The Digital View Camera Adventure Has Begun

I have been closely following the advancements of the technical camera marketplace for quite a few years. This is partly because of the connections I made in the industry thanks to my Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder app, and partly because of my personal interest in the topic. It’s easy to judge how much camera movements fascinate me from the sheer number of view camera books on my shelf.

Despite these, I only ventured into the world of perspective control as far as using tilt/shift lenses. Why? Cost, bulk and general immatureness of digital view camera solutions were the main factors. But recently a few products worth considering emerged, Cambo’s Actus family being my favorite.

Before anyone asks, “pancake” cameras are not my cup of tea. I prefer “monorail” cameras. My view camera must use the 5DS R as the recording device – I give medium format digital backs a few more years to evolve.

I have been thinking about buying an Actus for a while, but was hesitant because it lacked a few important features (geared shift for example). While the Actus-DB2 is spot-on, it’s digital back only (you know, the few more years to evolve).

Then I got a newsletter showing off the new Actus-GFX. It was almost perfect, so I immediately emailed Cambo asking if it’s possible to get the “almost” part out of the picture: build a customized Actus-GFX for me. The answer was a resounding yes, and within a week my camera began to took shape.

My one-lens wonder: custom Cambo Actus-G + Rodenstock HR Digaron-S 100mm f/4 + Canon EOS 5DS R.

The camera shown above has an Actus-G base – a special version of the GFX without the Fuji G mount. The monorail is borrowed from the Actus-DB2 – because it’s 22mm longer than the G’s. The AC-78E bayonet holder holds a Canon EF bayonet. When the time of a digital back comes, I just have to add the rear standard and bellows from the DB2, other parts are exactly the same. I like future-proof systems.

One of my gripes with the original Actus was that back fall, portrait camera orientation and an L bracket attached to the camera didn’t play well together. In other words I would have to remove the L bracket or live with limited fall range. But the Actus-G, with its elevated standards, is a completely different story.

The L bracket and remote release fits even at maximum back fall.

The above quick iPhone grab shows the camera at maximum fall. Well, it’s 0.3mm shy of maximum, but practically that doesn’t matter. Even the cable release fits without issues. A right-angle USB cable is required for tethering, and of course you have to lift the camera to be able to rotate it.

Speaking of movements, the front standard has 10 degree down, 9 degree up tilt and full 360 degree swing. The rear standard’s horizontal shift is +/-21mm (the scale goes to 20). For some reason the rise/fall labels are reversed (maybe they refer to the equivalent front standard movements?), but that doesn’t change the fact that you can shift 15mm down and 12mm up.

And it leads us to one sorely missing feature on the Actus-G: a rise/fall indicator. There’s a scale, but there’s no position indicator. It’s easy to fix (by gluing a 0.5mm stainless steel lip to the up/down moving part – as I did), but Cambo seriously overlooked this. The Actus-DB2 has an indicator on the other hand. Hope it will be fixed with future revisions of the camera.

The rise/fall indicator modification up close.

Tilt/swing gears are self-locking, but rise/fall/shift/focus utilize rack-and-pinion gears and separate tension/lock screws (that you can see on the image above, for example).

Let’s briefly talk about the lens and that yellow cable, as I plan to dedicate entire posts to these topics.

I wanted to start out with just one lens, avoiding wasting a huge pile of money if the system turns out something I don’t like. I turned out to be love at first use – thanks to the camera itself as well as the stunning Rodenstock HR Digaron-S 100mm f/4 lens. According to the MTF charts, this is the best of the HR Digaron range, and I expected it to approach my Zeiss Otuses and Apo Sonnar 2/135. But I wasn’t prepared for something that surpasses the 2/135 (with which I did a direct comparison). Slightly better resolution, free of vignetting, and a very flat field (unlike the 2/135), and a large enough image circle for shifting and thus high stitching potential. Absolutely stunning. Rendering is a bit different from the Zeiss-look I love so much, but quite like it.

Another reason I chose the HR-S 100 is that it has a large enough focal flange distance and short rear element to work well with the deep EF mount. Lens compatibility is a huge topic, best discussed in a later post.

I shoot tethered most of the time, and the Actus is no exception. I will have to replace my TetherPro USB cable with the right-angle connector version, though. Placing the plane of focus with Kuuvik Capture‘s multi-point live view feature is a piece of cake. The feature was designed to help the focusing process of tilt/shift lenses and view cameras taking advantage of the Scheimpflug principle. I’m putting together a demonstration of the Actus/5DS R/multi-point live view combination, so stay tuned!

