6.27.2017

I was trying to remember the first MF digital camera I reviewed. It was for Studio Photography Magazine in Sept. of 2008.

I thought it would be fun to look back at the state of the art nearly nine years ago...have a read.
(link to original with photos: http://www.imaginginfo.com/print/Studio-Photography/Leaf-AFi-7/3$4159 )

Leaf AFi 7
Satisfies a need for nostalgia


© Kirk Tuck


© Kirk Tuck


© Kirk Tuck


© Kirk Tuck


© Kirk Tuck



I spent my formative years as a photographer working the crank on a Hasselblad 500 CM. I spent years looking into the large, clean, square finder through a beautiful assortment of German lenses, and I never really appreciated the comfort, security, and potential of that way of working until it all came crashing down in the digital "revolution" at the turn of the century.
From a work point of view, we migrated from "the best possible" to "good enough" when we let clients (and our own "geeky" natures) push us from our tried-and-true medium-format film workflow to the "almost ready for prime time" arena of 35mm digital cameras. Every month someone would publish an article (on the web) extolling the charms of these new digital cameras. And they would show examples (on the web) of bright, cheery images that were purported to be the equal of medium-format film.
But as we professionals know, there's more to the equation than a noise-free rectangle of accurate color. During the transition, we lost the square format that had formed the basis of composition for several generations of portrait photographers, and we'd lost that really cool thing that a 180mm f/2.8 lens does on a medium-format frame. It creates a small area of exquisitely sharp focus that falls off in a most graceful way to a fabulous field of ever-softening focus with a liquid "bokeh" and a solid feeling of dimensionality. Admit it--you miss the way your medium-format film camera used to make images, even as your clients enjoy the near-instant workflow of your latest digital purchase.
For the last eight years I've tried to make the digital stuff work. I'm a Nikon shooter, so it's been a parade of D's: the D1, D1x, D2x, and D3. I longed for the "look and feel" that I could only achieve using a big square negative.
In the box for the test
The Leaf AFi 7 is a joint venture of Leaf, Sinar, and Rollei. It looks similar to, and operates like, my Rolleiflex SL 6000 Series cameras, and the lenses work interchangeably between the systems. The standard 80mm f/2.8 "normal" lens was included, as well as the most intimidating and luxurious 180mm f/2.8 lens I've ever handled. It proved to be one of the sharpest and best-behaved medium telephotos I've ever shot with. Also included were two batteries, a charger, a waist-level finder, and a 45-degree prism finder.
I won't go over the camera inch by inch or spec by spec--in the internet age, it's just as easy to send you to www.leafamerica.com. I will mention a few facts about the camera that may be important to the way you like to work:
• The camera with the digital back, 45-degree prism finder, and 180mm lens attached is a beast, weighing close to 10 pounds. This setup makes a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III with an 85mm f/1.2L lens feel compact. It's much happier on a tripod--a big tripod.
• These cameras are no longer slow beasts of burden relegated to still lifes and stately shots of well-anchored models. Tethered you can shoot at 50 frames per minute with an unlimited burst depth. You can keep up that pace until your batteries die or until you fill a FireWire 800 hard drive. If you're shooting portable, a fast CompactFlash card will get you around 45 frames per minute, as each RAW file is a 16-bit, 33MP image. 
• While the camera takes its time starting up, it operates with excellent fluidity and integration once it's engaged. The metering is on the money, and the white balance is perfect. 
• It has evaluative metering and the full range of operating modes (A,S,M,P). I doubt you'd want to use one of these systems to shoot breaking news or a wedding, but the camera would be right there with you as far as metering and throughput was concerned. You can use this as a $36,000 P&S with a high degree of success, but why would you want to?
• The sharpness and detail go far beyond what I expected from just having more pixels at my disposal. Most lower-resolution cameras (under 16MP) need to have an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor. This actually lowers the sharpness (or the line frequency) of the image hitting the sensor to prevent moiré from occurring. Moiré is created when the frequency of repeating patterns in an image "resonate" with the Bayer screens on most sensors. The stronger the anti-aliasing filter on the sensor, the less likely the chance of moiré--and the less fine detail your sensor can resolve. The sharpness is interpolated after the capture. Now enter the medium-format digital backs, which have no anti-aliasing filter. Their ability to render extremely fine detail is just breathtaking--a major plus.
