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4 September 2019 » And the ILC winner is...

Nikon Z7!

Yes, I have finally jumped off the fence and went the way of the Nikon's new mirrorless system. I did not do it quite willingly—I could have continued sitting on the fence, but a couple of upcoming trips forced me to finally make up my mind. So after an eight year break*, I am back in the Nikon camp.

   

Nikon Z7 camera with 24–70mm f/4 S lens. Image courtesy of Nikon.

I bought the camera with the 24–70mm f/4 S "kit zoom" (I put kit zoom in quotation marks as, based on my initial assessment, the lens' performance is in a different league from what we usually expect from kit zooms). The intention is to take my time using this combo to ascertain that Nikon mirrorless is really what I would settle on for the long run. I can take care of gradually building up a lens kit later (although something tells me that this will happen sooner rather than later).

I mentioned previously that I also considered Fujifilm GFX 50R and Hasselblad X1D II, so why did not I choose any of them?

As far as the GFX 50R is concerned, I really like the camera. It is a bit on the large side, but that does not bother me. Operation and autofocus are not stellar but sufficiently fast. And as has been widely reported, image quality is spectacular. What baffles me, however, is the lens lineup; while choices are excellent in the normal–to–long focal length range, I fail to grasp the rationale at the wide–angle side of the equation: there is only one massive zoom of arguably questionable optical quality in the 18–36mm (35mm equivalent) range, the GF32–64mm f/4 R LM WR. I read plenty of reviews, looked at sample images, and handled the zoom in person; my overwhelming conclusion was that it had no place in my camera bag. With the lens out of the picture, I was left with the 18mm and 36mm prime (again, 35mm equivalent) and nothing to fill the huge gap between them. Sigh...

The Hasselblad, on the other hand, offers exactly the lenses I envisioned using, but they are hugely expensive, even if buying second–hand. On top of that, while the X1D II is a beautifully designed camera, start–up time is loooong and, generally, it is nowhere nearly as fluid operationally as the Z7 or the GFX 50R. I just cannot imagine paying this kind of dough for stuttering electronics.

Another major issue with the Fujifilm and the Hasselblad for me is that they offer no tilt–and–shift lenses, which Nikon does. In theory, the GFX 50R can be used with a view camera, but I do not want to go down that cumbersome path. Focus stacking solves the depth of field issue (for relatively still subjects, that is), but avoiding converging lines is still a problem (and no, I do not take seriously the method of keeping the camera level and then cropping).

The only area where the Z7 loses out to the GFX 50R and the X1D II is megapixel count and image quality. This, however, needs to be viewed in perspective. In the past I had a chance to use Hasselblad CFV–39 and CFV–50 digital back; my conclusion at the time was that 50MP was overkill while 39MP hit the sweet spot for my needs. Even when shooting the 45MP Z7 in 5:4 crop** I still get 38MP, which is more or less where I want to be. While there are other attributes of image quality where the GFX 50R and the X1D II may outshine the Z7, they are deep in the valley of diminishing returns.

In short, Nikon Z7 is just a much more rational choice in terms of camera size, ergonomics, speed of operation, lenses, price, and likely repair service. The only area where I find myself struggling is the complexity of the camera: it is not entirely intuitive and absolutely requires reading the manual (or, better yet, Thom Hogan's outstanding Complete Guide to the Nikon Z6 and Z7). If I can get past that, the Nikon's mirrorless system certainly will be a keeper.

*The last Nikon camera I used was the D700; I sold the entire kit in May 2011. Prior to that, I used F80, F100, F6 and D70s.

**So far I find the 3:2 aspect ratio the most objectionable aspect about the Z7. Just does not work for me. But buying the GFX 50R or the X1D II for the sake of a more preferable aspect ratio would have been way too extravagant.


25 August 2019 » Recent favourite image

 
Image: Summer aftrnoon, Chengdu (Sichuan Province, China)
 

Summer aftrnoon, Chengdu

Ricoh GR III camera

I have always found street (and travel, for that matter) photography very difficult. The reason is that the gap between mediocre and excellent is larger than in other genres of photography, and almost always there is no middle ground between the two. To me, snaps of people I do not know no matter how interesting their expression may be, or someone going around his or her daily business, or someone walking in the street with legs synchronized nicely to convey movement, are unconvincing and tiring. A successful image needs to have several elements with some or all traits I mentioned, and the elements or their traits need to be entwined in a fashion that brings out visual poetry.

This image may not be exactly poetic, but at least I have managed to break away from the entrapment of a single element.


