Sunday, 28 September 2008

Panasonic Lumix LX3: further observations

Test shot, September 2008
Taken at ISO1600 with the LX3. Minimum processing of RAW in SilkyPix to 16-bit TIFF, NR with Neat Image, slight USM for output.

This is a follow-on from my first impressions post. I've now had the Lumix LX3 about a week and taken several hundred shots with it. There are a number of things I've found in using it that are worth mentioning. I was intending posting earlier but found some strange things in the RAW images which delayed me (I'll keep you in suspense as to what I found until later).

Firstly, however, is a clarification from the earlier post. Juha (who commented on my previous post) has been blogging on his experiences with the LX3. He found the interface to be quite complicated, whereas I found it simple and intuitive. This comes from our different ways of using the camera. I look at the interface from a setting-up the camera perspective. I don't use auto shooting modes and don't care about them (so no views on those here). Virtually all my shooting has been in aperture priority - I'm using this camera like I do my others - and so I'm interested in the LX3 as a serious tool rather than an auto P&S. Bear that in mind when reading my comments.

Most of this post will be in the realm of "things I wish it would do, but doesn't" - quite negative overall but bear with me. Not reams of test shots, as I don't feel I could really convey what I'm writing with web-sized pics. You'll just have to trust what I write (or go some place else).

The camera

Auto focus - there is a big problem with AF, speed 9or lack thereof). Not good for the decisive moment. Plenty accurate for static shots, however. There is also no way to do snap focus (e.g. a hyperfocal or infinity setting). Even the fast mode is too slow.
It does have a handy continuous mode, whereby the camera focuses as you move between subjects. trouble is it is ruined by the fact that the camera insists on re-focusing when the shutter release is pressed. Why have a camera focus all the time if it is going to focus again on taking the shot?

Manual focus - is my preferred method. I use the focus button when I want AF. Works well and is far more ergonomic that using AF and the AF-lock button. Also mean I can pre-focus or focus and re-compose with ease.
Actual manual focus is quite easy. I think the DoF scale is a bit conservative (I think there's more DoF than indicated) but haven't rigorously tested it yet. Great for hyperfocal or zone focus. I've got into the mode of f/4 and be there (approx equivalent DoF to f/8 on 35mm).

Zoom settings - this is a huge annoyance. There is no way to precisely set zoom point. No scale on the barrel (I can see the marker pen coming out), no step-zoom function and the zoom indicator bar is worse than useless (it shows 3 values - 1x for 24mm-e to about 35mm-e, 2x up to about 55mm-e and 2.5x at full zoom). Why can't I have either an electronic scale showing actual zoom position (in 35mm equivalent), or a scale on the barrel, or a step zoom function or better yet, all three? I reckon the 2 electronic options could be done in firmware, if they (Panasonic) set their minds to it.
The other rubbish thing is it doesn't remember zoom settings. It's not part of the remembered items in Custom mode and when the camera shuts down it always wakes up to fully wide. Madness! The sleep mode is quite good, and wake up is quite fast but not remembering the zoom setting is very annoying.

ISO versus shutter speed can be a bit variable. Sometimes it does a nice job of dropping the shutter speed right down, and sometimes it jumps to a ridiculous ISO. There is no way to set the minimum shutter speed in aperture priority, which is stupid: with the Mega-OIS, I'd be happy down to about 1/10 but it tends not to go further than 1/30 unless the ISO tops out. Of course you can always limit the ISO to lower values.

One big bonus is the camera is very quiet. Taking pics of people in museums, even the noise from a rangefinder was noticeable, no one noticed the LX3 (I've turned off all the beeps bleeps). Even the zoom is remarkably quiet.

Image processing & quality

Of course, this is where the crunch is. There will be a few LX3 images from me in the near future - some of the next PotDs from London will be LX3 shots. I'm liking the output.

The thing that delayed this post was something I was seeing in RAW images at high ISO. I took a load of mixed light, low illumination shots (my hotel room in KL). The JPEGs were nice, decent detail and good noise reduction even at ISO1600. The RAW seemed another matter - hot pixels, impossible to clean-up noise and SilkyPix (the Panasonic RAW software) couldn't touch it. Turns out to be user error (i.e. all my fault).

Once I found the NR settings and got working the software, and looking at the images properly, I have been very pleased.

I'm not going to claim overall image quality is up to DSLR standards, even with many pixels. But results are good. Sometimes WB gets confused, but that's a good reason to use RAW. Out of camera JPEGs are nice, but not a patch on what can be produced from the RAW. I've been using SilkyPix with basic settings to produce a 16-bit TIFF and then touching up in Photoshop. NR isn't bad with SilkyPix but doesn't come close to Neat Image.

