Category Archives: Gear

Canon 5D Mark II wide angle lens sharpness issues

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

Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon on a Canon 5D Mark II. (Click the image for a larger view).

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

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.

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!

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.

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. [Entry form here] 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 — here’s a 10 shot hand-held sunset panorama that stitched together quite easily in Photomerge. 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.

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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!