RIP ISO?

Digital cameras have become ubiquitous, to the point where it is almost impossible to be somewhere out of reach of someone’s camera. It has reached the point where Panasonic has announced a cellular phone with a 1″ sensor camera (actually, a camera with a GSM chipset), replete with Zeiss optics. Whether that appeals to you or not it is a sign of the widespread commodification of technology that was only available in specialized camera gear just a few years ago.

With that backdrop it has become truly rare to see an advance that changes your mind about where the technology will be in two years from now. For me, that happened when I watched this video:

Nice video, yes. But it was shot on a Sony A7s mirrorless camera, with a full moon as its only light source. Yes, f/1.4 optics and dizzying ISO numbers are employed. The author states that the bulk of the video, apart from the opening two scenes were shot at 1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 12,800 (I’m assuming that 1/30th is based on 30fps video). That is “bonkers” as we say in my neck of the woods.

Sony release their own video showing a dawn campfire scene, with similar dropping of jaws:

“Bonkers” aside, it points to a benchmark for the next generation of sensors that will be in cameras like my Oly E-M10, and not just in a $2500 USD Sony body. Not that $2500 is astronomical money. You would spend much more on the pro offerings from Nikon or Canon, and the good folks at Leica will gladly take 8,000 Tricky Dick Fun Bucks in exchange for a bare M8 body. None of those cameras will do what the A7s does in this video. The implications of this kind of high-ISO performance: Setting Auto ISO with an upper limit of 12,800 and actually using it, not paying a brutal price in terms of noise and digital “grain”, and not needing a shutter speed that would make Edward Weston weak in the knees… That is where this video points.

And as nerdly as that idea is, it has real implications for those of us who shoot primarily in available light. I might shoot with flash once a year. Maybe not even once a year. So rarely, in fact, that I started practicing with a flash for no reason other than I didn’t want to completely forget how to use one. It has implications for me personally as I shake down my E-M10 and compare images to both the geyser of images on the internet taken with similar mirrorless systems, and my archive of images taken with my Nikon D300.

Every camera system is a web of trade-offs. Your parameters are physical size, resolution, focus speed, max shutter speed, low light performance and other dynamic range considerations, firmware/processing/raw specs, and overall ergonomics. I’m sure there are more but those are the big ones that come to mind. Accessory issues like lens selection, flash system, compatibility with legacy lenses… those also play a part. But if you shoot in low light and want to be able to use normal shutter speeds without suffering with noisy images, then you really care about dynamic range and noise, and as long as you get a few good lenses you can call it a day.

So there it is. Sony, the company known for horrible user interfaces, worse software, and even worse tech choices (minidisc, beta-max…) kicks sand in the face of the cool kids over at Nikon, Canon, and Leica. Sure, those guys all use some of Sony’s sensors. But they don’t have this kind of performance. I give them  a huge amount of credit, maybe enough to put their camera on my wish list (I still have PTSD from some earlier Sony purchases).

How big is Micro-Four-Thirds?

I began to share my experiences with my Olympus OM-D E-M10 in two previous posts. The transitions from my Nikon APS-C gear has been a mixed bag. Technically it has been fairly easy. Artistically it has been more challenging.

My expectation was that the steepest part of the learning curve would be adapting my Nikon routine to a new system. And sure, the Olympus menu system is different, and in some ways more complicated/arcane. That turned out to be  a one time thing. How often do you really rework your everyday settings? For me, not often. I now know the Olympus menus well enough to get what I need most of the time. I have been thrown off a few times but once you remember that all the time/bulb/comp modes are in the manual shutter settings it solves most of those problems too.

The real joyride has been artistic, with a side of camera capability. The photos from the Olympus have a different look. The exposure curve is different. It does not demand a maniacal devotion to underexposure the way the Nikon does. I don’t think I ever intentionally used a positive exposure compensation on the Nikon. That would be suicide in anything other than deep overcast conditions. You would be asking for a world of blown highlights.

Conversely the Olympus seems to have broader latitude, and a more accurate matrix metering system. There is a caveat: areas of high tone seem to block up without being clipped. If I am shooting an area of white, like clouds or sea foam, the image will lose detail in that bright zone.

the SABINO, Mystic, Connecticut

Here is a photo of the steamboat Sabino. The image is not overexposed, but the chine of the hull is lacking detail. It doesn’t look awful, but it does lack depth. This would not have happened with my D300.

