Nikon L37c UV Filter

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: If it makes no difference then it doesn't matter.

The Long Version: I'm generally known for only having mild and ambiguous opinions, so I should say up front that I don't agree with the premise of using "protective" clear or UV filters. But I know that some photographers swear by them, so I decided to run some tests on an old Nikon L37c filter that I had lying around. It was included with a second-hand lens, so I don't know its history, but it cleaned up nicely and was in perfect condition. I'd consider this to be a medium-to-high-quality filter, with a green reflection from its coatings.

So I broke out the gear and tested this 62mm UV filter for sharpness. The camera was on the wooden Berlebach tripod that normally holds my GX680, and I set up my target on a lighter basalt tripod. Everything was squared and levelled, with the target clamped to a right-angle Manfrotto quick release plate.

The resolution target is my usual subject: a $20 bill. These have lots of fine printing and detail, and although they may not be as definitive as an officially sanctioned resolution charts, they're a lot cheaper and I'm just comparing the results by eye. To keep it flat it's securely taped to a section of marble floor tile. Since I wanted maximum detail, I used a Nikon 60/2.8G Micro lens, kept it at about 1:2, resolution and filled the frame.

I went through a number of different variations. I used Live View to focus, I used the focusing rails with zoomed-LCD manual focus, took three exposures at each setting, used mirror lock up and a cable release, and so on.

The filter made no difference.

I couldn't tell if the filter was on the lens or not just from looking at the results. I knew from the file name and sequence, but that was all.

Now, as I said earlier, this Nikon is a decent and multicoated filter. Just the same, I was quite pleased to see no drop in sharpness in this little trial. Perhaps there's a difference that test-lab gear would be able to detect, but I'm not worrying about that too much.

The second test was for flare and ghosting. I attached an LED flashlight to the target tripod and pointed it directly at the lens. The focus is on the black bar that's in front of the light, and the lens is at f/8 – that nine-bladed circular aperture thing really works. It's also worth noting that I use the D800's cropped DX mode for the sharpness test, since I only cared about the centre, but switched back to full-frame for the flare results.

This flashlight has an inset bulb, but no lens or reflector to blur the source.

Here are the results without the filter:

And here's the same setup, with the filter:

Similar images, and both are bad, but the one with the filter is worse. (Larger: with, without.) What I notice is that the starburst around the flashlight is stronger, there's an extra reflection on the lower-right (in front of the tripod) from the additional surface, there's a halo running around the lower-left corner, and some additional flare/ghosting visible in front of the bar that's about 15cm in front of the light.

I also checked for flare with off-axis light hitting the front of the lens. I switched to a brighter flashlight and flagged it to make sure that it didn't light my test scene. Here's what the setup looked like:

And here are the results, first with the flashlight off:

Bare lens, no hood:

Lens with filter, no hood:

So here the difference matters a little more – it went from bad to worse, rather than very bad to very very bad. But I also tried a comparison with the hood on, which shaded the lens like this:

And the results, with the filter and hood both on, looked like this:

To my eye the results are indistinguishable from the photos where the light was off. I'm pretty impressed – I knew that shading the front of the lens would help immensely, but I still expected to see some additional ghosting from light hitting the inside of the hood. The 60/2.8G has pretty good coatings, but it lacks the extra crushed-velvet lining that can be found on the inside of the more deluxe hoods.

So after an interesting afternoon, I can say that this filter had no visible effect on sharpness, and while it made flare and ghosting worse, it only did it under conditions that the lens was already producing enough to be objectionable. I imagine that better filters would have less flare, and may test that with my bigger B+W MRC filter some day, but I can't see any difference mattering very much if the lens itself shows as much flare as this one has.

