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Friday, March 09, 2007

Tales of Self-Obstruction and the Sigma DP-1 Lens

ƒ/4, much maligned
Much is being made in our "Comments" section about the ƒ/4 maximum aperture of the Sigma DP-1 lens.

Once better specs are possible, then better specs become the standard. That's what it boils down to, I guess.

"You know what they say: Oh well," as my old studio partner, Paul Kennedy, used to say. My guess is that, as with any camera, a small percentage of those who end up buying a DP-1 will probably do good work with them. The rest will figure out how not to. Because you do realize, of course, that if you look hard enough for reasons why you can't take pictures, you can come up with some, right? If you look hard enough for reasons why cameras won't work for you, your objections can indeed become self-fulfilling. The opposite approach is to figure out what the tools will do and then get creative within those limitations. That's possible as well.

Some pixel-people don't have a lot of history here. In 1990, I knew several photographers who wouldn't shoot 400-speed color neg film because it was too far inferior to 100-speed color neg film. Go back farther, and you might remember people who felt liberated, speed-wise, by Kodachrome 64. If I remember correctly, Sam Abell says in his wonderful book Stay This Moment (sorry, out of print) that he preferred to work with K25, and decided just to deal with the difficulties that came with it. That's when you need a good ƒ/1.4 lens. Anybody reading this remember the Kodachrome that had an ASA speed of 10? The late Bob Schwalberg had stories to tell about that.

New York City Traffic Jam, 1953, by Bob Schwalberg

Now people take on-the-fly sensitivity adjustments to 800, 1600, and even 3200 for granted. Let's see now: ƒ/1.4 at ISO 25, or ƒ/4 at ISO 200. Those of you who can still do speed/sensitivity calculations will realize that that's the same EV. Which would you rather have? If you say ƒ/1.4, I guarantee you haven't shot enough at ƒ/1.4!

I'm sure if the DP-1 has a usable 800 or even 400, a few resourceful people are going to be able to figure out how to use that ƒ/4 lens.

True, it would be nicer if it were ƒ/2. One aspect that hasn't come up yet is whether the ƒ/4 setting will be a fully usable aperture. When I shot with the Leica 35mm Summicron (4th version, or "pre-ASPH"), I never used ƒ/2. For me, it was an ƒ/2.8 lens, because that was its widest good aperture setting. Those of you who shoot with the Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4 probably know what I'm talking about—that one is a nice ƒ/2 lens. I remember shooting Tri-X at E.I. 200 in a Fuji GS645s that had an ƒ/4 lens, with the caveat that the lens performance at ƒ/4 was so poor that it wasn't really usable! True, it was too limited for me in the end. I'm not much of guy for tripods.

The "on the other hand" argument is that if you do low-light work, the higher sensitivities of digital and the "virtual tripod" of stabilization is pretty hard to give up once you've gotten used to it. No argument there.

Finally, one thing that people haven't discussed is that Sigma has been hinting that the DP-1 lens has especially high performance. So—just hypothesizing here—what if the DP-1 turns out to have a really exquisitely good sensor, when used within its limitations? And what if that ƒ/4 lens turns out to have superlative image quality, starting right at ƒ/4? What if the results are really nice? Remember results?

I'm not saying I know anything here. Just saying "what if." And "maybe." (And implying, "wait and see.")

If that does turn out to be the case, though, then perhaps that will be another reason to want to work around the somewhat slow max aperture.

And while we're on the subject, or in the neighborhood...
...I've been meaning to comment about the Leica D Summilux 25mm ƒ/1.4. Now, I realize, when you ask for something, and then are given it, and you still complain, well, that is the very definition of "whining." So, yes, I'm whining here (I love the English term, "whingeing")—and we all know just how unattractive that can be.

