This blog is devoted to the application of optical fibers in photography. I have several homemade (DIY) flash adapters channeling the light from the flash close to the lens. The technique can be used mainly for macro photography, but I will show examples for wide angle close focus techniques as well. The recent version is called fiberstrobe V3, hence the name of the blog is "fiberstrobe".

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Macro and close-up photography options for the sony E-system

Introduction
When sony entered the mirrorless market I immediately realised the great potential of such small cameras with large sensor as perfect macro photography tools. The articulated LCD-screen, focus peeking, and the small size enable photographers to take photos from strange positions, where a DSLR wouldn't fit.


However, many things were missing to build a perfect macro system with the first two cameras (nex-5 and nex-3) and the few initial lens introduced at the beginning. The situation has changed a lot, but it's still a  repeated question on various photo forums: "what to use for macro photography on sony mirorrless cameras?". This overview includes tests and suggestions with/for the aps-c cameras, but many conclusions can be apply for the full frame (FF) sensor A7 series and other systems. However, if you're into macro photography I suggest to use aps-c cameras (A6000, nex-6 etc.) to have more depth of field (DOF) when the same image is taken. In addition, the aps-c cameras are still smaller than the FF ones and the lenses can be cheaper and lighter (in theory). I tried to collect all possibilities in this overview but only few of them will be own tests. I will add nevertheless my opinion to the other options and I include links to recommended reviews. I will start from the cheapest to the more expensive options including a small summary. I skipped the obvious cropping as the cheapest option. When I performed a full test a link will lead you to a full review page.

Single element close-up lenses (macro filters, diopter)
The cheapest way to explore macro photography is to screw a diopter lens (also called close-up lens onto the front of your kit lens. You can buy a set of single element filters from 10 to 20 euro (USD) depending on the supplier and the type of the set. I bought a Japanese Kood set which included 3 lenses (+1dp, +2dp, +4 dp).
Actually I bought this just to test how bad it is. Few years ago I didn't recommend at al these lenses for macro photography. They introduce chromatic aberrations and usually affect the sharpness also negatively.


Full size crop from the photo above:

However, considering the price it's a good and cheap approach to explore macro photography. Maybe you will realize without a major capital invest that macro photography is not really for you. If you like it, you won't regret buying this when you upgrade to better options e.g an achromatic lens.

Pros:
  • Cheap
  • No loss of light
  • Auto focus possible
  • Easy to remove (without exposing the sensor on the field)
Cons:
  • Introduces chromatic aberrations
  • Reduced sharpness
  • Say goodbye to infinity
Achromatic lenses
These are high-quality two or more element diopter lenses with special coatings to correct CA and to improve sharpness. They are relatively expensive and practically give the same magnification effect like the single element diopters but at a much higher quality. Principally both lenses reduce the effective focal length of the lens and the working distance. The effect will depend on the lens you screw the diopter on. I've tested a Marumi DHG Achromat Macro-200 (+5) 5 dp lens on the sel1855 kit zoom lens, sel50F18 and on the sel55210. Below you can see those set-ups and the macro effect achieved. As a test chart I printed the following self designed picture showing also the size of the aps-c and full-frame sensors.




The marumi achromatic lens is relatively wide but not too heavy on the kit zoom lens:



It gives you a nice close-up option with the kit lens at 55mm (notice the pincushion distortion of the lens).



The sel50f18 is better optically but its not that good in the close focusing department.




The best macro performance can be achieved with the sel55210:


The effect is moderate at 55mm: 


At 210mm  better than 1:1 magnification can be achieved:




Pros:
  • No loss of light
  • Minimal loss of image quality
  • Auto focus possible
  • Easy to remove (without exposing the sensor to dust)
Cons:
  • Relatively expensive
  • No infinity
Recommended achromatic lenses:
Besides the marumi I've tested I can recommend the very popular Raynox company. Raynox achromats have a good snap-on universal adapter system. However it's not compatible with the sony standard 49mm filter diameter. I used one with a step up ring (49 to 55) and it worked fine. Optically I found it even slightly better than my marumi achromat. I bought it as a present to my brother, but I had to test it briefly and I was really happy with the results. For a while I was even hesitating to keep it. It has two popular versions, the DCR-150 is a 4.8 diopter (that's what I tested), while the DCR-250 is an 8 diopter version. In addition, advanced photographers may consider the MSN-202 (25 dp) and the MSN-505 (35 dp) versions.
Other recommended achromats are:
Canon 500d (+2dp) and Canon 250d (+4dp)

