OK, here we go again, with what has become a regular routine. Sigma announced another new lens doing what nobody has been able to do before. My expert friends, technical people I ask questions of, all say, "I don't know this time. I just don't see how they can pull this one off. Not at that price point. When are you going to test it?"
And then I test it, and tell everyone Sigma has done it again. (That groan you just heard is the blog editor who HATES when I don't build up suspense and make you read to the end.) And yes, I realize I'm starting to be called a Sigma Fanboy. But that's kind of like shooting the messenger, isn't it? I'm just putting the lenses on the machine and writing up the results.
Let's face it, Sigma is just hitting one home run after another. I don't really have any use for a 20mm f/1.4 lens myself and I'll never buy one. But I'm a geek and there's nothing cooler to me than a company who likes doing stuff nobody has ever done before, and then does it better than anyone believes possible. So, OK, maybe I am becoming a Fanboy.
Anyway, let me show you what Sigma has accomplished as far as making a f/1.4 lens wider than any other SLR manufacturer has been able to do. Before you minimize the difference between a 24mm f/1.4 and a 20mm f/1.4, let's just mention that's a really big difference. So my expectations going in were that the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM A1, even if it was great, wouldn't be quite as good as either the Canon or Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lenses.
As always - we are showing the average of 10 copies of each lens, each copy shot at 4 rotations to give a complete cross-section of the field of view of the lens.
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
The bottom line here is pretty obvious. Despite being a wider field of view, the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 clearly has a higher resolution than either the Canon or Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lenses do in the center half of the image, and are at least the equal of the others in the outer half. That's just flat amazing. Even more amazing to those of us who have in the past shot the old Sigma 20mm f/1.8 lens, which could be charitably described as 'artistic', but never described as sharp.
Of course we checked the variation between copies, too. Again, given the wider field of view I wasn't going to be surprised at a lot of variation between copies. We always expect wider lenses to vary more than standard range.
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
The variance plots for the Sigma look decent, certainly as good as the Nikon although perhaps not quite as consistent as the Canon. Still, I think it's an excellent performance for a lens that's significantly wider than the two we are comparing it to. Not to mention significantly less expensive.
With a wide-angle, wide-aperture prime lens, MTF is probably not the main consideration in whether you buy the lens or not. Theses lenses are used for different things by different photographers and bokeh, handling, vignetting, and dozens of other things I don't test for will make a bigger difference in whether you like the lens, rather than simply how sharp it is.
Everyone's first comment seems to be, "Well, I don't need a 20mm f/1.4 lens". I said that myself. But then I realized, well, I've never had the opportunity to use a sharp 20mm f/1.4 lens before, because there's never been one . Will I like it? I have no idea. But I think I'll at least check it out, it might be fun. Especially at this price point.
But the geek in me, at least, is totally impressed. Wider, faster, sharper, cheaper. What's not to be impressed by?
Automotive photography has reached a broader audience over the past several years with car enthusiasts on social media showing off tastefully modified cars. It seems car photographers are a dime a dozen nowadays, but the good ones have a certain style about their images that can be spotted a mile away. Many feel cars are difficult subjects to photograph, with their huge reflective panels of metal and plastic. However, cars really aren’t too difficult to photograph once you have the proper gear and mindset in place, which is what I'm hoping to help you with today.
I started photographing cars about 10 years ago when I first joined a Mitsubishi Evolution car group and decided to take photos of everyone's cars. At the time, the car forums were the only place to show off these images, so naturally I took to them to show everyone my photography. As more and more people appreciated the photos I decided to take things more seriously. The rest is history.
There are a couple things you want to keep in mind when photographing cars. The location is a big one, deciding whether you’ll be using strobes or natural light is another, and lastly, what gear you’ll be using is also incredibly important. Being prepared and understanding your clients needs is a top priority and will definitely make your life easier and your clients happy.
Location Location Location. Clients usually have a certain aesthetic they’re trying to keep. Some don’t like nature backgrounds, others don’t want flashy buildings in the background. Finding a good location is key. Scout locations, and more importantly, scout them around the time you’ll be shooting, or keep in mind where the sun will be at the time of your shoot. Most places are private property or government owned, so having a permit in every scenario would be amazing, but sometimes the budget doesn’t allow it. Shooting on empty roads is ideal, parking lots are great, but be ready for security to boot you within 15 minutes. I’ve probably been kicked out of around 100 spots over the last 10 years. While I don’t advise to use private property without permission, sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. Remember, being polite and courteous can get you a long way.
The majority of the time you can make a simple location look much better than it might seem, but remember that the images are about the car. The client's number one concern is that the vehicle is getting the attention is deserves. Knowing which angles to capture body lines will bring out the car and make it pop.