Still and all...I have to mention that so far, the manufacturers that have given us "fast primes" lately, namely Sigma, with its 30mm, which I own, and perhaps Canon, with its 50mm ƒ/1.2, which I don't own—and now Panasonic/Leica, with its 25mm, which nobody owns just yet—aren't quite grasping the gestalt. The point, folks, is not to have a non-zooming lens that's just as big and heavy as a zoom, while also being as insanely fast as you can possibly make it. The point is to have a non-zooming lens that is smaller, lighter, faster (emphasis on the "-er") and more portable than a great big klunky slow-ass zoom. (Pentax gets the smaller and lighter part, going perhaps a bit too far in the opposite direction—whine, whine—and where's that nice 28mm ƒ/2 you inherited from Minolta, Sony? Oh, sorry, shhh...don't wake Sony up. It's a-sleepin'. Giants need their sleep, evidently.)

I mean, really. A 3-inch square, 18-ounce lens to cover a sensor that's 13.5 x 18mm? To put you in context, if this lens covered 4x5 ,and was proportional, it would be as big as a watermelon.

A big watermelon.

And speaking of overly large lenses...
...I got a package from the Postal Service this afternoon. Inside was a silver Nikon FM3A and a swell Zeiss Distagon 2/35 ZF, loaned to me by a friend, to try for a couple of weeks. (Yo, Steve B.) Maybe I'm just sorta, you know, enamored, but the lens isn't quite as big as you'd think. Well, it is, but it's so dang pretty that I kinda find myself looking for ways to excuse it. What's that they say when a lens is too darn big but you like it anyway? Oh, yeah: "It balances well." —Yeah, yeah, dat's it. Well, the 35mm ZF? It balances well. Really, really well.

I might have something to say about how it performs, too. Someday.


P.S. Kudos to Ben and Daniel, who both caught the mistake in the original post.

Featured Comment by ctyankee: "My complaint isn't so much that the camera sucks because it's only ƒ/ complaint is that it isn't the camera I'm looking for...just as nobody's making your B&W camera yet. Sure, it might be a great camera and as you suggest, the people who buy it will do great work with it. I'm just waiting for what seems like the obvious camera to me...sort of like Jeep finally coming out with a 4-door Wrangler. With clean sensors, fast lenses and image stabilization technologies out there, why isn't anyone building a low light compact? I loved toting my HiMatic 7sII (40/1.7) with ISO 400 b&w in it all over the place. Give me that DP-1 with a 24/2 (40mm equiv) and I'd be a very happy camper. Fuji—put a fast lens and IS in your compacts ! Oly...why aren't you doing 4/3 fixed-lens compacts? C'mon...the company that bypassed the AF SLR in favor of the "ZLR"?


Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

I don't get the chance to say this often in this world, trust me, but I agree with all your points and I couldn't have said it better myself.

(I've often been wondering what the heck "it balances well" means. Now I know.)

(Also: "the weight helps against camera shake".)

10:52 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

I think it is urgent for lens size to solve the issue of sensors needing the light in parallel lines.

10:54 PM  
Blogger ted.kelly said...

Hmmmm yes, I must concur on primes though I am liking the pentax offerings. Love my 77 and 31. Though my 31 is not exactly small, on the K10d ze ballance is fine, and its clearly small-er than the new 16-50/2.8. I would just as soon the new pancakes were bit a bit faster (say 1.8 or 2.0 ish) despite the fact this would make em a bit bigger. And while I am pining, could we please have a nice fast (<=2) K mount 135 for APSC (to keep the size down)?

10:55 PM  
Blogger Fazal Majid said...

It had better be stellar at f/4. We're not talking about a lens that has to cover a 645 frame here, mere APS-C. Even though it will be a wide-angle and thus hard to control for aberrations, Cosina has shown with its ultra-wide Heliars like the 15mm f/4.5 that you can make a compact, relatively affordable ultra-wideangle that has stellar performance across the entire frame. Of course, the Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 is one stop faster but it is a behemoth.

I wish they han't chosen to pander to wide-angle junkies and took the simple, compact 35mm f/2.8 formula used in the Contax T3 or Olympus Stylus Epic. That would give a 50mm equivalent, much more useful in my book than 28mm equivalent, and give you reasonably fast apertures without requiring oversized optics.

