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20 April 2017 » Recent favourite quotation

Today we shoot, and we look at the little screen, and we shoot again. We fill computers with thousands of identical pictures taken at arm's length with redeye–reduction flash. We revisit and re–level and fix the contrast and the color and sometimes the composition. But neither the process nor the result ever has the old magic: the twinkle in the eye of an old girlfriend or the firm confidence that the landscape was done right the first and only time.

—The Machine Planet, "Verichrome, I do mind dying"

16 April 2017 » Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens (non–)review and post–optics

Whenever I buy a new lens, I first run some basic tests. Properly done, lens testing is a weighty undertaking: you need to examine a number of performance factors at different distances and for a handful of lens copies to account for sample variations (and if you buy a zoom lens, good luck). I do not have access to multiple lens copies, and I am usually not interested in performance at close distances. Thus, the purpose of my tests is not to pronounce the ultimate verdict; instead, it is to determine whether my copy of a lens is an overall decent performer, how well it performs wide–open, what aperture setting delivers best image quality, as well as what aperture I choose for maximum depth of field*. I further look at a lot of real–life images to see if any peculiarities draw my attention. Once I am satisfied that a lens is a keeper and know what I need to know, I move on.

  Image: LUMIX G LEICA DG SUMMILUX Lens, 15mm, F1.7 ASPH., Professional Micro Four Thirds Lens  

Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens (image courtesy of Panasonic)

I should first mention that the Summilux is a sexy lens. Design is clean and consistent with Leica's established and easily recognised aesthetic. The lens is made of metal and, while not heavy, has a nice heft to it. Operation of the aperture and focus ring is smooth as butter, and it balances very well on the Panasonic GX8 (although it is a relatively large camera in the M4/3 camp, I envision the lens would be right at home on any Panasonic or Olympus body). Overall, the Summilux exudes an air of a high quality product and reminds me of some of the better–built lenses of film era.

Looking at test files in Adobe Lightroom and prints from converted files, I was quite impressed. Essentially, there is no light fall-off or distortion, and only a slight touch of chromatic aberration is noticeable every now and then. Centre sharpness is already quite good at f/1.7, improves slightly and peaks at f/5.6, and diffraction starts taking its toll from f/8 onwards. Corner sharpness largely follows the same pattern and, as expected, is somewhat worse than in the centre. Flare can be a big problem at certain angles to light sources, but it does not occur often and is easily solved by moving the camera a bit. All things considered, not too bad at all if you ask me.

Pixel–peeping various real–life images, however, I started noticing minor artefacts and sometimes inconsistent sharpness at micro–level. For lack of a better way to explain it, there were random areas of worse, or strange, sharpness where you would not expect it. It is fairly subtle and does not happen all the time, but, if you look at enough images, it is clearly there.

I then found the following hidden notice in Lightroom: "This raw file contains a built–in lens profile for correcting distortion and chromatic aberration. The profile has already been applied automatically to this image." Applying the profile cannot be turned off in Lightroom. As I suspected, there is no free lunch after all: uncorrected files in DxO Optics Pro showed a very different picture.


Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens: distortion prior and after correction

First, the lens produces massive barrel distortion: the image above shows the corrected version; roll your mouse over it to see the uncorrected original. Note that correction of distortion involves quite a bit of cropping. Second, the lens produces a notable amount of chromatic aberration as shown below. Although I did not check it, I suspect the same goes for light fall–off.

  Image: LUMIX G LEICA DG SUMMILUX Lens, 15mm, F1.7 ASPH.: uncorrected chromatic aberration  

Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. lens: uncorrected chromatic aberration

Considering the notice in Lightroom and that distortion is of a simple barrel kind (i.e., relatively easy to correct in software), I can only deduce that post–processing software corrections were a part of the lens design**. The benefit is obvious: correcting these aberrations optically would have required adding extra glass element(s), which would have made the lens bigger and more expensive. The downside, however, is not exactly pleasant: artefacts and sharpness degradation caused by correction of the aberrations in post–processing.

