Minolta 50mm Macro

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The Minolta 50mm 2.8 Macro. This oldie doesn’t have a nickname but it doesn’t need to. Here’s what it does have though…1:1 magnification. Many of today’s zoom lenses have the word “macro” written somewhere on the lens. It’s somewhat misleading and in best case scenario gets you as close as 1:4. Moreover much of  today’s dedicated macro lenses have a maximum magnification of 1:2. Serious macro photography requires  1:1 magnification.

Closest the Sony 16-50 2.8 SSM can get
Closest the Sony 16-50 2.8 SSM can get
1:2 magnification
1:2 magnification
1:1 magnification
1:1 magnification

The most popular focal distance is 100mm. The smaller the focal distance, the closer you must be, which essentially means there is less natural light to work with. This is one reason why the 100mm is usually preferred over the 50. However, if you put a 50mm on an aps-c sized sensor, such as the Sony a77, that gives a FOV equivalent of 75mm. This is a nifty tradeoff since this lens fits in your pocket. Minolta did make a 100mm 2.8 Macro lens that some considered to be THE best macro lens period.

The biggest plus is you can find this lens going on ebay for half the price of either the Sony equivalent, which is the same optically, or the 100mm Macro. As a bonus, the 50mm macro can double up as a medium portrait lens good for 1/4 body shots.

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and now a video…

Queen of Portraits

Minolta made some “G” or “L” class lenses in there first go round with autofocus. Legend has it that through it’s formal cooperation with Leitz (more known for it’s Leica division)  Minolta integrated unusually high performance optical technology that some would prefer over the twice as expensive Zeiss. With a focal length of either 85mm on a full-frame or 127.5mm on an aps-c combined with an ultra fast 1.4 aperture it makes for a beastly portrait lens. Creamy Minolta bokeh, rich colors, and a hulk-like build add to the credence to it’s nickname “Queen of Portraits.”

and now a video:

Beercan

Sony lenses that are accessible to me are crap. Nice images. Cheap, but cheaply made. Plastic mounts. Flimsy focus rings. Lightweight, sure and that has its benefits but one drop and…..

This got me searching for some comparable Minolta lenses. Love! Metal mounts, brick-like build, brick-like weight (maybe that’s not a plus), and the colors! The creamy bokeh! My collection was unmanageable. I had to let a few go. I now feel compelled to shine a light on a few of them while they’re in my possession.

The “Beercan” is probably the most well known of Minolta’s first generation AF glass. It is heavy. 70-210mm and a constant f4 is a pretty nice feature set considering ebay prices go around $150 US dollars. The autofocus is driven by the camera’s in-body motor and the glass is propelled by a screw. The zooming is in body so the barrel doesn’t extend as you zip across the range. It’s pretty long though and looks obscene mounted on the a77 without a grip. It’s sharp from around 5.6. The focus ring is narrow and not the best for full-time manual adjusting.

The “Beercan” produces much better IQ than the “Big Beercan” (75-300), is faster than the “Mini Beercan” (100-200) and has more reach than the “Baby Beercan.”

In the Sony/Minolta world of cameras, it’s a must have. It is legendary.

And now a video…

A77 vs GH2

There’s a lot of acclaim for the GH2 and hardly any talk about the A77 with regard to video capabilities. Just scour Vimeo and discover thousands of uploaded GH2 footage compared to only a few hundred decent A77 video. I wanted to run an unscientific test to see just how superior the GH2 is, if at all. All outside shots were at ISO 160 with an ND filter, 1/50th shutter speed and 4700k white balance. Indoor at ISO 320, 1/50th, 5700k. I used an adapter on the GH2 and guessed on the aperture to match the a77 which generally hovered between 3.5 and 4. I used the Sony 16-50mm 2.8 SSM on both with the GH2 on 25mm and A77 on 27mm to account for their respective crops.

Resolution. The GH2 produces the sharpest images, almost a true 1080p. Though you can record 1080p at 60, 30, or 24 frames on the A77 it produces soft pictures that look more like 720p. Tree leaves and bricks look great on the GH2. I can hardly tell the difference on macro shots as the A77 has no trouble resolving detail there. Also aliasing is less of a problem on the GH2 and non existent when using ETC mode.

Color. I like the colors on the A77. If I had no desire to do any corrections in post the A77 would win. But with a high bitrate hack, the GH2 has a lot of latitude with what you push around in post. The new Apocalypse Now 444 hack also helps with smoother gradients. Likewise, setting the A77 to Sunset with manual white balance accomplishes the same thing.

