Thursday, May 02, 2013

Adventures of Sony A57 and 18-55mm Kit Lens

People have started to comment that I overused shallow depth of field in my photos, and suggested that I should be shooting more with narrower aperture to reveal more of what is happening in the surrounding environment. That is the exact thing I will do in this blog entry, since I will be utilizing the the kit lens that came together with the Sony A57 purchase: 18-55mm F3.5-5.6. Initially I wanted to look for only Sony A57 body option, but it was not available in the market at the moment, hence I purchased the set together with the kit lens. Nevertheless, the price difference was not too much and I did not mind having a kit lens, though most people would think otherwise. 

Early this morning, joining the Sony Alpha users group, we attacked the Orchid Garden, KL. What I thought was initially a flower shooting session suddenly mutated into an insect macro shooting session. Oh no, I did not have a macro lens!! Fear not, that kit lens 18-55mm I have just mentioned had very good image magnification ratio (about 1:3x) and does considerably better in close up shooting in comparison with my other two Sony lenses, the 35mm F1.8 and 50mm F1.8. Therefore it was only logical for me to attach this lens on my Sony A57 at all times. Halfway throughout the shooting, beautiful friend Joseph Cheung arrived and he brought along a very, very important device which turned my macro shooting experience around in this morning! I borrowed an extension tube (third party, but with electronic contacts that enable full electronic control over the aperture and focusing) and by miracle, I suddenly have a pseudo macro set up, ready to attack whatever insects that crossed my lens' line of sight. 

1/80sec, F/10, ISO200, Extension Tube 20mm

100% crop from previous image. Quite amazing for a kit lens, don't you think?


1/60sec, F/16, ISO200

1/80sec, F/10, ISO200

1/80sec, F/5.6, ISO800, no extension tube, no flash

My Macro Setup for this morning:

Gear:
1) Sony A57 body
2) Sony 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens
3) Extension Tube, 20mm extension (with full electronic controls)
4) Olympus FL-50R flash, set to manual slave mode (can be triggered by camera's pop up flash, wirelessly off camera)
5) Built in flash (pop-up camera) toned down to minimum, -2.0EV compensation value

My General settings:
For extreme close-up (smaller insects, close to 1:1x magnification)
1) Aperture: F14-18, ISO200, Shutter Speed: 1/125-1/160sec
2) FL-50R Flash set to manual 1/4 or 1/8 power
3) Manual focus, setting the magnification (either to maximum or desired ratio)
4) Extension Tube used

For normal shooting (butterflies, or larger insects)
1) No extension tube used, just the bare 18-55mm kit lens
2) Aperture: F5.6-8, ISO100-800, depending on lighting condition
3) Flash used as necessary, and toned down power to 1/32 or 1/64 

The trick to my macro technique was to blend in the ambient light and the main macro subject, which was no easy task and require some fine tuning on the spot. 

Now who said kit lens cannot do decent macro shooting? Combined with that godsent extension tube loaned from Joseph, I got to say it opened up a whole new world of flexibilities, and I can actually get away with very decent magnification, and still retained amazing amount of details. Obviously the image quality will not surpass what a true macro lens can do (you can also stack up the extension tube on macro lens for those magnification hungry people) but hey, I am glad to work with a lower grade gear, and make do with whatever cheaper options, than getting another macro lens. I still have that amazing Olympus Zuiko Digital 50mm F2 for my Olympus, which I won't give up, thus it would be redundant to get a macro lens for this Sony system. However, I am very, very keen in the idea of extension tubes. 

Now the one thing that Sony did right (as well as Olympus in their micro 4/3 department) was the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF). For usual optical viewfinders on DSLR, as you added the extension tubes on the camera, you lose plenty of light, and the viewfinder became very dark to a point it is unusable, and require a lot of guess and estimation work for focus checking while shooting. That can be really frustrating. The EVF completely solved this problem. As I popped up the camera built-in flash (to trigger the external flash wirelessly) the EVF setting disabled the "live preview of settings" and automatically brightens the viewfinder, as if there was no light loss in the first place!! The view was clear and bright, and this surely has improved shooting experience. The main reason I never considered extension tubes for my Olympus was due to the dark optical viewfinder issue. 

