Joseph Eckert Photography: Blog en-us (C) Joseph Eckert Photography (Joseph Eckert Photography) Fri, 24 Jun 2016 20:49:00 GMT Fri, 24 Jun 2016 20:49:00 GMT Joseph Eckert Photography: Blog 120 80 Sony RX10 Mk III Review

I tend not to get too excited about small sensor cameras anymore. They certainly have their own advantages over large sensor (APS-C, full frame, medium format) cameras – size, weight, cost. And lens design flexibility. Lens creators can fashion glass with 35mm equivalent focal lengths for small sensors that would be extraordinarily heavy and unwieldy if they tried to cover the full frame sensor size, but can be kept small and compact when they only need to cover a much smaller sensor.

It’s the lens that makes the RX10 Mk III something to get excited about. A 24mm to 600mm (full frame equivalent) focal length zoom, it covers wide to extreme telephoto and yet collapses to a size small enough to squeeze into the same shoulder bag I use to carry around my Sony RX1R – with a built in viewfinder to boot. It even has image stabilization built in.

It is not the first ultra-zoom compact camera ever made, and not even the first to reach 600mm, but it may be the first to do so with such (comparatively) excellent image quality. Judged against its small sensor peers, this is an expensive yet highly capable “bridge” camera that can serve as a fun backup camera for extra reach or even as the main travel camera for those who favor flexibility over the ability to make huge prints or take low light shots.


  • That 24 to 600mm lens
  • Collapses when off to quite compact size
  • Built in viewfinder
  • Effective image stabilization
  • Strong image quality at ISO 100
  • Great video quality


  • Relatively expensive
  • Image quality nose-dives above ISO 100
  • Corners never fully sharpen up at 24mm
  • 600mm is somewhat soft and hazy compared with the rest of the zoom range
  • Very plastic build quality – not premium in feel
  • Takes a few seconds to turn on and a few seconds to turn off (lens has to extend and retract)
  • Face detect autofocus either failed to detect faces or detected faces in leaves/grass/rocks at times
  • The usual Sony Menu Complaints (no clear organization)
  • Images tended toward a blue cast very often
  • Camera tended to overexpose
  • Viewfinder is just okay

I have a lot of “cons” in the list up there, and I think it is important that anyone who is thinking about purchasing this camera know about them. For many people, all – or almost all – of those cons will be inconsequential. For example, for an amateur who wants a travel camera that is relatively compact in size but allows for a huge zoom range, and who is only really taking photos for memories and for posting online, this is essentially the perfect camera (if the price is right for that person).

But the deficiencies inherent in the small sensor have to be addressed. Specifically, image quality suffers greatly after you start going above ISO 100. By 3200 it’s a smeared mess, but even by 400 you can definitely notice a large dip in the per-pixel quality and ability to make out the fine details in the photograph. I would not be comfortable selling prints from this camera above about 8in x 12in for ISO 100, and would not sell anything above that ISO, period. I just don’t think my customers would be happy with the quality.

You could argue that for black and white shots high ISO adds character, but here the problem is not just fine grain like, say, the D800E would add. Instead there is a loss of detail and smearing, probably as a result of aggressive noise reduction that is baked into the RAW file even though I set noise reduction to the lowest setting in the menu when I got the camera (note: I rented this camera and shot about 1,000 images).

It isn’t fair to compare this camera to cameras with significantly larger sensors. That’s obvious. But I do think readers should know what they are getting into. The lens is great, but don’t expect magic – the sensor is still 20 megapixels packed into a tiny little space, and as a result ISOs above 100 just start to fall apart.

So for professionals who make money off prints, I would recommend staying away or only use as a backup/fun camera.

The other drawbacks are pretty minor and things I could live with. It feels very much like a piece of consumer plastic, rather than prosumer (RX1R) or pro (Leica Q feel, for example). It takes its sweet time to start up and power off, because the lens has to retract out of the body and back in again. Zooming is slow unless you set the zoom speed to the highest in the menus (do this), and then it is acceptable. Face recognition sometimes found my toddler’s face, or my wife’s face, but often as not didn’t, or instead bracketed a section of grass or rock that apparently resembled a face to the algorithm employed. Battery life is mediocre. The viewfinder is fine.

And, really, 600mm is a heck of a lot of fun. It’s addictive to have this zoom range available. You can take snaps that would simply not be possible with any other camera, and make compositions that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Sure you could “zoom with your feet” with a 200mm lens on a full frame DSLR…except when you can’t (or if you did your feet would end up in the ocean or off the edge of cliff).

It’s fun. It’s a tad expensive. It’s a little slow. It’s carry-everywhere compact (with a little shoulder bag – this is *not* pocketable like the RX100 series).

It’s…pretty cool. Just don’t expect magic.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 24-600 24-600mm 24mm-600mm 600mm examples III Mk RX10 Sony Sony RX10 3 review Sony RX10 III review Sony RX10 Mark III review Sony RX10 Mk III examples Sony RX10 mark 3 review Sony RX10 mk 3 review Sony RX10 mk III review Zeiss bridge camera compact examples lens photo photography review Fri, 24 Jun 2016 20:49:38 GMT
Leica Q (Type 116) Review

I want to be upfront on this review: this is going to be rather negative, much more so than many of the quite positive reviews for this camera I found around the web before I purchased it. And, indeed, the Q (Type 116) has a great many admirable qualities, many of which make it a fine camera for some shooters. So as a way to set expectations: if you are reading this and you already own the camera and love it, don't be bummed or bothered. Maybe even skip the rest of the review and just go back to loving your Q and making great photographs. This is a review meant for all those prospective buyers thinking about dropping over $4k on a fixed lens camera: for me this was a disappointing miss, all the more disappointing for how close it came to hitting a home run.

I have high expectations for anything with the red Leica dot on it, and high expectations for any camera that costs as much as this one. As a long time user of the Sony RX1R, I also expected the Q to best that nearly three-year-old (at the time of my writing this) camera in every way. 
Spoiler alert: it doesn't.
  • Gorgeously, bitingly sharp 28mm f/1.7 lens even at f/ the center 2/3rds of the frame
  • Great feel and haptics
  • Solid, clockwork-precise build quality
  • Fast autofocus in single point mode
  • Responsive, snappy feel
  • Built in Optical Image Stabilization (~2 to 3 stops I would estimate)
  • Accurate metering
  • Near silent operation
  • Sensible menus
  • Auto ISO settings that make sense and work
  • Great battery life for a mirrorless full frame camera (trounces the Sony RX1/R and RX1R mk2)
  • Up to 10 frames per second in continuous shooting mode
  • Two year warranty
  • Makes you want to pick it up and take photos (!)
  • Busy, distracting "onion-ring" bokeh
  • Too-large AF points result in missed focus all too often
  • Expensive
  • "Baked-in" distortion correction even in RAW files
  • Very heavy barrel distortion when manufacturer profile (software distortion correction) is removed
  • Edges and corners not critically sharp until f/5.6 or so
  • Not weather sealed
  • Optical Image Stabilization is disabled by default (firmware 1.1)
  • Limited dynamic range (handily beaten by the three year old Sony RX1R sensor and the four year old Nikon D800E [also Sony] sensor, much less the newer A7RII sensor)
  • No fast (one-button) way to manually switch between the EVF and LCD
  • EVF is just "okay" with fuzzy edges
  • Power switch too easily slips from off to "c" (continuous), bypassing "s" (single shot and by far more commonly used)
The Leica Q, on paper, is almost everything I was looking for in a replacement for the RX1R: a compact full frame mirrorless camera with quiet, quick operation, shutter speeds up to 1/32000 a second with the electronic shutter, a Leica 28mm f/1.7 lens with optical image stabilization, 24 megapixels, famed Leica build quality, built in EVF, etc, etc. I'm not into cameras as collector's objects or status symbols, so had I kept my Q (spoiler: I did not) I would have purchased the hand grip and blacked out the red dot with gaffers tape. What I want, instead, is a take-anywhere, highly functional tool that allows me to take the photos I want to take - regardless of brand.
First impressions are uniformly positive. The external gray box gives way to a lovely black box with magnetic clasps that smoothly open to reveal the series of smaller boxes within, which contain the camera, lens hood, manual, cables, and Leica leather shoulder strap. It all feels like it should for the price you pay for this little camera - high end. When you take the Q itself out of the foam padding it feels solid and well constructed. The buttons and dials have great feedback and when you put in the battery and turn it on everything is crisp and responsive. The one ding that you can feel right away is the power switch, located around the shutter: it takes effort to move it (which is fine) but when you do it is far too easy to flick it to "c" (the continuous, rapid-fire shooting mode) than to keep it in "s" (the much more commonly used single shot mode). A better design - allowing for easy hands-free operation - would be to have "s" be the furthest detent from "off," so you could just click the switch as far as it can go and know you are in single shot mode.
The battery is decently large in size and definitely lasts much longer than the RX1R. From what I've read the RX1R mk2 has even worse battery life (measured in minutes rather than hours), and is a major drawback of the Sony cameras right now - so that's a big win for the Q. The Q does not allow you to charge the battery over USB the way the Sony cameras do, but for me that isn't an important feature (I could see how it could be useful in travel circumstances if you hook up the camera to a car charger, though).
The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) was a little bit of a disappointment, at least for me. It's fine - the colors are fine, the refresh rate is fine, the viewing size is...fine, albeit with oddly fuzzy edges. Don't expect to be blown away. It is not a Fuji X-T1, though for the price (again) your expectation would be that it meets or beats the best out there. A drawback for me was there is no way (firmware 1.1) to have a one-button switch between the EVF and rear LCD screen. It's either always one or the other OR you rely on the eye sensor to switch back and forth as you raise and lower the camera to your eye. Maybe that works for you, but it bugs me - there's always a slight delay in the switch, and it can be too sensitive or not sensitive enough, etc. The RX1R relies on an EVF attached to the hotshoe - not optimal - but at least it has a nice little button on the side that lets me manually switch between the EVF (for shooting) and LCD (for chimping). Apparently the RX1R mk2 lacks this handy feature as well (unfortunate). For those interested, the rear LCD is not articulating at all, although it is touch sensitive and you can use touch to set the AF point - useful during tripod shooting, for example.
I had very high expectations regarding image quality, particularly around the lens. Leica is a fabled optical designer, making some of the finest lenses in the world, and indeed in my own personal experience the Panasonic-Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 for micro four thirds is a simply fantastic lens with basically no drawbacks (except being limited by the 4/3rds sensor size, of course). I was a little more concerned about the AA-free 24 megapixel sensor - could it stand up to the Sony behemoths?
As it turns out, the lens is much more of a mixed bag than I was expecting, and the sensor cannot stand up to the dynamic range of even my D800E (which uses a Sony sensor that is now four years old and has 12 more megapixels to contend with). Other reviewers have estimated ~13 stops of dynamic range from this sensor. That seems optimistic to me, but I don't have a means of objectively measuring it, so I will only say that it clearly does not have the capacity to claw back information from shadows or highlights the way those Sony sensors can. In processing it reminded me more of the RAW files from my old Canon 7D, requiring careful thought not to get banding or too much artifact noise and to avoid a "crunchy" feel to the results.
With regard to the optics of the lens: in the center it is wonderful. Bitingly sharp, high microcontrast, and capable of that 3D-pop you expect from those German Lens Masters, Leica and Zeiss. There are some crucial areas where it disappoints, however.
The largest disappointment for me was the rough, busy, "onion-ring" bokeh. This is most likely a product of the three aspherical lens elements used in the construction of the lens (which keeps the size and weight down while enhancing sharpness, but with the common drawback of, yes, hard-edged out of focus elements or "onion-ring" bokeh). I saw this immediately and found it highly distracting, despite not being much of a bokeh addict. I've included a few examples below, all of which are crops from JPEGs generated by the camera (rather than RAWs that I've processed, so I can remove my processing as a factor that might have caused the harshness, even though I don't see my processing affect the bokeh quality on images from the Sony RX1R or from my D800E with my Zeiss ZF.2 lenses):
Note these were shot at f/1.7. An argument could be made that you shouldn't or wouldn't shoot at f/1.7 in broad daylight as I have here...but I think that argument is rendered false by the fact that Leica includes (and advertises) the 1/32,000 second electronic shutter as a way of doing exactly that. Additionally, I've heard/read that disabling the optical image stablization might improve image quality all around...but OIS was one of the reasons I was willing to plunk down this much money on the camera, so I'm not about to turn it off.
Interestingly, the Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 lens in the Sony RX1R does not have this level of onion-ring or busy bokeh to it, even though it too has 3 aspherical elements. In comparison to the Q, the RX1R's bokeh is smooth and pleasantly non-distracting. Perhaps this is a result of the longer focal length (35mm vs 28mm) or slower max aperture (f/2 vs f/1.7). If the latter is the case, and if Leica could have smoothed the bokeh with a max aperture of f/2 I would have gladly made that tradeoff, even if then they couldn't make the stretch of calling the lens a "Summilux" (traditionally a f/1.4 lens).
Less concerning to me than the onion-ring bokeh but still a bit disconcerting in a camera in this price range is the huge barrel distortion this lens displays. This needs some careful explanation, so bear with me. Out of the camera - even RAW - the distortion present is negligible. But with Capture One Pro 9.1 you can immediately see something interesting about the DNG (RAW) files: they are cropped via the manufacturer profile. When you remove that crop you actually gain maybe two more megapixels of data, albeit with some heavy vignetting in the corners and even more reduced resolution on the extreme edges. If you then pull back the manufacturer's distortion correction (that is "baked-in" to the RAW file) you can see the surprising barrel distortion that is present optically with this lens design.
Here's a series that shows what I mean:
Above is with the manufacturer profile and crop
Above has the manufacturer profile in place but the crop removed
Finally, the manufacturer profile and the crop removed to show the real "straight out of the camera" image
As I noted above, the edge and corner performance never reaches the sterling heights of the center 2/3rds of the frame with this camera, and doesn't reach critical sharpness until f/5.6 or so. I believe this is a direct result of the optical distortion and subsequent software-based distortion correction being employed. Basically the Leica designers have taken a lens that is really 25mm or 26mm with heavy barrel distortion, mated it to a sensor that is really a 26 or 28 megapixels, then used profiling and algorithms to correct the distortion and crop the image to a 28mm focal length, 24 megapixel size. It's an interesting solution (and makes me wonder how many other companies do this and don't have a profile that Capture One Pro can turn off). But the cost is smearing of the edges and corners and a loss of per-pixel resolution. Any software-based distortion correction has this cost, and the greater the distortion, the greater the loss of resolution in the outer parts of the image.
All that said, I could actually have lived with all this. So it's corrected with software - so what? It's still gloriously sharp in the center at f/1.7 and critically sharp in the edges by f/5.6. That's what matters, ultimately. The bokeh business bothered me much more. As did...
Autofocus inconsistency.
AF is fast with this camera - as fast as any contrast-detect-only system I've used, including the Olympus EM-1. And it was fast even in quite low light. This is a heck of an accomplishment by Leica, and in this way - speed - it destroys the Sony RX1R. The problem? The 49 AF points, spread throughout the frame, are less "points" and more "large rectangles" that you cannot make smaller (at least there was no way I could find in firmware 1.1 or in manuals or only, and I looked hard as this was make-or-break for me). They are so large that the camera would all too often miss focus - focusing on the fence behind my toddler instead of her eyes, for example, or on the wrong part of a tree limb, etc, etc. At f/1.7, even at 28mm, you can and will see these misses. It was frustrating, to say the least. You can instead opt to use face detect AF, but I didn't find it as quick as I wanted (toddler-quick). Manual focus is an option as well, and it works with the Q perfectly fine, but I bought the Q to use with AF (I get enough manual focusing with my D800E and Zeiss ZF.2 lenses).
Much cheaper mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X-Pro 2 (with much smaller APS-C sensor size) have many more available sensor points and allow you to increase or decrease the AF rectangle size. I wish the Q could have done this, and even had on-sensor phase-detect sensor like the X-Pro 2 and the Sony RX1R mk2 and A7R mk2 do. At least, unlike the Sony cameras, the Q by default lets you quickly adjust the AF point location with the four-way controller on the back (Sony: make this happen, please, it's a huge usability drawback on your cameras; at least Fuji corrected this with the X-Pro 2).
I haven't spoken about color or white balance much because I shoot RAW exclusively and its so easy to adjust both in post that it's almost a non-concern, as long as the camera is reasonably accurate and consistent. I would like to see Leica allow you to shoot RAW (DNG files) only - right now, firmware 1.1, you can either shoot JPEG only or JPEG+RAW, but not RAW only. As much as I'm not a fan of using up SD card space with camera JPEGs, it did allow me to validate that the bokeh issues I was seeing occurred straight out of the camera as well as when I did my usual RAW processing workflow.
I would also really like to see cameras in this price range and with this conceptual purpose - a carry everywhere travel camera capable of DSLR, professional level images - be fully weather sealed. Sony has failed here with the RX1, RX1R, and the RX1R mk2, none of which are weather sealed either. I carry my RX1R everywhere I go (unless I've got my DSLR on me), and I would be that much more confident in it's survival if it was weather sealed, though in three years (and multiple trips around the US and around the world) I haven't had any issues with dust or moisture getting into my RX1R.
As I've thought about the Q during and after my time using it, I concluded that it was not the camera for me due to the AF and image quality limitations. It's a beautiful camera in design and operation, and feels wonderful to shoot with - it's a camera that begs you to take it out and make photographs, and that's a powerful thing and huge "pro" to me. It is almost the inverse of the RX1R in this way: I am never engaged by the haptics and operation of the RX1R, but I'm almost always very happy - and sometimes thrilled - by the images that result when I get them back on my computer. In contrast, the Q was always fantastic to hold and operate, snappy and responsive and fun, but then I'd get back to the computer and be very let down by an autofocus miss or ugly bokeh or blown highlights/too black shadows that could not be recovered.
I returned my Q. It's so expensive that, for me, it had to last me years, at least as long or longer than the RX1R has lasted, and given it's limitations I could not see it satisfying me even for the next few months. You might feel differently, and I can not only understand that but even agree with you, if (for example) the process of shooting is more important to you than printing 36x24in prints or having flawless bokeh. And, of course, one person's ugly bokeh is another person's beautiful highlights...
Which is all to say: the Q is not a bad camera, but it is not, for me, the unequivocal home run it needed to be for it's price point.
As a bit of indulgence, here's what I wish for from a full frame compact fixed lens camera right now, April 2016 - all of which is entirely technically feasible at this time, since it's basically a cross of the Leica Q and the Sony RX1R mk2:
  • 36 megapixel (or higher) full frame sensor with 14+ stops of dynamic range
  • Optically perfect 28mm f/2 (if f/2 allows for less optical distortion than the Q's f/1.7)
  • 300 or more AF points with user-changeable AF rectangles in spot select mode
  • Phase detect AF on the sensor
  • Four-way controller on back that by default controls AF spot selection
  • Optical image stabilization built in
  • One-button push to switch between EVF and rear LCD
  • Fully weather sealed
  • Lossless RAW compression available (without having to also shoot JPEG)
  • Snappy and responsive processor
  • Dual SD card slots (if enough space)
  • Large battery for 600+ shot life
  • Chunky, comfortable grip built-in without having to buy an overpriced accessory
  • Only as expensive as the Sony RX1R mk2 or, better yet, cheaper (under $3k?)
Pentax/Ricoh, Olympus, Fuji, Nikon, Canon...any of these manufacturers could accomplish this. I think Pentax/Ricoh or Olympus, with Sony imaging sensors, have the best chance of hitting all the bullets on my wishlist, but I won't count the others out either. Manufacturers: there is a market here. Professional photographers would love to have a travel, carry-everywhere, backup camera with DSLR quality and full weather sealing, as would general photography enthusiasts and avid amateurs. Make it happen!
]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 116 28mm Leica Leica Q (Type 116) Leica Q Type 116 Leica Q Type 116 review Leica Q examples Leica Q pros and cons Leica Q review Q RX1-R RX1R Type aspherical bokeh evaluation examples f/1.7 lens onion-ring pros and cons prospective buyers review Fri, 08 Apr 2016 02:28:29 GMT
Capture One Pro 9 Review Winter Sunset Over the CascadesWinter Sunset Over the CascadesLooking east out across the Cascade Mountain Range from Redmond, Washington on a chilly January evening, with the clouds breaking just as the sun set

