The Speedmaster

So I have this new toy, the Sony A7s, regarded in a number of circles as the one camera to rule them all (in terms of shooting in the dark). I got the brightest native E-mount lens which is the sharpest autofocus lens Dxomark has ever tested in the FE 55mm f/1.8 but I still wasn’t satisfied.

One thing I had conceded with the A99 was the possibility of having something brighter than f/1.4. Talk about a first world problem. My shooting style lends itself to very shallow depths of field and I wanted to go shallower. The E-mount brought a wealth of possibility with all of the adapters as well as the third-party support. Doing some research, I had found a number of lenses brighter than f/1.0. Many of these were adapted in someone’s workshop and had a fixed aperture, or worse, a fixed focus. Using an adapter, I could get a couple of the legends out there. A couple copies of the Canon Dreamlens (50mm f/0.95) are out there in the $2500-$3000 range. And Leica has an option for ten times as much. There were already a few sub-f/1.0 lenses for the APS-C E-mount bodies, but only one available for the A7-series. The Mitakon Speedmaster. The biggest problem with the Speedmaster: availability. Both B&H and Adorama had them for pre-order for around $900. Or I could roll the dice with an international seller on eBay. I chose the latter. Five short days later, a box arrived from Hong Kong. I found the first surprise, a very well-made leather-bound box.

 

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ILCE-A7s, Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 @ f/0.95, ISO 1250, 1/60s

I opened the box and found a very heavy manual aperture, manual focus lens. I put it on my A7s and found it had a very nice, snug fit on the mount. With any bright prime, I started testing it wide open. Here is the first shot taken, followed by a crop of the center.

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ILCE-A7s, Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 @ f/0.95, ISO 100, 1/800s
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Not too bad, I could tell I needed to get used to the microscopic depth of field. I stopped down to f/1.4 (hearing myself type: stopped down to f/1.4) and produced this result:

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ILCE-A7s, Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 @ f/1.4, ISO 100, 1/500s

Without a doubt, I realized this lens had passed the color test. The next evening I took the kids to the NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I found the possibilities to be endless.

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ILCE-A7s, Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 @ f/0.95, ISO 250, 1/250s

Again, I am impressed with the colors. The person in the background behind my son with a hat and headphones on was about two feet behind my son. Sure, there is a little CA wide-open. But for $900, I frankly don’t care. And Lightroom could fix it enough.

I have a really nice problem to have right now. I have a new A7s and I am overwhelmed by the possibilities. I want to shoot all four of the lenses I have, but I can only bring one or two with me at any given time. My biggest problem is figuring out which two. Grace is not amused by my problem.

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ILCE-A7s, Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 @ f/0.95, ISO 100, 1/200s
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The Cup Champion’s Beer Glass

Anyone who has read my posts knows I live just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. Home of NASCAR. Sure, the official headquarters is in Daytona. But the NASCAR Hall of Fame is in Charlotte, adjacent to a large building with NASCAR’s logo on it. Almost all of the teams’ race shops are within 20 miles of Charlotte, and if you extend 90 miles, I believe all but one race shop is within radius. More on this introduction later…

If you have read some of my other posts, you have probably figured out I have an equipment addiction in terms of bodies and lenses. I have a couple of the baddest a-mount prime lenses on the planet. The 85mm f/1.4 Zeiss Alpha. The Minolta 200mm f/2.8 High Speed APO G. The 135mm Smooth Transmission Focus. I figure there are about 4-5 lenses I would want more than the ones I have and most of them are way out of my price range. I’d love the Minolta 600mm f/4 High Speed APO G. I can’t spend that kind of dough without spousal approval. They typically go for $5000-6000. The 300mm f/2.8 SSM G-II looks pretty awesome. $7000 is more than I paid for my truck, a 1998 Dodge Ram 1500 with 14,000 miles on it in 2006. The Sony 500mm f/4 runs about $12 grand. So I have to shop around. A Minolta 300mm f/2.8 APO G is about $4000 less than the current Sony model. I’m intrigued by the Minolta 400mm f/4.5.

I was doing some value shopping and I came across a Minolta 300mm f/4 High Speed APO G for less than what I paid for the 200mm f/2.8. I wasn’t sure about spending that kind of dough on a dark f/4 lens. I figured I’d buy it and if I don’t like it, I’ll sell it to raise money for a 300mm f/2.8.

