Category Archives: lens

Review: Cokin varicolor

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real Photoshop filter that screws onto the front of your camera lens and just makes color look better? If landscapes, architecture, seascapes and vehicles are your thing, there is such a filter: the varicolor polarizer.

The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting
The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting

The varicolor consists of two tinted polarizers rotated 90 degrees from each other. Thus light is colored by one or other of the two tints depending on its phase… um, that means absolutely nothing to most people, so here’s a better description:

Most landscape scenes have two types of light: direct and reflected light, such as

  • Direct light from the sky vs light that has been reflected from water
  • Direct light from the sky vs reflected light coming from the ground.
  • Reflected light coming from two very different surfaces, typically shiny vs rough.
  • Highlights and reflections vs non-highlights from the same metallic object (typically vehicles).

The varicolor filter will separate the direct and reflected sources and tint them via two different colors. The amount of tint can be varied by simply rotating the filter.

Many photographers assume a varicolor is simply a variable warming and cooling filter, and the packaging on one of the main suppliers of varicolors, Cokin, does little to kill this miss-assumption.

Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!
Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!

It is true that a varicolor filter can be used just for global warming/cooling, and can totally change the lighting.

Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and violet sky.
Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and deep blue sky.

More usually though, you make slight changes to the ambient. You are more typically not trying to tint the scene so much as tint the direct and reflected light via two complementary colors ( typically, but not always, warming and cooling) to get a visual separation between the two.

In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.

Buying a varicolor filter

Varicolor is an effect most suitable for wide angle lenses. There are two companies that sell wide angle varicolor filters, Singh-Ray (‘gold-n-blue’) and Cokin (P173). Hoya also do them, but in smaller sizes (typically 58mm) that are not really useful as we are nowhere near wide angle diameters.

The Singh-Ray is priced too high for most people’s pockets. The Cokin is about 1/5 the cost and very affordable, but comes as a square cassette for the Cokin P Series holder rather than a standard 77mm filter thread (such as the one I need for my Tokina 11-16mm, a lens that suits a varicolor perfectly).

A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.
A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.

There is a third option: make your own standard varicolor filter, using a cheap Cokin P173 and an even cheaper no-brand circular polarizer filter.

Making a standard 77mm varicolor filter

The Cokin filter cartridge is easy to open (you just prise it open with a knife at one corner enough to get your fingernails in, then open it with fingers – it opens very easily as it isn’t glued down) to reveal a much more standard looking circular 75mm glass filter body. We next need a standard 77mm CPL (circular polarizing filter) to put the varicolor glass into. It has to be a CPL filter because like a varicolor, the CPL has to be rotatable on the lens for it to work. It also has to be a non-low profile CPL, for reasons we will see next.

The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.
The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.

When you take the varicolor filter glass out from the Cokin cassette, the first thing you will notice is how heavy and thick it is. A standard CPL is about 1.5mm thick glass. The varicolor is three times that: 4.5mm. In other words, it is half the thickness of a standard window pane!

That makes a kind of sense: the varicolor is two CPL filters, each with its own color filter added on, so we are talking x2 CPLs which takes us up to 3mm, and then x2 color filters on top of that. The upshot of this is that you cannot use a low profile CPL filter ring: it has to be full height.

Even with a full height filter, I had problems putting the varicolor into the CPL filter ring. The varicolor is just too thick! The only way to get it to fit was to reverse the filter retaining ring as shown below. The varicolor is about 2mm smaller in diameter than a standard 77mm CPL, and you can use that space by turning the retaining ring over so it goes down further into the filter, and just enough to become fully threaded into the filter body.

Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring,  you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring, you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.

Rotating the completed filter whilst looking through it at the sky, you will see the sky tint from bluish to yellow, going through a series of pinks and magentas at the midpoint. If you have any reflected light in the scene (coming from windows, water, or highlights on pretty much anything), they will take the opposite tint to the sky. This occurs because one CPL is tinting the direct (sky) light and the other one is tinting the reflected light.

Choosing the varicolor tint pair

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

As well as the P173 (blue-yellow), Cokin also do the P170 (red-green) P171 (red-blue) P172 (pink-orange) and P174 (blue-lime). The p173 varicolor is the most popular because its two colors match the white balance temperature range. I’d be tempted to start with a P173, and chances are that it’s the only one you will ever need.

The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.
The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.

So, using the P173, you can tint the two light transmission types (reflected, direct) in a scene so one is warmer and the other is cooler. In the photos of the wood above, the light coming from the sun is cooled via the varicolor, and the leaves and foliage are made warmer. This creates a nice contrast between the two, and the lighting and reflected light thus become more prominent than it was on the day.

Using a varicolor

Although a varicolor can be used to give a nice warm-cool color balance differential between the sky and ground, its standard textbook use is where there is water, reflecting metal, or glass.

Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!
Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!

The above three photos were all shot with the same P173 filter, rotated to get the leftmost and rightmost versions.

Most people don’t care for this effect. Not only is the water overly tinted, every other color is way off via an undesirable cast. The effect puts a lot of photographers off, until you realize the secret of using varicolors properly…

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

Setting the white balance (in this case by clicking the Lightroom white balance selector tool on the ground below the tree trunk to set it back to its original neutral grey) will also reduce the effect of the tint.

Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!
Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!

If you are shooting landscape, a bit of white cloud or grey ground will suffice to set white balance, but more generally, you need a grey card. If you don’t have one, an almost perfect stand-in is a square of card from an unwaxed, unbleached breakfast cereal box. The inner side makes a perfect grey card for the purpose of white balance. If you expect to be in direct sunlight, get a smooth stone or a bit of fine emery cloth and sand the grey side down for about a minute so it starts to lighten slightly. I’ve tested such a piece of sanded card against a calibrated X-Rite grey card, and the resulting color balance is consistently within 1% of the calibrated (and very expensive) X-Rite!

Varicolor filters and seascapes

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

The situation where a blue-yellow varicolor absolutely excels is when you need to take a photo of the sea on an overcast or very bright day. In this case, both the sky and sea will be the same grey (or blue-white). Grey on grey isn’t a very compelling color scheme. The grey light of the sky is at a different phase to the grey coming from the sea though, so using a varicolor we can save the day by creating a color separation where there was previously only grey. In fact, in this situation, the varicolor is a requirement to getting a decent shot unless you want to do some serious post processing!

In the shot below, I used the varicolor to turn the water blue, ignoring what was happening to the sky.

Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor
Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor. Lots of color separation, but also a pink cast

We now have some color separation between the sky and sea, but white balance has been totally destroyed and we need to reset it in post. We can either select the blue of the sea as our white balance point (which will warm the entire image towards sepia, and might have been appropriate if the sun was in the sky), or the grey of the sky (which will give us a blue sea and grey sky). Both will fix the issue, but will give us a totally different look. I want a blue sea, so have clicked the sky:

Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.
Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.

Tweaking the image further gives us our final photo…

Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.
Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.

In the actual scene, the sky and sea were the same color, and although this final version has been processed for exposure, I have hardly altered color at all apart from the initial white balance correction and lowering yellow from the foam. I left most of the color correction to my trusty real-life Photoshop filter – the Cokin P173.

Another cool use of the P173 is when you are using HDR photography. HDR will take the varicolor tints and overdrive them, giving you a dramatic effect.

Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)
Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)

When shooting HDR of fast moving water, it makes sense to use a fast shooting camera. The Sony A77 does 12 frames per second. That and its fast WYSIWYG live view make it perfect for landscape HDR, especially if like me you prefer to shoot hand held.

Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England.  5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.
Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England. 5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.

Disadvantages of the varicolor

As mentioned earlier, the varicolor is really two tinting CPL filters. It comes as no surprise then that the varicolor has such a strong color effect as it is really two filters, each with two elements (CPL+tint).

You will have the usual negative issues of stacking what is really two filters onto a lens, the biggest one being stop loss: you lose up to two stops of light. That’s enough to kill your autofocus even on a bright sunny day. Fast f2.8 glass is pretty much a must, otherwise its down to tripod and manual focus.

Vignette is another issue, so you may need to correct for that in post.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, a varicolor is seriously thick glass: 4.5mm, which is half the thickness of a standard window pane. On the bright side, such a filter is complex, so you simply can’t get cheap knock-off versions, and there are really only two brands available (Singh-Ray and Cokin).

Conclusion

Varicolors are typically only recommended for landscapes with water, and many photographers simply dismiss them as a variable tinting filter, but they can be used for so much more once you realise that the secret to their use is fixing white balance in post. After that, they become very useful, being able to make mundane color look dramatic (and often the focus of the shot).

  • They allow you to set the warmth of reflected light coming from windows in architectural and motor vehicle shots.
  • They allow you to crank up the contrast between the light coming from the sky and the light reflected from the ground, something that can make all landscape shots look different, bringing up color and enhancing lighting.
  • They create iridescence (think ‘body of a peacock’) when you shoot close-up foliage and car bodywork, especially when you have highlights.
  • They can act like an all-in-one warming-to-cooling filter when you have flat lighting

A blue-yellow varicolor is something to try out in all use cases where you would reach for your wide angle lens. It will be a firm favourite with anyone who has one of the affordable super-wide lenses (Tokina or Sigma) but you will need to do some DIY to move the filter glass from a Cokin P series cassette to a screw in filter, or you need to hold your breath and get a Singh-Ray.

