Sunday, 30 September 2007

The power of a photograph

I wrote a post on the difference between great photography and important photography a while back. On a similar theme, I've just watched the Clint Eastwood double-bill on Iwo Jima: "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags of our Fathers". 2 great movies that must be seen together, IMO, that also follow the modern war-movie trend of gory over glory.

That aside, the American side of the story (Flags) is all about the power of the famous photograph of the raising of the flag atop Mt Suribachi. Truly a powerful image that probably inspired a nation. A a moment, though, the context is not evident from the picture and it is often taken well out of context - not to mention that it was a replacement flag anyway.

The thing that struck me most, however, about the photography came as the credits rolled (which, for once, I watched to the end). Alongside the credits is a slideshow of some of the original photos from that battle, almost all of which turn up in scenes in the film. What amazed me was that in the middle of a war zone, with limited equipment, the attached photographers could produce images of such quality and emotive power. A real display of artistic and technical ability in very difficult circumstances. Despite all that, it is one image taken in a moment of pause that lives on.

For more on Iwo Jima, there is a very useful website on the whole thing, with many of the other photos taken alongside the famous one.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

The smoothness of digital black and white

Cottonwood graveyard stump, Dinosaur Park, Alberta, August 2007

There has been some recent back and forth between Tim Atherton and Doug Stockdale on the nature of Black and White images in the digital age. Tim is generally complaining that digital B&W, whether direct from a digital camera or via a scan has too much of a "smooth" appearance. There is too little "texture" (for want of a better word) to the images - too sterile. Doug's response is (to greatly sumarise): it's all good, just different but care is needed with the deep shadows.

My thoughts overall: digital can be what you want, film you're stuck with the characterisitics of a given film but have an initial choice.

I have certainly been looking more critically at the darkest tones, though, for my black and white stuff. There are some times when I like an image without deep shadows but I do get the point that more attention needs to be applied to getting real blacks in there.
Telling tales, Tavistock, September 2007

I'm also not convinced that the grainy, tactile (for want of a better word) feel of film cannot be achieved with digital. In general, the noisefrom high-ISO shooting gives a nice textured feeling and is quite effective for difficult situations. Of course, the newest cameras arriving are pushing the noise levels down at high ISO.

Maybe this will lead to an active market in older digital cameras to provide that grainy feel.

Another useful website

I've added a link to Lloyd Chambers' diglloyd website & blog, a really useful resource for equipment stuff. Things I like about his site: the objective outlook, his strong opinions providing a counter to most of the stuff out in www land. It is also one of the few places where you can get side-by-side info on Nikon vs Canon, with no bias. Whilst I'm not (never have been) a fan or user of Nikon I think it's good to see the other side once in a while.

The key reason I've linked, though, is due to his manner of looking at lenses. This has informed some of my approach to evaluating my own lenses and the work I've done on my on-going EF-S17-55 review.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS: a review pt 1

Heidelberg Castle, July 2007

*UPDATE 30/9* added link to part 2.

This is part 1 of a 2 part review. Part 2 is here.

Why is it lens names are so long? Anyway, after shooting hundreds of photos and creating a bunch of images, I thought I'd share my observations on the Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS (from here on in 17-55/2.8). This is not a scientific study, there are no test charts (don't even own one) but my real-world experiences. I own all the equipment, paid for from my own wallet.

Part 1: Personal observations

I'll be drawing comparisons between the 17-55/2.8 and the EF 17-40 f/4L (henceforth 17-40), which I also own. It's an abvious choice due to the focal lengths and useful fr me in that I bought the two lenses for very different reasons. The 17-40 was bought before the release of the 17-55/2.8 primarily for outdoor landscape work. I found I was increasingly using it indoors and so went for the faster aperture and IS of the 17-55/2.8. I have now been using the latter for quite a lot of landscape work from my travels.

1a. Handling

Both lenses are well made and handle nicely. They are definitely both a step up from low to mid range zooms. That said there are differences. the 17-55/2.8 extends on zoom and has zoom and focus rings reversed. It is not weather sealed. It is also quite a bit heavier and larger.

For these reasons, I actually prefer the 17-40 as an object. the zoom and focus are a little smoother, it sits in the hand a little better (due to smaller size and weight) and it a better choice for hiking. Somehow it just has that slight edge in quality feel. Purely subjetive, nothing to do with function.

That said, the location of the IS and AF buttons are the 17-55/2.8 are nicely placed and easy to find by touch. the same cannot be said for all Canon lenses.

1b. Aberrations/distortion etc

The 17-40 has quite a lot more distortion across the range. It is clearly noticeable at wide angle, even on the cropped 20D sensor. The 17-55/2.8 has very little. When I produce stitched images i do no pre-adjustment on distortion with this lens. It also produces nicely sharp images edge to edge even wide open. From this point of view, it is highly suited to indoor architecture - one of the reasons I've got it.

