Tag Archives: Sony Alpha A77

Road trip: Peak District

Road Trip, Peak District, Derbyshire, UK.

Ladybower reservoir
Ladybower reservoir

 

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Photography: things I learned last year

Every new year, WordPress sends all blog owners a traffic summary report,  including the option to publish this report. Not for me: rather than share my blog stats I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about photography in 2013.

Beauty is never original

Beauty is defined by a set of common stereotypes and well defined templates and attributes. If you are only driven by a sense of beauty in your photography then by definition your work is not original because you are following the same well defined stereotypes and templates.

This hit me last year whilst looking at photographs someone else had taken of a location I had recently visited. His choice of photographic opportunities were not dissimilar to mine: we had taken the same photographs! Try it for yourself. Search on Flickr for a place you have been to and see how different the photographs are from yours.  Usually not by much. What to do?

Modern art is often seen as ugly because it follows few of the standard/commercial ‘beauty stereotypes’, but that can make it much more original and cutting edge. So before you start following the same old set of templates (rule of thirds, only photographing photogenic people/landscapes, shooting only in good light and generally following accepted rules and practices), ask yourself ‘am I setting up my shots this way because I am trying to take something beautiful/commercial/safe (or worse, simply copying) when I should be aiming at something original?’.

Look at the photograph below. It’s my partner.

'Chemotherapy' (click to see larger image). Shot with Sony A500
‘Chemotherapy’ (click to see larger image).
Photographed with Sony Alpha A500

It  was taken during chemotherapy for cancer. She’d lost all her hair and feeling very ill. She was sat in a nightgown and (understandably) feeling down and claiming she looked awful. I said she looked beautiful and that I would prove it. I took about 30 photographs over about 5 minutes. This is the first one in the sequence.

There’s lots of photo retouching tips and courses out there that defines ‘good’ in terms of stereotypical beauty. Believe me, there is far more to beauty than that. Sometimes you have to look for it, but often it is staring you in the face.

A photograph is a one frame movie

This is a key point that video editing has taught me. Look at your best photographs. I bet they are the ones that evoke memories, tell a story, include a visual joke, illustrate a concept, assume a context (or subvert an assumed context) or visually show the relationship between its subjects.

In all cases, a single frame sets off a visual or emotive sequence of thought in the mind of the viewer. That is also a good definition of the best movie scenes you have seen, right? So a good movie scene and a good photograph are perhaps more similar than we assume.

By thinking as a cinematographer when you take your shots, you start to include so much more in your photography. Instead of ‘capturing snapshots’, you start to think about other things, such as movement, relationships, story, back-story, humor, context, emotion. Thinking about ‘story’ in a single frame may seem a stretch too far in a single photograph, but bear with it, because as we will see, thinking about movement will always imply story.

Hair (click to see bigger photo) Taken with Panasonic Lumix LX7
‘Hair’ (click to see bigger photo)
Photographed with Panasonic Lumix LX7

The photograph above is taken some time after the chemotherapy had ended. Hair has started growing back and is nearly long enough to be styled. My partner should be happy, right? Have a look at the photograph, and tell me what you think she is saying about her hair. Is she as happy as she should be, and is she better than she was in the last photo? I was laughing when I took this photograph. Can you tell? Why?

I have clearly changed the color balance between the foreground and background. The background has a much colder color balance, and I have desaturated everything in the background except the reds. I have left the skin at the original, warmer balance. I have also used a very odd focal length: at 28mm, it is far wider than a typical portrait shot. What does this all add, and why have I taken it that way?

Finally, take a look at the photograph below.

'Summer ice cream' (click to see larger photo). Taken with Panasonic Lumix LX7
‘Summer ice cream’ (click to see larger photo).
Photographed with Sony Alpha A77

This photograph follows almost no compositional rules. Yet for people born in the UK, it tells a very strong story: Summer. During summer, we get ice cream vans stopping on every street to sell ice-cream (US version is ‘ice cream truck’, although from what I am told, they tend to park near public events or near busy areas rather than go street to street).

That the ice cream van is almost totally hidden is part of the story: the photo was taken at child eye level. Just by looking at this photograph, I can imagine a much younger me running inside and asking/pestering for money to buy an ice-cream. and there’s the story and stream of images that our ‘one frame movie’ intends to instil in its target audience.

Learning about movement creates better stills

If your camera has a video capability, learn to use it as well as stills. The brain works in strange ways, and one of them is learning two related skills makes you much better in either  of them. Developing a good cinematography eye will make your composition eye better. Here’s things I have learned through my video editing that I feel have made me a much better stills photographer:

  • Position your camera in the expectation of movement. If your subject is moving, you will already tend to leave free space in the direction of movement. By moving your camera like a video camera and anticipating future movement, you create a better composition. In fact, I now always move my camera as if I am taking video, and my photographs are now essentially key frames in the footage I would have taken if I was shooting video.
  • Create Tension. In script writing, the difference between a scene and ‘just people talking’ is the element of tension (which can be any kind of tension, comedic, suspense, suspension of disbelief, a growing call to action, etc). For example, a scene where two old friends are reminiscing is just ‘two people talking’ and has little interest. If you change the context so that the viewer knows one character is hiding an unfulfilled romantic love for the other, you have introduced tension making the conversation interesting. By creating an element of structural or emotional tension in your photographic composition, you make the photograph much more interesting in exactly the same way. If you think about it, this point is really just a rewording of beauty is never original. By setting up a beautiful or perfect scene and then adding an element of tension or opposition, you create an original twist that begs further investigation. If you are on a typical engagement shoot, where would you take the context if you gave the bride a gun as a prop? Would it take you in an original direction? You bet it would!  Tension can also trigger a sequence of events or story in the mind of the viewer, which brings us to the next point
  • Color is a story shortcut. Color is routinely used to signify emotion or atmosphere in photography, and there’s nothing new in this. Blue for cold or natural expanse, red for strong emotion or heat, green for balance or nature. In cinematography, color is routinely used in a different way: it can give a visual cue to where the story is about to go. Read ‘If its Purple someone’s gonna die’ or any good book on movie scripting. If you want to buy into the ‘a photograph is a one frame movie’ concept  then use of color to imply story or relationship between characters (or between characters and their environment) is key. Your ‘movie’ is only one frame long so you have to be succinct and you have to use color cues to imply  story. Almost all my color edits in the photographs above are purely cinematic.