18 July 2019 » Bye–bye M43, hello GR III

According to Thom Hogan's updated classification of common photographer gear types, I am obviously a consolidator (at least at present stage). As you may recall, earlier this year I sold my Hasselblad V–series system*, and I have now also disposed of all my M43 gear. This leaves me with the large format kit based around Ebony 45SU camera, and a recently acquired Ricoh GR III camera. Perhaps this is the weirdest combination one can imagine, but it serves me well while I continue sitting on the fence with respect to acquiring a new interchangeable–lens–camera system.

You may wonder why I sold the M43 system. If a friend who is too busy to read long camera reviews asked for my synopsis of the GX9, I would say the following: nice camera size and heft, but buttons are flat and fiddly; viewfinder sucks; image quality can be good but the sensor is... fragile: do not push it in terms of dynamic range or high ISO performance; shutter shock is still an issue at shutter speeds around 1/30–1/40 seconds. Given that some key features can only be found in much larger M43 cameras and considering the limitations related to the sensor size, I just do not see a way forward with this platform.

You might also want to know what I think of the Ricoh GR III. In one word, just love it. It is pretty much the same old camera, only improved in many respects. Speaking of which, my list of important enhancements does not entirely overlap with the official one you find in the press release and reviews. Here is what I personally find of importance:

  • 24MP sensor (vs. 16MP in the previous model). It is a really sweet spot now—not too much, not too little. Perfect for making immaculate A3+ prints at 360dpi. One caveat, though, is that I clearly see stair–stepping on diagonal lines at pixel level.

  • Ultrasonic sensor cleaning, hallelujah! No more dust on the sensor. (And no, I do not quite care for the Shake Reduction feature.)

  • LCD monitor now has air–gapless tempered glass. Bye–bye scratches!

  • Notably faster start–up.

  • Touchscreen, but only insofar as it makes autofocus point positioning easy, especially on a tripod. Otherwise, the good old focus–and–reframe approach still works well, particularly given that the GR is mostly meant to be used with one hand.

  • Wi–fi plus Bluetooth LE. We take wi–fi for granted these days, but coming from the original GR, it is a much welcome addition.

  • 2MB of internal memory. What a nice touch: I leave it empty as I am sure one day it will save the day, even though it may very well happen because you know the feature is there.

And here is what still needs to be improved—let us hope it will not take another six years to get done:

  • Autofocus has been improved, but it is still, let's just say, far from state–of–the–art, particularly in less than perfect light. Tracking AF, Continuous AF and Face–detect AF are not as reliable as they should be. And I am not sure why we need both Select AF and Pinpoint AF, with the only apparent difference between the two being the size of the focusing point.

  • Ricoh have made the GR III even smaller than the original GR. Honestly, I am not sure I understand what problem they tried to solve. One consequence of this decision is that the space between the grip and the lens is now smaller and insufficient for the fingers to rest firmly.

  • Battery life. Much has been said about this, so there is no need to delve into it.

  • You may wonder why this is in the "what could be improved" part, but, man, what have they done to the lens? They say they have "improved" it, but, while I am not an optics expert, can you really improve image quality by taking out one lens element** and increasing pixel count? Overall, it is still very good, but I see some weirdness going on at pixel level, mostly in the corners. I have not had the time to dig into it, but I suspect the engineers have gone the way of designed–in software corrections. That may very well be the trend in the industry as of late, but my overall impression is that I liked the old lens–and–sensor combination better. They should have added one lens element!

In short, the Ricoh GR has been finally brought into this century. It may not be entirely ready for the next decade, but, regardless and to reiterate myself, just love it!

*And of course, as soon as I did Hasselblad re–introduced the CFV–50C digital back. Agrrrrrr!

**The original GR has seven elements in five groups, the GR III now has six elements in four groups; both have two aspherical elements.


21 April 2019 » Software blues, continued

As a part of my efforts to move away from Adobe Lightroom, I took a very close look at Capture One Pro (and watched a number of the excellent video tutorials, too). Overall, I loved the speed, customisability of user interface, quality of RAW conversions, etc. If I were starting from scratch in photography today, it would have been a perfect solution for my needs. However, I have been shooting digital from May 2005, and several problems immediately arose.

First, while Lightroom 6.14 does not recognize newer cameras, Capture One Pro does not recognise... some brands or older cameras—notably any of the digital Hasselblads (for obvious reasons of competition), or, say, the Panasonic LX2 that I used back in 2007. Second, when you move to a new piece of software all your previous edits are mostly screwed—and I have no appetite for re–editing around 16,000 RAW images that I have. Yet another issue, even though this may only be me, is that I do not like how Capture One Pro renders Panasonic RAW files (from both GX8 and GX9 camera).

