Chillout TGIF: A camera strategy for shooting watches

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Followup to our exploration on the benefits of the Micro Four Thirds system as an ideal format for shooting watches, in today’s Chillout, we share the Chief Editor/Photographer’s philosophy for a dual camera system approach to shooting watches.

I went through this reasoning and have adopted this philosophy since 2010, when I started my professional photography business. Later, this business was to find its main client in Deployant, but I still shoot actively for some brands, some magazine work and occasionally with fine art prints of Watchscape photographs.

The Patek Philippe Ref. 5270, photographed with the Hasselblad H3D-39 with HC4.120 at f/22. Review of this new released watch soon!

The double camera approach

Prior to this, I have been in photography since the early 1990s, having used both film and early digital cameras since, culminating in the Canon 1DmkIII with a plethora of Canon L lenses: the 17-40L, 85L, 100 Macro, 135L, 70-200 2.8 L IS. With this double camera approach, I sold the entire Canon system in its favour.

The Canon 1DmkIII. Photograph from Wikipedia Commons.

The basic goal was to be able to have a small light system for use in the field, which is capable of high fidelity prints in large format. It is a set of contrasting goals which in my search, cannot be met with a single camera system. Not even today, where it may perhaps be approached by the high end full frame cameras or the smaller mirrorless medium format ones.

Small and light so that it is easily portable, especially for use in the major watch shows and in-situ shooting. But when in a studio, capable of producing large format prints. Tough goals. I had also just begun work on my book – the A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Collection and needed a camera which is capable of large prints up to a full bleed double spread page in A2.

Double page spread from the Pour le Mérite Collection book. The book is A3 size closed, and when double page spreads like this is a full A2 size of 420 x 594mm.

A small camera system might be indicative of a Micro Four Thirds system, while the needs of large format prints naturally point at Medium Format.

Perhaps the Canon 1DsmkII, which was current then, and the 5DmkII which was the rage, and might meet the requirements. This would, of course have the advantage that I could retain my Canon lenses. But I had grown weary of the Canon EOS system, and needed a change to revive the creative juices. I tried the Nikon D3 which was reigning as top of their range then, but I did not like the ergonomics, and the Nikon system struck me as being particularly heavy, though extremely well made. Both the Canon 1D and the Nikon D systems are true professional cameras built to take the abuse of daily use in the field.

The dual camera system, anchored on the Hasselblad H medium format digital system and the Panasonic Lumix Micro Four Thirds system. The size, and by inference weight difference is clear from this photograph of both of these cameras mounted with a 1:1 macro lens.

Side note: In 2010, mirrorless full frame cameras had not arrived in the scene yet. The Leica M9 was the first in 2009, but as a rangefinder, it was not suitable for micro photography. It was not until 2013 when Sony introduced the A7, that the full frame mirrorless became a reality. And subsequently the Leica SL in 2015. The majors, Nikon and Canon only arrived in the market as late as 2018, together with Panasonic.

Micro Four Thirds

To meet the needs for a small, light, portable system, the natural choice is the MFT system. The strengths in the MFT system was discussed at length in this article from a couple of weeks ago.

Why the Micro Four Thirds System is ideal for watch photography

I preferred the sculptured body of the Panasonic Lumix GH series cameras, and selected the then new GH-2. It came with a kit lens which is a 14-140 zoom lens. This lens is not particularly good, and it spends most of the time in my dry cabinet.

For watch shooting, I bought the Panasonic Leica Macro Elmarit 45mm/f2.8 ASPH Mega OIS lens. This is an excellent lens, small, light. The build was not particularly good, as the body of the lens is plastic, though the lens elements are glass. The lens is a superb performer, and stays almost “welded” to my GH-2.

The Panasonic Lumix GH-2 with the Panasonic Leica Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 attached.

At 45mm, the field of view relative to full frame is 90mm, which makes it an excellent portrait lens as well. And coupled with the largest aperture of f/2.8, it is quite versatile. I had thought to complement it with a wide angle Panasonic Leica, but never bought one.

