As a photographer who has used nearly every lens in Canon's repertoire, it's rare to find one that truly impresses me beyond the ones I own and love. For the longest time, I've grown content with my current lineup (which is an overwhelming collection of prime glass), and haven't had much gear lust over the last few years for new stuff. Well recently, on a trip to Albuquerque for headshot sessions, I decided to go overboard, and rent the Canon 200mm f/2L IS, only to have my somewhat low expectations be broken, giving me that feeling of want for new equipment once again. So let me walk you through my newest love, the Canon 200mm f/2 IS; my favorite lens I'll never be able to afford.
I wanted to try this lens for a number of reasons, but largely because of how it doesn't fit in with what else is available for photographers. For starters, the 70-00mm f/2.8 is considered one of the must have lenses for many photographers, and one of the best selling lenses on all platforms. This lens, regardless of the manufacturer, is often sharpest at 200mm, and does a fantastic job of serving as an alternative to the 200mm f/2L that Canon offers. Secondly, Canon also has a 200mm f/2.8L available that is smaller, lighter, and nearly as sharp as the f/2 older brother. Both of these lenses, are much cheaper, much smaller, and just as good for most shooting...but that's precisely what I love about the Canon 200mm f/2 IS....its absurdity.
Designed for (or at least that I can only assume) indoor sports photography, the Canon 200mm f/2 IS is a lightning fast shooter. However, being a sports lens, the lens itself is giant when compared to its predecessors, and weighs enough to give you a workout when shooting handheld. It's size and weight make it a very difficult lens to work with, but when it works well, it works outstandingly.
We live in a world where many people believe that great photography can simply come down to a great camera. Photography is constantly being devalued, and I was able to use the 200mm's size to leverage that belief into paying clients. Let me explain. I was in Albuquerque for a wedding, and while there, I had booked a couple headshot sessions for actors. My business of headshots is well established in Albuquerque, as I lived there until recently moving to Los Angeles. However, being there for a wedding left me often working in coffee shops, where I'd often bring this beast of a camera system along instead of leaving in the trunk of my rental car. Setting this camera and lens set up on a table as I built a proof gallery for my clients, garnered more attention that anything else I could have possibly done. This lens, in all of its size, generated a lot of conversations from people, asking why it's so large, what I'm shooting with it, and who the hell I was. I told them I was using it and size is because it was the world's best headshot lens, and I was in town from LA to shoot headshots for actors for the weekend. Believe it or not, this story, got me two additional clients while in town, who booked me for headshots, as their previous photographer certainly didn't have the gear I was using. While that may not justify the size for some people, I kind of liked making it a talking point, and garnering the interest from others around me.
While many could debate if the Canon 200mm f/2L IS is really the best headshot lens in the world, the lens certainly dominated its presence and made for an interesting conversation starter for my newly acquired clients. Somehow, I was able to leverage this lenses worst feature, its size and weight, into a positive, booking two clients in the process.
One thing I rarely did when shooting with the Canon 200mm f/2L IS this weekend was shoot with it wide open. As you could imagine, 200mm at f/2 could make for some overwhelmingly shallow depth of fields, making focus a challenge, especially when working with moving clients, and shooting handheld. Instead, I used this lens for its incredible sharpness. As you may know, lenses are generally their sharpest when stopped down 1-2 stops from their wide open settings. When shooting headshots for actors, sharpness is among the most important things to gain the attention of agents and casting directors. So by stopping this lens down to f/4, I was able to maintain an incredibly shallow depth of field, while having unmatched sharpness.
As the MTF charts put together by Roger Cicala show above, the Cannon 200mm f/2 IS is a bit sharper in the center at f/2 when compared to the Canon 200mm f/2.8L at f/2.8. However, when stopped down, the 200mm f/2 pulls ahead considerably in sharpness. In fact, the lens is often regarded as one of the sharpest lenses ever built on the EF platform.
While I don't want to bore you too much with talks about bokeh, it's certainly something I wanted to touch base on at least briefly. As mentioned earlier, I didn't shoot this lens wide open at f/2 for the majority of the time I was working with it, but I had to give it a shot at least for a brief moment. I found, that the depth of field, while shallow, worked really well at f/2. In a headshot framing, I found the depth of field to have a quick falloff, but maintained sharpness in the eyes and other details of the face. The quick falloff was able to provide a nice creamy bokeh to bring the attention back to the face. Below is a shot taken at f/2, and is uncropped to show the quick falloff.
The end result, was I didn't expect to really enjoy the Canon 200mm f/2L IS as much as I did. I had shot at 200mm before using my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, and thought I had a good understand on how great this focal length could be while still thinking I preferred an 85mm over this 200mm. While I don't plan on purchasing this lens for the insane price of $5,700, I will likely rent it again. With the sharpness of this lens, and the incredible compression 200mm can provide, I'm hard pressed to find another lens I'd rather be shooting with while outdoors photographing headshot sessions.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to take the eagerly anticipated Canon C300 Mark II out for a test shoot in downtown Memphis. Here are some of my initial impressions.
