A Killer Digital Lens

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

A Killer Digital Lens

(And Other Digital Notes)

It’s getting so we have almost an embarrassment of riches in DSLRs. From the Digital Rebel’s discounted prices, which can reach as low as the mid-$700 range, to three professional überkameras (14N, D2x, and 1Ds mk. II), with lots of choices in between. Konica-Minolta’s new Maxxum/Dynax 7D, which has received favorable reviews from Michael Reichmann on lula.wpengine.com and Bob Atkins on photo.net, looks like a "contendah," especially in terms of low-light shooting with primes, something no other manufacturer is likely to match anytime soon, if ever. And from Olympus we have the only truly purpose-built system, the fledgling E series. I can’t wait to get the word about the Evolt, which looks to me like it’s going to be a special camera. From Pentax we’ll soon have a nearly miniature DSLR, the *ist DS. The list of alternatives is getting longer.

Still, I suppose we’re all waiting for something, right? It’s easy to get spoiled when we’re being served so many new choices on a regular basis. Personally, I’m especially anxious to see the upcoming mid-level Nikons. As you may have gathered, I like Nikon DSLRs. The D2h is still my personal dream camera, despite its now-meagre 4 megapixels. And the D70 is perhaps the single most successful DSLR on the market, offering an unprecedented combination of performance, features, and value that still hasn’t been matched by anyone. Well, maybe the Canon 20D is just as successful, at the next higher tier of the market. It’s also selling like hotcakes, although, unusually for Canon, there have been a few technical and quality-control issues with it. No matter.

According to Thom Hogan’s bythom.com website, however, Nikon is claiming it will havefivelines of DSLR on the market by late 2005. Right now it has three – the budget champ D70, the aging D100, and the D2 series. Assuming the D100 will be replaced, that portendsthreenew DSLR lines, at least two of which, presumably, will fall between the D70 and the D2x.

One of those is the one I want to see. Something about the size of the Canon 20D, with 85% of the speed and responsiveness of the D2h. Hopefully the new Konica-Minolta 7D will provoke Nikon (Canon too) into providing a better standard of viewfinders – we really do need to jettison the "tunnel vision" of the D70 and the Digital Rebel. I can’t wait to see the "D200" or whatever it’s going to be called.

You know, sooner or later all this is going to settle down. The market will begin to saturate and growth will fall to single-digit percentages. At that time, we’ll start seeing a more measured, staid pace of product introductions, and more of an evolutionary style of product design. But for now…well, enjoy it while it lasts!


A New System for B&W

My longtime colleague Gordon Lewis, who’s now writing movies and television shows in Hollywood and doesn’t have time for writing many camera reviews any more, has alerted me to the existence of a truly cheap, and he thinks quite good, alternative for the black & white desktop darkroom. Good as the HP 7660 and 7960 are for black & white, you do need to use HP’s expensive inks and papers, costs that undeniably add up. And most of us hobbyists haven’t got the time, the money, or the patience for the involved and complicated professional atelier systems of black & white printing.

The Lyson QuadBlack inkset was a step in the right direction. But you still need dedicated profiles and the full version of Photoshop, which many amateurs don’t have. Now, MIS Associates, at inksupply.com, has apparently come to the rescue. Its new MIS UltraTone (UT) inksets are available in warm, neutral, and cool formulations, for both four- and six-color printers. The EZ (easy, obviously) version of UltraTone is made specifically for inexpensive 4-color Epson printers, and comes in warm and neutral tones only. But here’s the cool part: you don’t need anything special to use ’em. You can start with an image in any sort of program that you can print with. Heck, I’ll just quote the website:

No Workflow Required

EZN and EZW were developed for the [Epson] C82, C84 and C86 printers and do not require Photoshop adjustment curves. These inks are intended for use by those that just want to make beautiful B&W prints, but either don’t have Photoshop or don’t care to learn it. Any software that can print an image can be used. The control for great B&W prints is built into the inkset when used with an Epson C82 or C84 [of C86]. There are two inksets available, a neutral inkset (EZN) and a warm inkset (EZW). These inks are available in cartridges or in bulk for Continuous Flow Systems. EZN and EZW inks will print on matte papers or glossy papers provided the correct black ink is selected. Use Eboni black for matte papers and Photo black for glossy or semi-gloss papers.

