Sunday, 22 September 2013

Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6

For the price (one of the cheapest in any mount) and features (including a moderately fast maximum aperture of f4 at the widest angle - where you'd most likely use the lens), this is in my opinion the best value wide-angle lens for APS-C sized sensor cameras at the moment.

   The lens is very sharp at the centre (even wide open) and pretty sharp in places but is somewhat blurred frustratingly, in other areas, including the corners. I used the word 'other' because it appears sharp only at seemingly non-logical parts of the frame. This might vary by lens copy however.

   Having said that, when stopped down to between f5.6 and f8, it is noticeably sharper proportionately in all areas. So the sharpness of the lens when stopped down is where this lens shines for me, especially at a price point that makes it very competitive to its rivals.

   Because I shoot with this lens stopped down mostly, I find it works best for landscape work. However, it is possible to get very creative shots in interiors, because of the distortion with close-up objects and simply because of how wide the lens goes. If you do a lot of low-light work, then something with a faster aperture like the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 would serve you better.

   As the lens is so wide it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of such a lens, which include the distortion, which can be a blessing or a sin and the almost necessity to have some sort of foreground interest in the frame.

   This lens is criticised for flare and I agree with that but it is quite alright to change the composition slightly so the Sun is blocked or out of the frame. So for me flare is not too much of an issue, as long as I'm aware of it.

   Build quality is superb, with a very solid feel to the lens and the front of the lens does not rotate or change length when focussing. Also the manual focus and zoom rings are smooth to turn but at the same time resistant enough to avoid slipping. The lens is pretty heavy though.

   I think the range is ideal - it is very wide obviously but the long end of 20mm just overlaps your typical kit zoom so there is no gap in focal lengths.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Sony a57

To keep it short and sweet - it's a bigger, more refined version of the Sony a55!

   To go into a bit more detail, I will outline the many positives this camera, in my eyes, possesses and then nitpick for a while within this review! However, I do feel this is a rewarding camera to use and is one of the best value cameras available at the moment.
   The positives:

   Firstly, and most importantly for me is the image quality. It is excellent for me, striking a good balance between resolution and noise at high ISO. It is very similar to the a55's image quality, however I find the high ISO to be slightly better in jpeg. The RAW files remain quite similar. Talking of RAW files I usually shoot in this format and the amount of shadow detail that can be 'opened up' I find outstanding. Finally, regarding image quality the colours are usually rich, with Auto White Balance doing an accurate job in most light (especially natural light).

   Secondly, for me are the ergonomics. While they are not perfect, after a bit of tinkering with the (few) customisable buttons, they are very intuitive, with good placement of most of the buttons and contoured parts to aid with the already comfortable operation. The exposure compensation button is placed particularly well - considering there isn't a rear control dial - this is the next best thing. I also think the electronic viewfinder that is equipped because of the translucent mirror technology helps a lot in difficult lighting conditions or when in manual mode.

   I find the camera to be very responsive and speedy. Little things like the electronic first cutrain shutter make a big difference and big things like the 12fps maximum shooting mode also make a big difference.

   I appreciate the articulating screen in landscape orientation only - it helps enormously with composition both high and low - but unfortunately isn't so useful in portrait orientation.

   Then there are a few extraneous features thrown in, which I think are genuinely useful and not just 'bells and whistles' like some other features this and other cameras possess. The first of these useful features is focus peaking - available in both the electronic viewfinder and on the LCD screen. This is very useful I think for macro photography/portrait photography where the depth-of-field is usually quite narrow. Another feature that has become prevalent within Sony cameras is 'Sweep Panorama', where in daylight and without many moving objects you can create impressive panoramas quickly.

   One feature, which is not that well documented but which I find invaluable, similar to the a55, is the focus magnifier in manual focus mode. Once you have assigned the focus magnifier to a more accessible button you can zoom in - notably using either the electronic viewfinder or the LCD screen - to aquire precise focus. This can also be used along with focus peaking and the fact both are available within the viewfinder is an advantage in my opinion over 'traditional' DSLRs with an optical viewfinder.