Noise. The A77 has ISo 100 to 1600 in video mode that generally feels like a stop brighter at each respective ISo compared to the GH2. Images are clean through ISo 640. I think it’s a hair better than the GH2. However, the GH2 (with hack) can go all the way up to ISO 12800 and the noise grain looks so organic and film-like that it’s not a distraction to me. When I see noise on the A77 it’s an eyesore.

Motion. The a77 looks better in my opinion and emotes a more cinematic visual. It can record in 1080p at 60 frames per second that can be retimed for some nice slow motion. The Gh2 can record at 60 frames per second only in 720p but it pretty much looks like the A77’s 1080p because it resolves so much detail. With a wide variety of patches, it also is less prone to macro blocking so filming water in the distance won’t be a worry. Moire is almost non-existant on the GH2, can’t say the same for Sony.

Rolling shutter. On the Gh2 record in ETC mode. On the A77 record in 60p. Poof gone, otherwise it’s a small issue all DSLRs have.

Crop. 2x on the GH2 still gets nice bokeh. Video crop on the A77 (because of SteadyShot) is 1.86x but it does get 1.5x bokeh and light which is nice.

Weird Stuff. The a77 and GH2 under certain lighting conditions can produce banding in the images. Usually scrolling through different shutter speeds or getting more light will resolve it. Both are equally distracting when it occurs.

Ease of use. The A77 is by far the easiest to use. It’s a great size, good heft for handheld shots yet not heavy. Slap an SSM lens, turn on autofocus and use that great tilty screen and thats all you need. No bulky monitors. Or use peaking for manual focus. Perfect ENG style camera. It’s also weather-sealed with a magnesium alloy body so shooting in the rain or dusty environment isn’t a worry.

Pro results. With the right exposure there is no beating the GH2’s image quality unless you’re ready to invest over 3k, not including lenses. Also, while peaking is great I had mixed results. I had a green light on the Red Bull in one of the above shots but it looks more than soft, it looks out of focus. The GH2’s zoom in video makes it easy to get pinpoint focus when setting up a shot. It won’t work during record though when peaking on the A77 does. The Sony can be used for producing great video, but the limited bitrate make it less than ideal.

Misc. If money is a factor, sure the A77 is more expensive, but with the in-body steady shot all lenses are stabilized. Slap an old Minolta 50mm 1.4 or Beercan and get creamy bokeh. The equivilent lens for the GH2 with cost substantially more if it had optical stabilization. BUT since the GH2 is micro four thirds you have an almost infinite lens supply. With the right adapter you can connect just about any lens from any era. Plus with 4:3 MJPEG mode you can shoot in Anamorphic Widescreen a la Blade Runner style!

Creativity. I think the A77, since it’s easier to pick up at random and use, allows me to concentrate on the moment, composition, and other things. It’s important for a one man crew such as myself.  There’s some technical prep work that needs to be done on the GH2 and quite possibly more gear that needs to be added. (ex.I want to go to the skate park and shoot wide angle. With the GH2 if I go with a vintage lens I need a steadycam and followfocus. I can get rid of the followfocus and get a Panny 20mm 1.7 but that has no Optical Stabilization (though it’s contrast detection auto focus is pretty good). With the A77 I can turn on focus tracking and slap any lens I want on it, hand held. In this respect, the A77 might be a bit more versatile with what its able to do.

Conclusion. The A77 is by far the better stills camera. If I’m out and about with no agenda I’m taking it with me. If someone is paying for video work, it’s gotta be the GH2 because when optimized, it produces stunning images.

P.S. I lost lots of footage on the GH2 recording on a 32gb Transcend Class 10. Everything looked good in playback but the files were corrupted when trying to transfer. I had no issue with the SanDisk 95 mb/sec Extreme Pro card. Plus it turns the a77’s 12 frames per second burst into a killer feature with 8 second buffer clearing on RAW + jpeg, 6 seconds full 24 megapixel jpeg, and even less on 12 megapixel mode. It’s again even faster if put into 8 or 10fps mode.

Sony Camera Hack Project is Official!!!

For all Alpha and Nex users here is the link. The project is led by Someone 1.00 who managed to hack the a55. It is also backed by the infamous and legendary Vitaly Kiselev who hacked the GH1, GH2 and Gxx series of Panasonic cameras. This is exciting as Vitaly once said that Sony’s firmware was infinitely more difficult to hack than the Panasonic’s. But here we are!

Sony Alpha a55 has been hacked?!?!

Here’s the link to the forum on EOSHD.

