Equipment Rundown – Lenses & Flashes

My main lens is – for me – a bit of a beast, but there’s a story to tell first… In March 2005 I was lucky enough to get a mint condition non-DG version of the Sigma 70-200/2.8 lens – my first serious birding lens – for just £250 through eBay. Nearly nine years later and it’s still in regular use whenever I want to do some birding without The Beast. In the summer of 2007 I saved up and ordered Sigma’s 300/2.8 prime telephoto from Mathers of Lancashire. Due to the specialist nature of the lens (especially for A-mount) they warned me that it might take a while for Sigma in Japan to get enough orders to be able to manufacture a batch. It took around nine months, and I finally received the lens in the spring of 2008. I loved it. It was compact enough to fit in a medium-sized bag with the camera attached, it was light enough to hand-hold for short lengths of time, it was well built, and the image quality was fantastic. I’m sure it didn’t quite match the IQ of the Sony equivalent, but that was around three times the price. Where it disappointed me slightly was when coupled with a teleconverter. The drop in IQ was just a bit too much and so I only used the TC when I really needed it. Eventually, after more than three years with it, I had to come to the realisation that 300mm simply wasn’t going to be long enough if I wanted to take bird photography more seriously. I awaited the information for Sony’s 500/4 in the hope that it would be affordable, but alas it was far, far outside my price range. In fact, the general feeling I got from the A-mount-using fraternity was that it was priced at a level so ridiculous that it would make more sense to switch brands and pick up one of their older used lenses. The alternative was to to either try to get a used Minolta 600/4 – a superb lens, but of course there would be no warranty if anything went wrong with it – or to opt for Sigma’s 500/4.5. Eventually I cashed in my ISA and went with the Sigma – and it’s now known as The Beast.

Despite the name I’ve given it, it’s actually surprisingly compact for a 500mm prime. The trick is that, in losing that touch of light transmission and closing the maximum aperture down to f/4.5 instead of f/4, the lens can be lighter and more compact than it’s OEM rivals. It actually has the same front element as the 300/2.8 that I was now going to have to sell in order to recoup some of the outlay, and isn’t significantly heavier. With the lens hood reversed for transit it still just squeezes into my main bag – a Lowepro Flipside 400AW – with my camera attached and leaves just enough room for my binoculars and a small lens. It’s a pretty decent lens all round, although there are things which remind you of why it’s a third of the price of Sony’s 500/4: most notably the lack of a focus limiter button. This means that if the AF focus point I’m using just misses the subject, then the lens can be prone to hunting into the background and foreground – very annoying. The other issue is that for Sony (and also Pentax) mounts, this lens isn’t yet available with Sigma’s HSM (Hypersonic Motor), so the AF speed is not going to be quite as fast and as quiet as with other mounts. Sound hasn’t been too much of a concern except when in hides that are very close to the birds, but sometimes I wish the AF speed was a little quicker and more accurate. However, it’s difficult for me to really say how good or bad this is in comparison, simply as I haven’t had an opportunity to test any other comparable lenses. It could be that the speed and accuracy is similar to that of OEM lenses. One day it would be nice to get to test out the Sony 500/4 in the field, and at least then I could say if it really is worth splashing out close to £10,000 on.

thelensThe Beast: Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX DG

I also have a good anecdote regarding brand snobbery from a day out at Rainham Marshes in the autumn of 2012. Jem and I had spent a nice day at the reserve, with a Barn Owl in the woods by the Cordite Store being the highlight. Later on we entered the new Shooting Butts Hide at the other end of the reserve and found ourselves in conversation with two chaps, one of which was obviously new to birding and didn’t say much, and one who was outspoken and bullish (and clearly showing off to his friend). He had a Canon DSLR, a 300mm f/4 lens and a teleconverter. When he saw me with my A77 and Sigma 500/4.5 he launched into a diatribe of how poor Sony cameras were (he used obscene language here), and how there’s no point at all in paying out for a large and fast telephoto lens when his 300/4 with TC easily outperforms longer lenses, and for a fraction of the cost. I’m not one for arguments – especially when I don’t know the person I’m arguing with – but I made sure I didn’t agree with what he was saying. When the topic came around to what we’d seen that day, we mentioned the Barn Owl over in the woods, and he responded by saying how he’d seen one too, in a nesting box in the marsh behind us over to the west of the hide. I was surprised, given how exposed the box was, but he was adamant, and proceeded to focus on the box with his ‘superior’ equipment. Inside the nestbox’s doorway was a large heap of indistinguishable pale ‘stuff’, but I couldn’t see for sure what it was. He took a photo and showed me a badly blurred and out-of-focus white splodge on the screen on his camera and triumphantly exclaimed: “now tell me that isn’t a Barn Owl!” I wasn’t going to take that as evidence, so I took a (much clearer) photo of my own and it still didn’t look much like a Barn Owl to me, so I said I wasn’t convinced. He didn’t like that, and so he called his friend over and they decided to leave. A few minutes later, as Jem and I walked back along the boardwalk towards the visitor centre, we bumped into one of the friendly wardens as he made the final rounds for the afternoon. We asked him about the nestbox and he told us that although it was meant for Barn Owls all they got was a regularly-perching Cormorant, and the big white blob we could see was a large mound of guano that had piled up in the doorway!

