Testing Sigma 150-600mm/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary

I have long been thinking about a longer, telephoto range zoom lens, as this is perhaps the main technical bottleneck in my topic selection currently. After finding a nice offer, I made the jump and invested into Sigma 150-600mm/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens for Canon. It is not a true “professional” level wildlife lens (those are in 10 000+ euros/dollars price range in this focal length). But his has got some nice reviews on its image quality and portability. Though, by my standards this is a pretty heavy piece of glass (1,930 g).

The 150-600 mm focal range is in itself highly useful, but when you add this into a “crop sensor” body as I do (Canon has 1.6x crop multiplier), the effective focal range becomes 240-960mm, which is even more into the long end of telephoto lenses. The question is, whether there is still enough light left in the cropped setting at the sensor to allow autofocus to work reliably, and to let me shoot with apertures that allow using pretty noise-free ISO sensitivity settings.

I have only made one photo walk with my new setup yet, but my feelings are clearly at the positive side at this point. I could get decent images with my old 550D DSLR body with this lens, even in a dark, cloudy winter’s day. The situation improved yet lightly when I attached the Sigma into a Viltrox EF-M Speed Booster adapter and EOS M50 body. In this setup I lost the crop multiplier (speedboosters effectively operate as inverted teleconverters), but gained 1.4x multiplier in larger aperture. In a dark day more light was more important than getting that extra crop multiplier. There is nevertheless clear vignetting when Sigma 150-600 mm is used with Viltrox speedbooster. As I was typically cropping this kind of telephoto images in Lightroom in any case, that was not an issue for me.

The ergonomics of using the tiny M50 with a heavy lens are not that good, of course, but I am using a lens this heavy with a monopod or tripod (attached into the tripod collar/handle), in any case. The small body can just comfortably “hang about”, while one concentrates on handling the big lens and monopod/tripod.

In daylight, the autofocus operation was good, both with 550D and M50 bodies. Neither is a really solid wildlife camera, though, so the slow speed of setting the scene and focusing on a moving subject is somewhat of a challenge. I probably need to study the camera behaviour and optimal settings still a bit more, and also actually start learning the art of “wildlife photography”, if I intend to use this lens into its full potential.

My SIGMA 150-600 mm / Canon EOS M50 setup.

Stretching the little Canon to the max

There has been these endless discussions among photography enthusiasts on the strengths and weaknesses of various camera manufacturers for decades. It has been interesting to note that as the history-awareness has increased, some of this discussion has moved into a sort of meta-level: rather than talking about the suitablity of certain camera equipment for (certain kinds of) photography, the discussion has partly moved to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of entire philosophy or product-line strategy of various manufacturers.

Canon is an example that I am interested here, particularly as this is the manufacturer whose products I have been mostly using for the past two decades or more. The dominant criticism of Canon today seems to be that they (as late adopters of mirrorless systems camera technologies) are now spreading their efforts into too many directions, and thereby making it hard to provide anything really strong and credible for anyone. The history of Canon is great, of course, and I think that they still have the best user interface for their digital cameras, for example, and the back catalogue of Canon lenses is impressive. The problem today nevertheless is that it is difficult to see if Canon is still committed to continuing the DSLR camera and lens development in professional and enthusiast levels long into the future (as their recent releases of EOS 90D and 1D X Mark III DSLR bodies seems to suggest), or if anyone with an eye towards the future should invest into the RF mount lenses and EOS R series full-frame mirrorless cameras instead. (RF system is the most recent Canon camera family, it was announced in September 2018; Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras have used the EF mount lenses since from 1987.) And what is the destiny of APS-C (“crop frame”) cameras, and the EF-M mount system (introduced in 2012) in all of this?

I have long used crop frame system cameras and either EF or EF-S (yet another Canon lens family) lenses, due to the nice balance that this combination provides in terms of versatility, compact sizes, image quality and price – which is always an important concern for a hobbyist photographer. Few months ago I made the move into the “mirrorless era”, deciding to invest into the most affordable of these alternative systems, the Canon EF-M mount family (my choice of camera body was the tiny, yet powerful EOS M50).