A very good overview on achromat lenses you can find on: http://fuzzcraft.com/achromats.html

Extension tubes
I've just recently purchased a Meike automatic extension tube for testing against other alternatives. It's perfectly compatible with all native (aps-c) E-mount lenses retaining not just the full aperture control but also the AF (if you need it). It has two parts, a 10mm and a 16mm ring, but honestly you will use them combined. The extension tubes are just simple cylinders between your lens and the camera without any optical element allowing your lens to focus closer. Some claims that due to the lack of extra optics there is no degradation of the image quality (of the original lens). It's not entirely true because the lens you use with the tube is designed to stay at a precise distance from the sensor. In addition, lots of light is lost in the tube, which also influence the image quality. The gained magnification depends on the focal length of the lens you use with. It works better with shorter than longer focal length lenses. You can also buy cheaper tubes without electronic contacts but they can be used only with manual lenses where you have option to change the aperture on the lens.

Full review of the Meike MK S AF3B extension tube set (coming soon)

It works well with the kit lens:







It has a similar feeling/handling when attached to the 50mm f1.8 prime lens, but the close-up capabilities are not that good. Picture quality is better due to the better quality of this prime lens compared to the kit zoom.





The effects with the longer focal length 55-210mm zoom are not that robust: It works better at 55mm:


 As you can see below that at 210mm the magnification effect is not that good: 


Pros:
  • No(t that much) loss of image quality
  • Affordable (similar price range compared to achromatic lenses)
  • Optical quality is independent from the provider (build quality is important though)
Cons:
  • Lens can be used only for macro when it's used with an extension tube
  • More complicated to remove (sensor might exposed to dust)
  • Loss of light
  • Not much gain with long telephoto lenses
Extension tubes + various lenses + achromats
If you have an achromatic lens and an extension tube why not to combine them.  The kit zoom still have the AF, but it's better to with manual focus. I think the image quality won't be sufficient, so I haven't test this combination. However, using them with the better quality sel50F18 is an option worth to consider, since we can reach 1:1 as you can see below:



In the test photos I can't see any sign of CA and the pictures are pretty sharp with good contrast. I used a twin flash lighting solution, so the photos are well lit:


Full size crop from the picture above:


With the sel55210 you will reach the super macro photography territory, but correct focusing will be extremely difficult (first photo was taken at 55mm, the second one at 210mm):





Inverted manual lens (reverse lens macro)
This option is very easy to try if you have some old manual lens lying by. Just take off your E lens when your camera is on and hold your manual lens in reverse way (front elements facing the camera) to the lens mount. If you like the effect, you can buy a cheap adapter (my one was 10 euro) to do the permanent attachment:





This photo was taken with an inverted sigma 24mm f2.8 super-wide II lens.


If you have an automatic lens without an aperture ring, your aperture will be closed to maximum when your lens is not on the camera. You can move this tiny pin (bolt) with a piece of folded thick paper to open the iris. 

You have a very limited macro range but the quality is surprisingly good in my opinion. Some examples below:



 Full resolution crop from the photo above:

Pros:
  • Good image quality (depending on the lens inversted)
  • Cheap (but requires a small manual lens, which is an extra cost)
  • Optical quality is independent from the provider (build quality is important though)
Cons:

  • Lens can be used only for macro and the range is very limited (you will practically focus by moving your camera)
  • More complicated to remove (sensor might exposed to dust)
  • Difficult to use with heavy lenses (don't try with zooms)



Inverted lens attached to an E-lens 


Another inverse lens technique is to attach an inverted lens to your primary lens with the help of a reversing ring (use additional step-up or step-down ring when needed). Your reverse lens will act like a brutal high diopter lens. Your 50mm reverse lens will act as a +20 dp lens (1000/50=20) while a 24mm will be a +41.6 dp lens. It's usually too much so try only if you're advanced photographer. It's especially problematic to put bigger, heavier old lenses on smaller more fragile E-mount lenses. Don't try this approach for example on a zoom! It might damages the protruding tube. I tried only a light 24mm lens on the sel50F18 lens. The magnification is huge but also the vignetting and the DOF is razor thin.