And no, I haven't changed my outlook on 'protective' filters, because my argument is simply that the 'protection' that they provide is illusionary and unnecessary. I'm glad that I know a little more about them for people who do want to use them, and see no harm in it if it makes people feel better. But I do know that I'll advocate for proper lens hoods more strongly than I used to.

last updated 24 august 2012


XKCD: Star Ratings

Concept:  4 out of 5
Execution:  4 out of 5
Yeah, but:  Can't give it perfect…

The Short Version:  XKCD is frequently funny, and this is exactly why we don't use the standard five-star rating here.

last updated 22 august 2012


That Complete F'kin Idiot's Recent "bought locally at retail" Comments

Concept: 0 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: I don't support link-bait; use google if you must.

The Long Version: Last week the worst individual in photography blogging, someone who has enthusiastically and unapologetically misled and misinformed for years, may have finally jumped the shark. Circa August 14th, 2012, he wrote:

'As usual, most of the people who have shifted focus-points [sic], dead-pixels [sic] or other 'widespread' problems are people who bought locally at retail. Your local dealer or chain lacks the volume of [REDACTED] and other huge online sellers, so they don't get the "A" stock that [REDACTED] does. That's another reason I buy from [REDACTED]: they don't get stuck with the samples with defects sent out to local retail stores with a lot less buying-power than the major online powerhouses.'

Obviously, I've modified the quotation somewhat, but the source is easy enough to find and specifically identifies only one retailer, whose name rhymes with 'Hadorama'. It continues:

'As a general rule, if Nikon or Canon or Sony or whoever [sic] have a few thousand cameras not quite [sic] perfect, but nowhere bad enough [sic] to scrap, they don't get sent to the top couple of dealers who sell millions and millions and millions of cameras. They customarily go to the dealers that sell only tens of thousands of cameras.'

I love conspiracy theories because they're usually unfathomably stupid, and this one is a shining example. Even setting aside all of the absurdly nefarious allegations, what he's alleging is that from the management of the quality-control division to the order pickers in warehouses and distribution centres across the globe, there is a way to identify and track units with substandard performance and choose their specific end destinations. From companies that can't meet their shipping dates in the first place.

Think about the simple logistics of this for a few minutes. This secret stock-tracking system has to be easy enough that everyone in the supply chain can use it, but precise enough to direct individual cameras in an industry that sells over a hundred and forty million units a year. That level of accuracy, let alone specificity, would be astonishing: I've never seen an inventory control system that could even keep an accurate count of the total units after a few months of shipments.

Meanwhile, this global and industry-wide deceptive business practice is enforced under a strict code of silence despite the breadth and scope of the operation. All for a mere 'few thousand units'. Does anyone really believe that 'Nikon or Canon or Sony' – or whomever – are that competent, let alone that motivated?

So with all of that out of the way, I have to admit that what I'm really fascinated by is that this link-hungry troll-whoring novice-exploiting equipmibater might have actually realized that he went too far. After all, while his opinions are frequently unfounded, they usually range only from plausible to merely wrong, and don't extend to such outrageously self-serving allegations of fraud.

While the original text remains easy to find elsewhere, the relevant passage on his personal site has been quietly changed. The entry now reads:

'As usual, most of the people who have shifted focus-points, dead-pixels or other "widespread" problems seem to have been people who tended to have bought locally at retail. I've never had any of these problems buying from [REDACTED], [REDACTED] or [REDACTED], but when people call me wondering why my phone number is in their camera, these have been people silly enough to have bought at a huge electronics chain. (Someone loaded my settings file into a camera, and then the store resold it as new, at full price.)'

All this grafted-on second idea really means is that 'huge electronics chains' aren't bright enough to properly reset a camera, and that his readers are the people dumb enough to shop at said big-box unit-shifters. (Please note that this is something he and I actually agree on.) On the other hand, my local electronics store regularly has "open box specials". I wonder what happens to the cameras that The Affiliated Three get back under their long no-risk return periods. Perhaps they're taken out back and shredded to ensure that they're never resold?

'Local dealers and retail chains lack the volume of the huge online sellers, so they probably don't get the pick of the best stock that the huge online dealers get. That's another reason I buy from [REDACTED], [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]: I doubt they get stuck with samples with defects possibly sent out to local retail stores with a lot less buying-power than the major online powerhouses. I doubt any known bad cameras ever get shipped, but if they do, who knows.'

