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Review: LEE Filters Seven5 system


Dallas
  • https://www.fotozones.com/live/uploads/

The genre of photography that excites me the most these days is landscapes. I can’t think of anything I enjoy shooting more than a drama filled natural landscape. I feel at peace doing this type of photography, truly content. In preparing for our recent photo safari to Namibia I was looking at getting a filter system to help me make the most of the landscape photo opportunities that we were going to encounter.

 

So why use filters when a lot of the effects they offer can be replicated in post production software like Photoshop or Lightroom? Well, firstly I don’t like to do things in post when they can be done in the camera. If there’s a recipe for making me fed up it involves me sitting behind a computer screen for hours tweaking pixels with masks and layers in software that requires a great deal of expertise to get the best results from (besides, I’m not playing the Adobe rent-a-shop game these days). Secondly, the sensors on digital cameras these days have pretty good dynamic range, but if you want to make the most of the digital information captured on those sensors, it’s probably best to avoid working with the extremes of DR. If you’re on the edge of blowing out the sky while lifting the foreground, why not just play it safe and protect the sky with a neutral density graduated filter?

 

Neutral density filters that block light in the same way that sunglasses do have long been used by photographers to slow down exposure times when using wider apertures in bright outdoor conditions, or to selectively reduce glare in parts of the frame. Doing this not only helps to minimise depth of field in situations where your shutter speed is hitting the limits of your camera’s ability, but it also helps to create drama in skies with moving clouds, or to give moving water the dreamy silk-like effect that we see so often in seascapes and photos of rivers and waterfalls. You can’t replicate those effects easily in Photoshop or any other image manipulation software.

 

So, now that I have convinced you to use filters to enhance your landscape photography, you have a couple of options if, like me, you are chasing down exciting landscape photography:

 

1) you can buy filters that screw onto your lens, which gets expensive if you have quite a few lenses with different filter thread sizes, or…

2) you can buy into a system of filters that can be used on any lens with an adapter.

 

I decided to look into the latter and the LEE filters Seven5 filter system that has been designed specifically for smaller mirrorless cameras like micro four thirds popped up on my radar.

 

The Lee Seven5 system is much like their well known bigger system of resin based rectangular filters that can be slotted into a holder, which is then attached to a lens by means of a lens adapter. The only real difference is that the Seven5 filters are smaller (they are 75mm wide whereas the bigger filters used on DSLR’s are 100mm wide). Assuming you are using a ND grad, once the filter is in position you can easily rotate the holder around your lens to darken certain parts of the frame. You can also slide the filter up or down inside the holder to adjust the part of the frame you need to darken. This can’t be done with a traditional screw-in filter.

 

I got a LEE Seven5 filter system that comprised the following bits:

 

LEE Seven5 filter holder (dual slots for filters)

46mm, 52mm & 58mm adapter rings

0.3, 0.6 & 0.9 ND hard grad filters

0.9 ND filter

 

The filter numbers indicate the number of stops of light that they cut out. For example, 0.3 is 1 stop and 0.9 is 3 stops.

 

These hand made filters come in handy micro-fibre pockets that can double as cleaning cloths, but they are also wrapped in a fine tissue like paper that I have often used to clean lenses with in the past. Unfortunately the tissue paper didn't make it out of the desert intact...

 

The adapter rings are made of a black anodised metal and the filter holder simply snaps onto these, allowing you to easily rotate the holder with the filters in place. It’s a very neat, uncomplicated system.

 

So how does it work in the field?

 

Prior to this Namibian safari I had never used filters like this, so you could call me a complete filter system newbie. Fortunately there is a lot of information on the LEE Filters website, as well as guides on how to use their products, so before I went on the trip I spent some time reading up how to use them and it seemed to be a fairly straight forward process.

 

The first time I tried to use them was at Bloubergstrand in Cape Town where you get some amazing sunsets over the ocean. Initially I found it a little difficult to figure out where exactly the ND grad line was appearing on the Olympus E-M5 because even if you press the depth of field preview, the EVF automatically brightens itself. This is a setting somewhere that I simply didn’t have the time to go looking for, so I guessed where to place the filter. The results were interesting, but as I was still learning how to use the system, I needed to experiment a bit more.

 

DALL4822.jpg

click to enlarge

Above is a shot showing the sun setting over Robin Island with a bit of the shoreline in the frame. If I remember correctly I was using the 0.6 ND graduated filter here, but I might be wrong. The overall exposure between land, sea and sky seems to be nicely balanced, but there is a spot of flare from the sun in the frame. This is not a train smash as you can always clone it out, but because you’re using what is essentially an external element to your lens, the quality of the filter will affect the severity of flare if you have the sun in the frame, so keep this in mind if you get the notion of buying cheaper filters.

 

The next time I got to use the filters was a couple of weeks later when we found ourselves photographing landscapes inside the Sossussvlei, which is a spectacular dune reserve in the south western part of Namibia. This is a place where landscape photographers die and go to heaven. Wherever you turn there is majestic landscape waiting for you to capture it. On our second day in the area we stayed inside the reserve in one of the exclusive Namibia Wildlife Resorts which enabled us to stay in the reserve at the most important photographic times of the day, sunrise and sunset. We made the most of this and did a session near dune 42 in the fading light of late afternoon and then again the next morning before sunrise at the Deadvlei, which is about 60km from the lodge, right at the end of the asphalt road that runs through the reserve.

