Tuesday, 29 May 2007

On projects

Fisherplace Gill Falls, Cumbria, May 2007

I'm not a big fan of the notion of photographic projects. I think that series of photos should evolve from an interest in a particular subject. For example: if you like taking photos of trees, then a series may develop looking at the various forms trees take. That doesn't mean there was a conscious effort from the outset to create the series. It might only happen as a subset of photos that one takes on a give subject. To my mind, thinking in projects ties you down to thinking about your images in way that is constrained by the framework of the project, rather than allowing the creativity and opportunity to direct matters.

Having said that, I see 2 projects unfolding for me in the near term. The first is the "Images from unpromising origins" that I proposed in the last post. This is the development of a series relating to using cropping and editting to produce interesting results from poor original shots (i.e. photos that would normally hit the bin).

The second relates to the roll of film I've got loaded in the old SLR: provisionally titled "36 shots". Really this is a way to force me into using up the roll (as I want to switch to B&W for a while). I want to create 36 unique pictures around a theme in a single day. Not that easy given the way I normally take photos: a mix of subjects and many multiple shots of the same subject. Worth a try, though, for a once-off.

Finding inspiration

Untitled, Derwent Water, Cumbria, May 2007

Last night I was reading through the LF Photo forums, when I came across a thread about competitions. In the thread one poster stated that he was going to be judging a competition on "Images of Water", stating fiercely that any sunsets shots had better be perfect.

The notion of water images did spark me to go look again at the photos I took around Derwent Water recently. The picture above is the original, these were the result of trying different things:

These are by no means perfect but formed a good exercise in finding interesting images from the original shots. Maybe it's because I already had in mind the idea of different cropping (as per previous post) but it occurred to me that this was a useful exercise in "seeing photographically" after the event - a way to examine the subject and content of what I actually shot to help me shoot better in the future.

Seems like this is one of the "photographic scales" I've been looking for.

It could also form the basis for an interesting project: images from unpromising beginnings. I'll think more on that and see what I can do with it.

Always watch the stove

Skiddaw 2, Cumbria, May 2007

What makes a good aspect ratio?
The standard crops, to me, can be a bit boring (e..g 2:3, 4:5, 1:1) and take a good set of compositional elements to stand well by themselves. Often, some imaginative cropping, to change the aspect ratio, can work wonders.
The top shot is, I think, a case in point. The original was taken with a lot of sky, as a convenience to get good balance for the metering. There were also a few extraneous elements around the edges, that could easily be cropped out (my preferred route over cloning). Cropping like this produces a more dramatic juxtaposition between the sheep and the mountain.
Likewise, the shot of Skiddaw below. The first shot I took from here was really a snap-shot, a means to get at least one image in the changeable conditions. The weather held long enough for me to produce this 5 hot panoramic. To my eye, this is a more dramatic depiction of the mountain and really shows of its prominence in the local landscape.

Skiddaw from Grizedale Pike, Cumbria, May 2007

Why the post title? While I was editting the top image, dinner was cooking. Only chattering pot lids reminded me I'd been away too long (and indeed, was hungry).

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Gtizo 3540LS: the field report

Skiddaw, Cumbria, May 2007

After posting a review of the Gitzo 3540LS that I just bought, here's the promised field report.

How I used it
I made a determined effort to always carry it with me when I was in the Lake District recently. That didn't prove to be much of a burden and allowed me to take opportunities as they preesnted themselves (as with the picture at the top). It's light enough to not really notice.
I carried it strapped to the side of my rucksack, using the comrepssion straps. It was always in a waterproof (sort of) bag - actually designed for a sleepng mat; the head was protected inside that by a lens pouch. That did lead to a slight delay in getting the tripod deployed, as I wrestled it out of the protection.
It was a windy few days and so i used it in two main ways. Firstly low to the ground in more exposed spots. This was typically with 2 legs splayed and me sat down with my legs under the tripod. When sat on the side of a hill with 20-25mph winds blowing, this makes a lot of sense. the other way was traditional tall height, with me stood up to it.
In a couple of cases I used the panning action of the head to make multi-shot panoramics for stitching. No nodel device, I couldn't be bothered carrying it.

How did it perform
In a word, flawless. Well, nearly.
Setting up the legs is as easy as I had anticipated from the practice at home. Sometimes they are a little stiff when erecting, which can make fine tuning level a bit fiddly. As I use a levelling base, however, this is no major impediment to me. That is probably the only glitch.
Locking the joints is very easy and very fast. Handling the tripod in a stiff breeze is no problem, it is light enough to move around but doesn't have enough profile to be blown away.
It sits well on uncertain terrain, even with the stock feet. In muddier conditions I might be tempted by spike feet or wide base feet, just to stop a heavy camera sinking it. That would have to be really soft conditions, though.
Once set, it stays put, even when the ground is a bit soft (e.g. when mounting on mossy ground). As the wind has no effect on it, it just stays put. even when panning and fiddling the head around, I had no problem with the tripod moving about.
Setting the LF camera on it (heaviest set-up i took) it was just as good. as I initially though, it was the cameras themselves that were the least stiff element in the whole set-up.
I can have it erected in about 90s (including fiddling it out of the carry bags) and down in about 30s. fast enough to capture a good shot in highly changeable conditions.

