One of the dangers of using in-camera sharpening or generic sharpening amounts is that you may missing out on the file detail achievable with your camera and lenses. In-camera sharpening settings, whether low or high, often use a fairly large radius which masks fine detail. Generic settings, like the infamous Photoshop intensity of 100, coupled with a radius of 1.0, might work fine for a portrait, but leave a lot of detail on the table for a landscape shot.
To illustrate how a higher intensity, lower radius setting can help, here are a few test shots made with a Pansonic GF1 camera. For those not familiar with the camera, it uses a Micro 4/3 sensor that's slightly smaller than a DX body, so getting the most from the image is critical. The first image is the overall scene, followed by a 100% crop sharpened in the Photoshop Smart Sharpening module at 100, 1, and then one sharpened at 400, 0.5 in that same tool. Note that this sharpening is intended to be just the first round and would be followed up by a second round that optimized the image for printing.
Sharpened at 100, 1:
Sharpened at 400, 0.5
Pretty remarkable, isn't it? Before assuming that your camera or lens is incapable of giving you the fine details you want, make sure you've fully exercised your capture sharpening options. Don't view these settings as magic ones since they'll vary between cameras and different post-processing programs. The important thing is to try cranking down the radius while increasing the intensity. If you have a low-noise image, the results can be remarkable, especially when you're making a larger sized print. It's also yet another reason why shooting in a raw format can give you much more flexibility than a jpeg, especially if you sharpened that jpeg in the camera.
Have fun with it!
Although I thoroughly enjoy using my Nikon DSLRs for most subjects, there are times when something smaller and lighter is a desirable option. I travel a lot, and sometimes it's not practical to lug along a large camera coupled with a lens or two. Like many other photographers, I have a digital point and shoot camera, but the image quality isn't up to what I'm used to, especially at higher ISO's. It also doesn't have the flexibility in focal length choices or apertures I've grown to appreciate. As a result, there's a gap I've wanted to fill for a while.
This gap didn't always exist. When I was using film, I had a parallel system for situations where I wanted to travel light. I used a Contax G2, along with a few lenses, for this kind of photography. In addition to a smaller size and lighter weight, the lenses were relatively compact and reasonably fast. It was a fun system to use, and the feeling of being unencumbered and more mobile was great. While it wasn't what I would have wanted to use for a lot of my photography, it worked great for travel shots. Results were excellent due to its high quality lenses, but more importantly, it was a camera I had with me rather than a camera I left at home. I still own the system, but haven't used it much in recent years, primarily because I've grown so accustomed to the benefits of digital.
In a podcast a while back, Jason Odell and I discussed this need. We both wanted to see another choice on the market: something small and lightweight, capable of producing quality results, and offering interchangeable lenses. In an ideal world, we both wanted a Live View style LCD display, as well as an optical viewfinder. Fast forward in time a bit, and we're getting closer to that goal, although we haven't quite arrived.
Over the last few months, I've been using a couple of Micro 4/3 format cameras in an experimental mode. For those not familiar with the format, it's the same size as the 4/3 format (slightly smaller than DX), but is designed to work with a shorter lens to sensor distance. The shorter distance is enabled by the absence of a traditional pentaprism and mirror, and viewing is instead done via electronic means, either via an electronic viewfinder or an LCD display on the back of the camera. In addition to a standardized mount shared between the two companies, devices like electronic flashes are also compatible. In other words, you can use an Olympus flash on a Pansonic camera and vice versa, and the same holds true with lenses. Because I was interested in a very compact form factor, I focused my attention to the smallest of the bunch, the Olympus E-P1 (http://www.olympusamerica.com/cpg_section/product.asp?product=1461) and the Panasonic GF1 (http://panasonic.net/avc/lumix/systemcamera/gms/gf1/index.html). I also tried a variety of lenses, including two "pancake" style lenses, the Olympus 17mm 2.8 and the Panasonic 20mm 1.7, two kit zooms (a 14-42mm and 14-45mm, respectively) and the Panasonic 45-200mm. The format multiplifier for Micro 4/3 is 2x, so just multiply the focal lengths by two to get an approximate 35mm equivalent.