 

The afternoon session gave me some much needed time to play around with the ND grads using my Olympus OM-D E-M5 and 9-18mm lens. While our group were mostly photographing the massive dune in front of us, I turned around and looked at the landscape behind us. The sun was setting and the light was amazing, so I found some foreground interest and proceeded to experiment with the LEE Seven5 ND grad filters, trying them all, before finally finding my stride with the 0.6.

 

DALL5847.jpg

 

 

DALL5531.jpg

 

DALL5852.jpg

 

The next morning three of us arose before the dawn and headed for a sunrise at the Deadvlei. This gave me yet more opportunities to try out the ND grads. Again the results were great!

 

DALL5909.jpg

click to enlarge

 

The next time I got to try out the filters was in Swakopmund, but the sky was very washed out there and there weren’t any clouds, so for this particular shot I went with the 0.3 ND grad and positioned it just below the horizon to give some more definition to the tops of the dunes.

 

DALL6278.jpg

click to enlarge

 

I think that this little system of filters is indispensable to landscape photography. It’s been downsized for use with the smaller mirrorless systems, such as micro four thirds and Fuji X-trans, so it’s easy to carry around in a camera bag. I managed to find a $20 slimline Lowepro GPS case that fits the filters and adapter rings I have perfectly. The filter holder comes with a drawstring pouch that fits nicely into the side of my ThinkTank Retrospective 5 bag, which means I can bring along my entire m43 kit and a filter set without having to resort to a bigger bag.

 

There are quite a few filter options available for the Seven5 system, ranging from sunset, B&W, tobacco, chocolate and sepia grads to polarisers and even a lens hood to help minimise the flaring from light hitting the filters at oblique angles. All in all it’s fairly comprehensive as a system and should keep landscape shooters using smaller systems quite well prepared for many eventualities.

 

Price wise it’s not cheap, but it should be remembered that each filter is hand made, so you're getting the very best it can be. For the set of 3 ND grads, a single 0.9 ND filter, holder and 3 adapter rings you’re looking at approximately US$396 excluding shipping. There are now also Singh-Ray filters that will fit the LEE Seven5 holder, but those cost even more than the LEE filters.

 

In my opinion if you’re into outdoor photography, especially if you want to keep weight down by using a small mirrorless system, you can’t beat this Seven5 system for convenience. Go get it if you can, it's a worthwhile investment in your photography.

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Thanks for the detailed review, Dallas. I got Lee ND grads 15-20 years ago, but I wish they had offered the 75mm system then, when I used the old Olympus OM system. The quality is great, and very much better than Cokin.

Great images too! The last one is interesting, well spotted.

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An excellent piece Dallas, great post.

 

Enjoyed the images which illustrate perfectly the advantages.

 

I have recently bought into the Lee system, only trouble is getting hold of their products

many items are on long term back order.

I live about half an hour from their company HQ this doesn't help me get their products

any easier though  :)  ;)

 

Tony

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I still have a few "wedding-oriented" and colour compensating Cokin filters from my medium-format film days which are a similar thing to the Lee system. Personally I'm not a fan of these things for their unavoidable tendency to darken horizon features that protrude into the skies they are intended to darken, (foreground trees, background mountains) and I prefer to shoot a two or three stop HDR bracket if the sky is truly that much lighter than the rest of the scene. I appreciate that the PP fiddle is something avoided by many for the time it can take, but to be honest combining two or more correct exposures seamlessly in software gives a more natural result in my book.


Maybe it's also a hangover of the fussing about that sometimes happened originally when I worked in advertising photography, when we'd achieve a similar effect as such filters by sticking a Wratten CC gel half across the lens in the appropriate position and shooting at wider apertures with longer lenses to blur the edge. This did have an advantage over grads in that the hard edge would make the line of demarcation more controllable, but as it was also a harder line greater care had to be taken. They did have an advantage in that the dividing edge could be cut into a shape compliant with the horizon line (call it an analogue selection, if you will ;) ).

 

If the sky was to be made truly dramatic, we took several exposures and sent the best foreground and best sky exposures off to our retouching gurus to perform a now extinct skill of stripping the two images together in the form of 8x10 duplicate transparencies. It was largely the expense of doing this that saw the Lee and Cokin filters come onto the stills market in the first place, although grads had been used in the film industry for years before.

 

That said, there's no denying that these filters when used thoughtfully can result in otherwise ordinary shots becoming very dramatic indeed, but "carefully" is the operative word - I've seen some real shockers on the Internet over the years of these things being used poorly. The other thing, of course, is that there is no going back to redo the shot in post if the filter is not quite rightly setup in the first place. The shot is effectively ruined.

Edited by Alan

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Alan your last point is particularly valid I think.

If I'm at a special location I take several natural bracketed shots together with

filtered versions, the bracketed shots take just a few moments once set up.

 

I also agree filters should be used selectively and discreetly where possible.

 

Tony

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Tony  -  Have you tried Dale Photographic (A recognised Lee dealer). 

 

Just kitted out with a ND grad set, Holder and Stopper off the shelf from them last week.

 

 

MikeS

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Tony  -  Have you tried Dale Photographic (A recognised Lee dealer). 

 

Just kitted out with a ND grad set, Holder and Stopper off the shelf from them last week.

 

 

MikeS

Mike,

thanks a bunch, will check it out. :)

 

cheers

Tony

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Dallas, thanks for sparing your time to write and share this valuable report.

