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Check Out My New Podcast – Stuff You Need For

After watching Erin get her podcast up and running and how much fun she was having interviewing other teachers about how they got into the profession and hearing the great stories they had, I started thinking I might want to start one of my own.  The problem was, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted the topic to be.  So I thought about what connected many of the interests and hobbies in which I engage.  I enjoy photography, playing guitar and other instruments, biking, esoteric outdoor sports, PC gaming, travel, and media production, but also, I really enjoy figuring things out – how they are done and how to do them well.  I also tend to like shopping for these hobbies.  Buying stuff, but also the process of shopping – researching the options, finding the elbow in the cost curve where you start paying more but the quality stops rising so dramatically.  I guess I’m kind of a gear head.  So that’s what I went with!

My new podcast is called Stuff You Need For and in each episode I plan to cover a different hobby or topic and give recommendations for all the stuff you’ll need to get started.  Think of it as The Wirecutter but for activities instead of individual products.  I’ve already got a pair of meta-episodes covering podcasting microphones and related equipment which Erin helped me with, along with an episode for Bike Month where Jason and I go over the stuff you need to bike commute either for a few days or for the long run.  I plan to keep on with an episode roughly every two weeks (the latest episode was released a bit early to make it in time for Bike To Work Day on May 15th) covering both topics I know a lot about like photography, learning guitar, backpacking and camping, but also those I don’t – I’d love to get friends and guests on to discuss things like distance running, writing a book, video production etc.  That’s because while I love my current hobbies, I really like learning how to do new ones, and that’s what I really want to drive the Stuff You Need For – I want to make it super easy for someone just starting out to dive into a new hobby or project, with no false starts, without the wrong equipment for their needs, and get going, get learning and get doing.

Check out Stuff You Need For today, on the web, on YouTube, at iTunes, or in your favorite podcast app (RSS link or just search for “Stuff You Need For”), and be sure to leave us a comment if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for better options or future topics.  Thanks!

Fuji X-T1 50mm Portrait Shootout – Day 2 (XF 56mm vs Leica Summilux-M and Zeiss C-Sonnar

Fuji, Leica, Zeiss

I previously posted my experiences comparing the new Fuji XF 56mm 1.2 R. In that post, I noted that I found the Fuji to be in a whole other league when it comes to sharpness on the X-T1 – no M-mount option available for less than $4,000 came close.  However, the lens is large – in terms of volume, it’s roughly double the smallest contender, the Zeiss C Sonnar, which also exhibited a pleasing bold color rendition and a clean, pleasant aspect to its bokeh. This led me to question – if price were no object (well, almost – even when dreaming big, I couldn’t bring myself to plunk down the roughly $300 it would take to rent the new 50mm APO Summicron ASPH, or $400 to pick up the Noctilux), is there any other option which might blend the best of both worlds? Something that could match the Fuji’s sharpness while approaching the Sonnar’s diminutive size? Enter the Leica 50mm Summilux ASPH, with a wide maximum aperture of f/1.4, and a reputation for killer sharpness and creamy bokeh.  Available on today for a rental price of $159 for five days, if there were any lens out there that could be had for less than the price of a decent used car, this would be it.  That said, at $4,250 used, my original justification for considering M-mount options – worries that with mirrorless in such flux, I couldn’t count on sticking with the current X-mount for long – really no longer applies.  For that price, even without ebay, I could switch systems four times buying a new 85mm equivalent each time and still come out ahead.  So don’t consider today’s post a financially prudent one, rather a desire to see if there were something out there that could give the so far excellent Fuji glass a real run for its money.

First off, let’s start with an attempt at reproducing the test scene from last post.  Once again, I’ll let you look through the photos without labels, then you can mouse over the images to find out which is which. 

Leica Summilux @1.4 
Leica Summilux @1.4 CROP

Fuji @1.2
Fuji @1.2 CROP

CZ Sonnar @ 1.5
CZ Sonnar @ 1.5 CROP

These were all shot at the lenses’ respective maximum apertures.  Once again, you can find these examples and a few more at other apertures on Flickr.

As you can see, at four times the price, we finally have a contender that can match the Fuji for center sharpness at 100%!  All those little dog hairs do seem grosser with a sharp lens! And once again, the Zeiss lags behind for sharpness, but unlike the other two, you don’t see the green cast to the fine details in the pattern on the pillow.  Promisingly, the character of the bokeh in the Leica image does not show the worried, almost double edge that the Summicron showed.  Let’s look at some more images to see if we can’t make some judgements when it comes to how the three lenses render bokeh in various scenarios.  This time, I focused on plants and leaves, which with their repetitive patterns and complex edges I generally find to make for the most distracting backgrounds, which makes them an important test subject, especially given their prevalence in the natural world. Here are some more shots, this time taken in my back yard, once again, at each lens’s respective widest aperture.  I framed each shot by manually setting focus to the minimum focus distance and getting as close to the subject as each lens would allow – 0.7 meters for both the Fuji and the Leica and 0.9 for the Sonnar.  Given the different focal lengths, this gave the Fuji the greatest magnification, follwed by the Leica, then the Zeiss Sonnar.