So, what are my thoughts after a few months time with the cameras? Well, image quality is pretty good. The noise levels are much lower than on most current point and shoot cameras - a direct benefit of the much larger sensor size. In fact, the images from these cameras look pretty similar to what you'd find with current Nikon DX DSLRs. At higher ISOs (above 800), I'd give the edge to the Nikons, but these come very close. To get the best balance of detail vs. noise, shooting in raw is an advantage, and both cameras support a raw format - a great thing. I also found the color saturation pleasing, even as the ISO's were increased. That's not something I would say for point and shoots in general. So far, so good.
Having interchangeable lenses is another positive point. Both pancake lenses are incredibly small, and shooting with them is fun. I'd definitely give the edge to the Panasonic 20mm 1.7 over the Olympus 17mm 2.8. The Olympus is okay, but the Panasonic is truly remarkable. I accidentally made a fairly detailed shot of my neighborhood with the lens at f/2 and was stunned by the level of detail in the shot. If someone had told me it was made at f/8 I wouldn't have been surprised. Getting the Panasonic 20mm lens seems like a "no-brainer" to me. The combination of a stop and half faster maximum aperture, coupled with better optical performance, is a great deal. Both standard zooms work well and produce good results, with the Olympus having a unique collapsing design to reduce the thickness of the combined lens and body. It certainly does that, but it also lengthens the time it takes to get the camera ready. I view it as a mixed benefit. The Panasonic 45-200mm has an impressive range (90mm-400mm equivalent) in a tiny package and includes optical stabilization, just as the 14-45mm does (the Olympus system has in-body image stabilization). Unfortunately, I found the 45-200mm a bit awkward to use at longer focal lengths compared with a normal DSLR. Because there's no built-in optical viewfinder and you're using the rear LCD screen for viewing, it's a bit difficult to stabilize the camera well at the longest focal lengths. Panasonic does offer a relatively low-resolution electronic viewfinder that plugs into the hot shoe, but I wasn't able to try it. Comments I've seen regarding it have been mixed, with most leaning slightly in the negative direction, so I don't view it as a desirable solution. That's too bad, but maybe there will be an improved version in the future.
An interesting characteristic with this system is that lens distortion is automatically corrected in-camera or in the maker's raw conversion software. Incidentally, neither the Olympus software nor the Panasonic software (Silkypix is what they use) is exactly a shining star of speed and ease of use. I'd avoid them if you can. Adobe's Lightroom and Camera Raw software (much better choices) automatically correct distortion and even recognize the options for different aspect ratios (3:4, 2:3 and 9:16). Pretty slick, but also necessary, as the native distortion of some of these lenses are on the high side. If you use another raw converter with these cameras (like Capture One), you'll need to correct the images yourself or use an application like PTLens to do it.
I can't say that composing on an LCD screen is my favorite thing to do. Using Live View on a Nikon DSLR while mounted on a tripod works pretty well, but the standard point and shoot style of composition isn't my first choice. I'd much rather look through a viewfinder, especially under bright lighting conditions. Again, this isn't a deal-killer, but it isn't my preference.
Another mixed area is flash. The Olympus E-P1 lacks a built-in flash, so you're forced to take an accessory flash in low-light situations or when you want fill-flash. The Panasonic GF1 has a pop-up flash, but it's relatively low-powered. It's fine for short-range work, but that's about it. Once you add an accessory flash, you're now carrying more items, although the smallest Olympus flash, the FL-14, is pretty compact and lightweight.
The autofocus performance of these two cameras is surprisingly different, with the Panasonic responding much quicker. The Olympus is fairly sluggish in comparison and hunts more. I wouldn't use either camera for action photography (that's where a DSLR really shines), so slower performance isn't a deal-killer, but it's disappointing the Olympus isn't faster. It appears to be a combination of both their AF mechanism and their lenses, and the latest firmware version didn't do much to improve the speed. I'd give the Panasonic a decisive edge here.