I have quite a decent collection of lenses that I’ve garnered over the last 13 years or so, and some are definitely worth mentioning here. Aside from the 500/4.5 and 70-200/2.8 that I use for bird photography, I have various other bits of glass for other uses. I normally buy camera bodies on their own, rather than with bundled lenses, but with the A77 I decided that the Sony 16-50/2.8 that came in the kit would be worth having, especially as I didn’t have a decent walkaround zoom. I like this lens a lot. It’s sharp, superbly built, balanced, and it focuses quickly and quietly, thanks to Sony’s Supersonic Motor (SSM). When I travel for birding holidays I often find space and weight is at a premium because of the Sigma 500/4.5 and tripod, etc, so the Sony 16-50/2.8 is the only other lens I bring with me. I’ve already mentioned the old Minolta 50/1.7 that I’ve had for years, but the crop effect of APS-C sensors meant I needed a standard prime lens that would cover a similar field-of-view as the Minolta 50mm does on a full-frame body. The Sigma 30/1.4 (now available as part of their Art range) is the one I chose. It was inexpensive, well-built, compact, and sharp. I initially had a problem with it where the small metal spring tab that opens the aperture when you attach the lens to the camera was slightly misaligned, causing the aperture to stick shut. I sent it back to WEX who I purchased it from and they had a look but couldn’t find anything wrong. I got it back a few days later, but when I tried to get the rear lens cap off it was stuck fast. Eventually the lens cap itself broke and came free from the lens, so I tried it. The lens has worked absolutely fine ever since! I’m not big on portraiture, mainly as I don’t have the right kind of outgoing personality to boss models around and get people to pose for me, but I knew I’d need a decent portrait lens occasionally. This is where it’s a good thing to be using the A-mount. Minolta were well known for the quality of their premium lenses, and one in particular is a stand-out portrait lens: the Minolta 85/1.4. It’s fast, built like a tank, comfortable to use, nicely sharp, great colour rendition, and gives a luxurious smooth bokeh. The option for me was whether to go for a used Minolta or a new Sony version. The Minolta has smoother bokeh, the Sony is slightly sharper. In the end I was lucky to get a mint-condition copy of the Minolta RS edition off eBay for around £500. It’s a beautiful lens, and one I really enjoy using.

1_2Minolta 85mm f/1.4 G RS

As I concentrate more and more on birds, I find myself shooting other wildlife less and less, but I still like to occasionally shoot insects and other creepy-crawlies. For this I have Sigma’s 105/2.8 EX Macro. Again, it was an eBay purchase (though from brand new this time, but still the older non-DG version). All I can say is that it’s a fantastic lens. Bizarrely, it doesn’t really feel like a high-quality item in the hand as it’s constructed largely in plastic and is very light, it also has an inner barrel that extends out as you focus closer-in (the new version is now internally-focusing, and has optical stabilisation). However, I use Canon’s 100/2.8 USM in the studio at work, and although that’s a fine macro lens, I much prefer the Sigma. It’s incredibly sharp and the bokeh is creamy. Sadly, my copy could do with replacing, but not because of anybody’s fault. The AF gear inside is also plastic, but Sony boosted the AF drive in the A700 body, which meant that some Sigma lenses were prone to having teeth stripped from the gear. This happened to me in Egypt. I’d gone on a liveaboard diving holiday to the Red Sea. With little room for photography kit I chose to take the Sigma Macro and use it as a makeshift telephoto in case of any decent bird photo opportunities. On the boat one day we saw hundreds of Honey Buzzards crossing the Gulf of Aqaba, close-in, and the intensity of the shooting and focusing led to me stripping the lens’s gear. Once back home I sent it off for repair and now I have a working macro lens again, but sadly the gear is a bit noisy and ‘grindy’ these days. When the time comes to replace it I’ll either go for the new optically-stabilising and internally-focusing version of the 105/2.8 or for another Sigma macro with a longer focal length.

