of it. We'll see.

(Below) Just Boats By a Pier - Same camera and pinhole, 1/8 second.

Time After Time - Returning to the Familiar

6 April 2019

The majority of us probably photograph some things repeatedly. For me, repeatedly photographing a variety of subjects close to home is both a habit and a learning experience which I believe holds significant value.

About ten minutes down the road from where I live, the village of Spiddal (An Spidéal) has an interesting walkway that hugs the edge of Galway Bay. The walkway runs between the main dock next to the village center and the old stone pier which protects the village from the ravages of the Atlantic.

Halfway between the dock and the pier is the end of the Boluisce River. The last 100 yards of the river has an impressive set of rapids which looks different at every time of the year and, sometimes, from day-to-day depending on the rainfall.

The Boluisce River where it meets Galway Bay. This is a 2s exposure made at dusk.

Over the past decade, I've walked across the little bridge spanning the Boluisce dozens of times. Every time it's just a bit different. At some times of the year, the water is nearly violent and full of tanins turning it brown like Guinness stout. When the rainfall is low and the weather calm, the water is white and the flow over the stones is smooth and consistent.

In the past two months (and well beyond), I've taken a few photographs of the river's end. They are all different. Some were taken at mid-day with the camera hand-held (thus at fairly high shutter speed) and others on the tripod at dusk or dawn with a long exposure time to maximize the softness of the water's surface.

Boluisce River, hand-held image made in the middle of an ugly winter day

When I look at the images I've captured on each separate occasion, a variety of thoughts run through my head. First, the plant life around the water catches my eye. Are the leaves on the trees? If so, are they green or turning brown after the first frosts of autumn? The water - is it brown and angry or soft and soothing?  Is there any pollution visible?  What is my angle of view? Do I like the composition? What could I have done differently? Would I have done anything differently?

Boluisce River, hand-held image made on a summer evening after a rainstorm

Every time I reconsider the subject I gain new insights into the subject itself and my handing of the subject as a photographer. In the end, I'm always driven to try it again and perhaps in new ways whenever I get the chance.

Boluisce River, one more time - long exposure well after sundown

I doubt this is the last image I'll capture of the end of the Boluisce River. But, that's ok - I'm certain I will learn something more from the next set of images as well.

The value of simplicity in travel photography

8 March 2019

Richard Johnston’s December 2018 PetaPixel piece about travel photography and gear was a bit jarring to me. It wasn’t so much because I disagreed with him in a general sense (on a few points, I didn't), but because I believe he sent the wrong message to people who may be new to travel and/or new to travel photography. I would still encourage you to have a look at the article because there is some useful info in there, but Johnston’s strongest message seemed to be that one must travel with a metric ton of equipment to be a “good photographer”. I think that’s unfortunate because it’s misleading and will ultimately create headaches for people who want their travels to return both great experiences and great photos. I’m not talking about people traveling as professional photographers because that’s a different animal. Rather, I’m referring to people who are traveling for exploration and enjoyment who are also photographers.

Many readers offered up valid criticisms of the article’s shortcomings immediately after Johnston’s piece was posted. To me, above all, the article fails to even begin to acknowledge the value of simplicity in travel and travel photography. It’s as though Johnston couldn’t see how one could travel with less and still be a photographer. Surprisingly few comments pointed out that Johnston’s approach was just too complicated and cumbersome for many people.

The image Johnston included of his collection of travel-associated photographic gear made my back hurt (Fig 1). I found myself thinking about just how much weight and bulk was presented in that image and started systematically checking off what I was looking at.

Fig. 1. The backache (aka, Richard Johnston’s travel kit). Complete with paper manuals!

My analysis of Johnston’s kit produced a strong polarization of go/no-go items. Some are absolutes (drone, I'm talking about you) and some are sort of stand-by (like the full-size tripod). Items marked "No" with an asterisk are “special needs only” items, in my opinion; they are situational and would be left off of my travel list 90% of the time (Fig 1).