In terms of other features, I'd say it's a draw between the two bodies. Both were easy to use and had similar capabilities. Both had solid construction, with the Olympus leaning toward a retro design reminscent of the older Olympus Pen SLRs, and the Panasonic having a more modern look. I didn't have a distinct preference either way and both felt nice in hand.
An interest aspect of this format is that because of the short lens flange to sensor distance, coupled with the electronic viewfinder, it's possible to mount and use almost any interchangeable lens ever made. That includes Nikon lenses, which is a nice feature. In the future, I plan to run some tests using Nikon and Leica M adapters. This increases the options for lenses, especially in the medium telephoto range. The in-body stabilization feature of the Olympus is an advantage here, since it will work with all lenses. Just be aware that the simpler adapters won't control the aperture of a G-series Nikon lens. The older ones with an aperture ring are more suitable.
When you're using these cameras, you really sense you're handling something much smaller and lighter than a DSLR, even if you compare them to the smallest Nikon DSLRs. In addition to a much smaller and thinner body, the lenses are appreciably more compact, so the combined package feels much more like a point and shoot camera than a DSLR. If you shoot with a regular DSLR (or a mongo one like my D3X) and then switch to one of these cameras, the difference is remarkable and refreshing. It feels almost effortless in comparison. In addition, these cameras are easy to pack in a carry-on suitcase, especially if you separate the lenses from the body and pack them between a layer of clothing. To get the equivalent capabilities in a DSLR, you're faced with a much bulkier kit, one that you won't necessarily be able to bring with you in every situation.
So far, I've talked about some positive things, as well as some negative ones. What's the bottom line? For me, I like these Micro 4/3 cameras. While not perfect (what is?), the results are much better than point and shoot cameras I've used, especially in low-light situations, and they offer a level of control over the image not found with those cameras. The Pansonic 20mm 1.7 is real gem and offers a remarkable combination of speed and optical performance in a compact package. Having a lens this sharp while wide open enables the use of selective focus techniques to isolate a subject - something quite difficult with point and shoots. They just have too much depth of field, even at maximum aperture. Also, the small size of these cameras makes them very unobtrusive to others, which means they can be used in more situations without generating concerns. You don't come across as a professional photographer; you just seem like a tourist with a point and shoot, even though the results are better.
On a practical level, you could make a case for a small DSLR and an inexpensive, compact kit lens being a better deal. You'd have something that was directly compatible with your primary system, could serve as a back-up body and offered better versatility. What you wouldn't have are the benefits I mentioned above, including the very small size and lighter weight.
For me, I'd put one of these cameras in the "keeper" category, but I'd also resist too heavy of involvement in the system. A 7-14mm wide angle lens would be fun to have, but the Panasonic version runs around $1100 US, so the investment costs in a parallel and slightly duplicative system really start to grow. If you can afford it, that's okay, but it's something to consider. Which one would I recommend as my first choice? Probably the Panasonic GF1. The faster autofocus performance, built-in flash, and slightly better image quality give it the edge. I'd combine it with the 20mm 1.7 (a must have), the 14-45mm zoom, and a small flash. That would be a really nice portable kit and one that would cover a lot of needs for me. I can't see replacing a DSLR system with one of these, but if I were thirty years older, I might.
It's good to have another option on the market. It's a shame that Nikon has missed this opportunity, just as they have with their point and shoots, but maybe they'll see serious photographers responding to these Panasonic and Olympus systems and react. It would be an easy way to broaden their market share and not lose it to other companies. A compact Nikon body with a DX sensor that could use Nikon CLS flashes and F-mount lenses via an adapter would be really desirable, but it doesn't exist today. We can always wish for something like that in the future. To be completely honest, what I'd really like is a Leica M9, but that's substantially more money. If any kind soul would like to start up a "Get Rick an M9" fund, more power to you. In the meantime (and in the absence of that fund), one of these Micro 4/3 cameras will accompany me on trips where a DSLR is just too much camera to lug around.
