Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sigma 400mm f/5.6: Adorama and Test Shots

This morning I was already planning out some bad things I was going to say about Adorama in a post today. Specifically, they seemed to forget about mailing it out (I e-mailed them on Wednesday after ordering the lens on Sunday and asked why I did not have a tracking number yet; miraculously I didn't hear anything until it was in the mail the next day, UPS 3-day instead of ground!) and they gave me the wrong information on whether the lens suffered from the Err 99 problem.

Then, I e-mailed them this morning, and my tune changed significantly.

Here's the e-mail trail:


I received the lens and it is in good shape.

Except -- before bidding, I asked if it was fully compatible with a 20D and you said it was. This was the conversation:

Me: "Does this lens work on a 20D?"
You: "Yes, it is compatible with Canon 20D."
Me: "So, to be completely clear, this lens does not have the Sigma incompatibility that causes Err 99s on a 20D, 30D, etc. It has been rechipped (or didn't need the rechip) and works perfectly on newer cameras?"
You: "It should work fine."

But, I tried it out and it will not stop down, throwing an Err 99 on my 20D whenever I am in a mode other than A or M and whenever I try to set an aperture other than wide open in those modes.

I'm a bit unhappy about this -- not that the problem exists, because I was aware that older Sigma lenses have some incompatibilities, but that I wasn't given a straight answer about the condition of the lens so I could adjust my bidding accordingly. I would expect that a used camera dealer like Adorama would know the status of a lens or at least have the resources to verify if the problem exists. I bid on this lens with the understanding that it was fully compatible with my 20D and I am disappointed that it does not.

Is there something that can be done? What are your return policies? Is there a possibility of a partial refund if I was to keep it and save the return shipping (maybe 10% of the price)?


Good Afternoon Sean, We apologize for any inconvenience this may caused you. Would you be happy with $50.00 dollars as partial refund? Best regards Louis

That was way easier than I thought. Of course, I had them over a barrel and they knew it -- I had clearly asked about the Err 99 problem, they had given me the wrong information, and I had bid more than I normally would have. I just did not expect them to respond within an hour and offer a partial refund (my preferred method to resolve it) for more than I had asked for. More than fair!

As Louis said (if you contact them ask for Louis!), "Our customers are very important to us."

So, yeah, I feel like I got a decent deal on this lens now. And while I thought Adorama was a little slimy before, my tune has totally changed now. Their quick response to this issue was very commendable.

Oh, and for those of you keeping score at home, note the importance of establishing a communication trail and the importance of protecting your rights and recontacting the seller if anything is wrong. EBay really is a buyer's market -- don't let yourself get abused!

* * * * *

Anyway, I was able to get some sample pics from the lens today. I was looking for a bird to shoot, but all I found was a nest!

The macro capabilities of the lens are pretty decent, but the inability to stop down (plus the really long and unwieldy focal length) make it non-ideal.

Still, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the sharpness and contrast. I'd love to be able to stop it down 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop to sharpen it up even more and gain some depth of field, but it really is pretty sharp wide open. The HSM is really fast and snappy and definitely on par with the USM in my Canon 70-200 f/4. Obviously, the thing is a tank and heavy as hell, and the slow aperture (f/5.6) makes it difficult to get good frame rates, but it worked well on the monopod.

Most of these shots were ISO 400 (with some ISO 200) and minimal editing other than a bit of contrast. If you doubt, here are some straight from the camera 100% crops (from RAW, default settings):

In my mind, camera shake and focus is going to effect the sharpness way more than the optimal ability of the lens. For the shots I nailed the focus and didn't have any shake on, the sharpness was quite good and the contrast and color were beautiful.

More on this lens in a couple of weeks when I have a chance to put it head to head vs the Sigma. I also put the Tamron-F 1.4x teleconverter on it and results were pretty good.

If you've got questions, leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sigma 400mm arrived...

... and I'm a little bit disappointed.

Nothing wrong with the lens, it just exhibits the Err 99 problem. I was really hoping it wouldn't :) I'm not sure if I'll pursue Adorama for it, since the price I paid is pretty decent overall even if it suffers from the problem.

It is one of those things where I'd be shooting wide open or slightly stopped down anyway, so I'm not really losing much. But the idea that I can't stop down bugs me. Either way, it is a stop-gap lens until I can get a better one, so I should be happy. And for $300, it is a darn good lens (as far as I can tell). I'll evaluate it again in the light of day (although that may not happen for a few days).

Other impressions:

  • It is really, really heavy.
  • It is very big!
  • The HSM is pretty nice -- seems to lock on solidly, even indoors, and it moves pretty quickly.
  • Solidly built (except the hood) and in good condition.
  • Nice case and packing.

Sigma 400mm to arrive today...

... and I'm pretty excited.