On the other hand, I took a few images at an indoor farm market, under mixed lighting, where I was not expecting much and the result is:

Wild Mushrooms, Matane Public Market

Beautifully saturated colors and crisp detail, without having to resort to much in the way of post-processing. That is the kind of image that has kept my D300 in the bag.

The difference between my two systems reminds me of the differences between color print films, or color transparency films. You liked Kodak, or Fuji. You probably did not like both. With DSLR you probably fall in with Nikon or Canon. I think of Nikon as Kodak and Canon as Fuji. You get more pop and saturation out of the Canon. You get a warmer, natural image out of the Nikon. If that is the case, then the Olympus is leaning more toward Canon. The images out of the camera look amazing. Sure, the M43 systems give up some resolution, and the images seem a little noisier. But the combination of the glass, sensor and firmware combines to generate some extremely pleasing images.

Speaking of glass, I sprung for a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens and it is very nice. Sure, the automatic focus can be glacial, and the manual focus control feels like a greasy zoom control. However, the images are very good, very flat (in terms of distortion) and the focus speed only becomes an issue in low light. In combination with the OM-D it is a lot like shooting with my old Oly 35SP rangefinder: light, fast, crisp, and easy. What it leaves me wanting is a real old-school manual focus control, and having the aperture on the lens barrel would be cool too. At least I know what I want out of my next fast prime.

Fuchsprellen makes a small jump sideways

One of the things I push for in Fuchsprellen is to avoid having too much predictability. I want to be surprised by what the band members play, and be surprised by what I play. What started out as a few duo gigs with Peter Riccio morphed into a four-piece ensemble with Steve Chillemi and Richard Brown. That gave the band two multi-instrumentalists in front of a flexible rhythm section. For the August 28, 2014 gig I made a few changes. Steve and Richard were only playing reeds, we added John Venter on tenor sax, and Jeff Cedrone joined us on guitar and synth. I played an acoustic bass guitar, which sounds very similar to a double bass. Not identical, but similar.

These musicians have all taken part in some of the NHIC workshops (Richard, maybe not), and that has proven to be a very good place to build a foundation as an improvising musician. I spent over five years playing in NHIC workshops and ensembles, and have played in many NHIC “satellite” bands where the members can be traced back to NHIC projects. While the musicians are all very individualistic they have learned a type of common language. This can not be overstated: it makes a huge difference in the final product. You don’t need to know how to read, but you must be able to listen and play at the same time.

Fuchsprellen at Best Video, Hamden, CT

Fuchsprellen at Best Video, Hamden, CT

Without much in the way of warning, this performance turned into a freewheeling sextet with a pulsing Mingus-style backbone. Everyone jumped right onboard and we put together a propulsive performance.

After the gig I was doing my usual post-mortem and it was apparent that as good as the gig was, it was a proof of concept. We added another dimension to the Fuchsprellen palette. I wish I had been better prepared for an evening playing bass, but I know that wasn’t possible. I have not played a complete gig on bass in a while, and the best way to get back into shape is to jump into the pool and swim.

I can see this format progressing over the next few dates. It might even clear the bar for the “Fuchsprellen Rehearsal Rule”, aka the Prime Directive: If you call a rehearsal, it has to be for one hell of a good reason. I think we could use a rehearsal session to nail down a few themes, and lend a smidgen of organization to the proceedings. Wish us luck.

While you do that, here is a link to the second set from that show. The full set will be released soon, and the audio should be better. Until then, enjoy:

Eric Dolphy Was Punk Rock

  • Peter Riccio – drums
  • Jeff Cedrone – guitar, synth
  • Steve Chillemi – alto sax, bass clarinet
  • Richard Brown – alto sax
  • John Venter – tenor sax
  • Pete Brunelli – acoustic bass guitar, electronics

A little background on Fuchsprellen, wrapped in a Rochefort Recap!

There is an origin story for my band Fuchsprellen, but there is a longer, weirder story behind the work that went into building the band concept.

