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review: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens

This review of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens (B&H), is split into two parts: In this review article we will look at lens sharpness and other important factors. The accompanying review article specifically looks at the bokeh of this lens compared to other 85mm lenses in its class. This is an important update of their 85mm lens, since it includes stabilization. The legendary Canon 85mm f/1.2L II  (B&H) (in both incarnations), is much loved by photographers, even to the point where some ascribe some near-mythical quality to the look of the images it can produce. Can this new lens match, or even surpass that? I think so. I do believe a new legend was born.

There is a combination of  things I look for in a lens – central sharpness, edge-to-edge sharpness, bokeh, speed of AF, repeatability of focus. Some of these factors might outweigh others, but the overall balance of how the lens performs on all fronts, will determine its value for me. For this review, I compared these three lenses which are all in the same price bracket, and max aperture bracket.

In my opinion this new  Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS (B&H) stabilized lens is the clear winner. The Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS definitely focuses faster than the classic Canon 85mm f/1.2 II. The stabilization is incredible, and really extends the usefulness of this lens. Scroll down to see an example of how sharp a 1/4 second handheld image is. This lens is sharp, appears to be very well constructed. It feels solid, yet weighs less than the other comparable lenses.

In summary, this new Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens easily outperforms the older Canon 85mm f/1.2 with speed and accuracy of focus, but most importantly, sharpness! This new lens wipes the floor with the legend. It’s that good. The Sigma 85mm ART lens performed well, but focusing was inconsistent with the Sigma – when it was on, it was sharp, but then there were too many slightly mis-focused images.

A few things to note about this review:  I shot everything with the Canon 6D. I shot multiple sequences at apertures ranging from f/1.2 to f/4 but in the end we are mostly just interested in what these type of lenses do when used wide open. In other words, here we are only going to look at f/1.2 and f/1.4 apertures.

Another caveat: I have to admit that I have a bias against Canon. I am not a particularly big fan of Canon. I have been burnt in the past by poor quality control of Canon gear, as explained in more detail in the Canon vs Nikon article. The subsequent implication then is that if I think a piece of Canon gear is really good, then it really is really good! And the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens (B&H) is spectacular. And I can back this up with images shot specifically for this review, over several photo sessions.

Let’s have a look at some images:



Specifications of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens

  • The fast aperture makes the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4 IS, well suited for portraits. Especially with the stabilization capabilities, it extends the use of the lens in low light.
  • As an L-series lens, it is characterized by a sophisticated optical layout that includes one glass-molded aspherical element to greatly reduce spherical aberrations and distortion for improved sharpness and clarity. Individual elements also feature an Air Sphere coating (ASC) to suppress lens flare and ghosting for greater contrast and color fidelity in backlit situations.
  • As with all L-series lenses, this 85mm f/1.4 has a dust- and weather-resistant construction, as well as a fluorine coating on exposed elements, to benefit its use in harsh environmental conditions.
  • A ring-type Ultrasonic Motor (USM), along with optimized AF algorithms, is employed to deliver fast, precise, and near-silent autofocus performance.
  • Optical image stabilization minimizes the effects of camera shake by compensating for up to four stops of shutter speed.
  • A weather-resistant design protects the lens from dust and moisture to enable its use in inclement conditions.
  • Nine rounded diaphragm blades contribute to a pleasing out of focus quality that benefits the use of shallow depth of field and selective focus techniques.




The bokeh of the legendary Canon 85mm f/1.2 II is very much part of its appeal, so with this review it should be something we look at more closely. For that please follow the link to this accompanying review article



Image sharpness

We’ll look specifically at edge-to-edge sharpness in the next section – here we are going to look at the central sharpness. With the sharpness comparison, the  Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS (B&H), stood out. The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART  (B&H) was sharp … when it nailed focus. There were too many focusing inconsistencies though with the Sigma lens on the Canon 6D that I was using. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L II  (B&H) has its own look, whether at f/1.2 or f/1.4 but it was noticeably softer compared to new the new f/1.4 optic.

And yes, it was a cold and windy day. But you’ll get the idea. This was typical of the sharpness that I got with these lenses.



Edge-to-edge sharpness

There is this little eatery close to where I live which I thought would be ideal for a test to check lens sharpness from edge to edge. I thought this would be ideal – I can stand across the road, and shoot on a tripod, and then we can see how the lettering appears at various apertures for these lenses. I went inside and just checked with the owner that it would be okay, and he agreed. I set up the tripod … and then someone parked right in front and walked in to sit down for breakfast. Oh well, we can still see the edges of the frame. But I had to mention this in case you were wondering why there is a pick-up trick in the middle of this non-photograph.

With this quick test, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens  (B&H) wipes out the older Canon 85mm f/1/2 II  – it is clearly more sharp from edge to edge. The Sigma and the new Canon are close, but I would still give it to the new Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS. You may well argue that edge sharpness isn’t too important with this kind of lens – and it is something I mention specifically in my review of the Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95  lens, where there is so much optical aberrations to the edges of the Mitakon, that you are forced to shoot photos which are centrally composed. In that case, I am okay working around the limitations of the usual f/0.95 optic. However, when you are dealing with a more expensive lens that you want to use for serious or professional work, then it has bearing on the matter – I want a lens that is as sharp as possible, from edge to edge, even at widest aperture.

With these examples, I am only showing the results at f/1.2 and f/1.4 even though I shot a number of repetitive sequences all the way down to f/4 for all three lenses. I picked the sharpest of the images out of any particular sequence, just in case there were slight mis-focusing, or error in my technique. I’m pretty confident that what is shown here, is representative of the three lenses I had for testing.





The stabilization works! And it works surprisingly well. Even better in my experience than mentioned on the specifications list where it is stated that the IS improves hand-holdabilty by up to 4 stops of shutter speed.