You read right – that means no profiles, no complicated workflow, no special programs. Anything that allows you to see an image and that will go to a printer, you can print – even color files! That is, if you’re willing to accept the default conversion. Anything else, just put the image in grayscale via whatever method you choose, get it to look right on screen, and hit print. Truly EZ!

The Epson C86 is cheap enough to buy for stand-alone B&W printer.
Photo courtesynewegg.com

And cheap? Let me just run a few numbers past you. I ran right out and bought a dedicated printer for the UltraTone EZ inkset – the Epson C86. After rebates, the printer cost me all of $64 including tax. The ink cartridges, which I’ve ordered, cost only $10.95 each, and since you need only four, that’s $44 for a set. With this system, unlike the HP, you can use any paper you care to try – and one of the recommended ones is Epson Enhanced Matte, a very good paper that’s also far less expensive than almost any other high-quality alternative. Finally, if you are willing to stoke up the printer at least every day or two and churn out a few prints, you can easily set up a continuous-flow system for only $190. A set of 4-oz. bottles, which will last most of us many months, costs only $66, and set of pint bottles costs only $194. The pints will last dang near forever, unless you print editions and regularly wear out your printheads. And even then the pints will still last a long time, and at pennies per print.

How does it work? Gordon says great, and I respect his judgment. He knows a good print when he sees one. He’s sending me a few sample prints, and with his permission I’ll post one as an illustration here later in the week. If and when I start churning out UltraTone EZ prints of my own, I’ll get back to you with more detailed impressions.

Killer Digital Lens

As you know if you regularly read my columns and (especially) my newsletter, I’m a lens nut. Have been for a long time. And I’ve used lenses from nearly every top-line manufacturer (excepting, I think, only Angenieux and Kinoptik). I’m mostly familiar with lenses in the range of focal length that I personally use, mainly 28mm to 90mm, with a few outliers. Over the years I’ve "tested" (i.e., tried) many different lenses old and new.

The process has left me with some definite "tastes" in lenses. Weight and cost are important to me, for the same reasons they’re important to most consumers. I generally like premium, high-performance lenses, and I definitely like primes (single focal-length lenses). But let’s face it – most of the best new digital-specific lenses for DSLRs are going to be zooms, with only a few exceptions. When lens makers are only beginning to fill out their lines, they’re going to build zooms first, because that’s what most people buy.

I haven’t been all that impressed with the digital-specific zooms I’ve seen so far, although I haven’t seen all of them by any means. The Olympus C-8080 has a superb lens for a fixed-lens digicam. The 11-22mm Olympus E-lens is great, as is the 50mm macro for that system. The kit lens for the D70 is a nice lens, although it doesn’t really spark any special enthusiasm.

Recently, however, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some work done with a new zoom that I do think is special, the Tamron 17-35mm f/2.8-4 Di. Actually, its full moniker is "SP AF17-35mm f/2.8-4 Di LD Aspherical (IF)," and, before I go any further, allow me decode that. "SP" is the designation for Tamron’s premium lens series. AF means autofocus, of course. 17-35mm is the focal length, which translates to about 26-55mm on a Nikon DSLR. That’s about perfect for a guy like me whose "home" focal length is around 40mm or its equivalent. f/2.8-4 is the maximum, or widest, aperture; whenever you see a range of apertures like this one, it means that the max aperture is different at one end of the focal-length range than the other. This lens is a full f/2.8 (considered fast by zoom-lens standards) at the 17mm end, and f/4 at the 35mm end. This isn’t stellar for a 35mm film camera, but it’s more than adequate for a DSLR, which has potentially higher practical "ISO speeds" or capture sensitivities. "Di" stands for "digitally integrated," by which Tamron means to signify that the lens was designed specifically for APS-C sized sensors. "LD" means that the lens utilizes ultra-low dispersion glass elements (it has one), and "Aspherical" means it has elements that have compound shapes, i.e., surfaces that do not conform to a section of a sphere. This lens has three aspherical elements, which is a lot. Finally, "IF" refers to internal focusing, which means that the lens is focused by means of moving elements within the lens and not by simply moving the whole lens relative to the film- or sensor-plane.