First off, I don’t currently do any drone photography/videography, so I cannot (should not) try to wade too far in on that subject. However, I can honestly say that if my purpose was travel for my own enjoyment and not to make a set of drone videos under contract, I am pretty sure I would not take a full-size drone on most trips. I might take a small drone, like a Parrot, but nothing bigger. Of course, if my travels were 100% by car and I didn’t have to carry the drone too far from said car, a big drone would be fine. It just depends on the situation.

Moving on from drones, I will speak to photography and videography of other sorts. There is still a lot to consider here.

Quality is not necessarily sacrificed by simplicity. I’ve now said it and I want to emphasize this first and foremost. A decade (or more, now) ago, that might not have been true with much of the digital equipment available. However, today, there are ample choices of compact photography tools that can deliver incredible results. In my travel lineup, I’m typically going APS-C, but on several occasions I have slimmed down to just a single high-end compact and my phone and have not regretted the decision (there are exceptions – please read on). If one needs the light gathering ability of the 135 format sensor (or something even bigger), by all means go for it, but for many travelers, APS-C, m4/3 and even 1” sensor-based cameras will be more than adequate. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’m going down the middle here. Yes, there is a tradeoff between versatility and quality in a limited selection of tools one takes on the road, but it may not be as severe as some would like you to believe.

So what does my typical travel photography gear lineup look like? I have to say that it is extremely variable depending upon where I’m traveling to, what things I want to capture and how I will be transported to the location and around the location once I get there. And, of course, it also depends on what I’m going to do with the photos later on.

Here are three versions of my travel photography packing list:

APS-C DSLR with:

18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom,  35 mm f/2.4 prime,  24 mm f/2.8 prime,  1x spare camera battery, Small manual strobe (mostly for fill), Optical slave trigger, Memory cards (4x), Mini-tripod Magnesium alloy tripod with ball head, Circular polarizer, ND Grads (3x), Filter holder, Compact camera, 13” Notebook PC, Charger(s), Cords and cables, Rocket blower.

Total weight: ~20 lbs

APS-C MILC with:

18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS “kit” lens, 10-17 mm f/3.5-4.5 fisheye zoom, 70-210 mm f/4-5.8 zoom, PKA-E-mount adapter, MD-E-mount adapter, Circular polarizer, Achromatic close-up lens, 2x spare batteries, Mini-tripod, Memory cards (4x), Mobile phone, 13” Notebook PC, Li Ion USB charger pack, Cables, Charger(s).

Total weight: ~ 12 lbs

Compact Camera with:

Li Ion USB charger pack, Mini-tripod, Chargers (one with USB output to phone, Li ion pack or camera), Memory cards (2x), Mobile phone, 13” Notebook PC.

Total Weight: ~ 6 lbs

Fig. 2. Three versions of my travel photography kit. Leaner. Lighter. Happier.

Here are some examples of my own real-world travel-with-photography experiences.

A week on the road in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota found me in cities very little and on hiking trails very little; I was pretty much in or near the car for most it. For that trip, I packed just about the most I ever travel with when I fly to a destination (Fig 2, left panel). This level of equipment carry (yes, sans drone) is second only to a trip without the need for flight. What I mean is, if I were doing the same trip without getting on an airplane, the 18-300 would be replaced with three zooms covering the 10 mm to 300 mm range, three primes, a dedicated macro lens, two strobes, etc. Hell, I might even be tempted to take a drone (if I had one).

Recently, I spent a week in the mountains of Andalusia. That trip was a mix of urban, architecture and extensive backcountry hiking with a desire to photograph landscapes and some macro subjects. I needed to fit everything into a 20 liter day pack (with other items, like clothing, food and water). All of the photography items I used on this trip to Spain are in Fig 2, middle panel, and I can honestly say the collection was exactly what I needed for the trip.

Alternatively, for a recent work-related trip to Helsinki, I had limited space and no easy way to secure my camera while working. For that trip, I had to go ultra-light and only carried my compact camera and my phone with a few accessory items (Fig 2, right panel). Yes, it was a stretch to only have the compact and the phone. If I had wanted to do very much low light photography, the choice of a compact would not have been so good and it was the space where I really felt the biggest challenge when I was using the compact. But the truth is, I didn’t have too many regrets as long as I remembered to work within the confines of the instruments I had with me. I am happy with the majority of the images (Fig. 3). I have no regrets about the decision to travel so light.

