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OK that headline is harsh! But it refers to having a camera that is not mounted to your smart phone. Now don’t worry phone camera lovers this is not a rant against camera-phones. In fact I intend to praise them in many ways. Camera phones are now the primary means of image capture for well over half of people who take pictures. Even the majority of those who have a “better” camera, take more pictures with their phone than the “real” camera.

This is a good thing. Having a camera on our phone, which in this day and age is the only thing we weren’t born with that we never leave home without. If the house is on fire and your buck naked running for your life, odds are your grabbing that phone off the nightstand on the way out the door. So we get to see images of so many things that previous generations often missed. Just from a saved for posterity angle the smart phone camera could be the greatest single invention in the history of mankind. There is absolutely no excuse to not have pictures of any significant event EVER. It should be clear by now, that aliens and Bigfoot can’t be real, there is no way they wouldn’t have been imaged with clear detail in this modern world of cameras everywhere.

old camera

GAF 126 cheapy camera

Now when I was just a wee lad… way back in the 1970s my parents bought me a camera. They probably didn’t want me messing with my dad’s kind of expensive Kodak 110 camera that had a real glass lens and an actual rangefinder focus system. So I got a GAF 126 camera. This plastic POS was equipped with a genuine plastic 35mm f/8 lens that was fixed at that aperture and fixed focus. It had one speed fixed at 1/80th of a second. You can see, the “fix” was in.

When it got dark it used flash cubes. Yes younglings a consumable flash! That camera couldn’t take a good shot if Jesus was operating it. But that is what I got at least until I was about 15, and bought my own 35mm SLR in 1979. So for all the younger people who grew up in a digital world, you have it really good when it comes to making pictures. In the 1970s most Americans were still taking pictures with cameras that were the equivalent of rubbing sticks to make fire.

Today’s modern smart phone camera is flashing some serious tech. I want to know why the hell we aren’t flying around in Jetson cars and don’t have a robot maid in every house, because the tech these phones have is unreal. But as good as they are they continue to have severe limitations when contrasted against modern digital cameras.

Even a modest camera like my Canon S110 has a sensor nearly triple the size of the sensor in most phones. The smaller phone sensors are jam-packed with roughly 12-16 megapixels. Each pixel is so nano-small that they just can’t absorb as much information as larger sensor cameras with an equivalent pixel count. Take a look at this sensor comparison chart, the smallest sensor is a typical smart phone camera sensor. My S110 uses the 1/1.7 and has 12 megapixels. My Google Pixel 2 XL uses a tiny sensor in between the two smallest on the chart (1/2.6), and has the same 12 megapixels. Yet when taking a basic picture the pixel is every bit the camera that my $400 S110 is. At least until it isn’t.

The pixel has a single prime lens that is fairly wide-angle with a 35mm equivalent of around 26mm. The S110 has an optical zoom lens with 35mm equivalent range of 24mm-120mm. The second you need some reach the little S110 pulls away. Furthermore what happens when you try an manipulate the image in Photoshop? Well the smart phone fails quickly as there is just not enough information stored in those itty bitty pixels. Noise quickly becomes unbearable when trying to make any severe adjustments in Photoshop or similar photo editing software. The S110 is dimensionally about the same size as my Pixel 2 XL. It is half as tall, about the same width and twice as thick. Now this little comparison is just between a S110 and a smart phone, pull out something deeper like a MFT or APS-C and it’s a bloodbath for the phone the moment you need something more than a snapshot.

photo of statue

Unedited other than resize

In this section I want to try to illustrate the difference. All of these photos can be enlarged to 1800 pixels on the long side by clicking on them.