Conclusion

Take stories not photographs.

We are nothing without our internal stories. Without them we would only be instinctive animals with no sense of context, self, or history. The same goes for photographs. Don’t create visual icons or good-looking stereotypes: they are just not memorable because they have already been done to death. Instead, tell a story. One of the best ways to do this is think in terms of cinematography.

The easiest way to begin forcing yourself to do this is to make a resolution to press the video button on your DSLR more often. You will not only learn video. You may also start to think about stills differently.

Another easy way to think about your photograph is as a one frame movie. As well as thinking about photographic composition, its worth also thinking about cinematic scripting: what is the story and how do your choices in framing, color, depth of field and choice of focal length carry this story forward? Are there any elements that do not add anything to the story, and can they be removed?

Notes

  1. I just noticed in the second photograph that the background mask misses bits. Look at the top of the hand on the right. This is what comes of uploading photographs before you’ve really finished the edit!

Sony Alpha Video Part 2: AVCHD

AVCHD is designed to faithfully compress and decompress your original footage so that you cannot tell the difference between AVCHD vs full frame film when played back on a typical consumer 1920×1080 screen. So for all intents and purposes, the AVCHD format is lossless: you can’t tell the difference. What’s the catch?

If you look on the internet, you will find all sorts of advice that the A77 and other Sony Alpha cameras are useless for video. The image doesn’t ‘pop’ because the bitrate is too low, and you can’t easily edit the video because AVCHD ‘breaks up’ if you tweak it too much. But then you see something like the video below on youtube. The foreground is clearly separated from the background to give the ‘3d’ effect, and there’s tons of post processing in this footage to give it plenty of ‘pop’, and it all looks great! How was it done?

To create decent video with the Sony Alpha, you need a good understanding of the video file type used by Sony (and Panasonic) cameras: AVCHD, plus how to shoot and handle AVCHD to give you lots of latitude in post processing.

Core issues to know about are line skipping, bitrate and dynamic range. The Sony Alpha is average on line skipping and bitrate, and the king of dynamic range. As we will see, any video DSLR is a set of compromises, and getting the best out of any DSLR involves playing to the strengths of your particular model and codec, something that is very important with the A77

My video cameras. L-R: Sony Alpha A77, Panasonic Lumix GH2, Panasonic Lumix LX7
My video cameras. L-R: Sony Alpha A77, Panasonic Lumix GH2, Panasonic Lumix LX7

I have noticed a lot of converters from the Sony A77 to the Panasonic GH2 appearing on the video DSLR forums. Clearly, a lot of people have got suckered into the cult of high bitrate and decided that the Sony Alphas are useless for video. I own a GH2 (complete with that magic hacked +100 Mbit/s AVCHD) and will save you the trouble of GH2 envy by showing that bitrate is not always king in video. In fact, along with the GH2/GH3, there is another type of stills camera that gives sharper video than a typical FF/APS-C DSLR and I will consider three types of AVCHD video DSLRs in this post:

  • Large sensor stills camera DSLRs with manual video. This includes all Full frame and APS-C cameras, and I consider the A77, which I of course own and will be the focus of this post.
  • 35mm film sized DSLRs with manual video. Micro Four Thirds (MFT) has a sensor size smaller than the Full frame and APS-C cameras, but very close to 35mm film (that’s 35mm film, not 35mm stills film – big difference that, incidentally, means that all the Canon 5D people going on about their ‘filmic depth of field’ are overcooking it!). For this size I will look at the Panasonic GH2, a camera I own.
  • Small sensor advanced compact cameras with manual video. These cameras can shoot RAW and have most of the features of full frame DSLRs but have very small sensor sizes (i.e. 1/2.3”… the size of your smallest fingernail). These sensor sizes don’t suffer from soft video (which we will look at later). The perfect example of such a camera is the Panasonic LX7, which comes with a very video friendly 28-90mm f1.4-f2.3 lens that can take a 37mm ND filter, making it ideal for quality pocket-sized video. Oh, it also has an ND filter built in, so you often don’t even need a screw on filter unless in direct sun. Cool!

A lot of this post will concentrate on the A77, but because all three cameras shoot AVCHD footage, much of the post will actually be common for all three cameras

Before we get too far though, let’s address the elephant in the room…

How good is Sony DSLR video?

The Sony A77 can record up to 28Mbits/s. The highest you need for web or DVDs is about 12Mbit/s, and its less than 8Mbit/s for Youtube/Vimeo. You lose the extra bandwidth as soon as you upload to Youtube/Vimeo or burn a DVD.

Sony and Panasonic chose 28Mbit/s for a reason – an advanced enthusiast will rarely need more bandwidth. 28Mbit/s is a good video quality for the prosumer, which is most readers of this post.

If you approach a terrestrial broadcaster (such as the BBC) with video work, they will specify 55Mbit/s minimum (and they will need about 40Mbit/s if they want to sell Blue-rays of your show), but they will also expect your camera to natively and continuously output a recognized intermediate codec that can be used to match your footage with other parts of the broadcast unless you can justify otherwise. Particular action shots, reportage and other use-cases exist for DSLRs, but you have to be able to justify using a DSLR for them beyond just saying ‘it’s all I’ve got’.

