What's New 2009

December 25th, 2009

My best wishes and compliments of the season to all readers—I hope you enjoy a safe, prosperous and happy New Year!

December 19th, 2009

As it turns out, Leica X1 is a well conceived but poorly implemented camera. So far, Panasonic GF1 is clearly the winner in my book. But I am still waiting. Wakey, wakey, Canikon!

December 18th, 2009

Any serious photographer knows about the importance of colour management, which is an absolute must if one wants the colours he gets in his prints to match what he sees on the computer screen. I regularly calibrate and profile my Apple Cinema Display and use a colour managed workflow; as a result, the output from my Epson 4880 printer is close to a perfect match to what I see on the display (notwithstanding the differences between reflective (photo paper) and emissive (LCD or CRT monitors) reproduction media). One area that I have been reluctant to step into, however, is printer calibration. The reason for that is very simple—I use Epson papers only and find that the company's canned profiles are very good. If something is not broken, why fix it?

My friend Edwin Leong of CameraHobby.com and NikonLinks.com recently published a review of the X–Rite ColorMunki Photo colour management package. In short, the ColorMunki is an integrated colour control solution that allows calibrating your displays, printers and projectors. Being able to calibrate such a wide range of devices with only one spectrophotometer sounds very sweet indeed—until you look at the price tag, that is. The ColorMunki costs almost USD600, which begs the question of whether buying it would be the most useful investment. After all, monitor calibration and profiling can be done at a much lower price, and good quality printer profiles can be found very easily. Projectors? This, to be honest, sounds like X–Rite are going after "features". I want no video in my DSLR, and I want to calibrate no projectors.

In my mind the answer to the question above lies in whether there are any meaningful differences in quality of canned and custom made profiles. With respect to this Edwin reports in his review, "we're talking about niggling differences that require very close scrutiny to tell the differences". On the one hand, his conclusion suggests that there are differences and I fully trust Edwin's judgment in this respect. On the other hand, however, I remain somewhat skeptical as to whether the differences are worthwhile (this skepticism partially comes from when I went to great lengths to improve the quality of my prints by using 16–bit printing but in the end discovered that there is no visible difference between 8–bit and 16–bit printing whatsoever).

Edwin kindly offered me to create custom profiles for the photo papers that I currently use, so that I can evaluate for myself whether there are any meaningful differences between canned and custom made profiles. He uses Eye One Photo, which is X–Rite's pro–oriented colour management package, and has sent me by email the Eye One colour charts. I am going to print the charts with my Epson 4880 printer and send them to Edwin by post. He will then create custom profiles using the Eye One Photo and email them to me. Once received, I will compare the custom profiles with Epson's canned profiles and let you know what I think of the differences.

This probably sounds like too complex an arrangement but that is what it takes to ascertain the truth without spending six hundred bucks; besides, I wanted to send something to Edwin by post anyway. Stay tuned!

I recently tested the AF Zoom–Nikkor ED 80–200mm f/2.8D lens with the use of the Nikon D700 camera and have now rewritten my review of the lens from scratch. In summary, I am even more impressed with the lens than I was years ago when I tested it using film.

December 10th, 2009

I am very pleased and honored to announce that the 2010 Official Hasselblad Calendar features two photographs that I took in Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia, China in October, alongside tours de force of Hasselblad Masters photographers as well as some of the best Chinese photographic artists. Have a look at the PDF version of the calendar.

Hasselblad calendar 2010 / April
Hasselblad calendar 2010 / July

If you think about the implications, next year hundreds, if not thousands, of people around the world will be looking daily at my photographs—or, at least, have them as a part of the visual background of their lives—for two months. If there is anything more that a photographer can possibly hope for in terms of reaching an audience, I do not know what it is. No need to say that this achievement has encouraged me to continue practising photography with even more gusto.

December 7th, 2009

My review of the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D lens has been posted and this concludes testing of the Nikkor lenses that I currently own and use. I, however, now have long–term access to the entire line of Carl Zeiss ZF lenses, so my life will not be devoid of the fun of trying out and testing new lenses!

December 2nd, 2009

One last time on the populus euphratica trees, today I am posting a series of photographs called "Dead Tree Dance".

The series was taken in Strange Tree Forest, 怪树林, in Inner Mongolia, China in early October. I was absolutely stunned by the sight the very moment I saw the trees—perhaps not exactly as if struck by a lightning bolt but transfixed alright. I do not regard myself as a person with an enormously rich imagination, yet all of a sudden I was seeing much more imagery than I could immediately digest. In China populus euphratica trees are said to represent the spirit of life through their inimitable resistance to perish: they live for one thousand years, do not fall for one thousand years after they die, and do not decay for one thousand years after they fall. This metaphor, however, seems more akin to sad acceptance of the inevitable defeat by death. To me, they appeared much more alive and expressive than living populus euphratica trees I saw in the region; they seemed to have seen death and come around to fearlessly depict life through a sarcastic and grotesque, yet beautiful and thoughtful, dance.

Creating this photographic series was an absolutely fascinating experience, too. It was one of those very rare occasions when you see something entirely new and immediately have an exact vision in your mind's eye of what photographic representation of it you want to create; moreover, I somehow knew in an instant every single step that I needed to take, from unzipping my camera bag to clicking the "print" button in Photoshop, to bring that vision into life. And even more strangely—I mean, something always goes wrong along the long road from conceiving an image to the final print, right?—the series is exactly what I envisioned when I saw the trees.

Ansel Adams once said, "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer". Well, not always—in these photographs there is only one person: the viewer. As I expected, the reaction to them has been quite mixed, from unconcealed enthusiasm to perfect indifference. It is possible that you will only shrug your shoulders and think, "What's with the dead trees?" Or maybe, just maybe, you will look beyond the artefacts and see an inkling of what is inside you. After all, these trees perform your dance: they start where and how your subconsciousness tells them to and go as far as your imagination takes them. For one thing, I see many things in these photographs but trees, and what I see changes and evolves as I continue looking at them.

November 28th, 2009

I have now used the Epson 4880 printer for two years and one thing I was not sure about when I wrote my review of the printer was how bad nozzle clogging would be in the long term. Epson claim that the printer boasts "new ink repelling coating to dramatically reduce nozzle clogging". My experience, however, has been that nozzle clogging occurs very often—so much so that I run auto nozzle check each time before printing a batch of photographs and, if I print more than five photographs in one go, in the middle of printing. To give you an example, a couple of days ago I printed ten 10" black–and–white photographs. Nozzles were clean before I started printing and by the eighth print I could see that they were already slightly clogged. After finishing the printing job I ran nozzle check in auto mode and, as I suspected, nozzles were indeed clogged. It took six (!) cleaning cycles and 35.7ml of ink to clean them. In short, nozzle clogging still largely remains an area for improvement for Epson.

November 24th, 2009

I have been further reflecting on my experience of using the Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back alongside film on my Hasselblad V system and, not entirely unexpectedly, thought of the film vs. digital issue yet again. It finally dawned on me that when we say "digital" we subconsciously imply and refer to the entire experience of shooting and producing images digitally; however, when we talk about the "film vs. digital" dilemma we rarely discuss issues other than image quality. Put differently, our overall attitude towards and emotional response to digital capture is based on a number of factors and image quality is only one of them; when talking about digital capture, however, we often fail to recognise the importance of factors other than image quality and subconsciously transfer their influence on our perception of digital imaging into discussions of image quality. Obviously, this greatly confuses things and does not help to properly juxtapose film and digital photography.

Speaking of image quality, I first need to note that in my experience there is digital, digital and digital capture—there are point–and–shoot cameras, 35mm DSLRs and medium format digital backs; other cameras that do not strictly fall into one of these categories inevitably gravitate towards one of them in terms of image quality. These three categories are entirely different beasts that produce very different image quality and "look". Putting them in the same "digital" pile and comparing it as a whole with film is an exercise in futility and confuses things further. What matters in this discussion, however, is that strictly from the perspective of image quality there is a threshold in one of the three classes for each photographer where quality of digital images is sufficient to go hand in hand with, if not entirely replace, film. This threshold, however, is often clouded by issues that we closely associate with digital capture but that, in their essence, do not necessarily have to be a part of it.

