Friday, January 27, 2017

Fujifilm X-E1 Lens Comparison: Fujinon 18-55mm vs X-Fujinon 50mm vs Industar 61 vs Helios 44-2

Fujifilm X-E1 with Fujinon 18-55mm lens.
I have several vintage lenses that I occasionally attach (using lens mount adapters) to my Fujifilm X-E1 digital rangefinder-style camera. A good way to expand your glass on the cheap is to buy old lenses from the film era. Many of these lenses also have unique characteristics that you just won't find with finely tuned modern glass. Besides that, I like the experience of shooting with manual lenses.

I had the idea yesterday to compare the lenses that I have, and, for the heck of it, threw in the "kit" Fujinon f/2.8-4 18-55mm lens (which I shot at 55mm) that came with my X-E1. The vintage lenses that I used for this experiment are an X-Fujinon f/1.9 50mm DM, an Industar 61 f/2.8 55mm, and a Helios 44-2 f/2 58mm. These three old lenses can be purchased for under $50 each (and the adapters can be found for around $10 each).

The Fujinon f/2.8-4 18-55mm was made beginning in 2012 and was announced along with the X-Pro1 camera. It has 14 elements in 10 groups. It can focus as close as about a foot away. It is considered one of the best (if not the best) inexpensive zooms ever made.

The X-Fujinon f/1.9 50mm DM was made between 1980 and 1985 for Fuji's Fujica X series 35mm film cameras. It has 5 elements in 5 groups. It has a minimum focus distance of just under two feet.

The Industar 61 f/2.8 55mm is a Soviet Union lens that was made between 1971 and 1992, based very closely on Leica Elmar f/2.8 50mm from the 1950's. It has 4 elements in 3 groups and has a radioactive coating. It has a minimum focus distance of about three feet. This lens is known for its "soap bubble" bokeh.

The Helios 44-2 f/2 58mm is a Soviet Union lens that was made between 1958 and 1992, based closely on the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar f/2 58mm from the 1920's. It has 6 elements in 4 groups. It has a minimum focus distance of about 20 inches. This lens is known for its "swirly" bokeh.

For this experiment I set the X-E1 to shoot JPEG, ISO 800, Shutter 4000, DR400, Auto-White-Balance, Astia Film Simulation, Color +2, Sharpness +1, Highlight Tone -1, Shadow Tone 0, and Noise Reduction -1. I set the lenses to f/4 and manually focused (I also auto-focused a shot with the 18-55mm lens, more on that in a moment).

I went to my snow-covered backyard and placed a pair of my daughter's boots in the fluffy white stuff. I placed the X-E1 on a tripod. The conditions were overcast, with areas of thicker and thinner clouds, which meant that the lighting was fairly even yet constantly changing (but only slightly). 

I edited the JPEGs lightly using Nik Color Efex, applying an identical "recipe" to each. I also gave each image an identical light sharpening using Nik Sharpener Pro.

Below are the images:
Boots In The Snow - Fujinon 18-55mm lens.
Boots In The Snow - X-Fujinon 50mm lens.
Boots In The Snow - Industar 61 lens.
Boots In The Snow - Helios 44-2 lens.
The biggest difference between the images is focal length. The Fujinon 18-55mm (shot at 55mm) and the Industar 61 are the same focal length. The Fujinon 50mm is slightly wider and the Helios 44-2 is slightly more telephoto.

The one image that stands out as "different" than the others is the Industar 61 version. It is slightly darker, less vibrant and warmer. This may be due in part to changing light conditions, however, I think it is also a byproduct of the lens itself. I like the way it makes the image look and prefer it over the others.

Another difference that I notice upon close inspection is that the Fujinon 18-55mm lens has the most contrast. Also, the Helios 44-2 lens seems to give the most "separation" between the boots and the background.

Now let's "pixel-peep" and look closely at some crops. We'll compare sharpness first.
Fujinon 18-55mm boot crop.
X-Fujinon 50mm boot crop.
Industar 61 boot crop.
Helios 44-2 boot crop.
It's really hard to tell which image is most and least sharp. All four lenses produce very sharp results, and there is no clear winner or loser. The zoom lens matches the three prime lenses, which is actually quite amazing!