No DSLR does the ‘native recognized intermediate codec’ bit (unless we count the Black Magic pocket cinema as a DSLR, but then it isn’t primarily a stills camera), and instead produces output that is too ‘baked in’ too allow strong color corrections. The A77 can’t and neither can the 5D Mk 3 (at least, not continuously and not using a recognized format), nor the GH2/GH3. Yes, the 5D was used for an episode of House but the extra cost in grading the footage meant there was no saving over using a proper video camera from the start.

The Sony A77 cannot be considered a pro video device. Neither can any other stills camera. This is a crucial point to consider when working with DSLR video. Yes, you can create pro results, but only if you have the time to jump through a few hoops, but renting pro equipment when pro work appears may be cheaper overall and get you where you want to be quicker.

Finally, its important to realize that a hacked camera has drawbacks. I do not use the highest bitrate hack for my GH2 (as of this writing, the 140Mbit/s Driftwood hack), instead using the 100Mbit/s ‘FlowMotion’ hack. Driftwood drops the occasional frame. Not many, but enough for me to notice. That’s the problem with hacks: they are fine for bragging rights and going around saying you have ‘unlocked your cameras full capabilities’, but the same hacks make your gear less reliable or produce more noise or other glitches.

So, the A77 is about equal to its peers for prosumer video. Some have better bitrate, some can be hacked, and some have better something else, but none of them can say they have moved into professional territory.

AVCHD and why it is ‘not a codec for editing’

It’s important to realize that a file format (such as an .mts or .mp4) is NOT a codec before moving on. See notes 1 and 2 if you need more information.

Rather than use a low compression codec to maintain quality (as used in pro film cameras), Sony and Panasonic realized that using faster processing power to compress and decompress frames very efficiently might be a better idea. That way, you get low file size and higher quality, and can then store your video on slow and small solid state devices such as (then emerging) solid state SD cards. The resulting video codec is a custom version of H.264 (which is itself a derivative of the popular but now old MPEG4 codec) and is the codec that AVCHD (Advanced Video Compression High Definition) uses. The custom codec AVCHD uses is more efficient than older, less processor intensive codecs, and therefore provides better quality given the same file size.

So why is AVCHD good for burning wedding videos but not shooting Star Wars?

AVCHD is designed to faithfully compress and decompress your original footage so that you cannot tell the difference between AVCHD vs full frame film when played back on a typical consumer 1920×1080 screen. So for all intents and purposes, the AVCHD format is lossless: you can’t tell the difference. What’s the catch?

  • It all works unless you edit the AVCHD footage. The compression optimizes for the original video and leaves no wriggle room for changing color or tone. Doing so will cause your video to show compression artefacts (usually blockiness or banding). Unfortunately, changing tone/exposure and color are two things you will want to do often in video editing!
  • Because AVCHD compression/decompression trades filesize for a cpu heavy codec, your computer may be unable to play AVCHD in real time during edit.
An example of macro blocking. The splotches on the black container and the some of the mushiness in the background foliage are all signs of macro blocking
An example of macro blocking, caused by AVCHD removing some of the data in the low tone areas. It is not caused by ISO noise or other issues. The large dark grey splotches on the black container and the mushiness in the background foliage are all signs of macro blocking. All this can be avoided though, as we will see below…

There’s a lot of talk about AVCHD on the web and how it is not good enough. Whatever reason you are given, the core reason is derived from the two points above: in a nutshell, AVCHD was designed for playback and not to be edited, and is too cpu heavy to be edited in real time.

This was true 4 years ago for AVCHD, but hardware and software have caught up.

To play back 10s of 28Mbit/s AVCHD, your computer has to take a 50-100Mb file and decompress it to the multi GB file it actually is on the fly at the same time as displaying the frames with no lag. To edit and save an AVCHD file, your computer has to extract a frame from the file (which is non-trivial in itself, because the frame data is not in one place: some of the data is often held is previous frames), perform the edit, then recompress the frame and some frames that precede it. So editing one frame might actually change 10 frames. As 1 minute of video can actually be 8GB when uncompressed, that’s a lot of data!

The good news is that a modern Intel i7 or equivalent computer can handle this, and lesser CPUs can also do it if the software knows how to farm off processing tasks to the graphics card or GPU (Premiere CS knows how to do this for certain NVidia GPUs, and Premiere CC knows how to do this for most NVidia and AMD GPUs, which is almost all the GPUs worth considering). I am currently editing in Premiere using only AVCHD files, and it is all working well.

There is no need to convert AVCHD into an intermediate codec because the reasons to do it are no longer issues. You may still see old arguments on the web: check the dates of the posts!

A reason still often given for re-encoding AVCHD to other formats (such as ProRes or Cineform, which, incidentally are examples of the pro intermediate formats we talked about earlier) is it gives you more headroom in color manipulation. This is not valid anymore. As of this writing, Premiere up-scales ALL footage to 32 bit 4:4:4 internally (which in layman’s terms means ‘far better than your initial AVCHD’) when creating its footage, so encoding AVCHD into anything else for better final quality will not do any such thing. At best it will replace your AVCHD source files for files x10 larger for not much gain in quality (although an older computer may be better at keeping the edits working in real time if it can’t handle AVCHD). In fact, in a normal editing workflow, you will typically not convert your source AVCHD to anything. Just use it as source footage, and the final output is whatever your final production needs to be.

Another very good reason not to convert your input AVCHD to anything else is because re-encoding always either loses information or increases file size, and never increases quality of itself. If you re-encode AVCHD into any other codec, you either retain the same information in a larger file or lose some information when you re-compress the AVCHD data into a smaller or processor friendly format (MPEG4, AVI).

There is actually only one use-case where you must change your AVCHD files: when an application doesn’t recognize AVCHD. Even then we don’t re-encode, but instead re-wrap the AVCHD stream into a more universal file format (such as Quicktime). Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to do all this below…

Using AVCHD and working around its issues

So ‘AVCHD is ok, as long as I have a recent version of Premiere (or similar) and a decent mid-high range computer’, right? It is fine as long as you do certain things:

Don’t shorten your AVCHD files.

