Sunday, 31 May 2009

The words, the words

I'm almost finished the first SoFoBoMo book, just the small but tedious task of putting together some text to accompany the pictures. This is the part I hate the most. I'm not an avid writer at the best of times and coming up with something creative like this does not suite me well - reminds me too much of school English assignments, which I always hated.

Hopefully I can get the online version out this evening, ready for putting together a Blurb version tomorrow.

Kinesis Journeyman under punishment

After my previous use of the Kinesis Journeyman photopack in benign weather, here's an update under more trying circumstances during my recent trip to Cumbria.

First up - carrying stuff. Every day I carried my large format gear. The inner pouch (V090) just about carried the 5x4 field camera, 2 lightweight lenses (a 120 f/5.6 and a 210 f/5.6), small meter (The Voigtlander VC meter II), loupe and a roll film back. I also had dark cloth, film, filters stashed in the bag. The Gitzo 3540LS tripod strapped to the outside. Regular gear: waterproof jacket, lightweight fleece, lunch, small first aid kit, 1l hydration pack. That amounted to about 15kg (30lb) of gear, maybe a bit more. having the heavy stuff in the pouch meant the lighter stuff didn't get squashed - good news for my sandwiches.

The upshot is that the bag coped well. Having a proper harness system means comfortable, stable load carrying. Putting the heavy stuff at the top (all the camera gear) means better posture - it was easier to walk more upright, therefore less straining or tiring. having the load nice and close to the back and compression straps tightened meant little effect from cross winds.

Next up, weather. Whilst generally good weather, I did endure a few heavy showers, enough to test a bags waterproofing. Not a problem. The bag appears to be fully waterproof. That means no stuff sacks or rain cover needed, which makes the space more usable and keeps extra weight out.

There are a couple of weaknesses. The mesh pockets on the side have a tendency to go a bit baggy when loaded. On one side I had map case, a small bottle of drink and sometimes my lightweight raincoat rolled up. The pocket does stretch but that is a bit much for it. On the other side the mesh pocket was used for the legs of the tripod, which is probably a bit too much weight for it. The other problem with lashing the tripod was with the compression straps. The webbing used means they don't hold quite as tight. Occassionally the top strap hold the tripod would come loose, I had to be extra careful to fully cinch it before setting off (which would then mean no problem).

I won't carry that much gear in the pack that often but it's nice to know I can.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Scribus output, pdf and jpeg

This is aimed squarely at the SoFoBoMo crowd but should be useful for others putting together pdf books for the web. I know several will be using Scribus as their layout software.

I'm using Scribus as my layout software, as I have done in the past. Normally when I'm playing around with layouts, I export a partial book to pdf to see how it stacks up. Last night I made a minor error in the options I chose and felt it worth pointing it out.

There is an important option in the pdf output dialog (below) where the type of image embedded can be selected. I accidentally chose "Automatic". Running a layout with just 10 images in it gave me a 7MB pdf file, even using the "medium" compression setting. I then re-ran the export but with jpeg selected, suddenly the same material was only 1MB. An issue to note. I don't know what image format Scribus chose under "Automatic" but it clearly wasn't as compact as jpeg. Visually there was nothing different in the output.

Scribus pdf generation: several options for images - chose JPEG

It might be that other pdf generating software has similar options around the format for image embedding, I don't know as I don't have access to other options. If anyone else knows of similar options in other software, post a comment.

SoFoBoMo 09 pt1: book layout

I'm cracking through the layout for the first book. All the images are finally processed (did I mention how much I hate dust spotting scans?). I've figured out the overall structure. Still working on text.

I hope I can be finished over the weekend, before I head off on Tuesday.

One problem I have with this book is the difference between online and physical book formats. I intend to Blurb this one, trying out an idea I have for book layout (more on that later). If it works, it may become my standard for printed books. Trouble is, there is no direct way in an online version to mimic the physical experience I'm trying to create. In the end, I'm going for a compromise which may end up looking a bit funny.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Thoughts on some new cameras

I've been reading with interest stuff on a couple of new cameras: the Sigma DP2 and the Pentax K-7. Wildly different yet each addressing some things I've ranted about in the past.

