Thursday, January 31, 2008

Announced: Canon Rebel XSi / 450D


In case you haven't heard the news, Canon just announced the release of the Rebel XSi, or 450D.

The Canon Rebel XSi looks to be a major upgrade to the Rebel XTi, which in my mind, wasn't much of an upgrade to the XT. With this new model, Canon's consumer DSLR line is really approaching the capabilities of pro-sumer line like the 40D.


Notable new features are:

  • 12 MP sensor (not that important, honestly)
  • SD memory cards (no more broken pins!)
  • Live view (never tried it, but I doubt I'd prefer it to the viewfinder for most applications)
  • Larger Viewfinder (still not as bright as the 20D/30D/40D since it uses mirrors, not a prism)
  • Monster 3" LCD
  • Dedicated ISO button and ISO display in viewfinder (this was something that bugged me on the XT)
  • Bigger Battery (to power the live view, I'm sure; I never had a problem with my XT running out of juice)
  • True spot meter (theoretically I want that, but I haven't missed it)

Features that are still better on the 20D / 30D / 40D:

  • Ergonomics. The XT always felt a little too small in my hands and I love the rear jog wheel on the 20D.
  • Viewfinder. Until you use a nicer viewfinder, you don't realize what you're missing.
  • Shutter. While improved, the shutter still isn't as good: upgraded maximum speed of 1/4000s to match 20D/30D (40D has 1/8000s), only 1/200s synch speed (instead of the 20D+'s 1/250s), less durability, more black-out time and lag, only 3.5 frames/sec instead of 5 frames/sec.
The limitations above are the big ones for me; if I were to buy another camera right now, I'd probably go with a refurb 30D. A lot of the live view stuff, while sounding good, probably wouldn't fit into my normal way of shooting. If I had tons of money, I'd probably go with the 40D, since the ergonomics of the Rebel line drive me crazy.

So far, it appears only DPReview has started doing some reviews with (a little) hands-on work:
A New Kit Lens Too!

Something I haven't seen mentioned in the other reviews is Canon's new kit lens, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS.

Yes, that's right, IS on a kit lens.

It looks like Canon adopted the previous kit lens, removed USM (which wasn't real USM, IMO, since it doesn't do full-time manual) and added a four-stop image stabilizer. I expect it will be the cheapest IS lens by far, which is a big win for consumers.

Of course, it will still have the same cheap plastic construction as its predecessor, but the kit lens isn't as bad optically as people make it out to be, and the IS will make up for the lack of aperture speed.


Availability:

Surprisingly, Amazon already has the Canon Rebel XSi up for pre-ordering ($800 for body only, $900 with kit lens, both prices include shipping):


That link will take you to the page which lets you choose either the black or silver body and whether or not the kit lens is included. It also states that the cameras won't ship until April 15th, so don't expect them it too soon (great timing in terms of tax refunds though!).

For completeness, here's Amazon's 40D page:


For whatever reason, the 40D isn't supplied by Amazon, but by one of the other stores under the Amazon umbrella. The price is pretty good though (a bit over $1100 for only the body).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Attaching Canon FD Lenses to an EOS/EF Body


How to make sense of Canon FL/FD/FDn/EF mounts:


If you are the type of person that looks for deals on camera equipment (like me) you may have considered attaching old manual lenses to your modern dSLR. If you shoot Nikon, you are in good shape, since the basic F-mount is still compatible with autofocus cameras almost 50 years later (almost -- I'm not going to get into that here; do some reading before you attempt to mount an old lens on a new body because some aren't compatible without modifications). Similarly, the Pentax K mount, has maintained the same basic lens mount through the years.

Not so with Canon.

When Canon introduced the EOS system in 1987, it scrapped the previous FD mount (which was also backwards compatible with the FL mount ['64-'71]) and began again with a completely new EF mount, which includes gold plated contacts for electronic autofocus. The FD mount and EF mount are completely incompatible, but by doing so, Canon was able to streamline the EF mount and avoid a lot of difficulties keeping compatibility.

Also, the FD/FL mounts were breech lock, meaning you have to push the lens onto the camera then twist a ring to lock the lens on (which prevents the lens flange from wearing out the camera ring, changing the film distance and hurting image quality). The later FD mounts (called "new" FD, nFD, or FDn) were bayonet mounts like the EF series -- insert the lens into the mount and then twist the lens itself to attach. Realistically, bayonet mounts are just as good as breech-lock mounts and more convenient to use. See more here.

Canon made a TON of FD lens which have now been orphaned by the new EF mount. For us cheap photographers, this is both good news and bad news. The good news is that there are a lot of old lenses on the used market which can't be used on new cameras, meaning high quality glass for cheap. The bad news is that attaching the lenses to an EF mount is a real hassle which I'll get into in a bit.

First though, what lenses are out there? How about this awesome list of FD lenses by Denis Baron. It lists all the major FD lenses made by Canon and gives specifications. A great resource if you are looking for old lenses online or on eBay. Note that FDn lenses are listed as 'new' FD, of which most have the S.S.C. coating even though the designation was dropped; S.S.C. is a better coating than S.C. Also, Photography in Malaysia has a great FD lens archive with reviews and tons of images. Don't forget about third party manufacturers, especially Sigma, Vivitar, and Tamron, because many of them supplied a lot of FD lenses.

Also, I should note that the most popular FD mount camera by far was the Canon AE-1 (review). The AE-1 sold over 5 million units due to a strong advertising drive, like the commercial below...




The Challenges of Mounting FD on EF:


In 1987, when the EOS system was introduced, the Canon photography world was thrown into a temporary upheaval. The new mount, while it included autofocus and a number of other advancements, caused most photographers to have to decide whether to stay with FD lenses or move to the new system. Most amateurs stuck with the old system a while longer, while most professionals moved quickly since they had the money and could make the investment in a better autofocus system. The good news is Canon pushed hard to get photographers to make the switch, and the brand was strengthened because of it.

The new EOS system did catch on relatively quickly with amateurs too, in large part to the big push to sell the Rebel series. If you were born before 1985, you probably remember the commercials centered around Ain the 70s or 80s, you probably remember the commercials centered around Andre Agassi like this classic:



At the time, I didn't do anything with photography, but I definitely remember the commercials!