One tidbit that I will add here is that the Fujinon 18-55mm lens was auto-focused for this image. I manually focused two different exposures with it and one using auto-focus. The two manually focused exposures were not focused correctly (slightly behind the boots). No surprise, for manual focus, the three manual focus lenses are superior.

Now let's look at bokeh!
Fujinon 18-55mm bokeh crop.
X-Fujinon 50mm bokeh crop. 
Industar 61 bokeh crop.
Helios 44-2 bokeh crop.
Bokeh is the quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photograph. As you can see, all four lenses have good bokeh.

The two Fujinon lenses produce nearly identical out-of-focus backgrounds. The Industar 61 lens is only very subtly different. The Helios 44-2 lens produces a more creamy, blurry background.

Here's another look at bokeh, this time from the corner:
Fujinon 18-55mm corner bokeh crop.
X-Fujinon 50mm corner bokeh crop.
Industar 61 corner bokeh crop.
Helios 44-2 corner bokeh crop.
If you look closely at these crops, you get an idea of how each lens handles highlights in bokeh. Each one is a little different, none are terrible. I think the two Soviet Union lenses give the best results, but only marginally.

So what's the verdict? Which lens wins?

I was a little surprised that the Fujinon 18-55mm lens holds its own very well against the primes. I knew it was good, but I didn't realize just how good, I guess. I like the look that the Industar 61 gives to an image. I like the bokeh produced by Helios 44-2 and the separation between the subject and background. The Fujinon 50mm didn't stand out against the other options, but it proved to be a good lens capable of excellent results. So there isn't a clear winner or loser, but four quality (budget friendly) lenses with their own strengths that produce excellent results.

My favorite of the four lenses are the two from the former Soviet Union. Russia was good at reverse-engineering the best German cameras and lenses, and the Leica and Zeiss glass that the Russian lenses are copies of are considered some of the best ever made. There isn't a huge difference in image quality produced by the Russian lenses and the Fujinon lenses, but the subtle differences give unique character that seems to be lacking in modern camera equipment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Are The New Medium Format Cameras Really Medium Format?

I was recently asked my opinion on the newest (and hottest) medium format cameras. Specifically, are they really medium format? The cameras in question are the Fujifilm GFX 50S, the Hasselblad X1D-50c and the Pentax 645Z.

These cameras all feature a 50-megapixel sensor (probably the same Sony-made sensor), which measures 3.3x4.4cm. The smallest medium format film size is 4.5x6cm, which is quite a bit larger than the sensors found in these new digital cameras. Size-wise, the difference is significant!

But with digital photo technology, sensor size doesn't always tell the whole story. Or, at least, you have to understand what it all means and doesn't mean. The larger the sensor, the larger the light-sensitive elements can be. To squeeze 50 million light-sensitive elements (or "pixels") onto a full-frame sensor means using smaller light-sensitive elements. If the sensor is larger the pixels can be larger, too.
Horse At Fence - Onyx, California
Captured using a Holga 120N medium format film camera.
Larger light-sensitive elements allows for better low-light performance. The camera will have less digital noise, especially as the ISO increases. There is also the opportunity for a larger dynamic range. However, with advances in digital technology, the amount of positive image quality gain that you get from larger pixels isn't nearly as large as it used to be. Yes, it's still there, but the gap is somewhat narrow.

Resolution is resolution. 50 megapixels on a medium format sensor is the same as 50 megapixels on a full frame sensor or even a smaller sensor (if one were made). The real difference is in noise and dynamic range, and full frame sensors are nearly as good, and sometimes better than, medium format sensors in those regards.

One aspect that I haven't mentioned yet is depth-of-field, and the way lenses render images on larger sensors. There is a unique quality there, but it is subtle and probably unnoticeable by many.

To get back to the question that was asked to me, are these new cameras really medium format? Technically, yes. Anything larger than full frame (35mm) but smaller than large format (which doesn't exist in the digital world, and barely still exists in the film world) is medium format.

The real question is this: are these cameras worth the higher MSRP? Is it worth paying double or triple to get a little bit more resolution, a slight increase in high-ISO and a tiny gain in dynamic range? I can't answer that for you.

