Vices and virtues of extension tubes

Before buying a set of extension tubes, I have done my homework but I did not find so easily the information I was looking for. This article intends to answer the questions unresolved before I decided to buy them despite some grey zones. The main questions were the following:

– What can we expect from them?
– Who are the manufacturers and why chose one rather another?
– Advantages and constraints of extension tubes,
– Comparison with teleconverters,
– Real life feedback.

I have written my tests and conclusions into a pdf document “Extension tubes“, the analysis was too long to be posted as a blog entry. I have indeed read several articles, translated some which where not written in English and made my own tests.

And I came to several interesting conclusions:

Conclusions

Extension tubes don’t really work with wide-angle, that’s too bad, and it means you need a fish-eye when you want both a wide-angle and a very close focus (indeed some fish-eye can really focus as close a few centimetres from the front lens).

Extension tubes are not for beginners. For those on a budget, they are options not more expensive and more versatile (short focal macro lens, used if necessary).

Extension tubes work actually very well with long focal lenses (above 100 mm typically) either with macro lenses to get even closer, or with non macro lenses to shoot action macro, with reproduction ratio around 1:2 and not 1:1, fair enough but at f/2.8 if not f/2.0 when used with fast lenses.

Plastic made extension tubes (most of them) are not rigid, and therefore not really done for real reproduction purposes. However, when handling the camera with one hand and the lens with the other, they are still usable with heavy lens (at least as heavy as 2 kg).

The final word

Extension tubes are great accessories, not so expensive, but not versatile and only useful in specific conditions. I recommend buying a set and trying them to understand how each photographer can use them the best way possible for their photographies.

 

Here above the comparison of a 35 mm DX, the same lens with the whole set of tubes, and a 105 macro with the whole set of tubes. You will find more examples in my pdf document “Extension tubes“.

My 2 cents about the recent best compact cameras

You want a small camera but you know what you are doing and demand the best: great image quality, great controls, total management of ISO/aperture/speed. The cameras makers like you, no doubt we are a kind of cash cow for them. New cameras are released every quarter and you have the choice: Fuji X-10, Canon S100, Canon G1-X, Sony RX100, Samsung EX2F, Panasonic LX-7  and I am sure I may miss one or two more.

The Fuji and the Samsung are quite stable when it comes to the zoom aperture, from f/1.4 to f/2.8. But for the others, it is highly variable. From a f/1.8 or f/2.8 to f/4.9 if not f/5.9. I understand why, but it does not make sense to me: like many enthusiasts or Pro,I am not used shooting with lens over f/4 if not f/2.8 or even f/1.4 and between f/1.4 and f/5.9 there are over 3 EV (three stops), which is really a lot. That’s the price for a bigger sensor. it may be a marketing clue, but for a photographer, it is more than an issue, it is a non sense. The Fuji and the Samsung look to me far more consistent. I prefer to sacrifice a little bit of image quality which is nowadays outstanding by the way with so many sensors, than using aperture I am not used to in terms of EV and depth of field, and which ruins the advantage of a bigger sensor (disclaimer: I have a Canon S100, a great little jewel, but with a stupid zoom at f/5.9 to its maximum).

The Fuji X-10 is actually a compromise to the X-1 Pro: not really pocketable, a great camera not so small and with some true limitations (an OVF better than many, but not sufficient either). The G1-X is too big too. It seems to be a compromise to Canon new mirrorless cameras.

About Controls

Controls are usually OK but not terrific. they are rarely if never 3 dials for the 3 main controls (ISO, aperture, speed) and the body’s controls are hardly customizable, whereas there are no two skilled photographers having the same controls requirements. Cameras makers still think too much “product” whereas they should think “plateform” for any high end camera, compact or DSLR or mirrorless.

Surprisingly, most of the bloggers and journalists insist on the image quality rather than the consistency of the body to a given user’s profile and don’t focus well at how critical the controls can be in a shooting. Either because they are too much geeks, or because that’s their readers which are too much geeks. But I may say they could educate us better!

The Panasonic LX-7 seems to be an exception: a missed oppotunity. They really worked well at improving the controls, but the job look unfinished to me. No flip-out display, a somewhat chunky camera, tiny and not customizable buttons, only 2 dials, and one does not seem to be customizable. Panasonic LX has failed so far to bring outstanding controls on their great bodies, they seem to confirm, sadly, this tradition.

