Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Lone Wolf Scenario

Sony a200 DSLR

In the professional photography arena, being special and unique in the equipment you use and to be known that way comes at a cost. Ever since I wanted to buy a DSLR I have always craved somehow for ‘off’ brands like Panasonic, Fuji, Sony instead of the mainstream Canon and Nikon. At that time my amateur mind could not deduce the risks and retributions that were going to come my way if I chose an ‘off’ brand.  I wanted to be seen as and remain special among my peers and have an air of exclusivity around me.  I would look down upon anyone with a Canon and Nikon. For me they were lesser mortals. At that time I didn't know soon I was going to be rewarded for that foolishness and a lot of things were in store for me.

When I went up to the camera store to check some cameras offered for sale, I was lucky to find the almost brand new Sony a200. So I chose it instead of the beaten down, overused Nikon D50 and D40x. See, by itself the Sony a200 is not a bad camera. It belongs along with the D40, D50 and D60 with more or less similar specs, size and build quality.  Before going to the store I did do my research and check pictures online. I was more than satisfied. Additionally I also asked around if it was a good buy inspite of the fact that I was going to buy it anyway. People advised me against it. Lot of reasons - new system, costly and a few number of lenses, untried, but I went ahead and bought it anyway.

Fujifilm S5 Pro

Initially everything was smooth sailing, picture quality was amazing, semi automatic modes were phenomenal. For general purposes it was a great camera. Few days later when I started to use the camera for weddings and other shoots things started to unravel one by one. 

At a wedding where I was called as a backup photographer I had great difficulty to achieve synchronization with my fellow photographer. All I had was the 18-70 kit lens and 70 mm was as far as I could get. I couldn’t use his lenses, I couldn’t use his camera triggers or flashes, strobe sync was possible only if the built in flash fired and it is dangerously delicate, prone to malfunction and crash even with a mild overuse (as of oct 2013 it isnt working anymore, but I didnt need it anyaway, I am now using the Sony FA-HS1AM adapter for the hot shoe to mount third party triggers and flashes). I was now facing the ‘Lone Wolf Scenario’.      

It is not only important to make a great camera, it is essential to understand things from the photographer’s perspective. Some camera companies rarely do that. Money is the major motivation.  You make profit, fine, but give me something to feel happy about.
When Sony entered the DSLR arena with Minolta and Zeiss’s muscles, it was indeed a new leaf for photographers and industry, but how far will you get by being extremely proprietary? 

Leica M9 Black

Thankfully just recently Sony introduced its hot shoe adapter which can be used for third party flashes, triggers etc. It debuted in the market at INR 7999, yes you read that right Rs.7999. When I recently checked the latest Sony catalogue the price listed was INR 1999, INR 6000 less. Its very uncharacteristic of Sony to reduce the prices so drastically but sure is a welcome change. 

 Pentax K-30

Amateur DSLR market is probably the most crowded presently with sellers offering cutting edge cameras that are ready to compete with even pro cameras. These amateur cameras serve their purposes in the amateur market. When it’s a DSLR like a Sony a200, it is possible that professionals will use it as a backup or main camera and it becomes an imperative task for the manufacturers to address compatibility factors and bring into the market a camera that is versatile as well as seamless for professional use. If that does not happen photographers will continue to face the ‘Lone Wolf Scenario’ and might develop disdain and disenchantment for particular brands. I hope somebody at Sony is reading this. 

-Viisshnu Vardhan-

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sigma Autofocus 28-105 Lens Review