One of my favorite things about being on the A-mount is the cool nicknames old Minolta lenses have. I used to own the Minolta Beercan, the 70-210 f/4 lens which is the about the same size of a Coors tallboy. There’s the “Big Beercan” (75-300 f/4.5-5.6), the “Baby Beercan” (35-70 f/4), and the “Secret Handshake” (28-135 f/4-4.5). Anyway, I was surprised about how small the 200mm f/2.8 High Speed APO G was. The lens arrived yesterday and I pulled it out of the box…

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I am completely overwhelmed by how big this thing is.

Yeah, that is the fully extended 85mm f/1.4 ZA on the bottom with a filter and a lens cap, with the fully hooded 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G on top on the right. The 300mm f/4 HS APO G is on the left.

I think the 300mm f/4 High Speed APO G lens should be named the Champion’s Beer Glass. Why? Last year, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski created a buzz on social media about the giant beer glass he was drinking out of when he won the championship. I can’t post a photo, but go to Bing and look it up. Or click here…

Long story short, that beer glass was insane! And so is this thing. I guess I should have read the specification. The 200mm is 134mm long according to spec measured lens bayonet to front element. My quick “I think I remember a ruler having 30 centimeters” math tells me it is about 5-6 inches long depending on if the hood is extended or not. The 300mm lens spec says 220mm or 8 inches long. The front element sinks in a bit and the hood is about 4 inches long. With the rear cap, and hooded this bad boy is a foot long.

How does it shoot? Well I have shot maybe 20 frames with this and I already can tell this lens is not likely to leave my collection any time soon. Wide open, this thing is razor sharp. And the famous Minolta color. Straight off the body, zero editing.

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SLT-A99V, 300mm f/4 HS APO G@ f/4, ISO 500, 1/320s

Here is the same shot, on the left side of the frame.

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A little bit of CA there, but not much. The biggest thing (other than physical length and weight) I need to get used to is the big minimum focus distance. 250cm. A little over eight feet.

Dogwood berries are my standard of red. This thing knocks it out of the park.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 300mm f/4 High Speed APO G@f/4, ISO 640, 1/320s

And full resolution. Keep in mind, these are ISO 640. The leaf was peaking in manual focus and I am handheld.

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A little bit of green under one of the berries. Fixable.

So there you have it. And I think I just figured out my PG-13 nickname for this thing. The Big Ass Beer Glass.

Is May over yet? Almost?

May is always the busiest month for me. The races in Charlotte, the fiscal year ending at work, the kids’ activities all coming to an end as well as their school years, and other factors contribute to the turbulence in May. Last Saturday I got up early to go shoot a newly-engaged couple at a farm in Rock Hill, SC.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 100, 1/1250s

Stephen and Deanna chose a beautiful setting and it was easy for me to shoot. I had to drop ISO down to be able to get the apertures I like. Afterward, Deanna wanted some shots with her horse, Galileo, but she went a step further and rode him bareback in a beautiful purple dress and barefoot!

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 100, 1/800s

Afterward, I had to blitz back to pick up my youngest boy and take him to the NASCAR Nationwide Series Dollar General 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Taking a three year old to the track is no easy task but I was able to fire off a few shots with my A77.

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SLT-A77V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 100, 1/800s

The next day I took both of my sons to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca Cola 600. I got a lot more shots. Here is one of the flyovers…

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SLT-A77V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/5, ISO 100, 1/1250s

During the race I didn’t get as many shots as I would have liked but I did get an odd shot, I was trying to shoot the orange moon over the world’s largest HDTV and this accident was occurring exactly when I was shooting.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 200, 1/250s, –1EV

I also shot a variation of this shot several times, with this one being one of the best.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200mm f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 1600, 1/160s

For some reason I like to shoot the cars lined up for a restart with the pace car peeling off to the pit area. This shot also shows a very populated part of the stands and helps show how tall the 24 degree banking in turn 4 is  compared to the flat area where the Dollar General sign is.

June starts this weekend and I hope to get a chance to test out a couple of old lenses I picked up a week or two ago. I picked up a T-mount 135mm f/2.8 lens and a M42 Mount 55mm f/1.4 lens and other than a couple of test shots, I haven’t gotten a chance to shoot them yet. My first impression is how small the lenses are without electronics. The 135mm f/2.8 lens would fit inside my 85mm f/1.4 ZA lens with room to spare. The 55mm f/1.4 lens would easily fit inside my Minolta 50mm /2.8 Macro fully compacted.

