My weekly search for a Monday Post topic was met this week by a timeous e-mail from DS regular Leonard Norwitz.
Behind the scenes, Leonard and I have been conducting an occasional and not always well informed (mea culpa) e-mail conversation about our current photographic leanings. Mine are already pretty well known, but Leonard’s dedication to his Sigma(s) goes far beyond a casual commitment.
So, here’s Leonard’s take; The Return of the Magnificent Sigma. Images and descriptions follow at the end.
What is most disturbing about digital cameras compared to film cameras is that, not unlike tribbles, they give us pleasure whilst eating us out of existence. There seems to be no end to them. Technological marvels though they are, they are forever reinventing themselves, making the incautious buyer ecstatic one moment and frustrated the next. Without doubt, there is far too much “WOW” in the digital universe.
How unlike the film camera universe, which for decades made itself clear to the prospective buyer what it was all about, what you could do with it and, save when a particular lens went out of production, how much it would cost. The practical difference between film and digital being that, with the latter, you didn’t get your hands wet during processing, which can now make unnecessary the need for ideal lighting, portable or natural. This last point is, I suspect, may be the main attraction to digital – for the serious amateur at any rate. For the average person, it was to put photo labs out of business.
Like many photographers I have joined the caucus race to obtain improved sensitivity, resolution, latitude and flexibility. Over the past 16 years, however, I have taken what most would view as a step backward – twice – but which, at the time, I saw as a step aside – out of the race, as it were. The first was with the Sigma DP Merrill system, which I enjoyed for two years starting in the summer of 2012. I was mesmerized by the Foveon sensor’s ability to dimensionalize my images and make them seemingly just a little less like copies. All the same, I eventually tired of the inability to see clearly through its stone age LCD. I anticipated that the Sony a7Rii, along with Zeiss Loxia lenses, would match or better the DP Merrills’ resolution and offer improved visibility, flexibility and latitude. I never had the chance to compare them in the field as I sold off my Merrills long before I purchased the a7Rii.
One thing I enjoyed about the DP Merrills, and which practice I continued with the Zeiss lenses, is to insist on prime lenses. This was partly to maximize the resolution potential of my system, but also, not unimportantly, to demand the discipline to take a more deliberate approach to photography. And, excepting that Zeiss delayed notice of a 28mm Loxia long enough for me to consider looking elsewhere (why manufacturers do this has always baffled me), I was content. . . but I could not resist looking elsewhere for the first time in two years.
And this is how I learned that Sigma had launched a new design employing a modified Foveon (whose technical aspects I will not get into here), called the “Quattro.” What attracted me to it was its more or less traditional optical viewfinder. Reviews were lukewarm about the finder in comparison to the best out there, but it was obviously more practical than the DP Merrill’s LCD.
Then four more things tilted the balance for me, and another side step out of the race soon followed.
The first was the “Quattro-H”, much the same camera as the Quattro but with a larger sensor and 20%-plus greater resolution. The second was the price of $1200 – half to a third of the price of competitive DSLRs and full frame mirrorless cameras. The third was Sigma’s own “Art” f/1.4 lenses, already garnering rave reviews and dirt cheap at $1000, give or take. Sigma also makes an adaptor for Sony E-mount cameras – meaning that if I didn’t want to keep the Quattro-H, I could sell it off, retain the lenses, and consider myself lucky. Sony a7Rii owners trading up to the a7Riii were not so fortunate.
The fourth reason is, in great part, what brings me to this little narrative: Critic after critic of the Quattro and Quattro-H fell over each other trying to make clear that the camera might take great pictures, but that it is impractical. Well that did it! Having already proved to myself that the DP Merrill was more practical than commonly understood, I took this as a dare. Moreover, I upped the ante: reviews had made clear that the advantage to the Foveon sensor is mitigated at higher ISOs – and by higher, they meant “above 250” !! So, I was determined that I could use the camera in just about every situation that I had used the a7Rii, but at ISO 125 – which is where I have set it, and have not touched it since I bought the camera. I haven’t the patience for tripods, so this meant everything had to be hand-held; and given that neither the camera nor the Art lenses have image stabilizing, this was going to be a challenge.
At first I thought that the Art lenses, having verified, usable, wide open performance, would be a great advantage, but it isn’t really, since I generally stop down. The Quattro-H has a 1.3 cropping factor, which further “improves” lens performance by eliminating the outer 30% of the frame. Unfortunately this comes at a price that many photographers overlook: For those of us who tend to use moderately short “full frame” lenses (21-50mm), any in-camera cropping means that in order to obtain the angle of view provided by the lens in its natural habitat it can only be achieved with a wider lens (or the use of photomerge). But a wider lens has a different perspective than the lens whose angle of view has just been compromised by the camera, which is probably not desirable. Worse still, such a lens from the same manufacturer’s line is often heavier and more costly. In the present case, a 24mm lens on a Quattro-H still retains its native perspective – this does not change (!), but it will have the same angle of view as a theoretical 31.2mm lens. The good news is that 1.3 cropping on a wide angle lens makes panoramic stitching more practicable. I find this very helpful since my photomerges often end up with fairly traditional aspect ratios.
