Saturday, June 23, 2012

Posted in Arrangement, Art, Business

Canon 40mm F/2.8 Pancake

Stripped down
The new Canon EF 40mm F/2.8 STM
I've been waiting a long time for Canon to produce this lens. Finally it arrived and it's better and more affordable than I expected.

I quipped with a friend a few weeks back that Canon would never put out something like this for less than a couple of hundred dollars (I figured it would have to be $399, which apparently for the UK is not that far off). But sure enough Canon delightfully proved me wrong.

The first question that comes to mind for some is what's the purpose of a pancake lens? Those that don't understand the inherent value of a pancake lens are generally getting confused by it's small size. However, the convenience of size not only makes it compact and discrete, but functionality wise, a very versatile lens without needing to resort to a compact interchangeable lens system like an Olympus Pen or Fuji X-Pro 1 system.

Relative Comparison
Ultra-compact and thin design
Having gone through the exercise of owning a mirroless systems (Olympus EP-3 and a half dozen lenses), I'm not saying this replaces them at all. For me, I loved using a compact system, specifically with one lens, but I didn't want to have a point and shoot camera (which, ironically this lens is priced in the same range). There's no denying that this makes the larger dSLR format more compact which isn't a bad thing, but it certainly goes well beyond those reasons.

Build wise, this lens is sleek and nothing like the build quality of many older EF non-L based lenses. Excluding the mount, it's about the same height as a body and end cap together. What is a little unexpected in a lens of this price range ($199 USD) is the metal mount. A welcome addition compared to the economical EF 50mm F/1.8 lens which always felt like it would break if you looked at it too hard (and often that's all it seems to take). It's refreshing to see such a well built lens for this price point.

Little T
Great for close up and personal photos
It has a new STM (Stepper) AF motor, single aspherical element in 6 elements (based loosely on the classic Carl Zeiss Tessar designs), wide F/2.8 aperture. I'm not sure what the coatings are on this, but from my short experience with it, I've not seen any flare issues with it and can only guess that it's at least multi-coated. A screw on hood (ES-52 - $24 USD) is available for this which is not included with the lens as typical of Canon with their more economical lenses (Boo canon).

If you're comparing this to the EF 50mm F1/8, some stand out specs are the 7 circular bladed aperture (for buttery smooth bokeh vs the 5 non-rounded blades of the nifty fifty), and lovely close up minimum focus distance of .98 ft or 30 cm vs the 1.48 ft or 45cm. The close up distance of many 50mm lenses have always been a bit of sore point for me. I love doing personal and close up portraits, but found most 50mm lenses fell just short of what I needed because of the close up distance (with exception of 50mm macro lenses).

The New STM Motor and AF
Fast enough for silly children.
More about the new stepper motor, unlike the traditional micro motors that have been used in many of the budget but optically good lenses of Canon's economical line of lenses (often referred to as the Ugly Duckling Lenses). The first noticeable thing is this motor is much quieter than the old dentist drill sound of the older technology. It's not as quiet as a USM lens, which is to be expected, but it's much smoother at focus (including USM equipped lenses) than all the lenses I tested with the recently released Canon Rebel T4i/EOS 650D. This lens appears to be designed for video in mind, with the focus that is much smoother and less ratchet-like of all the other lenses. I suspect Canon deliberately created this new motor design just so they could make a more consumer friendly video lens. What is most interesting about this design is that it's full time manual - sort of.
On my 5DmkIII I needed to update the firmware before I could take full advantage of the new 40mm (there are reports that it's not optimized for anything but the Rebel T4i/650D at the moment so I'm not sure if the firmware update is what some are referring to as 'optimized'). At first thought it didin't have full time manual until I updated the firmware. The focusing, like the more expensive EF 85mm F/1.2L and the EF 300mm F2.8L lenses, use a focus by wire system. This means that the lens needs to have power before it can focus and when it does, the STM does all the work. For some this might feel weird, but I can assure you it didn't take long for me to adjust to it. However the focusing is relatively fast. I'd even put it at par with my Sigma 85mm F/1.4 lens which isn't slow (much faster than the 85 F/1.2 lens) but not that zippy either. It's certainly not as fast as USM but fast enough to catch candid action like my active 4 year old boy. I should point out that it's also important when decoupling the lens to turn the focus ring to park the lens. Although unlike the 50mm F/1.8 which is very sensitive to small bumps to the front of the lens, it's probably a good idea to do that before taking the lens off the body.