I alluded to the significant hassle of mounting an FD lens on an EF camera -- the primary reason is the new EOS mirror box is deeper than FD with a longer distance between the lens mount and the film plane. This made it impossible to insert any sort of adapter between the mount types and preserve the lens to film distance. The end result, if you want to use an FD lens on an EF body with an adapter ring, is you will lose infinity focus. Essentially, you are adding a small extension tube between the camera and the lens.

This isn't just a problem for FD lenses either. Photonotes has a page about adapting manual focus lenses to the EOS system which mentions other lenses and what is needed, plus many of the other little issues you'll encounter. Some lens types you can adapt, some you can't. Bob Atkins has a great page up outlining the flange to film distances and which may allow an adapter (without optics) to EOS. POTN also has a good thread discussing FD-EOS converters which outlines which lens mounts work and which don't. I've been focusing on FD lenses because there are so many out there and they seem to be inexpensive compared to many alternatives.


Solutions for FD-EOS Attachment:


Of course, Canon realized that this would be an issue, so they did supply two versions of FD-EOS adapters. The macro adapter was similar to many of the existing adapters on eBay like the Bower/Hartblei item I reviewed in my last post in that it was thin and had no optics. This page shows both the Canon macro converter and the Hartblei I reviewed. For macro purposes, losing infinity focus is not a big deal. There's a good thread on the Photo.net forums too about the different options with lots of pictures.

The non-macro adapter was only supplied to those professionals who had a supply of very expensive multiple wide telephotos so that they didn't need to immediately update their expensive lenses. It included a lot of glass, acted like a small teleconverter, and is very rare and expensive now (PIM review). In the past month, only one has shown up on eBay and it didn't sell for the asking price of $740. Needless to say, it isn't practical for a budget photographer like myself.

The good news is that the Hartblei and equivalent adapters are available on eBay for good prices and the quality is quite good as I reviewed. My recommendation is to get one with a removable optical element so you can improve image quality if you aren't concerned about infinity focus. It is also possible to make an adapter yourself, but I don't recommend it because if a homemade adapter breaks it will drop either your lens or your camera on the ground, which won't be desirable. The commercial adapters are cheap enough on eBay that you don't really have an excuse not to go with one of those.

I've set up a search widget below which should show some the current auctions for the EF to FD adapters.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: Bower EOS/FD Converter

After my impulse buy of a Sigma 600mm in a Canon FD mount, I had to scramble to get an EOS/EF-FD adapter that would let me put it on my Canon 20D. eBay has a number of adapters to choose from, but I went with a Bower/Hartblei adapter from HartbleiOptic. The same product is sold by a number of sellers online. The seller seems to have a strong Russian/Ukrainian connection (both the e-mail address and the fact another seller was using identical listings (based out of New York with Kiev in the name)). That made me a little nervous (not the Russian thing, the identical listing thing) but their service was great, shipping fast, and I have no complaints. I highly recommend HartbleiOptic as a seller, (edit: HartbleiOptic is no longer an eBay seller (suspicious!) but the Bower converters are still available). An eBay search is below:




Total cost (including shipping) was $36, which was the lowest I could find for the given adapter. From the pictures, there were a number of eBay suppliers with the same item. It was very important to me to get an adapter with a removeable correction lens so that I could improve image quality at the expense of infinity focus. To help you identify the adapter, I included the box in the image below; note the adapter is marked Hartblei and the box is marked Bower. Bower is a well-known low-end Japanese manufacturer of photographic lens accessories. Hartblei is a German company (I think) specializing in medium format tilt-shift lenses and accessories.
For the record, the adapter comes with NO DOCUMENTATION, so I had to figure out everything through trial and error.


Physical Characteristics:

The adapter came inside the box wrapped in plastic with the correction lens installed. The box also includes two caps (the EOS cap is nice, the FD cap is little more than a rubber sheath and quite cheap). I was very surprised at the quality of the machining -- everything seems high precision which is a surprise this day in age. Also, the whole adapter is covered with matte black paint (powder coating?) which seems pretty durable. The lens is obviously coated, although I can't imagine it is the best quality lens given the price.

The adapter itself seems extremely sturdy and is entirely made out of metal. Placing it between the camera and lens I noticed no flex or give at all, with the exception of the outer aperture control ring. The outer ring seemed to flex a little when I squeezed it hard at one point, but didn't get damaged. As long as you aren't super hard on it, I can imagine this item will last a long time. The aperture ring has a nice click to it too.


Operation:

Obviously, the goal of this adapter is to attach on one end to an FD breech lock mount lens and the other end to an EOS camera body with an EF mount (FYI, EOS is the camera system; EF is the mount). In the next post I'll cover why you might want to do this; in this post I'll focus on the review of the converter.

When attached between my Sigma 600mm f/8 Mirror and my 20D, the converter worked admirably -- no slop and very sturdy. As it should be. It doesn't really have many moving parts because it doesn't really need them.
The main moving part is the aperture ring, which, as far as I can tell, is used to manually trigger the aperture lever and switch between the lens's stopped down setting and the fully-open setting. This could be very useful for acquiring focus wide-open, then stopping down at the last minute to shoot. Whether it will be convenient to use remains to be seen, since I am unable to test it (the Sigma 600mm has a fixed aperture). I'm also not wild about the screw being silver (since the screw will be on the lens side there may be internal reflections), but it should be an easy thing to pick up a black screw at a hardware store and replace it. The screw and the ring (marked Lock/Open) are easily seen in the image above.

The other moving part of the adapter is the internal lens element, which unscrews for removal as shown below. Again, since I didn't have instructions, I had to figure this out on my own. Be careful as you remove the lens, because you could slice your fingers on the threads (it is a bit tight from the factory). There are some indentations which may be used to loosen it with a screwdriver, but I don't recommend it because you could scratch the matte finish. Rubber gloves might help protect your fingers and maintain your grip.