The Gitzo 3540LS is a lightweight, sturdy, stiff tripod that ticks all the boxes. It performs so well, you don't notice it in action: just the way it should be. I can recommend it to pretty much anyone unless they are unfeasibly tall (get the larger model).

Making it good enough

Boating on Derwent Water, Cumbria, May 2007

When is a final image good enough? Something I've had to ask myself recently, as I seem to be spending longer and longer working on my photos. I've started to get into the habit of fine tuning every little aspect of every shot; tuning individual areas of the photo, fine tuning colour, contrast, sharpness etc. Then I go turn it into a web pic. Not a good use of time.

Really, to start with, one needs to consider the final destination. If an image is only for online, or viewing on the computer, an awful lot less effort needs to go into adjustments. typically I could turn these around in a couple of minutes each. It is really only those destined for large prints (say 24" and up) that need the section by section approach. In my enthusiasm for new editing techniques, I've started to lose sight of the target - which costs valuable time.

A little more thought up-front on the end destination will save me time overall and probably give me more time to focus on the critical images. Sometimes, good is good enough.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Photographic scales

Solitary, Cumbria, May 2007

What is the photographic equivalent of musical scales?

It was a thought that I had out on the hills, particularly when the conditions were less than totally inspiring.

Most art forms have some sort of regular practice exercises: musical scales, sketch pads, studies & cartoons. Sportsmen never turn up to the big game without a lot of time on the practice field.

So what do photographers have in the same vein? the purpose of such drills is to hone the skills, develop total comfort and mastery with the tools such that it is second nature when it really matters. There is often discussion on the fora & blogs about making the camera an extension of oneself, making it invisible, yet there is never any discussion as to how one achieves this. It cannot be a function directly of the instrument itself, otherwise I could pick up a Leica and shoot like Cartier-Bresson.

It is certainly more than knowing the mechanics or understanding the theory of exposure, composition, depth of focus etc. I believe the great photography comes at the end of a long line of focused practice but what practice, and how to focus it?

I don't have any answers here, I'm still searching.

Seeing differently

Untitled, Cumbria, May 2007

As I mentioned below, the mixed weather this weekend forced me to think differently about the photos I was taking, if I was to make good images.

Part of the attraction of the Lake District to me is the variability in the weather, the way that weather can change the landscape from day to day and year to year. Whilst I've always seen it this way and enjoyed it for what it is, the photos haven't always been a reflection of that attraction. for some reason I've been stuck on the classic (cliched?) images of mountain-tops against the skyline.

Here is an example (still a work in progress) of my partial change in perspective. Some of this resulted from my determination to come away with a large amount of material to work with, an determined effort to actually get the camera out of the bag.

In this instance the top shot shows what the weather was like that day. I was sat just about 100m below the cloud line. The light was flat, the tops invisible, the sky almost uniform in colour. This was one of the clearer spells that day.

So I shifted perspective. Below is the result. It reflects what I love about this spot, one of my favourite spots anywhere.

Solitude, Cumbria, May 2007 - a work in progress

I've never seen another person here. The path is indistinct, I always walk a bearing across the open moor from the main path to the gill here. Despite being able to (just) see the road, there is no sound of human activity in this spot. I enjoy eating lunch and contemplating the world. It is actually this view, rather than the skyline, that is what I gaze upon.

One aspect of the photography from these sort of days that I do need to work on is the capturing of the true essence of the overcast days. There is a sense of truth about such days, they are a large part of the weather in the region, yet reflecting the true impact that such days have in a photograph eludes me. Practice needed (or maybe some good filters).

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

A mixed bag of a weekend

Just back from my weekend in the Lake District. Something of a mixed bag, both from the walking and photography perspective, all down to the weather.
Thursday - usual low cloud scenario, tops shrouded in mist but very low wind. Walking was a pleasure (I was the only one on the hill - Helvellyn - all day). Photographically, I was somewhat forced to think differently, which has actually led to some interesting results.
Friday & Saturday - 2 days of high winds, no chance of hitting the tops - just too dangerous. Heavy rain each morning. Then the clouds lifted and the rain abated for the afternoon and some photography was possible. Actually got one of the best views of Skiddaw it's possible to imagine.
Sunday - great weather, light winds and clear tops. Easily the best weather I've had this time of year. Got out the LF gear on Skiddaw so hopefully that was successful.

More on the images, thoughts on photography I had whilst out there and of course my tripod field report on the Gitzo 3540LS over the next few days.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Something to look forward to

Langdale, Cumbria, May 2006

So this is the sort of sight I'm looking forward to for the weekend. Let's hope for similar weather so I can return with a bevvy of good images.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Dual purpose packing

I've written previously on packing light and the problems that poses. I'm currently in the middle of a similar problem.