Fig. 3. A bit of Helsinki captured by Lumix LF1.

My point to all of this is simply that, while it is true that the needs of each photographer may be different, all but the most specific photography often requires much less gear than what Johnston and a lot of others suggest. Sometimes, it will require more, in fact. But, there are few things more miserable than letting your gear dictate your travel options and comfort.

I strongly urge you to really weigh out your choices before and after you travel. And, when you get home, have a look at all of the gear you brought and ask yourself it was worth the effort to take each and every piece. If the answer is “no” for any item of gear, then consider removing it from the lineup. The same goes with the items you didn’t take and actually wished you had brought. Think about including them next time or working on alternative strategies which may give similar results (e.g. a table top tripod vs a full-size tripod).

Make a list of useful items and keep it on standby for easy packing.

Thank you for reading and Happy Travels!

In Focus Returns!  -and-  Another encounter with a strange beast

1 March 2019

Finally, I have resolved to simply create a new page for 2019 entries and archive the previous pages individually. We'll see how this works. Thank you to all of those who've checked in regularly to see if In-Focus would continue or fade into the distance.

On to the new stuff!

If one has a casual look on Ebay, one will find hundreds of examples of 35mm f/1.7 CCTV lenses for sale. The majority of these have been manufactured in China and carry names like Fujian, Fotasy, or SainSonic. There are countless examples of images and videos reviewing the use of these lenses online. While I have seen some interesting images produced using lenses of this sort, I have never been moved to buy anything of the “CCTV” persuasion simply because I thought it was kind of silly.

Shortly before Christmas I found a Fujinon (not to be confused with Fujian) HF35A-2M1, 35mm, f/1.7 CCTV lens for sale locally for just €10. Made in Japan and without so much as a scratch anywhere on it, how could I possibly refuse?

The Fujinon HF35A-2M1, f/1.7 CCTV lens in situ on a NEX-6

I had no idea if the lens I bought could 1) reach infinity focus on a mirrorless camera (i.e., was it C-mount or CS-mount?), 2) cover an APS-C image sensor, and 3) return anything worthy of the 10 quid I just dropped on it. Worse yet, I still had to buy a C-mount to E-mount adapter which ended up setting me back another 10 quid.

Cutting to the chase; 1) yes, the lens will focus to infinity on an E-mount camera provided one uses an adapter which allows the chubby lens body to actually enter the throat of the lens mount, 2) no, it will not completely cover the image sensor (worse at some focus distances and f-stops than others) and it does create massive vignetting and significant out-of-focus areas at the edge of the image, and 3) yes, it is absolutely worth the €20 investment I made!

The fit and finish of the Fujinon HF35A is very good. Even if I didn’t know it was specifically made for a CCTV application, I would still find this lens’ silky focus action and precise aperture control feel about as appealing as many of the manual focus consumer SLR and rangefinder primes I’ve used. This little lens, which has C-mount flange-to-sensor spacing, has a general look and feel of quality.

I can sum up my initial feelings like this: I got a quirky, sometimes sharp, and undeniably “motivational” performer for my cash outlay. So far, I cannot possibly deny that I enjoy using the Fujinon 35mm f/1.7 lens, but I cannot, of course, recommend it for more than truly experimental photography since it is so quirky.

Here are some examples of what this little beast can do.

Fujinon 35 mm f/1.7 @ ~f/5.6 on a NEX-6

Curiously, the degree of sensor cover varies by the focus distance set. This is due to the rear element's position shift. The degree of blur at the edges of the frame can be either distracting or enhancing to the subject. Your mileage may vary.

The central detail of this lens can be incredibly sharp, but the focus plane is decidedly spherical which creates some interesting and sometimes frustrating challenges at large aperture settings. At f1.7-f/2.8, the image has a very strong vignette on top of the masked-corners caused by the incomplete sensor coverage.

Below,  examples of up-close-and-personal with the Fujinon CCTV lens on the NEX-6. Clockwise from top, @ f/2.8, @ f/4, and at f/1.7

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