I took numerous sequences of this early-evening view of Manhattan. I was mostly getting sharp images even down to ridiculously slow shutter speeds of 1/4 second handheld!  Even down to 1/2 second handheld, I got a few sharp-enough images, but the success rate did start to fall at that crazy slow shutter speed. I handheld this shot, and didn’t brace myself against a railing or anything. Just handheld. And even at 1/4 second, most of the sequences I shot ranged from ‘sharp’ to ‘pretty sharp’. This is incredible performance!

Read that again. Handheld at 1/4 second. One of several sharp shots! My success ratio dropped at 1/2 second … only a few were sharp. Above 1/4 second, consistently sharp (although I did obviously lose a few shots.)

Oh, and if you want to quibble the sharpness of this image, keep in mind that there will be some haze in the air – I am shooting across the river, and this is a busy city with turbulent air.



Of course the lens vignettes at the widest aperture – nothing unexpected there. For me, I don’t mind the vignetting at full aperture for portraits – I think it helps for portraits. (The image below is uncorrected.) When you stop down, it disappears, as you’d expect.



I am wildly impressed with this lens – it focuses fast. Definitely faster than the classic Canon 85mm f/1.2 II.

The stabilization is incredible, and really extends the usefulness of this lens.

This lens is sharp, appears to be very well constructed. It feels solid, yet weighs less than the other comparable lenses.

You can buy a copy of this lens via B&W: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens  (B&H)


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review: Bokeh of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens

In the accompanying review article, the Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS, it really stood out in terms of image sharpness. I want to linger a bit on the bokeh of this lens, especially as compared to the much-loved Canon 85mm f/1.2L II  (B&H). We’ll also look fat how it compares to another equivalent lens, the

The comparison includes these three lenses, since they are in the same league:

Please also check out the review: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens.

Now, before we progress any further, we need to be distinguish between Bokeh, and Shallow depth-of-field. While DoF affects the bokeh of a lens, those two terms are not interchangeable: Bokeh vs Shallow depth-of-field (DoF). Bokeh is the quality of the background blur. In other words, the aesthetic appeal of the blur. Bokeh is not another word for blur, but a descriptor of the blur of (usually) the background. It can be smooth, it can be harsh. It can be pleasant, it can be jittery. It can be appealing and enhance the photograph, but we can’t have “more bokeh”. That makes no sense. Okay, with all that behind us, let’s go on.

For this review, I photographed various models during various photo sessions. All the images were shot with the Canon 6D, and I used a light-weight tripod. While I did use the tripod to keep my angle the same, our models aren’t statues, and they will move slightly between frames.  This meant I had to adjust the camera slightly on the tripod. The light did change subtly over time as I did the sequence. And each lens will have a different rendition of the colors anyway. Some lenses appear ‘warmer’ in how they render the scene. So there will be some slight change between the images, but I do believe the images are close enough that we can form a valid opinion about what we prefer.

In summary: The difference in the blur is … well, you can make your own mind up, but to my eye they all look pretty similar with a smooth rendition of the background blur. The new Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens holds up very well against the classic Canon 85mm f/1.2 II. I don’t think anyone who upgrades to the new lens will lose any of the “magic” of the older 85mm lens.

Let’s have a look at some of these comparative sequences:

Please note, I cropped these images to a 4×5 ratio to make them viable on desktop computers when I resized them for 900px width. This means that a little bit off the top, and a little bit off the bottom of each image was cropped off to make viewing easier within this blog format.

With the comparison photos, I didn’t bother with the f/1.4 images of the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II, since the differences between f1/2 and f/1.4 were marginal, and barely discernible.









Bokeh and ‘real world’ importance

With the next few images, the background changes as the people on this 6th Avenue (New York) sidewalk swirl around. So we can see the bokeh is wonderful but we can’t really compare in any useful way between the lenses. Still, they look good. In that sense, if we were to do a photo shoot or a wedding or such with any of these lenses, it would be difficult to pick which lens was used with any particular image.

The bokeh of a lens is important, but not when the differences are marginal. Then other aspects of a lens’ abilities and qualities are more what we should consider.




As mentioned in the review  of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS, I am hugely impressed. The lens is crazy-sharp! Not only does it focus much faster than the legendary Canon 85mm f/1.2 II, the bokeh in my opinion also holds up very well in comparison. The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART lens is also very sharp, and the bokeh is comparable to at least the Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens, but it does lack the stabilization of the new Canon lens.

All around, the Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens stands out above the other two lenses.

You can buy a copy of this lens via B&W: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens  (B&H)


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review: Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens

I’m a bit of snob when it comes to the sharpness of lenses. Vintage lenses and lenses such as the Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 are the exceptions – they have a different character. Modern lenses though – I want them sharp. As a friend once said, there’s sharp, and then there’s stuff you can shave with. Until now, I’ve had no native Sony lenses – just a drawer full of vintage lenses for the Sony – I had to go out and buy a Sony lens to try with the review loaner Sony A7Riii that I have on hand for a few weeks. Since I use Nikon cameras for the serious work, I couldn’t justify the purchase of the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens  (affiliate) yet. The ego wanted the 85mm f/1.4 GM, but instead I bought the more affordable Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 lens (B&H / Amazon) …. and holy smackeroni! Wide open it is crazy-sharp! Further down in this review of the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8, I show a 100% of the eyelashes of one of the models – and this is as sharp as I would ever need.

In summary, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 lens is small, light-weight and best of all, affordable. And razor sharp! Focusing is fast. There is honestly no down-side that I could find in this lens.

As an aside, here is my review of the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens – it might very well be the best 85mm lens I have ever tried..

But back to the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 lens (B&H / Amazon). All images shot at f/1.8 – all the images shown here were shot at f/1.8 and you will see that the bokeh is smooth. There is no “jittery” edge to the background details – just a smooth out-of-focus blur. The bokeh of this lens is superb!