A lot of times we get wrapped up in the seriousness of photography. We want to get things as sharp as possible, the colors or tones exactly the way we want them, and the composition perfect. Those sound like good aspirations, and sometimes they help make the shot. Unfortunately, that same seriousness can keep you from growing as a photographer.
A lesson that we should take from children is that "play" is often one of the best ways of learning. In our recent podcast interview (episode #99) with Julieanne Kost of Adobe (www.jkost.com/index.html), we briefly touched on the idea of playing around with new features in software programs as a way of learning. We even got a bit serious and suggested the idea of a self-assignment where you deliberately devote time to exploring a specific feature or technique. The concept was to force yourself out of patterns you may have inadvertantly settled into over time - patterns that lead you to getting bored with your work. I think it's a great idea.
You can go much broader, though. Consider the idea of injecting "play" into other aspects of photography as well. Try things that have a high risk of failure such as motion blur, multiple exposures, extreme lighting, HDR, non-traditional uses of flash - you name it. Most probably won't work out, but some will, and those that do will increase the number of techniques in your photographic toolkit. In some cases, existing images that just didn't quite work as straight images may work well using wilder post-processing approaches. You may come to the conclusion that what seemed "wild" is now part of your standard repertoire. Having expanded your horizons, your existing library of images can now take on new life and marginal shots can become your masterpieces.
A personal example for me has been using Nik Color Efex plug-ins (www.niksoftware.com). While I've had them for some time, I really didn't use them a lot. I admired their breadth and diversity, but only used a couple of them, and even those weren't used that often. I gave myself an assignment and permission to get a litttle crazy and used them extensively on several recent shoots. Instead of just trying the initial defaults and seeing if I liked the results or not, I forced myself to use some of the filters and played extensively with the settings and values (and there are a large number of them). What I found is that filters I previously ignored can produce results I really like, and that's led to an expansion of my photographic style. Not everyone may like the results, but I like them, and when I get around to it, some might even find their way onto my website.
So, here's your assignment for the next month: devote some time to pure photographic play, whether it's while you're shooting or when you're post-processing your images. It could even involve going through years-old images and creating new interpretations of them. That bit of play could end up expanding your volume of photographic work.
At the same time that photography is flourishing and more and more photographers are getting serious their work, airline carry-on restrictions are getting tougher. Within the US, things aren't too restrictive at present, but there's noise about making guidelines tighter. Internationally, weight restrictions can be quite tough, with 8-10kg limits quite common and some airlines having even tougher ones. If you're planning to photograph wildlife at your destination with a larger lens or even if you're taking a more modest kit with you, weight restrictions can wreak havoc. Note that these are not just theoretical, unenforced guidelines; I've seen scales in active use at airline gates in some countries. What can you do to work this added challenge (other than causually swinging your camera bag around to the side of you that the gate attendant can't see)? Yes, I actually did the latter once. :)
First, think hard about what you really need to take. Going light can be a blessing rather than a hindrance, but I realize it doesn't work for every subject. Nevertheless, scrutinize what you're packing, do it several days in advance, and then start pulling things out that fall in the optional category. Chances are good that those optional items really are optional, and that through a bit of creativity, you can work around their absence. Do you really need every lens you own? Is it necessary to bring every grad filter you have or would one two-stop soft grad suffice? These are some of the things you need to consider.
After that, consider what can go in checked luggage rather than your carry-on bag. I almost always place my tripod in my checked bag, surrounded by layers of clothes and with the ballhead removed so that the tripod isn't wedged in tightly. There should be ample space around it so that your tripod isn't absorbing the shock of a direct hit to the bag. Other items that routinely go in the checked bag include a flash unit, occasionally a back-up body, and sometimes a lens that would serve in a backup role. The tripod is obvious because of its size, but my judgment on the other items is based on their replacement costs and the impact if the bag disappears. Again, this is for flights with severe weight restrictions. If I'm flying in the US, I go with something that will fit in the overhead compartment of the plane and worry less about the weight. I can always pull out optional items and leave them in a car or hotel room (preferably one with a safe), if I want to lighten my load while I'm out shooting.
