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Sharp vintage glass – and subject

Twenty years ago I was operating one of the first full service digital photo studios in the world. I had already published, back in 1986, the world’s first desktop published commercial periodicals and won the UK Printing Industries Research Association inaugural DTP Awards, in 1987, for this. We’d bought the first Apple laser printer in provincial Britain and when Letraset’s ReadySetGo layout package failed to produce usable output for our first such magazine, Aldus stepped in and provide a pre-release beta of PageMaker. In 48 hours, I had to re-create the entire magazine – and it worked.

From then on we progressed, through having the first separation-capable film imagesetting in Scotland to reproducing the first magazine cover from Kodak Photo-CD and soon after the first full colour page from a Kodak DCS camera. By the beginning of 1995 we had Photon, the first major photo-mag style website, in by the end of that year we had a Leaf Lumina based studio with Scandles lighting. There’s an article about this in our repository of occasional articles, dphotoexpert//www.dphotoexpert.com/2007/08/06/the-leaf-lumina-scanning-camera-1995/

That year, Shirley had planted an entire bed of flowers specifically for drying. They make good photographic subjects. The (now relocated) university college of St Margaret’s in Edinburgh asked me to give a lecture about the new technology – and so the Leaf Lumina (a scanner on a tripod with a  Micro Nikkor up front, and an Apple Mac Powerbook on the end of a SCSI-2 cable) went along with the fluorescent studio light heads and a tray of the dried flowers. We also took our Kodak dye-sub printer, which had made hundreds of prints alongside other printers during that year, when Shirley completed her M.Sc.Colour Science and created pre-ICC colour tables to reproduce fabric colours accurately. With this carload of gear, we were able to shoot and produce a print on the spot.

The picture remained on file – a 25MB TIFF, roughly 8 megapixels, but equal to 8 megapixels in the Sigma Foveon sense as every pixel was true RGB with no Bayer filter involved. The exposures took over a minute, limiting it to still life, but the quality was not exceeded until 12 megapixel Bayer cameras like the Sony A700 appeared. And a few months later, we were producing Paterson’s catalogues and price lists and needed a cover. One list covered black and white and colour chemicals, the former mostly from Paterson and the latter from Photo Technology. Photoshop offered an easy way to take the image, and divide it accordingly. So that’s what we proposed, and what was used for the cover.

Paterson1996-web

It was intended to show the gamut from plain monochrome through toning to colour and it did look very good in print, because relatively low overall contrast combined with high detail contrast is easily handled by litho.

Now, forward two decades, and I’m looking for subjects to test out the latest Elinchrom ELB400 portable li-ion powered two head flash kit. This has LED modelling lights over twice as bright as its predecessor and they now really show how the light is falling even when using light shapers. I wanted to show texture using my optical Mini Spot attachment, which works very well with these new heads and their cool-running LEDs.

On top of a wardrobe, in a basket, were the dried flowers. They are called everlasting and apart from gathering loads of dust, they are. The most difficult job was holding each flower against the nozzle of a handheld vacuum cleaner to remove 19 years of dust.

The first shot I took was with the Sony A7II, 24 megapixels, using my Pentax SMC Macro Takumar 50mm f/4. Like the flowers, this is also everlasting. It’s not yet 50 years old even though the lens design, a simple Tessar-type corrected for magnifications from 1:2 (50%) to 1:10, is well over 100 years old. It’s also a tolerable lens for general scenes, though the extreme resolution it achieves centrally only covers the full frame when you focus close. With Pentax’s original multicoating in every way a match for the latest Zeiss T* as found on new Sony Zeiss lenses, and a deeply recessed very small optical unit, it has a contrast and colour saturation you just don’t find from lenses using hybrid or moulded aspherics or many more air to glass surfaces.

This picture appears, fairly small, in my review of the ELB40 in f2 Freelance Photographer magazine July/August 2015. When editing it, I was struck by the extreme resolution. Within the planes of sharp focus, it was exceptional.