Perhaps the best thing about the varicolor is that not many photographers use them. They don’t realise the white balance trick or are off put by the two stop light loss. That makes the varicolor a less used filter than it deserves and far from being an overused effect. In fact, if you pull back the effect with white balance, nobody will guess you created the effect optically!

Notes

  1. All forest photos shot with an Olympus Stylus 1 (the varicolor was hand-held in front of the lens).
  2. All seascapes shot with a Sony Alpha A77, Tokina 11-16mm, with the varicolor modded to screw onto the Tokina as a standard 77mm filter.

Review: Minolta 70-210 f4.0 beercan

…old film lenses are analog devices and not digital. An old lens will not ‘shoot at a lower resolution’ but give reduced contrast.

The classic Minolta ‘beercan’ lenses date from the 1980s. There is a lot of conflicting advice on their suitability with modern cameras.

On the one hand, the 70-210 is seen by many as a classic: Minolta color, built like a tank and fast autofocusing on modern DSLRs. Although its constant f4 rather than f2.8, that’s only a stop difference, and it makes a good poor-man’s long telephoto. You can pick up a beercan for peanuts from eBay.

On the other hand, we have all the issues associated with 1980s film camera optics: it is poor on chromatic aberration and flare. There’s also the question of resolution. 1980s lenses may have seemed good back in the day when your final output came as print, but the old stuff may not hack it against modern glass when you go pixel peeping from a modern 24MP+ DSLR.

Finally, there is the question of age. These lenses are 30 years old and you have to be careful about lens mold. Many lenses of that age have it and if you keep them stored with your existing lenses, your whole collection may become infected!

A picture paints a thousand words

Without any ado, let us forget the specs and science, and get straight to the photography.

'Bum!' (American translation: 'Ass!')
‘Bum!’ (American translation: ‘Ass!’)

The photograph above was shot with a large beercan on a Sony A77 APS-C 24MP camera in Program mode, f7.1, 1/400s, ISO120. It was shot hand held from a distance of about 40-50 metres away.

1:1 pixel closeup
1:1 pixel closeup

The statue is made of spun wire rather than stone.  You can see this in the per-pixel size close-up above.

Let’s just recap: this is a 24MP image shot hand held at ISO125 from some distance away. Of course, there’s post production here, but this pretty much blows out the resolution question: sharp at 24MP. The color is also good.

Best of all, I am shooting on an APS-C, which means that 70-210 converts to 105-315 and with anti-shake (it comes as standard in all Sony Alpha camera bodies). I’m stupid enough to expect to be able to shoot at 315mm/f7.1 hand held… and it worked: no blur! This is not a one off either: all my shots with this lens came out just as sharp. This would just not happen with a more commonly used super-zoom (such as my Sony  18-250), which would have a minimum f stop at the high end of f6.5, so f7.1 would still be a bit soft.

Incidentally, its worth noting that old film lenses are analog devices and not digital. An old lens will not ‘shoot at a lower resolution’ but give reduced contrast. As long as the contrast can be brought back to normal levels in post production without removing detail, there is no problem. I have read internet posts where someone rejects an old lens because it ‘doesn’t have enough resolution’ or ‘resolving power’ for a given modern camera. Resolution is not something any lens has, and its not about the smallest dot a lens can resolve, but how sharp that dot appears in the final output (either through lens contrast or modern digital convolution filters and micro-contrast enhancements applied in post). Don’t worry about the  numbers: judge by the contrast and detail in your final photograph as we have done with the sculpture above.

Another issue with older glass is optical aberration: distortion, flare and chromatic aberration.

At tele distances, everything will be flat, so we should not be concerned with distortion. The beercan flares like mad, but that’s fine as there’s no point taking a shot like this with the sun in front of you. As you can see by the boy’s shadow, the sun is almost exactly at 90 degrees to my right, and that’s probably as close to central you would want a hot summer sun unless you are also using Flash and ND filters.

1:1 pixel closeup showing chromatic aberation
1:1 pixel closeup showing chromatic aberation

The beercan also gives lots of purple chromatic aberration wide open, so I’m stopped down quite hard for 24MP: f7.1. The original image still gave me a little CA on the boy’s highlights. We’re looking at per pixel at 24MP here so this will never show up on print.

Cleaning up chromatic aberation in Lightroom 5 (Amount slider increased to 17)_
Cleaning up chromatic aberation in Lightroom 5 (Amount slider increased to 17)_

Nevertheless, Lightroom 5 easily got rid of the fringing and satisfied any pixel peeping urges I might have. This works well because the CA tends to be pure purple, making it easy to remove.

Using the beercan on modern DSLRs

I use the beercan on a Sony Alpha A77, with which the beercan works very well: quick autofocus speed (but note that the lower end Sony alphas have a weaker focusing motor, and autofocus may be slower on those models), and despite the size, actually balances very well on the camera.

Beercan on Sony A77
Beercan on Sony A77

The nearest modern lens alternative is the Sony 70-200 f2.8. That goes for $2000.00, so although it has better optical characteristics, it only gives you a stop more in speed from f4. That stop may be important for professional shots, but for the happy enthusiast, it probably is not worth the x10 price hike! This is especially true when you consider that long fast tele is probably an edge-case for most shooters except sports or wildlife.

Beercan on Sony A77
Beercan on Sony A77

Physically, the lens is 100% metal apart from the lens hood and rubber grip area. It is a very shiny black (almost piano black). The lack of markings (compared to current lenses), constant diameter and coloring actually makes the lens look modern because of its minimalism. It certainly stands out against my drab grey-black modern lenses!

Optical extras include the fact that the lens is a ‘true zoom’ or parfocal, meaning that it maintains focus as you change focal length. This makes the lens very easy to use as it doesn’t call attention to itself as you compose your shot. It would also make the lens useful if you ever needed long tele with video (but note that the lens is noisy on focus). There is also macro at 210mm, probably 2:1, but I haven’t really tried it (as I have a dedicated 1:1 macro lens in my set).

Perhaps the best optical feature of the beercan is its color and contrast out-of-camera, as well as its colourful bokeh.

My washing line, out-of-camera, 210mm, 1/160s at f4, ISO64
My washing line, out-of-camera, 210mm, 1/160s at f4, ISO64

As you can see here, these three features can conspire to make even the most mundane photographic subject better! You can also see the chromatic aberration here (highlights at top of post), but as mentioned earlier, this is easy to remove in post-production, or by shooting stopped down (the photo was shot wide open to show depth of field at f4, but going above f5.6 would have fixed the CA).

When photographed in ideal conditions (not into the sun), the contrast and color out of camera is so good that you would assume polariser filters or post work has occurred

out-of-camera image, shot straight at sky, no filter or post, 75mm, 1/5000s at f6.3, ISO160
out-of-camera image, shot straight at sky, no filter or post, 75mm, 1/5000s at f6.3, ISO160

Have a look at the blue sky in this image, and the contrast between the sky and tree. There is not a hint of CA in this photograph either as we are away from wide open. Wonderful!

Once the sun is directly into the lens though, the issues start.

Out-of-camera shot directly into sun, 75mm, 1/2000s at f6.3, ISO64
Out-of-camera shot directly into sun, 75mm, 1/2000s at f6.3, ISO64

We now lose a lot of the contrast (although we do get a nice graduation in the sun highlight, something that does not occur on a typical kit lens, or even some more expensive current optics, and is a feat from the Sony A77 as I am shooting at ISO64!).

beercan flare, 1:1 pixel closeup
beercan flare, 1:1 pixel closeup

What we do see though is difficult to remove flare. It is several shades of purple so cannot be removed without cloning it out. If this was a paid for shot, you would be in trouble, because the beercan’s flare is not pretty enough to be passed off as artistic intent or styling.

So if you buy a beercan, Colors, contrast and bokeh are to die for, chromatic aberration is strong but can be removed in post, and flare is your worst enemy.

The lens is not quiet by any measure, although that may not be a problem at long tele, as the subject will probably be too far away to notice!

Issues with buying old glass

I got the lens from eBay. The seller sent over the original carrying case, the instruction book, and even threw in a free small beercan (35-70mm f4 constant), also with the original case. All well and good, but the 70-210 had mold in the front lens assembly. That is not fatal, and a quick look at a disassembly guide on the web enabled me to take the affected lens out and clean it all off. Nevertheless, I store my old lenses separate from my new ones. Not much of a constraint (they go into the same camera bag when I go out shooting), and a cheap way to build up on some classic mid speed glass.

If you are buying 1980’s lenses for a Sony Alpha camera, Minolta AF lenses from that period will fully work off the bat because modern Alphas maintain backwards compatibility with them. Third party lenses from the same period will most likely only work in manual unless they have been upgraded for modern autofocus (which will cost more than the lens is worth, given that the market is flooded with working Minoltas). Be wary of buying 1980’s Sigma and other non-supported brands.

The most important issue with old glass (if you believe half the internet) is ‘lack of resolution’ or ‘lack of resolving power’. As noted earlier, this is a non-issue. See the notes section at the end of this post if resolution is a bugbear for you (or you have heard otherwise so often that you need proof).