The original Canon C300 has always been one of my favorite products in our inventory. I do a lot of short documentary work, and the form factor of that camera lends itself beautifully to that style of shooting. With the side handle, top handle, and monitor unit attached, you have a really versatile and mobile setup without having to deal with a bunch of additional accessories. Luckily, Canon kept the design of the Canon C300 Mark II almost the same, save for some welcome improvements. A lot of these changes are things that I wouldn’t even have thought to ask for, but that lead to a more polished, professional-feeling product.
The top handle, for example, now connects to the camera with two heavy-duty Allen screws on either side of the body, as opposed to the original, which used a single ¼ 20 thumb screw. The DC input on the Mark II is also a step up. It’s now a LEMO connection, instead of the standard barrel on the Mark I. LEMO connections, for those of you who are unfamiliar, have locking mechanisms and are generally more durable and reliable than the barrel type connections you see on most other video cameras. The most significant design change, though, is in the cables that run from the monitor unit to the camera body. Rather than being attached to the monitor unit like they were on the Mark I, they’re now completely independent, so if anything goes wrong with the cables you can switch them out for spares rather than sending the whole monitor unit in for repair. I imagine Canon will also have longer cables available in the future, which would be handy for gimbal work. I could go on and on listing these minor but significant enhancements, but my overall point is this: Canon kept everything that was great about the build of the first Canon C300 and made it all just a little better.
The full specs are available on the Canon C300 Mark II’s product page, but I’ll hit the highlights here. First things first: you’ll be able to shoot internal 4K, both DCI (4096x2160) and Ultra HD (3840x2160) to CFast media. Though we’ve had some trouble with CFast in the past, it’s quickly becoming a standard and will only get cheaper and more reliable as time goes on. That internal 4K footage will be 10-bit 4:2:2 with a bit rate of 410Mbps using the XF-XAVC codec. The C300 will also record 12-bit RGB 4:4:4 footage in 2K/HD at up to 30p, which could come in very handy for green screen work if 4K isn’t necessary. Lastly, you’ll be able to output RAW to an external recorder such as the Odyssey 7Q while simultaneously recording 4K proxies to CFast media or HD proxies to SD cards. Most importantly, though, you’ll get an impressive 15 stops of dynamic range out of the sensor. This, combined with Canon’s new C-log 2 gamma setting, will allow for an exceptional amount of flexibility in post. I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you’re unfamiliar with grading C-log, there are plenty of resources online to get you started.
As far as frame rates go, you’re limited to 30p or below in 4K, unfortunately. If you need to go higher than that, the Mark II will shoot up to 60p in 2K with a full sensor scan and up to 120p with a 2X crop. This is going to be a sticking point for a lot of people, especially considering that Sony’s FS7 will do 60p in 4K at a significantly lower price point. What you don’t get at that price point, though, is Canon’s well-respected color science. Many people actually had similar complaints about the original C300, which had somewhat underwhelming frame rate options when it was released. It’s become an incredibly popular camera though, because the picture it produces is so impressive. I expect a similar reaction to the Canon C300 Mark II, but it would be really nice to have 60p as an option.
Surprisingly, the thing that impressed me most in my time with the Canon C300 Mark II had nothing to do with resolution, bit rate, or dynamic range. Digital video technology has improved so much in just the last few years that those specs, while enormously important, aren’t enough on their own to make me choose one camera over the other. There are simply so many great digital cinema cameras on the market right now that it takes a wholly original feature to make a camera stand out. In the case of the Canon C300 Mark II, that feature is autofocus. Sure, if possible, you’re always going to be better off with a dedicated focus puller. That’s not always an option, though, especially for solo operators like me who value mobility and speed over precision. On the documentary side of things, you can’t reset and try again if your focus is off, and that means having reliable continuous autofocus is invaluable. The Canon C300 Mark II takes the same dual-pixel autofocus technology from the Canon C100 Mark II and adds perks such as face tracking for non-STM lenses, variable speed and sensitivity settings, and autofocus-assisted manual focus, which helps you quickly confirm and adjust focus with manual lenses. I could honestly write a whole second post just about the autofocus performance of this camera, but I’ll leave it at this: it’s really impressive, and I think it makes the Canon C300 Mark II the best documentary camera we carry.
Below, is a quick cut I put together of some of the shots I got this weekend. Everything was recorded internally at 23.98, DCI 4K, 800 ISO, in C-Log 2 unless otherwise noted. Obviously none of these are scientific tests, but I think you can tell that Canon’s claim to 15 stops of dynamic range is pretty accurate. I actually found myself under exposing the first few shots of the day in an attempt to preserve my highlights because I’m used to working with closer to 12 stops. I could easily have opened up a stop without clipping the whites, but the 10-bit 4:2:2 footage grades easily enough that it didn’t end up being a problem. One thing I did notice, though, was a bit more noise in the shadows than I was expecting at native ISO. It’ll take some more testing to figure out what caused that, but here’s hoping it’s a solvable problem. For comparison, I included a graded cut as well, nothing too fancy, just a simple LUT and some exposure adjustments. Let me know what you think, and feel free to give us a call if you have any questions about the Canon C300 Mark II. Except for the annoying lack of 60p 4K, I think Canon really hit the nail on the head with this one, and I look forward to seeing what people do with it.