Notice how he's shifted from alleging outright deception and conspiracy to a more bucolic 'the pick of the best stock', as if we're looking through produce at the local market instead of consumer electronics that ship by the skid. But while he no longer names names, he's not willing to back off the idea entirely – at least, not until the last sentence, where he completely folds. 'I doubt any known bad cameras ever get shipped…'

So he's engaged in blatant FUD-mongering for the sake of driving sales to the links that fund his site, all while swearing that he's unbiased because he doesn't evaluate demo units from manufacturers. (That is at least partially true: sometimes he evaluates nothing at all in the course of writing his reviews.) And when the going gets tough, when there's a stand to take, he silently edits out the worse of his lies and just leaves behind a nasty, slimy trail of insinuation.

I used to have a live-and-let-live attitude. But I work part-time in a locally owned camera store, and spent many years working in high-value warehouses before that. Not only do I know that he's wrong, I take his snide and self-serving allegations as a personal attack against my own professionalism, knowledge, and skill: it's much more than 'just' an attack that's directed at my employer, trying to drive away customers from a legitimate business that continues to exist alongside those who fund his imaginary off-shore tax-exempt empire. As far as I can see, that makes his supporters, admirers – and yes, affiliate retailers – worthy of all of the scorn and derision that used to be reserved for him alone.

Updated 21 August: Never let it be said that I'm not willing to publicly correct myself when I go too far. I've been having a conversation via Twitter with Helen Oster, a Customer Service Ambassador with Adorama. She has used phrases like 'absolutely, completely 100% not true', calls it 'pure conjecture' and puts 'his "facts"' in quotation marks. So forget that bit about subjecting his affiliates to scorn and derision – based on my small inquiries, they're not playing along with this absurd foolishness.

last updated 31 august 2012
updated lead photo


Nikon AF-S 85mm f/3.5VR Micro

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: The prime equivalent of an 18-200 f/dark.

Counter Opinion: There are certain things that I don't understand, and the Nikon 85mm f/3.5VR Micro lens is one of them. The 85/3.5VR feels like Nikon's attempt to make a "do everything" prime lens. It's macro, it's portrait, it's stabilized – it ticks all the boxes, and ends up as a me-too entry on some already-crowded shelves.

Nikon currently makes six 85mm lenses, and I have two of them. There's the 85/2.8PC-E Micro, which is why I own Nikon in the first place, and the little 85/1.8D, which usually lives on my F5. Then there's the 85/1.4D, which remains one of their top portrait lenses, the incredibly sharp 85/1.4G, and the elusive 85/1.8G, which is nearly as good as the 1.4G but with slower autofocus.

The 85/3.5 is an AF-S and DX lens, so it's targeted at entry-level to mid-market cameras. Selling for under $500 at reputable stores in America and Canada, and $550 at Henry's, its price is in the same ballpark as the 85/1.8G and 85/1.8D. No, none of those match the 85/3.5VR's macro ability, but there's also Nikon's 60/2.8G, Sigma's 70/2.8, and the Tamron 90/2.8 that handle that task at a similar cost and size. The short telephoto range is a tough place to be.

I have used the Sigma 70/2.8 and Tamron 90/2.8 macros, but tried the 85/3.5 directly against the Nikon 60/2.8G because that's the one that I own. The 85mm is only slightly larger than the 60mm, and does have a substantially longer working distance at high magnifications, but also has more distortion on the DX frame than my 60 does on FX. The sharpness results were functionally identical across most of the focusing range, but at the maximum 1:1 magnification the 85/3.5 becomes significantly worse. By backing off just a little to 1:1.2 magnification the 85/3.5 improves substantially, and by 1:1.4 it's respectable once again.

Some of my test photos are here: 60@1:1 #1 and #2, 85@1:1 #1 and #2, 85@1:1.2 #1 and #2; all were shot at f/8 with the D800 set to DX mode. Focusing is with Live View on the number "6". Manually focused samples, other targets, and the centre of the lens all show the same quality drop at 1:1 versus 1:1.2.