First up the DP2 - mroe of the Sigma large sensor in a small body idea. Nice that it has my favourite 40mm-e lens, and quite fast. Simple controls, always a bonus. Then the actual performance - it seems all agree it's quite slow, quite noisy and inconsistent. When it's good it's very. very good, when it's bad... And of course, the limited softyware support for Foveon. I just hope that this tumbling attempt to make a high quality, large sensor compact doesn't kill the whole idea.

Then there's the K-7. Mid-price DSLR. Smaller size, without losing a decent grip. And high specs. I looked through the list of stuff it's got, from the viewfinder, through the weather sealing to the custom functions. Most of this level of stuff Canon only put in the 1-series cameras. I especially like the ability to fully configure the thumb & finger wheels, and set all kinds of limits on shutter speed & ISO. TAv mode (carried over from previous models) is just what digital needs.
Now that the K20D is going, looks like this will be the DSLR I'll be recommending to others.

In fact, with the features this one has, and the great results coming from the Sony A900, I'm considering those cameras in place of some of my Canon gear, keping the Canon for sports and wildlife only. We shall see...

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The dangerous lure of film

As regulars may have noticed, I shoot quite a bit of film - mainly black and white but also some colour (with a rangefinder - oh, the horror!). It seems like such an attractive option for shooting. I like using the Zeiss Ikon and it is also quite small - I can easily drop the full kit and a few rolls of film in my carry-on bag when going away for a few days. Lack of feedback limits the number of shots I take and can have me covering quite a lot of subjects. The attraction here is the simplicity at the picture taking end of the process. Or large format, movements & the attraction of large prints with fine detail. Much cheaper than the digital equivalent (I don't expose enough film this way to make any digital replacement viable, not even a full-frame 35mm DSLR).

Then there is the processing. I keep forgetting what a horrid job that is. Endless cleaning & scanning, then a pile of cropping, rotating, dust spotting (one day, in the far off distance, I'll actually get a clean scan). The whole post-process is even more stultifyingly boring than with digital and time consuming, even with a fair degree of automation. At least there are less images.

The hours I'm currently spending on film process are making me tired, not helped by the dull work I'm having to crank out during the day at present.

More on jpeg settings

Walcott beach, Norfolk, May 2009
From Lightroom, jpeg quality 50, 1200x800
click for full size

Ed Richards had comments on my suggestions on jpeg over at Paul Butzi's. So, as is my wont, I went off to test his points (and mine for that matter).

A few points to start: if one is creating jpeg images for displaying on a screen, then a lot of the original data is thrown away anyway. For a typical 10MP original, going to 1200x800 (I'll work with Ed's big image assumption) throws away about 90% of the original pixels. If you're an LF photog, it's going to be way more than that. So we can forget about on-screen versions ever getting to the fine detail and nuance of a really nice print from a really nice image.
The next idea is that higher quality settings really have an impact on the on-screen viewing quality. If I want to show the very best, I need the higher quality. But how true is that?

I ran a bunch of tests on a series of images with different jpeg quality settings. For this I used Lightroom but any jpeg generator would yield similar results. I ran film & digital originals. I tried detailed & mixed images (with some expanses of limited detail). I tried jpeg quality settings from 10 to 95. I visually compared the results versus quality setting and file size.

Lightroom jpeg quality 10, 1200x800

What did I find? Obviously, at low settings there were problems. Lots of artefacts around edges, detail blurring, pixelation in large, continuous areas. At quality of 30-40 most problems were gone. Some fine details started to go. At 50 most images were indistinguishable from the higher settings. The few differences needed a careful look and hopping between versions. Going from 70-95 showed no improvement on any image.
How about file sizes? At 1200x800, quality of 50 gave about 220kB per image. At 70 that was 350-400kB and at 90 all the way up to 1.5MB. Yet no visible difference between them (and I was looking carefully on a decent, calibrated monitor). 1000x667 images were proportionally (by area) smaller.