So, I decided I’d shoot a new shot, and improve on the use of the spotlight attachment on the Quadra head to cast the shadows and create a sunlight-like effect – and this time, use the A7R with its 36 megapixel resolution. Although the A7R has no AA filter and is sharper in theory, the larger pixel count calls for a smaller aperture to secure a little more depth of field for the larger viewing scale, and this when using any macro lens always risks diffraction limits on fine detail contrast. For example, at half life size a setting of f/12.5 (between f/11 and f/16) which I found desirable for best sharpness distribution gives an actual f-stop of c.f/19 and this does cause some sharpness loss. If the lens was extended on a tube to give 1:1, a setting of f/16 as nearly always needed for depth of field is really a true f/32 for diffraction calculations and light readings alike.

Fortunately, our brains are sensitive to perceived scale, and we ‘see’ close ups as sharper than distant subjects even when they are not. The A7R and the Pentax macro lens also combine to produce an extreme level of textural detail, the information our eyes and brains use to see 3D solidness, shape and form in a flat photograph. So in practice you can shoot macro and use whatever aperture the subject depth demands, without resorting to focus stacking techniques.

And here, anyway, is the result. You can click on this image and it will take you to a pBase hosted full size, JPEG compression level 12 version (this is over 24MB of image data, and it is not compressed like Facebook or indeed a WordPress image – though it’s still not ‘virgin’ data).

driedflowermacro-cleaned-srgb-web600

In a couple of days, I have another SMC Takumar of the same era arriving. It’s a 35mm f/3.5, which was the cheapest of the line back in 1970 when Shirley bought me my very first brand new, marque brand lens for Christmas! We were both only 18 and that represented an entire month of her basic salary working behind the counter at Dixons in Sheffield… helped by a staff discount. It was my first Super-Multi-Coated lens and I can remember still how the high contrast and bright colours could even be seen through the viewfinder – and how amazing the first box of slides looked, midwinter close-ups of fallen leaves rimmed by frost and frozen puddles.

These lenses have never lost the edge they had, if they have been looked after, but the truth is we never knew how good they really were. We can now focus them within a fraction of a millimetre. I’ll probably never compare the 50mm f/4 SMC Macro Takumar with the 55mm f/1.8 CZ (I’ve used it, but only for low light high ISO tests on the A7S) or the 35mm f/3.5 with the CZ 35mm f/2.8 because it’s unlikely I’ll ever buy the new lenses with their inflated prices and reliance, however marginal, on software correction to be ‘good’.

I know I have not written much about the A7R, or the A7II I’m using, or about any of the new lenses I can not manage to borrow from Sony and can’t afford to buy. I have an amazing set of lenses from 12mm to 500mm for full frame, including tilt-shift, wide aperture and mirror but just one single Sony FE lens for convenience (the 28-70mm FE kit lens). In contrast, my A6000 kit is all Sony plus the Samyang 12mm f/2 because it is just so good it had to have a place.

So, please do take a look at the full size file. The critical plane for focus crosses the smooth surfaces of the two poppy seed heads and it’s in this relatively low contrast zone that the quality of the lens shows up. Elsewhere in the image the defocused quality is very pleasant (there was no CA to correct and there’s no bad colour bokeh) and the plane of sharpness passes through a few other more interesting flower details.

Finally, a word for A7II users. If you use a manual macro lens, as I do, remember that when you program in the focal length for Steady Shot you should only enter the actual focal length for distant views. For my 1:2 macro Pentax, most often used in the range from quarter to half life size, I program in 70mm as the focal length because this represents the view angle. Using a macro at 1:1, you should enter double the focal length to get the correct Steady Shot compensation. Sony and Minolta macro lenses with the D chip (eight contacts) convey accurate extension information, so the auto Steady Shot works perfectly with them. But manual, or Canon lenses on adaptors which may or may or not pass the right information through, are best used with the Steady Shot focal length entered via the menu screen and adjusted to allow for the actual lens extension.

– David Kilpatrick

Check out B&H prices for all full frame lenses for the Sony FE (A7) system here

Check out B&H Secondhand Department for all ‘film camera’ manual and vintage lenses

Check out B&H Secondhand for Sony E-mount adaptors to allow you to fit your vintage/legacy lenses

Check out the huge list of new adaptors for almost every lens ever made!

1 comment to Sharp vintage glass – and subject

  • andrewlee

    David,

    As always, I never fail to be impressed by the depth of technical knowledge contained in your write-ups. Thanks so much for sharing… I’m going back to my vintage glass to resurrect the sleeping giants!

    What impresses me even more is that Shirley and you have been together for all these years… going strong… enjoying your love for photography together. May God bless you 🙂

    Cheers