The Tamron 17-35mm Di zoom.

Got all that? It’s not quite all. Two very important specifications you also need to know about are: weight, 14.4 ounces (440g); and price, less than $500.

These last two bits make the Tamron 17-35mm Di truly stand out. Virtually any lens maker can make superb lenses if a) it can charge enough money for it, and b) if it can make the lens as large and heavy as it wants to. Most lenses of this specification are, to put it kindly, beasts. As in, big and heavy. This lens isn’t. I know, I know, real men don’t care about weight…and yet you know in your heart you do, especially if you practice a style of photography that has you carrying the camera around with you wherever you go. Virtually anyone who has been in this game for a few decades has owned lenses that more often than not get left behind because they’re just friggin’ bricks, and I don’t care if you’re the Guvernator. I’m not a nut about small and light, but smallenoughand lightenoughare plusses.

Most lenses of this specification are also pricey. Not necessarily a bad thing when it translates to build quality and performance. And yet often, the price-to-build-quality and price-to-performance ratios seem just a tad "off" with superfast premium zooms; you’re maybe a bit past the early threshold of diminishing returns. Not so with this baby. Take my word for this, $500 for this lens is asteal.

None of this, of course, would mean a dad-blamed thing if the performance weren’t up to speed. But you know, as I mentioned, I’ve been testing lenses for years, and, as I also mentioned, I’ve developed certain tastes; and at this point I can just tell when a lens has got it. So what’s "it"? Just an essential rightness in its look, a visual coherence, a vividness. Call it sharpness, call it contrast, call it "3D," it’s all gaslight – you can pick apart the technical specifications and MTF charts apart nine ways from Sunday. But the fact remains that some lenses just have it and some lenses just don’t. (Even if they’re "supposed" to.) The Tamron 17-35mm Di has it.

As with many zooms, you have to stop well down when shooting close up. Nothing unusual about this. Whatisunusual is that the lens has a particular quality I prize in any lens: it’s virtually as high-performance wide open as stopped down, excepting only depth of field (again, as long as you’re not too near the close-focusing limit). You will be pleased with the results of this zoom at full-tilt boogie, wide open and jammed to its widest angle and takin’ pictures in the available dark.

So is it "better" than any alternative? I really couldn’t say, and, frankly, I couldn’t care less. It’s a very practical lens with very high image quality and excellent usability features. Feels good on just about any camera. And the look of your DSLR files will get you up in the morning and out of the house, with your camera in your hand.

Especially if you’re using a Digital Rebel with the kit lens,run, don’t walk, to get one of these puppies. You’ve got a great sensor in your camera, and you need to see what it can actually do. If you’re considering a D70, consider this lens paired with Tamron’s 28-75mm as a two-lens alternative to the D70 kit lens. Even if you use a considerably more expensive camera, I can tell you that you won’t be disappointed. Highly recommended for any DSLR with an APS-C sensor. I hope this goes without saying, but I have zero connection to Tamron, don’t own stock, don’t receive payola, don’t have any friends who work there, don’t have any reason whatsoever to recommend one brand or make of camera or lens or anything else over any other. But after seeing a bunch of files made with this lens, I went out and bought one. Paid full retail.

I know, I’ve got more lenses than I need already. But some lenses I’ve just got to have.

— Mike Johnston

P.S. Reader David Greenberg points out that I’ve been ambiguous about what the Tamron 17-35mm Di can be used for. It isnotlimited to APS-sized sensors, and can be used on full-frame 35mm film cameras as well. However, the Di designation means it was designed from the outset with use on DSLRs in mind. Furthermore (although I reserve the right to change my mind once I know more), from what I’ve seen so far it’s not as much of a standout as an ultrawide zoom on 35mm film as it is when used as a short-normal zoom on APS-C DSLRs. In this article I’m discussing it, and recommending it, in its capacity as a digital lens when used on a DSLR with a 1.5x or 1.6x f.o.v. crop factor.

See Mike Johnston’s website atwww.37thframe.com. Also, check out his monthly column in the BritishBlack & White Photographymagazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

Want to read more? Go to the SMP Archives

Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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