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Pentax vs Contax: Testing 2 Go-To Film Cameras for Wedding Photography

Today we’re going to take a look at two film cameras. We have the Pentax 645nII and the Contax 645: two of the last medium format film bodies ever produced, and the two most popular go-to cameras for wedding shooters who are still shooting film.

There are lots of reasons why this is the case. While they don’t have fancy Eye autofocus or anything like that, they both have pretty good autofocus systems, very fast motor drives, and all the basic bells and whistles you could get on a film camera in the early 2000s.

They also have a meter inside. So if you want to use a meter you can shoot quickly, you can actually rely on the meter, especially if you’re shooting negative film where you have a lot of latitude.

There is a price difference between these two. The Contax is way more expensive at around $3,000, whereas you can get the Pentax for around $1,000. However, the Contax has a Swiss Planar T Zeiss lens, which is an incredibly sharp lens, and you also have a removable back on the Contax.

Pentax does not have a removable back, which means you have to fire through your whole roll of film before you can change. That’s a huge bonus for the Contax.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the lens on the Pentax only goes down to f/2.8, whereas the lens on the Contax goes down to a f/2. A lot of people think that that’s kind of a big deal. They like the idea of shooting at f/2, especially with the medium format. So I’m interested to take some portraits and compare the two to see how much of a difference it makes.

But aperture aside, the Pentax lens also doesn’t feel quite as nice as the Contax, and it shows up in the image quality. Speaking of which…

Image Quality Comparison

When comparing images from these two cameras, right off the bat, you do see there is a little bit more warmth in the Pentax. This image is a little out of focus with the Pentax unfortunately, but you do see that warmth there. And a little more contrast with the Contax Zeiss Lens.

Of course, you are scanning these things after processing the film, so whoever is making the decisions on these scans can push them around a lot. It’s just like being in Lightroom or Camera Raw. I would guess you could make these things match pretty close if you want to, but right out of the gate, with no additional work, the Contax has a richer, heavier color, heavier blacks, and heavier contrast than the Pentax.

Here we have our shot of the Capitol Records building. It is out of focus again on the Pentax.

We were at a distance here, and at this distance with the background that far away, the way the two lenses fall out of focus feels very similar. They’re both set to f/2.8, and they feel very similar, although there is a difference in the character of the bokeh.

If you look at the bokeh on the Pentax on the right it’s more oblong, whereas the bokeh is more round on the Contax.

When we were out working, the Contax was a little slower on the autofocus, even in bright sunlight. When we came back indoors and tried pointing both cameras at things here inside, that’s where the Pentax really pulled ahead. Both cameras would hunt, but the Pentax could actually find a subject and lock on somewhere with pretty much every frame. The Contax never stopped hunting, and because it can’t autofocus it can’t take an image.

I would say autofocus in a low light situation with the Contax is unusable. The Pentax seems a lot more usable in lower light and the viewfinder is brighter in the Pentax. So the ease-of-use in low light is better with the Pentax. That’s quite an advantage…

But back to the image comparison.

In this image, you can really see the difference between f/2.8 on the Pentax and f/2.0 on the Contax—it really falls out of focus much quicker, rendering a much prettier background with beautiful bokeh. I also love the way it resolves the lines around the trees.

It’s not all due to the aperture though, as you can see in the image below:

These are both shot at f/2.8 with the same distance between the subject and the background and the same distance between the subject and the camera. For some reason, the Contax falls out of focus faster letting the subject really pop out of the frame.

In contrast, this is probably the image where they look the most similar, although you definitely see a little more detail in her skin with the Contax. You get those nice lines in her face, and just a little more definition. With the Pentax, you get a much softer look—it feels almost like you’ve softened her face in post.

And here’s our final image. Unfortunately the Pentax was (again) not quite focused right here—it’s not focused on her right eye, it’s focused on her left eye.