Specifications for the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8

  • This is an E-Mount Lens and is for full-frame cameras. It will work on crop-sensor cameras too of course.
  • There is a Focus Hold Button on the side of the lens – perfectly placed for your thumb if you should need to hold focus. No need to fumble for a button on the camera body.
  • The diaphragm of the lens has nine blades and is circular – this will help explain the smooth rendering of the background – i.e., the bokeh of this lens.
  • One extra-low dispersion element is featured in the optical design and helps to limit color fringing and chromatic aberrations for heightened image clarity and color accuracy.
  • Double linear autofocus motor delivers smooth, precise, and near silent focusing performance to benefit both stills and video applications.



The shallow depths of field of the f/1.8 aperture, combined with the smooth rendering of the backgrounds, makes this an ideal compact short telephoto lens for portraits. With selective focusing you can isolate your subject.


The background here is again rendered in a beautiful pastel-like way – partly because the background is brighter, but also because of this lens’ smooth bokeh. Working in the shadow side of this building, I wanted more light on our model, Allira. To pop more light on her, I had my assistant hold up a Profoto A1 flash (affiliate) for off-camera lighting. Even though my copy of the Profoto A1 is a Nikon mount flash, I could control it in the usual way with the Profoto transmitter that was on my Sony A7R III (affiliate).


The detail at f/1.8 – every sharply focused image had this level of detail! Combined with the 42 megapixels of the Sony A7R III (affiliate), there was more detail than you probably comfortably need for portraits.

With Anelisa in a coffee shop, hiding out from the cold. Below is the iPhone shot, to again show you the wider context. Again you will see how easily the 85mm lens helps isolate your subject for a portrait anywhere.


Similarly with the image shown at the top – here is the wider shot, (taken with my iPhone) so that you can see the context. By using the tighter focal length, I could include only what I needed in that composition.

Then the wide aperture threw the lights, and any other detail, completely out of focus.


Random detail in the background here in Bryant Park in New York – and it is all a smooth blur. The areas that are sharply in focus- such as Anna’s eyes, are breathtakingly sharp.

The lighting here on Anna’s face is from sunlight reflected off a nearby building – this gives the impression that we used off-camera lighting. The busy city scene behind her is a non-intrusive blur.



It should be obvious that I am hugely impressed with this lens. It is compact, super-sharp … and quite affordable. If you shoot with Sony, I would heartily recommend this lens as a superb alternative to the f/1.4 GM, if that is out of your reach. You’ll love this little gem!

You can purchase this lens through these affiliate links:   Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 lens (B&H / Amazon).


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 Panasonic's cute, cuddly and capable G85.

There are some cameras that are extremely capable but aren't much fun to shoot and then there are cameras that just beg you to keep their strap over your shoulder and take them everywhere. They are like a perfect traveling companion; unassuming, quiet (especially the shutter), compliant, collaborative and easy to get along with. Over the many years in which I have plied my trade as a professional photographer, and have satisfied my yearnings as a devout and committed hobbyist, I've owned plenty of both kinds of camera. 

I put up with five pounds of the Kodak DCS 760, and it's voracious appetite for batteries, only because it was capable (within a tight operational window) of producing some of the absolute best images of its day. I put up with all the foibles of the Nikon D2x for much the same reason.

Over the years digital cameras have become operationally better but there is still some combination of handling characteristics, design decisions on the part of their creators, and their innate affability that makes certain cameras gloriously fun and effortless to enjoy. The Leica M3 is one. The Nikon FM is another. What Nikon user didn't like the F100? How about the Canon 7D? Or the Olympus OMD EM-1? All cameras that bring a smile to the face of most users. All cameras that make the pursuit of photographs a bit more fun.

And then there are all the cameras whose files were technically perfect but
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The Rollingwood Pool in the middle of Summer.

It's so easy to do easy stuff. It's easy to swim in a pool filled with nice, warm water. Even easier to swim in a nice, warm pool when it's sunny and warm outdoors. But then there are those days that push you right up to the point of defeat. Days that test your discipline. Days that make you want to stay at home and eat cookies and drink coffee and sit on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, and watch movies on Netflix. Those are the days when the temperatures drop into the upper 30's and your comfortable, heated pool is closed (for months now) for repairs and your best swimming option is the 69 degree water at the (outdoor, unheated) Deep Eddy Pool. 

Today was just such a day. I started out slow, drinking a perfect cup of Illy coffee (thank you! most generous reader, Michael Matthews!!!) and reading the typically depressing news on the laptop that sometimes lounges at my end of the dining room table. Studio Dog was sitting next to my chair and looked a bit cold so I tossed my old, worn down jacket on the floor and she curled into it with a smile on her perfect face. 

I put off swimming as long as I could today, I even went to the Blanton Museum to see the new show. (See previous posts). At some point I realized that left to the tyranny of my subconscious I would skip the swim altogether and rationalize it all away. In my brain's defense, it may drop into the high 30's, midday, in your neck of the woods but it rarely does in our little corner of Texas. The wind was whipping a cold, steady rain around in a sadistic, staccato pattern and leaves were falling all over the place. The sky was steely gray. Everything was working against my resolve.

Then I remembered that my friend, Emmett, had asked about swimming today and, in a fit of hubris, I had assured him (days ago) that I'd be at the pool and ready to swim promptly at 2 pm. Now, when I promised this the sun was shining, the birds chirping and the cute young people were in shorts and t-shirts taking advantage of the mid-80 degree day. But, a scheduled swim is somewhat sacred so I grabbed my stuff and headed off to the car.

I looked back over my shoulder to see Studio Dog in her down bed by the front door just shaking her head....

When I got to the pool the person at the front desk (an open air front desk....) was in a big, fluffy jacket and also had a blanket wrapped around himself. He smiled and said that the water was great. I should have known it was a lie.

