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Manual Focus Macro Classics — A Comparison

Not everybody has drunk the autofocus Koolaid, you know.  Some of us started out with manual focus gear and actually like it.  Call me anachronistic if it makes you feel better.  Heck, I don’t care.  When I first got serious about photography, one of the things I enjoyed most about the process was the feeling of being in control of the image I captured, and that control extended to focusing.  There’s something about turning over that responsibility to a machine that I’ve always felt somewhat uneasy about. And there have been situations, often occurring at exactly the wrong time, when my camera’s autofocus technology just decides to go nuts and not focus on anything exactly when I need it to be in focus the most.  So, I don’t care what people say and think — AF is still not totally trustworthy.  Enough of that, though.  This article is about a few macro lenses that just happen to be manual focus — lenses that are of such high quality that they continue to have a loyal following decades, in some cases, after they were manufactured.

The macro lenses I’ll compare here are the Vivitar Series 1 105mm f/2.5 (aka the “legendary” Kiron 105mm f/2.8), the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5, the Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 pre-AI, and just to make things interesting, I’ve decided to toss a zoom into the mix, one that has a surprisingly good macro ratio of 1:1.55: the Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4.

Left to right: Vivitar 105mm f/2.5, Tamron 90mm f/2.5, Nikon 55mm f/3.5, Tamron 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4

The subject of the tests is an old Zippo lighter my father carried in Korea.

Old Zippo Lighter: “23rd Quartermasters Group, Korea, 1952-54″

I took pics of the lighter laying flat, and then cropped the centers and corners of the images — 100% crops in each case. Here are some decent close-ups taken with each lens at f/8, that will give you a pretty good idea of an image’s overall quality.

Vivitar 105mm f/2.5 @ f/8

Tamron 90mm f/2.5 @ f/8

Nikon 55mm f/3.5 Micro Nikkor @ f/8

Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4 @ f/8

The following images are pretty self-explanatory.  I shot them at four different aperture values: wide open, f/8, f/16, and f/32, then grouped them according to aperture value.  Center crops are first, followed by the corner crops. I don’t know why WordPress — the blogging software I use — does this, but in order to view the following images at 100%  value, you’ll have to click on one, which loads another window, and you’ll have to click on it again. This should give you a  100% crop of the original images.

The images speak for themselves, and don’t really require much in the way of analysis from me.  I will just make a few observations, though.  See if you don’t agree.

The Vivitar Series 1 105mm macro is a lens with a legendary reputation.  And it is a very sharp lens.  But as is shown here, in all eight tests shown, there is not one in which it is the best of the lot.  Even the Tamron 60-300 outperforms it in a couple of the tests.  The Tamron 90mm gets consistently high marks across the board, being bested by the Nikkor in only a few of the tests.  And the Nikkor, a lens that’s about 45 years old now, hangs tough throughout the test.  The big surprise has to be the Tamron zoom, though.  Its center sharpness was startlingly good — I mean, zooms aren’t supposed to have that sort of resolution, right?  Yes, its corner sharpness was dreadful at larger apertures, but it continued to improve, such that by f/32, the Tamron zoom was providing sharpness on par with the Tamron and Nikkor macros, even besting the fabled Vivitar.

Bottom line: all three macro lenses performed brilliantly, exhibiting excellent sharpness from center to corner up to about f/16.  Even the Tamron zoom, in a pinch and under the right sort of composition constraints, will do a credible job for macro work. One rather startling conclusion I’ve come to is this: if I had to shoot a scene at f/32, I would choose either the 55mm f/3.5 Micro Nikkor or the Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.6 zoom. That’s right. At f/32, the Tamron zoom is an equivalent performer to the 55mm Micro Nikkor, outperforming the Vivitar and the Tamron 90mm macro in the center and corner images. I dunno about you, but I’d call this something of an upset. Still, while it’s a tough call because the Tamron SP 90mm macro and 55mm Micro Nikkor were neck and neck through most of the images, if I had to choose a winner, it would be the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5. But if I had to choose the dark horse winner, it would absolutely be the Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4.

Sigma DP1s — What’s all the excitement about?

Well, it turns out that my first photographic post is not going to be about lenses.  It’s going to be about point & shoot digicams.  Specifically the Sigma DP1s.  I was given the opportunity to try out a friends brand new DP1s, and was mildly interested because its minimalist looks appeal to me.