As for Sony, remember, that's a four-letter word...

11:14 PM  
Blogger David Kelly said...

Mike: I know you recently swore off lens connoisseurship (yeah, sure) but to be fair, test the Distagon against the Nikkor f2 AIS.

12:34 AM  
Blogger scott kirkpatrick said...

Yes, I can remember ASA 10 Kodachrome, although I was in grade school then, but I took a lot of it to Japan one summer and the results are still around somewhere.

Lens inflation hits even in the rarefied world of the digital rangefinder. None of the post-ASPH revolution lenses is within a factor of two of the volume of the collapsible 50/2 Summicron and Canon 35/2 that I discovered in their timecapsule about a year ago when I unwrapped my M2 and its kit. The closest is the Elmarit 28/2.8-ASPH, announced as the low cost ($1500) "kit" lens to accompany the M8. The true believers look down on this one, but it takes nice pictures, is sharp and clear right down to 2.8, and -- most important -- doesn't block a large portion of its assigned frame in the viewfinder.

"Sharp and clear right down to xxx," where xxx is the maximum aperture, seems to be characteristic of new lens designs, where computing power is no longer a limit to the designers. The mid-range Zuiko lenses are like that. (I understand the entry level are not as nice, and haven't tried the really expensive ones.)


1:42 AM  
Blogger Ray Kinnane said...

"What if the results are really nice? Remember results?" (Quoted from the article).

You old romantic, Mr. Johnston, thinking photography still has something to do with results.

Ray Kinnane

3:45 AM  
Blogger david vatovec said...

Well said Mike. I allway envied the large format guys with their smallish lenses. And i allways wondered how they get them so small since they have to cover what? 10x the 35mm FF area?

f4 is good!

4:33 AM  
Blogger witek said...


Couldn't agree more.
While shooting with my Xpan and (almost) diffraction only limited f:4 45mm compact (relatively to the image circle - 2r=70mm) lens, I need nothing more.
When da day ends I just exchange midroll (no wasting frames) my HP5 or FP4 to Neopan 1600 or Delta 3200 (the grain on 24x65mm negative is less visible, for the mag is lesser), and continue shooting without having to worry 'bout the fine focusing (that takes time) of the f:1.4 lens.

@Fazal Majid

Sonnar in the T3 has rather centric approach, symetrical design (or at least heliar, but not faster than 3.5), I think will do better (in the field).

6:02 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

If the results are really nice, I'm interested. There are no perfect cameras.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Chuck Norcutt said...

I agree with all the comments about f/4 being a reasonable aperture for a quiet sensor that can achieve fairly high sensitivity. But what hasn't been mentioned at all is the depth of field issue for this lens. Some will love it but some will hate it.

Using a 35 size image with a 28mm f/2 lens yields a hyperfocal distance of about 39 feet. For the DP-1's 16.6mm lens at f/4 the hyperfocal distance is less than 12 feet yielding everything in focus from about 6 feet to infininty even wide open. This lens almost doesn't even need to be focused. A boon for some but not so great for others. In my opinion this is the real reason that this camera needs a much faster lens. Even at f/2 the hyperfocal distance would be about 23 feet.

For those who'd like to double check my DOF calculations I used resolution values of 30 lines/mm for a 35mm frame and 50 lines/mm for the smaller size sensor on the DP-1. These equate to respective circles of confusion values of .033mm and .020mm. Sufficiently sharp to make a good 8x10" print.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Neils said...


I look forward to hearing what you think about that ZF 35 on film. Will you try it in digital too?

I still shoot both film and digital and shoot Nikon.

Lense size is out of control. One solution I want to try I want to try bad enough that today I am going to buy a K10D.

I've already gotten a 43 Limited and a 50 1.4 of eBay as these days when you find a Pentax lens, you buy it. I'll use the camera for a awhile and then get a 21DA lens and I may settle on that, 21,43,50 as my entire "compact" system.