Now, about focus peaking. In rare occasions where the insects (or spiders) are under good lighting (lit by sun, directly), the focus peaking worked well, and made manual focusing life much easier. The truth is, the insects rarely pose under the sun for you. Often they hide in most unlikely places, under the leaf, inside the flower, behind the branch, etc, where they were covered by heavy shade or shadow. In such situations, honestly, the focus peaking was useless. I made this claim before, and now I have verified it in my practical shooting with an actual Sony gear. I admit for most general shooting focus peaking can save a lot of lives, but for serious insect macro, it is not that useful at all. 

1/125sec, F/16, ISO200, Extension Tube 20mm

1/160sec, F/18, ISO200, Extension Tube 20mm

1/80sec, F/11, ISO200, Extension Tube 20mm

1/80sec, F/18, ISO200, Extension Tube 20mm

I don't even know what that black insect was (top left). 


Alright we have bright, sharp and full of color images from the macro shooting session, which proved that the kit lens was no slouch at all. It can deliver, if you need it to, and I am quite satisfied with the output, through the Sony A57. That 16MP sensor is something to be admired, and all the positive reviews about Nikon D7000, Pentax K-5 and Sony's own A57 are evidently seen in the macro images. Do doubt Sony surely knows their stuff when it comes to producing good image sensors, and even the latest Olympus OM-D E-M5 and E-PL5 use a sensor made by Sony, and suddenly there is a huge jump in image quality in comparison to the previous generation of sensors (made by Panasonic). 

I somehow was not satisfied with the images I got from the macro shooting session. I headed toward the city area, and continued with a very short street shooting session before sunset. I was shooting in Petaling Street for about an hour before going to KLCC for some night shooting. 

Enough with the technically perfect and controlled images (with proper lighting setup, sharp focus, etc), now I wanted to use the kit lens and camera to do what I like to do: street shooting. I have mentioned a few times in my blog before that kit lens is actually a very good lens for street shooting, and should not be overlooked. It was as if having THREE focal lengths in one lens: 28mm, 50mm and 85mm (approximate equivalent focal lengths, from 18-55mm). That is versatility that can provide very good coverage, from wide to mid-tele range. I have always treasured the importance of using wide angle lenses on the street, how the wide angle can capture more of the surrounding to make a more compelling story telling method. 

Sleepless
1/10sec, F/7.1, ISO100, 26mm

Political Patriot
1/10sec, F/18sec, ISO200, 50mm

Plain Wall
1/6sec, F/22, ISO100, 18mm

Give
1/100sec, F/8, ISO200, 22mm


Heroes are Idiots
1/80sec, F/8, ISO400, 55mm

Rising Up
1/100sec, F/8, ISO200, 22mm

100% crop from previous image. 
Something was wrong in this image

I am not entirely sure which was the case: either 1) The 18-55mm kit lens is very poor at the widest end, with low resolution output, and the image appearing soft, and low in contrast, or 2) there is focusing accuracy issue (focus shifting). I have yet to verify this problem, because I cannot believe my eyes on how soft the widest end was (which was shot in AutoFocus), when the lens performed rather excellent when zoomed in all the way to 55mm end, for the above macro shots. 

After Petaling Street, I took a train to KLCC where the Twin Towers were at, and did some hand-held night shooting. This was the time to bump up the ISO setting and see how well the Sony A57 handles low light shooting. 

Generally the image sensor in the Sony A57 is doing very well, and surpassed what the Olympus E-5 can do when it comes to high ISO department. Nonetheless, I was expecting it to outperform what I remembered the Olympus OM-D E-M5 could do, but based on my memory (I could be wrong here, unless I have a unit to compare side by side), even if the Sony A57 did better, it was not by a far margin. E-M5 can hold its own against Sony A57, which was quite an impressive feat, considering how every reviewer has praised Sony A57 (and the other two cameras that share the same image Sensor, Nikon D7000 and Pentax K-5) for the image sensor capabilities. 