Photograph of Jean-Claude Biver and the Zenith Defy Lab, taken with the Panasonic GH-2 with the Macro-Elmarit 45mm in Tokyo.

This camera lens combination is used for nearly 90% of the photographs you see on this site. I leave the EXIF on all the photographs, so that it may perhaps be instructive for those of you who are curious.

In today’s environment, the GH-2 is certainly very aged. And shows its age. It is not as agile in autofocus speed and acquisition accuracy. The electronic viewfinder is dim, small, and by today’s standards, very low resolution and refresh rates. The performance, especially in low light is poor. Images shot at ISO above 400 start to show pixelation, and heavy chroma noise, with noticeable loss of detail and colour. But at the base ISO 160, it is a rather good performer, especially with images shot in raw and processed appropriately.

The tourbillon cage of the F. Berthoud FB-1. Shot with the Panasonic GH-2 with Macro Elmarit 45. Base ISO of 160.

The GH-2 and the Macro Elmarit 45 were not designed for professional use, and my unit has certainly seen better days. I superglued one switch which had fallen off the lens some 8 years ago, and it still works! They just keep on going, and never once failed. If I had to replace the small system today, I would probably opt for the Panasonic Lumix G9 body, which is the latest generation but considerably larger than the GH-2 and another Leica Macro Elmarit 45. The Macro Elmarit 45 is still in the current Panasonic catalog.

As mentioned in the MFT article, Olympus offers a good alternative to Panasonic in both their PEN line as well as the OM-D line. Other considerations might lie with the APS-C sensor cameras like the various Fujifilm XT series or the Leica TL and CL series.

The Olympus PEN travel kit with two lenses, a mini–tripod, a small portable flash and trigger and a portable softbox is useful for in-situ shooting during watch shows.

Other options might be in the full frame arena. The Canon EOS R (or the new EOS R5 and R6) with the EF100L via adapter, or the Leica SL or SL2 with the Macro Elmarit 60mm TL which crops the sensor to APS-C are good considerations. Both the Canon and Leica offer 1:1 macro capability, though as mentioned, the Leica TL lens will introduce a crop to the sensor. I used the SL with the TL lens to successfully cover the entire Baselworld 2019 novelties on-location. Panasonic does offer the S1 and S1R full frame systems, but currently no 1:1 macro lens is available natively. The Sony A7mkIV and A7mkIII does offer solutions in native 1X magnification, but I find the menu system of the Sony cameras to be quite bothersome in usage, though many have found this to be an non-issue.

Medium Format

For larger prints like posters, billboards and the photographs used in my book, I needed a higher resolution system. In 2010, the clear leader in the medium format game was Hassleblad. Phase One had not yet become the strong force it is today. And while Leaf (later absorbed by Phase One), Sinar (still existing, but gave up the digital MF game), Rollei (went bust), Mamiya (bought over by Phase One) and Pentax made medium format digital cameras, they were more niche than Hasselblad. In 2009, Hasselblad introduced the H4D with the innovative technology of True Focus, and the previous generation H3D cameras became available in the pre-owned market. I picked up a system from a Real Estate photographer in New Zealand. It was still a very expensive system in those days, even pre-owned, which was already at a huge discount over the new H4D. In 2009, the cost of the H4D-40 the body alone could buy you a used platinum Lange Datograph.

Hasselblad H3D-39 with the HC4/120 Macro mounted. A Kirk L plate with Arca foot is also attached.

The system I had consist of the H3D-39, a 39 Mpix digital back twice as large as a full frame sensor, measuring 49mm x 37mm. The sensor size is larger than the current crop of medium format cameras except for the Hasselblad H6D-100c and the Phase One IQ series. The sensor on the H3D is the highly regarded CCD by Kodak – the 16 bit KAF39000. At lower ISO (at 50, base ISO of 100, or 200), performance is excellent. Micro tonality and details are nuanced and beautiful. At a macro level, the dynamic range is quite good. The sensor is rather famous among high end photographers for the rendering of colour, which was described as film-like.

Sunset at Sausalito. Photographed with the Hasselblad H3D-39 with HC 2.8/80 at ISO50. The micro tonal subtleties of the medium format 16 bit sensor is apparent in photographs like this. Click here for a larger picture to see the tonal gradation of the setting sun better. .

