Good Vibrations: Designing a Better Stabilization Test (Part I)

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My name’s T.J. Donegan, I’m the Editor-in-Chief of DigitalCameraInfo.com and CamcorderInfo.com (Soon to just be Reviewed.com/Cameras). We recently wrote about designing our new image stabilization test for our Science and Testing blog. I showed it to Roger and he asked for the “nerd version.” He was kind enough to let us geek out about the process here, where that kind of thing is encouraged.


DigitalCameraInfo.com’s latest image stabilization testing rig. (In beta!)


Since the beginning of DigitalCameraInfo.com and CamcorderInfo.com, we’ve always tried to develop a testing methodology that is scientific in nature: repeatable, reliable, and free from bias. While we do plenty of real-world testing during every review, the bedrock of our analysis has always been objective testing.

One of the trickiest aspects of performance to test this way is image stabilization. Things like dynamic range, color accuracy, and sharpness are relatively simple to measure; light goes in, a picture comes out, and you analyze the result. When you start introducing humans, things get screwy. How do you replicate the shakiness of the human hand? How do you design a test that is both repeatable and reliable? How do you compare those results against those of other cameras and the claims of manufacturers?

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Silent Changes

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Every so often I get an email asking me to jump in on some forum argument or other. I rarely do that because of the language barrier.

Two of the common languages spoken on forums are CAKWAF (Complete, Absolute Knowledge Without Any Facts) and AFIDAWAB (Any Facts I Don’t Agree With Are Bullstuff). Since I am not fluent in those languages, I tend not to get involved in the more, uhm, enthusiastic online discussions. But sometimes I can’t help myself, repeating the behavior of adding facts to a ‘vigorous’ discussion and always expecting a different result.

This happened recently when a discussion occurred about what the original poster called ‘silent upgrades’ to lenses. As someone who takes apart lenses and cameras for my day job, I did confirm to that person that over the lifespan of a lens, some internal changes may occur and the camera companies don’t make announcements about them. (I don’t like the term ‘silent upgrade’ because such changes aren’t always an upgrade, it may be something as simple as a new vendor supplying a slightly different part. There also seem to be times when the change is actually a downgrade.)

Most of the responses to my statement were written in CAKWAF and AFIDAWAB. Responses claimed with absolute certainty there were laws that prevented any changes once a lens was released unless they were announced (there aren’t). Other people, based on owning two different copies of a certain lens, stated with absolute certainty there were never any changes in the 10-year production cycle of that lens (there were, I’ve seen them). Rather than responding with words, I thought it would be simpler to just take apart a couple of lenses.

The Canon 85 f/1.8 is a very good, reasonably priced lens that’s been popular for two decades. Its external appearance and optical formula have been unchanged for that entire time. It also has a tendency to get dust under the front group, so (because we’re a rental house and people expect to rent clean lenses – not because the dust mattered to photographs) we take them apart to clean them quite often. So here are two copies of the Canon 85mm f/1.8 with the front group removed for cleaning. One of these things is not quite like the other.


A 6-month old Canon 85mm f/1.8 (left) and an 18-month old copy (right).


While identical on the outside, identical optically, and identical in function, the newer one seems to be missing a circuit board. Notice the slot that the connecting wires go through on their way to the main PCB (circuit board) on the back of the lens is still there. There just aren’t any wires going through it.

If we take the mount of the two lenses off, we can see other differences in the PCBs.


A 6-month old Canon 85mm f/1.8 (left) and an 18-month old copy (right).


Obviously the newer version doesn’t have the 5 soldered wires coming up from the accessory board (6 o’clock on the older version) because the circuit board isn’t there. The new PCB board doesn’t even have the solder points to attach those wires and there are some other minor differences in the circuit traces on the PCBs. I didn’t take the PCBs out to show you the bottom side, but if I had you would notice that all the functions of the DC/DC conversion board (the board missing from the newer copy) have been added to the main PCB in the newer copies.

Does it make any difference whatever in how the new copies work compared to the old copies? Nope. I suspect it’s simply that advances in electronics since the lens was first released make it simpler and more cost effective to eliminate the secondary DC/DC conversion board and incorporate those functions into the main PCB. It hasn’t been done to address any reliability issues (the 85 f/1.8 is a rock, it  hardly ever breaks), it doesn’t change function at all, it’s probably just more cost effective.

Sometimes changes like this that occur during the life of a lens (or camera) are done to address a problem. I can think of a half-dozen examples off of the top of my head; a few announced by the manufacturer but most not announced.

These aren’t always ‘secret upgrades’ as the paranoid among us like to think, but sometimes they are. Most often, though, they’re simply a change in subassembly supplier or a more effective way to manufacture a part, like this one.


Roger Cicala


July, 2013

And Edgerton Said, “Let There Be Light.”

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The more I learn about the history of photography, the more I come to realize that just about every important advancement since 1850 has its roots in photography. The 8 hour workday, paid vacations, and employee stock options? A photography manufacturer started them. Telegraph? A photographer invented it. Synthetic cloth was just an offshoots of photographic chemicals, and the development of plastics was funded by the sale of a photographic patent. In my last article, we even saw how toy trains owed their start to photography.