I’ve been a Canon shooter since the beginning. I remember shooting with my first Canon Digital Rebel XT since then I’ve always stuck with Canon. With that being said, my current workhorse is a Canon 5D Mark III, however, a Nikon D800/D810 or Sony a7RII would be more than capable of producing the same images. Automotive photography gives you the freedom of shooting many different angles at varying focal lengths. For the past couple years, I’ve really enjoyed the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II. The sharpness it gives you is amazing, and when you can play with it’s shallow depth of field it gives you some really pretty images. If you want to open up that aperture and still use some strobes, you’ll need a Neutral Density Filter, Circular Polarizer, or both. I’ve found myself stacking filters to open up to 1.2 or 1.4.
One of the most technical aspects of shooting automotive comes when you add strobes into the mix. I’ve shot with AlienBees for the past 7 years and have found them easy to shoot with and reliable. My kit usually consists of my AlienBee B1600 and 2 AlienBee B800’s. I’ve heard of many different ways to light up a car, however, the majority of car photographers I know use the bare bulb as opposed to soft boxes or whatnot. The bare bulb gives you a nice contrasty light with a small white highlight in the reflection that makes it easy to take out in post production. I can't even count the number of times I’ve been asked how many lights I use on my car shoots. I’ve seen car shoots done with 1 strobe, walking it around the car with several exposures and compositing them all in post production.
Personally I always shoot full body car shots with 3 strobes, covering every car panel with light. Placing one in the front, side and back usually has you covered. You can play around with the positioning of the lights, however as long as you have light all over the car you should be fine. I’ve shot for several different wheel manufacturers and getting light on the wheels is very important, keep in mind what you’re trying to have the viewers eyes attracted to.
Going wide in your focal length can really bring the car front and center. When going with wider shots I usually stick with my trusty Canon 35mm f/1.4L, you really can’t go wrong with this lens as it produces beautiful vibrant images and a desirable focal length. I shoot primes as frequently as my projects allow me to.
By now, you’ve already decided if you’ll be doing a naturally lit shoot or a strobe shoot. If you’re shooting with strobes, make sure to give yourself extra time to change lighting between each shot. The luxury of shooting strobes should only come when you know you have a good amount of time to yourself. I love shooting sunrises, but shooting with strobes would put you in a considerable time crunch. Snapping off frames at different focal lengths and angles is key. You’ll notice light getting better and better until POW! you have the perfect lighting.
However, you can shoot a car at any time of day. Shooting mid-day with strobes and having the background slightly underexposed will give you a great sense of depth and really bring out your subject. Don’t think that just because you’re shooting at high noon that all your pictures will be crap. Obviously the color of the car makes a difference, but any color is capturable at any time of day. Personally I think darker color cars are more difficult to photograph, and I know other photographers would agree. Black cars are going to be your most difficult, as black has a tendency to eat up light, and is really reflective on an automobile, giving you hard to control light mixed with hotspots. Bringing out the body lines on a black car is key as the darkness of the car swallows up any available light, even artificial light (strobes).
Focusing on different angles of the car is also important, no one want’s to see the same thing over and over. Make sure you’re capturing what your client is selling. If it’s wheels, then focus on the wheels, if it’s a front lip and grille, then make sure you’re shooting the hell out of the front of the car. Keeping the client happy should be your number one concern.
Creative shots will always keep people's attention, in today’s day and age it’s important to grab a person's eye off that Instagram or other social media feed. It’s important to capture a car from angles that are interesting, so always snap some shots from an angle that an average person doesn’t usually get. You want to get down by the ground or up on something high. There are other ways to spice up a photo as well, interesting backgrounds, and creative lighting can help show off the vehicle creatively.
One of the more creative ways to get a great night shot is to light paint. It gives your photos a surreal look and depending on your light source, you’ll have some really even lighting. Most of my light paintings consist of a base image for the background and about 3-5 photos for the different panels of the car, which were lit independently. The light source is important, and I’ve tried the following: 4 foot fluorescent light tube, modeling light on AlienBees strobe, and a dimmable 198 LED video light (the type that go on top of a DSLR). I’d say the LED video light was the easiest and gave me the best light, it being dimmable was nice as well. I’ve heard amazing things about the Westcott Ice Light, but have never used one personally.
The most important part about light painting is your location being dark enough to drag that shutter long enough to walk around a panel of the car. If your location is bright or has a lot of light spill hitting the car, your camera will catch it and it’ll be more time in post production removing them. I’ve found 5-8 seconds being my sweet spot. You’ll obviously need to get an exposure for the background as well. Keep in mind the long hours in post production you’ll be taking per photo to composite your best shots together.