Which brings us to the main point of this post: we are entering the era of post–optics***. In other words, it is now half–optics, half–software, and optics are increasingly taking a back seat****. Software will be getting better and better, allowing increasingly more room to relax optical design. From this perspective, traditional lens tests have become inconclusive: while you can dissect what optics deliver of and by themselves, the conclusions will largely depend on the philosophical notion of whether you accept after–the–fact software corrections as an inseparable part of your lens.

Where do I stand? In all honesty, I feel conflicted.

When I look at photographs printed at 300dpi to A3+ size from files produced by the Lumix GX8 and the Summilux, they look marvellous. Are correction artefacts visible in prints? They may be, if you know what and where to look for and examine prints very closely; non–photographers would not notice them, though, so for all intents and purposes the prints are flawless. So if you are interested in photography as an art form and photographic content, who cares how technical perfection is attained? As they say, whatever works.

With this being said, however, I do appreciate and value fine optical design in the pure, traditional sense; and I do care for lenses that deliver outstanding results without relying on software corrections. Somehow, deep down inside—and I know this may be quite irrational—what the Summilux offers seems, well, dishonest. It makes me want to take out my Hasselblad 503CW, mount one of the superb Zeiss lenses on it, and shoot some film.

So is the Summilux a good lens? Hmm... the answer will depend on which day of the week you ask me on.

*I am essentially a minimalist who only needs three aperture settings: wide open for maximum light gathering and/or shallow depth of field, the aperture where image quality is best, and the setting where depth of field is deepest while diffraction is still not too bad. I would be happy to remove the rest of apertures from my lenses. Imagine the lens pictured above with just three settings: f/1.7, f/5.6 and f/11. Beautiful!

**This is not exactly new: I observed the same phenomenon a few years back when testing the Sony RX–100 camera. What I did not expect, however, was that this would spread to high–end lenses and flagship camera models.

***In this context the prefix post means that something belongs to a time in which it has become less important or relevant, as in post–truth.

****Witness the same with the iPhone: with computational photography now a fact of life, we no longer need fast lenses, or round aperture blades, to get beautiful bokeh (we still need larger apertures to gather more light, but I wonder how long this necessity will last).

6 April 2017 » Recent favourite image (2017 #2)

Image: Reclaimed Land (George Town, Penang, Malaysia)

Reclaimed Land
George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Ricoh GR camera

We often travel to remote corners of the world, or roam city streets for days, or wait for magic light for hours only to come back home with a handful of forgettable images; if worse comes to worst, we return empty–handed. Every once in a while, however, photographic Gods put photogenic scenes right in front of us—and it usually happens when we least expect it.

I was in Malaysia in the end of March, and the view above was offered to me together with fruits and other usual niceties of hotel welcome packages. While one can expect gratifying sights from hotel rooms every now and then, what I did not expect was the gift of kaleidoscopic light during my short stay in George Town.

I woke in the morning to a glorious sunrise, grasping my camera before doing what you usually do first upon getting up. I came back at lunch to witness the sky featuring complex, subtle clouds with equally intriguing reflections. Although I could not see the sunset from the hotel window, cloud reflections put on yet another sublime show just before I was about to head out for dinner. Picking one of the three interpretations for this post was tough.

I reckon my Ricoh GR camera finds me a most boring master—it often spends days, weeks even, in various bags and pockets without seeing daylight. When it is switched on, though, it knows it can expect to see something worthwhile.

19 March 2017 » Ball–head upgrade

My Kirk BH–1 ball–head has been on top of my tripods for well over ten years. In fact, it is the oldest piece of gear that I own today. Its operation is very smooth and, once locked, nothing ever moves—there is no creep whatsoever regardless of tilt angle and even with fairly heavy camera–and–lens combinations. BH–1 is also extremely well made and essentially indestructible: I have used it in all sorts of adverse conditions, dropped it a number of times, and yet, after all these years, it has only acquired a number of scars and continues to function as new; heck, I got more scars, even though they may be not as tangible, in the same period of time. Ironically, this may be viewed as a downside: it is difficult to find solid reasons to replace the BH–1 with another model.