On Wednesday I leave for my annual trip to the Lake District, to get in some walking in the hills and to engage in some photography: all the cliched, grand scenic stuff. It's a beautiful part of the world, I love to photograph it.

the problem is, this is another dual-purpose trip: walking and photography. 2 sets of kit to get in the bag, 2 aims in mind neither one really taking precedence over the other. If the weather is wet, I'll get out anyway, if it's fine I'll spend a lot more time behind the lens. It's all good (apart from the part where half the gear I take doesn't get used due to prevailing conditions).

This leads to the problem. The first part is having a bag big enough to get all the gear in. As most of the kit is "hardware" (in this meaning that being kit that has a fixed size, regardless of duration). I might just as well be going for a month as for 4 days for all the kit I'm taking. That's OK, though - I've got used to carrying a bicycle with me so big bags & short trips aren't that much of a problem.

The real issue I have is with carrying equipment in the field. There are great trekking bags & other kit - I've spent a lifetime acquiring it. My rucksack is very nice for a good day out in the hills. I have others that I can use for anything from a couple of days to a whole month self-supporting.
But not with the camera in tow. I have to make all kinds of carrying compromises to mix the two types of gear. Straps for axes & poles aren't terribly well suited to a tripod. I have to have a bag-in-bag to protect the cameras (yes, I'll have both the LF and the DSLR with me every day it's not lashing down). If I were to go with a dedicated camera rucksack it would be weighed down with all the padding, have a bazillion pockets, limited waterproofing and barely anywhere to store lunch, let along waterproofs, maps etc.
Why can't I get a decent dual-purpose something. Maybe a climbing sack with a camera attachment, or a dual compartment set-up that's like a walking sack on top and a camera sack on the bottom. With a proper harness designed for rugged terrain. Not those man-around-town types that come with the camera bags, they wouldn't last half a day with me in the hills.
You'd have thought Lowe, with both the Alpine and Pro camera sides to the brand could get it together. I can't be the only walker who takes photos, or the only photographer who walks out into the hill country.

For now I'll go with what I've got - I'm not splashing out on some half-hearted, half-way deal. Unless my ideal sack comes along, the camera will be down the bottom in a stuff sack, and I'll live with the inconvenience.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Making room for the best work

George Barr has recently posted on the issue of photographing cliches: photos that have been done to death of popular places and subjects. This seems to be a common photography thought - why photograph something that has already been done a million times? There is no value in such images etc.

I'm not sure I agree with the sentiment that there is nothing valuable in such shots and tend to agree with George - the challenge is to make really great images from places where one knows a good photo is possible. As is commented, it's also these photos that the majority of people like the best: recognisable scenes well executed.

From a commercial point of view i think such photos make a lot of sense. They're not a sell-out, they can become a way to subsidise the other stuff. I recall an interview with Sigourney Weaver that went along similar lines: why was she doing "simple", commercial block-buster work alongside much more artistic endeavours? Her reply was that it took just one of the former to pay for her to do several of the latter. She's not the only actor/actress to make similar comments. Bills need paying, and if it's highly commercial work that is toallow the more creative work to exist at all, then that, surely, is a good thing. Artists of all types, in all forms of artistic endeavour, have followed a similar path. I don't think some of the greatest works of art would exist without it.

From an amateur point of view I also think there is merit in doing the cliches. It becomes an exercise in composition, light, timing etc. When you're not worrying about the basic scene you can work on all the other stuff until it is ingrained. Then, when it comes to executing the harder but more "worthy" images, all of the nitty-gritty has become second nature and isn't a worry. Then one can focus on the scene & the message (if indeed there is one).

Finally, sometimes it's just nice to have great photos of nice places. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. Photography doesn't have to be high-art all the time, sometimes it's just a record of a place and time, an aide-memoire, something to lighten the dark & dreary days.

Photography will be resumed soon

That's quite enough technical-type posts for a while. Time I got back to the photography subjects.

Of course, I'll be off for a few days next weekend with the cameras, walking in the hills. That will certainly help get my mind back to it.

Gitzo 3540LS tripod: a review

Gitzo 3540LS, fully folded

Gitzo 3540LS

First impressions.
This is a nicely made, solid feeling item. It's well finished, the materials are good an there is the general feeling of "quality product" about it. All the movements and controls are positive & solid. A good start.

Top plate with head arrangement

This is the shorter, 4 section version of Gitzo's 3-series Systematic range. This range is squarely aimed at pro applications and is highly versatile. The basic tripod comes with a flat plate (no centre column) which is easily removed and a host of centre column options inserted: there are regular columns, geared columns and a levelling base. Mounting the head to the top plate is easy, just screw it on. The plate has a slightly convex profile which means that the head locks down positively with no tools. I'm using an Acra Tech levelling base and a Really Right Stuff BH-40. On this tripod they look quite small, but they are solid products. It would be easy to mount a full sized ball head or Wimberly head a well.

