Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Sigma DP2 Merrill (DP2M)

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
The Sigma DP2 Merrill, also called the DP2M, is a fixed-lens digital camera with a unique sensor. The lens is a 30mm (45mm equivalent) f2.8 that is fantastic. The sensor is an APS-C 46 megapixel Foveon sensor.

In case you don't know, there are (essentially) three types of sensors found in digital cameras. It's important to take a look at these to understand the DP2M.

The most common sensor type is called Bayer, which has pixels that are sensitive to red, green or blue, with only about half providing luminance information. Because of that the true resolution from a Bayer sensor is about half of what the pixel count would indicate. Bayer sensors are also subject to moire pattern distortion and require an anti-aliasing filter (although not all cameras with a Bayer-type sensor include this filter, but most do), which blurs the image slightly and further reduces resolution.

The next sensor type is Fuji's X-Trans sensor, which is very similar to a Bayer sensor except with an innovative modification which eliminates moire pattern distortion and the need for an anti-aliasing filter.

Finally, we have the Foveon sensor found on Sigma cameras. This sensor has three layers, one sensitive to red, one to green and one to blue (this is similar to most color films, in fact). In the DP2M, each layer has about 15 megapixels. Combined together, there is a grand total of 46 megapixels, and this produces images with a great deal of sharpness, detail and depth. Now 46 megapixels on a Foveon sensor is not quite equal to 46 megapixels on a Bayer or X-Trans sensor, but is roughly a 28 megapixel equivalent. Like the X-Trans sensor, Foveon sensors are not subject to moire pattern distortion and there is no need for an anti-aliasing filter.

One can see the advantage of the Foveon sensor very quickly. Packed into a small APS-C size is a sensor that can eclipse the resolution of almost all full-frame sensors and gets pretty darn close to medium-format sensors (I will not be doing side-by-side comparisons in this review). However, what one cannot easily see right away are the disadvantages of this sensor—and there are several big disadvantages—which we'll discuss a little later.

Foveon - Digital Transparency Film?
From The Past - Mojave, California
I've had a distant interest in the Foveon technology for several years now, but what really got my attention was a claim that the images produced by the sensor found on the Sigma DP2M resemble color transparency film.

I'm a relatively new convert to digital, and have shot film for over 15 years. Some of my favorite transparency films are (or, in some cases, were) Fuji Velvia 50, Fuji Reala 100, Kodachrome 25 and 64, and Kodak Ektachrome 100VS and 100SW. Each of these films have a different look, but they are (or were) great in their own way.

What I've discovered with digital capture is that, while it is much more convenient than film, and maybe even cheaper in the long term, most often it just doesn't match the quality and "look" of film. A few years ago one would have had to spend at least $10,000 on a digital camera body (not including lenses) in hopes of matching the image quality that film has been capable of for decades and decades and decades. The last couple of years has seen much progress in making quality digital capture affordable, but we're still talking about thousands of dollars for just a camera body.

So when I heard that the quality of color transparency film was available in digital form for under $800 (lens included, too), I thought this would be the camera for me! Does the Sigma DP2M live up to this claim? We will get to that soon.

What Is The DP2 Merrill?
Abandoned Homestead - Tehachapi, California
The DP2M  is a rectangular digital camera that most resembles a point-and-shoot pocket camera (although this camera is neither a point-and-shoot nor a pocket camera). It has simple controls and doesn't do a whole lot of fancy stuff. There are no scene modes or mechanisms for beginners. This is a photographer's tool, not an amateur's toy.

The rear screen, which is the only "viewfinder" to compose images, is sufficient (meaning, it does what it is supposed to do but won't blow your socks off). The video capabilities are less than what your cell-phone can do.

The fixed nine-blade 30mm lens, which is equivalent to 45mm in full-frame terms, is extremely sharp. There's very little distortion or chromatic aberrations to speak of. This lens is excellent! My only complaints are the maximum aperture of f2.8 (I'm surprised it's not larger—at least f2) and the minimum focus distance of eleven inches (which is good but not great). If you can overlook those two minor issues, the lens will not disappoint.

There is no image stabilization on the DP2M, which means in any condition other than normal daylight you'll want to at least consider the use of a tripod. While I've been able to get sharp images with a 1/25 shutter speed handheld, 1/40 is the limit I set for myself with this camera. In this regard the camera reminds me of using an old manual film camera.

