How can you tell you’re fully satisfied with your photo gear ?
You enter the doors of Le Salon de la photo, in Paris, and have no interest in anything else than meeting friends and taking a few fun photographs. Either that or I’m getting too old to care. Ouch.
In the bad ol’ days of quirky Sony interface and reliability, I’d scan websites for alternatives, visit these shows to try them out or simply for the fun of handling gear that would never make it into my bag. Not so this year.
A slightly sad fact dawned on me, though. A few years ago, in spite of the occasional ergonomic frustration and reliability agony, it was actually cool to own a Sony camera. It made you feel part of a secret minority in the know. While the canikon booths were packed to the teeth and noisy, Sony had plenty of boring gear on display and these intriguing NEX miniatures that turned my photo life upside down. Not these days. Sony is gradually becoming the biggest kid on the block, with a stand feeling like an Apple store hours before the release of a new phone.
With the old giants actively seeking wall to bang into and Sony charging ahead, time for a worthy challenger, mebbe ? How about a Zeiss body, huh ? C’mon, I mean, who wants to be mainstream? At least, I have the good taste of ignoring high ISO and video in favour of oversized files, but still. OK, hit me now 😉
Moving on. Next stop Leica.
The stand was its usual friendly “feel free to touch nothing” self, which is so unlike the very few Leica dealers and reps I’ve actually met. Not that I wanted to (touch something), mind. Cause I’m happy, see. But I did want to take a sneak peek at the SL, to check whether it was strange fiction or even stranger fact.
Fact, it seems. A guy was actually nurturing a scoliosis with one on his shoulder, but I wasn’t able to grab him for a talk. Jokes aside, this has to be the most puzzling release of 2015.
I mean with the highly drool-worthy Q around and the whole concept of an M-mount version just begging to be milked, why a new bayonet?
Then, there’s the price and the size. The camera itself is built like the rear end of a rhinoceros and almost as pretty, but it does have a solid, purposeful character actually quite reminiscent of an armoured version of my past heart-throb the Mamiya 7. Not stylish, and definitely not in keeping with pink croc leather editions of the M, but I get that it could please some (I, err, quite like it myself …) But the lens is something else … Stark, huge. If anything is going to challenge an Otus on size and price, it better bring something special with it. But this one apparently comes with levels of oh-humness very untypical of team red-dot.
Either Leica are being smart and there is a niche being served with an unmet something highly specific to its needs or I just hope they didn’t bet all their chips on that one. Time will tell.
Next up Fuji. Never owned one. Probably never will. But co-author Paul’s pictures speak volumes about the fantastic image making ability of this system. And you just have to love the brand.
Fuji booths are smaller, more intimate, display lovely prints, and smiley people in well decorated stands that ooze attention to detail. Fuji is an interesting brand with distinct lifestyle overtones (without falling into the snob-trap) and I do wish them well.
Finally, Zeiss, to meet old friends, get gobsmacked by the Loxia 21 and Otus 28, have fun with an Apo-Sonnar 2/135 ZF.2 (see impressions of both below).
I hate to sound like a broken fan-boy record, but Zeiss get it. They totally do. In a world of programmed obsolescence and crappy-is-acceptable-if-it’s-cheap, Zeiss maintain a culture of quality and relative affordability. Know-how has obviously been building up stratospherically in-house, too, and I can’t think of a less than excellent product delivered in the past years.
One fading exception to this idyllic scene is the dreaded Zeiss lens cap. Over the years my lens caps have rivaled with early Sony cameras and South of France drivers for the vein-popping trophy of irritation. But even that is changing and new lens cap designs actually stick to lenses, even when you point them downwards (ghasp) and no longer require the dexterity of Rudolph Serkin to attach. Wunderbar.
So yeah, Zeiss, star of the show for me.
But Salon the la Photo is also a great opportunity to see prints and compare papers, printing techniques and print labs. We don’t print enough of our pics and printing is a very obscure territory of photography. It’s lovely to see quality prints on a wall, not least when these are made by Elliot Erwitt. Here’s my attempt at sincerest form of flattery of the master.