Once removed, the adapter acts like a small extension tube, increasing magnification (and bring the focusing distance closer so you can't focus the lens at infinity). Since I don't need infinity focus (for most purposes I've got other, better lenses for that) I'll probably keep it out most of the time. And, as extension tubes go, it should work great, since it has an internal wall to block some of the light.

I'll talk more about performance in the Sigma 600mm review, including a comparison between using the adapter with the lens and without it. I'm very curious how much the lens reduces resolution of images. My hypothesis is that it is significant, but I'd love to be surprised.


Conclusion:

If you decide/need to use older FD lenses, I think this converter is an excellent deal. It has great workmanship, can be used both with or without the correction lens, and has everything I could ask for. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

This Is Not A Hardware Blog...

... even though it is beginning to look like one.

There are three reasons I've been posting more about hardware lately.

First, I've gone on a hardware binge (although $200 worth of hardware isn't much money-wise). And as usual, when I buy camera lenses and flash modifiers, camera lenses and flash modifiers are on my mind, and what's on my mind ends up here.

Second, it is simply a matter of giving readers what they want. Only two people responded to my post to see who was reading (thanks ruacatlover2 and Aiden!). I know other people read it (including relatives) but not everyone likes to comment; I'm ok with that. Lately my search hits have been increasing and have become three-quarters of traffic. The most popular pages in search are hardware-related (especially the one where I mention the Lambency Flash Diffuser), so I've been ok with posting more about hardware. Hopefully I'll get back to some photo related posts.

And finally, it's been raining almost every day for the last few weeks. It's really hard to get out and shoot (which is what I've been dying to do with the new Sigma 600mm) when it is constantly pouring. That's ok though, I know I'll get six months of uninterrupted sun this summer.


So, that's what's been on my mind lately.

I'm planning on getting the FD/EOS converter post up in the next few days (I had to make another light box for quick product shots because my previous box died in the move -- the new one is bigger and better, I think).

Sadly, I'm still waiting for the Lambency Flash Diffuser from DealExtreme. They aren't kidding when they say 14 day delivery time -- I ordered Jan 7th, it left DealEx on Jan 14th, and it left Hong Kong on the 24th (three days ago????). Needless to say, don't order anything from them if you want it fast (by fast, I mean within a month).

I'm also waiting for a used Canon 100mm F/4 Macro (FD mount). That was supposed to be shipped on Tuesday via priority mail from Colorado, so I'm quite surprised it hasn't arrived yet. Hopefully it will show up today.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Brief Overview of Teleconverters


Ok, so in my quest for a longer lens suitable for budget bird photography, I've looked at mirror (catadoptric) lenses like the Sigma 600mm f/8, less expensive super telephoto lenses (including primes, zooms, and the used options), and now it is time to talk about teleconverters. The good news is that teleconverters cost much less than an equivalent lens, from $50-$300.

Honestly, there's a ton of information out there, so I've included some great links at the bottom of the post (start with the Bob Atkins page first!). Instead of doing a lot of testing, I'm going to give an overview of what's out there (and the prices) and the my conclusions. Keep in mind that my main lens I'd use a tele-converter with is my Canon 70-200mm f/4 USM. If I had a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, 300mm f/4, etc, my decision would likely be different.

First, teleconverters are a trade-off. You gain focal length, which increases reach and magnification. In return, you lose sharpness and aperture (requiring faster shutter speeds, both to avoid camera shake at the increased focal length and to expose the image with more light). Typically, a 1.4X TC will decrease the aperture by one stop and 2X will decrease it by two stops (preventing some cameras from autofocusing). To compute the result, multiply the focal length of the original lens by the teleconversion factor and decrease the aperture by the resulting number of stops, i.e.: 200mm @ f/4 * 1.4X = 280mm @ f/5.6).

Second, teleconverters only work on high-quality lenses. Increasing focal length on a crappy lens will produce more magnification with even crappier crappiness than you started with. You can't make gold if you start with a hunk of lead. Because primes usually have better quality to begin with, teleconverters work better on primes than zooms.

Third, as the magnification of the teleconverter increases, image quality will decrease at a faster rate. 1.4X teleconverters work quite well with a minor decrease in image quality, 2X results in a significantly worse image, and 3X should only be used on the very best lenses, and even then, the image will be very soft and aberrations will become a problem. Tele-converters can also be stacked in some cases, with equivalent (or worse) image quality degradation compared to a single TC of that magnification.

Finally, just as with quality lenses, quality tele converters will give you much better results than cheap ones. It is worth investing in a good TC from the start so you don't need to buy another later. Be careful though, some of the the high-end TCs (especially those by Canon and Nikon) only work on certain lenses, typically longer telephotos. Check compatibility before you buy.


Brand Options:

While this list is by no means comprehensive, these are the main options I would consider if I was buying a tele-converter tomorrow. For each option, I've linked the Amazon page(s) to the new price and estimated the used price over the last month (using Terapeak.com) where applicable. Mouse over the links to see the current price.
  • Canon EF 1.4x II ($280 at Amazon, $175+ used) or Canon EF 2x II ($280 at Amazon, $230+ used on eBay). These are the Cadillacs of the EOS teleconverter world, expensive but the best. You know they'll work well as long as you have the right lens for them (primes 135mm and longer, the 70-200 series of zooms, and 100-400 zoom). IMO, the price premium isn't worth it unless you have plenty of money and/or multi-thousand dollar primes.
  • Tamron-F 1.4x ($110 at Amazon, $50-90 used) or Tamron-F 2x ($150 at B&H, $50-100 used). These are the cheapest of the good TCs, and are relatively plentiful on eBay. In tests (cited below) they perform noticeably worse than the better quality TCs, but mostly on the edges (which is less of an issue on a non-full frame dSLR body like the 20D). The 1.4x is probably the best price/performance deal out there if you can get one used at a good price. The 2x should probably be avoided.
  • Tamron SP 1.4x Pro ($185 at Amazon, $150 new on eBay) or Tamron SP 2x Pro ($205 at Amazon, $130-$150 used). It should mention that there aren't too many of these floating around used -- everyone likes them. The general consensus is also that these are near-identical optically to the Kenkos, so I'd be more inclined to grab a Kenko unless you find one of these used for a good price.
  • Kenko Teleplus PRO 300 DG 1.4x ($195 at Amazon, $105 new on eBay) or Kenko Teleplus PRO 300 DG 2x ($205 at Amazon, $100-110 new on eBay). Supposedly near-identical to the Tamron SP, I think there is some serious value in the Kenko line. Notice the extreme price difference for a new lens on eBay! The older version is white (and not designated 'DG') while the newer version is black. Given a choice, go for the newer version, and buy them on eBay while the price is good!
Note that Sigma is not on this list; Sigma doesn't seem to be known for quality TCs, although they appear to be working to correct this. I would still recommend staying away from them for now, especially since the other third party brands (Tamron and Kenko) are so well established and well-regarded.