The bottom line

High end compact cameras are great as a second camera for skilled DSLR owners. They cannot compete for lenses’ focal above typically 75-80 mm (FX equivalent), which is the minimum for a portrait focal but should not opened above f/2.8 too. I have owned compacts starting at 28 mm or 24 mm and believe me the 4 mm are a real difference. Such cameras should always start at 24 mm (FX equivalent). Controls are paramount and should include 3 dials customizable + typically at least 2 Fn buttons also customizable. They should be truly pocketable (e.g. like the S100) and it is OK if they can shoot only at say 800 ISO JPG / 1600 RAW, I mean it is not their primary role to excel at very high iso, as long as they are still good within this range. A flip-out display is a must, that’s a clear requirement. There are much more requirements but they are usually fulfilled yet. The Samsung EX2F looks to me to be the best match so far. Let’s see what the tests will say… and whether or not the public will agree with me! If so, the (stupid) race for “the bigger sensor in the smaller body and too bad if the zoom is at f/5.9” will at last be over.

Updated in October 2012: unfortunately, the ring around the lens is just ergonomic, and not a control ring like in the Canon S100 and the Sony DSC RX100. The handling appears to be not so good too. So I can’t find any winner! Canon S100/110 is really great but suffers from a stupid f/5.9 telezoon. Same issue for the bigger and better Sony DSC RX100. Both don’t have the great flip-out display of the Samsung.

I am certainly not a Samsung fan boy, but again this company understands what a user case means and seems to focus more at that than either Sony who believe still in marketing gadgets, or Nikon and Canon, my preferred brands, who look so obsolete so often or at least not capable to sacrifice their cash cow for a long term vision.

An off-beat apology of small sensors

Every month, a new camera is released and their is a real inflation of bigger and bigger sensors: mirrorless sensors at APS-C’s size are now more or less the norm whereas it used to be the micro 4/3 a few years ago. The rumour says a new Nikon D600 low cost full frame will be released in 2012. Sony released a competitor of the Canon S100 (expert compact camera very small) with of course a bigger sensor. Canon refused to release like the others a mirrorless, just to release a bigger new G compact camera, the G1-X.

It is a well known fact, the bigger the sensor, the better the quality. A better quality for either portrait photography (Colour depth), landscapes or actions shots (read DxO Mark for more information). So it seems to be a no brainer: take the bigger sensor available and shoot. That’s cannot be more simple no? Actually, that’s not so black and white. Let me be more specific:

Don’t follow the herd

First, one should notice that when the sensors’ sizes are inflating, so are prices too (Canon G1-X and Sony new camera DSC-RX100 are much more expensive than Canon G12, the precedent G camera and Canon S100, the most obvious Sony competitor).

Even more important, small body does not go so well with bigger sensor even if some manufacturers did miracles (Sony and the NEX cameras, Sony again with the DSC-RX100, and Canon with the G1-X). Conversely, some mirrorless with small sensor (Nikon 1) can be chunky compare with other cameras with bigger sensors. But I mean, if you want to make it small and light, small sensors have more potential.

More important, the depth of field (DOF) is always much significant with small sensors, it is actually quite dramatic. For many photographers, that’s a pain because many, like me, like to play with the shallow DOF. But in many occasions, a great DOF can make some of your pictures really better. Some photographers can make excellent pictures with small sensors, taking advantage of their huge DOF.

I have already explained why small sensors can suffice in many occasions. Nowadays, small sensors are so good in normal light conditions, you many not need a bigger one. AF speed, controls ergonomics, view finder are still often a pain, but that’s not a sensor’s size issue.

The final word: controls and ergonomics suck, not sensors

Don’t be a pigeon, don’t pay too much for something you don’t need. More important, take advantage of small sensors specificities. Learn the limits of your camera, and you will know which one you really need. It may be one expensive with a bigger sensor, or not, but as usual, don’t believe the marketing guy.

I may recommend manufacturers to rather focus at controls ergonomics which most of the time really suck. We don’t need bigger sensors with more pixels, we need cameras easy to use with direct access to the main controls we need so that we may focus on taking picture rather that “where is the damned option” or “How do I change this”. The issue is not trivial, and manufacturers are very conservative when it comes to ergonomics. I am no Apple fan boy, but who will be the Steve Jobs of cameras?

Some thoughts about the future of DSLR and cameras market

Two critical shifts

The two main shifts of this industry look to me so clear I have no doubt the DSLR market will evolve significantly soon, and actually may have already started to: smartphones & mobile device are making many point & shoot cameras obsolete, if not many entry level DSLR. Not because they can challenge them in terms of image quality or performances & controls, but because they are proposing something unique: having always with oneself a camera, and sharing the pictures so easily, two things the other cameras can’t do.