   For people who would use the camera for video, there are a lot of nice attributes, which could make it appealing to videographers. These include autofocus during capture, which is not a feature found implemented well implemented on 'traditional' DSLRs in my opinion. However, the aperture does reamin fixed at f3.5 during these videos shot with autofocus on the a57, which limits its usability somewhat I feel. Having said that, if you are willing to switch to manual focus there is no such limitation and you could use focus peaking to aid your focusing. Also there is the possibility of shooting at different quality levels, notably including the highest setting of 1080p at a couple of different framerates.

   The negatives:
   The depth-of-field/shot preview button stands out as the only non-logical placement as an accessible, useful button as well as the disappointing lack of any user memory spaces on the mode dial (although cameras at the a57's price point generally don't).
   Although the camera offers a few customisable buttons, a lot of these buttons are too valuable in my opinion to substitute. Also some other buttons which are not customisable, probably should be ie. the ? button.

   Although the electronic viewfinder has its merits, I don't think this version is as good as an optical viewfinder in a few areas. Manual focussing is not quite as easy using the electronic viewfinder but can be aided with the focus magnifier/focus peaking. Also the refresh rate is not as quick as some of the better electronic viewfinders that use different technology (notably some are in other Sony cameras). Obviously the refresh rate is much slower compared to an optical viewfinder because an optical viewfinder is, well, optical! However, the ability to get a good idea of what the exposure will look like before you take the picture offsets this, I feel.

   Comparison with Sony a55:
   Well, the most obvious change over the a55 is the size difference. This could be seen as a disadvantage but on the most part I feel it works - the augmentations include a larger handgrip and larger battery (which unsurprisingly holds many more shots), a larger LCD screen and a larger viewfinder. It also incidentally couples well with bigger lenses!

   Then there is the reliabiltiy. The a57 does not tend to (in my experience) overheat, either through making movies or through taking long exposures - like my a55 did.

   Finally, the ability to choose which displays/overlays you cycle through in both the LCD screen and in the electronic viewfinder is a seemingly small but welcome addition.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Sony 35mm f1.8

This is my favourite lens. There are quite a few shortcomings, which I will go into detail about later on but ultimately it is very sharp and I find the 'standard' focal length to be very useful for a variety of uses.

   The lens auto focuses very snappily and accurately, which could be a product of the lens only turning a small fraction of its rotation between infinity and 3 metres. There is then a large rotation until the lens reaches its minimum focus distance, which is usefully short at 23 centimetres. That is one of the features of this lens that I like most: its versatility. You can use the lens for street photography or semi-macro photography even though the lens can't zoom. Or you can use the lens for 3/4 to head and shoulder portraits or for effective available light photography (if you don't want to use a flash).

   That brings me onto my next point, which is making the most use out of a prime lens. Prime lenses probably still offer the best optical quality over zoom lenses but their more profound advantages are the amount of light they can gather and the manner in which they make you think about how you approach each photograph.

   The amount of light gathered by this lens is crucial for handheld low light or night time photography and the lens backs up the fast aperture (which enables the user faster shutter speeds) well with useable amounts of sharpness and only a little bit of vignetting at f1.8. In my experience by f2.2 there is almost no vignetting and the sharpness is superb, while stopping down further increases the sharpness marginally.

   The narrow depth of field on this lens gives the photographer the ability to isolate their subject well at close to mid-range focal lengths at larger apertures. The lens also encourages the user to 'zoom with their feet' where the framing is performed by the photographer themselves, which potentially encourages more refined compositional skills.

   One of my few major quibbles with the lens is the manual focus ring. I know the idea of the lens is to be very cheaply built but with a low price-tag and excellent optics. However I feel it would have been nice to feature a manual focus ring that has at least some kind of resistance.