I particularly enjoyed using the sweep panorama function!! I was telling myself it would have been very troublesome if I were to take some shots to be stitcted in my usual panorama software, and decided not to do so. Then suddenly it hit me, Sony has always been known to have the best in-camera panorama function!! Just a twist of a dial, and there I was, sweeping the camera away, and getting instant panorama shots. 

For the night shooting, the better way was to shoot with a tripod setup, and engaged long exposure with slow shutter speed, minimizing the ISO setting. I guess I have gone lazy, and hey, this was a chance to push the camera and see what it can do. Stop being to "perfect" and just shoot!!

1/30sec, F/3.5, ISO3200, 18mm

1/60sec, F3.5, ISO3200, 18mm

Sweep Panorama. My first time using it, and I AM LOVING IT

1/40sec, F/5, ISO1600, 18mm

So there you go, my second adventure with Sony Alpha A57, and this time, all with the 18-55mm kit lens only. The only gripe I have was how soft the images are at wider end of the focal range. Perhaps I really should look into the possibility of focus shifting issues. Other than that, I do think this kit lens is quite a good one. Certainly an improvement over the older, under-performing 18-70mm kit lens. 

Again, special thanks to friend Joseph Cheung for the extension tube. You rock!

45 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Kevin, shoot shoot only lay!!

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  2. Good thing I don't have false teeth, otherwise they would be on the floor, as my mouth fell open! The macro performance of this extension-tube lens combo is amazing. The "experts" on the fora keep telling us that this kit lens is made out of recycled Coke bottle bottoms, and barely worth mounting on the camera. This, in my eyes, proves them completely and utterly wrong. Sure, it's not a dedicated macro lens -how could it be- but the IQ is very, very good.

    The performance on the wide end -at least in the hotel picture- is somewhat worrying. Some tests are in order, perhaps. But overall, I'd say, a very nice lens and much, much better than I expected after all the negative noises one hears about it.

    Also, the pano function is quite good! Like you I always used -and absolutely loved- Hugin for this kind of photography, but it seems the Sony does a very good job there too. Interesting.

    Thanks for the great pictures, as always!

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    Replies
    1. Hello Andre,
      Thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad you still have good teeth!!
      The sharp images from the macro shots indicated that the lens is good, but I'm surprise to find how soft it is on the wider focal length.
      And yes I'm loving the sweep panorama function!!

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  3. Having owned both the a57 and E-M5, I can confirm the ISO performance is pretty close. The only difference is dynamic range.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the info wataru!! Just as I have expected, the EM5 should be very close based on my own testing.

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  4. this is the kit lens ? O_______O

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    Replies
    1. Hey Ugo, I left the EXIF data intact!! It's surely the kit lens no doubt. impressive eh?

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  5. Wow - love that Twin Towers shot. Impressive if you consider that that bridge between the two towers is higher than Cologne's Cathedral (which has twin towers as well).

    Great composition, wonderful blacks, and the quality of that kit lens surely isn't too bad in this one...

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    Replies
    1. Hello Wolfgang,
      Thanks for the kind words!! Yes I agree the kit lens is indeed very good.

      Delete
  6. Love the Political Patriot. Motion and color - nothing better. YOur Petrona Towers shot rocks ;-)

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    Replies
    1. Libby, I was running and chasing that man around!!! Even across the traffic light crossing. But it was totally worth it !!

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  7. I could have joined you but I have other commitments. Great posting here again & I'm glad you make full used (may be have not, pun intended) of the tube extensions. Care for a pre-election shooting?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Joseph, thank you so much for the extension tube, made my macro shooting possible!
      I only used the one 20mm extension so no, I have not fully utilized it yet. But I'm sold, I'm waiting for good news from Kevin.

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    2. Since the tubes are in your possession now, perhaps you can take more macro shoot at your home. Plenty to shoot I believe....:)

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    3. Have macro extension tube, but no time. I work till very late these days!