Simultaneously, the mirrorless products are invading the markets and are a fast growing market. Not only they are smaller and as good as DSLR, but they are so innovative that many will continue adopting them. They are not only refreshing the market, they actually fit better with many photographers specification. DSLR was not for many want they really wanted, but only a way to take better pictures, or hoping taking better pictures. Both the reality and the dream now belong to mirrorless. DSLR just mean “being a Pro” or “living his passion whatever the price and the weigh”.

Why DSLR (and Point and Shoot) will continue to exist

However, writing articles about “why smartphones have killed the other cameras” or “DSLR is dead” look irrelevant but to attract readers to the journalist’s stuff.  High end Point and Shoot are very promising, but need to adapt their publishing services and DSLR are certainly not dead. They indeed propose something unique too, unchallenged so far by both smartphones and mirrorless: an optical view finder. As it exists so far only one full frame mirrorless (awfully expensive and quite specialized, the Leica M9), the full frame DSLR also propose bigger sensor, a must for shallow depth of field. DSLR have other advantages but I am not sure they will last (performances are now similar most of the time, if not overcome for some features by mirrorless, and low light advantages of big sensors are becoming less important as the other sensors are becoming so good).

Shallow depth of field and optical sensor can make your photo experience unique. So as long as the other cameras won’t challenge them for these two things, DSLR will resist for the long term. For the short term, Pro and wealthy amateurs will continue buying DSLR for many other reasons.

Long term future

However, the two main advantages of DSLR may not last forever. Nothing prevent manufacturers to release full frame mirrorless. And it would be dangerous to believe EVF (Electronic view finder) won’t be able to challenge if not becoming better than OVF (optical viewfinder) eventually. Or rangerfinder-like camera (dominated so far by Fuji) combining altogether OVF and EVF features are just proposing the best of two worlds. It looks however unlikely to convince many demanding photographers as the rangerfinder ergonomics certainly not fit everyone requirements.

What does it means for us

Unless you are investing for the long term in photography – either as a Pro or a serious amateur, I don’t really see the point for newbies to invest in DSLR. For those who must for their job or want for their passion, DX DSLR look uninteresting but for a pricing motivation, which unfortunately, overcomes everything else as usual. Therefore, concept like the rumoured new Nikon D600 looks great, as it will allow to make a kind of bridge between the “entry-level” DSLR world, and the real one (Full frame bodies), by working easily with both systems. That’s why I believe DSLR DX is dead but for entry-level, or rather should die as I find it not very attractive nowadays. OMHO, it would make more sense “learning” photography with mirrorless or high end Point and Shoot and invest in full frame bodies later, but whenever possible. By the way, the price of some excellent full frame cameras is rather going down, so this is not an option now impossible to consider for many people.

The final words

My bet:

Smartphones will become better and better cameras, introducing zooming, low light enable sensors, and better autofocus to replace definitively most of the point and shoot. This market will not disappear, but will get specialized (megazoom, waterproof, fully customizable& RAW capabilities, …).

Mirrorless will continue to destroy the entry level DSLR market, too bad for Nikon and Canon who have preferred milking the cow rather than surfing the wave, and some mirrorless will become excellent second body for those who will continue to love the full frame DSLR, or other medium format cameras.

And you, what do you think?

A Mirrorless overview for dummies

You want to follow the herd, you need – with some excellent reasons – a mirrorless. Well, actually there are so many options, I felt it was important to over simplify the landscape just to explain it with simple words. I don’t claim having right, I am just giving my basic opinion about main mirrorless cameras. So let’s start the show:

Olympus OM-D E-M5: an ugly name for a great body and a very mature system. If you don’t understand anything to the mirrorless’s mess, just buy this one. It is great.

Sony NEX-7: the best body. Best quality image, best controls, great look. Too bad, the lens systems sucks. Forget it until Sony will propose lenses good enough for such a jewel.

Sony NEX-5N: a great body too, but the lens systems still sucks, like for the NEX-7, that’s the same system.

Nikon V1 or J1: like a point and shoot, but bigger and more expensive. Great Autofocus, great video. Perfect for your kids, what most photographers like to shoot at. Controls sucks if you want something else than a fully auto mode.

Canon G1-X: that’s a compact masquerading the quality image of a mirrorless. Canon sucks trying to avoid cannibalization of its DSLR sales.

Fuji X-Pro1: a great body, my preferred one actually with Sony NEX-7. Great lenses but my preferred focals are missing (35 mm equivalent FX and ultra-wide angle). Too soon unless you like a 50 mm (equivalent FX) and are pleased with a non ultra wide-angle. The 3rd lens (90 mm equivalent FX macro) is great however. If you don’t like fixed focal, this is not a body for you, not just right now.