This is probably the most prized lens I currently have with me. It works great on my Nikon D200, though not without some glitches, it has its own quality. Somebody gave it to me out of goodwill last year. I only bought a Nikkor 18-55 VR lens because group shots are impossible at 28mm. Also I had to have a back-up lens. So the set up I have is really foolproof. From 55 to 105 I am covered with the Sigma for portraits and close-up work.
When I tried it with the Nikon D200 for the first time, I was astounded by the results. The pictures had an even, bright tone all over. It is not too contrasty though. Luckily for me this is an old Sigma and made probably more than a decade ago. Also it is made in Japan, NOT China. I hear a lot of Sigma lenses these days are coming from China and I really don’t have a clue as to how the quality of China and Japan made lenses compare or whether its identical. I personally feel made in Japan ones are better.
So coming back to the lens, a lot of people told me third party lenses have compatibility issues with proprietary cameras. True indeed. My Sigma 28-105 only works at .22 aperture. Oh yes btw there is a manual aperture ring which you can set, but the D200’s top LCD panel shows an error reading ‘rEE’ (that’s ‘r’ and 33 in reverse) if I use any other manual aperture except .22. At this point I really don’t know what it means, so I am just shooting at 22 aperture and the pictures are just fine.
Unfortunately, yesterday when I was sorting things from my bag the lens fell down from a small height. It fell face down with the lens hood. The old lens hood (Indian made ‘Shine’ 72 dia) broke immediately and I had rush to the nearest camera store to unscrew the broken ring that was still attached to the lens. Fortunately there is no damage to the lens and its working fine.  The lens is all plastic but is well made and is comparable to the build quality of Nikkor lenses. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Nikon D200 review

Updated - 26JUL2014

Nikon D200 with 28-105mm AF Sigma on the box
I got one for myself just a week ago. In the professional circles I have been in, the D200 is a much sought after camera. The only minus that it seems to have is the battery economy. A spare battery can solve that problem. 

Not surprisingly a lot of professionals I know swear by it and for good reasons. The camera was launched in November 2005 and was succeeded by the D300 in august 2007. However, in the mid range Nikon line this was the last camera with a CCD sensor after the D100. The D300 and D300s are both CMOS sensor cameras. The CCD sensor in the D200 was made by Sony. 
  Nikon D200 right side

I have also seen photographers from rural and sub rural towns in this part of the world use the D200 for weddings and other sundry. They are available used from anywhere between INR 255,000 to INR 50,000 depending on the condition and accessories its coming with. 

Even from the time when I didn’t know anything about cameras, I had always wanted a D100 or a D200. It was based mostly on what I read and heard. I nearly bought a D100 some months back, but had to drop out because of the price and besides, the camera was too old.   

Nikon D200 with the Nikkor 18-55mm f3.5-5.6G VR lens

I always thought the camera is not as important as the photographer. May be its true in some cases but in some cases its not. You need a good camera to make a good picture. I used to think amateur/entry level cameras can be used for professional purposes. May be, but the professional quality is something else. When you have a great camera, your expression becomes that much easier. 
The Camera

Shot with the D200 and Nikkor 18-55mm f3.5-5.6G ED II lens

Now that I have seen the D200’s output, I can easily differentiate amateur quality. The D200 produces rich tones and vibrant hues. Though I mostly shot with the Sigma 28-105 that I had, it was enough to discern the output quality. 

Though used, my camera still is in a relatively pristine condition. Good thing, the seller I bought from also gave me the original box (in a very good condition) along with the manual and CDs (Never opened from their covers). Getting a camera in pristine conditon, new box, unopened CDS, now thats a bit rare. Most sellers  

I was told the camera has done a little over 15k clicks.  I didnt check the shutter count when I first bought it, the seller could have lied, I am speculating it might have been around 20-25k.  


The only flaw the camera has is its low battery economy. Comparatively, with my Sony a200, I can shoot a whole wedding without even checking the battery status. The D200’s battery is the same one as in the D80. You can even swap the D80’s battery door in case you lose the one on your D200. Also having the D80 as a backup is not bad idea as both use the same batteries. Having an extra battery or two is advisable.  Both the D200 and D80 have the same sensors. The D80 has Active D-lighting, the D200 does not, thats the only difference. 


The D200 is heavy and feels very solid. The contours give a very professional feel. I can’t understand why some people complain about weight. I wonder, are people too weak to even lift three or four pounds? No? then that’s a pity. The buttons are all placed well and good. They contribute heavily to the overall aesthetic of the camera. The menus are easy to navigate. With the selectable autofocus points, shooting with the D200 is pure happiness.

What I shot with?

I had an old Nikon mount Sigma 28-105 AF lens and the camera has fared excellently with it. Performance seems on par. Justyesterday I bought a 18-55 VR for the D200 and here is a review of the lens. 