So what other factors am I talking about? The first one is shooting experience. With very few exceptions digital cameras are electronic gadgets that have numerous buttons, endless menus, modal operation and, to top it off, overflow with "features". Being what they are, they impose shooting approaches that are thoroughly immersed in overwhelming complexity. Since digital cameras at large have so far failed to offer an alternative shooting experience, we have come to very closely associate the sophistication of using them with digital imaging. However, having now extensively shot with the CFV–39 digital back, as well as imagining what shooting with the Leica M9 would be like, I realise that this suffocating complexity is not an intrinsic property of digital imaging.

Many photographers—including yours truly—appreciate the simplicity of film cameras in general and the shooting experience that they offer in particular; such photographers might be reluctant to accept the photographic experience imposed by digital cameras and, at least partially for this reason, are unwilling to fully embrace digital photography (or they might embrace it but still refuse to let go of film). They, however, tend to confuse the two matters and debates tend to revolve around image quality only, although what really lies at the heart of the issue is often the quality of shooting experience, not the image. We need to recognise that shooting experience matters.

The second factor is post–shooting workflow...

My thoughts continued to ramble along these lines as I was writing this update when I received an email from a reader who asked me a question about the Hasselblad 503CWD and noted in relation to the prospect of using film, "...my workflow is so thoroughly digital I am afraid I will become too frustrated if I move to film overnight". This made me stop, chuckle at myself and admit that we may give some perfectly good reasoning on the subject but, at the end of the day, it is nothing but good old resistance to change.

November 8th, 2009

When you are on a roll, you are on a roll—my review of the AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D has been posted. Quite interestingly, the AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D and the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8D have very similar performance signatures in almost every aspect, with the 24mm lens probably being a wee bit better.

November 6th, 2009

Executive Chairman of Hasselblad, Dr. Larry Hansen, was recently in Shanghai and wanted to hear from me in person about my experience with the CFV–39 digital back in the field in general and the drawbacks that I found in particular. It is always very encouraging when a company's new product receives such close attention from the highest levels of management. I might also add that even Dr. Hansen, who previously worked at Carl Zeiss, was quite impressed with some of the prints from CFV–39 files that I showed him. If you did not believe me that the output from the back is stunning I reckon Dr. Hansen's impression should suffice plentifully.

My review of the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8D lens was written quite a few years back before I started shooting digital; at the time, I tested the lens using slide film and my trusty Nikon F100. Well, the times they are a–changin', and so I have now tested the lens again with the use of the Nikon D700 and re–written the review from scratch. In short, the new version of the review is not nearly as optimistic as the original was.

November 3rd, 2009

I recently came across Sarah Vaughan's version of "All of me" and, lo and behold, among all the versions of the song that I have it is now by far my favourite—to the extent that, to me, it seems to have taken the composition onto an entirely new level. Do not ask me how it managed to escape my radar for so long—it happens, you know. Although one might feel somewhat embarrassed about getting to know something so well known so late, the upside of such discoveries is that they hint at other treasures yet to be encountered. It would be quite depressing to know—and cynical to think—that one has known it all and there is nothing left to look forward to.

Last weekend I had more time on my hands than I usually do and decided to formally test the AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D lens, which I have been using on my Nikon D700 for over a year now. I was taking notes as I progressed through my regular lens testing procedure and, before I knew it, my review of the lens was almost finished; I polished the article last night and it is now online. I have to note that digital capture makes testing lenses so much easier and fun as there is no need to process, scrutinise and scan slides.

November 1st, 2009

My review of the Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back is now online. I realise that most of you will not be interested in it; nonetheless, you might want to skim through it just to see some of the new photographs from the recent expedition. In the second part of the review there is a photograph of populus euphratica trees, 胡杨树, that I wrote about before the trip. This is not the first and last image of them, though—something more artistic will be posted later this month.

October 27th, 2009

When photographing in Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia earlier this month I felt a strange itch—a subtle yet undeniable shift in my perception of composition. More specifically, I did not seem to be appreciative of and comfortable with the "standard" rules anymore. I suppose it had been brewing for quite a while but it was during this expedition that all of a sudden they seemed rather trite and uninspiring, if not exactly irritating. The rule of thirds, not placing the horizon in the middle of the frame, you name it. (Talking about the latter, have a look at the cover photograph of the latest U2 album to see an example of how breaking the rule sometimes might work perfectly well; to be honest, I like the photograph much more than the music.)

It is one thing to be discontent with something and it is an entirely different matter as to where you go after you realise that you need to abandon it. Very often it is the inability to find a new direction, or not being sure whether a possible solution or imaginable route is more attractive than what you currently have or practice, that keeps us in the rut and "hanging on in quiet desperation". Luckily, though, as far as my perception of composition goes, I somehow feel where I want to be headed, even though this is not something I am able to put clearly into words—as yet.

Now, I am not talking about drastic changes—I do not mean to say that from now on I will be placing the horizon strictly in the middle of the frame or that the rule of thirds will be completely abandoned in my work; I do not quite want my photographs to resemble the music of The Loneliest—Thelonious, I mean, sorry—Monk, even though I highly admire his work. What I have in mind is more subtle; it is about small things and minor details (but as is well known, the devil is in the detail). The photograph below and positioning of the Moon in particular sort of illustrates my point.

Danxia landforms and the Moon / Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back

Danxia landforms and the Moon
Zhangye, Gansu Province, China (中国甘肃省张掖)
Hasselblad 503CW camera body, CFE 2.8/80 lens and CVF–39 digital back

October 23rd, 2009

Warning: this post is mostly indecipherable tech–talk.

Recently one of the readers asked me the following question:

I usually use a circle of confusion of 0.020 (vs. the normal .030) for 35mm film to get acceptable prints up to 12x18". How do you calculate DOF and hyperfocal distance with the Hasselblad for large prints (larger than 12")?

It is interesting that I should receive this question at this time—I have been thinking about depth of field and related to it issues quite a lot recently. Below is the essence of my reply.

I have searched all over the Internet but could not find a clear confirmation of what Circle of Confusion (CoC) number(s) Hasselblad use for the V system lenses. I, however, have found a brochure showing that in case of the Sonnar T* f/4 150mm lens the CoC of 0.06 was used. I reckon we can fairly safely assume that the same number is used for hyperfocal markings on all current lenses of the V system. This number also seems to be the norm in the medium format.

In my experience the CoC of 0.06 is overly optimistic for even moderately large prints and certainly too loose for big prints. I have been printing some photographs taken with the Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back, 38X51cm, and at this print size the CoC of 0.06 does not make justice both the lenses and the back. Therefore, if you have fairly large prints in mind I would be conservative by at least one stop when using Hasselblad hyperfocal markings. The story, however, does not end here.

I recently tested three Hasselblad lenses (CFi 4/50, CFE 2.8/80 and CFi 4/150) using the CFV–39 digital back and, among other things, saw that diffraction shows up yet is acceptable at f/16; it is quite noticeable at f/22 and becomes horrible at f/32. My conclusion was that I should try to avoid going beyond f/16. With this rule in mind, if I want to use Hasselblad's hyperfocal markings in a conservative manner then I have to be within f/11 for hyperfocal focusing. In many situations, however, this will not provide sufficient depth of field.