The initial experiences (as I have reported in this blog already earlier) have been mostly positive – it is easy to take a good photo with this system and some decent, native EF-M lens. And it is nice that I can use an adapter to attach my older, EF mount lenses into the new, EF-M mount body, even while the autofocus might not be as fast that way. But the fact is that most of the new Canon lenses now appear to be coming out to the other, mirrorless Canon system: the full-frame RF mount cameras. And it is particularly the “serious enthusiast” or advanced hobbyist category that seems to be left in the middle. Some, more sports and wildlife oriented Canon lenses and cameras that would suit them are being published in the DSLR (EF mount) ecosystem. Some of the most advanced lenses are coming out in RF system, but the prices of many of those are more in the professional, multiple-thousands of euros/dollars category per lens. But the R system bodies seem to be missing many of the features that true professionals would need from their camera systems, so that is not really working so well, either. And those amateur photographers (like myself) who have opted for Canon EF-M mirrorless mount system are mostly provided with compact lenses that do not have the image quality or aperture values that more advanced photography would profit from. And investing into a heavy EF lens, and then adding adapter to get it to work with the EF-M body does not make particularly good sense. That lens is not designed for a mirrorless system to start with, and the combination of ultra-compact camera body and heavy, full-frame DSLR lens is not a balanced one.

So, the advanced hobbyist / enthusiast crowd is sort of asking: Quo Vadis, Canon?

Some people have already voted with their feet, sold their Canon cameras and lenses and bought into a Sony or Fujifilm ecosystems instead. Those competing manufacturers have the benefit of simpler and more clear mirrorless (and APS-C) camera and lens strategies. They do not have so many millions of existing users with legacy camera and lens equipment to support, of course.

I am currently just trying to make the best out of my existing cameras and lenses. My lakeside camera walk today involved mostly using the Canon L-series 70-200 mm f/4 EF lens with the old APS-C, DSLR body (550D), which has better grip for handling a larger lens. And the landscape photos and detailed close-ups I shot with the new M50 and the sharp 22mm f/2 EF-M lens.

Maybe the third-party manufacturers will provide some help in strengthening the EF-M ecosystem in the future. For example, SIGMA has announced that it will soon port three of its good quality prime lenses into EF-M system: Sigma 16mm, 30mm, and 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary. Hopefully there will be more of such quality glass coming up – also from Canon itself. Producing good quality lenses that are also physically small enough to make sense when attached into an EF-M camera, and which have also affordable enough price, is not trivial achievement, it looks like.

SIGMA lenses.
New SIGMA lenses for the Canon EF-M mount cameras.

Perfect blues

Hervantajärvi, a moment after the sunset.

While learning to take better photos with within the opportunities and limitations provided by whatever camera technology offers, it is also interesting now and then to stop to reflect on how things are evolving.

This weekend, I took some time to study rainy tones of Autumn, and also to hunt for the “perfect blues” of the Blue Hour – the time both some time before sunrise and after the sunset, when indirect sunlight coming from the sky is dominated by short, blue wavelenghts.

After a few attempts I think I got into the right spot at the right time (see the above photo, taken tonight at the beach of Hervantajärvi lake). At the time of this photo it was already so dark that I actually had trouble finding my gear and changing lenses.

I made the simple experiment of taking an evening, low-light photo with the same lens (Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 STM) with two of my camera bodies – both the old, Canon EOS 550D (DSLR) and new EOS M50 (mirrorless). I tried to use the exact same settings for both photos, taking them only moments apart from the same spot, using a tripod. Below are two cropped details that I tried to frame into same area of the photos.

Evening photo, using EOS 550D.
Same spot, same lens, same settings – using EOS M50.

I am not an expert in signal processing or camera electronics, but it is interesting to see how much more detail there is in the lower, M50 version. I thought that the main differences might be in how much noise there is in the low-light photo, but the differences appear to go deeper.

The cameras are generations apart from each other: the processor of 550D is DIGIC 4, while M50 has the new DIGIC 8. That sure has a effect, but I think that the sensor might play even larger role in this experiment. There are some information available from the sensors of both cameras – see the links below:

While the physical sizes of the sensors are exactly the same (22.3 x 14.9 mm), the pixel counts are different (18 megapixels vs. 24.1 megapixels). Also, the pixel density differs: 5.43 MP/cm² vs. 7.27 MP/cm², which just verifies that these two cameras, launched almost a decade apart, have very different imaging technology under the hood.

I like using both of them, but it is important to understand their strengths and limitations. I like using the old DSLR in daylight and particularly when trying to photograph birds or other fast moving targets. The large grip and good-sized physical controls make a DSLR like EOS 550D very easy and comfortable to handle.

On the other hand, when really sharp images are needed, I now rely on the mirrorless M50. Since it is a mirrorless camera, it is easy to see the final outcome of applied settings directly from the electronic viewfinder. M50 also has an articulated, rotating LCD screen, which is really excellent feature when I need to reach very low, or very high, to get a nice shot. On the other hand, the buttons and the grip are just physically a bit too small to be comfortable. I never seem to hit the right switch when trying to react in a hurry, missing some nice opportunities. But when it is a still-life composition, I have good time to consult the tiny controls of M50.