Also note that, while I only list Canon-compatible teleconverters, Tamron and Kenko make mounts for all major brands and each major camera maker has their own high-quality teleconverter line. Be especially careful when choosing a Nikon TC though; they have two types of converters based on focal length (<=200mm and >=300mm).

One other comment: some bodies/tc combinations won't autofocus if the lens + tc result in an aperture smaller than f/5.6 (most notably the 10D/20D/etc line). To get around this in some cases, you can tape pins on the teleconverter to trick the camera into thinking it isn't there. Details are in the references below.


My Conclusions:

Before I impulsively bought the Sigma 600mm I was planning on picking up either a used Tamron-F 1.4x or, if I could find a good price, a used Tamron or Kenko 1.4X Pro model. If I found a used Tamron or Kenko Pro 2X I may have grabbed that instead, with the understanding that my Canon 70-200mm F/4 USM might have some trouble autofocusing and I'd have to go manual.

After this research, though, my mind has changed a bit. If I found a Tamron-F 1.4x for $60 or less I'd buy that to get started cheaply. Otherwise, I'd pick up a new Kenko 1.4x or 2x (depending on my mood/needs) off eBay because the price is REALLY, REALLY good right now. Sadly, I've blown most of my extra cash on the Sigma and 100mm macro lens, so I'll need to wait a bit. A teleconverter for the 70-200mm F/4 would fit really well into my lens line-up though; the 600mm for really far away stuff, the 70-200mm + teleconverter for medium range stuff (and I'd still have autofocus, at least with the 1.4x), the 70-200mm alone for normal tele, and the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 for wide angle.

Plus, a teleconverter is a heck of a lot easier to throw into a camera bag than a whole 'nother lens. So depending on how real-world experience with the Sigma works out, I might grab a TC in the near future.


References:

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sigma 600mm f/8 Pre-Review

I have a ton of tests, images, and documentation I want to do for the Sigma review, but I wanted to get some early information posted about the Sigma 600mm f/8 mirror lens I won on eBay with an EOS/FD mount adapter because the full review will take me a while.

As usual, all photos in this post can be clicked to see them larger.

First, the obligatory moon picture, shown at the top of the post. The Sigma 600mm with the 20D crop factor produces a 35mm equivalent of approximately 960mm. In reality, it is probably a bit longer than that (maybe 1100mm?) because the adapter works as a small teleconverter. The result is a full frame image shown below -- approximately 20x magnification and the diameter of the moon is half of the vertical frame dimension.

To put it in layman's terms, the thing feels like a friggin' telescope. Any minor hand shake is magnified in a big way, and getting solid shots requires a super-fast shutter speed (1/1000s or faster) or a quality tripod. For this setup, my cheap tripod doesn't cut it very well.

On the flip side, the lens itself handles like a dream. The focus wheel is wonderfully damped and it feels very solid in my hands. Nothing about the lens is cheap, from the rear-filter holder to the barrel markings to the machined metal hood.

Sadly, on my initial inspection I found some small blotches of mold/fungus on the main mirror. I'll talk more about that in another post with some images of it. To be honest, I'm not planning on returning the lens but I may ask for a partial refund. I don't think the damage hurts image quality noticeably but it will definitely hurt resale value of the lens if/when I decide to get rid of it.

Quality-wise, the images are so-so. The raw, 100% crop from above (with exposure compensation as needed) is below. Pretty soft by my standards, but still substantially better than upsizing an image from the Canon 70-200mm F/4 USM.

The moon pictures were taken the first night after the adapter arrived (Saturday night). Today I wanted to get some pictures outside, but as luck would have it, it was one of the rare overcast California days. On an overcast day, you absolutely need a tripod with this lens. My only subjects were some ravens (I believe) but I was able to get a few good images of them. Both these images are essentially uncropped.


Pretty good for shooting to my roof from about 15 yards away. Again, the Sigma 600mm has some extreme reach. Also, note the donut-shaped bokeh in the background of the second image which is a hallmark of all catadioptric lenses. In this case, I actually don't mind it at all.

For the images above I tried removing the glass from the FD to EOS converter and it seemed to help the quality some (not as much as I hoped though). Surprisingly, the lens focuses far enough past infinity that the unglassed converter almost gives me infinity focus. An unedited 100% crop is below.

I will say, even though the 100% sharpness isn't great, I love the quality at 50%; the lens has very few aberrations and the softness is relatively easy to address in post-processing as long as you aren't printing a poster. Ultimately, I think getting a clean shot without vibration will outweigh the image limitations of the lens. Considering I got a passable 600mm lens for about $100, I'm pretty happy. Once I've had some more time with the lens in sunny conditions, I'll be able to say more.

In the meanwhile, let me give you a little teaser about posts I'm planning for the next few weeks:

  • Full Sigma 600mm F/8 review with comparisons to Canon 70-200mm F/4 USM.
  • Full FD/EOS converter review and discussion (I'm pretty happy with the $35 model I bought).
  • A brief guide to buying used lenses on eBay.
  • A guide to dealing with fungus on a lens.
  • A brief teleconverter guide.
  • A Canon FD 100mm F/4 Macro review (yeah, just bought one today!).

Friday, January 18, 2008

Inexpensive Super Telephotos

Unidentified backyard bird
Canon 70-200mm f/4 USM

You may think that "Inexpensive Super Telephoto" is an oxymoron. And you'd be right, at least if you want good images from it.

