What's New 2010
31 December 2010 » Last photographs from Western Sichuan & Happy New Year
I am posting last three images from Western Sichuan, thus concluding the series—and the year on this Web site. Today actually is an interesting day, because I remember writing the first post at the bottom of this page and thinking of what I would possibly write and what kind of images I would likely post during the year. Now the page has been written, and I have to say that watching it progress was a fascinating—and totally unpredictable—experience. The page will be turned over tomorrow, and I will be asking myself the same questions again: what kind of experiences will I have and what kind of work, both visual and written, will I produce? Looking at how this year's page was unfolding, I can only be sure of one thing: it will be yet another unpredictable voyage with unexpected turns and discoveries; although it is certain that some expectations will not be fulfilled and some plans will go awry, I am equally positive that some pleasantly surprising and wonderful things will emerge, too. I do not have the foggiest idea as to where and how the voyage will lead, but that is the beauty of it—one has to leave room for the unknown and remain acutely perceptive to ensure that the creative well does not dry up. I hope that this year's ride was not too disappointing and welcome you to stay aboard during the next year, too. I will be seeing you on the flip side and, meanwhile, wish you and your families a Happy New Year!
Somewhere near Aba, #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens (shifted) and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
Somewhere near Aba, #3
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens, 1.4X teleconverter and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
29 December 2010 » Less is more—addendum
If you found the post of 17 May 2010 titled "Less is more" of interest, I also recommend reading this article recently published by the Economist. It has nothing to do with photography, but it explores the phenomenon of "the tyranny of choice" and thus indirectly illustrates why using less photographic gear might be beneficial aesthetically.
28 December 2010 » Recent favourite quotations
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.
Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
27 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #17 & #18
Last major destination of the trip to Western Sichuan was Aba (阿坝), and all remaining photographs will be from there. I will finish posting them before the year is out.
Aba & Ge'erdeng Monastery (格尔登寺) at dawn
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
Somewhere near Aba, #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
I posted this image on the home page before so you might remember seeing it. One interesting thing about it is that the tiny black dots at the bottom of the photograph on the left are actually people working in the fields.
24 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #14, #15 & #16
Today I am posting three images that are probably not as visually striking as some of the photographs posted earlier—I am showing them to mostly illustrate a couple of points related to photographic perception and technique.
Somewhere near Gartze, #6
Hasselblad 503CW camera (handheld), CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
Well, okay, I have posted this image not to really make any point but rather to reiterate that I am a massive fan of the sky—any reasonably meaningful sky. And when I see a very meaningful sky and can find a more or less acceptable foreground to go with it, then there is no way to stop me from photographing it. And then scanning it. And then spending an hour working on it. And then printing it. And then actually posting it here—all in spite of the fact that at the end of the day it is a run–of–the–mill photograph. You can call me stubborn (which I am, by the way), but I have discovered over the longer period that following one's passion and inner calling, no matter how mundane each individual attempt at it might seem, is the only way to have a consistent vision and gradually develop one's personal style.
Tibetan praying flags, autumn
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/50 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
I have always been attracted to Tibetan prayer flags, and when I saw so many of them wrapped in autumn colours I could not resist photographing them. As appealing as they are to the eye, prayer flags are quite difficult to photograph in a compelling fashion, and I spent a fairly long time finding a suitable perspective. This photograph perhaps looks perfectly normal to you, but the camera actually ended up being about ten centimetres above the ground, which was as low as I could get; I also used a wide–angle lens to slightly exaggerate spatial relations (I use—or, at least, check out—this perspective quite often, which is another reason why I prefer and use a tripod without central column). Further, I had to carefully fine–tune position of the camera to ensure that the lines of the flags were perfectly aligned. And yet what I got in the end is a seemingly average perspective, which illustrates that in order to achieve what appears "normal" in an image we often have to find unusual, or even extreme, conditions and angles of view.
Tibetan temple and a little girl
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
This image was taken in the middle of nowhere as we traveled from Rangtang (壤塘) to Aba (阿坝). I managed to find out the name of the place—Batuohe (巴托合)—yet an Internet search of the place returned only one result that mentions it in passing in relation to road constructions in the area. What struck me about Batuohe is how unique and authentic it is—it has not been commercialised or polluted by tourism even the slightest bit.