If you have an .mts file with a bad take early on and then a good take, don’t edit out the first take and save the shorter .mts file. AVCHD is what is known as a GOP format, which means it consists of a complete frame every few frames, with the other frames containing the differences (or ‘deltas’). Each set of frames is a GOP (Group Of Frames), and if you split the group, you may cause problems. Better to keep the .mts file as is. Never resave a .mts file as another ,mts file, or anything else for that matter. There are few reasons to do it, and you may lose information in doing so. In fact, even if you did nothing and resaved a .mts file, you may still lose information because you would inadvertently decompress and then recompress it. Note that there is one very good reason to chnage your AVCHD files: because your authoring application does not recognise AVCHD. I go through how to fix this without changing the video data  (a process called ‘re-wrapping’) below.

Avoid AVCHD breaking up in post by shooting flat

AVCHD can ‘break up’ in post if you need extreme exposure and color changes. This is all to do with the fact that AVCHD was originally designed for playback and not for editing: it is virtually lossless unless you start to edit it. Each frame of an AVCHD video is split into lots of 16×16 pixel sections, and these are (amongst other things) compressed at different levels depending on the detail seen in them. Think of it as cutting up an image into separate JPEGs whose quality is varied to reflect how detailed each 16×16 area was to begin with.

So what the AVCHD compressor does is to take blocks with near solid color or shadow, and save them using less data (because they don’t actually need much data), and save the bandwidth for parts of the image that actually have lots of detail or movement. That’s fine, until you try to

  • brighten the shadows in post and see that it comes out as a pixelated gunky mess
  • try to brighten a very subtle gradient, and watch it start to band
  • brighten skin highlights in flat-lit skin and watch it break up and pixelate.

All these edits cause AVCHD to break up because you are trying to bring out detail in areas that AVCHD has decided are not the main areas of detail (or change), and so the compressor has saved them with low bandwidth.

How to fix this?

  • Don’t overexpose in post, especially skin tones or graduated sky. Its better to to overexpose very slightly in as-shot, and then underexposing in post.
  • Don’t brighten dark areas in post much more than ½ a stop. Again, its better to overexpose slightly in as-shot and underexpose in post.
  • In general, its better to overexpose your footage slightly so you will be darkening rather than lightening shadows in post (but there is a balancing act between this and burning highlights!).
  • Use a Tiffen low-contrast filter (or similar diffusing filter) that optically flattens tone so that highlights are diffused and shadows are lifted by ambient light. This not only gives you a more neutral look (so that AVCHD doesn’t reduce detail in dark areas) but also allows you to expose up more before you are in danger of burning the highlights. See also this post for more information on using a low contrast filter for video.

…or

  • Simply shoot as close as possible to the final look, and don’t make big changes in post.

You may be thinking ‘ah, that’s fine, but I can’t control the sun or the shadows, and that Tiffen filter thing is expensive’. There is one other thing you can do: shoot flat digitally.

AVCHD and other ‘not for editing’ codecs don’t have many color or brightness levels, so by keeping the recorded values of both low you are less likely to clip them or cause errors that may be amplified in post to cause banding. This subdued recording style is called ‘shooting flat’.

Before/after shots. The top one is the original ‘flat’ clip. This clip looks a little flat, but its lack of strong color and contrast means it has lots of latitude in post work. The bottom clip is the edited file. It has more contrast and color, and most importantly, is still sharp.
Before/after shots. The top one is the original ‘flat’ clip. This clip looks a little flat, but its lack of strong color and contrast means it has lots of latitude in post work. The bottom clip is the edited file. It has more contrast and color, and most importantly, is still sharp.

To shoot flat on the A77, you need to press Fn > Creative Style, then select an appropriate creative style (‘Neutral’ is a good general purpose one, but some people swear by ‘Sunset’ for banding prevention), then push the joystick to the right to access the contrast/saturation/sharpness settings. Ideally, you should set them all to something below zero (-1 to -3). The most important one is sharpness, which you should set to -3. Sharpness makes by far the biggest difference, and setting it to -3, then sharpening back up in post-production (where you are using a far more powerful cpu that can do a far better job) is the way to go.

Overexposing in as-shot. By overexposing (top) and darkening in post (bottom), your shadows have no chance of breaking up. If you did the reverse (overexposing in post), your shadows might start 'macro-blocking' or banding.
Overexposing in as-shot. By overexposing (top) and darkening in post (bottom), your shadows have no chance of breaking up. If you did the reverse (overexposing in post), your shadows might start ‘macro-blocking’ or banding.

What if I shot the clp using a vivid style instead of flat? Well, bits of the red watering can may have ended up a saturated red. That’s fine if I leave the footage as shot, but if I want to tweak (say) the yellows up in the scene I would now have a problem: I can’t do that easily without oversaturating the red, which would cause banding in the watering can.

Another happy outcome of shooting flat is that your video takes less bandwith (but in my testing, its hardly by anything so don’t count on it).

Sharpening in post: the top image is unsharpened out-of-camera, and the lower image is the same thing sharpened in Premiere.
Sharpening in post: the top image is unsharpened out-of-camera, and the lower image is the same thing sharpened (and editedf for contrast/color) in Premiere.

Finally, when color correcting, you need to keep an eye on your scopes. The one I use the most is the YC waveform. This shows Luminance (Y) and Chroma (C) across the frame.

The top image shows raw (left half) and edited footage (right half). The graph is the YC scope, showing luminance only. The right half of the footage looks better, but by checking the graph, we see that the lunanance range is also technically better (no clipping off the scale, uses more of the available range, etc).
The top image shows raw (left half) and edited footage (right half). The graph is the YC scope, showing luminance only. The right half of the footage looks better, but by checking the graph, we see that the lunanance range is also technically better (no clipping off the scale, uses more of the available range, etc).