And here's the upside - to my eyes noise is as good (maybe better) at high ISO than with my EOS 20D. Yes, you heard that right. I'm getting usable colour results right up to ISO1600 with a little effort. With the 20D, I'm in B&W only at that level. Who'd have thought that small sensors would catch up that well?
One big caveat - expose properly. Under exposing at high ISO and you've got nothing to play with. Those pixels are still coming from small buckets, so underlying noise is going to be high. But a decently exposed high ISO shot is perfectly good. Haven't printed any yet but I reckon 6x8" no problem, maybe even 8x10" from ISO1600. That is far beyond my expectation.
However, I'm normally limiting to ISO400 or 800, especially if there is good light. I think I'll set up the camera Custom modes with high ISOs for low light shooting.

The verdict

I'm just getting on and taking pictures. I like this camera very much. Use it in aperture priority and handle like any other decent camera and the results are very good. It handles naturally and produces good images even in low light. It is not, however, a dummy's P&S - a little care and craft are needed, I feel, to get the most out of its imaging capability but I'm fine with that. If you're a regular RF user, you might well get on with this camera. I can see this camera replacing my DSLRs in a whole host of situations, and might even become my preferred indoor camera.

Art gains its value in execution

Cleaning up after Art, Tate Modern, September 2008
This is the after-effect of a giant-sized graffiti project displayed on the gallery's outer walls

Visiting Tate Modern for the first time at the weekend, I was struck by the amount of current art that can be classed as "conceptual". Back in the good old days, artists sketched out their ideas before committing paint to canvas or chisel to marble. There was a separation between idea and execution. Even composers worked along similar lines. It led to the great works of art that we all admire.

Skip forward a couple of generations and suddenly art seems to be all about the idea and less about the execution. Phooey to that, says I. So much of the newest works that I saw garnered the reaction: "nice idea, now how about a finished product". Works lost value in being, quite frankly, of low product quality. Non-traditional media were the worst offenders: collage, appliqué, film, photography. It seems painters and sculptors still care about craft, pity about the rest.

But is it Art?, Tate Britain, September 2008

Brings me back to the notion that the final product of photography is in the print. The craft of photography finds it's final outlet in a well-executed print.

On a side-note, Tate (Modern & Britain) do photography really poorly. The thematic placing of photographic work didn't fit, the analysis of content method seemed unaware of any sort of photographic history and worst of all were the descriptions of print methods ("black and white photograph on paper" is the equivalent of describing a great oil on canvas as "painting"). Come on, Tate, get it together.

Art: what's in a word?

Something I knew, but hadn't acknowledged, is that in the Dutch language the word fo "art" and "artificial" is the same: kunst. Turns out, the same word can mean "trick". Artifice ("kunstgreep") can literally translate as "grip of art".

Does this mean there is no truth in Art?

Friday, 26 September 2008

Kinesis Journeyman field report

Yours truly in action in Ladakh, August 2008, photo by Caroline le Barbier
Notes on the backpack: on my left, the brown bag carries my tripod, left strap has a carabiner to hold hydration tube in place, right hip has water bottle pouch, strap hanging to my right is the camera stabiliser strap. camera not shown on chest - it's taking the picture.

Following my initial observations on the Kinesis Journeyman backpack system, here is a field report/review after using it on my trip to Ladakh.

How I used it

By way of an introduction, it's worth mentioning how I used the various components throughout the trip. As I mentioned before, I bought a buch of stuff with a number of possible configurations. This is the great strength of the Kinesis gear. As I was new to the kit, and the trekking was a new way to carry gear, I was keen to try as many options as possible.

These are the main uses I had:

Belt & pouches as a walk-around
Hydration pack as a sling pack
Internal pouch as a shoulder bag
Journeyman fully kitted as a daypack

All numbers are the Kinesis product numbers.

Observations on the small stuff

Belt kit - comfortable, stable and easily set-up. I'd prefer the attachment points to be aligned so I can fit a triple-wide (like the internal pouch) central on the belt. Having said that, I'm inclined to get a double wide anyway (see more on that later). typically I used just an A126 pouch and water bottle.

Hydration pack - I attached a shoulder strap from another bag, and added the water bottle pouch to the outside. This made a useful sling-pack, good for carrying food/water, light jacket etc on a short day, or for a spot of shopping around town.

Internal pouch (Vo90)- a nice, all-day touristing shoulder bag. Again I used a shoulder strap from another bag. I carried the Zeiss Ikon, 20D, 2nd lens, water, light jacket plus usual small stuff (batteries, cards, film etc). Worked well - nice size for a small outfit. I could have easily added the small pouch for some extra storage.