When photographing in Batuohe I used my old and tried photographic approach whereby I first construct a preliminary composition and then wait for people to pass through it thus making it complete. In case of this photograph I used the Hasselblad Flexbody camera and its shift movement to avoid converging lines. The interesting thing is that I actually have three similar shots with slightly different composition and very different people in them—from the little girl you see in the image above to monks and nuns. This approach might seem difficult at first, but the more I use it the more I am surprised how well it works. Give it a try.
I should also note that I really wish I could get rid of that distracting triangle of the sky in the top right corner. Doing so might seem easy in an armchair exercise in composition, but it was impossible in the field given the geography of the location. Oh well, let it just be a tribute to imperfection, which nearly always accompanies our photographic endeavours.
22 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #12 & #13
Gartze, autumn morning (#1)
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
Gartze, autumn morning (#2)
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens, 1.4X teleconverter and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
20 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #10 & #11
Here is another exhilarating photographic moment:
Somewhere near Gartze, #5
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens, 1.4X teleconverter and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
I first thought of naming this photograph "Chromatic aberration cows". Why? Because chromatic aberration of the lens amplified by the teleconverter is, well, far from inconspicuous—to the extent that most of the cows are surrounded by green and, in case of one cow, magenta halos (I did not realise until now that cows have strong personal preferences with respect to chromatic aberration rendering when they are photographed). Looking at the aberration at 100% magnification, hardcore pixel–peepers would certainly rejoice and raise a storm about it. As to me, though, the naming idea made me laugh and did not go further than that, because in a 30cm by 30cm print the aberration is still barely noticeable. Now, this is a truly wise and useful degree of an aberration: it makes you laugh tête–à–tête yet remains discreet when it knows it is not invited.
Somewhere near Gartze, #4
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens at f/4 and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
16 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #7, #8 & #9
The next major destination of the expedition to Western Sichuan province was Gartze (甘孜), which is a spectacular place for photography if the weather cooperates. As you might recall, two images from the area were posted on the home page of the Web site a while ago, and today I am posting them here together with a new picture from the Somewhere near Gartze series. More worthwhile photographs from the series will be posted in the coming couple days.
Somewhere near Gartze, #3
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
Somewhere near Gartze, #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
Somewhere near Gartze, #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
15 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #5 & #6 (as well as comments on the Hasselblad CF 5.6/350 lens)
The road to Bamei (八美), our next photographic destination after Danba (丹巴), went through a narrow, pretty valley with a fast mountain river running along the road most of the time. We spent several hours passing through the valley, and everything about it—the autumn colours, the clarity of the water, the height of the blue sky and the air that was just perfectly chilly and fresh—evoked thoughts of things sublime and subtle, even nostalgic. I felt I could and wanted to keep on traveling through it endlessly, as it is often so difficult to enter into such a finely focused and perceptive state of mind. But then, without a warning or even a hint, the valley ended abruptly—or so it seemed—and there was the grand view you see in the photograph below.
First you stop and forget breathing, next you take a deep breath, and then your mind is already somewhere else. What is often more important is not any particular state or circumstance—anything that lasts beyond a certain point becomes a matter of course—but the point and nature of the change. Musical example? Pink Floyd, "The Dark Side of the Moon", "Speak to me / Breathe", from about 0:30 to 2:30.
Mt. Yarla Shampo (雅拉雪山)
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens (possibly with a 1.4X teleconverter, I am not sure)
and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
I also photographed Mt. Yarla Shampo using the Hasselblad CF 5.6/350 lens, which neatly filled the frame with the main subject thus turning out to be the perfect focal length to have a more personal look at the mountain. I know that it is just a mediocre shot of the peak of a mountain, but, man, I cannot stop looking at it—you should see the intricate detail, texture and tonality of the real–life print to appreciate the image.
Personal encounter with Mt. Yarla Shampo (雅拉雪山)
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
Speaking of the Hasselblad CF 5.6/350 lens, my overall impression is that although it is a fairly decent performer, image quality that it delivers is certainly not in the same league as that produced by the best Hasselblad lenses. As you can see below, sharpness is very good in the centre but not so great towards the edges; also, the lens produces very noticeable chromatic aberration. I would not recommend using it with teleconverters. This being said, keep in mind that the size of the original image the crops were taken from is 6900 by 6900 pixels (48 megapixels, if you will; the slide was scanned with a Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner at 3200dpi); in a 30cm by 30cm print chromatic aberration is barely noticeable at very close examination and sharpness is wicked across the entire image.
