OlegNovikov.com

What's New rss

21 November 2020 » Photoessay: the Summer Palace

My history with the Summer Palace goes back to 1993, when I first visited the sublime park in late September shortly after arriving in Beijing as a student. As it turned out, it was life–long love at first sight.

I have not exactly kept count, but I reckon over the years I visited the Summer Palace well over a hundred times. Most of that was during my university years, when I did not have much to do during summer vacations and the Internet did not exist yet for all intents and purposes. After moving to Shanghai in 2000, I still went there each time I was in Beijing and had a chance to do so.

While visiting the Summer PalaceI, I photographed with various cameras ranging from the Soviet–made Kiev–19 35mm film camera to Hasselblad 503CW medium format film camera to the digital Nikon Z7 now. I listened to a wide variety of music ranging from Pink Floyd to Miles Davis to Béla Bartók. I even swam there a few times (do not ask!), as well as went jogging circling the whole park, which by my estimation must have been around 8km.

I strolled the park during sizzling summers, pleasant autumns and springs, and bone–chilling winters. I went in times of happiness, listlessness and despair. At one point I even thought that my ashes should be scattered there when I pass on. In the meantime, entrance fee went from RMB2 for a monthly multiple entry ticket in 1993 to RMB30 for a single entry now.

And now, I have taken my family there for the first time.

Something tells me the story is not over yet. That something tends to be right.

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #1

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #2

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #3

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #4

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #5

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #6

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #7

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #8

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #9

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #10

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #11

...

 
Image: The Summer Palaca, Beijing, China (September 2020)
 

The Summer Palace #12

P.S. All images were taken with the Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24-70 f/4 S lens on 29 and 30 September 2020.


10 October 2020 » Enter the Fujifilm GFX 50R

Continued from the previous post.

In the meantime, I noted that Fujifilm GFX 50R cameras started to frequent second–hand market at reasonable prices, as well as that they came and went fairly quickly, indicating good liquidity. I have been curious about the camera for a long time*, and so I figured that I would not lose too much money if I buy one, try it out, and sell. Once I identified a good deal, I snatched one with a GF 50mm f/3.5 lens.

I have used the GFX 50R camera for some time and, wow, I am impressed. It is large—going by memory, it feels like a medium format film camera; although the sensor is not as large as medium format film is, the way it handles perfectly justifies the "medium format" badge. And I mean it in a good way: it commands respect, imposing a careful and considered way of shooting. Relatively speaking, the GFX 50R feels like a camera (although an imperfect one), while the Z7 feels more like a cold game console (although a highly capable and efficient one).

 
Image: example taken with Fujifilm GFX 50R camera and GF 50mm f/3.5 lens
 

Although large, the GFX 50R invigorates to explore things casually

Fujifilm GFX 50R camera and GF 50mm f/3.5 lens

User interface of the GFX 50R is very different from Nikon's and, once I quickly went through the user's manual, it feels more natural and easier to remember how to set and subsequently find (which I struggle with with the Z7) certain things. Buttons are smallish, but I like how they are spread out on the spacious camera unlike the cramped together buttons of the Z7. Viewfinder is large and beautiful, and traditional controls convey the feeling that you are using a camera. Importantly, the GFX 50R is very responsive and quick to operate; startup actually seems a bit faster than in case of the Z7. Just like any camera, though, it has some quirks, too: for example, not all menu items can be added to MY MENU, continuous autofocus is unreliable, and face–detect autofocus leaves a lot to be desired.

 
Image: example taken with Fujifilm GFX 50R camera and GF 50mm f/3.5 lens
 

Strong, beautiful performance in backlit scenes

Fujifilm GFX 50R camera and GF 50mm f/3.5 lens

I read with interest DPReview's comments on image quality of GFX 50R vs. Z7 essentially concluding that "there's very little to differentiate between the two cameras". I suppose that could be the case if you consider sensors only; once you add lenses to the equation, though, the picture is very different in my book. I have done my comparison of the Z7 plus Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens and the GFX 50R plus GF 50mm f/3.5 lens and, to cut a long story short, the latter combo wins hands down. It is just more solid in every respect. If I were to go on a once–in–a–lifetime dedicated photographic trip, I would definitely pick the GFX 50R.

 
Image: example taken with Fujifilm GFX 50R camera and GF 50mm f/3.5 lens
 

Fujifilm's colours and tonality are certainly pleasant

Fujifilm GFX 50R camera and GF 50mm f/3.5 lens

And so this where things have ended up: I only wanted to satisfy my curiosity, but now cannot bring myself to sell the GFX 50R. In fact, if you put a gun to my head and ask me to choose only one camera to use for the next few years, that would be it.