Of the hundreds of images I've posted, the average file size is around 250kB and I can't recall seeing compression artefacts or loss of detail in any of them at web sizes.

Like I say, for good, on-screen display, target a file size of around 150kB for 1000x800, up to 200kB-ish for 1200x800. The reason I've been suggesting 1000x800 is that's a 10"x8" at 100ppi, which is a decent size for a book image, working on the basis that we're talking embedded jpegs in a pdf.

Gorse, Cumbria, May 2009
Lightroom jpeg quality 50, 1200x800

Ed also made a point that he wants the highest quality to wow the guys with the huge, high quality monitors. Thus he ends up with a big pdf. Personally, I want a bunch of people to download my SoFoBoMo book, so I'd rather a smaller file size to encourage them to do so. And based on the above tests, I reckon a 5MB book file would be visually indistinguishable from a 15MB one anyway, on any screen.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The true use for a pocket digicam

Untitled, Cumbria, May 2009
Lumix LX3, ISO 80, 1/15" @ f/8.0 handheld

Like Colin Jago, I've been a little frustrated in using pocket cameras, even my Panasonic Lumix LX3. Nice results, but a little slow for anything requiring speed of reaction. I've never been happy with the way it forgets zoom and focus settings when going to sleep. Around town it just doesn't compete with a rangefinder.

This last week, however, I was trying an experiment. As I was spending a week walking in the hills, I thought I would see how well it did as a general landscape travel camera. I know the image quality is good, so in situations where speed isn't essential it should be ideal.

Before I get to the verdict, a little background on my idea of a travel camera, and a little of what I was doing photographically in Cumbria.

I was after 2 things - testing gear in the hills to see what would be appropriate for a tip I'm going on this summer and also taking some shots to put together a collection of my views of the area. I took my large format camera, the EOS 40D DSLR and the LX3 pocket camera. I had a few specific photos in mind, scenes from familiar routes but was also open to interesting things along the way. This was also a walking holiday, so I didn't want to spend too much time stopping.

My use of LX3 extended to carrying it in a pocket all day, lens cap off. See a photo, retrieve quickly, snap and away. Not as fast as DLSR hanging from the harness but much smaller. I used the large format for the more deliberate stuff. In the end I didn't use the DSLR at all.

The main advantages of a small format camera in this use: small sensor = large DoF = large aperture = fast shutter. Makes it good in windy conditions when it's hard to stand still. Short actual focal length = low minimum shutter speed handheld = low light & motion blur. Good for forests, overcast conditions and water.

The initial results look good. Nice for smaller prints, web and books. Not fine-art quality but that's not the aim of a travel camera. It saves several kilos of gear and I can carry a much smaller bag. For hiking in the mountains, that's a big plus. An important thing to watch for is smears on the lens - I have several shots ruined because I didn't check. That also means always having a small lens cloth to hand.

Processing the images: Lightroom default seems to yield more natural colours straight from camera than for other cameras. White balance is particularly good. I took a lot less shots mainly due to the live histogram which means less bracketing.

Overall verdict - the LX3 is likely to become my travel hiking camera, with DSLR and/or rangefinder in support when a vehicle is available. There will be times I carry something larger when a main aim of the trip is photographic or the walking is easier but for the long trekking holidays I like, the LX3 seems to fit the bill quite nicely.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

SoFoBoMo 09 pt2: digital proofs

UPDATE: this time with the proof sheets in correct order.

Earlier I posted the proofs from my project on Norfolk (SoFoBoMo part 1). This time around it's from the second project from the Lake District (SoFoBoMo part 2).

This set of proof sheets is from the shots I took with the LX3 - there will be more on how the camera worked out in a separate post. There will also be a number of black and white shots taken using my large format camera, although shot on roll film as 6x9s.

I had had the idea that I'd put a book together entirely shot as 6x9s during the course of last week. On the first day it became very clear that generating 7 images per day was going to be too much, especially as the walking was as much a part of the trip as the photography. Then I had the idea of mixing in images from my pocket camera. This is also going to give me an opportunity to experiment with some different aspects of presenting a book. So I have about a dozen shots on film (yet to go in for processing) and 134 digital to choose from. Should be enough for 35 selections.