It seems I have four options at present to deal with this conundrum:

1. Keep using Lightroom 6.14 and convert any future unsupported files to DNG format. As I previously mentioned, this approach created a bit of a mess of my workflow. While I can re–establish the workflow, it does not seem worthwhile as continuing with an old piece of software does not make longer–term sense: you will not be able to take advantage of any future software enhancements, and it is only a question of time when future OS stops supporting older software. And of course, Lightroom 6.14 is slow.

2. Convert files unsupported by Capture One Pro to DNG and move everything to this software. As noted, re–editing thousands of RAW files is not an attractive proposition. But even more crucially, who can guarantee that Phase One will not "pull an Adobe"? Naturally, they say they will not, but let's see what happens when the product matures to the point where frequent upgrading is unnecessary and revenue stream dries up.

3. Surrender and start paying the blackmailer the monthly subscription fee. This potentially has some fundamental problems: upgrade to Lightroom CC automatically updates libraries so that you cannot revert back to Lightroom 6 (this can be worked around but it is a pain–you–know–where); monthly subscription fee will likely rise in the future at each suitable opportunity; sooner or later we will be forced to move to the cloud; you name it. But more crucially, once you stop paying you lose any meaningful access to your RAW files. If I get sick or am gone and someone opens my computer only to find that he or she has to pay a monthly fee to do anything with the thousands of RAW files, I am sure the decision will be to format the disk!

4. Draw a line in time when I started using cameras that Lightroom 6.14 does not support (i.e., starting with the Panasonic GX9), use Lightroom 6.14 keeping all previous non–destructive edits for all images shot on the "before" side of the line and deploy Capture One Pro for any work on the "after" side of the divide. This is akin to having two catalogs/libraries, with the difference that each is handled by different software. Of course, this approach has some of the drawbacks and risks outlined in the other options above. Its major attraction, however, is that it provides a cost effective and workable solution to wait and see which direction software moves in in the mid–term (three to five years) and, hopefully, adopt a long–term solution later.

If we set aside the above minutiae, this conundrum spells out the simple yet stark truth: one way or another, software companies have us and our work by the balls. Unless you output your work into a final tangible form, its practical longevity is limited by how long you can use the software. Which is as long as you pay your subscription, or your computer with its software last. Realistically and unless you continue to kick the can forward, that is not that many years—I reckon it is a single digit.

Suddenly, shooting film has a new and undeniable appeal: while slides are not exactly finished work, they exist as physical artefacts. They will not just vanish when you stop paying Adobe or your computer fails to boot. Indeed, one needs to go out of his or her way to actually destroy them.

In short, we need to do the obvious: print, print, print. Quite timely, or even serendipitously, Mike Johnston essentially suggests the same in his elaborate article Picture Permanence (and the follow–up post Index Prints). His point of departure is not software issues, but we pretty much arrive at the same station.

Now, I have been printing for many years. The issue, however, is that print sizes, paper types and my aesthetic priorities changed over time, so that I now have a highly incoherent pile of prints. The approach Mike suggests in his articles makes a lot of sense to me. Perhaps what I should do with the proceeds from recently selling a lot of gear is not buy a new camera but stock up on some ink and paper!


27 January 2019 » Bye–bye Hasselblad... and film?

I mentioned in the end of last year that, going forward, I did not envision using my Hasselblad V–series system, and that it was only a question of time when I let it go. Well, it happened sooner than I expected—every single piece of gear related to the system is now gone. I no longer own anything related to Hasselblad.

It was not entirely intentional, I have to say. In late December, half–heartedly and just to see if it gets any interest, I posted in one of Alibaba's peer–to–peer second–hand transaction applications that I was selling my Hasselblad 503CW kit (camera body, CFE 80/2.8 lens and A12 film back, complete with original packaging, documentation and a number of accessories). To my surprise, the post got quite a number of views, and the kit was sold before I fully realised what happened. What surprised me even more, I managed to get a very decent amount for it: even though I used the camera for over 13 years, ran hundreds of rolls of film through it and repaired it twice, I still got 57% of the original price* I paid back in May 2005 (yes, there is the factor of inflation to consider and all, but this is still not too bad in my book).

So how does it feel now that the system is gone? I expected to endure regret, but again to my surprise, I feel relieved. The Hasselblad played a tremendous role in my photographic development, but we need to acknowledge when it is time to move on and embrace it. For now it suffices that the memory of using the camera is so deep and vivid I can almost feel it in my hands when I close my eyes. And if I ever get really nostalgic, I can always go to a used camera store and cradle a 503CW while I shed tears of reminiscence (but something tells me this will not happen).

   

The only film camera I have left: Ebony 45SU. Alas, discontinued.