I walked into the open courtyard that is the men's changing area (open to the top but not on the sides....modestly. I mean we're swimmers for God's sake, not politicians or actors...) and changed quickly into a Speedo Endurance Jammer suit, grabbed my goggles and (slightly) insulated swim cap, wrapped myself up in a towel, stuck my already freezing feet into a pair of Croc's for the long hike down the stairs to the water, and headed out.

There is a moment, when your teeth are chattering, your large muscles are involuntarily shivering, and you can feel the icy wind cut through your thin towel, that you pause and think, "OMG, what the hell was I thinking?" Maybe you look around, through  your cloudy old goggles, to see if anyone actually saw you come down to the pool edge. Maybe, you think, it's not too late to retreat. But then you realize that if you back away this time it will be harder the next time and you may be triggering a series of surrenders that will haunt you, and make you fat and lazy. 

So, I tossed my towel onto the stone wall five feet from the pool, slipped off the Crocs and crept to the absolute edge. It's the moment of truth. I stop thinking. I take a deep breath and commit. The cold water instantly hits every square inch of your once warm body and you know you better start swimming before your resolve (and the heat of your inner core) give out. I lunge into the water and start swimming. Each lap gets a little less .... uncomfortable. And then you pass a certain point (at about the half mile mark) where you are actually warmed up and enjoying the feel of the water, the swim, the adjacency to the weather, and the way in which you feel strong and invincible. Unbeaten.

If I'm lucky that feeling stays with me through the next mile and a half. By that time I've swum for about an hour and I'm starting to think of other things I need to be doing. But now I don't want to stop because I know I'll have to get out, dripping wet, and make my way down the walk way to the long flight of stairs as the wind whips at me like practical joker snapping a towel at swim practice. 

But if you stay in the cold water too long then hypothermia kicks in and that requires many cups of coffee to cure.

I look with scorn at the ladder and pull myself up onto the deck. It's a mark of shame in our family to put a knee down on the deck when exiting the pool so you have to save just enough energy to pull yourself all the way up on the edge and into a standing position while looking as graceful as you can. I manage it once again. By the skin of my teeth.

I make it up to the locker room when I remember that Emmett never showed. So much for the sacred nature of scheduled swims...

As I walk to the car carrying my wet towel and suit I notice the first snowflake flutter down and melt on the asphalt and I smile. I got that swim in just in time.

 Winter in Paris. 1994.

I recently worked on a project (as a second shooter and equipment renter) with a good friend who is a veteran videographer. While the project had one component that called for a three camera, two subject interview, with all three cameras on tripods and everything well lit, the rest of the project was classic reportage. We were tossed into unfamiliar interior and exterior locations and tasked with shooting unscripted documentations of diverse groups of people, along with on-the-spot, unrehearsed  interviews with people we were pulling from the locations.

It's one thing to shoot video when you have time to meticulously treat a room for good audio, and when you can spend a couple hours pre-lighting for an interview situation in a conference room, but it's a whole other thing to work on a windy day outdoors with difficult subjects (as well as people (non-subjects) in the vicinity who could have been dangerous and were very vocal about their distaste for any and all media presence) as the sun comes in and out of the clouds.

For me it was a two day crash course in how to most efficiently and effectively use a Panasonic GH5 as an ENG (electronic news gathering) camera.

Here's the rig (photo above) I've distilled down from my experience and the feedback of my boss, the director and producer (who was also shooting exclusively with a GH5...instead of his more familiar Sony FS-7).

The main thing is to work to the camera's strengths. This camera (GH5) does a couple of things really well. It's got great image stabilization (otherwise there's no way we could have gotten the smooth footage we did without tripods....). While it's very good at stabilizing the video image with any lens on the front it's even better with a Panasonic dual system AF lens on it. We used an Olympus 12-100mm on one camera and the inexpensive Panasonic 12-60mm  3.5-5.6 lens on the other camera. Both systems worked very well but the native Panasonic lens, in conjunction with the video stabilization in-body, was almost like using a perfectly balanced gimbal system.

I'm happy working with the Olympus Pro lens because I like how sharp it is, how much range it has and how easy it is to switch to, and use, manual focusing. If you are working in uncontrolled and quickly changing environments a lens that goes from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to 200mm is great to have. In most situations I just didn't see how I would have had the time to change from one prime lens to a different prime lens...and still gotten some of the fast breaking opportunities.

The way I used the camera and lens combination most effectively (as far as focusing goes) is to turn off the "continuous AF" in the movie menu and to put the external camera switch setting at S-AF. I would line up a shot and then do a half push on the shutter button to get the camera swiftly lock in focus. Once I got the "in focus" confirmation light I could either push the shutter button all the way down or take my finger off the shutter button altogether and start the video recording by pushing the red, dedicated video button. Focusing was never an issue on this project. In S-AF, with center points selected, the AF just snapped into play and locked on in 100% of the situations I encountered.

Another strength of the GH5 is its small profile vis-a-vis a traditional professional video camera. We chose not to couple the cameras to Atomos external monitors/recorders (even though we did bring them along with us in the cars...) in order to keep the overall profile of the camera systems as non-intimidating as possible.

But losing the big monitors doesn't create much pain with the GH5s. The things you need in order to operate are still there: A perfect EVF and a full complement of video meters --- vector scope, waveform meter, histogram, audio level meters, etc. If we were working without the need to capture sound, as one might when trying to get b-roll for a project, we could have done without the audio adapter and the cage, but....

...the audio adapter is a low cost, high quality way to get professional sound into the camera. It's light and fairly low profile while providing clean pre-amps for professional microphones. My camera is set up with the adapter cabled to an Aputure Diety short shotgun microphone. The only thing missing from the photo above is a set of closed back headphones I use to monitor sound. With the switch of a cable I could have the microphone on a boom pole in less than a minute. Very versatile.

