Tag 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.

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.

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……….

A tip of the hat to Olivier Longuet

I have been taking photographs about as long as I have been playing music, which is a long time… about back to age 8 or 9.  My father and grandfather were amateur photographers with a darkroom in the basement for black and white processing and printing.  For my grandfather it goes back to the early days of photography, and the economic realities of the day.  The day was, more specifically, the Great Depression. Photography was not inexpensive, but if you developed your own film and printed your own photos, you could do it on a budget.  Later on, in the days after WWII, my father had more of a tolerance for the cost of commercial processing, but was still a rabid economizer.  I learned film processing, use of a changing bag for loading tanks without a darkroom, and basic processing.  That is not unrelated to my interest in both chemistry and cooking!  It is all a matter of recipes and knowing what is actually going on in the process.

Music was a little different, but my dad had a few el-cheapo stringed instruments like a ukelele and a tenor guitar (Zim-Gar!!!).  The tenor was my favorite.  I was not tuning it in fifths (it was meant to be tuned like a tenor-banjo), but EADG, like a bass.  When I got my first guitar, a nylon string folk guitar, I played that the same way… picking out bass lines on the low strings, chunking through some basic open chords, and baffled by the asymmetrical B string!  One day a friend of my dad’s saw me playing and basically told him: “Paul, I hate to tell you this, but your son is a bass player.”  That was that.  By the time I was 13 I had a really awful Fender P copy (a Memphis… ugh), with a bad neck and worse electronics.   I ripped the frets out of within a year and that was all she wrote.  I have been playing bass since… over 34 years now, which is mind boggling.

Which is a long way of saying that music and photography are two constants in the way I approach the world.

As a result I always bring a camera to gigs, and if I am lucky I find a balance in time to perform music and time to capture images.  At an event like the NHIC Verge-Fest back in April of 2011 I was in charge of running sound, and had plenty of time to concentrate on photography.  At an event like Rochefort en Accords I had no balance.  It was 95% music music music… and then the time for an occasional snapshot opportunity.  The goal was purely that of capturing a few snaps as “souvenir”, in the true French meaning of “memory” or “memento”.  I am glad I did, because I would not have the great image of Charly Doll stoking the charcoal grill with a hairdryer!  …or the murky images from Charly’s bonfire, or the beer-tent party after the Friday rain-out at Rochefort, or the iPhone panorama of the school kids, or Nini Dogskin practicing the Saxhorn… and so many more.  See the Flickr set HERE.

A Rochefort I was surrounded by a bevy of fantastic musicians, and it was all I could do to keep up.  World class singers, songwriters, instrumentalists, and solo performers, all opening themselves up to what other musicians had to share.  I also met a few people who were putting all their energies into making images.  Christian Duchesnay and Olivier Longuet were the two I saw the most often.  Chris was the official photographer of the festival, and Olivier was working for himself.  Photography is different from music in many ways, but one difference that is central to this observation is that you have no idea what the photographer’s images will look like until you see them.  I can tell a few things about musicians by their gear, their mode of dress, and maybe their “entourage”, before hearing them play.  With a photographer you only see the person with a camera and think “nice camera” or “nice lenses” or something like that.

After I returned from Rochefort I saw some of the work of these photographers.  I believe that I have yet to see ChrisD’s complete work from the festival, but I have seen a good selection of what Olivier was up to.  Wow… the guy is very very good.  He has a few images featuring yours-truly, but to be honest they are not the best of his images.  I am flattered and also honored to be in the frame.  The extra added bonus from Rochefort, as if I needed one, is that in addition to the influence of the great musicians I worked with, I have this influence on the photographic side.  I will keep adding links as I find more stuff on the interwebs.  Right now there are a lot of small collections on Facebook, but I am not linking to those here.

LINKS:

Solong’s Photographies

Chris-D Website

Chris-D outtakes at Poudriere Blog

The Poudriere is a facility across the road from the Clos in Rochefort, and is the site of a really great selection of music events.

Good v. Gooder

I have been using both my big brick of a Nikon D300 for a few years now, and I love it.  Fantastic image quality, great handling, and great glass (even my old beater of a 18-70DX). The problem is, as I said, the brick-like nature of most DSLR’s.  The price for semi-pro performance.  I refuse to hang the thing off my neck, so it lives in a ThnkTank Speed Freak bag, and is great if you don’t mind the weight toll.

But due to my low-budget upbringing I grew up using rangefinders, usually cheap rangefinders, and developed an appreciation for the smaller, lighter, faster handling gear.  After waiting for point and shoot cameras to adopt a decent sensor, I picked up a Canon G10.  I love that camera, but truth be told, the images just aren’t up to the D300.  What they are is very good by most standards.  If you shoot in RAW mode, they are really quite good, and almost DSLR quality.  The 12MP sensor was a bit too far, which Canon corrected with the G11.  That is where the G10 falls down.  The crap low light performance rears its ugly head in all kinds of situations like shadow detail, overall dynamic range, and a kind of fresnel distortion.

So while it sounds like I’m bitching about the G10, I am not.  It is a great little camera, travels easy, has a great control layout, good+ optics, and gets the job done.  Having the time to use it alongside and alternating with a big, nasty, Nikon has been very educational.

Misquamicut Beach

 

Misquamicut HDR, originally uploaded by petebrunelli.

A High Dynamic Range (HDR) image taken at Misquamicut Beach this winter. HDR is a process where a range of exposures are combined to create an image with broader dynamic range than any one of the source images. Using Aperture Priority and exposure bracketing (changing apertures to alter the exposure will create perspective changes, so you fix the aperture and use varying shutter speeds). Many cameras have a bracketing feature. I’ve used the Canon G10 and Nikon D300 with success. Faster shot-to-shot speeds can make for better HDR because there will be less movement between shots, like the waves in this image. I might have avoided blowing out the sun area if I had gone with a 5-shot bracket, which might be -2, -1, 0 +1 and +2 stops. This was a 3-shot, -1, 0 and +1, and i often use exposure compensation to keep the 0 frame where I want it (no blowouts on either end of the histogram). This was handheld, and the HDR software (Photomatix) handled the alignment.