The question then is this. Do I use f/16 for shooting, focus on the main subject and let the rest fall where it will? Or do I use f/32 for shooting and the same aperture for hyperfocal focusing? The former will provide critical sharpness to the main subject but some parts of the image will probably be more out–of–focus than they would be if the latter method were used. In case of the latter, however, the entire image will be noticeably, uniformly unsharp because of diffraction. I suppose there must be a balance between the two, such as using f/16 for shooting and f/11 for hyperfocal focusing. This, however, is a very fine line that is drawn in a different place for each particular image. Only experience can help here; another solution, of course, would be to make two or three exposures with different settings and then choose the best after the fact.

Personally, I find that I do not like slightly yet uniformly unsharp images and, therefore, tend to lean towards the former method or the compromise I mentioned above.

If anyone out there can offer his or her knowledge and/or thoughts on this issue, I would love to hear from you.

Home page photograph has been updated with another image taken in Inner Mongolia.

October 21st, 2009

I mentioned prior to the trip to Gansu and Inner Mongolia that I was hoping to photograph star trails again. We spent two days and one night photographing in Badain Jaran Desert (巴丹吉林沙漠), which, according to Chinese National Geography, is the most beautiful desert in China. On the night we were in the desert, however, the Moon was out and about and as bright as if its batteries had just been replaced and fully charged. No star trails photography was possible but since there is not much to do in a desert at night we decided to have some fun and do some moonlight photography instead.


Badain Jaran Desert and the Moon
Hasselblad 503CW and Provia 100F slide film

The scene above was uniformly and quite brightly lit by the moonlight. But wait, you say, how could it be lit by the moonlight if the Moon is in the frame? Correctomundo! If you look closely you will realise that this actually was a double exposure, i.e. I first photographed the desert scene lit by the moonlight and then took a shot of the Moon on the same frame of film. Indeed, there is no reflection of the Moon in the water and even if I were to put it there with the use of Photoshop, you can see star trails but there is no "Moon trail". I have to clarify, though, that this was not a failed attempt at fakery but rather an exercise in double exposure photography that was also used to check exposure times under moonlight.

Double exposures are really easy with a mechanical camera such as the Hasselblad. In case of the picture above I first photographed the desert scene with a "normal" lens (80mm on the Hasselblad), removed film back, cocked the shutter and attached the film back to the camera again; this way film was not advanced to the next frame but the shutter was cocked and ready to make the next exposure. Further, I changed the 80mm lens to a combination of a 150mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter, turned around and photographed the Moon placing it in the top right corner. Using a telephoto lens to photograph the Moon makes it appear larger and closer to what its image in our mind is.

As far as exposure times go, the desert scene was exposed for 25 minutes at f/8 on the ISO100 film; looking back at it now, I should have made another exposure of 37 minutes to have a brighter version of the desertscape. The Moon, on the other hand, was exposed for 1/125 seconds at f/11 (yes, it is that bright). You might want to remember these numbers if you use film and for when you are in a similar situation. With digital cameras, of course, it is even easier as you can experiment and make adjustments immediately.

If you have doubts that Badain Jaran Desert is beautiful, below is a humble attempt at capturing its magnificence during daytime. I really wish you could see the real–life print—you would be shocked.


Badain Jaran Desert 2009
Hasselblad 503CW, CFi 4/150 lens and CFV–39 digital back

October 17th, 2009

The trip to Gansu and Inner Mongolia went as planned and anticipated. This time around, apparently for a change, the weather was fully on our side and there were exciting photographic opportunities almost every day. The distances between the main destinations were quite considerable and so I had plenty of time on the bus to savour my share of staring into space, too, although I have to say that at times it was somewhat difficult to get into the right rhythm. All in all, I cannot imagine how ten days can be spent better.

As you might recall I had a Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back on loan from Hasselblad for this trip. I ended up shooting both film and the digital back more or less equally, for which there were a number of reasons. First and foremost, this was dictated by the issue of formats and crop factors. On the one hand, the CCD of the CFV–39 has a rectangular shape and, photographically, I tend to see the world in square. Although the CFV–39 can shoot square format, it does so at a reduced resolution of "only" 29 megapixels. On the other hand, your wide angle lenses are no longer as wide—the sensor of the back is smaller than 6X6 film area (36.7x49 mm vs. 56x56 mm) and thus has a crop factor of 1.1 when the full area of the sensor is used and 1.5 when the CFV–39 is shot in square format. The crop factor of 1.1 might sound like no big deal but in actuality the difference is much more pronounced than the number suggests.

Second, I was very much concerned about the issue of the dust on the sensor. Having no way of knowing how bad it would get I photographed the most promising scenes with both the CFV–39 and film. As a result, I changed the digital back more frequently than I probably should have, more often than not in open, dusty places. I, naturally, did my best to protect it against sand and dust but changing it in the wild still was quite nerve–racking. You should see the massive CCD sensor in the nude in the middle of a desert to really appreciate the horror of the experience.

My paranoia about the sensor getting dirty was further exacerbated by the fact that the grossly inadequate zipper of my LowePro camera backpack (CompuTrekker Plus AW) broke down on me on the second day of the expedition. I ended up nursing the bag throughout the rest of trip and, because of this failure, on many occasions it was left at least partially open when it should have been properly zipped. No need to say that I am not buying LowePro products ever again (I actually have just ordered a new camera backpack from ThinkTank).

I am happy to report, however, that in the end everything worked out much better than I feared it would. There were no problems with handling or operation of the back in the field. Very surprisingly, sand and dust did not pose any problems whatsoever, too, despite me changing it so often in such adverse conditions (upon coming back I made a simple test to see how dirty the sensor was after the trip to only discover that it was not much dirtier than the sensor of a 35mm DSLR would be after a similar expedition). And image quality, both when pixel–peeping at 100% and in real life prints, is nothing short of astounding (how do I now go back to the meager 12MP of my Nikon D700 that, to make things worse, come from behind an AA filter?).

The CFV–39, however, is not perfect—what camera is?—and I will report full details in my upcoming review of the back. Meanwhile, home page photograph has been updated with one of the photographs taken with it in Inner Mongolia; more images will be posted later as I continue working on them.

September 28th, 2009

In the first half of October I will be traveling in Gansu Province (甘肃省) and Inner Mongolia (内蒙古), China. I will first fly to Lanzhou (兰州) and then drive all the way up to Ejin (额济纳; marked with the red balloon in the second screenshot below). This time I will be photographing a fairly wide range of subjects including the westmost part of The Great Wall, danxia landforms (丹霞地貌), populus euphratica trees (胡杨树) and Gobi desertscapes. As much as I am looking forward to this unique photographic opportunity, I am equally eagerly anticipating just staring out a bus window while passing through space and time with unfamiliar landscapes unfolding before my eyes, music playing in my head and random thoughts rambling through my mind.



As a side note, populus euphratica trees represent a very typical example of how concepts, names and languages interact. In particular, concepts that exist only in certain cultures do not translate all that well into the languages of the cultures where they are not present. I have seen populus euphratica trees, know very well what they are and the name in Chinese, 胡杨树, makes perfect sense to me. When it came to writing about them here in English, though, I was at a complete loss and populus euphratica trees was the best I could come up with after searching the Internet for half an hour. And do not even ask me what the name is in Russian—I do not have the foggiest idea. So, generally, we photographers actually have it easy with, say, colour spaces, where converting from one colour space into another is only a matter of mathematics (and someone has already figured it all out for us anyway). In real life even such simple things as tree names might not be converted from one cultural space into another as easily. And do not even get me started on conveying feelings!

  Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back  

Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back

Shriro/Hasselblad Shanghai kindly let me have the latest CFV–39 digital back on loan for this trip. The back was specifically designed to fit the venerable Hasselblad V series cameras and boasts a 39MP sensor without an anti–aliasing filter (pixel–level sharpness is unbelievable). To be honest, however, I am still not quite sure how I am going to use the digital back vis–à–vis film. First, there is the issue of battery life, which I have no idea of. Second, I will be near and in Gobi desert where dust and sand might present a major problem. Third, film is still supposedly better for long exposures (I hope to photograph star–trails again). Finally, using a digital back on my Hasselblad Flexbody is likely to be impractical. My report on using the CFV–39 in the field along with whatever decent photographs that I will take, if any, will be posted some time in late October.