Legacy (manual) lenses on adapter
This is a popular recommendation by many people. I've tried only a sigma 50mm f2.8 macro lens with my nex-5 (see my previous short report here: http://fiberstrobe.blogspot.de/2012/09/recent-photos-in-praise-of-old-sigm-af.html) and I was in general happy with the results. I gave few tries to my minolta 100mm f2.8 macro lens but it was just too heavy on the tiny nex-5 body. Maybe it fits better to larger cameras such as the A6000 or the A7 series. However, I've also noticed some optical errors in the corners most probably due to my cheap adapter. The adapter is always a potential weak link. So you need a quality adapter to really benefit from these older lenses. If you have one, you should use them but I don't really recommend this option to start your macro photography from zero.

Minolta/sony compatible AF lens on smart adapter (retaining AF)
I haven't tried this, so it's my theoretical suggestion. If you already have some good AF lens from your minolta/sony DSLR, you may also use it on your E system. But you will be happier to use it on your old DSLR(SLT) camera, believe me. To invest into such lens plus the adapter doesn't make sense in my opinion. Maybe the Tamron 60mm f/2 macro lens is the only lens I would consider. If you switched from another system and you have some macro lens kept you may give a try. There are smart (even with slow AF) and dumb adapters available from various vendors. However, an adapter is always a potential weak link and I guess you would be more succesful to use such lenses on the original camera bodies they were designed for.

Dedicated macro lenses (directly fitting to sony bodies)
SEL30M35 macro lens
See my detailed review of this cheap but quite nice lens here:

Zeiss 50 f/2.8 Macro Touit Lens
I don't have this lens, but I would be very happy to test it. It's not cheap but it is most probably an excellent macro and general purpose lens. There are some reviews already on the net:

FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS Full-frame E-mount Macro Lens
This is the newest lens addition to the full-frame A7 camera series (but can be used on aps-c bodies of course). Based on the specifications it's probably the best 90-100mm range macro lens available for any system. However it arrives with a hefty price tag of over 1000 euro (USD), which is far more what I would pay for any macro lens. However I would be glad to try it. Initial tests are really promising:
http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2015/05/sony-fe-90mm-f2-8-g-oss-resolution-test

Nanoha 5X Ultra Macro Lens
This manual focus lens lens is designed for APS-C sensors and it has a built-in set of LEDs to illuminate the subject at extra close distance. It might be enough for tripod photography but I would use some extra flash light. I haven't tried it yet but it looks like a fun lens to use for super macro photography. You can find a review (with A6000) here: http://sonymirrorlesspro.com/nanoha-5x-ultra-macro-e-mount-lens/

Samyang 100mm f:2.8 ED UMC Macro
Another MF lens from a third party company. It's brand new and I haven't tried it yet, but it looks fine if you don't need autofocus. It's a bit expensive in my opinion

Teleconverters


This would be a good option and I know many professional photographers using this approach for super-macro photography. A teleconverter enlarges the middle part of the virtual image projected by the lens, but it keeps the minimum focus ability of the lens, therefore it magnifies the picture. Due to the added optical elements, there is certain degradation of the optical quality, but the final results with quality teleconverters will be better than simple cropping of the image.
Unfortunately there is no teleconverter produced (according to my best knowledge) for the sony E system. You may add a teleconverter on an adapter but I wouldn't recommend this. Too many parts will surely introduce some optical errors, not mentioning the size disadvantages. I've experimented for a while with a soligor 1.7X teleconverter with various SLR bodies (minolta 7000i, KM7, sony A100) and lenses (sigma 50mm and minolta 100mm macrol) but I was never really happy with the results.