To conclude: things are changing, good (and bad) photos can be taken, with all kinds of technology. And there is no one perfect camera, just different cameras that are best suited for slightly different uses and purposes.

M50: first experiences

Ouf-of-camera JPG (M50, with EOS-M 22mm f/2 lens).

I have been using the new Canon EOS M50 mirrorless system camera now for a month or so. The main experiences are pretty positive, but I have also some comments on what this camera is good and not so optimal for.

In terms of image quality and feature set, this is a pretty complete package. Canon can make good cameras. However, the small physical size of this camera is perhaps its most defining main characteristic. This means that M50 is excellent as a light and small travel companion, but also that it has too small grip to carry comfortably this body when there are some heavy “pro” lenses or telephoto lenses attached. One must carry the system from the lens instead.

I really like the touch screen interface of M50. The swiveling LCD is really functional, and it is easy to take that quick photo from extra low or high angles. The LCD touch interface Canon uses is perhaps the best in the market today: it is responsive, well designed and logically organised. This is particularly important for M50, since it has only few physical buttons, and a single rotating control. Photographer using M50 needs to use the touch UI for many key functions. This is perhaps something that many manual-settings oriented professional and enthusiast photographers do not like; it you like to set the aperture, exposure time and ISO from the physical controls, then M50 is not for you (one should consider e.g. Fujifilm X-T3 or T30 instead). But if one is comfortable working with electronic controls, then M50 provides multiple opportunities.

My old EOS camera had only few (nine) autofocus points (phase-detect), and only the single point in the middle was with the fast, cross-type AF. This M50 has 99 selectable AF points (143 with some lenses), covering 80 % of the sensor area (dual-pixel type). Coupled with the touch screen, this change has had an effect on my photography style. It is now possible to first compose the photo, look through the electronic viewfinder, and simultaneously use a thumb to drag the AF point/area (in a “computer mouse/touchpad style”) to the desired point in the screen. I am not completely fluent in this technique yet though, and my usual technique of center focusing first, then half-pressing to lock the focus, and then quickly making the final composition, and shooting, is perhaps in most situations quicker and simpler than moving the focus point around the screen. But since M50 remembers in Program mode (which I use most) where the AF point was left the last time, the center focusing method does not work properly any more. I just need to learn new tricks, and keep moving the AF points in the screen (or, let the camera do everything, in Full Auto mode, or go into Manual mode, and do focusing with the lens ring instead.

As a modern mirrorless camera, M50 is packed with sensors and comes with a powerful DIGIG8 processor, bright LCD screen and electronic viewfinder. All of this consumes electricity, and the battery life of M50 is nowhere near my old 550D (which, btw, also had an extra battery grip). A full day of shooting takes either two or three fully loaded LP-E12 batteries. Thus, this camera behaves like a smartphone with poor battery life. You need to be using that battery charger all the time. (The standard rating is 235 shots-per-charge, CIPA.)

When travelling, I have been using a lot the wireless capabilities of M50. It is really handy that one can move full resolution, or reduced resolution versions of photos into an iPhone, iPad or Android device while on the go. On the other hand, this is nowhere as easy as when shooting and sharing directly from a smartphone. Moving typical 200-300 photos from a shooting session into an iPad for editing and uploading is slow, and feels like it takes ages. (I have not yet cracked how to get the advertised real-time Bluetooth photo transfer to work.) The traditional workflow where the entire memory card is first read into a PC and processed with Lightroom makes still better sense, but it is nice to have the alternative, for mobile processing and sharing some individual photos at least.

Many reviewers of M50 have written a lot about the limitations of 4K video mode (high crop factor, no dual-pixel autofocus). I use video rarely, and then only full HD, so that is not an issue for me. There is an external microphone input, which might be handy, and the LCD screen can be turned to point forward, if I ever go into video blogging (not that I plan to do it).

The main plusses for me in M50 are the compact size, the excellent touch UI, and very nice image quality in still images. That I can use both the new, compact EF-M mount lenses, and (with adapters) also the traditional Canon EF lenses was a major factor when making the purchase decision, since the lens collection of a photographer is typically much more expensive part of the equipment, than the body only. Changing to Nikon, Fuji or Sony would have been a big investement.

The autofocus system in M50 is fast, and in burst mode the camera can shoot 10 fps for 30 jpg shots in a row to fill the buffer. I am not a sports or wildlife photographer as such, so this is good enough for me. A physically bigger body would make the camera easier to handle with large and heavy lenses, but shooting with a large lens is a two-hand operation in any case (and in some cases requires using a tripod), so that is not so critical. I still need to train more to use the controls and switch between camera modes faster, and touch interface is probably never going to be as fast as using a camera with several dedicated physical controls. But this is a compromise one can make, to get this feature set, image quality and lens compatibility in this small package, in this price.