Although it may become evident only over a longer period of use, the BH–1 still is imperfect. Here, you may be picky about a few things but, to me, two aspects stand out. First, the tension knob does not have any marks and gets dislodged easily; consequently, you have to check or re–tune it pretty much every time you use the ball–head—and it gets tiring. Second, the BH–1 weighs in at 850gr, which is far from light if you hike with your gear often. Come to think of it, the BH–1 is only a teeny bit lighter than the Nikon D810 camera or the Hasselblad CFi 250mm f/5.6 lens. Clearly, my attention was focused on the wrong item when I was contemplating cutting off the handle of my toothbrush to lighten my outfit.

  Arca-Swiss p0 ball-head  

Arca–Swiss p0 Monoball (image courtesy of Arca–Swiss)

I kept leisurely looking at alternative options, but they all seemed lukewarm—slightly better in some respects, a bit worse in others; overall, none looked undeniably worth upgrading to. Until I became aware of the Arca-Swiss p0 Monoball, that is.

At first, the design of the p0 seems counterintuitive or even weird: of and by itself, the ball–head appears top–heavy and unbalanced. But of course, no ball–head is meant to be used "of and by itself": once you add a tripod and a camera to the equation, the design starts making a lot of sense. And it grows on you faster than you expect—after using the p0 just for a few days, its usability benefits over the traditional ball–head designs are obvious. In particular:

  • Instead of a locking knob, the p0 features a locking ring that applies pressure to the head via a set of "planetary gears" along the perimeter. This has two advantages. On the one hand, you do not have to look for the locking knob or position it as you like—the ring is always there, the same from any angle. On the other hand, it makes for more robust locking if all else is equal.

  • There is no tension knob—the locking ring is used to control tension instead. For very light cameras such as, say, Ricoh GR, the tension is fine when the ring is unlocked. Turn the ring 20–30 degrees clockwise, and the tension is just right for my Hasselblad 503CW. Turn it 20–30 degrees further, and the tension is perfect for my Large Format Ebony 45SU. In practice, this operation is very intuitive—and having one less knob to fiddle with certainly helps.

  • The camera sits on the locking panoramic base, which in turn sits on the ball. Consequently, the camera is closer to the centre of movement, which allows for more precise camera positioning. Further, once levelled, the camera can be panned without change in levelling.

  • This feature is common to many Arca–Swiss ball–heads, not just the p0, but it still has to be mentioned: the p0 uses an aspheric ball, so that the load on the head meets greater resistance as the angle of tilt from the upright position increases. This partially prevents your camera from flopping inadvertently.

  • The p0 is small and weighs only 416gr—half the weight of the Kirk BH–1! Despite the light weight, however, it is rated for 20kg load (vs. 23kg of the BH–1). I have tried locking my heaviest camera–and–lens combination (the Ebony 45SU with bellows fully extended) at the most challenging and impractical angles that I will never use, and the p0 performed without a flinch.

  • Last but not least, the p0 is relatively inexpensive—at least for how it is built and what it does and in relation to other available options. And no, it is not crippled in any way.

Only time will tell if the p0 will continue performing as flawlessly and whether I can use it for over ten years, but so far I am a happy camper. Quite interestingly, I have noted that some of my friends also use this ball–head; they seem to have bought is quietly and been using it happily: the lack of any remarks perhaps is the best compliment there is.

Having learned that notable improvements over what may be perceived as ultimate designs are possible, I am now looking at the possibility of upgrading my Gitzo GT3530LSV tripod. Like the BH–1, it is super steady, essentially unbreakable, and has served exceedingly well for years; alas, it is not exactly small or light. Thus far I have not found any compelling alternatives, but I promise I will start researching lighter outdoor underwear only after I exhaust this quest.