But again, you see a little bit more warmth with the Pentax through the leaves, and more fall-off and contrast from the Contax with the Zeiss lens. It’s really a very pretty image, especially from the Contax with the way it falls out of focus.

Conclusion

If I was a wedding photographer and I was doing this seriously, I would definitely get a Contax. Yes, even with the autofocus being unusable in low light, I would just manual focus the Contax. The image quality is worth it.

I just think the Contax looks beautiful. The images have a very pretty look.

That’s not to say the Pentax is a bad option. At 1/3 the price, and with better AF, I feel like the Pentax is a great option, especially if you’re new to this. If you’re trying to get into film and get into the medium format world, the Pentax it’s super affordable, and it’s one of the newest medium format film cameras you can buy. I’ve seen them as low as $650 or $700 for the body.

The truth is, you can’t go wrong either way when it comes to these two cameras, it just depends on what your needs are. What do you want to spend it on? If image quality is king, consider spending the extra money on the Contax; if ease-of-use is more important, and budget it limited, the Pentax is a great option.


About the author: Jay P. Morgan is a commercial photographer with over two decades of experience in the industry. He teaches photography through his company, The Slanted Lens, which runs a popular YouTube channel. This review was also published here.

4 Steps Every Photographer Should Know To Balance Strobes and Sunlight

In this video and article, Chanda AM is going to help me illustrate how to balance ambient light with strobes. I love shooting in this situation with ambient light and strobe light. I want to be able to combine the ambient light here in this beautiful area with strobes.

So the way I generally do this is:

First off, I set her up so that she has the sun coming from behind. I always like the sun from behind because it gives her a nice rim light on her hat and on her shoulders. But I’m going to keep her in the shade pretty much.

It’s just that little bit of rim light coming through is giving us a few highlights on her hair, on her back, and on her hat. If I’m out in direct sun, I’ll throw up a translucent to make it look like she’s in the shade or just a plain reflector to get her out of the sun.

Step 1: Choose an Aperture for Creative Reasons

Choose an aperture for creative reasons. How much depth of field do you want? Do you want a shallow depth of field or do you want a deep depth of field? I want a shallow depth of field. I could choose a deep depth of field, but that’s not my creative purpose.

Right now I want a shallow depth of field. So I’m going to go to f/5. I can make it shallower than that. But for me, I want enough depth field to keep her face and her head sharp. And I let the background fall out of focus, and 5 does that really nicely on a 150mm lens (I used the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Lens). So that’s the number one point, choose your aperture for creative reasons.

Step 2: Set Shutter Speed to 1/200s

Number two is I’m going to set my shutter at 1/200th of a second. The reason I choose 1/200th of a second is that it is going to get rid of the most amount of ambient possible in the scene without having to go to high-speed sync. So I’m at 1/200th of a second, I’ve chosen f/5 for creative reasons.

Step 3: Match Strobe Power to Aperture

Now principle number three. I’m going to match the power of my strobes to my aperture. (I am using the Westcott FJ400 Strobe and Westcott 2’x3′ Softbox.) I’m going to dial the power up or down until I get the perfect amount of light on her face. I just want the strobes to match the aperture. I don’t care about the ambient light. I don’t care how dark the image looks. I just want the strobes to look right on her face.

So at f/5, I’m going to take an image here at 1/200th of a second and just see what we got. Here the strobes are perfect. I’ve dialed them up and down, and I’ve made my adjustments on my strobe. I have that strobe in a nice position up front here, the lighter face, I’ve tilted it up slightly. So I’ve got a vignette off from her shirt, but it’s too dark in the background.

Step 4: Increase Shutter Speed to Give Light to the Background

So number four, I now start increasing my shutter until I like what I see in the background. So I’m going to go from 1/200th to 1/100th sec. Now the background is becoming brighter. I like what I’m seeing. I’m going to go to 1/50s and now I’m getting some life into that background. I could even go I think to 1/30s. Yeah, I’ve got a beautiful background that she feels like she’s integrated with. The strobes don’t feel like they’re lighting it. It looks like it’s just the ambient glowing light in the scene and it looks fabulous.