 

Having said that, I think that the ND grads are more for the places where the horizons are straight.  You proved that Africa is definetely the place of this kind.  Same should go with the U.S. especially in the west coast where the movie industry, the main users of ND grads, is cantered in.

 

It is very difficult to have the straight horizon in the landscapes here in Japan, and the usablility of such ND grads is very limited.  I've seen an article on a Japanese professional landscape photographer who combined ND gels to create a special ad hoc set of ND grads for the non-linear skyline of the specific scene.  I've looked at ND grads several times but haven't purchased for this very reason.

 

I do prefer the Lee filter holder system to those of Cokin, Kenko, Canon or Nikon (except for the older AF-1 and -2) that I have tried myself, though.  I use one for my Kenko ND 100000 to shoot the sun and Cokin Z007 infrared filter and would highly recommend it.

Edited by Akira

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I really do like Zxcvbnm

'lkjhthe landscapes you have shown in this article Dallas. This is really useful 

 

*******

 

ADDED LATER:  oh la!! :D::)

I have no idea what happened with this post. Maybe my Mac has had an attack of altitude sickness having just traveled from sea level in NJ to 7500' in Colorado.

  • Like 2

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You'll edit that no doubt, Andrea, but this just made my attack of insomnia really worthwhile... :D :D :D

 

(Nothing like a good laugh at 4:20 a.m. in the morning.)

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Nice review, Dallas.

You seem to have a preference for the more muted, pastel-like colors in landscapes, which I think is very interesting and unusual. Is this a deliberate step in your processing workflow, or is it more due to the choice of subject matter and the rendering qualities of your camera and lens?

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Nice review, Dallas.

You seem to have a preference for the more muted, pastel-like colors in landscapes, which I think is very interesting and unusual. Is this a deliberate step in your processing workflow, or is it more due to the choice of subject matter and the rendering qualities of your camera and lens?

Not really, Simone. I very seldom make any colour adjustments to my images. My basic editing usually involves recovery of some highlights and shadows, maybe increasing blacks and whites and then if it warrants it, I might add some clarity using the "punch" preset. The colours in Namibia are really like this. :)

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Oh, it's landscape photography heaven, it really is. It's just such a pity you have to drive so far to get everywhere as this eats up a lot of your travel time - which is why I'm not in a hurry to go back myself personally. But if we have enough interest amongst Fotozones members we will be more than happy to put a trip together for you, either as a group or as private safarians. 

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      Getting to Jo'burg from Durban on SAA was easy. I have never been asked to weigh my carry-on luggage by SAA and this time was no different. I checked in my main suitcase and they didn't even ask about the ThinkTank roller which I had strategically positioned directly in front of the check in desk so that the attendant didn't really see it. I also draped my jacket over the top of it to camouflage its dimensions a little. No questions were asked. I went through security and on the other side I found the gate I needed to be at, making sure I was the first in line to board. This is important as it assures you of a space in the overhead bin - the last thing you want to have happen if you can't find any space in those overhead bins is for the flight attendants to have to place your bag for you, because the weight will be a major concern and then they will most likely gate check it if they haven't already compressed their vertebrae trying to hoist it somewhere themselves. Get on the plane first and secure a space in the overhead bin.
       
      Going back the other way from this year's Big 5 safari required me to make two flights; one from KMIA to Johannesburg, and then from Johannesburg back to Durban. In the past I have flown directly back to Durban from KMIA, but this is where I encountered the small plane problems that I knew I would not be able to take a big carry-on like the ThinkTank rollers onboard. On that flight there was no overhead bin and there was very little space under the seat, so I decided to fly back via Johannesburg this time. Longer and more expensive, but I'd rather pay more for the flights and get all my gear home safely than check it at the gate and possibly lose everything.
       
      One of our guests on this safari had brought his gear over from the US in the bigger ThinkTank Airport Security V2.0 roller. While we were waiting to board the plane back to JHB from KMIA after the safari we were both approached by a ground personnel individual and asked to gate check the rollers as we walked out to the plane from the gate. She seemed a little unassertive, so we both refused, citing the contents as being too valuable to check. She relented easily enough and we boarded the aircraft with our rollers ahead of everyone else, found our seats, stowed them above us and sat down to enjoy the flight. I also had no problem getting the roller onboard the Kulula flight back to my home city, Durban. Job done. Thank you ThinkTank!
       
      If you're thinking about getting this case, I can highly recommend it. You'll fit a decent amount of kit into it and it has some pretty neat features, including a raincoat, lockable zippers, external pockets and also a system for attaching your monopod or tripod to the outside of it. There's also a combination lock you can use to secure your case to a pole or something immovable if you need to be away from it for a short while. I can see this coming in handy when shooting on location. The build quality is also top notch.
       
      If I can offer some criticism of the case it's that I found some of the dividers a little too stiff to configure nicely. I think if they could make them a bit more flexible it would be a whole lot more awesome as a solution for your camera travels. Also, the telescopic handle of this model seems very thin and flimsy compared to its bigger brother's handle. Speaking of handles, ThinkTank have placed one on three of the cases edges, which makes it very easy to hoist from any angle. That's clever design.
       
      The inside also zips out completely so you can wash it out thoroughly, especially if you're in the habit of dragging your roller into dusty locations, which we tend to do a lot on safari! My associate Pepe is now using this roller permanently and I have opted to use the larger one, the Airport Security V2.0 which I will discuss in my next article.
       
      If you are in the USA you can buy this bag directly from ThinkTank and get a free gift when you use this link.
       
      Note: unfortunately the images for this article were lost in a software upgrade. 
       
    • By Dallas
      ThinkTank have released what I think is probably the perfect roller for the photographer who needs to travel by air with a decent amount of kit on any kind of photography excursion.  
       
      As many of my readers over the years will already know, one of the biggest problems I have had since I began hosting photo safaris, is picking a suitable means of travelling with my gear on local flights. In the past I have used both the other (older) ThinkTank Airport rollers, namely the International and the Security. Both have their own strengths as conveyors of equipment, but for the most part they are also part of the problem in that they weigh a fair amount before you have even put any gear in them. 
       
      These days the airlines are getting stricter with the carry on luggage limits and most of them in South Africa limit you to 7 or 8 kilos in a single carry on item for economy class seats. There is no way I would be able to get away with dragging the Airport Security V2.0 onboard a local flight as hand luggage these days. It’s a wonderful case to keep your gear safe in, but it’s not the most inconspicuous, mainly because of its size. When the cabin crew who man the gangways and plane doors see you bringing it onboard they will most definitely stop you and ask you to sky check it. The Airport International is a bit smaller than the Security, but it is still big enough to attract unwanted attention from the cabin crew. 
       
      In preparation for this year’s Ultimate Big 5 Safari I was in a bit of a quandary when it came to deciding which bag I should use. On the two previous safaris I used the ThinkTank Retrospective 50 which swallows up an incredible amount of gear, including my 13” MacBook Pro and a bunch of other things like chargers, hard drives and power supplies. I like that bag a lot, but it is a bit large to carry around casually and I also had an issue a few years ago in getting it to fit in the overhead of a small plane. When fully loaded it also doesn’t easily go under the seat in front of you. 
       
      My favourite and most used camera bag is the ThinkTank Retrospective 7. It can carry both of my Olympus E-M1 bodies, the Oly 50-200mm (without hood and tripod mount) and a bunch of other items I would want on the safari. However, the pouch on the rear of that bag is designed for iPads and isn’t big enough to fit my 13” laptop. Despite this I had pretty much decided that this was going to be my bag because I could always carry the laptop in its Thule case as a personal item and/or put it into that rear slip long side up. 
       
      Then ThinkTank announced the Airport Advantage about 2 weeks prior to my departure. Just by looking at photos of it and watching the video on their website I knew that this would be the perfect case for me to take on safari this year. About a week or so later it arrived at my door via courier and boy was I happy to meet it! 
       
      The Airport Advantage is a lot lighter and more importantly slighter in stature than the other ThinkTank Airport rollers, which means that when you look at it, it doesn’t attract any unwanted cabin crew attention. Yet this roller, in spite of this diminished appearance, possesses some sort of TARDIS-like magical power because it swallows up a lot of stuff, including some very large lenses which people coming on our safaris here in Southern African have been known to bring with them. 
       
      Configuration Options
       
      Like all bags with padded dividers there are a lot of configuration options for the interior of this roller. You get a decent amount of dividers with the case too, as well as a raincoat (more about the raincoat later). The three-part telescopic handle only runs about halfway down the spine of the case so the bottom section has enough depth to accommodate the largest of DSLR’s, including gripped ones, with their big lenses attached. 
       
      Typically on our safaris we find most of our guests bring two camera bodies, one main telephoto lens (the 200-400mm seems to be the most popular lens), a 70-200/2.8 and a wide angle like the 14-24/2.8, a flash, teleconverters and maybe one or two smaller lenses. So I took the opportunity on this most recent safari to see how this kind of kit would fit into the Airport Advantage. 
       
      Below are some photos showing exactly how it handled a Nikon D4 with 200-400mm f/4 attached, as well as a D3s with the new 300mm f/4 PF with a 2x TC and the 70-200/2.8 on the side. I also put a Canon 7D Mk II with a 300mm f/2.8 and its hood un-reversed in there. You can see for yourself how easily it accommodates these large items and how much room is left over for other things. 
       

       

       

       
      For my gear I had more than enough space to carry not only my 13” MacBook Pro (there’s a sleeve on the front for that), but 2 Olympus E-M1’s, the Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD, Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO, Olympus 75/1.8, Sigma 19/2.8 & 60/2.8, 2x battery chargers, 2x external hard drives, lots of cables, a back-up card reader and a whole bunch of other items like extra batteries. I even had a dedicated space for my Peak Design Slide and Leash straps. It really is quite an incredible roller! 
       

       
      With everything packed I weighed it on the bathroom scale and it came in at around 10kgs, which is still over the official carry-on limit, but the thing is because it’s so compact it doesn’t look like a heavy bag and nobody raised an eyebrow at all on my 2 domestic flights this time around. 
       
      Features
       
      While it is a truly amazing roller, there are one or two things about the Advantage that I think could be improved on. 
       
      Raincoat
      Firstly the raincoat, like all other bag raincoats I have ever tried to use in a hurry, simply eludes me. We were out on a game drive and it started to rain, so I tried to cover it up but nothing seemed to fit logically. Eventually I just gave up and left it lying on top of the case as we made our way back to the camp. They really ought to coat these cases in something more water resistant than nylon. Maybe a lining inside the nylon would be better? 
       
      Pockets
      The other thing that I would like to have had is an external pocket to put my travel documents in. There is a zippered recess just underneath where you can put your business cards, but it isn’t deep enough to hold much more than a passport, and even that is a bit of a wiggle to get in on its own. I think that they could put a pouch on the flap of the laptop compartment which would then make this the absolute perfect safari travel roller. 
       
      Unlike the other Airport rollers I have used where there is a stretchy sleeve on the front for putting your laptop in, only to have it fall out if you’re not careful, the Advantage has a proper sleeve with a velcro flap. The sleeve doesn’t have any padding though, so if you’re going to travel with your laptop in there it’s a good idea to have some extra protection for your hardware. I use the Thule semi-hard shell for my MacBook and it survived not only a couple of hours in the overhead bins of the planes I went on, but also 12 hours of road transit between Johannesburg and the Sabi Sands. I was careful to make sure that no other bags were placed on top of it though. 
       
      Handles
      There are handles on three sides of the Advantage which makes hoisting it into overhead bins quite easy. I like the design of the handle on the bottom of the case which also doubles as its balancing feet. A nice touch. 
       

       
      The other top quality finish is the telescopic handle. This feels very well made. I have wondered though why ThinkTank opted to use a dual shaft handle instead of a single one on this roller. I think it may have been a better design to use a single telescopic shaft that is housed on the outside of the back instead of two shafts that use up space on the inside of the case. Perhaps v2.0 will see some of these refinements? 
       
      Tripod Attachment
      If you are travelling with a tripod it is possible to strap one onto the side of the Advantage and Think Tank supply removable straps for you to use with the loops on the bag. Personally I always put my tripod in my checked luggage so I doubt I would use this, unless I was using the roller on a local shoot and needed to take a tripod with.  
       
      Lockable
      Unlike the big brother Airport Security, this roller doesn’t have a built-in TSA lock but it is possible to lock it from the zipper with your own luggage lock. I have a cheap combination lock which I have no doubt any thief could probably gnaw off in a matter of seconds, but I suppose it’s better than nothing if your bag might be unattended for a short while. 
       
      Wheels
      The wheels are super smooth to run and I put those to the test properly when I had to literally sprint through OR Tambo airport to board my flight home on time. I think Wayde Van Niekerk better watch out - this old dude can shift his molecules quickly when he needs to!  
       
      Conclusion
       
      In spite of my few little nitpicks and improvement suggestions, this is by far the most useful travelling case I have ever used for my camera gear. For people coming on our safaris it’s just about all you will need to bring out not only your essential camera gear but also a fair amount of accessories and of course your computer too. I highly recommend getting one to simplify your travels with cameras. 
       
      If you would like to support Fotozones please use the link below to order your Airport Advantage. A percentage of each sale is paid to us in commission AND you will also get a free gift from ThinkTank when placing your order using this link.
       
      ORDER YOUR AIRPORT ADVANTAGE HERE
       

       
       

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    • By Dallas
      A few days ago I was supplied with a demo sample of the new Wacom Intuos Pro tablet (medium size) to review. I already own a very old, but faithfully still working Wacom CTE-640 (a.k.a. Graphire 5) which I only use when I am working in Lightroom or Photoshop. I use it mainly to do dodging and burning but every now and then I will also do a bit of the dreaded deep etching via clipping path in Photoshop that is sometimes needed for my product photography where clients want to drop the photo onto a different background. It’s a mind-numbingly boring job, but having a Wacom makes it a little bit less taxing.
       
      For the rest of the time while I am working on my Mac I use my Magic Trackpad, which has made a huge difference to my efficiency on the computer, mainly because of the numerous gestures it offers – things like swiping backwards and forwards between web pages, triple tapping to define words, swiping up to see open apps, etc. I love my Magic Trackpad. I also love that it sits beside the Wacom and I can chose to use either of them on the same computer without having to do any reconfigurations on the Mac.
       
      So, what if the functionality of my Magic Trackpad and Wacom tablet could be combined into one product? Well, this is exactly what the people at Wacom have managed to do with this new range of Intuos Pro tablets. They are pen and touch sensitive PLUS you also get even more functionality in terms of swiping and gesture customisation than a Magic trackpad offers. In fact, the customisation available on the Intuos Pro I have is quite mind boggling. You can customise just about everything to a degree that would most definitely leave an OCD sufferer unable to ever leave their computer.

      Reviewing a graphics tablet is very subjective, depending on what you use it for, so as a photographer who’s usage is pretty limited, what I have decided to do for the purpose of this review is explain how I have integrated the demo unit into my computer setup and explain how it has improved my productivity in a typical workday.
       
      The version of the tablet I have for review, while only the medium option, is still pretty large. It’s called an A5 size because that’s roughly the size of the “active area” (which is also customisable) that you can use for regular touch and pen use. But the actual surface area of the tablet is just a tad smaller than an A4 size of paper. The size of the medium is actually way too big for my needs, as you can see by the amount of real estate it uses up on my desk in a photo down the page. This one is 38cm wide and 25cm tall. The large version is a massive 48cm wide and the small one is a more manageable, but still somewhat wide 32cm. People with smaller workspaces may need to think the size options over very carefully before deciding which one to get. Photographers will probably be quite well served by the small version.
       
      If you use the tablet in mouse mode you will only be able to use the active area that is shown between the illuminated brackets that show up on the tablet surface. However, if you use the tablet in pen mode, you can decide how much of the surface area you want to map for use with the pen, and also, if you use more than one monitor, whether your pen will cover both or only one of the monitors. Or if you wish, only a portion of both the tablet and the monitor. The screen grab below shows you how you are able to customise this to your liking.
       

      Screen mapping options for the Wacom Intuos Pro
       
      Look, Feel & Layout Customisations
       
      The Intuos Pro is a very handsome looking piece of hardware. It’s finished in a dark, graphite finish and it has 8 touch sensitive Express Keys on the side, as well as a Touch Ring in-between the 8 Express Keys. When you lightly touch over any of the Express Keys a translucent menu pops up on your display showing what each of the keys is assigned to do (in case you forget, which is not impossible given the staggering array of functions that can be programmed into them).
       
      Each of the keys and the touch ring can be customised to perform everything from emulating a keystroke to opening an app to copying to the clipboard, etc, etc, etc. These functions can be customised per application. So say for instance you want the Express keys to do certain things on your OS when you are working generally you can program them to behave in a certain way, but then when you have an app like Photoshop open they can be programmed to do different things. Example, I have the top key set to toggle the touch functionality on or off in all other apps except Photoshop, where it is set to the Save command. If I wanted that button to do something else in Lightroom I could change it easily to have a different behaviour when that app is active.
       

      Touch On/Off on screen display
       
      The Touch Ring also has 4 customisable functions which you toggle through by pushing the button in the centre of it. These can be set to perform any keystroke you want, such as adjusting brush sizes in Photoshop, zooming into or out of a photo/drawing, rotating something, and so on. And of course you can set it to do different things in every app too.
       

      Touch Ring Preferences
       
      Did I mention how complex this can get? Fortunately it is possible to store, import and export all your saved settings using the Wacom Desktop Centre software that comes on a Cd or can be downloaded from the Wacom site. It’s highly advisable to back these settings up if you plan on buying a new computer and using the same Wacom on it.
       
      One of the setup options that you can modify using that Wacom Desktop Centre app is whether you are using it left-handed or right-handed. It’s expected that lefty’s (like me) will have the Express Keys on the right side of the tablet and everyone else will have them on the left. However, if you want you can use it left-handed with the keys on the left too.
       

      Wacom Desktop Centre screenshot
       
      This is one customisation that depends on how you expect to use the tablet in relation to your workspace. As you can see in the photo of my workspace below, I have it over on the left side of the desk with my keyboard to the right. This means that if I have the Express keys on the right I will probably need to use my right hand to use them efficiently, BUT only if I move the keyboard out of the way and have the tablet directly between myself and the big 27” monitor in the middle of the desk (that’s the one I use for editing). Alternatively I could set it up with the Express Keys on the left, using my left hand to push them and leaving my keyboard where it always is.
       
      I did try this for a while but it wasn’t very practical because I had to move my hand way over to the other side of the desk to use something stored on one of those keys. Because the Wacom isn’t surface clickable like my Magic Trackpad is I have set the bottom Express Key to perform the function of a regular mouse click for when I want to click and drag to highlight text (there is a 2 finger gesture that does the same thing but my muscle memory is so ingrained with the click and drag method that temporarily changing that behaviour will cause me issues when I have to give the demo unit back).
       

      My desk with the Wacom on the left.
       
      One problem I do foresee me having over time should I eventually upgrade to this size Wacom is that I will have to remove my watch when working with it, or use some kind of a protective pad to rest my wrist on. Although I am left-handed, I wear my watch on the left wrist and have done so since I was a kid. It has something to do with my multi-dextrousness (I am not entirely left-handed, I eat right-handed, play guitar right-handed and kick a ball with the right leg). Working With The Intuos Pro
      As I said at the start of the review, as a photographer my use of a Wacom tablet is purely to do a very small set of brush strokes on images that require dodging and burning in Lightroom, or sometimes Photoshop to draw clipping paths around products I have photographed for clients. The Wacom Intuos Pro is actually way too much tablet for me. A professional graphic designer will undoubtedly find a considerably larger scope of utility with this device than I ever could, especially when it comes to the pressure sensitivity (2048 levels of it) that is available with the Intuos Pro. You are also able to calibrate the sensitivity of the pen so that it feels either soft or firm on the surface when translating to an app, as well as how sensitive it is to the tilt of the pen. Artists will love it.
       
      So, I decided to try out some deep etching in Photoshop to see how it feels with the Pen. I still use the Wacom in “mouse” mode when doing this because the Pen mode is going to take a whole lot of getting used to and I really don’t have this thing for too long. I suppose I should explain what the difference is between the modes for those of you who have never used a Wacom before. Basically in Mouse mode it acts exactly like a trackpad does. In Pen mode wherever you touch the trackpad on its surface it moves to the mapped area on the screen, so you have to develop strong hand-to-eye coordination between the tablet and screen otherwise you will frustrate yourself quickly. Using that method does help to locate the cursor quickly though, but I couldn’t see myself using the tablet that way, so I have it set to mouse mode permanently. Strangely toggling between these two modes doesn’t seem to be possible via Express Key customisation (although it is possible via application preference). I suppose you either use one or the other permanently.
       
      Anyway, getting back to the use of the pen in Photoshop for my typical purposes of deep etching, I most definitely can see how much easier it is to use the Intuos Pro for something like this, especially by having one of the Express Keys assigned to the Undo command. On my old tablet I have to use the keyboard shortcut, which slows me down a bit. This way is much faster.
       
      Here’s a partially finished bit of deep etching that took me a few minutes to do (pros will probably do this in seconds).
       

      Partially finished deep etch
       
      Apart from the convenience of having an Express Key setup to step backwards as I am working (and cursing about dragging the pen handles too wide when tracing around curves), having the Touch Ring functions where I can zoom in and out and also being able to easily adjust the size of a brush when erasing the background, is seriously helpful. Also, if I am zoomed right in on a complex part of the image while deep etching I am also able to pan around just by using two free fingers on the suface of the tablet. I can’t tell you just how useful that is compared to the way I have to work with my old Wacom.
       
      The Wacom surface feels a lot different when using the touch functions compared to Apple’s Magic Trackpad. It’s not as smooth, which is I suppose the way it needs to be to provide the right amount of friction when using the pen. The Magic Trackpad does have a glass finish to it, so that accounts for it being easier on your fingers, but in saying that, the Wacom isn’t all that bad and after a while of using it you probably won’t even notice this.
       
      Using the pen on the tablet is a lot nicer feel wise compared to my old Graphire. It actually feels like a real felt-tip pen on a piece of paper, which is wonderful. Graphic artists will absolutely love this aspect of the Intuos Pro. Also, Wacom have cleverly hidden in the base of the pen stand some 10 extra nibs, a few extras of the default nib plus a few other types of nibs that are bound to suit just about any users preferences. Also found in the base of the stand is a steel ring that you can use to remove the nibs from the pen. A very nice design touch.

       

      Removing a nib with the steel ring provided
       
      Other Features Of The Intuos Pro
       
      One really cool aspect of the Intuos Pro is that you can get a wireless kit for it that consists of a rechargeable Lithuim Ion battery and a USB dongle so that you can dispense with the USB cable that normally sends power to the device. In the setup preferences you can also determine how long you want the Intuos to stay awake for when you are using battery mode, so that battery life is maximised. It looks as if the battery will last about 2 or 3 days with all day use, so make sure you keep the USB cable handy to recharge it when needed.
       
      Getting back to the customisability, there is an area of customisation that I think Apple people would like to hear about and that is the ability to customise what happens when you tap and swipe with 3, 4 or 5 fingers. A three finger tap can be set to bring up another feature I haven’t yet touched on and that is an on-screen control menu. There are a whole bunch of these that you can create that will pop up a translucent menu wherever you want to position in on the screen. Or you could just use the 3 or 5 finger tap to open an app. You decide.
       

       

       
      Swiping preferences THE BOTTOM LINE
      Wacom tablets are a must for anybody who takes digital imagery seriously, be they professionals or amateurs. This particular model is chock full of really useful features and customisations. Once you get it set up the way you want it will most definitely improve your efficiency around the digital workspaces you use it in. I’m not looking forward to going back to using my old tablet after my loan period is up, so I will certainly be looking to upgrade to one of these very soon, most likely the smaller version.
       

      The combination of pen and touch is a masterstroke by Wacom. Mind the pun.

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    • By Mongo
      Mongo was sort of lucky enough to be one of the first to get one of these in Australia. He has had it now for about a month. There is good and bad about it but mainly good (now that is). Mongo purchased it from an authorised Nikon dealer for $1700 Australian Dollars which is a very good price.
       
      AF Issues
       
      Initially, Mongo had considerable trouble with the lens. The AF seem to go “to sleep” at times and would not work unless you woke it by manually turing the focus ring or turning the camera on and off. Not really what you need when trying to catch wildlife (particularly birds in flight), sports action, aviation etc. These are the things this lens was surely designed for.
       
      The other problem Mongo noticed was that the lens seemed very slow to acquire focus on moving objects. The lens was relatively OK on stationary objects (apart from falling asleep as described above). This mystery was largely solved in two steps. First, having the “sleep issue” “fixed” with the firmware update. Secondly, by using the most appropriate VR mode.
       
      Unfortunately, Mongo had to work out the do’s and don’ts of VR on this lens largely by himself and the odd rare comment he could find on the net as the lens was still reactively new and few people had used it. It seems that “normal” mode reduced the the AF speed whereas, “sports” mode seems to have far less affect on AF speed. Unfortunately, the lens does not come with a real explanatory booklet - it only has a single open-out sheet. Mongo is all for cost saving to be able to provide this lens cheaply to customers but some information should not be skimped on.
       
      VR
       
      When you look through the viewfinder and engage “normal” VR mode, the effect is dramatic ! the movement is almost completely halted in a way Mongo has not previously experienced with other Nikon VR lenses. The claim that his lens’ VR is the best to date is probably well founded. However, as with any fast car or precision tool, you must know how to use it to get any good out of it.
       
      Mongo has determined that, “normal” mode is best used when handholding the lens and focusing on stationary objects. “Spots” mode VR should be used in all other instances including on a monopod, panning etc. Some of this information is in the instruction sheet but not all of it an not enough to have worked this out effectively in Mongo’s opinion.
       
      The combination of the above two steps have now brought the lens to a reasonable standard and one that Mongo is happy enough with and could, potentially, be very pleased with subject to further testing. However, all indications so far are that there is a little more that can be extracted from this lens and that should bring it to the that level of satisfaction.
       
      Quality Control
       
      Typically, Nikon realised the lens (in Mongo’s view) half baked and poorly tested - if at all. Untypically, Nikon came out within weeks of the lens being sold to admit there were AF issues and had a firmware update to rectify it.
       
      See: http://nikonrumors.com/2015/10/06/some-nikkor-200-500mm-f5-6e-ed-vr-lenses-have-af-issue-must-be-sent-back-to-nikon-for-service.aspx/#more-98465
       
      So, Mongo was not wrong when he had earlier complained to Nikon that the lens had AF issues. It should be noted that Mongo noticed the problem within the first few hours of using the lens. One would have to ask how Nikon could not have notice this problem if it had carried out any credible testing. Again, as Mongo has previously stated, this should never have happened and Nikon needs to get its act together about properly testing its products before subjecting the public to them and expecting the public to be its test guinea pigs. If it does so, it may keep more of its customers and regain a lot of lost respect.
       
      If you buy a lens with a serial number greater than 2008365, the issue should already have been rectified. So, in the scheme of things, the problem was caught relatively early after the lens’ release.
       
      Build Quality & Features
       
      Mongo could go on at some length about this but it is easier to summarise it extremely good and excellent value for the money. It is solid, well built and well finished, movements are very precise (not sloppy) and no lens creep. Also, the foot on this lens is not like the 300 f4 AFS. It is , In Mongo’s opinion, it is very solid and well designed for this lens’ needs. In short, you will not have the need or urge to go out and buy an after market foot with possibly one exception. Most of us use the arca swiss attachment system and this lens does not have that feature. That is unfortunate as the foot is big enough and solid enough to have machined that profile into it. Mongo assumes this has not been done due to possible patent issues. Nonetheless, you can buy a short arca swiss plate/rail and attach it to the lens’ existing foot without any concerns.
       
      Image Quality
       
      What would you expect to get for this money in this zoom range? Well, you would have to think that it has to be at least as good as Tamron and Sigma offerings or there would be no point in making it. Mongo has only tried the Tamorn 150-600mm and found it to be a respectably good lens. He has not tried the Sigmas (although he managed to get a look at them and handle them as well as see some images from them). From that small amount of largely indirect knowledge, it seems they too are very good performers.
       
      Mongo’s analysis of the MTF charts lead him to believe that the Nikon is most closely aligned to the Sigma Sport.
       
      It would be unfair for Mongo (in these circumstances) to attempt to draw some comparison between the various lenses. So, he will comment on the Nikon more directly.
       
      The image quality is surprisingly good, indeed, very good. Even wide open at f5.6, the lens delivers sharp images with good contrast. As a habit , Mongo now largely shoots at f5.6, f6.3 and f7.1 averaging f6.3 most of the time. Even so, he finds that you may need to stop down a little more but largely for extra DOF and not for want of sharpness. This lens is small enough to fool you into forgetting it is 500mm and that you may be too close to the subject unless you add more DOF. Funny but you never seem to forget this when lugging the 600mm f4 around. It is something you will get used to quickly when using the 200-500mm.
       
      Having owned and used a Nikon 200-400 f4 VR for a few years, Mongo can say he can not tell the difference in the image quality produced by both lenses. If there is any, it could not justify 4 times the price and more than 30% more weight. The extra stop is not enough to faze Mongo either.
       
      Teleconverters
       
      Mongo must admit that, due to the other initial issues to try and get the lens right, there has been some delay in testing the teleconverters properly. Mongo had an initial try with the teleconverters before the lens was firmware updated and calibrated. Therefore, those old results are not reliable. Nonetheless, Mongo can tell you that the 1.4EII. 1.7EII and 20EIII all work with this lens although, not necessarily the AF.
       
      To break those results down, on the D800E, you get AF with the 1.4EII only but you can manually focus the other converters and the shutter releases and it all works etc. On the D4s, you get AF with the 1.4EII and the 1.7EII (which is very surprising becuase the latter combo is f9.3 wide open i.e more than f8 and theoretically the AF should not be capable of working …..but it does !).
       
      Neither body auto focus with the 20EIII. The images Mongo got from all these combos were all good to very good but read further below.
      While having the firmware update carried out on the lens, Mongo also asked that it also be calibrated (together with calibration of his D4s and D800E). Since getting the gear back about 10days ago, Mongo has been flat out trying to AF fine tune the lens to the camera bodies. At present , despite all having been calibrated and theoretically no AF fine tune should be needed, Mongo has found that the D800E and the lens are best at +4 AF fine tune. Accordingly, Mongo will have to calibrate each of the teleconverters with the lens and redo all the test with them. It may well be that he will get even better results than before the lens was firmware updated and calibrated. This remains to be seen.
       
      Commentary
       
      There is a thread in this forum started on 4 August. There is much speculation in it because the lens was not really around at that time to gain a real impression and feel for it. Mongo hopes his thread (here) helps clarify some of the lens’ mystery. Certainly, if Mongo were ever to go on one of those safaris he reads about, he would not hesitate to take this lens.
       
      Conclusion
       
      Nikon 200-500mm f5.6E ED VR is clearly aimed at the Tamron and Sigma competitors and despite its unfortunate troubled birth, it will make a serious indent into their market share of this approximate zoom range. Mongo would now recommend this lens.
      a quick sample image (view large):
       
      D800E , 200-500 @500mm, f6.3, 1/800th, ISO 2000, -0.3EV, +4 AF fine tune, monopod


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