Levels of Image Quality

Rusted Bolt - Loraine, California

The reason that I originally bought this camera, and the reason that you are interested in this camera, is one thing: image quality. Is it as good as others have said? What I've decided is that the DP2M has many different levels of image quality, and I'll go through those one at a time.

Level 1 - ISO 100 RAW

The DP2M performs at its peak at ISO 100 captured in RAW. The camera produces truly spectacular photographs at this level! Really, they have to be seen to be believed (either as a large print or at full size on a quality computer monitor). There is so much fine detail found in the images that it is hard to believe.

Based on my own experiences, the image quality at this level surpasses that of 35mm color transparency film but does not reach that of medium format color transparency film.

Which color transparency film, you ask? Not any one specific film. Out of the box the images from the DP2M probably resemble Kadochrome 64 the most (although not exactly), or perhaps Fuji Reala 100, but they can be made to look like anything you want in post-processing.

Level 2 - ISO 100 JPEG & ISO 200 RAW

I had heard that the DP2M made terrible looking JPEGs, and I can attest that there is some falsehood in that statement. At ISO 100 the JPEGs from this camera look great! Not quite as good as ISO 100 RAW, but pretty darn close. In fact, they look very similar to ISO 200 captured in RAW. The difference between image quality at level one and at level two is very small and won't be noticed without a close side-by-side study. I will also say that image quality level two is a close match to 35mm color transparency film.

Level 3 - ISO 200 JPEG & ISO 400 RAW

This is the first real noticeable drop-off in image quality. It is still excellent, and the photographs will still blow away a lot of cameras that cost much more, but it is certainly not at the DP2M's peak, either. This is a very usable image quality level that you'll avoid for real serious work and won't think twice about using for everything else.

Level 4 - ISO 800 RAW

Images captured at ISO 800 in RAW are sufficient for non-serious work and look best when converted to black-and-white. The difference in image quality between this level and level three isn't huge, but there is certainly a noticeable difference.

Level 5 - ISO 400 JPEG & ISO 1600 RAW

This is kind of the limit of the DP2M. It is definitely best suited for black-and-white photography due to noise/color degradation. This isn't the reason that you bought the camera, but it is marginally usable in the right situations.

Level 6 - ISO 800 JPEG & ISO 3200 RAW

I wouldn't use this image quality level for anything other than gritty-looking black-and-white images, and even then it is only marginally usable. While I'll say that the quality level of ISO 800 JPEG is similar to ISO 3200 captured in RAW, the results are actually much different. The images captured in RAW has more of a film-grain-like quality compared to the digital noise of the JPEGs.

While the DP2M is capable of ISO 6400, it's not a usable setting. Also, JPEGs above ISO 800 are not usable, either, and are best avoided.

To summarize, image quality is outstanding at levels one and two, good at level three, below average at level four, well below average at level five, and not very good at level six. With any digital camera there is going to be a drop-off in image quality as you increase ISO. Every digital camera will perform much better at ISO 100 than ISO 3200. But the DP2M has a much more dramatic drop-off than most, starting higher and falling lower.

Image Quality Compared

Web of Neglect - Mojave, California
I'm not doing side-by-side comparisons here. Many others have done that, and there is some value in it, but mostly it is anecdotal. However, the minimum you would have to pay is $2,000 to find a camera and lens combination that surpasses the DP2M's image quality at ISO 100. And even then the image quality won't be significantly better, only ever-so-slightly better.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this camera is that at low ISO it is such an incredible value. If the majority of your photographs are at low ISO, you will not find better image quality for anywhere near the MSRP of the DP2M.

The 3-D Look
The Sound of Silence - Mojave, California
A lot has been said about the supposed "3-D look" that Foveon sensors create. Sorry to disappoint, but there is no 3-D look. There is, however, a depth to the images that may be similar to an oil painting. Or maybe it is like color film—three layers of emulsion and a three layered sensor. I'm not really sure how to best describe it or understand it, but there is a look of depth that is different from images captured with other sensors.

In most images the look is very subtle, while in some photographs it is more obvious. I'm not sure what causes it to be subtle or obvious and I haven't figured out how to control it. But this look of depth gives images a plausible realism that is missing from other digital cameras. The photographs look more like film than digital.