9 March 2017 » Recent favourite image (2017 #1)

Image: Shanghai, February 2017

Shanghai, February 2017
Panasonix Lumix GX8 digital camera and Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens

At first glance, there is nothing special about this image. If you look closer, however, you may notice a number of things that are typical to present life in Shanghai if you are familiar with it: you have old architecture of French Concession with laundry drying on bamboo sticks and recent, faceless, fugly buildings beyond them; you have people riding old bicycles and driving modern Mercedes cars; looking at bicycles, you have rusty ones, both ridden and piled, alongside the orange and blue wonders of the newly–sprang sharing economy; you have a red light screaming "stop!" and yet someone running it while looking at something other than the traffic; you have air pollution visible in the colour and degree of transparency of the sky and yet no awareness of it among most people in the street (I check pollution index daily and was wearing a mask on that day); you name it.

Perhaps there is not much art in this image, but, to me, representativeness of today's Shanghai is certainly there. And that alone makes it noteworthy.

5 February 2017 » Images from Western Sichuan, China, part 3

The second half of the trip took me to Larung Ngarig Buddhist Academy in Sertar County (also known as Seda, 色达). I had been meaning to go there for a long time—I had heard a lot about the place, it looked mesmerising on the Web, and it pretty much was the last major location in Western Sichuan I had not been to. The place did not disappoint: the known, calm and deliberate of the first part of the trip was substituted by unchartered and fascinating in the true sense of the word. Unexpectedly, it was also mind–stretching.

The Academy truly boggles one's mind, and does so on a number of levels. On the macro level, it seems to be a neat, elaborate and purposeful creation—with a perfect spot on a mountain top for photographers to capture its beauty to boot. At close examination, however, it is chaotic, spartan and incomprehensible. When you further look at the people who reside there, you realise quickly that their minds inhabit an entirely different universe. For one thing, it is clear that their mindset is not dominated by the largely materialistic values of the West or other parts of China; one has to have an entirely different worldview to purposefully choose the hardship of residing in such harsh conditions for reasons most of us know of only theoretically. Now, all of this is far from unknown, but there is a massive difference between knowing something abstractly and experiencing it in person. And this complex first impression was cemented for good when I went to see a sky burial.

This naturally raises the question of how you approach photographing such a multifaceted subject. Some photographers capture it from afar, in beautiful light or in snow, romanticising the place as we often do with landscapes. I, however, felt that a romantic depiction of such unromantic place would be too much of a stretch, perhaps even bordering on deception. Other photographers focus on photographing people, again mostly romanticising their circumstance. I, however, found this akin to exploiting the subject, not depicting it, similar to photographing homeless people in the street without the slightest clue about their condition.

In the end, I decided that the most fitting approach was to record the multifaceted–ness of the Academy in the most strait–forward manner possible. Even though I do have a few images that smack of romanticism and some pictures with people in them, I did my best to impose as little of my mindset as possible. Although this possibly deprived me from the chance to capture "artistic" images, it only seemed fair.

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #1
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #2
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #3
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #4
Ebony 45SU camera, Nikkor–SW 90mm f/8 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar

Sertar #5
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

15 January 2017 » Images from Western Sichuan, China, part 2

The Lumix GX8 camera hanged around my neck through the entire trip–and I mean this literally, as I did not have even an extra inch of space in my ThinkTank Airport Essentials backpack to accommodate it. I do not think I will get down to writing a review of the camera as we usually keep quiet about things that work, which is why I never wrote reviews of the Hasselblad 503CW and the Ebony 45SU. Reviews of successful designs tend to boil down to listing specs and features and essentially saying, it just bloody works!

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Lunch, Danba
Panasonic Lumix GX8 camera and Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH lens

The GX8 was a perfect companion to the Ebony. Take the images in this post, for example: there is no way I could have taken them with a large format camera. Heck, I reckon I could not have taken them with any other camera, as the tilting viewfinder and totally silent shooting mode of the GX8, a combination of features unique to the GX8, was an absolutely instrumental factor. Also, camera connectivity works well enough for me to no longer use the iPhone to take images intended as visual notes or for immediate sharing*. And I love that the GX8 and large format have almost the same aspect ratio: your brain does not have to re–tune as you switch between cameras and the images are easier to put alongside each other.