If I had money lying around, I'd love to get a medium format digital camera. But I don't so it is unlikely that I will ever shoot one. I don't feel like I'm missing out on much because cheaper gear performs very well nowadays. Yes, it would be nice to have one, but it is far from essential.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Using A Helios 44-2 Lens On A Fujifilm X-E1 Camera

Fujifilm X-E1 with an 18-55mm lens
I'm a big fan of the Fujifilm X-E1 digital rangefinder-style camera. It looks great, is designed very well and creates excellent pictures. I have very few complaints. I truly enjoy using the camera.

Back in October I put an old Russian Industar 61 lens on the X-E1 using an adapter. It was a fun experiment and the results were somewhat interesting. Ever since then I've wanted to try other vintage glass on this camera.

What I like about putting old lenses on the Fuji camera is that it changes the experience. The camera "transforms" into an old manual film camera (or, at least, a digital facsimile), like what I used for years and years in the film era. Besides that, modern lenses are so well engineered that they lack character--they're too perfect, too clean.

For Christmas my wife got me a Zenit E 35mm SLR from Russia with a Helios 44-2 lens attached to the front. I've shot a couple of rolls of film with that camera, but what I really wanted to do was use the lens on my X-E1. For less than $10 an adapter lets me attach the Heios 44-2 lens (with its M42 lens mount) to my digital camera.
Zenit E SLR with Helios 44-2 lens
The Helios 44-2 lens is a 58mm f/2 prime that is really sharp in the center and slightly soft along the edges. It has 8 blades in 6 elements and can focus as close as 19" away. It's a ripoff of the Carl Zeiss Biotar design, and a flaw of that design is a swirly bokeh (when the conditions are just right).

The lens has an unusual design that gives it two aperture rings--one clicks at each f-stop and the other is smooth. The idea is that you set the f-stop with the ring that clicks, then open up the aperture to focus with the smooth ring (opening up the aperture makes the viewfinder brighter), and finally turn the smooth ring to the f-stop that the clicking ring is set to. It takes a little practice to get used to this.

The results are what I hoped for. The lens has just the right amount of character. It's sharp and seems to pair well with the 16-megapixel X-Trans sensor in the X-E1. The images look beautiful! Perhaps, most importantly, it's simply fun to use. The experience of using the lens on the camera is what I appreciate the most.

If you'd like to add some quality glass for a cheap price that gives your images character, then the Helios 44-2 is one that you should strongly consider. You can pick one up for less than $50 (sometimes much less). If you are not experinced using manual lenses, it'll take a little practice to get used to, but I believe it is worth the extra effort.

Below are photographs I've captured using the Helios 44-2 lens on my Fujifilm X-E1 over the last two weeks. Enjoy!
F Is For Film - South Weber, Utah
35mm Film - South Weber, Utah
Morning Blossom - South Weber, Utah
Stripes On Stripes - South Weber, Utah
Industar 61 Lens on a FED 5c Rangefinder - South Weber, Utah
Wasatch & Sky - South Weber, Utah
Grass In The Snow - South Weber, Utah

Friday, January 20, 2017

News: Fujifilm Announces The X-T20

Fujifilm just announced the latest X-Trans camera to feature the 24-megapixel sensor: the X-T20. This new camera is basically an X-T2 but with a few less features and frills. The X-T20 is 85% the same camera as the X-T2, but with 5% new things and in a smaller and lighter package. Oh, and it costs about 40% less.

If you wanted to buy the X-Pro2 or X-T2 to get the 24-megapixel X-Trans sensor but didn't want to spend the money that those cameras go for, the X-T20 is the value option that you've been waiting for. It has an MSRP of just $900 (body only), which is an excellent price compared to the more expensive models that don't have all that many additional features to justify the bigger expense. Perhaps the most significant difference, and one that will make a difference for some people, is that the X-T20 is not weather sealed (while the X-T2 is).

My recommendation is to get this camera instead of the similar but more expensive models if you really want a camera with the latest generation X-Trans sensor. It's definitely a better deal, and it's not missing much that you might later regret not having. Besides, smaller and lighter is almost always better, especially if you do any sort of travelling.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

My Top 10 Fujifilm X-E1 Photographs

Fujifilm X-E1
Back in July of 2016 I bought a gently used Fujifilm X-E1 digital rangefinder camera for a really good price. I've used my X-E1 as my primary camera ever since--in fact, I sold all of my other digital cameras (except my cell phone). Almost all of my photographs over the last six months have been captured using the Fuji camera--I just love photographing with my X-E1!

