Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day thoughts...

This should be renamed "Hug a Soldier Day". We go about our insulated daily lives, worrying about when our kids have to be at soccer practice and what to eat for dinner while they, the US Armed Forces, worry about keeping people at bay who would like nothing better than to kill every American they could. All because we, Americans, offer the freedom to everyone to believe as they see fit. No restrictions based on political party, religion, race, or gender.

In the case of the ongoing Western Civilization vs Islam undeclared world war I have to wonder just how long it will be before there's open armed conflict similar to the Crusades. There are two competing systemic world views here, one which offers freedom, and the other which only offers tyranny and oppression disguised as a religious edict. Can you purchase an Islamic sports car? Can you fly in an Islamic airplane? No, and no, because there's no innovation in Islamic countries. There's no tolerance of "difference" and it stifles creativity to the point where, were it not for oil wealth, life in most Islamic countries would be only little better now than they were in the 11th Century. As it stands now the stingiest nations as far as contributions to foreign natural disasters are all Islamic countries, in spite of the massive wealth. Would the really be the case if the "Religion of Peace" were truly a religion at all?

On today, of all days, we should remember those who have fallen while fighting this fight for us. This conflict isn't going away anytime soon...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sigma lenses good, SD-14 not so good.

Sometimes you swing at a pitch and hit a home run... sometimes you don't. Here's what I've learned this weekend about cameras;
1. The Sigma 180mm f3.5 Macro is good. Very, very good! It's the only thing which kept me from sending the back-focusing SD-14 body back to Cameta Camera immediately.
2. The Sigma 17-70mm f2.8-4.0 lens is also a very nice piece of glass, for a standard-use zoom. It's solidly built with internal focusing which makes using a polarizer a snap. The dual-barrel extention for the zooming is smooth and precise, and best of all, unlike my cheap Nikon 18-55mm lens, the barrels don't flop up and down! I might have to buy one of these...
3. The Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 is solidly built too, but can't match the sharpness of the 180mm Macro. In fact, it's soft enough to make telling the difference between a properly-focused photo, and an improperly-focused photo difficult. Again, this illustrates just HOW GOOD the 180mm Macro really is in terms of sharpness, contrast, and definition.

The 180mm Macro lens on the SD-14 body, with an upsized pixel output of 4573 x 3048 is ALMOST sharper than the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 on my Nikon D300 body. Comparing JPEG to JPEG photos. Now, mind you, I was looking at other cameras because I considered the output from the D300 to be "soft". By comparison to the SD-14, and the other two lenses supplied from Sigma USA (thanks guys and gals!) the D300's output looks like it was rendered with a laser. The fault doesn't lay with the Foveon X3 chip though, but rather it's lack of pixels. Forcing the Sigma Photo Pro software to nearly double the size of the image just isn't going to work for professional use. At it's native-size output, it's an incredibly sharp camera! Upsizing every photo just won't work for magazine print use, I'm afraid. That's a bit of a disappointment for me.

Foveon, get busy on a full-frame sensor, dudes!

Townsend Bell takes 4th at Indy!

Okay, so Townsend's just a friend of a friend, and I've only worked with him once for a "drifting BMW" article, but still... I root for him whenever he gets the opportunity to drive a race car. This year at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 he went from 24th to 4th! Great job, TB! Of course the media all focused on Danica, Marco Andretti, Helio, Dan Wheldon, and all of the stupid rookie wrecks (rookies should be forced to race in their own race at Indy in rubber-coated cars!) rather than on Townsend's great achievement. They didn't plan on him being a factor and obviously had no background material prepared. That's a shame.

And NASCAR's been rained out for Sunday... Looks like I'll have to watch the F1 race from Monaco on my DVR now! :) Jenson Button supposedly won; the British will be insufferable now! LOL

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

SD-14:It ain't fast!

Okay, it's also been said that the SD-14 isn't a camera for sports shooters. This is no lie! If you're shooting ANYTHING that moves with this camera, purchase the fastest Compact Flash card you can find! The write times for X3F RAW files are very slow. I think my old Canon D60 was better! Certainly every camera body I've used since 2005 has been faster. I've been using a 4 GB Hitachi Microdrive and I think I can watch the grass grow while the SD-14 writes data to the Microdrive! Switching to a SanDisk 512MB card was better. Possibly the Microdrive is idled in between photos, so it has to spin up every time it goes to work. I don't know, but it sure ain't fast.