Close Up
Just enough room for basic functions
The focus ring is pretty small and at first I thought it would be totally useless. After testing the much smaller profile Pentax 40mm pancake on a Pentax K-01, the Canon 40mm is slightly easier to use. Cradling the camera's base, I was able to just use my index finger to run lightly against that focus ring. It's surprisingly comfortable in my hand.

The fly by wire system is a bit of on oddball in my opinion. Although I no longer do videography, In my past experience, I think that it won't work well with some follow focus systems. Although it only takes about 90 degrees to cover the focus range it's still a bit inaccurate. I can't help but think that there's other plans for the STM line of lenses that Canon is cooking up here (maybe more menu driven like the touch screen of the EOS 650D).

Regardless, I found that focusing with this lens pretty easy. However what is lacking is a distance scale, which makes it very difficult to do any real hyperfocal distance shooting which is kind of a staple feature among street photographer. But it's not hard to figure out what your optimal distance is going to be, set it with your AF, then lock it with the AF/MF switch. Another option is to use backbutton AF focus and removing the AF from the shutter button (a feature that has been a part of EOS since it's inception). Focus on a preset distance with the back AF button, and then leave it set. I was hoping that I could set a focal distance in custom modes, but appears that it does not work that way. Maybe the next firmware upgrade will bring a feature like this (which I doubt will be much supported in anything but the latest EOS systems so this functionality might be wishful thinking). An associate of mine pointed out that it wouldn't be hard to put some small distance marking on the barrel of the extending element. Something I think that Canon could have easily have done. Turns out it's easier than I had anticipated. A small piece of masking tape was all I needed and focused on specific points marking the barrel position so I got an approximation of distance and marked them with a pen. Works great, but pretty much everything from 6 feet and out is in focus so most street photographers will likely keep this lens in the infinity position). 

If you've followed my blog for a while, you know I add/modify everything I own. I tinker, modify, or customize. It didn't take me long to add a few things to try it out with the new 40mm. My favourite is still the very inexpensive ($29 $75) Raynox DCR-250 snap on macro filter. A triplet design that rivals most macro filter in image quality. The size of the 40mm was perfect for the filter and hardly noticeable but something that easily slips into a pocket and snaps on when I need it. The close up range of the 40mm is already impressive, but snap on this filter and it becomes a very inexpensive macro lens.

Secret Rose Garden
Macro with the Raynox DCR-250 Filter
One of the things that I really loved about the Olympus Pen system was just how compact it was and easy to slip into a bag with a bunch of accessories and other lenses. However, I also realized that I had my favourite specific combinations and as my bag got heavier and heavier, it felt more like I was replicating my larger system in a smaller format but carrying around lenses I still didn't use often. I questioned why I had to have a like system. This reason is why appreciate this lens which isn't related to the size of it, but it is about the versatility of it. It feels like I have a lens that covers the same bag of lenses my Pen used to. I can cover most things from landscape, portrait, street lens, and general purpose. The only thing I can't really do with this lens is zoom (something I didn't really use on my Pen ever). My feet work pretty well, but sometimes you just can't get close enough to wildlife, or can I?


Adding lightweight accessories of a macro filter and others that all fit in my pocket is a bonus. The other exciting accessory is something I've always adored. The Cokin A system! That's right, the A system not the P, Z or X, but the smallest of all the Cokin filter systems, the A.

It's dear to me because it was my favourite accessory when I started out on my Nikon system in my early days of film. This is a remnant of my youth, and it's always fun to take it out and use it again.

The nice thing about the Cokin A system is that it's small and compact but also the fact that I can slide in and out filters with ease. This makes using a grad filter a charm. Sadly though, Cokin A filters are very difficult to find. Most used camera shops don't have much in stock, and they don't wear well over the years because they are made from resins that scratch easily. However if you can find them on craigslist, you'll usually end up with a bargin. In a previous post, I went on about how nice it is to use with the Olympus Pen system and the 12mm lens. I actually find that this suits this combination better.
Sunset Selkirk
High contrast scenes benefit well from the Cokin filter and a grad filter.
Dare I say it, but I might be over the whole mirrorless fad. As much as I will admit to it, I still love the look and feel of a full 135 format over the crops in both APS-C and in the mFT. The 40mm brings back a lot of discrete portability in the 5DmkIII, a welcome function for sure. Although it's not completely perfect, I do think that for the sharpness of this lens, the versatility of function, and the cost, this is one hard lens to beat. Pair it with the fact that you can use this on a full sized sensor really makes it all a very sexy package.

