Equipment - tools of the trade: December 2004 Archives

Many industry pundits were surprised when Nikon announced the release of the F6, a new flagship professional film camera. What was Nikon thinking? Canon has said that it doesn't foresee the release of an updated to its flagship EOS 1v and the other manufacturers (Konica-Minolta; Pentax) are also trimming back. Nikon had been rumored to have been developing the F6 for a while, but most people thought they would be crazy to release it in the current digital-only environment.

So why release a $2300/Y240,000 camera? First, film is not totally dead and the F6 leapfrogs Canon's flagship 1v in many areas. Nikon very wisely built-in backwards compatibility not only for all of its auto-focus lenses, but also for all of its manual lenses. Previously, Nikon's famed RGB metering was not available with non-AF lenses. You can program the F6 to recognize ten different manual-focus lenses. This is great for those of us who think the old MF glass is better than the current AF plastics.

If you're one of the three remaining people looking for a professional film camera, the F6 is a no brainer. That being said, the market may be larger than pundits think. At the camera stores I've been hitting in Tokyo, the F6 has been in strong demand even at the current price levels. So perhaps there is a market after all.

But I think the real reason that Nikon came out with it is because they are current basing their digital cameras on a film camera chassis (the F100). The F6 gives them an entirely new chassis to build a digital body around. Some have speculated that Nikon will release a replaceable digital back for the F6, like the Leica DMR module for the R8/R9. I doubt this. The F6's back is connected to the body with a flexible cable that carries the info to the rear LCD panel. This cable is threaded internally and not user-replaceable. And the price of the Leica DMR and the fact that Leica does not want you to field-replace it with the film back suggests this technology works better on paper than in the field.

So, while the Nikon D2X is being released next month, I fully expect a professional series flagship Nikon digital camera based on the F6 to be announced sometime next year.

Low light performance is important for a lot of street photography. Being able to meter down to EV 1 @ ISO 100 is often a necessity. A very dark bar or cafe might be EV 0. Some manual meters and the Leica M6/M7 are able to meter down to EV -2 which is just about the limit of "available darkness."

Bessa R2/3A: EV1 @ ISO 100 @ f/1.4
Bessa R2/R/T: EV1 @ ISO 100 @ f/1.4
Leica M6/M7: EV-2 @ ISO100 @ f/1
Hexar RF: EV1 @ ISO100 @ f/2
Leica CL: EV3 @ ISO 100
Minolta CLE: EV 3 @ ISO100 f/2

Canon EOS 3: EV 0 @ ISO 100 @ f/1.4
Canon EOS10D/20D: EV 1 @ ISO 100 @ f/1.4
Nikon F2 with DP-12AS: EV -2 @ ISO 100
Hasselblad 203FE: EV 0 @ ISO 100 @ f/2.8
Hasselblad 205FCC: EV 1 @ ISO 100 @ f/2.8

VC Meter 2: EV1 @ ISO 100
Gossen Digisix: EV0 @ ISO 100
Minolta Autometer IVF: EV -2 @ ISO 100 (incident)

Now EV 1 @ ISO 100 sounds pretty low (it's 1 second @ f/1), but using ISO3200 film (which is what you'd use in a really dark place), it's 1/30th second @ f/1.4. Many of us with f/1.4 lenses, rangefinders, steady hands, or monopods/tripods can shoot lower than this. Also, with TTL metering, the EV numbers are reduced by the aperture of the attached lens. So a camera meter is rated at EV 0 @ ISO 100 with an f/1.4 prime lens is only EV4 @ ISO 100 with a f/5.6 zoom. The Leica M7 with an EV-2 @ f/1 is only an EV-1 @ f/1.4, still excellent but not as stunning.


Note that this is metering and not auto-focusing. Many autofocus systems will fail at EV 2 or lower especially with dark lenses such as most consumer zoon lenses. Also, film suffers from reciprocity failure and thus the metering may not be accurate at low-light levels with long shutter speeds.

There's a new review online of the new Zeiss Planar (50mm f/2) vs. the Cosina-Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5 and the older Voigtlander Color Skopar 50mm f/2.5:

Scroll down to the bottom where they compare photos from all three lenses at various f/stops using an Epson R-D1 digital camera. Key from the left to right: Planar, Nokton, Skopar

To my eye, the Planar is noticeably sharper, especially in the field (outer areas) than the Nokton. Note that the R-D1 has a tendency to reduce resolution in the field because its digital sensor does not handle off-axis light well.

The January 2005 Asahi Camera compares the new Cosina-manufactured 25/28/35/50mm Zeiss-Ikon lenses against their Leica contemporary equivalents (ASPH when possible). In the shootout, which I was reading while browsing through a bookstore, the ZI lenses come out as equivalent in flare tolerance (both the ZIs and ASPHs were basically flare free); the ZIs were basically the same in sharpness and color temperature (although the ZIs were a tad warmer); and I think the 50 Planar was just a tad less contrasty which the reviewer thought gave better shadow depth.

25/2.8 Biogon T* vs. 24/2.8 Elmarit ASPH
28/2.8 Biogon T* vs. 28/2.8 Elmarit
35/2 Biogon T* vs 35/2 Summicron ASPH
50/2 Planar vs the 50/2 Summicron

Note that all of the ZI lenses are estimated to be selling in the $800-900 range (Y80,000-90,000 street in Japan). While this makes the 50mm Planar only so-so against the 50mm Summicron, the wides are much cheaper than the Leica equivs. I have the 28/2.8 and 35/2 on hold myself. I think it'll come out in January, production has been delayed for some reason (they were originally going to come out in November).

The ZI lenses are testing at the same level as the Leica lenses but at one third the price. And the reviewers are using them in conditions that even famed photojournalist Ted Grant would approve -- shooting from the shadow side in heavily backlit portrait situations. They do say that even the highest end zooms would flare out in these situations but the ZI and Leica ASPH do wonderfully.

They do mention bokeh and OOF. They say they are roughly equivalent but the ZI is softer while the ASPH generally are a bit harsher and thicker. These were all subjective tests using real photgraphs and real models, by the way. Not MTF or lab tests. And contrary to what you might say, you can tell the difference even in a magazine reproduction. All the lenses were tested wide open. Stopped down, the reviewers say the difference disappears.

All in all, I'm really excited by this news. If you're not interested, then don't buy or read! :-)

Classic mechnical cameras have always been very popular in Japan. For example, a good condition Leica M3 could usually fetch over ¥200,000. There has been a renaissance of mechanical cameras as well in the past ten years, with cameras such as the Nikon F, Nikon SP, and Leica M3 leading the way.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Equipment - tools of the trade category from December 2004.

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