At the same time, I am not ready to abandon Nikon as yet. On the one hand, I am quite invested in the system in terms of time spent learning how it works and muscle memory. On the other hand, I have a small project in mind to digitise my old 135 negatives using the Nikon ES–2 accessory. And of course, once the promised 40mm Z pancake lens hits the shelves, it will pair beautifully with a Z camera.

My next steps will be carefully considering how to optimise the Nikon kit. I have already sold a couple of exotic items, and the Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S is to go next. I do not think I need the resolution of the Z7 anymore, so a Z6—or even a Z5—would suit my needs better. I am likely to temporarily buy a Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 for the project mentioned above. And both Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S** and Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S will stay for the time being.

This is for now. I am sure things will change further soon. I will keep you posted.

*The reason I did not look at it closely before is that in the past Fujifilm had only one massive zoom in the 20–35mm (equivalent) range, which I could not fathom. Since then they have introduced a 24mm–equivalent prime lens, which is exactly what I need on the wide side of things.

**My biggest gripe with this lens is not image quality, actually—instead, it is the fact that it is a folding lens. Sure, it is convenient while travelling, but my mind just cannot get around the fact that turning the camera on is a two–step process.


26 September 2020 » Nikon Z joy and agony

Continued from the previous post.

I bought the Nikon Z7 camera hoping it would be the base of my all–purpose digital system. After all, the high resolution (45MP) is suitable for landscape work, while a combination of fast, versatile autofocus and overall responsiveness promised to handle the rest of my photography.

Let's start with the "rest". As mentioned in previous post, it mostly means family photography, which includes semi–formal portraiture and fast–moving subjects (ahem, our son). In this domain, the system performs beautifully. Once set up for intended use, autofocus is fast and easy to use; eye/face autofocus is mostly reliable—I could never imagine I would become so dependent on this feature. For candid imaging, the Z lenses render beautifully, with very good central sharpness and mostly nice, smooth bokeh.

 
Image: Contextual portraiture with a fast, mild wide-angle lens #1; Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens at 35mm and f/4
 

Contextual portraiture at mild wide–angle focal length

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens at 35mm and f/4

Speaking of lenses and changes, one significant transformation I have undergone during these few months is with respect to my preferred lenses for portraiture: if in the past I would normally use 85mm–ish focal length with its narrow field of view, I have grown to prefer a fast 35mm lens for candid portraits. This new preference boils down to this: 85mm offers a narrow field of view and thus cuts out most of the background; 35mm, on the other hand, is not wide enough to cause significant distortion yet offers a much wider field of view and thus captures more of background—or context, in which one is depicted; combined with a large aperture and out–of–focus yet recognizable background that it affords, it is perfect for contextual portraiture, which I now prefer to the more formal, context–less rendering of long lenses. The Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens has been glued to the front of my Nikon Z7 for a while now.

 
Image: Contextual portraiture with a fast, mild wide-angle lens #1; Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens at f/2
 

Contextual portraiture with a fast, mild wide–angle lens #1

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens at f/2

But coming back to landscapes, I increasingly find the Z–series lenses less impressive. I reckon they are considerably better than their F–mount predecessors, but this is not my point of comparison. Instead, I refer to the claims Nikon made when introducing the Z mount and the new line of optics—particularly, delivering "overwhelming resolution" (Nikon's words). Well, for landscape work, resolution of some of the Z lenses does not overwhelm at all. The 24–70 f/4 S zoom is quite good as an overall package as it is not decidedly poor in any area; however, nor does it really shine anywhere: looking at numerous images, I see a ton of imperfections that are sort of passable when examined individually but irritating when considered in their frequency and totality.

 
Image: Contextual portraiture with a fast, mild wide-angle lens #2; Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens at f/2
 

Contextual portraiture with a fast, mild wide–angle lens #2

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens at f/2

The Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S, on the other hand, struggles to attain corner–to–corner sharpness at infinity until stopped down to f/8—and even then it is not perfect (if you stop down further, diffraction starts killing overall sharpness). I am not sure if this is due to field curvature, or software correction of aberrations, or focus shift, or sample variation (which it should not have—Nikon claims "strict quality control" and "uniform quality"), or a combination of some of these factors. And I am reluctant to investigate further—knowing the cause is unlikely to improve performance (and life is too short to live with workarounds if they exist). The Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S performs better, but again, it depends on what you compare it with (more on that later).

 
Image: The combination of mild wide angle and fast aperture is also nice to have in low light indoors; Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens at f/1.8
 

The combination of mild wide angle and fast aperture is also nice to have in low light indoors

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 35mm f/1.8 S lens at f/1.8

All in all, I feel that these lenses do not quite do justice to the Z7 where sharpness* is concerned; if anything, they fit better the lower–resolution Z6. And so here is my dilemma: I love the Z7 system for portraiture and other candid photography, but I just cannot embrace it for landscapes.