Due to the relatively large top plate, the carrying diameter feels quite large; there is quite a separation of the legs when folded. this means it won't fit quite as flush to a rucksack as other tripods. Being carbon-fibre legged it is quite light, however, and very stiff (more of which later).
Closed down the total set-up I'm using measures just 68cm (27") long ,very nice for transporting backpack. This was a key feature for me.
What's in the box?
Of course, the tripod. But it also came with a comprehensive warrantee, a carry bag, a spanner for the various nuts amd a pair of torx spanners for removing the legs. All the tools needed to disasseble, more of which later.

Leg joint

Setting up.
Being one of Gitzo's new series tripods, it has the ALR (Anti Leg rotation) design. This means that the legs don't turn inside one another when the clamp is loosened. This is a Good Thing. If you've ever use one of Gitzo's previous carbon fibre deveices (I've got a 1568 monopod) you'll know what a pain it is to have to undo and tighten all the clamps in correct order. Another feature is the new G-lock system, which uses a wedge shape in the clamp to cause top weighting to further tighten the joint. These two new features together mean that far less torque is required to tighten the legs and they are also easier to loosen. One downside is that the ALR device (see below) causes the legs to run a little tighter, so some more effort is required to extend the legs. It's not onerous, set up is easily done in a few seconds. What time is lost extending is easily gained with the clamps.
The full height of this tripod is good enough to put my EOS 20D at eye level (I'm 6' tall), the 4x5 is just a little high at full extension. I reckon that anyone up to about 6'4" should get on well with this height. Gitzo also make an extra long version the 3540XLS.
At full extension it is very rigid indeed. No leg flex or torsional movement to speak of, even when leaning on it pretty hard. All the joints are very secure, there is no slop anywhere in the set-up. The stiffness comes from the thick, high-wind, large diameter tubes. Gitzo are claiming the same stiffness from 1mm tubes as previously from 1.5mm. I can well believe that. The bottom section is fully 20mm in diamter, growing to 32mm for the top section. This is large stuff. There should be no reservations about using a 4 leg section tripod anymore with this one, even with large rigs.
Overall, though, my set-up weighs just 2.5kg (5.5lb), the tripod itself is only 1.7kg (3.7lb). Again, very nice for travelling.

Locking tab, unlocked

The leg angles are nicely spaced. To widen them, pull out the tab (pictured) and turn the legs. Push the tab back into place to lock the legs againts the stepped stops on the shoulders. No spring clips but very simple, positive, secure and nothing to go wrong.

Shooting vertically down

For Shooting downwards, or with the camera flopped over, moving 2 legs to the second stop, leaving the other at the fist provides a good arrangement (see photo). there is plenty of space to shoot vertically downwards but the leg angles are sun that it is never going to tip over, even with a heavy camera (short of a monster view camera). the feet sit right under the centre of the camera's gravity, even at low extesions. This seems to suggest someone was carefully thinking of the design.

With the legs open to their widest point, the tripod sits virtually flat on the floor.
With a full set of spanners and a mechanically simple design, disassembly should be easy. the legs, leg lock tabs, top plate and even each leg section can easily be taken apart. this should facilitate repairs, cleaning, greasing with ease. The removable top plate allows for adding all sorts of columns etc as previously mentioned.

ALR dismantled

Stripping down the legs is a snap. Just fully unscrew the locking ring and pull the legs apart. The picture shows the 2 collars that make up the ALR device. Inside the legs there is a raised ridge running along the leg, the pair of collars wrap around the top of the inner leg and form a matching groove. Simple and effective. Reassembly needs a little care to ensure the collars snap back into the retaining holes but it is easy with a little practice (yes, I had several goes at pulling it all apart).
The pointed feet that come with the tripod are also easily removed (and replaced with a host of options) which should facilitate cleaning for those who like to wade through swamp with their gear.

I'm very please with the Gitzo 3540LS. It's solid, easy to set-up, fully maintainable, packable. The new features have improved the design considerably over previous models. The mechanical simplicity should add to its reliabilty.
Whilst I've not really put it through its paces in the field, I'm sure it's going to be a great performer. I'll probably post a field report after I get back from my trip next week.

UPDATE: As quite a few people are now reading this review, you might also be interested in the follow up field report I wrote on the tripod.

How a tripod works

Orkhon River, Mongolia, September 2006

Be warned: this is a long post.

I just acquired myself a new tripod, a Gitzo 3540LS, about which I'm going to write a fairly sizeable review in another post. Before that, though, I though it important to get down some basics of tripods that underlie the way I'll assess its capabilities. There is a lot of pseudo-science, old wives' tales and plain error in the discussions on tripods out in web-land. I though I'd lend my take, applying a little more engineering science to the whole issue.

A camera tripod serves 2 functions: firstly to support the camera's weight above the ground and secondly to stop it moving. The first is easy to achieve, any reasonably strong support of sufficient height will support the weight and any number of materials can be used. Even the cheapest tripods meet this requirement - the only challenge is to ensure sufficient strength when using large cameras such that it doesn't collapse. It is the second part, the movement issue that is harder to solve and thus forms the rest of this discussion (and probably occupies the minds of tripod designers the most).