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  8. Love your photos as always. Malaysian spring is in the air. wondering if you have attended some ceramah and took some pictures of our future leaders?

    Spring Cleaner

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. Nope I'm staying away from the hotspots.

      Delete
  9. Robin,

    About the hotel shot, I am more inclined to say it is the focusing issues rather than the quality of the lens. The lens can't be that bad. Hope you carry out more shots/experiments and inform us. The other photos just great. Thanks.

    jAb

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the kind words.
      Yes I sure need to do some more experimentations.

      Delete
  10. Robin

    I did not get a chance to comment about your addition of the new Sony A57. I would say that you made a good choice for the right reasons on the new camera. Though I would also save up for when/if an new Olympus 4/3 camera is announced in the future and have your current E-5 serviced as the shutter activations is probably getting close to the end of its useful life. Do it sooner rather than later, otherwise the parts may not be available.

    Concerning this series of images. I think you have a good eye for insects. Though I will recommend that you pay heed to the recommendation you received at the Olympus Macro workshop regarding composition. One of the curses of being an engineer is that we like things to be symmetrical, which really does not work in all cases.

    I have used extension tubes in the past for macro work and in many cases when used with a zoom lens can be very versatile. Plus the fact that they work with any lens and can be stacked, they make for a very reasonable approach to very good macro photography.

    Concerning the zoom lens, I would take a look at the Sony website to see if you can look at the MTF curves for the lens. The MTF is probably better at the long end rather than the wide end. Which is not unusual, since it is harder to make wide angle lenses and zoom lenses that go from wide to long-ish are harder still. Since this is a kit lens it also has that going against it, since it was built down to a price rather than up to a standard. Once you are finished with your testing you will just need to be aware of which focal length and distance settings combine to make the lens go soft. Depending on your research and testing results this lens may be more useful at the long end than they wide end.

    PaulB

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    Replies
    1. Hello Paul,
      Thanks for the kind words and show of support! Thanks also for the advice on getting the camera serviced, I shall looked into that soon.

      I would not have expected the lens to perform so poorly, it was a lot softer than expected at the widest end (18mm). Perhaps I have been to accustomed to Olympus' sharp lenses, down to even their kit lens. Indeed I understand that kit zoom lenses are amongst the worst lenses and I should not be expecting much. Nevertheless I would really like to think that the lens could be a little better. I really do not intend to invest in another lens on the similar focal length range.

      Delete
  11. Thank you again for a wonderful post.
    It seems that one can stick any kind of camera in your hands and you will deliver and show us readers some beautiful images.
    I also liked your post on the Holi festival. One which my Wife some friends and I will be attending as well. Thinking of all the dust and Water I did not want to ruin my Fuji X100S and therefor got myself a Pentax K5 with the 18-55 WR lens. I am still waiting for it to arrive.
    But as it uses the same sensor as your Sony A57 I am sure it will be a great combo.

    So please keep coming to us with these stunning images from whatever camera you use.

    Daniel

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    Replies
    1. Daniel,
      I would like to think that any camera can be great under my hands, but I know that is a fiction!!
      I am glad you are going to next years' holi!! Do be prepared for rough crowd. The Pentax K5 is a wise choice.

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    2. Actually Robin I am going this year. It takes part on May 18th here in Germany.
      If you wish you can take a look at www.stockografie.blogspot.com I am sure I will post a small blog entry on my experiance at the Holi festival.
      Oh, I hope you don´t mind me naming my own blog. If so please say so.

      Delete
    3. Hello Daniel,
      Great! Hope to hear your report soon.
      No worries, anyone can share their own blog links, as long as you are not trying to sell some weird stuff!!

      Delete
  12. mmm, Robin. Are you telling that's possible to use Olympus FL50r in wireless (manual mode) with the integrated pop-up flash of Alpha Sony? I've to try, now!!

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    Replies
    1. Hello Ugo, yeap but only in slave mode, and no TTL communication with the camera. In fact it can be triggered by any camera's flash, even compact camera's.

