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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Panasonic 25 f1.4 First Thoughts

Many National Trust properties now let you photograph the interior of the house so long as flash isn't used. There's doubtless no end of blurred shots as tourists try to capture photos using cameras or phones not up to the task, but marry a wide aperture f1.4 lens with a modern digital body and you have a tool easily able to cope with this scenario. Moreover, for me, as a bonus natural light always delivers better looking results than flash. For instance when I look back at my photos, in particular the portraits of my children, there's something magical about a wide aperture lens and natural diffused light.

In the past I have used a Canon 5D2 combined with the Canon 50mm f1.4 as my tool of choice, but I'm looking towards reducing the weight of my gear, particularly when out with my family. I have a Panasonic GH2 which performs admirably in this role, but my zooms have small maximum apertures. I've therefore decided to evaluate the Panasonic 25mm f1.4 (50mm equivalent) as a possible replacement. These are some of my initial thoughts and findings. I should stress this is NOT a technical review as other formal testing sites will do a much better job than me, and it's not a description of the lens, that's available even more widely. Quite frankly I prefer to be taking photos, so this is merely me sharing my early thoughts and opinions.

Ixworth House, Panasonic 25mm f1.4 @f6.3 1/250 on GH2 ISO 160

I initially struggled to get a Panasonic 25 f1.4, it seemed all the UK dealers were awaiting stock, apart from Amazon who were more expensive. Then, just by chance, I happened to check Jessops again via my phone whilst on a visit to Melford Hall. This time they showed stock and were also one of the cheapest. I immediately reserved the lens for store pick up, which was a good move as they were out of stock again 2 hours later. I always find Jessops pricing rather strange, as they either seem to be the cheapest (with reserve and collect), or more often one of the most expensive photo retailers. The lens has since arrived and I've grabbed a chance to take a few shots at nearby Ickworth House, so here are my first thoughts.

An important difference to be aware of between this lens and the Canon 50mm, is that the depth of field is greater since the lens actually has a focal length of 25mm. This is because micro four thirds uses a focal length multiplier of x2 to get the equivalent field of view of full frame. One way to decrease the depth of field is to get closer to the subject and move the focal point nearer. For the candelabra shot below left, both the barrier and the fact I wanted to include a lot of the room stopped me from getting in close. Whilst this shot does show the effect of using a wide aperture, it's not as extreme as the photo of the playing cards on the right. For that photo I was able to get close into the table with only the King of Spades in focus, the rest tailing off into a smooth bokeh.

Panasonic 25mm f1.4 @f1.8 1/60 on GH2 ISO 160

The above picture is the arched ceiling of the Pompeian Room, the windows are painted on, though there is a dome above feeding light downwards. The camera and lens combination performed well revealing sharp detail in the decoration, in fact I ended up having to clone out some of the cracks.

I found the weight of the GH2 and Pany 25mm was a delight to use. Whilst the 5d2 isn't as heavy as the professional 1D series, the combined weight of the 5D2 body and the Canon 50 f1.4 is over twice as heavy (at 1375g) as the GH2 and Pany 25 f1.4 (at 644g). In particular, if you are out with the family and don't want your camera gear taking the front seat, this is a great unobtrusive combination.

The lens focusing is driven via a micro-motor, whereas in comparison the Canon 50mm uses a Micro USM (Ultrasonic Motor). The AF didn't leave me wanting despite being use to Ring USM on the majority of my Canon lenses, plus the lens doesn't extend at all, unlike the Canon which has a very small amount of extension.

There have been many comments on the Pany 25 f1.4 chattering when used on an Olympus body. When I moved outside to take photos in bright light I did hear some clicking noises. These seemed to occur when the lens was pointed at a bright light after previously being pointed at a lower light scene. It doesn't sound like a machine gun though, as has been reported by some Olympus users. I've investigated further and a few other Pany uses have noted the noise, but it doesn't seem to be anyway near as extreme as that experienced by the Olympus users.

The micro four thirds bodies use contrast-detection autofocus as opposed to phase-detection autofocus used by most other types SLRs. Normally the lens aperture is opened up to the maximum available, as this maximises the amount of light hitting the imaging sensor for detection of contrast. However, this lens has a maximum aperture of f1.4 which is far above that of most micro four thirds zoom lenses, and the net result is that in bright light too much light can reach the sensor. The saturated sensor cannot pick out the required contrast, so the body then stops down the lens aperture to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor. Normally the lens aperture closes down when a photo is taken at less than the maximum value, and any sound made by it closing down is absorbed into the sound of the shutter opening and closing. However, the noise is audible when it is closed down outside of taking a photo, and this is what is making the clicking sound. In fact you hear it when it both opens and closes. I guess time will tell if this is really an issue, but right now I don't see it as one.