Of course, I'm working/transporting kids until 9 pm so I won't get to try it out for a while. I may stop home quickly if it is delivered before I need to pick up the kids (not wild about a $300 lens sitting outside my door for too long). That is, assuming a signature is not required...

A few more Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO Telemacro HSMs have shown up on eBay, and I'm realizing more and more that the HSM usually does not have the Err99 compatibility problem. I suspect it was released right during the time when Sigma realized the mistake so Sigma rechipped many of them before they left the factory and others were sent back soon after purchase. That makes the HSM significantly more valuable on the Canon mount than the others since it is much more likely to allow full aperture control. In fact, there's an HSM lens currently listing for $455 with a little bit of time left, meaning mine may be worth significantly more than just $300 (if I was willing to sell it again).

There's also another lens that just went up which has two spots of mold or fungus on the front element. While fungus is generally a bad thing, it might be an opportunity to get a decent lens cheaply and then get it cleaned.

The current listings are below (this is the same search I've been using to track Tokina and Sigma lenses)...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Microstock: UGCX 2009

I wouldn't say I've abandoned microstock, but it has been pushed way to the backburner lately. I still have hopes of contributing a small number of images and making a little pocket change, but I'm ok if I make nothing on it. I also still have hopes of summarizing my earnings in a post here but have not gotten around to it (heck, I'll save you some trouble -- two Big Macs!).

When I first started reading about the UGCX (User Generated Content Conference & Expo) -- a conference which will including a lot of microstock authors and players -- on Microstock Diaries, I really wasn't all that interested in going. Then I realized it was only 15 miles away, the week after my PhD defense, and an Expo Hall pass was complimentary (including the keynote speeches)...

You can't beat free!

So I've registered (free expo passes are available until Jan 28th) and I'm hoping to get down there to check out a keynote speech or two and take a walk around the Expo floor. I'm not expecting much and I have no goals in going, but why not check it out?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO Telemacro HSM Overview

I would love to make this a grand post with lots of pictures and links and great information.

Sadly, I don't have an hour or two to write a blog post at this point. So I'm just going to dash this off and then fill in some blanks later. I figure that is better than to write a post about my decision making on buying a certain lens after I receive it (and my concerns and/or suspicions are faded into history).

A while ago I decided that I wanted a super-telephoto in the 400mm range but compromised with a Sigma 600mm f/8 mirror lens. Since then, while the Sigma has worked pretty well, it has left me wanting a refractive lens so I could actually use more of the shots for stock. Out of boredom (or procrastination) I started monitoring eBay for appropriate lenses.

The first thing I realized was just how many versions there are out there. For instance, these are the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 lenses I know of:

  • Non-Apo. Generally not well reviewed, and not very common. <$150 used, but probably not even worth it unless you can get it really cheap. I haven't seen a lot of them in EOS mount. Suffers from Err 99 (more on that later).
  • APO, but not telemacro. Quite common on eBay, with maybe 6-10 lenses posted a month. Generally seen as a decent performer, but not as good as the telemacro lenses. Easily distinguished by a smaller focus wheel. $150-$250 used. Suffers from Err 99.
  • APO Telemacro. A little less common on eBay -- maybe 3-5 lenses month. The telemacro lenses are very well reviewed and in some cases they've been given better marks than the Canon 400mm f/5.6 USM. A good lens with good optics, but a little on the heavy side. Easily recognized by the monster focus wheel. Most suffer from Err 99. $200-$300 used.
  • APO Telemacro HSM. Pretty rare -- I've seen two this month, but previous months I didn't see any. Optically identical to the non-HSM telemacro and physically only differs slightly, but includes the HSM motor (high speed manual?), a USM equivalent. The most recent version, and only released in EOS mount and (some other mount I can't remember). Some suffer from Err99, but many don't. $250-$400 used.
I've also been keeping an eye out for the Tokina 400mm f/5.6 AT-X SD but that lens is quite rare and does not show up much. Maybe 1-2 a month if you are lucky (beware the manual focus FD version).

For obvious reasons, I've only been looking at the Canon EOS mount since I want autofocus to work on my camera. The big issue with Canon versions of the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO lenses is that most were released before the 20D/350D and newer cameras, when Canon tweaked their lens communication code and caused older Sigma lenses to not work. As a result, most 400mm f/5.6 lenses cause an Err 99 code on newer Canon cameras, locking up the camera.