There are 3 principle modes of movement of the tripod that have to be considered, each with its own challenges.
1. Lateral movement of the vertical axis - sway, if you like.
2. Torsional movement (twisting) around the vertical axis.
3. Resonant vibration of the entire set-up - a sort of "ringing".

1. Lateral movements

These are, in fact, relatively simple to overcome. A tripod is an inherently stiff and stable structure, this is the key reason that tripods are chosen as the primary support structure. It is also the reason why supporting the weight is quite straightforward. Any reasonably stiff material will be sufficient to prevent the system swaying. If telescoping legs are used (as is mostly the case) then the joints also need to be sufficiently rigid to avoid movement.

Using an extending centre column increases movements because suddenly the top of the set-up is an inverted pendulum. One is relying on the stiffness of the column itself to prevent the movement, rather than the structural stiffness of the tripod shape.

To get any appreciable deflection you'd need a large force. By that time, either the thing has fallen over or you've buried it into the ground it stands on.

A similar effect can occur from the bowing of the legs. Leg(s) bow in on one side and out on the other. Again, a large force is required to produce this effect, even with relatively flexible legs.

Of the three movement mechanisms, I would suggest this is the least important in that it is easiest to solve and least likely to actually occur.

2. Torsional movements

This is the twisting of the tripod around a vertical axis. The effect is to create a panning motion in the camera. It is an effect due to the fact that a tripod is not a perfect tetrahedron (pyramid with triangular base) which is effectively perfectly rigid. The degree of movement is a function of leg stiffness (shape & material), leg length and leg angle. Flexible (flexible material, small diameter, thin wall) legs, long length and high angle (narrow leg spread) make things worse. Flexibility of joints is also an issue.

Again, this shouldn't be a major issue, although a tripod that is stiff enough laterally is not necessarily stiff enough torsionally. In this case, also, a large force is require to produce appreciable deflection.

It's mainly going to be an issue if there is a size offset of the camera, i.e. a larger part extending one direction relatively to the other. A large lens (think 500mm here), even perfectly balanced, has a larger volume one side of balance to the other. This can become a bit of a sail in high winds. Large format with large extensions and dark cloths also have issues. This is needed to produce the rotational force through the lever principle.

Both of these first sets of movement tend to result in a deflection then rapid return to the centre position. Therefore the effect is short lived.

3. Resonant vibration

This is almost certainly going to be the biggest problem. Sharp images, especially with smaller formats, are very sensitive to very small movements of the capture plane - think microns here. Any movement of the order of the circle of confusion diameter or larger will cause blur. This is why SLR photographers get so hung-up on mirror slap (me included). Resonant vibrations can last a long time and be very difficult to observe and eliminate in the field.

Vibrations in the tripod need to transmit through to the camera to cause problems. This can come from the wind, or banging the tripod or the possible amplification of mirror slap. These are the causes, the motive force for the vibration.

For resonance there needs to be a corresponding tendency of the system to vibrate at the same frequency as the applied force. This is called a harmonic frequency. Hitting a harmonic will cause the vibration to be worse and potentially last a long time. Resonance in this case is largely a function of the material and the leg design (both in terms of profile and length). even very structurally stiff systems can resonate, rendering the stiffness ineffective. This will be a bigger problem for metal tripods as they are linearly elastic - there is limited tendency for vibrations to fade away once started. Wood and carbon fibre are good in this respect in that they have natural damping that reduces the effect of resonance - the composite materials aren't linearly elastic.

Damping is added, deliberately or not, through the way the tripod connects to the ground, through the way the joints are constructed and in any looseness on connections & joints. The last of these, however, contradicts the aims of points 1 and 2.

Using different materials in different parts also helps as each section will then have a different harmonic and reduce the tendency for the vibration to transmit through the whole system.

So that's the tripod parts. Note that at no point have I mentioned tripod weight, and only material to a limited degree. From the main structural point of view, these are of marginal impact. it is perfectly possible to build something structurally stiff enough (points 1 and 2) out of virtually any material with careful selection of leg size & design. Want stiff aluminium legs? Make the diameter of the tubes larger. A large diameter tube is stiffer, weight-for-weight, than a small diameter. This is a fact that bicycle designers exploit a lot, to enable lighter, stiffer bikes by altering the tube dimensions. Fundamentally the stiffness comes from the basic shape.

The idea of a heavy tripod I believe really comes from the wooden days when extra weight was the means of gaining extra stiffness and reduced vibration. That is important when you're using solid section legs and a material like that. Modern design and materials has moved us past that. Weight will really only be useful if you use the tripod at odd angles with the camera hanging off the side - in effect it becomes counter-balance, nothing to do with the other problems of movement. An interesting comparison is with bicycles. With modern designs and materials frames are now lighter, stiffer, stronger and transmit less vibration than ever. The basic strength comes from the triangular shapes (just like a tripod), lateral stiffness and vibration are down to the tube design and material. No one would ever propose that a bicycle needs to have extra weight to provide those properties, so should it be with a simple camera tripod (which after all sees far less deflection or force than any bicycle).