As things stand, I have to give up on the idea of having an all–purpose digital camera in the Z7 because of the lenses. The combination of something more suitable for landscapes and a Z6 would suit my needs better. But what would be "more suitable for landscapes"? And, if I go for a 24MP camera, then numerous options open up—including APS–C sensors and even better face/eye detection autofocus—so why stay with Nikon at all?

To be continued...

*Understandably, sharpness is not of importance to all photographers. Indeed, there may (should!) be improvements in the Z-series lenses in other areas that are crucial to many photographers. Still, I assumed that any improvements would be on the basis of perfect corner–to–corner sharpness by f/5.6. Clearly, this assumption is wrong, and Nikon has other priorities. This is neither good nor bad; it is just that these priorities need to be understood.


23 September 2020 » Things are changing

Thanks to the readers who have written to ask if things are well at this side, or whether COVID–19 has caused the prolonged silence. All is fine at this end; it is just that things are irrevocably changing, and it takes time to identify and digest new trends.

In the first quarter of the year, when COVID-19 was raging in China and starting to spread to other countries, we hoped that it would be a short, V–shaped, inconvenience that would go away before too long, and that we would go back to the comfort of how things were before the pandemic. We are now in late September, and it is clear that we are nowhere near out of the woods yet. Instead of a V we have got an L.

Although air travel is now mostly back to normal within China (borders are still firmly shut), I personally do not have much appetite for it. Last year I took 71 flights, some of which were for personal reasons but mostly on business. This year so far I have taken only ten flights. Last two trips earlier this month quickly brought back the memories of air travel hassles (queues and various checks), thrashing the irrational nostalgia for air travel that sort of started to emerge a while back.

Instead, I have started driving again (previously it was unnecessary in Shanghai), and my family has turned to "micro tourism", i.e., driving to relatively close locations for shorter periods of time. As it turns out, it can be as enjoyable as flying to, say, Thailand. This trend is firming up and reversing it may take time and some convincing.

This has important implications for my photographic undertakings. On the one hand, my access to subjects has changed, and the possibility of going on dedicated photographic expeditions has mostly vanished (at least, in the foreseeable future). Travelling with the family, there is only so much time one can use for picture making. Indeed, the family itself has become a main photographic subject; important as it is to me, alas, it does not offer too many interesting topics to post on the Internet.

In turn, this has had a major impact on what gear I use and how. On the one hand, selling the Ricoh GR, which I mostly used on non–photographic trips, in retrospect was right. On the other hand, with the increased role of family photography, my appreciation of the Nikon Z7 camera has grown. At the same time, I have been extensively using the three lenses that I have for it (24–70mm f/4 S, 35mm f/1.8 S and 85mm f/1.8S), and the more I look at the images, the more disappointed I get to be with the system. And getting my hands on a medium format digital camera threw a wrench into the overall consideration of what equipment to use in the longer run... But more on all that later.


26 May 2020 » Bye bye, Ricoh GR III

Shocking as it may sound, I have parted ways with my Ricoh GR III camera. But wait, you will say, was not it my favorite digital camera, ever? Yes, it was. But the key word in that sentence is was—as in, past tense.

So, what has changed? Is not it still a great camera? Yep, it absolutely is, if such a camera is your kind of tool. What has changed, to me at least, is context. Allow me to elaborate.

I started using the original 16MP Ricoh GR in 2013. At that time, 24MP was state–of–the–art, and the GR with its large APS–C sensor and compact form factor clearly stood out. On the smartphone side, I was using an iPhone 5. Its image quality relative to the GR left a lot to be desired—simply put, I just could not take it seriously.

Today, my 2018 iPhone XS offers 12MP and two lenses. I supplement that with the ProCamera App to shoot in RAW (DNG) format when image quality is critical. Although the files are not as malleable as those produced by the GR III, if I take care of exposure I can make A3 prints of perfectly fine quality. And while the GR III with its 24MP APS–C sensor is better in other respects as well, all this is beside the point: the iPhone XS, not to mention newer and future models with computational tricks and all, is sufficient as a carry–everywhere camera. And of course, it is much better connected.

Speaking of carry–everywhere cameras, I used to believe that we must be ready for that once–in–a–century occurrence one is bound to come upon sooner or later and have a proper camera ready for it at all times. My experience of the past twenty years suggests, however, that this is a theoretical consideration that is mostly irrelevant in practice. All my images of any importance were made when I intended to photograph, used my main tools, and put in an effort. If you mean to make photographs, bring your camera; and if you encounter an UFO landing, your smartphone image will be good enough to remain in history.