Hall Loves You - Newberry Springs, California
In image quality levels one and two, colors from the DP2M are outstanding. Out-of-the-box colors are natural, accurate and realistic. Skin tones are especially well when set in the neutral color mode. Vivid color mode might be a little too vivid, but in the right situations it is a good option.

With most digital cameras, as color saturation is turned up fine details are lost. It is like an overexposure of color. It is very difficult to achieve Fuji Velvia colors from digital cameras. But the DP2M retains a large amount of fine details within highly saturated images. It is possible to replicate the look of saturated transparency films with images captured on this camera! This is an understated advantage of the Foveon sensor, even if you don't plan to have wild colors in your photographs.

As one increases ISO, however, the DP2M becomes less useful for color photographs. Image quality level three is fine (although not nearly as good as levels one and two), but I would not recommend this camera for color photography when using the higher ISOs.

Peerless - Newberry Springs, California
Black-and-white photographs are especially nice with the DP2M. I used to use Agfa Pan 25, and still sometimes use Ilford Delta 100 for black-and-white film photography. The DP2M in image quality level one can reach the fine grain of those films, including the Ilford Delta 100 in medium format.

For grainy-looking black-and-white images, image quality levels three and four are great, striking a good balance of noise and sharpness/details, giving just enough texture. Image quality level six is marginally usable for gritty-looking black-and-white photographs, and only after much post-processing.

Black-and-white print film will have a larger dynamic range than the DP2M. Dynamic range on this camera is on par with most digital cameras with at least an APS-C sized sensor, but it is no match for negative film. It is about the same as color transparency film, in fact. Using RAW will help squeeze just a little more dynamic range out of each image if you should need it.

Into The Sun
A Light In The Dark - Tehachapi, California
I'm not sure if this is an issue with just the DP2M or all Foveon cameras, but this camera does not like to be pointed directly at the sun. The light meter goofs exposures and there are some strange lens flares (typically not the good kind, either). If you like to photograph directly into the sun this may not be the camera for you.

With that said, a lens hood will go a long ways toward avoiding lens flare. Also, you can creatively use the camera's weaknesses as strengths if you try hard enough. Finally, many digital cameras struggle with being pointed directly at the sun, so it is not like the DP2M is alone with this issue.

Banding, Etc.
Water Storage - Rosamond, California
One area of concern with the DP2M, and apparently it is a problem with all 46 megapixel Foveon sensors, is banding and other weird noise issues. The problems seem to occur mostly in skies and shadows. It appears to get worse as one goes higher in ISO, but can sometimes be found even at ISO 100. What I find unusual is that it isn't in every image or even in most images.

I have several thoughts and observations with this. First, don't use a cheap circular polarizer filter, the camera won't like it. I found that out the hard way. Second, someone suggested that the banding and other noise problems occur more when the sensor is hot. I went back and discovered that the problem images tend to be at the end of a series of exposures in short succession (but not always). If you can give the camera a rest here and there that certainly helps. Third, overexposing a little and then recovering that in post-processing seems to help some. Fourth, don't try to do too much post-processing. Making major adjustments to the images seems to exasperate the problems. Besides, the photographs look great without much work. Finally, the banding and noise issues get worse as you increase ISO, so keep the camera at as low of an ISO as you can.

I wouldn't let this stop you from buying the camera, but it is certainly something that you want to be aware of. Like I said above, most images don't have banding and other noise issues, and with care you'll find that very, very few photographs have problems.

Camera Performance
Unused Bed - Hinkley, California
Auto-focus on the DP2M is fast and accurate in normal light, but slows down significantly in low-light situations. Overall the camera is fairly quick, but processing an image and writing it to the SD card is very slow. The camera has a good buffer, so as long as you don't max out the buffer (or insist on reviewing the images right away) this won't slow you down.

The DP2M can be manually focused, although I found it a bit clumsy to use at first. After several tries I was comfortable using it.

Auto-white-balance is very accurate most of the time, and wildly off every now-and-then. I'm not sure why. If you save in RAW this can be adjusted later, so no big deal.

The camera's built-in light meter does well, but perhaps likes to slightly underexpose. Adjusting exposure is easy so this is also not a big deal.

