Category Archives: photography

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.

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

Lazy or Persistent? Still not sure…..

[I published ths post with the intent of finishing it the same day. Two weeks later, I finally got to it. P]

One thing that should be obvious from a quick tour through my Flickr page is that I hammer on similar compositional elements from familiar/repeat locations. One reason is habit. I habitually walk in the same locations and often have a camera with me. Those locations provide a similar arrangement of terrain/water/sky and I am tweaking my use of them as positive and negative space (or tellimg myself that I am). But another side of the process is the challenge of revisiting the same compositional elements and finding new subtleties in lighting, atmospherics, optical effects from lens/camera choices, and encountering other users of the same space. Ragged Mountain in Southington has been a regular haunt for something like 36 years, and I keep finding new ways to view the same terrain.

Ragged is the slice of cliff seen northeast of Hart Pond, and east of Wasel Reservoir.

The most prominent feature seen from the summit of the Ragged Mountain main cliff is Meriden Mountain. The view is directly south, down the spine of the “Hanging Hills” of Connecticut’s traprock ridge complex. As I developed a better organized digital photo collection I was able to assemble a calendar-sequenced series of photos of that view. Click on it and you can see it as a slideshow and watch the seasons progress. While a true photo-nerdlinger would have taken all the shots with the same equipment from the same spot, I am not that nerdlinger. I probably have enough photographs in my collection to create similar sets for a few other locations. They would be similarly “similar” but not forming an exact time-lapse. But it does raise the question of “process”. I am not sure if I revisit the same spots for any specific reason other than enjoyment and convenience. That would make the collected photos more of an artifact than a conscious work. But I don’t carry a camera around for my health either. What started as a way to combine  photography time with a hike with my dog or walks with my wife and friends has definitely evolved into a search for interesting clouds/skyscapes and flattering lighting of the landscape. A midday hike may be invigorating, but sunrise or sunset (more likely sunset) provides something closer to “golden hour” lighting and more vivid dimensionality.

If the upside of revisiting the same locations on a regular basis is allowing deeper compositional analysis and targeting better lighting and weather, the downside might be working on the fly to make the most of a visit to a new locale. Recently I was on a drive with my wife and we stopped at a pier across from Galilee/Point Judith, RI. It provided a very different view to the north than you get from the east side of the inlet (Salty Brine/George’s), where buildings obscure a lot of the horizon:

Jerusalem, RI

That is a location that might very well be worth revisiting, though it isn’t all that convenient. It might not be the most photogenic, but it does have a good view of a rare South County perspective, the northern horizon. This is one of the shorts where I am tempted to use Photoshop to knock out the clutter on the left side. There is great detail in the clouds but the wide shot and the fiberglass boat are not helping show it off.

The skill that I hone while working with DSLR gear is getting a good digital negative, and improving my skills at manipulating exposure and focus on the fly. That can include looking for an improvised camera support to allow a better HDR series (since I rarely carry a tripod/monopod) or using spot metering to evaluate the range in a scene before choosing a metering method. I have also become less dependent on auto focus and auto exposure. Aside from occasionally forgetting to set the AF/MF switch on the lens back to AF , I feel like I am better able to hit the intended values on the digital file.

In the upcoming weeks I’ll post a few more example images with detail about the conditions and challenges of the shot. Thanks for reading.

Gravel Grinder

A quick post with a pic of my latest bike mod.  I have been in a quandary about my Specialized Tricross. It is a very nice bike with components I like, but it never fit me correctly. Not horribly small (56cm, vs a 59-61 which I really fit on), but a little undersized and the bars sat a little too low for an old fart like me. After an attempt to sell it, admittedly half-hearted, I decided to make some small but functional mods and see if it changed my mind.

Specialized Tricross "Gravel Grinder"

Specialized Tricross “Gravel Grinder”

I actually saw my first “gravel grinder” reference after I finished the bike, but that matters not. It accurately describes the bike, though I would also accept “Suburban Assault Vehicle”. The only mods were swapping out the Crabon Composite fork for a Surly Cross-Check all-steel and beautiful unit, and swapping the stock wheels for a “niner” wheelset and 700×35 Conti CyclocrossPlus knobbies. All parts courtesy of eBay, and I had Berlin Bicycle perform the fork swap so I could rest easy about that phase. As it turned out I still needed to set up the headset tension, but not much else.