I’ve been using Capture One Pro 9 for a few months now. I bought it shortly after trialing it as an upgrade to Capture One Pro 8.1, which had been my go-to RAW converter for some time now. I feel, a few thousand images later, I can give a good and honest assessment of this latest iteration of Phase One’s software, although I also have the sense that there is still a great deal for me to learn and exploit with this program.

An important caveat: I don’t use Capture One’s cataloging/asset management system. I don’t use anything except my own personal folder/file structure Windows. Something I need to change someday, most likely, but it works for me. So I can’t comment on that aspect of the software.

Also, this time around I’m not going to do a head-to-head comparo against the latest from DXOMark – the two processing modules continue to be neck and neck in output, I feel (and far ahead of Lightroom), so which one to use comes down to a matter of taste and familiarity, as well as whether your camera and lens(es) have custom profiles in either of the programs.

WindowsWindowsLight and shadows on the third floor of Bellevue Square mall in Bellevue, Washington


  • Fantastic output from the processing engine
  • Powerful and useful new color management tools
  • Great new “Luma”-only curve adjustment
  • Enhancements and improvements to the RAW-enabled layers and layer-specific adjustments
  • Speed improvements from 8.1
  • More and more cameras and lenses supported with custom profiles



  • Initially doesn’t feel like a huge improvement over 8.1 (takes time to uncover all the improvements that justify the upgrade cost)
  • Workflows still not as intuitive as Lightroom
  • Pretty steep learning curve if you are coming from Lightroom
  • Somewhat expensive (but competitive)

A Black and White SunsetA Black and White SunsetOver Lake Washington on a windy February evening

I wasn’t impressed with Capture One Pro 9 at first. Or, rather, not as impressed as I wanted to be, given it didn’t feel like all that long ago that I purchased version 8 (having made version 7 my default RAW processing software). For the first few weeks it felt like an iterative improvement over 8.1 – the new processing engine didn’t blow me away – going from 8.1 to 9 was not like the jump from 7 to 8 or the huge leap from Lightroom to Capture One).

But I bought the upgrade anyway because I knew I would be using it on a near daily basis for a long time to come, for thousands of photos. And, ultimately, I’m glad I did. This is one of those extremely deep pieces of software where it takes time even for experienced users of Capture One like me to uncover all the new facets of the technology. It helps to subscribe to the Phase One email and keep up with blog posts by the “image professor” – I’ve come across several things I simply hadn’t realized, and started incorporating them into my daily workflows.

Evergreen SunsetEvergreen SunsetA winter sunset through the forest - St Edward State Park, Washington State

The three biggest improvements (for me) so far over 8.1:

  • Color management – new Master, highlight, shadow, midtone “circles” that give you a tremendous amount of control over specific color within the photography, very much like color grading a motion picture
  • The new Luma-specific curve, which allows you to perform levels/curves adjustments (brightness/contrast) entirely in the luminosity realm, without impacting saturation or hue at all (the traditional RGB curve is still available)
  • All the little tweaks and enhancements to the layers and layer-specific processing functionalities

The latter should not be overlooked. As far as I’m aware, Capture One is the only software that provides layer processing on RAW files. This gives you ready access to the full dynamic range of the RAW files that the latest and greatest sensors are outputting today (especially Sony and Sony-derived sensors, as well as the newer Leica sensors and others). It really is a game changer if you are coming from Lightroom and want to be extremely detailed and precise in your processing – with LR, I had to process the RAW file as a whole into a TIFF, then import into Photoshop to perform the layer-based tweaks. As good as TIFF is, it isn’t RAW, and TIFF files are enormous. Capture One does away with the extra step and obviates much of the need for Photoshop (note I still have and use Photoshop for the Nik plugins…and that’s about it. If the Nik plugins were made natively available for Capture One, I’d probably never use Photoshop at all. As it stands, you can “round trip” a photo file out of Capture One into the Nik plugins, and it works, but that creates a TIFF and feels a little clunky).

CeilingCeilingThe strong lines, angles and bright skylights of Bellevue Square Mall in Bellevue, WA

As far as I’m concerned, the only real drawbacks to Capture One remain the same as I originally found back in version 7, namely that the User Interface still doesn’t feel as intuitive to me as Lightroom or even DXO. I have a harder time recommending Capture One to newbie photographers than I do Lightroom for that simple fact – I worry that newcomers will try Capture One for a few hours, get frustrated, and give up. It’s a program that rewards patience and demands you dig into it to uncover every feature and tool, but it doesn’t make it immediately obvious up front how to use all those tools

Bottom line: still the RAW processor for me. If pure image quality matters to you, then you should definitely give Capture One a try (and have the patience to give it a long try).

Morning Traffic in the FogMorning Traffic in the FogA foggy February morning in Redmond, Washington

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 9 Capture Capture One Capture One 9 review Capture One Pro 9 review Capture One Pro review Capture One examples Capture One review CaptureOne 9 CaptureOne review One Pro RAW examples photo photography processing review v9 version Sun, 06 Mar 2016 18:48:11 GMT
Sigma 20mm f/1.4 ART Review (Nikon Mount)

I’ll skip to the end and get to the heart of it: this is, optically speaking, a tremendous lens, and a wonder of modern optical design and lens manufacturing. It’s truly incredible what Sigma has accomplished with this lens: a 20mm ultra-wide lens with an f/1.4 max aperture that is not only usable but critically sharp (in the center) even on a 36 megapixel camera like the Nikon D800E.

But it’s not perfect. It’s big, heavy, has a bulbous front lens that won’t easily accept filters, and my copy (rented) on Nikon F mount failed to autofocus accurately almost 50% of the time, an extremely worrisome failure rate that had me defaulting back to manual focus.


  • Ultra-wide angle at an ultra-fast aperture
  • Critically sharp wide open in the central ~75% of the frame
  • Opens up your options for creativity
  • Solidly built
  • Flare resistant
  • Great color and high macro- and micro-contrast
  • Good feel to the manual focus ring (not a Zeiss ZF.2 lens of course, but good)
  • Clean bokeh


  • Big and heavy (a little smaller than the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom)
  • Edges and corners are not sharp at f/1.4 (smeared/blurred) – sharpen up by f/4 or so
  • Bulbous front element means you’ll need specialized holders if you want to use filters
  • My copy routinely completely missed autofocus (said it was locked and was totally off)

Sigma has been on quite a tear lately with their ART series lenses, which began with the 35mm f/1.4, continued with the 50mm f/1.4 and 24mm f/1.4, and now brings the 20mm f/1.4. For those who don’t know, creating a lens this wide – 20mm – that is this fast – f/1.4 – and that delivers this level of optical brilliance even wide open is astounding, the kind of performance you expect from Leica or a Zeiss Otus, but delivered at a MUCH lower price than those manufacturers would ever dare. And it has autofocus (imperfect as it is…).

It’s not a subtle lens. It’s big. It’s heavy, though it balanced find on my Nikon D800E. It has a bulbous front element a la the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, so it you are into filters you’ll have to invest in a Lee holder or something similar to allow you to use filters with this lens.

The remarkable thing about this lens is just how sharp it is – in the center and middle-center portions of the frame – even at f/1.4. I’m talking “able to count my daughter’s eyelashes” sharp. This means you can use f/1.4 realistically for critical shots, and that knowledge really opens up your ability to shoot creative imagery. As this lens, like most ultrawides, focuses very close, you can get super close to a subject and blur out the background by shooting f/1.4 – giving you environmental context but highlighting your subject clearly. Conversely, you can use this lens at f/1.4 to shoot nighttime landscapes or cityscapes by hand – though be warned that the corners and edges are not critically sharp at f/1.4.

I’d be saving up to buy this lens, or at least seriously considering it, if not for the really atrocious performance my copy (rented) had with regard to autofocus. My hit rate was as low as 50% with AF with this lens, even using the central focus point. Sigma (like Tamron and Tokina) have to “reverse engineering” the autofocus algorithms used by Nikon and Canon (which is why some of their lenses fail to AF at all with new Nikon or Canon bodies, at least until a firmware update comes along). It seems like, at least from what this one copy showed, that Sigma still needs to work out some kinks with regard to the Nikon AF algorithm on this lens.

That said, Your Mileage May Vary. I might have gotten a bad lens for a rental – it’s hard for me to say. All I can tell you is how this one example behaved: and, in that regard, the autofocus was terrible.

So: spectacular optics. Truly remarkable. But…wow. I would need that autofocus to work if I was going to buy the lens, because otherwise I’d just stay with my Zeiss 25mm f/2. Not as fast, not as wide, and the extreme corners never fully sharpen up, but just as optically brilliant otherwise and with a nicer manual focus ring and the ability to use filters (and much, much smaller and lighter to boot).

My recommendation is to rent this lens before you buy, and see if you run into the AF issues, and see if the weight and bulbous front element bother you.

Note: All the images used as examples in this article were shot at f/1.4

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 20mm ART D800E F Nikon Sigma Sigma 20mm ART Sigma 20mm ART examples Sigma 20mm ART review Sigma 20mm ART shots Sigma 20mm f/1.4 review examples f/1.4 mount review Sat, 09 Jan 2016 00:03:06 GMT
Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm f/2.0 ZF.2 Review Rusted TruckRusted TruckThe side of an old, rusting truck, slightly wet from morning dew

I’ve been on the hunt for a wide angle lens that I could truly fall in love with for some time. Wide angle lenses are notoriously difficult to design and manufacture, with even the very best plagued by some issues that can make their appearance at awkward moments or under close inspection. And, of course, the best are pricey, making any attempt to make a long term purchase into an investment – and we all want to get the most out of our investments as possible.

With that in mind, I’ve purchased (and subsequently sold) or extensively used the following Nikon mount wide-angle full-frame lenses:

  • Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
  • Nikon 16-35mm f/4
  • Zeiss 21mm f/2.8
  • Rokinon (aka Samyang) 14mm f/2.8
  • Nikon 24mm f/1.4G

All of which are “very good” lenses. The Nikon 14-24mm even reaches the “great” level. But all had drawbacks:

  • Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 – big, heavy, with the huge bulbous front element that made using filters difficult and expensive; but darn sharp, almost prime-level sharp (though if you tried hard you can find blur at the edges and corners)
  • Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR – I could just never make myself like the rendering style of this lens – it is sharp and VR is great, but it lacks the microcontrast “bite” and striking color I’m looking for, and as a result requires lots of post processing; and the distortion at the wide end is huge
  • Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 – Surprisingly (to me, after reading the reviews)  mushy edges and corners even up to f/5.6; great color though, and very sharp in the center (note: I tried three copies of this lens trying to get a copy with that corner to corner sharpness I’d always read about online, to no avail)
  • Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 – for the price there’s really nothing wrong with this lens. I will probably try to get it again someday. It’s manual focus, has a somewhat plasticky build, and has huge distortion but it’s sharp with pleasant rendering. And it’s cheap.
  • Nikon 24mm f/1.4 – see my long review on this lens. I really, really wanted to love this lens and in some respects it is great, but way overpriced (in my opinion) for what it delivers, especially wide open

I’ve also previously owned (for about a year) the Sony Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 for Sony A-mount. That’s also a capable ultra-wide to wide zoom with a tendency toward blurry edges at some apertures/focal lengths and a nasty case of green-blob flaring.

So, that’s the background leading up to my latest attempt/acquisition: the Zeiss 25mm f/2 Distagon.


  • Razor sharp across 96% of the frame even at f/2
  • Beautiful Zeiss colors
  • Zeiss microcontrast and 3D “pop”
  • Flare resistant
  • Small, dense, and beautifully constructed
  • Manual focusing ring has just the right amount of resistance
  • Infinity hard stop


  • Extreme corners get mushy even up to f/4 (and somewhat, if you are hypercritical, even at f/5.6 and f/8)
  • Pricey
  • Not weather sealed
  • 25mm isn’t “ultra wide” so you might end up having to stitch multiple frames for some subjects (or “zoom with your feet” or have another wide angle like the aforementioned Rokinon 14mm in your bag)

Like all ZF.2 (and ZE) Zeiss lenses, this is manual focus only. I’m not listing that as a “Con” because for some people it’s a “Pro” and really is just a fact of the lens. With modern Nikon cameras – even the D800E – the focusing screen isn’t designed for manual focus lenses and as a result it can be challenging to acquire perfect focus. So for truly optimal results you’ll want to use a tripod with Live View and close magnification combined with careful focusing.

All that said, I’ve found the 25mm f/2 to be relatively easy to acquire focus even through the viewfinder, comparable to the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO and much easier than the Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar and the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4. I believe this is a result of well controlled chromatic aberration with the 25mm f/2 (very little green or purple fringing) and the high level of sharpness of the lens wide open.

And it is sharp. Very sharp, even at f/2, everywhere except the extreme corners. In fact, for 96% of the frame this is reference level sharp on the D800E, at the level of the superb Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO. It’s at those extreme corners that things start to look mushy. The falloff in acuity (which, to be clear, doesn’t affect the edges, only the extreme corners) is very stark indeed. If you look at 100% you *will* see it, even (to a lesser degree) up to f/8. This is the kind of thing that usually bothers me. A lot.

However, I’ve found that the mushiness at the extreme corners is a non-issue (for me). It is really the quarter 1% of the image in each corner (or even less), and for many shots (either close ups with a large aperture [so the corners are out of focus anyway] or when a landscape doesn’t emphasize the extreme corners [pretty often]) it’s entirely unnoticeable even for very large prints. Again, any imperfection in my lenses bugs me but this, thanks to its minor nature and the strengths of the rest of the lens, doesn’t.

Foggy SunriseFoggy SunriseRedmond, WA

It’s a small lens (great for hiking) – positively tiny compared to the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO. It has a great, dense heft and build quality to it. The Zeiss T* coatings and the lens design itself thoroughly suppresses flare. I’ve read elsewhere that the lens, while spectacular up close and at moderate distances, is less sharp for distant subjects, but I’ve found it just as sharp at infinity (impressively sharp, pinpoint star shots, for example, with very well controlled coma). Basically, like the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO, this is a lens that makes you want to get out and shoot, even just to see how it renders the subject, how it captures the minute details and brings out the color and texture and feeling and mood.

So: I love this lens. Yes, there are times when I wish I had something wider – so I have to stitch multiple shots together in post or, if possible, zoom with my feet. But that gorgeous rendering, lovely colors, “bite” and nearly three-dimensional “pop” to the images…it’s got me. I’m a fan. I recommend this for anyone looking for a wide angle that can stomach the manual focus and who doesn’t (consistently) need something wider.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 25mm D800E Distagon Nikon ZF.2 Zeiss Zeiss 25mm Distagon review Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF review Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2 review Zeiss 25mm f/2 examples Zeiss 25mm f/2 review Zeiss 25mm f/2 shots build examples f/2 f/2.0 image image quality impressions mount open performance quality review wide wide open performance Sat, 14 Mar 2015 19:11:31 GMT
Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar T* ZF.2 Review

There are some lenses that are just special. Optical brilliance and mechanical excellence come together in a manner that truly impresses even the most jaded photographers. These lenses check all the right boxes, from sharpness and contrast and color reproduction and control of chromatic aberration to less tangible, less measurable things like ‘feel’ and even ‘soul.’

Lots of hyperbole, I know. But this is one case where the hyperbole is justified. The Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar really is that good. It is Otus-level without the Otus name.

But it is certainly not for everyone.