The final strength of the GH5 is its ability to shoot very, very clean 4K video into the camera at high bit and overall data rates. The stuff we ended up with was incredibly detailed and, using hand-tuned profiles, it was easy to color grade and match, camera to camera, in post.

Take the rig off the tripod, add a cool looking side grip to the left of the camera and you are ready to head onto the street, into a remote location, and have a chance at coming back with good material. In most instances I felt that I was the limiting factor. That's the way it should be..

I've been waiting for a free morning to go over to the Blanton Museum and see the new show they hung in the big, downstairs gallery spaces. It was worth the wait!!! If you love the work of Robert Frank, Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Eli Reed, Ryan McGinley, Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston and many more working art photographers, you will absolutely love this show. It's a fabulous assemblage of images (and curation) that more or less explains the theory and raison d'être of what we are now more or less calling "Street Photography." 

If you live within a hundred miles of Austin then get in that giant Chevy Suburban, enormous dually pick-up truck or on your carbon fiber Bianchi Oltre XR2 bicycle and get in here. The work is beautifully displayed and, in the Texas tradition of wide open spaces the gallery is uncrowded; the work is given space to breathe.

I love the idea of "The American Road Trip" and actually was approached to do a book about road trips and photography in 2010. The project fell apart in a bizarre series of very one sided negotiations with a giant publisher but that did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the wider subject matter.

There were a number of pieces in this show by rather famous photographers that, in seeing them in person and writ large, changed my mind (to a more positive appreciation) about several represented artists who worked in color in the last century. I can now understand their work better for having seen it as it was intended to be viewed.

Toss that old Leica M3 over your shoulder and head over to see the show. Remember that Thursdays are free and, if you are much older than me, you will be entitled to a senior discount on all the other days. 

Wow, a chance to see beautifully done, large prints by great artists/photographers rather than just another opportunity to pontificate about tiny, compressed Jpegs on the web. Who would have thought it?

review: Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95  lens

The Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95  (B&H / Amazon), is an immediately impressive lens – it has that unusually wide aperture. Zero point nine five. Just how good is it then, you may well ask. Lenses with super-wide apertures tend to show some softness and optical aberrations when used wide open. Similarly then with the Mitakon Zhyongi – there are definite optical flaws, but this also adds to the character of the images you get with this lens. It’s not just the super-shallow depth-field that defines what photographs taken with this lens might look like – the optical flaws help give a painterly quality to the photographs. I photographed several models with this lens and the images in this review should give you a clear idea of what you can expect from this lens. All the images here were shot at f/0.95

This lens is a Sony mount lens, and is manual focus only. Fortunately, the Sony A series cameras are ideal for using with manual focus lenses in the way that the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) implements being able to see the focus details in the viewfinder. It also helps that the Sony bodies are stabilized – this is invaluable in clearly seeing the highly magnified image without camera shake.

You’re going to need that magnified view to accurately focus this lens. With that narrow depth-of-field, your margin for error is really small.

How sharp is this lens?  Sharp enough … at the center. The edges go really soft, and there’s a gentle haziness to the edges at full aperture. This helps give images that dream-like painterly quality. However, you will find your compositions will have to mostly centered. Portraits that are composed off-center don’t fare well – they are just too soft with the critical details of the person’s face. There are two examples in this review which show the sharpness at 100% at the widest aperture. As you’ll see, it is “sharp enough” at that aperture (in the center portion of the photo. I did a few tests at medium apertures, and then this lens is really sharp edge-to-edge, but this isn’t why you’d buy this lens or use this lens. You want that f/0.95 aperture.


It was during this photo session – Portraits with vintage lenses – with my friend Pakrer J Pfister, that I fell in love with this lens.


Leaning over the balcony of a New York hotel to get this diffused cityscape background. I just love how the distant buildings melt away here.


  • model: Anna Bogun

A busier background on 6th Avenue in New York. The lighting on our model is from sunlight reflecting off one of the many tall buildings surrounding Bryant Park.

I’ve done similar photos which look like off-camera flash, but really is light reflected off buildings.
Other examples of using available light like this, are described in these articles:
– Available light portrait photography
– Observing and using the available light



Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95

The Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95 (B&H / Amazon) is a manual-focus lens available in the Sony E-mount. The super-wide maximum aperture of f/0.95 is unusual, and obviously creates a razor thin depth-of-field. More than that, the optical quality is such that it renders the scene with a somewhat dream-like quality in how the out-of-focus areas look.

  • 9 aperture blades
  • Four Extra-Low Dispersion Elements
  • One Ultra High Refraction Element
  • Stepless, Silent Aperture Control  (ideal for use in video)


Here again you can see the pastel-like background – in part because of the shallow DoF, but also because of the over-exposure of the background. The city scenery behind Allira is that of 42nd Street in New York. Since the background is much brighter than the light from the shadow side of the library, I needed just a little more light on her. I  had my assistant hold up a Profoto A1 flash (affiliate) for off-camera lighting. Even though my copy of the Profoto A1 is a Nikon mount flash, I could control it in the usual way with the Profoto transmitter for Sony that was on my camera.

This pull-back shot also reveals something else of importance – this lens has a pretty harsh bokeh. It isn’t “creamy” or smooth. There is a certain jittery quality to the bokeh which you can see in how the trees are rendered. Most times this bokeh is masked by the shallow depth-of-field, but it can be an intrusive element with some backgrounds.

It is important that we distinguish between the bokeh of a lens, and shallow depth-of-field. Those two terms aren’t interchangeable! More about that topic: Bokeh vs shallow depth-of-field (DoF)

Similarly here, I needed more light on Allira to help balance the exposure for the background. Here the flash was a little more dominant, since I didn’t want to entirely blow out the Chrysler Building in the background.

This 100% crop at full aperture will give you an idea of the center sharpness of this lens. It is definitely sharp enough!


