Hey yo, Captain Slow! – some pics with the Sony FE 50/1.8

Yes I also have Sony’s FE 50/1.8. It’s been named Captain Slow by photozone.de – read their technical review here :) And yes, they’re right!

Captain Slow, the Sony FE 50/1.8.
Captain Slow, the Sony FE 50/1.8.

First, I used the FE 50/1.8 on my A7R – and the auto focus really was unbelievably slow in comparison to my other FE lenses. I now have an A7 II and also upgraded to the newest camera firmware as well as the newest lens firmware (as of September 2016). Guess what? It’s still slow! On the A7 II, it will move forth and back while acquiring focus in the way that the first mirrorless lenses did back in the days where they all did not have any phase-detection AF systems. :p

St. Pantaleon, Cologne. (Sony FE 50/1.8 at f/1.8)
St. Pantaleon, Cologne. (Sony FE 50/1.8 at f/1.8)

On the positive side, auto focus is slow but really accurate, no matter where you place the focusing spot in your frame. In my experience, it’s much more accurate than any 50/1.4 on a typical DSLR system is. That’s good. But there’s a catch: For really accurate auto focus, you shouldn’t stop down too much! My impression is that the Sony mirrorless cameras actually have a habit of focussing very sloppy at f/8 or f/11. That’s cause they do auto focus at the preselected aperture – instead of open aperture like any DSLR does.

OK … with the peculiarities of auto focus out of the mind, I can just say good things about this lens. It handels beautifully on the A7 series bodies and delivers nice and crisp images. It’s not an internal focus design but the hood mounts on the fixed part of the lens barrel which is good.

Green over graffiti. (Sony FE 50/1.8 at f/5.6)
Green over graffiti. (Sony FE 50/1.8 at f/5.6)

The optics? I can use f/1.8 no problem with many, even demanding subjects. Even over far-away distances it’ll deliver crisp and contrasty images at f/1.8. It does, however, have some field curvature. If you frame a far-away flat landscape, you want to use f/5.6 to get an evenly sharp image. I can live with that. In comparison to legacy 50 mm lenses, I’d still rate the Sony FE 50/1.8 to be optically superior, especially at the more open apertures. It was super good for the A7R and it easily outresolves the “only” 24 MP sensor of the A7 II if you are careful.

Friedenspark, Cologne. (Sony FE 50/1.8 at f/6.3)
Friedenspark, Cologne. (Sony FE 50/1.8 at f/6.3)

With the technical stuff out of the view … I also have to say that this lens makes me appreciate the “plain” 50 mm view very much again! I’ll probably add another blog post shortly about that classic threefold – 35/50/90. These three are probably “my” focal lengths more than all the others!

So here are three of my personal favourite shots that I took with my new 50 so far:

Bad Ems.
Bad Ems.
Far view to the Cologne Dome.
Far view to the Cologne Dome.
Porsche.
Porsche.

Cheers,
Thomas

Beautiful Westerwald with the Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8 Sonnar

I love this lens. On the A7 II even more versatile than ever thanks to the stabilizer that is built in the camera. Just be sure to set it manually to 135 mm as the lens of course does not come with any electronic communication. :)

Because of that, I find it particularly easy to carry one manual and one AF lens – for example, combine the Contarex Zeiss 135/2.8 with the Sony FE Zeiss 35/2.8. If I use the AF lens, the stabilizer automatically reverts to that lens’ focal length and whenever I use the 135 mm, it will remember the manual setup.

Westerwald. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8 at f/2.8)
Westerwald. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8 at f/2.8)

The lens is super sharp and contrasty, with visible color fringing at open aperture (if you pixel peep) as every classic lens design shows. All in all, a textbook performance. It easily had enough resolution for the 36 MP sensor of my old Sony A7R so the 24 MP chip in the A7 II is no deal at all for it.

And regarding the mechanics, I firmly believe that no lens in the world ever beat all the Zeiss Contarex lenses. Even these mightly lenses do need a service from time to time to update the lubricant in the focussing helicoil, especially the original lubricants of the 1960s do not last forever and get sticky over time. Other than that they will just last forever and never ever go out of alignment. Unbelievably impressive.