• In my month-long comparison, where I evaluated images from various competitors and from 35mm-based digital cameras, I found these image files to be the absolute best in class. If your goal is the finest image quality available in medium-format digital imaging, this is one of the three cameras and back systems that will make it into your final cut. If you love the square finder, and mainly shoot in the studio, this will be the number one choice for you. 
However, if you want the ultimate in imaging quality, be prepared to take a hit on several fronts: 
• The camera's autofocus is slow. Even with bright modeling lights, the camera and 180mm lens would hunt for focus in a typical portrait lighting setup. I've been told that the camera I had contained an earlier firmware version. Once focused, though, the camera creates killer-sharp images, even wide open with the 180mm.
• Let's move on to batteries. The camera uses inexpensive lithium rechargeables, and you'll likely want a pocketful. I've come to believe that the batteries can sense the four gigs of storage on a CompactFlash card in this camera and are ingeniously programmed to run out of juice just as you run out of frames. The supplied charger could get you back in the game in about three hours, but if you shoot commercially, your client would be out the door in less than half that time. 
I was sent two batteries to do my tests, and they moved back and forth to the charger a lot. To put it into perspective, four gigs is about 110 files for the Leaf AFi 7, given a reasonable amount of chimping on the rear screen. It reminds me a lot of my favorite old Kodak DCS 760. Buy five batteries. With smart management, that will get you through a long day.
According to my score card so far, the Leaf is six pros to three cons. But how does it look when you stop testing and start using it on a real job? This is one of those areas where if you know what you're looking for, you'll be blown away, but if you're a casual photographer, happy with your reduced-frame camera, you'll probably say "no big deal." But "big deal" really sums it all up.
Most cameras are working under the resolution limits of their sensor when you shoot files for prints up to 8x12 inches. And a well-exposed file properly processed will look pretty good no matter how big a camera it originated in. Picky photographers will note a different look to the depth-of-field and the "drawing" of the lenses, but most will see each comparative frame as being equally sharp with plenty of resolution. 
The magic happens when the files get bigger. The sensor in the Leaf is still working under the numerical limits of its sensor at print sizes like 16x24 inches, and when you get close to the prints, you can really see a difference. The prints are richer, more detailed, and much more filmlike. I did a print test using files from a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, a Kodak SLR/n, and the Leaf system. I made prints at 5x7, 8x12, 16x24, and 30x40 from each camera using the same model, lighting, and settings. At 30x40, the Leaf was much sharper and showed details not apparent in the other two cameras. 
Another facet to consider is the camera's incredible curb appeal. Art directors who've been around since the film days are clearly impressed by the look and feel of the Leaf. 
So, will I rush right out and buy a Leaf AFi 7? Maybe. I loved the detail and the sharpness of the files. If the U.S. market were a bit stronger, and my clients were pushing for larger images, I'd probably take the plunge and use the camera in my marketing as a premium differentiator. Do I think it's the best camera on the market for medium format right now? Well, it's got a square finder, and the camera is set up to handle the square format that I love, so that would be a strong consideration (although the backs are a 645 aspect ratio). The body handles much like the Rollei cameras I like so much, and the system is an "open" architecture, which means you aren't tied to using only one manufacturer's back. All are big pluses for the Leaf. 
The question is: Do you or I need a very high-end, high-resolution solution to service clients or to realize a vision?
You probably do if you're in a market that will appreciate the differentiation this kind of product provides; you routinely do images that end up in large, well-printed, glossy media or in point-of-purchase applications; you're in a portrait market and your high-end niche is to provide wall-sized prints; you're financially well-off, love to take landscape photographs, and have been butting your head on the limitations of the more mass-market cameras; and your ego demands the best.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE LEAF AFI, GO TO WWW.LEAFAMERICA.COM
KIRK R. TUCK (www.kirktuck.com) is a freelance photographer whose clients include Dell Computer, IBM, Motorola, and Time Warner, among others. His book, A MInimalist Guide to Lighting on Location is in its second printing by Amhearst Media.