Fingers crossed it makes its way over to the a77. Just as the hack on the GH2, any modifications to the firmware that allows bitrate and/or audio controls will make for a much better movie making camera. The alpha line records at a maximum 28mbps in AVCHD 2.0 codec which delivers fairly decent video but lacks detail and resolution. The hack may not help that, but 28mbps AVCHD can break up in post. Generally the higher the bitrate the better. The hacked GH2 can deliver up to 176mbps all intra frames. They both use the same stock codec, which means the first (i) frame is the most detailed followed by b and p frames that is composed by the processor’s guess of where movement in the video will occur. This can create macro-blocking and odd artifacts in the video. As such, a hack producing a codec with all first i frames and a high bitrate is popular.

I’ve talked about how annoying Sony’s insistence on only auto gain control for audio is. The hack might open things up in that department, like it did for the Canon line of DSLR’s with the Magic Lantern hack.

There are also rumors of the new full-frame a99 Sony SLT and an update that will be released around that time for the a77.

With the NEX and RX100 topping the sales charts it’s exciting times for the Sony community!

A Painful Gain – Reviewing Sony a77’s Video

The a57 was a world opener for me. The video I was able to capture was remarkable and got my creative juices flowing. For inspiration I swallowed the addictive drug that is YouTube and Vimeo. I knew I needed more glass (lenses), faster glass (smaller f-stop) and wider glass (16mm or below on the aps-c crop). Sony makes a well-regarded 16 – 50mm f/2.8 lens (through the whole range!) with SSM that goes for $800. This is relatively cheap considering the Zeiss equivalent goes for $2000 and is universally agreed to be on the same level (minus the Sony’s being aps-c specific).  Ready to pull the trigger I found that they package this lens with Sony’s high end DSLT, for $1750 at my local camera shop.  In essence the $1,400 retail body would cost $950 since I was set on the lens. I put my beloved a57 on Craigslist. Enter the Sony a77.

On the surface I thought this would be a clear cut upgrade and there would be no remorse changing cameras. I get 24.3 megapixels over 16.1 (I know I said it didn’t matter but the option to do huge prints is nice), a three-hinged articulating screen over the a57’s troublesome two, oled vs lcd viewfinder, better colors and a weather-sealed magnesium allow body over the plastic one I got used to. I didn’t realize I was going to lose a few things along the way. First I lost light sensitivity. The megapixel crammed a77’s sensor doesn’t fare as well as the a57 in low-light high ISO situations and cannot go above 1600 in video mode. The a57 can do 3200, not great mind you but better than no video. The a57 has a focus magnifier in the digital zoom function that can aid manual focusing in video mode. The a77 does not, but they both have peaking (where focused areas are highlighted in red, white or yellow). It’s also substantially heavier, though good for durability, making long handheld shots a workout. Overall, I still consider the a77 a huge upgrade. Moving on.

I started to unknowingly pixel peep the videos that streamed to me from Vimeo. I compared them to the raw footage from my new a77 and wondered why I wasn’t seeing the same quality. I was semi-obsessed with how the Canon 7d (most relative price and build quality-wise to the Sony) had such clear images let alone the $500-700 range Rebel t2i, t3i, & t4i line. Let’s not get started on the hacked Panasonic GH2 which produces a $10k sharp image. I know you can take an iPhone and produce some excellent video. It’s up to the framing and story telling to make motion pictures captivating but I needed to know why my highly rated a77 wasn’t delivering the goods. I dug a little deeper.

It’s in the codec. Sony created the AVCHD standard tp avoid paying h.264 royalties to Apple. While the 2.0 version is highly efficient, the 4:2:0 and 24 mbps bitrate (4:2:2 in the Canons and upto 170mbps in a hacked GH2) doesn’t hold up well to color grading. Things can fall apart if pushed too far. The codec also macro blocks (creates large blocky screen artifacts) in blues and exposed blacks. Video is softer than the Canons and retains less detail than the GH2 as a result of downsampling that monstrous 24.3 megapixel sensor to 2mp (or 1080p). I started to get depressed at my investment.

Then I realized something about all the videos I was watching. Canon’s DSLRs have been out for about 3 years and Panasonic had the hack on the GH1 which came out two years ago. Professionals have been using these cameras. That means they had the right setup, knowhow and equipment (lighting is huge). The launch of the Sony a77 in August 2011 was hugely affected by the floods in Thailand and they didn’t become readily available until early this year. So all the videos out there were enthusiast-level but hardly professional studio filming. Upon further investigation, searching for raw video test footage from amateurs on the Canon Rebels-T3i yielded the same quality footage I was seeing out of my a77. I was a Sony enthusiast once more. This was a challenge.