With the Hasselblad gone, I find myself in a rather interesting position. As of now, I only have a Panasonic GX9 digital camera with two prime lenses (the Pana–Leica 15mm f/1.7 that still does not fail to make me cringe, plus the marvelous Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7), and a Large Format system comprised of the Ebony 45SU camera, 3 lenses and various accessories. The gap between the two is a bit too extreme for my needs: the former is too "light" (i.e., limited in terms of performance envelope), while the latter is too "heavy" (both literally and with regard to commitment it requires and flexibility it takes away). Some further rebalancing seems due.

Another major consideration is that when and how I photograph has changed during the past few years. If in the past I used to primarily go on long, dedicated, steppenwolf–kind photographic expeditions, given the changes in the family and work landscape, they have evolved into trips that are more frequent, shorter and require more agility. The two kits that I currently have do not quite fit the new reality on the ground.

Working on a more balanced equation, one side of it is more or less clear to me: it will come in the shape of the Ricoh GR III camera. I used the Ricoh GR I for over five years and it remains my favourite digital camera of all time. It is simply perfect on the side of the dividing line where I do not carry a dedicated camera bag.

The other side of the equation—when I carry a camera bag of any sort—is less clear, though. Here, a high–megapixel** mirrorless camera that is not too large would suit me best. With the proceeds from selling the Hasselblad and a few other items, I am in a fortunate position to consider a Nikon Z7 or, if I stretch the budget a bit, perhaps even a Fujifilm GFX 50R. I have been having a long, hard look at both. The Z7 is the most rational choice, particularly given the availability of native tilt–and–shift lenses; intuitively and emotionally, however, the GFX 50R has a far greater pull on me.

The way this equation is panning out raises the obvious question of how my Large Format film kit fits into it. Not entirely unexpectedly, shooting film is becoming increasingly impractical—to the extent that it may be reaching the tipping point where it is untenable. The lab in Shanghai that I used for many years has closed, and the new one I tried is under par. Scanning is yet another major issue: flatbed scanners defy the whole exercise of aiming for top–notch image quality, and outsourced services using high–end scanners (Hasselblad X5 or, god forbid, drum scanning), are expensive and, again, impractical in the longer run.

Does this mean I am going to quit shooting film for good? In all honesty, I do not know. Thankfully, I am in no rush to make any decisions as yet: Ricoh GR III is still unavailable; if I decide to go with the GFX 50R, it will be only after the announced–but–still–unavailable GF 50mm f/3.5 lens hits the shelves; and if I choose the Z7, it will be only when we see more native Z mount lenses and they prove to perform as expected.

And before any of that, I really need to transition away from Adobe products: converting Panasonic GX9 RAW files that Lightroom 6.14 does not support into DNG format has created a big mess of my workflow. Thank you, Adobe, for kicking my butt out of the procrastination zone.

*My Hasselblad V–series lenses did not fare as well, but I sold them quickly and for a fair market price.

**Why do I need a high–megapixel camera? Well, I love large–ish prints with immersive detail you can drown in. For that, I need to print at 360dpi. 24MP gives you a 28cm by 42cm print. That is decent, but sometimes you may crop, or want a larger print. And of course, there are other image quality benefits inherent in larger sensors.


7 January 2019 » Publication in Open Skies magazine

I thought I would let you know that nine images from my Watertowns of Jiangnan, China series have been published in the Emirates' inflight magazine, Open Skies. Online publication can be found after this (Open Skies Web site) and this (issuu.com) link. And if you plan to fly Emirates in the nearest future, please flip through the magazine to see the images in printed form.


  Image: Publication of Oleg Novikov’s “Watertowns of Jiangnan” series in Emirates’ Open Skies magazine  

Emirates operates over 3600 flights per week, and each flight has at least over a hundred people; not everyone reads inflight magazines, but this is still a lot views.


  Image: Publication of Oleg Novikov’s “Watertowns of Jiangnan” series in Emirates’ Open Skies magazine  

This is by far the widest circulation of my images that I have ever had. Yet, it came as effortlessly as one can imagine—my work was found online, and it took just a few emails back and forth to get it all finalised.


  Image: Publication of Oleg Novikov’s “Watertowns of Jiangnan” series in Emirates’ Open Skies magazine  

This publication, honorable as it is, could not be more ironic. I work in the airline industry (on the cargo side, though) and fly a lot; yet, I have not flown Emirates even once. The reason is very simple: the airline's route network just does not overlap much with my regular travel geography (Asia to Europe and intra–Asia); the fact that Emirates is not a member of SkyTeam, which I am an Elite Plus member of and prefer whenever possible, does not help either. Well, now at least my images can take enough Emirates flights to make up for this glaring omission!

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