Review: Nikon Teleconverter TC-14E III

This is a review of the mark III version of the Nikon TC-14 teleconverter, which was announced in May. Teleconverters had the reputation of reducing image quality by a noticeable amount. But already the predecessor TC-14E II model has been praised for its performance and very little performance degradation when combined with the professional telephoto lenses. I ordered the updated converter on the day it was announced and got it delivered from Calumet Munich last week.

TC-14E III

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Posted in Equipment reviews

Four Ways to 85 mm: Three Nikon Lenses and the Carl Zeiss Planar for the Hasselblad V-Series

Fighting hard against GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), I still have four ways to arrive at 85 mm focal length. I may therefore check out some widespread myths about lenses: 1) Prime lenses are better than zooms. 2) Vintage lenses are ill suited for digital sensors because they are not telecentric, that is, the ray angles at the edges of the sensor exceed the acceptance angle of the microlenses, which results in reduction of color saturation, and color fringes. 3) The 35 mm lenses have a better resolution than medium and large-format lenses, simply because they need to cover only a smaller caputure area and can therefore be made from more expensive glass.

Lenses

From left to right: Nikon AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 G ED VR II, Nikon AF-S 85 f/1.8 G, Nikon PC-E 85 f/2.8 Micro, Hasselblad Zeiss CF 80 f/2.8 Planar T* mounted on a Photodiox adapter.

The contestants

  • Nikon AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 G ED VR II
  • Nikon AF-S 85 f/1.8 G
  • Nikon PC-E 85 f/2.8 Micro
  • Hasselblad Zeiss CF 80 f/2.8 Planar T* mounted on a Photodiox adapter

I hated the Nikon AFS 70-200 f/2.8 and the Canon equivalent, because having set up my large format camera, I was more than once harassed by photographers carrying these lenses. Considering their form factor it does not need much to imagine what some guys are compensating for.

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Posted in Equipment reviews, Image quality Tagged , , , |

The Crackpot Index for Photographers

There is this recurring discussion of what defines fine-art photography. Can the image of a lemon tart be art? Is photography an art form at all?

Easier than defining art is defining what is not. According to the philosopher Walter Benjamin, kitsch is, unlike art, a utilitarian object lacking all critical distance between object and observer; it offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort.

Bagan, Myanmar

Cliche image of an iconic place: sunset over the temples of Bagan, Myanmar. An image accounting for one point on the crackpot index. Therfore, one or two of these images are allowed in a portfolio.

I would rate a large amount of the current professional landscape work, published in magazines and catalogues as kitsch. Probably this due to art directors and editors having grown up with artificial flavor and visual over-saturation. Look at the tutorials of Phase One, a company catering for professionals: they are proud of the fact that a lake in Scotland, captured under a gray sky, can be made to look like the waters of Anse La Digue (Seychelles).  Bad enough that this might be required to be successful in the market place.

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Posted in Philosophy+Opinion Tagged , , |

The World Wide Web and Color Management: Assigned, not Converted

Recently I had access to an Eizo ColorEdge CG 277, which is Eizo’s flagship monitor for highest standards of color accuracy and consistency. The monitor features a built-in calibration sensor and covers 99% of the Adobe RGB color space.

Although the monitor is able to achieve a 10 bit color depth (per channel), the entire chain was not, as I figured out using a test rampBut even though, the tiff images that I brought on a USB stick and opened in Photoshop CS6 simply popped out of the screen. This is the second-best thing next to a fine art print. It is clear that I must free some space in my home office.

Sleep_conv

Image developed in Capture One Pro, saved as 16-bit tiff, down-sampled into 8-bit jpeg, and converted into the sRGB color space before upload.

But then I opened my web page in the Safari browser and was shocked. The images looked like kitsch*. On the contrary, the Safari browser on the MAC renders some of the images rather dull when compared to the tiffs opened in Photoshop. I had attributed this to the down sampling and heavy jpeg compression, but should have known better: most web-hosting services and web browsers do not support color management.

* Although I keep seeing such examples in magazines, a lake in Scotland photographed under a gray sky cannot look like the waters of Anse La Digue. And if it does in print, it’s kitsch.

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Posted in Image quality Tagged |

Sample Images: Zeiss Otus 55 mm f/1.4 Apo Distagon

In physics, gravitons are hypothetical elementary particles that mediate the force of gravitation in the framework of quantum field theory. For me, gravitons are real objects that mediate the drag forces into photo stores of larger cities.