Next, think about the style of bag you're taking. Ones with wheels are certainly convenient, but you don't want to use up 70% of your weight allowance on the bag. Check manufacturers' websites for the weights of bags you're contemplating. If you have your own, weigh it. Incidentally, a fish scale works great in this situation. There are relatively high capacity bags that weigh only one to two kgs or a few pounds, so there really are viable solutions on the market. Some that come to mind are made by companies like ThinkTank, Gura Gear and Moose Peterson. Some don't have as much padding as others, but if you're careful with your gear (like I tend to be), you don't necessarily need a lot, especially if it never leaves your hands. Many of these bags are good solutions on regional jets, too. I've been amazed at what I can fit in my ThinkTank Airport Acceleration, and yet it fits on most regional jets, one way or another.
Finally, some photographers have started shipping their larger equipment to a destination, whether it's a lodge, a hotel or a private residence. This isn't cheap nor is it risk-free, but it is an option. I haven't exercised that one yet, but it's one to consider. Make sure you take out the appropriate shipping insurance in case something goes awry and be meticulous about how you pack the equipment.
Hopefully these ideas help you and good travels!
I've seen a lot of posts on the internet along the lines of "I have x, y and z equipment. What should I buy next?" While it's a tempting and common question from those new to photography, it's not necessarily the best one.
Having advised many friends on initial photo kits, I've usually recommended a wide-angle to short telephoto zoom (something like the current Nikkor 16-85mm VR) a short to medium length telephoto (either the 55-200mm or 70-300mm VR, depending on budget preferences), a few flash cards, and an external flash. That, coupled with a good bag, either the shoulder variety or a backpack, a polarizing filter and a tripod is more than enough to handle most photographer's needs. After that, it gets tougher.
I think it's best to give yourself some time using the basic set before investing in additional equipment. First, it helps you hone the craft of photography without getting utterly overwhelmed with equipment considerations. It's hard enough with the set I just mentioned. Second, there's a lot to be said for lightness and mobility. You're far less likely to want to explore places and spend time in the field if you're miserable under the weight of a huge, heavy pack (this is personal experience talking). Finally and foremost, photography is a vast subject and different styles of photography may demand different equipment. You won't know what really appeals to you until after you've photographed for a while.
Even if an area that pops up as an interest, it's often good to make sure it sticks. Available light shooting is a good example. You may have a temporary situation that arises where it would be handy to have a fast 35mm or 50mm lens, but is it something you're likely to continue doing? If you enjoy taking family photos, it's probably a safe bet. If you're thinking about getting into nighttime street photography, it's harder to predict. You might do it a few times and then stop. Alternatively, it may become the love of your life. Macro work is another good example. Most people like the idea of shooting close-ups, but the reality of macro work is that it can be a lot of hard, grungy work, especially if you want good lighting, sharp results and good compositions.
So, what do you do if you want to explore an area of photography, but don't have the right equipment at the moment? First, check with friends who use the same brand of camera and may own the equipment you're considering purchasing. They may be more than happy to loan it to you for a few days. Second, there are reputable on-line organizations that rent equipment and ship it to you in a matter of a few days. You can also reserve it in advance for an upcoming trip and specify the length of time you'll keep it. For something that's fairly expensive, it's a great way to go. Although I've not used it myself, www.lensrentals.com has an excellent reputation, and it's worthwhile exploring their inventory. Finally, you can always purchase an item used and then sell it if you find yourself not using it frequently (or at all). This is a particularly good strategy if you'll need something for several months. If you get a good deal, it's possible to sell it for a similar price and have it cost you virtually nothing. If you buy it new, you should resign yourself to losing a certain amount of money on the transaction.
No matter which path you end up taking, a bit of patience is a good thing and keeps you from accumulating a bunch of gear that gathers dust and does little for you.