One has to remember, however, that similar factors affect the camera and mount (whatever device you use to connect camera to tripod). The whole system will only be as effective as its worst part. If there is a flexible connection to the tripod or a loose camera plate in its mount then the best tripod in the world will not stop the movement.

Of course there are other compromises in tripod design: packability, carrying weight, maximum extension for tall people etc but in principle none should fundamentally affect the ability to provide a sufficiently rigid platform for a camera.

Friday, 11 May 2007

What I want in a DSLR

With all the new models coming out and with all the experience I gain with my camera, I got to thinking about the things I would like in a future camera. I prefer Canon at present, I like the handling, the large range of lenses and the image quality but they can still do better. The quality & features of the recent Pentax models, especially, has got me quite interested.

Here then, the list with some explanation (no particular order):

1. 8-10MP. Actually, pixel pitch of 6.5-7 micron. This seems to give best image quality. That relates to 8-10Mp in an APS-C format. I quite like the slightly smaller format for the extra reach I get at the long end. 28mm-e (17mm actual) is wide enough for me. Any smaller pixels and noise starts to degrade image quality, either directly or through over-processing.

2. 5fps continuous, 10-15 RAW buffer. A great feature as far as I'm concerned. canon are well ahead here. maybe a slower mode switch but I'm not too fussed. definitely don't need the 10fps of the new EOS 1DIII. larger buffer is good, though, for shooting sports events etc. The 6 frame limit in the 20D can start to be a bit limiting.

3. 100% view finder. Or maybe larger. I'm fed up with getting extra stuff in the frame & having to crop slightly. How about going the Leica route with frame lines? If people complain about framing accuracy, well Leica seem to get away with it and the fans rave about the VF. While we're at it, let's get the info around the frame positioned such that I can read it with glasses on. My old EOS500 has a much better VF than the 20D. I'd happily forego built-in flash for better VF.

In-body IS & dust removal. becoming standard these days. Lens IS and body IS can be complimentary. In body is good for wide angle and fast primes. Lens IS is good for the long stuff. Would need some sort of switch-over mode or detection to prevent the 2 systems interfering.

4. direct ISO select & auto ISO metering. the third variable in digital photography. I wish I could set the Set button to be an ISO selector with the thumbwheel. The new Sv mode on Pentax cameras looks promising and several are introducing auto ISO ranges. Let's also have the info in the VF, a la Nikon.

5. High ISO, low noise. Canon take the lead - let's have 5D performance in mid-level cameras, please.

6. MLU button. Sort it out. A range of MLU options for tripod mounting really needed. Lock up for multiple exposures (e.g. bracketing); single button push - even if it's a programmable button. Currently it's a pain and it's a pretty fundamental feature for anyone who puts their camera on a tripod. Canon: SORT IT OUT.

7. Expose-right metering (ERM). there's a whole bunch of possibilities with this but the basic premise is to expose so the lightest part is just below clipping. fundamental for highest image quality in digital. While we're at it, how about a large-array meter, say 28x42 zones (about 1000). Would easily enable ERM. Wouldn't even have to be RGB metering, necessarily. Oh, and a channel clip mode ERM, too.

8. Multi-shot bracketing. Not just regular 3 shot. How about 5, 7, 9 shot? HDR, multi-overlays etc for maximum dynamic range, minimum noise are a great advantage of digital. Would be nice to have a mode for it. Could also combine with MLU and rapid fire modes to capture it all in a burst.

9. Wireless remote control. Something with all the features of Canon's timer control, maybe some extras. Why have wires in this day and age. Would also minimise the points that need sealing. Would help with all manner of tripod mounted shooting, add extra timer & time-lapse options etc. The current timer RC (TC-80N3) limits to 99 frames, why? With large capacity cards, tethered shooting etc, one could do hundreds of images in a time-laps sequence.

That's all I can think of for now. Really I'm looking for things tailored to the digital age, rather than hang-ups from film. For pocket cameras, things have really moved on (not always for the better) to take advantage of the benefits digital offers but yet at the more serious end we're getting little more than a film camera with the transport replaced by a sensor.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Profiles, profiles

Started to investigate the full range of software that came bundled with the scanner.

Loaded up EZColor, a profiling software application. First up was a soft-profile of the monitor (no calibration device just yet) then profiling the printer and scanner (for reflective).

Initially had a bit of trouble getting the scanner to go. Didn't seem too happy being driven by the TWAIN link from EZColor (I may not have loaded the TWAIN driver). Restart the computer and fire up the scanner separately, no problem. Quick scan of the test print and the reference target and both a printer and scanner profile were created in one. Very simple. Took all of 5 minutes plus print drying time.

Ran off a test print to compare the results. Can't yet decide whether the new profile is better than my old settings or worse. It's definitely different and has a different relationship with the colour management in the various applications. For now the print is up on the easel while I decide whether I like the new settings or not. I've now got four versions of "Red Tulips" - starting to look like Van Gogh's studio.

One thing I will be able to do, however, is to profile the papers that I specify from the print shop, which should make the output more reliable and predictable, especially when soft-proofing. There is certainly no way I'm going to spend on a large format printer in the near future.

