Sunday, April 15, 2012

Are Kit Lenses Worthless?


 Also in this issue:
  • The Next Seminars
  • Top Worst Minolta cameras
  • Other Tidbits


My New Favorite Travel Camera

When it comes to travel photography, there was always a soft spot in my heart for the Konica Minolta A1 and A2 bridge cameras.  These came out before the legendary KM 7D, and I used the A1 for half of my China blog.  By today's standards the image quality falls short for all but the lowest ISOs, but as far as form factor and function goes, these cameras had a certain gem quality to them.  The user interface was clearly designed by a photographer (as opposed to a marketing team); they had a real wide angle lens (most bridge cameras of the time didn't) and thankfully they had a manual zoom ring (as opposed to the motorized kind that only drained the batteries and offered no real benefit).  It shot movies, it had a built-in intervolometer, and it was my first exposure (no pun intended) to the promise of the electronic viewfinder.


Fast forward to about three weeks ago, when my NEX-7 and kit lens FINALLY arrived.  Imagine - all the quality of the A77 without the weight or volume! 
Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses - shooting sports is probably not this camera's strength, but as a travel camera, it's hard to ask for anything better.  It took awhile to configure the camera to my liking (it would have been easier if Sony had allowed all functions to be assigned to any soft button), but I think I've got it to the point that every important variable that I usually need to change in the field is one- or two-button presses or wheel rotations away.  Once I got that, the rest of the menu system didn't annoy me as much. :-)

The first "real" assignment I gave it was to take it on a family vacation to Sedona, which it served as both a point-and-shoot for family shots AND a high-end landscape camera for sellable shots.  Was this wise, given the less-than-stellar reviews the kit lens has received?  (As always, clicking on these images makes them larger and less fuzzy.  Plus, every image on this page is available for download and scrutiny.  No sharpening has been performed on any of these images.)
A friend and his son.  This shot is much sharper than I was expecting.
Every vacation should have one establishing shot (that sets the stage in one image) for your photo album.
 

(I don't eat if all I do is take "me too!" shots of famous places.  So I always strive to take pictures that nobody else has taken.  This can be used to illustrate the overcrowding of America's national parks and monuments. :-) )




If you measure the lens' characteristics on an optical bench, you'll discover that it has visible barrel distortion at the wide end, and chromatic aberrations.  You don't see those artifacts here because these were shot in .jpg and therefore corrected in-camera; but even if they hadn't been, for landscape shots with no specular highlights there's little chance they would be noticed.

I even compared the kit lens in the studio next to one of my favorite sharp lenses of all time, the Minolta MD 100mm f/2.5 in another composition where the lens' weaknesses won't show.  (Studio portraits are the acid test of lenses, since the subject is close and they often get enlarged so detail is scrutinized.)  I'll admit it wasn't a good test because the camera-to-subject distance didn't change enough for a true, meaningful side-by-side comparison.  Still, download the original files (here's the link again) and have a close look. 

I hate standard head shots.  So I imitated my old differential equations professor instead.
Can I take pictures where the lens' deficiencies are visible?  Of course!  Check out this picture of a telephone answering machine I designed and built when I was 15 years old, when such things were frowned upon by the phone company.  (This shot was made for the talk about my NASA days that I'll be giving in Copenhagen on April 24th):


Using the kit lens
Using the Minolta 50mm Macro lens
Here the differences become apparent when you zoom in to the corners:
Kit lens upper-right-hand corner 100% crop
Minolta 50mm macro lens upper-right-hand corner 100% crop
This is really an unfair comparison, since macro and portrait lenses tend to be the sharpest lenses made, so ANY other lens you compare to them will likely come up short. 


Are the Zeiss lenses better?  Yes.  Does that make this lens unusable or undesireable?  No - in fact, it's better than most people give it credit for.  As I said earlier, if you understand and work within a lens' strengths and weaknesses, you can take great, sellable and enlargeable shots with the kit lens.  As a travel photography lens I think it's ideal; it's not too large, focuses quickly, stabilizes the image, and it fulfills the NEX' promise of a small, easy-to-use and portable system.  I plan to use it as my primary shooting lens in my upcoming trips.