Westerwald. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8)
Westerwald. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8)
Westerwald. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8)
Westerwald. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8)
Apple tree. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8 at f/2.8)
Apple tree. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8 at f/2.8)

The last shot below is actually more or less a 100% crop out of the original frame:

Common kestrel. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8 at f/2.8)
Common kestrel. (A7 II with Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8 at f/2.8)

OK so are there any downsides? Apart from that you probably won’t want to shoot fast action with a manual-focus lens? (Could still be fun I think.) Well the lens is quite big, and it is heavy. It balances perfectly on the not-so-small A7 II body but if you really want to travel “light” then you’ll rather throw an Olympus OM Zuiko 135/3.5 in your bag – or, as I now do frequently, the Zeiss Contax G 90/2.8. Of course that lens uses a much shorter focal length than the Zeiss Contarex 135/2.8, yes, but in fact the character of these two, the way they render images, is similar.

Click here for some info and pictures on the Zeiss Contax G 90/2.8.

Cheers,
Thomas

Sony A7R – one scenery, three lenses

Well, this time the title of the blog entry already says it all … I was walking around my town with my camera and the three native fixed lenses I have. At this old bridge I saw a situation I wanted to take a picture of, but which lens to use? In my bag – the Sony FE 28/2, the Sony Zeiss FE 35/2.8 and the Sony FE 50/1.8. In the end, I took a frame with each of these three lenses … and I think each variant has something going for it:

Köln Südbrücke I. (Sony A7R with FE 50/1.8)
Köln Südbrücke I. (Sony A7R with FE 50/1.8)
Köln Südbrücke II. (Sony A7R with FE 35/2.8)
Köln Südbrücke II. (Sony A7R with FE 35/2.8)
Köln Südbrücke III. (Sony A7R with FE 28/2)
Köln Südbrücke III. (Sony A7R with FE 28/2)

On location, after taking the three shots shown above, I immediately had a feeling I’d like the 28 mm version (no. III) most, but wanted to alter the perspective a bit. Also there was some ghosting apparent in the skies, from light from the street lamps entering the front lens elements. I was standing on stairs that led to the top of the bridge and thus I easily could move a bit further up. It changed the perspective; and also I shaded the front lens elements carefully with my hand (the original lens shade alone was not sufficient enough here) while exposing to get rid of the ghosting. That’s how the fourth shot below was made:

Köln Südbrücke IV. (Sony A7R with FE 28/2)
Köln Südbrücke IV. (Sony A7R with FE 28/2)

But is the 28 mm version really the best? In the end, I am undecided. I also like the pictures that I took with the other two lenses very much. They all show the same scenery but within a different context, and they all really turned out well – at least to my eyes. So what’s the bottom line? Focal length alone matters less than you probably might think. Wow what a platitude … like “the photographer takes the picture, not the camera”! But hey it’s correct, nonetheless … :) I firmly believe that you can frame a good shot of a given situation with a wide variety of focal lengths – if not 100% of the time, but still very often.

In normal life, I never really would bother to bring all three lenses together anyway; I’d rather leave either the 28 or 35 at home, and given that I now also have the Contax G 90, I also might just take this and leave the 50 at home. The special characters that made me buy all these lenses is not just their different focal length – there are many other merits to take into account; e.g. the 28/2 is just faster than the 35, so it’s a better choice for candid low-light shots; the 50/1.8 might be easier in low light as well as the Contax G 90 with it’s adapter and also focuses much closer than the latter, and so on. But for a given situation, I actually almost always carry just one or two of these lenses with me, and I really feel complete.

Much more fun than expected – the Contax G 90/2.8 on the A7 II

Once in a while you are hit by some GAS – Gear Acquistion Syndrome – end up buying a new camera or lens, and only some weeks later you realise there is a really cool side benefit to your newest purchase that you were not aware of before.

In my case, I swapped my beloved Sony A7R for an A7 II – less resolution, yes; but with 24 MP still in the same league that all the highly praised newest Leica cameras are in, and so I thought, if famous Leica photographers can live with that, so should I :) Wanting to do less tripod photography and realising that autumn and winter are now coming up – I thought an A7 II with built-in stabilisation is just the right thing to have right now.