Using the YC waveform is a full tutorial in itself and for brevity, I’ll just link to one of the better existing tutorials to get a handle on the YC waveform here (Youtube: YC Waveform Graph in Premiere Pro). Note that the YC waveform lets you check your footage against broadcast limits for brightness and saturation. A PC screen can handle a larger range, so if you are creating content for the web, you might want to go a little further on range. I limit myself to broadcast limits anyway: to my eyes the footage just feels more balanced that way.

Don’t sharpen if you are close to macro blocking

If you end up with dark blacks, don’t sharpen and brighten them . this is the easiest way to create really ugly macro blocking!

Avoid AVCHD compatibility problems

Although many applications now work with AVCHD, there’s still a few applications that do not. One of the non-workers is DaVinci Resolve, a professional coloring application that I strongly recommend you have a go with because (a) it is a true Pro application (as used in Hollywood Blockbusters) and (b) it is free from http://www.blackmagicdesign.com/uk/products/davinciresolve.

Although you can re-encode (transcode) AVCHD to another format to get Resolve (and older versions of more common video editing applications such as Premiere) working with AVCHD, you don’t want to do that because re-encoding either loses you quality or increases filesize for no reason. Instead you want to put the AVCHD stream into a more universal wrapper (Quicktime/MOV) to increase your footage compatibility without affecting quality. The way to do this is both easy, quick and free (the following steps are for Windows);

  • Download SmartFFmpeg from http://freeware.satria.de/SmartFFmpeg/index.php?lang=EN
  • Download FFmpeg http://ffmpeg.zeranoe.com/builds/, selecting the 32 or 64 bit static version. Unzip the zip file, rename the unzipped folder to ffmpeg and put it somewhere you won’t delete it by accident (I placed it in my Program Files directory)
  • Run SmartFFmpeg and in the Options menu select the location of ffmpeg.exe (if you did the same as me, the path will be  C:\Program Files\ffmpeg\bin)
smartFFmpeg: to rewrap AVCHD into Quicktime, set the red-arrowed options as shown, drag-drop your .mts AVCHD files into the top panne, and click the green RUN arrow (pointed at by the green arrow, top right)
smartFFmpeg: to rewrap AVCHD into Quicktime, set the red-arrowed options as shown, drag-drop your .mts AVCHD files into the top panne, and click the green RUN arrow (pointed at by the green arrow, top right)

Drag your AVCHD files into the window at the top of SmartFFmpeg, and use the settings in the image above. In particular, you need to (red arrows in image above)

  • Set Format to QuickTime/MOV.
  • Set the Threads value to  as high as it will go if you want the conversion to take place as quickly as possible (although it wont take long as the process is really just moving the data into a new wrapper rather than transcoding).
  • Set Video Codec to COPY STREAM (important!)
  • Don’t enter or change any other setting

Then click the green RUN button at the top right. The MOV files will be created in the same directory as the .mts files. you will notice the MOv files are slightly smaller than the original ,mts file, but if you look at the two files in Bitrate viewer (more on Bitrate viewer below), you will see that the bitrates are exactly the same: the actual video stream is unchanged in the .MOV files.

As a .MOV file is generally more universal than a .mts file, you may consider always rewrapping your AVCHD files into QuickTime .MOV, and especially if you will be sharing your footage with other users or using the footage on old versions of common video editing applications (e.g. Adobe CS4 or earlier).

Update: see this post for a worked AVCHD example using most of the above tips in its workflow.

A common issue cited with Sony Alpha Video is maximum bitrates: the Sony range of cameras have a maximum bitrate of 28Mbit/s. My GH2 that has a maximum bitrate of 100Mbit/s or higher depending on which hack I load.  Surely the GH2 is far better?

Not by as much as you would expect…

What bitrate actually means in AVCHD

Lets look at bitrate visually. Download bitrate viewer (windows only) from http://www.winhoros.de/docs/bitrate-viewer/  If you are Mac, not to worry. I have screenshots.

You can use this to view the bitrates in your AVDHD files. Run it and click Load. In the files of type: dropdown  select All files and select one of your Sony A77 files. The application menu is the little icon on the top left corner of the window title bar (not shown in the screenshots, which look at the graphs only). Click this icon to see the menu, and select GOP based.

Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Sony A77 @24Mbit/s, 1080p, 25p
Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Sony A77 @24Mbit/s, 1080p, 25fps

You can now see a bar-chart of values. Each bar is one of the Group of Frames we talked about earlier. The first frame in each group is a whole frame, and subsequent frames consist of changes from the first whole frame. The height of each frame is how much of the bandwidth the group used up. For a 24Mbit/s A77 24/25p AVCHD, the max height of a GOP is the bitrate, 24000.

Notice something strange? Yup, the A77 never actually uses the full 24Mbit/s in our clip!

The internet is full of people saying that A77 AVCHD breaks up because there is not enough bandwidth, but as you can see, the truth is that the A77 often never even uses the full bandwidth! (The reason for A77 soft video is actually nothing to do with bandwidth, more on this later).

Want to see something even stranger? Here’s the exact same scene shot with my GH2 at 50Mbits/s and 100Mbit/s:

Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Panasonic Lumix GH2 @50Mbit/s, 1080p, 25fps
Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Panasonic Lumix GH2 @50Mbit/s, 1080p, 25fps
Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Panasonic Lumix GH2 @100Mbit/s, 1080p, 25fps
Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Panasonic Lumix GH2 @100Mbit/s, 1080p, 25fps

We see two graphs. The first is a 50Mbit/s AVCHD clip at 25p (Bitrate viewer tells us it is 50fps because the GH2 does 25p as a ‘pseudo 50i’), and the second is 100Mbit/s (1080p 24H ‘cinema), both shot with the ‘FlowMotion v2.2 GH2 hack’. To shoot these clips, I ran the cameras along a motorized sider whilst pointing at foliage 12 inches away. So the three graphs so far are showing identical scenes

Look at the A77 24Mbit/s (first graph) and GH2 50Mbit/s (second graph). The actual bandwidth used is far closer than the bitrates suggest: low 20s vs high 20s, and certainly not 100% difference!