      Delete
  13. Hi Robin, I have yet to prove to myserlf that my NEX6 can outperform the EM5. At ISO200 through 1600 they seem equally matched. However, I do plan to use my adapters and a legacy lens or two on both to see what the IQ quality difference is using the same lens! Of course, the effective focal length will be different when switching back and forth with the same lens. I'll just have to back up with the Olympus.

    But I do think that the Sony NEX (and perhaps your 57?) at ISO100 is cleaner than the EM5's base ISO of 200.

    BTW the kit lens 16-50mm on my NEX is greatly inferior to the old 14-54II I am using on my EM5, at all common focal lengths and F stops. The 16-50 is only a "touch" better than my pocket camera Panasonic LX5 at all common focal lengths even when the Pany is at ISO80.

    Peter

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    Replies
    1. Peter,
      thank you for the info about the comparison with E-M5. From the way you are describing the 16-50mm, perhaps I should not be too hopeful about my 18-55mm kit lens' performance. Like what you mentioned the kit lens is far from what I usually see from Olympus, and my current lenses are definitely sharper than the 14-54mm!!
      It is a shame really, Sony NEX is such an amazing camera, but the kit lens is holding the camera back from its potential.

      Delete
  14. Hi Robin,
    Another wonderful series....

    What FL did you use when shooting sweep panorama?

    Thanks again for sharing your work.

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    Replies
    1. Hello TH Wong,
      Thanks! It was at the widest end, 18mm for the panorama shots.

      Delete
  15. Robin,

    No matter what brand name of camera you use, you get beautiful pictures.
    No matter what lens you use, you get also beautiful pictures.

    Do you practice voodoo ?
    he he he

    paul tirajoh

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    Replies
    1. Hey Paul,
      I wish that is true! There are so many cameras and lenses I have not used yet.

      Delete
  16. Excellent shots, especially lied the street shots. The a57 is very capable as you show here. I think the kit lenses are not often as bad as everybody makes believe. As usual its only a part of the equation with the photographer being much more important than the equipment.

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    Replies
    1. Hey Cuisinedejere,
      Thanks for the kind words. I agree, photographer plays a very important role in the equation in making the shots happen!

      Delete
  17. u are superb robin!!!!..eventhough u dont use a macro lens..just attached d extension tube, u just transform that kit lens into d macro lens..actually i dunno how d feel when shoot a macro thing..but after join d session, now i know how d feel and d adventure during this session..really2 hard i think when u need to hold ur position to shoot d micro subject..new experience to me..as now i use a nex system, for sure i will find d lens that suit d gear to shoot agains this micro subject..and hopefully that i can shoot with u again in this macro session.."tunjuk ajar ku sifu"..hehehehe
    *hadi nik*

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    Replies
    1. Hello Hadi Nik,
      Thanks for the kind words. Actually extension tube is VERY useful, and cheap too. Although not as versatile and flexible as a true macro lens, it is still very worth getting it. Once you have macro lens, it can also be stacked with extension tube, without losing image quality (sharpness)!
      I am not a macro expert though, but I am willing to share what I know and have. If possible I will connect you with my sifu, Amir Ridhwan, I think you will learn a lot more from him.

      Delete
    2. thnx robin..once i get d macro lens i will let u know..hopefully we can shoot together again..forget to tell u..i already read ur review about d macro session with sanjitpal n amir ridhwan (i think..almost forget)..perhaps i will see them n learn from them..
      *hadi nik*

      Delete
  18. hi there,
    a very nice shot you have there with kit lens...makes me wanna go for a57 than others that in price range...

    pardon me for asking,
    what/where shop do you buy your A57 ? i search mostly in lowyat plaza they don't have it anymore becouse of discontinue model. just found out that 'courts' sell just @rm1.5k with kit lens. i just need to open my option to buy other than 'courts' ...

    *aLBuaH*

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  19. i also search this model but its discontinue model. .arrghhh

    ReplyDelete