This lens is a great all rounder for both in and out of doors, and now I get the benefits of the GH2 usability alongside.

I mentioned previously this isn't a technical review of the lens, but I did initially take a few photos just to check it was in the same ballpark as the Canon 50 1.4 and that I didn't have a bad copy. I thought I'd share a couple of shots at maximum aperture. The 5D2 files were resized down to the same resolution as the GH2, which was set to the same aspect ratio as the 5D2. No other processing was done apart from export to PNG. Both cameras were mounted on a tripod using a Really Right Stuff bracket, mirror lockup on the 5D2, and the shutter triggered via a timer. The first two photos show a 100% view from the top centre of the lens, it's the title text of a book. The second two photos show a 100% view from the centre of the lens, that is part of picture on the book cover. In fact you can see the print lines.

I'm happy the lens is performing in the same league as the Canon 50mm, and one could say better as there is a slightly soft look to the Canon, which it is known for at f1.4. However, the sun did come out during the 50mm shot and such a conclusion shouldn't be born from just a few test images at a single aperture. Some people would also buy the 50mm for just this effect. I did look at other apertures and the Pany 25mm was sufficiently good until diffraction kicked in after f8.

My initial thought is this is going to be a great lens, the only concern being whether I can achieve the minimal depth of field I want for some pictures. I need to get out and take some more pictures.

Click for Canon 50mm f1.4 @ f1.4 on Canon 5D2, centre top 100% crop

Click for Panasonic 25mm f1.4 @ f1.4 on Panasonic GH2, centre top 100% crop

Click for Canon 50mm f1.4 @ f1.4 on Canon 5D2, centre 100% crop

Click for Panasonic 25mm f1.4 @ f1.4 on Panasonic GH2, centre 100% crop

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Landmarks in Time

I've been taking photographs for over 20 years now. Prior to that I'd taken snaps for memories using disposable or compact cameras, but when my father-in-law showed me his photos and Minolta 7000 camera, from that point on I was hooked. My first camera was a Pentax P30n and with no Internet I looked to photo magazines to learn technique. It's important to understand that technology alone won't give you desirable photos on a consistent basis, and  that good technique and a creative eye are key to producing a good image. Yet since that day I've found there have been key landmarks in time where my photography evolved as technology progressed. This blog post highlights what my landmarks have been during this period.

The first key landmark was my move to an autofocus camera, the Canon EOS 100. This didn't necessarily produce better photos, after all I still used the same film, but it did bring with it a new level of convenience and ability to capture photos I might have missed. This remained the mainstay of my photo gear for a number of years, but being vegetarian the use of gelatin in film weighed heavily on my mind.

Craig Goch Dam in the Elan Valley from the days of film

The Digital Compact
I keenly watched the development of digital SLRs, but in the early years bodies such as the Kodak DCS system were huge and prohibitively expensive. The next key landmark for me was the Nikon 990. Finally a digital camera I could afford that would provide acceptable quality. It didn't have interchangeable lenses and came with a number of other limitations, but I learnt to work with these.

Taken with the Nikon 990, my first 3 mega pixel digital camera

The Digital SLR
The 990 was a fantastic camera for its time, but I missed the feel and utility of an SLR. Finally with the release of the Canon EOS D30 the digital SLR came within my reach. This was a great camera, and I felt my photography improve immensely with the immediate feedback of the shot I'd just taken, enabling me to quickly learn from my mistakes. I use to hate the wait for processed slides to come through the post.

Full Frame
The next big leap for me was when I moved from the Canon EOS 20D to the Canon 5D. This had a full frame sensor with increased resolution and lower noise. It was like returning to film without any of the negative sides. An added benefit was the ability to use a shallower depth of field for selective focusing, and my lenses returned to their actual focal lengths without having to multiply by 1.6 to work out their effective focal  length.

Micro 4/3 rds - Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lens (EVIL)
I'm currently using a Canon 5D MKII, but in recent years I have supplemented this with a micro 4/3rds camera. The 5D2 is a heavy camera by my standards, and when out with the family it became a chore to carry and use. For me having fun taking the photos matters as much as a good end image. When the Panasonic G1 SLR was released I saw this as a solution to the problem. Technically it's not an SLR, as it has no mirror and an electronic viewfinder, but it turned out to be a great camera. The two sat side by side each complementing the other in different areas of photography.