Zeiss Contax G 90/2.8 on A7 II
Zeiss Contax G 90/2.8 on A7 II

A forgotten gem in my lens collection

After some weeks I did remember my old Techart Contax G adapter – after the last firmware it would not work at all with the A7R again due to that camera lacking a phase detection AF feature. (Prior to the firmware update, it would kind of work, but way to unpredictable for any real photography.) I found it sad that the adaptor even did not allow working with manual focus on the A7R, but that’s the way Techart did it. Anyway, I threw the adapter on the A7 II, added my – so far only – Contax G mount lens, the Zeiss 90/2.8, and went to the streets.

Zeiss Contax G 90/2.8 on A7 II
Zeiss Contax G 90/2.8 on A7 II

Wow!

It works a treat, I have to say! All the shots shown in this blog post are taken with the 90/2.8 in Cologne, the Westerwald (a nice spot if you like the German countryside) and Tilburg (IMO one of the coolest cities in the Netherlands, go visit it if you like all kinds of festivals and interesting activities!).

A note: All the pictures are taken in RAW and processed (colors, vibrancy, shadows, exposure) just to my personal liking, as I always do. However I did not add color correction (CA’s etc.) or removed vignetting. In that respect, what you see here is what you really get with the Contax G 90/2.8!

Rheinauhafen No. 14 (Sony A7 II with 90/2.8 at f/2.8)
Rheinauhafen No. 14, Cologne. (Sony A7 II with 90/2.8 at f/2.8)

This is perfectly useable for everyday use, and I would not hesitate to take this lens + adapter combo anytime with me for a trip for serious photography. But still there are some culprits you should be aware of. While really working well, the Contax G lens with Techart adapter does not work as perfectly as a native Sony FE-mount lens would work. How can it, given that the lens was made for an extinct analogue camera system some 20 years ago.

First, I think the AF is really fast. But I am the opposite of a sports photographer. :) So better don’t listen to me probably :) Let’s say for the shots in this blog entry, the AF was always super snappy and fast enough. It uses the A7 II’s phase detection system so you can’t move the AF point all the way out to the frames edges as you can when using a native FE-mount lens. But at the same time, using phase detection means that the lens normally does not “hunt” or move back-forward. It just moves in the correct direction to lock focus, like you would expect any standard DSLR lens to do. In this respect, the focusing experience is not “mirrorless like” any more. Kudos!

Sandy beach at Cologne Rodenkirchen. (Sony A7 II with 90/2.8 at f/2.8)
Sandy beach at Cologne Rodenkirchen. (Sony A7 II with 90/2.8 at f/2.8)
Cologne features the oldest motorway bridge in existence. Really! (90/2.8 at f/2.8)
Cologne features the oldest motorway bridge in existence. Really! (90/2.8 at f/2.8)

The two culprits – First: autofocus accuracy at very wide distances

A drawback of the phase detection system and probably the old-fashioned screw-drive AF system of the Contax G lenses is that focussing accuracy is not 100% like it is with modern mirrorless lenses. Especially on very far away subjects – such as the bridge in the picture above – it might be off at times. (In case of the picture above, it was spot-on, though.) You won’t see these slight focus errors in the viewfinder unless you zoom in – so if you are worrying, you should fine-tune the focus manually before you take the shot.

The way this works differs from other Sony lenses as the Techart uses its own firmware. For a start, you can’t directly select Manual Focus or DMF modes in the camera once any Techart adapter is mounted. You do have to use AF-S or AF-C. So after you half-press the shutter, the camera focusses automatically. But when you let off the shutter button after that, you are now free to manually focus (using the small wheel on the adapter) and you are also now free to use the camera’s zooming-in feature to really judge focussing. Once you are finished, then simply press the shutter button again, and it takes the picture.