Here's a link to my review/article of an early Phase One camera from January 2009:
http://www.imaginginfo.com/print/Studio-Photography/An-Enhanced-Medium-Format-Digital-Camera-/3$4670

And here's a link to my review/article of the Mamiya DL28 from that same year: http://www.imaginginfo.com/print/Studio-Photography/Mamiya-DL28/3$5017

It was fun reviewing cameras for Studio Photography Magazine. I'm glad the work is still up on the web. It's part of our history of ever changing digital cameras... They also published the article about Minimalist Lighting that sparked my first book project...

I finally got my website, KirkTuck.com, up and working. Endless tweaks and additions to come...


I wanted to update my site for a while and when a project got cancelled I finally got the time I needed to dive in and work on it. My old site didn't have any video samples on it but half our income in the last year has come from shooting and editing video so I wanted to remedy that gaping hole in my marketing. 

I used a program for Apple Computers called, Sparkle, to do the design and production work. I still need to work on sorting out the photo galleries a bit but I'm now distracted by some scriptwriting that's calling my name. I'll keep tweaking but I wanted you to see how everything turned out...

KirkTuck.com




6.26.2017

Are you getting your lighting instrument close enough?


Bigger and closer = softer light and quicker falloff to shadows. But we also make liberal use of flags....

Favorite Portrait Focal Lengths of Medium Format Hasselblad V Series Film Cameras.



A reader asked me a few days ago which focal lengths I used to make portraits with back in the 6x6cm film days. He'd seen my references to several commercial portraits and presumed we mostly used the famous 150mm f4.0 Zeiss lens but I actually used two longer lenses the effects of which I liked much more. In the mid-1980's Hasselblad came out with a 180mm f4.0 and it was a wonderful lens. It was long enough (90mm equivalent on 35mm for comparison) to be a convincing choice for intimate portraits and its other advantage over the venerable 150mm was its resistance to flare. (The 150mm needed to be carefully flagged when used to photograph subjects with white backgrounds or any kind of backlighting).

But the lens I loved was the 250mm f5.6 Sonnar. It's also a Zeiss lens and, along with the 80mm Planar, is one of the few lenses nearly always taken into space on NASA flights. Ken Rockwell has a good article on it's history here.

I think I was partial to the longer focal length because one of the first decent portrait lenses I owned when I was starting out (and short on $$$) was the 135mm f2.8 focal length for 35mm cameras. I shot so many fun images with that focal length and once I was able to replicate that sense of compression and isolation in medium format I was in portrait shooter's heaven.

The only possible downside I can think of with the Hasselblad 250mm f5.6 CM lens was its minimum focusing distance. It was eight or nine feet so extreme close-ups required extension tubes or diopters.
It was also important to understand bellows factor when working at the minimum distance. The closer you got to a subject the more light you lost to the lens extension. I generally compensated by a half stop to two thirds of a stop at the minimum distance, adding this amount to whatever my handheld meter told me.

As you can tell from the image above (unretouched scan from transparency) the lens is crisply sharp and detailed. I miss those halcyon days.

The Best Way To Test Your New Camera or Lens (or Both).

shot for CTRMA Annual Report.

The last few weeks show us that reviewers of cameras and lenses can: be subjective, make mistakes, mis-focus, mis-understand how to use new cameras and.... use the new cameras in a manner that may be antithetical to your actual, unique way of working. You may need a lens with smooth bokeh while one reviewer only values sharpness. You may need resolution while another reviewer may only value the bokeh of the lenses under review.

You might need a camera with fast frame rates while your friend who shoots landscapes and human portraits wouldn't care if the camera in question only had single frame shooting capabilities. I prefer EVFs while you might prefer optical viewfinders. When I review a camera (a rare occurrence these days) I mark a good electronic viewfinder as a big plus. If you love looking through glass and mirrors you'll probably mark the same camera down. The same goes for relative size and weight.

After reading about some tests failures, and then skimming through nearly a thousand comments about the vagaries of lens testing (and especially testing one brand of lens on a different brand of camera --- and then bitching about the AF performance!) I've come to the same conclusion that I came to many years ago. If you want to know what a camera and lens can do you'll need to load up and shoot the gear the way you like to shoot the gear and then see if it works for you. After all, if the way a camera feels in your hand is terrible it will hardly matter if its low light performance is 93 and its closest competitor is a 92.5. If you're smart, and plan to have the camera around for a while, I'm guessing you'll forgo the point five and get the camera that feels best. You might be disappointed once you start pixel peeping at 300% but the rest of the photographers (the ones who are not pathologically obsessed) will probably come to the understanding that it's a combination of handling, features and final image quality that matter and not one single parameter in isolation.

I've read reviews that ding cameras for not having just the right touch screen (as if that matters in the real world). Even more absurd, I've seen reviews that list as "cons" not having in camera raw processing. That, of course, is just insane. To me. People swooned and fell to the ground in agony when it was revealed that Fuji ISO settings might be less sensitive than comparable values in different brands.
And then there are the hordes who think the camera should focus autonomously and everywhere while thousands of objects move through the field of view. They call this focus tracking. Fourteen people in the world really need focus tracking.

The image above was shot for an annual report. By the time I made this shot I'd already used the camera for over 10,000 previous images. Same with the zoom lens I was using. I'm certain that I could have used a Sony or Nikon or a Canon (or Olympus, Fuji or Pentax) to make the image and my choice would have been transparent to the final viewer; the person looking at the image on coated paper stock that had been screened at 300 dpi and printed with four colored inks on moving sheets of paper. I was equally certain that any standard, slightly wide to slightly tele, zoom lens would have been more than up to the task to resolve all the detail I needed to do the job.

But it made me feel confident that I, personally, had tested the camera over and over again up until this point. I knew that the model I used, along with the lens I used, would be "good enough" to do the job.