Leica Summilux-M 50mm ASPH

Leica Summilux @1.4 - rocks
Leica Summilux @1.4 - wall weed
Leica Summilux @1.4 - shrub1 
Leica Summilux @1.4 - shrub2
Leica Summilux @1.4 - flower buds 

Of the three, the Leica had the smoothest bokeh, apart from the highlights where the edges of the aperture blades can be seen in some spots, made particularly obvious because in those cases, you can see that the blades aren’t perfectly rounded when wide open. 

Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1,5/50 ZM

Zeiss Sonnar @1.5 - rocks
Zeiss Sonnar @1.5 - wall weed
Zeiss Sonnar @1.5 - shrub1
Zeiss Sonnar @1.5 - shrub2

The Zeiss exhibited harder edged, but perfectly round highlights. I found the greater prevalence of identifiable pupil artifacts more distracting, but in cases where they might be unavoidable like lights at night, it’s nice to see that the aperture blades are rounded perfectly for shooting wide open.

Fujifilm XF 56mm 1.2 R

Fujifilm XF 56mm @1.2 - rocks
Fujifilm XF 56mm @1.2 - wall weed
Fujifilm XF 56mm @1.2 - shrub1
Fujifilm XF 56mm @1.2 - shrub2

With its close focus distance and wide maximum aperture, you really notice the shallow depth of field with the Fujifilm lens.  In terms of bokeh, it seems to split the difference between the Leica and the Zeiss – it’s not as creamy as the Leica, and exhibits frequent highlight halos, but its aperture blades are cleanly rounded.  I’ve since returned the lens, but looking back, I would have liked to have done more testing at other apertures – the lens has clicks for 1.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 to see how things changed.  If I had to pick between the three for bokeh, I think I’d have to go with the Leica for its smoothness, but the Fuji at 1.2 is perfectly pleasing.  For its stylized look, I can see plenty of uses for the Zeiss Sonnar as well. 


Well, it took a lens costing 4x the price, but I think in the Leica Summilux-M 50mm, we’ve finally found a match for the XF 56mm in terms of sharpness, and perhaps more than a match in terms of rendering a smooth and pleasing bokeh.  Is it worth 4x the price? Even considering its smaller size, wider compatibility and arguably better bokeh, I think the answer is going to have to be a no.  Wider compatibility can’t really be an argument when you could easily buy another three comparably priced lenses and still come in under budget compared to the Leica.  The XF 56mm also has the extra 6mm reach and a wider maximum aperture, allowing for even narrower depth of field, along with the advantages of being a native lens – autofocus and built in software corrections, along with being able to take advantage of Fuji’s frequent software updates.  All that said, there’s still the romantic, aspirational appeal of owning a Leica – somehow owning M-mount glass makes the idea of picking up an M3, M6 or even a digital M seem closer.  I haven’t pulled the trigger on any of these options yet – I still have my trusty Nikon 85mm 1.4 AF-D Nikkor for when the need arises.  However, I have a fair amount of upcoming travel this summer, so picking up a portrait option for my X-T1 is tempting.  I’ll update again with a final choice if and when I pull the trigger.

Fuji X-T1 ~50mm Portrait Lens Shootout – Day 1 (XF 56mm vs M-mount Leica Summicron, Carl Zeiss & Voigtlander)

My Nikon FM2 

I recently picked up a Fuji X-T1 camera to complement my Nikon DSLRs, and so far have been very impressed, pairing it with the excellent Fuji XF 23mm 1.4 R (35mm equivalent), and the similarly excellent Fuji XF 14mm 2.8 R (21mm equivalent), both picked up during the recent XF lens sale.  The setup is waaaay smaller and lighter than the Nikon equivalents, and both the controls and design are highly reminiscent of my beloved Nikon FM2 film camera, which I would often bring with me in lieu of a DSLR when traveling due to its compact size and simple control scheme.  The Fuji lets me pack a similarly sized setup, but with all the modern conveniences of flexible, high sensitivity ISO, autofocus and image quality, while still keeping the simple control scheme and allowing for easy out-of-camera emulation of classic Fuji films like Velvia, Provia and the no longer available Astia.  Basically, it’s what the Nikon DF promised to be and should have been.