Optically, the biggest issue you will get with old glass generally is the lack of modern coatings. This presents itself with a greater loss of contrast and more flare when shooting into the sun. It occurs because old lenses are bad at controlling internal reflection between lens elements (modern lenses absorb the stray light through their coatings). You need to be aware of this when shooting with older glass, but in practice it is not a big constraint as you rarely need to take such a shot, and when you do, the resulting aberrations can often be used artistically (who needs Instagram when you have the original glass that causes the effect…). Another issue you may find at the low end is greater optical distortion. Old lenses were designed without the benefit of current computer simulation power, but that does not have to be an issue when the modern photographer has the benefit of modern computing power in post production, and most optical distortion can be corrected to current lens standards in Lightroom.

The issue with lens age and mold is just a part of the game. You will spend less money with old glass, but the downside is having to occasionally dismantle a lens or bin it completely if you got sold a dud. If nothing else, learning to work with old glass means you are forced to open the odd one up, and get a better understanding of what a lens actually is. The important thing is to actively look out for mold, and either fix it or bin the lens when you do find it (and don’t pay so much on an old lens that you cannot afford to bin it).

Conclusion

My default kitbag includes the following:

  1. Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 constant, APS-C (wide angle).
  2. Sony 16-55mm f2.8 constant, APS-C (standard lens and ‘video lens’)
  3. Sony 50mm prime f1.7 APS-C (standard 50-prime), or
  4. Minolta 50mm prime f1.4 full frame.
  5. Minolta 70-210mm f4.0 constant (105-315 APS-C equivalent, long tele).

Although there’s 5 lenses here, 3 and 4 are tiny, so we’re only really talking 3 large lenses. I’ve got the most commonly used focal lengths at a constant f2.8. I also have a couple of fast primes at 50 for low light and high depth of focus. Finally, I have the long end covered up to 315mm at a constant f4.

I have nothing between 55-105mm but that’s ok by me. I could cover it via my small beercan, but that stays home as that range isn’t really interesting to my shooting style except for portrait (although the 50 f1.4 is a good stand in for portrait because of the nice bokeh and ability to go down to f1.4).

The take away from this lens set is that two of them are 1980s Minolta glass, both bought from eBay at a fraction of the price of equivalent modern glass. Yes, they have issues with shooting wide open into the sun, but to be honest, doing that doesn’t often lead to keepers with any glass (unless you are shooting with off-camera Flash, and that is another ball game for a later post). I’m happy to put up with having to fix the CA in post for the Minoltas, because the famed Minolta color (deep color and good contrast out of camera) means I save that time having to sort out other issues in post.

The initial photo from this post is a good example where ‘Minolta color’ becomes useful. The separation between the boy, foliage and sculpture is so large that it almost looks like the boy was composited in! In fact, the separation out-of-camera was actually larger: the sculpture was darker and the background foliage was lighter. The high contrast between the image elements gave me a lot of help in making mask selections and more than made up for the time lost (10 seconds) fixing the chromatic aberration.

Notes

  1. Original photograph taken at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England. The sculpture is Sophie Ryder’s ‘Sitting’. http://www.sophie-ryder.com/
  2. I don’t think the boy in the photo is pointing to the statue’s backside. He’s pointing at a parent who is peeping at him through the gap between the statue body and arm. Call it artistic license, or childish humor.
  3. You will see in the photos of the beercan that I use a hand strap rather than a neck strap. A hand strap is much better for stability at all focal lengths, but particularly useful for long tele. A hand strap is also very useful for stability when shooting video.
  4. As an aside, I cannot understand ‘completest’ photographers who have to have the full optical range at f2.8. Most keepers happen in the range 16-85mm, so that’s where you usually want your expensive constant f2.8 glass or fast primes. Anything much over or under that can be slower or cheaper glass, unless you specifically use other ranges often. I especially like ultra wide, so have shifted my constant f2.8 range towards that, but its a false economy to think you need constant f2.8 or better in ranges you rarely enter into. The best way to choose where to upgrade your lenses is to start with a slow 18-250ish all-in-one, look at which focal length most of your keepers are shot, and update that range with constant f2.8 and fast primes over time. You may be surprised at how low a focal range all your best photographs are in!
  5. I am shooting with the A77 at below ISO100 for many of the example shots. Shooting at ISO64 gives you a small loss in dynamic range, but also gives zero noise . Although there are lots of Sony A77 review on the web berating it for noise at high ISO, there seems to be few reviewers who have realised that it gives zero noise at the very low end, and routinely gives cleaner photographs than competing full frame models in normal daylight shooting, because even pro cameras (such as the 5D Mark III) don’t go below their base ISO and certainly not down to ISO50.
  6. The best way to get mold growth on a lens is to store it in your camera bag. I keep all my lenses in clear airtight boxes with silica gel pouches. Clear so that the light can get in and airtight with silica so that moisture keeps out (mold likes dark and damp). Used and new lenses are kept in separate boxes. When adding a used lens to my set, look for mold and I clean off all traces of it first (and if that is not possible, I bin it). If you don’t clean off the mold before storage, placing the lens into a dry airtight box will force the mold to spore. You can use a handful of gel cat litter in a non-waxed, sealed envelope instead of silica gel.

Note Addendum: Old lenses and resolving power

An issue that crops up with old lenses is ‘resolution’ or ‘resolving power’. The argument goes along the lines of ‘old lenses were designed for far lower resolution than current cameras so image quality suffers’. What that argument doesn’t tell you is

  1. Lenses are analog devices, not digital, and therefore don’t have a property called resolution, and
  2. The act of digitising an analog signal is actually very forgiving, so resolution is not an issue unless the sensor is at least twice as good as the lens, and
  3.  What this degradation actually looks like. Lack of resolving power in a digital image shows up as aliasing or ‘jaggies’, but old lenses don’t give you that (they are, after all, not even digital devices so don’t play by those rules).  So what does lack of resolving power actually look like (because that is the crux of the issue)?  We will see what lack of resolving power looks like in a moment.

Let’s look at the problem with a hypothetical simple sensor…

lens Resolution 01
lens Resolution 01

Consider a digital camera sensor with only three photo sites. Each site can detect black or white. If we try to take a picture with this three pixel sensor, such that only the centre pixel is lit, we see an image such as i).

We will get a high voltage for the center pixel and a low voltage for the outer pixels. The sensor digitiser will convert these to the signal ii), which as a digital bitstream is ‘010’,  and that is what our RAW file will contain. When we view the RAW file as an image, we see our row of three pixels as per i): black, white, black.

Now, suppose we put a lens on the front of this sensor that is unable to resolve correctly. What would happen? As a waveform, we would see something like iii) coming out from the sensor. The centre voltage has spread out so it is no longer a definite high voltage anymore, and the two low values have also degraded. How does the digitiser handle this? Well it has a trigger level half way between the high and low voltages. If the voltage is higher than this level, we see a ‘1’ in our RAW file, and a ‘0’ for anything else.

The digitiser will still see the center pixel as a ‘1’ because it is still more than the trigger level, and it will still see the outer pixels as ‘0’ because they are still below the level. Our blacks are still black, and our whites are still white, despite the fact that the input signal to the digitiser is significantly degraded!

As an aside, this feature of digital systems is actually the only reason why we started encoding analog values digitally for both storage and transmission: as long as the noise introduced to our digital signal is less than half the difference between a logic ‘0’ and a ‘1’, we get no noise because a ‘0’ is still a ‘0’ and a ‘1’ is still a ‘1’ . In this case, our noise is the lack of analog resolving power before the digitising stage, but we do not see it because its introduced error is less than half our sensor’s bit accuracy, and therefore rejected.

So, unless the lens is good for less than half the maximum resolving power of the camera sensor, you do not need to worry because the digitising process corrects the noise introduced by the lens. Put another way, if your lens is only good for 14MP (which it typically is), then you do not need to worry for a 25MP camera, because 14 > 25/2.

lens Resolution2
lens Resolution2

Ok, so now you are thinking ‘yeah but most sensors are not just detecting 0 or 1: they are detecting a 000000000000 to 111111111111 (plus they use separate photo sites for the red, green and blue components of each pixel), so instead of 0 or 1, so what you would actually see with three adjacent pixels from a real sensor is dark grey-light grey-dark grey (as per the image above) instead of black-white-black’ as per i). You might even be thinking ‘the resolving power of a lens varies with focal length: the more you zoom, the more the light is travelling through less of the glass area, which amplifies errors and changes resolving power for the worst… so at some point, a long tele lens like the beercan will be causing big enough resolving errors to cause worry’.

Yes exactly that will happen, and there is a name for this process. It is not called something scary like loss of resolution, loss or resolving power or wasting your sensor resolution by being a cheapskate. It is called simply losing contrast. Blacks turn to grey and whites become less bright. That is not anything to worry about because you can quantify it: you can see it physically just by looking at your photograph. An old lens that is focusing correctly but resolving to a lower level than your camera will just lose contrast. That’s not really any surprise because you know all about this already: a good lens that you artificially make worse by rubbing a greasy thumb all over it will do exactly the same thing. The grease scatters the light and causes the same resolving issue.

You can correct all this easily: just increase the contrast in post. Better still, you can realise that the issue is really micro contrast rather than contrast, and increase clarity (except of course on skin, where the loss of contrast is potentially a good thing). Either way, all it takes is a small tweak on a single Lightroom slider (and perhaps a mask to avoid changing skin contrast).