Ohh btw here is the latest review I wrote for the D200 after almost two years. Here you go....

--Viisshnu Vardhan--

Monday, August 27, 2012

Nikon D200 Review - Professional camera for the rest of us

Nikon D200 front

A while ago when I was reading on what cameras National Geographic photographers were using, I came across a variety of things online. I happened to stumble upon one interview of Steve Mc Curry (the guy famous for photographing that afghan girl). In the interview Mr. Curry mentioned that he was using a Nikon D2x. Nikon D2x is the Holy Grail of Nikon cameras, the absolute high end. It has a CMOS sensor made by Sony and is used by the top of the crop photogs worldwide. Being a budget shooter I was, I knew I can never have it.
Nikon D200 back

Enter the Dragon. Until recently I never really knew or understood what a great camera the Nikon D200 is. Some professional I know has one and that’s how I came to experience what this camera is all about. I did accompany him on weddings and such and was blown away at the quality output it produced. In many ways the D200 is a budget shooter’s D2x, sharing many of its features. Ironically enough it’s far ahead of the D100, which is basically a very primitive camera comparatively. Both the D100 and D200 have a CCD sensor whereas the D300 and D300s both have CMOS.

Under normal day light conditions the D200 has produced very rich colors and vibrant tones, although a bit muted which seems to somehow increase the appeal of pictures. As for the wedding pictures under strobe lights, the D200 is capable of extraordinary output. Skin tones are out of this world. Its not usual that I am impressed by every camera out there. I don’t even check pictures on a computer to judge a camera. I shoot, switch the LCD, zoom in and I know everything I have to know.  

Speaking of skin tones, my nimble, nifty workhorse the Sony a200 also produces divine skin tones, that too just with the built in flash and faint halogen lights. Incidentally both the Nikon D200 and my Sony a200 don’t just share their digits but they also share the same rating (41 points) on Snapsort, beyond the obvious, which is a bit baffling as to why and how. Though the a200 lacks many of the professional features of the D200 (mainly weather sealing and magnesium alloy body) it has never failed me (excusing a recent flash failure due to a bit rough use).

Coming back to the D200, the camera can last a decade or two depending on the usage. It is hefty and feels very professional. It stores images on a CF card which means higher quality. Even today, on Amazon, some pieces cost more than $1000. I am lucky as I have an excellent piece ready for me to buy from a well respected senior photographer in my city. The body along with an additional battery is costing me INR 25,000 or approximately $454 which is not  bad deal as some are selling the same anywhere from $750 to $1350.  Like I said before, the d200 is an excellent if not a better alternative to the D2x and now is the best time to get it.

Photowalk #91, The Freedom Ride – Wednesday 15th August 2012

Our group was recently invited to cover the Freedom Ride 2012 event at the Gacchibowli stadium. It was organized by the Atlanta Foundation on the occasion the of the 65th Indian independence day. It was an exciting photographic opportunity as there were performances by many aspiring rope jumpers and folk dancers s. Events like this provide great opportunities for photographers to capture public life from a close distance. Everyone wants to be the photographer’s friend; incidentally I also made some new friends while I was at it. Happy Independence Day.

Vivian Maier and the art of street photography.

I personally think if there is a socialist dimension to photography then one of its many angles is steeped in street photography. After seeing Vivian Maeir’s photography I realized interesting stories are always happening someplace, even if I am there to photograph them or not. Life is transient. You are welcome. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