One more point to put things into perspective. Two compact cameras that I truly enjoyed using in the past as carry–everywhere tools, or alongside my film cameras, were Panasonic LX–2 and Canon S95. The former was introduced in 2006 and had a 10MP 1/1.65" sensor, while the latter hit the shelves in 2010 and boasted a 10MP 1/1.7" sensor. I thought highly of both at the time and considered them serious tools. Today, RAW image quality of the iPhone XS is better than what those cameras delivered. I see no reason not to take the iPhone seriously.

Finally, one more teeny gripe to add: I still cannot get over what Ricoh did with the lens of the GR III: they "improved" it by removing one lens element. As far as I can tell, they exchanged it for software corrections. Image quality is still very good, but the aftertaste of occasional weirdness at pixel level just did not go away.

I owned the GR III for over a year, but it did not see a lot of daylight during the period. In the current context of using the iPhone, Nikon Z7 and Ebony 45SU, Ricoh GR3 lost its relevance for me, no matter how good, objectively speaking, the camera is. I am happy it has found a new home where it will be truly appreciated and, hopefully, live up to its potential.


13 May 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Mount Siguniang

Ah, my first true love, as far as mountains go. This is where the numerous photographic expeditions to Western Sichuan began.

 
Image: Shuangqiao Valley #1, Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Shuangqiao Valley (双桥沟) #1
Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

I went on a few business trips to Chengdu, administrative centre of Sichuan Province, in 2004 and 2005. My first foray into mountains of the province coincided with one of the trips and was to a deep gorge called Yinchang*, 银厂沟, which is just 70km away from Chengdu. It was not too dissimilar from the mountains you find in Eastern China, so on a trip in April 2005 I decided to venture into real mountains—you know, the kind that have snow peaks. Mount Siguniang was the nearest.

 
Image: Shuangqiao Valley #2, Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Shuangqiao Valley (双桥沟) #2
Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

Nearest, however, did not mean easily accessible. The tunnel under Mount Baland, 巴郎山, which you have to pass before arriving in Mount Siguniang, was not built at the time yet. This meant going over a 4000+ metre mountain by a winding, slippery road covered in snow, which in turn implied chains on the wheels, very slow speeds, and many a time literally halting before sharp turns. Although only 210km away from Chengdu, it took over eight hours to reach Mount Siguniang**. Oh, and the bus ride was something else entirely: people were still smoking in public transportation at the time (at least in this part of the country), and I yelled at them to stop; nonplussed, they would not put cigarettes out, so I cracked my window open, upon which everyone froze and yelled at me to shut it, which of course I would not do until they stopped smoking. It was fun!

 
Image: Shuangqiao Valley #3, Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Shuangqiao Valley (双桥沟) #3
Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

At the time I brought a newly bought Mamiya 7II medium format film camera. It was perfect for travel, but I quickly discovered that it was not suitable for landscape photography (basically, no way to use Graduated ND filters; duh, it is a rangefinder—what was I thinking?). I came once again in June 2005, this time with the Hasselblad 503CW camera, and never returned again until October 2019. There was just way too much to explore further west.

 
Image: Shuangqiao Valley #4, Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Shuangqiao Valley (双桥沟) #4
Mount Siguniang, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

As an old friend, I received a warm photographic welcome on this trip in the shape of fog, clouds and dramatic light. The above images, however, are from the nearby Shuangqiao Valley, not of Mount Siguniang itself: this time around the mountain chose not to reveal itself and was obscured by clouds. The intent, I believe, was for me to leave some regrets, yet again, so I can come back. Thus, I can only post an image of Mount Siguniang I took on the first trip. With this, I am also concluding the posts related to the expedition. If we are all lucky enough, I may bore you again with images from Sichuan a few years down the road!

 
Image: Mount Siguniang 2005, Sichuan Province, China
 

Mount Siguniang, 2005
Sichuan Province, China

Mamiya 7II camera, 80mm f/4.0 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 100F slide film

*The gorge was badly damaged in the great Sichuan earthquake of 2008. I have not visited again.

**Today, with the tunnel at one's disposal, it is a leisurely four–hour drive. But the downside is that you do not get to go over Mount Balang and see the views!


1 May 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Bamei and Danba

On the way to the final destination of the trip, Mount Siguniang (四姑娘山, next post—stay tuned), we passed a couple of typical for this area, and quite famous locally, Tibetan villages; namely Bamei, 八美 and Danba, 丹巴. Both are incredible to visit in person and explore culturally, but equally difficult to photograph. I hesitated whether I should post these two images, because they look mediocre at this size (and I have much better results from previous trips). But then it occurred to me that there was a point to be made. In this case, it is that sometimes images are about detail, and resolution matters. When you look at large prints of these images (A2, printed at 360dpi), the detail is so intricate, both literally and culturally, and there is so much going on, that you can study them for a long time. This alone makes up for all the other flaws that they exhibit.