Alternatively, you can just use a brand of old lens well known for high contrast so that loss of contrast is less of an issue. Well, ‘Minolta color’ means many things, but one thing it means is really good contrast, so if you are using Sony NEX or Alpha, buy Minolta and don’t worry!

Lensbaby

you can expect large variability, chromatic aberration, vignette, low contrast, and all the other things photographers usually pay good money not to have in a lens

There’s a Lensbaby review on Amazon that ends with  words to the effect of  ‘this is nowhere near as sharp as my Canon L Lenses, and I think I’ll stick with the L Lens thank you’.

Let me tell you the alternative side of the story. You may or may not like Picasso’s paintings, but look up his earliest works. The guy could really paint! Picasso turned to cubism and other primitive styles because he was at the top of his game technically and had nowhere else to go. So it is with Lensbaby: if you know your camera very well, and want to mix it up a bit, Lensbaby is a direction to take. For some, that may be a step backwards technically, but it can occasionally be a bigger step forward creatively.

This review won’t go into what a Lensbaby is and what it looks like, but instead I’ll go through what it does and doesn’t do, and what I think it is best used for.

First though, a little history

Lensbaby was released in 2004 with modest expectations. It was launched At the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International trade show, Las Vegas. The creators, Craig Strong and Sam Pardue sold out on the first day, and spent the remainder of the show working nights in the hotel room building more Lensbabies, all of which sold out the next day. Lensbabies are now a mass produced, international product.

A modern Lensbaby consists of a primitive optic (such as a single, uncoated lens, a plastic lens, or even just a pinhole). This optic has very little in the way of advanced features, so you can expect large variability, chromatic aberration, vignette, low contrast, and all the other things photographers usually pay good money not to have in a lens.

Tip 1: If you want to try a Lensbaby, buy it second hand on eBay. Tip 2: Don’t buy a Lensbaby unless you understand how to use your camera in either Aperture Priority or Full Manual. Tip 3: Lensbabies love Flash, so make sure you do as well.

The whole point of the Lensbaby system is that you embrace all those aberrations and use them creatively. So, stick with the Canon L Lens (or Nikon ED, or Sony Carl Zeiss) when you want optical quality, but consider Lensbaby when you want to trade sharpness and quality for something more edgy,  dreamy or totally leftfield.

I’ll let you look up the different types of Lensbaby and how you physically use them at lensbaby.com, and dive straight into the things you really need to know when considering  owning a Lensbaby…

Buy your Lensbaby second hand

Lensbaby starts off fairly cheap, but all the accessories you need before you have a system you can begin to use it creatively add up.

Maybe the Lensbaby is worth the money. Well, there’s a number of ways to work out the true value of a given lens, but for me the best indication is resale value. Look on eBay, and you will see that Lensbabies can easily go on auction for significantly less than retail price. In my opinion, Lensbabies don’t hold their value because lots of people just don’t understand them or didn’t realize what they were buying into (See note 1 below), and the Lensbaby immediately ends up for sale as ‘opened but practically unused’ on eBay.

So that is your first big tip: If you want to try a Lensbaby, buy it second hand on eBay.

I bought a Lensbaby Muse, the Lensbaby tool, the double lens optic, a three optic starter set, a Lensbaby book, and a custom Lensbaby carrying case. All as a single lot, hardly used and fully boxed, for a bit more than the cost of a camera battery. A great deal for me (because it is a good, feature rich set to start exploring with), but I would  have been furious if I had been the one selling, because he bought it for the same price as that battery and the  entry level camera that comes with it.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that Lensbaby is low quality stuff. It is actually surprisingly high quality (a lot of the bits I assumed would be plastic are machined metal for example). What I am saying is that lots of photographers buy Lensbaby but don’t like it or get bored quickly and dump on eBay, and that’s what pulls the resale price down.

Lensbaby is a baby lens, but looking after baby is not easy

Everything about the Lensbaby is not just simple but downright primitive. You could hand a Lensbaby to a photographer from the 1800’s Wild West and they would totally understand the technology. Simple, uncoated lenses, pinholes, Holga quality toy lenses.  You don’t even get aperture blades: you have to swap out metal disks with the aperture holes cut out. And of course, the Lensbaby is completely manual. It doesn’t have any electrical connections at all. Your digital camera won’t even detect a lens is attached, so you have to know how to force the camera to fire even if it doesn’t detect a lens (on my Sony Alpha A77 its Menu Button > Cog 1 >Release w/o Lens set to ENABLE).

Focusing is done with your fingers: you manually change the shape of the lens body, and that takes a lot of practice. It is easy to take a Lensbaby photograph where everything is dreamy and blurry, but difficult to take a technically good Lensbaby photograph (where the main subject is typically in sharp focus).

Lensbaby Double glass optic f4 (out-of-camera image)
Lensbaby Double glass optic f4 (out-of-camera image)
Closeup of the in-focus ‘sweet spot’. The central area of the image is tack sharp, but this takes practice!
Closeup of the in-focus ‘sweet spot’. The central area of the image is tack sharp, but this takes practice!

This difficulty is hidden by the name. You might be thinking ‘Lensbaby: ahhh! Its a cute baby lens so it must be easy to use!’.

The reality is actually ‘Lensbaby: its the most primitive lens you can put on your camera, so you have to know your camera inside-out, because you will be the one sorting out the focus, depth of field, contrast, keeping aberrations at bay, and changing nappies. You will typically be doing most of that not only manually, but directly with your fingers, so you’ve got to be prepared to get your hands dirty’.

So second tip: don’t buy a Lensbaby unless you understand how to use your camera in either Aperture Priority or Full Manual, because those are the default modes you will be using with a Lensbaby.

All the above photographs were taken using cheap 1980s lenses shot wide open.
All the above photographs were taken using cheap 1980s lenses shot wide open, something that is a good alternative to Lensbaby kit.

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, cheap traditional lenses and some Photoshop filters/blurs may be a better bet.

The images above were all taken using 1980s lenses (the classic Minolta ‘large beercan’ and the Minolta 50mm f1.4, both of which can be had on eBay for cheap, and both of which work perfectly in full automatic on my Sony A77), whilst I was practicing traditional photography skills such as use of traditional lens filters (such as polarizers, old-school on-lens graduated filters), and lights and light modifiers (natural light reflectors, softboxes, etc). The photographs are as seen out of camera.

It is worth considering whether practicing that traditional stuff with inexpensive old-school optics will, for the same money make you a better creative photographer than going off on a tangent with Lensbaby.

Lensbabies love Flash, so make sure you do as well

There is a very good, but also very subtle  reason for using Flash with Lensbabies, and it was staring me in the face from the moment I unpacked my Lensbaby Muse. It was the photograph on the product packaging. It looks like this:

http://www.lisasmithstudios.com/
http://www.lisasmithstudios.com/

That’s a really nice photograph. But if you try getting that same controlled depth of focus, you also end up with low contrast, and that makes the image look bad for tone, and washed out for color. You can fix it in Photoshop, but then your photograph starts to look like the depth of field was done with a Photoshop camera blur.

Look at the face to see how it was done: there’s a big directional fill flash. That’s what is bringing the contrast back into the subject. You can even see its direction if you look at the shadow cast by the goggles.

Third tip: if you are using Lensbaby professionally, you typically need sharpness and contrast in the area of focus, and you use Flash extensively (or natural light with reflectors) to give you the contrast.

Nice effect, but not enough contrast (out-of-camera image)
Nice effect, but not enough contrast (out-of-camera image)
Adding Flash gives you the contrast back (out-of-camera image)
Adding Flash gives you the contrast back (out-of-camera image)

This will come as no surprise to wedding and portrait photographers, but may be a surprise to the rest of us. Knowing how to set up a Flash that doesn’t look too obvious is often an important part of taking good Lensbaby photographs. That typically means you know how to put your Flash off-camera and how to use light modifiers, both of which are advanced topics.

Lensbabies love Bokeh and flare

Tip 4: Lensbabies love bokeh and flare, Tip 5: Lensbabies are for you if you hate post processing, Tip 6: Lensbabies are good for telling visual stories because they turn photographs into single-subject story frames

The aperture on a Lensbaby is a perfect circle cutout, so your bokeh will be perfectly circular rather than polygons. Most Lensbaby optics have poor or no coatings and zero flare resistance. If you want bokeh and flare, Lensbaby is where it is at.

All the Bokeh and flare you could ever want (vibrancy increased in post)
All the Bokeh and flare you could ever want (vibrancy increased in post)

Fourth tip: LensBabies allow you to add all sorts of optical aberrations if abstract or transformed graphics are your thing.

Lensbabies are good if you hate post processing

All of my Lensbaby photographs here except the bokeh one are shown as they came out of the camera. That is a big advantage of LensBaby: they take far less of your time in post-processing, and you often don’t need to do much in post.

The flipside to this is that everything a Lensbaby does can be emulated in Photoshop or Lightroom. The plastic lens is just a big surface blur. The glows can be done with guassian blur, and the streak effects are motion zoom blurs.

Emulating Lensbaby in Photoshop certainly gives you more control, but it doesn’t always give you the movement and atmosphere that LensBaby gives.

