A Cure for Soft Lenses?

First light on peaks above North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon, Inyo NF, CA, USA

First light on peaks above North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon, Inyo NF, CA, USA

In my recent post about high-resolution cameras, I stressed the importance of sharp lenses to get the most out of these 36+ megapixel sensors. But lens sharpness is an issue with any camera – at least when you start making larger prints. Even with a 16- or 20-megapixel sensor, lenses make a significant difference in large prints (16×20 inches and up). This is especially true in the corners; most professional-quality lenses are sharp enough in the center (at least with middle apertures like f/8 or f/11) for even a 36-megapixel camera. It’s the corners and edges that separate the decent lenses from the great ones. Those great ones are hard to find, and tend to be expensive.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could fix imperfect lenses with software? Well yes, of course. But my experience with such fixes hasn’t been good. I’ve seen some great before-and-after examples online showing a blurry photo fixed with software, but when I’ve tried those programs myself I’ve invariably been disappointed. These cures tend to be just more-sophisticated sharpening methods, which may help a little, but if you apply more than a small amount things get really crunchy, or you see other weird artifacts. I can usually do just as well by selectively adding more sharpening to the corners in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.


A few months ago I stumbled across another program that promised to help with fuzzy images, called Piccure+. I decided to download the free trial, and found that it worked surprisingly well. It’s not a magic bullet; there’s really no substitute for sharp lenses. But it can help with those soft corners, or overall softness caused by diffraction. Like any of these tools, it will definitely make the image look too crunchy if you overdo it, but I’ve been able to push the sharpening effect further in Piccure+ than with other software I’ve used, with good results and minimal artifacts.


Working With High-Resolution Cameras

Oaks and redbud in the fog, Mariposa County, Stanislaus NF, CA, USA

Oaks and redbuds in the fog, Mariposa County. A sharp lens, good technique, and the 36-megapixel sensor on my Sony A7r captured an incredible amount of detail in this photograph; I’ve printed it up to 40×60 inches with great results.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about Canon’s new 50-megapixel cameras, the 5DS and 5DS R. These models haven’t been released yet, but many Canon users are wondering whether they should upgrade.

Since these cameras aren’t available for testing yet, it’s hard to say anything definitive about them. But since I bought my 36-megapixel Sony A7r over a year ago I’ve learned a lot about working with high-resolution cameras, and some of those lessons might be relevant to people who are considering buying one of those new Canon models, or a 36-megapixel camera like the A7r, Nikon D800, or Nikon D810.


Lightroom 6: First Impressions

Swirling mist from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Swirling mist from Tunnel View, Yosemite. The new HDR Merge in Lightroom 6/CC did a great job with this high-contrast scene, producing a natural-looking result, and doing it with a completely non-destructive workflow.

After months of rumors, last week Adobe finally released Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC. When I saw the list of new features, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I was hoping for improvements to Lightroom’s retouching tools, and to the Adjustment Brush. It would be nice to add a curve to only part of an image, for example, and the Auto Mask function of the Adjustment Brush has long needed improvement.

Changes to the Develop Module

Alas, Lightroom 6/CC offers only small improvements to the Develop Module, like the ability to move and copy Adjustment Brush pins, and to modify Graduated Filter and Radial Filter selections with a brush. Nice, but hardly earth-shattering.

There is, however, a new, unadvertised feature of the Spot Removal Tool that I stumbled upon, and find rather useful: you can now place new cloning or healing spots over old ones by hiding the tool’s circles. Press the H key to hide or reveal the circles (the Tool Overlay). Though this seems like a small thing, the ability to add cloning or healing in layers, one step on top of another, is vital for any serious retouching job, and a significant improvement to Lightroom’s retouching capabilities. (There was a workaround in previous versions of Lightroom, though rather an awkward one: you could place a new spot outside any existing ones, then drag it over an existing spot. The new implementation is much better.)


Should Your Next Camera Be a Sony?

Willows and cottonwoods in late-afternoon light, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Willows and cottonwoods in late-afternoon light, Yosemite. The outstanding resolution of the Sony A7r allowed me to make a 40×60-inch print that captures all the fine detail of this image.