(Scholarly note: The Macro lens shot was taken with the A65 since I didn't have my Maxxum-NEX adapter handy.  But hey, it's the same sensor!)


The Next Seminars


No sooner do we return from Sedona that we're packing for Copenhagen!  (The seminar we did there in 2010 proved to be so popular that we have been asked to return.)  That will be followed by Santa Monica (California) in June, Durango (Colorado) in July, and finally Brighton (England) in September.  Yes, folks, this is supposed to be a 'light' year for travel. :-)
The events in Copenhagen have been expanded - After the weekend seminar on April 21 and 22, Sony will actually be participating in a newly-scheduled promotional event to take place the evening of April 23rd.  (They'll be bringing their latest products for people to try out, and they've asked me to give a short talk on the SLT design tradeoffs.)  The next evening I'll be giving a lecture entitled, "My Life as a Geek" which talks about my days at NASA and the kinds of electronic and computer inventions I designed and built in my youth that got me admitted in the first place.  (That should be fun!)  Finally, there's an evening "refresher" course for those who attended my seminar back in 2010 followed by a field workshop on Saturday, April 28th.
Here's the same information in table format for those of you who are visual thinkers, along with links to get more information (and hopefully to sign up :-) )
Copenhagen Events


The Santa Monica, California seminar will be held on June 9-10, and a 1-day field workshop near the world-famous Santa Monica pier on June 16th.  Learn more and sign up here.

The Durango, Colorado event is being hosted by the Durango Photo Club, and there will be three events: A technical lecture, a 2-day seminar, and a 2-day Field Workshop all happening between July 12 and July 22nd.  Learn More and Sign Up here 


Top worst Minolta list
I couldn’t come up with a list of 10, but here’s the list of the cameras I think the world could have done without.  And because I don’t actually have any of these in my collection, it makes no sense to make a video about them. :-)


1. Maxxum 70


This film-based camera came out shortly after the digital 7D, and while the camera itself wasn’t so bad, it’s naming was just abysmal, especially if you call your favorite store to ask if it’s in stock:


     “Hello, do you have the Minolta 7D in stock?”
     “Yes, we have the Minolta 70 in stock! It’s $350.”
     “Wow, $350 for a 7D?”
     “Yup! $350 for a 70!”
Could have started an Abbott and Costello comedy routine with that one.
2. Dimage 7/7i/7hi




These cameras were the predecessor to the A1 and A2 bridge cameras mentioned above (and in last month’s video). With the 7 / 7i / 7hi Minolta was still figuring out unimportant things like ergonomics and responsiveness using contrast-detect autofocus. I had the 7i with me for my first 3 months in China and I hated it so much (“Take the picture Now! NOW!! NOW, DAMN YOU!”) that as soon as the A1 was announced I ordered it from New York and had it shipped to my apartment in Beijing.  The 5 megapixel sensor was wonderful in low ISO, and it ran on 4 AA batteries which didn't last nearly long enough.
3. Dimage RD-3000
If the RD-175 got an honorable mention last month for its innovativeness, this 2nd-generation refinement should have been a better camera. My biggest complaint was that the system was based on Minolta’s APS-C camera system (the “Vectis”) instead of the Maxxum / Alpha DSLR mount. Why? Because they wanted to minimize the insanely large crop factor that the Maxxum-based RD-175 had. “Well”, said the Japanese engineers, “we can either make the sensor bigger or use lenses that create a smaller image circle”. And so they did the latter.


I will give this camera credit, though… it’s the ONLY digital camera I know of (maybe the RD-175 did this too) which calculated the flash exposure the same way the film cameras did – by looking at the sensor and telling the flash “STOP!” in real time. (Maybe that’s why this camera’s flash exposure accuracy was all over the map.)