The original Shot was recolored in Photoshop (top), then a Guassian blur was added using an elliptical selection (middle). Finally, a radial zoom was added using another elliptical selection (bottom) to give a final Lensbaby Photoshop emulation
The original Shot was recolored in Photoshop (top), then a Guassian blur was added using an elliptical selection (middle). Finally, a radial zoom was added using another elliptical selection (bottom) to give a final Lensbaby Photoshop emulation

The above images show how I emulated Lensbaby effect in one of my own shots. The entire process took about 3 minutes to do, and about another 3-5 minutes of tweaking.

Fifth tip: Lensbaby provides graphical effects optically, so you don’t have to do it in post… but if you are good with post, you may not need a Lensbaby.

Lensbabies are great for telling stories

So what exactly do you use Lensbaby for? Lensbabies simplify your subject until you almost end up with a graphic rather than a photograph.

In the actual setting for this photograph, the wall was textured and the bottom shelf was dirty. By taking the photograph with a Lensbaby, all that extraneous detail goes, allowing you to bring out the bare elements of the scene (LensBaby Plastic optic, f4, out-of-camera image)
In the actual setting for this photograph, the wall was textured and the bottom shelf was dirty. By taking the photograph with a Lensbaby, all that extraneous detail goes, allowing you to bring out the bare elements of the scene (LensBaby Plastic optic, f4, out-of-camera image)

That is why wedding photographers use them so much: Lensbaby shots move the story of the day along with strong graphics that focus on only one thing: here’s the wedding cake on its own, here’s the shoes and dress the day before. In each case, anything extraneous is lifted out of the photograph via the selective focus.

Sometimes you need to tell the story not by a sharp image, but a feeling of something: the blur of the bride’s bouquet being thrown, or zooming into the happy father, lifted out from the clutter of the congregation because he is the only person in focus.

Sixth tip: A Lensbaby is good if you want to tell a story or imply a feeling through photography, because it is a good way of paring the photograph down to the bare story, graphic, or emotional elements.

Conclusion

So, a Lensbaby is certainly not for purists: you may prefer to spend your money on a 50mm f1.4 or cheap 1.7, and shoot wide open. That and a bit of post processing will get you to almost the same place as a Lensbaby. Doing your own post takes up time though, and because it is much more of a controlled process, doesn’t give you the edgy, primitive effects that Lensbaby can give you.

Although Lensbabies are primitive, you need a lot of skill to use them well: manual control and a good understanding of off camera Flash or natural lighting are important if you wan to use a Lensbaby professionally.

There is a very strong ‘Lensbaby effect’ and like most strong effects this may become old quickly if you use often.

A LensBaby is something you will typically take out when you have taken all your money shots, and have time to go a little leftfield. A LensBaby is not a replacement for good standard lenses.

LensBabies don’t hold their value, so you might want to consider buying second hand. eBay is your friend.

Notes

  1. Reasons for people not liking Lensbaby and selling it straight may include
    1. They didn’t realize the lens was fully manual and required a lot of effort.
    2. They didn’t realize that moving the area of focus on a full frame camera too far results in a shadow along one edge, or that ‘50mm’ meant ‘50mm full frame’, so you end up with a less useful 75-80mm on crop frame.
    3. They didn’t realize that most things you can do with a Lensbaby can be emulated in post production by an advanced user using a current version of Photoshop.
    4. They had serious issues with putting a pinhole on a two thousand dollar DSLR and the unpredictability in final photograph that this implies, preferring instead to stick with a 50mm 1.4 wide open. The latter is more controllable, not as extreme, and can become tack sharp throughout once stopped down… and when you want dreamy, a bit of grease on a skylight filter works wonders.
    5. They get bored with the effect.
  2. I took the Lensbaby History from Lensbaby, bending your perspective, Corey Hilz, Focal Press.
  3. Some cameras are better for Lensbabies than others. Cameras that have live view that allows magnification or has focus peaking are ideal, as are cameras that allow Auto ISO in full manual. A camera that allows Aperture mode for a non-detected lens is a big plus (as it prevents you having to go into full manual).

Review:Tamron AF90/f2.8 Di macro, Dörr DAF-14 ringflash, alpha mount

Macro lenses are some of the sharpest optical lenses you will find because a good macro needs excellent spherical and chromatic compensation.  The downside to macros (vs non-macro primes of the same focal length) is that they are slower in autofocus, and generally poor in low light autofocus.

My previous macro photography kit (50mm prime lens with a x10 diopeter attachment) has got me pretty far with mimimal outlay.  The trouble is that I’ve outgrown that setup.

Firstly, the lens I was using gives a very small focusing distance. That was not a problem until I started thinking about using a flash. The distance between the camera and subject is too small for me to add artificial lighting.

The second issue is that although I was getting pretty sharp images, they were only that – pretty sharp. I wanted to get my hands on a true macro lens so I could go really sharp.

Here’s the updated kit that solves my problems;

Sony a500 (with LCH-500 LCD hood), Dorr DAF-A14 ringflash, Tamron AF90/f2.8 1:1 macro.
Sony a500 (with LCH-500 LCD hood), Dorr DAF-A14 ringflash, Tamron AF90/f2.8 1:1 macro.

How did I arrive at that combination? Well, with macros, there’s actually not much thinking involved…

Macro lenses: the technical basics, quickly

  • A true macro lens is one that can focus close enough such that the image seen by the sensor is the same size as the original object. Your images are invariably bigger than the sensor, hence the final subject will always be magnified. Manufacturers generally call a true macro a ‘1:1 macro’. We will call them ‘macros’.
  • Macro lenses are some of the sharpest optical lenses you will find because a good macro needs excellent spherical and chromatic compensation.  Nobody makes a bad 1:1 macro lens.  Read that last part again, its important, as it will stop you poring over loads of reviews (and I should know; its the conclusion I reached after reading practically every Tamron 90mm/f2.8 vs Sigma AF 105mm f/2.8 EX macro DG review there is and poring over online sample shots).
  • The downside to macros (vs non-macro primes of the same focal length) is that they are slower in autofocus, and generally poor in low light autofocus. The reason for this is that macros tend to have more turns on their focusing screw thread. This is neccessary for fine adjustment when focusing at short macro ranges, but is clearly a disadvantage when focusing on mid-distance fast moving action. Although macros tend to be fast glass (e.g. f2.8), don’t assume they can be used just like a fast prime.
  • Normal lenses sometimes also have a macro mode. Such modes are not true macro as they (a) do not achieve 1:1 (they usually get to 1:2 or 1:4) and (b) they are not at their sharpest at macro distances. We will call such lenses ‘standard lenses’. You should only consider a standard lens with macro capability if you only see yourself dabbling occasionally in macro photography.

Buying a macro: the basics, quickly

  • Although macro lenses can be expensive, they have a smaller market than standard lenses and you will usually be able to find one brand of macro lens on sale if you are able to wait a couple of months. As nobody makes a bad true macro, you will save a lot of head-scratching and poring over online reviews if you simply pick the first one that you see reduced to a reasonable price. All you need to be sure is that it is a 1:1 macro. This advice is an approximation but it works pretty well for APS-C cameras and third party lenses  (Sigma/Tamron, etc). For the best possible full frame macro lens, you probably need to buy the (much) more expensive ‘camera manufacturer’s own lens’ (Sony/Nikkor, etc).
  • Once you have selected a lens brand, the next choice is focal length. The longer the focal length, the further away the front of the lens will be from the subject. A 50mm macro lens is fine as long as you do not expect to photograph insects (the end of the lens will be almost touching the subject, so they will take fright and crawl/fly away… or get squished!) and nor do you expect to add artificial lighting (because at 50mm there is not sufficient distance between the front of the lens and subject to introduce lighting). If you want the ability to photograph insects and add lighting, you need at least 90mm or 110mm. The downside at 90/110mm is that you have to be some distance away from a subject if you want to use the same lens for portrait photography (you have to be about 3m away with a 90mm to get a good head and shoulders portrait and several metres away to get a full body shot).

I chose Tamron simply because they were on sale and therefore 40% cheaper than the same Sigma lens, and over 100% cheaper than the same Sony lens. I chose 90mm as I wanted sufficient focusing distance to be able to photograph bugs without scaring/squishing them, and so that I could add artificial lighting.

I should note that there is one big downside to the Tamron 90mm against the Sigma/Sony lenses; the Tamron is quite possibly the ugliest camera lens I have ever seen!

Tamron AF 90/f2.8 Di macro
Tamron AF 90/f2.8 Di macro

There’s a lot of good things about the Tamron optically though, including its sharpness and its general ease of use in macro (discounting perhaps the slow auto-focus and tendancy to ‘hunt’, something that is common to all macro lenses). The most striking good thing about the Tamron for me was its colour reproduction. The lens produces noticeably deeper colour than any other alpha mount lens I have tried.

Pastels (colour as-shot)
Pastels (colour as-shot)

I’m sure the image above won’t do justice to the vibrancy that this lens produces (as it’s a jpeg created from the original .ARW raw file), but take it from me, this lens produces very sharp and vibrant images that need little post correction.

The lens has a nice limiter switch which has the effect of limiting the focal length from either min focusing distance – 45mm (which you would typically do for macro shooting) or 45mm – infinity (which you would typically do if you were using the lens as a portrait or prime). The effect of limiting is to at least double the focusing speed.

