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16 June 2018 » Panasonic RQ–L31 review

I hate to have to disappoint you, but no, this is not a new camera you wonder why you cannot find news about. It is... a cassette player. You may need to search the Web to learn what a cassette player is. Basically, it was a prevalent music recording and listening medium after it overtook LPs and before it was superseded by CDs. If this does not tell you much, I suppose I have lost you.

  Panasonic RQL31r cassette player  

Panasonic RQ–L31

I discovered the player while my wife and I were going through some seriously old stuff in preparation for the arrival of a new family member. It was in a surprisingly good shape: I only had to disassemble it to clear out the remains of battery leakage. After that, it was pretty much as new.

I took the player from Taiwan back to Shanghai where I still—serendipitously, I should add—have a dozen of cassettes. These are from my university years, back from the nineties, just before CDs took over the world of music. Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz, Jeff Buckley, you name it. I have not kept them because I cannot get the music on newer media; rather, they are more of a memento: gifts from people who mattered a lot at the time, or memories of buying smuggled, punched–through–but–still–usable cassettes with music that changed my world.

Recently I put a Led Zeppelin II cassette in and took it for a spin around the block. First thing that struck me was that sound quality was, well, dreadful. Somehow, I did not remember it that way—I recalled listing to clear, deep sound, not a shallow reproduction overpowered by noise. As I continued listening, though, the feeling of "dreadful" sound dissolved into perception of the sound texture of its time. Or maybe, it is just that music took over and the medium did not matter anymore.

How does this relate to photography? To me, it reinforces the widely–spread, oft–repeated, but tough–to–attain notion that content is king. Good content is just difficult to produce, let alone art. It is even tougher if you want to do it on a regular basis. Any particular medium may make it more difficult or help artistic aspirations take physical shape, but that is the extent any medium has influence. Billie Holiday still sounds sublime despite the poor quality of the original recordings, and a sharp image of a fuzzy idea still has no appeal.

Deficiencies of a particular medium also invariably become inseparable traits of the work created or reproduced with that medium. They are historical context of that work. When listening to Led Zeppelin II I did not feel the urge to switch to, say, my iPhone, which offers far better sound quality compared to the cassette player. Can you imagine last century's black–and–white images having the super–sharp, clean, grainless look of digital capture of today? It would be totally different work if you ask me.

I also miss the times when content was magic of and by itself and that was all I thought of; when I was not concerned with media or image and sound quality or any other technical minutiae. Alas, those innocent times are well behind me.

But this is supposed to be a review of the Panasonic RX. Not much to say here, other than that the player boasts built–in slide microphone and allows using optional external mic for recording, has voice activation, an LED battery level readout, a 3–digit tape counter, and a speaker on top of the lid. All of this is much, much fancier than what any cassette player I ever had back then offered. Call it a solid upgrade, then.

P.S. I just realised that I also have a Panasonic SL–SX510. No, it is not a camera, either—it is a portable CD player. You may be more familiar with these. Was my affection for Panasonic Micro 4/3 cameras somehow dialed in back then?


1 April 2018 » 220ppi vs. 72 ppi for critical image assessment and processing

I mentioned in the computer upgrade post below that one of the possible concerns of using an iMac retina display is that the display's pixel density (around 220ppi) may be too high to critically assess sharpness and process images. Honestly, I was hoping that this would not be an issue and that I would only need to adjust to the new image viewing reality by perhaps just peering a bit closer. Unfortunately, it did not work out that way.

As I was looking at some test files shot with the Panasonic 42mm f/1.8 ASPH. lens using my Lumix GX8 camera, I could not stop being impressed. Even at 100% magnification, the lens' performance appeared extraordinary no matter how closely I looked. I was about to conclude that it is a great optic, but the skeptical side of my mind thought, wait a second—this seems too good to be true. So I decided to look again on my old 20–inch Apple Cinema Display (ACD, pixel density: 72ppi).

I have now sold my early–2008 Mac Pro computer, but the ACD kept sitting in the corner of the living room all this time, wires wrapped around it. Partially, selling prices of this ancient piece of gear* are so low I did not want to bother ridding of it; more importantly, though, something told me that it may still be of use—and something turned out to be right.

Connecting the ACD to the iMac was a piece of cake: all I had to do is buy a cheap DVI to USB–C adaptor, dust the ACD off, and plug it in via the adaptor. Sure, I had to also tweak a few settings in Lightroom and Affinity Photo, but I was good to go in less than an hour.

