The importance of choosing the right raw converter

Forest of the Tasso

A while ago I tested pretty much all the raw converters available at the time with a Canon 5D Mark II:

But I advised in the review that the results were camera-dependant, meaning that each software gives the best possible results with a specific sensor / camera combination.

This does not mean that the results with other cameras are unusable, by any means; they will be simply average.

To “visually” understand what I’m saying just take a look at the following pictures.


Photoshop CS6RawPhotoProcessor

It’s exactly the same file, with zero post-processing other than the a straight raw conversion, without any optimization or aesthetics considerations to have the output look pretty much the same between the two softwares –  meaning that it sucks big time. 🙂 It has been shot with a Sony Nex 7, then developed once with Photoshop CS6 and the last iteration of its Camera Raw and once with RawPhotoProcessor (RPP for its friends and family!).

Obviously in both cases the sharpening has been set to zero, even if this is hard to accept given the vast difference visible – and yes I double checked!

Photoshop CS6RawPhotoProcessor

RPP “corrected” also the magenta shift you can see in the borders of the image and the chromatic aberration present in high contrast transitions.


Photoshop CS6RawPhotoProcessor

I’ve wrote “corrected” in quotes because there is no specific command in RPP for doing so, it’s a matter of demosaicing algorithm used. Especially the CA can actually be often a product of the algorithm used and not of the lens.

Keep in mind that I’m showing here one result only, but I tried different files, shot ad different ISO values, and different raw converters. And the ones that worked best with the Canon 5D Mark II files performed rather poorly with the Sony Nex 7 ones.

So it definitely pays testing your own equipment. It takes a few hours, but then you will be sure to extract each ounce of quality from your gear.

Happy Holidays!

Battle of the 50s: an update on the Pentax Takumar “war”

Pentax Takumar 50mm f/1,4 compared

Like I reported in the previous post Battle of the 50s, the two Pentax Takumar currently I own, both 50mm f/1.4, behave in a striking different way regarding the depth of field at any given aperture.

The 8-elements in particular exhibit a much more extended sharp field, compared to its sibling.

This gives to it probably even a slight margin in the sharpness department, if not for anything because the focusing it is less critical.

Both of the pictures above were taken focusing with the aid of the 10x zoom in Live View on the tree in the center, that was nigh at infinity, on a Canon 5D Mark II. The roof in the foreground, instead, was at about 10 meters.

The details are from the dead center of the frame, and both from shots made at the same stop: f/4.

I guess that the optical differences – sharpness aside – between this two lenses are more deep that the elimination of just one element…

As a side note you can also appreciate the wildly different tint each lens has.

And yes:

  • white balance was set on “Daylight” for both pictures
  • they have been taken just a few seconds apart from each other, without changes in the ambient light
  • my sample of the 7-elements 50mm f/1.4 Takumar hasn’t yellowed

Unlike the different depth of field, though, this would be easily modifiable in postproduction to make the two results look more alike.


Review: Nikon Nikkor 20mm f/3,5 UD

Nikon 20/3,5 UD

Today we’ll talk about an old timer, the Nikkor 20mm f/3,5 UD. It is a pre-Ai (or non-Ai, if you prefer) lens from the late ’60, and it certainly shows. It is beautifully crafted, something you have to handle to fully appreciate it. Even the lens cap is amazing: a single piece of what I think is aluminum that screws on the filter ring…

 Nikon 20/3,5 UD lens cap

If you look at pictures of the lens it appears to be quite big, especially compared to its more modern 20mm Nikon counterparts. It is not. It is a really compact lens, the size more or less of a 50mm; it is just not extra tiny like its modern AF sibling.


For the sake of clarity: the UD in the name stands for the number of the elements used, not for some special kind of glass. U for Unus, or one in Latin, and D for Decem, or ten. So 11 elements in total (1+10). It was usual for various manufacturers in the 60s to indicate the number of the elements used with some kind of alphabetic code; for example Minolta and Olympus too did a similar thing using the relative place of the letters in the alphabet – so G = 7 elements, H = 8 elements etc.


I’m quite sure that, in order to mount it on a relatively modern – less than 30 years old, film or digital – Nikon camera you should have it converted to Ai, this in order to avoid damages to the electrical contacts on the lens mount.