The Formula

So there’s a simple formula:

1. Choose your aperture for creative reasons.

2. Set your shutter at 1/200th of a second.

3. Balance your strobe power, dial it up and down until it matches the aperture.

4. Then start opening up that shutter until you like the background the way it looks.

And that integrates those two together and then shoot away. I’m going to shoot some.

Now if I start getting a hot spot in there, and I can see one right now. You can see just over her shoulders is a really bright spot back there. I’m just going to move my camera a little bit, it doesn’t have to be very much. And I’m going to get rid of that hotspot.

So here are two images without and with the strobe. You can see the difference. Just adding a little bit of strobe opens up the image and makes it look wonderful. I got there by first getting rid of as much of the ambient as I possibly could. Then I set my strobe to my aperture, then I added the ambient until I like the look and shot away.

It’s important to note that it doesn’t mean that there won’t be any ambient light on her face. There will be ambient light on her face. But the formula allows you to get rid of all that ambient light on her face. Just see what the strobe is going to do the make sure you like the strobe and then set your aperture.

Then you add the ambient back in and you’ll find the perfect marriage of those two, strobe and ambient. Sometimes you may have a lot of ambient light on her face. Other times might not be much at all. But I’m also looking at the background trying to get that background balanced with her face as well. So I’m looking at those two things as I make my shutter longer and longer, adding more and more ambient until I like what I get. (I used the FotoproUSA X-Go Max Tripod on this shoot.)

If you do this at sunset, you can keep dragging that shutter to a second, two seconds, etc. And that gives you a really deep blue sky that looks fabulous.

That’s the formula to be able to balance your strobes in ambient light outside. So let’s wrap this up.

Follow the four steps for balancing strobe light to the ambient light and you’ll get beautiful images quickly, efficiently, and creatively every single time. Choose your aperture, put your shutter at 1/200 of a second. Set your strobes to your aperture then increase the length of your shutter until you like the match between your ambient and your strobes and shoot away. It is that easy.


About the author: Jay P. Morgan is a commercial photographer with over two decades of experience in the industry. He teaches photography through his company, The Slanted Lens, which runs a popular YouTube channel. This article was also published here.

A Comparison of Variable ND Filters

Is there a good variable ND filter out there? Today, we’re going to take a look at variable ND filters. We compare Peter McKinnon’s Polar Pro, B&W, Syrp, and Tiffen variable ND Filters. Let’s see if those pricey Peter McKinnon filters are worth it compared to some of the less expensive options.

So I just dropped $450 on Peter McKinnon’s variable ND Filters from Polar Pro. I needed some quick for a job. They were trusted. I love a couple of features. They have stop markings and hard stops and they seem pretty robust. So I dropped all that money on them because I needed a good set. And I want to see if it was worth it compared to some of the cheaper options.

I was on a shoot one day and I needed a variable ND Filters for three cameras. So I bought the Tiffin $175 inexpensive variable ND filters. Let’s compare these. We’re also going to look at the Syrp ND filters and the B&W ND Filters. What do we need to look for? What’s the concern?

Let me just say this, I don’t love variable ND Filters. One of the biggest reasons for that is color shift. Most of them have some sort of shift that’s not good at all. And then you’re also dealing with stuff like vignetting and cross-hatching because the variable ND is just two polarizers that are stuck back to back. So it can do some weird stuff to the light that’s entering the lens. And sometimes it’ll kill the contrast. It’s really interesting how it will affect the contrast. So it’s really important to look at those three things and to see what’s a good variable ND that is going to work for you. I think you’re going to be very shocked at just how little you have to pay. Let’s check it out.