  • Blisteringly sharp even at f/2
  • True APO design
  • Gorgeous bokeh
  • Beautiful colors
  • High contrast
  • Flare resistant
  • All metal build
  • Wonderfully smooth focusing ring
  • ZF.2 version: External aperture ring (future proofs the lens for use with other mounts)
  • ZF.2 version: enables electronic aperture control on Nikon cameras like the D800E and communicates lens data to the camera for EXIF
  • Inspirational - as in, it inspires me to get out and shoot


  • Large and heavy
  • Expensive (but much less than the Zeiss 55mm Otus or Zeiss 85mm Otus, with comparable image quality)
  • Not weather sealed
  • Some vignetting at f/2 – but I’m nitpicking here

Just as with the Zeiss 55mm Otus, I’m not going to list points like “no autofocus” and “no image stabilization” as Cons. You should know that going in with this lens. But they are important points to know, and are the main reasons why this lens isn’t for everyone (aside from the price and size/weight).

I see my Zeiss 135mm f/2 as my most “Zen” lens. That’s a bit of an odd thing to say, so I’ll try to explain. This lens rewards careful, deliberate shooting. Some photographers might say you need a “Medium Format” mindset, especially with high resolution cameras like the Nikon D800/E, D810, or the Sony A7R. The 135mm focal length and the extremely high acutance of this lens mean any little bit of image shake will show up in your final shot. But if you take your time, use a tripod and mirror lock-up, or at the very least make sure your shutter speed is high enough and you are braced against something…wow. You will be rewarded.

Can you still take ‘snaps’ handheld with this lens? Sure. Especially if you have steady hands. You just have to be aware that a telephoto focal length like 135mm is going to exacerbate any and all movement of the camera/lens. It’ll be tough to get the pixel-level razor sharp clarity that this lens can deliver if you use it hand held. Bump up your ISO and make sure you have a decently fast shutter speed – minimum 1/200th sec, preferably – and you can still get some beautiful results hand held.

But, to really see what this lens is capable of…Tripod. LiveView and magnification of the focus spot. MLU. Careful, deliberate shooting.

Zen shooting.

What makes the image quality so outstanding? It is a combination of things, all of which produce that trademark Zeiss ‘pop’ or magic. Specifically:

  •                 Extremely high sharpness across the entire image frame even at f/2 (really)
  •                 True APO – meaning this is an apochomatic lens, where all wavelengths of light arrive at the image plane simultaneously, minimizing chromatic aberrations like purple fringing (something that particularly plagues even some of the best fast primes)
  •                 High contrast
  •                 Saturated (but not overly saturated) Zeiss-style colors
  •                 Mild vignetting at f/2 (I feel the vignetting can actually help give the image that ‘pop’ or 3D feel)

When everything comes together, this lens truly delivers.

That said, like all manual focus lenses on modern Nikon cameras, focusing will be a challenge thanks to the unfriendly focusing screens now used (which are designed for autofocus). This is particularly an issue here because the plane of “in-focus” is extremely narrow with the 135mm focal length, especially when you get close up and at f/2. On the positive side, the extremely high sharpness of this lens at f/2 and the APO nature makes it much easier to see the in-focus areas within the optical viewfinder than, say, the Zeiss Makro 100mm f/2 (which suffers from high amounts of longitudinal chromatic aberration at f/2, making the image look fuzzy or greenish/purple and therefore much harder to find true focus).

LiveView, tripod, and Mirror Lock Up, again, will give you the best results.

It is a big, heavy lens. Bigger than most of the other Zeiss ZF.2 lenses, but slightly smaller than Zeiss Otus 55mm (although it is very nearly the same weight). It also extends when focusing (increases in length as you focus closer), unlike the Otus. As a result, this may not be your favored lens when you need to hike long distances or for carrying around your neck all day at a wedding.

Similarly – as should be clear from the rest of the review above – if you need autofocus or image stabilization, this is not the lens for you.  At the moment, and unless Sigma comes out with their rumored 135mm f/1.8 OS ART, your best bet is probably still going to be one of the 70-200mm offerings out there. The new(ish) Nikon 70-200mm f/4, for example, has good image quality and absolutely fantastic vibration reduction, allowing you much greater latitude for hand-holding than the Zeiss 135mm ever will (see my review of that lens).

But…if image quality matters most to you, and you want the best medium telephoto you can get, and you have the patience to use it right, this is the lens for you. It is for me.

One final, tangential note: many photographers seem to feel that the 135mm focal length is only useful for portraiture. This is certainly not the case. It is a flexible focal length for both detail shots, still life images, and landscapes, as well as just about anything else you want. The relatively high magnification of the Zeiss 135mm (1:4, or a minimum focus distance of 2.62 feet) increases the utility even further.

Basically, if you can afford it and if it fits your needs: buy this lens.

Tracing the CurveTracing the CurveOne car goes around a long curve in Redmond, Washington on a cool December evening.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 135mm APO D800E Nikon Sonnar Sonnar review T* ZF.2 Zeiss Zeiss 135mm APO Zeiss 135mm Sonnar Zeiss 135mm ZF.2 Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar Zeiss 135mm f/2 examples Zeiss 135mm f/2 review Zeiss 135mm f2 Zeiss 135mm f2 examples Zeiss 135mm f2 review Zeiss 135mm review evaluation examples f/2 impressions inspiration review Sat, 31 Jan 2015 15:47:30 GMT
Capture One Pro 8.1 Review and Comparison vs DxO Optics Pro 10

I like Capture One Pro. A lot. I have since version 7, which, after just 20 days into the 60 day trial, I purchased, having decided it was clearly superior to Lightroom 5 in terms of that most important element: image quality.

Capture One Pro 8/8.1 is a subtle improvement over 7. It doesn’t present the massive jump in quality that I saw going from Lightroom 5 to Capture One Pro 7, but it does do a lot of things right. In this article I’m going to mainly focus on the differences 8/8.1 have to version 7, and compare 8.1 against the latest version of DxO Optics Pro 10, which I feel is actually Capture One Pro’s closest competitor in terms of the quality of the renderer.

Note I’m not going to go into a ton of depth with this review. Capture One and DxO Optics Pro, which I compare it too, both have free trial downloads that are fully functional and well worth your time and effort. You may find your experience differs from mine, or that your style of photography is particularly well suited to one program or another.


  • Fantastic image quality
  • Deep, powerful color control
  • Layers available on RAW editing
  • Significant processing speed improvement from version 7
  • Effective denoising algorithms
  • Tons of functionality


  • Not a huge leap over version 7
  • Not as user friendly as Lightroom
  • Still not easy to make catalogues
  • Small number of lens/camera corrections supported compared to DxO Optics Pro
  • Somewhat expensive (does go on sale regularly)

Sigma 35mm Art ex 2Sigma 35mm Art ex 2

I want to preface the rest of this review by saying I’m still all-in for Capture One Pro. It’s my RAW processor of choice. I was an Adobe Raw guy for a while when I only used Photoshop CS5 for everything, then I migrated to Lightroom 4 and then 5 when I didn’t want to spend a huge chunk of change to upgrade Photoshop just for RAW support. I discovered Capture One Pro in the version 7 days, shortly after version 7 was released, and gave it a download – after all, with 60 days of free trial, why not? I did back-to-back comparisons vs Lightroom and although Lightroom did some things better (such as having an eye-dropper selection to reduce chromatic aberration), the image quality results on output from Capture One were simply always superior to Lightroom – sharper, cleaner, with more pop and life.

When Capture One Pro 8 came out I downloaded the trial (it wasn’t a free upgrade if you owned v7). PhaseOne changed the interface somewhat – larger letters and sliders, for example. Honestly I preferred the look of version 7, but I’ve gotten used to how 8 looks. PhaseOne touted an advanced new processing engine that would deliver even better image quality. I haven’t seen much improvement from v7 in that regard. Version 7 was so good that, perhaps, there wasn’t that much more room to grow for the cameras I am using (Sony RX1R and Nikon D800E). If image quality is your sole and most important metric, and you already own v7, I would recommend downloading version 8.1 and see if you experience enough improvement to justify the cost of the upgrade.

Where I did experience a welcome improvement was in processing speed. I’m using the same computer as I did with v7 and the speed of importing large numbers of RAWs and the speed at which a JPEG or TIFF is rendered is noticeably faster. This is actually a pretty big deal for the working photographer, particularly event or wedding photographers who might have thousands of photographs to load, and for those photographers who have very high megapixel cameras (D800/E/810, A7R, medium format).

I still think Capture One Pro lags behind Lightroom in terms of friendliness and ease of use. I will often recommend friends who are dabbling in photography and want to start processing RAW files to just start with Lightroom, unless they are really willing to put in the time to learn Capture One Pro. I worry they’ll just get frustrated. The interface is clearly light years better than, say, Sigma Pro Photo (which you have to use to process the Foveon files from the Sigma Merrill cameras), and it contains an enormous amount of flexibility and power for editing your photos, including the ability to have editable layers on your RAW file. But it is not as clear-cut as Lightroom feels.

I was happy enough with the processing speed improvements over version 7 to purchase the upgrade (albeit on sale).

Clouds Over the MountainsClouds Over the MountainsMt. Wrightson from the Green Valley area, southern Arizona, on a warm September day

Vs DxO Optics Pro 10

In my opinion Capture One Pro 8.1’s real competition in terms of image quality is not Lightroom but rather DxO Optics Pro 10. This is DxOMark’s latest version of their RAW processor, and it is, overall, pretty good. The hallmark of DxO Optics Pro is the huge number of camera + lens combinations it has on which it can do automatic corrections for distortion, vignetting, sharpness decrease, chromatic aberration, etc. In this regard it is far and away superior to Capture One Pro 8.1 just in sheer quantity of camera + lens combinations available. I would say it also does a little better job with the corrections than Capture One Pro 8.1 for those combinations that both programs share.

A big feature touted by DxOMark for Optics Pro 10 is their PRIME noise engine. It is supposed to be the most advanced denoising engine in the world, capable of reducing noise without compromising detail. In use, for my cameras at least, I’ve found that Capture One Pro 8.1 does just about as good a job…and much faster, to boot. Processing speed is Optics Pro 10’s Achilles Heel. It’s slow. Not Sigma Pro Photo slow, but pretty darn slow, especially when you are used to Capture One Pro 8.1 or even Lightroom 5. Importing takes a long time, processing a RAW file to JPEG or TIFF takes a long time, and if you enable PRIME denoising then prepare to go make a sandwich while you wait.

Cloud like an ExplosionCloud like an ExplosionA storm came sweeping across the wide open landscape. Before it arrived, the clouds looked awe inspiring

In terms of sharpness and detail and general image quality, neither program really knocked the other out, at least in my testing. I could get colors pretty close, too. Capture One Pro has layers, which can be huge for some photos, but in general I would say the two programs are pretty evenly matched. That’s including careful use of DxO’s “Clearview” haze removal tool, which doesn’t really exceed Capture One Pro’s clarity and structure sliders (from what I could tell).

In my opinion, the benefit to DxO Optics Pro 10 is the lens correction suite. If you are an architecture shooter primarily with some less-popular lenses (for example, my new Zeiss 135mm f/2 Sonnar ZF.2 does have a profile in Capture One Pro 8.1 but the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 does not. and it needs it much more than the 135mm) then DxO is your best bet. You’ll sacrifice processing speed for those corrections, though. If you are an event/wedding/general purpose photographer or any photographer who shoots a lot of images – but you still want the best image quality – then Capture One Pro 8.1 is the way to go.


]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 10 8.1 Capture Capture One Pro Capture One Pro 8 review Capture One Pro 8.1 review Capture One Pro vs DxO Optics Pro Capture One vs DxO DxO One Optics Pro Review comparison evaluation Sat, 24 Jan 2015 03:15:02 GMT
Lens Review: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM “Art” With ThornsWith ThornsA still life of leaves in Redmond, WA

It is really, really good.

Okay, okay, I’ll go into a little more detail. But suffice to say, I am very impressed with this offering from Sigma, and I’m very happy that Sigma has started to really up the quality of their offerings. More competition and higher quality will force the bigger players to step up their game as well, and we as photographers benefit (although the price does tend to increase as a result).


  • Superb, even world-class sharpness even at f/1.4 in the center
  • Sharp to the corners by f/2.8
  • Pleasing bokeh (out of focus elements), ahead of and behind the focal point
  • Solid build quality with Sigma’s “Thermally Stable Composite” materials
  • Quick, quiet autofocus
  • USB dock lens-level adjustment available if you need/want it
  • Coatings reducing flare quite well
  • Very competitive pricing given the extremely high performance


  • Third-party, and like all third-party lenses the “reverse engineered” autofocus could break/fail whenever Nikon or Canon issue a firmware update or release a new DSLR (at least until Sigma provides new firmware for the lens)
  • Lower resale value, in general, than a first-party lens (this could change as more people discover the quality of Sigma’s Art line)
  • Vignettes some wide open, but it feels artistic and is less severe than comparable 35mm f/1.4 primes
  • …That’s about it

Missing Summer - and AutumnMissing Summer - and AutumnIt's cold here right now. Not "Northern Wisconsin in February" cold, but cold for Washington State west of the Cascades. Here's a shot of nostalgia from warmer times, not too long ago.

I really love the 35mm focal length. For me it’s the perfect walk-around, all purpose lens – more so than a 50mm or a 28mm. I can use a 35mm to take landscape shots, do creative still-life work, make portraits, and use it as a workhorse focal length for weddings. As a result of my appreciation for 35mm lenses, I’ve owned and used several extensively, including:

  • Nikon 35mm f/1.4G AF-S
  • Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2
  • Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2 on the Sony RX1-R

And it should be no surprise that when I got my hands on a some Phase One systems for a day, my favorite and most-used lens ended up being the Schneider LS 55mm f/2.8, which has a 34mm equivalent focal length.

So, in short, I like ‘em and I’ve taken several thousand photos with ‘em over the years. Setting aside the Schneider LS, as I only had it for a day and it’s above my pay grade right now, my favorite before the Sigma 35mm Art was the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2, although the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2 integrated into the Sony RX1-R was a close second.

Well, time to step down a bit, previous favorites. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art is the new king in town – for now, and with some caveats, of course.

Sigma 35mm Art ex 3Sigma 35mm Art ex 3

I want to be quick to point out that the Sigma is not superior to the Zeiss ZF.2 in every respect. In fact, I would say the Zeiss beats the Sigma on a few points, namely build quality (all metal, extremely solid, though the Sigma is no slouch there), bokeh (one of the main design points of the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 was quality bokeh), color reproduction (a Zeiss hallmark), and the sheer loveliness of that manual focus ring.

But for half the price the Sigma delivers a lens that is sharper at f/1.4 than the Zeiss, delivers 90% of the bokeh and color quality, and is darn well built to boot. And, most importantly, it has fast, quiet autofocus, where the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 is manual focus only. And for me, looking back at my old images taken with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, its clear the Sigma comes out on top there as well – by a significant margin, if you only look at image quality.

I used the Sigma as my primary lens for an entire wedding, mated to my D800E, and it worked flawlessly, delivering tack-sharp images even at f/1.4 time and again. This ability to use a lens wide open for critical applications really opens up your creative options (as I discussed in my Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 review). You just don’t have to worry about sharpness – use aperture based on availability of light and desired depth of field and that’s it. The lens will deliver. Perhaps 80% or more of my “keepers” from that wedding came from the Sigma.

Along the FenceAlong the FenceIn Redmond, Washington, at the dog park - taken with the really quite amazingly good Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART (a rental, but one I'm seriously considering buying)

The main drawback, as I see it, to the Sigma is that it *is* a third-party lens. As such resale value tends to be lower (this could change). And, more importantly, Nikon and Canon (especially Nikon) have a habit of “breaking” the autofocus of third-party lenses when they issue new camera firmware or release an entirely new camera. I don’t want to get into the argument about whether Canikon do this deliberately to make life harder for third-party lens manufacturers, but it is a reality right now because companies like Sigma and Tamron have to reverse-engineer the autofocus specs and mechanisms when they make their lenses. So you could update your DSLR and find your lovely Sigma no longer autofocuses, at least not until Sigma issues new firmware for your lens.

The firmware issue is something to be aware of, especially if you are a working pro dependent on having a lenses reliably work (then I’d recommend you don’t update your DSLR firmware until others across the Internet have reported all the problems – and especially not right before a big gig!). In my opinion, though, this should not stop you from considering this lens if you need a new 35mm for your system. The image quality is just too good not to put it on your shortlist.

Sigma 35mm Art ex 2Sigma 35mm Art ex 2

Personally, I think that if I didn’t need autofocus, and price was no object, I’d still prefer the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2. It has that lovely creamy bokeh, Zeiss colors and “pop” (microcontrast + bokeh) in its Zeiss-signature rendering that I just can’t get enough of, and the Sigma cannot quite match, even though the Sigma seems a touch sharper wide open. But, once you take into consideration both price and the need for autofocus, the Sigma comes out on top.

I hope Sigma makes more “Art” primes of similar or even greater quality. Rumor mills have suggested both a 24mm f/1.4 and a 135mm f/2 with image stabilization could be under development, and if they can keep the high performance of this 35mm f/1.4, then they would be fantastic additions to the Sigma lineup.

Highly recommended.

Sigma 35mm Art ex 1Sigma 35mm Art ex 1

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 35mm 35mm focal length Art D800E DG HSM Nikon Nikon D800E Sigma Sigma 35mm Art vs Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Sigma 35mm review Sigma Art review ZF.2 Zeiss Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 f/1.4 lens lens review review sigma 35mm art Sat, 13 Dec 2014 03:23:46 GMT
Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* Review Mountains from RainierMountains from RainierA few of the mountains surrounding Mt Rainier in Washington State

This is a superlative lens. Exquisite, even. It is not perfect, but if you want the very best – optically – in the normal range for Nikon or Canon full frame cameras, this is it.