I will say that focusing with the 180mm Macro's HSM has been generally quick, if it's already in the range needed. If it has to rack all the way to it's minimum focus distance and back out again, whatever you're trying to shoot will probably have grown bored and wandered off by the time the lens gets back to proper focus. Images are coming out slightly soft at nearly all ranges, unless I touch up the focus by hand, which leads me to think it's the camera's AF sensors which are out of whack. In particular, the far left sensor does an incredibly poor job of focusing. Or, I should say, it tells the camera's brain that it's in focus, when even to the eye, it's nowhere even remotely close to correct. The center cross-type sensor is much better, but will consistently "far focus" on cars, trees, fire hydrants, etc. In the case of my neighbor's truck, sitting across the street from my house, the tires and curbing on the opposite side of the truck are in better focus than on the side facing me. That's an error of four or five feet! Not good.

Again, I find I'm now waiting on the lenses from Sigma in order to determine if the fault is inside the camera body, or the 180mm f3.5 Macro lens (which I might add was a used, but beautiful, lens).

SD-14 Initial Thoughts

For better or worse, here's my .02: The SD-14 has the best pixel-per-pixel results in the industry today. Unfortunately it has too few. On the surface this might seem like contradictory statements, but let me explain.

As far as picking up details and rendering an accurate representation of the light at each pixel location, the SD-14's Foveon X3 sensor is the best. At it's native resolution of 2640 x 1760, I don't think there's a camera out there which can beat it for lifelike quality. However, that's a small number of pixels overall. Yes, there truly are 3 times that number when you count all of the red, green, and blue pixels in the 'stack' in the sensor. However... and this is important, the native image is only 2640 pixels across. If you print out 8"x10" photos, this will work at roughly 225 dots per inch for your printing. If you've got to "go big" the only solution is to use Sigma's Photo Pro software, and convert the X3F RAW file to its 'Super Hi' JPEG image output, which comes in at a whopping 4608x3072. For all of you pixel peepers out there, that's more pixels than Nikon's D700 and D3 full frame CMOS sensors can generate! It's extrapolated pixels though, which means the image grows softer when viewed full size on a screen. Will it print better? I'm going to have to talk to the wizards at Imagemark in Phoenix, Arizona to find out for certain.

This particular SD-14 body I received appears to have a problem with focusing slightly too far on distant objects, when used with the Sigma 180mm f3.5 APO EX Macro DG IF HSM lens I just bought from Nice lens though! When focused properly on something, the details it can resolve are amazing. When the loaned lenses arrive from Sigma USA early next week I'll have a better idea if it's the new SD-14 or the 180mm lens which has the problem. It could be that the lens is slightly out of adjustment too as far as where the HSM is telling the camera it's stopped when focusing precisely. Whatever the cause, it's more than a little frustrating.

I hate going out on a limb and saying that the output from the SD-14 doesn't quite match the Nikon D300. Pixel-per-pixel, at 2640x1760, the SD-14 rules! At 'full size', the D300 rules. Since I was mainly shooting photos of a car at a normal distance, the advantage went to the D300, which appeared to nail the focus, if having slightly less finite detail in the overall image.

Will the SD-14 be better with different lenses? I don't know at this point, and the suspense is killing me!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sigma SD-14

Tell me how smart it is to have ordered a camera body with out any lenses for it? Well, the price was amazing at Cameta Camera ($349). So amazing in fact that they've raised it to $399 now. Adorama and B&H still have them listed at $709 and $719 respectively. Adorama doesn't have any.

Here's the good news; Sigma USA is going to loan me a few lenses (hopefully) next week, to try out for a few weeks! Yay! Looks like I might have a 10-20mm, a 17-70mm, and perhaps a "long zoom" to play with for a while. Mid-week I found that had a Sigma 180mm f3.5 Macro used for a whopping $599. That deal was too good to pass up, so that lens is on it's way here, but won't arrive until Monday the 18th! I'll be sitting out front waiting on the UPS truck all morning...