Looking at the same images on the two displays, I was quite shocked—this is something you need to experience for yourself. At 100% magnification, pretty much everything looked gorgeous on the iMac while every image appeared coarse on the ACD. For the purpose of image assessment and editing, however, the picture was exactly the opposite: major flaws were hidden under the high pixel density of the iMac and sweeping adjustments appeared to have minor effects; at the same time, ACD's 72ppi revealed every pixel's characteristics and amplified even smallest adjustments. Suddenly, the Panasonic lens did not look as impressive (but it is still a good lens).

Essentially, it is simply impossible to assess image sharpness (including lens sharpness and camera movement or lack thereof), or apply sharpening, or remove noise—basically, all tasks that take place at pixel level—with any degree of precision on the iMac. To put it differently, any minor image defects visible on the iMac at 100% are massive on the ACD and normally would not be accepted; at the same time, visible smaller image defects and images carefully processed on the ACD invariably look immaculate on the iMac**. For any serious image assessment and processing you simply must have a low–ppi display.


  Oleg's new dual-display setup  

My new dual–display setup: 2017 iMac on the left, 20–inch Apple Cinema Display on the right

So I am now firmly set to use the dual monitor setup, which is the best of all worlds (and I have a computer hidden behind one of them!). This, however, has me thinking: what does it imply for post–processing in general? Displays will certainly continue to trend towards higher and higher pixel densities, but photographers will likely continue to need low–resolution displays to critically assess and process images. We can continue sticking to our old low–resolution screens, but I doubt my ACD will last longer than a few years. Will there be software solutions, say, within Photoshop or Affinity Photo, that will allow to replicate evaluating images on low resolution screens, or will low–resolution displays become niche, expensive products featuring very wide gamut and allowing true and precise calibration and profiling? I bet on the latter.

*I bought mine back in 2006. It still looks as elegant.

**Of course, this is not news for photographers who have been printing from when 72ppi monitors were the norm: working on 72ppi displays preparing images for 240–360dpi output was a very regular exercise.


27 January 2018 » Update on my experience with Epson SureColor P800 printer

I have now used the Epson SureColor P800 printer for over a year, and feel that I have enough experience with it to share my longer–term impressions. Before I do, I should note that my usage is quite sporadic: I may print one print in a couple of weeks, or several prints every day during a week, or the printer may sit idle for a whole month. Ambient temperature and humidity also change during the year as we have to run air conditioning in summer and winter (read the air gets quite dry). With this clarified, here is an update on the issues I outlined in the original report.

  Epson P800 printer  

Epson SureColor P800 printer (image courtesy of Epson)

The wi-fi connectivity issue I mentioned must have been related to my computer and/or home network. Last year I changed Internet service provider, and a month ago I upgraded my early–2008 Mac Pro to an iMac 2017. After this, all problems related to wi–fi connectivity disappeared (I blame the wi–fi card in the Mac Pro). Now wireless connectivity just works and I am happy to have it, particularly as I have had to place the printer in a room different from where the computer is.

Inserting print media through the front feeder continues to be a somewhat unnerving exercise: every now and then I still get paper corners creased. A considerable dose of patience and meticulousness is still recommended. And while speaking of corners, sometimes I still get smudging around paper corners even with seemingly flat paper (this seems to happen with smaller paper sizes, A4 in my case). I know this is not a solution for most, but Epson paper has the 2:3 aspect ratio while most of my images are square or 3:4, so I cut the sides of the paper anyway.

One area where the P800 has clearly come way ahead of 4880 is printer head clogging. There is no way to quantify this, but, subjectively, while 4880 required constant attention in this regard, it is mostly a non–issue with the P800. In the initial period of use I often thought, "Is not it time to clean the printer head?" But no, it was not. Of course, the P800 likely does the necessary print head cleaning when the printer is switched on and off, but it is done swiftly and without drawing attention in daily use. Also, heavy clogging after an extended period of printer sitting idle is done quickly and in just one cleaning cycle—with the 4880, it could easily take torturous four or five cycles.

After using up the two sample packs of Hahnemuhle paper my friend gave me, I switched to Epson Velvet Fine Art Paper and have been using it ever since. As I mostly printed on Epson Enhanced Matte Paper and Epson UltraSmooth Fine Art paper with the 4880, I cannot make direct comparison of print quality of the two printers. While prints from P800 do seem to have deeper blacks—again, subjectively—the difference is far from drastic; it is not something you would complain about—or praise—unless you closely examine identical prints from the two printers side by side.