That still leaves a Nikon D2HS and big lenses for other stuff.

I hope the K10D will become the Leica M I don't carry anymore. Direct comparisons asside I refer to size and weight. The M8? Can't right now.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Nils Jorgensen said...

It's encouraging to remind ourselves of what Cartier-Bresson managed to do with an Elmar f3.5 back on the 1930's. No doubt also using much slower film than we are used to today. Some of his best work was taken using this relatively slow lens, if I'm not mistaken.

7:38 AM  
Blogger mzsupa5 said...

By not giving us everything that we want in one go, Sigma have mapped out an upgrade path that MAY get them repeat sales. By gradually adding the faster or longer lens, the built in viewfinder, the anti shake, interchangeable lenses, built in flash (...insert own prejudices here :-), we will buy a new one every year.

By the way I have been playing with a "new" 28mm lens on my 5D. A screw mount Super Takumar...f wait for it... 3.5. I often stop down to f8.

The first generation Sigma may be most useful as a handy landscape/cityscape camera. And you can use it for other stuff. I await with interest pictures taken by talented photographers using the Sigma and a price announcement.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Hank said...

Better a spectacular f/4 lens thena mediocre 2.8 or 2. If that was the trade off for cost then Sigma made the right decision.

How about a f/8 fixed aperture ultra-wide? Correcting for one aperture should make it possible to deliver a digital compact Zeiss Hologon.

10:44 AM  
Blogger joshwa said...

It's not just low-light performance, it's being able to get shallow DOF! Which has become harder and harder these days with shrinking sensor sizes.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I look forward to hearing what you think about that ZF 35 on film. Will you try it in digital too?"

I would, but I don't have an F-mount DSLR.


11:36 AM  
Blogger Georg said...


most of your points are totally true, but the bad thing about an f4 lens is: you can't take f2 pictures with it ... and there are lots of reasons why you could end up wanting to.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

No argument, Georg. All else being equal, I'd rather the DP-1 had a 20/2 lens (40mm equivalent f/2).

I think the 28mm focal length equivalent is more popular in Japan than elsewhere, and my guess is that the DP-1 is one of those cameras made mostly with the "home" (i.e., Japanese) market in mind.


1:00 PM  
Blogger ADias said...

Excellent piece! Sure-footed and on message. It should be the model for postings on this blog, whose posts tend to wander a lot. It reminds me of the Sunday Morning Photographer articles of times past.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

That Bob Schwalberg image of those big 1950's sedans' reflections is gorgeous. What a wonderful scene to spot.

Oh, sorry, this is a gear-head topic... Please carry on, gents.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Matthew Miller said...

I don't think it's made for the kind of shots where shallow DOF is generally desirable -- hence the wide-angle lens. If it were an 80mm+-equivalent, I'd understand that point better -- but then, it'd be a much less useful walking-around camera.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

I think that the flurry of posts brought about by this camera is a good indicator that there is a small, but rabid market for a camera like this. One important question is whether or not the market for digital cameras is mature enough to support this kind of experimentation. Film is dying off, but that doesn't necessarily imply anything about the maturity of digital. There are certain things that I'm quite certain film still does better than digital for many people--even if it just comes down to an aesthetic difference.

There seem to be two big "camps" of interested people. There are people doing outdoor work, hiking, landscapes, etc. who see this is a high quality alterative to schlepping the dSLR around, and are willing to accept being restricted to a single focal length in exchange. For them, 28/4 is fine. Alternately there are those people who are looking for a digital Hexar AF or Canon G-III 17. People who would alternately get an M8 or Epson RD-1, but are willing to accept a single focal length, 28-35-50 all seems to be about right, in exchange for the cost difference. It's about having a responsive, compact, digital available light shooter that they want (and can afford). For them, unfortunately the DP-1 comes up a couple of bucks short.

It's not to say that either group is right or wrong, better or worse, it's just an observation that there really are two quite distinct groups of photographers that are interested in this camera. And... I think that's all there is to it.