105mm_f2.8_EX_DG_MACROSigma 105mm f/2.8 DG Macro (non-OS DG version)

I also have a few ‘niche’ lenses in my kitbag. Several years ago I learned of tilt-shift techniques to correct converging lines or to send the focal plane around in different directions, and I decided to look for a tilt-shift lens. At the time there were very few around for SLRs, and those that did exist were hard to come by. I eventually managed to order direct from the Hartblei factory in Ukraine. I ordered the 35/2.8 Super-rotator – a tilt-shift lens with no electronic/automatic workings whatsoever, built which is built like a tank (and about as heavy as one). It suffers from ‘bright-line’ bokeh in the highlights sometimes, but aside from that it is a fine performer and I’ve had some very nice results from it. Sadly, tilt-shift photography has now morphed into a hackneyed world of digital fakery, but when it goes back out of fashion as a twee ‘effect’ I’m sure I’ll go back to using it more seriously again. I waited for several years for a decent fisheye lens to become available for A-mount (and for APS-C format especially), and eventually Sigma brought out the 10.5mm rectilinear, but I felt that it was too expensive – I knew I wasn’t going to be using it all the time, so value for money was important to me. Luckily, a fully-manual option appeared under many different brand names (Samyang, Phoenix, Falcon, Vivitar, Pro-optic, Bower, Rokinon, etc…). It was the same lens each time – an 8mm f/3.5 fisheye – but just with different branding, and occasionally a slightly different barrel casing. The construction is pretty cheap and plasticky, but the glass seems good and the aperture and focus rings are smooth. The depth-of-field is so big that you can set the focus and aperture and then just leave it alone start shooting. It’s soft wide-open, but stopping down beyond f/5.6 is nice and sharp (I find mine is crystal clear at f/8), and the colour distortion at the edges is very well controlled. In fact, I’ve read several reviews that state that this fisheye is optically better than most OEM lenses which costs many times the price. The good thing is that you just don’t need autofocus on fisheye lenses, so there’s simply no reason to buy a more expensive lens. Interestingly, Samyang have now developed a newer version with a detachable hood so it can be used on full-frame cameras.

lens_MC-HARTBLEI-TS-35-SR_normalHartblei 35mm f/2.8 Super-rotator

falcon_fisheye_smallFalcon 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye

I don’t like using flash much. At work I use three 400w studio flash heads, but that’s different from on-board flashguns. I have a Sony HVL-F36AM dedicated flashgun for my Sony cameras, and it works very well. It has useful off-camera wireless functions and all the usual stuff you’d expect with a dedicated flashgun, but I don’t use it often. Normally I only use it if someone wants me to photograph an event for them, such as a wedding reception or party. One flash that I do enjoy using is the Metz 15 MS-1 Macro flash. It looks like a ringflash that sits on the end of your macro lens, but it’s actually just two small flashes on either side of the unit which you can angle inwards and diffuse. It can be used wirelessly, but on Sony cameras you still need the on-board flash to fire so there’s a plastic clip provided to cover it. This isn’t an ideal solution when finding yourself in a hedgerow trying to photograph a damselfly’s face as it could easily be knocked off the camera’s pop-up flash, so I use a short pc-sync cable to use it wired directly from the camera. Surprisingly, the flash runs off just two AAA batteries, and it can last quite a while with just those. It is also universally-compatible with all the main camera brands (you just select the brand on its LCD panel), and you can also adjust the power ratio between the two flashes. Photographing insects is much easier – and more colourful – with this flash.

Microsoft Word - 1_pmb-en_08-08-15ms-1_digital_en_clean.docMetz 15 MS-1 Macro flash

The third part of my equipment rundown will concentrate on my least-favourite topic: tripods.

About hootbot

Professional design agency photographer and amateur birder.
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1 Response to Equipment Rundown – Lenses & Flashes

  1. Pingback: Equipment Rundown – Bins & Cameras | thedigitalowl

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