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Review – Part 2

This is the second installment of my ongoing EOS-1D X Mark II review. You can read Part 1 here. My other posts comparing effective reach of the 1D X II with the 7D II and focus drive speed of different cameras including the 1D X II may also be useful for you.

Dynamic range

You may already saw at the usual camera testing sites that the 1D X Mark II has a dynamic range that’s practically identical to the competition, so “Canon is back in the game”. While this is true, let me approach the topic of dynamic range from another angle. Which is prints. I know that only a few of us print anything at all, and that may explain the number of people obsessed with the extreme dynamic range of today’s sensors. But in reality it is a double-edged sword.

Ink on paper has about 6 or 7 stops of dynamic range, so if you have anything with more range, you may need to be careful when preparing the prints to keep pleasing tonal relationships and prevent posterization. Too much contrast after setting the black and white points could also be an issue that needs to be mitigated. So the saying “be careful what you wish for – you may get it” is really holds in this situation.

Puffin Portrait at Látrabjarg

Puffin Portrait at Látrabjarg

Of course it helps in exposing naturally high dynamic range subjects, like the blacks and whites of puffins. But the dynamic range collapses quickly with increasing ISO, so you may not have that much to work with.

All in all, the 1D X Mark II is state of the art, but I had no complaints about the 5DS R either.

High ISO

As I mentioned in Part 1, I print large, and thus resolution is an important aspect of all images I keep. And despite the hype (may I call it marketing bullshit?) of the camera seeing in the dark in those extremely high ISOs, I consider 6400 the maximum usable ISO. Fine details are starting to get eradicated at 3200, though. The only use I have for the higher values is for preparing long exposure compositions.

I use the camera a lot with the 500mm f/4L IS II and the 2x III teleconverter, and my base ISO in this case is 800 – resulting in very clean images. The following image was taken with this combo at ISO 3200 during the Icelandic summer night.

Redshank at Night

Redshank at Night

RAW file bit depth changes a little with ISO changes. You get the highest usable bit depth (13.81 out of the theoretical maximum of 14) between ISO 125 and 200. At ISO 100, you get 13.71 bits, and 13.65 bits between ISO 320 and 51200. Higher bit depth meaning better tonal separation. I still have a habit to only use whole stop ISOs to avoid the ill-effects of digital compensation when using third stop values. At low ISOs (100 and 200) you have to make a tradeoff between dynamic range (better at ISO 100) or bit depth (better at ISO 200) based on what you photograph.

CFast 2.0 image corruption

Firmware 1.0.2 has been released yesterday to address the possible image corruption with SanDisk CFast 2.0 cards. I also experienced a corruption on my Lexar 3500x card. It looked different than the SanDisk issue, the image was cut after a few kilobytes. I don’t know whether the culprit was the card or the camera, but installed firmware 1.0.2 nonetheless. Should the problem happen again, I’ll let you know.

Resolving fine details

While shooting a couple of long exposure images, picked up the 1D X Mark II with the Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 lens to make some detail shots, just like the following one. Handheld, since the tripod was already occupied by the 5DS R.

Landmannalaugar Detail

Landmannalaugar Detail

The camera is prominently useful for landscape work. While not in the realms of the 5DS R in terms of sheer resolving power, the images are full of fine details. It seems that Canon opted for a weaker anti-aliasing filter in this case (unlike my old 1D Mark II, which had a pretty strong blurring filter).

Due to the relatively low resolution, less shooting discipline is required. Shooting a 135mm manual focus lens handheld is not a problem (something I failed to do successfully with the 5DS R quite a few times). It is also less demanding on lens quality (although using high quality glass pays off), and you can stop down to f/11 without diffraction becoming an issue. All these add up to a more casual shooting experience than the 5DS R.

So I arrived to a very interesting point. While both the 5DS R and the 1D X Mark II have their strengths in different areas, and I prefer to choose them based on these strengths for each image, the other one could do almost as well. I would be in deep trouble if I could keep only one of them.

To be continued…

A Year with the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

I’m using the “new” 500mm Canon for slightly more than a year now, so it’s time to share my opinions on it. During the last year I had posted a bunch of images made with this lens attached to various camera bodies (1D X Mark II, 5DS R, 5D Mark III, 7D Mark II), which further illustrate the capabilities of this gem.