Other options

Belows, Tilt-Shift adapters,  MFS
Another way to extend the distance between the sensor and the lens can be done by using bellows. Belows work similarly to extension tubes but the maximum distance is bigger and continuously adjustable. I never tried this because it doesn't fit to my photography style. Belows are bulky and you need a tripod to use them, so it's more a tool for studio photography. For sony E-system you additionaly need some adapter.

Advance photographers may try the multi-focus-system of Zörk company (http://www.zoerk.com/). It contains a special rotational Tilt Tube® providing 30° of tilt / swing along any axis, but you need a greater image circle lens to be attached to it (medium format lenses or enlarger lenses). With this you can get the Scheimpflug effect (image plane (sensor plane) is not parallel to the lens plane), which gives a feeling of increased DOF. Very interesting, but quite expensive system and today it's just easier to stitch multiple differently focused images in post processing to get increased DOF.

Conclusions

First I wanted to sort the various options from cheaper to most expensive ones, but it depends on the older lens collections one may have and can be re-used for macro photography. For beginners I would recommend close-up lenses just to try macro photography, but it can be skipped if you're determined to take higher-level macro pictures. E-system users with the kit lens can start with extension tubes, while a good achromate lens is recommended  for owners of longer tele zooms. I can highly recommend the cheap and light 30mm macro lens (see my review here) as a potential next step, but you may find difficult to take photos of skittish animals. I'm a bit in trouble to recommend any medium or longer macro lense because they're heavy and relatively expensive for the E-system. A good, affordable 60-70mm native macro lens is still missing from sony's lens line. An upgraded mirrorless version of either the Tamron 60mm or the Sigma 70mm macro lenses would be fantastic. You can, of course, re-use some older lenses (via appropriate adapters), if you have some.

The most important thing in photography, in my opinion, is the quality of the light. The most expensive macro lens will fail with unproper technique. A proper lit kit lens photo will look better then a zeiss photo with boring/bad light.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Life and passing

Around Easter we celebrate the resurrection. The believers remember to the resurrection of Jesus while non-believers celebrate the spring and the revival of the nature from the winter sleep.
This post is however about the passing away. Nothing dramatic, I just took photos of the hyacinths I gave to my daughter and wife for the international women's day. The flowers completely parched now but their forms and structure gave me interesting photo themes. 

I used the nex-5 and the 30mm macro lens on tripod. A rim light (powered by manual yongnuo) gave the special light source. First the old pictures followed by the photos of the dead flower:






Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sony VCL-ECU1 ultra wide converter, a hands-on rolling review


This lens was hiding in one of the boxes under the Christmas tree and I was really curious how it performs but it took a while to have a general impression (mainly due to bad boring weather and work). I unfortunately left this converter home when I traveled to a recent trip to Thailand.

This converter was designed for the SEL16F28 lens and it has a 0.75x factor so it makes the wide angle 16mm lens ultra-wide (around 12mm, equivalent to 18mm on full frame cameras). It's specifically designed for this pancake lens, so it doesn't deteriorate its optically quality much. Some cynic would say that it's hard to further spoil it. Although most of the SEL16F28 reviews were very negative, I was satisfied with this cheap lens. It served me as a small pocket lens and I also managed to take some fantastic shoots when it was paired with the vcl-ecf1 converter. Stop down to f/8 and it's quite good. If you already have to 16mm lens I recommend to buy both adapters. They sell now around 100 euro, which is a steal for a 12mm f/2.8 lens or a good f/2.8 fisheye lens (assuming that you have the 16mm lens). I haven't done a thorough test yet but my initial impression is that it has very good build quality with a nice silver metal alloy and it snaps well to the pancake lens. It's heavier then the 16mm lens (127g vs 65g), but the two together is still light enough and balances well on my small nex-5. It arrived in an elegant nice zip-closed etui.
The fisheye converter is on the left, while the ultra wide converter is on the right

The two converters have more or less the same size



You can't add standard filters to it but it has a built-in hood. To give an opinion about the optical quality I need more time with it. Adding the converter has no effect on the light transmission according to my test. In M mode it doesn't influence the exposure, probably due to the fact that the lens combo collects light from a larger area. What is clear that the purple fringing of the 16mm lens won't go away by adding this converter (same with the fisheye converter). Overall the image quality is quite OK but don't expect super sharp result.


