Friday 18 April 2014

Zeiss Otus - If you shoot on a 50mm lens on a regular basis you should look at this.

I was extolling the virtues of the new Carl Zeiss OTUS 55mm lens to a highly respected photographer friend.

'Stop right there I don't want to know about it' he said

'It's another expensive piece of equipment that I'm never going to own' was his justification.

In a way I know where he's coming from 

I'm a fan of BBC's Top Gear programme.

For all its laddish behaviour and sometimes boorish comments it is still highly entertaining.

Yet when I find them reviewing some highly highly expensive car like the special super super carbon fibre version of some Lamborghini or some other daft sounding Italian high-performance car I find myself glazing over and somewhat tuning out mentally, not because I don't like fast cars, indeed I love fast cars, it’s I knowing that it's irrelevant to me, I’m not going to own an £800,000 car anytime soon.

On the face of it a £3000+ standard lens is, well, rather extreme.

Unjustifiable perhaps?

Almost certainly.

Until you use one.

If you do you will see detail that simply does not exist on lenses made by Canon or Nikon.

Make no mistake the advantage the Otus possess compared to the camera manufacturers lenses is simply crushing.

Use the lens back to back and its like one of the lens is a lens and the other is doing an impression of a lens.

The advantage is most marked from F1.4 to F5.6 and wide open it is remarkable.

I did consider using a lens chart but I decided to leave that to the guys at DXO, who describe it as a ‘peerless prime’

I instead took it out on some real world shoots, working mostly at full aperture.

I compared the lens to  a Canon 50mm F1.4 and the bargain basement 50mm F1.8.

Why not the Canon 'L' series 50mm F1.2? 

Simply because I do not own one.

I wanted one, then tried one and thought better of it, not being entirely convinced of its performance compared to its more affordable brothers.

All comparison images were shot on Canon 6d mounted on Gitzo 5 Series tripod with a Manfrotto 405 head, focused using live view to focus as precisely as possible, the Raw images were processed with the identical base settings in Capture One 7 and were treated identically.

Firstly full frame on the Otus at F1.4

Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4@F1.4

Canon 50mm F1.4@F1.4
Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 @ F1.4 100 percent, of note is the bokeh which is very smooth, particularly when
you compare it to the Canon. 

Canon 50mm F1.4 @ F1.4 100 percent

Canon 50mm F1.8 @ F1.8 

Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 @F1.4

Canon 50mm F1.8 @F1.8

Zeiss Otus 55mmF1.4@F1.8

Canon 50mm F1.4@F1.4

                                                    Zeiss 55mm Otus F1.4@F1.4, note the excellent control of flare compared to the Canon


Canon 50mm F1.4@F1.4(note purple fringing on highlights)

Zeiss 55mm Otus F1.4@F1.4

For me this is perhaps the most impressive of all of the tests, a nice clean image shot at F1.6 on the Zeiss Otus.

And then you see the detail which in my view is truly remarkable.

And Finally the portrait session with Tony Benn

Just wonderful detail.

The images are far from a full test of the Otus, I would like to add some comparative images at other F-Stops, but as I said before, wide open is where the gulf is biggest.

The advantage is most marked from F1.4 to F5.6 and wide open it is remarkable.

I did consider using a lens chart but I decided to leave that to the guys at DXO, who describe it as a ‘peerless prime’

Quite a lot has been written about the Otus in terms of its optical performance, but little has been written about its form factor.

If you are used to manufacturer 50mm prime lenses by the likes of Canon and Nikon you will be struck by its size and weight, which is reminiscent of a medium format prime lens.

Initially this could be seen as a disadvantage but in regular use I have found that the slightly longer barrel length and it's tapered shape brings ergonomic means it fits your hand perfectly, I reckon I can hold a slightly longer prime more steadily too(I wrote about this a couple of years ago)

If you have not used a Zeiss lens before the chances are that you will be struck by its build, fit and finish too, which shades camera manufacturer lenses.

Focusing with any fast prime wide open is problematic, with auto focus or not, and the Zeiss is manual focus only.

I was initially apprehensive about this but the longer throw on the focusing ring does make make manual focusing easier than you might imagine, the situation was further improved when I retro fitted the Canon EG-S focusing screen which is optimised for fast lenses making the images snap into focus much more easily than with the standard screen(I have written about this previously)

Is this a lens for everyone?

Clearly not, but it is a lens for the shooter who does not want to compromise on quality.

If the 50mm focal length is one you use regularly, and you want the very best imaginable quality then I suggest you try one out back to back with your existing lens, you may well be surprised.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Shooting with the Sony A7S

When I last posted about the Sony A7R, a camera I had never even held, Den Lennie of F-Stop Academy, had not yet invited me shoot with him on the launch film for the Sony A7S, in fact like everyone else I was blissfully unaware of its very existence.