During a recent trip to Zurich, Switzerland, I was dragged into the “Fotoschiff “; a fair organized by FotoPro and hosted on a boat afloat the lake. There I learned that one of the FotoPro stores had on stock a Zeiss Otus 55 f/1.4 Apo Distagon for the Nikon F mount. This gave me the opportunity to take a couple of images through the store’s door at the Rennweg. Of course, I exerted the usual shot discipline, which includes tripod mounting, focusing in live view, mirror lock up, three seconds shutter delay, and raw processing in Capture One Pro.

OTUS

Image samples, 100% corner crops. Top: Nikon 24-70 at f/2.8 and f/5.6. Bottom: Zeiss Otus at f/1.4, f/2.8 and f/5.6. Click to enlarge.

The full frames are devoid of any composition and are therefore omitted here. The 100% views, cropped from the upper right corner of the scene, are shown for the apertures 1.4, 2.8 and 5.6. The focal point was on the tiles of the roof, which are a good subject for testing the micro contrast and tonal rendering of lenses. The white balance was fixed to the same value and no additional sharpening was applied in the raw processor.

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Posted in Equipment reviews Tagged |

The Italian Bike Week 2014

I am not much of a street and event photographer. Back in the film days I shot a wedding when, in the middle of the ceremony, the shutter of my Nikon F3 released instantaneously upon winding the film-advance lever. Fortunately I had brought my large format camera, which then served for the official photos but was obviously useless in the church.

At a second endeavor, I went to capture an open-day event. I had planned for images of masses of people fighting to get into the exhibition areas. But the event was so well organized that the places looked rather sterile. That made me think: photography is a great hobby but a terrible job.

Bike10

However, during a recent trip on the traces of the “Mille Miglia” in Italy, I accidentally dropped into a very photo-friendly event: the Italian Bike Week, supposedly the country’s largest open-air motorbike event, which was held on the shores of the Trasimeno lake in Umbria. I took out the Nikon D800E, mounted the 70-200 f2.8 lens, and put the Nikon Coolpix A into my pocket in case I needed a wide angle of view.

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Posted in Photoessays Tagged |

The Myth of Sufficiency

A widespread myth of sensor resolution (or the end of the megapixel race) states that if you print larger, you will step back further and, consequently, will never need the resolution given by higher megapixel cameras and prints. This myopic view of megapixels is correct if you are thinking of snapshots, looking solely at web uploads, or preventing* people from getting close enough to inspect the images.

* Helmut Newton’s big nudes are hung above the stairs in the lobby of the Berlin Museum, where it is physically impossible to get closer than about 2 meters, to realize that they are really not that sharp.

Bryce canyon at dawn, Utah, USA

Bryce canyon at dawn (seen from sunset point). One of my best-printing images. Linhof Technika 4×5, Fujichrome Provia 100. Scanned by MSP Graphic Services, Cotati, CA, on a Dainippon Screen drum scanner. 160 MP, corresponding to 15.7 x 19.6″ at 720 dpi, 16 bit, 920 MB tiff. Down-sampled to 2200 pixels on the narrow side and badly jpeg compressed to arrive at a 1.4 MB file size for web upload.

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Posted in Image quality Tagged , , , |

PocketWizard MiniTT1/FlexTT5 Flash Transceiver for Nikon

I still remember flashbulbs, flashcubes, and the early, all manual electronic flashes. Using these often resulted in the photographer’s question: did it trigger? And even if, the flashlight often made us look like white ghosts or dark shadows against the wall. At a given film speed and flash guide number (the maximum amount of light that the flash is able to burst off) the estimated flash-to-subject distance and the aperture were the only means of regulating the flash exposure.

PocketWizard

Why am I bringing this up? To name the strong and weak points of the transceiver system, it is fitting that I should briefly explain the techniques and acronyms of the modern system flashes.

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Digital versus Film Photography: Nikon D800E and 4×5” Fujichrome

Digital versus film photography has been a hot topic of debate for about 10 years. While most professionals have made their decision based on workflow, low light performance, reliability, and running costs, amateurs and fine-art photographers have praised the soul of film and the related process as a way of slowing down and thereby increasing the keeper rate.

Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh, India

Lamayuru, Ladakh: Nikon D800E with Nikon 50 mm 1.4G at f11

For my part, I do not subscribe to this argument, because the shot discipline required by the latest generation of digital cameras (be it the Nikon D800E, the Sony a7r, or the upcoming medium format systems equipped with the Sony 33×44 mm CMOS sensor) leads naturally to a slower process: setting up a sturdy tripod, focusing in live view (contrast detection), mirror lock up and shutter delay, multiple capture for stitching and focus stacking, and “development” of the RAW files.