Hasselblad CF 5.6/350 lens: sharpness in the centre (capture sharpened with PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in)
Hasselblad CF 5.6/350 lens: sharpness at the edges (capture sharpened with PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in)
And, oh, if you are used to thinking that infinity is everything beyond a few dozen metres or so, with this lens infinity is a few hundred metres away, if not farther (I did not check this point exactly). You have to really take care focusing such long lenses no matter how far your main subject seems to be.
13 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #4
One last photograph from
Jiaju (甲居) Zhongluxiang (中路乡) (I mistakenly wrote that we photographed in Jiaju, which is another Tibetan village not far from Danba county seat; I did photograph in Jiaju in the past, though, and actually find Zhongluxiang more photogenic):
A view of Zhongluxiang (中路乡), #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
This image reminds me of why I do not shoot large format, even though I did consider this option a number of times. The light was changing very fast and the clouds were moving very quickly, which meant that I would not have taken this picture if I were shooting with a large format camera. I have quite a few photographs I am fond of where reacting and shooting quickly was crucial. In this sense, medium format represents the best compromise for me: it delivers very good image quality and yet is not as cumbersome as large format.
11 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #3
A view of Zhongluxiang (中路乡), #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CF 5.6/350 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
9 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #2
Here is an image from Zhongluxiang (中路乡) with dramatic clouds that I mentioned in the previous post.
Tibetan house and clouds, morning
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
This photograph was taken early in the morning when it was still quite dark—to the extent that I could barely focus. I had to use a Graduated Neutral Density filter to bring the contrast of the scene down and ensure that, on the one hand, highlights in the clouds are not blown out and, on the other hand, there is sufficient detail in the shadows. Whereas this photograph is very close to what I previsualised and intended to depict, it is nowhere near to what the scene actually looked like at the time of shooting. As is the case with most if not all photography, this image is more of a subjective construct than an objective reflection of reality.
8 December 2010 » Images from Western Sichuan, China: #1
So, after the long while I am finally ready to work on, post and talk about the images that I took in Western Sichuan Province in October. I reckon that to most of you the month of October seems like ages ago—for one thing, it certainly feels so to me. To further resist the hectic pace of modern life that accepts nothing but immediate gratification, I will be printing and posting one image in a couple of days' time, together with the thoughts or comments that I might have.
I wrote several times in the past that I like to distance myself from my new work by not looking at it for a while so that I can see it more objectively, and I am starting posting photographs from Western Sichuan with an image and a short story that illustrate this point.
Tibetan village and rainbow
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film
While in Sichuan we spent half a day photographing in
Jiaju (甲居) Zhongluxiang (中路乡), a mountainous Tibetan village in the vicinity of Danba county seat (丹巴). It was hailed by the Chinese National Geography magazine as the most beautiful village in China, and, indeed, when you experience it in person Zhongluxiang gives a very favourable impression. This being said, I quickly discovered that it is very difficult to photograph—the village is scattered on a slope of a steep mountain, and finding attractive compositions or changing perspective takes a lot of efforts and time. We started photographing early in morning and saw some very dramatic clouds, which got my spirits high; later on I was so excited and immersed in looking for interesting angles of view that I got lost and had no idea where exactly I was. This, however, did not matter to me as I clearly sensed that there could be some very promising photographic opportunities in store.
At about the time I got lost the weather started to take a turn for the worse, with thick black clouds rapidly coming in on us from the east; this was when after quite a bit of hiking around I found the composition you see in the photograph above. As soon as I put my camera backpack down it started to rain, and so I was standing there, hesitant: on the one hand, I knew logically that I should leave and find a shelter from the rain; on the other hand, however, I just could not let go of the composition that was so difficult to find.
Looking around I noticed that the peasants in the nearby fields did not budge the slightest bit and carried on with their work. Thinking that they probably did not expect the rain to last very long I decided to stay, even though by then the sky had gotten pretty dark. In a worst case scenario, I thought, I would get a little wet, which would be a minor sacrifice given how far I had already gone (my equipment was packed in a ThinkTank backpack and I had its rain cover with me, so the gear was safe).