  • Exceptionally well corrected optics
  • Stellar image quality
  • Three-dimensional “pop” to images
  • Razor sharp across the entire frame at f/1.4 (wide open) – practically unheard of before outside of high end Leica glass or very expensive medium format lenses
  • Very solid metal construction
  • Rubber focusing ring is smoothly damped and a pleasure to use
  • Opens up new creative photographic opportunities – no optical restrictions even at f/1.4
  • Makes you want to get out and shoot


  • Very expensive
  • Big and heavy (most definitely not a “nifty fifty”)


CartCartOn a ranch in Ellensburg, Washington

I didn’t mention it as a Pro or a Con, because it could be one or the other depending on your preference and the situation, but this is a manual-focus-only lens. No autofocus. No image stabilization, either. In fact there is one ‘control’ on the exterior of the lens: the wide, rubberized focus ring, which is smoothly damped and easy to use. If you cannot abide manual focusing – and modern focus screens in the newer DSLRs from Nikon and Canon can make it a chore – then you can stop reading now and look elsewhere. With the Nikon version you do get electronic contacts to communicate with your camera body, so you can set the physical aperture on the lens to f/16 and then control the aperture with your DSLR (in aperture priority or manual mode) and the lens will meter and communicate EXIF info to your body, like any Zeiss ZF.2 lens.

The Otus is large and quite heavy, tipping the scales at 2.13 pounds (970 grams). It’s extremely well built, even besting the previous Zeiss ZF.2 lenses I’ve used like the 35mm f/1.4 and 100mm f/2 in that regard, but all that metal and exotic glass can cause quite the pain in your neck if you aren’t careful. I took to holding the camera up in one hand while hiking with this lens and my D800E, to give my back and neck a break (that works until your elbow or biceps or forearms get tired, of course). It is not technically weather-sealed, either, which seems a bit of a travesty at this price point (although I’m guessing you could use it in light showers without problem – I just didn’t want to subject my rental lens to that kind of treatment).

And, yep, it’s expensive. Very expensive. The nearest competitor in terms of optical quality (which I haven’t personally used yet), the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, is one quarter the price of the Otus and, according to many reports I’ve read, is just as sharp in the center as the Otus (though it cannot match the Otus on the edges/corners at f/1.4). The Sigma also has the benefit of autofocus.

So. Big, heavy, expensive. What do you get for those negatives?

The best optical quality you can buy for Nikon or Canon full frame DSLRs at the time of this writing. That’s what.

High Speed Falling WaterHigh Speed Falling WaterA different take on the waterfall from last week - instead of a very long exposure, a very fast exposure (making the most of the corner to corner sharpness of the Zeiss Otus). Up on Mt Rainier, near Paradise.

Wide open is where this lens shines, where it was meant to be used. It is exceptionally sharp stopped down, and loses the vignetting that is admittedly quite present at f/1.4 – so there is no reason not to stop it down when the situation demands. But the magic happens at f/1.4.

What do I mean by “magic”? What makes this lens so special, what qualities does it have that made me want to go out and shoot things just to see what they would look like when shot, that made me take hundreds of photographs in the few days I had access to the lens?

It’s a combination of factors, but comes down to an extremely high level of optical correction. Many – the vast majority – of large-aperture lenses suffer from a number of problems at their widest apertures: namely, chromatic aberration (lateral and/or axial) that manifest as color fringes along high contrast lines, before or after the focal point; and more generalized softness either everywhere or at least along the periphery of the image.

Flowers on the OtusFlowers on the OtusFlowers in Ellensburg, Washington, with the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4

The Otus uses lots of heavy and expensive glass and a floating-element design to compensate for chromatic aberration, and provide sharpness at f/1.4 across the entire frame (really – I know people use this term all the time for lenses that don’t deserve it, but this lens is genuinely razor sharp at f/1.4 across the entire frame). There is no lateral chromatic aberration to speak of. I was able to see some axial chromatic aberration (green and purple fringing), but only in specific scenarios that would be exceedingly difficult for even the very best cinema-quality lenses (e.g. a very dark tree with many leaf-free branches set against a very bright sky, shot at f/1.4). In comparison, the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, and, to an even greater extent, the Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar, suffer much higher levels of axial chromatic aberration even in less demanding circumstances. I have spent a lot of time correcting chromatic aberration on those lenses in post; I never had to with the Otus.

The Otus is, then, essentially, a true APO lens.

Redmond LightsRedmond LightsEarly morning in Redmond, Washington

This fact, combined with that critical sharpness, gives images even at f/1.4 an exceptionally clean, vibrant look. Bokeh (blur element) edges are free of green or red or purple fringing, as are high contrast edges. This opens up a whole new creative universe where you can safely shoot critically tack-sharp images at f/1.4, with clean separation between the subject in your shot and your background.

An additional benefit of this optical correction is manual focusing is much easier. You focus through the optical viewfinder with the lens wide open, to gather the most light; on other, less well corrected lenses this can mean hitting critical focus is very challenging. I had a much higher hit-rate with Otus than I have with previous manual-focus Zeiss ZF.2 lenses I’ve used on my D800E. I still missed sometimes – you will have to “chimp” or check the back LCD after critical shots, and zoom way down to make sure you really did nail it – but the keeper rate was quite high, even with the very slim depth of field afforded by f/1.4 at 55mm.

Barren TreeBarren TreeTaken from up on Mt Rainier

Another benefit? The high level of transmission for this lens – it must be close to T/1.5 or even better – means I was consistently seeing my D800E select lower ISOs and faster shutter speeds to achieve proper exposure. That’s a huge help when hand-holding, and let me get more tack-sharp shots even in low light than I would have expected going in.

The 55mm Otus does have a large amount of vignetting wide open. This is a drawback in some cases and a benefit in others. For many photographs of subjects near the center of the frame, the vignetting actually contributes to the three-dimensional quality of the image, helping the subject “pop”. Vignetting is also comparatively easy to correct in post. As a result, with its value as a creative element, I don’t consider this a negative – just something to be aware of, and to work with. Personally I have opted not to correct it on any of the images I’ve processed where I shot at f/1.4. The vignetting is entirely gone by f/2.8.

The best thing about this lens is the freedom it gives you. This may seem paradoxical considering it is a fixed focal length manual focus prime lens. Wouldn’t a zoom with autofocus and vibration reduction give you more creative freedom? Well, maybe, in a way. But the Otus gives you the ability to use any aperture – even f/1.4 – and place your subject at any distance you want, anywhere in the frame. And if you nail the focus the lens will deliver the goods, with tremendous sharpness and great color and that Zeiss rendering and pop. Simple as that.

Still LeafStill LeafLeaves along a quiet trail in Redmond, Washington

Does your creative itch call for your subject in the extreme lower right corner with only a sliver in focus at f/1.4? Go for it. Do you need f/11 for a large landscape? Go for it. That’s the really, huge strength of this lens. It made me want to go out and shoot with it. Shoot everything and anything, just to see how the result would look.

It’s not a lens for sports or action. It’s probably not great for weddings or fast-moving events unless you are darn confident in your manual focus ability. But it is, right now, the best lens in terms of pure optical quality that you can buy for Nikon or Canon full frame DSLRs.

Lavender in the GardenLavender in the GardenEllensburg, WA

100% Version of Lavendar at f/1.4100% Version of Lavendar at f/1.4Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4

(100% crop of the shot above, taken at f/1.4)

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 55mm D800E Distagon Nikon Otus Otus 55mm Otus review T* Zeiss Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* review Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 review Zeiss 55mm review Zeiss Otus Zeiss Otus 55mm review Zeiss Otus review example examples f/1.4 review Fri, 05 Sep 2014 23:45:27 GMT
Lens Review: Nikon 85mm f/1.4G Stingray From the FrontStingray From the FrontThe new Corvette 2014 Stingray, as seen from the front - Redmond, WA

There is a lot to love about this relatively expensive prime lens, and a few things that aren’t quite so easy to fall for. It also faces stiff competition in the form of Nikon’s own (and, by all reports, spectacular) 85mm f/1.8G, which is significantly cheaper than the f/1.4G and performs very nearly as well as it’s more pricey, larger, older brother.

That said, there are aspects of the f/1.4G that make it stand above the f/1.8G (not just the faster aperture), and, unlike the rumored Sigma ART 85mm f/1.4, this is a lens you can buy now (as of this writing). Bottom line: if you need what the f/1.4G brings to the table over the f/1.8G, it is a great lens and worth the investment. If you don’t need those things, get the f/1.8G. Or if you don’t need an 85mm lens right away, see what Sigma produces in the next several months.

Classic RollsClassic RollsA classic Rolls Royce in Redmond, Washington on a warm summer Saturday morning


  • Usably sharp at f/1.4 even with the D800E when you nail focus
  • Biting sharpness at f/2.8 through f/8 – among the sharpest lenses I’ve used
  • Beautiful, creamy-smooth bokeh
  • Great contrast and saturated “Nikon-flavored” colors
  • Nano coating does a great job preventing flare, increasing image quality
  • Solid, weather-sealed build that does not extend when focusing
  • Decently quick autofocus on the D800E
  • Capable of tremendous subject separation



  • Strong Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration when used wide open to about f/2.2
  • Long minimum focus (not a macro lens)
  • Not built as brick-solid as, say, a Zeiss ZF.2 (no Nikon lenses are, including the gold-ringed pros like this one)
  • Expensive
  • It’s much less expensive little brother (f/1.8G) gives you 90% of the performance of this lens at 1/3 the price

E-TypeE-TypeLooking from the rear of a convertible Jaguar E-Type 4.2 on a sunny Saturday morning in Redmond, Washington

This is a professional-grade (gold-ringed) Nikkor lens, with a price to match. It is built as solidly as any Nikon pro lens (which is to say: strong plastic composite exterior, metal barrel inside, weather sealed gaskets, plastic hood), and is relatively compact compared to some of the larger pro Nikkor lenses like the 70-200mm lenses. That’s not to say it’s small, especially compared to the f/1.8G lenses in Nikon’s lineup, but it is a little less burdensome than some of the other big Nikon lenses (e.g. the 14-24mm f/2.8G), and it handles and balances nicely on a pro body like the D800E. The manual focus ring is quite nice, though again not on the level of the Zeiss ZF lenses, and the plastic hood does its job without fuss.

One of the very best features of this lens, and the reason why people pay top dollar for it despite the existence of the f/1.8G, is that this lens produces usably sharp (e.g. critically, near-tack sharp) images at the point of focus at f/1.4. If you nail focus – which, with the razor thin depth of field, can be a challenge even with the central AF point – you are rewarded with a clear, detailed subject that fades into quite lovely bokeh in the fore- and back-ground areas of the image.

The image quality at f/1.4 is compromised only by the strong Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (LoCA), which manifests as purple edges along high contrast edges in the foreground and green edges on elements of out of focus highlights in the background. It is present, and it does lower the perceived sharpness of the lens at f/1.4; that said, it is not as strong as the LoCA I saw on the otherwise excellent Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar, and LoCA can now be reduced or even eliminated by RAW processing software like Lightroom 5 and Capture One Pro 7. Therefore, while I would strongly prefer a genuine apochromatic lens design that eliminated the LoCA issues, I can live with it here.

Ferrari in the SunFerrari in the SunA Ferrari glinting in the morning sunlight on a pleasant Redmond Saturday

By f/2.8 you get razor-sharp images, complete with a ‘pop’ or three-dimensionality to the images thanks to the high micro- and macro-contrast and the way the image goes smoothly and quick out of focus. I only start to notice diffraction at around f/11, but you can still go that high if necessary. The colors from this lens are good, very Nikon-like and saturated (I still personally prefer Zeiss ZF colors, but that’s a personal preference). The Nano coatings help both contrast and color and also do an excellent job reducing flare.

Bokeh is gorgeous, smooth and creamy and almost entirely delicious. The only problem with the out of focus elements is the green fringing caused by the LoCA, as mentioned above, which can serve to bring the edges out on the out of focus highlights with a greenish tinge that even LR5 and Capture One Pro 7 can struggle to completely eliminate. Stopping down solves this but you lose some of that f/1.4 “magic” when you do that, so it is a tradeoff. Again, a true APO design here would have been amazing…

Autofocus on this lens generally works smoothly and relatively quickly. It is not lightning-quick like some of the pro Nikkors, but it isn’t annoying slow, either. I have had the lens – coupled to my D800E – miss critical focus on occasion at f/1.4, usually front-focusing by a few inches, but then the next shot will be perfect (so it’s not a micro-adjust issue). As a result I tend to ‘chimp’ (check the LCD) with this lens a bit more than I usually do, zooming in to check the focus point to see if I nailed it. Realistically this isn’t a bad idea with an ultra-fast prime anyway, especially when shooting at f/1.4, because the depth of field is so thin that any movement by you or the subject can throw the area of acceptable focus completely off, but that’s additional time you might not have on a gig and can give you cause for concern.

LamboLamboA lamborghini in Redmond, WA, complete with the classic bull logo

So what does this lens give you that the much less expensive Nikon 85mm f/1.8G not give you? In short: usable f/1.4 max aperture, built quality, and Nano coatings. From what I have heard and seen, the f/1.8G is excellent wide open and less prone to LoCA than the f/1.4G, though it is more prone to flare and has somewhat lower overall contrast and color saturation thanks to the lack of the Nano coatings. If you don’t need the f/1.4, or the higher level of build quality (with weather sealing), or the Nano coatings, then the f/1.8G is clearly the better buy.

As a photographer who places (very) high demands on his lenses, I don’t regret opting for the f/1.4G instead of the f/1.8G, especially since I use the f/1.4G on paying gigs where I need all the build and image quality and “magic” in my images that I can get.

For those photographers who demand the best 85mm (with autofocus) on the Nikon F mount, right now this is it, and I recommend it heartily. The rumored Sigma ART 85mm f/1.4 may well dethrone this lens in terms of sharpness, but this lens is available now and is proven and capable. I wish it had vibration reduction from the 70-200mm f/4, but that’s a bit of a quibble and probably would push the size (and cost) up even more.

Overall: recommended, if you need it.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 85mm D800E Lens Nikkor Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 review Nikkor 85mm review Nikon Nikon 85mm f/1.4 review Nikon 85mm f/1.4G Nikon 85mm f/1.4G review Nikon 85mm review autofocus color contrast f/1.4 f/1.4G f/1.8 f/1.8G review review Nikon 85mm saturation sharpness size speed vs Fri, 27 Jun 2014 23:05:25 GMT
Spot Metering vs Matrix Metering Through the CanopyThrough the CanopySunlight streams down through a break in the canopy - Oregon

I don’t like to give dramatic commandments in photography or for techniques of photography. “Do this, always, in this circumstance,” just makes me, personally, want to try the opposite. However, there is value in understanding the ‘why’ behind conventional wisdom; once you understand how that wisdom became conventional in the first place (why the ‘rules’ are the rules) you can then better understand when, why and how to break them.

All that said, I’d like to offer some thoughts on metering that have been bouncing around my head for the last few months as I’ve been shooting. This topic came to the fore-front in my mind as I was shooting the Olympus OM-D E-M1, because I set it up to spot meter from the central spot; however, I’ve been alternating between spot and matrix metering on my Nikon D800E for a long time now, as the shot demands.

Just Before MorningJust Before MorningThe moon over Puget Sound, just before morning

The basic ‘rule’ I’m going to try to convey here isn’t really anything unexpected: use the metering mode that works for the shot you are trying to achieve.

But which one to use, when, and why?

Spot metering essentially tells the camera to meter – measure the light present and convey to you (in Manual mode) how under or over exposed the image would be with your current settings, or convey to the camera (in non-Manual modes) what it needs to do to properly expose the image, be it changing the aperture or ISO or shutter speed or a combination thereof – based on that spot in the frame. For the D800E, spot metering tells the camera to measure the light at the AutoFocus selection point you currently have selected. There is a small region around that point that the camera evaluates.

Matrix metering is technically more advanced and computationally more demanding for the camera. In this mode you are basically telling the camera to average out the exposure for the entirety of the frame – the camera tries to give you the settings or exposure value that would best get most of the scene exposed approximately correctly. The camera actually measures thousands of individual points in the frame and compares that measurement to a library of similar exposures in its internal database, and then ‘guesses’ at the right settings needed to properly expose the image.

As an example, here's a shot I took first with Spot metering and then, immediately, switched to Matrix metering and took it again, with all the same settings and minimal processing.

Spot (with the AF point on the place in the clouds where the ray of light is emerging):


Ming Thein has a fantastic and more detailed write-up on these modes here.

Which one to use? Well, here’s what I’ve found:

For landscapes, when I trust the camera (I trust the D800E and the OM-D EM-1 as well as the Sony RX1-R), matrix mode tends to work well. It also works well when I’m not trying to abstract away information via exposure for architecture or plants – in other words, when I’m either going for a documentary approach or I’m deriving my creativity in the image from framing and composition alone, and I want as much of the image to be properly exposed as possible.

For portraits and when I want more careful control over the exposure, I use spot. For example, when the sun is shining through a hole the dappled forest canopy, directly onto a flower, and I deliberately want to expose just that flower and let the shadows around it go deep and dark, spot metering on the brightest part of the flower is perfect.


I’ve found I like the control of spot metering, especially when I have time to think and evaluate the shot. I enjoy high contrast subjects, and spot metering can really allow you to achieve that high-contrast look in-camera (without resorting to a ton of post processing). Done correctly, spot metering can result in images that really pop out at you, or add a sense of almost cinematic drama.

Matrix, on the other hand, is great for when you want an even exposure and when you need to work quickly. You probably will get more ‘hits’ (correct exposures) using Matrix Metering, but you might find those hits are not as strong or interesting visually as the hits you get when you use Spot Metering.

As with many things photography, there’s a large room for personal and artistic preference to the metering modes you choose to use. And, indeed, matrix and spot are not the only types of metering modes out there – the D800E, for example, also has the Centerweight metering mode, although I’ve found I rarely use it (in preference to either matrix or spot).