The stated AVCHD bitrate is a maximum and only used if the scene requires it. Thus, if two cameras are shooting exactly the same scene, but one has twice the bitrate of the other, the quality of one will only be double the other if both cameras are using the maximum bitrate.

What the GH2 is doing that makes its quality better is it is using smaller GOPs, but that is only of advantage because I am forcing a very fast pan which is not typical of the ‘DSLR film’ style.

If I use a fast lens with wide aperture (in my case the Minolta 50mm f1.4, shot at f1.4) on the GH2, the bandwidth rarely goes above 50Mbit/s even though the stated bitrate may be over 100Mbit/s, and actual bitrate usually hovers around 30-35Mbit/s.  As a fast lens used wide open is common in DSLR video, its worth noting that increasing bitrate may not give you much if you are shooting wide aperture filmic footage (and if you are not shooting that with a DSLR, you are probably misusing your equipment!).

Utilised bandwidth is always low when using fast, wide apertures, so high bandwidth AVCHD would be wasted: in most cases the 28Mbit/s available from most un-hacked cameras is pretty much all you will ever need in these cases.  

But then we look at the LX7 footage of the exact same scene:

Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Panasonic Lumix LX7 @28Mbit/s, 1080p, 50fps
Bitrate graph of 10s clip, Panasonic Lumix LX7 @28Mbit/s, 1080p, 50fps

The LX7 is shooting at 50fps (it has no 24/25fps mode), which kind of explains why it is consistently using a higher bandwidth than the A77, but not why it is using so much more. In fact, the LX7 is using close to its limit of 28Mbit/s, and is the only one of the three cameras that is doing so. Why, when all three cameras are shooting the same scene? Because the LX7 has the smallest sensor, and is therefore capturing the sharpest input video. Sharp video looks less filmic though, so I often find myself having to soften the LX7 footage in post!

A small medium/low resolution sensor is better than a physically big, high resolution stills sensor for capturing sharp video, but you may find yourself having to soften this video in post to get a good ‘DSLR film’ look.

The LX7 has a small sensor. Such a sensor has very little in optical compensation (it is actually a very good infra-red photography camera because of its lack of sensor filters or micro lenses), and doesn’t need to do a lot of things the A77 and GH2 need to do for video. In particular, it does not need to smooth or average the signals coming from the sensor pixels, something we will touch on in the next section.

I find that the LX7 is always more likely to be using the maximum bandwidth out of my three cameras. The fact that the GH2 can shoot at over 100Mbit/s does not mean it is always capturing three times the video quality, and the fact that the A77 has the biggest sensor does not mean it is capturing the most light because it throws most of that data away… which brings us to the real reason why A77 video is often seen as ‘soft’…

Conforming stills sized images to video frames

A sensor optimized for stills is not the same as a sensor optimized for video. A current large (Full frame or APS-C) stills sensor is typically 25MPixels (6000×4000 pixels) or higher. To shoot video with the same camera, you have to discard a lot of that data to get down to 1920×1080. The way this reduction takes place makes a big difference on final video quality, and is more of an issue than bitrate, especially for most ‘average’ scenes you will take (i.e. ones that do not hit bitrate limits).

Some smallish sensor cameras (such as the GH2/GH3) can (and do) average adjacent pixels, but large sensor cameras such as the A77 and all other APS-C/Full frame DSLRs simply skip the extra data. The resulting video has artifacts caused by the gaps. To hide these effects, the camera intentionally softens detail that looks like it may be an artifact. You can see this clearly here: http://www.eoshd.com/content/6616/shootout-in-the-snow-sony-a65-vs-panasonic-gh2-vs-canon-600d?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+EOSHD+%28EOSHD.com%29. The A65 and Canon 60D are always softer than the GH2.

Although the Canons produce soft video, the A77 (and A99) is a little bit softer. This is probably because of processing overhead: the Canons only do 30fps, whereas the A77/A99 also do 50/60fps video, which means they do a more approximate line skipping/soften function to allow for the data throughput of the higher maximum frame rate.

The effects of the A77 line skipping does not show up at all on close or mid distance detail, but it does show up on far detail (because then the detail looks like it might be caused by the line skipping to the smoothing algorithm). The smoother turns distant foliage into a green mush, whereas something like the Panasonic GH2 keeps it all looking good.

I have seen this clearly when looking at A77 footage in Bitrate viewer. If I shoot a close subject, the footage actually looks very detailed, and the bitrates are close to the maximum, implying the A77 is capturing lots of detail.

For footage that contains lots of mid-long distance detail (trees and foliage, complex clouds, distant architecture and detailed terrain), the detail disappears and the bitrate reflects this – the A77 is discarding the data by smoothing it and is not even attempting to add it to the video stream: the bitrate is usually well below 20Mbit/s.

What to do? Most often, I do nothing.

I actually like the A77 ‘look’ because it more closely resembles film stock. As long as you keep to low apertures and let the distant objects defocus naturally through a low depth of field, you have no issue, and often don’t even need more than 24/28Mbit/s. You would shoot at low apertures if you want to shoot ‘DSLR film’ anyway, so distant detail is rarely an issue. If you are shooting close subjects with lots of detail behind them, the A77’s way of doing things actually maximizes detail on the main subject, so it makes sense both stylistically and in terms of best use of limited bandwidth.