If you are seriously interested in birds or sports where you can't get close to the action, you'll need a super telephoto with focal length 400mm or longer. And suddenly, while you have tons of choices at shorter focal lengths, the choices out there get very few and, for the most part, very expensive.

I've already talked about mirror lenses, and my Sigma 600mm F/8 is on its way to me as I write this. I've also ordered the FD-to-EOS converter, so hopefully I'll get some sample images up by the weekend. Hopefully...

This time around, I want to discuss some of my research into inexpensive refractive lenses which give good quality results (i.e. not a $150 70-300mm Phoenix/Tamron/Sigma/generic lens). Granted, those entry level zooms have their place, but the main trade off of the cheap lenses is the long end, so if you are interested in shooting sports or birds outdoors, they aren't going to cut it. My Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6, while pretty short at the wide end, got unbearably soft above 200mm. In fact, I'd be better off upsampling from a quality 200mm than using the 300mm range of the Tamron (see full review). While newer or more expensive zooms (especially the Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, $550 at Amazon) are improved in this range, the long end is usually where performance begins to decay, especially wide open.

Besides, if you need 300mm (which really is a 480mm equivalent for APS sensor dSLRs) you can always use a high quality 200mm zoom, like the Canon 70-200mm f/4L USM (review, $550 at Amazon). For the record, if you want to shoot anything indoors at 300+mm, good luck, you're going to have to just suck it up and spend on fast, heavy glass.


An Example...

Why is it really necessary to go beyond 200mm anyway? Well, let me illustrate with an example from birding.

I shot a sequence of images of the bird in the composite that began this post. It was shot on a Canon 20D with Canon 70-200mm f/4L USM @ 200mm, approx 1/2000sec, ISO 200. I'll explain the boxes and notations in a second.

Pretty decent shot, I didn't nail the focus but was pretty close, as you can see from the 100% crop below (click it to see it at full size, FYI).

The nice thing about the 70-200 L-glass is it really comes close to the theoretical limit of the sensor, especially if you convert from RAW like I did. Every pixel counts. The image could be posted with some minor processing at web-resolution and I'll be proud of it. But beyond web resolution (approx 75 dpi) it falls short, especially if you have have to use an ISO greater than 200 (some of the images were shot with ISO 400 and the noise was distracting and hard to remove). And a smaller bird, like a hummingbird, is very difficult to get (trust me, I've tried).

So, what will longer focal lengths give us? Refer back to the original image and note the green (400mm) and red (600mm) boxes. These are the areas that would be covered by the respective lenses. Crops of those areas, for examples, are below (not full-res though):


Essentially, if I crop from a 200mm, 8 megapixel shot to get the same magnification as a 400mm lens I'm only getting a 2 megapixel image. 2 megpix images are ok for printing as long as they are perfect technically (no problems with blurring, focus, etc). If I crop to a 600mm equivalent, I'm left with less than a megapixel (think cellphone camera). Obviously, if you care about using your images for anything but the web, either now or in the future, 200mm isn't going to cut it for taking pictures of birds smaller than chickens.

The other advantage of longer glass, which you'll know about if you've ever tried to take pictures of birds, is you can use a much longer working distance to get the same shot of a bird.


Let's Talk About Glass...

So, when I began, I took a survey of what refractive lenses are out there in the sub-$1000 range (for new lenses, I relaxed that a bit). You can get some pretty good quality for the price, but you mostly give up your maximum aperture, typically settling for f/5.6. Obviously, I don't own any of these lenses, so my brief comments are gleaned from looking at a ton of reviews online. Since I shoot Canon, this survey is Canon-centric, specifically EOS, although the third party lenses fit a lot of cameras (and are often cheaper than the Canon mounts). Also, I quote Amazon's price for the new lens for comparison, but look around before you make any big purchase. Finally, the LP[X/Y.Y] is the Lensplay rating, click the link to see the page.

Let's start with the fixed focal length primes:
  • Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM ($1,080 at Amazon) LP[9/9.4] Top notch lens, expensive, but popular with bird photographers. This is the lens I'd get if I had the cash. None of these lenses have been listed on eBay in the last month -- that's the sign of a good lens. (Luminous-Landscape review comparing it to Canon 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6L)
Yeah, that's it. Nobody makes long primes anymore that aren't really fast (and expensive) because the general consumer would rather have a zoom. Which kinds of screws us, the cheap but knowledgeable photographer who'd rather have the better quality of a prime at a cheaper price.