Out the WindowOut the WindowLooking out from the Columbia Tower in downtown Seattle

The best thing to do? Experiment. Go out and shoot the same subject multiple times from different angles with the various metering modes and review how each one behaves. See what they can do for you. Try it at magic hour with a willing or non-living (stationary) subject. Go crazy. Break the rules and see what kind of wild, inventive things you can get up to. It’s amazing what you can do when you get the camera off automatic.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) D800E E-M1 Matrix Matrix Meter Matrix Metering Metering Nikon OM-D Olympus RX1R Sony Spot Spot Meter Spot Metering how meter modes modes photography spot vs matrix metering versus vs when why Sat, 21 Jun 2014 18:16:08 GMT
Why is it Grey? DoorwayDoorway

A few months back I was showing some photos I took of a birthday party I took for some family friends and their birthday-girl daughter. I processed a few in a more ‘artistic’ way, with a black and white conversion that the parents quite liked. Their young daughter came over and looked at the photos, had good reaction to the color shots, and then, when she saw the first black and white, she asked:

“Why is it grey?”

Out of the mouths of babes, as it were.

The question stumped all of us adults as we stood there, because we didn’t have a clear and ready answer. Eventually the daughter’s mother offered a somewhat vague explanation about how black and white makes the photo look more creative and artistic, but the daughter clearly wasn’t convinced. To her the black and white photo was obviously lacking something – specifically, the color! It was no longer even pretending to be a faithful recording of the birthday party as she remembered, since she remembered it in full color.

(And, intriguingly, she landed a bulls-eye on the reality of black and white photography: it’s mostly not black and white, is it? It’s mostly – you guessed it, and she saw it and called it – shades of grey!)

Craggy MountainsCraggy MountainsSomewhere in the Cascades, Washington State

The event got me thinking about black and white photography in our modern, full-color world, and our (adult?) preconceptions about what a black and white image means to us. Shooting in monochrome or converting a color shot to monochrome is obviously a conscious choice a photographer has to make nowadays, not a restriction forced on them by technology. But many photographers, professional and amateur, continue to shoot in and convert to black and white – just check Flickr or 500px or G+ or any of the other photo sharing communities and you’ll see plenty of monochrome examples. The question is, though – why?

Why is it grey, indeed?

Harkens Back to Old Times?

Many of us – particularly those of us age 30 and older, I suspect – have memories of looking through scrap books filled with family photos that were in grainy black and white. Some of us might even remember when shooting in black and white wasn’t an option, it was the option, as color film stock wasn’t widely available or was prohibitively expensive, etc.

Old StyleOld StyleThis is another shot of the Chinese-style garden in Oita, Japan, this time given a more classical look and feel.

As a result, black and white photography can, for some, evoke feelings that a color photo of exactly the same thing simply cannot. These feelings might be conscious or unconscious nostalgia, might subtly remind us of those times when we saw those old family photos.

Or the black and white photos might just look old to us, with all the positive and negative and neutral connotations that ‘old’ implies. ‘Old’ could mean more legitimate to some people, more validated by time – as though, consciously or not, we think of this black and white photograph has having survived the vetting process of the years (even though the photographer took it yesterday) in a way that a modern looking color photograph has not. ‘Old’ could also mean, to some people – again, consciously or unconsciously, and certainly without complete accuracy – more real, less subject to post processing trickery (even though, obviously, a color photography that has been converted to black and white has, by definition, more post processing done to it).

More Professional?

For many years after color film stock and, later, color digital photography came to dominate the amateur/family photographic paradigm, many professionals relied on black and white photography to stand out and appear as professionals. Black and white photography, as a result, became associated in many people’s minds with the artistic and the professional – the high end journalism or wartime photography shots, the fabulously lit still life works of Edward Weston, the extraordinarily impactful works of Sebastian Salgado, etc.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Some of the most famous gallery photography works are in black and white. Those careful, modestly-sized prints held against flat white walls under perfectly smooth lighting, everything designed to show off the contrast and detail; impact, clean lines, a focus on the photograph at the expense of all else; professionalism defined.

In effect, do we see a monochrome shot and, thanks to the conditioning of years of the best photographers in the world using that style, associate it in some way with those photographers? Maybe. Again, viewers (and even photographers themselves) might do this unconsciously.

Concentrates the Viewer?

In the absence of color, the viewer’s eyes and attention have to focus on something else. That tends to be, in my experience, luminosity changes (obviously, since that is the essence of a black and white photography) as well as texture and contrast.

Lighting, as a result, becomes that much more important in monochrome images, as does the feeling of that light across various surfaces and the lack of light (shadows). The classical ‘noir’ sensibility of deep shadows and dramatic lighting works so well in black and white precisely because we aren’t distracted or have our eyes pulled away by errant pieces of color. The photographer cannot lean on color to guide the eye or bring interest to an image – it is the loss of a crutch, in a way – but similarly they are free to use contrast and light alone to control the impression the viewer has of the shot.

Abstracts the Scene?

Color, for most of us, is an every-day fact of life. Lack of color in monochrome images immediately causes us to see the photograph as an abstraction of life, rather than a faithful recording. We all know a photograph is not reality, but that knowledge impinges on us in a deeper and possibly more meaningful way in a monochrome shot: we are subconsciously aware of the lack of ‘truth’ to the image, in addition to that conscious knowledge that, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a black and white photograph.’

Lighting it UpLighting it UpThe light from the sun had this tree wonderfully framed in the shadows of the clouds, like a spotlight from the sky.

This is, potentially, a powerful tool. By making something ‘less’ than reality the photographer creates something that is somehow ‘more’ at the same time. More meaningful, more impactful, more likely to make the view pause and really think, really see the image. The viewer asks themselves, “Why did the photographer do it this way?” In other words, they ask,

“Why is it grey?”

My Personal Thoughts

I don’t really give much credence to the theories about harkening back to old times or giving a subtle, unconscious yet real feeling of heightened professionalism. Why not? Well, I just don’t get a feeling of nostalgia when I see any given black and white shot. Maybe some, but not many, and certainly not the vast majority of modern monochrome photographs I see on the web. And I believe there many other elements to a photograph that contribute to its level of professionalism other than whether or not it is in monochrome (lighting, composition, post processing, sharpness, depth of field choice, etc, etc, etc), to the point that black and white vs color is a matter of stylistic choice rather than a determining factor of its ‘professional’ appearance.

For me, then, the answer to the question that started this article comes down to concentrating the viewer and abstracting the scene. I do feel that removing color can actually add impact and artistic value to a photograph (not always, but sometimes, with the right subject and lighting and with the right end goal in mind as a photographer). I can look at examples of my own work in both color and monochrome versions and I often see dramatically different interpretations of a given scene, even though the two versions are otherwise identical.

So why is it grey?

To abstract the scene. To guide your eye. To focus your attention on light and shadow and texture instead of color. To give the shot the feeling I was looking for.

And because I want it to be.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) Why is it gray Why is it grey and black black and white black and white photography critical evaluation gray grey mono monochrome monochrome photography photography silver thinking thoughts white Thu, 15 May 2014 01:19:16 GMT
Phase One Hands-On Event in Seattle – April 2014 Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - BulbPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - BulbPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Since I started using Capture One Pro 7 I’ve signed up for the Phase One email newsletters, mainly to keep up with what some of the wonderful photographers are doing out there with Capture One and the Phase One medium format digital camera backs, and to get tips on how to better use the Capture One software. In early April on one of those newsletters I noticed that Phase One, in cooperation with Bear Images of Palo Alto, CA, were going to have free day-long workshops in both Portland and Seattle, on a weekend, where attendees could get their hands on Phase One cameras, digital backs, and lenses. The fact that attendees could bring their own CF card and return home with RAW images from the cameras, and that Bear was giving demonstrations on Capture One, was icing on the cake. I’ve always been interested in using medium format gear, and here was my chance to play with some of the best in the business for a few hours.

I jumped at the chance.

What follows is my experience with the various backs and lenses I used during this event. Note that this was a free event, open to anyone who registered, and I was not paid in any way by Phase One or Bear Images, nor did I receive anything other than the images I took with the cameras and the opportunity to get my greedy hands on some high-end gear. I’d like to extend my thanks to Phase One and Bear Images for this opportunity – they were great hosts, very informative, helpful and encouraging, and obviously passionate about the Phase One gear and software on hand.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - AlleyPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - AlleyPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Pike Place

The event took place in a classroom above Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. Anyone who has been to the market knows it is a bustling hive of activity, and offers a wealth of creative photographic opportunities. I would have been even more excited to try the gear up on Mt Rainier, for example, but Pike Place ended up working well. I arrived over an hour early on a clear Sunday morning and wandered around before the event with my Olympus OM-D E-M1, taking photos in the early morning light.

When I wandered up to the classroom just before the posted start time, I was surprised that the room itself was smaller than I expected; indeed, there were fewer attendees than I was anticipating as well, even after we gained a few who were wandering around lost and spotted us in a group moving throughout the market later in the day. I’d have thought there would be dozens of photographers in the Greater Seattle area, at least, who would have done just about anything to check out the Phase One gear. As it happens, though, fewer attendees meant more opportunities for those of us who did attend to use the gear we were most interested in.

We made introductions and laid out a rough plan for the day. Then we broke up into groups based on our general interest, distributing gear to go out and shoot (with a chaperon to keep an eye on the $40,000+ camera systems we were each holding). A few people went with a representative from Bear to work with a technical camera, set up on a tripod and carefully focused and shot for maximum detail. I elected to try the Phase One 645DF+ digital camera with a Schneider Kreuznach 55mm f/2.8 lens, using the IQ260 Achromaticic digital back.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Pike Place, Seattle, WA

IQ260 Achromatic

Why the Achromatic? I’m a fan of black and white photography, for one, and I’ve also been very interested in the effective resolution bump you receive when the Bayer filter is stripped away and every single pixel is used to capture pure luminance information. In brief, almost all modern cameras use a Bayer filter or variation thereof in order to derive color information (an exception is Foveon sensors used by Sigma DP cameras, which record color information at every pixel by measuring the depth various wavelengths penetrate the silicon of the pixel); the Bayer filter, which puts alternating green, red and blue filters over individual pixels, prevents certain wavelengths from hitting certain pixels, thus providing the information the camera needs to ‘build’ (interpolate) the color of the image. Without the Bayer filter the pixels capture pure luminance information, and without the image-degrading process of interpolation to create the colors, the resulting effective resolution/perceive acutance increases.

The Leica MM is perhaps the most well-known camera to do this on the market, but Phase One actually did this before with an earlier Achromatic medium format digital back. The IQ260 Achromatic is their latest and most advance model, basically the same as the color IQ260 60-megapixel color back but without the Bayer filter. The Phase One representative on hand estimated that the per-pixel acutance that results from stripping off the Bayer filter is up to 4 times higher than the color back. I’ve seen online estimates – specific to the Leica MM – that the effective resolution bump is more like 20%. In either case, it’s significant enough to notice.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - News StandPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - News StandPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle WA

There is no IR filter on the Achromatic back, so the reps set me up with a 72mm screw-on IR filter that attached to the Schneider 55mm f/2.8 lens, which allowed me and the camera to be on the same page with regard to what it was seeing vs what I was seeing (for metering and exposure, etc). Both the lens and the back attached to the Phase One 645DF+ camera body, which is essentially a near-universal mount for various medium format backs and lenses, not just those manufactured by Phase One. This means that, like many medium format setups, the gear in my hand consisted of three-parts: lens; camera body with the controls, viewfinder and mirror/shutter assembly; and digital back with sensor and display (exceptions to this three-part setup in the medium format digital world include the Leica S system and the Pentaz 645D/Z, which are a bit more like traditional DSLRs with a camera body that houses the sensor/mirror/shutter and just has separate lenses, for a two-part setup).

We set out as a group – others using color backs with various lenses – to capture Pike’s Place.

My first impressions were that the entire three-part combination is large, but not unwieldy – with the lens and the back, the entire camera is well balanced, and the deep grip on the 645DF+ body was a pleasure to hold, with a nice, slightly tacky rubber skin. The main command dial to pick the modes – aperture priority, manual, etc – was straightforward, similar to most other professional cameras, and it was easy to use the front and rear dials, which changed aperture and shutter speed when in manual mode.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - No LoiteringPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - No LoiteringPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

However, to change ISO you have to dive into the menus using the touch-sensitive rear screen, which I did not find intuitive. There is definitely a learning curve there. Among the group we ended up swapping cameras a few times (popping out our CF cards and putting them in the new cameras) and the person who used the Achromatic before giving it back to me set the ISO to 3200. There was no visual indication of this in the viewfinder, and I didn’t check it, leading me to take several outdoor shots at 3200 when I should have been at the base ISO of 200. This wasn’t the end of the world – the photos are still usable, the quality at 3200 pretty good – but when viewed at 100% you can certainly tell the CCD at 3200 lost a fair amount of detail vs shots taken at ISO 200. Basically, as with most things in the Medium Format world, you just need to be more careful and deliberate when taking photos – check all your settings, make sure everything makes sense, before you push down on the shutter button.

The viewfinder is big and pretty. You’d expect it to be with the giant mirror and the large size of the lenses and imaging sensor. I wasn’t blow away, however – it didn’t seem that much larger than the optical viewfinder on the D800E, although of course I didn’t have the D800E on hand to directly compare (I probably, in retrospect, should have, for a number of reasons, including to more directly compare image quality results).

What I found with the Achromatic back is it really delivers the goods, especially at base ISO. Looking at the images that come out of Capture One Pro 7, the detail – when you nail focus and have a high enough shutter speed for hand-holding, as I was – is amazing. Crisp, highly delineated edges, deep shadows (once you adjust contrast and clarity in Capture One), and resolution to spare, showing things in the image that I certainly didn’t notice when I was there in person. Not having to interpolate the image means two adjacent pixels can theoretically be at completely different luminance values (if the scene demands), from 0 to 255, meaning the micro contrast can be very, very high. In short, I could really get used to this level of resolution and acutance.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - Places to GoPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Places to GoPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I found the 55mm f/2.8 to be up to the task of delivering pin sharp results even on this demanding sensor (with some mild smearing in detail at the corners at f/2.8). That said, I did find the camera missed focus a few times, even though it looked correct in the viewfinder – I’m not sure if that’s the lens or the 645 body or a combination thereof, but I definitely had a few occasions where I had the AF point square on my intended subject, got confirmation, fired, and found the actual focus was in front or behind the subject I wanted. Frustrating. Given the extremely thin depth of field possible with medium format, this can be a critical mistake, so I’d highly recommend checking focus on the rear display (yes, chimping, and zooming in to 100%) after critical shots. This aspect might make me hesitant to recommend the entire Phase One system without hesitation to, for example, wedding photographers, who need to have critical focus nailed during the decisive moment.


The other back I was really interested in was the high-resolution color monster, the class leading 80 megapixel IQ280. This is a CCD back, but has a few upgrades from the first generation IQ180 CCD back that was, previously, the flagship of the Phase One line. The key spec is, of course, that 80 megapixel full-medium-format-frame CCD-supplied resolution.

Phase One IQ280 - WindowsPhase One IQ280 - WindowsPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA (note: desaturated the colors in post)

I didn’t get to spend as much time with the IQ280 as I would have liked. I did find that it is a demanding sensor – of all the backs I used that day, it was the one with the least amount of leeway to any kind of poor technique, which makes sense given how small the pixels are and how high the resolution is. As I mention below the Post Processing section, I found quite a few shots that I took and others took with this and the IQ260 color back missed white balance almost completely, requiring correction in Capture One afterward.

Phase One IQ280 - Taking the ShotPhase One IQ280 - Taking the ShotPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

With proper technique, a tripod, and, say, the 80mm f/2.8 lens, this back has the highest potential image quality of any that Phase One currently offers. It really is their flagship or ‘halo’ back, and for good reason. But I think many prospective buyers, professional and otherwise, might find they like the IQ260 Color better (with its ability to take 1 hour long exposures) or the IQ260 Achromatic (for its unique output and ultra-high per pixel acutance).


This one has lots of people excited. The first CMOS medium format back, this 50 megapixel sensor is manufactured by Sony and will be used in the upcoming Hassleblad and Pentax 645Z medium format cameras. The advantages of CMOS include superior high ISO performance, viable live view (great for landscape shooters, especially on, say, a technical camera), and even video shooting, as well as a very high listed dynamic range (14 stops, per Sony). CCD still has its passionate adherents, mainly because of the smoother, more film-like way it can render some scenes in terms of both color and luminosity, but CMOS seems to be the way of the future.

Phase One IQ250 - WidePhase One IQ250 - WidePhase One IQ250, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I didn’t use the IQ250 as much. A cropped sensor, you really need to use a 645DF+ camera that has a focusing screen that shows the crop lines in the viewfinder, and (of course) remember to frame inside those lines! I did try it out, and although I enjoyed my time with it, if I were to purchase a back I’d personally go after the IQ260 (for CCd rendering, color and extremely long exposures), IQ260 Achromatic (for all that lovely black and white acutance), or resolution leader IQ280 (for 80 megapixels of color). But I can see where the CMOS advantages of the IQ250 would be a big deal for many shooters, especially anyone who strongly needs a good live view and/or shoots at high ISOs.

Handling and Shooting Experience

Medium format places entirely new demands on you as a photographer. That said, it isn’t necessarily true that you must use a tripod with mirror lock up to achieve sharp shots, any more than it is with the Nikon D800E. Yes, doing so will get you the best results, and more consistently. But with sufficient shutter speed (and, especially with the IQ250, bumping up your ISO), you can hand hold and get tack-sharp results. I’d generally be comfortable recommending about 1/2x the medium format focal length as your recommended shutter speed. So for the 55mm lens, you can get great results, consistently, at 1/110 second shutter speed. It also helps that the big body dampens vibrations and helps you keep it braced and still against your body.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - ChainsPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - ChainsPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

It is a big body. It’s heavy, and you’ll feel it after a while, but I didn’t feel like it was significantly worse than the D800E. The shutter and mirror flip-up sounds are about what you expect, not too loud but certainly not RX1R leaf-shutter quiet – again, about on par with the D800E. The camera feels solid in your hands – and fit someone with big hands like me quite well – and with a lens and digital back attached it achieves good balance. The shutter button felt a little odd to me on all the bodies I tried during the event: I appreciated that it has a threaded hole for soft shutter releases or wired remotes, but the button itself seemed to have some play in it, moving slightly from side to side within the surrounding housing. This is a bit of a nitpick but, well, you’re paying a heck of a lot so you expect the best in all aspects of the system, and not something that feels in any way cheap.

