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Monday, January 08, 2007

Canon 5D Wide-Angle Night Photography

by Joe Reifer, from his blog

Joe Reifer, Flying Horse (Fenced)

Wide angle options
The image above is 11 minutes, ƒ/16, ISO 50 with in-camera noise reduction, using an Olympus Zuiko 21mm ƒ/3.5 lens on the 5D with a Cameraquest adapter. The center sharpness of this tiny prime lens is on par with Canon’s wide angle zooms, but the Zuiko walks all over the Canon 17-40mm ƒ/4L and 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L in the corners of the frame. The only significantly sharper lens at this focal length is the fabled Contax Zeiss 21mm Distagon, which currently runs $2500-3500 on the used market. Some people have also resorted to using the Nikon 17-35mm zoom on their EOS cameras with an adapter. Blasphemy!

If you use a 20D, 30D or other Canon dSLR with a smaller sensor, don’t throw your zoom on the junk heap quite yet. This problem is with the edges of the frame, which are not utilized by 1.6x crop cameras. But if you are a 5D, 1DS or 1DS MkII owner who has looked at your wide angle images at 50% or 100% in Photoshop, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Canon wide angle zooms show a loss of sharpness and smearing of detail near the edges of the frame, even when stopped down at ƒ/8 or ƒ/11. I would like to thank Mark over at for his extensive lens testing and comparisons. His site is a great resource.

Olympus Zuiko 21mm
Using aftermarket lenses on Canon EOS cameras can be an expensive and time-consuming rabbit hole to go down. Fortunately, the Zuiko lenses made for the Olympus OM system are quite small, light, and reasonably priced in most cases. The Olympus 21/3.5 usually sells in the $300–500 range. There is also a Zuiko 21mm ƒ/2 lens that will give you a brighter viewfinder image, and has an additional lens element for close focusing. This lens is usually $800–1000. Extensive specs and technical information on Olympus OM lenses can be found on the MIR website. The Olympus 18/3.5 and 24mm shift lens are both stunning performers that do not fall into the “reasonably priced” range.

The Zuiko lenses are manual focus, and the aperture needs to be stopped down manually. Manual focus lenses are great for night photography—unlike modern zooms and even high end prime lenses, most manual lenses have a decent manual focusing scale. Before shooting anything critical with manual focus lenses, I recommend taking test shots at different focus settings and analyzing the results.

Focus calibration
Do not focus by only using the markings on the lens, or with an online depth of field calculator. The old trick of setting infinity on the focus scale one aperture wider than you are shooting may or may not work. You’ll get the best results by taking test shots at different focus settings to calibrate how the lens focuses on your camera.

For night photography exposure calculation, it’s easiest to pick an aperture and stick with it. I usually like to shoot at ƒ/8, both for sharpness and exposure time.

Perhaps the night photographer’s addendum to the "ƒ/8 and be there" axiom is "ƒ/8 and be there for 10 minutes."

I tested the Olympus 21/3.5 in the daytime at 5 or 6 different focus settings and made notes about where the focus ring was set. After analyzing the results in Photoshop, I determined I get the best results by shooting at ƒ/8 with the focus set at 3 meters.

Night photographers, do you see where I’m going with this line of thinking? No more fumbling with a flashlight and praying that your wide angle zoom focuses where you want it to. No more having someone stand in the photo holding a cell phone so you have something to focus on. No more taking 4 test shots at high ISO to gauge your focus accuracy before shooting. I just set the lens to the 3 meter mark, stop the aperture down to ƒ/8, and take the shot.

This focus setting also works just fine at ƒ/11 and ƒ/16, which is useful if you need a longer exposure. I wanted longer star trails in the above image—due to strong tungsten street lighting, I stopped down to ƒ/16 to get an 11 minute exposure.

I realize after finishing this article that it really could be entitled "in praise of the Olympus 21mm lens." It really is the full frame wide angle shooter’s best friend.

For more information on Zuiko lenses, have a look at Gary Reese’s extensive Olympus OM System Lens Tests. Adapters to use Olympus lenses on EOS cameras can be purchased from Cameraquest or Fotodiox.

Posted by: JOE REIFER


Blogger Michael said...

Manual focus in advance? That is something I had not thought of. Would have saved me some trouble Saturday evening. I wound up "bracketing" the focus (which really means that when I realized the AF wasn't focusing where I wanted it to, I half-assedly tried manually focusing it in a couple of different spots).

I was using a different lens, though: Canon's 10-22mm lens on a 30D. I don't have anything to compare it to, though.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Howard Grill said...

If anyone is at all interested, I had written a basic article for The 37th Frame (Michael's precursor to TOP...I am not sure if it is still being published or not) back in 2005 about the use of non-Canon lenses on Canon cameras. The article is on my website here, if anyone is interested in reading it:

10:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Great article Joe!

After disappointing results on a trip to Europe a while back I decided to do the same thing and spent some time testing the lens I use most often at night (Canon 10-22 on the XT). It makes a huge difference to have confidence that by focusing at lens marking X with focal length Y the shot will be in focus - especially at night.


12:50 PM  
Blogger JackMacD said...

You have inspired me to try my 16mm fisheye for night. That I have used it already on my Canon is thanks to this site informing me there are adapters for Zuiko to Canon. I am also inspired to test the edge sharpness vs Canon lenses.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Barry B said...

Two lenses to consider which I own are the Tokina 17 f3.5 and the canon 24 f 1.4L.Both are modern designs with aspherical and LD glass.Both have low distortion and even illumination.As expected the Canon has soft edges wide open but is good when stopped down.For photographing aurora and ambient indoor light people photos the Canon blows the Zeiss out of the water with 4 times the speed and motion stopping ability details in rapidly moving aurora can be resolved better.These lenses meet my needs and provide the benifits of AF when needed,need no adapters and relay lens info to the flash.Has any one done A B comparisons of these lenses with Zeiss for landscapes as I have not.If the Zeiss were clearly superior at large magnifications I would consider it for landscapes.Based on Reputation I would imagine there would be a good market for a new Zeiss 21mm f2.8 distagon in Canon mount as Zeiss Portrait lenses are currently available in Nikon and Sony mounts.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Joergen Geerds said...

I totally agree with you. my favorite lenses are my >30 year old Olympus 50mm 1.4 and 85mm f2. I shoot gigapixel night panoramas, and love the fact that i can trust those lenses at f5.6 to be in perfect focus (infinity minus a bit). I have a Tamron 17-50 that was heralded as a super-sharp lens... and after getting it repaired 3x at tamron, and getting a replacement lens from tamron, I still can't trust that lens at all, it's infinity-challenged, meaning that I can't focus it properly, and I had 3 panoramas ruined because of that. now i need to find a good 35mm, and i am all set.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Joe Reifer said...

Three years later, and this article still gets a lot of reads on my blog. I've updated the beginning of the article with links to some newer lens choices for the more demanding 21MP Canon 5D Mark II:

5:41 PM  

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