Below you can see few photos taken with this later combination (with nex-5 camera):






The effect is not that dramatic as with the fisheye lens but it gives a bit more space, so you can show more about the environment when you want to take macro photos. The good news is that you don't have to stop down that much to have sharp results and even you still have infinity. With the fisheye converter you can forget sharp far away subjects, so you can't use that combination as standard lens, while the sel30M35+vcl-ecf1 combo is a nice 22.5mm lens (not a good one though). I think that despite the limitation, I will use my 30mm macro more with the combination with the fisheye adapter.

Update with further tests in the woods:
I've tested this lens combination further (SEL30M35+VCL-ECU1) and I see more and more potential in it. It has a nice close focus ability and retains the thin DOF  typical for macro lenses but it has an extreme wide field of view (it's wider with the fisheye adapter though). It makes the out of focus background very interesting. It has effects you could achieve only with extremely fast wide angle lenses. At f13 the background is still very blurry and only the middle flower is sharp. Soping down to f18 increases the sharpness of all flowers but the background is still quite nice (interesting)



You can, of course, use this adapter as intended by attaching it to the 16mm lens. I usually lit the subject in the foreground with some flash light to have a pop and always trying to find some interesting background:






Update: Additional test as sightseeing/museum lens (with nex-5):


I visited recently Meissen, a German city that is world famous for its china (first European hard-paste porcelain) and in addition it has a beautiful old city center. I was with my family, so photo opportunities were limited, but I still found a bit of time to briefly test this lens combo from a tourist's perspective. Actually I liked it a lot and it is more useful than the fisheye lens in most of the situations. We visited the porcelain manufacture's exhibition and museum where the lens helped to cover large interiors and I could take nice photos of the exhibited arts. The distortion is minor with this adapter and it was not disturbing at all. Most of the photos I took could not be possible with the kit lens (not wide and not fast enough). Corners are not completely sharp, especially when the lens is not stopped down in the not well lit Museum, but most of the pictures came out very nice. However, if you are an architecture photographer on a paid job, the quality will not satisfy you, but 99% of the tourists will be more than happy with the results. Below you can see some examples for Museum/indoor photography:


 Some geometric distortion can be seen in this, but it's not that disturbing



 You can cover bigger subjects from a close distance with a very small camera as seen in the reflection. I've selected this picture only to demonstrate this.

 The centre is quite sharp
 The edges are not that good


In the city it proved to be a very useful walk around lens. The wide angle allowed me to take photos of most of the buildings including the dom. I've tested the sweep panorama mode with this and I cannot fault the lens (but my hand and technique).


Example for purple fringing






In many situation, of course the ultra-wide perspective doesn't fit to the subject, so taking the kit zoom lens or a longer lens is recommended.

Photo was taken with the SEL1855 kit zoom

Overall I highly recommend the VCL-ECU1 ultra wide converter as sightseeing/street/museum photography lens. Meanwhile sony came out with an updated black version (VCL-ECU2) but no words about an updated optical formula, so I think it's the same inside.


Pros:
  • Cheap
  • Good optical quality
  • Fast (f2.8)
  • Real wide angle
  • Improved close focus abilities
  • Can take photos you can't do with your kit lens


Cons:
  • Contrast and sharpness in the corners (edges) are not so good
  • No star effect (when stopped down and shooting towards the sun)
  • Flare and purple fringing is frequent
Alternatives: Samyang 12mm f/2 or Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS E. I don't have these lenses but you can read about them in this excellent review of David Kilpatrick here.
Carl Zeiss Touit Distagon 12mm f/2.8 T* is another option for much more money.