Sigma DP1s

Its 16.6mm lens is the equivalent to a 28mm in 35mm format.  So this camera is a dedicated wide-angle tool.  Good for quick landscape and architectural shots, and perhaps even street scenes.  Its APS-C sized Foveon X3 sensor is highly touted — providing 14.6 megapixels of resolution and all — as is its well-corrected 16.6mm f/4 lens.  The DP1s is deceptively simple.  No viewfinder, a modest-sized LCD screen, a couple of wheels and buttons on the top cover, along with a hot-shoe — something you don’t see ofen on a P&S digicam, and it has a few more controls on the back.  It even uses a pop-up flash, reminiscent of the Canon AF35ML and some Minolta Hi-Matics, for a proper retro look.  But under the skin, the camera has an admirable level of flexibility and complexity.  It shoots in raw mode, for example.  It has different metering patterns and AF modes, and one can select between single and continuous frame shooting.  It also has a movie mode, and an audio setting that allows the photographer to make a 10-second comment at the end of each photo.  Its ISO range is 50 to 800.  50 is somewhat unusual for a camera like this, and a welcome addition if the photographer is interested in minimizing all traces of noise.

But all this comes at a hefty price.  The DP1s lists for about $800.  Yikes!  Street prices are under $300, though. But still, that is rather pricey for a digicam.  And I’m sorry, but I just can’t resist asking myself if it’s worth it.  So I decided to make a quick and dirty comparison between the DP1s and the only other halfway decent digicam I had handy — my daughter’s Canon A1000IS, a model that has been discontinued for a while now — but so what else is new, in the world of consumer digicams?  She bought her A1000IS for about $125 two years ago.  It has 10 megapixels compared to the DP1s’s 14.6.

Canon A1000IS

But — and this is a big but — the Foveon is a three layer sensor, each layer being “tuned” to a particular color: red, green, and blue.  Supposedly this provides for more faithful color rendition, but another result is that 14.6 mp isn’t as many as you might think.  The maximum image size produced by the DP1s is 2640×1760, whereas the max image size with the lowly A1000IS is 3648×2736.  That’s a 38% larger image from a camera with a 31% smaller sensor, megapixel-ly speaking.  But how about image quality?  Surely the Sigma’s must be vastly superior, or so one might think.  Let’s take a look shall we?  I went out and shot a few pics with each camera, each set to its max resolution and ISO 100.  I could have set the Sigma to raw mode, but since the Canon doesn’t have this feature, I felt it was only fair to compare like with like, so both cameras were set to capture images in .jpg format.

Here we have a couple of photos of my beloved Volvo V90.  The first image was taken with the Sigma DP1s, and the second with the Canon A1000IS.

Sigma DP1s: Volvo V90

Canon A1000IS: Volvo V90

Well, a couple of comments — first, I should have stood back farther away from the car when I took the shot with the Canon.  I wasn’t taking into account the wide-angle nature of the Sigma’s lens.  Second, for valid comparison purposes, I did not do any post processing to the images at all, other than reducing them in size for viewing on the web.

You will probably notice right off that the Sigma’s colors are more neutral, whereas the Canon’s colors have a noticeably more yellow cast.  I’d have to say that this is a “feature” of the Canon, since it was close to mid-day when I took the photos, thus the color temperature of the sunlight shouldn’t have caused any yellow cast.  So +1 to the Sigma for color accuracy.  As for lens sharpness, with these somewhat small photos it’s hard to tell.  So here are a couple of 100% crops — well almost.  To show the Canon’s image at the same size as the Sigma’s, I had to eyeball the Canon’s crop so that it covered the same area of the image as the Sigma’s 100% crop, then I reduced the Canon’s crop to the same size as the Sigma’s.  Got all that?

Sigma DP1s: 100% Crop of the Volvo V90

Canon A1000IS: 100% Crop of the Volvo V90

The two images appear to be very close, don’t they — color differences aside, that is.  In fact, after close inspection, I’d have to give the nod to the Canon.  Notice the small scratch on the bumper visible in the Canon’s photo, but which is almost undetectable in the Sigma’s?  Also, there seems to be a bit better definition in the headlight lens patterns with the Canon’s image.  But then I ask myself, is this a sharpness difference, or is it exposure?  Because the more I look at it, the more it looks to me as if the Sigma is overexposing just a bit, and as a result, blowing out some detail in the highlight areas.  So + 1 to the Canon for having better exposure control.  Actually, with a few subsequent shots I took with the Sigma, I found that I had to adjust the camera’s exposure compensation (the AV button) to reduce a tendency to overexpose in bright sun.

Next, I took some shots of trees in the front yard.  Once again, in this pair of pics you can see that the Sigma’s exposure is a bit lighter than the Canon’s, although it doesn’t appear excessive in this case.