September 22nd, 2009

Just when I thought that the Panasonic Lumix GF–1 was going to become my next carry–everywhere camera Leica announced the X1. As good as the GF–1 looks at the moment, it seems that the Leica X1 is the first compact camera that was designed for serious photographers from scratch and without nervously glancing at casual snap–shooters in fear of disapproval; indeed, the X1 promises to be the first true photographer–centric compact digital camera. Granted, there currently are a handful of cameras that attempt to play the role but all of them, at least partially, have failed to do so. The few compacts that can shoot in RAW format and bestow upon us direct access to A, S, P and M modes still largely remain electronic gadgets that cannot get rid of the oppressive heritage of the me–too point–and–shoot cameras that come with a myriad of "features" and the proverbial kitchen sink. They all fail to be simple enough and, instead of offering features, boast fundamental photographic functionality.

Simplicity goes a long way and is a highly undervalued quality. It cuts to the core and is about essence. Simplicity often goes hand–in–hand with clarity of purpose and concentration of vision. Powerful statements, be they in music, literature or any other art form, tend to be simple. Complexity, on the other hand, very seldom adds to strength and often has to be restrained so as not to get lost and degrade to the level of chaos. Simplicity, however, is an easy–to–perish treasure—it takes only a slight push to make things roll down the slope of complexity and once they start rolling untangling complex knots becomes akin to exercise in futility. This might be one of the reasons why point–and–shoot cameras have gotten to where they are now.

Leica X1

Leica X1—top view

The Leica X1 delivers crucial photographic functionality in as elegant a package as I have ever seen. Quite refreshingly, we get direct dials for shutter speed and aperture, not just A, S, P and M modes that we have become accustomed to take almost as a blessing. At the same time, A, S, P and M modes are implemented in an absolutely brilliant manner that does not take away from simplicity. On top of that, we get dedicated ISO and WB buttons. It remains to be seen how (auto) focus is implemented but there apparently is a dedicated button for it, too. There obviously are a few more other things here and there but that is all that I as a serious photographer need and, thankfully, Leica were smart enough not to clutter the design of the camera with more buttons. Bravo, Leica!

Leica X1

Leica X1—rear view

Then, of course, there is the issue of sensor size and, related to it, image quality. Leica X1 is one of the first compact cameras with an APS–C sized sensor that should at least in theory offer the same outstanding image quality that we have come to expect from DSLRs only.

One area that some photographers will probably find controversial is the fixed–focal–length, non–interchangeable lens. To me, however, this is again about retaining both simplicity and adequate photographic functionality. Leica perhaps could have equipped the X1 with a zoom lens but it would have been bigger in size and much slower; its optical performance would most likely have been compromised, too. It might not be everyone's cup of tea but 35mm is one of my favourite focal lengths and I will take it together with the aperture of f/2.8 and superb optical quality over a zoom on any given day. Again, I applaud Leica for this decision.

Another caveat, of course, is the camera's price. At USD2000 it is far from cheap and will be prohibitive to many photographers. Come to think of it, for this money one can buy a Sony Alpha A850, which is a full–frame DSLR with a 24.6MP sensor! I am still scratching my head at this predicament but, nonetheless, the beauty of the design of the X1 is beyond words. It seems that our only hope is for Nikon or Canon to come up with something similar to the X1 but at a more reasonable price (something tells me, though, that neither Nikon nor Canon will be able to resist the temptation of stuffing their possible APS–C compacts with every single feature and button that they are able to add at a given price point).

All of this might sound as if I am trying to justify buying the X1. In reality and in my defense, however, it was not the X1 that had me thinking about simplicity and fundamental photographic functionality—it actually was a certain Hasselblad digital back I had a chance to use recently that started this train of thought (more on that later). As far as the Leica X1 goes, the camera will not be available until early next year and so we all have some time to let off steam and see what other camera makers come up with as they hop onto the bandwagon of photographer–centric compact cameras with large sensors.

September 11th, 2009

It is now almost certain that I will be going on another very promising photographic expedition in early October and, to sort of wrap the Kamchatka theme up and move forward, I thought I would post a few comments on what worked well and what did not during the trip in terms of photo gear. Here goes:

  • I carried all photo gear in my ThinkTank Airport Antidote camera backpack. It is a relatively small backpack and I chose it for two reasons. First, I had to take two flights (one international, one domestic) to get to Kamchatka from Shanghai and I wanted to make sure that I would not have problems carrying it as cabin baggage. Second, I wanted to purposefully restrict myself as to how much photo equipment I could bring with me. Most photographers tend to take as much gear as they possibly can—just in case—but I know from experience that carrying too much gear on an over–twenty–kilometres–a–day hike is more than likely to deplete the energy that should be saved for thinking of and doing photography. The amount of gear that the Airport Antidote accommodates seems to strike the perfect balance between having too much and having too little. The fully stuffed backpack weighed in at about ten kilograms and, on top of that, my tripod is about 2.8 kilograms (but I never attach it to the backpack and carry it in my hand on long hikes). Just about right to carry on a day–long walk.

    As to the contents of the backpack, over the years my standard traveling kit has been fine–tuned to the point whereby on this trip I used every single piece of gear that I brought yet there was not anything that I regretted leaving at home.

  • I mentioned before the trip that I would not take any digital cameras with me. As it happened, however, my Nikon D700 was on the trip as I lent the camera to a friend who wanted to use it alongside his Nikon D200. The D700 was not in my hands most of the time but I used it occasionally to photograph my friends. On the day when we were hiking in heavy rain that later turned into snow, though, the D700 with a 24mm lens attached to it was the only camera that I took with me. I did not realistically expect to do any serious photography in such adverse conditions to begin with; at the same time, I knew that even with the rain cover on the Airport Antidote would not last long enough in such heavy rain and did not want to risk all photo gear that I had with me.

    I carried the D700 under my windbreaker and was taking it out now and again for shooting. The weakest link, as expected, was the lens as it was nearly impossible to protect its front element from raindrops. The camera ended up getting drenched through to the bone, too—to the extent that viewfinder eyepiece fogged up inside. In spite of this, though, it continued operating without a hiccup. When Nikon say a camera is weather sealed, it is weather sealed.

  • I use the word "hate" very, very seldom but I will say this: I hate Cokin filters! Why? Because their graduated neutral density filters are NOT colour neutral. The tricky thing about them is that they are not colour neutral in certain circumstances only but I have finally identified that it is most pronounced when photographing under overcast sky. I initially thought that this might be a problem of the film–filter combination but, having observed the same phenomenon with both slide and negative film, I conclude that it is not. Below is an example of the heavy magenta cast that Cokin graduated "neutral" density filters produce.

Cokin filters colour cast example
  • I know how important taking notes in the field is, especially if one uses a fully mechanical camera such as the Hasselblad 503CW. I, however, miserably yet consistently fail to leave a detailed record of what and how I do in the field. On the trip to Kamchatka I had both a notebook and a digital voice recorder in the shape of the latest software on my iPhone. All the same, each time an exciting photographic opportunity arose I inevitably fell short of recording what I was doing and by the time shooting was over it was already too late to recall all the finer details of each shot. Now, I can almost always remember which lens I used but more subtle things such as shutter speed or the degree of tilt flee my mind quite quickly. At the same time, when I do find myself capable of meticulously taking notes my photographic work tends to end up being rather mediocre. I suppose things administrative just do not go well with experiencing photographic flow.