With this sequence, I wanted Allira to pop out from the more neutral wintery tones. I therefore under-exposed the scene somewhat, and popped some light on her with an off-camera flash – the handheld  a Profoto A1 flash (affiliate). Again, even though this is a Nikon mount flash, I could control it with the Profoto transmitter for Sony.



Hiding in a coffee shop from the cold weather, we used the window light for this portrait.

This 100% crop will again give you an idea of the sharpness, and the crazy shallow DoF. You will see that even though the detail in her eyelashes are there, there is also an optical haziness of some kind. This is not necessarily a negative about this lens for it helps impart that dreamlike quality to the photos shot wide open. This optical aberration disappears as you stop the lens down to medium apertures – but you know, I like it. This is part of the character of this lens!


This doorway of this shop  was a bit of a find. They had Christmas lights, but the brushed metal side of the door reflected the lights with a delicious smear. So that effect you see there is not the lens. It was as we found it.




The examples shown here of the Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95  (B&H / Amazon), will give you an idea of the look that this lens imparts to photographs. It has a distinctive character, and the optical flaws it might have, is exactly what makes this lens so attractive to use. Highly recommended … for specific reasons and use.



Related articles


The post review: Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95  lens appeared first on Tangents.

Image from this year's Eeyore's Birthday Party in Austin, Texas

I was at our local community college for an advisory board meeting today at which we discussed the state of photographic education as it relates to our school. We looked at short term plans, the architectural drawings for a vast new studio complex that will open to students and faculty in two years, and much more. The photo program is one of the biggest and best in the country for two year associate degrees, it's well funded and well equipped. They've been at the forefront of the technology side in photographic educations for quite a while... but still also teach traditional photographic techniques and even printmaking.

As part of our annual meeting we advisors also pull out our crystal balls and try to predict the future, based on current trends. The overall consensus is that the market for photographers, both commercially and direct to consumers, is improving and that in the future the photographers who will be most successful, financially, will be the ones who are able to incorporate video, motion graphics and graphic design into their business offerings. No miraculous insight there; we've been saying that in the blog since 2010. 

After we covered all the agenda items we moved on to lunch and a less structured and more social give and take. 

The subject of camera technology came up and we looked to our fellow advisory board member, the professional representative from the biggest camera store between Los Angeles and New York City. We were curious what trends he is now seeing in the retail sector vis-a-vis camera sales. More specifically, what's selling now and which market segment is doing better: DSLRs or Mirrorless (or, as I say, "mirror-free")?

He smiled and said, "This should sum it up for you. We have 14 sales associates who work the counters at the store. Of the 14 there are 13 who have gotten rid of other systems in order to move totally to mirrorless camera offerings. There's one person left who still shoots with a DSLR."

So, the take away from this small discussion was pretty straightforward. The people whose full time jobs are to counsel and sell cameras to the general public are themselves strong proponents of the newer technology. Or at least 13 out of 14. 

It's interesting to hear this point of view since what we see on the big sites is a stalwart defense of the traditional camera companies and a minimization of the obvious shift in the markets. 


Photographed with a Nikon 105mm f2.0 DC lens on a Kodak DCS 760 C camera. 
Early days of digital. 

I'm in love with the idea of using very fast short telephoto lenses to make portraits but I'm a bit conflicted right now about their ultimate utility for more routine, commercial headshots. 

I think it's safe to say that a lot of people love the look of a portrait where the eyes and lips are rendered sharply but the depth of field is so narrow that the background, and indeed, and even parts of the subject just seem to melt way into a fascinating blur.  It's a style that gets a lot of play across the media landscape. 

The easiest way to get the look is to use a longer lens than "normal" and to keep the camera-to-subject distance relatively close. (Not too close or you risk distortion...). The final step is to use the lens as close to its biggest aperture as possible. 

I'll be honest, it's a look I like in a lot of portrait work but I've always had a bit of an issue getting the look just right while using flash. One of the reasons I headed into using so much continuous light over the years, and so often, was to have the ability to dial in just the right f-stop with the easy and nearly endless combination of f-stops and shutter speeds that continuous light sources enable. When I set up studio flash shots I was limited in how wide an aperture I could use by the minimum power setting available in studio flash units,  the intensity of unwanted ambient light, or the limitations of using fast shutter speeds (with focal plane shutters) for flash sync. 

Working at f1.2 or 1.4 with flash just seemed to be a big hassle. Especially when the warm light from my modeling lights polluted the clean, daylight balanced light of the flash. If I turned off the modeling lights then focusing became problematic (yes, even with DSLRs....).

With newer flashes and high FP flash I can work with wider apertures and flash easier now than in the past but I still find it a bit daunting. 

Which brings me to the point of this post: Are fast aperture lenses wasted when doing flash lit portraits? 
I still find that if I use low ISOs and higher shutter speeds I still get alternative light contamination from windows, the modeling lights and the practical lights on the location. The only way around it is to block light sources with black curtains and to dim modeling lights after fine focusing. It's all a pain in the butt compared to shooting with LEDs or even tungsten lights. 

In most situations I'm not interested in using available light to make commercial portraits because most of the light I find just hanging around in modern offices comes from the ceiling and is a mix of "can" lights with compact florescent bulbs mixed with traditional "in the ceiling" fluorescent fixtures. The colors rarely match and in most situations there's also an incursion of blue daylight coming in to make things more interesting (and less controllable). 

But the whole reason to light someone is to sculpt the light and bring dimension to their face. It's also a great way to eliminate all other conflicting light sources. 

In a controlled environment I can choose a high enough shutter speed to kill most non-photographer supplied light sources but if I want to shoot at f1.2 I might need shutter speeds at around 1/250th, even at ISO 100. I guess it's time for me to go through this whole learning cycle one more time....especially now that electronic flashes have gotten so much more flexible and controllable. And now that modeling lights (more and more often) are LEDs that are daylight balanced. And especially now when Olympus and Panasonic are offering lenses with fast apertures that are actually very sharp even when used wide open. 