Why upgrade?

I had used the Mark I version for 10 years, and it was a stellar performer, so why I decided to upgrade to the Mark II? For two reasons: weight and image quality. Let’s begin with the latter. When I tried the old 500 plus the 1.4x III extender on the 7D Mark II for the first time, I thought that something went wrong with the lens. After making several successful astrophotos during the winter of 2014-15 (using the bare lens), the lack of sharpness I encountered with the extender was discouraging. So much that I stopped using this combination completely, and ordered the Mark II after a week or so.

Once the Mark II arrived, I had the opportunity to compare it with the old one – and man, it makes a huge difference on high resolution cameras! The Mark II with the 1.4x III attached is sharper than the old one with no extender. And it doesn’t stop here. The following image pretty much summarizes the quality of images one could expect from the 500mm f/4L IS II.

tbd

Singing

Richer colors, and complete lack of the “busy background” that was a signature of the old lens + teleconverter combinations. The transition from sharp to unsharp areas is pretty fast, just like with my Zeisses. Images coming out from the contemporary Canon super-telephotos (300 II/400 II/400 DO II/500 II/600 II) are stunning. There’s no point in talking more about image quality, since they offer the best money can buy. But there are other important aspects to discuss.

Like size and weight. The Mark II is about 800g lighter than the Mark I. This is a huge difference. I can put an additional TS-E 24mm or Zeiss 2.8/15 in the bag and still have the same total weight as before. Thinking about size/weight/reach is an important factor when you select a super-tele.

Why 500mm?

When it comes to birding, the longer is almost always better. My reasoning to get the 500mm originally, and to stick with the same focal length when upgrading to the Mark II, was the following. 300mm is too short. The 400/2.8 II is too large and heavy for the focal length. The 600 II is a great lens, but… Well, I have a rule that everything I bring into the field (with the exception of the tripod and the MacBook Air) must fit into my Gura Gear Bataflae 32L backpack. And the 600 doesn’t fit – at least with my other gear already in the bag.

bbb

Black Tern Looking for Bugs

Sometimes I long for the 600, like when shooting the image above, but with high resolution cameras I have the freedom to crop a bit. The 400 DO II is also a great lightweight lens, but a bit short considering the locations and birds I photograph. This leaves the 500. Long enough (especially with teleconverters) for my needs, small enough to fit into the bag, light enough to handhold for extended periods of time (at least with smaller bodies like the 5DS R and 7D Mark II, with the 1D X Mark II it’s on the fence of being too heavy). The wider angle of view (compared to the 600) provides a little protection against inadvertently cut wings and feet, and it’s easier on the tracking mount (both in terms of weight and tracking accuracy) when shooting the heavens above. Not to mention that you can buy the 500 plus a Zeiss 2.8/15 from the price of the 600…

Handling

Mark II super-teles are less front-heavy than the old ones (partly due to the removal of the protective glass from the front). So you think they are lighter than they really are. With the 1D X Mark II the balance point is under the lens collar, but with smaller bodies it’s right under the focusing ring. Which is problematic if you are handholding the lens – you need to be extra careful not to turn the ring.

I really like that the focusing range selector has been moved out of the central switchboard to the neck of the lens. It’s much easier accessible place when the lens is mounted on a gimbal.

Proper technique is important with all long lenses, and the 500 is no exception. But you also need to watch for air turbulence. I’m serious. Astronomers are long aware of the fact that hot air bubbles or even wind gusts can influence telescope image quality. For example on a cold fall morning on a lake, just an hour after sunrise the air is so turbulent that you can’t make a sharp image of anything more than 20-30m away. It’s not a showstopper, just something one needs to be aware of.

Focusing is quick and accurate (if you did your homework and had properly micro-adjusted the AF), but adding teleconverters could slow focusing down. I’d recommend to check out my AF drive speed comparison with different camera bodies.

Overall, the lens is a dream to use. On tripod or off, it just works the way expected.

Accessorize!

There are a few things I immediately replace on/add to a super-tele. First I add a LensCoat. But I don’t put all the pieces on – leaving the focusing ring and the lens collar out. I prefer to focus with the original ring, and don’t like the sticky tape on the collar. This also makes my lens unique, and can easily tell which is mine when shooting with friends.