The Journeyman pack in action

Fitting & size - I found the fitting to be a bit on the large size but comfortable. I'd reckon that you need to be about 2" taller than Kinesis recommends for the large harness. Likewise belt sizes are generous by about 2".

Weight distribution - excellent. The pack is stable, the belt sits nicely on the hips and the overall pack seems to get more comfortable with increasing load. Being able to attach the inner pouch at the top of the sack is a huge bonus for weight distribution.

Tripod - straps nicely to the side. i stuck the feet into the mesh pocket. I was carrying a Gitzo 0540 tripod (one of the really small ones) to cut domw on weight, but trials with my 3540LS have been successful, too. I'm not sure I'll ever use the feet pouch (T164).

Camera strap on harness - this was the big bonus. Having the camera always to hand meant I took more photos. It also meant I wasn't constantly removing the pack, which made it more comfortable. having it attached to the shoulder straps made the weight diappear. using a longer lens (like my 70-200 f/4) was a bit cumbersome when climbing as the lens hangs down a bit, but great with the 17-55.

Water carrying - using a hydration pack inside the sack meant i drank more during the day (a good thing, especially in hot weather at altitude) and again meant less pack removal. In cooler climes (like the UK) I wouldn't bother with the extra water bottle.

Overall comfort - probably the most comfortable day pack I've ever used (and I've owned a whole bunch). It carries a load of gear, is great for weight distribution and has enough options for any photographer. I'm really looking forward to my next LF outing as a result. Don't worry about the size, though - the cinch straps make light work of shrinking the thing when lightly loaded.

Other stuff - it was a breeze to strip down for airlines. I took off the belt and aluminium stays, giving a full-size carry-on. I could easily have stripped it down further if needed. I'm inclined to get a lens pouch to put on the hip belt. Then I can have easy access to a 17-55 and a 70-200. With an LF in tow as well, that would be a good set-up.

Negative points

Not many, really. I wish there was a way to attach pouches inside the front pocket. It's qutie a large space and small stuff rattles around a bit.
Sizing guidance is a bit off - I was OK but definitely borderline despite what Kinesis say.
Personally I prefer a sack with a top lid rather than zip closure, but I'm willing to compromise on that point.


An absolutely top pack. Rugged, well made, comfortable and good for photo gear plus your regular walking kit. As close to my ideal pack as I think I could get without building it myself. thoroughly recommended for those of you who like to do some serious walking and lug a bunch of camera gear around at the same time.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

A question for Lightroom users

Is there anyone out there who can help me?

I'm looking at Adobe Lightroom for a number of reasons, one being batch processing. I can't seem to find the info I want, however.

What I want to be able to do, in a script or similar is the following batch process:
1. Standard set of editting tools (brightness/contrast/basic curve)
2. Resize
3. Change colour space
4. Save from 16-bit TIFF to 8-bit JPEG
5. Rename & refile the batch by rules

Would I need plug-ins or prgramming to make it happen?

This is all based around my post to the web workflow. Thing is I can't seem to determine if I can combine these actions together. I see evidence of being able to do each step individually, but that doesn't really help me.

As I say, this is just one component of the reasons that I'm looking at Lightroom but is a big one.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Call me a techno grouch

I just read the preview of the Canon 5D II over at Luminous Landscape. Michael Reichmann has been a predictor and fan of stills/video integration for a while now. And he seems excited about this one, too.

I don't get it, really I don't. (In fact, I really like Kjell's observations.)

The LL preview says this is a really great thing, then goes on to point out a whole series of technical and handling flaws that make the camera useless as a proper video camera: poor handling, clumsy mode setting, no AF, rubbish sound. Not to mention the huge data rates and the fact that it eats batteries. So I get a device that generates more data than I can cope with, requires me to have a bag full of power and still only returns basic video clips.

Just because we can merge the technologies, doesn't mean we should. Video and stills are 2 different skill sets, with different audiences and uses.

I can't be the only photographer with zero interest in shooting movies, or am I in such a minority that I'll get left out? Perhaps I'm as much a camera dinosaur as I am with telephones.

Competitions and your rights

It's an ever increasing problem: companies running photo competitions that then demand you hand over your rights to the images. Imagine my surprise when I found an exception.

The Daily Telegraph in the UK runs a couple of travel photo competitions - usual stuff: post your best travel shots and win a prize. Interestingly, however, is the honouring of the photographers' copyright. The rules state that the entrant agrees to a limited release for the purposes of the competition, for a limited time period. Pretty much the minimum you'd have to do.