After doing this for so long it's kind of humbling to go back and re-learn again and again, but that's the nature of the game. 

If you have any secret tricks for shooting portraits with super wide open lenses and electronic flash I really wish you would share them with me. I'll try them out. Anything to keep the work from looking stale.

The Contax 50mm f1.7 Planar, made for the Contax Y/C manual focus mount is widely regarded as a stellar normal lens for full frame, 35mm format cameras. I bought a copy over a year ago and used it frequently on a Sony A7Rii, a Sony A7ii and a Sony A6300, all with great results. While I recently dumped the Sony cameras I was not foolish enough to get rid of the little collection of Contax Y/C lenses I've acquired.

Shortly after taking delivery of the twin GH5s I ordered a Fotodiox branded Contax Y/C to micro four thirds lens adapter. It cost me about $20 and allows me to use the 50mm f1.7 lens on any micro four thirds camera.  This is a great thing but comes with several caveats. First, I have no real way of knowing just how precise and absolutely planar the mount might be. I am taking a leap of faith that this sort of machining should be child's play in an age of unprecedented precision. I taped up the graph paper on the wall and lined up the camera as well as I could and tried to look for softness in one corner or another. Nothing leapt out at me as horrifyingly out of whack.

The second thing you need to be aware of is that for $20 you are NOT getting a Metabones smart adapter, you are getting a totally dumb adapter. This means that the camera can't record any metadata for the lens you have attached, won't know the focal length, won't know the aperture at which you are using the lens and ----- absolutely won't autofocus the lens for you.

Most of these things don't matter to me but may be very, very important to you.

On some cameras you'll need to dive into
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Audio Accessory of the Year. With its attendant camera...

I was photographing for a client yesterday, a law firm in downtown Austin, and we were shooting people images for their website re-design. One of the partners who is taking the lead on the project asked me to shoot all of the portraits (both set up and candid) as squares. I was more than happy to accommodate his request but I was preparing myself for the usual task of re-cropping the images in post production. 

With past camera systems having the ability to crop square in the finder meant that your Jpegs opened up in your post processing program as genuine squares but the raw files opened "full gate" and had little lines to indicate the square crops that you thought you wanted. This meant that each raw file had to be handled and cropped individually. 

Imagine my surprise when I ingested 525 Panasonic raw files into the latest rev of Lightroom and watched as the program wrote previews as squares; just as I'd shot them. The raw files could be changed into "full gate" files but the default was ready to go squares just as
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There are two lenses that have been stand out lenses for me this year. Since I am bringing these two lenses to your attention I should point out that my embrace of them, in this calendar year, does not mean they were both introduced this year. One is relatively new while the other has been around, and earning great praise, for several years now.

No reason to belabor this; the two lenses are the Olympus Pro series 12-100mm f4.0 and the Olympus Pro series 40-150mm f2.8. Both are big, heavy (for their format) zoom lenses and both share a number of attributes. The primary benefit of both is sheer image quality. It's visible (at least to me...) when compared to every day lenses in either the Panasonic or Olympus systems. Both of these gems are sharp, detailed and nuanced. They represent a high water mark, as far as image quality is concerned, for micro four thirds system zoom lenses. 

Both lenses share a mechanical clutch system that supplies real manual focusing instead of the usual, fly-by-wire system. This means that one can pre-focus with assurance, rack focus in video with repeatable results and even shift from focus point to focus point by hand with repeatable results. That's a wonderful thing and a major reason that I also have the 45mm and 17mm counterparts stuck in my head (and in my shopping cart). 

I have shot at least 10,000 images with each lens and I've found the results to be limited only by my own skill set. When I apply appropriate technique; taking time to focus with diligence and to put the camera and lens systems on tripods, I get results that I would not have imagined. This should not really come as a surprise to me as a careful reading of posts from long ago would indicate that Olympus has been making masterful lenses for smaller sensor cameras for a long time. Back in the era when Olympus made Four Thirds cameras (they had mirrors and a different lens mount than their current cameras) they made a Pro series of lenses that included stuff like a 150mm f2.0, a 35-100mm f2.0 and a 14-35mm f2.0 that were (and still are) all spectacular. Sadly, the sensors of the day were not up to showing off the sheer potential of those lenses. If anything, the current lenses are even better.

I'll start with the first Pro Olympus lens I bought this year. It was the 12-100mm f4.0. I bought it hoping to cover the range of useful optics for my work with one solution. I worried that such a wide ranging zoom might not be up to the task of making technically good images across its vast focal range but my worries were unfounded. I use this lens when doing hand held video with the Panasonic GH5, I use it when shooting product and people against white (because of its range AND it's resistance to obvious flare and veiling flare. I use it for event work combined with on camera flash; and I even use it for general street shooting. In most capacities I use it at its widest (f4.0) aperture because it's proven itself to be sharp even when used wide open and, at its widest f-stop it's the equivalent depth of field that one would get on a full frame 24-200mm lens at f8.0 for each angle of view. Perhaps not the best tool for dropping backgrounds quickly out of focus but certainly great for making sure everything that needs to be sharp in a frame stays within the system's depth of field.

When I shoot stuff that needs to be perfect (or as perfect as any photo can be) I stop down to f5.6 or 6.3 or 7.1 to achieve the absolute best of which the lens is capable. It's a dandy process and has delivered results in all kinds of conditions.

Speaking of conditions, both of the zooms I'm discussing are water/weather resistant. While I don't spend a lot of time shooting in the rain I do end up far from the car, shooting location stuff for clients, and sometimes get caught without a rain cover handy. I've been caught out in the rain with this lens (attached to a GH5) twice now and have found no ill effects from the exposure. 

From lens cap to lens hood and all the way down to the other end of the lens barrel I can testify that this is a remarkably able and handy lens and isn't really big or heavy at all when compared to lenses made for larger formats.