The Micro 4/3rds Switch
I love the 4/3rds format and have since upgraded to a Panasonic GH2. I increasingly find I'm reaching for the GH2 over the 5D2. The output is plenty good enough for general use and I see similar results to Jordan Steele (Jordan has recently made the switch from Canon DSLRs to the micro 4/3 system, you can read his blog post here). Moreover the cost of the 5D3 replacement for the 5D2 is prohibitive, thereby preventing any future upgrade path, and the GH2 replacement will likely be a 6th of the 5D3 price. With these points in mind, my thoughts have turned to moving more of my lenses over to the 4/3rds system, and possibly leaving the Canon system altogether.

 The two areas I still have concern over are low light hand held photography, and shallow depth of field. The reason is I enjoy photographing castles and stately homes where flash isn't allowed, and I also prefer natural illumination and often a shallow depth of field. I've therefore decided to purchase the Panasonic 25 f1.4 to explore this further. If it meets my needs I'll sell the Canon 50 1.4 and begin to further my transition to micro 4/3rds. This will either become my next landmark, or the lure of full frame will mean I keep using the best of both systems.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Melford Hall

Melford Hall is owned by the National Trust and has opened to the public again after its winter respite. The hall is located in the town of Long Melford in Suffolk, just off the A134. There are photo opportunities both inside the house and outside in the gardens.

A photo of Melford Hall from last summer when the weather was better

The whole environment at Melford Hall feels more relaxed than at many stately homes, notable by the fact you can sit on some of the furniture and even take tea in one of the rooms outside of the cafe. You can take photographs so long as you don't use flash, so I took my 28 f1.8 and Canon 5D2 with me for this trip. Normally I'd take my 50 f1.4, but I was keen at times to have the option to include more of the room.

The hall is filled with objects beautifully illuminated in the natural light.

Clock Green Decanter Creaky Stairs ©Andy Miles Photography Deeds Golden Canopy

The rooms echo the past eras, from the wooden panelled main hall to the more modern rooms including a piano and memorabilia from Beatrix Potter who often stayed there.

Piano Room

The Hyde Parkers, the family of the house, also have a strong naval history. Consequently there is a selection of naval memorabilia including the bell from HMS Superb and some navigation aids. 

Finding the Way

Photos complete, it was time to take the opportunity for refreshment, supping tea and cake in the drawing room. I would have taken a photo, only I have to admit it was the best chocolate cake I've ever tasted. Incredibly chocolaty, but in no way sickly.

Melford Hall is a great place to visit as a photographer, and there is also Long Melford town to photograph too. In the future I'll aim to blog my outside photos from a previous trip last summer.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


I enjoy spotting patterns, particularly ones that aren't always obvious photos. Initially the water here didn’t look to have anything special about it, but you could see the reeds dancing in the current. A slow shutter speed caused the water to blur and the reed take on a “ribbon” effect in the ripple.

Water Ribbon
Water Ribbon

For the next photo I was looking around our conservatory when I noticed the veins in this geranium leaf. It meant getting close with a macro lens and mounting the camera on a tripod, but I loved the way the veins led the eye into the point where the leaf joined the stem. It gave a better composition to place this towards the top centre allowing the square frame to balance the veins converging at this point.

010/365 Green Spidery Veins
Green Spidery Veins

Even everyday household items can make interesting patterns, especially up close. Here I photographed an orange bath lily.

006/365 Orange Bath Lily
Orange Bath Lily

The moss was shot on the same day as the reeds. It has a luminous glow to it that I don’t feel I was able to really capture. I liked the way the weathered grey bark provided a rough texture against the soft fluffiness of the moss. The log itself allowed me to compose the shot such that the moss began in the bottom left corner and leads the eye into the centre, before moving out of focus and out of the top of the frame.

Luminous Moss
Luminous Moss

You don’t have to have an SLR or compact camera. Here I’ve used a mobile phone to capture an interesting pattern. However, in this instance I created the pattern myself with some silver pegs that are used to hang Christmas cards on string. I placed these on top of a plastic toy box. The silver would contrast with a cool blue light so I then adjusted the image to have a blue monotone look using a smartphone app.

004/365 Got it Pegged
Got it Pegged

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