Camera looks solidly-constructed, if a tad slow at image capture. The SD-15 is supposed to be an improvement when it arrives shortly. I have yet to install the Sigma Photo Pro software on my Sony Vaio laptop, but I'm sure the 32-bit Windows Vista will handle it just fine. I bought that extra memory for a purpose! Yeah, perhaps it's not a s good as a Mac iBook, or whatever they're calling those aluminum-chassis notebooks, but it was also $700 less, uses the same Intel chip, and is just as fast. I can live with that for net price of my SD-14 body and one decent 17-70mm lens!

Speaking of... the MTF charts on for the 17-70mm f2.8-4.5 are really good! I'm surprised. At the 70mm end it looks like it might be sharper than the big 70-200mm f2.8 APO EX DG II at the short end! All wide angle lenses lose something in the corners. For the Foveon X3 chip this isn't a huge problem because the sensor is only 20.3mm x 13.8mm in size. This means MTF chart data only applies to just past 10mm from the image center. Within that range, many of the Sigma lenses are darn good! Will they work as well on a 35mm wide sensor? No. Will the ability to extrapolate data from the 2,652 x 1,768 "photosites" mean that photos can be upsized and saved to JPEG without nasty jaggy-edged artifacts cropping up? I'll find out... Monday.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bayer Filter jaggies

Okay, it's time to get a little technical... My new Sigma SD-14 camera arrives today! They were $1,400 a year ago, but some retailers have been essentially wholesaling them this spring because the new SD-15 body is coming any day now. I bought mine for just $349 from Cameta Camera in New York. I've dealt with them before on the purchase of my Nikon D300 body, and they always have great prices it seems, coupled with fast service. Just don't expect to hold a conversation with them!

So why am I, a Nikon owner, thrilled to be receiving a $350 camera body I don't even have a single lens for yet? Simple. The Foveon X3 sensor! Right now, there are just three types of digital sensors; CCD, CMOS, and the Foveon. For the CCD and CMOS sensors use what's called a "Bayer filter", which is a screen of microlenses to split the incoming light into it's respective primary color frequencies, red, green, and blue. The internal software in the camera uses logic to deduce the exact average color value to assign to each "pixel photosite" based on the "brightness" at the red, green, and blue sensors. It does not actually see the color, just levels of brightness or darkness. In the process of recombining the data, sometimes there are these little bright blotches in the photos. I call them "bright jaggies". They typically appear at points where the sensor has a difficult time determining the exact color to assign to the pixel. I actually suspect they're a logic error in the extrapolation software, but that's just a theory.

Anyway, once you know what to look for, you can see them everywhere in photographs taken by CCD and CMOS imagers. The troublesome thing is this; they don't really exist. They're the result of camera error!

So why is the Foveon X3 sensor different? Because it doesn't use a Bayer filter! It senses light directly at each photo site, at three different depths in the silicon chip. Blue on the top, green in the middle, and red at the deepest point, because as the longest wavelength, it penetrates the farthest. The software required to output this information is far less complicated than the Bayerized method. Anyway, this "stacked sensor array" is extremely accurate for colors and sharpness, which is why I'm interested. The total number of pixels output from the sensor is smaller than other current imagers, but can be up-sampled in software like Photoshop very successfully.

And, it lacks those "bright jaggies" I hate... This is going to be an exciting camera to use!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cars and sunlight

Okay, one of the things I like to see in a nice posed car shot is wonderful sunset light. I don't always get it though. When I schedule a photo shoot I look in advance to see what the weather might be like. California does have a very high percentage of great sunsets but you'll quickly find that not every sunset will work with a particular location. In my photos below, you can see that my favorite spot has these great low rocky hills deep in the background. They catch sunset light perfectly, and are just short enough to allow for some blue sky in the top of the frame. This has been my "go-to" location when I can get people to drive to where I live. I'm currently searching for more striking areas in Los Angeles, but I haven't had much luck lately out there. Too many trees, telephone poles, and overhead power lines. It can help to head down to Orange County, but was just there a couple weeks back and really didn't get a location or a sunset I liked. As a result, an editor didn't like my photos and I'm going to have to reshoot that car. Reshoots are expensive and waste time. Thankfully this doesn't happen much to me...