The main body features of the H3D is very similar to the current H6D. Ergonomics remains excellent, with placement of buttons which are easy to reach and intuitive to use. Logical industrial design derived from experience as photographers who use the system on a daily basis. The optical viewfinder is large, bright and a joy to use. The Hasselblad system, unlike the Panasonic, is designed for professional use. The materials used are tough and capable to withstand the daily abuse thrown at it in professional studios. For example, the leaf shutter system in the lenses are rated for 100,000 actuations.

The biggest flaw in the H3D is the rear LCD is near impossible to use except to drive the menu and check the histogram after shooting. The resolution is very poor, and focus checking is not possible. The CCD sensor also does not support Live View in any practical sense, and the tethered mode is via the now defunct FireWire 800. State of the art in 2009 is far behind what it is in 2020. The H6D is of course much more modern with a CMOS sensor And a high resolution rear LCD with touch and pinch capability for focus checking, and is capable of Live View with Focus Peaking. Tether connection is also via USB-C.

In comparison to a modern CMOS sensor, like the one found on the H6D and Hasselblad X1D, the H3D’s performance in higher ISOs are not good. The maximum supported by the camera is 1600, though I would not go beyond ISO400 even when properly exposed in good lighting for web and small prints. And not beyond ISO200 for larger prints. The sensor shines at its base ISO of 100.

As an exercise in higher ISO, I shot this Czapek Antarctique Deep Blue with the Hasselblad H3D-39 at ISO400. Shot at at f/22 1/160s the image is properly exposed with dual flash lighting. For the web, even at wallpaper sizes, the image is refined and does not show noise. But pixel peeping the image shows loss of detail and colour nuances in the darker areas, which will appear as artifacts in large prints.

For lenses, as the former owner was shooting real estate, wide angles were important to him, and the system comprised of the HCD 4/28mm, HC 3.5/35mm, HC 2.8/80mm, HC 3.5-4.5/50-110 Zoom and the H26 and H52 extension rings. I traded in the 35mm for a HC 4/120mm for macro duties. And retained the entire lens set. I was tempted to sell the HC 50-110 as it is an enormous lens with considerable weight, but never did. The lens has a rather beautiful analog like draw and is very sharp, well they all are very sharp lenses.

The H lenses were and are excellent performers. And still usable and capable of resolving the current H6D-100c and H6D-400MS bodies, which means they need to be able to resolve 100Mpix and 400Mpix via pixel shifting respectively. Only the 50mm and 120mm have been updated to receive a mkII status. As I understand, this update was to enable small optical revisions for better corrections when shooting wide open. The entire lens ecosystem was then updated with a new leaf shutter, allowing up to 1/2000s shutter speed and given the designation Orange Dot. The older lens top out at 1/800s or 1/1600s. As these lenses have leaf shutters, flash sync is available at all speeds.

Compared to best of class medium format lenses like the Schneider Kreuznach Blue Ring lenses used by Phase One, the H lenses do exhibit a slight purple fringing in out of focus high contrast areas, which need digital correction. This can be done through the Hasselblad free raw processor – Phocus.

The Schneider Kreuznach Blue Ring LS lenses. Magnificent optical quality.

In today’s environment, there are many more options for upgrades. For me, as I am invested in H lenses, the natural path is to upgrade along the line. The H6D-50c is of interest to me, as the sensor is a newer CMOS which will perform well in higher ISO conditions. The drawback is that the sensor measures 44mm x33mm and is the same base sensor as the one in the mirrorless X1D and GFX50 bodies which are much smaller and lighter.

And of course the H5D-100c with its full 53.4mm x 40mm sensor is also of interest. Though for my needs 50Mpix is sufficient even for my largest prints. Handling 100Mpix files is a serious consideration on computer and storage needs. On the lens front, I am musing over to add a H13 extension tube (easy to decide as this is rather inexpensive), and the HTS 1.5 (a difficult decision as the tilt shift adapter is very expensive).