Well, how about the zooms:
  • Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM ($1,300 from Amazon) LP[8/9.0] Highly respected, includes optical image stabilization, highest price tag of any lenses on this list. I put it on here mostly for completeness. At the long end, wide open, sharpness isn't perfect (according to the Luminous-Landscape review). The Nikon equivalent is the 80-400mm.
  • Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 EX DG HSM ($920 at Amazon) LP[6/9.0] a.k.a. 'Bigma' since it is a 4 lb (2 kg) monster. The only known lens with a 10x zoom range and a 500mm long end. Well regarded, especially by birders. Includes HSM (like Canon's USM) but has a larger price tag than most of the other zooms.
  • Sigma 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 EX OS APO ($1,000 at Amazon) LP[7/8.5] Sigma's direct competitor to the Canon 100-400mm IS, since OS is Sigma's optical stabilization designation. Generally well-reviewed, but whether it is better than the Canon 100-400mm is up for debate (probably not).
  • Sigma 135-400mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG APO Aspherical ($525 at Amazon) LP[6/7.7] This seems to be the budget super-zoom in the Sigma line, but I'd generally avoid it in favor of the 170-500mm below. Even thought it is cheaper than most lenses, the 400mm end is supposed to be quite soft.
  • Sigma 170-500mm f/5-6.3 DG RF APO Aspherical ($710 on Amazon) LP[6/7.7] This lens was actually news to me when I wrote up this post, but Amazon reviews seem to be quite positive (click link above). Photographyreview thread with sample pics and photographyreview lens page. Both those links talk about softness wide open and difficulty with autofocus with the f/6.3 aperture. Generally reviews are pretty mixed with a slant towards positive.
  • Tamron SP Autofocus 200-500mm f/5-6.3 Di LD IF ($830 on Amazon) LP[7/8.4] The reviews I've been reading say this lens is good, but it is soft on the wide end after 400mm. Bob Atkins has an excellent review with lots of images at photo.net.
  • Tokina AF 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AT-X Pro D ($650 at Amazon) LP[5/6] (may be old version?) Mixed reviews at photographyreview.com, but again, that may be an older version. General consensus is that it is a bit soft on the long end.
If you've already got a good quality lens in the <=200mm range and our looking for great quality at the long end, zooms generally aren't the way to go. Most, if not all, zooms give up sharpness at the long end which is usually your biggest concern if you are wanting to shoot birds. Yes, even the Canon 100-400mm. So don't expect perfect sharpness wide open at the long end. Another big factor is image stabilization. I've never used IS/OS so I can't testify if it is worth the increased premium it adds to the lens price. I expect it'd be very useful if you like to handhold your camera at the long end, so it might be something to keep in mind. Currently only the Canon 100-400 and Sigma 80-400 include it. Another thing to note is the sheer number of lenses in Sigma's range. I'm shocked they don't reduce the number of zooms by cutting one or two out (I expect they will soon). The 50-500mm is super heavy but great if you want a crazy long zoom. The image quality is supposed to be quite good and the price reflects that. My personal opinion would be either the Sigma 50-500mm, Sigma 170-500mm or Tamron 200-500mm if you are interested in birding. The extra length allows you to compensate for the decreased performance at the long end. Ultimately, I'm not planning on buying a new zoom, so I haven't done a detailed comparison of these three lenses. Expect to spend a decent chunk of change no matter what zoom you choose, and for the price, do whatever you can to try out the lenses before purchasing. Being the cheap guy I am, I think the used market has some better deals...

The Used Market

  • Tamron AF 200-400mm f/5.6 LD IF LP[6/7.7] [eBay prices from $200 to $300] I had a real hard time finding reviews on this lens on the web. It has been replaced by the Tammy 200-500mm. I'd generally steer clear of this lens since reviews point to it being soft at 400mm wide open. The good news is there are plenty floating around on the used market for all camera mounts.
    • Photo.net thread mentioning it is a bit soft on the long end and recommending the Sigma 400mm instead.
    • Momentcorp.com review which actually includes example 100% crops. You can definitely see the softness on the long end, so if you are interested in bird or sports photography, the soft long end will probably bother you a lot.
  • Tokina 400mm f/5.6 AT-X SD LP[not posted] [eBay prices from $200 to $300] This is an older lens, and seems to lack some of the special coatings/lens materials of the newer lenses, which causes more CA. I'd be happy to own it though. Update 12/31/08: An eBay seller reported that they do not suffer from the Error 99 problem. That one sold for $250 including shipping.
  • Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO HSM LP[7/8.3] [eBay prices from $350 to $500] This is my top choice for a used lens, if I had the money. All reviews are very positive and there are a decent number out on the used market. Update 1/2/09: Turns out there's four versions of this lens out there (details) -- non-APO (not recommended, maybe $150 used?), APO but non-HSM (smaller focus wheel, ~$200-$250 used), APO telemacro, but no HSM ($250-$300 used, monster focus wheel, filter size 72mm), and HSM (filter size 77mm). The HSM is the newest and the best, but the APO telemacro is pretty good too. All suffer from the Sigma Err99 problem on 10D?, 20D+, 5D+ Canon cameras though, so assume that you won't be able to use apertures other that wide open reliably unless the lens has been rechipped. FYI, Sigma no longer rechips these lenses.
For me, it ultimately comes down to choosing between the Sigma and Tokina because I'd prefer the increased sharpness of a prime. A direct comparison of the two can be found at this Dyxum page comparing the Sigma and Tokina 400mms. Even though the sample images seem to show the Tokina as a bit sharper, the author prefers the Sigma for real-life use. The Sigma definitely has more chromatic aberration than the Tokina.

Especially notable is the difference in price -- if you can get a Tokina 400mm for $200, that's a great deal and worth purchasing, even if it isn't quite as good as the Sigma. So, if you are patient, the best budget birding lens is probably the Tokina 400mm. Overall, you can cut the cost in half or less if you are willing to go with a used prime vs a new zoom.

Hopefully this compilation of cheap super telephoto options will be helpful to you. I know I'll be able to use it as a resource once I can finally scrape together enough cash for a good birding lens.

Oh, and my Sigma arrived yesterday, although I'm still waiting on the converter to mount it to my 20D. More details to come.


Random References:

Search on eBay:

For convenience, here's an eBay gadget listing the current sales of 400mm budget f/5.6 lenses. Always double-check the listing to make sure they aren't the FD versions (there's a bunch floating around). I was careful with the search terms, so there should be only a few good matches listed at any one time.



Sunday, January 13, 2008

More Birds From the Bay


A few more bird shots from the trip out to the bay about a month ago. As you can see in the shot above, there were a ton of bird out on the water (I'm not sure if it is technically called the bay in this area, or something else). As always, click to see the images larger.

It is actually quite fun to find some birds, shoot them, then try to identify them online. The two best resources I've found are Whatbird.com and Wikipedia. Whatbird has a great search feature that lets you refine the species based on shape, location, coloring, head features, etc. The only drawback is that it is essentially an online bird book, and everything is from illustrations, which is sometimes hard to compare to the photos of birds. Wikipedia is great once you know the species of the bird because it offers a lot more information and photos.

I'm considering spawning off a separate blog to act as a repository for the birds I've photographed -- an online scrapbook or portfolio. We'll see, though.

So, without further explanation, here are the rest of the shots I got with their links.

Male and Female Mallards (Info: Wikipedia, Whatbird)


Perched Red-shouldered Hawk (Info: Wikipedia, Whatbird)
My other hawk pic (the one above may be a juvenile).