To mount it, as I do, on a full-frame Canon body, and possibly even on a APS-C sized body, you will have to do an easy, but more invasive, modification. On the rear of the lens there is a small metal leap.


Posterior metal leap Nikon 20/3,5 UD

Picture courtesy of


You will have to remove this with a Dremel – much faster – or a file. The metal is pretty soft, so, presuming you are using a power tool, it will take maybe 10 seconds top. Just be sure to pack the lens in aluminum foil or cellophane to avoid the possibility of specks of debris entering inside it. After the modification the back of your lens should be flush with the lens mount, so should look like this.

Nikon Nikkor 20mm f/3,5 back after modification


Now, how the lens performs? It is worth all this trouble?

The answer is most definitely a yes. I paid for mine a bit more than 100€. In return I gained a beautifully crafted, though and, yes, sharp lens that will fit comfortably in my pocket when not in use.


It is sharp, straight from full aperture. It is very sharp from f/5,6, and landscape-ready, meaning perfectly sharp all over, from f/8 – with minimal differences from f/5,6. The best aperture for the borders is f/11 – but again, here we are pixel peeping.


The biggest flaw is the amount of chromatic aberration. It is quite a bit more we are used to nowadays, but it is easily fixable in PhotoShop or Lightroom. And if you profile the lens – with the free Adobe Lens Profile – or if you use the automatic fix in RawTherapee the solution is literally one click away.


Another interesting feature of the Nikon 20mm f/3,5 UD is that its quality doesn’t crumble at the closest apertures. It looses sharpness because of diffraction, obviously, but it is still plenty usable even at f/22, the closest aperture.

Paths in the snow Nikon 20/3,5 UD

Maybe one of the last incarnations of the Nikon 20mm, one of the f/2,8 versions, is a tiny bit better optically, especially in the chromatic aberration department. Frankly I don’t know, because the last time I used one of those was on film. But all in all, at 1/3 the price of an used Nikon 20mm f/2,8, and with pretty much the same quality, this is an hell of a lens to have in your arsenal.

Nikon Nikkor 20mm f/3,5 UD

If you are curious to see how it performs against other, more modern, lenses you can check this post of Ken Rockwell (watch out, he compared the extreme borders only):

20mm Sharpness Comparison


And please, consider that here it has been compared against some of the best 20s out there. If your alternative is some kind of zoom, even a pro one like the 16/17-something Canon does, this lens will probably win hands down, in both the quality and the price department.


Rating: ★★★★☆

Review: Magic Lantern, for photographers

I don’t do a lot of video, if anything at all. For this reason I, like many others fellow photographers, have ignored till now a piece of software that every respectable videographer uses since the beginning.

I’m talking about Magic Lantern. In short, it is an alternative firmware, free and open source, that works in parallel with the Canon one, unlocking an awful lot of features. I will repeat below the advice that the Magic Lantern team gives: like everything that works on the hardware this firmware can brick and / or destroy your camera. It is highly unlikely, but it is possible. So, if you don’t want to take the risk, please don’t install it.


Magic Lantern is not approved nor endorsed by Canon in any way, and using it will probably void your warranty. […] Use this software at your own risk.


That said, I haven’t had the slightest problem in installation or in use. And the Magic Lantern team label their last release, the 2.3, as production-ready, meaning that is not a beta anymore.

The last “Unified” stable release works with a bunch of different cameras:
– 5D Mark II
– 50D (you can shot video too!) & 60D
– 500D & 550D & 600D

If you feel adventurous you may try the “Nightly build” – a version still under development – that supports also:
– 7D
– 5D Mark III
– Eos M
– 1100D & T3
– 5D

Here you can find a general introduction to the project, how to install and disinstall it, ect.:

And at the following link you can get your copy:


Now there are many reviews out there written from a videographer point of view. This one will be from a photographer perspective, instead.



I’m really happy with the extra features and the customizability of Magic Lantern, so much that I think that Canon should learn more than a trick or two from them and make those functions available straight from the factory, giving that there are no hardware limitations, but just laziness in writing the firmware.