What I like about the camera is that it's designed for the person who learned photography back in the days of film and manual controls. You have the right dials in the right places. You are not jumping through menus just to take a picture. I also like how Fuji renders JPEGs, which look a lot like processed RAW files and not typical out-of-camera JPEGs. The camera also has excellent dynamic range and good high-ISO capabilities.

I was thinking about the photographs that I've captured with the Fujifilm X-E1, and which ones are my favorites. It was a more difficult task narrowing things down than I anticipated, and I'm not 100% convinced that these are the absolute best, but these are the ones I like the best. Because photographers have an emotional attachment to their own images, it can be difficult for them to determine which are truly the best. So below are my Top 10 favorite images (in no particular order), divided between five black-and-white and five color, that I captured with the camera over the last six months. Enjoy!

Black & White
I Am Nature - Ogden Canyon, Utah
Steps - Salt Lake City, Utah
Preserving The Library Stairs - Salt Lake City, Utah
Turbulent Sky Over The Ridge - Ogden Canyon, Utah
Rays Over The Wasatch - South Weber, Utah

Mirrored Mountain - Mirror Lake, Utah
Clouds At Night - Bear Lake, Idaho
Blue Umbrella - Great Salt Lake, Utah
Urban Bicyclist - Salt Lake City, Utah
Kodak Transparencies - South Weber, Utah

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Kodak To Bring Back Ektachrome & Maybe Kodachrome

Kodak Transparencies - South Weber, Utah 
Kodak made a surprising announcement five days ago: Ektachrome color transparency film is coming back! Specifically, and initially, it will be 35mm Ektachrome E100 available in 36 exposures. Kodak discontinued the film in 2012. 

It used to be that Ektachrome, which has been around in one form or another since the 1940's, could be purchased in many different formats and there were also different varieties available. My personal favorite was Ektachrome E100VS, which was Kodak's best imitation of Fuji Velvia film. I shot quite a few rolls of Ektachrome back in the day.

Yesterday Kodak made another surprise announcement: they are "investigating" the possibility of bringing back Kodachrome! This is Kodak's original color transparency film, introduced in the 1930's. It's actually a black-and-white film and color is introduced in development--it's a complicated process. Kodak discontinued the film in 2009 and discontinued the development of the film in 2010. 
Kodachrome - Stallion Springs, California
Kodachrome was a very popular film, and Paul Simon even sang about it. Ansel Adams shot his color photographs on it. For a while National Geographic insisted that Kodachrome be used by photographers working on assignment for them. It was a big deal when it was discontinued, and many saw it as the final nail in film's coffin.

However, much like the false reports of Mark Twain's death in 1897, the news of film's death has been greatly exaggerated. Film has actually been becoming more popular. It is a rise in demand that has brought back Ektachrome and might just bring back Kodachrome.

It's quite surprising just how many different films are available now. It seems like a couple new films are introduced every year. And it seems that every year has seen some film "rescued" from the chopping block. New companies have emerged, and even Kodak isn't really Kodak, but Kodak Alaris, an entirely different company. Even though film is old, in 2017 it's actually new and fresh, and the outlook is good. It's a great time to be a film photographer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Christmas Gift: Zenit E SLR with Helios 44-2 Lens

Zenit E with Helios 44-2 lens
My wife got me a great Christmas gift. It came all the way from Ukraine, so it arrived a little late. But it was totally worth the wait!

A couple months ago when my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told her a Helios 44-2 lens for my Fujifilm X-E1. It's a lot of fun putting classic lenses on this camera because it turns it into a manual experience, much like what I did for many years in the film era. Besides, these old lenses have more character than finely-tuned modern lenses. The Helios 44-2 is known for its swirly bokeh.
Zenit E & FED 5c
She went a step above just buying the lens. She bought a Zenit E SLR with the Helios lens attached to the front. She got me a vintage 1970's Russian SLR! I've had my eye on this particular camera for several years, but either the seller wanted too much for it or it wasn't in great shape.

The Zenit E that my wife purchased is in great shape and seems to be in perfect working condition. It's very clean and doesn't show its age much at all. Well done!
Grass In The Snow - South Weber, Utah
Captured using a Fujifilm X-E1 with a Helios 44-2 lens.
I haven't had the chance to put a roll of 35mm film into the camera yet. I plan to soon! Maybe this coming weekend. As soon as I capture some images and get the film back from the lab, I'll be sure to share the photographs here.