Canon's announcement of their new G11 point and shoot is an interesting departure from the megapixel wars of the last few years. For those of you not familiar with it, here's a link to the Canon website: http://www.usa.canon.com/consumer/controller?act=ModelInfoAct&tabact=ModelTechSpecsTabAct&fcategoryid=144&modelid=19209#ModelTechSpecsAct
The important changes relative to the previous G10 (which is a very nice camera) is a reduction in the number of pixels from 14.7MP to 10MP, and the introduction of a tilt/swivel LCD panel. The change in megapixels may be puzzling to some, but it will have benefits in terms of noise, as well as dynamic range. It also acknowledges something obvious to most people: you're not likely to make 24x36 prints from a point and shoot, and lower noise and better dynamic range are more important than theoretical resolution.
Personally, I think is an excellent choice on their part. In many respects, it mirrors Nikon's strategy with the D3 and D700 to avoid larger numbers of megapixels and instead go for image quality. As someone who owns those cameras, as well as the higher megapixel D3X, I can tell you that on a practical basis, there's a lot of virtue in the lower resolution, less noisy sensor. High megapixels sound great, but take extra work to fully realize their advantages, and in the case of DSLRs, those megapixels are of no use unless you have outstanding lenses. Not just good ones, but outstanding ones.
Kudos to Canon for what was probably a difficult decision.
Many of us who love photography also have challenging time constraints in our lives. It can be relatively easy to post some notes on a website or read a magazine or book about a photographic topic, but actually making time for it is often tough. The problem is that like most things that are worthwhile, making good photographs takes time and energy. It also takes patience and a lot of planning. Given the time constraints I mentioned earlier, how can you achieve a good balance with your photography?
At least for me, there's a therapeutic value with photography that helps make the decision more objective. When things get stressful, photography is a great way to detach from those stresses and devote my attention to something more pleasurable. This isn't something that happens in five minutes, though. Maybe I'm a bit slow, but I find that it takes me a bit of time to get into the groove of making photographs I like. I inevitably start out with some ideas that just don't work and then start getting my attention channeled on better images. It's during that time that the best photographs happen. How much time does it take for this to start happening? Usually at least fifteen to thirty minutes at a location, much of it spent walking around and thinking about shots. I've heard people mention a "zen-like" state they get into, and that's certainly my experience. It's very easy for me to tell when I'm in it, and when I'm disengaged. If I don't give myself the time to get to that state, things just don't happen.
If you're just rushing around and mixing photography with other things, it's difficult to do this. You may get fine snapshots, but it's unlikely that you'll get photographs you'll want to hang on the wall. If you're attempting something more meaningful, plan it out in advance. Give yourself hours of time for photography, don't mix it up with other activities, and plan in advance so the light is right for where you'll be. What you'll get back in return is higher quality photographs and a sense of calm and peace that's like an island in a sea of chaos. Not a bad thing given many of today's issues!
Many of you who have listened to our Image Doctors podcast for several years have heard me talk about my son Eric quite a bit. I'd say he's the honorary third Image Doctor since he actually co-authored several articles on the Nikonians site, including the D50 review that was written several years ago. He's also accompanied Jason and I on several shoots that were discussed in podcasts over the years. Here's a copy of the D50 review:
At the time, he was 16 and already had eight years of shooting experience with Nikon SLRs . Yes, he started very early, using a hand me down N8008s, along with a couple of lenses. He's since moved up through a series of bodies and lenses (courtesy of Dad) and is now using a D200, along with a complement of lenses. Life is good when there's a continuous stream of not-very-used Nikon, Gitzo and Markins equipment coming your way. :)
I feel very fortunate that he developed a love of photography at an early age, and that he's stuck with it. It's given us many hours of enjoyment together in some great locations (Yosemite, Death Valley, the Everglades, Big Bend, all over Europe, South America, Australia, etc.). When you have to get up together at god-awful hours to be somewhere at sunrise and then spend the day out in nature or you spend days together photographing the sights of Prague, you develop a different kind of relationship. It doesn't require exotic locations, either. It can be time spent just a short distance from home.