 
Image: Bamei, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Bamei, 2019
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens

...

 
Image: Danba, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Danba, 2019
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens


25 April 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Yading Nature Reserve

And finally, we arrive in Yading*, the southernmost destination of the trip (but not the last one, yet!).

It was my fourth time traveling to Yading Nature Reserve. I photographed the valley using three very different systems: medium format film Hasselblad V-series cameras in 2012 and 2014, large format film Ebony 45SU camera in 2015, and now Nikon Z7 digital camera in 2019. Each time, the hiking and shooting experience, as well as the resulting images, were very different, too.

Objectively, this place is very far away, both geographically and mentally. However, because of my familiarity with the logistics of travelling there, it has always felt close and easy to reach. I could arrange going there at a very short notice, if all else unrelated to photography and travel fell into place (but of course, it is always that "unrelated all else" that keeps me from travelling).

With the COVID–19 disaster underway, however, the feeling of closeness has now dissipated. I barely made it back to China, and only God knows when we will travel willingly again; something tells me it will not be soon, and we will not do it as lightly for a long time. Honestly, I will be thankful if we get through all of this without a war of sorts.

But I am digressing. To put things into perspective again, let's start with a brief introduction of Yading Nature Reserve (repost from 2012).

Named after a nearby Tibetan village, Yading is a national–level reserve in Daocheng County, southwest Sichuan Province, China. It is a mountain sanctuary and a major Tibetan pilgrimage site that comprises three peaks sanctified in the eighth century by the fifth Dalai Lama. The peaks are seen as emanations of the three boddhisatvas Chenrezig, Jambeyang and Chana Dorje. It is said that if a Tibetan undertakes pilgrimage to the shrine three times in his lifetime, all his desires will be fulfilled, due to which pilgrimage to this holy range is a cherished wish of each Tibetan. In 1928, the range was visited by Joseph Rock, who essentially revealed this treasure to the Western World (he took this today–fascinating photograph of Mount Jambeyang). Here is a view of Yading Nature Reserve from Google Earth with marks on the main sites of interest:

(A very big) Bird's view of Yading Nature Reserve

One usually starts exploration of the valley at Chonggu Temple. If you come for the first time, there is a high chance you will be awestruck and spend at least half a day in this area. I could easily photograph the vicinity for a whole day.

 
Image: Mount Chenrezig & Chonggu Temple; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Mount Chenrezig and Chonggu Temple
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

...

 
Image: Mount Chenrezig & Pearl Lake; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Mount Chenrezig and Pearl Lake
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

...

 
Image: Mount Chenrezig from behind Pearl Lake; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Mount Chenrezig from behind Pearl Lake
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

As you may have noticed from the above three images, the closer you get to a mountain, the flatter it looks. Counterintuitive as it may sound, you need to be far from, not close to, the mountain to depict its grandeur. One image of Mount Chenrezig I firmly have in my mind, but have not taken, is from the road as you approach Yading but well before you arrive: nail–teeny Chonggu Temple in the bottom left corner of the image against the massive erectness of Mount Chenrezig. They say every trip should leave some regrets so you can come back again; if that is true, I would go back just to take that one shot.

If you hike up the opposite side of the valley from Chonggu Temple, you get the below view of Mount Chana Dorje. Again, a higher vantage point and a longer focal length offer a grander depiction.

 
Image: Mount Chana Dorje; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Mount Chana Dorje
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens

Next on as you hike into the valley is Mount Jambeyang. It is truly breathtaking when you see it for the first time—or second, or third, or forth. Here is my interpretation of it from 2012.

 
Image: Reflection of Mount Jambeyang, 2012; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China
 

Reflection of Mount Jambeyang, 2012
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2012

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/50 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

But of course, the times they are a–changin and, to paraphrase a bit, no man ever steps in the same landscape twice: you are no longer allowed to go off the wooden trails in Yading, and thus there is no way to give this perspective another shot. Below is the best I could get this time around; again, the closer you are to the mountain the flatter it is (and the clouds did not help either).

 
Image: Reflection of Mount Jambeyang, 2019; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Reflection of Mount Jambeyang, 2019
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

As you continue hiking up the valley and look back, below is what you see. That pond at the bottom of the image is where the previous photograph was taken. Ain't perspective a bitch—or a queen, depending on a given perspective?