Auckland shot with Kodak Ektar 100 on a Nikon FM2

I’ve been very happy with the Fuji 14mm & 23mm pair, but if I’m going to be able to walk out the door sans Nikon with confidence, I really need something suitable for portraits.  Fuji just released the well reviewed XF 56mm F1.2R, aimed directly as an 85mm 1.4 replacement which seems to fit the bill well, but with mirrorless moving so fast, rumors of upcoming Fuji full frame options, and the well received a7 series from Sony, I’m a bit hesitant to invest too heavily in a glass system that may not have the longevity and resale value that exists for Nikon and Canon.  Luckily, my wife recently purchased the Fujifilm M Mount Adapter for my birthday, which, perhaps optimistically I took as tacit permission to investigate highly pricey Leica options, which I thought could be further justified if it meant not having to buy new glass if sometime down the road, some other system turned out to be the new gold standard.

With mirrorless moving fast, and manufacturers introducing new lens mounts relatively frequently, camera makers seem to have turned to adapted lens mount glass to fill the gaps, making it something of a lingua franca between the micro 4/3rds, Sony and Fuji mounts.  Compared to say Canon or Nikon options, rangefinder lenses are designed with the expectation of being close to the imaging surface, and as such are similarly compact to the mirrorless options, while still supporting full frame coverage.  For reasons I don’t fully understand, something about the physics of wide-angled rangefinder lenses seems to cause off smearing in the corners on bodies not specifically designed to compensate for it (Like the Leica M), especially on full frame sensors, but luckily for me, 50mm and longer lenses don’t seem to exhibit this issue, and a little blur in the corners for a portrait lens can actually be a good thing.  All M mount lenses are manual focus, but for taking portraits with very thin depth of field, this can be a good thing, requiring you to pay attention and make sure the eyes are sharp.

Still, there’s not a lot of information out there on the performance of various options on Fuji bodies, enter, and their very wide selection of rental options.  For my first pass, I picked out the native Fuji glass, and a selection of M-mount options in a similar price range – the standard Leica Summicron-M 50mm F/2, the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, and both the Zeiss C Sonnar, a very compact F/1.5 option and the slightly larger Zeiss Planar f/2. While none of these options have autofocus, they are all significantly smaller, the Voigtlander being the largest and most awkward in that it is quite long.  The Zeiss Sonnar has an interesting reputation amongst Leica rangefinder shooters due to the fact that its focus distance is not constant when changing F-stop, and by default, the factory tunes the focus to match the range finder at a mid-level F-stop, so if you’re focusing for shooting fully open, when the rangefinder images line up, you’ll actually be slightly out of focus. Zeiss says this is due to the classic lens design, which is also what allows the lens to be very compact. You can send your copy back to Zeiss and request they align the focus for shooting at F/1.5, but then shooting stopped down will be out of focus instead.  You can read more about these issues over at Luminous Landscape – check out the update section at the bottom for Zeiss’s response. Luckily, with a live viewfinder like those found on all modern mirrorless options, this is not a factor since the image is coming directly off the sensor instead of requiring calibration with a separate rangefinder system. The lens is also known for being a bit soft (possibly due to the rangefinder calibration issue) while having an appealing bokeh. Prior to receiving my rentals, I was most interested in how the Sonnar would perform given its reputation and the fact that with a through the lens view, it wouldn’t be subject to the limitations of a focus point that shifted with aperture changes.

So, how’d they do?  First, let’s take a look at a fixed scene consisting of my couch lit with window light and each lens at its widest aperture.  White balance was fixed, and I adjusted exposure to try to match for each aperture, however changes in the daylight from the background windows made it impossible to keep the exact same exposure for each image.  Mouse over each image after you’ve taken a look to see which lens was used.  Each image is accompanied by a center crop at 100%.  Click through to see the full images.