  • Many places of interest in Kamchatka are accessible by helicopters only and shooting from a chopper while flying from one location to the next presents a very unique photographic opportunity. We had that opportunity for a few hours and since my friend was using my D700 I tried to shoot with my Hasselblad 503CW. I, however, immediately discovered that a waist–level viewfinder is not suited for shooting from a helicopter because the sides of a chopper are curved and you cannot get close enough to the window while looking through it (we flew a MI–8T, which the more knowledgeable among us identified to be at least 20 years old—and it actually looked that). After a couple of unsuccessful attempts I changed the waist–level viewfinder to the Flexfinder, which is a 90–degree viewfinder that is normally used with the Hasselblad Flexbody camera. While the Flexfinder allowed me to get as close to the window as I wanted, the view that it produces is reversed left–to–right and upside–down. Now, just imagine looking at a completely reversed image from a speeding helicopter! I managed to shoot a roll of film but, by and large, it was nothing short of a wild goose chase.

(P.S. With respect to the previous post, I forgot to mention that yours truly is primarily a film shooter who extensively uses two digital cameras.)

September 5th, 2009

While in Russia I finished reading Miles Davis' autobiography (with Quincy Troupe). I highly recommend this book to anyone who is even remotely interested in jazz music; also, here is a quotation that, albeit rather indirectly, opines on the film vs. digital issue:

Musicians have to play the instruments that best reflect the times we're in, play the technology that will give you what you want to hear. All these purists are walking around talking about how electrical instruments will ruin music. Bad music is what will ruin music, not the instruments musicians choose to play. I don't see nothing wrong with electrical instruments as long as you get great musicians who will play them right.

Had Miles been a photographer and had digital photography evolved half a century earlier, he would most likely have said something alone the following lines:

Photographers have to use the cameras that best reflect the times we're in, use the technology that will give you what you want to see. All these purists are walking around talking about how digital cameras will ruin photography. Bad photography is what will ruin photography, not the cameras photographers choose to use. I don't see nothing wrong with digital cameras as long as you get great photographers who will use them right.

The camera that will replace my rusty–but–trusty Panasonic Lumix LX–2 as my carry–everywhere compact has finally come into being in the form of the Panasonic GF–1. It was a long, long wait but it appears that it was worth my while.

September 2nd, 2009

The trip to Kamchatka was an absolutely brilliant experience. It started even before our aircraft landed as I was gazing through the window at the volcanoes of the peninsula with my mouth agape; once on the ground, every single day was filled to the brim with things that I had never seen, done or photographed before.

Volcanoes of Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia

Volcanoes of Kamchatka
IL 96–300 aircraft, window seat, Panasonic Lumix LX–2 digital P&S, Bitches Brew playing

There most likely are many sites on Earth that boast rivers, waterfalls, meadows, volcanoes and ocean shores that are more beautiful, colourful or dramatic than in Kamchatka. I, however, doubt that many destinations on our planet have such a variety of geographic features together in one place. This, as you would expect, makes Kamchatka a very unique destination for nature and landscape photography.

No matter how photogenic a shooting location is, though, it needs adequate light to be depicted in a compelling way and this is where we were not too lucky. The weather was very capricious to say the least and it was rainy and/or foggy on the most important days. One time heavy rain gradually turned into almost horizontally driving snow as we were hiking up one of the volcanoes; despite being dressed in all–weather trousers, windbreakers, and hiking shoes (all Gore–Tex) we got soaked through to our underwear, yet again (I seem to be doing this quite regularly lately—it has to be stopped as we start approaching colder seasons). This being said, on the rare occasions when the weather and light played their part well the photographic experience was as exhilarating and promising as it can possibly get.

Photography aside, every single aspect of the trip was full of fun and enjoyable challenges that gave a sense of utter satisfaction. It was only the photographic side of the expedition that left me with the unmistakable aftertaste of an unfulfilled duty. Now, do not get me wrong—I did bring back several photographs that are solid keepers in my book; however, there is so much more to photograph in Kamchatka that I am left with the feeling of leaving a top–notch restaurant before the main course was even served.

My favourite photographs from the trip have been posted here. I have been closely looking at the prints for a few days now and might further fine–tune and tweak the images here and there. As always, your comments and critique will be highly appreciated.

July 31st, 2009

Some of my friends say that my photographic—and otherwise—life has been focused on China a little bit too intensely and that I should try exploring other cultures, too. Recent events in my life have lead me to the point where I feel that I need to have a break from China for at least a short while as well as counterbalance certain things by emotionally distancing myself from them. Taking a break from a life in a foreign country is probably best done in one's own country, where things are more fundamentally natural, intuitive and, well, less conditional. So a couple of friends and I will be traveling in Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East for a couple of weeks in August. Rafting, fishing, hiking around volcanoes and, of course, whenever possible, doing photography.

Kamchatka location
Kamchatka location

Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia

I will be off line leading mostly analog life from tomorrow through to late August—no mobile phones, no Internet, no computers and digital cameras. Wish me good weather and interesting light and I will be seeing you on the flip side in about three weeks' time!

July 24th, 2009

As you most likely already know the day before yesterday witnessed the longest complete solar eclipse of our century. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate—it was cloudy from early morning and started raining later in the day. In Shanghai the eclipse could not be seen at all; we, however, went to Jinshan (金山; a place an hour away from Shanghai) and could intermittently watch partial phases prior to totality. We did not get to see totality, though, and it started to rain heavily shortly after it. We ended up getting soaked through to our underwear but, nonetheless, had tons of fun and I managed to capture the following sequence:

Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009

Solar eclipse of July 22, 2009
Photographed with Nikon D700 and MC MTO–11 10/1000 telephoto lens

Below are brief basics of photographing solar eclipses. I am posting them not so much to educate you but to serve as a reminder to myself—I am more than certain that by the year 2132 when next solar eclipse of this magnitude occurs I will have forgotten what and how I did this time.

  • First of all, to photograph a solar eclipse you will need a long telephoto lens, ideally in the range of 500mm to 1500mm in FX (full frame / 35mm) format. If your lens is too short, the sun will be rendered too small; at the same time, a lens of a focal length that is longer than 1500mm will not capture a great part of coronal streamers.

  • Second, you will need to use proper solar protection for your eyes and camera—as the joke goes, you can look at the sun without solar protection only twice: first with your left eye, then with the right (sequence unimportant). If most jokes are half the truth then this one is a combination of complete truth and a serious warning. I have done some research on the Internet and it seems that using BAADER AstroSolar™ Safety Film is one of the best solutions—it is relatively inexpensive, reasonably easy to find and, most importantly, you can make a filter of any size. Filter size of the 1000mm lens that I used to photograph the solar eclipse is 120mm and, obviously, a DIY filter is the only realistic option.

  • Photographing a solar eclipse is divided into three stages: partial phases prior to totality, totality and partial phases after totality. A solar filter must be used when photographing all partial phases and it should be removed when capturing totality. As far as exposure is concerned, to photograph partial phases you can spot meter the sun beforehand (with the solar filter on, of course) and then, for the sake of exposure consistency, use that exposure in manual mode; you might also want to increase the metered exposure a little if you prefer to expose to the right. During totality, remove the solar filter and simply use aperture–priority auto exposure. Here, you might consider bracketing exposure—brightness of the corona varies greatly with the distance from the sun and you might want to expand captured detail with the use of HDR technique later.

July 19th, 2009

The "strange mount" that I mentioned in the previous post turned out to be an M42 to Nikon F mount adaptor (most likely an old Soviet design, too). The reason I thought it was the lens' mount was that the adaptor has apparently been attached to the lens for such a long time that the lens and the adaptor seem to have indistinguishable characters and appearance, not entirely dissimilar to how two people gradually start adopting some traits of each other when they stay together long enough and hand in hand go through certain experiences. Also, the adaptor has a compensating optical element and I took it to be the lens' rear element. On top of that, the adaptor was attached to the lens so tightly that it took a screwdriver and a hummer to take it off. I have to note that this was the first time when I applied such crude instruments to my photo gear.