In addition to the relationship that develops, I think photography has also cultivated his interests in other areas. It's hard to shoot at Yellowstone and not want to learn more about its geology, and it's hard to not be interested in the Habsburg empire when you're photographing Vienna and its surrounding areas. Again, there are many subjects close to where you live that can create interests. Photography is fairly unique in that it covers an incredibly wide range of subjects and requires a degree of learning to do it successfully. That's not just on the technical front, but also developing a knowledge of your subject. I think that's a great thing for young kids since it sparks their imagination and creates a desire for learning. It's a cliche, but kids are truly like sponges; it's amazing how much they can soak up.
Do young kids need really simple, easy to understand cameras to start out? Not in my experience. We sometimes forget how natural today's technology is for kids. It didn't take him long to figure out shutter speeds, apertures, ISOs, the virtue of spot metering vs. matrix, and that was at the age of eight. Let's not sell them short, both in terms of their ability to learn, as well as what they create. I'm not too proud to say that Eric has often come away with the best shot of the day, usually because he was more experimental than I was. It was really amazing to watch him when he first got a D70. That wasn't a hand-me-down, but something he got new. He did an incredible amount of experimentation with it since film was no longer an issue. Let's see what happens when you shoot flames in a fire at different shutter speeds and apertures. How about darkly silhouetted trees against a dramatic sky? How about a whole succession of macro subjects? Well, this one worked and that didn't - time to try something different. It was a great learning experience.
The next time you get a new body or lens, consider giving your old one to your child rather than selling it on eBay or Nikonians. You may be sacrificing a little bit of money, but what you and they get in return may be far greater. It may be something that lasts a lifetime and creates a wonderful set of memories. It also may drive their education in ways you never imagined.
Well, hopefully the title caught your attention. :) What triggered this topic was a recent podcast (#83) that Jason Odell and I did regarding the new Nikon and Sigma 50mm 1.4 lenses. We've done comparison tests before, including one that gets cited often regarding the DX super-wide zooms.
What's always interesting is how people react to the results, whether in written or podcast form. It's our preference to tell people our thoughts, both positive and negative, as well as factors that we think could and should influence their decision (shooting styles, size, weight, etc.). We then let them draw conclusions based on their own priorities. Sounds good, right?
Without exception, we'll later see comments along the lines of "They didn't say which lens/camera/(insert piece of equipment here) won!", as if there was a winner and a loser. Now in extreme circumstances, that might be the case, but the market tends to move most companies toward competitive products with fairly similar performance. In the case of these two lenses, both performed well optically, with the Sigma having a slight edge and in terms of AF speed, the Sigma was measurably faster. Sounds like it might be the winner, right? Well, not necessarily. In the Nikkor's favor is nearly identical optical performance in a much smaller package. I have access to both lenses, and on a recent trip to Hawaii, I grabbed the Nikkor rather than the Sigma. Why? I could fit the Nikkor in my bag, but the Sigma was too large. I didn't need the more rapid AF performance of the Sigma, so I was willing to give it up for the more compact size of the Nikkor. It was a good call, and I have no complaints. In other circumstances, the Sigma might have been the choice. For some people, the answer could have been their old 50mm 1.4 AF-D, since it might be just fine for what they're doing, and it's already a sunk cost.
This gets to the crux of objective testing and any kind of quantitative trade study: there rarely is such a thing. When you see magazine articles assigning overall scores to a lens or anything else, there's always an implicit set of priorities. How many points was cost assigned vs. size and weight. How much statistical weight was given to vignetting? What about sharpness at the center vs. the edges? All of those things influence a composite score. Unfortunately, that score is only valid if the criteria and weighting are yours, not some magazine reviewer's or podcaster's. If you shoot a lot of portraits vs. landscapes, your needs are likely to be different. Ditto with sports, etc.
Based on the e-mails we receive, we think we have some pretty intelligent listeners, which is why we gravitate away from the "Buy this one!" type of conclusion found elsewhere. It's a funny human trait, but many people really want (and almost crave) black and white answers (good and evil, best and worst, true and false), but they're seldom present in our world and certainly not in the smaller realm of photographic equipment. More often than not, things are closer to that 18% shade of grey than black or white, and it's up to the individual to decide what's really important to them and them alone. The next trick is to be content with your decision, but that's a whole other topic. :)