I might also try re-profiling the printer tomorrow, once the print has settled overnight. I think the colours do shift slightly over the first 24h or so, but that could just be me.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

A radical digicam departure

Untitled, Belgrade, March 2007

The post I wrote on my digicam got me thinking as to a different kind of camera that a manufacturer might consider making: the B&W digicam.

What would it look like? Something simple no need for a slew of fancy controls. Wide lens (28mm-e or there abouts) at the wide end. With a luminance-only sensor, more light would get to the pixels and you'd get more detail out of those there, so I reckon 5Mp would do it. ISO performance would be good (maybe 1-1.5 stops better than today) due to the 3 times light getting to the sensor elements. No need for fancy anti-IR screening (go read some stuff on the Leica M8 if you want to know about that).

Simple exposure compensation. Bit of noise is OK - easy to fix after the fact, and loads shot Tri-X in the past, so gritty B&W is a defined style.

Surely something that simple would be cheap and yet give good photos. If my Samsung had no colour info from the off, it would be a ten times better camera. For $100-200 you couldn't go wrong. Of course it wouldn't be for everyone, but at that price and with decent output, serious photogs would flock to it (IMO).

First LF effort

Red Tulips, April 2007

Got the scanner delivered last week and so I could get to working on the first of my LF efforts. So far, 2 rolls of 6x9 shot, mainly to practice movements, focus, exposure etc. This shot is the one production from the series - a box of red tulips from my parents' garden. It was a one-timer (only one exposure left on the roll) and has turned out just as I envisaged.

My first impressions of LF: wow. I was expecting high quality, fine detail, good latitude but this even this simple picture really takes the biscuit. There is so much fine detail it's amazing. Straight out, on medium scan resolution, I could run up 26" prints. Easy to gather detail from shadows. I'll have to write my impressions of the scanner (an Epson V750) in another post.

The other big thing I've noticed is the very shallow DoF. Shallower than my DoF calculator might suggest. Focus is much more critical than any small format.

I can also see me running out of disk space with the huge scan files unless I sort a decent workfow to manage the number of scans.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A week for pet peeves, this time my turn

Seems every photography blog I read this week had pet peeves running. So now it's my turn: cameras and TV & film product placement.

I've nothing against the practice of product placement, per se - it often lends an air of authenticity to productions and these guys have got to pay the bills in new & interesting ways with advertising revenue declining. No worries there. My peeve is with the way cameras, especially serious stuff, is portrayed.

2 great examples (the ones that really get my goat) - CSI, the US TV phenomenon and press photogs in general in film.

To the first - the forensics whizzes in Las Vegas. I vaguely remember (dim & distant past) that in early series they used proper gear: pro bodies, macro equipment (ring lights & twin lights), quality lenses, the woks. All Nikon gear (actually, no one ever shoots Canon in the movies) probably with the data verification gear aimed at these applications. the real Macoy. Now it's all change. They're toting the latest entry level DSLRs, using the built-in flash (usually at inappropriate distances), basics zooms etc. they now all look like tourists, wielding the cameras like a bunch of no-hopers. The realism is gone for the sake of advertising. With the amount of effort spent on every other area of a production like this trying to get a sense of reality, it's amazing how such a simple thing falls short.

Then to number 2, the press in movies (seems less of a problem in TV). Watch any real news event, short of a war zone, and you'll see a gaggle of big-glass toting photogs trying to get in close. Pro bodies, fast wide zooms or 70-200 f/2.8s. Longer lenses if they're behind a barrier. 2-3 cameras each. Large flashes, diffusers etc. 95% Canon (but I'm not going to blame movies for their choice of brand). A proper, professional looking outfit. Occasionally they'll have a single camera if running around but it will be top pro equipment.
Now to the films. Again, basic cameras, slow zooms, single outfit, small flash. They look like amateurs. Get with the program, guys. I even watch one show where the plot revolved a paparazzo and the sneak shots he was getting. they dug up his "cameras" - all film kit (key point was his one digital camera had been nicked). Where were the back-ups, the hard-drives, the laptop of the modern digital professional? Does a single press photo still own, let alone carry a film camera?

Don't the producers/directors think that a single photographer watches their stuff?

Annie Liebowitz and the Queen

After producing a state visit portrait last week, Liebowitz is at it again, this time a little darker.

I can't say I'm ever a great fan of her work, but this is certainly interesting.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

The great EOS metering test

After the discussion that Paul Butzi has started on exposure decisions and a decent metering system I thought I'd do some tests on the EOS metering & histogram.

As the histogram is based on a JPEG conversion, would any of the shot parameters affect the histogram? Are any of these parameters fed back to the metering?

2nd question is the easy one to answer. No. As one would expect. As the metering and histogram are entirely separate functions, there's no link. Pretty much the point, I think, that Butzi's been getting at.