This image may not at all reflect the way you use a camera. For me almost everything is done with intention and a modicum of control. Even when photographing a meet and greet with a former president and dozens of VIPs I like to take my time and get all the parameters just right. In the above example the image required lighting. We had to float a scrim over the subject to kill the direct sunlight. I set up an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS flash system with a softbox to get the lighting I wanted. None of this is random. None of this requires 20, or 12, or 10, or 8 or 5 or even 2 frames per second. 1200 watt second battery flash units, used at full power, couldn't recycle that fast anyway. None of this required focus tracking as the subject was confined to the pool of shade created by the diffusion.

Most pros shoot on a tripod in order to lock in composition. Then they can be sure the framing and subject relationships don't change while they are shooting, bracketing or just goofing around.

We've gotten to a point where camera reviewing is lost in the woods of generality. Every feature becomes a big deal; or a deal-killer. Every camera must be equally good at high operating speeds, resolution, handling, compactness, button intelligence, and the endless ability to be endlessly customized.  The reality is that in photography's most pure form the only thing that matters is: "Are you able to take the photograph you want with this machine?" Does it do what you want? Is the image sharp enough? Is the shutter fast enough? Is the sensor "quiet" enough at the ISO settings you need  to use? Are you able to focus the camera well enough? Once you've satisfied these basic requirements every other caveat, argument, pinhead dancing angel recital or bemoaning about the lack of 30 discrete steps of exposure bracketing is just showing off how weak you are as a photographer. And if you don't really use the camera for making art; if you just use it to make reviews, you are revealed as nothing more than a person who picks at nits on the edges of a craft with no real value (other than providing the entertainment of reading) to offer. Well, no value to the consumer but appreciable value to the manufacturer.

Touch screen? Might be as fun as a video game but not a photographic necessity; a working shutter is a necessity. In cars it's nice to have cupholders but they are not a necessity; brakes are a necessity (if you actually drive). In-camera raw processing might be convenient in the way heated toilet seats may seem convenient; but neither is a necessity. Having an idea about something to photograph is pretty important.  And on and on. Among their reasons to exist I think reviewers are here to make new photographers want the new features that no one asked for but which come (like glued on rhinestones) on the latest cameras. How else to make more differentiations between products? How else to provide continual gear fodder from which to distill valuable clicks? Wouldn't it be nice if reviewers just came back after three months of continually using the same camera and then told you what they liked and disliked about it; and then showed you several hundred interesting photographs that showed what that particular camera could do? Modern miracle, I'd say.

So, if you have an interest in a new camera because you need a new camera here's how to proceed. Grab a memory card and head to your local camera store. Don't have a local camera store? Get on a plane, go to New York City and go to B&H Photo. Or fly into Austin for nachos, margaritas and a trip to Precision Camera. Have the sales clerk put your favorite lens on the camera you are interested in, or bring along your favorite lens to put on the camera. Play with the camera for half an hour or an hour. Go through the menus. Practice the focusing. Shoot a bunch of test shots. Bring your hot girlfriend or studly boyfriend and have them pose for shot after shot after shot. Shoot raw. Shoot Jpeg. Use the buttons you would normally use. Handhold the camera. Put the camera on a tripod. Then take your memory card home with you and look at the images in your usual app. Blow em up. Print your stuff on your regular printer. Sit back and think about the camera.

Once you've decided on a camera and have tested it as above, buy it from a place with a good, fair return policy. Take the camera home on a Friday night, charge the batteries and read the manual forward and backward. Take the next week off from work. Shoot all day. Process all night long. All week long. Wear the camera to breakfast, and lunch and dinner. On the day before you would have to send the camera back (presuming you don't like it; didn't warm up to it, etc.) sit down and make a list of the pros and cons as you see them. Make a dispassionate decision. Is this the camera or lens for you? Are you still happy when you use it? Do the images look great to you? Can you afford it? If you decide to keep it that's great but the testing doesn't stop until you never need to glance at the manual again and you know with a fair degree of certainty what YOU will get out of the camera as you are shooting it.

The hell with the reviewer's expectations, or list of pros and cons. He's not paying for your camera. He doesn't shoot like you. He's got a job. His job is to create ever-fresh content about cameras to drive you to his employer's website. The website gets paid by bringing potential buyers in close proximity to paying advertiser's products. They hope the supposed objectivity of the site's content will confer subliminal value to their advertiser's products and that you will buy one of the products. The reviews really have nothing to do with how real photographers use real cameras in their jobs or in their hobbies. If configurability is the leading new feature of a camera you are probably already looking at the wrong camera...

Added 6-27: an interesting article about manufacturing and testing tolerances: http://www.imx.nl/photo/optics/optics/page62.html