Leica M9: the price sucks, And not only the price. The body is really outmoded in many ways by newcomers. Leica still believes that “with great strengths come great weaknesses”. They should buy a DVD of Spiderman, they misundertood the quote.

Samsung 3 bodies NX1000, 210, 20: they are OK. Like Raymond Poulidor, they are never the best but always close to the best. Which makes me believe they suck too because there is always a better choice. Only their publishing services really rock.

Panasonic with bodies DMC-GF5, GX1, G3, GH2: failed to have the best bodies, but all are good (GH2 outmoded and to be replaced by a likely to be great body GH3). The lenses system is the best, but expensive. Buy a Panasonic body if you need several great lenses. High end bodies and lenses threatened by Fuji X-Pro1 system.

Pentax Q: the smallest sensor. Like a point and shoot but much more expensive. Funny if you have an unlimited budget or if you work as a secret service agent with the need of a tiny versatile camera. Not convinced yet, the lens system must improve to justify the costs and to explain why not buy rather a Canon S100 or a bigger mirrorless.

Pentax K-01: too bad its main strength seems to be its look. Not a bad body though, but not the best. A good choice if you like nice cameras, not my choice however. I like to take picture, not to attract attention. Cameras are not sun glasses.

There are a few other bodies (Other Olympus bodies but OM-D E-M5 have outmoded sensors but are still good cameras, Sony NEX-C3 is a good entry level mirrorless, but too big for a beginner omho), not my best choices.

My advice: read more in details reviews of these cameras, and if like many people you don’t have so much time, focus at your preferred choice.

A genuine test of the underwater WP-DC43 Case for Camera Canon S100

I have bought the Canon S100 as a second camera (a Nikon DSLR is my main camera) and I like the idea to protect it to depths of up to 40m with the optional WP-DC43 waterproof case.

Indeed, whereas you can find a lot of underwater point-and-shoot cameras, none so far can shoot raw, and their sensors, even for the best (Panasonic DMC-TS4), are no match to the S100. Conversely, the cameras with better sensor usually propose underwater case at a price far higher, and are usually much bigger and heavier.

So the S100 + WP-DC43 looked to me like a nice compromise: not cheap but not too expensive for a full manual-raw camera with a great (small) sensor, a small and light body, and very capable of taking great pictures.

Whereas I have not yet dived with both, I have made my first tests, and I have been struggling finding online reviews from users. So these are my first impressions, which are, so far, the only genuine ones as far as I know:

I like: many details are making it “almost” professional: light diffuser for the flash (works quite well if you are not in macro mode and remember that the S100 flash is not exactly the best for its class), you can use a tripod. It’s easy to put the S100 inside the case and to remove it. The leash works quite well too. Last and of course not least: easy to handle, controls and buttons can be used with gloves, it’s really easy to use it in the case. It is even somewhere easier than without!

Issues: you cannot use any longer the rear wheel! You can still use the front one however. So basically, the S100 is not as seamless to use manually as without the case, but you can still have full control. It is an issue you can live with, but that’s a real one. Further more, there is no cap for the front window of the case, that’s really too bad. And there is no bag either for the case itself. One made in neoprene would have made sense. The light diffuser’s leash cannot be attached to the body without some additional small carabiner (not included of course). The buoyancy of the case and the camera altogether is really positive, you really need to add some weight to make it neutral. Of course it is written nowhere in the S100 mini-website (or show me where please), but you can purchase the weights (Canon WWDC1, image on the left), actually you really need them for diving.

Image quality for underwater pictures: remember, the S100 can shoot RAW, has some very nice low light capabilities and can open at f/2.0 at 24 mm, but cannot be synchronized with additional flash but the small one embedded. Please also note than the sensor is still quite small even if bigger than most of the point and shoot. Therefore, the depth of field is really significant, often too much. Conversely, in macro mode, that’s making the shooting straightforward compare with APS-C or FX sensors.

 
An extreme shot, close to some dangerous wildlife, WB auto, no flash, low light.

Conclusion: the S100 and its underwater case are not cheap, but they are a very decent option to take serious underwater pictures, for the fraction of the price of a DSLR and its 40 meters depth underwater case. However, they are issues and limitations, which could not be negligible for some, but which I believe to acceptable, even if regrettable for most of them.

