Sony a7R vs. Canon EOS 6D: Long Exposure Noise Tests, HDR Bracketing, Panoramas and More

I've wanted to try the Sony a7R ever since I read Fred Miranda's review on using the a7R with Canon lenses. In addition to a sizable jump in resolution over the Canon 6D and 5D Mark III, the a7R's 36 megapixel full frame sensor reportedly has better dynamic range. The ability to lift the shadow details in underexposed a7R files is really impressive. Not having an optical low pass filter also makes these files quite sharp straight out of the camera. The a7R's sensor has offset gapless micro-lenses to help with wide angle corner performance.

Would these benefits improve image quality, resolution, and workflow for my type of shooting? What were the trade offs? I rented a Sony a7R and Metabones Canon to Sony adapter from LensRentals.com to find out.

360 Panoramas: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

I often shoot 360 panoramas in 4 shots on the EOS 6D with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens. The final file is 10,500 x 5250 (55 megapixels). The same lens and shooting pattern on the Sony a7R results in 14,000 x 7,000 (98 megapixels). This resolution gain allows more zooming online, and bigger prints. The 6D would require 6 shots around, 1 up, and 1 down to achieve this resolution.

The a7R files look sharper out of the camera, and wide angle lens edge performance is just as sharp at the edges as the 6D, if not better. The ability to lift shadow detail without a noise penalty is really impressive.

HDR Bracketing: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For those of you who shoot HDR, it's important to note that the a7R's exposure bracketing options are more limited than on Canon.

Canon EOS 6D: Versatile HDR bracketing options Set your own exposure level increment in 0.3 stop intervals. Decide whether you want 2, 3, 5 or 7 shots.

Sony a7R: Fixed/Limited HDR bracketing options 0.3 stops/3 shots - 0.3 stops/5 shots 0.5 stops/3 shots - 0.5 stops/5 shots 0.7 stops/3 shots - 0.7 stops/5 shots 1.0 stop/3 shots - 2.0 stops/3 shots - 3.0 stops/3 shots

Most of the time, a 3 shot bracket at 2 stop intervals is enough for what I shoot. Occasionally I'll shoot a 5 shot bracket every 2 stops with the 6D. That's not an option on the a7R. Considering the added dynamic range of the a7R, perhaps the 3 shot 3.0EV bracketing would work OK though.

Conclusion: Despite the bracketing limitations, the a7R's extra sharpness, resolution, and dynamic range could be a big plus for the 360 panorama shooting that I do.

Long Exposure Noise: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For night photography, having a camera that can produce clean files without the need to run long exposure noise reduction (LENR) is really helpful.  When LENR is turned on in most cameras, noise reduction runs after your exposure finishes.

If your shot is 5 minutes, the camera runs noise reduction for an additional 5 minutes before you can shoot again. During that 5 minutes that camera takes a dark frame that is used to subtract noise and hot pixels from your photo. This process is great for image quality, but can significantly cut into your productivity and battery life.

I know from experience that the Canon EOS 6D is clean in the 6-8 minute exposure range without using LENR (as long as the weather is cold). I was curious to see how the Sony a7R stacked up for night photography. I ran the cameras through a series of tests with long exposure noise reduction (LENR) turned off. The body cap was on. The ambient temperature was 66 degrees. The ISO was set to 100 on both cameras.

Noise Test Results: Sony a7R vs. Canon 6D

For exposures of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes, both cameras produced clean files. There was little to no performance compromise for leaving LENR turned off in both cameras.

3 minutes: The 6D still looks good. The a7R is just starting to show faint traces of noise and hot pixels. Nothing objectionable.

4 minutes: The 6D is just starting to show a few signs of noise and hot pixels. The a7R has a bit more noise now.

6 minutes: The 6D is still fine at 6 minutes. The Sony a7R has noticeably more hot pixels by this point. Enough to where you'll spend a few minutes with each file cloning them out.

8 minutes: The 6D still is still good. The a7R has reached the breaking point, with additional hot pixels.

10 minutes: The 6D has a bit more noise now. You'll need to clone a few hot pixels, but it's still usable. a7R = nope.

15 minutes: The 6D is past my comfort level for noise at this point. The a7R has galaxies full of hot pixels.

Conclusion: The 6D is good for long exposures up to 8 minutes without LENR.  The a7R is good up to 4-5 minutes. This gives the 6D the advantage for shooting long star trails in one shot, and for doing star trail stacking using less shots.

Turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction

I also ran some tests with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) turned on in the camera. Both cameras were perfectly clean on 5 minute, 8 minute, and 10 minute exposures.

15 minute exposure: The 6D still looks great. The a7R file shows a few hints of noise.