I noticed the digital backs and the camera appeared to have some small space between them when they were attached, but the attachment itself is very secure, with thick metal pieces that, when you figure out how they work, slide into place and hold the back securely to the body. The digital backs themselves are little bricks of smooth metal that feel like they could survive being driven on by a truck.

The Lenses

I had read some so-so reviews of the Schneider Kreuznach lenses that are designed and manufactured for Phase One. The most prevalent theme was that they just couldn’t measure up to some of the medium format offerings from Hassleblad or Zeiss, and certainly didn’t hold a candle to Leica S glass. Unfortunately I can’t offer conclusive comparisons vs other medium format glass here, because this is the first medium format gear I’ve used. Instead I have to go by top notch lenses I’ve used for smaller format sensors, such as the better Nikkor and Zeiss ZF lenses for Nikon 135 full frame, the Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 for micro four thirds, the Zeiss 35mm f/2 on the Sony RX1R, etc.

Phase One IQ280 - Flower ShoppingPhase One IQ280 - Flower ShoppingPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

From that perspective the Schneider lenses I used performed, generally, quite well. As mentioned above I could see some detail smearing on the edges and corners of the frame using the 55mm when shot at f2.8. From f/5.6 to f/11 it is blisteringly sharp.

They were all heavy, solid, and well built. They generally focused fast – not lightning quick, probably a little slower than the OM-D E-M1 in most circumstances. Primarily their focus is on optical superiority, being intended to match or exceed the 80 megapixel resolution of the IQ280, and from what I can tell they largely succeed at doing that, especially in the center 75% or so of the image.

The 55mm f/2.8, despite some weakness in the corners, was my favorite, probably because it is approximately equal to a 35mm lens on a 135mm full frame like the D800E, and I ‘see’ in that focal range quite well. I enjoyed using it on the Achromatic, and it delivered good results. Whether due to the sensor or that lens, or both, I had by far the highest number and largest percentage of “keepers” using the 55mm with the IQ260 Achromatic. That said, I did find one fault with this lens: when the sun (or any very strong light source) is in or even near the imaging circle, the lens suffers from very strong veiling flare that will wreck the image. Basically you have to be extra vigilant when shooting toward a strong light source, as the coatings don't appear to be as effective as, say, Nikon's Nano Coatings or Zeiss T* coatings in reducing haze and flare.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - WaitingPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - WaitingPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Seattle, WA

The 28mm f/4.5 lens was fun to use as an ultra-wide (remember it’s significantly wider than a 28mm lens on a 135 ‘full frame’ camera like the D800E – more like 17mm), and it seemed to deliver great results when stopped down to f/8 or f/11. At f/4.5 to f/5.6 there is significant vignetting present (you can correct this quickly in Capture One), and definite smearing of details at the edges and corners, to a greater degree than the 55mm. Pixel peepers would not be pleased on this score. The lens also has some definite distortion at all apertures (also correctable in Capture One), with elements near the edges getting stretched in appearance. None of these things are particularly surprising – ultra wide angle lenses are hard to design and tend to have vignetting and distortion, and the size of a medium format sensor just makes the design that much more difficult. That said, you are still paying a lot for the 28mm (over $4000 new) and at a maximum aperture of only f/4.5, I think it’s fair to expect a bit better performance.

Phase One IQ260 - Out of the WindowPhase One IQ260 - Out of the WindowPhase One IQ260, Seattle, WA

The 80mm f/2.8 (approximately 50mm equivalent on a 135 camera) was probably the strongest lens optically of the bunch, when used with proper technique and/or a bracing against something. I found this lens – especially coupled with the IQ280 – very difficult to keep sufficiently steady, with blurring occurring for me even at shutter speeds of 1/100 sec. That is probably a combination of the longer focal length with the higher, more demanding resolution of the IQ280 back, but the fact remains I had many more keepers – tack sharp – with the 55mm f/2.8 and the IQ260 Achromatic, even with shutter speeds down to 1/50 sec. Hence my general recommendation to use 1/2x the medium format focal length when hand holding to get the best results. However, when I nailed everything with the 80mm f/2.8 and the IQ280 back, the details are incredible, sharp edge to edge, and it really provides that “medium format look” with great subject separation from the background and lovely rendering of color and bokeh.

Phase One IQ280 - Back of the SignPhase One IQ280 - Back of the SignPhase One IQ280, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I only briefly played with the relatively new (and $8000+) 240mm f/4.5 leaf shutter lens, on an IQ260 (color) back. I don’t feel like I used it enough to give much of an evaluation, and since I was hand-holding (even braced against a window sill as best I could) the images I did take show pixel-level blur. Basically it seemed like a lens that demands a tripod.

That was all the lenses I was able to play with – unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to use the 35mm f/3.5 (22mm equivalent), which would have been very interesting to compare vs the 28mm, especially in terms of corner performance and vignetting. It also would have been fun to try out the 120mm f/4.0 Macro, though I would have liked, of course, to have had access to a tripod, mirror lock up, and more time to really use that lens properly.

Files and Post Processing

I use Capture One Pro 7 for all my RAW processing now anyway, so naturally I used it for the files from these Phase One backs. It took a moderate amount of time to load the RAW files from the shoot (about 200 total) into a new session on Capture One, but once loaded the preview generation and editing responsiveness has been just about exactly the same as I’m used to with RAW files from the Nikon D800E (on the same computer), at least for the IQ260 and IQ250 files. The IQ280 files definitely made my computer chug a bit more.

Phase One IQ250 - Street LightPhase One IQ250 - Street LightPhase One IQ250, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

I noticed even during the session when the Phase One reps showed off the capabilities of Capture One using files people had shot from earlier that same day that the white balance seemed to be off with decent regularity. This isn’t an issue with the D800E, or RX1R, or OM-D E-M1, which all tend to be pretty spot-on with white balance (on auto). In fact, with those cameras I usually only adjust white balance for creative reasons. Here, however, on the color files I shot and others shot, it was clear that white balance adjustment on a per-image basis was necessary. Perhaps an issue inherent to the Phase One backs? I’m not sure. Pike Place, especially inside, is a challenging environment in terms of light, with tungsten and neon artificial lights contrasting with sunlight pouring in from outside, but having spent an hour shooting with the E-M1 earlier that same day in the same areas I had far fewer white balance problems.

Outdoor shots generally worked better, but I still had to make drastic white balance adjustments on some shots I took of the surrounding streets and buildings of Seattle to get them to look natural at all (usually the issue was the white balance was far too warm, going into sepia territory for the blue skies).

I’d also point out, again, the occasional missed focus with the autofocus system. Even checking the back display after shooting I still missed some shots where focus is obviously off (noticeable once seen on my computer display).

When everything came together on the day of the shoot, however, Capture One Pro 7 showed its mettle and spit out processed images that are highly detailed and overall lovely to behold.


Medium format cameras are notoriously pricey, and Phase One camera systems are no exception. Pentax, with their 645D and upcoming 645Z, are trying to shift that paradigm, and I’m all for it. Why? Because I, as a mere mortal with mere mortal funding, would love to own a camera that delivers the image quality of these Phase One backs and Schneider lenses. But at the moment these camera systems are beyond my means.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - LightPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - LightPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Are they perfect? No. And for a price that – for back, camera, and one lens – could get you a low end BMW, you have a right to expect close to perfection in your chosen photographic solution. I think focus accuracy and automatic white balance both need some work, based on my admittedly brief hands-on time with the system. I also think having more physical controls on the camera body (particularly ISO and exposure compensation) would go a long way. Having to dive through menus felt clunky and slow – I’m sure you get used to it, but physical controls would just work better. And, again given their expense, some of the lenses could perform better.

It is interesting to me how the ultra-high-end of electronics like cameras tend to work. In a way it’s similar to high-end audio, which can get much more ridiculous than anything in the still photography world. You can pay $300 now for a little boombox or a pair of bookshelf speakers and a cheap receiver that will give you passable sound quality that, for many people, is totally fine. This might equate to a $150 point-and-shoot camera. Then you can go rapidly up in cost while simultaneously experiencing big gains in sound (photo quality); e.g. you can pay $8000 for great (but hardly top of the line) speakers and a solid receiver that will give you pounding sound for your movies and smooth clarity on your music, and which will generally blow away all your friends. Even people who don’t care a whit about sound quality will be able to tell the difference if you played something on that $300 setup and then on your $8000 setup. That would be, in photograph terms, the jump from the point and shoot to the $5000 for a full frame DSLR and a couple good (“pro”) lenses from Canon or Nikon. The image quality change is apparent even to those who know absolutely nothing about cameras or photography.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - WallPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - WallPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Then you go up, and the curve mapping cost to perceived gains starts to get skewed. You have to spend tons more to get incremental gains, until with highest-end audio you can spend $400,000 for two speakers and not even start on the input gear you need to effectively drive those speakers (not to mention pay for the crane you need to get the two-ton speakers into your mansion, cough cough). Will you hear a difference compared to the $8000 set? Of course. In the right room with the right acoustics playing a high quality source through ultra-high end equipment (pre-amp, processor, amps), the $400,000 speakers will blow you away. I’ve heard speakers like that, in person in a decent room playing off a Super Audio CD, and it was incredible.

Phase One cameras are not quite at the extravagance level of $400,000 speakers. But the analogy here is that the difference in image quality between them and, say, the D800E is not as profound as the price difference might initially suggest it should be. Is there a difference? Yes. Put an IQ280 file – shot with impeccable technique – against a D800E file of the same scene shot at the same time by the same photographer, also with a great lens and impeccable technique, and you will see a difference in the level of detail in the IQ280, in the way the CCD sensor renders, in the thin depth of field afforded by the bigger sensor, etc. Even someone who doesn’t care about photography could tell the difference if you showed them the files side by side, especially printed at 36inx24in or larger.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - PeppersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - PeppersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Pike Place, Seattle, WA

But – and here the high end audio analogy falls down a bit – the Phase One gear is also more demanding (requiring strong technique, careful preparation, etc) and it is less capable in some ways than that Nikon D800E or Canon 5D Mark III, despite being ten times the price. Both the Nikon and Canon cameras are faster, have more physical controls, are friendlier to use, show more information about each capture to the end user, autofocus more accurately, have more consistent automatic white balance, have far more autofocus points to use, etc, etc.

Maybe the better analogy, then, is the family sedan vs the high end, specially tuned sports car. The sedan gets you there, in comfort, with amenities, and makes things as easy on you as it can, demanding very little from you except safe, careful driving, cheap gas, and the occasional oil change. The sports car might cost twenty times as much and not even have power windows or air conditioning, and demand multi-thousand dollar tune ups on a regular basis and high-octane gas, but that’s because it’s built to do one thing very well: drive fast. Similarly, an OM-D E-M1 or a D800E has the comfort and amenities and tries to make things easier on the photographer – although of course it’s still up to you to compose and manipulate the camera to get the shot you want. Then the Phase One systems come in and are streamlined monsters built to do one thing very well: deliver image quality. Getting there is entirely up to you.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - Hanging OutPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Hanging OutPhase One IQ260 Achromatic, Seattle, WA

I own a Nikon D800E. Do I still want a Phase One system? Of course. Just like I’d love a Nissan GT-R to complement my boring, predictable, dependable Toyota Camry, or a pair of $400,000 speakers to complement my aging but capable Infinity Betas. Personally, if given a choice on a Phase One back, I might even specialize things even further and get the IQ260 Achromatic, because I loved the results that much, despite it “only” shooting in monochrome. But a Nissan GT-R or $400,000 speakers are not in the cards for me, and, most likely, neither is a Phase One system.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 28mm 55mm 645DF+ 7 80mm Achromatic Capture Capture One Capture One Pro 7 IQ250 IQ250 back IQ260 IQ260 Achromatic IQ260 Achromatic back IQ280 IQ280 back Kreuznach One Phase Phase One Phase One 28mm Phase One 55mm Phase One 80mm Phase One lenses Pike Place Pro Schneider Schneider Kreuznach Schneider Kreuznach lenses Seattle State WA Washington backs digital f/2.8 format market medium medium format digital street urban Tue, 29 Apr 2014 01:29:09 GMT
Lens Review: Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH Power OIS Early MorningEarly MorningI took this shot in the blue darkness before dawn on First Hill in downtown Seattle. It was as much an evaluation shot of the Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 as anything else, but I enjoy how the bokeh turned out, and the colors - those deep blues and the yellows from the Christmas-style lights behind the fencing.

I’m a new initiate into the Micro 4/3rds (hereafter “m43”) world. I resisted for a long time, preferring the look and capabilities of full frame cameras to either APS-C or the even smaller m43 formats. Stepping down in sensor size felt like downgrading, something I was reluctant to do, even to the point of buying the full-frame Sony RX1R for my walk-around, travel, everyday camera (and it is a great little camera). But times and gear requirements change, and for various reasons I have found myself the owner of an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and a pair of lenses, including the subject of this review. I’ll go more into the ‘why’ behind my partial move to m43 (not a full switch because I’m keeping my Nikon D800E full-format DSLR and lenses) in a later post. For now, though, let’s look deeper into Panasonic’s new halo lens.



  • Biting sharp across the entire frame even at f/1.2 (!)
  • Beautiful, creamy, smooth bokeh
  • Fast and accurate autofocus
  • Vignetting even wide open is well controlled and (subjectively) visually appealing
  • Chromatic aberration even wide open is well controlled (possibly corrected even on RAW via in-camera processing, in addition to optical corrections in the lens, I’m not sure – but it looks good)
  • Great all-metal built quality
  • Includes lens hood and cap (not all Olympus m43 lenses do)
  • Has in-lens image stabilization for those using Panasonic bodies
  • Works flawlessly on the OM-D E-M1



  • Very expensive compared to its competition, particularly the Olympus 45mm f/1.8
  • Not as compact as other m43 lenses can be (such as the Olympus 45mm f/1.8)
  • Not billed as weather sealed (and it should be for this price)


Demolition Example 3Demolition Example 3Example from the Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 and Olympus OM-D E-M1 - construction in downtown Seattle

I’ll be up front: this is, overall, a fantastic lens. As a “halo” product – a lens that establishes Panasonic as a producer of wonderful lenses, albeit at a higher price, that can pull in users and get them to purchase other Panasonic products – this certainly fits the bill. It is very expensive, particularly for a m43 lens and especially when weighed against its most direct competitor, the well-regarded Olympus 45mm f/1.8. But that expense seems justified if you are looking for maximum image quality with that lovely maximum aperture of f/1.2.

A few things to clarify. One: this lens says “Leica” on it but it isn’t a ‘true’ Leica lens – it is a lens co-designed by Leica with Panasonic and manufactured by Panasonic according to Leica quality standards. I don’t care about that – as long as it produces great images, is built well, and lasts a long time, I don’t care who makes it. But if that’s important to you, well, there you go. Be prepared to spend a lot more to get yourself a ‘true’ Leica lens, and in the process you’ll lose autofocus.


Two: what does f/1.2 really mean on an m43 sensor? There are lots and lots of misconceptions about this. I know I was confused for a long time. Here’s the reality: this is a “real” f/1.2 lens (compared with an f/1.2 on a full frame body) in terms of light gathering ability. The difference from, say, a Canon 85mm f/1.2 mounted on a Canon 5D Mark III vs this lens on my Olympus OM-D E-M1 is the depth of field: while both lenses show a field of view equivalent to 85mm in full format terms and both gather light at the big f/1.2 aperture, the smaller size of the m43 sensor means the depth of field at f/1.2 on the OM-D E-M1 is more like what the 5D Mark III would show stopped down to f/2.5.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this fact. Disadvantages? You can’t get quite the razor-thin depth of field at a distance with the m43 sensor + 42.5mm f/1.2 lens that you can with the full frame sensor + 85mm f/1.2 lens. If you need or want that, you’ll need to go full frame (or possibly investigate the manual-focus only Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95). Advantages? This lens is usable for portraits wide open, letting you gather the most possible light in lower-light situations, thus letting you keep your ISO lower (image stabilization, on lens for Panasonic bodies or in-body on Olympus bodies, also helps this). What I mean is unless you are really looking to just get a sliver of the iris of the eye of your subject in focus, having a little more depth of field – but still enough to blur the background and give good subject separation – is actually a benefit, giving you the chance to get both eyes in focus, for example, or two faces that are next to one another.

Further EvidenceFurther EvidenceSpring is coming!

Back to this lens. It is built extremely well, with an all-metal exterior that feels professional and high grade. It comes with a metal, screw-clamp-on style lens hood, unlike some of the pricier Olympus m43 lenses (which require you to buy the hood separately). Unfortunately it is not billed as a weather-sealed lens; therefore in adverse conditions I have chosen to switch to the other m43 lens I currently have, the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8, which is weather sealed.

Image quality is where this lens truly shines and lives up – mostly – to its exorbitant price. It is bitingly sharp even at f/1.2 and clear across the frame – something that is certainly easier to accomplish on the smaller m43 sensor but still impressive. Stopping down corrects the mild vignetting some and clears up the remaining chromatic aberration that you can sometimes detect at f/1.2, but the sharpness doesn’t really change much – it just stays razor sharp until it hits the diffraction limit of the sensor around f/8. I pretty much leave it at f/1.2 unless I want more depth of field for a given shot.

Can it deliver subject separation and bokeh? Yes. Absolutely. Not as much as a full frame 85mm f/1.2, of course, as noted above, but I’ve had no trouble getting great bokeh and separation even with my main subject several feet away from me. The closer you get, of course, the smaller your depth of field, until at the minimum focus distance you are back to that razor’s edge depth of field with just a slice of your subject in focus and the rest of the world a blur ahead of and behind it.