I’ll link back to those earlier posts, but I blogged a bit about my experiences at Rochefort en Accords 2011. I was asked to play this gig on short notice, as a sub for an artist who could not make the date. Seems simple. Go to France, they said. Play Beefheart in France! They said… We have an airline ticket and accomodations for you. They said. No question, I am going.

Fine Print (not read): You might be the only person to ever be the only electric bass player at a festival in France. What are the odds of that? Ever. Zero. Like Brave Sir Robin I was figuring I was in for a bit of spanking and well, “Robert, il est ton oncle”.

Job 1: Bassist du jour for Napoleon Murphy Brock. I understand that some Bongo Fury material might be played. I have no other real data except Chris Garcia passing me the code phrase “beef heart”. Chris Garcia is a no-BS cat, so what could possibly go wrong?!?! Verdict: Napoleon is one of my favorite people in a musical context, and the non-musical contexts as well. He runs the show the way I would run it: Work hard, get good, kick ass at the show. No friction, even when I blissed out through a motif change and added about 16 bars to the evening. You are welcome, Rochefort. (The members of Peach Noise took me in and treated me like a lost puppy. In the good way. The best hosts a lost bass player could hope to have)

First side job: Blues guitarist Innes Sibun, influenced by an old influence (Rory Gallagher records at times in heavy rotation) and we play two sets of originals and Hendrix tunes. EASY. I have put in the hours at open mic nights and my initial learning tool was learning every track on the Blues Brothers record… erg… Verdict: Great rhythm section, on the spot feel, great ears…

Addendum: while other folks were snacking and chatting, he was putting in the work, rounding up a band, and if he had told me that the fact that the only bass I brought to the gig was a fretless 5 is means for disqualification, I would have understood. With Bruno Bertrand and Or Solomon we had a killer backing section. Thanks for not holding my choice in basses against me.

Second Side Job: Bassist for Jeff Morris Tepper, of the last and not in any way least version of the Magic Band. Great, Great Band. As soon as I had agreed to take the gig He contacted me, I was in, but honest that I felt that his parts relied on my weakest skill set as a player. We met somewhere in the middle, and I gained a respect for and knowledge of his music.

Recap:

Anything out of place? Like “Where is the Beef?”

Oh yeah, Nicolas Mingot had a list of Beefheart tunes, and it was not a small list. Like, er… “if that is a setlist we are going to have words” kind of not small. But peace was made! A truly fitting Finalé was executed, and in good form. Only in France would you get a festival finalé consisting entirely of Beefheart. Wow.

The Payoff:

About that clam / brainfart in the final performance. Through days of rehearsal Napoleon kept giving me this odd vibe, like a question in vibe form. And when he told me what the problem was, it was a blunt: “Pete, do you see how these other guys have notes?” (See Footnote 1). … Point taken. I can play it and rehearse it, and keep my parts together, and not need notes, charts or cheatsheets… However carrying that information back to the stage, in my head, without losing a piece or two along the way, while dealing with multiple jobs and arrangement changes is not in my skill set. I lost a small piece of the arrangement to The Torture Never Stops on the way to the stage. It was not a train wreck, but my no-notes approach failed me and my bandmates. Not the end of the world, but unacceptable nonetheless.

As much as I love the music of Zappa and Hendrix, and Beefheart for that matter, it was apparent to me that I needed to be “playing in clean sand” for a while. Playing where there were no established lines, no expectations. With his simple statement/question Napi kicked off a line leading from playing hard-ass arranged music with no “net”, to the free approach of my band Fuchsprellen. We don’t really do the “notes” thing. While I could stand to be more organized, I decided to let my music flow from my process instead of flowing my process around some other music.

Post Mortem:

My partially successful and wholly unintended attempt to bring a free music approach to a festival setting was complete and I ran back to the States like a scalded dog. The finalé was truly final. The dancing harmonica solo, selfie-free. My restraint in savaging the local huitre population, regrettable. The cognac! Mon dieu! The Pineau! (No. The other, other, Pinot), transcendant. I saw the Eiffel from the back of a car driven by my new favorite French trumpeter (which means my favorite trumpeter) Nicolas Genest, on the way into Montreuil. It was awful.