30 minutes: The 6D shows some luminance noise that will benefit from additional noise reduction in post, but is still usable. The Sony battery died during the 30 minutes that noise reduction was running. The file was still saved on the memory card, but without any noise reduction.

Other Considerations

Battery Life: Canon is the clear winner here. Both cameras started the tests with a fully charged battery. The Sony battery died during the 30 minute exposure test. The Canon battery still had 40% capacity left at the end.

When the Sony a7R LCD screen is active, it does not turn off all of the way. Even when the screen appears blank, it's still slightly lit up and using battery life. Switching to the EVF may not help, and also makes reviewing images a pain. Advantage: Canon

Timer Remotes: There are a wide number of timer remotes available for shooting long exposures on Canon. Sony doesn't have a remote with a built-in timer, only an expensive manual option. There are only a few third party remote options for Sony, and I'm not aware of anyone who makes a wired remote with a timer. Advantage: Canon

Focusing: I haven't tested the a7R under full moon conditions, but did find Sony's focus peaking feature to be an excellent tool for daytime landscape shooting. Canon's AF is better for faster moving subjects. I don't use AF very much, so this is not really an issue.

Lenses: Canon DSLR's have a wide range of high quality lenses available. You can also use Olympus OM or Nikon lenses on an adapter. Native full frame Sony lens options are much more limited, but Sony's E mount will take a wide variety of lenses with an adapter. If you want to keep autofocus, the adapters can be expensive and AF slow. For landscapes this isn't a problem. For wide angle lenses, having a quality adapter is important to maintaining sharpness across the frame. Advantage: Canon

Size and Weight: The a7R is 5.0 x 3.7 x 1.9 inches and weighs 14 ounces. The 6D is 5.7 x 4.4 x 2.8 inches and weighs 27 ounces. The 5D Mark III is 6.0 x 4.6 x 3.0 inches and 30 ounces. Saving a pound in your gear bag is nice. Advantage: Sony

Build Quality and UI: No problems for me here with either camera, other than needing to test the a7R to make sure there are no light leaks during long exposures. The Canon has a slight edge in UI, but the Sony is pretty intuitive.

File Size: The 6D's CR2 files are about 20 MB each. The Sony a7R ARW files are about 37 MB. Memory cards and hard drives are inexpensive. The a7R RAW files are referred to as "visually lossless" but they do throw away some data to keep the file size down. I have seen one example file where the quality of a star trail shot was affected by the Sony's lossy file type. Something to keep an eye on. Advantage: Canon

Shutter Shake: Much has been written about the a7R's shutter design causing soft photos with long lenses at shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/125. Luckily, I don't even own any long lenses. WTF: Sony

Price: The a7R lists for $2300, but can be bought new for as low as $1865. Make sure to budget $150-400 for an adapter if you're planning to use Canon lenses on the a7R. This brings the Sony in around $500 cheaper than a 5D Mark III, or $500 more than a 6D.

Final Thoughts: The Sony a7R has a few notable quirks for the types of shooting that I do. I also shoot 1-2 minute night panoramas at ISO 800, and the Sony doesn't perform well for long exposures at higher ISOs. For now, I'm sticking with my EOS 6D. It will be interesting to see what Canon has up their sleeves with the rumored 7D and 5D Mark III replacements.

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A brief statement on backpacks for hiking with photo gear from the Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection

How many photography backpacks does it take until you find the right one, or does the right one even exist? The Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection (SOWPBP) was formed earlier this week to cope with a particularly daunting task -- to find the perfect photography backpack for serious outdoor adventures. We're not talking about a walk in the park, or moving your backpack 500 yards from the car. This theoretical backpack must be comfortable enough to wear on a 10-15 mile day hike, or walking around an abandoned mining area for 8 hours in the middle of the night. For comfort, the typical photo backpack can't hold a candle to an internal frame pack with a proper harness and waistbelt.

Of course it's possible to use a light and comfortable backpack like the Osprey Stratos 26, and fit a dSLR with two lenses inside using a Mountainsmith Cube or Clik Elite Capsule. But often our photography adventures require carrying more camera gear than this setup will hold, including a reasonably large tripod. The bag must be designed with photographers in mind, not a retrofit.

What makes a perfect photography backpack for serious hiking?

The SOWPBP approaches their work methodically, and a crack team of backpack analysts has gathered their initial research data below. Let's take a look at the requirements, and the preliminary results.