So why is there a dedicated focus wheel on the adapter? The Contax G lenses never had focusing rings. The whole camera system was designed with AF-only use in mind. But Kyocera (the makers of the Contax G system) knew that AF will sometimes fail so they had to design something that allowed for manual focusing. That’s why the Contax G1 and G2 cameras have a focus wheel built in the body. The lenses can only be focused via the screw-drive mechanism that is built into the bayonet mount. So if you turn the focus wheel, it tells the AF motor (in the G1 or G2 camera, also an AF motor is built into the Techart adapter) to turn the screw-drive mechanism and thus change the lens’ focus setting. It sounds a bit awkward but I have to say it works very well. Switch to the magnified view, turn the small wheel on the adapter and you’ll see how the focus really snaps.

Elko the boat. Tilburg, Piushaven. (90/2.8 at f/8)
Elko the boat. Tilburg, Piushaven. (90/2.8 at f/8)
Cologne University Boat. (90/2.8 at f/2.8)
Cologne University Boat. (90/2.8 at f/2.8)

Second culprit – you should always use AF at open aperture only

The second drawback is that focussing is only accurate at open aperture (naturally). Everyone knows exept Sony. All their gorgeous mirrorless cameras focus stopped-down. So this problem applies not only to the Contax G lenses, but in fact to all Sony FE lenses as well. (My shots with the FE 50/1.8 at f/8 come out really very often misfocussed. At f/1.8 it’s always perfect.) So what do you do? (1.) open the lens aperture to f/2.8, (2.) autofocus by half pressing shutter button, (3.) close aperture to whatever you’d like, (4.) take shot and you are done.

If you, say, take a shot at f/5.6, and follow the steps above, you also don’t need to worry about any small autofocus errors any more. So far, I did never encounter an autofocus error that was so big that it would have ruined focussing after stopping down to f/5.6 or smaller. Again, the key is that you fully open the lens when auto focussing and close aperture after that. Any lens should by default behave like this on the Sony cameras. But they all don’t!

There is a basic AF adjust feature available. I tried it and yes it can adjust front- or back-focussing errors. In the end I reverted to the original setting and so far everything seems well. Especially when taking portrait shots, the AF is really super accurate.

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Westerwald. (Sony A7 II with 90/2.8 at f/5.6)
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There’s light on your path. Westerwald. (90/2.8 at f/2.8)

My conclusion: It’s a winner combo. Really!

Overall, I find that handling the lens on the A7 II is very enjoyable, despite it showing some weaknesses. I do have to stress again I’m not an action photographer. But the Contax G system was never made for super-fast action photography and the lens design shows. What I do see though is a super-high quality lens both regarding optics as well as mechanics. It’s a solid all metal construction that dates back to the glorious past. Also it features a very classic optical design – no modern aspherical magic stuff going on here.

It just oozes quality when you handle it. It makes you enjoy this quality and probably even calm down a bit during taking pictures. If you want speed, go somewhere else, but if you enjoy handling a really solid, beautiful lens on your camera, with even some modern comfort (AF) thrown in, this might be for you.

Oh, and the Contax G 90/2.8 lens is sharp. It does show color issues when open. I did not correct them in any of the shots shown here but that is because I sometimes even love those optical imperfections – as the overall picture still shows outstanding optical quality. It is textbook sharp. Stop it down to f/5.6 or so and there is – for my eyes, I did not take it to the labs :) – no optical fault at all, it is super contrasty and sharp into all edges, completely outresolving the 24 MP chip of the A7 II.

So we have beautiful optics, beautiful mechanics, and I especially like that it is a compact lens (also with a very compact adapter). It’s simply a beautiful lens on the A7 II. I enjoy it very much, including the Techart adapter that so far works flawlessly and never failed… with all the pictures on this site, I just used AF and it was spot-on. I hope it stays that way, and I might want to add the 35/2 or 45/2 to my Contax G lineup!

Cheers, Thomas

Restaurant "Te koop in Tilburg". (90/2.8 at f/2.8)
Restaurant “Te koop in Tilburg”. (90/2.8 at f/2.8)

Sony FE 28/2: Use distortion to your advantage, yes!

The Sony FE 28/2 is the current hot lens for Sony FE-mount. It’s a fast and affordable wide-angle prime lens. Reviews show that it’s sharp (yes it is … even though clearly less sharp than my Zeiss-branded 35/2.8 under real-world conditions), also it has a really high contrast, and of course its f/2 aperture is great not only under low light conditions. All this for a mere 450 Euros list price. What’s not to like?