6 Good Manual Focus M42 Russian Lenses For Your DSLR

From Russia with love
 Makshim Gorky - A true hero of the proletariat
 (image courtesy wikipedia)
A few days back I was reading some photography monthly and I happened to chance upon a small article about the Zenitar fisheye and how supposedly cheap it was given the superior optics. Did I read that somewhere or was it some peripheral memory or did I dream that in my sleep? By accident or by twist of fate, there exactly, like Alice falls into the rabbit hole, I suddenly stumbled into another alternate world of cameras and camera optics.  
Welcome to the world of Russian photography. 
 Zorki S (image courtesy wikipedia)
 These lenses with uncommon names (Tair, Volna, Industar), uncommon mechanics and build are solid alright, but they also perform like tanks with little or no subtlety (or is it?). To the photography world they may be an abomination but when it comes to price, they win hands down.
State Historical Museum area Moscow (image courtesy wikipedia)
Russian camera legacy dates back to the communist golden era of the 40s, 50s and 60s. These lenses are the cherished artifacts of the rich and diverse Russian industrial heritage. One look at them and you will know what I mean. Built to last forever (such were those times) and offering good optics for an extremely affordable price, these lenses could now really make photography ‘people’s art’ again. 
 Opticians' Square in Krasnogorsk, with KMZ factory buildings in the background

Due to the Canon and Nikon domination of the market today, users have very limited options. Both Canon and Nikon (and also many other companies) have millions of dollars for R&D, these Russian companies do not.

Though not without some imperfections, Russian lenses have a character that cannot be matched by any other major mass produced lenses. Even if they are from the same batch and same mechanics, each Russian lens comes with its own quirks, its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. As far as I know, they do not have plastic optics inside, its real glass. Their barrels are not made of plastic, its solid metal. Some of them weigh almost a kilo (Jupiter 21M at 980 grams). Both the glass and the metal itself perfectly justify the price tag. 

Nizhny Novgorod Planetarium and Circus (image courtesy wikipedia

These lenses are available from a variety of vendors online, especially on ebay, where you can get them for very low price (always be careful when buying from ebay). Other sellers include rugift and top35mm. Prices from rugift seem a bit inflated. I would rather prefer to buy from top35mm as it has a very Russian feel to it (their English is funny)  this website looks very unpretentious and thankfully a brief lens description is also provided. Don’t forget to look in your local stores or classifieds too. Usually on ebay they appear to be cheaper when on the camera. Just my two cents. 

For more information on Russian lenses, cameras and other accessories go to USSR Photo dot com which is a repository of information on sellers and other details.
Also top35mm is offering these M42 Russian lenses with built in adapter that has focus confirm chip for Nikon, Canon, Sony (both alpha and NEX), Pentax mounts and even for micro-four-thirds system. Isn’t that great?

Prices vary from model to model and seller to seller. It also depends on whether you are buying used or new (better buy new). The best prices seem to be available on ebay and from local Russian sellers. There is atleast 5-30 dollars difference from seller to seller on an average. So it’s better to do proper research on prices and sellers before buying. Given the price point they are excellent for hobby photographers.

Here like everything Russian, it’s only a divine mystery (haha). You can never really know the quality (like everything Russian). It’s reportedly either a hit or miss, but you never know. Quality is widely varied on different models and from year to year and also from lens to lens in the same batch. There is also a risk of fakes, but that can be avoided by purchasing only from reputed sellers (nothing less than 99% on ebay). Ironically enough the Russian lenses themselves are knock offs of Zeiss and other East German lenses. Strange world we live in.

Some of these lenses are so heavy you might need an extra arm. No kidding. Some of them can weigh more than a kilo (Tair 3 at 1.6KG) and that makes them extremely difficult to maneuver. Given the light gathering capability and lack of auto focus these lenses need careful handling. Tripod is more or less necessary when using lenses like Jupiter 21M not only because of the lens but also because the auto and manual aperture switches which are located on the lens.  Also better be careful as these lenses are not only heavy but also usually with no brackets or sockets for tripod mounting. Its no hanky panky business with these lenses. Remember there are also others that are not as heavy.  
Helios 44M
As they are subject to manual focus, they won’t be easy to focus. Lot of manual effort is needed (don’t be frustrated). As they are slow they are not suited to certain types of photography like sports (but still!) or even commercial photography (fashion, wedding), but rest assured nobody will sue you if you do. 