Yes, indeed, I learned my lesson. I've had MTFs on a few copies of the Canon 35mm f/1.4 Mk II lens for a while now, but I wasn't about to publish the results until I had a full 10-sample group done to get a thorough look at them.
If you don't like pretty graphs, then I'll give you the quick summary first: the new lens is significantly better than the original 35mm f/1.4, particularly in the edges and the corners. The difference is pretty significant and should be apparent in most photographs. That, of course, only tells you about the MTF. Others are already reviewing the lens and will comment on how it handles and focuses, what the bokeh and vignetting are like and whether that Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics makes all of the lateral color aberrations go away.
As an aside, for those of you who think Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics sounds like Canon has joined some of the other manufacturers in throwing out some marketing hyperbole, I agree with you. I'm not saying it doesn't work, I'm just saying throwing magic words at me without telling me what it is and how it works, well, color me Cynical Blue. They do give some hints about what Blue Spectrum Optics are in a few places. If I was to guess, and I'm just guessing, it's a new glass glue that refracts blue light and fills the space in a cemented group. I suspect it works really well. I suspect it would have worked just as well without the marketing department giving it a silly name and chanting spells over it.
As (almost) always, the MTF results we present are the average of 10 copies, each copy tested at 4 different rotations.
Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
The new Canon lens is clearly and definitely better than the very good lens it replaces, both on and off axis. It is also better, from an MTF standpoint, than the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4. When we look at the average MTF curves, it's a tiny bit better, even, than the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens, although the difference is small. The two lenses are very close with the Canon being slightly better off axis (14 to 20mm) at 10 and 20 line pairs frequency. Could you tell the difference in a photograph? I doubt it, they'd be nearly identical. Other things like vignetting, focus accuracy, out of focus highlights, cost, etc., would be much more important to you than this slight MTF difference.
Wide-angle, wide-aperture lenses tend to have some sample variation. That makes a difference, especially when we compare reviews of these lenses. The new Canon 35mm f/1.4 Mk II does pretty well compared to other wide angle lenses.
Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Remember, the consistency number is a very blunt tool. Look at the graphs, too, they give you much more information. The one thing I think stands out about the graphs with all of these lenses is we see some variation all the way to the "0" point of the charts. That means there's some variation in center sharpness, not just off-axis variation caused by a weak corner. But overall, both of the Canon lenses, as well as the Zeiss lens, have good consistency. The Sigma 35mm isn't quite as good, but still acceptable. I'm still puzzled about why that is -- the other Sigma Art series lenses tend to be extremely consistent.
My only real message here is that particularly when comparing MTF between the Canon 35mm f/1.4 Mk II to the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art, trying to split hairs and finding a difference between them is pretty silly. There's probably as much difference between two copies of the Canon, or two copies of the Sigma, as there is between the Canon and Sigma overall. Either of those, from purely and MTF standpoint, is certainly better than the original Canon 35mm f/1.4 and even a bit better than the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4.
Again, that's from an MTF standpoint. There's a lot more to a lens than its MTF, but this is the one bit of information I can give that isn't readily available elsewhere.
Everyone always asks me if I would buy this lens. Honestly, I'm not sure that I would just on the basis of the MTF charts. It's the best 35mm by just a whisker over the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, but at nearly twice the price. As more reviewers weigh in there may well show other things that make it worth the price difference. A lot of people only consider Canon lenses, though, and I expect many of them will be upgrading from the Canon 35mm f/1.4 for the increased resolution the new lens gives them.
In the last few years, the price of renting a helicopter has decreased dramatically. Coupled with the advent of DSLRs that perform very well in low light, this has created a wonderful opportunity for photographers to charter helicopters in numbers never seen before. Over the past two years, I've spent a ridiculous amount of time in helicopters as I put together my book LA AIRSPACE, which documents the city of Los Angeles from above. I've learned quite a few things in the process and wanted to share the knowledge I've gained of equipment and technique so that you're prepared when the time comes for you to take to the skies with camera in hand.
While the price of these flights has dropped drastically in recent years (helicopter time can be had for as low as $300-$350 per hour for a Robinson R22 - absolutely sufficient for aerial photography), it can still add up to a significant chunk of change when you're trying to make the perfect shot happen. In order to maximize the time spent in the air, I'll let you learn from my mistakes and make sure that you're well equipped to get the most bang for your buck.