Oddities are always fun, too. As a final note, before sharing impressions on two mighty lenses, here’s an even mightier one and an even mightier mightier one after it. Plus a new definition of mobile technology.
Hubert (Otus 85) and Bertha (Otus 55), Earls of Righteous Place return to their 37 bedroom mansion in the Cotswolds after a year-long cruise, only to realise, flummoxed and flabbergasted, that their son Karl (Otus 28) has dropped out of Oxford to become an artist.
This is a story inspired by my 180 second tenure of the new Zeiss OTUS 28/1.4, which means 3 things:
Let me explain. But first, the dire bits.
Karl is well fed. This is one heck of a big, heavy, baby. Mounting it on a petite mirrorless A7 feels like lifting a donkey by the ears. But that’s not the worst part. In the narrow and crowded alleys of a trade show, the combined pressure of a bulging front lens, shallow lens shade and crippling repair costs was enough to cause my man-gonads to retract to the comfort of my throat at every turn. I don’t expect to see many war photographers toting one of these.
But, like Luke Skywalker, I believe there is good in it. Bucket loads of goodness, in fact.
Let’s crack a nut open. Biased critics are going to have a field day with that lens. This is the “dropping out of Oxford” part. It doesn’t take long to realise that resistance to .. ghasp .. aberrations isn’t as high as mom and dad’s. Get a bright light anywhere in the frame, use full aperture, pixel-peep at 100% and, there you have it, in full view, the irrelevant flaw. A whole pixel-wide row of red or green fringing. Probably better performance at f/1.4 than 99% of lenses at their best setting, totally invisible in real life and corrected in a second of PP. But enough to start uninformed conversations, in all likelihood.
Ignore the silly banter, though, and you’ll soon see 3D so deep the lens must have been used for tunneling on Hyperion, bokeh so smooth and perfect that neither mom or dad can equal it and colours to die for, even in the difficult lighting of this hangar.
A landscape lens? Yes, presumably. But more and more portraits are being made with wide-angle lenses these days and this OTUS 28 promises to be an extraordinary tool for that craft. In fact, I suspect this lens may have been designed for portrait. A wedding photographer brave enough to go all manual would produce incredible images with this lens.
Five photographs are way too few to pass judgment (hint, hint, Oberkochen) but it seems to me this lens beautifies absolutely everything, without adding an unwanted signature. Utmost discipline meets absolute charm.
Which seems like a fair definition for an artist’s lens.
Philippe adds 2 pictures made with this lens. What do you think ?
Philippe has already discussed this lens at length, most recently in his thrillingly unconventional depticion of La Defense. But this was my first opportunity to play with the lens for some time and to be suitably impressed by the thing!
I shan’t repeat what’s already been said of this lens, other than it really is an Otus without the badge. Testing is a waste of time, just grab one, decide whether the haptics and rendering suit you.
My two criticisms are the following: the focusing ring is a little on the stiff side, just like on the larger members of the Milvus family, and the lens cannot be used without removing the lens shade from it’s folded position (much like the Loxia range). Small niggles, then.
Particularly in the light of what this lens can do. For one, aperture seems to have no impact on performance, even on a 42Mpix sensor. Photographs seem lively without ever a trace of harshness.
Black and white tonality is really good, even in a backlit scene in the shadow, such as above (the superb sensor does help with that).
Out of camera, colours are very neutral, see above and below.
Bokeh is exceptional. A real cream machine that shows restraint. No Petzval shenanigans, no swirl, no overboard effects. Just pure gaussian blur as if produced by mathematical modelling. Really great.
Push the files a little more and you can pile on contrast and saturation without introducing unwanted nasties. Some (like me ?) will maybe want a little more craziness. Its possible this lens is a little too polite. After going berzerk with the Loxia 21, I was brought back to a world of more elegant values by this lens.
So I’d say the Apo-Sonnar seems to bring modern performance to a slightly retro to neutral look. Of the 3 Zeiss lenses tested over the day, it’s place in smack in the middle between the seemingly mellow (but highly accurate) Otus 28/1.4 and bright-but-not-brittle Loxia 21.
Again, it’s great to have the choice 🙂
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