In the field this is one gorgeous lens to use. I don't even consider it a starter lens at all. Would I recommend it over a 50mm F/1.8 as a starter, absolutely. Would I recommend this lens to a pro, definitely. The background blur and the 14 point flare stars are gorgeous. Again comparing this to the 50mm F/1.8 which always had hard edged and jittery bokeh, this lens is a big improvement over that. Is this an alternative to the 50m F/1.8? That's a tougher question to answer, but for my style of shooting, I prefer this over the 50mm F/1.8.

Wet Coast Weather
Even with busy foliage in the background, the bokeh is buttery smooth.
14 Points to Ponder
Gorgeous 14 point specular highlights.
Although this lens isn't weather sealed, I did brave the elements to get some shots in this weekend. If Canon makes an L version of a pancake one day, I would wish that it was weather sealed, a slightly faster aperture of F/2, Super Spectra Coatings, a distance scale on it, maybe USM and maybe even closer focus. Price it at $699 and it will be an immediate winner like this one. In the meantime, this little gem of a lens will certainly always live in my camera bag.

Click below to view a slide show of images from this lens

Wet Coast WeatherWet Coast WeatherWet Coast WeatherWet Coast WeatherLittle TLittle TLittle T14 Points to PonderSunset SelkirkPort of CallOutreaching HandFan-Ta-Sea-IsleBokeh BudSecret Rose Garden...Up The TreeRainbow over the Inner HarbourGoslingsCorner Detail

There is so much speculation out there whether or not this is a precursor to a mirrorless system for Canon. I for one don't read too much into that based on this lens alone. If anything I believe this lens kind of negates the idea of a mirrorless system soon because as a mirrorless system owner, I actually gravitate back to this as my everyday walk around system. Based on the popularity of this lens, I can only hope that more pancake lenses are in the future. Maybe an EF-S 21mm Pancake is the next one in the works.... 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Posted in Arrangement, Art, Business

Event shooting with the Think Tank Speed Racer V2

Continuing from my previous post about the Think Tank Speed Racer, I immediately took the opportunity to field test it at an event shoot.

Event shoots is certainly where I thought this bag would come most handy and although I had unrestricted access to all areas where I could have easily left my equipment locked up, I chose to wear the bag all night to see how well it would work out in cases where I wouldn't be able to put it down.

Running with the Speed Racer for 4 hours wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Considering how much equipment I could put into it, the weight distribution worked out really well.

With both the shoulder strap and the waist strap, I did not find it interfering with my movements at all. I also ran a sling strap across the other shoulder so I could hang my camera from it when necessary. It feels as comfortable as a fanny pack, running mine across my left shoulder and the bag against my right hip all night. It was super comfortable and although the main body, battery grip and lens took most of the weight out of the bag, it still had some weight in it from my extra lens and other lighting accessories.

As a side bag, it made it it easy for me to change out batteries, flashes, modifiers and even lenses. It's been the bag I've been looking for, for a long time. Being that I was covering a lot at the fashion show, I wanted to get behind the scenes stuff and also catwalk shots.

This evening I also had assistance by a young up and coming photographer, Meg Oram. She was my lighting assistant for the early part of the evening and we had a lot of fun lighting up the behind the scenes with my Elinchrom Quadra Rangers in a beauty dish. My behind the scenes shots were all shot with the 85mm F/1.4, on axis Speedlite 580ex and the rangers in the beauty dish.

The rest of the evening I spent down at the floor photographing the models and dresses by the very talented designers from the Pacific Design Academy's Fashion Design Program

I shot most of the night with the Sigma 85mm F/1.4 and although I switched at one point to my Sigma 70-200 F/2.8 HSM OS with my Speedlite 580EX on axis. The Think Tank Speed Racer really worked well to contain my battery pack for the flash, but also when I switched modifiers from mini-softbox to Stofen Omni bounce cap. I actually found the little access port at the top handy at times, but eventually I ran it unzipped at the top as it is very difficult to accidentally flip it open. I had no issues running it unsecured, although I do think a simple little velcro tab would not go unwelcome.

