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.

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.

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.