 
Image: Yading Nature Reserve valley, 2019; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Yading Nature Reserve valley, 2019
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

If you look back again after proceeding further, you get to see this view of Mount Chana Dorje from the direction of Mount Jambeyang:

 
Image: Mount Chana Dorje from the direction of Mount Jambeyang; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Mount Chana Dorje from the direction of Mount Jambeyang
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens

And then finally you reach Milk Lake. I write "finally" because this is where the vast majority of visitors stops. I, however, spent minimum time here. See that trail going further up on the right? I was much more interested to explore what was beyond that pass, so this is where I headed. The exploration spirit that always drives to me see what is next just could not be silenced.

 
Image: Milk Lake, 2019; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Milk Lake, 2019
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

Hiking so far was strenuous physically, but relatively easy on breathing. Although the pass seems fairly close in the image, it is by no means near. By this time I was also reaching the altitude of around 4900m (from 4180m, where I started the hike). Although the terrain flattened out somewhat, at this altitude every few steps literally take your breath away. And while you are catching your breath, you get another look at Mount Chana Dorje.

 
Image: ; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Mount Chana Dorje from the trail beyond Milk Lake, 2019
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

So what did I find beyond that pass? Another colourful lake and a shapely mountain! And yet, my mind almost immediately leapt to wonder what laid beyond the next pass. Theoretically you understand that, most likely, things will get less exciting as you go forward, but that hunger just does not go away. Alas, I was running out of time and had to turn back.

 
Image: Lake Lexicuo, 2019; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Lake Lexicuo, 勒西错, 2019
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

Right after starting heading back from Lake Lexicuo, you get this view of the south face of Mount Chenrezig and Tibetan prayer flags. See that teeny triangle of a lake in the middle of the frame? That is Milk Lake.

 
Image: The south face of Mount Chenrezig, Milk Lake and Tibetan prayer flags; Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

The south face of Mount Chenrezig, Milk Lake and Tibetan prayer flags
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

I always feel excited when heading into the unknown, and inescapably dull when returning. On each trip to Yading I managed to hike further into the mountains, and every time, when reaching the furthest point on the trail, I asked myself if I would ever come back again and whether this would be as far as I would ever go. Given our present circumstances, that thinking now seems pertinent. It also brings to mind one of my favorite quotations, which I would like to close this post with.

Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

—Paul Bowles, “The Sheltering Sky”

*Just for the record, the place is called Daocheng Yading, 稻城亚丁, but it actually means Yading Nature Reserve of Daocheng County, 稻城县亚丁自然保护区.


10 April 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Daocheng county seat

Today's images are from Daocheng county seat. There is not much to photograph (or maybe, I was a bit blinded by the earlier excitement). However, early morning and late afternoon light there is so magical you run out with your camera to photograph whatever falls under it, anyway. Of course, it does not make for good pictures, as no one has abrogated the holy trinity of subject, light and composition. Below is where all three components fell into place, more or less.

 
Image: Daocheng county seat, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Daocheng county seat #1
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens

...

 
Image: Daocheng county seat, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Daocheng county seat #2
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

...

 
Image: Daocheng county seat, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Daocheng county seat #3
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens


8 April 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Red Meadow

Just before you arrive in Daocheng county seat, there is this little place on the side of the road called Red Meadow, 红草地. It is what the name suggests: a shallow pond filled with red grass. There is a parking lot on the other side of the road, so people can stop to have a look and photograph. I imagine twenty years ago, before it was made into a scenic spot complete with entrance tickets and a wooden trail around it, it must have been nice to come across. Today, overtourism has taken its toll.

 
Image: Red Meadow, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019
 

Red Meadow
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

Having said this, there are two reasons I am posting this image. First, keep in mind that we are still within that 150km range from Litang to Daocheng Yading—the change of scenery is quite mind–boggling. Second, I just love the trees in the middle, which are typical for this area with its harsh climate; tall, slim, yet firmly reaching out towards the sky... there is some kind of stoical and melancholic beauty about them.


7 April 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Lakes Mountain

Next on as you head towards Daocheng Yading is Lakes Mountain, 海子山. That name is a bit misleading in my book—it is more of a massive, high–altitude plateau; its area is over three thousand square kilometres, and its altitude reaches 5020m above sea level (although the average is "just" 4500m). It is filled with stones of varying sizes, from pocketable to immodestly large, and ponds of highly diverse dimensions (there are over a thousand of them). The Internet also tells me that the surface of the mountain is the largest paleo–ice remains on the Tibetan plateau. Not exactly your garden–variety mountain, if you ask me.