Before going up in a helicopter, it's best to have a very solid plan dialed in. I study Google maps extensively and plan the targets that I want to shoot and will bring a print-out or send an email to the pilot ahead of time so he can prepare. It's best to let the pilot do the planning and routing to get from point A to point B, especially in congested airspace like LA or NYC. You'll also want to get on the phone with your pilot ahead of time and make sure that you're even allowed to overfly certain areas, as TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) can be in place over events, residential areas, diplomatic or presidential visits, etc. Plus, you definitely don't want angry air traffic controllers talking to you once you've already paid a fortune to get up in the sky! Most FBOs (fixed base operator, or the company that you're chartering with) charge a small fee for consultations and route planning that is well worth the cost.
You're also going to need to let the pilot know that you're conducting a photo flight. This means flying without a door. Yes, that is right - for photo flights, you'll want to remove the door(s) from the helicopter so that you're able to shoot without obstruction. It's safe to say that I hope you don't have a fear of heights! As a result of being doorless, you'll be strapped into the helicopter with a five-point harness of some point to prevent an accidental unbuckling of the seatbelt, which would result in a long, possibly painful, fall.
With the door wide open, you need to have everything securely fastened to your body or harness to prevent anything from falling out. Any object falling from a helicopter could be potentially fatal or open you and the operator up to a slew of lawsuits, so this is no joke. Phones need to be away, lens caps and hoods need to be removed and left on the ground, and straps need to be looped through the harness or around your neck. I personally prefer looping them through the harness as this leaves me free to let them dangle and not worry about messing up my neck with the dead weight of a 70-200 on it.
I also recommend taking two camera bodies - since switching lenses in a tiny, confined space while moving at 100mph and vibrating helplessly is asking for trouble (plus who knows what kind of stuff gets invited or blown onto your sensor with that kind of wind). This will allow you to cover a wide range of focal lengths without having to waste time switching lenses, and of course you'll be covered in case of a camera or lens failure, which is a very real possibility as helicopters are incredibly hostile environments for cameras to be in, as they're being constantly bumped, dinged, scratched and blown around as you switch camera bodies, reach out the door to get the shot, and zoom in and out super fast to track and follow scenes in front of you.
First of all, unless you're dropping thousands of dollars an hour on a high-end jet helicopter, you're going to be in a tight space. If it's your first time flying, you'll probably be a bit surprised at just how tiny and bare the interiors of these things are. For that reason, I try to use the smallest bodies and lenses possible. I take off any battery grips, hoods, L-brackets or hotshoe mounted accessories ahead of time. All that stuff is just going to get in the way and serves no real purpose inside a helicopter, so ditch it! One battery will be sufficient for any flight unless you plan on recording video from takeoff to landing an hour later. I've never even come close to depleting a battery in one flight, and I can shoot over 2,000 photos over a 90-minute hop.
As I'm a Canon shooter, I personally use the 70-200L 2.8 IS II and the Canon 24-70 F4 IS. Some sort of image stabilization is a must, as the micro-vibrations inside a helicopter are rather intense. A little bit of image stabilization helps to smooth things out and will give you more keepers than without, especially later during in the day as light falls.
Some may question the choice of the 24-70 F4 over the 2.8 version, but the weight and size is much better in my opinion for the tight confines of a helicopter, plus the image stabilization, as I said, helps to improve the keeper rate towards the end of the day. I'll usually try to keep this wider lens above 1/800th of a second - something like f7.1, ISO 100-400, 1/800th of a second is a good starting point during daylight hours. The weight and size savings compared to the 2.8 are very substantial, and make a big difference in such a tight space.
As far as the 70-200 goes, at longer focal lengths in a helicopter, the vibrations can get VERY intense, especially when moving at a high rate of speed. You'll want to keep the shutter speed as high as you can when shooting at the long end of this lens - I try to never go below 1/1250th of a second, and I always keep the IS on. Some basic starting settings that I use are 1/1600th of a second, f4, ISO 200 or 320, depending on conditions.
Another note with that 70-200 - BE CAREFUL! It may not appear that you are moving at a ground speed over 100kts, but if you stick that long lens barrel out the wide open door as you're moving, you're going to get a bloody forehead as the wind grabs it and throws it right back in your face. Take it from me - it's happened that I've received a hot-shoe shaped cut above my eye on more than one occasion. Always take a look at the airspeed indicator before leaning out the door to get the shot with a tele lens on. You'll see exactly what I mean once you take a flight and see a tempting shot down below.
As far as cameras go, like I said, I'm a Canon guy, so I personally use a pair of Canon 5d Mark IIIs or a Canon 6d and 5d Mark III combination (I find the 6d marginally better in low light, so will grab it if I know it's going to be a later flight). I recommend any camera that has a decent burst speed, as you'll definitely be wanting it, especially on the telephoto end of things, since the scene can change so quickly while you're circling above. I've also used a Pentax 645z, which opens a whole other can of worms as far as equipment is concerned.