The second lens is the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro. It's a lens about which I have nothing at all bad to say. It's sharp at every distance and every focal length at which I've employed it. But it goes beyond sharp into intricately detailed. When I put the lens on a tripod (with its integrated tripod mount) and take portraits using a large soft box and electronic flash, I get a level of detail that rivals that of any camera in and around its resolution (in the range of 18-24 megapixels). While neither lens is cheap both are well built and solid. 

I've used the 40-150mm at its wider end (40-60mm) for a number of portraits and have used the longer end (100-150mm) for much documentation of live theater productions and in each situation I've have gotten better files than I expected. The lens is satisfyingly sharp wide open. Becomes close to perfect by f5.6 and rewards me with better files than I imagine my talent should supply. 

If I could have only one lens to shoot with for all of my assignments it would be the 12-100mm for its wide range and high degree of performance. If I were unconstrained by commerce and wanted only one lens with which to do my own art it might be the 40-150mm. I say might because I also have a long love for the "normal" focal length; the 50mm for full frame or the 25mm for micro four thirds and I have not yet worked with the 25mm f1.2 Pro lens from Olympus.

Had I gone in a different direction I might have chosen to pair a different lens with the 40-150mm. I might have selected the 12-40mm Olympus Pro but it would be hard to give up the range and proven performance of the 12-100mm for the potential benefit of one additional stop of speed and the need to always carry two different lenses instead of being able to pack down to just one camera body and lens and still feel secure in knowing I have most working situations covered. 

Everyone comes to this craft with different need parameters. Many times these parameters are based on one's shooting history. The need for flexibility is ingrained in commercial shooters of a certain level, hence zooms feel like the right answer. 

If I were doing photography specifically for myself and no one else I'd love to take the bold move of packing just two lenses and making due with the 17mm f1.2 Pro and the 45mm f1.2 Pro lenses. Along with two identical bodies, those two would make a wonderful package for an artist. 

I know myself really well though. I would quickly succumb to the siren's song of the 25mm f1.2 Pro as well. Something about that focal length just makes perfect visual sense... But if I was shooting just for me I might want to pair all these optics with the Olympus OMD EM1.2. Logic insists that they are "optimized" for their own flagship camera. That being said, the GH5 is the perfect compromise for someone like me; trying to straddle two different imaging industries....

Camera and lens selection is almost always a moving target. I am thankful I've found two lenses that alleviate so much of my indecision and mental turmoil...

By the way, neither of these two images are from either of the lenses mentioned here. They are both from another lens that's one of my favorites; the 42.5mm f1.7 Panasonic lens. Amazing for its size and price. I often, irrationally, think of picking up and extra one, just because....

Neewer Vision 4 Mono Light.

Several months ago I decided to get rid of an accumulation of Profoto, Elinchrom and Photogenic electronic flashes. I sold them off or traded them away for interesting but unrelated things and I was happy to see a hodgepodge of reflectors, speedrings and other geegaws exit the limited space of the studio. 

On a lark I bought a Neewer Vision 4 mono light that I saw and read about on The ad copy said the light was designed and "engineered" in Germany, that it was totally powered by a large, lithium ion battery, and that it was capable of putting out 300 watt seconds of flash power 700 times in a row. On one charge. At $259 it sounded unbelievable. I bought one.

I used it several times to create some ads (with subject motion frozen) for Zach Theatre, using it along with some other, smaller, battery powered lights. I found the Neewer to be reliable and to put out a nice quality of light. I was still amazed that one could get that kind of power and flexibility for the price; especially after having purchased 30 years worth of Elinchrom and Profoto gear....

I got used to using the flash for a number of different projects (mostly on white backgrounds) and when I saw the same unit listed in mid-November, on Amazon, I noticed a price drop to $229 so I bought a second unit, along with a couple of speed rings and a collapsible 47 inch Octobank (Phottix). I've used the two lights as the main and secondary lights for even more projects since. 

Earlier this week I was looking for something I'd bought in my previous orders on Amazon (love the transaction records!) that I had sent to Ben at school (Illy coffee) and stumbled across the information about my purchase of the second light, along with a notice that the price per unit had now dropped to $199.00. I noted this and filed it away in the avaricious/acquisitive area of my brain. Later in the week I had a pre-production phone call about a confirmed photoshoot in which we'd need to freeze action of a person running, a person jumping through a banner and a person jumping and striking poses with the aid of a mini-trampoline. This was followed by a call from a law firm which wants to shoot a series of partner portraits outdoors. 

When I got off the second call I decided that it would be nice to have a third mono light with a high flash capacity and fast recycle times (instead of relying mostly on smaller, double A powered flashes) so I bought it one more time. At $199.00 it's a crazy bargain for me. It comes with a Bowen's mount reflector, a diffuser sock for the reflector, and a wireless remote trigger (which means I will now have two "back-up" remotes --- oh joy!).  It should be here early next week and I've already made a space for it in my Manfrotto flash case (wheeled for my hauling pleasure). 

As I stated previously (sorry you can't look up that review....), the only thing that vexes me about this product is the 30 to 45 second on time for the (LED) modeling light... But for the price it's still a screaming bargain in my estimation. 

Sometimes you use LED panels and sometimes you use electronic flash. All depends on your need to freeze motion in a photography for a particular collection of projects. Funny thing, looking back at the time in which I was shooting mostly with Profoto, I have spent more money on a single reflector from that Swedish company than the cost of this complete and ready-to-use flash unit. That certainly puts the cost into perspective for me...Bargain!

If you want one the $199 price sure beats the $259 price. Here's a link:

flash with included remote. The stand adapter doubles as a hand grip so you can 
have your tall assistant act as a human light stand; if necessary....

This must be the work of that chair stacking cult I've recently read about.
They come into cities and just stack things. Mostly chairs but
sometimes also bar stools and even recliners!

Panasonic GH5 + Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 lens.
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