Preparing for lunch, Tavistock, September 2007

1c. Image Stabiliser

A key selling point and one of the few wide angle IS lenses around (although Canon has a couple more cheaper offerings).

The claim is 3 stops but quite frankly I've never got that low. In general there's been no need or subject movement makes the point moot. I'm certainly seeing 2 stops without problem but if you're shooting people at 1/10s they aren't going to be still long enough to worry.

Indoor static sujects it certainly helps but I find I have to brace myself as body sway can affect the pictures - I don't think IS works well on such low frequency, long wavelength motion.

It does, however, enable me to continue working indoors without flash which i like. Plus some location won't allow it anyway.

1d. Image qualities

I find that the 17-55/2.8 produces very good images. Nice mid-tone contrast, carries good shadow detail. Focus is swift & accurate, even in quite poor light. No problem using AF for exposures around the 8s mark.

There are 2 things I seem to notice (and I'll be testing for part 2). First is apparant narrow plane of focus relative to aperture, the second (and, I think, related issue) is the relatively high contrast of the images coming from this lens. I could, of course be wrong.

This has intrigued me enough to go do some testing & side-by-side with the 17-40 to confirm or refute this observation.

So, for this part - I'm pretty pleased with the performance. Nice handling but not as good, IMO, as the 17-40. Good image qualities (not just sharpness). Useful IS. All the things I was looking for.

In part 2: some testing of technical aspects that piqued my curiosity.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Writers must write, photographers must photograph?

I was contemplating the idea (that I've heard/read quoted somewhere) that writers have a compulsion to write stuff. Journalists, authors, critics all feeling the need to get pen in hand (or keyboard under finger) and write stuff. I've seen similar views expressed by photographers relating to picking up a camera. & shooting.

Maybe I'm odd but I don't feel the need to pick up the camera. I'm primarily driven by the desire to produce images: be they for the web, on screen show or (principally) printing. The camera happens to be the tool I need to do that job. I'm just as happy, in that regard, to be working on the large number of pictures I've taken as be out & about taking new ones.

Maybe I'm not, in that respect, a photographer but an "image maker" (for want of a better term).

I can't say I've seen that sort of distinction expressed before but maybe it's more appropriate or many of us stood behind the lens.

Do spiders have heart-attacks?

I saw this guy (gal?) lying on the floor in my bedroom. Photo shows it on its back after I prodded it (to see if it would run off). It's as if running across the floor caused the spider to suddenly collapse, rather than allow it to crawl into a corner to die. Very strange.

The (rather poor) macro effort was taken with my 70-200 f/4 IS at 125mm with 68mm of extension tubes (this is not a macro lens).

Clearly shows why I don't do much macro stuff - I'm rubbish. The subject intrigued me, though.

Lightzone 3.1: a first look

So Lightcrafts updated Lightzone again. This has been my favourite photo editor, despite some flaws for various reasons. Low cost, easy editting and natural workflow (in no particular order) were the key ones. Each update to 2.4 seemed worthwhile.
Then came 3.0. That wasn't a major update, IMO. Actually a big step backwards. The tools were little changed, performance didn't improve, they binned the handy XML format .lzn file and still wanted me to pay for the upgrade. No thanks.

Now 3.1. I can say, this is the major upgrade that 3.0 never was. Significant changes in tools and performance improvements. Here, then, my initial observations (not a huge amount of files done):

The good

Relight tool: a big step up from the Tonemapper and much better than 3.0. Combines highlight recovery, shadow "lift" and micro contrast (similar to hiraloam sharpening) in one handy tool. It's so good, final sharpening needs are much reduced.

Colour/tone selection: a feature I've wanted for a while. The ability to edit by colour mask or tonal range mask is very powerful and very nicely implemented although the sliders are a bit small.

Noise reduction: much improved. Both stronger and yet retaining detail. Ability to also restrict it to tonal ranges enables shadow noise to be attacked without touching the rest of the image.

Zoom buttons: nice to add on top of the short-cuts. Still need a drag zoom feature.

Nice to finally see a history stack, but ability to clear it (and memory) is needed.

The bad

Losing the .lzn files. If I want to batch rename files I can no longer batch edit the sidecars to maintain file associations. Frustratingly, all the appropriate data can be viewed in a text editor, just not editted and have the file keep working. This is annoying squared for me.

Load up is still not fast. First time I ran it, it was slower than my old tape drive load-ups (it even installed faster). Subsequent starts were better behaved. The constant scanning of folders still annoys me, though.

No way to clear the history stack. I'm sure data caching is eating memory and as LZ is memory hungry in the first place, this is a bad thing.