Out of curiosity I bought a thinner adaptor without a compensating optical element to see if it would solve any of the quirks I reported on earlier. Indeed, with this simpler adaptor the severe light–fall off is gone and contrast and sharpness are slightly improved, which makes me wonder why the original adaptor has a complicated design that seems to only have caused problems. This probably goes to say that we should not make things overly complex when it is not called for.

However, even with the new adaptor the positions of the tripod sockets are still wrong and the lens is quite awkward to use on a tripod. Nonetheless, with the optical imperfections mostly out of the way, I am not complaining.

July 11th, 2009

A few weeks ago one of my friends gave me an old Soviet telephoto lens—MC MTO–11 10/1000. Yes, you read that correctly—the lens' focal length is 1000mm and it has a fixed aperture of f/10. On a DX format camera its field of view is equivalent to that of a 1500mm lens! I have to say that I have not had so much fun with photo gear in a long while and, coincidentally (if you believe in such thing as coincidence, that is), will use it to photograph the longest complete solar eclipse of this century later this month (if weather permits, of course).

MC MTO–11 10/1000

Nikon D700 and MC MTO–11 10/1000 lens

Being a mirror lens the optic is fairly small for its focal length. This being said, it weighs in at 2.3kg and is big enough for the D700 to almost completely disappear behind it if you look at the combo from the front. It is virtually impossible to shoot hand–held and using a very sturdy support system is a must. In the photograph above the combo is mounted on my Gitzo GT3530 LSV tripod with a Kirk BH–1 ball head. This support system is very solid by most standards yet with this lens it feels only marginally adequate.

Such a long focal length requires not only using a robust support system but also a very stringent shooting technique. Being an f/10 lens, it is rather difficult to focus as the viewfinder is very dim; to achieve maximum focus precision I have to use Live View with 100% magnification. Speaking of which, I initially was very skeptical about the Live View feature that most recent DSLRs boast; now, however, I realise that it can be very useful for critical focusing or macro work. Further, using a cable release and mirror lock–up is a must, too—otherwise, obtaining maximum sharpness is rather difficult if not impossible.

The lens has a couple of quirks and is far from perfect optically. To begin with, it has a strange mount that looks like Nikon F mount but is not exactly the same; luckily, the lens can be mounted on a Nikon DSLR but it has to be done with care. Furthermore, the lens has two tripod sockets, which is great, but, quite strangely, they are in the wrong position—as can be seen in the picture above, when the lens is mounted on a tripod in a straight up position the camera is not level. And optically, the image circle of the lens is not big enough to cover FX (35mm) format and it is far from being tack sharp.

Despite all the idiosyncrasies, though, the lens offers a very unique—focused and intense—perspective on our world. Take, for example, the photograph of the Moon below. From afar and without sufficient magnification many a thing might seem poetically shiny and romantically savouring trajectories chosen of their own will. Up close, however, you see that, more often than not, they, wounded and scorched, reluctantly follow their predetermined courses in lonesome darkness. Personally, I would choose imperfection that offers a unique perspective over perfection that fosters mediocrity on any given day and this lens will remain in my arsenal of photo gear.

Current favourite photograph

Personal encounter with the Moon

July 6th, 2009

Back to pixel–peeping.

I had to return the Canon 5D Mark II before I had enough time with the camera to write meaningful observations on it; I did not manage to compare 21MP digital capture to properly scanned medium format film in terms of resolution, too. Nonetheless, I have compared the Canon with the Nikon D700 in terms of high ISO noise performance and my findings can be found here. I expect to be able to get ahold of the camera in the near future again and will add my comments on it as well as other possible comparisons to the page in due course.

June 9th, 2009

The beautiful island that I mentioned in the previous post was Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province, China. I photographed there a couple of times in the past and the only reason I went there again was that it is easily accessible from Shanghai and, relatively speaking, not too touristy—this time I went there during a public holiday and the alternative of dealing with crowds of visitors in other possible destinations or making any complex arrangements for a three day trip did not seem particularly attractive. I was not very lucky with the weather but still managed to bring back a couple of decent images; home page photograph has been updated with one of them.

I attempted to photograph star trails again but this time miserably failed: light pollution was too heavy for long exposures and because of a thin haze the stars were not bright enough to produce impressive trails. As a result, the two hour exposure that I made ended up wasted. Despite the failure, though, one of my best mates and I on the spur of inspiration wrote a couplet in Chinese about photographing star trails:


Bright stars are flying high and the sky is slowly turning
(I hope it don´t turn away, I hear Neil Young singing)
The Hasselblad is steady on tripod and wine is smoothly flowing

Had this been written when I photographed star trails in Xinjiang Province, China last year, we would have had to add a third line about smoking cigars :).

Last week I was also on a business trip in Beijing and from the rooftop bar of the hotel I stayed at happened to capture the photograph below. In case you are not familiar with Beijing, those are the roofs of The Forbidden City on the left, The White Pagoda of Beihai Park right under the sun and the hilltop pavilion of Jingshan Park on the left.


Beijing skyline at sunset

As this image attests, photography is very often about being in the right place at the right time. When that happens, though, it is not enough to simply shoot away—you need to envision what kind of an image you would like to produce and make photographic decisions accordingly while photographing. In case of this picture, I wanted to retain as much detail in the sky as possible as well as have almost no detail in foreground, which I intended to remove in post–processing with the use of levels. In view of that, I dialed in a minus exposure compensation and, once back home, quickly processed the RAW file, fine–tuned it a little in Photoshop, and—voilà!—pre–visualisation realised.

May 28th, 2009

A couple of days ago I started shooting with my Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II side by side and was immediately startled by a rather curious observation. Basically, for my high ISO performance comparison test I shot the same scene with 35mm fixed–focal–length/prime lenses mounted on the cameras (EF 35mm f/1.4L USM in case of Canon and AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D in case of Nikon). Both lenses were focused at infinity, the same aperture was used (f/9) and tripod position was not changed when I switched cameras. And guess what? Fields of view of the EF 35mm f/1.4L USM and the AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D are surprisingly different—the full image below shows the field of view of the Canon and the red rectangle inside it indicates the field of view of the Nikon. The Canon lens is obviously wider than its Nikon counterpart.


Now, I have always known that there are tolerances in lens specifications, etc., and that there are inconsistencies in fields of view; however, I never expected that the difference in fields of view of two prime lenses of the same focal length could be so massive. I thought I would share this with you.

P.S. To be honest, I have been doing a little too much pixel–peeping lately and all this attention to the digital gizmos starts to make me wonder where one draws the line between knowing his equipment better and forgetting about photography and becoming a gearhead. I will be photographing on a beautiful island over the weekend and the only thing digital I will have with me is my voice recorder to take notes.

May 24th, 2009

It is funny how sometimes you think of something and then read a passage in a book that sounds uncannily similar—not exactly the same but sort of coming from the same place.

"There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual—become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.

It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.

At such times there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold, material intellect. It is aristocratic and will not associate itself with the commonplace—and we fall back and become our ordinary selves. Yet we live in the memory of these songs which in moments of intellectual inadvertence have been possible to us. They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art."

Robert Henri, “The Art Spirit”, 1923

A friend of mine has lent me his Canon 5D Mark II with two lenses (35mm f/1.4 L and 24–105mm f/4 L) for a couple of weeks. Two weeks, of course, is too short to have a meaningful experience with a new, complex piece of gear, especially that of a brand that one is not well versed with. I, nonetheless, am going to compare 21MP digital capture with scans from medium format slide film (for fun, again), as well as let you know my initial impressions of the camera.

May 16th, 2009

So how does 12MP digital capture compare with high quality scans from medium format slide film in terms of resolution? To give you a short and quick answer, prints from film scans show more detail, albeit not by a massive margin. If you are interested in the whole story then have a look at part four of my on–going Nikon D700 camera user experience report, Resolution (12MP vs. medium format film).