I thought I'd see if this attitude spanned across newspapers. Unfortunately not.

I checked out the other UK quality papers: The Times, Guardian and Independent. The last doesn't seem to do photo comps. As for The Times and Guardian, pretty much the usual rights grab on effectively the same sort of competition as the DT. In both cases they claim full, royalty free rights across their entire publishing groups in perpetuity.

Makes me wonder how they treat the paid photographers. If the amateur competitions are a measure of the way they treat the pros, there's only one publication in this group I'd want to work for.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Batman: a turing point in the camera market?

Went to see the new Batman movie "The Dark Knight" last week Good movie, a little long and very, very psychologically dark. probably the best Batman yet, if you're a fan of the comic books.

But that's not the point here. One thing that jumped out at me was that, for the first time I can remember, Canon was the photo sponsor. Until now virtually all movie camera gear has been Nikon (save for the occasional period piece or Leica RF). Certainly holds for all the big-budget, product placement stuff. And now Canon are in their.

Does this relate in some way to the tonking they're getting in the pro market? For sure the Olympics were a big turn-up, first time I can remember significant Nikon gear on the touchlines. And advertising follows a need to sell. Perhaps Canon are feeling the pinch. Competition can only be good for us, the poor old consumers.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Photography and Buddhism

No, not a post about religion but a couple of interesting thoughts about photography that came from some recent reading.

The area in India that I visited was the northern Ladakh region, a largely Buddhist area, very Tibetan in culture. I picked up a book there: "A journey in Ladakh" by Andrew Harvey about his spiritual journey in the region. I can't say the book is to be recommended, although I found it very interesting.

The point here, though, come from a couple of quotes in the book:

...everyone hoarding something, storing something of what we see and feel here. We are all...taking photographs, inward photographs. We are all guilty [of exploiting]. As long as we do perceive things purely we are guilty. And who perceives things purely...without desire or judgement?

I see and know what Ananda..had told me of the Hinayana meditation technique, known as Vipassyana, 'Seeing without discrimination', 'Open seeing'.
'One moment of pure seeing,' he had said, 'is the beginning of Liberation. If you can see for one moment, one flower, one face, one dog, as they are in themselves and for themselves, you have begun to be free enough to love.'
In some ways these conflict and in others I think can give some insights into what we are trying to achieve with photography. What are our motives for taking pictures? Is it a selfish "stealing" of the moment/thought/view or driven by a generous need to share or part of a personal journey of understanding?

Food for thought for us all. I can't say I could offer answers to these questions for my own motives but the ideas are certainly make me think further beyond the immediacy of picture making.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Panasonic Lumix LX3: first impressions

I went out and splurged on a shiny new Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 this evening (got to love those Malaysian prices) - completely against my normal late adopter strategy (e.g. my DSLRs were both bought just a couple of weeks before their successors were announced). I thought I'd get some of my first impressions reported - I've had it all of 2h now. This is by no means a full review, I'm going to focus on the things that I felt were important in buying it.

Look and feel: solid little camera. Nice weight and size. Solidly built for a small camera. Nice lens cap, and it comes with a lens-cap keeper (a little cord to attach it to the camera). Positive feeling buttons. All give the aura of a quality product.

Interface: nice and intuitive. I've run it through most of the modes available without yet opening the manual. I've handled Panasonic Lumix cameras in the past and I like the way their interface is put together, the LX3 is no different. All the manual modes are also intuitive: easy to get aperture, Ev compensation, focus etc working from the off. I also love the live histogram and easy access to Ev compensation - very quick and easy to get good exposure.

Image quality: unscientifically, very good. I've been pushing it hard in rubbish lighting around the hotel and a quick review of the JPEGs (not got the RAW software loaded) shows good detail retention and acceptable noise for reasonable prints up to ISO1600. This is all I had hoped for it - I was going to be happy with that level of performance at ISO400. I've been shooting everything in RAW+JPEG so I can review the differences later.

Now the good stuff: manual operation and RAW.

First, shooting speed. Buffer is 3 RAW (or RAW+JPEG) deep, but truly continuous in single shot mode. Once an image is saved you're good to go for another. Buffer clearing with a slow 4GB card takes about 1.5s by my estimate. The first 3 can be shot as fast as you can push the button (about 1 shot every 0.5s). Very good performance. Burst mode is a bit different - push to button, get 3 shots in quick succession but then you have to wait for the buffer to clear before shooting again. I will be sticking to single shot mode. Haven't tried JPEG only, not interested quite frankly.