The Hasselblad H3D-39 with HC 2.8/80 lens attached. The green arrow points to the H52 automatic extension tube, and the red arrow points to the HTS 1.5 tilt shift adapter. Details here.

I briefly considered the X1D mirrorless medium format line. The body and lenses are small and light for medium format, but the lack of a native 1:1 macro lens is a serious setback to my needs to photograph watches. (A 1X magnification is the definition of a true macro lens. Some may argue that with the huge number of pixels, one can always crop the image. This is true, but I am a firm believer of getting it right in camera and reduce post processing.) The system is magnificent with superb class leading design and ergonomics and an image quality to match. To make up for the lack of a true macro, it can make use of an XH adapter, to use with the HC 4/120 Macro lens and achieves 1:1. It allows full control of the aperture and leaf shutter but adds bulk, and no autofocus. So it stays on the list as an option to consider when the time comes.

This same lack of a native 1:1 macro is a problem consistent with the other medium format digital systems except for the Phase One and Pentax. The Fujifilm GFX series – the GFX 50S, the GFX 50R as well as the GFX100 (review coming soon!) share the same lens ecosystem with only one close focusing lens. The Fujinon GF 120/f4 R LM OIS WR Macro lens is excellent optically, but only goes up to 1/2 magnification, and will need extension tubes to achieve 1:1. Fuji also make a H Adapter for use with HC lenses, also with full control of aperture and shutter and no autofocus. For me, the GFX 50R still remains a viable alternative to me.

Fujifilm GFX 50R with the Fujinon GF 120mm f/4 Macro lens.

The Leica S medium format system also suffers the same gap in the lens lineup, with the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f 2.5 CS (see here and here for examples of this lens on the Leica S2) is superb, but it too only goes up to 1:2 magnification. Leica makes a very slim adapter for use with the HC 4/120, and is the only one which is fully functional – full aperture and shutter control as well as autofocus is possible.

Leica S Type 007 with the Summarit-S 70mm f/2,5 ASPH CS.

The S system is recently updated with the S3, which features more megapixels (now 64Mpix) on the same sensor footprint of 45mm x 30mm. The system ergonomics are already excellent, as is the entire Leica S lens ecosystem. The only gripe with the Leica S, other than lack of a true macro lens is the weight and the high cost of the system.

Pentax also makes the smc FA 645 120mm f/4 Macro which go to 1:1, but I have never tried the Pentax 645D/645Z system.

And as documented in this site, I have also tried the Phase One XF IQ4 150 system with 150Mpix on the tap, and superb SK Blue Ring lenses, including the exceptionally sharp 120mm Macro. The system is truly exceptional, capable of the best image quality. Phase One also makes the XF IQ4 100 Trichromatic, a 100Mpix back for the XF body with special handling for colours, we hope to get to test out soon. But either cameras are prohibitively expensive and beyond my meager budget.

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, I would still pursue a dual camera strategy when the time comes for a renewal of my aged cameras come. I have enjoyed the use of these two camera systems for more than a decade, and they continue to deliver excellent results. Though for those of you who will not need large prints, a MFT system would be perfect.

It needs to be noted that these older systems only deliver good results in a more controlled environment, and thus much less flexible than newer ones. However, when shooting watches, the environment is often well controlled, and the added benefits of the newer cameras like high ISO performance, In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) and fast autofocus are nice to have, but not as critical.

Even for environmental portraits like this feature we did for Common Man Stan cafe, the Hasselblad H3D system performs well. Check out the link for the pics taken with the H. This photograph was taken by Tan Jingting, with a smart phone.

In the studio, or even on-site on a booth in a big watch show, photographs are made at base ISO with a high powered flash system. Almost all macro is done with manual focusing to achieve critical focus. Fast flash durations negate the need for IBIS, as it freezes motion and hand held shots are sharp. For other occasions the ubiquitous tripod can be pressed into use. Although it must be said that the use of a modern automatic focus stacking tool, now available in the X1D, GFX and Phase One XF, having a good autofocus system is a big advantage.

Thus, my vintage dual system cameras systems continue to meet my shooting requirements. And I only need to consider replacements when they finally give up the ghost.


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