Before I chose a life of safety and stability as a Video Technician at LensRentals, I was a Production, Locations, and Camera Assistant in Wilmington, North Carolina. For the most part, people know Wilmington and the surrounding area as the setting for countless Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but local crews have been shooting movies there since Screen Gems built sound stages in 1985. Some of the stuff I worked on in the three years I lived there included Eastbound and Down, The Conjuring, and Iron Man 3 (for one day on Second Unit but who's counting?). I also worked on some deservedly less well-known films - A Smile as Big as the Moon and Arthur Newman come to mind - and a couple dozen commercials. The long hours and lack of job security ended up forcing me to make a career change, but I learned lessons on all of those sets that I think are applicable to any production. Your micro-budget film probably doesn’t entail hundreds of extras, a small army of crew members, or trailers full of impatient actors, but there are steps you can take to make your set a more pleasant and professional place to be, and I think these three are a good place to start.
Those of you who’ve worked in the film industry are probably familiar with Sarah Jones. She was an experienced Camera Assistant in the Atlanta area who was struck by a train and killed on the set of Midnight Rider in 2014. While I didn’t know her well, I worked with Sarah on a handful of occasions and never heard anything but praise from people that were close to her. There is a detailed report about the incident here, but even with director Randall Miller serving a two-year manslaughter sentence it’s difficult to pin down who was at fault. This much is clear: leading members of the crew including the Director, Unit Production Manager, and Locations Manager, were aware that they were denied permission to film on a narrow bridge. They sent about a dozen crew members onto the bridge anyway, leaving them with no time or room to get off the tracks when a train arrived unexpectedly.
Obviously this is an extreme case (Miller is the first director ever to face a felony conviction for an on-set death), but the lesson is clear: Don’t put your cast or crew in danger to get a shot. If you’re going to be on train tracks, get a permit. If you’re going to be working with prop guns, make sure the police know. If you’re going to be driving, make sure everyone knows where the car is going and when. Taking precautions like these will keep everyone safe and make your set feel professional regardless of how much money you’re spending. If anything good came out of Sarah Jones’ death, though, it’s a precedent for ensuring that these kinds of concerns are addressed before anyone starts working. Film crews all over the country have taken to calling the first shot of the day “The Jonesy” in Jones’ honor. The idea is to have everyone on set discuss safety concerns, make sure permits are in place, and get everyone on the same page before shooting a frame. You’ll never regret taking the time to do this, and a safe crew can work that much more efficiently.
I got screamed at on my first Production Assistant job for not having a pen on me the first day I showed up to set. Later, when I asked a friend why they took things like that so seriously, he explained the intensity of the work environment in a way that really stuck with me. “Say you’re working on a 100-million dollar movie. Over thirty shooting days, that’s about 3.3 million a day. If you’re working 15 hour days, that means you’re spending about $220,000 an hour. That’s $3,700 a minute. No one has time to for you to run to your car and grab a pen. Save the production one second a day and you’re doing your job.” I’ve never worked with that kind of pressure, but the math works for any budget. Being on set is expensive and any time taken searching for basic supplies instead of shooting can add up quickly. If you get caught without a tool you need and have to waste time to borrow or buy it, then you’re going to look like an amateur. If that shoulder-mount your camera operator brought needs an Allen key that you just happen to have in your kit, you’re going to look like a genius.
Image provided by photospace Denver. Used with Permission
The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to just buy a big duffel bag and fill it with everything you think you’ll need. Inevitably you’ll forget something, but when that happens you just buy whatever you’re missing and toss it in the bag with everything else. Make that bag the first thing you pack when you’re getting ready for a shoot and you’ll eventually be ready for any situation. Here are a few of the basics I keep in mine: pens, pencils, Sharpies, gaffer’s tape, electrical tape, painter’s tape, work gloves, extension cords, Allen key sets, multiple sizes of Phillips and flat head screwdrivers, a lens cleaning kit, a level, zip ties, a multitool, a headlamp, a first aid kit, and just about every type of disposable battery known to man.
Your kit will vary depending on the type of work you do, but having one and maintaining it really is a huge part of doing more professional work.
This last tip is the only one I didn’t steal wholesale from the Boy Scouts, although I guess they all eat too. Just about every film set in America employs at least some unionized crew members, mostly from the Teamsters, IATSE, and DGA. There are a lot of rules when it comes to working with a union crew, but the meal guidelines are the ones that I think amateur filmmakers can learn from the most. A union crew, without exception, gets a meal every six hours. If the Director needs extra time at the six-hour mark, say to get a shot under specific lighting conditions, they’re permitted a 20-minute “grace period.” Any longer than that and the whole crew is paid time-and-a-half until the lunch break, which isn’t cheap. Work longer than 12 hours in a day, which is more common than not, and you’re buying the crew two meals.