4. Maxxum 9xi
I owned this camera. I hated it. This in spite of the fact that there was a LOT going for it:
  • It was practically indestructible. Between the UV-cured plastic exterior or the fact it could withstand a drop onto concrete (even on the pentaprism) from a distance and survive.
  • A 1/12,000th of a second shutter speed
  • Reasonably intelligent focus tracking
 What didn’t I like?
  • They had a transparent LCD superimposed over the focusing screen which darkened the entire viewfinder.
  • No flash exposure compensation
  • No way to set the camera to AF-C or AF-S. It was AF-A 24/7, and you were at the mercy of the camera’s (poor) decision-making abilities.
  • Let's face it; it was ugly. :-)

5. The entire xi product line


Okay, maybe I'm being harsh, but when Minolta wanted to shake up the world by creating these cameras with "xpert intelligence" they really didn't have their existing demographic of photo enthusiasts in mind.  These cameras were aimed at people who knew very little about photography, offering an “intelligent” auto-zoom (which somehow would help you compose the image), little cards you could insert to tell the camera what kind of a picture you wanted to take, and lenses with zoom motors inside.  Thankfully Minolta abandoned that approach starting with the si series which followed.


6. Honorable mention: Minolta 110 Zoom SLR




Imagine pairing great optics with a ridiculously small yet popular film format, and you have this little bastard of a camera.  It was actually well-designed mechanically; you could control your f/stop and shutter speed, the mirror actually doubled as a shutter, and it was sort of impossible to actually put it into your pocket (which you could do with other 110-format cameras of its day).  I've always said that there was little correlation between good products and products that sell, and this camera certainly reinforces that notion.  It was so popular that a sequel was produced a few years later.


7. Neutral: X700, 600si
The insanely popular X-700
The rear of the 600si (showing off the buttons and dials - the front was actually pretty unremarkable)
I got a LOT of emails from fans of these cameras, concerned that they might be on my 10 worst list since they weren't on my list from last month.  While the 600si was indeed noteworthy for being the first to experiment with going back to knobs instead of the then-ubiquitious "push this button and rotate this wheel at the same time" user interface, I felt the Maxxum 7 and 9 which took this experiment to the next level were better cameras.  Similarly, while I have nothing against the immensely popular X-700, I felt that the XD-11 had a higher-integrity design.  (So there!)
Tidbits


I'm leaving for the Copenhagen events in just a few days, and there's a lot of stuff I want to talk about but just don't have the time.  Here's an abbreviated version:


1) The A65 / A77 ebook is now available in Spanish!  http://friedmanarchives.com/alpha77/A77-index-SP.htm 


2) The English version of the A65 / 77 ebook has been updated to include details of Firmware version 1.5 (plus some other fixes as well).  Existing owners should have received notification with a download link.  If you didn't, email me a receipt and I'll send you a link.  (But please be patient for a response.  I'll be travelling the next few days and won't be able to respond with my usual swiftness.)

3) The .epub and .mobi versions of the A77 books are still a work in progress.  It turns out that there are NO good authoring tools out there that can handle complex layouts.  Probably worth a blog post all its own.


4) It cost me $70 in batteries (S76 and CR123 lithium batteries) just to get all the cameras to work properly for last month's video. :-)


5) I sent in my A77 to Sony to see if they could do anything about the flash exposure accuracy.  It should arrive back in just a few days.  When I return from Copenhagen I'll be testing it against the A65 which exhibited the identical behavior to see if things have improved.  Then I'll be selling the A65 because I just have too much stuff.  Any takers?  (I'll even throw in a free copy of my e-book for the camera! :-) )


Until next time...
-Gary Friedman

Me and Owen (Grandchild #2) Show me a person who can see barrel distortion in this shot and I'll show you a person needs to read this XKCD comic. :-)

33 comments:

  1. Wow! I am surprised to see the Minolta 9xi on your worst camera list. It was one of my all-time favorite cameras, perfect for slide film photography. Very accurate exposures, with outstanding, simple controls. It felt completely comfortable to hold and was a great looking camera in my opinion.
    I do however enjoy your A77/A65 e-book very much and promote it every chance I get. Well done!
    Thank you Gary,
    Karl Scharf

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    1. Karl,

      I agree with you about the 9xi's feel and the exposure accuracy for slides. And I think we can safely disagree about the looks. :-)

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  2. I wondered where you were. Sedona is one of our favorite places. Thanks for the update on your seminar schedules and thanks again for the great A77 book. Have your link on my blog. Have fun on your trip.