Anyway, with a great sunset and some careful positioning, you can shoot a car with just one flash and have it look very natural. On the other hand, some editors prefer "flashed up" posed shots... no sense in arguing about it. I just shoot to satisfy their taste and everything's fine. I hope to expand my collection of flashes very soon, but first I've got to test out the Sigma SD-14 I just ordered. I've searched quite a few user groups but haven't found many car photos. Macros and portrait photography, and quite a bit of landscapes and buildings too. Hopefully I'll get to add to the collections!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tripods and Cameras

I always tell budding photographers to buy the biggest damn tripod they can manage to carry, if they're going to shoot low light photos. I use a hefty Bogen tripod with sturdy aluminum legs and a Manfrotto/Bogen pan/tilt head with the handy quick-release plates. Very secure... I could probably mount a howitzer on it and still have a steady platform! Having a camera with a mirror lock-up function also helps. I used to use this feature consistently with the Konica-Minolta 7D bodies I used (two of them, I liked them so much). I thought I needed to go to a newer, higher megapixel body, so I sold them off and tried a Sony Alpha A700. The stronger AF motor in that body immediately broke AF shaft in my Tamron LD 70-210mm f2.8 lens I'd used for years. On top of that, when I went to the track the next day, in addition to having to manually focus my "long lens" shots, there was a problem with the image sensor, and all of the photos looked "washed out". Finally, the A700's auto-focus system was no where near as good as Konica-Minolta's "Predictive Focus" system. Sure the 7D would only shoot 3.5 frames per second, but you got 3.5 excellent shots each time you pulled the trigger! A man can get used to that sort of treatment. It made photo selection much easier. Just pick the in-focus one with the framing you like!

So... the A700 went back to Best Buy... I bought it when it was new and couldn't afford the Sony 80-200mm f2.8 lens. All of the Minolta "G" lenses had been sold off already. Sigma hadn't released their updated version yet, and I couldn't find another 80-200 Tamron LD anywhere. I was screwed. Since I needed SOMETHING, I dove into the Nikon system. The D700 hadn't been released in March 2008, so I ordered a D300 from Cameta Camera in New York. The first "long lens" I tried came from Best Buy again... a Nikon 80-200mm f2.8D. It had an issue with close focusing.

I take that back... first I bought a D200 used from eBay, only to find out that it had "hot pixels" throughout the imager, and a chromatic abberation/focusing issue. While that camera went to Nikon Service, I ordered the D300 from Cameta Camera. The D200 eventually returned in all of it's 10.2 megapixel glory, but by that time, I'd been won over by the super-saturated colors the D300 had to offer. I couldn't go back... I sold the D200 on eBay and never looked back.

Fast forward to now, and with the Sigma SD-15 on the way any day, and retailers closing out the SD-14 at $349, I bought one. Sigma USA might give me a little lens support, and loan me a few of their nice lenses to try. I'm intrigued by the non-Bayerized direct-captue imager in the SD-14. I've been following it since I first started with my Canon D60 (it was in the SD-9 body then) and 70-200mm f4 "L" and have been intrigued by its potential. I can see the artifacts in the output from the D300, although it's very good. Sharpening is required to fix what the Bayer process "disassembles" from the incoming light, and unfortunately, leaves "sharpening artifacts" if you go too far. Perhaps these aren't as visible in print due to the nature of ink and paper, but they sure are visible on my laptop screen.

Will the SD-14 be better? My 7D bodies were only 6.1 MP and I was routinely earning magazine covers with the sharpness from those big pixels on that DX-sized sensor. What will the sharpness look like once I've got a mirror lock-up function again (the D300 lacks this) and the ability to directly sense all three primary colors at each pixel. To say I'm anxious is an understatement!

Nikon's wireless system has been good, but not quite as good as the KM 7D's wireless flash was. It's not as reliable. Who the hell at Nikon thought that putting the light-trigger sensor on the SIDE of the flash was a great idea? When the flash head can rotate, you put it on the front so that you've got maximum flexibility and rotation either way! Duh. I've made it work (see the Stasis Engineering Audi S5 for proof of that), but it sure could be better. Too many menus between you and the darn flash controls to be fast in the field! Every second wasted in a menu is at least one lost photograph you can't get back during the "magic light". At sunset, we really are "racing daylight" if we're to get all of our photos done during the magic hour!