I am also looking at a fairly epic travel schedule coming soon. I am definitely going to Austria via Germany in late July, but another international trip or two may be in my future for work. All I need is for some ink to dry.

NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction

When the availability opened up to purchase memberships to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in late 2009 I jumped on the opportunity as the benefits seemed to outweigh the costs. Being a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, one of my benefits of the level of membership I have purchased is I receive tickets to the Induction Ceremony.

The Induction Ceremony is televised live on the Speed Network and there is coverage on ESPN and local networks, so there is a host of local celebrities as well as some known nationally. I arrived with my A99 and my Minolta 200mm f/2.8 High Speed APO G as well as the 85mm f/1.4 ZA and I did my best paparazzo impression. Among the Inductees was Rusty Wallace (below on his phone), who was working hard for ESPN on the biggest day of his post-career before the actual ceremony.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 800, 1/60s

Many of the current race car drivers as well as retired drivers were at the ceremony, either in the audience, or to speak at the ceremony. Below is Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 Five-Hour Energy Toyota.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/2.8, ISO 1600, 1/125s

One of the drivers speaking on stage was Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Aflac Ford. He would not stop for a pose as he was on his way to rehearsal, but was gracious enough to smile for me.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/3.5, ISO 1600, 1/40s

I am happy with the shot above even though it wasn’t as sharp as I would like, with the shutter speed low and the moving subject. Fortunately, Michael Waltrip, owner of the #15, #55, and #56 Toyotas (and driver of the #30 Toyota in this year’s Daytona 500) was not moving when he posed for me.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/3.2, ISO 2000, 1/100s

The Induction Ceremony was held in the Charlotte Convention Center and the lighting was for a television stage, including steam machines and lights and all sorts of things making the behavior of Auto White Balance become unpredictable and metering was difficult as well. Autofocus was not predictable with the colored strobe lights and the steam machines. I shot most of the ceremony itself in manual focus and using Auto ISO from 100 to 3200. Most of the shots in the auditorium had strange light. Needless to say, I had a lot of post-processing work to do.

This is Trevor Bayne, 2011 Daytona 500 winner and driver of the #21 Motorcraft Ford (and #6 Cargill Ford in the NASCAR Nationwide Series).

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/3.2, ISO 3200, 1/80s

And here’s Mark Martin, driver of the #55 Aaron’s Toyota.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/2.2, ISO 3200, 1/100s

I got a number of candid shots, in general. In this one Mark Martin was having a conversation with Rusty Wallace, just before his formal induction.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/2.2, ISO 3200, 1/100s

This is “The King”, Hall of Famer Richard Petty, winner of seven series Championships and 200 races. Albeit a tad blurry, but the subject is not lost in my lack of correct settings. I tried to be a bit aggressive with ISO and got too low a shutter speed.

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SLT-A99V, 85mm f/1.4 ZA @ f/3.2, ISO 800, 1/10s

This is Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, probably posing for someone else.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4.5, ISO 1600, 1/125s

Once the ceremony kicked off, I was constrained to my assigned seat, where I looked to get a couple of shots you wouldn’t see if you were watching the ceremony on TV. This is Trevor Bayne backstage with Brad Keselowski, 2012 Sprint Cup Champion and driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/2.8, ISO 3200, 1/250s

This gives you an idea of the adverse lighting situation I was dealing with. This is Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett among greenish-yellow and red strobes with steam machines.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/2.8, ISO 3200, 1/30s

My view of the main stage from my seat was a profile view. The light was a little better for metering purposes as long as I spot metered from the center. This is Jeff Gordon, 4 time Champion and driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 800, 1/250s

The podium was my only adversary in getting this final shot, which is the view of the television broadcast alongside the video camera that was shooting. This was an interview after Rusty Wallace’s acceptance speech.

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SLT-A99V, Minolta 200 f/2.8 HS APO G @ f/4, ISO 3200, 1/250s

In all, I had a good time and I am still figuring out how much I actually learned about shooting in adverse lighting.

BTW, I know I still owe the conclusion of the book shelf test. I hope to finish it this weekend.

Plates are for TV.