Sigma DP1s: Trees

Canon A1000IS: Trees

I haven’t posted 100% crops because there’s no point.  I couldn’t tell a bit of difference in terms of sharpness or correction of lens aberrations in either photo.  With the Canon’s image resized to that of the Sigma’s and a bit of brightness/contrast adjustment done, I doubt if anybody could tell the two apart.  Well, except for the fact that the Sigma’s image format is the standard 3:2 proportion whereas the Canon’s is closer to a TV screen’s format at 4:3.

Next, I decided to take some close-ups.  Flowers are always a good candidate for this.  But the weather here in Houston is pretty brutal in early August, so I could find only a single rose in my wife’s garden that was barely hanging in there.  It would have to do.  One thing I noticed right off with the Sigma — with some disappointment — is that its 16.6mm f/4 isn’t really a close-focus lens.  Minimum focusing distance is about 1.3 feet.  And given its wide-angle nature, this is kind of far away for macro work.  Sigma must have already taken this into account because they didn’t even bother with a macro icon anywhere on its dial or controls.  So macro shots might not be all that fair of a comparison, but here goes anyway.  The first is the Sigma’s, cropped to 100%, and the second is the Canon’s.  But this time, instead of sizing the Canon’s image so that it’s the same size as the Sigma’s, I decided I’d show the Canon’s shot at 100% also, just to show what is being missed with the Sigma.

This is the entire scene taken with the Sigma.

Sigma DP1s: Yellow Rose

And here are the 100% crops, first the Sigma, then the Canon.  Each photo was taken at each camera’s closest focusing distance.

Sigma DP1s: Yellow Rose, 100% Crop

Canon A1000IS: Yellow Rose, 100% Crop

Okay, it’s worth making the comment at this point that Sigma does produce a AML-1 close-up lens that lists for a hefty $125 and sells at a still respectable $80 street.  This close-up lens provides the user with a magnification ratio ranging from 1:8.2 to 1:14.9.  Not exactly anything to write home about, but nonetheless an improvement. Given that its front filter size is 46mm, which is a reasonably common size, one can buy a name-brand close-up filter set, which typically includes a +1, +2, and +3 filter, for about a third of the price of the single Sigma filter.  A good quality set might provide one with a halfway decent macro capability, but it would have been nicer if the lens were designed to focus closer to begin with.

As long as I’m in gripe mode, I guess I find myself wondering just how wise it is to offer this camera with a single focal length lens only.  True, for another large outlay, one can buy a DP2s, which has a 24.2mm f/2.8 lens (equivalent to a 41mm lens in 35mm format), but that’s not much variety for quite a sizable pile of semolians.  And it’s also worth mentioning that other series of P&S cameras with an almost cult-like following: the Canon G-series.  Earlier G-series cameras, like the G7 and G9, have 5x zooms that are equivalent to 35-210mm with a 35mm camera, but the G10, G11, and G12 have 5x zooms that have the same wide-angle capability as the Sigma DP1s plus a still respectable 140mm equivalent on the tall end (i.e., 28-140mm equivalent).  While it’s true that a new G12 will set you back roughly $150 more than a Sigma DP1s, honestly, which would you rather have?  Be honest now.  Besides, the G-series look pretty cool in their own way too.

Canon G10

Oh, and it bears mentioning — probably fairly frequently given the Sigma’s rather slow f/4 maximum aperture — both the Canon A1000IS and the later G-series have internal image stabilization, which provides the user with extended hand-held capabilities in low-light scenarios.

So I ask once again — regarding the Sigma DP1s, what’s all the excitement about?  I’m reminded of the Konica Hexar AF, which was a totally cool fixed lens 35mm P&S camera, and which also had a cult following.  Still does, in fact.  Given Konica’s almost total lack of promotion of the camera, the Hexar AF remained in production a surprisingly long time — about five years.  Is the Sigma DP-series destined for a similar status and fate?

Hello world!

Not my first blog, but this is a new installation, nonetheless.  My first one disappeared when my hosting service’s server crashed, and my second one disappeared for no apparent reason.  It was at blogger.com.  Must have been something I said. I have a third one, hosted by Word Press this time, but it has pretty much duplicated the content of my second one, so before WP gets in a snit and decides they need to kill it, I’ve decided just to relocate my blog to my own domain.

So anyway, expect the bulk of my comments to be concerning photography and motorcycles.  I hope for this blog eventually to be a showcase for some of my better photographic work.  The first couple or three posts are going to be copies of those at my blog at WP.  I figured I may as well transfer them over here for safekeeping.  Stay tuned.

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