Battery life is a joke for the DP2M. I would say that 70 exposures are about average before the battery runs dead, although (depending on the exact circumstances) battery life can be up to 90 frames and as little as 50. Sigma included an extra battery, which still isn't enough. Three batteries should be a minimum for the DP2M. Thankfully, the batteries are small so it isn't too much trouble to carry extras.

It took a little while to get used to all of the buttons and settings, but once figured out adjustments are quick and easy. Nothing is buried deep in menus. One-handed operation is certainly possible.

Fixed Lens
Old Yield Sign - Boron, California
I mentioned earlier that the lens on this camera is great. Not perfect, but nearly perfect. Better than most, for sure! One thing that might turn people off to this camera is the fixed focal length.

I don't think this is a disadvantage, but perhaps this is because for the first 10 years or so of my photography I owned a 50mm prime lens, and that's it. I used one lens because I owned one lens and that lens was great. Limitations improve art. So instead of being turned off by the fixed lens, consider it a challenge.

Sigma also has wide-angle and telephoto versions of this camera, the DP1M and the DP3M, respectively. So if the 45mm equivalent focal length isn't for you, perhaps one of the other cameras would be a better fit.

Tired Old Purse - Mojave, California
Quite a few people have said that the DP2M is for landscape photography where one can set the camera on a tripod and take their time with each exposure. While I agree that the camera absolutely excels in that scenario, it is certainly not limited to that.

The camera has the right size and weight to be good for vacations and travel, and I believe enough versatility. I took my DP2M to a theme park and captured many successful photographs in a variety of situations. I didn't feel limited by this camera. In fact, it was much more pleasant to have the DP2M instead of a bulky DSLR.

Are there cameras that are better for travel photography? Sure there are. Many of those cameras also cost more than the DP2M. The point here is that this camera is capable of more than just landscapes on a tripod.

Photo Pro
Torn - Mojave, California
A lot has been said about how terrible Sigma's Photo Pro post-processing software is. This software, by the way, is required to convert the DP2M's RAW files, since Adobe hasn't created a profile for Foveon cameras. What I found is that the software isn't all that bad with one exception: it is horrendously slow.

Photo Pro is simple to use (mostly sliders: left or right, less or more) and does a good job with what it is designed to do. You cannot do everything you may want to do in post-processing using this software, so for images that require more than basic adjustments, simply save as a TIFF file and open it in your editing software of choice.

Copy Machine - Mojave, California
I cannot say enough about how impressed I am with the image quality of the DP2M at low ISO. It is truly great! The camera is still decent enough at the middle ISOs, especially for black-and-white photography, but is not good at all for high ISO photography.

That high ISO limitation, combined with the short battery life and other quirks, means that the DP2M is not for everyone. It is not even a camera for most. However, those who can happily put up with the deficiencies will be rewarded with fantastic potential.

The camera has an MSRP of $800 (the original MSRP was $1,000 when the camera was introduced), but can be found for less if you are good at shopping around and finding bargains. It can be found new for under $700 now and used for even less.

If you want a smaller camera with a reasonable price tag that has exceptional image quality at low ISO, the Sigma DP2 Merrill may be just what you are looking for. It is fun, unique and a great tool to have.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Urbex Images - Flickr Friday Favorites

Welcome to the Flickr Friday Favorites #5! As always, there are many great photographs that I'm honored to share with you. I'm amazed every time I put this together, and this week is no exception.

For those who may not know, The Urban Exploration Photography Blog has a Flickr group called Urbex Images. It's a great group with many talented photographers. Each week I go through the images that have been added to the group pool and pick my favorites to share here.

I wish that I could share a lot more than I do. There are tons of worthy photographs that get passed up (for several different reasons). You'll just have to visit the group to see them all yourself.

I highly encourage you to take a closer look at the photographers below. Simply click on their names to visit their Flickr pages. Several also have websites that you can take a look at.

As always, the copyrights of each photograph belong to the photographers. I asked for and received permission to use the photographs here. Thank you to everyone who participated!
Untitled by LostButNotForgotten
This photograph has nice atmosphere and good use of contrast. I like how it breaks some

photography "rules" (which, of course, aren't really rules). Even though the room is empty,
there are plenty of details to keep the viewer's attention. 
Abandoned Spring Garden School Rooftop - Philly 2014 by skel bone
There is great contrast here. It's very busy, but the openness and lightness of the scene make

it work. I really like that it is monochrome.
Wooden Wheelchair by Frank Grace
It's an empty room with an old wheelchair. Simplicity. The two wood doors add interest, balance

and provide thematic unity. Check out his website by clicking here.
Talk Hard by Freaktography
Contrast draws the eye straight to the microphone. Repeated circles add interest.