Here are the selection criteria in order of importance:

  1. Fit and Comfort: The harness and waist belt must be comfortable for someone who is 6'1". The waist belt must transfer weight to the hips, and the bag must have a comfortable sternum strap. The fit of the bag is #1 on the list for a reason.
  2. Capacity: Enough room for 1-2 camera bodies, 3-4 lenses, accessories, an extra layer, and food. A laptop compartment is not necessary.
  3. Padding & Weight: Enough padding to protect the gear, but not so much that the bag is unnecessarily heavy.
  4. Water: Easy to access while hiking. Ever old school, a hydration bladder is not the Society's preferred way of carrying water.
  5. Tripod: Ability to carry a large tripod if necessary (Gitzo 3 series).
  6. Rain cover:Effective, easy to attach, and packs out of the way.
  7. Size: Although airline travel isn't the primary purpose, staying within carry-on restrictions allows extra flexibility (22" x 14" x 9", or 45 cubic inches).
  8. Style:From flashy to mundane, how are the aesthetics?
  9. Straps:Attachment points for accessories.
  10. Stands Up: When you set the bag down, it stands up.
  11. Price: A good bag is worth a little bit more, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

Hiking Backpacks for Photography: The Contenders

The backpack list is sorted by brand. The preliminary top picks pictured above are inbold:

  1. Burton Zoom Pack - The Zoom looks to fit the requirements reasonably well. While the capacity is smaller than a Contrejour or Loka, this bag may be worth a look unless you're tall. The waist belt is apparently at stomach height for anyone 6' or taller. [12" x 22" x 8", $155]
  2. Calumet BP1500 Large Backpack - Fits many of the requirements, and may be worth a look for those needing to carry a lot of gear. [12" x 22.25" x 9.5, 6.4 pounds, $211]
  3. Clik Elite Contrejour 35- One of two technical climbing/skiing internal frame backpacks on this list, the Contrejour 35 has the proper harness and waist belt of a backpacking bag. There is side access to the camera compartment when you're wearing the bag. To access the rest of your gear, set the bag down on the front and access the gear through the back (which keeps the part that touches your back clean). Running the Contrejour 35 against the requirements, this bag looks like a serious contender as long as you don't want to use it as carry-on luggage. [12.8" x 24.8" x 11.5", 4.1 pounds, $305 street]
  4. Clik Elite Venture 35 - The Venture works well for 1-2 bodies, 3 lenses, accessories, an extra layer and food. The waist belt is very comfortable and the harness worked great for me at 6'1". Tripod carrying is secure, the bag is light, and the price is reasonable. The camera compartment is close to the same size as the Medium ICU in the F-stop Loka. The top compartment is quite roomy -- I could fit an extra layer, food, and a panohead with a lot of room left to spare. [24" x 12.2" x 8.6", 3.5 pounds, $239 street]
  5. Crumpler C-List Celebrity (Medium) - A low-key and stylish bag that's a nice size and looks to have a reasonable waist belt. The tripod carrying system looks good, but the bag is heavy, and does not appear to have a way to carry easily accessible water. [13" x 20" x 10.6", 7.6 pounds, $300]
  6. Dakine Sequence - Haven't seen a photo of the waist belt, but the styling is nearly a deal breaker unless you're 20 years old. [11" x 21" x 8", 5 pounds, $140 street]
  7. F-Stop Loka - A technical climbing/skiing pack with an internal frame that fits all of the requirements really well. The Loka features swappable Internal Camera Units (ICU) that makes the bag very flexible when deciding how much camera gear vs. other stuff you need to pack. We're currently testing this bag and it's very comfortable. The only downsides are the wait time to get one, and the price. [12" x 22" x 8.5", 4 pounds, $340 with one ICU, rain cover sold separately]
  8. Gura Gear Kiboko 22L - The Kiboko looks like a really well made bag, and the butterfly opening design is attractive for shooting in dirty environments. These bags seem to fit the requirements quite well. However, the way the bag opens looks like a deal breaker because you can't carry a tripod on the center of the bag, which is a must for long hikes. [14" x 18" x 9", 4 pounds, $380]
  9. Kata Bumblebee 220 PL and Beetle 282 PL - These bags meet most of the requirements pretty well, but are a little bit on the heavy side. The 282 is slightly wider and shallower than the Kata 220, and technically just over carry-on size. The 220 and 282 are listed here just for reference because the 222 PL (below) looks like a better bet. [220 -- 13.4" x 20.5" x 11", 6.5 pounds, $280] [282 -- 14.8" x 20.5" x 10.8", 6.6 pounds, $290].
  10. Kata Bumblebee 222 PL - A little bit wider and deeper than the other Kata bags on the list, and also 1.5 pounds lighter. Perhaps slightly small capacity wise, but the rest of the requirements look pretty good. The gray and white color scheme is bound to get dirty quickly though. The Kata 222 UL is an ultralight variant of this bag that comes in black. The 222 UL can't carry tripods on the center, which is a good thing because it's $399. [222 -- 15.2" x 20.5" x 11.8", 5.1 pounds, $260]
  11. Lowepro Vertex 200 AW - The Vertex fits most of the requirements, but is close to 3 pounds heavier than much of the competition. This heavily padded approach is not conducive to backpacking. [12.6" x 18.5" x 10.2", 7.3 pounds, $350]
  12. Lowepro Pro Runner 350 AW - Replacing Lowepro's CompuTrekker series, the Pro Runner is much lighter than the similarly sized Vertex. This bag and its larger brother the 450 AW look to be contenders if they have a comfortable harness and waist belt, although the 17.9" height makes me wonder if this bag will work for tall people. [13" x 17.9" x 10.4", 4.7 pounds, $170]
  13. Mountainsmith Parallax - This pack is crazy deep at 15", sticking out 4-5" more than any of the other choices here. The photos of the tripod carrying system show strapped under the bag, which does not seem ideal. The size of the harness system does not look good for tall people. [11" x 18" x 15", 5.4 pounds, $130 street]
  14. Naneu K4L- The K4L seems to fit many of the requirements well. We have no experience with this brand, but are curious to see one of these bags in real life. Amazon and B&H are both listed as dealers on their site, but neither has the bag in stock. [14.25" x 21.5" x 9.75, 5.2 pounds, $230]
  15. Tamrac Cyberpack 6 - What is it about Tamrac? Tamrac bags seems retro, but not in a good way. This backpack may be perfectly functional, but we just don't like how it looks. Maybe you can help explain the je ne sais quoi of Tamrac? [13.5" x 17" x 10.25", 5.8 pounds, $180]
  16. Think Tank Streetwalker Harddrive - A really great design that fits almost all of the requirements. We've been using this bag for 2 years on all kinds of adventures. Unfortunately there is one glaring deal breaker for long hikes -- the lack of a proper waist belt. Even by using Think Tank's speed belt system in conjunction with this bag, the waist belt does not transfer much weight to your hips. If hiking is not your concern, this is a great bag in every other respect. [11.5" x 18" x 8.5", 4.5 pounds, $190]