Crop tool also includes rotation. Very annoying and very hard to undo an accidental rotation. There are 2 tools, lets keep them separate as they always were.

Auto-renaming. I name files with -nnn at the end for indexing. LZ seems to think I don't need it and bins the lot. Bang! My index is gone from the sidecar. It also does different naming things when copying tools than editting. Very annoying and needs constant vigilance. For software that advertises as a DAM solution, these are not conducive to file management.

Not yet tested (as I got annoyed quickly)

Printing: I had a load of problems, to the point that I could not use LZ to print. Plus my printer is down at the moment (thanks Canon).

Export/save times and behaviour. Again, each point you save from has a different way of naming, colour managing etc. I want one default TIFF setting, and one JPG setting and to use them everywhere, without LZ changing them on my behalf.

A few tools not yet tried and those I have tried need in-depth testing.

My Conclusion

Significant improvements in the tools. Way too little QA on the UI. Lots of annoyances still. Yes it's a big upgrade but not enough, especially with the hike in price. On another note, I don't use other software linked to LZ (Lightroom and the likes) so do not care what features have been included for that. I want my tidy, all by itself LZ back, please.

I'll hold off upgrading for now until I've tested further.

I'll probably contact Lightcrafts on some of the issues, too, see what they have to say.

UPDATE: if you're just dropping in - check out my more in-depth look here.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Moments of doubt

Fabian Cancellara, Tour de France prologue, London, July 2007
Here, Cancellara is on his way to win the prologue in this year's Tour de France. it was clear as he rounded the corner that he was more committed and focussed than the rest: he didn't miss a beat or ease up for an instant while most stopped pedalling here.

This is indirectly related to photography...

While I was driving Highway 40 (the Kananaskis Country Trail) in Canada last weekend, I saw plenty of cyclists out enjoying the fine weather at the end of the season. made me wish I had a bike with me, rather than the camera. For the weekend I had been struggling to see much to photograph: it's there, I just wasn't looking at it right. Plus there was that nagging though in the back of my mind that I had a pile of processing work to do already.

Get home and it was time to get the bike out again: I need the exercise. More doubt - will I be on the pace or suffer badly for 4 weeks off? Always a problem after a break. This is actually a little demotivational (is that a word??). Other problem is I don't really know how well I'm doing until after 1.5 to 2h of riding. By that time I'm far enough away that a bad day means a struggle to get home.

This sort of mirrors the feeling I was having about the photography.

Thing is, the exercise is good for me in many ways. Most important at this point is it works the body such that I sleep well and refresh my mind. Good for work and photography. That becomes the motivation to face the doubt on my performance.

Turns out I needn't have worried, I managed a decent pace for the full 2.5h ride and this morning woke up fine, no leg problems just a slight ache in the back (getting reacquainted with the riding position).

Now time to get out again and hopefully I'm fully mentally refreshed for the week ahead.

Prolific bloggers

I like reading blogs that post regular content. Keeps me coming back and ensures a steady stream of new material to ponder. Trouble is, when you spend some time away there's a huge amount of backlog.
I like to read, at least cursorily, everything from those I've linked. I'm still ploughing through the backlog a week after I retuned. The trick seems to be to space out the reading so it remains a pleasure and doesn't turn into a chore.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

My blog is 100

Fishing the Bow River, Alberta, September 2007

This is now the my 100th post.

After I had spent quite a while contemplating whether blogs had any value and that I'd never need to write one (or have anything to write about), I find it's quite an enjoyable experience. It's also nice to feel connected to a global community that shares your interests.

Having a few regular readers helps, too. It's nice to know there is someone on the other end of all this. Thanks for the support.

Bobbooks: get your albums printed

I mentioned yesterday that I got my parents' album printed through the online service I thought it would be worth giving a review of the product and service I got.

What is bobbooks? Put simply, it's a service to get photo books printed on an individual basis. It's not so much a book publishing service as a personal album service: suited to putting together individual presents, holiday albums etc. The difference comes in the quality of the product, ore on that later.

The service consists of a small software download to allow the creation of the book: layout, text, background colours etc. It's easy to use yet quite powerful. You can set all kinds of layouts, copy layout, rotate stuff etc. It's also designed to tell you when your photos are being over enlarged, although it's far easier to pre-size the images yourself (to 300dpi).

Once created, you send off the compiled book file, including cover art etc, pay them (very reasonable rates, IMO) and wait for the book to arrive by post (around 2 weeks to UK addresses, I'd expect similar in most of Europe). Then the Swiss fairies do their magic.