Check out his website by clicking here and his Facebook page by clicking here.
Just a Shell of its Former Self by Ron Pinkerton
I think those who go to abandoned sites at night are nuts. But it's that bit of craziness that allows

great light-painted images like this to be created. Great use of symmetry. 
Check out his website by clicking here.
Chaos by Seb alessandroni
It is chaotic, but it's also a mirrored image (due to the reflection) that's well balanced. Contrast

draws the eye to the upper right, and the eyes move up and down and to the left across the frame. 
beware the cat in the mirror by Szydlak likes Abandoned Places
This image has great depth and texture. It tells a story and is a bit mysterious. There are repeated lines and shapes. It's unusual but I'm really drawn to it.
the twin tower by potosi6088m
This "mirrored" image is well designed. Lots of repeated shapes. It's dark, but that dimness adds to the mystery of the scene.
Chateau B. by Michael Schwan
This is a simple yet detailed scene. Another well-designed "mirrored" image. Check out his Facebook page by clicking here.
Je vous parle d'un temps que les moins de vingt ans ne peuvent pas connaitre... by JPSorgues
By overlaying an image of the kitchen when it was still in use, we get a stark juxtaposition between then and now. Truly fascinating. Check out his website by clicking here.
Previous Flickr Friday Favorites: 1/30/2015, 2/6/2015, 2/13/2015, 2/20/2015.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Photography Should Be Uncomfortable

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
The enemy of creativity is complacency. Being content stifles photographic vision. Photographers should find themselves uncomfortable.

Pablo Picasso said, "If you have five elements available use only four. If you have four elements use three." This principal can be applied to several aspects of photography.

If you own five lenses only ever use four of them. If you own four cameras only ever use three of them. Actually, I'd make those numbers smaller. If you own three lenses only use two of them. If you own two cameras only use one.
Broken Hallway - Mojave, California
The less options you have, the more likely you'll think outside-the-box with the options that you do have. Renown poet Charles Bernstein said, "Art often thrives on limitations."

If there are five compositional elements in a scene use only four. If there are four compositional elements use three. Don't include too much and keep things as simple as possible. "Art lives only on the restraint it imposes on itself, and dies of all others," said Nobel Prize winning author Albert Camus.

Less is more in photography. Don't include too much in your images or in your camera bag. This goes against what society says, but you'll never be satisfied with "more." You will never have enough "more." All "more" does is make you lazy.
Copy Machine - Mojave, California
This is why almost all of the great innovations are made in garages and basements. Big corporations with seemingly unlimited resources are not able to do what some individual can accomplish on his own in his spare time and with a limited budget. It's the opposite of what one would think, but it is true. Less is indeed more.

The concepts of limitations and less may not sound appealing. Society says that we should have more, not less. Society says that we should free ourselves of limitations. "Embracing the limitation can actually drive creativity," artist Phil Hansen said. "We need to first be limited in order to become limitless."

Photography should be uncomfortable. If it isn't, you have too much in your camera bag. If it isn't, you're not limiting yourself enough. If it isn't, you are not pushing yourself enough--taking roads less travelled and going opposite the flow. Your photography can be even better--my photography can be even better--simply by being uncomfortable.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Camera Hack: Simply, Cheap & Easy DIY Lens Hood

Coffee Sleeve Lens Hood
Some people love lens flare and some people hate it. Some photographers purposefully try to get it and include it in their compositions. Some photographers avoid having it in their images at all costs.

You'll get lens flare if your lens is pointed towards the sun. Even if you are photographing at an angle to the sun, there's a good chance you'll get some lens flare. If you want to avoid it you'll need a lens hood attached to the end of your lens.

But suppose you don't have a lens hood, either because you left it at home or because you don't own one. No problem! Use a coffee cup sleeve instead.
The Doors - Victorville, California
Note the lens flare seen over the window. This could have been avoided.
Coffee houses will put these sleeves on the outside of the cups so that you wont burn your fingers while holding the cup of scolding liquid. If you drink coffee, you may already have a sleeve or you may acquire one soon. If you don't drink coffee, I'm sure your local coffee house would be more than happy to give you one if you asked.