May 4th, 2009

With the help of my friend Alexander Maltsev who is currently optimising html code of the Web site and, unlike yours truly, is absolutely brilliant with these things, I have now added an RSS feed (the small icon next to the page title as well as on the right side in the address line of your browser). If you subscribe to the feed then following updates on this page in a timely manner will be much easier.

May 3rd, 2009

Some pictures that we take are really strange. You know right from the start that they will not appeal to anyone else or stand any critique. Wrong composition, inappropriate light, inadequate subject (lack thereof whatsoever, quite possibly) or, worse yet, all of the classic mistakes embodied in one singe image. Yet, somehow, they speak to you, cling to you, and you just cannot shake them off. As imperfect as they may be, they make you hear music in your mind, and when you actually hear the music the pictures invariably come before your eyes. Sometimes they might even be not actual photographs that you have taken but rather only imaginative still scenes or associations that you have been trying to translate into visual art, that you have been meaning to bring into tangible existence. Here is one photograph that just does not let me go despite its triviality:


Such images indicate intimate connections. No matter how strange, inconsequential or controversial the photographs might seem, you should listen in carefully and hold on to them until they start making sense and lead you somewhere further. Any connection, no matter how subtle or seemingly incomprehensible, is a token of meaning and it would not be wise not to cherish it.

April 22nd, 2009

Part three of my ongoing Nikon D700 camera user experience report, Image quality, has now been posted. What is next? Next I am going to have some fun and see how 12MP digital capture compares against properly scanned medium format slides in terms of resolution—stay tuned!

April 16th, 2009

Photographer is the leading photographic magazine in Ukraine that specialises in fine art photography; it is also one of the most important magazines endorsed by FIAP (Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique) in Europe.


The latest edition of the magazine (#3 March 2009) features an extensive article (14 pages, 22 photographs) on my photographic work in China. The piece is in Russian and most of you will probably not understand it; nonetheless, have a look at the PDF version of the article (4.4MB) here.

Home page photograph has been updated with an image taken in Nanxun (南浔), one of the watertowns near Shanghai, earlier this month.

March 29th, 2009

So, finally, I have conducted a test to ascertain whether there is any discernable difference between 16–bit and 8–bit printing. I chose four photographs and printed each image twice, in 16–bit and 8–bit mode (converting 16–bit image to 8–bit mode and saving it as a separate file as the last step before printing). For this test I used the Epson 4880 printer with the latest printer driver (v6.12) and Adobe Photoshop CS4 running on MAC OS 10.5.6. This combination of hardware and software provides a complete, beginning–to–end 16–bit printing pipeline.

I chose photo #3 here, photo #4 here, photo #4 here and this photograph for the test. These images boast very subtle colours, delicate tonal gradations and, between them, a great variation of colours, all of which can potentially benefit from 16–bit printing. The photographs were taken with a Hasselblad V series system on Fujifilm slide film. Transparencies were then scanned with an Imacon 848 film scanner at 3000 ppi in 16–bit mode into Adobe RGB (1998) colour space, thus producing true 16–bit TIFF files. The files were further post–processed in Photoshop CS4, all along in 16–bit mode and Adobe RGB colour space, and then reduced in size to produce 40cm by 40cm (16 inch by 16 inch) prints at a printing resolution of 360 dpi. I printed on Epson Enhanced Matte paper (which I have been using most of the time).

After the prints dried, I carefully examined and compared each pair of images, as well as showed them to several friends (both photographers and otherwise). And so here is my final verdict: no matter how hard we looked, we saw no difference between 16–bit and 8–bit prints—indeed, they looked perfectly identical. What, you ask, no difference at all? Nope, no difference whatsoever. Nothing, zilch, nada.

I, nonetheless, would still like to give 16–bit printing the benefit of the doubt. There probably might be some unique kind of images, colours or paper–and–ink combinations where 16–bit printing would produce a discernibly better transitions and gradations. Again, though, given the fact that I can see no difference in my tests whatsoever, I would not expect any possible improvements to be readily noticeable or of any fundamental significance. And if you shoot digital, where most current cameras do not go beyond 12–bit capture, the issue is even muter.

So is 16–bit printing nothing but marketing hype? Technically speaking, the claim that 16–bit printing produces better results is correct; in practice, however, I am afraid that, yes, for the most part it is marketing hype. This finding is especially interesting in the light of the tendency where future printer announcements are more than likely to boast and market this feature (look, for example, at the recently announced Canon PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II printer).

March 25th, 2009

I have finally managed to install the latest printer driver for my Epson 4880C printer. As it turns out, the driver was fully functional but Epson did not document its installation procedure properly. According to Epson, it has to be done as follows:

1. Download the file.
2. Double–click the downloaded file to create a disk image on your desktop.
3. Open the disk image.
4. Double–click the installer icon to begin the installation.

What this does not mention, and has caused me quite a lot of confusion, is that if you have a previous version of the driver installed then the old driver must be deleted and the printer removed and then added again. Otherwise, when you send a file to print, the status shown for the file in the printer utility will be "Stopped". Clicking the "Resume" button will not change anything and if you click a few times more the system will report the following error: Operation could not be completed. Client–error–not–possible. For some of you this might be common sense but I am not that tech–savvy.

The reason why I looked at my printer driver again is that, as it turns out, all my previous attempts to see any possible differences between 8–bit and 16–bit printing were in vain because I missed one crucial part—the software you print from should support 16–bit printing, too (duh!). I presumed that Photoshop CS3 could send 16–bit data to the printer but, alas, it cannot. So I looked into the issue of 8–bit vs. 16–bit printing again and, in summary, it transpired that to be able to do 16–bit printing you need each of the following:

  • 16–bit capable Operating System. Mac OS 10.5.X supports 16–bit printing but both Windows XP and Windows Vista do NOT offer this feature.
  • 16–bit capable printing application. For most photographers this will mean upgrading to Photoshop CS4 as earlier versions of the software, including CS3, do not support 16–bit printing.
  • 16–bit capable printer driver. Check with the manufacturer of your printer if your current printer driver supports 16–bit printing.

In other words, as of now one has to use Mac OS 10.5.X, Photoshop CS4 and one of the latest printers with a driver that supports 16–bit output to be able to do 16–bit printing. That is a pretty high wall to climb, if you ask me, to obtain possible benefits of 16–bit printing. I am nearly there, though, and will report shortly whether 16–bit printing offers any visible (as opposed to theoretical) benefits over 8–bit printing.

March 24th, 2009

One of the difficult things in the photographic process is recognising your unsuccessful images, or images that are not quite what you had hoped they would be, as such and letting go of them. The essence of the issue lies in the fact that photography (fine art photography, at least) is a highly personal undertaking and, as far as the photographer is concerned, any image includes a lot more than what meets the eye. What are those intangible things that are not obvious to the viewer? They are the efforts that the photographer puts into creating an image: affection towards the subject, days or weeks of research, planning and traveling, hours of post–processing, you name it.

It is a hard fact of life, however, that substantial efforts often produce inconsequential outcomes and great results sometimes are achieved without much effort. Aesthetic merits of a photograph often have nothing to do with what efforts have—or have not—gone into creating the image. Granted, our efforts greatly improve the chances of producing outstanding photographs; they, however, do not guarantee it. And in case of unsuccessful images, they ironically become deterrent to objectively evaluating our own work.

To grow as photographers, develop our vision and improve overall quality of the work that we present to the public we have to be the harshest critics of our own photographs. And the starting point is learning to separate the efforts that have gone into creating an image from what the picture objectively is or, more generally, evaluate the latter without interference of the former.

I personally find that the best, if not the only, way to recognise things for what they are is to temporarily distance myself from them and let any emotions involved to at least partially simmer down. The same principle can be used in photography to objectively evaluate aesthetic merits of our work without interference of the efforts that have gone into its creation. More often than not we need to distance ourselves from our new photographs for some time—set them aside, put them away and stop thinking about them as if they did not exist. Then after a while, come back and try looking at them as if they were someone else´s work. By doing so you will find that as time passes by you hold onto the efforts you had exerted less and less and thus can look at your own work more calmly and impartially.