My mood nose–dived as I was getting increasingly wet and almost ready to call it quits. But then all of a sudden the rain stopped, the clouds started to quickly disperse, and the sun came out. Following the weather my spirits made a u–turn, too, and I rushed to get ready to photograph again. I quickly yet carefully composed the image, metered the exposure and was almost ready to shoot, when out of the blue the rainbow appeared in front of me perfectly complementing the composition. Now, this was nothing short of pure photographic serendipity, and those who have experienced such moments know how exhilarating it gets. I seriously thought that I had taken a magazine cover shot. And when I was told later that a rainbow can be seen in the area very, very seldom, I was almost convinced that it was a National Geographic kind of a photograph, no less.
Even after returning from the trip and while looking at the slides I still was full of the excitement of the moment. However, there is often a gap between the emotions of a photographic experience and artistic merit of the resulting photograph. Now that two months have passed and I can look at the photograph more calmly, I realise that the composition is rather average if not exactly mediocre, the light in the foreground is too flat, and Tibetan architecture does not look as impressive in photographs as when you see it in person. Now, do not get me wrong—I do love the photograph and this experience alone made the expedition worth my while. Looking at it more objectively, however, the image is not a National Geographic kind of a photograph, and I doubt it will ever make onto a magazine cover either. It is good to know the difference, and it takes distancing one's emotions from his new work to see it.
30 November 2010 » Balance vs. imbalance
I was in Beijing at the end of last week and, quite curiously, almost every time I visit the city something thought provoking occurs. Why does this not happen as often when I am in Shanghai? Is it because I have been wrapped into convenience and plastic soullessness of the land of materialism for too long?
While in Beijing I had a dinner with a friend who, like me, has a daytime job yet is also artistically minded and acute; unlike yours truly, though, she has chosen painting as a means of expression and an outlet of her creative drive. We talked about various things and art in general, and when the conversation turned to my photographic work she commented that most of it seemed carefully constructed and meticulously executed, possibly even somewhat cold. Although I have done my share of spontaneous photography, I had to admit that most of the photographs on this Web site are not exactly examples of unreservedly following the spur of the moment. Quite a bit of my work is landscape photography, and, come to think of it, there is no such thing as spontaneous landscape photography. Most photographers, even if rather snobbishly, would label spontaneous landscape photography as sloppy.
Thinking of photography that is at the opposite end of scrupulous planning and reserved articulation I showed her a few photographs of Antoine D'Agata, who looks at art "when it is shouted or vomited, not conceptualised or marketed". After quickly looking at his work she said, "It seems that we pursue art in an attempt to find a balance, whereas artists of that other kind pursue art seeking imbalance." This was nothing but a casual momentary observation, but she could not have nailed it down better.
After the dinner we went to CD Café, a famed jazz club in Beijing. Late into the night and long after the band finished playing, two fellows who seemed to be mates of the owner of the club got onto the stage to perform a few numbers. They clearly did not care about audience, or even if there was one at all—this late night performance seemed to be a part of their lives that had nothing to do with others and was as important as, say, their daytime jobs. One of them played the piano while the other, tipsy and sentimental, sang; although not exactly first rate, the performance was fairly polished and touching. "Singing here in this club after work is to them what painting is to me and photography is to you, perhaps", she said. "Yes, finding a balance", I replied, smiling and reaching for my wine glass.
Can art and creativity be used as a means of finding a balance where and when you need it? Can they serve to get rid of a balance you are not comfortable with? In this sense, is there a difference between balance and imbalance? And what is it that you pursue with your artistic work in this respect? There might be no immediate and definitive answers, but this certainly is an interesting perspective to consider one's photographic work from.