Footnote – 1 Er, no. It never occured to me. At heart I am an improviser with some basic reading and arranging skills. I will chart pieces if I am recording, and even then it is rare. So yeah, I was making a hard job harder. But almost all of my playing has been in improvised or some kind of modal concept. And I was suddenly aware that yeah, everyone else had these killer notes. I talked drummer Charlie Doll into letting me have one of his. He creates these brilliant sets of arrangement-notes with cues, bar counts, rhythms charted-ish… Genius.

Diverting the Workflow

I have a habit, tic, recurring theme…. when it comes to equipment like cameras, musical instruments, fly rods, etc… I typically use one to the exclusion of any other options I might have. My Nikon has sat idle while I explore the E-M10. One way I use this to my advantage is to make sure that the device I am using is providing a learning or creative opportunity. With the Olympus I have the opportunity to reassess my workflow, from exposure evaluation through the shutter press and into post processing.

NEWS FLASH!!! Apple just released the Camera Raw Update to support the E-M10!!! Which is awesome because I have been importing the JPG/RAW pairs with the JPG as the master image (Apple Aperture, another post(s) for another day). Huge news for me as long as the RAW processing doesn’t suck.

The core of my evaluation of a camera comes down to things like low-light performance, focus accuracy, “handling”, and overall noise and image detail. Some of that is more a matter of feel than empirical proof. Compared to the Nikon, descendant of the mighty Nikon F, the E-M10 feels a bit like “OM-1 meets an X-Box”.  When using the very “serious” Nikon you get a lot of very serious options. It took them over a decade to include an interval timer that didn’t require a slide-rule and a night school course. Video was seen as a gimmick, or in Canon’s case a threat to their high-dollar video systems.

The Micro Four Thirds systems have no such baggage. They have in-camera processing that you would recognize from your favorite iPhone app. The Super Control Panel, touchscreen, and highly customizable controls are right out of the same milieu. You get 21st century thinking by the bucketload. Not that it is all for the better, but you get it by the bucketload. The tools are right in the camera to push the sensor into some very rarefied air. Long exposure, composite exposure, simultaneous video and stills, excellent in-camera HDR, focus bracketing…

I will cover these points in more depth as I go along, but here are the things that I have noticed immediately:

Focus By Wire – does not feel like mechanical focus, but no surprises

Focus Peaking – Not as helpful as I imagined

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) – A good EVF, but still an EVF. Plus, the live image looks horrible compared to the preview you see after taking the photo

(All three of the above features fall apart completely in low light/night photography. Want to take advantage of the super-useful LIVECOMP mode, good luck with infinity focusing at night)

Focus Performance – shockingly fast. Even with a lens like the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, with a reputation as a slow focusing lens, it is still not brutally slow. But in comparison to the kit lens (just for instance) it is noticeable because the kit lens focuses instantly. And that is with contrast-only AF. None of that fancy phase detection like the E-M1.

Info Display – Olympus lets you decide which viewfinder info mode(s) you see in each exposure mode. Great, except it makes for a lot of twiddling to get the info you want, when you want, on the display you are using.

Menus – Yes, the Olympus menu system is byzantine. Apologists, spare ye thy breath. Basically, your settings in one mode, say Aperture Priority, are only for that mode. I *think* this is how it works, but the menu system gives you no easy way to verify this. Also, when you adjust something in the menu, like turning on HDR shooting, the menu always resets back to the top of the first menu. So you have to navigate back to the item each time you change it, try it, and want to modify the setting or turn it off. It feels like a lot of extra button presses. I know that I will have a full post, or more, on the menu system alone. It might just help me get over the last hump of the learning curve.

Here is an image from the E-M10, f/8, 1/2000sec, ISO1000, uncropped:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back to the Future with Micro Four Thirds

A few months ago I picked up a compact camera in an effort to give myself a break from lugging my Nikon DSLR rig all the time. I have done this before with Point/Shoot camera ranging from the awful-ish Canon TX-1 to the great-ish Canon G-10, and a few other pocket cameras as well. While they were acceptable for many uses, it was never in doubt that the image quality was a big step down from an APS-C camera, never mind a full-frame model.