First question is a little trickier. My first set of tests involved only using the basic parameters - contrast, sharpness, tone etc. I took shots including a floor lamp which gave a small patch of brightness in a quite dark room. Shot below 1/50th (mains frequency) so lamp flicker didn't affect the results. I commented on one of the threads that only contrast above zero had an effect. closer inspection of the files showed that lower contrast only seems to affect the shadows, and then only marginally. Other setting had no effect.

This means that by applying contrast +2, you get a slightly more conservative histogram (by about 1/2 stop) which should mean getting better exposure in tricky light.

Then I thought about colour balance. Lots to play with there. Scene at the top was the target - looking across the street from a aside window. Bright sky (always tricky for to 20D), bright patch from the sunlit part of the white building. Very constant scene otherwise (tram rumbling by too far in the dark tones to worry about). Shots were taken in colour temp white balance mode, everything from min to max in about 1000K jumps. Still capturing RAW, though.

Turns out that while colour temperature acts like a blue shift, it doesn't seem to affect the reported luminance (histogram), nor the levels of red & green. This from observing the RGB histograms when converting. That might be because the brightest part of the scene isn't the sky. Did seem odd, though. The colour shift can confuse some RAW conversions, ACR was the only one of 4 (Lightzone, Capture One and DPP being the others) that seemed unfazed by the camera settings. Set everything to the same conversion settings and all shots came out the same. Using the white point adjusters had no noticeable effect.

From now on, I'm going to be using the high contrast setting (even in RAW) and pushing exposure up until it just clips on the histogram (few flashing highlights). Seems that will get the best "expose to right". I might have to do a little more experiment with a scene where a blue sky is the brightest part just to confirm the white point settings.

UPDATE 20/11/2008: I've redone this testing using an EOS 40D

The what & why of my digicam

Barcelona, Madrid Airport, November 2006

After all that, I do actually use a digicam. this one to be precise:
A cheap, 5MP, fixed lens camera. Doesn't really take very good colour photos (especially with the blue colour cast outdoors), has limited controls, lots of noise at even ISO200.

So why did I buy it? 3 main reasons
1. It's got a fixed focal length lens (36mm-e, could be a bit wider)
2. It's cheap (all of €100)
3. I don't always want my SLR with me.

I use it primarily for people photos, accept the graininess and shoot almost exclusively in B&W. This means i can do a bit of noise reduction and post-processing and get decent results. Nice enough to print at 6"x8". For the kinds of photos I take with it (top one is an example), subject is rather more important than quality.

For such a basic camera, it's got some useful controls - manual ISO, exposure compensation, RGB colour compensation, several flash modes. Dialled down exposure lets me take
decnt indoor flash photos.

Of course it's not ideal but no makes a DMD yet, so I decided to go cheap and accept what I got.

Here's another example of the output, with a little work applied (i've now got a basic Lightzone template set up which is good for 95% of the output).

Skiing, Mount Norquay, Canada, Feb 2007

Friday, 4 May 2007

Buying a digicam

Ctein, over at T.O.P., has put up a post about the difficulty of buying a digicam (pocket sized digital camera). I think he's missed part of the point about the digicam buyer, which is part of the fundamental disconnection of serious photographers and camera makers.

The more serious photogrpahers want a digicam with controls, good dynamic range, RAW etc. A device that gives them full control in a small package.

The average digicam buyer (the ones at whom these are targeted) wants a small device, more megapixels, decent photos right out of the camera for email and small prints and a nice looking device. I know, I often look in the local mega-store (Media Maarkt, something like CompUSA or Curry's) at the latest batch and also to hear what's going on.
Salesmen are out to sell zoom ranges, mega-pixels (as a de-facto measure of image quality) and all the easy-print features. These are the things that at least 95% (maybe more) of buyers want. Even amongst those carrying DSLRs (the smaller variety at least) I've not come across a RAW shooter and most haven't moved the dial from P.
I also know quite a number who used to shoot a lot of fairly serious stuff with decent SLRs who've abandoned it all for the ease of the modern digicam. No more thinking about settings, developemtn etc - just point & shoot get decent pictures, keep them on the computer.

I think the older 35mm pocket cameras were sold on a similar premise but there were some key differences that helped serious photogrpahers: dynamic range was less of an issue, fully controllable with film loaded. Now you're stuck with JPEGs that choice is gone. There were small cameras with controls, too, and they all had optical viewfinders. All boons to the pro. It's just that the deveice he was buying was in no way targeted at him. Cameras lasted a long time too (after all, film cameras are just light-tight boxes between lens and film).

Now that digital has come, all the inadvertant advatages have been stripped out, sizes have shrunk limiting the ability to add the good stuff and the whole sensor thing means devices go defunct quickly. Great if you're a camera co. executive. Poor if you're serious about pictures.

Until the 2 sides (camera cos & serious photogs) actually start talking about the digicams, there will be no change. But then again, what incentive is there for a camera maker to build this kind of device - the market is small, highly critical but also highly demanding. Of course, on the other hand, there are all the technologies available in each company range, it's just a matter of will to bring some of them together.

I hope the new Sigma DP1 is good and sells well, then maybe things might shift a little.