15 November 2010 » Canon PowerShot S95: high ISO performance
You probably wonder why my comments on the Canon S95 camera begin with the description of its high ISO performance—after all, one is supposed to start with an introduction, depiction of ergonomics and handling, menus, and so on and so forth. The reason for breaking what has become the traditional sequence of reviewing cameras is that after a few days with the S95 I have a pretty good idea about its features and performance—with the only exception of image quality at higher ISO settings. On the one hand, this is a compact camera with a tiny sensor, and noise builds up very quickly as you move up the ISO scale. On the other hand, much of it is colour noise that can be dealt with quite easily in post processing; moreover, I quite like the quality of S95's noise, which is much more film–like than I expected. As a result, I could not quite pin down how far I can go with high ISO settings without jeopardizing image quality too much. Also, simply looking at the shots taken at various ISO settings I could not decide what the upper ISO setting of the Auto ISO function should be. This is an important issue, and I decided to conduct a more formal test to answer these questions before going on the trip to Spain.
Below are crops of the same scene shot at various ISO settings shown at 100% magnification. They were processed in Adobe Camera Raw, and what you immediately see is the versions where no sharpening or noise reduction was applied; roll your mouse over the images to see the versions where quick–and–dirty noise reduction and sharpening were applied in ACR. I have to note that the degree of sharpening and noise reduction that I applied was quite mild—many would choose a more aggressive approach. Also, more sophisticated noise reduction software would probably produce better results.
Image quality at base ISO (ISO80) is truly remarkable for a compact camera, but by ISO400 there is already a lot of noise. Thankfully, though, it cleans up quite easily and the results are very impressive at this ISO setting, too. The amount of noise increases progressively as we move on to ISO800—there is a noticeable loss of detail and colour data; nonetheless, things still do not look too bad, even though you know that this is probably as far as you want to push it. ISO1600 is very noisy and a lot of detail and colour information is lost to noise. This ISO setting might still work for certain subjects, though.
Pixel–peeping tells only one side of the story; to have the whole story and proper answers I decided to go the extra mile and see what the noise patterns look like in real–life prints. I printed the original photographs at 300dpi first without applying noise reduction and then after cleaning them up a little in ACR.
When no noise reduction is applied, noise is already visible in prints at close examination at ISO400, very noticeable at ISO800, and plain objectionable at ISO1600. When noise reduction is applied, however, the prints look very good up to ISO800, although there is a visible loss of colour at ISO800; luminance noise is noticeable at close examination, too, but it gives an impression of texture rather than objectionable noise. At ISO1600 there is a further loss of colour and detail and luminance noise is very obvious, although, again, it is not too obnoxious and might work for some subjects.
So here is the executive summary based on my tests: the upper ISO setting of the Auto ISO function shall be ISO800; the camera can be pushed further to ISO1600 if absolutely necessary but this should be avoided if possible. ISO3200? You do not want to go there, really.
As with so many things in life, our perception and judgment are based on relative expectations, not objective results (if there is such a thing). Compared with DSLR cameras, high ISO performance of the S95 is mediocre at best. However, the Panasonic LX–2 that I used for years essentially was an ISO100 camera, and I could live with that perfectly well. Now, however, I have a compact camera that I can easily use at ISO800 and, if really necessary, push to ISO1600. Relatively speaking, this is nothing short of astounding.
Now that this important issue has been dealt with I can finally pack and catch a few hours of sleep before heading to the airport.
13 November 2010 » Music notes
Several posts ago I mentioned a music documentary that I greatly enjoyed, "It might get loud". My friend Edwin over at CameraHobby later offered his impressions of the documentary, too (see the post of November 4, 2010). To keep the ball in the air for a little longer, I would like to mention another music video that I watched and savoured not long ago: Neil Young's "Heart of gold". This, of course, might have less appeal to the general public as you have to be fond of Neil Young's music to appreciate the video. Quite interestingly, the part of the film that I love most is the very last song, "The old laughing lady", where Neil is sitting and singing alone on the stage in the empty auditorium, with subtitles running across the screen on the right. Hmm, and I accused the Leica M9 of eccentricity...
Talking of Neil Young, I recently got a hold of his latest album "Le Noise". After the first listening I was not impressed at all—it seemed rather simple, even primitive, in terms of musical ideas and forms. A few more listenings later, however, I discovered in the album everything that I love Neil Young's music for (do not ask me what that is, though). And the icing on the cake is that the quality of the recording is absolutely superb—the sound coming from my bad–arse speakers with volume turned to ten o'clock is simply breathtaking.
10 November 2010 » First impressions of the Leica M9 camera
At long last, my first impressions of the Leica M9 camera are now online. Someone has to call a spade a spade, so there you have it.