I had been following the progress of cameras like the Olympus Four-Thirds range, and the great compacts coming out of Panasonic, Sony, and Fujifilm. My question about why we didn’t have a serious digital rangefinder-style camera, which I have been asking for over a decade, was rarely answered. Sure. there were pricey options from Leica, and a dead-end option from Epson(?), but it wasn’t until recently that you could get anything good for under a grand.

A little background: I grew up shooting pictures with hand-me-down 35mm rangefinders, and they always had some kind of shutter problems, or sticky aperture, etc… But I loved how light, compact, and simple they were. I also yearned for a SLR because I liked the idea of viewing through the taking-lens and having interchangeable lens options. My first SLR was an Olympus OM-G, because I could afford it. Later, an OM-1 when I had the money. That camera changed everything. All-metal build, great lenses, great meter, and as durable as a rock. It was also the smallest SLR available. An SLR that a rangefinder lover could love.

My photography activity slowed down until the early digital era. I have spent over 10 years shooting Nikon DSLR cameras, and have become accustomed to their strengths and weaknesses. My current 3-lens kit is everything I could want for 90% of the situations I encounter. 35mm f/1.8 G, 10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 DX G, and 70-300mm VR DX, and a D300 body. Versatile, Yes. Light, Not Especially.

This past spring Olympus released the OM-D E-M10, a SLR-style mirrorless Micro Four thirds camera with a very good 16mpx sensor and a greal line of lenses. Priced under $700 with kit lens, it was an easy decision. I sold off some gear and paid cash at my local shop (Camera Bar). Yes, I am lucky enough to have a real camera shop in walking distance from where I work. I was able to handle it, compare it to the excellent E-M1, and bought it from them instead of “showrooming” it and getting it on line.

I’ll go over the comparison in further detail as I continue these posts, but for starters I’ll share an image from the Olympus. The top image is a crop and reprocess done on my iPad in PSExpress, and the lower image is the unretouched original. Dusk shoot, long lens, moving subject, high ISO. JPG transferred to my iPad using the camera’s built-in WiFi.

Olympus E-M10, 75-300mm @ 300mm, f/6.7, 1/1250sec, ISO1000

IMG_0632.JPG

 

IMG_0628.JPG

Back, and badder than ever…

Badder in relative, but that’s all we got. The word for the past 6 months is “incremental”. It has incrementally warmed here in the northeast of the U.S. We had a historic stretch of bitter cold, dry cold, occasional winter precip, and it just. would. not. end. I know that last Memorial Day (informal harbinger of summer) it was 52F and spitting rain. This year it was marginally warmer, but still cold and a little wet. That’s it for my weather recap. Weather. Better than having no weather at all.

My exploits with my band fuchsprellen have been likewise, incremental. We had a pair of shows in early May. The first was at Best Video in Hamden, CT, a reprise of the quartet from the previous gigs: Me on Animoog synth; Peter Riccio on drums; Richard Brown on sax and guitar; Steve Chillemi on soprano sax and percussion. That is a really fun lineup. Everyone gets the basic concept and can play with power while listening to the ensemble and still controlling their volume. I’ll have a link to the audio soon, but suffice it to say it was a good time. My memory is of looking up after 15 minutes and we had not lost any of our audience. Great feeling.

The second gig was the result of a comic string of communication problems. The Outer Space in Hamden, CT was the venue, and the Sunday early slot is the Sunday Jazz slot, booked by Nick DeMaria (trumpeter and all around jazzy impresario). Nick asked me if fuchsprellen could play the Sunday set. I said yes and then had the bright idea to ask Jeff Cedrone to play keys with us. His response: I can’t, I’m playing at the Outer Space with Light Upon Blight! Which is both coincidental and not coincidental since Nick Never said it was all fuchsprellen. The upside is that Peter Riccio plays drums in both bands. In the meanwhile both Steve and Richard begged off the gig. What we ended up with was back to back trio sets with the same lineup, but different concepts and execution. I love this kind of thing and we made the most of it. As with the BV gig, audio links will be forthcoming.

The core of these shows was a very/totally improvised concept and a totally open sonic palette. All three sets had a tendency to get heavy, but they also had a lot of dynamic range and harmonic variety. Tonal, composed, and form-heavy music is everywhere. I love much of it. But I could not be happier than when making something else. Fuchsprellen is decidedly “something else”.