I leave the exposition of what it means that two very different groups of photographers are interested in the same camera to better heads than mine.

6:00 PM  
Blogger fernando [ pixelstains ] said...

Colour me ignorant, but I thought that the complaints about the DP-1 were pure camera discussions, and not about photography.

I see nothing wrong with the discussion of marketing, physics and engineering when it relates to a tool. That the DP-1 has f/4 did not concern me one bit, and if it is a matter of DoF, then I get closer and hope it works out. After all, the main thinking is DMD, and not studio portraits, or other highly-skilled, well-posed moments.

I just recently purchased my first prime, and I am not seeing the drawback, vs. the zooms, I expected... for most situations, and my style of photography. The DP-1 should have those most situations where it works, and like everything, wrong tool at the wrong time.

It is great when photography becomes aware of instrument limitations (not something that is often seen -- people just take the photo), and that has to happen when we get to play with it, as in buy it for the need (to photograph), and learn when to use it.

After taking photos for a while, I also have realized that the mistakes I made are more frequent than when the instrument is inadequate.

Funny to read the "history" of people's complaint, but that is nothing new when it comes to stereos, and other art-reproduction that depends on instruments. I was wondering if a good example would show up with photography, I mean, cameras. Good to finally read one.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

Mike, what is the source of the Bob Schwalberg photo? And are there more where that came from?

Those tailfins are fabulous.


3:06 AM  
Blogger Mark Feldstein said...

First, on the issue of copyright, I think Carolyn Wright's article is quite thorough however she mentioned:

". . . Copyright law protects both unpublished photos and published photos, regardless of whether they have been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office." While that statement on its face is correct, I think it only partially so.

Under the jurisdictional statute for U.S. District Courts, which are the courts of first impression for copyright matters in the U.S., 17 U.S.C. Sec. 101. To file a copyright action in federal court in order to obtain damages or equitable relief, the copyright MUST have a federally registered copyright, 17 U.S.C. Sec. 411

Among other things, that registration creates what we refer to as a rebuttable presumption of the copyright's validity. 17 U.S.C. 410. See .e.g., Universal City Studios Productions, LLLP v. Shawn Hogan. #CV 06-545W (WMC), (S.D. Calif. 12/11/06.

In other words, a validly registered copyright is required for the District Court to initially have and then sustain subject matter jurisdiction over a copyright claim under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1338. Hogan, supra, citing Thornhill Pub. Co. v. General Tel and Elec. Corp., 594 F.2d 730, 734 (9th Cir. 1979).

For a registration to be valid it must be applied for within 3 months of when the image is fixed in any tangible, reproducible means of expression. 17 U.S.C. Sec. 411(b)(2) and 412(2).

While it's true there are exceptions to the registration rules, both in terms of copyright procedures and any judicial proceedings arising from the copyright. While those exceptions are narrowly construed by courts, rather than attempting to rely on them if it's not absolutely necessary, the safest way to proceed is to file for registration within 3 months.
See form VA at

Take it light.;>)
Mark Feldstein, Esq.,

2:45 PM  
Blogger fivetonsflax said...

@Matthew Miller --

Some of us find 80mm-equivalents to be just perfect as walking-around lenses.

I know this isn't orthodox ... but there it is.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

That's a great comment above. The dig at Fuji is especially apt when you consider that they are the guys that put out the Natura. Now their update to the F30/F31 doesn't even have PASM on the mode dial. That's a step backwards if I ever saw one.

2:46 PM  
Blogger David Kelly said...

On second thought, to be even fairer, test the Distagon against the lowly plastic AF nikkor 35mm f2.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Gustav said...

Even if the lens would have perfect sharpness, which it won't, it is still a 16.6/4 lens; way too much depth of focus.


2:07 PM  
Blogger herve Laurent said...

you make some very good points. But what about pleading with SIGMA for adobe DNG raw. surely , this camera will be a second or third camera for people who buy it and we could all do without ANOTHER proprietary raw

6:35 AM  

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