All is not lost though, since the glitch is something to do with aperture communication when the lens stops down. So, if you keep the lens at f/5.6 (in A or M mode) it does not glitch as much. The down-side of that is you are always shooting wide-open, which makes good lens performance important (which is why the telemacro version is much preferable). Of course, I haven't been able to test one of these lenses, so this is speculation on my part. From a recent eBay auction, the problem is described as:
It works on all Canon EOS cameras, film and digital. However, on a recent digital body like 450D, 30D or the 5D, it must be used at full aperture f/5.6. Auto focus works well and automatic metering can be used in aperture priority mode on these cameras. Manual Focus works always well at any aperture.
The fix for the Err 99 problem is called 're-chipping' the lens, which Sigma used to do for free, but now no longer does it. From what I've heard, 're-chipping' is simply reprogramming the communication chip without even opening the lens up but they call it 're-chipping' out of habit.

Of course, on mounts other than Canon, I've seen no mention of incompatibility problems.

In other auctions, I've seen lenses with the Err 99 incompatibility marked as Not for digital (including the seller adorwin, who I got my lens from, the eBay branch of Adorama). Either way, it is worth asking the seller about the problem. Some have no clue about the glitch though, so beware if you get a strange answer.

In my case, I asked about the problem and got a relatively clear answer but am still not entirely convinced. This was the conversation:
Me: "Does this lens work on a 20D?"
Them: "Yes, it is compatible with Canon 20D."
Me: "So, to be completely clear, this lens does not have the Sigma incompatibility that causes Err 99s on a 20D, 30D, etc.
It has been rechipped (or didn't need the rechip) and works perfectly on newer cameras?"
Them: "It should work fine."
So, I'm 80% sure I'm getting a newer version with no incompatibility. I've definitely heard of the HSM version having the problem and not having the problem. Given the chance of a re-chipped lens, my lens is easily worth the $305 I paid (including shipping). The re-chipped lenses can definitely command a price premium on eBay.

Even without the chip, I was still after a Sigma 400mm f/5.6 telemacro since they are reputed to be quite sharp wide open, and most of the time you'll be shooting wide open with a super-telephoto anyway. It is a nice option to stop down to get a little extra sharpness, but not a deal-breaker.

Watching eBay for a protracted amount of time I noticed a few things that I found odd. For instance, on the lens I won, about half-way through the 10 day auction time two guys got into a bidding war and drove the price over $350. Then, a few days later I checked the price on a whim and found that both bidders were gone! Apparently they both had their bids retracted, which I've never seen before. That seemed a bit odd to me.

Another funny thing was I bid a few times (already in the lead each time) including a final bid raising my max from $283 to $293. Since I wouldn't be around when the auction closed, I wanted to make sure I had the best chance of winning it, but I didn't want to spend more than $300. Well, as it turned out, the guy who was the second place bidder made a final bid of $285. If I hadn't raised my bid by that $10 I would have lost the lens!

Another odd thing I've noticed is the same buyer going after many of these Sigma 400mm f/5.6 lenses even after he's already won one of them. I've also noticed the same seller placing at least two of these lenses up for auction at relatively high prices. I have to wonder if someone is trying to turn a quick buck by flipping these Sigma 400mm lenses. I'll keep watching and try to figure it out!

I have more to say (including the fact that I'm going to sell off a bunch of stuff to pay for this lens), but I'm out of time tonight and I need to get to bed. I should get the lens in the next week or so and I'll at least post an image or two to whet your appetite while I wait until after my defense to get some real time using the lens.

Sigma 400mm Reviews:
Photography Review

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I just won...

... this.

(if you can't see it, it is a used EOS mount Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO Telemacro HSM)

I got a pretty decent price ($290 + $15 S/H) especially since there is a decent chance it doesn't have the Err 99 incompatibility. Even if it does, it is still a decent price for this lens, since the HSM is quite rare and the condition seems good.

I'll be selling some lenses to cover the cost, including my Sigma 600mm reflex (once I'm satisfied the new lens is better).

More details soon...

Friday, January 16, 2009

THIS is a lens...

I've been randomly searching around for 400mm telephoto primes and/or a decent medium cost macro when I stumbled on the Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG APO IF.

All I have to say is... wow. The thing weighs 35 lbs and gives you 500mm @ f/2.8 (or, if you use the included 2x teleconvertor, 400-1000mm @ f/5.6).

Too bad it costs $25K, or the equivalent of a pretty nice car.

I bet it makes some pretty nice images though!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

50D vs 5D... or 1Ds Mark I?

Another in a long line of posts that I write, make it a draft so I can do one final edit, then forget about it for over a week.

I guess I am not alone in realizing that the new Canon 5D Mark II opens up some opportunities to snap up the 5D Mark I for a good price. In fact, a lot of people realized that the price of the 5D and 50D are very similar and there's a lot of debate about which is better. As you probably know, I would prefer the 5D.

Bob Atkins (bio), a very knowledgeable person in all things EOS, has an interesting post about the 50D vs 5D debate. Go ahead and read it. Yeah, really, I mean read it. Even if you shoot Nikon or some other camera than Canon, give it a quick read. There's some bigger issues discussed here than just camera models.