“Don’t make me out to be an artist. I am an engineer. I am after the facts, only the facts.” - Harold Edgerton

Today’s subject was the most prolific photo-inventor, ever. He had dozens of patents, and his patents generally were for groundbreaking new technology, not just minor refinements. No one, other than maybe Thomas Edison, worked in such a wide variety of fields. He won the Howard N. Potts and Albert A. Michelson Medals for scientific achievement and the National Medal of Science. He wrote dozens of scientific papers.

Best of all, he was a photographer before he ever invented anything, and remained a photographer his entire life. His images were included in the The Museum of Modern Art’s first photography exhibit, won a Bronze Medal from the Royal Photographic Society, and a short film won an Academy Award. He published books of fine art photographs.

He wasn’t just a great photographer and scientist. He just oozed all-around awesomeness. For example, when asked to provide a picture of himself, he created “Self Portrait with Balloon and Bullet.”


“Self Portrait with Balloon and Bullet” Edgerton, 1959, Harold E. Edgerton Trust. Notice the seemingly casual pose includes putting his finger in his right ear to protect from the noise of the gun in the foreground firing the bullet seen to the right.

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From the Great Pyramid to Toy Trains: Early Flash Photography

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Whenever out-of-print books start arriving at Lensrentals, they know I’m about to write a history article. It happened again last week, and one of the young employees asked me, “why do you write these things?” I told them because I have urochordataphobia — I fear the example of the sea squirt.

A young sea squirt looks like a small fish and swims around all day doing what most sea creatures do (mostly avoiding being eaten by bigger sea creatures). When it gets older, though, one day it sits on a rock and does nothing for a while. Its brain wastes away, it becomes completely immobile, and pretty soon it looks just like a sponge. Now that I’m older, I fear if I ever stop shoveling information at my brain and making it write these things, pretty soon it will find a rock to sit on. And I know where that leads.

Those of you who hate my history articles, please bear with me for a couple of posts. It’s just my urochordataphobia acting up. For those of you who like these history articles, read on and I’ll tell you how flash photography links to toy trains, torpedoes, Alien Astronauts, and common sayings that no one understands anymore. Continue reading

Protecting Yourself from Gear Theft

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In case you don’t know it, cameras and lenses are prime theft targets. You may never think it’s going to happen to you, but almost every day I hear from someone who is missing thousands of dollars worth of gear with no hope of getting it back.

As a rental company, we have lots of experience with preventing theft and recovering stolen items. I’m not going to give specifics about all the exact measures we take; that would be like leaving a blueprint for those who want to steal our gear. But we’ve learned a lot and have at least tried everything I’m going to talk about today. Continue reading

Photography Consumer’s Bill of Rights

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In 1962, then President Kennedy presented to the U. S. Congress a Consumer’s Bill of Rights. The second and third points of this Bill are as follows:

(2) The right to be informed–to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful, or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling, or other practices, and to be given the facts he needs to make an informed choice.

(3) The right to choose–to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices;

I decided to be a bit more specific and develop a Photography Consumer’s Bill of Rights. I’m sure I missed some things. Please feel free to add your suggestions as comments. Continue reading

Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 Part II: Comparative Anatomy

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We know the optical formula for the new version of this lens is the same as the old version. We know it has the ability to be reprogrammed and adjusted with the new Sigma dock and Optimization Pro Software. We know there have been some changes to the mechanics and structure of the lens, but we don’t know exactly what they are.

We have enquiring minds. We believe we have a right to know exactly what’s different when someone just says ‘it’s better, and worth an extra $1,000′. We also have Canon mount new and old versions of the old and new lens sitting on the shelf, at least for the moment. You know what happens next, right?

Plus, as I mentioned in Part I of this series, I really want to know if this lens, which has historically been less than reliable, has made changes that might improve reliability. Most repairs seem to involve the focus assembly, OS unit, or focusing motor. So I was eager to see if this area had been redesigned, changed, or beefed up somehow.

So let’s have a look inside. Yes, I know you don’t ever plan to disassemble your lens. You don’t plan to rebuild  your next car’s engine, either, but I bet you look under the hood before you buy it.

The outside is promising – there are clearly different external barrel assemblies and the new lens is a bit thicker at the back end.

Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 OS Sport Part 1: Features and Optics

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OK, I’m not sure what the official name of the new 120-300mm f/2.8 lens is. I think Sport is probably best, since it’s got that designation in the new Sigma lineup. On the Sigma website it gets called the OS S. The guys around here call it the 120-300 A1, since it’s one of the lenses that go through Sigma’s new ‘A1′ quality assurance and testing. (Don’t ask me why they named their QA program after my favorite steak sauce.) Of course, people also refer to it as the OS Mk II.


The new version (left) clearly looks different than the original version (right).

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Really Getting In Touit

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A couple of weeks ago I posted my impressions of the Zeiss 32mm Touit lens for NEX cameras, based on a copy loaned to me by Zeiss, USA. Now that we have our own copies I can be, shall we say, a bit more aggressive in examining the lens. Not to mention getting an opportunity to continue my string of aggressively bad pun titles (which Drew absolutely hates). But, hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t pick the name. I just do what has to be done. I have yet begun to pun. Continue reading