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The 2012 Ice Storm on Lake Geneva

In Feb. 2012, strong Northeasterly winds, know as “bise”, blew down from the Western Swiss plateau to the basin of Lake Geneva. The wind reached force 6 with gusts of up to 80 km/h. Combined with air temperatures of -15 degree Celsius and the lake water close to freezing, the spray of the waves turned instantly into ice, before even hitting the shore or any object close by. Ice-covered cars parked near the waterfront quickly made headlines in the world press.

Ice storm on lake geneva 2014, Switzerland

As the weather pattern persisted for almost 13 days, I was able to revisit the scene in the mornings on my way to work, which coincided with the magic light present just before sunrise. In the first two days, I merely explored the area, taking some images with the point-and-shoot. The winds made it impossible to set up a real camera, which would have transformed quickly into an ice sculpture itself. On the third attempt I was able to find some shelter, but had to go down on my knees to operate the large-format camera.

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Full Frame DSLR versus Medium Format: Nikon D800E and the Mamiya/Leaf Credo

A number of comprehensive test reports have been published on the Nikon D800E.  The image quality of this camera has triggered shootouts with medium format systems such as the Leica S, Hasselblad H4D, and the Mamiya/Leaf combo.

To me, these evaluations were not really conclusive, as they focus mainly on resolution and often propose pixel peeping on a low-gamut LCD screens.  In discussion forums, these tests have consequently drawn comments that it would be illicit to “compare apples and oranges” and that there are “horses for courses”. Such comments are triggered by the real-world decision-making problems featuring multiple conflicting objectives. The best conceived test is useless if the methodology is not sound and the criteria are not clearly defined. But more importantly any such test will be highly subjective with inherent, strongly weighted objectives.

Mamiya-Nikon

Left: Mamiya 645D. Right: Nikon D800E.

Therefore, I must explain first my shooting style and preferences, workflow, and photographic background. For me, the definition of an outstanding image boils down to a simple question: wouldn’t I mind spending big bucks on printing and framing of an image, displaying it in my home, and looking at it for hours on end? For me, as a scientific engineer, technical perfection is an important aspect. Any of my keeper images qualify for a 60×80 cm (23”) fine art print, holding up 10″ viewing distance. This is what I call supernatural, because the print reveals details that at the location were not visible to the naked eye. I thus spare no effort; when I visualize an image at a remote place, which I might be able to visit only once in a lifetime, I just want to have the best equipment with me. And leaving aside the artistic aspect of photography, if something goes wrong technically, it will be my, and not the equipment’s fault.

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Moonbow over Iguacu

I never understood why waterfalls grab the hearts and minds of photographers. Go to any location that advertises a waterfall and it is guaranteed that there will be a large parking space, lots of cars, and buses with their engines idling*.

Iquacu falls, Brazil

Many people, often out of shape, hike along a trail. The first action when the lookout point is reached is to pull out a camera and photograph the falls. In post-processing the images are cropped just above the pool, around which the fellow visitors had their picnic.

Waterfalls just do not photograph well. In nice, sunny weather the contrast exceeds the dynamic range of color film and of most digital sensors. Bright light also produces flair, which is a particular problem for the wet rocks and vegetation that typically surround the falls, and desaturates the color that may be present in the water. From a compositional point of view, the images are often unbalanced and there is no sense of scale, except if  one refrains from cropping off the picnickers. This experience, or prejudice, made me shy away from Iguacu when I first visited Brazil in 1997. Four years ago, however, I came back to Brazil and took a detour to the waterfalls.

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Posted in Travel photography Tagged , , |

Photographing Kolmanskop

Kolmanskop (or Kolmannskuppe) is a ghost town in Southern Namibia, about 10 km inland from Luderitz. Once a very rich diamond-mining village, it was completely abandoned in 1954 and it is now a tourist destination, famous for its images of sand dunes forming inside the decaying buildings.

Family home, Kolmanskop, Kolamanskuppe, Namibia

 In 1908 German miners settled in this area and built the village in the architectural style of German stone houses. At its peak, the about 400 inhabitants could enjoy a rich infrastructure that included a hospital, ballroom, bowling alley, gym, school, and casino. The hospital was equipped with the first x-ray machine in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Since 1980 some of the buildings have been restored and the area has been opened for visitors. The gym building features a museum, a souvenir shop, and a surprisingly good cafeteria.

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