The second thing is a custom lens foot. I wrote about the 4th Generations Design foot (and a few other accessories) in a previous piece, and albeit a different one, I use a 4GD foot on the Mark II. This time the CRX-5L (the “low” version). It fits nicely, and also allows storing the hood in the reversed position. Speaking of the reversed hood and storing the lens. The Don Zeck cap I bought for the old 500 works nicely with the new one.

sdf

5DS R + 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III on a Skimmer Ground Pod and Mongoose M3.6 Head

Another piece of equipment I grown to love is the Skimmer Ground Pod. I use it when photographing from a boat or otherwise need to be close to the ground. You can see on the picture above the complete rig I used for photographing great crested grebes last fall. What’s the camo thingy around the lens? It’s the part of my ghillie suit that normally goes over the gun.

The only thing I don’t like about the Mark II (well, besides the balance point being under the focusing ring) is that Canon does not include a screw-on filter holder any more. The lens comes with a gel holder, which I can’t use to mount my light pollution suppression filter for astro work. For this kind of price I’d expect Canon to include both with the lens, but had to purchase it separately (it’s somewhat hard to find: you’ll need the 52WII holder).

Conclusion

I always loved the old 500, and love the Mark II even more. You get splendid images, huge versatility (did I mention that I also use it for long lens landscapes a lot?) in a light, travel-friendly package. If you can afford (or want to lug around) only one super-telephoto lens, this is the one to buy. Highly recommended.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Review – Part 1

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is a huge topic, so I decided to slice the review. I also don’t want to reiterate specs or things that you can find on popular photography sites, instead I’m going to talk about aspects that are important to me.

So first of all let me put all I’m going to write into context.

I buy cameras for two purposes: as development and test hardware for my Kuuvik Capture and ShutterCount apps, and of course to take pictures. While I have two bodies in my bag, three or four additional cameras are sitting on the shelf to cover each and every firmware variant and operation paradigm Canon produced since 2008. Well, who said developing software is a cheap undertaking?

This gives me a great freedom to try different bodies and put those into the bag that fit my photographic needs the best possible way. But at the end of the day I make a living using these cameras, this way or that, so all of them should contribute to the bottom line.

There was only one missing piece in this set: a 1-series camera. I loved and used a 1D Mark II for 8 years or so, but skipped the following generations. The Mark III generation because of the autofocus issue, and because I still think they are the worst digital EOS-1 bodies ever made (you may disagree, but I’m sure you haven’t spent any time developing for them in this case). Just mentioning the 1Ds Mark III gives my better half the shivers… And the Mark IV because we needed funding for other things that time.

Then the 5D Mark III came along, and I haven’t felt the urge to purchase a 1D X for myself. For neither purpose. We started using loaner and rental units for development and testing. As time passed, things started to look less rosy: arranging rentals and loaners could be time consuming and costly (not to mention that they almost always screw up our schedule), so the decision to get a 1D X Mark II was made well before even the camera was announced. We just didn’t want to invest in outgoing technology and waited.

On the photography front, my main interests are landscapes and birds, with a bit of architecture and product photography spread along the way. My photographs either end up in commercial use or in large fine art prints, and high resolution is an advantage in both cases.

My A camera is an EOS 5DS R, which I found to be a great choice for everything I photograph. Yes, I could use a few more frames per second and faster buffer write speeds, but the camera proved to be perfectly usable even for action. Before the 1D X Mark II arrived, the B camera was a 7D Mark II. But because the images coming out of the 5DS R are way better, I haven’t used the 7D for months. Now the 1D X Mark II is the B camera, and I’m curious how it performs.

Ok, with this background let me begin discussing the 1D X Mark II.

Oh, one more thing. Since I have no financial interest in talking you into buying a camera (unlike most of the review sites), I’ll be honest. Just like with a friend talking about the 1D X Mark II over a drink.

TL; DR

It is a good camera, image quality is among the best I’ve seen from Canon (surpassed only by the 5DS R). There are some quirks and stuff that bugs me, though. Some of them can be worked around, but you’ll need to live with others. As always, if you fancy buying this beast, I’d recommend to rent it first to see whether it fits your working style and needs.

Lovely colors – even at higher ISOs

This is something you’ll notice even on the camera’s LCD (on which all images look disturbingly soft in 100% magnification, just like they did with the 1D Mark II).

Long Lens Landscape. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III

Long Lens Landscape. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III.

The image above was shot at ISO 1600, and it looks gorgeous on a wide gamut monitor. Sadly, part of the depth and brilliance of colors was lost when I converted it to sRGB for web display.