I’m going into detail on this, not as some film union history lesson but to try to impart how important meals are to the dynamic on set. As an amateur myself, I’ve worked for free countless times and asked others to work with me for free just as often, so I can tell you from experience that the best way to make sure that everyone involved feels valued is to feed them. It doesn’t have to be anything out of the ordinary. Pizza or sandwiches will do just fine. The important things are to keep everyone together, take some time to relax before the second half of the day, and express your appreciation to your crew even if you can’t pay them. If a hundred bucks or so a day is stretching your budget too much, then make meals yourself and bring them in if you have to. Whatever you do, just feed your crew. It’s literally the least you can do. All this may seem like basic stuff, but devoting the time and energy to doing these things correctly can make a huge difference in the level of comfort, efficiency, and overall professionalism on your set. Feel free to comment if there’s anything you’d like to add, especially if you’re adding sad PA stories. Those are always welcome.
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A few weeks ago, Roger was able to get his hands on a few copies of the brand new Canon 35mm f/1.4L II lens, and ran it through a series of tests comparing it to the competitors. He found, that the new lens from Canon is among the sharpest and most consistent in its class, beating the beloved Sigma 35mm Art Series lens in the process. However, not all lens reviews are just running the lens through a series of machines to test the glass quality and sharpness of them. So I decided to get my hands on the Canon 35mm 1.4L II as well, to give it a more practical run of tests and trails. I found, that the newest from Canon is incredible, and quite likely, my next personal purchase.
The build quality of the Canon 35mm f/1.4 II is exactly what you've come to expect with Canon's L series lenses. The lens itself feels incredibly robust and durable, with all metal build and a good weight at 26.8 oz, a full 6 ounces heavier than its predecessor. That isn't the only thing that has changed in the mark II version. Not only is the lens a bit longer, (4.2" compared to 3.4"), but also is the first lens with "Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics". To put that in simple terms, the Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics is a glass element designed to drastically reduce color fringing, and maintain contrast during all lighting conditions. While I'm a little bit of a skeptic when it comes to this new lens technology, I did find that this lens handled flaring far better than any other lens I've tested; providing a nice haze factor to the images, without going overboard or giving you that devastating flaring.
Canon also promises better weather sealing with the newest model in their 35mm line. Alongside weather sealing, the lens also has some small, but useful design elements changed, such as the AF switch being flush with the lens barrel, and a larger focusing ring when shooting in manual focus mode.
Using the Lens
My time spent with the new Canon 35mm f/1.4L II was certainly a pleasant one. Using the lens in a variety of shooting conditions, I was able to test the lens to the max, giving me a full range of uses. When it was nearly pitch black out, the lens was focusing fast and accurate. When I was shooting against a setting sun, the lens was able to combat flaring with ease, and when I was simple shooting with it in my hands all day, the lens felt well balanced and a nice compliment to my camera body. I went into shooting with this lens with some excitement, and the lens was able to meet all the expectations I had with it. The autofocus was incredibly accurate, allowing for fast tracking and quick focusing in a variety of shooting conditions. The robust build of the new 14 element lens lineup felt nice too. Throughout shooting with the lens, it always felt sturdy and solid, a feeling I sometimes lost in the original Canon 35mm.
As stated above, resident tech guru Roger Cicala was able to run multiple copies of this lens through our Olaf Optics tests to get both an MTF chart on the lens (averaged over 10+ copies) as well as a copy to copy variation score. When placed up against the original Canon 35mm f/1.4L, the new Mark II version easily win the battle in terms of overall sharpness. the new Mark II version also beats the Sigma 35mm Art series in sharpness, by only my a small fraction that you likely wouldn't be able to tell the difference in. These scores, make the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II the new king of the 35mms in terms of both sharpness and consistency, but is also priced considerably more than some of the competition.
Roger Cicala, Olaf Optical Testing, 2015
The greatest (and only) shortfall I found with the new Canon 35mm f/1.4L II came in the price of the lens. At $1,799 new, the Canon 35mm f/1.4 II is a staggering $300 more than its now dated predecessor, and double the price of the Sigma Art series lens - a strong competitor to the Canon 35L II. So is it worth the massive price difference? If you're a loyalist to Canon, then yes - the Mark II version is a considerable upgrade to the original, and well worth the price difference between the two. However, if you're willing to venture over to Sigma, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art series lens is still the best buy for the money. At $799 retail price, the Sigma 35mm Art series will put you right in between the two Canon lenses, and at a considerably lower price than both of them.