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    1. Thanks, Dale! (So THAT's what you look like! :-) )

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  3. Gary:

    What was the flash exposure accuracy problem that you refer to in the a77 that you refer to above? I don't remember, and can't now find, any prior mention of it.

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    Replies
    1. See the end of this blog post: http://friedmanarchives.blogspot.com/2012/01/family-portrait-with-uncooperative.html

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  4. Had to say: I'm de-spamming my entire e-mail system, and your's was the only list I'm staying on. Even though I've moved on from my A700 (I shoot strictly 3D with my fuji) I still enjoy your posts and photos! Keep up the good work!

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  5. Chris AllmendingerApril 15, 2012 at 7:00 PM

    "...and you have this little bastard of a camera.".. Funiest thing I've read in weeks! Keep up the good work! Always enjoy it..

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  6. The 7i forced you to think. And be patient. I'm sure if Yoda had a camera it would be a d7i.

    Definitely not a sports photographers dream but still not a bad gadget. I have mine and continue to use it a fair bit. The A1 that was bought to replace it though found a new home fairly quickly as the low light performances was abysmal, in my copy at least.

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  7. Well Gary, speaking of kit lenses, I have just returned from a month's vacation with my new A77 and kit (16-50 f2.8 lens) and I can't believe I'm saying this, however for me, I reckon they are a sharper (and certainly easier to use) duo than my previous A900 with CZ28-70 f2.8 lens! Gob smacked as I was hand holding the A77 underground in a mine (100' below surface) in candle light and miner's lantern light only, and the multiple image 'hand held twilight' mode captured natural looking, sharp as photos, with really acceptable ISO. No way in this world would my A900 have been able to do this.
    If the NEX7 is anywhere near as good, Sony have an extremely good camera on their hands.
    (PS: I am finding the A77 virtually flawless and the kit lens is just astounding. I have mated it - well not actually LOL, with a Tokina 11-16 f2.8 SWA lens and that is as sharp, if not even a tad sharper than the Sony 16-50 - and certainly miles better than the Sony equivalent 11-18mm SWA lens). Love, love, love my new gear. So happy with the choice!

    Cheers,
    Sean

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Sean. The A77 kit lens is renown for being incredibly sharp. All the other kit lenses in the world (including the one for the NEX-7) are not in that league, and that's why people usually react to the term "kit lens" with disdain. (Especially if they're the SAM design. :-) )

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  8. Hi Gary!
    Your mentioning of the x700 made me think back to the days, when I was shooting with Minolta gear. At first I couldn't remember what model my then preferred camera was, but going through my archives i discovered the it was indeed the x300 which in my opinion was a very good and sturdy camera. But what the heck, it's not a bad thing to be forced to use the grey matter with which we are blessed.
    Looking forward to meet you in Copenhagen. I enjoyed your last visit here.
    Cheers
    Claus Djervad

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  9. I have the a35 (and a100) and kit 18-70 lens plus several others that do not cost $1000, and I have yet to see why I need anything more. I go up to 13 x 19 prints sharp as a tack. Why does anyone need a Zeiss?

    Gary Eickmeier

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    Replies
    1. Commercial/Advertising, scientific/technical, fashion, and anyone who would ordinarily be using a medium-format camera needs and appreciates all that the Zeiss lenses have to offer.

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  10. Hi other Gary -

    Sure, but we are talking about 35mm size DSLR lenses and cameras. Interesting aside: I just scanned several old 35mm slides from my SRT-101, and the sharpness of my favorite old film camera is atrocious. No comparison to digital and the current lenses.

    Gary Eickmeier

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  11. I still have and use my old A2 on a regular basis. My 1st A2 was stolen with all the accessories several years ago. I purchased the A100 but still missed the A2. Finally found another one in near new condition and have been happy ever since. Now that the A77 is out I'm going to retire the A2 with the fondest of memories and thousands of great photographs. Thanks for all your hard work with the ebooks. I'll be purchasing you A77 book when I get my A77 in June.