Demolition Example 1Demolition Example 1Example from the Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 and Olympus OM-D E-M1 - construction in downtown Seattle

And it is a beautiful blur. It can’t quite match the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 or Zeiss 100mm f/2 in terms of gorgeous bokeh – although bokeh is subjective and some may prefer this lens to those in terms of rendering – but it is also cleaner than those lenses are wide open in terms of longitudinal chromatic aberration, with less purple and green edges to the bokeh outlines. It isn’t a full APO lens, but whether through in-lens corrections or in-camera processing (even on RAW) or both, chromatic aberrations are on the whole very well controlled.

There’s not a lot more to say. This is a very expensive, very fast, very high quality prime lens, among the best lenses you can buy in the m43 format – a format that has a large and growing stable of fantastic lenses. Is it better than the Olympus 45mm f/1.8? I don’t have one of those lenses to compare against, but the resources I’ve seen online that have compared them back to back generally say that the Panasonic is slightly sharper in the center when both lenses are wide open and much sharper on the edges/corners, and (again, subjectively) has better bokeh. The color and rendering also appear to be slightly different – you may prefer one or the other. The Olympus has the benefits of being much smaller and much cheaper. If you love your Oly 45mm f/1.8 then there isn’t a compelling reason to upgrade unless you need the best; similarly, if you are debating between the two and you don’t need or want the best performance at f/1.2, then the Oly is a great and much cheaper alternative.

But: if you want or need the highest quality in the 85mm equivalent (classical portrait) focal length for m43, this is it.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 42.5mm ASPH DG E-M1 Leica Leica 42.5mm Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 Micro Four Thirds Nocticron OM-D Olympus Panasonic Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.2 review Panasonic 42.5mm review Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 review blur bokeh depth f/1.2 field lens lens review m43 of review sharpness Fri, 18 Apr 2014 00:00:07 GMT
Lens Review: Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 for Nikon F Mount Rainier SunshineRainier SunshineStreams of light and reflections of the mountain on during sunrise at Reflection Lake near Mt Rainier, Washington State

This is a tough one. Not because this is a bad lens; in fact, it is an exceptionally good lens in nearly every respect. The difficulty in giving it a blanket recommendation, however, is due to the fact that the competition in this segment – fast 35mm primes for Nikon – is so fierce. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens, in particular, offers nearly the performance (and may actually be sharper) as the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 at close to a $1000 less retail, with the addition of autofocus. The Rokinon/Samyang is a manual focus 35mm f/1.4 that is well regarded for its optical performance and very affordable price, even if the build quality can’t compete with the Zeiss.  The Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is a solid workhorse lens that, while more pricy than this Zeiss, delivers solid performance as well as autofocus. And there is even a competitor within the Zeiss ranks: the older, slower, but still optically quite good Zeiss 35mm f/2 ZF.2.

So there is a lot of competition here. Lots of reasons not to pick this lens when you are looking to buy a fast 35mm prime. But, all that said, this lens – particularly wide open or f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8 or so – has a certain magic that you only find on the very best of lenses from Zeiss and Leica and a few other manufacturers. It’s a combination of exceptional sharpness, high microcontrast and macrocontrast, brilliant color reproduction, vignetting wide open, and some of the best bokeh of any lens I’ve ever used, period – it all comes together to make something special.

Spring BokehSpring BokehSpringtime in the Pacific Northwest still means rain, unfortunately, but the occasional sunny days are really gorgeous. Plants are blooming and colors is returning to the previous slate gray landscape.


  • Sharp wide open (albeit hard to nail focus)
  • Razor sharp – beyond the D800E sensor’s ability to resolve – from about f/2.8 to f/8
  • High microcontrast and macrocontrast
  • Zeiss color and rendering
  • Gorgeous, buttery smooth bokeh (out of focus areas)
  • Delivers “pop” to images when you nail the focus that only the best lenses can match
  • Rock-solid, tank-like Zeiss ZF build quality


  • Expensive
  • Heavy
  • Manual focus only
  • Faces many great competitors, most of which are lower in price
  • Not weather sealed
  • Shows Longitudinal Chromatic Abberation (LoCA, purple and green fringing) on high-contrast out-of-focus elements

Just Before MorningJust Before MorningThe moon over Puget Sound, just before morning

This lens has a look. A feel; a method of rendering that makes it’s images stand out, especially when viewed large or printed large, and especially when used at large apertures. It delivers on its price with that little bit of mojo that you expect from the best of lenses. You might not actually like it – maybe you don’t really care for Zeiss colors or high contrast or vignetting. But if, like me, you do like those things when used with care on specific subjects, then this is a hot lens all around.

That said, it’s very heavy, and it’s manual focus only. The build is solid metal and it feels it – in both the good (solid) and bad (weight) sense of that concept. The focus ring is smooth and precise and lovely to use, but, of course, it had better be, since there is no autofocus. It can be very challenging to nail focus at f/1.4, especially when handholding and using the optical viewfinder – a split prism screen on the D800E would go a long way to help this, but, alas, such an option isn’t really available unless you are willing and able to perform some custom work on your camera body.

Kittitas ValleyKittitas ValleyA look out at the hills surrounding Kittitas Valley on a mid summer's day

The lens extends slightly when focusing – not much, but it’s noticeably not an internal-focus design. I was worried about dust for a while but during a nine to ten month period where I only used two lenses on my D800E – this lens, and the Zeiss 100mm Makro Planar f/2 – in all kinds of environments, I never had any issue with dust getting into the camera. Actually it wasn’t until I started using the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 and Nikon 70-200mm f/4 that I began, all of sudden, having dust show up on my sensor – and those are supposed to be weather sealed lenses, whereas the Zeiss lenses are not! Take that for what you will, but it is an anecdote I find interesting.

The only optical drawback of this lens (unless you consider the vignetting at large apertures a major drawback – I see it as a style of the lens) is the moderate to heavy LoCA visible on high contrast out of focus elements when using the lens at large apertures, especially f/1.4 to f/2. Just like the Zeiss 100mm Makro Planar f/2, if you miss focus on a hard-edged subject that is backlit, you will see a ton of purple fringing. Nail focus? Then you’ll just see green and purple fringing in the fore- and background. It’s not great – I’d much prefer this lens was a true APO like the Zeiss 135mm f/2 or Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4. But with the right use of post processing, in Lightroom 5 or Capture One Pro 7, you can largely mitigate this issue. That means extra time at the computer, though, and LoCA can make focusing harder and cost some of the sharpness of the lens on those affected subjects.

And, really, that’s about all I have to say on this lens. It has tons of really good competition. It lacks autofocus, and it’s a heavy beast of a lens that can be a pain in the neck (literally) to hike with. But when you nail the focus, or when you have the time to set up a tripod and use Live View to carefully compose, this lens really delivers the goods. If end result image quality is your only concern, and you have the time and patience in your shooting to overlook the lack of autofocus, then this is, really, a brilliant lens.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 35mm Carl Zeiss Carl Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 review F Mount Nikon T ZF.2 Zeiss Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 review Zeiss 35mm review Zeiss ZF.2 distagon f/1.4 lens review Sat, 05 Apr 2014 22:54:03 GMT
Sony RX1R for Travel: South Carolina and Georgia Savannah GraveyardSavannah GraveyardAccording to our guide, this old cemetery in the middle of downtown Savannah was once much larger. City planners had to reduce it's size in order to make way for larger streets. As a result, there are graves under the streets and sidewalks, graves where the wood of the coffins have collapsed, making the sidewalk and street uneven and cracked. Before I heard this, as I walked on the bricks, I thought they were just old, or shoddily done. Things took on a different meaning when I learned of the graves below my feet. As further evidence our guide pointed out an old above-ground tomb that had been cut in half when they shortened the extent of the graveyard.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Hilton Head Island with my wife for a week-long vacation. It was a much-needed break and re-energizer for work for both of us. For the trip I left the big D800E and Nikkor glass at home and instead took just the Sony RX1R.

How did it do?

Riverwalk NightRiverwalk NightWe happened to come to Savannah on St Patrick's Day, completely unaware that it is - reputedly - the city with the second largest St Patrick's Day celebration in the United States (after New York City). True? I'm not sure. Certainly there were a fair number of drunken revelers out and about, and I had the distinct feeling of being back in my college days. It was also rainy, creating quite the mood on those old Savannah streets. This shot was on the Riverwalk, looking toward the bridge that takes you out of Georgia and back into South Carolina.

Very well, of course. It’s an exceptionally capable little camera, particularly when it comes to image quality and the flexibility of the RAW files. The main concerns or ‘problems’ with the camera are ones I already touched on in my review. Specifically:

  • Limited to the fixed 35mm f/2 lens – it is a spectacular Zeiss lens, and you should be well aware of the limitations (as I was) of having only one focal length before you ever buy the camera, but even so there were occasions where I wanted a wider perspective or a longer perspective
  • Hunts in low light – I actually only had this happen a few times. Most of the night time shots I took were in cities like Savannah with enough illumination from street lights and store fronts that the camera readily locked on to whatever I was aiming at. So not really a big deal at all
  • A wish for image stabilization – I don’t have the most stable of hands. It’s tough to admit, but there you go. I do my best to compensate with careful shot technique (forming a solid triangle with my arms and face [using the viewfinder], bracing against objects whenever possible, etc), but even so it would have been very nice to have in-body image stabilization a-la the Olympus OM-D series cameras
  • Not weather sealed – this was kind of a biggie. It was cold, rainy and windy where we were for the first three days of the trip, and we spent time on the beach. I was very careful to protect the camera but given how expensive it is, I think Sony should have thoroughly sealed it against moisture and dust

Footprints in the WindFootprints in the WindThe beach on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina can be cold and very windy, especially in the early spring. In the summer - so I've heard - the water gets even warmer than the ambient air temperature sometimes, leading to crowded beaches and children frolicking in the waves. In mid March, though, with the wind howling and the sand blowing, there may be no one else around, seemingly for miles, leaving you alone with the waves and the clouds and your footprints in the sand.

That’s really it. The image quality is great, even at high ISOs. That Zeiss lens packs a punch. The entire camera, including my added grip and the EVF, still slipped into a small shoulder bag, and I carried it everywhere. On a late night “Ghost Tour” of Savannah I got some shots I’m quite happy with – again, at times I’d have liked a wider focal length, perhaps, or longer one, as well as image stabilization, but the overall quality of the output and the fact that I carried it around for hours without pain or discomfort speaks to what this camera really excels at: producing DSLR-quality images in a tiny body.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 35mm Carolina Georgia Ghost Head Hilton Hilton Head Island Island R RX1 RX1-R RX1R Savannah Savannah Georgia Sony South South Carolina Tour Zeiss compact f/2 frame full travel Fri, 28 Mar 2014 22:42:39 GMT
First Impressions Review: Sigma DP3 Merrill

I’m calling this a “First Impressions Review” because I’ve learned over the last several years of using new pieces of photography gear that it takes months of regular use to really get a definitive sense of all the strengths and weaknesses of a camera or a lens. One week – which is what I had with the Sigma DP3 – is not sufficient. It is enough time, however, to get a feel for it, even in the less-than-ideal weather we’ve been having (overcast, rainy, windy).

I can basically sum up what follows with one sentence: great image quality at low ISOs, good build quality, good interface, terrible battery/processing/high ISO performance.



  • At low ISOs (100 to 400) the image quality at a per-pixel level is spectacular, rivaling the D800E with the best Nikon or Zeiss ZF.2 lenses
  • Very good integrated 75mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens
  • Sensible, easily understood menu system
  • Good build quality, small form factor, light weight and easy to carry around for extended periods
  • Nearly silent leaf shutter


  • Boxy, unattractive shape (per my wife: definitely not cute) – if that’s important to you (it isn’t for me)
  • Image quality declines rapidly after ISO 800 (ISO 1600 is usable in black and white in a pinch), especially with regard to color
  • Ponderous operation – RAW files take 7+ seconds to write to the SD card and allow playback, though you can continue to take additional shots during that time
  • RAW files can only be edited in the slow and operationally deficient Sigma Photo Pro (on Windows – Mac users also have the option of Iridient)
  • Horrible battery life – 50 to 70 images per charge

I’ve been curious about the Sigma Merrill line for some time. I’m always fascinated by new and different sensor technologies. One case in point is Fuji’s X-Trans sensor, which changes the traditional filter layout to more closely approximate silver halide film’s random grain. That fascination led me to buy a Fuji X-E1, which is in many ways a great little camera with some truly fantastic prime lenses hampered by, at the time, awful “watercolor” RAW file processing by Adobe Lightroom (since improved, I’ve heard, and now quite good in Capture One Pro 7, from what I can tell by processing some of my old shots).

The Merrill line uses an even more unique sensor technology called Foveon. I don’t want to go into too many technical details – other sites like DPReview and Imaging Resource, not to mention Cambridge Colour, have done a much better job than I could here – but the basic concept revolves around the fact that different wavelengths of light can penetrate silicon to varying levels. This allows a single pixel in the sensor to capture all color and luminance data, without a Bayer-style filter over the sensor to only allow certain wavelengths to reach the pixel below.

Sigma’s marketing department wants us to believe this triples the effective megapixel count, from 15.3 million “physical” pixels to 46 megapixels of Bayer-equivalent image quality. It doesn’t, really; more like 24-30 megapixels. And the image size in terms of actual resolution on your computer screen is still 15.3 megapixels – just in case you needed that clarified (the marketing info certainly doesn’t make that clear).

But, the image quality at low ISOs is really spectacular for such a tiny camera. It’s almost D800E-level quality, particularly with the excellent Sigma 50mm (75mm in full frame equivalent terms) f/2.8 lens. It resolves extremely well, with high acutance and accuracy – closer to a “window to the world” than most Bayer-sensor cameras can ever seem to get.

The tradeoff, at least with Foveon sensor technology right now, is performance at higher ISOs that struggles – a lot – especially in comparison to the latest Bayer-sensor cameras or Fuji’s X-Trans sensors. Blue, in particular, suffers the most because it is the wavelength that has to penetrate the deepest into the silicon, and is therefore the most attenuated and has to be digitally enhanced (producing noise).

I found the images very strong at ISO 100 at all apertures with this little camera (even f/2.8). By ISO 400 you can notice a fair bit of granular noise, though it isn’t objectionable. ISO 800 starts to suffer, particularly with regard to color accuracy, and by 1600 or 3200 it gets messy. You could get away with ISO 1600 for black and white images, where the color accuracy is less important than the luminance information. But, really, for the best results this is a low ISO camera, meant for lots of available light or use on a tripod.

Also as a result of the unique sensor, the RAW files are very large – upwards of 60 megabytes – and the camera takes its sweet time processing and saving them to the SD card. Seven or more seconds of sweet time per shot. Now, you can keep shooting during this period – though doing so of course extends that processing period further – but you can’t review the shot on the rear LCD until it has finished. This is a far cry from the near-instant feedback most modern digital cameras are capable of, including cameras that have to move a lot of info (like the D800E, which is a positive speed demon compared to the DP3).

And, the unique RAW files produced by the camera can only currently be processed (in Windows) by Sigma Photo Pro, Sigma’s free, proprietary, and rather slow and cumbersome RAW processing software. Mac owners have the option of Iridient as well – I don’t have a Mac so I can’t comment on how well it does. SPP is…fine. Workman-like. I used it to do bare-bones processing and then exported a TIFF (for my favorite photos) or JPEG (for all the others) to then process in Photoshop with the Nik plugins. Capture One Pro 7 or Lightroom 5 it most definitely is not. I think Sigma would do very well to share the algorithms behind the Foveon RAW files with Adobe and Phase One and let them handle the RAW processing going forward – but that may be pie-in-the-sky thinking.

In terms of handling, the DP3 does okay. It’s a boxy little thing with a metal finish that gets cool to the touch. I didn’t find it likely to slip out of my hands the way the RX1R did (before I added the grip to the RX1R), but it also didn’t ever really feel good in my hands. Just okay. A little box that shoots great photos when you have sufficient light. The menus are well done, at least, friendly and obvious, with all the major settings clearly laid out and easy to get to. The contrast-detect autofocus tends to hunt even in decent light, slowing the operation down even further, but when it locks it locks-in quite accurately.

I did notice the bokeh produced by the 75mm-equivalent lens is good but not spectacular, with a tendency to be a bit “busy” in some scenes. Bokeh – and what you like in your out-of-focus areas – is a very personal thing, harder to objectively measure than many other areas of image quality, so you may feel differently, and that’s fine; but I generally prefer a smoother feel to my bokeh than this lens produces.

Sigma has recently announced the new version of the DP2 Merrill, with a new Foveon-style sensor with new tweaks (kind of making it a hybrid between Foveon and Bayer) to improve performance, and with an entirely new and very original looking body style that may or may not actually be comfortable to hold. It will be very interesting to see if the new DP versions can keep the image quality of the originals but improve the high ISO, battery life, and computational performance. If they do, they could be pretty special little cameras, indeed.

At the present, though, I have to admit I was ready to send the DP3 back to the rental company when my week was up. My curiosity was satisfied and I was ready to return to the speedy comfort of the D800E and RX1R. I know some people love the DP Merrill cameras to death, despite their quirky and slow nature. And the image quality really is great at low ISOs. But I never felt like the DP3 grabbed me; the sluggish performance and the constant need to keep the ISO low felt constricting to me after the comparative freedom offered by the RX1R. Of course, the RX1R is in an entirely different ballpark in terms of price, so it should feel and perform that much better…

As always, your mileage may vary. If you treat this camera like an ultra-portable miniature medium format camera – with the same level of shot discipline – and have the patience for the extra steps in post processing required by the Foveon sensor output, then you may very well completely love the DP3 and its brothers, the DP1 and DP2. For the rest of us, spoiled by speedy operation and high ISO competence of other contemporary cameras, well…it probably won’t be love. And I definitely would not recommend this camera for taking snaps of fast-moving kids or pets or birds or, well, basically anything moving at all.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) DP3 DP3 review Foveon Merrill Sigma Sigma DP3 review Sigma Merrill review Sigma review examples first image impressions quality review sensor Tue, 11 Mar 2014 00:17:57 GMT
Lens Review: Nikon NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/4G ED VR

This is a great lens. It matches or exceeds the resolution of the D800E and provides consistent, fast performance at a lighter weight and much lower price than the older Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR, with a superior new vibration reduction system. For me this is one of the rare lenses I’ve come across that I have no regrets about purchasing, no second thoughts. It just does its job and keeps churning out great photos.