The big downside, they say, is the massive geometric distortion of this lens. Some of the usual testers – such as Amateur Photographer – don’t even dare to quote the exact amount of distortion that this lens produces in their FE 28/2 review. Probably it even holds a world record here. :p

But, hey, we all use RAW don’t we? And in Lightroom, distortion is not automatically corrected in such a way that you won’t ever see it. it’s visible. You open your files, taken with a Sony A7 series body and the new FE 28/2, in Lightroom and you’ll immediately see the massive amount of distortion, almost like a weak fisheye lens:

New apartments. (Sony A7R and FE 28/2)

Now the fun thing is that you can actually use that distortion to your advantage when you try to apply perspective correction (a.k.a. digitally “shifting” the lens) to your photo. But how comes that? Let’s first do a simple distortion correction. I find (without having tested it in any pseudo-scientific manner) that applying +25 distortion correction in Photoshop removes all visible distortion very well:

New apartments. (+25 distortion correction in Lightroom)

As you now can see, you’ve got some “extra” image area in the corners. When you try to simply rotate the photo a little bit (as if you were correcting if you failed to hold the camera at level during taking the photo), you’ll immediately notice the advantage that you do not lose any image area at the borders if you do apply that correction!

Same, of course, also goes for more complex corrections such as a digital shift:

New apartments. (distortion correction + tilt and rotation)

At the very bottom left and right edges, clearly more image area is left after the correction as would be the case with an “ideal” lens without any geometric distortion! The net result is this:

New apartments. (Sony A7R and FE 28/2)

Here’s another example. The first file below has only geometric distortion correction applied, so an ideal, distortion-free 28 mm lens, would deliver just that same result:

Nice place to live. (Sony A7R with 28/2)

I decided to apply just a little bit of “shift” to this frame to make the car look a bit less distorted. Notice how there now is a bit more area left in the frame to the left of the wall post in the rear? It would not be there if I’d taken the shot with an ideally corrected 28 mm lens!

Nice place to live. (Sony A7R with 28/2)

Bottom line: I still prefer ideally corrected lenses over this. It’s probably the habit of a photographer who learned his stuff in the old analogue days :) But I think you should at least realise that optical “faults” in lenses can also have their own, unique advantages. So why … not just make use of them!

The Birds. (A mobile phone pic.)

I love my cameras but there are those times where I just don’t carry any camera with me. So when I saw this scene on my way back home from work in early October, I only had my mobile phone to capture it. With a little post processing in Lightroom (…it also imports JPG files), this is the net result:

The birds.
The birds.

My phone (Nokia 808) has a fixed 28mm equivalent lens. I have to admit that I’m not always so happy with that focal length. Now the camera manufacturer of my choice, Sony, has announced a 28/2 lens for the A7 system for early 2015, and I started thinking about that focal length. It seems quite some Leica M photographers use 28mm lenses because these are the widest you can use on some M bodies without the need for an external wide-angle viewfinder. I already have a 35mm so would a 28mm make enough of a difference? The more natural choice to complement a 35mm seems a 24mm.

Anyway, “The birds” would have worked with any of these focal lengthes. 24mm? No problem. 28mm? You see the result. 35mm? Why not. Apart from those situations where I can’t move back any more because there’s a wall, or where I stay at a bridge and can’t change position, I am pretty happy with almost any focal length, it seems. :)

Building the perfect Sony APS-C kit for €2500 – 2014 recap

Looking into my website statistics, I realise that quite a lot of people are still reading this blog entry. I wrote it in late 2011 when the then-amazing new Sony NEX-7 and the Zeiss 24/1.8 lenses were announced.

Just out of fun, I decided to create a follow-up of that article and to outline a current – late 2014 – Sony APS-C mirrorless camera system for €2.500. I can’t really say “NEX” any more because Sony marketing has dropped that name.