Black-chinned Hummingbird (Info: Wikipedia, Whatbird)


Friday, January 11, 2008

Sigma 600mm f/8: An eBay 'Oops'


An eBay mistake can be a very expensive mistake. One bad click can... well, that's why they make you confirm your bid.

On the other hand, one impulse bid and... well, let's start from the beginning.

******

By the date marked on my draft containing my notes, I know I started looking on Tuesday. It'd been on my mind for a while before that, but Tuesday was when I got serious.

I wanted a longer lens to shoot images of birds with.

Of course, you know that. I've wanted a decent macro lens and a super telephoto beyond 300mm for a while. But after my last outing (note to self: some of the pictures from which still need to be posted), I'm really realizing that 200mm isn't going to cut it for any birds smaller than a chicken that aren't brain-damaged enough to let me get really close to them. So I need a longer lens to reach them.

The problem is, long telephotos contain a lot of glass. And those ground glass elements need to be high caliber. And lots of heavy, precision glass in a tube costs lots of money...

Money. That's my problem. I don't have enough of it.

Most lenses in the 400mm or longer range cost more than $1,000. Used. Hell, the majority of lenses longer than 400mm are $2,000+ since the shooters that need them are professional nature or sports photographers. For an amateur like me though, I'd ideally like something in the $200 range. And most telephotos in the $200 or below range are absolute crap.

But, common wisdom says there's got to be some good deals out there, so that's what I was on eBay doing. Looking for deals, researching old lenses in Google, and trying to figure out a way to get some extra reach for between $100 and $200. I've got lots of options to share with you, including some bargain (but good quality) lenses, teleconverters, and vintage equipment (and how to make it work) but I need to pace myself on those posts.

Because I already bought a lens today on eBay.

******

I was on my main eBay page, and I noticed that the Sigma 600mm f/8 I'd e-mailed the seller about was set to end in 2 minutes. And hey, she had one bid, at her (lowered) asking price of $69.99. So I clicked over to it.

Hmm... 1 minute, 25 seconds left. Why didn't I want this lens again? Isn't it a deal at this new price?

Reload the page; 45 seconds left. Maybe I should take a shot at it. It'd be a deal if I got it for $80, right?

Click the bid button, type in my password, type in $80. If I win it, it was meant to be. Submit.

"You are winning, but the auction isn't over yet!" it says. My bid is $78. 17 seconds left. Is the other guy going to snipe it from me? Wait, I think I want him to snipe it. Why didn't I want this lens again?

"Congratulations! You are the winning bidder!" It says.

Crap
, I say. What have I done?

******

Not all lenses work using refraction like a magnifying glass. In fact, many long focal length lenses, such as telescopes (both the intergalactic type on mountains and those for hobbyists), use mirrors to reflect the light and achieve high magnification without really large solid blocks of glass. The most common system used in camera lenses and telescopes is a catadioptric system which folds light back in to itself to achieve high magnification in a small, light package. Often, these lenses are referred to as mirror or reflex lenses, although they also have refractive lenses in them.

Reflex lenses are notorious for being cheap long telephotos with very limited performance. One big drawback is the donut-shaped bokeh which can be very distracting if you have bright highlights behind your subject. Another drawback is that they always have a fixed aperture, typically very slow, which is in direct conflict with the need for a high shutter speed for such a long focal length. Also, these lenses almost never have autofocus. Finally, while mirror lenses are typically cheaper, cheapness results in low quality optics.

Of those, the Sigma 600mm f/8 is one of the better lenses. There are definitely other, higher quality reflex lenses out there, most notably the solid-cat Vivitars (named for the solid glass instead of air inside the 'light-folding' area). But when I was looking around, the Sigma 600mm f/8 was always very well-respected... for a reflex lens. Mirror lenses have a bad name, especially for their slowness, and most reviews of them have been negative.

My sources on the subject:

In my research, there was one page that really convinced me that a reflex lens was not a good way to go:
  • Nobell.org comparison between Sigma 600mm w/ FD converter and a 200mm Canon lens. The review shows the Sigma 600mm w/ converter actually performing worse than an up sampled 200mm. Not at all what I expected.
Of course, I didn't remember all this stuff BEFORE I bid...

******

In true masochistic fashion, I decide to look at all the links above again AFTER I win the bid. When it is too late to change anything.

Essentially, the Sigma 600mm F/8 is one of the better mirror lenses, but most mirror lenses are so quirky and lacking in performance that everyone prefers refractive lenses. I did get the lens at the going rate of a little under $100 (it was a $300 lens new), although it appears my lens is an older version of the Sigma 600mm F/8. Hopefully that won't hurt me too much.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention something...

It is a Canon FD-mount lens.

I won't go into the details here, but the FD mount is what Canon totally scrapped when it switched to the EF/EOS mount. FD lenses, about 20 years old, can't be mounted on the new cameras and require an FD to EOS adapter (with optical component) to make them work. Without the optical component the adapter works as an extension tube, causing you to lose infinity focus... Hmm, when do we not care about autofocus and infinity focus, yet like extension tubes?

But I digress, that's another post for another day.

So I'll need to grab an FD to EOS adapter on eBay ($40 shipped). And even then, according to the Nobell.org comparison, it may not even perform better than upsampling images from my Canon 70-200mm F/4. In other words, it might be worth nothing to me and I'll have to turn around and sell it again on eBay. I'm hoping that part of the performance problem is from the lens in the converter -- I've heard rumors that most mirror lenses can focus past infinity, so maybe I can use the converter without the optical lens for my needs (some have removable lenses), and gain some quality.

But it's paid for and will be shipped out on Monday, so I guess we'll find out, won't we...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

2007 in Review: Sound Off!

Ok, so we've reviewed the first year of Please Excuse Me... for both statistics and content.

Now is the time to see who's reading and what you want to hear. So, if you are a regular reader or just stumbled on the site today, if you are a family member, friend, or a photography fanatic in another country, please leave me a comment. You can be anonymous if you like, I don't mind. I just want to get an idea of who is reading and what my audience is interested in.

So, to that end, let me know if there's anything about the site you like, if there's anything you hate, and if there's anything you'd like to see more of. If you have a photography blog similar to this one, leave a link, I'll check it out.