Simply place the small end of the coffee sleeve on your lens as seen in the photograph at the top. And that's it! Now you can worry just a bit less about that pesky lens flare.

The Artist Photographer

Broken Souls - Newberry Springs, California
Why are some photographs art and others are not? Pretty much everyone has a camera and pictures are being snapped everywhere all of the time. If you do a quick Google search of "Grand Canyon" and look under images, literally millions upon millions upon millions of photographs of the Grand Canyon are right at your fingertips. Which ones are art? Are they all art? Are none of them art?

There was a time that the art world rejected photography as a legitimate art form. Ansel Adams and others from his era did a fine job of changing that. But even to this day some within the art community do not believe photography is art. What accounts for this? I think, simply, most photographs are not art, and many photographers are not artists.

There is a difference between the photographer and the artist photographer. It comes down to documenting vs. interpreting. The photographer is interested in documenting (freezing a moment in time) with their camera while the artist photographer is interested in interpreting (non-verbally speaking) with their camera. But it is actually deeper than that.
Keep Out The Sun - Tehachapi, California
There is a misconception that a photograph is truthful. Certainly you have heard of "photographic evidence" and that "pictures never lie." But every picture lies, or at least isn't completely truthful. The photographer is biased, choosing how to compose the image (what to include and exclude) and what settings the camera should have. The camera and lens (and film, if applicable) are biased, too, with regard to color, contrast, hue, dynamic range, sharpness, etc., etc.

A photograph is a tiny moment in time that is taken out of context. As soon as it is captured, it is history--yet it is viewed in the present. Even documentary-style images are not true reality.

I think the reason for the misconception is that photographs look real. There is so much detail contained in an image, it looks like reality. And if it looks like reality, it must be reality, right? But it isn't.
Alien - Mojave, California
The knowledge that photographs are not reality, but glimpses of obscured reality, is enlightening. Since you cannot capture reality, you have the freedom to make an image whatever you want it to be. You can create your own reality. The key word is create. That is when you go from being a photographer to being an artist photographer.

The artist photographer must have photographic vision in order to be successful. Since there are no boundaries, the artist photographer is free to be creative. Whatever his or her imagination can dream up can be made into a photograph.

The photographer is limited by his or her camera and whatever is by chance in front of it. The artist photographer has the freedom to create, and the limitations are eliminated.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Abandonment: Johannesburg House

Johannesburg House - Johannesburg, California
A couple of weeks ago when I visited Atolia, California I also visited an abandoned house in Johannesburg. This turned out to be an interesting stop.

Johannesburg, which is right outside of Randsburg, was founded in 1896 and was a booming mining town at one time. The interesting thing about Johannesburg is that it was a "civilized" community, and not the rowdy western town typical of that era. The fate of the town was dictated by the mining industry, with plenty of ups-and-downs. Today the town is a small gas stop along U.S. 395 and a tourist attraction (although not nearly as touristy as Randsburg).

At the north end of town is an abandoned house. It was once a business of some sort, although I'm not really sure what kind of business it was. There's a sign along the highway that used to say, but it doesn't say anything anymore.
Tree, House - Johannesburg, California
I didn't find a lot of clues on the inside of the house. There were a few remnants, such as an old wood table, a chair and a suitcase. Mostly the place was empty.

The glass in the windows were broken. Some doors were broken. There's an old bus that had been converted into an RV that had been converted into a guest house in the back. It was a bit interesting. Although, again, it was largely empty.

I used a Nikon D3300 DSLR with a Nikkor 40mm AF-S DX f/2.8G Micro lens to capture these images.
Small Wood Table - Johannesburg, California
Retro Living - Johannesburg, California
Oval Window - Johannesburg, California
The Inside Door - Johannesburg, California
Arched Door - Johannesburg, California
The Little Red Window - Johannesburg, California

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED lens


Before getting into the review I want to perhaps clarify some confusion. Nikon has two very similar lenses, the Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED and the Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G IF-ED. These two lenses look similar and are (especially) named similar, but they are in fact different.