Title for this project is not fully decided but I expect to use a similar source as for the Norfolk project.

Just passing thru

Home for a few days after my trip to Cumbria for some walking and before heading off next week for a photography workshop. It's been a good week: some of the best weather I've had in the Lake District, good walking that's helped get my fitness up and photographically productive, too.

Plenty to post about in the coming days: some project related stuff, a few thoughts on gear that I used while I was away as well as general on-going nonsense.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

SoFoBoMo 09 pt1: roll 4

The last of the proofs. Now I've seen them all, I've got it clear how I want to group & theme the book. Now all I have to do is the final selections and editing (and book sequence, and collation, and text and...)

I'm off on vacation for a week. No internet, no computer. Just me, the hills and a couple of cameras.

No posts until next week.

SoFoBoMo 09 pt1: roll 3

The penultimate instalment of proofs. I'm at that stage where I'm not quite sure I took enough shots for a decent 35.
Final set should be up tomorrow morning.

A photographer's practical guide to jpeg

Stemming from the question on the last post about sizes of pdf books, I thought it was worth writing about JPEG images: sizes, resolutions, compression etc. This is based on a little technical reading and a lot of practical experimentation. Technically, I may be a little off in some areas but this will be good enough for the masses.

The aim of a JPEG image is to preserve as much detail as possible while compressing the file size as much as possible. By setting the quality/compression (these 2 are the reverse of one another - high compression gives low quality) value you are determining the trade-off between quality and file size. However,there is a general misconception as to how this works.

For highly detailed images (think lots of tree branches and small leaves) there is automatically less compression as the JPEG tries to keep the detail. If your image is highly detailed then you can actually use lower quality setting and still get an excellent image. In the other direction, large expanses of nothing compress very well. If you shoot a picture of a white wall even the highest quality setting will give a small file. JPEG is clever like that. The tricky stuff comes when there is a mixture of detail and even tones (e.g. trees against a blue sky). The even part compresses well, the detail is kept in the main but at the edges JPEG gets confused, throwing up those nasty artefacts. This is where judicious use of the quality level is needed. I'll come onto advice on values later.

The next part is the resolution or pixel size of an image. If you are printing, you'll want high quality files with lots of pixels. Typically 240-300ppi for the given print size. That means the total pixel size will be the paper size multiplied by 240 or 300 (e.g. if I print a 10"x8" at 300ppi, that'll be 3000x2400 pixels). Nice and easy.
The tricky part is on-screen display. To display on the majority of monitors, you only need an image about 1000pixels wide or 600 pixels tall. Maybe a bit more to cover larger displays. If your software works as a size & resolution then the size multiplied by resolution shouldn't be more than about 1000x600pixels (e.g. if I have a 10"x8" page for on-screen display, I need a resolution of only 100ppi to give 1000x800pixels). This is important for pdf generation, as pdf is designed to work in physical size and resolution. To cover most monitors today, you don't need more than 100ppi resolution (nor page size more than about 12"x8").

So what about recommendations for compression values? JPEG generation generally has one of three ways of setting quality: a high/medium/low scale; a JPEG compression factor (typically a number up to 100) or another numerical scle of some sort (e.g. Photoshop's 1-12).

For printing, go high. Photoshop 9 or 10 (11 and 12 really are pointless and don't practically give better results), JPEG factor 90 or 95. NOTE: JPEG compression factors are NOT percentages. the maximum value (from the JPEG standard) is 95 - any scale that goes to 100 is distracting you.

For on-screen display, you only need a medium level. Photoshop 7 or 8 (sometimes lower but go careful); JPEG factor 70-75. This will yield a files size about half that of the higher qualities and still give excellent on-screen display. Use the lower values unless there is a big mix of detail and even tones.