Ride Report: Yep, these tires are kinda draggy, and I have made a few tweaks to the fender setup to get the spacing right. Under hard acceleration there is the occasional rub of rubber on fender/brake, and I am not sure why. The good news is that it is a blast to ride, feels like it is on rails, and swallows up bad road surface like yours truly swallows up rum punches. That means, with alacrity. The Surly fork let me keep an uncut steerer, and that got me about an inch of stem height. My back and neck are very happy about that.

Final Analysis: Great mod, easy to execute, achieved desired result, and didn’t cost much. My Rivendell is still a better bike for my style of riding, and I could run these wheels as a second option with not much more than a brake adjustment. Which is pretty much where I am ending up. It is still a great bike, but I think I have to make a full-hearted attempt to find it a good home, and in stock trim with the original wheelset.

Anybody want a good deal on a clean Tricross?

Quick DSLR Screed

A friend recently asked me for some input on buying a new DSLR. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because I’ve been there (and still am) and bad because there is no correct answer. So much of it depends on the photographer, and their tolerance for the learning curve. The curve can be very steep, and despite its capabilities nobody calls a Nikon D800 “user friendly”. The menus are dense and challenging. Likewise, the digital sensor is getting better, but it is not film, so if you have any, your film experience is only slightly useful. Luckily you won’t be thinking “I wish I was shooting film again” any time soon.

I know what I would do if I was starting fresh, and why I would do it.

  • Get the current brand/body you want
  • Get one good lens (kit, or prosumer equivalent)
  • Get a good bag, and a spare battery.
  • Get to work!

In my case I would probably end up with something like the Nikon D7000 or the new D5200 and something like my 10-24mm DX Nikkor. When I first got my setup dialed in I did a lot of good work with the 18-70DX kit lens (that was OEM with the D70 kit!) but I have also owned the new 16-85DX and hated it. I also owned the excellent 17-55 Nikkor and it was great, buty weighs a freakin’ ton, and costs about as much… So YMMV/MMMV.

This decision has become muddied a bit by the variety in sensors and systems. Full Frame 35mm? APS-C? Micro Four Thirds? Advance P&S? Will you buy a Canon? Nikon? Oly? Panasonic? Sony? Leica? While you are at it, how important is video capability? Even the bottom of the DSLR lines shoot full HD video.

[Note: I like Ken Rockwell‘s reviews and writing. I have not found much to argue with except he might overrate the occasional lens. At least he does actual testing to back up his reviews]

When I got into it there was very little clutter in DSLR land. You went Nikon or Canon. Everything was APS-C. Nothing shot video. Advanced P&S gear was not competitive in comparison. Now you can grab a Canon G12 or G1x and you can get great results. A Panasonic G3 is freakishly capable. As before, the better gear really shows its value in extreme situations: Low light; Fast action; Very wide angle; Very long lens work; Architecture; Magazine covers… And even there you are probably blown away by at least one or two photos made with a good compact fixed-lens camera in any given issue of National Geographic. In terms of resolution, image quality, and dynamic range, compact sensor cameras are where mid-range DSLR sensors were five years ago, and DSLR sensors are off the charts good from where they were.

Example: On my last trip to Europe I shot almost everything with a 10-24mm zoom on my D300, plus my Canon G10, plus my iPhone. The G10 holds up to the D300 very well, but it will blow out highlights faster than you can say “255” if you aren’t fixated on the histogram and the exposure comp wheel. It also has subpar low-light performance. The iPhone takes great photos for what it is, but it has even less dynamic range than the other two, and worse low light performance than almost anything this side of the Holga. Still, the iPhone’s convenience and good daylight imaging capabilities make it invaluable. You can also text your mum! Take that, Rolleiflex!

So the advice thing got a little muddled in the details (ok, very muddled), but I still think that the cameras available today perform so well, and the “kit lens” quality is so good, that you could grab a standard Canon or Nikon kit and do pro work, or at least above average work, in almost any scenario. You will end up learning to manage the tsunami of files that you will generate, then post process and archive your images, out of sheer necessity, and that will extend the capabilities of your camera as you progress. As well, the skills you develop on the camera will translate into capturing images in a way that targets your post processing workflow. You will take images knowing that they won”t look good out of the camera, but will shine once you get them “up on the lift”. The two phases mesh very well once you get off the steep part of the curve.

I’m considering a short run of blog posts detailing some digital photography challenges. I hope I can follow through on it.

To Be Continued……….