  • Sharp even wide open (f/4)
  • Nano coating provides great contrast and flare resistance
  • Vibration Reduction is Nikon’s 3rd generation and the best lens-based VR solution I’ve encountered so far
  • Silent, fast, accurate autofocus
  • Internal zoom and focusing (no change in physical length, less places for dust to enter)
  • No focus breathing issues like the 70-200mm f/2.8G (magnification stays consistent at 200mm even at the minimum focus distance, resulting in better close-up ability)
  • Priced right for the image quality you are getting


  • No tripod collar included
  • ‘Only’ f/4 (but that saves you a ton of money and weight vs the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G)
  • Feels a little ‘plasticky’ despite the gold ring heralding it as a professional lens – build quality just isn’t as high as some other professional Nikon lenses, and definitely nowhere near Zeiss Zf.2 quality
  • Focusing ring isn’t particularly well damped or pleasurable to use
  • Vignettes a fair amount at f/4
  • Still pretty long, physically

Through the CanopyThrough the CanopySunlight streams down through a break in the canopy - Oregon

This is one of those easy recommendations. If you don’t need f/2.8 (can live with f/4 as the max aperture), and you need/want a 70-200mm lens for Nikon, buy this one. I recommend it over the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 options as well, assuming, again, you don’t need f/2.8, as the Nikon will hold its value better and it is lighter, smaller, and has better vibration reduction, with just as good if not better image quality.

Is it up to the quality of, say, the Nikon 200mm f/2 or the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO? No. Of course not. And, from the other reviews and reports I’ve seen, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G probably has somewhat better microcontrast, less vignetting, and better build quality. But – and this is a big but – all three of the lenses I just mentioned are significantly more expensive than the 70-200mm f/4, and none of them has the 3rd generation VR, which is truly excellent.

The lens is fairly lightweight, and focuses and zooms internally, so the external physical dimensions do not change. There is no tripod collar included with the lens, so if you want one you’ll have to buy either a Nikon or a third party collar separately for a few hundred dollars; I haven’t bothered because, honestly, the lens balances just fine on the D800E and weighs less than some other lenses I’ve had (e.g. the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Zf.2), and I haven’t had any issues with the balance when using the camera on a tripod.

I’m pleased to say the lens is also very sharp, at all focal lengths, declining only somewhat at 200mm (most telephoto zooms are weakest at the longest end). The colors are good and the macrocontrast, probably thanks in part to the Nano coatings, is excellent. I haven’t had any flare issues – but, of course, I’ve left the hood on at all times.

This lens won’t give you quite the separation and bokeh of the f/2.8 lens, of course, much less the Nikon 200mm f/2, but at 200mm and f/4 you can still have a narrow depth of field, and the bokeh quality is quite high. I haven’t run into any severe lateral or longitudinal chromatic aberrations, either (‘slower’ lenses tend to be less affected by those, especially LoCA, compared with ultra-fast primes).

Foggy MountainsFoggy MountainsOn Snoqualmie Pass as the sun dips below the line of the Cascades, in Washington State

I’ve been extremely pleased with the effectiveness of the 3rd generation VR technology in this lens. I’ve gotten tack-sharp results hand holding the lens at 200mm with 1/50s and even 1/25s shutter speeds, which is remarkable.

Would I prefer the overall image quality and ‘pop’ of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO? Yes. Definitely. But I also lose a lot with that lens compared with the 70-200mm f/4: the flexibility of the zoom range and the fantastic VR for handholding. I can also say, comfortably, that if I was a working photo journalist who needed a robust lens that could take a beating and keep working, I would go for the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G instead.

Overall: if I could always use a tripod and shoot with careful, deliberate care (and had unlimited funds) then I would comfortably say I could get superior results (in terms of pure image quality) with a combination of the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4, Zeiss 100mm f/2 Macro Planar, Zeiss 134mm f/2 APO, and Nikon 200mm f/2. But I can’t always use a tripod. The 70-200mm f/4 provides nearly as good image quality as all of those lenses (combined) at a significantly lower price and with much greater flexibility for off-tripod shooting.

That’s a winner.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 70-200mm NIKKOR Nikon Nikon 70-200 f4 Nikon 70-200mm f4 f/4 f/4G f4 lens lens review non technical review photographer's photographer's review review review 70-200mm f/4 review Nikon 70-200mm f/4 shooter's report Sat, 01 Mar 2014 01:09:32 GMT
Review: Sony FDA-EVM1K EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) for Sony RX1/RX1R Seattle LightingSeattle LightingThe sun going down behind the Columbia Tower in Seattle

It took a few months for me to receive my FDA-EVM1K after I ordered it from Adorama – apparently it was on back order for some time, whether due to unexpected demand or insufficient production (or both). I eventually did receive it, and I’ve been using it on my RX1R ever since.

So. How is it?

It’s good. It’s a worthwhile addition to the RX1/RX1R, if you are committed to that camera. But it’s also ridiculously expensive.


  • High quality electronic viewfinder that integrates seamlessly with the RX1/RX1R
  • WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) when looking through the finder (for the most part)
  • Great color, detail, and sharpness, though it is still not quite up to a full-frame Optical Viewfinder
  • Feels pretty robust and has survived without issue on my RX1R in my shoulder bag without me having to constantly take if off and put it in its protective case
  • Allows for better bracing (mass-coupling to your body, rather than holding the camera out like a point and shoot) for noticeably better low-shutter speed sharpness
  • Tilts, allowing for a little more creativity and shooting flexibility\


  • Expensive
  • Adds a hump to your RX1/RX1R body, making it slightly less portable (and certainly less pocketable)
  • Can make the camera look more professional (not necessarily a good thing for street shooters trying to be invisible and blend in) and expensive/scary
  • Takes up the hotshoe so you can’t use an extra flash or other accessory with the EVF on the camera
  • Doesn’t lock on the hotshoe as you might expect (the way a Nikon flash locks onto the D800E hotshoe, for example) – it can theoretically slide right off, though in practice it has remained firmly attached for me

Baton Twirlers With FireBaton Twirlers With FirePainting with light, long exposure shot of a baton twirler with fire on either side of the batons - on a chilly night in Redmond, WA


This is going to be fairly short and straightforward, because there isn’t a ton to say. I’m going to avoid the “EVF vs OVF” debate in this article and just focus on this specific Sony-brand accessory.

Basically: if you own an RX1 or RX1R and intend to keep that camera for a long time, get the FDA-EVM1K. It is expensive but worth it for the user who sees themselves keeping the camera and the viewfinder for years. If you are on the fence about keeping your RX1/RX1R – maybe the Sony A7/R caught your eye – then you might want to try to rent or borrow this viewfinder first before buying, especially if you think the viewfinder is going to be the decisive factor regarding whether you’ll keep the camera or not.

At $448, this is not cheap. At all. I used built-up rewards to pay for most of mine through Adorama (from purchasing other camera gear in the past), but even so, it can be hard to justify when you think that for just $200 more you can buy a new Sony A6000 (sans lens) or a new Ricoh GR (ready to go with its fixed 28mm f/2.8 lens and APC-S sensor). And, of course, there’s that persistent feeling in the back of your mind that Sony is successfully screwing you over, having introduced the A7 and A7R with integrated (and apparently very high quality) EVFs for significantly less than the RX1/R + EVF combination (even including the price of the 35mm f/2.8 lens for the A7/A7R in that equation).

Hot Air Balloon Demo at NightHot Air Balloon Demo at NightDuring Redmond Lights 2013 in Redmond, WA

Setting aside the price, for now, and judging the EVF on its own merits as an accessory, it succeeds in doing exactly what it should do. It integrates flawlessly with my RX1R. By default the camera was set to switch between the rear LCD and the viewfinder depending on the proximity sensor on the EVF, but I was able to quickly set it up so the EVF remained active without turning on the LCD unless I physically pushed the little button on the side of the EVF. This seems to save battery life (the EVF actually turns off when the proximity sensor doesn’t sense your eye looking through it), and for me made more sense given my shooting style.

It’s sharp, contrasty, and has good color, and usually shows you exactly what you are going to get when you press down on the shutter. The only real exception to this is when you are in extremely low-light situations; the EVF bumps up the sensitivity (and noise) considerably in order to show the scene to you, and the result after pressing the shutter down can be quite different (depending on aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc).

There is one quirk: on starting the camera with the EVF attached, it always first turns on the rear LCD and then registers that the EVF is attached and switches over. It’s half a second or less, but still a brief delay between startup and shooting, and extra time on top of the normal camera start-up when the EVF isn’t attached.

I was pretty worried about the build quality/strength of the EVF and its connection to the RX1R, especially with regard to taking it out of the bag repeatedly. I was thinking I would have to leave the EVF in the little protective case it comes with for the majority of time and only take it out on vacations or longer shoots. However, I’ve been happy with its robust build and after a few months of use it shows no ill effects from remaining on the camera 100% of the time.

Bottom line: if you love your RX1/RX1R and are going to keep it for a long time, get this EVF. It allows for a more stable shooting platform (mass coupling with your forehead/body) and general improves the shooting experience, especially if you are used to a DSLR and their optical viewfinders over the point-and-shoot style of photography.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) EVF EVF for RX1 EVF for RX1R FDA-EVM1K RX1 RX1-R RX1R Sony Sony FDA-EVM1K EVF review review review of evf for rx1 review of evf for rx1r Sat, 15 Feb 2014 00:05:03 GMT
Capture One Pro 7 Review Frozen MountainsFrozen MountainsChill and fog up in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State

I’ve been using Lightroom 4 and now 5 for the last year and a half. Before that I used (and still use) Photoshop CS5 with the Nik software suite and Adobe Camera Raw for my RAW file processing. So it’s fair to say I’ve been invested in Adobe and their digital image editing products for a good amount of time now.

I’m always interested in new ways to expand the quality of my images, and alternative RAW converters have caught my eye over the years. This was particularly the case when I owned the Fuji X-E1; at that time Lightroom did a poor job with the X-Trans sensor, rendering the image (at 100%) with mushy ‘brush strokes’ that became particularly terrible looking with only moderate amounts of sharpening. Although that has, apparently, since improved with Adobe’s updates to Lightroom, the poor quality led me to look at both Capture One Pro from Phase One and DxOMark from DxO Labs.

Before really getting to know either product, however, I ended up selling the X-E1 and returning into the 36-megapixel fold of the Nikon D800E. Lightroom does well with the traditional Bayer-sensor D800E, and for a time I was content.

Then, recently, I decided to try the Capture One Pro 7 60-day free trial period. It’s free – the only cost would be time. I wanted to know if it could outperform Lightroom 5 in all areas as a RAW processor. One proviso to this review: I’m less interested in either programs’ utility as an image cataloguing service, since I do that on my own (at least right now). So this review is focused on image output quality and workflow as a RAW processor.

What did I find?

Well, it’s good enough that I ended up buying it after just 30 days of the 60 day trial. And since buying it I haven’t opened up Lightroom 5.

Ozarks BranchesOzarks BranchesA fallen tree on a lake in the Ozarks, from a shot I took back in November of 2011


  • Exceptional acuity, clarity, and sharpness possible on file output, especially for cameras that are supported with ‘bespoke’ profiles – clearly superior to Lightroom 5
  • Very good control of contrast – natural as well as ‘punchy’ if you want it to be
  • Strong shadow recovery ability
  • Decent highlight recovery ability
  • Strong color and color manipulation possible
  • Layers possible during RAW editing
  • Focus mask overlay useful for finding what the program considers in-focus
  • Output requires much less time subsequent time in Photoshop with Nik than Lightroom 5 (at least in my experience)
  • No cloud monthly subscription requirement (Lightroom doesn’t currently have this, but other Adobe products like Photoshop do)


  • Interface is not as smooth or intuitive as Lightroom 5
  • Slower overall – importing, processing, exporting – than Lightroom 5
  • Masking lacks a smart-select tool a la Photoshop CS5+ (“magic wand”), making complex selections like tree lines rather difficult
  • Rapidly uses up file space on your harddrive for image previews (I’ve been clearing it out regularly because my primary drive, where the program resides, is an SSD with limited space)
  • Pro version is expensive compared with Lightroom 5 (but not, of course, compared to what Photoshop used to cost to buy new)


Let’s get the bad out of the way. You will need to adjust your workflow and habits if you switch from Adobe’s offerings to Capture One Pro 7. It isn’t as bad as some people online make it out to be, however; the basic digital editing controls are all there, and anything you do in one program you can – theoretically – do in the other. I found some things easier to do in Lightroom 5 (color band luminosity and saturation editing, for example) and other things easier in Capture One Pro 7 (e.g. lens-specific adjustments). I will say that, overall, Lightroom 5 feels more intuitive and easier for the less experienced digital photog to pick up and start using. It’s just a little friendlier.

Capture One Pro 7 also doesn’t seem quite as well optimized as Lightroom 5. It’s slower to import photos, takes longer to export them, and it also tends to rapidly gobble up harddrive space with image previews. I’ve taken to deleting the image preview folder to save space on my main SSD harddrive after I’m happy with the processing for a particular batch of photos.

I also wish the masking tool – for use with layers – had a smart-selection tool like Photoshop’s magic wand. There are many times when shooting landscapes that the sky is relatively simple to select, while the horizon itself is broken up by trees and mountains and buildings, etc; without the smart select tool you have to carefully increase and decrease the size and hardness of the mask tool and then select/deselect the masked areas by hand. Possibly I need to get a Wacom tablet to make things easier on myself here; but it’d also be handy to have that magic wand…(side note: the tool might be there and I might just be totally missing it, but I haven’t found it).

Now, the good stuff. The key for me is image quality – the end result. Here, Capture One Pro 7 really shines. It’s actually pretty impressive to me how much better the output can be than Lightroom 5, and with fewer adjustments and fiddling. Part of the key, I think, is the bespoke (customized) profiles available for most major cameras and lenses. If you are considering purchasing this software I recommend you check out the supported camera list on Phase One’s website and then go through the trial period and make sure your camera and lenses are recognized and have the bespoke profiles in place. For me, the Sony RX1R with Zeiss 35mm f/2 and the Nikon D800E with Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 and Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 are all fully recognized with bespoke profiles; however, the software returned “general” as the lens for older RAW files from my archive where I was using the Zeiss 100mm f/2 ZF.2 and 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2, and the older Sony A850 + Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 (it did recognize and have profiles for the Canon 7D and Canon 10-22mm lens that I used years ago).

The software lets you fiddle with distortion, lens sharpness, and light falloff percentages for the specific lens/camera combination you are using, as well as noise reduction based on the camera and ISO of the shot. This is in addition to another set of sharpening and vignetting tools. It defaults in what the Capture One developers feel is the best combination of all these settings, usually with distortion at 100% correction and lens sharpness and light falloff at 0%, with the secondary sharpness and noise reduction at varying levels depending on the camera and ISO of the shot. I like sharpness and clarity so I usually bump the lens sharpness to 100%, give the image some slightly increased Clarity (another slider) and Structure, but leave the secondary sharpening at the developer-recommended level (too much here and you get haloing and the obviously over-sharpened look).

Rainier SunshineRainier SunshineStreams of light and reflections of the mountain on during sunrise at Reflection Lake near Mt Rainier, Washington State

With those settings (adjusted per image, of course), along with perhaps some white balance and color adjustment, as well as – sometimes – one or more layers to darken the sky or alter a specific part of the image, I’ve found I’ve needed much less time in Photoshop with the Nik Software suite than I did with Lightroom 5. I still tend to use Nik’s denoise a fair amount – it’s still the best I’ve come across at selectively denoising the parts of the image that need it, and the fastest – as well as some of the Color Efex Pro 2 tools. But – and this still amazes me – I rarely need to use Nik’s Sharpener anymore. Capture One just does that well, out of the box (so to speak). This contrasts heavily with the output from Lightroom 5, which always necessitated sharpening with Nik to get the image to properly pop.

I haven’t used Capture One Pro 7’s black and white conversion yet, because Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 is still just so good and so powerful. I’d rather output a TIFF from Capture One to Photoshop and use Silver Efex to make a monochrome image. So I can’t really comment on that portion of the software.

I also can’t comment on the image cataloguing abilities, or the tethering. I don’t use either right now. In the future I might, and it’s good to know the abilities are there.

And the end of the day, Capture One Pro 7 grabbed me and held on tight with pure image quality. When you try the software, don’t judge it on the preview within the program – it’s fine, but not really representative of what you’ll end up seeing (the image is just too small with the interface as currently designed). Instead, use the 100% loupe, tweak your settings, then export a TIFF or JPEG and view the result. I was certainly impressed. The RAW processing engine is just better than Lightroom’s right now, with files that show immense detail, clarity and pop.

Lightroom 5 is cheaper and, I believe, easier to get started using. It is still the main choice for many working professionals out there, and it is both fast and delivers relatively good quality, especially if you don’t make large prints. But if you do make large prints, or just care about getting the best you can from your camera and lenses, Capture One Pro 7 is the way to go.

]]> (Joseph Eckert Photography) 5 7 Capture Capture One Pro 7 review Capture One Pro 7 vs Lightroom 5 Capture One review Capture One vs Lightroom D800E Lightroom Nikon One Phase Phase One Pro RX1R Sony compared comparison examples review Sat, 08 Feb 2014 00:18:40 GMT