Still, a good photographer can work what whatever tools he's given. Perhaps I'll buy a Sigma DP-1 if I like the photos from the SD-14, and I'll prove that it's "not the camera, it's the photographer who makes the photos"! Light, composition, framing, focus (LCFF) matters far more than the camera equipment... up to a point. I'll say this just once... a truly life-like photograph typically has impeccable focusing and resolution. If you're aiming to create "art", that's an entirely different story, and Bokeh begins to come into play. For a great PHOTOGRAPH, image resolution is key. If you want to subject to pop out on paper, it's got to be tack-sharp. Sharp enough to cut your finger on the straight lines...

I had that with the Konica-Minolta 7D bodies... but for some reason, not with the Nikon D300 I own. If I can figure out how to get the stupid image-in-post to work, I'll show you a cat photo I snapped with the kit lens the other day which meets my definition of "tack-sharp". In the meantime, check out the yellow Acura NSX below for an excellent example.
Current Equipment:
Right now I'm using a Nikon D300 body coupled with a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 APO DG EX HSM lens, a Nikon 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 "kit lens", a Nikon 50mm f1.8D that I never use unless it's almost black outside, and a borrowed Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 lens I'm trying out as a super wide-angle solution for a low-angle motion rig I'm building. That seems to be one of the shots editors prefer, so I'm going to give it my own "low light" special twist.

I don't like filters. I try not to use them at all. Photos taken without them appear sharper and less-clouded to my eyes. I do have a UV0 filter on either my kit lens or the 50mm, and I've got a regular polarizer which really screws up the metering (I have to compensate manually, which is actually quite easy, just take the polarizer off and meter, then put it on a meter, then adjust and shoot!). A regular polarizer if much cheaper than a circular one, in case you're wondering. This method works, and is extremely cost effective, since I found the filter used on a clearance table at Tempe Camera in Phoenix, Arizona a few years ago. I've got another 72mm polarizer I use on the Sigma lens occasionally. Shooting at the right time of day (evening) helps to minimize the need to use a polarizer though. I don't use any neutral density filters. I think I should buy a few and try them on the low-angle rig though, so I can slow down the shutter speeds to the needed range during brighter periods of the evening.

more to come later...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Current Magazines

Currently I'm writing for these magazines:
Performance BMW, BMW Car, Banzai, High Performance Imports, Fast Fours, Hot 4s, Street Machines, Mustang Enthusiast, Mopar Enthusiast, Pontiac Enthusiast, Corvette Enthusiast, Japanese Nostalgic Car, Nissan Sport, Subiesport, Rotary Speed, and Forever Miata magazines.

Also for these two online websites: and

This doesn't mean that's all I'm limited too... if I feel the urge, I'll write about anything at all!

Past magazines include:
Modified Mustangs, Modified Luxury and Exotics, Bimmer, Roundel, Excellence, S3, Track and Racecar, Mazda Sport, and Grassroots Motorsports.

Magazine covers I've earned over the years as a freelancer include:
Banzai, Performance BMW, BMW Car, Mustang Enthusiast, HPI, Modified Mustangs, Subiesport, Fast Fours, and S3. Some of these were simply inset photos on covers, but hey, that's still a feather in my cap as a freelancer!

Hit the ground running

Okay, right out of the gate I'm going to show you some of my favorite photos from the last five years. This is going to take a little while. When I get a bit better at this whole blogging thing, I'll search for a "gallery" application so I can add it to the page, and perhaps host a bunch of photos up on Flickr, making it easier for all you nice folks to see these cars.

I promise you though, there won't be a boring one in the bunch!

BTW- "Racing Daylight" is a pun which encompasses both the challenge of finding that ever-elusive "magic light" at the end of the day, and a nod to the motorsports I love.

Racing Daylight- an automotive photojournalist's passion

Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many interesting posts, reviews, and conversations on two of my favorite passions; automobiles and photography. I'm Eric Eikenberry, and this is my story. Back in 2004, after being canned from my semi-cushy job at the local car dealership I sold an old Datsun 240Z racecar (Did you know that "racecar" is actual "bottomless moneypit" in some languages? It's true, look it up!) I'd fixed up. I turned that money into a computer for my wife, and some decent digital photographic equipment, and I essentially launched my own career change. Yup. I was the "change I was seeking", I just didn't know it until I was fired!

Now, more than four years and numerous magazine covers later, I'm a well-published, relatively-unknown freelancer still in Southern California, and still doing what I love. Photographing and writing about automobiles.

I'll be adding information about all sorts of gear I've tried, including a small section on air rifles, and another on electric guitars. Stay tuned for an exciting ride!