You can find the full M50 tech specs and feature set here in English: https://www.canon.co.uk/cameras/eos-m50/specifications/ and in Finnish: https://www.canon.fi/cameras/eos-m50/specifications/.

Mirrorless hype is over?

My mirrorless Canon EOS M50, with a 50 mm EF lens, and a “speed booster” style mount Viltrox adapter.

It has been interesting to follow how since last year, there has been several articles published that discuss the “mirrorless camera hype”, and put forward various kinds of criticism of either this technology, or related camera industry strategies. One repeated criticism is rooted to the fact that many professional (and enthusiast) photographers still find a typical DSLR camera body to work better for their needs than a mirrorless one. There are at least three main differences: a mirrorless interchangeable camera body is typically smaller than a DSLR, the battery life is weaker, and the image from an electronic viewfinder and/or LCD back screen offers a less realistic image than a traditional optical viewfinder in a (D)SLR camera.

The industry critiques appear to be focused on worries that as the digital camera market as a whole is going down, the big companies like Canon and Nikon are directing their product development resources for putting out mirrorless camera bodies with new lens mounts, and new lenses for these systems, rather than evolving their existing product lines in DSLR markets. Many seem to think that this is bad business sense, since large populations of professionals and photography enthusiasts are deeply invested in these more traditional ecosystems, and lack of progress in them means that there is not enough incentive to upgrade and invest, for all of those who remain in those parts of the market.

There might be some truth in both lines of argumentation – yet, they are also not the whole story. It is true that Sony, with their α7, α7R and α7S lines of cameras have stolen much of the momentum that could had been strong for Canon and Nikon, if they would had invested into mirrorless technologies earlier. Currently, the full frame systems like Canon EOS R, or Nikon Z6 & Z7, are apparently not selling very strongly. In early May of this year, for example, it was publicised how Sony α7 III sold more units in Japan at least than the Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless systems combined (see: https://www.dpreview.com/news/3587145682/sony-a7-iii-sales-beat-combined-efforts-of-canon-and-nikon-in-japan ). Some are ready to declare Canon and Nikon’s efforts as dead on arrival, but both companies have claimed to be strategically committed into their new mirrorless systems, developing and launching lenses that are necessary for their future growth. Overall though, both Canon and Nikon are producing and selling much more digital cameras than Sony, even while their sales numbers have been declining (in Japan at least, Fujifilm was interestingly the big winner in year-over-year analysis; see: https://www.canonrumors.com/latest-sales-data-shows-canon-maintains-big-marketshare-lead-in-japan-for-the-year/ ).

From a photographer perspective, the first mentioned concerns might be the more crucial than the business ones, though. Are mirrorless cameras actually worse than comparable DSLR cameras?

There is the curious quality when you move from a large (D)SLR body into using a typical mirrorless: the small camera can feel a bit like a toy, the handling is different, and using the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen can produce flashbacks of compact, point-and-shoot cameras of earlier years. In terms of pure image quality and feature sets, the mirrorless cameras are already equals to DSLRs, and in some areas have arguably moved already beyond most of them. There are multiple reasons for this, and the primary relates to the intimate link there is between the light sensor, image processor and viewfinder in mirrorless cameras. As a photographer you are not looking at a reflection of light coming from the lens through an alternative route into the optical viewfinder – you are looking at the image that is produced from the actual, real-time data that the sensor and image processor are “seeing”. The mechanical construction of mirrorless cameras can be made simpler, and when the mirror is removed, the entire lens system can be moved closer to the image sensor – something that is technically called shorter flange distance. This should allow engineers to design lenses for mirrorless systems that have a large aperture and fast focusing capabilities (you can check out a video, where a Nikon lens engineer explains how this works here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxT17A40d50 ). The physical dimensions of the camera body in itself can be made small or large, as desired. Nikon Z series cameras are rather sizable, with a conventional “pro camera” style grip (handle); my Canon EOS M50 is diminutive, from the other extreme.

I think that the development of cameras with ever more stronger processors and their machine learning and algorithm-based novel capabilities will push the general direction of photography technology towards various mirrorless systems. Said that, I completely understand the benefits of more traditional DSLRs and why they might feel superior for many photographers at the moment. There has been some rumours (in the Canon space at least, which I am personally mostly following) that new DSLR camera bodies will be released into the upper-enthusiast APS-C / semi-professional DSLR category (search e.g. for “EOS 90D” rumours), so I think that DSLR cameras are by no means dead. There are many ways in which the latest camera technologies can be implemented into mirror-bodies, as well as into the mirrorless ones. The big strategic question of course is that how many different mount and lens ecosystems can be maintained and developed simultaneously. If some of the current mounts will stop getting lenses in the near future, there is at least a market for adapter manufacturers.