The 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED is both smaller and lighter than the 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G IF-ED. The ED does not have built-in image stabilization while the IF-ED does. The ED lens can focus about six inches closer than the IF-ED. The ED has nine rounded diaphragm blades while the IF-ED has seven. The two lenses perform similarly. The IF-ED in tests at DxOMark edges out the ED in every category, but only by small margins. The ED retails for $170 while the IF-ED retails for $250.

Just to be clear, the lens that I'm reviewing is the 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED and not the 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G IF-ED. The reasons that I chose the ED over the IF-ED are cost, size and weight, and the number of diaphragm blades (which affects bokeh and sunstars). The IF-ED has image stabilization (Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction or "VR"), which might make it worth the extra cost, but Nikon's VR has a negative side-effect on long exposures (however, VR can be turned off pretty easily).

The Lens
Alien - Mojave, California
The Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED zoom lens is for Nikon cameras with APS-C sized sensors (Nikon calls it "DX"). For this review I used a D3300. With the APS-C crop factor, the lens has an equivalent (in 35mm "full-frame" terms) 82.5-300mm focal length. That's a good focal length for sports, wildlife, portraits and sometimes landscapes.

Build quality is pretty low. It's mostly plastic, except for the glass, some rubber, and a very small amount of metal. It doesn't feel like it will last forever, but on the positive side it is very light weight.

This lens has no distortion at 55mm, but as one zooms the distortion shows up pretty quickly, peaking at its worst around 100mm. It isn't terrible (and it is certainly correctable in post-processing), but this is something to be aware of. Keep the lens at 55mm if you want straight lines to be straight. On newer Nikon DSLRs, the camera can correct the distortion for you if distortion correction is enabled.

I couldn't find much in the way of chromatic aberrations at all, which is really good. I'm not sure if this is entirely because of the lens. Nikon "fixes" chromatic aberrations automatically in-camera with their latest generation of DSLRs.
Shelvador - Rosamond, California
The 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED is sufficiently sharp. It's not terrible or great--about what one would expect from a lens at this price point. If you want a telephoto zoom lens with sharpness similar to a prime lens, be prepared to spend at least $1,000. While this lens is not tack sharp like a prime, it is sharp corner-to-corner--some prime lenses can't claim that.

At 200mm the lens is noticeably softer than at 55mm. At first I blamed this on the environment (haze) and technique (shutter speed and sturdiness of user). But after some (somewhat) controlled tests, I decided that in fact the lens is sharper at 55mm than 200mm. I think it is around 150mm that the lens begins to lose some crispness, but it is indeed softest at 200mm.

A downside to this lens is vignetting. There is significant vignetting throughout the range of focal lengths, but it gets worse as it zooms and is strongest at 200mm. If you are photographing a white wall or empty sky you'll notice, otherwise this is not a huge deal. In fact, some may prefer some vignetting (depending on the subject and style). However, I had more than one image ruined by the vignetting before I realized this limitation.
Abandoned Morning Window - Rosamond, California
Diffraction occurs around f11, except at the long end of the lens (roughly 150-200mm) where it occurs about f8. The lens is at peak sharpness around f5.6. Contrast is pretty good, but it does seem to decrease as you get closer to 200mm.

Bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus area in a photograph) is nice and smooth. Highlights show up as soft circles (maybe perhaps slightly oval upon close inspection). Lens flare is well controlled and sunstars look great.

Autofocus is perhaps slightly slower than what one would expect. If the change in focus is small the camera locks focus almost instantaneously. If the change in focus is from near-to-far or far-to-near, it takes a noticeable moment for the lens to get focused. Manual focus is possible with a flip of the switch on the side of the lens, but the focus ring isn't great and the experience is less than ideal. Still, I manually focused multiple times with success.
Old & Dilapidated - Rosamond, California

Minimum focus distance is about three feet from the camera's sensor, which puts it somewhere in the neighborhood of two-and-a-half feet from the front of the lens. This is certainly acceptable for a telephoto lens, and sufficient for everything except macro photography.

The largest aperture is f4, available from 55mm to about 60mm. As you zoom in, the aperture gets smaller until it reaches f5.6 at about 180mm. The smallest aperture is f32, available from 200mm to about 150mm. As you zoom out, the aperture gets larger until it reached f22 at about 60mm. While it would be nice if the maximum aperture was larger than f4, it is sufficient for most purposes. And while f32 sounds good on paper, diffraction makes it not particularly useful.