   On the other hand the front element doesn't rotate when focusing, which is handy if using a polariser. I find a polariser works well on this lens because of firstly the aforementioned, secondly the 'standard' focal length so there aren't any uneven areas of polarisation in the sky for example and lastly the fact you can use larger apertures if required to counteract the light loss from the polariser.

   It is supplied with a lens hood to prevent flair although I personally prefer to leave it off as I can then easily attach a polariser and also the breadth of the camera and lens is significantly smaller.

   The auto focus noise is quite apparent, which could be detrimental to your style of photography, for example street photography or even for users who shoot a lot of videos.

   Overall this lens is very much worth the relatively (compared to other lenses) small amount of money. This is mainly down to the optical quality and the benefits of having any fast prime lens in your bag. You can use such a lens creatively because of the shallow depth of field at f1.8 and partly because of its small size it is the lens that is 'stuck' to my camera most of the time.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Sony 55-200mm lens

This is one of the most underrated lenses in Sony's 'Alpha' lens line-up in my opinion. It is also unfortunately one of the lenses I most neglect when using my Sony camera. This is only due to the fact I have several other 'Alpha' lenses to consider, some of which I think are more practical in focal length and/or the amount of light they can gather at their largest apertures.

   Back to the lens in question, I find it is a very versatile focal length - provided you have a secondary lens for the perhaps more important shorter focal lengths; for instance the 18-55mm 'kit' lens as well. Either this or you intend to have a photo session where only longer focal lengths will be necessary. If you have these prerequisites met in practise the 55-200 mm performs admirably for a lens the price it is available at.

   The zoom ring is solid feeling but smooth to operate. The same goes for the manual focus ring with a nice amount of torque but not so much as to make it stiff to operate. The lens is sharp. In my experience using it, it remains pleasingly sharp at all apertures and focal lengths. If I were to conduct a more stringent test of the lens against such criteria I'm sure I would find some minor discrepancies but in real-world use it is hard to fault its sharpness, which is important for me in a telephoto lens.

    The lens provides pleasant out-of-focus backgrounds in contrast to sharp closer subjects if you are so inclined at longer focal lengths and so can be used as a portrait lens (for me at least). This is mainly due to the long focal lengths. However it is also partly down to the lens being reasonably fast for its class of telephoto lens; with the lens remaining at f4 maximum aperture for a large duration of its focus rotation.

   My next point would be the focal length range itself. Although it possesses less range or maximum focal length compared to other telephoto zooms I found for my uses and photographic style it was perfectly adequate in this regard. Then there is the fact the lens is cheaper and overlaps better in focal length than other telephotos like the 75-300mm for example.

   One last observation is quite minute I think but might be worth considering. Sony's 'Alpha' system features built-in 'steady shot' in the camera body, rather than in-lens stabilisation. While this may be an advantage in low light conditions and works with any lens (both factors that I value in this form of stabilisation), the stabilisation doesn't show up in the viewfinder, which is the case with in-lens stabilisation. This means as the focal length increases, the view through the viewfinder gets more and more 'choppy'. Although this unstable view isn't too pronounced, it is less so at shorter focal lengths, which was an influence in making me choose this focal length range rather than say 75-300mm.

   Finally, I have the first generation of this lens, which seems to be very similar to the second generation apart from the lack of a manual/automatic focus switch on the lens itself.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Pixel Pro TF-363 wireless triggers

I really liked most of all the design of these triggers and their reliability. For the price they felt quite sturdy with nice aesthetics in my opinion. More importantly probably though was how efficient my set of this transmitter and receiver were. So efficient in fact that I hardly ever noticed they were there. This was the best (for me) compliment to offer for an auxiliary peripheral like these triggers because they simply worked well in the background (similar to how a good bass guitar in a band usually operates).

   Some details about the triggers usability would be my next point. The receiver takes either AAA alkaline or rechargeables. The trigger uses a small circular battery (like in watches). Both the transmitter and receiver seemed to last for a long time - I've only changed batteries for each part of the triggers once each.