I did attach the lens to my X-E1 (using an adapter) and snapped a couple of pictures from my yard. It worked! I look forward to making more digital images using the old glass.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Fuzzy Line Between Inspiration & Copying

Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow - Yosemite National Park, California
Does this remind you of an Ansel Adams photograph?
There is very little originality in art. Almost all art is derivative of someone else's work. It's nearly impossible to find art that is truly original.

Take Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow at the top of this article. Does it remind you of the work of perhaps the most well-known photographer ever, who captured Yosemite National Park in black-and-white from every angle and light imaginable? Ansel Adams isn't the only famous photographer to capture Yosemite in monochrome. So is my photograph inspired by those other images or is it a copy of those other images? Where is the line drawn and who decides it?

While I've seen many photographs of the Cathedral Spires in Yosemite, I've never seen one exactly like mine. That doesn't mean that such an image doesn't exist (there are tens of millions of photographs of Yosemite that I've never seen). If I believe that my image has at least some element of originality in it, is that enough to make it original?

Austin Kleon wrote a book a few years back called Steal Like An Artist. He tells the story of an art project he did involving newspapers. He thought his idea was original, but it was pointed out to him that someone else had already done this. He did some research and found out that other people had done some very similar things going back hundreds of years. His work wasn't really original, although his exact take on it was somewhat unique.

But that's not a bad thing. He discovered that we can and should take a little from different artists (things that you love about their work) and incorporate it into our own work. Pablo Picasso said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." David Bowie, who described himself as a tasteful thief, said, "The only art I ever study is stuff I can steal from." T.S. Eliot said, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." Albert Einstein said, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

Since we are all unoriginal, what we can do is take a little from this person and a little from that person and combine the ideas of others with our own ideas. You take things that aren't new and mix them up into something that is new. In this way we create things that are somewhat unique, and aren't carbon copies (or, worse, poor copies) of others.
Preserving An Afternoon Downtown - Salt Lake City, Utah
I bring all of this up because of my new Project: Preserved series, where I photograph jars and urban/street/industrial scenes in double-exposure images. I stole from another artist who photographs jars and rural/mountain landscapes in double-exposure images. The concepts are very similar, yet are applied to completely different genres of photography. And that is not the only difference. He uses film while I use digital. He has his own techniques and vision and I have my own. The results are similar, but his project and my project are not the same.

This photographer (who I have mentioned before but won't mention here) wrote to me publicly on social media and said, "I just saw you are making a whole project of these. To be honest, I'm not very happy about that--I find it to be too similar (far above just inspired) to [my] personal ongoing project."

I've gone through a number of thoughts and emotions since I first read that. Does this person really think that his idea is original? A quick Google search revealed two other photographers who have used jars in double-exposure photography, both of which I believe predate either mine or that guy I stole from. Others may have done something similar in years past before the internet. His work is derivative. Why should he have a problem with someone deriving images based on his? What makes him think that he is the only person allowed to use double-exposure photography and jars?
Red Chairs - Cambria, California
And I've thought about it more and more. I examined some of my other photographs and tried to define the fuzzy grey line between inspiration and copying. I photographed the starry night sky after seeing someone else do it. I photographed abandoned buildings after seeing someone else do it. I photographed Yosemite after seeing someone else do it. I photographed some red chairs against a green landscape after seeing someone else do it.

I don't know if that fuzzy line can be fully defined, that's why it's fuzzy. But I think that there are some lessons and things that I need to consider and reconsider. Am I defacing the other person's idea, or am I making it into something better or at least something different? I hope the answer is that I am at least turning their idea into something different. Maybe I should try just a little harder to make it different. Perhaps I need to hide my sources just a little bit better.

I never meant to offend the photographer who I stole from. I love their idea and wanted to incorporate it into my own photography. But their idea isn't exclusively their own, and so the lesson for them is to not be so easily offended. The lesson for me is to be more careful to ensure that the ideas I steal are better or different enough that it isn't obvious that I stole them in the first place. Maybe this is an indication that I'm a good artist and not a great one. My goal is to be a great artist, and that is what I strive for.