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19 March 2017 » Ball–head upgrade

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

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

  Arca-Swiss p0 ball-head  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


9 March 2017 » Recent favourite image

 
Image: Shanghai, February 2017
 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 
Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar
 

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

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Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar
 

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

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Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar
 

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

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Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar
 

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

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Image: China, Sichuan Province, Seda, Sertar
 

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


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

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

 
Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village
 

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

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

 
Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village
 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village
 

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

 
Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village
 

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

 
Image: China, Sichuan Province, Danba village
 

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

 
Image: China, Sichuan Province, Jinchuan
 

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

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