When shooting medium format from a helicopter, you'll want to use a gyroscopic stabilizer such as a Kenyon 4x4 or Kenyon KS6 due to the increased megapixel count and stabilization required to get a sharp shot on these systems. These stabilizers will add significant weight and volume to your setup, and as a result, will really slow you down. In addition, medium format cameras are usually a fair bit slower than DSLRs, so using them for aerials requires even more planning and anticipation than usual. Gyros can also be quite odd to use at first, as they aren't very intuitive. If you're going to fly, make sure you practice shooting from a moving car or boat before you take it up in the sky. It will behave in ways you didn't think were physically possible, but the results can be absolutely breathtaking.
I have found that for most still camera uses, the KS6 is sufficient, but for video you will definitely need the 4x4 to get smooth enough footage. When using a gyro, you'll be able to get some incredible results at slower shutter speeds - for example, this image was shot at 400mm and 1/250th of a second and is tack sharp, all while hanging out the side of a helicopter. Very impressive, even for handholding a 400mm lens on the ground!
Alright, all that tech stuff out of the way! I've found that the best images are those that are backlit, which gives an incredible depth and texture to the landscape. The best time of day to get this effect is the golden hours, either right after sunrise or right before sunset. Don't be afraid to shoot right into the sun! It's really easy to get a very flat scene when shooting in broad daylight, but that might be more your style if you're into vivid colors and contrast. I just love the depth and textures that I get when shooting later and earlier in the day. I try to takeoff about 90 minutes or 2 hours before sunset, and time it so that we land right at sunset to maximize the great light that this time of day offers.
Another thing to keep in mind is that most of my favorite images have occurred while traveling to and from my primary photo targets, and are not the 'money shots' that I had envisioned at all. Little slices of life, unexpected quirks of cities, and architectural details can all be extremely interesting when shot from above. I always keep an eye in the camera no matter what, and try to pick up on patterns and abstract forms that pass quickly by below - another great time to have a fast camera that will allow a rapid burst of images in sequence.
Don't be afraid to bump that ISO, either, especially if the light is falling. A sharp but grainy image is always going to be better than a blurry, clean image, especially with the noise reduction technologies in cameras and processing software out there today. Even if you're slightly underexposed but still sharp, it's much better than having a properly exposed, but blurry, image!
Lastly, remember to take a deep breath and remember that you're experiencing something that only a handful of people in the world will get to experience. It's always fun to just sit back, relax and take it all in if you've finished shooting your primary targets for the day or the light has gotten too low for shooting. There's not much better than flying over the gridlock traffic of a major city in a helicopter, so don't forget to enjoy it if you get the chance.
I've written about glass, as in lenses, for years now. But I've never looked into the history of glass as just a substance, because, well, who cared? When I accidentally did some reading about early glass, though, I was rather amazed at just how important it was. So I thought I'd write about the history of glass from around the beginning of time, up until when we started using it to make awesome lenses.
A strong argument can be made that the most important advances humanity ever made are fire, stone tools, the wheel, metalworking, the domestication of animals, and glass production. I know what you're thinking and I agree; the wheel isn't as important as the other 5. If you're interested, read along and I'll show you why making glass, drinking wine, and having bad vision are the three pillars that led to the development of science and Western civilization. Even if you don't think you're interested, read along. Glass is actually way more awesome than you think.
Once in a while a product will come out that looks so fun everyone wants to try it. I never knew I wanted to try light painting until I saw this video for the Pixelstick, and it took several tries before I could pry it out of the hands of my coworkers.
The Pixelstick LED Lightpainting Tool is an aluminum stick with 200 programmable led lights used for light painting in long exposures or time lapse. The user can choose between several programmed patterns or download original images onto a sd card and insert them directly into the pixel stick. There are some specific image requirements; the Pixelstick can read 24-bit BMP images, 200px in height, turned 90° counter-clockwise. If you don’t have photo editing software that can make these changes Pixelstick has provided an online link to drag and drop your own files to be quickly converted to the appropriate format.
There are menu adjustments on the stick for brightness and speed, which can be balanced with the environment and speed of the Pixelstick motion. If you are working by yourself you will want to use a wireless remote and of course, a tripod.
The Pixelstick isn't exactly high powered, but I was able to use it as a light source for an interesting effect on my 1994 Geo Tracker.
I'm not sure what a "serious" application would be for the Pixelstick, so I basically started using it as a coloring tool...
...and a portal through time and space...
The Pixelstick is also really great for seamlessly adding images into a long exposure. For example, this image of Chuck Norris hanging out by the Mississippi River...realistic, no? Okay maybe I struggled a bit with that one, but it gave me a good laugh.
My only gripe about the Pixelstick is the build quality. It's clear that this is a simple and cheaply made product. Multiple times during use I had to stop and tighten a knob here, or pick up a fallen piece there. The handle itself was not very secure which left me worried I would accidentally fling the whole stick into the air. This is not the type of product, though, that needs to take much abuse so it didn’t worry me too much.
A really fun tool that opens up your creativity when shooting at night.
Works as advertised, and once figured out, pretty easy to use.
Build quality is subpar. The plastic body feels a little flimsy for the price.
Expensive. At $350 to buy, the system feels cheaply made.