I decided later in the evening that there was enough light for the 5Dmk3 and shoot the rest of the evening with just the 85mm F/1.4. Now to be reasonable here, the lighting was horrible. A mix of sodium vapour mall lights, and some movie production spot lights, however, I decided I wanted to see how this would work out with the new 5Dmk3 in this combination. Again the Speed Racer was indispensable as I shed much of the weight of my equipment and put it right into the bag without any concerns.

Now conventional wisdom would also say that shooting the 85mm wide open might be a bad idea, but since I was having fun anyhow, I thought I would push the 5Dmk3 to shoot with all zone focus points. This is a group of 9 AF points that I had set up at the top upper most part of my frame. Normally I would only set it up with a single AF point and also set my aperture to F/2 to F2.2. I decided to shoot wide open and for the rest of the evening.

The results were above expectations. The new AF system of the 5Dmk3 held up like a charm. I took about 1100 shots the entire evening and I would say that I nailed more on focus shots with the 85mm then I did with the 70-200mm F/2.8 zoom combination. All this with available lighting, and also mostly shooting JPG. Not only did I love my new Think Tank bag, but loved how all my equipment worked together with it. I ended the night a little sore carrying all the gear I did carry with me, but the one area of usual concern that wasn't sore was my shoulder. The equal distribution of weight across my waist and my shoulders made for a much easier versatile system. If you're an event shooter and carry a mix of a couple of lenses and flash lighting equipment, I highly recommend this bag. I was bending up and down and moving through the crowd with relative ease.

I might also recommend that if you do have an assistant and don't like carrying your bag, that this would be a great one to stick onto them. Regardless of who has it, it will be a more convenient system than most bags or backpacks, and I'm certain, at least for myself, that it will get well used by me for many years to come.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Posted in Arrangement, Art, Business

Battery Grip compatible Bags - Think Tank Speed Racer

So the latest thing to add to my collection of equipment is something to hold it all. But one of the most recent challenges came when I added a battery grip to my 5D mark 3. Like the 1D series and other professional sized SLRs is finding a bag that would fit all of that. The next challenge was to find a bag to pull some weight off my right shoulder.

As of late I've been experiencing more shoulder aches. Now some of you might ask what happened to my four thirds equipment and the short answer to that is that I sold much of it off and gave the main body to my wife. I do miss the small compact form of the Olympus EP-3, but at the end of the day, it wasn't really fitting the bill of the type of work I was doing or my workflow. That said, I needed to find a way to balance the weight on my body better.

The interesting thing about this challenge is in one of my hobbies I actually build body armour. Body armour can reach easily weights of 50-60 pounds, and it's important I design it for mobility but also weight distribution. I'm fully aware of putting 20 pounds into a bag, and strapping it across the shoulder, so I'm not surprised that I'm feeling it there with my gear.

Today I happened onto the Think Tank Speed Racer V.2 belt bag. A bag that has been well reviewed across the internet, but one that I personally hadn't seen before. I got the chance to try it out today at Kerrisdale Cameras for the first time as they recently became a Think Tank dealer.

I fell in love with it almost instantly. The size, the weight distribution, and the should strap designs were better at distributing the weight so it balance a load across the waist and onto your shoulder. Even with the bag fully loaded I can already tell this will be a relief on my shoulder. Pictured above is probably the maximum you should ever load it up with my Canon EOS with Battery grip, a spare body (Canon EOS 50D) with body cap on it, the Sigma 70-200mm F/2.8 HSM OS, Sigma 85mm F/1.4 HSM, A Gorilla Pod, Spare battery set for the grip, Canon Speedlite 580EX and external power pack for the Speedlite. What's not pictured in here is also a sling strap, filters, CF cards and other various accessories. I also can, but don't recommend, put my iPad in a media slot that sits right between the camera and the accessory pocket. It's snug and a little tight to do so. If I didn't have the battery grip on it, then I would certainly feel more comfortable about that.

All in all though, I'm really impressed with the build quality and how much I can fit into this bag. Tomorrow I have a fashion shoot, so I'll really put it through it's paces, but I suspect it will work out well.