Like other macro lenses in the same price range, the Tamron uses external focusing, meaning that the lens gets physically bigger the closer the focusing target is. Internal focusing (where the lens groups move relative to each other inside the lens) is only available in more expensive lenses. My personal opinion is that internal focusing macros are only useful if you have a full frame camera that can make use of the additional optical quality that tends to come with the better overall build quality. The differences are either slight or non existent for non full frame cameras. Paying double just for a lens that doesn’t change size on my APS-C camera doesn’t add up for me!

One thing to note about the Tamron (and probably, other macro lenses) is that although it is a constant minimum aperture  lens, you will often see the aperture change as you zoom in. This is not due to the lens, but is instead the camera compensating for low light; as you zoom in on a macro shot, you cut out more and more light, and it is this (rather than the optics of the  lens itself) that cause the aperture change. The issue will occur even on a bright sunny day. The only way to fix this issue is to  compensate with a flash, which takes us smoothly onto our next section…

Macro lighting

The easiest way to light a macro shot via a single source is by using a ringflash. As you can see from the first image in this article, a ringflash is circular, with the lens looking through the middle. Ring shaped lights are useful in macro photography because they provide even, shadowless lighting when viewed from the camera. They also avoid the camera casting a shadow over the scene, as would happen with a standard camera flash.

A ringflash is also very good for portrait photography – the ‘even shadowless’ bit works well when photographing faces.

The problem with ringflashes is that they are expensive. They are so expensive in fact that the web is full of  homebrew versions. See http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/09/super-cheap-diy-ring-flash.html for a typical example.

You can also avoid paying out for a true ringflash by using a converter such as http://www.ray-flash.com/. Finally, you can use a cheaper LED ring light rather than a ringflash. These use a circle of LEDs rather than a true flashgun – think Christmas lights arranged around the front of the lens… I’m told these are actually ok for macro, although they are useless for portrait photography because they are simply not that bright.

After lots of searching I found a very cheap true ringflash for alpha mount; the Dörr (sometimes spelt ‘Doer’) DAF-14. The Dörr website (http://www.dorrfoto.co.uk, or http://www.doerrfoto.de/ if your German is good) no longer lists it for alpha mount, but it is still available on Amazon UK) but you may have to be quick!

Physically, the  DAF-14 has no controls other than an on/of button and the standard manual ‘testflash’ red pushbutton. All configuration occurs through the camera menus. On my Alpha500, the Flash works pretty much flawlessly, with few misfires (and what few misfires I have seen are usually due to my bad camera settings).

Re-charge times are pretty fast for a flash that is priced in only double figures; the ringflash typically charges within a couple of seconds.

Update 2012: As noted in the comments section of this post, the Dorr ringflash does not work with the latest Sony SLT cameras. See comments for more information.     

Tamron 90mm 1:1 macro and DAF-14; sample shots

When photographing in macro, you do not usually use a ringflash for shooting under low light. You use a ringflash to get the shutter speed up and/or to enable you to stop down the lens to increase depth of view. Doing either will give you a sharper image.

To illustrate this, let’s first look at a shot taken in perfect lighting conditions. This image was taken under a bright, high sun, immediately preceded by rain (i.e. typical British August weather!).

Cotinus (smoke bush), shot at 1/50s f9
Cotinus (smoke bush), shot at 1/50s f9

The image looks ok, but if you look at actual size (1:1 pixel), you see the problem;

Cotinus (smoke bush), detail 1
Cotinus (smoke bush), detail 1

Macro photography requires lots of light and still subjects. In this shot I actually have both, but its still not enough to avoid blurring. Although I am shooting hand held, using a tripod would only fix half the problem; a still camera is some use, but the leaf  is still moving slightly.

A better way forward is to use the ringflash. Yes, even in high sun! Take a look;

Cotinus (smoke bush), 1/160s, f9
Cotinus (smoke bush), 1/160s, f9

As is normal for macro, I am shooting in Aperture Priority mode.  The use of the ringflash has not significantly changed the composition tone or colour, but it has increased our shutter speed to 1/160s. This has a significant effect on image sharpness;

Cotinus Detail 2
Cotinus Detail 2

There, much sharper! Unfortunately, as the god of photography gives, she also takes. We now have a second problem; we can see the ringflash! Note – you will rarely see the ringflash in this way, I am just using examples with very reflective surfaces purposely to give us a good, difficult macro example. The fix is actually easy though; just use the healing clone tool in Lightroom.

Here’s another example;

Bug (actual size crop)
Bug (actual size crop)
Bug (actual size crop), ringflash healed
Bug (actual size crop), ringflash healed

Although the second image above has the ringflash healed out, I have made no changes to colour and tone. The colours are as-shot; another example of the nice colour reproduction the Tamron produces. Also worth noting here is the lack of any shadows that suggest that I am actually using a flash at all.

Here’s a final macro shot. In this one, all I’ve changed the as-shot is exposure by +0.5 in Lightroom;

Dandelion head (1/160s, f18)
Dandelion head (1/160s, f18)
Dandelion head, detail
Dandelion head, detail

Again, the ringflash is working with an optically accurate lens to give us a very sharp, focused image, even though I am hand held (and stopped down to f18!).

You might think that this shot could be done with a standard flash, but note that the lens front is about 5cm from the subject. A standard flash would not work at this distance as it would cast a shadow from the lens onto the subject.

I’ll also post some of my recent portrait ringflash shots as soon as I get the appropriate  web-publish permission.

Conclusion

Macro lenses are some of the best optical lenses you will find, although they tend to suffer from poorer (slower) autofocusing when compared against standard lenses. The biggest deciding factors when looking for a macro lens is camera sensor size. If you are using APS-C, then the cheapest mainstream third party camera lens (Sigma, Tamron, etc) will almost certainly suffice. If you are looking at full frame, I suspect that you will have to go for a more expensive manufacturer (Sony/Nikon/Canon, etc) lens.

Ringflashes are very useful in macro photography. The major advantage of a ringflash in macro is not typically that it illumiates the scene, but that it allows you to use a much faster shutter speed. Ringflashes can be very expensive, but decent cheap true ringflashes are available if you are prepared to search a little. As cheap ringflashes are available, I would not recommend some of the home brew alternatives (although they can be fun to try!). LED ringlights are another cheap alternative for macro lighting, but they suffer from much lower maximum brightness and are useless for portrait photography, whereas a true ringFlash is useful for both macro and  portraits.

Review: Tokina 11-16mm (Sony Alpha fit)

Once you start using wide angle, you become aware of how much product photography uses it. That sleek looking shot of a graphics card or laptop looks so because of the perspective imposed by a wide angle lens. Both look like boring rectangles of circuitry using a standard lens.

I didn’t intend this blog to include reviews.

Since starting this blog though, I’ve realised that almost all photography reviews out there are slanted heavily towards the IQ (Image Quality) crowd. I’d like to focus on issues more important to me (the happy enthusiast) rather than the professional, simply because I can’t find many other reviews that target the my crowd, and especially not in alpha-mount.

My first review item is a definite case in point; the Tokina 11-16mm (Sony Alpha Fit). Although there are many reviews on this lens, almost all of them get into technical detail issues and none of them discuss issues I am more concerned with, such as

  • Is it fun to use?
  • What can I do with this that I can’t do with other lenses?
  • What can’t I do with this lens?
  • Is it worth the cash? Even if I don’t make a living from photography?
  • Will I actually use this once the Lens envy has worn off?

The wide angle effect can be used to add humor and movement to an image. This is perhaps why wide angle images are very popular in stock photography

The Tokina is a cool addition to any lens set. It gives you a very wide field of view, and this can be very useful in creating atmosphere, particularly for landscape and architectural shots. There are some very good examples on the Flickr Tokina 11-16 group here.   If you’re here to compare Tokina 11-16 vsSigma 8-16, you may also want to look at the Sigma 8-16 group here and while you’re at it, one of the better non-pixel pusher reviews of the Sigma 8-16 I dig is here.

There’s a less obvious use of the Tokina 11-16, and that is in using the wide angle effect to make your subject ‘pop’ out of the picture more. A good example of this is the image below;

Marmite (Felis catus)
Marmite (Felis catus)

This is actually my first ever shot using the Tokina 11-16. I went out into the garden to look for an interesting subject, and Marmite came bounding over to inspect the new lens (she immediately became bored of it once she realised she could not eat it).  Marmite’s nose is about a centimetre away from the end of the lens, and I am focusing on her blue collar. Hence most of her head is out of focus (but that’s okay because it gives us some movement).

I always assumed that fisheye lenses were used in the extreme ‘big-head, small body’ effect but I now know that fisheyes produce too extreme an effect.  A wide angle lens is different because it keeps the distortion proportional; straight lines stay as straight lines in wide lenses. Instead, parallel lines become angled to a point. In a fisheye the lines curve and this is a much less pleasing effect on faces and/or the effect only works if the face is at the exact centre of the shot.

As you can see, the wide angle effect can be used to add humour and movement to an image. This is perhaps why wide angle images are very popular in stock photography. A wide angle is not something you would use to take portrait shots at a wedding but it can be used to take non-formal portraits to add a sense of playfulness, movement, or simply give a humorous perspective that demands a second look. Wide angle also goes hand-in-hand with another up and coming photographic technique; HDR (high dynamic range). HDR works well with wide angle because the wide angle tends to extend the required tonal range of a shot.