Further Research

Thanks for supporting the Society Obsessed with Photography Backpack Perfection's further research by making your backpack purchase using the links above. We have made inquiries to the manufacturers of the top contenders on the list to request a backpack for rigorous field testing. If you've used one of the backpacks on the list for extensive hiking, we'd love to hear your thoughts. And if you know of a bag that fits the requirements that isn't on the list, please let us know.

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Bodie Night Photography: 5D Mark II Wide Angle Lenses and Noise Reduction

Bodie at night: 1927 Dodge truck and gas pumps -- by Joe Reifer
Bodie at night: 1927 Dodge truck and gas pumps -- by Joe Reifer

The 1927 Dodge truck and gravity gas pumps are a popular subject for photography at Bodie ghost town. This 24 minute night photograph was taken during the 2011 Mono Lake Night Photography Festival.

Wide angle lens for night photography

I shot the entire night at Bodie with a Canon 5D Mark II and an Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5  lens. The Olympus OM system lens can be used on the 5D II with an OM-EOS adapter. The Olympus lens is small, light, and easy to zone focus at night. At an aperture of f/8 or f/11 the lens is quite sharp across the frame, and offers better edge performance than Canon zooms. The Olympus lenses also have a different signature look than other wide angle lens choices. The 18mm is hard to find and can be expensive. The Olympus 21mm f/3.5 is a more readily available, reasonably priced alternative. The 24mm f/2.8 is also quite good. If you prefer a standard wide angle to a super wide lens, the Olympus 28mm f/3.5 is a stellar performer at f/8, and can often be purchased for less than $50. My adapter for the 28mm cost more than the lens!

Image stacking and long exposure noise reduction

Four exposures of 6 minutes at f/8 ISO 200 were combined for the final 24 minute image. There were about 25 night photographers shooting at Bodie -- exposure stacking was very useful for removing people and light painting from the foreground. Using this stacking technique also meant that I did not have to run long exposure noise reduction (LENR) in the camera. This helps productivity and battery life.

5D Mark II Auto setting for long exposure noise reduction (LENR)

Photography instructor Scott Martin let me know about his experiments with the Auto setting for long exposure noise reduction (LENR) on the Canon 5D Mark II. Normally I do not recommend letting the camera decide what to do, but Scott's LENR experiments may prove otherwise. There are 3 settings for LENR:

  1. Off -- long exposure noise reduction does not run on any shot.
  2. On -- long exposure noise reduction runs for the same amount of time as your exposure. A 10 minute shot with LENR set to On will run noise reduction for 10 minutes after the exposure ends.
  3. Auto -- long exposure noise reduction will run if the camera determines it's necessary, for the amount of time necessary to optimize the image.