A final note on setting resolution versus compression, especially in pdf generation. The biggest win in file size (small being good) is a lower resolution. 300ppi has 9 times the pixels of 100ppi. To get that kind of compression with quality you need to go down to about 20-25 quality factor, which is barely recognisable. You could probably go down to 90ppi and give good display quality even on large monitors (a factor 11 smaller than 300ppi).

As for pdf books for the web (aimed squarely at the SoFoBoMo crowd) - aim for file size that gives around 50-60kB per page or 100-150kB per image overall (non-image pages generally take very little space in pdf). If you've gt 40 images in 55 pages (typical SoFoBoMo fare), that's 2.7-5.8MB total filesize.

Monday, 18 May 2009

SoFoBoMo 09 pt1: roll 2

The proofs from the second roll. All scans are now done, just got the inversions to get through for the rest.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

SoFoBoMo 09 pt1: roll 1

Now I've taken the photos it's time to do the processing. I realised about the time that I started the scan inversions that I've picked what is probably the most labour intensive processing route for me: colour negatives. Oh well, I've made that bed and shall have to lie in it.

This is the proof sheet from the first of the 4 rolls. These are pretty untouched - linear scanned as a positive, inverted with ColorNeg (which includes white balance adjustment). A couple needed shadow/highlight adjustment at this point. Proof created with Lightroom print module: I created 2 versions, this JPEG and a pdf (using pdf995 print driver). The latter I'll use for making paper selections.

This first project is now entitled "On England's pleasant pastures seen" which is a collection of photos from around Norfolk. Title taken from Blake's poem "And did those feet in ancient time" better know as the hymn "Jerusalem".

I'll post the other proof sheets over the next couple of days as well as more thoughts on the whole editing process as I go.

Photo a day: 1 year on

Reclaimed, Happisburgh, Norfolk, May 2009

Today marks a whole year of posting a photograph a day. Actually I cheat a bit - the photos are usually uploaded in batches on scheduled posting. With my crazy travel schedule and quite long periods not taking photos, it can be a push to get stuff together for every day and there is no way I could post live every day. In some ways it's pushing me to take more photos, which can't be a bad thing.

It started as a bit of an experiment but I'm still enjoying it so on it goes.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Just a picture of the sea

Out to sea, Happisburgh, Norfolk, May 2009

This is a photography blog, after all.

Actually, I've not been taking many photos lately and have been doing quite a lot of travel. This past week, although on a business trip I made a concerted effort to get out both morning and evening, touring around the country lanes of Norfolk. More of that to come in due course.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

All you gotta do...

is ask.

I read with a little dismay Bill Birtch's post giving up on SoFoBoMo for a little thing like pdf software. Fortunately several stepped in with free alternatives, I hope he reconsiders.

One of the points of doing SoFoBoMo in a short space of time is to get everyone doing it together. There is community around this thing. Don't feel alone, get connected. Don't get stuck, get help.

There are plenty of bloggers out there on this one, ask questions of them - post comments, ask open questions on your own blog. You'll be surprised at how friendly and helpful complete strangers can be.

SoFoBoMo: I think I've started

Yet another business trip, camera came with. Got out on a breezy evening to the coast and rattled off a roll in an hour. If I can get out for an hour or so each day the rest of the trip, I should have enough for a SoFoBoMo project.

Further to my earlier post on being less serious about SoFoBoMo, comes this from Colin Jago. I'd agree with him. This challenge is perfect for anyone with a camera (and a computer). Fancy gear not required. Weeks off work to shoot not required. As much as anything, I'm using SoFoBoMo as the excuse I need to get away from the office on time. The full-time job continues and SoFoBoMo isn't worth wasting my valuable vacation days on.

This current project I've started will only allow 4 after-work shooting opportunities, with a couple of weekends available for processing. I've got 6 rolls of film with me, if I can expose 5 of them I should be golden.

Last year, I put together 2 projects. Din't take a single day off work. My Kristiansund project took just 3 rolls of film (72 frames) and a couple of hours walk to do the shooting. Used an old film camera. Pictures taken in some off time on a business trip with long hours in the office. Processing was evenings and weekends.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

What does photography mean?