This is a tool that is fun to play with and can give cool effects for portraiture and timelapse. If you are looking for something to spice up your relationship with photography this will do it. Is it something I would purchase? Probably not, but I will definitely use it again in the future. If you want to try the Pixelstick out for yourself, it's available for rental at our store for as low as $3 a day.
For years now, I've been telling people to always take the results of tests done on one copy of a lens with a serious grain of salt. Not matter how carefully it was tested, it's still just one copy. Others will be worse. Others will be better.
Because I'm so aware of copy variation, I (in theory at least) test at least 10 copies of a lens and average those results before I present them. I do that because it gives a much better idea of what the average copy will be like.
Sometimes, though, it seems the true purpose of my life is to serve as a warning to others. I just can't pass up an opportunity, don't listen to myself, give in to temptation, and test just one copy of a lens. I justify it to myself because sometimes one copy is all I'm going to get, at least for a good while.
So today I'm going to use myself as an example of why testing one copy of a lens is just a bad idea. While doing so I'll eat some crow and also apologize to Sigma. Because a few weeks ago I published the MTF charts on one copy of the Sigma 24-35 f/2 DG HSM Art zoom that I was loaned for a day and published the results. After that Lensrentals got multiple copies in stock and I did my usual testing of 10 copies. It is very apparent that that first copy was the worst of the bunch. The other copies, each and every one, were better.
Sigma 24-35 f/2.0 MTF
I'm going to put our original results from one single copy we tested earlier on the left, the average of 10 other copies on the right, so that you can see how different the average results are compared to the original single test lens.
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Again, I want to emphasize that the MTF charts on the right are our official average results from testing 10 copies of the lens. I just put the original single test lens results on the left up so you can see the difference.
This gives an excellent example of why single-lens test results can be deceiving. If you notice, the single lens had excellent center resolution, a bit better than average. But off-axis (away from center) the test lens had a LOT of astigmatism, much worse than the average lens. In fact, it was worse than any of the 10 copies we ran for this test.
The average MTF curves for the Sigma zoom actually do (as Sigma claims) compare very well with prime lenses. Below are comparisons between the Sigma 24-35 f/2 and the Canon 24mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/2 IS lenses. The zoom is certainly right there with the two Canon primes.
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Now that we have our 10-copy testing done we can generate consistency numbers and variation graphs for the Sigma lens. These are really quite good, comparing very favorably to what we saw from Canon and Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 zooms.
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Looking at the results of the Sigma zoom now that we have tested a number of copies, it's very obvious Sigma has done it again. They've broken new ground and made a zoom that is a full stop wider than other zooms, yet is optically on a par with similar aperture prime lenses. And they've maintained excellent copy-to-copy consistency while doing it. Superbly done, yet again, Sigma.
Roger Cicala, Brandon Dube and Aaron Closz
Addendum: I know many of you want to know if I have an explanation as to why the first lens was the worst lens. I can't say for certain, it was loaned to us for just one day, but I would guess that it may have gotten knocked around during use or shipping. The problem it had was subtle. Center resolution was still excellent and there were no clear signs of decentering (we checked carefully on some pretty expensive equipment as well as the usual test targets). It's a good example of why it's so difficult to decide, using just one copy, if a lens is as good as it can be or not. Even out of sorts, the Sigma was still excellent, about as good as we'd expect an excellent zoom to be. It just wasn't as good as the other copies, which are better than we expect an excellent zoom to be.
The amazing low-light performance and ability to shoot in 4k has made the Sony a7S a definite favorite for our customers and the LensRentals team. We have been very excited over the release of the a7R II with new features such as 5-axis in-body image stabilization, a 42.4MP back-illuminated full-frame sensor, and in camera 4k. A few weeks ago we showed you how the a7RII performs with stills in Sony a7RII: A Brief Review. This time we have taken the camera in the field to do some video comparisons with the Sony a7S.
It is no surprise that Sony a7S still holds the title for best low light performance and it really blows the Sony a7RII out of the water at super high ISO. Still, the increase in megapixels countered with the new back-illuminated sensor on the Sony a7RII makes for a great balance and solid option for low light shooting.
'While the Sony a7S allowed 4k video capture that was limited to an external recorder, the Sony a7RII can record internal UHD 4k video at 24 / 30fps. You have the choice of capturing using either the full-frame sensor format, or you can use the Super 35 (APS-C) format which uses oversampling with full pixel readout and no pixel binning. The advanced AF system is fully operational in video capture and timecode enables multi-camera syncing. Internal 4k video is recorded in 8-bit 4:2:0, while the clean HDMI outputs 4:2:2 uncompressed. To round out the pro-grade video features is the inclusion of the S-Log2 Gamma Curve.' LensRentals.com
One frustrating fallback of the Sony A7S is the pronounced rolling shutter. The Sony a7R II improves on this in its full-frame modes, but there is, unfortunately, no noticeable improvement in S35 mode.