Here's the really interesting part -- noise reduction won't necessarily run for the same amount of time as the exposure. Auto LENR runs for as long as necessary to reduce noise -- this could be shorter or longer than the original exposure time.

I'd like to thank Scott for sharing his Auto LENR research, and I look forward to my own testing. If you have experience with the Auto LENR setting I'd love to hear how exposure time and temperature correlate to when noise reduction kicks in, and how long Auto LENR tends to run.

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Canon 5D Mark II wide angle lens sharpness issues

Canon 5D Mark II wide angle lens sharpness issues -- by Joe Reifer
Canon 5D Mark II wide angle lens sharpness issues -- by Joe Reifer

Both images are 1/350 at f/11 ISO 200. Both are 100% crops (1:1 view) in Lightroom. The images have identical post-processing. So what's the difference?

In the on the left the bridge is near the center of the frame, in the image on the right it's along the right edge. After extensive focus testing, this copy of the Zeiss 21mm produced results that were consistently soft in the background about 10% of the way into the frame. Here's the problem in a nutshell:

Camera and lens manufacturing tolerances may not be tight enough to produce consistently sharp results with wide angle lenses on high-resolution cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II.

I've now tested 3 copies of the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 and 2 copies of the Canon 24mm TS-E II, and only 1 out of the 5 lenses was acceptably sharp across the frame. Unfortunately, the 1 lens that was sharp was a rental. Three of the lenses were soft on the left edge of the frame in the background at f/8-f/11, and the Zeiss above had the same issue but on the right side.

The Zeiss 21mm and Canon 24mm TS-E II are both extremely sharp lenses, which seems to exacerbate the problem. The mountains in some of the photos I took yesterday were very sharp everywhere except the right 10-15% of the frame. Because everything else is so sharp, this makes the out of focus area even more apparent.

If you enjoy shooting with wide angle lenses and make large prints, this may end up being a problem for you sooner or later with high resolution 35mm digital. If you're thinking about upgrading to a 5D Mark II, or buying a new wide angle lens, here's a very important article to read:

"This lens is soft" and other facts -- by Roger Cicala of LensRentals.com

In addition to the excellent article above, Lloyd Chambers' subscription site has some informative articles including Brand new blur and Testing Guidelines.

The bottom line: buy from a vendor with a good return / exchange policy, and carefully test any lenses after purchase to make sure they're sharp on your camera body.

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Think Tank Airport AirStream Bag Giveaway: Part 2

Zabriskie Point (Haunted) — by Joe Reifer
Zabriskie Point (Haunted) — by Joe Reifer

To celebrate their 5th anniversary, Think Tank has graciously provided an Airport AirStream rolling camera bag for me to give away to one lucky reader. Last week was part 1 of the contest, where you guessed how many PBRs I put in the bag. Here's part 2:

  1. What general direction is the camera facing in the photo above, North, South, East, or West.
  2. If you win the bag, what cool photo location will you bring it to next year.
  3. Are you willing to report back about your trip, and have an image featured on this blog [Hint: Yes is the right answer].

Please submit your answers in the comments field below.

Deadline: Thursday, 11/18 at midnight Pacific Time.

  • Comments are moderated, and may take a few hours to appear. No need to submit more than once.
  • The winner will be notified by Tuesday, 11/23 and the bag will ship out by the end of the month.

Update: And the winner is....

Jim Masse from Waterboro, Maine

Jim answered part 1 correctly -- 25 cans of beer in the time-lapse video. He also had the most interesting answer to part 2, Kathmandu, Nepal. Plus when I looked Jim up online, he had a great bigfoot photo as his Facebook icon. Congratulations to Jim, your bag will be on the way soon!

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Think Tank Airport AirStream Bag Giveaway: Part 1

How many cans of beer did I fit into the Think Tank Airport AirStream camera bag in the time-lapse video above? Use the contact link to email your answer by midnight on Thursday, November 11.

Guessing the number of beers is part 1 of a 2-part contest. Part 2 will appear on this blog on Friday November 12th.

To celebrate their 5th anniversary, Think Tank has graciously provided an Airport AirStream rolling camera bag for me to give away to one lucky reader -- a $289 value. Includes shipping in the lower 48. Beer not included. Please pack your camera bag responsibly.

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Shooting Panoramas at Night: A Contest, and Gear Meditation

Waiting at the Crossing, Lincoln, NE 1993 -- by Chris Faust
Waiting at the Crossing, Lincoln, NE 1993 -- by Chris Faust

The January 30th deadline is fast approaching for the panoramic night photography contest hosted by The Nocturnes, dubbed The Panocturnists. The entry fee is a reasonable $25 for up to three images. The juror will be none other than Chris Faust, whose wide format night photography book Nocturnes is highly recommended.