EOS M mount: interesting adapters

Attaching EF lenses to M mount camera requires an adapter – which adds a bit to the bulk of a small camera, but is also an interesting opportunity, since it is possible to fit new electronic or optical functionalities inside that middle piece.

I have both the official, Canon-made “EF-EOS M” mount adapter, which keeps the optical characteristics of the lens similar to what they would be if used on an EF-S mount camera (crop and all). The other adapter is “Viltrox EF-EOS M2 Lens Adapter 0.71x Speed Booster” (a real mouthful), which has the interesting capability of multiplying the focal length by factor of 0.71. This is a sort of “inverted teleconverter” as it reduces the image size that the lens produces, allowing more light to fit into the smaller (APS C) sensor, and almost eliminates the crop factor.

Most interestingly, as the booster collects more light into the sensor, this also has an effect of increasing the maximum aperture of my EF/EF-S lenses in an M mount camera. When I attach Viltrox into my 70-200 mm F4, it appears to my M50 camera as an F2.8 lens (with that constant aperture over the entire zoom range). The image quality that these “active speed booster adapters” produce is apparently a somewhat contested topic among camera enthusiasts. In my personal, initial tests, I have been pretty happy: the sharpness and corner vignetting also appear to be well controlled and the images produced of rather good quality – or good enough for me, at least.

When I put this into my 50 mm F2.8 portrait lens, this lens functions as having F1.2 maximum aperture. This is pretty cool, e.g. the capability to shoot in lower-light conditions is much better this way, and the narrow depth of field is similar to much more heavy and expensive, full frame camera system when using this adapter.

In my tests so far, all my Canon EF lenses have worked perfectly with Viltrox. However, when testing with the Tamron 16-300 mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD super-zoom lens, there are issues. The adapter focuses light in a wrong manner when using this lens, and the result is that the corners are cut away from images (see the picture below). So, your mileage may vary. I have written to Viltrox customer service and asked what they suggest in the Tamron case (I have updated the adapter into the most recent available firmware – this can be done very simply using a PC and the built-in micro-usb connector in the adapter).

You can read a bit more about this technology (in connection to the first, Metabones product) from here: https://www.newsshooter.com/2013/01/14/metabones-speed-booster-adapter-gives-lenses-an-extra-fstop-and-nearly-full-frame-focal-lengths-on-aps-c-sensors/

Going mirrorless (EOS M50)

I have today started to learn to take photos with an ultra-compact EOS M50, after using the much bigger SLR or DSLR cameras for decades. This is surely an interesting experience. Some of the fundamentals of photography are still the same, but some areas I clearly need to study more, and learn new approaches.

Canon EOS M50 (photo credit: Canon).

These involve particularly learning how to collaborate with the embedded computer (DIGIG 8 processor) better. It is fascinating to note how fast e.g. the automatic focusing system is – I can suddenly use an old lens like my trusty Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM to get in-flight photos of rather fast birds. The new system tracks moving targets much faster and in a more reliable manner. However, I am by no means a bird photographer, having mostly worked with still life, landscapes and portraits. Getting to handle the dual options of creating the photo either through the electronic viewfinder, or, the vari-angle touchscreen takes some getting used to.

Also, there are many ways to use this new system, and finding the right settings among many different menus (there must be hundreds of options in all) takes some time. Also, coming from much older EOS 550D, it was weird to realise that the entire screen is now filled with autofocus points, and that it is possible to slide the AF point with a thumb (using the touchscreen as a “mouse”) into the optimal spot, while simultaneously composing, focusing, zooming and shooting – 10 frames per second, maximum. I am filling up the memory card fast now.

My Canon EOS 550D and M50, side by side. Note that I am using a battery grip on 550D, which is rather small DSLR camera in itself.

It is easy to do many basic photo editing tasks in-camera now. It actually feels like there is small “Photoshop” built into the camera. However, there is a fundamental decision that needs to be made: of either using photos as they come, directly from camera, or after some post-processing in the computer. This is important since JPG or RAW based workflows are a bit different. These days, I am using quite a lot of mobile apps and tools, and the ability to wirelessly copy photos from the camera into a smartphone or tablet computer (via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth + NFC), in the field, is definitely something that I like doing. Currently thus the JPG options make most sense for me personally.