Last week I went to Talladega Superspeedway, the biggest oval track NASCAR runs on, at 2.66 miles. To put it into perspective, I sat in the center of what is called the tri-oval, basically the round part in the letter D. The big accident on the last lap was just short of a half mile away. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Talladega was a sight to behold. The 33 degree banking is amazing, I swear it is 2-3 stories tall. One thing you don’t see on TV is the backstretch of Talladega declines slightly as the cars run and campers get in the way of the fans’ view. The way Talladega is banked and with the size of the track, NASCAR requires the cars be fitted with Restrictor Plates, which limit the amount of air into the fuel system, lowering horsepower and slowing the cars down. As a result, the cars have little to any differentiation in horsepower and top speed. They run in a big giant pack. The pack reminds me of the Peloton in bike racing. All of the cars are going between 195-200 MPH and they run in 2-3 rows and some of the cars stay in one row, while others move from row to row to try to jockey for position. This is a cool thing to see on TV, because the cameras usually focus on the lead pack most of the time and you see more of the cars. In person it is just odd. I would venture to say, since I have been to other tracks, it is very unappealing. Talladega is so big, you see the cars up close for 5 seconds, and then they are far away for 45. When they are on the backstretch, you can’t even hear them. Here is a photo I took through the catch fence of the pack:

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The two tracks I frequently visit, Charlotte and Bristol Motor Speedway, are smaller. Charlotte is a mile and a half, and Bristol is a hair over a half mile. Bristol looks like a large football stadium! Charlotte is big, but it could fit in the infield of Talladega. Charlotte is the APS-C of tracks and Bristol is a Cybershot, but not in spectator value. At both Charlotte and Bristol, the cars do not run restrictor plates, so they fan out more. There is action all over the track and you can see 90-95% of the track from every seat, where the pole is blocking part of the view and there might be a structure blocking a bit of the rest if you’re too low. Some places you can see 99% of the track. I couldn’t imagine going to Indianapolis where it is also huge and there are no seats that can see everything. Leading up to the race, the crowds are interesting and you see a lot of things you don’t normally see at sporting events. I caught a glimpse of this guy:

SONY DSC I guess in the middle of October, coming to the race track is better than watching elves make toys.

I live outside of Charlotte, North Carolina which is where NASCAR lives. Most of the race shops are within 80 miles of Charlotte and the NASCAR Hall of Fame is Downtown Charlotte. I’ve been fortunate enough to have really expensive seats at Charlotte. Last night was not one of those nights. I was sitting in the cheap seats. I learned a valuable lesson last night. The cheap seats at Charlotte are better than the not-so-cheap seats at Talladega. I’d venture to say they’re better than some of the not-so-cheap seats at Charlotte. I sat in the middle of turns 3 and 4 and about halfway up. Here is a stitch I made of some shots taken from with the A900 and 24mm f/2 ZA SSM lens, stitched together with Microsoft ICE.

DSC01201_stitch_cropOther than the light posts, one small building, and the pole, you can see the whole track. My view was perfect for testing my equipment because I could get the cars in a “well” lit area in the entrance of turn three where all of the billboards are.

I realized last night, I have never had my A77 at a night time big-time stock car race. The biggest thing I missed last night was the Electronic Viewfinder. Charlotte has lights on the sides of the track which light the banked roads and there are lights around the track, but my A390 and A900 have been fooled by the lights so they have a tendency to select a shutter speed far too slow in Aperture Priority or an aperture too open in Shutter Priority unless you pick something arbitrarily high to begin with. I needed to shoot in manual. And I had a hard time getting the white balance right too.

Coming into the entrance of turn three I was able to get my best shots. The biggest problem with the entrance of three is the cars are going about 190 miles an hour into the turn and they decelerate to a modest 150-155 into the turn. So if you’re not panning, you need a shutter speed better than 1/250 with SteadyShot on for a Sony body. So in all, odd lighting, and fast speeds mean high ISO. Last night I lived or died on ISO 1600. Sure, I experimented with values from 800-3200 but I took a majority of the shots at ISO 1600. Here is one of the shots I liked at ISO 3200, untouched, taken directly from the body. This was taken using the 70-300 G lens at f/5.6, and 1/500s.

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Here is a crop of the same shot, taken directly from the body.