Looking at Nikon's lens lineup, the greatest virtue of the 85/3.5 is that it's cheaper, smaller, and shorter than the 105VR. But it's not remarkable when compared to other short macros, gives up two stops of light over a similarly-priced fast 85 in exchange for that macro ability, and then fails badly at maximum magnification. It wouldn't be my first choice for either portrait or macro photography, and if I really needed to own one lens that would be used for both then I'd buy something else. Sure, it's a good lens, but sometimes that's not enough.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 13 august 2012


Instrument Tuners--Snark And Behringer TU300

Concept: 3 out of 5 average
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They both work for me and cost little

The Long Version: In addition to running sound and lights for a rock band and a country music group, I'm also the bassist for a progressive rock band called Televators, and we're working on our debut CD.

When I started playing guitar in the '70s, you could tune with a pitch pipe, a tuning fork, some dude's piano, or spend over $500 on a Conn or Petersen strobe-based tuner. All bad choices for a kid just trying to play in-tune with his garage band. Luckily, cheaper electronic units came out around 1980, but they weren't very good, nor cheap enough. The situation is much better today.

Tuning is critical when money is on the line. While pouring dollars out a hose to record in a professional studio in April I used a rack-mounted Korg that's long been a favorite of professionals. The wide display that sweeps left-to-right and back again while you're playing earned this model the nickname "Cylon". It was great, but kinda pricey and I think it's been discontinued although other rack tuners are still available. For our live shows I kept getting lucky in that the amp rigs I was borrowing all had similar units, but as I've been building my own system the need arose to finally buy my own.

And suddenly I had two!

The pedal style tuner on the right is one I ordered from B&H in NYC. It's got all the features I'll never need just like most of the other brands out there, but at a much nicer price. Think 75% less, which is how I like to shop.
Behringer gets a bad rep sometimes because their very affordable gear, while based on excellent German designs, is made in China to meet the lowest possible price-point and tends to fail when subjected to rigorous touring conditions. My experience mirrors many online reports, so I just try not to let clumsy roadies carry any of the company's products, and never use them in critical show-ending parts of the audio chain unless I have a spare with me.
But even when considered slightly disposable, I like the results of many Behringer products. "Don't drop your toys or they'll break" was good advice when I was 4, and it still makes sense.
Plastic body shell and hinge points, not various metals like the competitor's $90+ offerings. Don't stomp on it = No problem.

Other online reviews of this tuner mention that it's a little slow to respond on the very lowest notes of 5+ string bass guitars. My testing agrees, but since Televators only go down to drop-D tuning it hasn't been an issue for me. Still, this can be a deal-breaker for bassists in a big hurry.

You don't get an AC adapter (wall-wart) for $25, but it uses the same plug, voltage, and polarity as most other pedals so chances are you have a spare. I had three.
It's a great tuner for the price, but I'll admit that it's a bit tricky to change 9-volt batteries if you want to power it that way.

For my birthday the guitarist for Televators gave me the same tuner he uses, a SNARK brand chromatic that clips onto your instrument's headstock and senses the vibrations physically:
Nothing to plug in, works on acoustic as well as electric instruments, and it's tiny.
The going price online is usually under $20.

When playing live I dislike having anything hitching a ride on my bass for both aesthetic and practical reasons, and to use the Snark between songs it's necessary to turn your guitar off so nobody has to listen to the annoying sound of a musician tuning up for however long it might take. Pedal tuners like my Behringer mute the sound while tuning with a simple tap of your foot, and I love that convenience.

But the Snark has it's good points, for sure.
It's surprisingly quick at picking up your note and displaying results--faster than the Behringer and the Korg Cylon and pretty much every other tuner I've used during the past 30+ years.
The display looks great under the usual lighting conditions, although I still haven't tried it in direct sunlight--no foreseeable need to.
It's tiny and light and runs off a standard CR2032 button cell.
Has a built-in metronome, apparently. For students I guess.