 
Image: Lakes Mountain, Sichuan Province, China
 

Lakes Mountain
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

Traversing the area is a fascinating experience, akin to roaming an uninhabited planet in another galaxy. I could easily imagine parts of "Interstellar" being shot there. Photographing the place, however, is a different matter altogether: while the mind effortlessly creates a marvellous depiction, in actuality it is a large, incoherent mess that is difficult to organise visually in a meaningful fashion. It is flat, and images tend to turn out flat; it is repetitive, and images tend to look like one another; and it lacks any main subject, unless you find a huge stone (but then it becomes about the stone, not the place). To make a descent image you really need a suitable vantage point and the help of sculpting light to bring the texture out.

Tough? Sure, but I will take this kind of exhilarating tough any day of the week!


6 April 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Jiawa Township

So, anyway, on with the images from the trip to Sichuan.

I just realised that most readers are likely unfamiliar with this part of the world (duh!), so I am posting a map of the trip to give you a better idea of where the images were taken. Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan province in Western China; Sea Snail Valley (海螺沟), Xinduqiao (新都桥) and Tagong (塔公) that I wrote about earlier are points B, C and G on the map, respectively.


Image:

Map of the Sichuan expedition (October 2019)

Traveling from Xinduqiao along the national highway 318, you reach a major junction named Litang (理塘, point E on the map above). From there, the road leads to Tibet if you continue westwards; if you change your direction and travel southwards, you will be heading towards Daocheng Yading national park (稻城亚丁, point F on the map) and, further, Yunnan Province.

The road from Litang to Daocheng Yading, which is just over 150km, boasts highly varied topographical features and is filled to the brim with photographically attractive locations. Jiawa Township (甲洼乡), just 20km south of Litang, is one of the first ones. It is a small, quiet place with a temple in the hills on the right side of the road. Images below were taken in that vicinity.

 
Image: Jiawa Township #1, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiawa Township #1
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

...

 
Image: Jiawa Township #2, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiawa Township #2
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

...

 
Image: Jiawa Township #3, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiawa Township #3
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

...

 
Image: Jiawa Township #4, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiawa Township #4
Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S lens


2 April 2020 » COVID–19 roller coaster

You know what they say about best–laid plans of mice and men... they often go awry. Just as I planned to spend some quality time working on the images from the trip to Sichuan, COVID–19 interfered in a massive way, disrupting not only my photographic undertakings, but, just like for most of us, my entire life.

I left for a week–long family holiday in Taiwan, with a small suitcase suitable for the occasion, on 24 January. At that time there was already a strong perception of the seriousness of the COVID–19 situation, but there were no signs it would get out of hand as it has, worldwide.

I was scheduled to return to Shanghai on 3 February. Then, as situation unfolded and changed literally by the hour, the date was postponed to 10 February. In early February, however, I hastily went to Moscow to apply for a new visa to stay in Taiwan even longer. After returning to Taiwan I changed my tickets three times, all in last minute as circumstances continued to shift. Finally, I returned to Shanghai on 27 March—literally hours before China closed borders to foreign nationals, and just one day before Shanghai imposed centralised 14–day quarantine for all international arrivals.

Quite a bit of a roller coaster, as you may imagine. Yet, I consider myself lucky—there were numerous points where things could have gone awry much further. And of course, it is far from over.

I had the Nikon Z7 camera with a couple of lenses with me all the time. As you know, however, any creative activity including photography requires sufficient time and mind–space; while time was not much of an issues, particularly over the weekends, my mind–space was completely preoccupied with the unfolding crisis as I juggled various data points in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve. A few dozen family and street images was all I managed to pull off. I am quite happy with those, though, given the circumstances.

I am now quarantined and working from home until 10 April. After being away from all my stuff (well, except the camera and the iPhone) for two months, it does not feel too bad to dwell in the den; plus, it is safe. Listening to music on big speakers, working on images on a large monitor and reading a paper book suddenly has a new depth. Invariably, however, my mind looks into the future trying to envision what the new normal will look like after all this is over (and it will be, one day).

 
Image: Will the house be rebuilt? What will it look like?
 

Will they rebuild the house? What will it look like?


18 January 2020 » Sichuan expedition: Xinduqiao and Tagong Grassland

Previous images from the expedition can be found here.

Xinduqiao (新都桥) is the first county right after Mt. Zheduo as you head westwards. It is known among photographers in China, who usually stay here for a few days to photograph. I have stopped over here a number times, too, but this was the first time I took a more or less satisfactory image of the place, below.

 
Image: Xinduqiao, Sichuan Province, China
 

Xinduqiao, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens (at 70mm)

36km to the north from Xinduqiao is Tagong Grassland (塔公草原), yet another fabulous location in the area, pictured below.