Shooting with low apertures (top) prevents Sony alpha smoothing affecting your scene, and is usually stylistically better anyway. Shooting flat and then sharpening in post (bottom) can also often fix the problem
Shooting with low apertures (top) prevents Sony alpha smoothing affecting your scene, and is usually stylistically better anyway. Shooting flat and then sharpening in post (bottom) can also often fix the problem

There is a slight issue with the A77 and wide aperture though: if you use autofocus during video, the camera limits you to f3.5. There’s videos on the internet telling you to get around this by jamming the lens aperture lever at wide open: don’t do this! All you have to do is

  • autofocus, then..
  • hit the AF/MF toggle, which..
  • drops you into manual and wide open.
  • Your camera will still be in focus (and you can use focus peaking to make minor adjustments in any case).

Of course, you will not now be able to change focus via  autofocus for a moving object, but if you are wider than f3.5, you’re depth of focus is so thin that you probably should not expect to keep fast moving objects in focus anyway!

I use this trick with the excellent and inexpensive Minolta 50mm f1.4 (full frame), the Tokina 11-16 f2.8 (crop frame), the 16-50 f2.8 A77 kit lens (crop frame) and Sony 50mm  f1.8 (crop frame), all of which give a very nice cinematic depth of field wide open, and give you a nice range of focal lengths for video (11-50mm then 80mm f1.4 from the Minolta, which is a nice portrait length and aperture for tight character shots)  for not much cash.

If I absolutely need a scene with sharp middle and distant video with minimum extra kit over the A77, I take the LX7.  You can now get hold of an LX7 for less than the cost of an A77 kit lens (the cost has gone down significantly because everyone wants a Sony RX100), and because of the LX7’s extremely small sensor, line skipping artifacts or smoothing just don’t occur in its AVCHD output. Plus the LX7 footage goes pretty well with the A77’s (as long as you know how to conform 50/60fps to 24/25 fps – the LX7 doesn’t do 24/25p).

Distant detail captured with the LX7. NB - the 'look' is different for this series of clips because I am using Tiffin DFX rather than Colorista for my post work, and not because I am using different cameras.
Distant detail captured with the LX7. NB – the ‘look’ is different for this series of clips because I am using Tiffen DFX rather than Colorista for my post work, and not because I am using different cameras.

Best of all, like the A77, the LX7 requires almost nothing to shoot video.

All I needed was to add a 37mm screw thread (available from Panasonic but cheaper copies are available from eBay or Amazon) and a 37mm ND filter (Polaroid do a cheap one, again from eBay/Amazon).

The GH2 uses a pixel sampling pattern (or ‘pixel binning’) to reduce full sensor data to video resolution, so it averages data rather than just throwing it away. It also as an ‘Extended Tele’ mode where it just uses the center 1920×1080 pixels of the sensor, so it acts more like a small sensor camera such as the LX7 (and makes a 70-210 Minolta ‘beercan’ a telescope: 210mm x2 for full frame/MFT, then x4 for the tele mode, so over 1000mm effective with no loss of video quality!).

The GH2 can use its higher bandwidth to allow far more details to be brought out in post, and this is one of the big advantages of high bitrates with it. The hacks also give you >30minute constant recording and the ability to move between NTSC frame rates (for the US and web) and PAL (for weird non-standard outposts such as here in England).

The GH2 looks really really good on paper, but it has one big issue that means I still use the A77 more: the GH2 is a good camera, but the overall system is not. To get full features from a GH2, you need Panasonic MFT lenses, and they are awful: awfully slow and too long, or fast and awfully expensive. I therefore use my Sony Alpha lenses with the GH2, with manual focusing via an adapter. The GH2 has a poor focus assist (no focus peaking) so it is not the fast run-and-gun one-man camera that the a77 (or LX7) is.

So, we’ve looked at the disadvantages of the a77 (and their fixes). What are the advantages?

Advantages of the a77 over the GH2/LX7, and every other DSLR

There are several big advantages my A77 has over a high bitrate camera (i.e my hacked GH2) or a sharper-video small sensor camera (LX7):

  1. Dynamic range. The A77 has far better dynamic range than any other DSLR. The GH2/LX7 will clip highlights like no tomorrow, but at low ISO (around ISO100-200), the A77 has better dynamic range than almost anything else out there, including the Canon 5D Mk3. You have far less leeway with the GH2, and one of the main reasons for it needing more bitrate is to help with the dynamic range. You don’t need this for the A77.
  2. Focusing. The a77 SLT enhanced video focusing has no hunting. Every other camera I have used either hunts or doesn’t do video focusing at all. This makes hand held video with the A77 very easy, and in fact, shooting any video with the A77 is far easier than with any other DSLR I own or have tried.
  3. Steadyshot.  Before trying other video DSLRs, I believed the given truth that in-lens stabilization is better than the in-body version that the A77 uses. Not true. The A77 has a far smoother video stabilization system than the Panasonic MFT in-lens OIS system. Handheld is smooth with the A77 unless I run. Handheld with the GH2 and Panasonic OIS lenses is smooth only if I stand still. On the one occasion I borrowed a Canon DSLR from a friend, the required stabilization rig marked me out as a target for robbery or ridicule. Don’t even go there.
  4. Minimum equipment required with the A77 for video is almost zero. You need a slightly better and bigger SD card than you do for stills and an ND filter, and perhaps a separate audio recorder (I use a Tascam DR07) and….um. That’s it. No additional monitor with focus peaking (comes with the camera). No shroud to put over the monitor (just use the EVF – it’s the same screen). No rig (steadyshot is damped enough for walking whilst shooting without recourse to sufficient prosthetics to make you look like a cyborg), and the kit-lens is the best video lens for the system, so no lens outlay unless you want to shoot really wide, long or in the dark (in which case get a Tokina 11-16, Minolta beercan or Minolta 50 f1.4,  none of which are particularly expensive… and all of them do autofocus in video). In fact, dslrvideoshooter.com still recommends it as the best standalone DSLR for video here (its right at the bottom of the page).
  5. Reliable. Its not until you stray away from the a77 that you begin to realize how reliable it actually is. Sony are very conservative, and the thing never breaks, and post 1.05 firmware, is nippy and fast.
  6. ‘Film-like’ output. If you want film like output, then soft video is not as much of an issue as half the internet seems to tell you. Further, if you are using wide apertures associated with the ‘film look’, then high bandwidth is not that much of an issue either. Thus, despite the fact that soft video and ‘only 28Mbit/s are both seen as disadvantages, once you actually start using the A77 for DSLR video, you find that in practice, neither matter, and you actually end up with pretty good footage if you want to create DSLR film. Of course, this advantage only occurs if you slightly overexpose, otherwise that 28Mbit/s will come back and bite you when you come to expose-up shadows!
Best Standalone  DSLR for video (taken from http://dslrvideoshooter.com/best-dslr-for-video/, November 2013)
Best Standalone DSLR for video (taken from http://dslrvideoshooter.com/best-dslr-for-video/, November 2013)