Thanks to the Alpha SLT shooters across Vimeo and the people over at EOSHD I learned a few things. One was to shoot in Sunset mode with manual white balance (important otherwise the reds will be pushed). Sunset mode creates smoother gradients and exhibits less artifacts. TURN DRO OFF. Sony’s dynamic range optimizer is on by default and though it brings up shadows, it’s artifact happy. Try and get the picture the way you want it in camera and don’t rely on heavy fixes in post. I like to keep sharpness at 0 with whatever picture profile I shoot. -3 is the standard but the a77 is softer than the Canon’s and +3 yielded choppy aliasing. (after further testing I’d suggest -3 sharpness). If you’re shooting in auto set the max ISO to 800. If you’re shooting in 1080 60p and want to use autofocus, point to different lighting sources and toggle the ael button on when you 1/125 shutter speed. Rule of the thumb is to double the frame rate. So a 24p rate should have a 1/48 shutter speed. On a DSLR/SLT 1/50 and 1/125 are the closest you can get for 24p/60p respectively for the most eye-friendly motion. Combat low light with fast glass not higher ISO but you knew that. I use an old photoshop trick to get cleaner images by overlaying a copy of the video and setting opacity to 50% with a slight Gaussian blur in Final Cut Pro X. It gets better.

If you’re a Sony shooter and were wondering about the video, be happy. First off, I’m pixel peeping on a Retina Macbook display and all faults are null and void when outputting to a tv or projected. We have a lot things that other cameras don’t currently. In body electronic stabilization for video works great negating the need for expensive IS glass. Cheaper lenses, money saved. Although it crops part of the video image to give it room to stabilize it, you still get aps-c sized depth of field. 60 progressive frames at the full 1080p resolution means super clean slow motion. It’s as easy as dropping the footage in a 24p timeline and conforming the speed. No need for Twixtor, money saved. That translucent mirror that blocks a third of the light, giving us the high ISO problems, enables us to see what we’re filming through the OLED. No need to glue a view finder onto the lcd screen, money saved. The way the lcd screen articulates and focus peaking means you don’t need a separate monitor. Money saved. Now the Audio Gain Control is a nuisance but it does work well and the on board stereo mic is not bad for B or ambient audio. The SSM in the kit lens designates it as fast and silent. The AGC surprisingly doesn’t pick up the sounds this lens makes under normal conditions. I also find that if you yell (it’s silly) into the mic when you first hit record, it pushes the AGC down creating a better floor level. Combine that with the fast Alpha SLT-only phase detect auto focusing and it’s a great run-n-gun/sports event camera. The AVCHD 2.0 codec is efficient and you’ll probably end up spending less in SD cards and hard drives if you record a lot. The GH2 and Canon’s Full Frame Mark iii still provide better video but one requires hacking, the other costs three grand body-only. In the end, composition and framing will do a lot more for video than the tech behind it.

Oh yeah, it takes pictures too…

…here’s some test footage from the a77

Low Light, High ISO Workaround

ISO 6400 1/13 f2.8 50mm
Hand Held Twilight Mode: ISO 6400 1/10 f2.8 50mm

I’ve been shooting with the Sony a77 recently and, as expected, it’s low light performance is not great. The Sony a57, which costs half as much, outperforms Sony’s flagship a77 at noise sensitivity in low light. This is mostly due to the fact that it’s sensor is less cramped with megapixels (16.1 for the a57 vs. 24.3 in the a77) so you can add that to the mega pixel myth.

There is a workaround found in the a77 and the camera’s in Sony’s SLT line. It’s hand held twilight mode. You can find it as one of the scene options on the large dial. My first thought was that these options were nothing more than toyish features to be seldom used, but the hand held twilight mode was surprisingly useful. What it does is take 6 rapid pictures in succession and stacks them together to create a single image. You can also activate this in PASM modes by selecting Multiframe Noise Reduction which will do the same thing at your selected ISO.

As a side note, I’ve upgraded the firmware on the a77 to version 1.05 and can confirm that the dials and power on/off are much faster. There is zero lag switching shutter and aperture controls and hardly any delays when looking through the oled evf or activating from sleep. You can find it here. If you’re working on a Mac running Lion, like myself, you’ll have to restart the machine and hold down the 3 and the 2 keys on the keyboard to boot in 32-bit mode after you’ve downloaded the firmware. Once you restart your computer it will boot back into its default 64-bit state.

Standard
Hand Held Twilight