I don’t review or even talk about equipment very often, but I reviewed the 36-megapixel Nikon D800E last summer because I think it’s such an important, game-changing camera for landscape photography, with exceptional resolution and low noise. Like many Canon users, I’ve been waiting for Canon to offer a competitor to the D800 and D800E. Rumors keep circulating about a 40-megapixel Canon camera, but so far nothing more substantial than a rumor has appeared.

Then last fall Sony announced their new full-frame, mirrorless Alpha A7 and A7r cameras – the A7 with 24 megapixels, and the A7r with 36 megapixels. The A7r uses essentially the same sensor as the Nikon D800E (though Sony says they’ve improved it). For a Canon user like me, the A7r was intriguing because some readily-available adapters could be used to mount my Canon lenses on it. The short distance between the sensor and the A7r’s lens mount makes it possible fit an adapter between Canon or Nikon lenses and the camera, and still be able to focus at infinity. So I could potentially get the resolution and noise control of the D800E without having to make a large investment in new glass. And the A7r seemed reasonably priced at around $2300 (though adding an adapter and battery grip brings it close to $3000).

But I had some big questions. The A7r is a mirrorless camera, so would I miss a real, optical viewfinder? How well would my Canon lenses function with the adapters? And what about “shutter-shake,” and other potential problems that I’d read about online?


Top Posts of 2013: Testing the Nikon D800E

Milky Way reflected in an alpine lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Milky Way reflected in an alpine lake, Yosemite, captured with the Nikon D800E

I don’t often write about equipment, but in August I had a chance to test the Nikon D800E, and since it’s such a good camera for landscape photography I decided to share my thoughts about it. In terms of image quality, this camera is hard to beat unless you jump into the super-expensive realm of medium-format digital cameras.

There is, however, a new camera on the market that may prove to be a worthy competitor to the D800: the Sony A7r. This is a mirrorless camera with a 36-megapixel full-frame sensor. In fact it’s probably the exact same sensor that’s in the D800E, but in a smaller, lighter, and less-expensive package. DxO Mark rated the Sony sensor equal to the D800, and just a point below the D800E.

Unfortunately, hardly any lenses are available yet for this camera. As I write this I think only two lenses are shipping, a 35mm f/2.8, and a 55mm f/1.8, though more will be coming within the next six months or so. You can use Sony’s E-mount lenses for it’s NEX cameras with the A7r, but you’ll get serious vignetting. You can also buy adapters that will let you mount a variety of other lenses, including Zeiss, Nikon, Canon, and others. However, with most adapters you’ll lose the ability to autofocus (or if not, the performance will suffer), and possibly the automatic diaphragm as well. The D800 or D800E are still the best bets if you want a lot of megapixels with a great variety of fully-compatible lenses and accessories.


Gift Book Ideas

I love ebooks; I’ve written three of them, and I think they’re great for teaching and learning about photography. But there’s something special about a beautiful, well-printed, coffee-table book. Picking one up is like holding an art exhibit in your hands, and the tactile sensations of turning the pages complement the visual experience of looking at the images. So here are four actual, physical books you might not have seen before, but that could make great gifts this holiday season.


LastOceanThe Last Ocean:
Antarctica’s Ross Sea Project

by John Weller

John Weller might be one of the best nature photographers you’ve never heard of. I first met John in the 1990s when he worked briefly at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite. John has since gone on to create two beautiful books: Great Sand Dunes National Park: Between Light and Shadow, and his latest, The Last Ocean.

The Last Ocean is part of an ambitious project to document and preserve Antarctica’s Ross Sea, considered to be the most pristine ecosystem left on earth. John made four separate trips to this area and came back with a stunning collection of beautiful and imaginative photographs. And, in something of a rarity for a coffee-table book, the text is as compelling as the photographs, with vivid descriptions of the area, the lives of the animals, and of John’s adventures.

To see some of the photographs in the book, check out this slide show. You can order signed copies of the book directly from John, or get unsigned copies from Amazon.