The only, manageable, cons are:
1) the camera, having more code to load, takes maybe a second more to start. Not a problem whatsoever, at least with the 5D Mark II; I never turn the camera off anyway, unless I’ve done shooting.

2) the Magic Lantern team claims that, for the same reason, the camera drains a bit more juice from the battery. With the camera in standby this goes from the 5%/h of the default firmware up till the 10%/h (a whopping 27%/h on my own camera!) of the Magic Lantern one, depending on how much features are switched on.


The features

Now we will examine individually a few of the – tons! – of additional functions enabled on a Canon 5D Mark II by Magic Lantern that are interesting from a photographer – again, not videographer – point of view.

REC PictureStyle

You can choose a different Picture Style for visualization on the Live View screen, with respect to the one you will register your images with.
Really handy if you, like me, tends to shot Raw using the flattest picture styles you can get. The flat style helps keeping the contrast at bay and the highlights in shape, given that you want the maximum possible quality to be delivered to the raw converter of you choice. But at the same time, with a flat style, you can have problems judging your photos and if you achieved the correct focus. Just enable this voice and choose a nice and contrasty Picture Style: problem solved.


Zebra stripes that appear on areas under or overexposed – or both, your choice – in real time in Live View. Really invaluable, and you can also set the thresholds for them to appear.


Focus peak

Did you hate the Sony Nex cameras, but you wished your own camera had their amazing focus peaking capability? Done.


Magic Zoom

This is my favorite function. I actually installed the thing, at first, exclusively to have this. It is – again, a bit like on the Sony Nex – a magnified view (up to 3x, and you can define how large the patch has to be) of the focus point inside the normal view that you can switch on/off just half-pressing the shutter button. This way you can check focus in a breeze and precisely, without loosing sight, literally, of the big picture. Moreover, you can also enable in the function submenu two kinds of split-focusing simulations, both of which work surprisingly well.


My second favorite function. The cropmarks are masks – you can also make your own – to help you composing through the Live View. I loved my Hasselblad, so I end up a lot of time shooting in a square format. Now I can check directly on camera if the composition works. The only downside is that you can see them only when Live View is in “Movie mode”.

You can download the masks I made here (two 6×6 – one with a grid the other one plain – and two cinematic 16:9 – also one with grid and the other plain): [important: do not simply copy the following images, they are just for reference but they are not in the correct format]



And from this guy here you can learn how to make your own masks with PhotoShop (or MS Paint, if you are on Windows):


Ghost Image

This can show a transparent overlay that can be generated from any image in Play mode. It is a godsend for multi-exposures lovers and to line the various shots in panoramic photography.



If you happen to have a Samyang 8mm fish-eye lens this is for you. It lets you preview the rectified image generated from the lens.



Guess what? It is a spotmeter active 24h/7 in the middle of your image that gives you values in a 0-100% scale or in the RGB 0-255 values. If you love Ansel and the zone system you should be more than happy now.

HDR Bracketing

It is an extended shutter and / or Iso bracketing. You can variate the shots up to 5 EV, let the camera auto-detect the number of necessary frames, preview the fused frames and even generate an Enfuse script to align and merge the files once they are on the computer.



Exactly what you think. You can program it with a delayed start up to 8 hours, decide the duration between two shots or stop after X pictures.


Bulb / Focus ramp

It is a feature for people who like to shoot time-lapses. It adjusts the exposure level while the light changes (hint: think “sunset”).


Bulb timer

You can now program exposures up to an 8h (yes, hours) length.


LCD Sensor Remote

This is awesome. You can actually shoot the camera, and even enabling mirror lock-up, just waving you hand in front of the LCD. No touching necessary. Goodbye vibrations and cable releases! Wait, it’s not all, because…


Audio Remote Shot

…you can also release the shutter just snapping your fingers! And naturally you can also use this for shooting bullets piercing water filled balloons. 🙂 But wait (again), because you can also…


Motion Detect

…have the camera shoot all by itself if it detects movement – or, in alternative, changes in the exposure levels – in the framed area. And for this – and the Audio Remote function – you can even tune the sensitivity.

Trap Focus

Similar to the preceding function, and well known to every sport photographer. You focus where your subject should pass, and wait. When it will be in focus the camera will shoot all by itself.