Ok, are you back yet?

So, I take no issue with his first point.

In fact, I think it is important for all photographers to realize that diffraction reduces sharpness at smaller apertures. I knew this somewhere in my head, but I also distinctly remember wondering a few months ago why my images at f/22 weren't as sharp as I hoped they'd be. Put simply, after f/16 or so, expect sharpness to decrease as you stop down. This happens for all cameras from all makers. Bob also has a good point about the trade-off between spherical aberration and diffraction and the basic 'sweet spot' of any lens.

On the second point I have to cry 'Bad Science!'.

Yes, I get his point; the 50D's 15.1 MP is better than the 40D's 10.1 MP and this difference shows up even with crappy lenses. If you can call the kit lens 'crappy'. Actually, the kit lens isn't that bad, which many have been saying all along.

My main issue with Bob's comparison is that the experimental evidence suggests that APS-C resolution peaks at around 12 MP (again, see my previous post for details). Honestly, I suspect it might be somewhere between 12 - 15 MP, but the point remains... of course the 10.1 MP sensor in the 40D is outresolved by the 50D!

Also, I have to say the evidence Bob provided was less than compelling -- the JPEG artifacts in those images were more noticeable than the resolution differences. I consider my eyes pretty good, but I was hard-pressed to see a big difference in those images. And for that reason, the other factors, like the cost and improved screen, would be more important to me than the extra resolution when deciding between the 40D and 50D.

Ok, maybe my cry of 'Bad Science!' was a little premature. I do see Bob's point. He's mostly poking holes in other peoples' arguments that the 50D has no increase in resolution over the 50D. And he does demonstrate that there is a meaningful difference in picture quality between the 40D and 50D even on the kit lens. It sounds like he is taking aim at those people who are trying to compare 100% crops between the cameras -- of course the 100% crop of a 15 MP camera will be less 'sharp' than a 100% crop of a 12 MP camera. I fully agree -- pixel peeping is not what makes a camera useful.

I still really wish Bob had posted some better images though. It might even be cool to see the difference on an "L" lens between those two cameras. It'd also be really interesting to see the difference between a 12 MP sensor and the 15 MP sensor, if that's possible.

* * * * *

Ultimately, I think we are splitting hairs on this 40D vs 50D comparison. If you have the cash, buy the 50D. If you don't, buy the 40D. If you are somewhere in between, compare the features (I'd consider the 50D more of a 13 MP camera than a 15 MP though) and make an educated decision.

Then focus on your pictures.

After all, a picture of a turd is still a picture of a turd whether it is captured in 10.1 MP or 15.1 MP!

* * * * *

A little addendum to this post which is (somewhat) related.

Turns out, the 5D Mark I isn't the least expensive full frame camera on the used market.

The Canon 1Ds is.

On eBay, the 11 MP 1Ds prices have dipped below $900 while the 12.8 MP 5D is still scratching $1000. A local craigslist ad had a 1Ds for $950, well below used 5D prices.

Sadly, there's a reason you can pick up a used 1Ds for less than a used 5D. The 1Ds is from the previous generation than the 5D Mark I, meaning worse noise performance and a reputation as a very large, heavy brick. On the plus side though, it is full frame and it is a 'professional' camera, meaning weather sealing and an intimidating presence.

For more, check out:
  • thread: 100% crops comparing the two cameras. Not a huge difference visible.
  • Sportshooter thread: Echos most of what I've seen on the web -- the 1Ds has significantly worse low noise performance, a slow and hard to use interface, and weighs a ton.
If I could get one cheap, I might consider the 1Ds for a stop-gap camera. Plus, I'd look really good with a professional camera around my neck (and permanently adjusting my body to a stooped position).

But I'm still left wanting the 5D to have it both ways: full frame AND low noise performance!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

2008 in Review

Last year at this time, I wrote three big posts on the preceding year.

This year, I'm going to write a little bit less.

The main topic early this year was hardware, especially the Sigma 600mm, and included some Reviews. Heck, this isn't a hardware blog, but it sure looks like one sometimes because I like hardware. I also explored RAW software to replace my aging RawShooter and settled on Bibble Pro.

My main subjects were the usual birds and insects with a little baseball thrown in.

Near the end of the year my main focus was microstock and I even set up a little studio in the garage. Of course, then I got distracted by my PhD and microstock was mostly forgotten. It didn't help that the future return was very low for the effort put in.

Which brings me up to now. I'm still hard at work finishing my dissertation and so that is the main blog I've been updating. For the future? Well, once I defend in February I'll have some more time to do photography.

I have plans for a new website which I am very excited about but I've promised myself I'll wait until I defend before I set anything up. Let's just say if you like cheap used hardware, you should like what I have in mind.