You can see the film we shot in Arbroath here

In a sea of DSLRs which shoot video what makes this camera special?

Well, for starters it is not a DSLR, it is a mirrorless camera, and that means though it may visually look like a DSLR in terms of styling, it is much smaller and lighter than a DSLR, around half the weight of a Canon 5D MkIII, in fact it is barely any bigger than a Black Magic pocket cinema camera (Black Magic pocket cinema camera 128mm x 38mm x 66mm - Sony A7S 127mm x 48mm x 94mm)

It has the ability to shoot in Sony S-log 2 gamma, meaning that if you expose appropriately, you can record a remarkable range of tonality, giving the footage from this tiny camera a look and feel which one normally would associate with a much bigger, more expensive camera.

It shoots 4k at 4:2:2 over HMI at up to 30P .

There are quite a few products are out there which shoot 4k these days, but 4k on a full frame sensor IS something special.

Most 4k capable cameras use small sensors and it can be difficult to achieve the shallow depth of field you get from a full frame sensor on cameras like the A7S.

I was never previously sold on 4k but after a couple of days in the grading suite you really do get used to its super high detail and viewing 1080p HD, as good as it is, after you have been viewing 4k does seem like a bit of a come down. 4k is not just coming, it is here now. With the big broadcasters shooting their latest big shows in 4k to future proof them.

A full on grade is really quite something......

Pick a monitor.....

Editing 4k is not quite such a headache as it once was either. Den edited the Japanese project on his shiny new 6 core Mac Pro, which made short work of editing 4k in real time using FCP X.

It has fantastic low light capability too.

I must point out that we did not shoot any direct comparison tests with the Canon 5D MkIII, so judgement must be reserved until those are conducted, but make no mistake, the A7S is seriously impressive in low light with the ISO expandable to 409,600.

The A7S is very impressive in low light.....

After using the camera in challenging low light scenarios I suspect that it is quite a bit better than the 5D MkIII in this respect.

Sony have taken an interesting route with the sensor too which is 'only' 12 megapixels for stills, a little over half that of the 5d MkIII.


Canon have chosen to make a camera which covers all bases for all shooters, this does though lead to some compromises.

Sony has chosen to make three different and distinct models from the same body, the A7 with a  24 megapixel sensor for general purpose stills photography, the A7R with its 36 megapixel sensor focused on high resolution stills capture and the A7S with its 12 megapixel camera with its primary focus being video capture.

The full frame 12 megapixel sensor was chosen because less pixels mean the possibility of less noise and good control of moire.

Does it succeed? Bearing in mind that Den Lennie and I were shooting with preproduction models of the camera you will see some complex structures in the videos such as roof tiles which have a complete absence of moire.

Shooting with the A7S is a very different experience to shooting video with a Canon DSLR, that is not to say worse, just different. The ability to magnify the image in the electronic viewfinder with the camera at eye level is a real advantage, enabling a shooter to retain three points of contact without the use of a loupe like a Zacuto Z finder.

In common with the rest of the A7 range it has an articulated LCD, which excels as a video shooting tool, making just heading out the door of the B&B in Arbroath with the camera, a couple of lenses in my pockets, unencumbered by additional accessories like EVF or a loupe, a real joy. 

Comment has been made about power consumption of its stills focused brothers the A7 and the A7R, after all the A7 family does use an electronic viewfinder which by it's very nature does consume power whereas an optical viewfinder does not.

This is not an issue for A7S, as it is more focused on video capture, and the lack of an optical viewfinder is irrelevant.

In my shooting experience with the pre production samples of the A7S battery life is more or less in the same ball park as a Canon DSLR.

While we are talking lenses it is important to point out that you can use your Canon, Nikon, Zeiss CP.2 lenses or even PL mount lenses on the A7 series with adapters, such as Metabones, meaning that if you do decide to go for one of these cameras you CAN still use all your existing glass. We did however shoot both projects on exclusively Sony glass though.

 Den Lennie on dawn patrol with the Sony A7S and Sony 300mm F2.8

As you will have by now gathered I enjoyed shooting with the A7S which in the space of a few I short days, went from being an unfamiliar piece of equipment to a day to day tool which I felt at home with, it's a tiny camera with a full frame sensor, which is excellent in low light, shoots in Sonys S-log 2, and it's 4k quality is stunning.

Who will buy this camera? 

In my opinion everyone from the current DSLR shooters to production companies and film makers, who will see considerable possibilities in using such a tiny, but full frame camera in unusual and challenging situations, while being able to shoot with some great full frame glass.

With the A7S, Sony I believe has successfully continued the narrative of 'market segment disruption' which it started with the A7 and A7R.

When the A7S finally goes on sale go down to the shops and see what you think, see if the latest in the A7 range wins its way into your affections as it has mine, who until now, has been an avowed Canon shooter.