The only panoramic night photograph that I've produced as a print is the Mad Mouse Rollercoaster image from a year ago. The 4 shot rollercoaster image was shot from a tripod without a panoramic head, and stitched together in Photoshop CS3 using Photomerge. Photoshop's panoramic stitching functionality took a quantum leap in CS3 and CS4. If you're shooting with a medium focal length and don't include foreground subjects, Photomerge will quite often work seamlessly within a few minutes. No more specialized panoramic tripod heads or difficult to learn panorama stitching software.

But Photomerge isn't perfect. If you're just delving into the world of digital panoramas, I recommend locating a copy of Harald Woeste's book Mastering Digital Panoramic Photography. Woeste gives a logical introduction to the concepts behind digital panoramas, as well as an excellent overview of panoramic tripod heads and stitching software options. A couple of years ago I experimented with various software and equipment for panoramas, and spent weeks digging around online -- this book would've saved me a lot of time.

The Star Trails Barrier

The reason I rarely shoot panoramas at night is gear related -- shooting and stitching a scene with star trails is extremely difficult. Gaps between exposures longer than a second or two will cause your star trails not to line up. Those of you who've stitched a few panoramas know that the multiple images don't stitch on a perfect vertical. Even using a panoramic head with detent stops and practicing to minimize the interval between exposures will yield star trails that are not accurate. If you're a digital photographer with a solution to this problem, I'd love to hear about your technique.

The Mad Mouse panorama was easy to stitch because the fog provided a consistent sky tonality. Clouds are do-able. Stitched city skylines are usually OK, but that's not my bag. For star trail panoramas, you're probably better off either cropping or using a medium format film camera.

The Crop Option

One easy way to make panoramas with star trails is to pre-visualize the panoramic format, shoot a bit loose, and crop. This technique works fine for online viewing, but compromises how big you can print. Let's look at the resolution of the Canon 5D Mark II as an example:

The Canon 5d Mark II is a 21 megapixel digital SLR with the pixel dimensions: 5616 x 3744 For the sake of this example, let's say we would like a 2.33:1 aspect ratio. This crops the height to 2410 pixels. Our 21 megapixel camera is now 13.5 megapixels, and here is the print resolution for our cropped panorama:

  • at 300dpi: 18.75" x 8"
  • at 240dpi: 23.5" x 10"
  • at 200dpi: 28" x 12"

I'd like to have the option of printing bigger. This requires medium format film.

Medium Format Film Camera Resolution for Panoramas

Here's a quick look at medium format film resolution for panoramas, and a few cameras that do well for night photography. Pixels are calculated using a 4000ppi scan.

But first, a note on cameras I'm not covering:

  • Hasselblad XPan (Fuji TX1) - battery dependent. If you've shot long exposure night photographs with this camera, I would be interested to hear more about battery performance. The format is 24x65mm, comparable to the 645 or 6x6 numbers below, with a wider 2.7 aspect ratio.
  • Medium format view cameras and large format cameras with a medium format back. For my current style of shooting, view cameras present too many focusing and productivity challenges. Night photography veterans Tom Paiva and Lance Keimig will beg to differ, I'm sure.
  • Medium format digital - if a camera costs more than my car, I don't have a reason to even look, unless I win the Lotto.

645 or 6x6 format cropped to 2.33 aspect ratio = 6cm x 2.58cm = 9448x4063 pixels (38 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Fuji 645 Wide, Hasselblad V system, Mamiya 6, TLRs such as Yashica and Rolleiflex. Choices range from $100-2000+.

  • at 300dpi: 31.5" x 13.5"
  • at 240dpi: 39.4" x 16.9"
  • at 200dpi: 47.25" x 20.3"

6x7 format gives us a little bit more real estate = 7cm x 3cm = 11,025x4725 pixels (52 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Mamiya 7, Mamiya RB67, Pentax 67, Fuji 667 (?). Choices range from $300-2000+.

  • at 300dpi = 37" x 15.75"
  • at 240dpi = 46" x 19.75"
  • at 200dpi = 55" x 23.6"

6x9 format ups the ante to = 9cm x 3.85cm = 14,173x6063 pixels (86 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Fuji GSW690 series (the "Texas Leica"). The GSW690 III is the only version that can still be easily repaired, comes with a 65mm lens (about 28mm in 35mm terms), does not require a battery, and is $800-1200 on the used market.

  • at 300dpi = 47.25" x 20.25"
  • at 240dpi = 59" x 25.25"
  • at 200dpi = 71" x 30"

6x12 format is 2:1 aspect ratio = 18,897x6063 pixels (114 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Horseman SW612 and SW612P, Linhof 612. All of these cameras are obscenely expensive new, and start around $3000 on the used market. The Horseman SW612P apparently requires f/16 to be sharp in the corners when shifted -- this means 1.5-2 hour exposures at a minimum under the full moon. The Linhof has 8mm of permanent rise, and there are varying reports of the optical quality of older models.