The Quattro-H is not a lightweight, but it is not that much heavier than the a7Rii (24 vs 22 oz) it’s just a whole lot bigger. For handheld photography I find this an advantage since I can hold a heavier, larger camera steadier than a lightweight, smaller one – providing I can hold it at all. The Art lenses are something else again. They are big and heavy. But they also have functional A/F and their large apertures come in handy for composing. I found it useful to add Sigma’s power grip, which nails the balance with my current lenses (the 24, 35 and 50mm Art) and can also help with vertical handhelds. Spider Holster’s hand strap steadies matters further and their Single Camera Holster System makes hiking a breeze.
I was able to make a field comparison between the a7Rii/Loxia 50mm and the Quattro-H/Art 50mm and the results were, in a word, astonishing. These are not tripod tests, so I was not comparing theoretical expectations, but how they performed in the field with the way I shoot: hand-held, stopped down. However, the Loxia is manual focus, and I shoot the Art lenses in auto-focus. I showed my results to a more serious photographer and his opinion was that the difference can only be accounted for by the sensors, with the Foveon the clear winner.
The images Dear Susan is posting with this essay run the gamut of situational demand, from wide open indoors, to photomerge, to serious post-processing across all three lenses. The reason to include images with post-processing is to demonstrate how the image holds up and retains its native advantage even with Luminar, Tonality and Photoshop all having their say at times. All photos, by the way, started out as X3F files developed in Sigma Photo Pro . . . which reminds me to confess why I use Photo Pro instead of DNG/Photoshop, which, by the way, the camera does allow for.
For me, photography is a meditative experience – like yoga or listening to “classical” music. It demands of me a patience and stillness of mind that ordinarily eludes me. Photoshop’s raw processor makes it all to easy to batch think. Unless preparing a series of photos for a photomerge, I consider every photo opportunity individually, for which I rarely take more than one press of the shutter. Perhaps it’s a habit I got into when film and prints cost actual money, but the motivation has evolved into a discipline that appeals to my idea of mind-body-spirit. Everything about the Quattro-H and Art lenses and subsequent development supports this because there really is no other way to use them.
Appendix : all images ISO 125 Sigma Quattro-H
a] “bearded candid” : It’s the wrong lens for a portrait, but the circumstances made it work: a narrow corridor with too many people milling around, this gentleman was the center of attention. The 24mm Art helped position myself just behind one of the people he was chatting with. The 1.3 cropping factor avoided potential wide-angle distortion. I needed some DOF so I settled on f/3.5 and held my breath at 1/25 sec. Very little work in post.
b] “hanging gear” : shot in a warehouse, available light from an open door around the corner. The Alpha would have been ideal. f/2.0 @ 1/50 sec. with the 24mm Art. Some color correction in post.
c] “we can do it” : I came across this piece in a museum at Point Richmond. The light was piss. The relatively flat surface permitted a wide open f/1.4, which gave me a shutter speed boost at 1/160 sec. with the 50mm Art. Very little work in post.
d] : “daddy’s girl” : Lots of light, anticipated subjects might move at any moment, so I required a high shutter speed. 24mm Art, f/3.2 @ 1/2500 sec. No work beyond Sigma Photo Pro raw processor.
e] “cousins” : one thing that always annoyed me in shooting weddings is this irrepressible habit of people making the ”V” sign. These girls are posing for a relative while I took the photo parasitically. The girl in back looks like she just took her finger out of her nose. Strong light from behind and to the left came close to flaring. 50mm Art, f/4.5 @ 1/1250 sec.
f] “ring of power” : my intention was to suggest a natural wreath framing a man-made symbol of power. The image suggests a superimposition, but it’s just one shot. 35mm Art, f/2.2 @ 1/2000 sec.
g & h] “stale coffee” : the same shot of a derelict cafe, processed first with Luminar, then adding Tonality. The file took a lot of abuse before I was happy with it. The sun – what there is of it diffused through a snow shower – is behind me. 35mm Art, f/3.2 @ 1,000 sec.
i] “lonely car” : If you’re far enough away from the closest point of the landscape you don’t really need to close the aperture all that much to obtain maximum DOF. 35mm Art, f/4.0 @ 1/1600. The quasi-polarizing effect is achieved with a combination of Tonality and Photoshop.
j] “passing through the shadow of doubt” : The sun had already set on the foreground, but was causing quite a frolic in the distance. The challenge was to see if the Sigma could get it all without dodging, burning or layering. It did, with the help of Luminar and a little Photoshop. (I confess I still haven’t got the hang of the gradient tool, which would have come in handy here.) 35mm Art, f/3.2 @ 1/800 sec.
k] “folding rock” : I was going for some non-hysterical image enhancement in Luminar whilst still holding on to what’s special about the Foveon. I’m happy. 24mm Art, f/5.6 @ 1/1000.
l] “moonrise over alabama” : Nature seems to be giving the finger to someone here. Could it be me, I wonder? Well, a little blue never hurt anyone. Those rocks down in front must have been awful close because I thought I needed to close down to f/10, which creates a seamless 2-shot photomerge. 35mm @ 1/160 sec.
m] “i am not a crook” : 35mm Art, f/2.8 @ 1/1000 sec. Tonality was a great help here. The jpg may not make it clear, but the up-facing surface of the rock on the left is not blown out. Though squarish, this is a 3-image photomerge.
n] “5 poles at rest” : This is a 6-image photomerge that began life with the 50mm Art. A wider angle lens could have captured the whole scene, but the background would have disappeared into pointlessness. f/5.6 @ 1/1000 sec. Once Sigma Photo Pro processed all the files identically, a judicious use of sliders within a single filter choice in Tonality finalized the image.
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