Anyway, lets start at the beginning

Tokina 11-16 unboxing

The first two things in the box are a short instruction sheet and a guarantee card. Of particular note is the fact that you don’t get the big verbose legal guarantee sheet that many consumer products tend to come with these days. Instead, you get a smallish card (about the size of a playing card). Nice.

Tokina 11-16 Unboxing (image 1)
Tokina 11-16 Unboxing (image 1)

Apart from the two items above, the only other things in the box are the lens and its hood, wrapped in a polythene bag.

Tokina 11-16 Unboxing (image 2)
Tokina 11-16 Unboxing (image 2)

Unwrapped and ready to go.

Tokina 11-16 Unboxing (image 3)
Tokina 11-16 Unboxing (image 3)

Tokina 11-16 product images

View of the top of the lens. Note that the front glass is a dome, something we will touch on later.

Tokina 11-16 Product image 1
Tokina 11-16 Product image 1

The rear of the lens, showing the Alpha mount

Tokina 11-16 Product image 2
Tokina 11-16 Product image 2

The lens on the Sony A200 (NB – the sample images at the end of this article were taken with the lens attached to an A500).

Tokina 11-16 Product image 3
Tokina 11-16 Product image 3

Update July 2010: here’s a larger shot of the lens (taken whilst practicing realistic light HDR). For the curious, it was taken on a coffee table using natural light from a window, -2EV to +2EV in 1EV steps.

Tokina11-16  unboxed and posed (hdr product image)
Tokina11-16 unboxed and posed (hdr product image)

So how useful is wide angle, and how does the Tokina compare to other offereings?

What I like about the Tokina 11-16

Once you start using your own wide angle, you also become aware of how much product photography uses it. That sleek looking shot of a graphics card or laptop looks so because of the perspective imposed by a wide angle lens. Both look like boring rectangles of circuitry using a standard lens.

The coolest things about the Tokina 11-16 when compared to other wide angles are threefold.

Firstly, the Tokina produces linear distortion, and this makes any curvature easy to remove. Recall that wide angle brings straight lines to a point, but a good wide angle should never curve the lines (so curvature should be eliminated). It is trivial to remove such curvature caused by the Tokina in either Photoshop or LightRoom. This is not the case in competing Sigma and Tamron wide angle lenses.

Secondly, the Tokina 11-16 is the fastest wide angle lens in its class. At f2.8, you will never need a tripod outdoors, and you will rarely need one indoors either. The Sigma/Tamron offerings are much slower lenses and are much more likely to require a tripod, and in my book, tripod = less spontaneity. As a slight aside, I would recommend the Tokina 11-16 even against the newer Sigma 8-16 due to the former’s simpler distortion and faster speed.  Faster speed also becomes important when you need a polariser filter (and you will more often need to do this with a wide angle than most other lenses), you lose up to two stops, making that competing f4.5/5.6 wide angle even less useful.  Have a look at Dom Bowers Youtube video review of the Tokina 11-16 here, where he discusses at length the speed of the Tokina 11-16 ( as a bonus, you will also see how fast it is in auto-focusing and why it is pretty good on weather sealing).

Thirdly, the Tokina has a very good build to it. The build is very good and better than I see in competitors within this price range. The Tokina looks and feels like a solid professional item and on my Sony Alpha a200, auto focusing is fast and precise. Also, I see none of the fixing issues on the Alpha mount that some of the CaNikon users complain about. The lens is easy to attach and take off the camera body, and fits as well as Sony-built lenses.

There is potentially a fourth really cool use of wide angle; video. The Sony Alpha range does not currently support video, although there are early indications that the a700 replacement (the a750) will. Wide angle + video is Super Cool. Take a look at http://vimeo.com/9600167.

Although I con’t confirm sharpness of the Tokina vs other wide angle lenses, I can confirm that it is very sharp at f2.8 for the middle 90% of the image. There’s a little softening at the edges at f2.8, but its still sharper than anything else I have used at such low f numbers except primes (also, most non-primes at the same price range don’t even do f2.8, so there’s actually little to compare to!).

As with all lenses, there are downsides with the Tokina 11-16

Cost and the ‘is it practical or just lens envy’ factor

The Tokina 11-16mm is the most expensive lens I have bought so far, especially when wide angle is usually seen as a specialist niche. As hinted above, wide angle is actually much more widely used in commercial photography (product photography, stock photography, advertising) than you would expect. Buying a wide angle massively increases your creative potential. Since most people who have moved away from simple point and click to dSLR do so because of the creative potential (rather than simply wanting to ‘record treasured moments’), this is a major factor in going for a good wide angle. As most enthusiasts will typically buy no more than three lenses, I’d go so far as to pick a 3 lens set consisting of ‘fast prime + slow super zoom + wide angle’ over the more traditional   ‘fast prime + slower super zoom + macro’. This is mainly because you can use the fast prime + cheap diopeter or fast prime + lens rings to give you a macro. See my previous post on extending a prime to act as a macro here.

Another factor in buying a wide angle rather than faking it on the cheap (via, for example,  a x0.45 diopeter attachment that is widely available on Amazon/eBay) is because the ‘fake it’ methods produce blurring and chromatic aberration that is obvious even to a non-pro and non-pixel-peeper like myself. You can fake macro on the cheap, but wide angle is much more complex optically (I know, I’ve tried!). Additionally, most standard zoom lenses call 18mm ‘wide’. Take it from me, 18 mm is nothing like wide angle. There might only be 7mm in it, but it makes a world of difference when you are going down from 18mm because the proportional change is much larger (i.e. a 7mm change from 18mm is a 40%  change whereas at 100mm it is only a 7% change, and the optical changes in view reflect the percentage change, not the absolute mm change).

For wide angle, you really need a purpose built wide angle lens. You can’t fake it on the cheap with an attachment, and you should not assume that the low end of a super zoom is anything like looking down a true wide angle lens.

On the ‘is it practical or just lens envy’ question, the Tokina 11-16 is now one of two lenses I take with me when shooting;

  • I use the Tokina11-16 and  Sony Sal18250 when I know I will be mostly outdoors (together, the two lenses give me an almost unbroken range of 11-250mm!)
  • I use the Tokina 11-16 and Sony SAL1850 when I know I will be only indoors (together they give me a fast wide, and faster 50-prime).

So yeah, the Tokina 11-16 is a lens that is already deep in my workflow, and expect to get a lot of use out of it.

Wide angle is difficult

A wide angle lens takes a little bit of getting used to. I initially thought that my copy had weird front/back focusing issues, but soon realised its actually down to the way wide angle works. As with all new lenses, I tried checking focusing by taking shots of a page of small text a few metres away,  to see how legible the text was when looking at the image fullscreen in Lightroom. The trouble was that the text was always blurry!

This happens because everything in the middle range gets pushed back to the far range when using wide angle. So text that would be legible in a standard (non wide) lens looks unfocused because it has been pushed back so far that it is only 2 or 3 pixels high!

And that is also why wde angle is difficult; you lose your middle ground so have to make sure your foreground or background maintain interest.

For me, wide angle is a challenge. I’m still new to it, and have to take a few shots before I get one where the odd perspective looks great. When I get it right, it’s cool because that shot could not be faked in Photoshop or done with any other lens type. In fact, I have a theory that wide angle is currently having a massive surge in popularity with enthusiasts because of digital cameras. The fact that you could not review your shots immediately when working with film cameras meant that wide angle was just too damn unpredictable. In digital, you can take 10 shots and review them immediately.

Specific Bad Things about the Tokina 11-16

The Tokina is heavy, about as heavy as the camera itself if you have an entry level or enthusiast dSLR. Worse still, all the weight is at the front of the lens. If you drop the camera, it will land lens first. The front of the Tokina is not flat. It is a glass dome. That glass dome will most likely be the first thing to hit concrete. Ouch.

So unlike many other lenses, where putting a protective filter on the front is pretty much optional because the camera will hit the ground first, with the Tokina, it is necessary. You always need to have either the hood on, or you need to have a 77mm protective filter on the damn thing.

You will not get away with a standard filter – you will need a thin profile one, so double the cost. It gets worse yet… one of the defining features of wide angle is that you will get lots of sky. Wide angle skies are beautiful (especially if you are dabbling in HDR), but you need a good polarising filter, and probably a good quality circular polariser to avoid over exposure. Double the cost again. I use the Hoya 77mm PRO1 Digital Circular PL Filter. It has a recommended retail price of ‘far too much’, and you will need to factor in the price of something similar if you want to use wide angle to its full potential. UpdateSee also added thoughts on the need for more low profile filters in the conclusion; I have now extensively tried standard profile filters on the Tokina11-16 and they are not as bad as I first expected, and may be acceptable to many users.

The Tokina seems to have a higher than usual amount of chromatic aberration. Like almost everything else about this lens, this fault is generally linear and predictable, and therefore easily removed through lightroom. A side effect of this may be significant for HDR users though; CA is addative in HDR. If you are going for wide angle because you want to play with HDR landscapes, then be aware that you will definately have to take care of the CA in post processing (either before you merge your exposures, or after you perform tonemapping). I have not seen the CA as a dealbreaking  issue when testing the Tokina with HDR creation (esp when most HDR images require at least a little tweaking in Photoshop after tonemapping anyway!), but I note it as a potential gotcha.