The best part is that you don't have to plug into it, so ANY instrument to which it can be clamped is tunable with great precision.
When I'm writing songs or learning covers it's usually in front of my PC with the speakers down low. No amplifier, just bare acoustic energy from my bass or guitar strings. Having to plug into a tuner is a hassle, so the Snark is a real time saver. Same thing at band practice or in our ProTools studio.
I also set-up other people's guitars and basses, adjusting the truss-rod and bridge so that they'll play nicely and in-tune all the way up the neck. Sometimes these instruments are waiting for electrical parts to arrive, so the Snark allows me to get work done ahead of time.

The funny thing is that while playing with the Snark I clamped it onto my Black & Decker cordless drill, and I'll be damned if it didn't track the RPMs accurately!
My brother is pretty excited about this, because all it takes is a note-to-Hz-to rpm conversion chart to be able to measure all kinds of motors and other things that vibrate, as long as the fundamental frequency or one of the major harmonics falls within the tuner's range and you have a good idea which octave you're dealing with.

My Samsung Galaxy S phone vibrates a little above F.

Note added by Matthew: The Televators' first single, Milk Run, can be found on iTunes.


TONTA Lens2Scope

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I docked a 'concept' point for the name.

Counter Opinion: I was intrigued from the moment I saw the remarkably functionally-named Lens2Scope, made by TONTA Electro Optical Co of Taiwan. Tonta also makes full spotting scopes, but the 'lens to scope' is just an eyepiece that attaches to various makes of lens – a different version for each mount – to make it easy for humans to look through them. It has pretty good eye relief and a prism to turn the image right-side-up, while focusing is handled by the lens. The Nikon-fit model that I tried is perfectly happy with both G and DX lenses.

A name that includes a cutesy numeral on something made of plastic always screams 'fly-by-night cheap' to me, so I was initially rather unimpressed and put off by the Lens2scope's $200 price. But using it with a Nikon 85/1.8D immediately and completely changed my opinion: the view was bright and crisp with a huge image circle. Of course camera lenses have excellent optics, and the Lens2Scope is only using a small part of the image circle, so perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised at how good it was.

The way the numbers work with the Lens2Scope is to divide the focal length of the attached lens by 10 to determine its effective magnification, making my 85mm lens into an 8.5x power scope. The effective objective lens diameter is the physical aperture of the lens: remember that the "f" in "f/1.8" stands for focal length, so my 85/1.8 is essentially an 8.5x47 monocular. That rivals much bigger binoculars for both magnification and light-gathering, making the Lens2scope and 85mm quite compact by comparison.

The eyepiece also works with zoom lenses, and trying it with the 18-300mm was a lot of fun. Of course a darker lens means a darker image, and the higher the magnification – excuse me, the longer the focal length – the tighter the field of view. So a consumer zoom is functional and effective, while an f/2.8 zoom is very good. When coupled to a macro lens the scope adapter reportedly gives a 25x magnification at the lenses' 1:1 distance, which is not too shabby either. I can't say what the depth of field will be like, not having tried it, but I suspect that the Lens2Scope's little tripod mount could come in handy.

So the lens2scope definitely works. The next question has to be: for what? Anyone with a lens to attach it to probably already owns a compatible camera, and just looking through a lens is an odd thing for a photographer to do. But photographers have more than their fair share of odd behaviours, so I'm sure there will be people out there who would like to be able to turn a lens into a scope. People like me, for example.

I already own a small Zeiss 6x18 scope that I use to view prints presented to the critique group that I belong to – that's something like a camera club, but for photographers. So I actually know exactly where and how I'd use one of these lens toys. I'm eager to try it with my 60/2.8G lens, which becomes a 6x21, albeit a much bulkier combination than the little Zeiss 6x18. But the truth is that a 6x power can be a bit long for where I sit, making my 50/1.4G – 5x35 – a very, very interesting option. I'm pretty much sold on buying a Lens2scope even before I break out my old manual focus 135/2.8, which was an impulse buy against the possibility that it might be fun to have some day. It's nifty when things all work out like that.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 28 july 2012

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