One of the really interesting things about the whole SoFoBoMo challenge is reading all the other participants' blogs. Even more that the range of photographic styles and subjects is the range of motivations for photography that people have. Whether it is way way to figure out ones life, life in general or the world at large, it is all in there. Photograph seems to be an extension of how people live and think. That's one of the most interesting aspects of the increased numbers this year.

As for me, I expect to get going tomorrow. No great insights in the first instance, just me figuring out how to get through it all. More when I actually start.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Burn your Velvia

Geoffrey Grigson, writing about Edwin Smith photographing at all times of day:

Landscape pure or landscape with buildings - either way, landscape has a face: she is for ever altering her face. She smiles, laughs, sets into a brown study, frowns is sad; laughs and smiles again, changes from repose into excitement...I hope everyone familiar or unfamiliar with England will see and feel in these plates the proper changeability of these faces, and from north to south, east to west the variety of their features.
from England (1957)

Quite so.

(Taken from "Evocations of place: the photography of Edwin Smith".)

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

SoFoBoMo: don't sweat it

I note with interest a theme or two running through the collective blogging of the SoFoBoMoers. (Whether it's one or two themes is rather moot.) Funnily enough, this repeats some of the problems encountered last year, too.

There is the searching for a theme and the agonising over whether the pictures will be good enough. Don't sweat it, say.

First bit of advice from me (may be a little late now but I'm sure I mentioned this in the past) - keep a handy note of photo theme ideas as you go. Since last year's effort, I've kept a list of ideas in a little black book. As I think of possible photo projects, I write them down - no analysis, just ideas. Some may eventually dry up to nothing but I've collected enough ideas to have at least a couple of fliers for this year. Some ideas lead to others and so on. Get a book & pencil small enough that you'll carry it everywhere.

Second thing, and this should be immediately useful, is that the idea is to produce 35 pictures. Not "35 images that will be candidates for my MOMA retrospective." They don't have to be perfect. they don't even have to be good. For once, lower your bar and accept imperfection. You'll be so much happier with a complete effort, than a half-done bunch of perfect images. The book, complete, is the goal.

Remember: Solo Photo Book Month - 1 person, 35 pictures, 1 book, 31 days.

Emotion and personality

While I was in London recently I took time to go visit the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery. Quite an event - large selection of work, well presented. I learnt a bunch about his work & influences. It's a tricky thing, doing something like this where the connections are really 2 dimensional (both in chronology and themes).

[A side note on the exhibition - while it is excellent in content, I think it is grossly over-priced, there were way too many visitors even early in the morning and the constant chatter of those damned audio guides is a real distraction.]

While viewing the work I was reminded of some things that crossed my mind years ago while visiting the Munch Museum in Oslo, and that is how the material reflects the artist. It also highlighted a key difference, in my mind, between painting and photography.

Apart from the content itself (Picasso jumping between the analytical approach of cubism to an overt obsession with sexual fantasy) is the enduring reference the the artist's emotional state. Munch's work (beyond merely The Scream) demonstrates the same emotional input - quite apparent in a couple of works made from photographs. The physical effort of painter applying paints provides a very real connection between the artist's mood and his work.

Photography cannot be like that. It is the capturing of just what is in front of the lens. The photographer has no direct contact with the subject. He does, however, impart something in the framing, subject selection and selection of the frame for presentation (the process of eliminating that unwanted). It's rather more subtractive than painting. In that way, over a series of images, a photographer reveals his wider personality rather than immediate emotional state.

Of course, these are fairly broad generalisations but it feels like a real and mportant distinction between the two media.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Service resumes

Catching the action, London Marathon, April 2009

Posting has been a bit thin on the ground lately: lots of travel and patchy internet service. Hopefully I can rectify that over the next week or so.

I also note that SoFoBoMo has started - huge list of participants and some getting going on day one. I'll be starting next week, at least on part 1. I'm going to do at least 3 projects in the course of the period in the hope of finishing one. I'm not even sure if the main idea I had will get done at all.