  • at 300dpi = 63" x 20.25"
  • at 240dpi = 78.75" x 25.25"
  • at 200dpi = 95" x 30"

6x17 format is 2.83:1 aspect ratio = 26,771x6063 pixels (162 megapixels)

Notable cameras: Fuji 617, Horseman 617, Linhof 617. If you want a high quality 617 camera, be prepared to shell out at least $3-4K or more for a used one.

  • at 300dpi = 89" x 20.25"
  • at 240dpi = 111.5" x 25.25"

Conclusion

I hope these resources and resolution numbers for panoramic night shooting are useful. If you are successfully using digital stitching techniques, or film cameras that I haven't covered, I'd love to hear more.

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Rush Ranch revisited, and my kingdom for a really sharp wide angle lens

Rush Ranch Revisited -- by Joe Reifer
Rush Ranch Revisited -- by Joe Reifer

Last week at the Nocturnes Rush Ranch Workshop I revisited the location of an image I made almost 5 years ago. The camera position and light painting are very similar, but the focal length and exposure time make for a very different image. The image was shot with a Mamiya 7II and 43mm wide angle lens, and the exposure time was about 20 minutes at f/8 on Kodak E100VS film. You certainly can't tell from the low resolution flatbed scan above, but when viewing the slide on the lightbox the sharpness blew me away.

I don't want to sound curmudgeonly here, but I've been using Photoshop for a long time, and no amount of secret masking tricks or sharpening plugins can seem to deliver the zing of seeing an extremely crisp transparency on the lightbox. And when I get a high quality drum scan the resolution is huge and I typically don't need to do much if any post-processing before printing. At $60 a pop, I'm only getting drum scans done when I plan to make an exhibition print. But I'm thinking about using the Mamiya a bit more because the thing is just so damn sharp.

This all lead me to start looking at my lenses for the 5D Mark II in askance, wishing they would turn into something as sharp as the Mamiya 43mm. Zeiss has already released a 21mm f/2.8 ZF Distagon lens in Nikon mount, with a 21mm ZE lens in Canon EF mount is scheduled for 4th quarter 2009. Fingers crossed that the 21mm ZE is as sharp as the Contax mount 21mm Distagon that many folks have been using on Canon dSLRs for the last few years. That lens went from $1000 on the used market to around $3000 after word got out. With the announcement of the ZE lens the Contax version is coming back down from the stratosphere.

I've never owned the fabled Zeiss 21mm -- I've been using the next best thing for the last 3 years, the Olympus 21mm f/3.5 lens, which has a more affordable $300-500 price tag. But if the 21mm ZE on a Canon 5D Mark II can get into Mamiya 43mm territory, I'll gladly pony up. Of course sharpness isn't the be all and end all of this picture making stuff. Content and emotional resonance are king. So thanks for humoring my little gear interlude here. More night photography and neighborhood abstractions soon!

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Leica lens CLA

Back in early April I sent the one Leica rangefinder lens I own to Leica for a clean, lube, and adjust (CLA). The lens is about 7 years old and has never been serviced. I was given a quote of $125 via email, and told the wait was approximately 4 weeks. That seemed reasonable. I sent the lens to Leica USA along with a letter detailing the serial number and contents of the box via insured Fedex. About 2 weeks later I received an envelope with a confirmation that Leica had received the lens. A short time later I received another envelope with estimate paperwork that curiously did not include the price. A few weeks went by and I received a third envelope asking my permission to send the lens to Germany for service. I wondered if the repair-person in New Jersey was on vacation or if the lens required special tools to disassemble. Again there was no mention of any price change. I checked "yes" and returned the envelope, and also left a phone message at Leica USA.

A few weeks went by and I received another envelope with a new estimate for a CLA in Germany with a price quote of over $200. I called Leica to inquire about this discrepancy, and was told that the U.S. office has no control over Germany's repair prices. I asked for my lens to be returned. I was instructed to check "do not perform service" on the latest repair estimate and send it to Leica USA which I did on June 6th.

The month of June went by without hearing from Leica. I called their office twice in July to ask for my lens to be returned. Finally I received my lens back today, almost 4 months after sending it in. I'm a bit baffled and disappointed, but not angry. I'm just happy to have the lens back.

Now I need to decide which Leica repair service listed on the Leica FAQ to send my lens to for a cleaning. If you have a strong recommendation based on recent experience with Sherry Krauter, Don Goldberg (DAG), Youxin Ye, or John Van Stelten (Focal Point), please let me know.