The new 5-axis IBIS offers up to 4.5 stops of correction including angular shake (pitch and yaw), shift shake (X and Y axes), and rotational shake (roll). This is a huge bonus for both video and stills shooters using lenses without stabilization, especially for telephoto lengths.
The IBIS will automatically adjust to the focal length of the Sony lens you are using but will default to 8mm on third party lenses like the Rokinon 135mm allowing you to choose the focal length you are using in the menu to optimize stabilization.
When using a Sony lens with OSS the lens stabilization it will gray out the camera stabilization menu even when the lens OSS is turned off. According to DPReview the stabilizers work in tandem, just not independent of the other.
The Sony a7R II is seriously impressive. I still love the lean and light Sony a7S with an unreal low light capability, but it is clear that the Sony a7R II can go places the Sony a7S cannot. Shooting telephoto handheld and need it in 4k? You know what you'll go for.
Buying gear within the used market can be a great way to save money. However, you can also be left with a lemon, and no way to return your soft lens or broken gear. Since we work with thousands of pieces of gear on a daily basis, I figured it was time to discuss the many tips you can use to look out for when purchasing gear on a used market.
This is also a great time to talk briefly about a few programs we have to sell used gear through our own rental channels. First, I'd like to quickly mention our keeper program. If you've rented from us before, you've probably figured out how the keeper program works for a renter. To put it simply, if you rent a piece of gear from us, and can't possibly fathom returning the piece of gear, you can purchase it from us without ever needing to send it back. With our Keeper program, we find the fair market used price for the gear you have, and then remove the rental costs you've already applied to the gear, giving you an exceptional price for the gear you already have within your possession.
The other service we have is through our sister site, LensAuthority. LensAuthority is the storefront where we often sell our gear after it has passed its rental cycle. the gear is cleaned and inspected, then given a rating and price through our LensAuthority marketplace. Because we have no ties with companies directly and work purely as a rental house, we have no allegiances to different brands or pieces of gear. So you can ensure that the prices and rating on LensAuthority are accurate and fair for the pieces of gear.
Lenses are likely the most common thing you will find when searching the used market for photography and videography gear. One of the many benefits to selling used lenses is that they maintain their value for an incredibly long time, especially when comparing them to camera bodies. Often, major manufacturers will update a lens design once every 10-15 years, so if the gear is well maintained it's pricing will likely not fall quickly. Though the pricing of these lenses rarely fall over time, the quality often will. As discussed frequently in our technical articles, lenses will begin to lose sharpness over their use, and will need to be serviced to prevent back or front focusing issues. However, here are a few tips to keep in mind when purchasing a lens from the used market.
What a date code is, is simply a serial code used to identify when the lens was manufactured. Without going too far into detail with this, the older the date code, the more likely you'll have issues with sharpness, chromatic aberrations and other issues that can develop over time. While finding the date code, and reading it is not a difficult task, it would be complicated to explain it in detail here for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma and other brands (or to do it without having people fall asleep). So, as a result, I've included links explaining how to do this with each individual brands of gear, for your reference.
While we've proven it time and time again, dust inside the lens rarely has an effect on the image quality of the lens. That said, cosmetic damage can show signs of improper use and general mishandling of the lens. However, if you're confident on the visual damage doing no harm to the image quality, it's a great way to pick up a used lens on the cheap. Heck, my Canon 135mm f/2L looks used and abused, which allowed me to get an otherwise perfect lens for about 60% of the used price - simply because the filter ring was a little scratched up. However, one alarming problem you may face when purchasing used gear is unsmooth focusing from dirt and sand inside the focusing barrel. The build up of sand and dirt in the internal moving parts of your lens can begin doing damage to your lens over time, and would want to be serviced before long.
Perhaps the largest problem you can face when buying used gear is improper focusing with an older lens. Generally, these problems in accuracy occur over the life of the lens, and can often be calibrated through the respected manufacturers, and sometimes, on your own camera using micro adjustments.
Warranty Cards & Boxes
A common practice among photographers is to hold on to the warranty cards and boxes for their lenses, so when it comes time to sell, they can include that in the package. Often, with a warranty card in place, you're still able to take advantage of the manufacturers warranty if something was to go wrong. While this practice and warranty lengths vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, having the box and warranty cards help safeguard the buyer from any unforeseeable problems with the equipment.
For my personal use, I love scratches and dust. Minor ones almost never (say, 99.9%) affect image quality and operation, but lower the price significantly. I fear dents, though. Dents usually mean an impact and a lens is like a shipping box full of crystals: the impact may mess stuff up inside. It depends a lot on which lens, in specific you are considering. The original Canon 24-70 f/2.8 lens, for example, very often decenters when an impact sufficient to dent the front filter ring occurs. Many supertelephotos can look like they've been hammered and still function fine. But a dent generally means look at the optics carefully.