The printer comes with initial cartridges that contain 64ml of ink. The time to start changing them came quickly, and I noted immediately that the ink of the P800 is much more expensive than that of the 4880. As of this writing, one 80ml cartridge for P800 costs USD54.95, or USD0.69 per ml, while one 110ml cartridge for 4880 costs USD58.99, or USD0.54 per ml (per ml cost of 220ml cartridges is even lower: USD0.38)*. It may be argued that the P800 has newer and better inks, but still, the difference is massive. Epson 4880 clearly is much more economical—even if you throw expired–yet–half–full 220ml cartridges away!

My overall conclusion is that the 4880 and the P800 are aimed at very different uses—with the main difference being the amount of printing that you do. If you print often and a lot, then robust construction, much better paper handling, and notably more economical ink cartridges of the 4880 (or similar printers) clearly have an advantage and make life easier; printer head clogging is a pain–you–know–where, but frequent printing may mitigate it somewhat. If, however, you are mostly into fine art photography—where usually fewer images are printed and more time is spent between test prints to let them sink in and fine–tune adjustments—then the P800 is a better fit. My needs happen to fall into the second category, and I am overall happy with the P800 for now—and likely for years to come.

*All prices are from bhphotovideo.com.


18 January 2018 » Impressions of the Pacific Ocean

I grew up in a place that, although called "the port of five seas", ironically is very far from any sea. The first time I went to a seaside was well in my twenties. Honestly, I was not impressed: just water, helplessly splashing over the shore in a repetitive fashion. Watching the Pacific Ocean from the east coast of Taiwan in Hualien, however, was something else entirely: I was totally captivated by the patterns on the surface; utterly subtle and ever changing, they were unmistakably perpetuated by immense power underneath. Add to that an equally delicate sky elegantly dancing with the surface of the ocean, and you have a subject matter you just cannot walk away from.

One may naturally be inclined to capture the classic near–middle–far type of landscapes when photographing the ocean, but I was transfixed by the patterns and the accompanying sky to the extent that I did not care for any sort of foreground; irrational as it may sound, I was compelled to photograph them straight on. I observed and photographed the changes in the surface patterns, the clouds and light in the morning, at midday and in the evening for three days. It was one of those rare "I want to have this on large format film" experiences, and luckily I did bring my Ebony camera with me. Below is a selection of images that speak to me most.

 
Image: Hualien, Taiwan
 

Impressions of the Pacific Ocean #1

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

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Image: Hualien, Taiwan
 

Impressions of the Pacific Ocean #2

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

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Image: Hualien, Taiwan
 

Impressions of the Pacific Ocean #3

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

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Image: Hualien, Taiwan
 

Impressions of the Pacific Ocean #4

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

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Image: Hualien, Taiwan
 

Impressions of the Pacific Ocean #5

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

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Image: Hualien, Taiwan
 

Impressions of the Pacific Ocean #6

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

But of course, I could not just leave without taking a classic near–middle–far shot—if anything, just to have a picture with the hotel we stayed in (on top of the mountains on the right) as an alternative perspective to add to the memories of the babymoon trip. Unexpectedly, the image now graces the Web site's Home page.

 
Image: Hualien, Taiwan
 

Impressions of the Pacific Ocean #7

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

You may have noted that the first six images were taken with a 300mm lens, a focal length I absolutely love in Large Format, while only the last one was shot with a "normal", 135mm, lens. The last image was also quite a bit more challenging technically: it involved using shift (to include foreground) and tilt (to increase depth of field) camera movement, as well as two filters (a four–stop Neutral Density filter to increase exposure to blur the water and a Graduated Neutral Density filter to tone down the sky, which otherwise would have been blown out).

P.S. All images were processed in Affinity Photo—thanks to the excellent tutorials, I was able to do pretty much everything I used to do in Photoshop in just a few evenings. Love Affinity Photo—bye bye Photoshop!


2 January 2018 » Computer upgrade

I mentioned in a previous post that 2017 turned out to be a year of significant upgrades. I changed my tripod, ball–head, and a number of other accessories I did not write about. These were not the biggest changes, though—last month I finally upgraded my ageing computer*.