CZ Planar 2.0@2.0
CZ Planar 2.0@2.0 CROP

CZ Sonnar @1.5
CZ Sonnar @1.5 CROP

Fuji XF 56mm @ 1.2
Fuji XF 56mm @ 1.2 CROP

Leica Summicron @ 2.0
Leica Summicron @ 2.0 CROP

Voigtlander 1.5 @1.5
Voigtlander 1.5 @1.5 CROP

As you can see in the center crops, the Fuji is by far the sharpest, and is the only lens that renders clearly the hair draped across the pillow in the upper right corner of the crop – this despite the thinner DOF from the 1.2 aperture and slightly longer lens.  Some of this may be attributable to the slight magnification of the extra 6mm, but the difference is so stark, and apparent across photos taken in a number of different situations that it’s clear the lens is a step above other similarly priced options, at least on a Fuji X camera.  These photos are standard out of camera jpegs, so it is possible that built in software corrections helped out here.  Coming in at a distant second, the Leica and Voigtlander seem tied to my eye, followed by the Sonnar with the Planar coming in at last place. Other interesting characteristics to note are the green color cast of the fine blue pattern on the pillow in the Zeiss Planar shot, which otherwise rendered with fairly pleasing bold colors, and the relative similarity of the rendering between options – you really do have to zoom in to 100% to notice many differences in the in focus areas.  This color cast wasn’t unique to the Planar – it exhibited in other test shots on other lenses to differing degrees depending on aperture and slight variations in positioning, but seemed to most consistently and blatantly affect the Planar.  In terms of bokeh, I found the Leica to be a little worried – fine edges had almost a doubled image quality, the Voigtlander to have a harsh, displeasing rendering of color transitions, the Sonnar to have probably the smoothest rendition and the Fuji to have especially blurred background details with it’s fine 1.2 aperture.  You can find more example shots at aperture ranges between 1.2 and 2.0 in this Flickr gallery.  It’s also interesting to note that even amongst the 50mm candidates, the actual focal length seemed to vary a bit with the Planar being the shortest and the Leica being the longest, at least at this focus distance. 

To get a sense of how the lenses rendered skin tones, my wife was kind enough to stay put with a book while I fiddled with swapping lenses on the tripod (click through for full size):

CZ Planar 2.0 portrait CZ Sonnar @1.5 portrait Fuji XF 56mm 1.2 portrait Fuji XF 56mm 2.0 portrait Leica 2.0 portrait Voigtlander 1.5 @1.5 portrait

Again, it’s a little hard to make strong determinations here given the differences in exposure, but it seemed in this case that the bold, contrasty rendering of the Zeiss lenses was a bit of a detriment causing harsher transitions in the shadows on the face. 


In all, I was interested to find that in normal viewing conditions, the lenses were more similar than they were different.  It was really only in the 100% crops that sharpness differences became apparent, and in that case, the Fuji XF 56mm was the only standout, with crystal clear sharpness, even at the very wide 1.2 maximum aperture.  For normal portraiture, this is probably not an issue for most people. However, since I’m considering adding something in this focal length as part of a small travel kit, with nothing longer, it would definitely be nice to have the ability to crop a bit further without losing sharpness.  It’s also worth noting that this comparison included every new 50mm M mount lens with a maximum aperture of 2.0 or wider that can be had for less than $4000, with the exception of the Voigtlander Heliar 50mm f/2.0. So clearly, the Fuji XF 56mm is the winner here – it’s the only option with autofocus and its superior image quality carries the day, with the only negative being size.  That said, if we don’t limit ourselves to being “reasonable” when it comes to pricing, there is one option with a high price, and a reputation to match – the Leica Summilux-M 50mm ASPH – known for its creamy bokeh and crazy sharpness. 

Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll take a look at the cream of the crop – the Fuji XF, the Zeiss Sonnar with its pleasing bokeh, and add into the mix the Leica Summilux ASPH, comparing sharpness and bokeh with even more sample images. 

HDR House!

Either the owners of this place managed a physically impossible paint job, or the listing agent is playing things a little fast and loose with Photoshop. 

Internet, we meet again…

Well, it’s come to this.  Although I’ve made  previous forays into the hubristic world of online self promotion, my existing conduits are no longer sufficient to contain my delusions of cultural and professional relevance.

Unlike my existing content delivery mechanisms which either have a specific purpose, are the products of my labor as an employee of a large corporation, or contain inherent and severe restrictions, this site is, to an even larger extent, all about me.  Expect to see information on non-work related projects, opinions irrelevant to the MSDN audience (or which are not in keeping with that outlet’s charter as a semi-official company mouthpiece), and thoughts expressed in greater than one hundred and forty characters.  First off I intend to play around with a few of the recently and soon-to-be released mobile SDKs, for which having an official domain should be useful.

In any case, you’re probably wondering what the glowing tube up at the top of this post is for.  I believe it’s a rectifier tube, and it happened to be the glowing-est vacuum switch in my Fender reissue 1965 Deluxe Reverb which gave me the inspiration for the title of this blog.  “Adjustable bias” is a term indicating a mechanism for calibrating the dual power tubes contained in many guitar amplifiers, and I decided it can also be a clever name – and unregistered .com domain – for a blog.

So welcome!  We’ll soon find out how long these shenanigans continue.