Another minor potential niggle with the Tokina is the low zoom range; you get only 11-16 mm. Believe me, thats not really a niggle, you will use the 11mm end of the range almost exclusively. What is a real niggle is that the focusing ring is loose and doesn’t make any noise when it turns. Its very easy to accidentally rotate it and end up at 13 or 14mm. That makes a big difference. I really wish they had put a lock on it so I can fix it at 11mm. Grr.

Looking at the mounting, I see that the Tokina does not have the full set of 8 gold contacts, meaning that it doesn’t send the ADI flash distance information to the flash (which will therefore default to TTL). This will most likely affect absolutely nobody (and this is probably why Tokina chose not to implement ADI on a wide angle lens).

The other thing to be aware of is that the Tokina is for APS-C cameras only. It is not full frame. Unless you own an a850/a900 (or are looking to buy the forthcoming a700 replacement, which is rumoured to be full frame), this should not be an issue; most cameras in the enthusiast/prosumer range are not full frame.

Finally, for those of you who need to see the opinion of serious  pixel peepers, have a look at Tokina 11-16/f2.8: I thought I was going to buy one but… over at dpReview. I should note that I have seen the described ‘softness at the edges at f2.8’, and on my copy of the lens, it only extends about 200 pixels out from the edges on a 12M image (so it really is right at the edges, and anyway, I don’t actually think it is softness but also stretching caused by the wide angle…. more on this below). However, there’s a bigger issue here; if you’re taking pictures, no meaningful part of the main subject should really be that close to the edges of the image, and there should be  nothing that close to the edges that you can’t just sharpen up in LR and forget about. No lens is perfect (they are all compromises after all, with cost usually being out on top), but the Tokina tends to keep all its abberations linear and localised (and therefore easy to fix in post production).

Perhaps the only non-linear issue with the Tokina (i.e the one thing that is non trivial to remove in Lightroom) is its ability to flare a lot. If you point this lens close to the sun, you will see flare streaks or flare circles. You really need to keep the lens hood on!

Sample pictures

Added July 2010

The images below were taken during a short walk in woods with my partner and they are typical of the sort of shot I use the Tokina for. I really want to get across that I dont consider wide angle to be a one trick pony. You really can take wide angle shots of things other than architecture and wide landscapes, and once you get to grips with wide angle, its entirely possible to keep the effect subtle enough so it doesnt draw attention to itself  as ‘this month’s new trick’.

I was using the Tokina 11-16 as a walkabout lens on my Sony Alpha a500. None of the shots were posed as I’m trying to show how the Tokina 11-16 (and wide angle in general) can translate everyday shots. Hopefully these shots will give you a better appreciation as to whether you need a wide angle lens in your repertoire.

All images were colour corrected in Lightroom, but I’m noting what I did to keep me honest.

This first image is a quick shot on a sit-down break. Not one of my best shots (and rather unflattering because of the direct-from-above light direction!) but I include it to show three things;

  • Although wide angle is usually associated with extreme perspective shots, you can get a very natural looking image if you either avoid straight lines or keep the camera perpendicular to the lines. In this shot I do both; I avoid horizontal perspective lines, and I have kept the camera 90 degrees to the vertical lines created by the trees.
  • You could be mistaken into thinking that this is a standard lens shot, possibly on the assumption that this is a posed shot… it looks like we are arranged in a circular clearing. This is not the case. The effect of the woods ‘wrapping around us’ is created by the wide angle. This becomes more obvious if you look at the circular texture created by the fallen leaves. That circular effect would not exist in a standard lens.
  • This image shows how distant close objects become in wide angle. I am actually sitting around 3metres from the subject. In wide angle, composition can be much harder because your main subject can become lost very quickly.
Tokina 11-16 (11mm, ISO800, 1/100s at  f10, hand held, no flash)
Tokina 11-16 (11mm, ISO800, 1/100s at f10, hand held, no flash)

Post processing: no crop, exposure +0.7, added contrast, desaturated greens slightly, removed blues completely.

In this second shot, myself and the subject are sitting on the same fallen log. I’ve placed the camera about 2-3 metres away from the subject, running parallel to the log.

This is a more traditional wide shot; I’m playing with the perspective created by the extreme angle. The subject is perhaps a little farther away than I’d like, but I’m also trying to get in the interesting shapes of the gnarled tree branches to the rear.

There are a few things to note here;

  • I tried to keep the trunk central and the gnarled tree vertical. As you can see, I didn’t quite manage either! Wide angle shots are like that. The perspective can change drastically simply by moving the camera slightly.
  • I’m using a graduated grey filter attached to the lens. It is causing the darkening of the tree trunk close to us.
  • This image is shot with a shutter speed of 1/25s. Although the lens doesn’t have anti-vibration technology, the camera (Sony Alpha a500) does, which is why I can go so low on shutter speed and stay hand held.
Tokina 11-16 (11mm, ISO400, 1/25s at f10, hand held, no flash)
Tokina 11-16 (11mm, ISO400, 1/25s at f10, hand held, no flash)

Post Processing: Converted to B/W in Lightroom. Darkened reds, greens and yellows during the conversion, and increased blues. Increased exposure +20% on eyes only (via adjustment brush). 5% crop to straighten out the trees a little.

Here’s an actual size close up of the previous image. As you can see, the Tokina is very sharp!

Tokina 11-16 (actual size detail of previous image)
Tokina 11-16 (actual size detail of previous image)

For my last shot, I’m trying to build up a final composition. I’m trying to get the perspective lines to draw the eye towards the centre. At the centre I want the tree to frame the figure.

The figure’s right hand is blurred because she’s holding a fan (it was very hot!). You may also notice that I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m using wide angle here at all; this image does not immediately look like a wide angle shot on first inspection, but you soon see that it is the wide angle view that is actually making it work!  Wide angle is only a strong effect if you have strong perspective lines. If you chose your composition so that you have few perspective lines, the effect can even become subtle.

Tokina 11-16 (11mm, ISO400, 1/25s at f10, hand held, no flash)
Tokina 11-16 (11mm, ISO400, 1/25s at f10, hand held, no flash)

Post processing: added fill light, Vibrance +49, Saturation -75, added constrast to shadows. No crop.  Added darkening gradients to bottom edge and left edge.

Going back to the most common complaint agaist the Tokina 11-16, i.e. that it is far less sharp at the edges than at the centre, you can see from my final composition that this not even an issue when you actually use the lens because little of the main subject is ever that close to the edges!  In fact, I dont see any softening at all at the edges for this shot (although, admidedly I am at f10 – any softening would be most evident at f2.8). However, there’s a lot of stretching right at the edges caused by the normal wide angle ‘elongated perspective’ effect. This effect is normal, and I am left wondering  whether it is actually this that is being confused as excessive softness by those unused to wide angle!

Conclusion

Wide angle was not popular with film cameras because the effects it could create were unpredictable; wide angle shots are very dependent on the camera position, and being wide angle (i.e. it lets in LOTS of light), exposure was easy to get wrong. With dSLR’s none of those problems apply simply because you get immediate feedback.

Its important to realise that wide angle has a ‘niche’ label because of its legacy with film; with digital cameras it becomes much more fun and totally practical.

It’s also important to realise that wide angle is not a one trick pony (as are the closely related fisheye lenses). You can vary the strngth of the wide angle perspective by chosing a composition that has more or less dominant perspective lines. To be useful, any photographic effect has to have the ability to be subtle. Fish eye is never subtle, but wide angle can be subtle.

The Tokina 11-16 lens is a good wide angle lens to go for. It’s main advantages are its speed, clarity and build quality. It does have some problems (the main ones being Chromatic aberration and lens flare, but these tend to be linear and easily correctable. If you do not use post production, then the CA and flare are potentially problematic. There is some softening at the extreme edges at f2.8, but this is less than to be expected at this price range, although it may look worse than it is to those unused to wide angle (because extreme wide angle tends to magnify and/or stretch the extreme edges). Also, the low zoom range of the Tokina (11-16mm) is not a deal breaker as you will almost never use anything other than the 11mm low end.

You will probably need to budget for filters to go with your wide angle lens. I recommend a circular polariser and a graduated grey. A low profile filter is best, but if expense is a concern (and if you are okay with post processing), I would suggest that you just go with standard filters and clone the shadows at the 4 corners out. Update July 2010: using a standard (non low profile) filter on the end of the Tokina actually only results in a 30 pixel shadow right in the corners! I suggest that if you have Lightroom or Photoshop (and are not creating HDR images), just go with standard filters and click each of the 4 corners once with a medium opacity, 40 pixel wide clone tool. Although using standard height filters with HDR images creates significantly worst vignetting (actually, its worse than that; it creates banding), I would let that pass as you probably should not be using filters at all with HDR – that’s kinda the point!

Bottom line: I’d go so far as to say that if you already have a decent zoom and a prime, you should consider a wide angle as you next lens. Why? Because you use a dSLR for the creative potential, and a wide angle is the next best lens to add to your set to give you more of that potential.