The book comes properly packed, bound and printed on nice quality semi-gloss paper. It's a similar quality to many commercial photo books. The thing that amazed me was the reproduction. I'm not a top expert, but tonal range, colour rendition, contrast were all spot on to my originals. I was concerned that the semi-gloss surface would render all rather flat, with wishy-washy shadows etc. Not a bit of it. the book comes properly bound in hardback. A very nice product to hold, look at and present to someone.

A few weeks before my sister had ordered up an album of her images from a trip to India, using a variety of background colours, all manner of subjects and a wrap-around cover. The end result is most impressive. Certainly beats prints stuck in a paper album.

I've only a couple of reservations: the limit on page count (currently 80) and the limited sizes. Ideally I'd like a short-edge bound A4 (12"x8") and a 12" square option as well.

So, bobbooks: highly recommended service for short run photo books.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Amazing Kodachrome

My baptism, 1973 - photographer unknown

Further to my last post, I also noticed something about the old Kodachrome slides while i was working on the anniversary album: Kodachrome isn't all that bad. Some of the photos I had available looked awful at first viewing and scanning was troublesome on most of them. the one thing that really did stand out, though, was how much detail they all held in the shadows.

The original scan for the above shot is here:

The overall quality isn't great and it looks like I've pushed it too far (in fact it comes out well in print, considering). It does illustrate just how much is buried in the gloom, typical of many of the indoor shots I had.

After 30-odd years, I don't think it's done too badly. I'm not claiming to be an expert photo restorer but virtually everything I worked stood up well to retouching and the prints look pretty good (you'll have to trust me on this).

Great images, important photos

Mum & Dad 0n their 40th, September 2007

Bear with me, this might go on a bit...

As a present to my parents for their 40th anniversary, my sister & I prepared an album of re-touched old photos. Quite a logisitics feat: raiding the house while they were away, getting the material to me, scanning & re-working them and then ordering up a printed book (from highly recommended - more another time).

That's slightly beside the point.

Yours truly on the "Great Baking Day", ca 1976, taken by my Mum

What I discovered as I worked through the material was that the quality of the photo had absolutely nothing to do with its importance to the project. The collection of shots ranged from scans from the original wedding album, through a whole load of decades-old Kodachrome slides (taken on an Instamatic) through to modern bulk-print 4x6s. Not a negative in sight. Many of the slides are out of focus, usually from being way too close to the subject. Colour is all over the shop (except the B&W wedding shots, where the tonal range is very limited). Technically, not a body of work that will hit any museum.
In the end, though, that matters not one jot. I could have put together an album of the very best shots of the places the family had been, scoured the archives for the most technically sound shots 9colour, composition, subject etc etc). The end result would have looked good. It would not have had the same impact.
The final collection - full of pictures of family events, kids on the beach etc - was able to move my mother to tears in a way nothing else could. It formed a talking point for the day and will serve as an aide memoire for years to come.

The day itself went very well. Friends & family gathered together in harmony. Many of us hadn't seen each other in years yet it was as if we'd never been apart. The atmosphere was so good, even the staff at the hotel commented on what a good event it was. Testament to good relationships.
As indeed were the marriages represented: about 15 or 16 couples amongst 40 guests. Average marriage must have been arounf 25 years. I wonder how many other such gatherings could boast the same? As I stated in my toast, it is very much a special and unusual event when complete strangers congratulate the couple: my friends and colleagues have done so every time I mentioned the event.

Dad's brothers, sister their wives & husband, September 2007

I also snapped off a bunch of shots, as did most there. Few will go down as great photos but they will all be impotant in their way.

The final message of all this - it is the family shots, the quirky snaps of things people do, that will become the important photos for us in years to come. If a photographer is ever striving for great art and stunning images he had better not forget those around him, either.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

and I'm back

Plenty to post in the coming days after a successful trip to Calgary, both from a work and photography stand-point. Right now I'm struggling with jet-lag and wading through another pile of photos.

There's also some to come on the photo work i did in preparation for my parent's 40th wedding anniversary, the weekend before I flew across the Atlantic. It was a really good event: plenty to observe on time & memory and I discovered a few things about old photos, too.

Right now, I need sleep.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

off again

Cottonwood graveyard, Dinosaur Park, Alberta, August 2007

The image here is one of the bigger ones from the last trip. A 6-shot panoramic. This was an interesting corner of the Park, and probably somewhat overlooked by visitors but really interesting photographically.

So I'm off to Calgary again, this time for 2 weeks. More hard work locked in a little room hunched over a computer interspersed with a couple of weekends for photography. I'll be getting to some of the places I didn't have time for last trip.

Before all of that, though, a weekend in Devon with the extended family celebrating my parent's 40th wedding anniversary. Should be good fun and I'll get to see a whole bunch of people I've not seen in a while. There will be more on that on my return, and some of the preparations I made for the event.