The 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED retails for $170 (I've noticed some places selling it for $200). I paid $100 for mine. It was "factory refurbished" from Nikon and included a 90-day warranty. Except for the packaging (which clearly said "refurbished"), there was no way to know that this wasn't a brand-new lens. It certainly looked brand-new to me.


Sunrise Through Old Window Shade - Rosamond, California
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. That's how I would summarize this lens. It has a lot of good things going for it, but it seems to be a tale of two lenses. At 55mm it is a solid lens. But as one zooms, distortion shows up, vignetting gets worse, sharpness and contrast decreases, diffraction comes quicker, and the maximum aperture gets smaller. By the time you reach 200mm it is just a so-so lens.

Interestingly, you can spend quite a bit more money and get a telephoto zoom lens that isn't significantly better (if better at all). There are a bunch of options, but not many that are good enough to justify the higher price tags. If you have money to burn, I recommend the Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC APO OS HSM Nikon, which retails for $1,000. It is hands down the better lens.

An outside-the-box alternative is the Nikkor 50mm AF-S f/1.8G, which retails for $220. It doesn't zoom, but it is telephoto on DX cameras and is quite excellent.

If you are like most people and are on a limited budget, the Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED is a descent enough lens that will get the job done for not too much money. It is a good value option for adding some versatility to your DX camera. Find it on sale or buy it refurbished or used. It is a much better value at $100 than $200. Spend a little more and get the IF-ED version if image stabilization is a big deal to you.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Photography Isn't Documenting - It's Interpreting

Broken Angels - Bodfish, California
Photography isn't documenting. Yes, by photographing you are documenting, but there is so much more to it than that. You are giving your own interpretation of the scene. Photography is biased.

When you open the camera's shutter, you are making your own unique interpretation of that scene. You are telling a story in your own words and from your own unique perspective. You are conveying thoughts and emotions. Photography is a form of non-verbal communication.

How good a photograph is depends on how strong it communicates. An image that isn't very good communicates poorly. An excellent photograph speaks clearly and boldly.
Shelvador - Rosamond, California
A good exercise is to look at your own photographs and explain what each one is about. If you cannot communicate the meaning of your images, no one else will be able grasp them, either.

A common mistake is to not know what you even want to convey in your photographs. If you don't know where you are going you will never arrive. You must consider what thoughts and emotions you have about the scene, and figure out how to best communicate those through your photographs. This is called photographic vision.

If something strikes you about a scene, what is it exactly and why? Try to get to a deeper level of your conscience when considering this. Once you've discovered your own reaction to the scene, you can then go about composing your image in such a way that best explains that reaction.
Alien - Mojave, California
Another common mistake is to include too much. If I were to explain too much to you and have all sorts of ideas and tell you this and that and communicate about all these different things then all I would do is confuse you or make you not clearly understand or bore you but certainly not excite you or speak clearly to you. That last sentence, which was too long, unorganized and poorly written, is like most people's photographs. People mean well when they press open the shutter, but by not speaking in a clear and simple structure, they lose the attention of the viewer.

Remove everything from your composition that doesn't convey what you are trying to communicate. The problem is often that the photographer is too far away from the subject. Get closer. Get a lot closer! Simplify your photographs as much as you can. Show just the essential elements and nothing more.

One more common mistake is to photograph things that you are not interested in. Imagine trying to hold a conversation with someone about a topic that you could care less about. Would your words excite? Would people even listen to you? But what if the conversation were about a topic you are passionate about? What would your words and tone be?
Web of Neglect - Mojave, California
People often photograph things that they are not passionate about because they think they should or  they have to. If you don't have a strong opinion about something, it will show in your photographs. If you do have a strong opinion about something, it will show in your photographs. If you can't hold an exciting conversation about something, then you probably shouldn't be photographing it. But if you can talk about something with passion, that's where you should be focusing your photographic efforts.

When you create an image, you are putting a part of yourself into that image. It's your thoughts and emotions that you are trying to capture. Yes, it is not the scene that you should be attempting to capture, but what you think and feel about that scene.

You are not documenting. Photography is interpreting. When you put a piece of yourself into the photograph, that's when you are creating art.