I'm very careful to check the mechanicals on any used lens I'm considering. If a barrel zooms out, make sure it doesn't rock back and forth significantly. Make sure the mount fits well and the lens can't rock back and fort (a bit of rotation is fine). The zoom and focus rings should operate smoothly. The focus motors shouldn't squeal (nor should the focusing ring when turned manually). Image Stabilizing units are different in different lenses. Some are fairly loud and seem to jerk the image in the viewfinder when they are perfectly fine. In a different lens this may be a sign of failure. So it really helps to have handled a lens of the type you're buying, or at least be able to talk with someone who uses it.
Optical quality is probably what causes people more stress than anything else. I do recommend taking a few 'brick wall' shots at various focus lengths (for a zoom) and focusing distances (for any lens). Just see if the corners appear equally sharp. Then take some pictures and see if they seem OK.
As has been repeated so many times on forums, though, if you take hand held shots with a wide angle, wide-aperture lens and a corner is soft, it's your technique. Checking those does require a tripod and being absolutely square to the target. And if you check a lens using autofocus and it's fine, well, that's fine. But if it's not fine, the problem is with focus until proven otherwise. Live-view manual focusing is the only accurate way to test a lens' optics.
Perhaps the biggest way to save money in photography is to buy your camera bodies on a used market. Because of the frequent release cycle of new cameras, camera bodies will often lose their value much faster than lenses or other pieces of gear. Alongside the frequent updates of new bodies, cameras will often lose their value faster than lenses, because they have more moveable parts, which leads to higher chance of failure. Shutters on all cameras have a timeline, and if used long enough, will fail eventually. These variables will eventually bring the price of a camera down, and lead to more risk when purchasing used. When buying a camera body on the used market, here was some things to look out for.
As mentioned above, all shutters will fail over time. Many shutters a rated for 100K to 500K shutter clicks before they fail, a number that can easily outlast, or succumb to. However, there is no real way to detect when a shutter is going to fail (unless of course it's making weird noises, or you're able to literally watch to start to come apart). That said, you can often look up the shutter count using various programs and you'll want to double check the shutter count prior to purchasing any camera body used.
Checking the Sensor
Certainly giving a full comprehensive test of the sensor may not be a viable option, but checking it for any damage can easily be done by locking the mirror up on the body, and looking at the sensor at different angles. Dust and dirt can easily be removed with a simple cleaning, but if cleaning was not done properly, damage could have been done to the sensor. The most obvious to detect is scratched on the surface. While uncommon for most cameras, this check can be done visually and in just a few seconds. It's important to double check the sensor prior to purchasing your used camera body.
With cameras, they generally either work or they don't. BUT I do recommend checking every I/O port on the camera. You may never use the HDMI port, etc., but if they are broken or not functioning, on most cameras, the entire main board will have to be replaced. I'd also always do an f/16 sky shot to look for sensor scratches (dust is no big deal). On a full-frame camera a sensor replacement will often be over $1,000. It makes a shutter replacement seem inexpensive.
These are just a few tips to help ensure a good buy when searching the used market. That said, there is no guarantee that you'll get perfectly good gear when buying equipment, both used or new. If you're worried about quality, I again recommend either taking advantage of our Keeper program or looking through our sister site at LensAuthority.com. No gear is more rigorously tested and cleaned as often as our own stock, and it is one way to promise the highest quality of gear when buying used.
When the Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6 IS L Mk II lens was first released we immediately did some testing. First we took one apart and were extremely impressed with the build quality. Then we compared it using Imatest to the original Canon 100-400 IS L and the new Canon 400mm DO L IS Mk II lenses at 400mm. I was impressed with the Imatest results too, but wanted more. Imatest, like all computerized target analysis tests the lenses at fairly close range and I wanted to see how these did at infinity, not to mention how it tested at other focal lengths.
But testing isn't my primary purpose in life, and testing 400mm lenses on our optical bench is really difficult, so it didn't get done. Until last week, finally. My expectations were pretty high for this lens, but the test results easily exceeded them. I don't shoot with this kind of zoom, but I sure do appreciate good optics and good engineering.
I'll keep this brief. First, here are the MTF and copy-to-copy variation charts. These are from testing 10 copies of the lens on our Trioptics Imagemaster optical bench.
Brandon Dube and Roger Cicala, Lensrentals.com, 2015 I put Brandon's name first because to be honest, I would NEVER have had the patience to do this test.
Both the MTF and Consistency scores are just outstanding. The 100-400 has some of the highest consistency scores of any zoom lens we've ever tested. It waxes the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II lens, for example, having far less copy-to-copy variation.
To give you an idea of just how excellent the MTF is on this lens, I'll put the MTF of the 100-400 IS Mk II side-by-side with the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II lens. Now remember, the 100-400 has the advantage of being shot at f/5 here. The 70-200 f/2.8 would have better MTF curves stopped down. The point here is that the 100-400, while not able to compete in aperture with the 70-200, certainly does compete in resolution. And the 70-200 IS II is one of the sharpest zooms made.
Roger Cicala and Brandon Dube, Lensrentals.com, 2015. And yes, things go back in proper order now.
I won't go into a long, drawn-out monologue telling you what you can already see for yourself. The new Canon 100-400 IS II is optically superb.