SONY DSCAt first glance, we have some noise, which is expected at ISO 3200, I am underexposed a bit, and it appears I have a little too much tint. I could mess around in Lightroom for days to get something I like, but I did a slight color adjustment, white balance adjustment, and noise reduction and got something I could use.

If you’re a pixel peeper, you are going to say the shot is soft, which I concede a bit. More than anything else, I am testing my equipment under less than ideal circumstances. Vivid colors at high speeds under poor light from far away. I can do better. I got really comfortable with ISO 1600 on the A900, so once I figured I would live with the results, I focused on my light and shutter speeds and I tried to use laps under caution to practice. Here is a sample at ISO 1600, again at 300mm and f/5.6 but down to 1/250s. The cars are only going 55mph at this point.

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I tried to shoot at other lengths than 300mm and I even tried out my trusty 85mm at f/1.4. This will give you an idea of how far away I am. This is at ISO 400 and 1/640s.

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And an aggressive crop of the same shot.

SONY DSCI wish I had the luxury of the 300mm f/2.8 G SSM lens or even a used Minolta 300mm f/2.8 lens. Maybe one day I’ll rent one. Until then I will try to make things work with what I have.

Here is my attempt at an aggressive shutter speed. This is my 85mm f/1.4 lens at f/4, ISO 1600 and 1/800s.

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And a super-aggressive crop of the same shot, a battle for the lead at the time.

SONY DSCThe full size shot looks a bit chalky.  At f/4, and ISO 1600 I am not going to get super sharpness. But it is something to work with and get better at. There is another challenge at Charlotte, which is unique to Charlotte in general. The world’s largest HD monitor. I tried to get a shot of a car going by a picture of itself on the monitor. A huge light in the middle of your shot plays tricks on your camera. Here is one of my first attempts, at 230mm, ISO 1600,  f/5.6 and 1/500s.

SONY DSCAs you can see, the shot is slightly underexposed with the monitor seemingly overexposed. 

Overall, I had a better time at Charlotte than Talladega. Talladega is better on TV. Charlotte is better in person. Now I know. I still have a couple hundred shots to sort through.

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Four photographic challenges…

I have not one, not two, not three, but four photographic challenges coming to me starting tomorrow and extending through Sunday.

1. My wife has her best friend, Meg, a breast cancer survivor, in town this week with family, including her new baby. Yes, not only did Meg have breast cancer, but she was pregnant at the same time! I have the new baby, as well as their two older children to shoot. Meg’s son, Nathan is pictured below in one of my all-time favorite shots. I foresee more 85mm f/1.4 ZA than anything else here.

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2. My son has a soccer game and I have to start putting the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G SSM lens to the test. Really I’ll be putting the whole system to the test. Poorly lit soccer field at night and I am going to bring only the 70-300 and try to stay away from my 85mm f/1.4. I may be pushing ISO higher than I am comfortable with.

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3. My family is going with Meg’s family to the Charlotte Race for the Cure. My wife’s sorority is a major sponsor of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, her Alumnae chapter usually has a full contingent at the Race for the Cure event, and my wife’s best friend Meg will be there as a first-year survivor. A lot of pink balloons with downtown Charlotte as the backdrop. I am thinking I am going to see a mix of the 24mm f/2 ZA SSM and the 70-300 G. Last year I shot with my Nex-5 and my 16mm lens. I was still learning…

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4. I am going to the NASCAR race at Talladega. I like shooting at NASCAR races because the cars have vibrant colors, they go really fast, and you get really good access. I’ve never gotten to go to a race and shoot how I want to, however, as I’ve always had one of my kids with me. This time I am going to have an adult friend with me. I haven’t been to a NASCAR race since August of last year, and I haven’t been to a big speedway since May 2011, and I’ve never been to Talladega, the biggest speedway NASCAR goes to. I am going to put my A77 and 70-300G to the test in 12 FPS mode. Talladega is the fastest track NASCAR runs, and that’s after they restrict the horsepower to slow the cars down. The packs will be going upward of 205 miles an hour average. My seats are going to be better than they were at Charlotte when I took the shot below, my equipment is orders of magnitude better, and the sun will be out. And Talladega is more than a mile longer than Charlotte at 2.66 miles. Hopefully all of these variables will work in my favor.

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So my challenges are set. I probably won’t update for a couple of days as I won’t have my laptop with me. I hope to come back with good samples!

Until next time…