We want you to see the different filters and exactly how they respond to color contrast and cross-hatching and things like that. We’re going to go quickly through these. Most of the filters were within 400 degrees Kelvin off. I think our B&W filters are like 150 degrees off. We white-balanced all these using an eyedropper in Photoshop back to a clean color and then we saw how much they had changed from the original. How much the color setting had changed.

Here we have the no filter image first. There is a tiny bit of vignetting in the corners. We eye dropped close here to the corner of the building. It’s like 5100 degrees Kelvin plus 11 on the camera.

Now we’re going to pull up our first filter here. It is the B&W 1-5 stop variable ND. The image on the left is uncorrected with the filter and then the image on the right we’ve eye dropped that same spot again to adjust it. This is 1.3 stops, which is the minimum on the B&W filter. So it’s pretty accurate. It corrected back really nicely. It’s a beautiful clean image. The blue is wonderful. It didn’t lose the contrast too much. So it actually looks great. But how does it look now if we go to three stops?

At three stops in the uncorrected image, you see the color start to wash out a little and there’s some weird shading going on. You’re starting to see that cross-hatching develop. But once you correct it, it actually doesn’t look bad. It’s a little shadowy and a little bit desaturated. It’s not amazing. It’s okay.

Then at five stops it actually looks better in my opinion at five stops then at three stops. Even though we did have to correct it a bit more. We see a little darkness in the lower right corner and lightness light in the sky. It shifted 450 degrees K and plus 10 magenta. It really looks better at 1.3 stops or up to five stops.

So let’s go to the Polar Pro. This is the one I’m already really invested in. So I was hoping that it would do great. We will let you be the judge. The minimum is 1.3 stops. It looks great corrected. It actually looks almost identical to the original. It shifted 300 degrees Kelvin and plus 10 magenta. But it easily corrected and looks good.

But then after that it turns kind of ugly. It gets muddy looking in the middle, and this is at three stops here.

At five stops it seems like the colors just got desaturated. So even though we correct it with the white balance, but the color is gone. It was that really. So the Polar Pro at 5 stops shifted minus 300 K plus 9 magenta. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that it just became very desaturated and muddy looking.

The 6 stop mark on this filter is actually delivering 5.6 stops of filtration and then the nine stop mark is delivering 7.3 stops with filtration. So it doesn’t actually filter out as much light as it advertises, which is kind of a disappointment. The color shifting at the minimum setting is still kind of bad. The 6 stop mark is not as bad as the last one was. It’s minus 400 degrees K, 6 magenta. It’s a little desaturated. It’s not quite as bad but feels kind of muddy again to me.

But then at the 9-stop mark or 7.3 stops it clears up. And actually, it looks pretty good. So if you’re using this combo of lenses, it works really well at the minimum, like the one-stop and the seven-stop end.

But in between really messes around with the color. The disappointment here for me is it’s not filtering nine stops of light.

Okay, so the Syrp 1-9 filter. This is the original image. This has way more vignetting. It kind of collapses on the side and gets dark on the sides. The color is actually pretty consistent. We lose about 450 K plus 2 magenta. Not much magenta shift but about 450 K. On its max it is 150 K.

It doesn’t desaturate. It just gets these dark areas on the right and left. You can see where the cross-hatching is starting. Maybe with some subject matters this wouldn’t show but if you have any kind of a high key area in your image like the blue sky like we have here, it is super noticeable, especially for video. If you are moving around, it’s going to be really noticeable. So that Syrp 1-9 is really more like a 1-6. With vignetting all the way through.

Let’s look at the newer Syrp 5-10. They call this the super dark filter. The range is about 5.3 to 9.6. Again, the color looks pretty good, but the vignetting is super heavy. It’s okay at the 5 stop end but it gets really bad at the 9. It looks almost as if you’ve isolated or masked out the building and you made the entire sky black. It is shifting from 300 K to 250 K plus 10 magenta. But the cross-hatching is a problem. I will say the color is pretty good all the way through. It doesn’t give you that muddy look like we got with the Polar Pro.