My wife took a business trip to San Diego last spring. At the time she was using a Samsung Galaxy S6 model phone. The camera in that phone was pretty good, but the latest generation of iPhone and Galaxy S models are much better. None-the-less, many people, perhaps even the majority are using cameras of this caliber in their phones. And only the best smartphones are using a camera that is any better than the Galaxy S6. She grabbed a snapshot of a statue in the evening and the phone struggled to get good exposure because of the extreme spot lit statue against a dark evening light. The picture is actually pretty decent, but the highlights are blown out and the shadow detail is a bit limited. Still pretty decent in all fairness.

edited

attempted highlight and shadow control

Even excellent top grade cameras could struggle with these kinds of lighting scenarios. So take a look at the original unedited shot (resized only) and contrast it to a shot with Photoshop’s  basic exposure, heavy highlight and shadow control applied. There was no fixing this shot without being an image editing genius. The noise levels blew up long before enough highlight and shadow control could make a difference. The edited version of this shot also still has blown out highlights despite having a 100% reduction in Photoshop. The detail is simply not there because the tiny little pixels can’t absorb enough light to keep those details intact. It has nothing to do with the lens in the camera, other shots taken in ideal lighting conditions are very sharp and crisp with excellent detail on that same camera phone.

Now I didn’t happen to have been on this trip so I don’t have the same shot taken with a DSLR, but I do have a similar harsh light scenario that can demonstrate the range of a large sensor camera. It is all about the amount of light information each pixel can pickup. Had I taken that same shot with a larger sensor camera, I would be able to pull details out of the spot lit highlights and better detail in the shadows, without the color shift or digital noise.

sunset picture

5D MkIII unedited

This shot taken with my 5d MkIII was intended to be a picture of a lot listed for sale. But the sun is so bright it is able to fool the sophisticated light meter in the camera. I took another shot at +2 exposure that was better. But let’s say this was all I had to work with. If that were the case, all is still good in the universe, because this is a redeemable shot. Using the same basic Photoshop sliders I used above, I have the ability to push the highlights and

edited sunset

edited

shadows all the way to maximum range and still have nominal noise. The shot isn’t ideal, but clearly the detail in the shadows and the crazy bright sun, were there. I was able to flush out clear and definable details while maintaining good contrast and with no significant noise or color shifting. That is all about the large sensor not the expensive lens or camera body. The 5d series cameras are full frame sensors so they are 56 times larger than the typical cell phone sensor. The 5d Mk III has 22.3 megapixels and the Samsung S6 has 15.8 megapixels. The 5d has approximately 160 pixels per millimeter. That might seem like a lot considering there are 25.2 millimeters in an inch. But the S6 has 1,170 pixels per millimeter! Those are some seriously tiny pixels.

This phenomenon of little pixels equals weak dynamic range can be at least partially offset by modern HDR tech. Also you may notice that some of the better rated camera phones have fewer megapixels. The top rated Google Pixel 2 phones have 12 megapixels on a slightly larger sensor and it will destroy that old 15.8 MP Samsung S6. Partly because of larger pixels and partly due to Google’s magic pixie dust software.

The Google Pixel 2 is the undisputed heavy-weight champion of the universe for smart phone cameras. That thing uses some kind of magic voodoo to do stuff that just shouldn’t be possible. Hey Google, enough on the camera, give me a robot maid 😉 Oh and Elon, if Google can make a phone camera that freaking good, I expect my zero emission flying Jetson car next year!

The portrait mode in the Pixel 2 uses AI to create a pretty decent background blur.  That camera has a lens with a focal length of 5mm. It has a ridiculously deep depth of field. That is great for landscapes but terrible for portraits. They continue to pursue technological solutions and the results are becoming more than just adequate. But no matter how good the tiny sensors and AI pixie dust gets, that tech will also help the larger sensors get EVEN better still. There is always a place in your life for a real camera.

Some of you however cannot be convinced that a camera other than the one attached to your phone is necessary. Just as there were people in 1975 that thought a 126 plastic instamatic was good enough. At least today’s good enough is better than yesteryear’s top of the line, so in that sense, I get it.

picture of woman

Google Pixel 2 XL in portrait mode, some Photoshop lighting effects applied.

If you are going to use your phone as your only camera then please at least get a real smart phone camera. The Google Pixel 2 is the gold standard. It is the benchmark by which all others are judged and all others fail in its wake. But the iPhone 8, iPhone 10, Samsung S8, and Note 8 also have solid imaging. If your phone is your camera then get a good one. If you have a real camera, then get whatever phone suits your fancy or your budget.

Oh and unlike smartphones, cameras are much more techno-durable. What I mean is they don’t go obsolete on you after a year. My S110 is a camera that was introduced in 2012 and up until just very recently was still available brand new from Canon. My EOS 5d Mk III was introduced in 2012 as well and that camera was available brand new from Canon until the end of 2017! Both of these cameras have had just one successor, S120 and 5d Mk IV respectively. Try using a smart phone from 2012 and see how well you like that. Hey boys and girls, can you say “Android Jelly Bean?”

These are awesome times for photography my friends. Take your smart phone and make pictures everywhere and all the time, but whenever you can, take a real camera, even if it is just a little pocket-sized camera like the s110. Because for anything you wish to preserve for posterity, you should strive to render it in the best fashion possible. Modern cameras are dedicated to that end, smartphones as good as they are, remain a jack of all trades and master of none.

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That seems like an odd question but Chinese lens Maker Zhong Yi Optical is trying to say YES! This company makes three lenses with the exotic F/0.95 lens opening. The three lenses are as follows:

  • 50mm F/0.95 full frame for Sony FE, Canon EF, and Nikon and others. F Sells for around $700
  • 35mm F/0.95 APS-C for Canon M, Sony E, and others. Sells for around $500
  • 25mm F/0.95 MFT for Lumix, Olympus, Fuji and others. Sells for around $350

I have a Canon EOS M5 so I got the 35mm version. There are not too many photographers that haven’t jonesed for the so-called “dream lens” Canon 50mm F0.95 for the 7 rangefinder. These however are now fetching massive coin routinely selling in the $2000-$4000 range. A bit rich for a soft lens. But collectors understand just how significant that lens is to photographic history.

For those of us that are a bit more modest with our dispensable cash, there are a variety of lens makers coming on the scene with surprisingly good optics and rather fair prices. The Mitakon 35mm F/0.95 is one such product. I ordered mine recently and have taken a great many photos. This is a solid piece of glass figuratively and literally.

Although the 0.95 opening can offer up an extra 3/4 stop of low light exposure versus a comparable F/1.2 lens, the primary reason to own this is the bokeh and subject isolation afforded to lenses with ultra wide apertures. The smaller your camera format, the more challenging it becomes to get these dreamy bokeh lenses. This is due to the physics of optical photography.

The depth of field is controlled physically by three primary factors. Most people think of aperture as the primary control of depth of field. And it is certainly a major driver. But the focal length is even more so. Longer focal length lenses will have a more shallow depth of field. For example a 35mm lens on a full frame camera is a moderately wide-angle lens. That same focal length on a micro four thirds camera is a short tele, portrait lens as far as perspective is concerned. However it is still a 35mm focal length and as such the depth of field at any given F-stop will still be deeper than a comparable 70mm lens on a full frame camera. It is this fact that has led cell phone makers to utilize multi-lens and software modes for artificially blurring the background. The tiny sensors used in phones need ultra short focal length lenses that almost always have extended depth of field.

As an example a 35mm lens on MFT has the same relative perspective as a 70mm lens on a full frame camera. At F/2 however the depth of field is much different. So when shooting a head shot here’s what it looks like:

  • Canon EOS 5d Mk III with 70mm F/2.0 at 4 feet distance would yield a sharp depth of field of only 1.35 inches!
  • Canon M5 with 44mm F/2.0 at 4 feet yields 2.3 inches.
  • Panasonic Lumix with 35mm F/2.0 at 4 feet yields 2.8 inches. More than twice the depth of field of the 5d

But all of them are shallow enough, right? Maybe. One of the often overlooked methods of obtaining a soft background with any lens, is the relative distance of the subject and background to the camera. So it depends on how far away the background is. Remember the blur gets more creamy and dreamy the further out of focus it is. So the 5d might get a dreamy bokeh with a background 3 feet behind the subject but the Lumix might need a few more feet back to go full soft. Things get real interesting when you go for a 3/4 length shot. Now you are focused at maybe 8 feet distance and the 5d has less than 6 inches of depth of field while the smaller sensor has pushed out close to a full foot. Now getting dreamy, creamy, backgrounds on the small sensor may need the background at 12-14 feet behind the subject.

When focusing up real close most lenses will blur a background that is far off in the distance. For example a 12mm F/4.0 full frame lens focused at 2 feet distance wide open will have roughly sharp focus from 15 inches to 4 feet. Beyond four feet will get progressively softer the further back you go. But we can’t always stuff our camera right up close to our subject without other problems. That same 12mm full frame lens while wide open, has a hyper-focal distance of just 4 feet. Hyper-focal is a focusing distance in which depth of field will include infinity and approximately half the focus distance in front of the lens. That translates as 2 feet to infinity is sharp WIDE OPEN. Cell phones often use much shorter focal lengths than 12mm.

So the notion of having that delicious swirly bokeh gets more difficult with small sensors and that is where lenses like this Mitakon 35mm F/0.95 can make a HUGE difference. This lens supports APS-C sensors. On Sony and Nikon it has a 1.5x crop factor which means it has the perspective angle of view of a 53mm on FF and with Canon’s 1.6 crop factor it is akin to a 56mm lens on FF. Let’s look at a 35mm lens on my Canon M5 at different apertures to see the depth of field difference when focused at 3 feet distance.

  • F/2.0 – 2.07 inches
  • F/1.8 – 1.84 inches
  • F/1.4 – 1.46 inches
  • F/1.2 – 1.23 inches
  • F/1.0 – 1.03 inches
  • F/0.95 – 0.94 inches

At F/0.95 there is less than an inch of depth, just breathing can move you out of focus. The difference between F/2.0 and F/0.95 is about how far “gone” that background is. Getting a sharp photograph hand-held or mounted with a living subject is a serious chore with the shallow depth of field of a 0.95 lens.

I got my depth of field values from a nice website called “doffmaster” here. Here are several photos made at different aperture values to show the difference in depth of field. These are animated GIF images that will give a slide show of the different f/stops.

So all that on the table, how is this Mitakon 35mm Speedmaster? In a nutshell it is very good and for the money it is outstanding. I have been pleasantly surprised by the performance. Compared to the KamLan 50mm 1.1 I wrote up last year, this is a superior lens in all respects. It is however two and a half times more money, so it ought to be better methinks. Likewise it is less than half the cost of any of the high-speed premium lenses, so don’t expect perfection.

The lens is very sharp in the center wide open and pretty soft in the corners. Both the corners and center sharpen up consistently as the lens is stopped down and by F/2.8 it has excellent sharpness more or less to the corners. The build quality is solid with all metal construction and nicely damped focus.  The fit and finish lacks the “premium” feel of more expensive lenses from the likes of Voightlander, Zeiss, and Leitz; but let’s face it, this lens plays in a different sandbox than those and offers a blue-collar price against the CEO levels of cash needed to purchase the others.

This lens is not small, compact, or lightweight. It isn’t terribly unwieldy, but it weighs in at around 430 grams, which is just shy of a ton, um, I mean pound 😉 It does not come with a lens shade but it does come with a really plush, leatherette, tan and black presentation case. That’s pretty cool.

The trick to getting the real creamy, delicious bokeh, is a combination of close to the subject, far away background, wide aperture, and long lens. This Speedmaster f/0.95 allows you to get three of the four with a nice tight close focus of about 12 inches, crazy bright 0.95 opening, you setup the shot for the faraway background and voila, you have ‘bokehliciousness’.

Compared to the KamLan 50mm F/1.1 this is a sharper lens at all stops but the KamLan delivers a similarly shallow depth of field despite its smaller opening as the focal length is a bit longer. That lens is priced at well under $200 while this lens is closer to $500. The difference is that this lens can work as a straight multi-purpose shooter with a sharp center and overall excellent sharpness beginning around F/2.0. The KamLan never quite gets to “excellent” on the sharpness and is a bit of a ‘one trick pony.’

I did a video review of this lens as well, here. Here are a few more shots with the Speedmaster 0.95/35mm

 

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