Update: I sent the lens to Focal Point for a CLA and was happy with the service.

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Interview: Randy Smith of Holgamods

Monkey -- by Joe Reifer

Monkey -- by Joe Reifer

I shoot a couple rolls with a Holga every month. I got my tricked out Holga from Randy Smith's www.holgamods.com. For just a little bit more than a stock Holga, Randy offers some really useful customizations. His standard mods include:

  • aperture modified to have f/8 or f/11 instead of just approximately f/13
  • focusing modified to allow close focusing down to 2 feet
  • modified mask
  • black interior flocking to reduce light leaks

My Holgamods holga also has a pin that allows you to do time exposures -- excellent for night photography! Randy also does pinhole Holgas, pinhole body caps, and Holga lenses grafted to SLR body caps. Randy kindly agreed to an email interview:

Joe Reifer: How long have you been modifying Holgas?

Randy Smith: I believe I'm in my 6th year

JR: Are there other handmade camera builders or hackers that were an inspiration to you modifying Holgas?

RS: Not really. Most of my Ideas come from my needs, customer suggestions or from browsing some of the photo forums.

JR: How many Holgas do you usually modify in a day's work?

RS: Too many :) -- about 10-15 variations of my Holgas, maybe 4-8 digital Holga body cap lenses and a few pinhole body caps. Prior to doing the interview for Deborah Lattimore in JPG magazine, I was sending out about 250 Holgas a month. Since then, I'm up over 600 a month now. Can't wait for it to slow down a little.

JR: With the approximate fixed exposure of 1/100 at f/8, shooting Tri-X in the Holga works well for me. Do you have a favorite film that you like to use?

RS: One of my favorites is Ilford's HP5 Plus.

JR: Is there a lot of variety in the relative quality of cameras you receive from China?

I'd say about 4 out of 10 Holgas I receive from the factory have sluggish shutters. In the past I would have to lubricate them, but now that I sell the Digital Holga lenses I have to destroy a Holga to steal the lens and the threads from the shutter assembly leaving behind a perfectly good body with shutter attached. Now when I run into a poor shutter, I just replace the body and shutter as one assembly. Any Holga leaving Holgamods has a nice crisp shutter.

JR: Have you had any feedback on the relative sharpness of the Holga lens over the years?

RS: Since I have been doing this I have never had a single complaint about sharpness or lack of sharpness. Just the opposite. I feel strange saying this, but customers love my Holgas.

JR: How does the Holga look compare to the Diana?

RS: I'm not really a Diana guy.

JR: Does your Fedex/UPS/USPS driver know what's in the boxes that get delivered to your house?

RS: My Fed Ex guy asked me the first year I started modifying Holgas. Back then it was about once a month. Now I see him once a week when he drops off 125 stock Holgas. I ship USPS -- every one knows me there. I look pretty funny carrying in a very large black contractor trash bag loaded with Holgas every single day.

JR: Have any famous photographers ordered a Holga from you?

RS: David Burnett (famous photojournalist) Ted Orland, (assistant of Ansel Adams), many National Geographic and other magazine photographers, and Lisa Hohlfeld, the lady who played the bartender in the Movie "He said, She said" with Kevin Bacon. She just had an article in Uptown Magazine showing off her "Ass Cam." She traveled Europe with one of my Holgas with a long cable release, strapped on her butt.

JR: Where do you get the waist level viewfinders for the Holgamods SWL -- are you scouring garage sales and flea markets for old broken cameras?

RS:I'll never tell :)

JR: I see a lot of regular Holga photos online. How many pinhole and zone plate Holgas do you sell compared to standard Holgamods cameras?

RS: Well, I offer 3 versions of my Pinholgas, the Economy without a shutter, my Deluxe Pinholga with shutter and cable release, and just started selling the PinHolga Slide, my personal favorite. So I'd say about 10 - 15 PinHolgas a week, and very few special order zone plate Holgas. For the Zone Plates, I send the customer to www.pinholeresoucre.com to purchase them and have them shipped to me, then mount it for them instead of a pinhole.

JR: There are some cool mods on your website where a Holga lens is used on a Hasselblad, Crown Graphic, and 4x5 Polaroid back -- how often do you get requests for funky hybrid cameras?

RS: Every day requests pour in for something. Holga lenses on a Lomo LC-A, throw away digital cameras mated to Holga bodies, Holga lenses attached to camcorders, the list goes on and on.

JR: Any interesting Frankenstein cameras in the works right now?

RS:I'm working on a Holga lens on that Polaroid 110A conversion you saw recently on my Flickr site.

Thanks again to Randy for kindly answering my questions. Check out www.holgamods.com for all of your hot-rodded toy camera needs.

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