Stack Focus

If you do macro, you know you need this. With this function you will be able to capture a series of pictures of the subject, each of which with a little displacement of the focus plane. Once downloaded on the computer you will have to join them – the camera does not do this for you – and you will have a nice, impossible-to-get-otherwise, extended plane of focus.

LV Contrast / LV saturation

This two let you tweak the aspect of the pictures as they are displayed during Live View (but not how they are registered). This way you can, for example, pump the contrast to focus more easily or desaturate the image to compose straight in black & white.


LV Display Gain

With this one you can push the Live View display up to 7 stops more. It means that you can focus withe relative ease in pitch black darkness (astro & concerts photographers, are you listening?).

Image Review Settings…

Here you have a subset of options:
> SET+MainDial: with this you can compare two images, one on top of the other, with a diagonal split (look at the example below)
> Image Review: this alone can convince you to install Magic Lantern. You will not have to press “Play” anymore to zoom in an image, but just push the “zoom in” button
> Quick Zoom: even better. With this enabled one push on the “zoom in” button and you are at 100%; one other push and you are back at the image fitting on the screen.

Live View Zoom Settings…

Another interesting subset of options:
> Zoom 5x & Zoom 10x: you can enable / disable them indipendently
> Auto exposure on Zoom: switch the preview on autoexposure if you zoom, so you can check focus even if you legacy lens is stopped down to f/16 and you don’t have the “Exposure simulation” on in the Live View options
> Increase SharpContrast: increase sharpness and contrast when you use the Live View zoom, to facilitate to check for focus errors
> Zoom on Half Shutter / Zoom with Focus Ring: you will be able to engage the Live View zoom just half-pressing the shutter button or – with certain Canon lenses – just rotating the focus ring.

Shutter Count

This – duh – counts the numbers of shutter & Live View actuations of the camera.


Ambient light

It is not calibrated, but it reads the EV level of the ambient light hitting the back of the camera. I may be mistaken, but I think that, doing a bit of homework, I should be able to use this function as a “poor man” incident light meter when I’m too lazy to bring a proper one.


Another welcome function is the tiny percentage value that appears over the battery indicator in the rear screen, so you’ll know that those nice full-bars battery is actually going down pretty fast…


Last thing: please keep in mind that:

– in addition to this already really long list, Magic Lantern gives you also literally dozens of video-specific functions that I didn’t mentioned here

– almost each of the photographic functions listed above it is customizable to a great extent.

So the only way to get to really know this software is trying it firsthand.


In conclusion, a great firmware that needs only to suck up less battery power to became a perfect one.


Rating: ★★★★☆ [5 if they will manage to limit the battery drain]

In praise of the Live View


Live View comparison

If asked, what would you say has been the most fundamental innovation in camera design of the last, let say, 10 years?

I can almost hear you all shout in chorus: “MEGAPIXELS! TONS AND TONS OF THEM!!!”.

And yes, I agree. We’ve come a long road from the 3 Megapixel cameras, and now the top performers seriously pose a threat to medium format film – and if you use sloppy lenses, sloppy technique or poor scanning equipment (i.e. less than a Coolscan / Minolta Pro equivalent or, better, a drum) I can assure that a full frame camera from 12-20 Megapixel onward, and maybe even a DX one, can smoke even an Hasselblad away (I tried for myself). If you’re interested in this subject please read the post FEM: Film Equivalent Megapixels.

But, after a certain amount of “sensor” resolution, the biggest problem in obtaining the sharpest results it becomes your technique. So a good tripod, a good tripod head, etc. are mandatory. But you will still have an enemy to beat: you’ll have to obtain a correct focusing.

What? In the era of autofocus you tell me that you’re pretty sure to nail the focus every time, because the camera does the work for you?

Well: take a good look at the pictures under the title – 100% unsharpened center crops of a very distant target shot on a Canon 5D Mark II equipped with an EG-S focus screen – and think again.

The autofocus has been fooled by the foreground object, even though the af square was placed exactly on the tree; focusing manually gets you better results, at least with a full format camera and a special focus screen; with Live View the correct focus has been nailed without effort.

Now I’m pretty sure that you all will agree with me that the greatest innovation of the past 10 years or so has been the Live View!