I'm really looking forward to seeing who's reading the blog. From my stats, it looks like there might be 30 or so regular readers, but it's really hard to tell the specifics. Any feedback I get will be greatly appreciated!

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Purchased: Lambency Flash Diffuser

It is amusing how fast I can go from surfing the web to grabbing my credit card to make a photography purchase.

The newest item I've purchased is the Lambency Flash Diffuser from DealExtreme.com. I've actually had my eye on this thing for a while, beginning back in August when I saw a Gary Fong Lightsphere for sale on DPC. I looked into it, decided that $30 was a good price shipped, but then missed out on the sale. After that, I considered buying a new one or one on eBay but the prices were too high (typically $50+). So I figured I'd get some Tupperware and experiment since the price was so high.

Then, more recently, I noticed that someone on eBay was selling what looked like a knock-off of the light sphere. While I didn't order one (from China, I'm always a little leery of overseas orders), I filed the information away for later in case I wanted it.

Finally, a few days ago, John Harrington posted about the knock-offs on the Photo Business News & Forum. Apparently, Fong's idea was copied by a Chinese manufacturer and Fong has gotten his lawyers involved. On the off chance Fong can get shipments to America shut down (good luck, copyright law rarely extends outside of America), I wanted to get one before they disappeared. Not to mention, my pics over Christmas really reminded me a simple, commercial diffuser would be nice to have around.

And, believe it or not, you can get a Lambency Flash Diffuser (shown in the images on this page) for under $17. That's including shipping from China! Nice -- cheaper than Tupperware!

You may ask, how can I sleep at night buying a product whose idea was stolen from Fong? Well, very well, thank you. As far as I'm concerned, I'm getting a cheaper product at a cheaper price, and I'm ok with that. Yeah, if money wasn't an issue, I'd go with the Lightsphere. Fong includes a how-to DVD with it which definitely adds some value, not to mention Fong probably has a slightly superior design. But money is an issue, a big issue, and if I can get a similar item for about a third of the price, I'll do it. As a side note, it looks like Fong has had to drop his price to $40 instead of $50 due to the competition.

My only issue ordering from DealExtreme has been which Lambency Diffuser to choose. I finally decided to go with the most expensive (they have three different price levels, ranging in total by about $1) since it stands to reason that'd be the largest, and since Sunpak 383's have one of the largest flash heads (according to Fong's tables) I went with the most expensive, SKU 7385. From the sound of it, they are stretchy enough that they mold to your flash after a certain amount of time. And I'm willing to do surgery if needed. I'd worry more if it were more expensive, but I can take some risks for under $20.

When it arrives (in 3 business days + 14 days shipping by airmail), I'll do a review!

Note: I've finally received the diffuser and posted my review. Check it out for more info!

Monday, January 7, 2008

2007 in Review: A Brief Overview

[This is the second in a series of three posts reviewing the past year of Please Excuse Me While I Clean My Lens. The first is here.]

It took a while, but I finally completed my relabeling task. Turns out it required a lot more time and thought that I expected. Throughout the post below, I've linked specific posts and groups of posts corresponding to the major topics of this blog. If you are new to the blog, this post is a great way to catch up on the topics that interest you.

Also, all posts labeled with about relate to the purpose of this blog -- check them out if you are trying to get acquainted with the site.

So without further ado, let me give you a brief review of the first year of this blog.

**********

The blog began on January 1st, 2007 as a Photo-a-Day blog; my goal was to post a photo each and every day for a year. I had just received a Canon Digital Rebel XT for Christmas and I was wildly taking pictures of everything around me. Some of the photos were quite good, but in general, most of them weren't since I was just starting. For instance, check out the difference between my images from January '07 and my images from December '07. Quantity was the best part of the Photo-a-Day task -- it forced me to take a ton of pictures and process them.

I ended up posting a photo almost every day for a little under three months. During that time I took a lot of pictures, but some of the main themes were Stanford, places I visited, nature, and art in the area. It was during this time that I also discovered DPChallenge and Strobist, two amazing resources that pushed my photographic technique ahead by leaps and bounds. Eventually, though, posting a picture every day was too much of a chore and I burned out. So, at the end of March, I decided a new direction was needed.

The new direction was a focus on quality over quantity of posts. Instead of a post every day, I wanted to get a post up every few days but make the posts more useful. Over the next month I posted about what I cared about, including a new welcome post, camera hardware (a common theme in the blog), and whatever else I could think of. I also started the Quick Tip series (short, focused advice I wish I knew when I started photography) and the Anatomy of a Photo series (more in-depth descriptions of how certain images came to be).

The newfound freedom to break out of a photo each post each day let me explore other interests related to photography, including running a blog (and exploring various resources like Google Adsense for monetizing it), writing reviews, doing DIY projects, and linking things I find interesting.

I also decided to take a crack at starting a small location portrait photography business and wrote up a business plan in late May. Over the summer I completed a number of portraits of friends but realized it wasn't really the way for me to go at this time. First, there are a number of legal and financial issues that'd be difficult to overcome; the main one being that I'd stand to make a lot less money than I can make with my SAT tutoring job for the same amount of time invested. Second, while I enjoyed it, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. And finally, we moved off of Stanford campus.

During early summer I was also heavily involved with making DPChallenge images for the DPL. We ended up squeaking into the playoffs, but lost to the eventual winner. The experience was great and really helped me to define my interest in macro photography (especially flowers and insects).

By the end of the summer, I was quite burned out, and the post output declined during August and September. In October I came back to photography with renewed interest, and produced a lot of posts until the end of the year. I've also found, more recently, that I'm really interested in bird photography.

Currently, I'm going through another slow period, although I have some posts planned for the near future, including a few more DIY projects. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Really Strange Adsense Issue

It is strange, but my Adsense revenue has gone from $0.XX to $0.00 a day pretty much as soon as the new year started. Not that the incoming money is anything meaningful, but I naturally am curious about what is different. My traffic is the same, so I'm wondering if something is wrong...

I'll keep you posted (if you care about this kind of stuff).