Do you really need a better camera? Episode 4: everyday life

I am comparing a DSLR and a compact, both modern and famous for their excellent quality images (Nikon D7000, Canon S100), in order to evaluate when we really need to get one or the other, or both together. Sometimes, I am also comparing the pictures with those taken by a smartphone (Samsung Galaxy SII).  I am also doing this as I have noticed this kind of comparison is seldom done. Most of the time, people are comparing cameras of the same kind but don’t ask themselves whether they really need this category of camera. Previously, I have noticed that outdoor/landscapes shots during the day may not really require the big and fat DSLR. I mean I have been surprised by the performances of modern tiny sensors as soon as there is enough light. However, I have also noticed that for Macro, the DSLR was still much better.

So now let’s come to a very basic kind of pictures: portraits done inside. Everybody is taking some, of friends, family, … I have chose to shoot at the end of the afternoon, my little baby, either when she was playing, or in the arms of her mother but with back to the light. These two kind of pictures are actually technically quite challenging for the cameras, and this time, again, thanks God, the DSLR is again much better, as expected:

The very compact camera cannot be fast at 120mm equivalent (f/5.9). I had to shoot at 1600 ISO, and the speed was from far too slow (1/8 s). The stabilization does not help so much as a baby is not always standing still.

With a modern DSLR and a fast zoom (70-200 VRII f/2.8), everything works as expected, thanks God. This gear (body + zoom) is 8 times more expensive and 10 times heavier than the compact!

With back light, the light evaluation was not as good with the compact than with the DSLR. Further more, I had to shoot at 3200 ISO and whereas the speed was almost fast enough, the back light underexposed it so much I had to post-process the RAW to get an acceptable picture. But the noise is pretty much unacceptable! Last and not least, you can compare the depth of field (DOF). f/5.9 and a small sensor is making more or less any picture with too often too much  DOF.

With the DSLR, the picture is not perfect. The back light made the picture under exposed too but the post processing of the RAW file is providing a much more acceptable results. The speed (1/125 s) was what I wanted (I respected the rule 1/f equivalent FX) and the DOF is much more adequate too.

Comparing the grain of both cameras, after applying some noise reduction during the post process, the difference is not obvious, which mean that you should more take care of the dynamic of the sensor than just the MP (which is a little bit a surprise to me by the way). That said, difference between the two sensors is not that big (12 MP and 16 MP):

(Canon S100, crop 1:1)

(Nikon D7000, crop 1:1)

Conclusion:

To make a long story short, there is still room to improve compact cameras for what they are supposed to be good at: family pictures. Whereas not liked by many photographers, and whereas I am still waiting for a Nikon mirrorless which I could use, you can understand the “raison d’être” of the Nikon 1 bodies: a fast autofocus and a much better sensor than compact can provide decent family pictures, which a high end compact camera like the S100 still cannot do really so often.

Mirrorless cameras: are Nikon and Canon too greedy?

We, photographers, don’t care about profits and shareholders objectives. We want better cameras. We do understand that is make sense for a company to improve its financial results. But too often, the self-proclaimed leaders can become somewhat arrogant and are forgetting the “golden rule”: make good products for your clients, and they are no cash cows. The objective is not, at least not the prime objective, to make money. It is to be better than the competition, to innovate and to produce over-the-top quality products. Thanks to that, a company will be able not only to make money, but to literally print money! It is simple, but it is not easy. That’s basically Apple’s philosophy, it’s no secret – and I am not an Apple fanboy!

When they released Nikon J1 and V1, I understood Nikon main objective was to prevent any phagocytosis of their entry-level DSLR by their mirrorless new cameras. They obviously broke the golden rule… Not that the cameras are not good – I mean they are great and quite unique point-and-shoot high end cameras – but, because that was not what the Nikon’s fan were waiting for.

Similarly, Canon preferred to release a new high end compact – the G1 X instead of some mirrorless, again, I assume, to protect its entry-level DSLR. And they are charging us much more for a somewhat not so innovating camera.

Now Nikon seem to continue its blindness rationale. I am quoting Nikon’s executive from the (excellent) techradar: “we want pros to be buying our DSLRs“, and don’t seem to be so keen avoiding the competition of high-end mirrorless cameras like the great Fuji X Pro 1. They may release an enthusiast/pro mirrorless in the future, or maybe not… to protect their revenues. Am I dreaming?

I have been a fan of Nikon and Canon, and have owned cameras from both manufacturers for years but come on guys, you can be better than that: come back to the basics, please. We will decide which cameras we want to buy, and so far I just know I will buy a mirrorless camera from your competition. Too bad, but one should never broke the golden rule. Client’s first, not profits.