   The range of the wireless connection between the two is fantastic, in my experience anyway. Although I haven't tested it to its claimed range of 100m yet I have yet to discover them being ineffective at any distance up to around 20m - the maximum distance I have used them.

   A couple practical things of note would be there is a useful indicator on the transmitter and receiver that flashes red or green to signal 'readiness', which I found extremely useful. It didn't take long to figure out what the various blinking or steady red or green 'ready' states meant. For example when changing the group on the receiver to either the A B or C group the receiver's indicator goes from blinking red to constant green when the corresponding group on the transmitter is correctly selected.

   That would bring me to my next practical observation: the groups. There are three groups to which the receiver can be assigned to. If that group corresponds with the set of groups or group on the transmitter then the flash mounted on the receiver should be triggered. The way the groups are arranged on the transmitter would start to become useful if you had more than one flash.

   So overall (wrapping up this shortish review) I found them to be almost perfect so far with only a few non-fires (though this might have been the flash mounted on the receiver) and I have used them a fair bit.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Yongnuo 560

First things first, this flash is manual!

   I thought I'd mention this first because it is the most salient feature - or lack of feature! - prospective buyers should be aware of when considering purchasing this product. The fact the flash is manual shouldn't put you off though; in some ways it can be a virtue while in another way it is a hindrance.

   The hindrance - if you need operability or speed in shooting - is that is doesn't do e-ttl metering meaning you have to set the power yourself. Stop reading this review if you need this feature! This is a double edged sword though.  If you need speed and convenience you can attach the flash and fire away happily - and also pay double the price of this manual flash. If however, you are comfortable with power ratios you can dial in a flash power ratio and then shoot away happily as long as the conditions remain the same - and, here is a big asset of a manual flash for me, the flash exposure will remain consistent. This would be as long as your settings remain the same and the ambient light stays stable.

   In order to alleviate this hindrance/virtue in disguise, you can of course change the power setting on the flash as well as fine-tuning it further. My version of the Yongnuo 560 is the first version. If you were to purchase the quite-new second version, the practicality of fine tuning the power settings is enhanced with a couple of new features.

   Firstly, on the Yongnuo 560 II (the newer version), there is the presence of an LCD screen showing different power settings etc. Also cleverly implemented with this flash is the fine-tuning power settings overlap so you can run through one full power setting to the next one while fine-tuning, which wasn't possible with the first version that I own. For this reason alone I have heavily considered getting the second version as well.

   If you were willing to give up the convenience of e-ttl then you would be left with a very functional flash. The recycle time on its full power (which is pretty bright) is about 2 seconds. At lower powers the recycle time is much shorter; you would be ready to take the next shot as soon as your shutter finger would be ready. In fact there is even a high-speed option for continuous bursts.

   Then there were the small additions and attention to details that made the flash such an appealing proposition for me. These included a diffuser and bounce-card for different lighting effects, a recycle indicator that could be turned on or off, the option of rear-sync flash if selected on-camera and a robust feeling and efficient-to-open/close door for the batteries. The type of batteries it accepted were either AA alkaline or rechargeables. I would recommend rechargeables. Last but not least the flash could be triggered by other flashes (at pleasantly long distances and in daylight), the camera's in-built flash (in a slave mode that ignores pre-flash) or on-camera. Also the flash can be triggered by a trigger - transmitter and receiver combination - one kind of which I hope to review soon.

   Max flash sync-speed on this flash I found was 1/250 on my Sony a55v, which was higher than the maximum sync-speed of the camera and in my experience was a useable limit on such a cheap flash (compared to a flash capable of high speed-sync).

   So altogether this was a solid outing although with no major weaknesses in my eyes. However, if possible it might probably be better to get the newer version.