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  12. Hello Gary,

    I sure hope that Sony's corporate loses will not affect its cameras in its corporate reorganization.

    all the best.

    Richard

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  13. Yes, the DiMage 7 is a clunky piece of kit and drains batteries fast, but it has a weak hot mirror, so you can take hand-held infra-red shots using a 720nm filter, which is the only reason that I bought one!
    Cheers,
    David Edwards

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  14. I would add one more to your list, the 3000i. An all automatic with no ability to overide. As a camera salesperson for 40 years I really tried desparately to change people's mind when it came to this camera. Beginners were initially very happy with the idea of an all auto camera. Problem came later. AS people became more sure of themselves and wanted to get more creative they would come to me and ask "How do I select shutter speed or aperature with this camera?" Answer "You can't do that with this camera" Then came the recriminations. "Why was I sold this camera?" My response, "If I sold it to you I warned you this would happen.

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  15. Hi Gary,
    Will you be doing a seminar in the Northwest anytime soon? I'd love to take a course with you.
    Also, my A200 just crashed and burned. The sensor has slipped and repair is about $200. Any recommendations on what Sony I should upgrade to? I have been looking at the A35. What do you think?

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    1. Hi, Linda. Santa Monica, CA and Durango, Colorado are the only western seminars I'm doing this year. Know of a photo club in your area? Have them contact me!

      The A35 or the soon-to-be-released A37 might meet your needs rather well! -GF

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  16. Thanks, Gary. I'll see if I can make one of those events.
    BTW - If you haven't yet sold your A65, I'm interested.
    Linda

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    1. Linda, please contact me via email: Gary at Friedman Archives dot com.

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  17. Excellent blog and video! My first 600 Si started to,drain batteries and the grip disintegrated. I replaced it with another 600 Si from eBay and I would like to find a spare grip. Where can I find one? Can a KM7D be bought used without the peril of the firs frame black syndrome?

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    Replies
    1. I'm afraid I don't know the answers to either question. :-( GF

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    2. Thanks Gary for your response to both these questions! In the mean time I'm shooting black and white film and learning to develop!

      In using more my Rollei 35S than my Maxxum 600 Si nor my Yashica Electro 35 GX

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  18. You forgot to mention that the X-500(X-570 for US) is better than the X-700 for serious or advanced photographers.
    You loose :
    -exposure adjustment
    -the program feature
    You gain :
    +the shutter-speed display in viewfinder
    +allow sync flash speed slower than 1/60th
    +correct light-metering while using Depth of Field Preview.

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    Replies
    1. I think that's all correct except for one: The X-700 COULD do flash sync slower than 1/60th - all you had to do was push down on the self-timer switch with your finder as you shoot. (Not obvious.) All other points are excellent.

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  19. I had to come to this blog from youtube to discover if my X-570 was on the 'naughty' list. (Interesting that I saw no 'Tube about it, though I didn't look hard).) The Rokkor Files site offers some good info about Minolta cameras (including points about how it was actually superior to the X700), but I have always felt let down by this camera. The results were never as good, say, as my dad's Pentax K1000 (he was a real photog) or my mother's Canon AE-1 Program (she was not). So why did I buy lenses, a motor drive, an infrared remote and flashes last year from B&H? I felt I never gave it a good chance. I think I have made a mistake ... results still not great.

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    1. Please don't take this the wrong way... but if you're unhappy with the pictures that come out of ANY camera, then the first place to look for blame is the person in the mirror. :-) Sign up for my seminar (or learn the basics from any good source) and you'll understand what it takes to make that X-570 sing.

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  20. I like your blogs and your teachings. Are you going to have seminars here in Nevada? It's fun to learn things in photography specially for me because I'm just starting. And also what are your thoughts about Minolta Alpha Sweet II?

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    1. Gather 30 or more people together and I'll bring the seminar anywhere! The Alpha Sweet II was the same as the Maxxum 5 here in the states; a nice and capable camera.

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