All right, here’s the Tiffin 1-9. It actually is not bad for being the cheapest option. I think at the 1 stop it’s really about 1.6 stops. At that end, it looks super clean with hardly any effect to the image.

Then we go to 3 stops and it is pretty good, still really clean.

We shot this to 7.3. I think this is probably as far as I felt comfortable pushing it. I felt like this is the max. It doesn’t go to nine because nine doesn’t work.

I would back off of this. I would probably just keep it at 6 stops.

It has the cleanest color this shift. It shifted minus 350 or 250 K. So it didn’t shift that much. But you just start getting that vignetting so early.

Let’s look at all these filters at their minimum setting at 1-2 stops. At this end, they all do pretty well, except the Syrp is already vignetting. But it’s hard to say a clear winner here. And now we have them all at three stops. The Syrp has the vignetting and the Polar Pro and the B&W are both a little desaturated. I’d pick the Tiffin at this point.

This is at 3 stops.

So here’s 6 or 7 stops on all the filters that can go that far. Polar Pro looks pretty good at the dark end. This is 7.3 stops Polar Pro’s colors cleaned up and doesn’t have that muddy look. I’d actually say it’s the best of the bunch at 7 stop end. The Syrp is still vignetting. The Syrp 5-10 vignetting is even worse, which is surprising because you think the super dark filter would be the one that was better at being super dark. The Tiffin does again have vignetting. It’s really more of a 1-5 filter but I thought I’d pull it up again just to see how it compares.

We tested a B&W straight filter and not a variable ND. This is a 3 stop and a 6 stop. So you can stack these to give yourself a 9 stop ND filter. It is startling how much cleaner these are color-wise and you don’t get any of the vignetting. The difference between the corrected and uncorrected images is almost negligible. It’s clean all the way across.

Those B&W filters are super high quality.

We threw in these Amazon filters. I had some filters that my son-in-law wanted. I told my wife they were terrible filters. I think they were around $50 for the set of 3. I’d be shocked if they were any good at all. They are not as good as the B&W. You get a little more of this shading going on and the color was a little less accurate, but it still beats out the variable ND filters.

So here’s my takeaway on this, if you’re a still photographer, and you need ND filters to be able to give yourself blurring water in the daytime or doing time-lapse where you want to have the people moving using a long shutter, buy a straight-up 3 stop and 6 stop set like the B&W. I think that B&W 3 and 6 will give you up to nine stops of ND. It’s going to give you really clean color all the way through but allow you to get that blurry water.

Now if you’re a video shooter and screwing and unscrewing filters isn’t practical in the run and gun situation, you want the variable ND because it’s fast. You have a range from 1-5 stops with just a twist of a thing, it doesn’t have to come off the camera. I think if I had to make a choice, it’d be really tough.

I’m leaning towards the Tiffin just because it was so consistent, but it only gives you up to 5, maybe 6 stops of filtration and often that’s not enough. If I want to shoot at a 2.8 outside in the daylight you really need 8 stops or 10 stops of ND.

I think if I had to choose a runner up, I might go with a B&W quality glass. It was 1-5 stops. There was a little bit of washed-out color. I think the worst offenders were the Polar Pro because the color just went crazy in the middle. It was good on the ends, but in the middle range it is terrible.

But there was no vignetting so it has that going for it. And the Syrp just had crazy vignetting yet the color was okay. This whole thing was a huge surprise. The cheapest option was maybe the best one which never happens in photography.

So kudos to Tiffen, who has been making filters for a long time and they have an excellent product.

So there you have it, a look at variable ND filters and a look at some standard ND filters. Hope this helps you make a decision as a photographer or as a videographer on what’s the best one for you to buy and to use on your camera.


About the author: Jay P. Morgan is a commercial photographer with over two decades of experience in the industry. He teaches photography through his company, The Slanted Lens, which runs a popular YouTube channel. This article was also published here.