Manual focus is very intuitive, running off a little joystick. This is actually a pleasure to use even for such a small controller. Just the right balance of response and feel so that it is very difficult to inadvertently push it in the wrong direction: I'm finding it better than Canon's DLSR multi-controller. There are 3 manual focus modes - no assist (straight off the LCD), centre assist (small patch is zoomed to help focus) and large assist (small patch is enlarged to fill the screen). I find the middle option best. From my quick reviews, focus accuracy is good. In manual mode, pushing the focus button activates AF - I'm not seeing a whole lot of point in switching into AF mode. Focus speed is quite good. At the moment I haven't found a way to lock focus point when switching from MF to AF, so snap or zone focus are tricky. May have to get the manual out.

So what do I think - first impressions: the Lumix LX3 is exceeding my expectations in ease of use, speed and image quality. Definitely a worthwhile purchase.

UPDATE 28/9/08: I've now posted my further observations here.

Things have been a bit slow

...because I've been on the road again. I had a couple of weeks in the UK visiting my parents and now I'm in Kuala Lumpur on business for a few days (currently a nice view from half way up the twin towers). I've not picked up a camera in 3 weeks or more.

Have no fear, there is plenty of stuff to come. I'm planning quite a number of posts but need access to my on computer for pics and time to sit and write them. Lots to follow on my trip to India, together with some more equipment stuff and the usual random blathering.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

What do we need in a digital camera?

Following the rant in my last post, what is it that we really need in a digital camera? Why don't we start from the basic cameras and work up.

How about a camera along the lines of the old manual cameras, something akin to the Olympus OM or Nikon FM? Or maybe the basics of the rangefinders. Maybe not fully manual, let's throw in auto exposure.

So, four controls: aperture, shutter speed, ISO (the 3rd variable in digital) and focus. For AE, a highlight priority indicator that shows if we've blown the highlights - maybe a little histogram screen but could also be a Leica-like needle indicator. What more is really needed? If the camera records RAW only, then we don't need image manipulation (including WB), we don't need a review screen etc etc. From the outside it could quite happily look like a film camera - no screen, limited knobs and dials. No massive manu driven control systems, with enough options to launch a spaceship.

Why such a simple thing? Travel. The great bug bear of travelling photographers who may be weeks from electricity is the utter reliance on batteries. If we stripped out a lot of the fripperies, kept it simple, a camera that gets 2000+ images on a single charge should be easily possible (yet another area where current cameras are not progressing). Not too many megapixels (say 8-10 MP).

So there it is, my counter-rant against the trend for ever more complex camera control systems.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Bah humbug to new cameras

Warning: grumpy rant content.

It's Photokina time, there's a flurry of new cameras being announced. Of course there's been the micro 4/3 announcement but no cameras, and a nice departure from the norm in the Panasonic LX3 (which I might well be buying). Buit for the rest, I'm left pretty cold.

Most of the new digicams continue the ridiculous trend of more megapixels, more dumb-ass features for idiots (face & smile recognition etc). Then there's the new DSLRs. Canon announced to 50D, fully justifying my recent 40D purchase - no features I want, a slew I don't (including the extra megapixels) and nothing that represents an improvement as a photographic tool. Then Nikon go ahead with the D90, inculding video. Some seem to be getting excited by this (Michael Reichmann right up there), not me.

A photo camera is for stills. I'm not a videographer and don't want to be. With so many other improvements missing that I do want (mirror lock-up button, higher dynamic range, large VF etc etc), this is just adding a bunch of useless nonsense that dis-improves (what's a good antonym of improve?) rather than enhances the camera as a tool, IMO.

I've been using my Zeiss Ikon a lot recently, and it's far more satisfying to use than most other cameras, with simple control that get to the heart of the matter. Why can't digital cameras be that simple? (More of which later)

Rant over.

I went to Ladakh and all I got...

...was this lousy photo.

Grand scale, Ladakh, August 2008

Actually, quite a good shot to illustrate a point, that I'll come to later.

2 weeks trekking in the Indian Himalaya. An outstanding trip, good weather, great company, well organised. I did the Markha Valley trek (a classic in the region) with KE Adventure (highly recommended trekking company). I'm sure I'll be posting more photos from the trip once I've got through the stack.

One really difficult thing about photographing the area is scale. There is much that looks like other parts of the world but the scale is much, much larger. This is my first time in the high mountains, and it is very difficult to comprehend the size of everything without being there. If you click to see the larger version of the image above, you'll see in the centre one of the group walking ahead of me (look close). It is one of the shots I have that truly shows the sense of scale of the place. We were really in the lower altitude Himalaya, peaks not much above 6000m (18500'). The path above is at about 3500m (11500'). For most parts of the world, this is high, up there it's everyday. Truly big Nature.