  • Affordability (10 bucks? Seriously?)
  • Novelty (do you know anybody who has one?....exactly)
  • Killer looks
  • Sturdy build (Can also be used as an emergency projectile, heavy enough to break human bones)
  • Minimal or low Chromatic Aberration (depending on the model)

Some of my favorite Russian lenses 
Remember all Russian lenses are made for both export and domestic use. It is said, but not proven though, they say mostly the ones meant for export are of better quality. So how to know if the lens you are going to order is meant for export???. Models meant for export reportedly have roman characters as opposed to the ones with Cyrillic characters which are meant for domestic use. Example: Mir 1B is domestic, Mir 1V is export (both are the same lens). Russian V is B (BOCTOK? VOSTOK? Remember?) (Oh btw on a completely different note, I lobe Vostok automatic watches, haha)

When buying lenses, first of all check flickr for images shot with the particular lens to gauge the photographic output. That way you will have a better idea if you really want to buy the lens and what kind of work you can do with it.  

Mir 1B (or V) (image courtesy wikipedia) 

Mir 1V 37mm f2.8
I just fell in love with this lens. I was checking out some pictures of Mir 1V on flickr and I gasped in awe and amazement at the superior quality. There is nothing cosmetic either about their looks or their output. The Mir 1V will NOT give you dense colors (who needs em anyway) but the detail and contrast is something beyond extraordinary. Its design is based on the Zeiss Flektogon. The output is out of this world. It is produced at the VOMZ (BOM3) plant in Vologda, Vologodsky district, Russia.
The Jupiter 11A 135mm f4
This lens has a 10 by 10 rating for sharpness, handling and value on Pentax forums.  This is a different lens from Jupiter 11. For a low price of the lens you have superb IQ, brilliant colors, excellent corner to corner sharpness and rendition. There are both silver and black versions, silver being the older model.
The Jupiter 21M 200mm f4.0
Some say the color rendition, sharpness and overall looks of this lens surpass even the famous Minolta beercan (literally has more weight than beer can at 980grams, that’s almost a kilo) Others are also of the opinion that it is far better than the Sony SAL 75-300 and is markedly sharp at all apertures. Automatic Diaphragm. On a APS-C camera the focal length would be 300mm (which means extraordinary close-up portraits/macro shots, just go wild)  
Industar 61 L/Z
This lens has almost the same specifications as Volna 9 (which is also a great lens btw). Some are of the opinion that its better than Volna 9, some differ. However I have discounted Volna 9 from the list solely based on its price, which costs double than the Industar. Being a budget photographer I personally would rather choose the Industar.
Jupiter 9 85mm f2.0
This lens is in its own class. At 85mm (more than 100mm on an APS-C DSLR) this can make an excellent portrait or macro lens. Keep in mind colors are not its strongest point (a little bit neutral). Its contrast and rendering is amazing. If your lens has a hood fine, if not, better get a multi-coated version as a lot of users online reported some flare.  There are good and bad version of this lens. So better buy from a reputed seller. 
Tair 3 300mm f4.5 (Photosniper 12s)
Camera, lens and the gun mount of the Tair 3 Photosniper

Coming from a company like KMZ which makes sniper scopes for the military, this lens should not come to you as a surprise. It weighs 1.6 kilograms and that is quite a heft. Image quality according to reports is top notch. These lenses come in two versions. With and without the Photosniper 12s Gun (not a real gun ofcourse, it just looks it ;) and comes in a huge box.
Just a word of caution though. You may be the greatest photo journalist in the world, but never go into a politically charged/war torn/socially restless area with this photo sniper. If somebody shoots your funky posterior down, that's nobody’s mistake. You have been warned.

Note that apart from these there are hundreds of other great lenses to choose in the Russian lineup. These represent only a small fraction which happen to be my personal favorites.

Conclusion:  These Russian lenses win on two aspects price and quality. Convenience and speed are not their specialty, but for hobby photographers who want to really learn the ropes of photography, these lenses could provide excellent opportunity to do so. Learning the old fashioned way has never hurt any one. If you got deep pockets, or a rich dad or relative or friend, you can go ahead and splurge your money on those over hyped plastic lenses with plastic optics that cost a bomb, but the rest of us know for sure we are in good hands. There's no school like the old school.

Here is another article about old lenses. should you really buy them ? read on...


 --Viisshnu Vardhan--  

P.S: Hey how about the Review of the Sony a200 DSLR and there's a story about how I lost and found it ?

Here you go: