This blog is devoted to the application of optical fibers in photography. I have several homemade (DIY) flash adapters channeling the light from the flash close to the lens. The technique can be used mainly for macro photography, but I will show examples for wide angle close focus techniques as well. The recent version is called fiberstrobe V3, hence the name of the blog is "fiberstrobe".

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sony VCL-ECU1 ultra wide converter, a hands-on rolling review

This lens was hiding in one of the boxes under the Christmas tree and I was really curious how it performs but it took a while to have a general impression (mainly due to bad boring weather and work). I unfortunately left this converter home when I traveled to a recent trip to Thailand.

This converter was designed for the SEL16F28 lens and it has a 0.75x factor so it makes the wide angle 16mm lens ultra-wide (around 12mm, equivalent to 18mm on full frame cameras). It's specifically designed for this pancake lens, so it doesn't deteriorate its optically quality much. Some cynic would say that it's hard to further spoil it. Although most of the SEL16F28 reviews were very negative, I was satisfied with this cheap lens. It served me as a small pocket lens and I also managed to take some fantastic shoots when it was paired with the vcl-ecf1 converter. Stop down to f/8 and it's quite good. If you already have to 16mm lens I recommend to buy both adapters. They sell now around 100 euro, which is a steal for a 12mm f/2.8 lens or a good f/2.8 fisheye lens (assuming that you have the 16mm lens). I haven't done a thorough test yet but my initial impression is that it has very good build quality with a nice silver metal alloy and it snaps well to the pancake lens. It's heavier then the 16mm lens (127g vs 65g), but the two together is still light enough and balances well on my small nex-5. It arrived in an elegant nice zip-closed etui.
The fisheye converter is on the left, while the ultra wide converter is on the right

The two converters have more or less the same size

You can't add standard filters to it but it has a built-in hood. To give an opinion about the optical quality I need more time with it. Adding the converter has no effect on the light transmission according to my test. In M mode it doesn't influence the exposure, probably due to the fact that the lens combo collects light from a larger area. What is clear that the purple fringing of the 16mm lens won't go away by adding this converter (same with the fisheye converter). Overall the image quality is quite OK but don't expect super sharp result.

Below you can see few photos taken with this later combination (with nex-5 camera):

The effect is not that dramatic as with the fisheye lens but it gives a bit more space, so you can show more about the environment when you want to take macro photos. The good news is that you don't have to stop down that much to have sharp results and even you still have infinity. With the fisheye converter you can forget sharp far away subjects, so you can't use that combination as standard lens, while the sel30M35+vcl-ecf1 combo is a nice 22.5mm lens (not a good one though). I think that despite the limitation, I will use my 30mm macro more with the combination with the fisheye adapter.

Update with further tests in the woods:
I've tested this lens combination further (SEL30M35+VCL-ECU1) and I see more and more potential in it. It has a nice close focus ability and retains the thin DOF  typical for macro lenses but it has an extreme wide field of view (it's wider with the fisheye adapter though). It makes the out of focus background very interesting. It has effects you could achieve only with extremely fast wide angle lenses. At f13 the background is still very blurry and only the middle flower is sharp. Soping down to f18 increases the sharpness of all flowers but the background is still quite nice (interesting)

You can, of course, use this adapter as intended by attaching it to the 16mm lens. I usually lit the subject in the foreground with some flash light to have a pop and always trying to find some interesting background:

Update: Additional test as sightseeing/museum lens (with nex-5):

I visited recently Meissen, a German city that is world famous for its china (first European hard-paste porcelain) and in addition it has a beautiful old city center. I was with my family, so photo opportunities were limited, but I still found a bit of time to briefly test this lens combo from a tourist's perspective. Actually I liked it a lot and it is more useful than the fisheye lens in most of the situations. We visited the porcelain manufacture's exhibition and museum where the lens helped to cover large interiors and I could take nice photos of the exhibited arts. The distortion is minor with this adapter and it was not disturbing at all. Most of the photos I took could not be possible with the kit lens (not wide and not fast enough). Corners are not completely sharp, especially when the lens is not stopped down in the not well lit Museum, but most of the pictures came out very nice. However, if you are an architecture photographer on a paid job, the quality will not satisfy you, but 99% of the tourists will be more than happy with the results. Below you can see some examples for Museum/indoor photography:

 Some geometric distortion can be seen in this, but it's not that disturbing

 You can cover bigger subjects from a close distance with a very small camera as seen in the reflection. I've selected this picture only to demonstrate this.

 The centre is quite sharp
 The edges are not that good

In the city it proved to be a very useful walk around lens. The wide angle allowed me to take photos of most of the buildings including the dom. I've tested the sweep panorama mode with this and I cannot fault the lens (but my hand and technique).

Example for purple fringing

In many situation, of course the ultra-wide perspective doesn't fit to the subject, so taking the kit zoom lens or a longer lens is recommended.

Photo was taken with the SEL1855 kit zoom

Overall I highly recommend the VCL-ECU1 ultra wide converter as sightseeing/street/museum photography lens. Meanwhile sony came out with an updated black version (VCL-ECU2) but no words about an updated optical formula, so I think it's the same inside.

  • Cheap
  • Good optical quality
  • Fast (f2.8)
  • Real wide angle
  • Improved close focus abilities
  • Can take photos you can't do with your kit lens

  • Contrast and sharpness in the corners (edges) are not so good
  • No star effect (when stopped down and shooting towards the sun)
  • Flare and purple fringing is frequent
Alternatives: Samyang 12mm f/2 or Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS E. I don't have these lenses but you can read about them in this excellent review of David Kilpatrick here.
Carl Zeiss Touit Distagon 12mm f/2.8 T* is another option for much more money.

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