 
Image: Xinduqiao, Sichuan Province, China
 

Tagong Grassland, Sichuan Province, China

But wait... I actually took this image back in 2015—and it is still firmly stuck in my mind as if I took it yesterday, which is why I am posting it again now. Truly fascinating, how selective our memory is: how many images from the 22,000 digital files in my library (well, less than 19,000 already) do I really recall? A few dozen? This one is one of them, regardless of its "objective" artistic merit.

It also makes me think of two other points.

First, I am often asked why I keep going to the same places while the world is so big, so diverse and so beautiful. Well, the answer is quite simple: it takes many trips to cover a place you care for in a satisfactory fashion. Back in 2015 I took this image of Tagong Grassland, but I was not lucky to depict Xinduqiao; last year, I finally managed to portray Xinduqiao, but light at Tagong Grassland was a yawn.

Second, the image was taken with a 16MP Fujifilm XT–10 camera and XF 18–55mm f/2.8–4 R LM OIS lens, which I regret: looking at it now, image quality leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, I can print to A4 size and perhaps a bit bigger with nice results, but given how deeply the image is engrained in my mind, I really wish I had a file of better quality.

Photographers started ditching film cameras when it was infamously pronounced that a 3MP digital Canon camera was better than film. Then 12MP was plentiful. Then 16MP was more than enough. Now 24MP is all you need. My conclusion? Use the best gear available at any given time, and hope it will still be good enough in the future. At this time I am not going to go as far as switching to a 100MP camera, but I am happy with my choice of the 46MP Nikon Z7, thank you. And while on this subject, I am also happy that I did not ditch medium and large format film for 3MP, or 12MP, or 16MP, or 24MP digital capture.

But of course, your mileage may vary.


5 January 2020 » Relentless curation

In case you wonder about the prolonged silence and why I have not posted any more images from the trip to Western Sichuan, well, I got sucked into the black hole of image curation.

It all started when I confronted the fact that during the ten days in Sichuan I filled a 120GB card, bringing back well over 1500 images. For some photographers, shooting this much may be a regular occurrence; to me, though, this is unprecedented, particularly given that I have long shot medium and large format film. I found it impossible to make sense of so many images, so I had to stop working on individual images and edit the collection down before anything else. I managed to delete around a thousand images leaving 500 files to work with; this is still too much and I plan to go through the remaining collection with a critical eye after a while, but at least it is manageable for now.

In the process, I noted that my entire library of files shot with various digital cameras (and iPhones models!) contained over 22,000 images. Can you imagine that?! Twenty–two thousand*! When and how did things get so out of hand? It is impossible for one to remember so many images, let alone for anyone to care for much of them. This led me to spending some time randomly curating the library, getting rid of some 2000 images. I plan to throw away a few thousand images more when the time allows.

That invariably took me to my collection of slides, which represents my main (or serious, if you will) work up until I started shooting with the Nikon Z7 last year. I could not help but do some serious curation here, too. It was a very interesting process: on the one hand, I had a chance to review my own work in a now dispassionate manner; on the other hand, it showed clearly that the further I went back in time the more garbage there was. Take, for example, the period from 2001 to mid–2005 when I shot 35mm film: after this round of merciless curation I only have 280 slides left (and I can assure you I shot much, much more than that!). From mid–2005 to mid–2016, when I primarily shot medium format slide film with a Hasselblad V-series system, I discarded roughly half of the slides, leaving around 1300 transparencies in the collection. As to large format slides, which I shot from mid–2016 onwards and of which there are not that many, less than a dozen was thrown away.

Having done this exercise, I feel that my overall work looks quite a bit more solid. Not all of it is spectacular, of course, but at least I reckon one would say "not too bad at all" about most of it. The time and attention spent on this curation undertaking also allowed to distance myself emotionally from the work shot in Sichuan last year, so now I can return to working on it in a more detached fashion—more images to follow soon.

In the meantime, below is an image of Mt. Zheduo, 折多山, which in Tibetan roughly means "bending mountain". In my mind, it is the first mountain of interest on the way from Chengdu to Tibet along the national highway 318. I passed Mt. Zheduo a number of times in the past and always found it fascinating as it is a major geographical boundary: to the east is a mountainous area with deep, foggy valleys, and to the west is the eastern part of the Qinghai–Tibet plateau; this is where plateau uplift happens and the real Tibetan area begins. Watching the tremendous change of landscape over a short course of passing over the mountain is nothing short of astounding.

*A big chunk of it is family photos and visual notes, but this is still way, way too much. And I promise you I do not have food or cat images (at least not that I am aware of!).

 
Image: Mt. Zheduo, Sichuan Province, China
 

Mt. Zheduo, Sichuan Province, China, October 2019

Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens (at 70mm)

...

Previous What's New pages:
2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005