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Afternoon meal, Danba
Panasonic Lumix GX8 camera and Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH lens

There were also landscape images shot with the GX8, but this is where things get a bit complex: somehow, I resist to acknowledge that they may be as valuable as those shot on large format film, even though aesthetically they probably are. Theoretically, cameras are just tools and do not matter—images do—so I should put the photographs together in the same collection and be done. And yet, deep down inside I refuse to do it and treat landscapes shot with the GX8 as inferior. Technically, I could give you a million reasons: image quality, image geometry, meticulousness of composition, overall portfolio consistency, you name it; and yet, I feel that there is something irrational at play here as well. By the same token, would you put images taken with your full–frame DSLR alongside those captured with the iPhone? Probably not. Plus, if both are in the same portfolio and thus are equally good, why bother with the larger, unwieldy camera at all? I am not sure I have a clear answer to this conundrum. But my inner reaction is putting the landscapes taken with the GX8 aside, out in the cold for the time being, in hope one day I will figure out a way to make use of them.

*As I sorted through all images shot in 2016, I noticed that the number of pictures taken with the iPhone dropped by half from 2015. This is largely because I had well–connected cameras at my disposal through most of the year (Fujifilm XT–10 first and, later, the GX8). This goes to show that dedicated cameras, if properly sorted, can hold their own against phone cameras exceedingly well.

6 January 2017 » Images from Western Sichuan, China, part 1

I thought I would start this post by saying that the trip to Sichuan Province, China that I undertook in November last year was "fascinating", but this of course would be a bit of a cliché. More to the point, it was not really "fascinating" in the usual sense of the word, at least not the first half of the expedition; if anything, it was somewhat predictable and lethargic. Perhaps this is because I have been in that part of China quite a numbers of times and the excitement of new and unknown had worn off; or perhaps this is for the reason that the roads have been greatly improved and a tunnel under Mount Balang has been drilled, so that the trip from Chengdu to Mount Siguniangshan, which used to take eight to ten hours and, just before arriving at the mountain, took you atop of Mount Balang offering a breathtaking view, now is a smooth, uneventful journey that deprives you of the spectacular vista; somehow it resembled taking the metro from one side of a city you know well to another: you look out the window every now and then, recognise familiar surroundings, maybe take a nap, and disembark in a listless fashion. The only thing that surprises you when you alight is the unexpected question of, how could this journey be so different from what it was in the past? The passing of time is indeed embodied not so much in how many minutes, hours, or years pass—this measure fails to offer adequate benchmarking beyond simple, obvious things and never offers any reason or rhyme—but in the degree of the fundamental change of state of one's mind. Clearly, I have not been there in a long while, and it is not only the place that has changed.

Image: The map of Oleg's trip to Sichuan, China in 2016

The map of the trip. First half: Chengdu to Danba via Mount Siguniangshan
(marked as Rilongzhen on the map) and Jinchuan; second half: Sertar.
We took a different road on the way back to Chengdu,
but it is unimportant as it literally was just driving back to civilisation.

We passed Mount Siguniangshan at around midday. Sun was high, light was flat, and sky was cloudless blue. And yet, I took a picture of the mountain with the Ebony camera. Ever since I moved to large format, I have unintentionally developed a new category of imaging I call "I must have this on LF film": it may not be the best place or light or season, and yet I feel compelled to have it shot on large format film, whatever the underlying reason. Perhaps just to express my respect to the subject and acknowledge the importance of the moment.

Photographing in Danba, the most beautiful village of China according to Chinese National Geography, was equally devoid of excitement. Nonetheless, stillness of heart offered a valuable advantage: you know when not to photograph, and when you do photograph, you do it in a much more deliberate manner. The risk, of course, is that the images end up appearing calculated and arid. But now that enough time has passed—in terms of the change of state of mind, or, in this case, distancing myself from the emotions of the shooting circumstance—I can say that I am as happy with the photographs as I am with those I took in the past when my heart was pounding.

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Danba village, 2016, #1
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Danba village, 2016, #2
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village

Danba village, 2016, #3
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Image: China, Sichuan Province, Jinchuan

Pear Gardens of Jinchuan
Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film


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