Sony a55

A very fun camera too use, which for me was a major factor in my deciding to purchase this particular model. Of course this wasn't the only factor; it was and still is (compared to other brands/models) a very functional and mostly efficient camera. Some features that sprung to mind relating to the enjoyment I have experienced while using this camera though were its responsiveness, innovative design and detail in the images - even handheld - that left me pleasantly pleased. This last point of image quality (handheld) importantly (for me anyway) works with any lens in the alpha mount but I have explored that more later on.

   Maybe the most controversial and conversely unique selling points of the SLT-A55V and its sister model the SLT-A33, that was continued later on with subsequent models was that the 'T' in the model name stands for translucent mirror, rather than reflex mirror on conventional DSLRs. This means that the mirror doesn't get out of the way of the light entering the camera, instead reflecting around 30% to the AF sensor above while the rest goes through to the sensor. This information is readily available elsewhere on the Internet etc. though, so I have decided not to bore you anymore describing this system. In brief this system was designed to help the responsiveness of the camera. In some ways it does and other ways it doesn't in my opinion. I would contribute that, rather counter-intuitively, it helps in a lot of indirect ways but lacks slightly in its main aim of speed.

   The cause of most of my perceived benefits and detractors lie in the camera's EVF (electronic viewfinder) that is a consequence of the translucent mirror. It is a very good quality viewfinder, albeit maybe only for non-moving subjects. First I have listed the negatives and then some of the more 'unsung' virtues that have been implemented.


  • when panning the camera there is a 'tearing' of colour making it hard to follow movement accurately - this has been improved in some subsequent SLT's newer EVFs though.
  • there is a blackout when shooting at the camera's impressive maximum 10fps burst mode between frames. This unfortunately continues on the 'HI' continuous setting
  • it obviously has less perceivable detail when looking through it compared to an OVF as that kind of viewfinder is a (small) window of the world. This is most apparent with fine detail like someones hair blowing in the wind.
  • the EVF always 'gains up' to suit the immediate scene, which makes it practically unusable in most studio situations
  • the last negative of this EVF could also be seen as a positive - that is there is less dynamic range than an OVF so high contrast areas can appear blown-out (highlights), or blocked (shadows).

  • so I'll start with the same point about this EVF compared to an OVF as I did with the last negative point: its dynamic range. For me I found this lacking dynamic range occurred only in scenes of extreme contrast. I found in fact it helped in assessing the right exposure for a given scene. This was because the viewfinder would automatically adjust to what it thought was the 'right' exposure. Then, I would decide whether the light and dark areas were 'balanced'.
  • there is the option of a live histogram in the viewfinder to aid with this
  • I found the spirit level invaluable - it has both horizontal and vertical aids
  • a major feature for me - the depth of field button (which can be assigned in the menus) does not get darker as you stop down like with OVFs making it genuinely useful.
  • the focus magnifier (also assignable in the menus) is a master stroke for me in aiding manual focus and I understand in newer SLT models there is the further aid of 'focus peaking', which would probably be even more useful
  • interchangeable grid lines!
  • the EVF again 'gains up' in the dark. Yes, it becomes more noisy but in my opinion this is better than not being able to see much at all through an OVF.
  • in most scenes I usually achieved what I deemed to be the 'right' exposure quickly and maybe more quickly than someone using an OVF camera as the camera always! adjusts according to metering
   This showed the positives (for me) of the EVF were numerous compared to the negatives but more importantly the positives were also more crucial for my way of shooting.

   So most of the  advantages of the T part in the SLT-A55V are somewhat inadvertent. However, I did find the auto-focus to be very snappy indeed and there is no 'mirror slap' or need for mirror-lock-up as the translucent mirror does not move. I was a bit dubious how influential no 'mirror slap' is to image quality even at critical shutter speeds though.

   Then there were the advantages of the Alpha system over others - the main one for me was the in body image stabilisation with any lens. Yes, the view through the viewfinder becomes more choppy the longer the focal length but for my style of shooting (short focal length prime lenses) this was a compromise I was willing to make.