I have used an early–2008 Mac Pro for nearly ten years, upgrading it along the way whenever it felt necessary: changing start–up drive to a PCIe–based SSD, adding bigger capacity drives for data storage and gradually adding memory to eventually use 20GB. Expandability was certainly one of the major advantages of the Mac Pro design before it was ditched in favour of the shiny trash can. Even so, one can stretch computer usability only this far—what was once an expensive state–of–the–art machine has now become a dinosaur looking for space in a museum. Never mind, though—in ten years I have gotten plenty of value from the Mac Pro.

Choosing a new computer was fairly straightforward. I wanted to stay with the Apple Macintosh computer line, and there are not that many options that suit my needs in it. Essentially, a well–specced 27–inch iMac 2017 was the only—and actually perfect—match for what I envisioned for future use. Strategically, I always buy the newest and best I can afford and use it as long as I can. So here is what I got in my new iMac:

  • 3.8GHz quad–core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 4.2GHz) processor. I could have gone for the 4.2GHz quad–core Intel Core i7 option, but I did not see clear benefits and it would have pushed the total cost out of my comfort zone.

  • 32GB of 2400MHz DDR4 memory. I have been keeping an eye on memory use for a while, and while 16GB is enough most of the time, there are periods when it is insufficient. At the same time, I really need to go out of my way to make 32GB a limiting factor. Apple memory is far from cheap and one is usually advised to buy the minimum from Apple and then add as much as necessary from a third party; I, however, ordered 32GB directly from Apple as buying memory from, say, OWC and then paying international courier service fee and import tax would have cost roughly the same. Living in China, buying directly from Apple also saves a lot in case of any warranty issues.

  • 3TB Fusion drive—this was the most difficult decision to make. I know that, ideally, data should not be kept on the OS drive, and that a larger SSD–only drive is likely faster than the 128GB SSD of the Fusion drive (not to mention that a large, pure SSD drive overall is much, much faster than a Fusion drive). However, a 2TB SSD costs an arm and a leg (I have just over 1TB of data), and I did not want to mess around with too many external drives. Further, my rationale was that if I am to have two backup drives, then I'd rather have two backups of one Master drive—one rotated regularly and stored in a different location—than only one backup of each of the OS and the Data drive. I realise that I have taken a performance hit here, but I do not expect it to be significant in my use. Cost and convenience are of more importance to me in this equation.

  • Radeon Pro 580 with 8GB of VRAM. Plentiful as it is, not much to add here.

  • Last but far from the least, the beautiful 5K P3–colour Retina display needs to be mentioned. Some say that the iMac is a beautiful display that comes with a free computer, and I have to agree. Switching from a 72dpi 20–inch Apple Cinema Display to this beauty was akin to jumping from iPhone I to iPhone X Pro (I know it does not exist, but you know what I mean), or from a small studio apartment to a six–bedroom house with swimming pool and garage. With this being said, the high pixel density of the 5K display (~220ppi) has its issues and I need to figure out how to effectively evaluate image sharpness at pixel–level and perform image sharpening in post–processing. I may end up keeping the Apple Cinema Display and using dual–monitor setup just for this purpose.

On the software side, I have decided to gradually move away from Adobe. On the one hand, I despise the milking subscription model just as so many aspiring photographers do. If you extrapolate the notion, it is essentially a life–time unrepayable mortgage without a corresponding cash inflow to set it off (unless you photograph professionally). I have already ditched Dreamweaver in favour of Aptana Studio 3** and replaced Photoshop with Affinity Photo. On the other hand, Lightroom 6.14 is laggy even on this new, powerful computer, not to mention that the standalone version has been orphaned by Adobe. Getting rid of Lightroom may take a few months, though, as I need to get up to speed with Affinity Photo first.

I look forward to getting a lot of mileage out of the iMac—to the day it becomes a dinosaur looking for space in a museum. How long will that take? Another ten years? Or will it be sooner, and in five or six years there will be new and fundamentally different technologies that will make the iMac irrelevant? Will we all move to the Cloud for good no longer caring about local storage while having 8K image viewing in our sunglasses with sharpening, color management, you name it becoming strange, incomprehensible issues of unrefined past? Surely we will progress, but we will likely have to leave some of the sci-fi developments to our children.

*This being a photography–related Web site, I am going to mention two far more momentous "upgrades" only in passing: home renovation and a new family member!

**In the longer run, I plan to move from hand–coding HTML to something less messy and more elegant, e.g. WordPress.

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