This being said, one has to be careful and not overdo the separate–the–wheat–from–the–chaff part of the photographic process. I always give the benefit of the doubt to the images that I am not certain about in the beginning. From this perspective, returning to your work after a while or at a later time potentially has the benefit of rediscovering the images that initially were considered not quite what you had hoped they would be but in actuality do have a connection with the essence of your character.

By now you have probably started to wonder where all this is going. What I am getting at is this: I think I have now let enough time to pass to more objectively look at the photographs shot earlier this year in Western Sichuan and Xitang; the former can be found here and here and the latter here, here and here. I have to admit, though, that I still cannot completely let go of the uniquely subtle emotional whirlpool I was in while creating them. It is possible that in a couple of months´ time I will find that the whirlpool was nothing but a passing mood and eventually remove the images from the Gallery. But then again, I might at some point realise that the whirlpool and the photographs do bear a signature of the fundamental currents and thus reveal them further. The creative process is never a straight path and more often than not it is closely entwined with discovering and expressing one's true self.

February 25th, 2009

To me, one of the most difficult things about photographic expeditions is deciding what to occupy myself with in the evenings after a full day of photography. Granted, there are many things you can do: working on the photographs shot during the day (a privilege of digital photographers), reading a book or listening to music (the regular escape of analog photographers), or chatting to your companions (where digital and analog photographers come together). All the regular stuff you habitually do at home comes to mind first but I always keep an eye on the sky after the sun sinks behind the horizon—whenever it is abandoned by clouds and the moon, I invariably feel compelled to photograph star trails. The underlying reason is very simple: whatever else you can think of doing otherwise can be done at any other time. No matter how you slice it, being in an adequate place to photograph star trails and having all the conditions that this type of photography requires met is always a luxury.

Star trails @ Mount Minya Konka (贡嘎山)

Star trails @ Mount Minya Konka(贡嘎山)

Hasselblad 503CW, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fuji Provia slide film; one hour exposure at f/2.8

So here is yet another star trails photograph. I have photographed star trails at The Yellow Mountain, Muztagh Ata and now Mount Minya Konka. The images might seem quite similar, possibly even indistinguishable from each other, but if you think about the distances between the locations where they were taken and the differences in states of mind that they impose, it is no mean feat in my book.

February 21st, 2009

Expectations is an elusive, immeasurable yet crucial variable in the equations of our lives. The number of things that are measured against expectations, which often includes life itself, is overwhelming. Very often expectations are difficult to articulate or express clearly yet we tend to know unmistakably what they are. And even if you are not entirely sure of them beforehand, you always know after the fact whether they have been materialised.

Expectations are a living thing—while numerous aspects of our existence are immensely influenced by them, expectations, on the other hand, are constantly and subtly shaped and adjusted by the impact of the ever–changing outside world as well as internal workings of our inner selves. Expectations can be calculated, emotional or instinctive; most of the time, however, they are a highly personal blend of what logic, feelings and intuition dictate.

To a large degree, photographic expeditions tend to be evaluated against expectations, too. Go out for a long walk in your neighbourhood with a camera hanging off your shoulder, bring back a couple of great shots and the outing is considered a complete success. Go on a dedicated photographic trip to, say, Antarctica, bring back only a couple of great images and the expedition is rendered a failure. (Have you noticed that expectations were unintentionally built into the wording of the last two sentences even though I am not going on either trip?) Or, travel all the way to Western Sichuan Province (China), bring back several pictures that you are not even sure you want to show, and the trip is a complete disaster. If you do not manage your expectations, that is. If you do, though, sometimes you can see a silver lining while a cloud is only starting to take shape or even before you see an inkling of it.

As you might have already guessed, I did not produce any brilliant photographic work during the recent trip to Sichuan. Quite interestingly, though, I did not have any expectations that would have caused me grief right from the outset. I thought I would just travel down there and see and photograph what there is to see and photograph—with no expectations. While it is very natural to ask why anyone would do anything if he has no expectations related to the outcome whatsoever, this somehow made perfect sense to me. Maybe that was because I traveled in the area before and intuitively knew that having no expectations would be prudent. Or perhaps I just listened too much to Radiohead prior to the trip and the music faintly lingered at the back of my mind ("Don't get any big ideas, they are not gonna happen...").

A couple of days the weather just did not cooperate; one time we were in a wrong place when ambient light was beautiful; and on several occasions we were in the right place but the light did not play its part well. When things end up unfolding not as expected it is crucial to play it by ear from when you remember the old saying about the best laid plans, as well as adjust expectations accordingly. Fortunately, I realised early enough that there was mostly no hope for exciting photography and instead of chasing exhilarating fleeting moments switched to searching for subtlety in the prevailing tedium. Further, I deliberately decided to work slowly and meticulously and used my Hasselblad Flexboby most of the time (operation of the camera is very slow and only marginally faster than that of a large format camera). I used tilt and shift camera movements quite extensively; graduated neutral density filters saw a lot of use, too.

Looking back at it now, the learning experience of practicing photographic technique in the field alone made the trip well worth my while. Setting expectations right, adjusting them in a timely manner, as well as trying to see a silver lining instead of paying too much attention to the cloud is now my new motto.

January 26th, 2009

As planned, tomorrow I am off to Western Sichuan Province. Meanwhile and for what it is worth, have a look at my ten desert island CDs.

January 15th, 2009

As you might recall, in the end of last year I (finally) realised that to produce a cohesive, finished and meaningful body of photographic work it is necessary to work within the framework of a project. This year I intend to put this notion into practice and have now commenced two projects that I hope to complete before the end of the year.

The first project is to create a portfolio of 30 square black–and–white photographs depicting Watertowns of Jiangnan, China. I photographed in several watertowns near Shanghai in the past and have a fairly good basis for completing the task. In line with this purpose, earlier this month I spent three days photographing in Xitang (西塘), one of my favourite watertowns in Zhejiang Province. I intend to further travel to other watertowns in the vicinity of Shanghai throughout the year as many times as completion of the series will require. Oh, and why 30 photographs and not any other number? I will let you know in due course.

Xitang, Winter Sunset

Xitang, Winter Sunset

Hasselblad Flexbody, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fuji Provia slide film

The photograph above is the only picture from the trip to Xitang that was taken in colour; the rest are black–and–white. What is the crucial and most difficult thing about getting a shot like this? It is timing—you have to knowingly and patiently wait for the moment when the balance between the fast fading evening light and the red lights is perfect for the recording media (slide film in this case). It literally lasts for only several minutes; more demanding photographers would indeed say that there is only one moment when the subtle balance is reached.

The second project is a part of a much larger undertaking that is being carried out by COSACOSA art at large, a non–profit arts organisation based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA. Entitled Change in the Making, the project engages 20 artists in 20 communities around the world to commemorate COSACOSA′s 20 years of working for social justice and positive cultural change. The idea is to match 10 communities in Philadelphia with 10 communities in other countries to explore eight subjects related to community, culture and change. My subject is Landscapes of Change and there are artists in Hong Kong and Philadelphia who are working on the same theme. The photographic part of the project will not be too dissimilar from what I did when photographing the Disappearance of Old Shanghai series. One major difference, however, will be that this project implies a much closer interaction with the members of the chosen community. At the end of the project the photographs created by the artists will become a part of a Wiki as well as be published with corresponding essays and other material in book form.

Apart from these two projects and not to be too radical, I will also do the classic, "purposeless" travel and/or landscape photography just for the fun of it. To begin with, I will be photographing for several days in Western Sichuan Province (yes, again) in the end of January and more trips are likely to be undertaken later in the year on a more spontaneous basis.

So these are my preliminary photographic plans for this year. I hope to post a lot of new material as they unfold, so please keep coming back to this page to see what is new.

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