Conclusion

The A77 may have a low bitrate, but the bitrate is enough for all non-pro uses a DSLR would typically be used for. Other DSLRs may have better bitrate, but that is not enough for them to be considered more ‘pro’ because none of them are on the preferred cameras list of the top broadcasters.

If you are shooting DSLR video, your target audience is web or personal events (such as weddings), and the AVCHD format sony use is all you need, assuming you take care to shoot flat. If you are really good, you might be able to squeeze out an Indie short, but you might be better off just learning on a DSLR and perhaps using it for some shots, but then hiring pro gear for a week for the main shoot.   Finally, the A77 is simply reliable: it rarely fails on focusing or dynamic range enough to kill a take.

The big advantage of the A77 is that you need very little to get started shooting video with it: no rig, no focus control, no monitor and none of the other video doohickeys apart from an ND filter and maybe a separate audio recorder. That 16-50 f2.8 you got with the A77 is FAR better than most other lenses for video, so think carefully before abandoning it.

The fact that the Sony Alpha shoots 28Mbit/s AVCHD is a non issue: higher bitrates are not as important as you think most of the time, and a camera shooting at double the bitrate may actually be recording almost the same quality video.

By far the most important thing in your setup is not actually the camera, but how you use it. You can get around the Sony soft-distant-video simply by shooting wide aperture DSLR film. Canon users had the same issues with soft video, and if you look at default Canon video straight out of the camera, it looks a lot like default A77 video straight out the camera. With all DSLRs, the trick is to shoot with wide apertures.

I have bought a GH2, and although it does output sharper video, that sharpness is not always a good thing. The GH2 with Panasonic lenses can actually be too sharp, and old DSLR lenses are often the way to go (I use Minolta AF or Rokkor) often give a more filmic feel, that  will bring you back to square one: it will look like default A77 footage!

My favorite setup is to use the Sony A77 and the LX7. Neither need much setup or additional kit for video, and the footage from them goes well together. They complement each other as a DSLR+DSLR replacement when shooting stills, and as a main and backup camera for video. I’m also glad I didn’t opt for the RX100 as my ‘DSLR replacement’ now that I know how good the LX7 is for video!

Videos associated with this post can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/howgreenisyourvideo

NB – I had previously promised video cheat sheets for the a77 along with this post… but as this post has overrun, I will have to blog them later. Sorry!

Notes

  1. It’s important to differentiate between a file on your computer (such as a .mts AVCHD file or mp3 or mp4) and the codec. The file holds data and tags that tell an application what it needs to use that data. The tags hold information such as ‘this is the video data, and this is the audio data, and this is what you need to use to play them together’. The codec is the ‘what you need’ bit, and is a part of the application that opens the file (although it may be provided by the operating system). The codec may be strongly associated with the file type (such as .mp4 files and the MPEG4 codec), it isn’t always the case: the filetype may be able to contain several slightly different codecs, or future computers may choose an updated and different codec. Although this distinction may not have been something you need to consider when you are just playing video files, now that we are editing and creating our own videos, an understanding of the underlying codecs we will be using is critical. In particular, to edit a given file, you need to know which codecs are required to decompress it, or have an authoring tool that knows for you. As of 2013, you are in luck, because almost all applications worth using recognize AVCHD fully, so you have nothing to worry about.
  2. Although most codecs are designed to reduce file size, some codecs have very little compression because they are written for editing rather than simply viewing, and place quality over everything else. They are sometimes referred to as ‘intermediate codecs’ because they are not designed for playback.  You will hear about ProRes, Cineform, Avid DNxHD, and other such editing formats on the internet, usually by someone telling you it’s not worth editing video unless you are using one of them. Unless you are getting uncompressed video from your camera via a raw format or clean HDMI out (if you are not sure what that means, you are not), then you don’t need to bother with intermediate codecs, and probably never need to change your file format during editing. If you really must use an intermediate codec for your video editing, have a look at Lagarith or Ut Video (PC) or Avid DNxHD (PC/MAC). All are free, so all you will be wasting is hard drive space! In a nutshell, pro codecs are only useful with pro cameras, and no DSLR is a pro video camera, so go with what you get out of the camera.
  3. Some GH2 hacks try to use high bit rates irrespective of whether the current scene requires it or not, such as Driftwood’s ‘Moon T7’. T7 is the highest bitrate hack available for the GH2 as of this writing. It has a major advantage in that it adds massive amounts of data to shadows, and this allows you to lift them much more than either the A77 or other GH2 hacks. It also gets rid of AVCHD GOPs altogether by having a GOP size of 1, which makes the resulting AVCHD render much faster in Premiere (although the much larger filesize means it will hit your hard drive on file open). However, I find the ability to lift shadows via T7 is somewhat compromised by increased noise and some instability (occasional dropped frames and fail to save to SD card mid-shoot unless you use very specific SD cards). For these reasons, I find using a lower bitrate hack (such as Flowmotion) and overexposing to be a safer bet, purely on reliability contraints.

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).