First of all, I’m currently not a Sony APS-C user. I used to have a NEX-5 and NEX-5N and while I did think about upgrading to the NEX-7, I was not so happy about the first-generation 24 MP chip inside it, so I skipped that body, opted for a nifty little Olympus E-M5 (a great 2012 novelty) and finally came back to Sony when the full-format A7R was made available.

Anyway, I do love some APS-C stuff that Sony makes. Especially the amazing Sony A6000. It’s super fast, the 24 MP sensor is refined by now, and it offers real bang for the buck. So why not take that for a start of the late 2014 APS-C system.

Sony A6000 + 18-105/4 G – €999

Okay, while the photo below shows the body with the amazing little 16-50 kit zoom, I personally would never bother with a lens like that (which is not to say that it will surely deliver great results for a lot of people – but it’s just not mine).

Sony A6000 (photo: Sony).
Sony A6000 (photo: Sony).

I’ve thought quite a bit of why I would opt for an APS-C system today instead of a full-format one. The first reason, of course, is cost. On the other hand, with €1.199 Sony A7 bodies, it does not seem that impossible to set up a €2.500 full-format system instead, and especially when you look at all those amazing prime lenses that are available today – both new and used – I just can’t see myself going for a primes-only APS-C system these days. Instead, I’d concentrate on the points that APS-C does really well. Apart from lower cost, APS-C can offer great versatility and speed, when you select the right lenses.

If you are really on a tighter budget and want clear, crisp imagery more than anything else, I’d just have a look at the Sigma primes – 19/2.8, 30/2.8 and 60/2.8 for the A6000 body. They are cheap and very good.

Sony E 18-105/4 G (photo: Sony).
Sony E 18-105/4 G (photo: Sony).

If you, however, want to follow that route of great versatility, I’d suggest to have a look at the Sony zoom lenses. There’s in fact one that I find really interesting as a standard zoom and that is … the Sony 18-105/4 G. While this lens has truly worrysome distortion characteristics, it’s sharp, it offers an amazing 28-160 equivalent zoom range with constant f/4 aperture, thus giving nicer portraits with blurry backgrounds than other, shorter APS-C zooms. I’d always take a zoom with a longer end over one that’s a bit wider at the other end. Of course, your mileage may vary.

But the 18-105/4 G is also really cheap! The A6000 bundled with the 18-105/4 G retail for about €999 in reliable German online shops as of October 2014.

Sony FE 70-200/4 G – € 1.369

Now you’ve got another €1.500 left and you can do a lot with that. Given that I already can cover anything up to 160 mm (in 35 mm terms) with my standard lens, I would go and buy the best telezoom lens available for the system: The FE 70-200/4 G.

I do, in fact, own this lens for my A7R. The image quality is very good. But it’s not the perfect companion for the A7R due to that camera body’s slower AF system and the A7R mechanical shutter introducing some vibration that can sometimes spoil images at specific shutter speeds. I have, however, once tried the FE 70-200/4 G lens on an A6000 body and all I can say is that this lens really sings with that body. It’s fast, and it’s really sharp and contrasty even at open aperture. Plus the OSS stabilisation works flawlessly.

Sony FE 70-200/4 G (photo: Sony).
Sony FE 70-200/4 G (photo: Sony).

So, just a body and two lenses and we’re altogether at €2.400. From here, you could stretch your budget just a little bit and still take the 50/1.8 OSS lens that I already suggested back in 2011. You’d then have a nice portrait prime lens to complement your two zoom lenses. I do not think that you really will need much more than what these two / three lenses do offer.

Of course, I realise that I have selected two very big lenses. Wasn’t it the point of all mirrorless cameras to be small and light-weight? Well, for what it offers, the 18-105/4 G lens is not really heavy. It looks bigger than it feels. And it’s normally the weight, not the size, that makes you moan about carrying all that stuff around. The FE 70-200/4, of course, is a 840g lens. Yet still telezooms with that speed and reach just don’t come smaller than that. And given the reach of the 18-105/4 G, you’ll not have to lug the 70-200/4 around every time you leave your home.

Of course, most people would probably select other lenses than I do. That’s the nice thing about 2014: Even for Sony users, there are now at least some more lens options available. So, I’d suggest you have your own fun with finding your personal dream set-up!