CFast 2.0 is really fast

You really want to use a CFast card with this camera. But be sure to get a fast one. I’m using a 64GB Lexar Professional 3500x card. Not because of the capacity (32GB would be my preferred choice for a 20 megapixel camera), but because of the 445 MB/s write speed. Smaller cards (including the 64GB SanDisk bundled with the camera) usually have lower write speeds around 240 MB/s. This is hugely important: with the faster cards you have virtually no buffer limit when shooting RAW. The 170 frames limit mentioned in the tech specs is what you get with the slower cards.

But be aware that moving images at this speed generates a lot of heat. The card, and even the camera’s grip becomes hot after extended use.

Being a young technology, CFast 2.0 could cause some compatibility headaches. I selected the 3500x card based on Lexar’s compatibility chart – while the 1D X Mark II is not listed explicitly at the time of writing, it seems that only 3500x cards are compatible with Canon cameras. For downloading images, I use Lexar’s Professional Workflow CR2 CFast reader (the one that has a Thunderbolt port in addition to USB3).

$650 for a power supply and coupler?!?

Someone at Canon has clearly lost his medicine. The AC adapter sells for $400 and the dummy battery for additional $250. To put you in perspective: you can buy a good laboratory-grade power supply for $400. And asking $250 for a dummy battery is outright arrogant. While writing my apps, I prefer to power the cameras from AC power, but these prices are simply unacceptable. Fortunately the good old ACK-E4 adapter made for previous 1-series cameras (around $95) works perfectly. The only downside is that you are limited to 8 fps.

The return of red AF point illumination

For this camera Canon (almost) returned to their former AF point illumination system, where AF points are red, while all other information in the viewfinder is black. You may remember my post about the irritating and unusable illumination system found in the 1DX/5D3/7D2/5DSR, so this is a big relief for me.

But the system is still far from being perfect. The red illumination is too bright (no option to make it dimmer, only brighter), which is rather distracting in some situations. And the inability to switch it back to black is something beyond me.

Cleaner shadows

I’m not the kind of guy who tries to fix badly underexposed images in post with an 5-stop push, but you know, sometimes I screw up. And having the ability to rescue otherwise good images is always appreciated. The image below was a grab shot of a purple heron flying overhead, without paying attention to compensate for the bleak sky – resulting in an underexposed bird.

Purple heron. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II and 1.4x III teleconverter. ISO 400, pushed 3 stops.

Purple Heron. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III. ISO 400, pushed 3 stops.

A 3-stop push was used, and there is no visible color deterioration and noise even in the dark parts under the wings and body – something that was a stretch for older Canons. It was shot at ISO 400 (my base birding ISO).

A few missing functions

There’s no intervalometer and bulb timer. The shutter count feature is also missing from the external interface (although it’s available in the system information menu). And you can’t set bracketing from the menu. With the exception of the shutter count feature I can’t understand why Canon left these out, despite all their current cameras have them.

Well, you can use Kuuvik Capture for executing exposure sequences and bulb timer, in a more user friendly and effective way than Canon was ever able to implement these, so I’m not really complaining.

Remote release socket on the “right” side

Finally! This is something I wanted for more than a decade. I tend to use L brackets on all my cameras, and the N3 socket is something that needed to be worked around with these brackets – resulting in unwieldy left sides. Unfortunately both Kirk and RRS sell the same 1DX plate for the Mark I and II, but I still hope that some company will make a sleek bracket for the Mark II.

Since the tripod screw was ripped out from my 1D Mark II, I don’t trust single point bracket attachments. Kirk’s two-point attachment for their 5D Mark III/S/SR plate (reviewed here) is way better. Unfortunately there’s no such thing as a sleek 1DX plate with two attachment points, so I’m sticking with a normal plate. Especially because this is a B/wildlife/action camera and not planned to be routinely used tripod mounted with heavy lenses like the Otus 1.4/28 – with the 500mm it’s going to be mounted by the lens.

The USB sleep bug

This is a serious issue if you are planning to use the camera tethered.

If your computer goes to sleep while the camera is plugged in, you’ll permanently lose the connection – until the camera is powered off and back on. This happens with each and every tethering app. And there’s no workaround. Hopefully the bug is in the firmware and not in the USB hardware. All previous EOS cameras I used to date work as expected in this regard.

Continue to Part 2