I will be traveling to Spain next week and, since it will be a hectic business trip, my Nikon D700 will be unsuitable to bring along. Even though there will be no time for photography I still want to have a camera with me, and so I have finally made up my mind and bought a Canon PowerShot S95. When an ardent Nikon user first buys a Panasonic and then a Canon point–and–shoot, it clearly shows that Nikon are not up to snuff in the area of compact cameras.
I have used the S95 for several days now and have to say that so far I am absolutely in love with every aspect of the camera (with the only exception of how the Auto ISO function is implemented, but more on that later). I am of the opinion that among the compact cameras aimed at serious photographers (i.e., that can shoot RAW format and offer an extensive photographic control) the S95 is the only truly pocketable option. Comparing my Panasonic LX–2 (the current LX–5 is roughly the same size) to the S95, the former does not seem to be much larger, but its protruding lens puts the two cameras on different sides of the line that separates cameras into pocketable and not. Given that the other contenders (Canon G12, Panasonic LX–5 and Nikon P7000) offer largely similar image quality, getting the S95 as a carry–everywhere camera is a no–brainer. I probably will not write a full–blown review of the camera (only commercial Web sites can afford investing their time into products that are replaced faster than you can remember their names); nonetheless, I will post comments on various aspects of using the S95 in the field.
19 October 2010 » Trip to Western Sichuan—further comments
I have finished sorting through the slides that I shot in Western Sichuan earlier this month and would like to add a couple of comments to the previous post.
Working on the slides made me realise that, apart from the reasons of why I shoot film that I mentioned in previous articles and posts, yet another motive for sticking to the old medium is that I enormously enjoy the workflow and the tactile feeling of working with slides. There is simply no comparison between looking at medium format slides on a light table and first interpretation of RAW files (read dull and flat) that you see on your computer screen. Also, sorting through and organizing slides is simpler and more straightforward. Looking at a couple of slides on a light table is so much neater and less distracting than looking at a flat digital image surrounded by menus, thumbnails, sliders and whatever not on a computer screen. And as has been mentioned on this Web site and elsewhere, with film you simply shoot less, and most of the shots tend to be much more thought out. For instance, I have retained 132 slides from the trip to Western Sichuan. Yes, you read that correctly—only 132 shots (even though large format photographers might probably exclaim, what a waste of film!). If you shoot digital, do you think it would be possible for you to retain only 132 RAW captures from eight days of shooting in an exotic location? I seriously doubt it. And I am actually very happy that I have kept only 132 slides—the essence is there, and the rest either was purposefully not shot or is, well, in the trash bin where it properly belongs.
I also forgot to mention in the previous post, and this will likely sound like heresy to many photographers, that I intentionally left my polarising filter at home. Why? Because I believe it is the most overrated and hyped filter in photography. I do not remember when was the last time I used a polariser, even though I religiously carried one with me on each and every trip—until the latest expedition, that is. I do understand that it can be used to eliminate reflections from, say, foliage to increase colour saturation; however, this is not the subject that I shoot often and not the purpose that most photographers tend to use polarising filters for. Sadly, most people use polarisers to darken blue sky, which, in my opinion, is plain amateurish—very few photographers can or are disciplined enough to use this effect in a subtle fashion; most of the time it ends up being so obvious it is nauseating. If you can tell by looking at a photograph what filter and how was used, the use of the filter (probably) worked, but was not successful. At any rate, my polarising filter has mostly retired (I say mostly because its service still might be called upon if I envision beforehand that it most likely will be necessary, not entirely dissimilar to how I borrowed the Tele–Tessar 5.6/350mm lens).
Talking of overdoing some effects, there is another strange phenomenon that I have been meaning to mention for quite a while now. Most traditional Chinese watercolour paintings have very subdued colours, to the extent that they almost look black–and–white; yet, very many Chinese photographers seem to favour very bold, oversaturated colours in their photographic work. I have no idea how to juxtapose this—more thinking on the subject is obviously due.
Now that I have finished sorting through the slides from the expedition to Western Sichuan you probably expect me to post a series of photographs. I eventually will but am going to postpone doing so for the time being—for two reasons. First, I want to put them aside for a while to distance myself from the emotional experiences of the trip that are not related to fine art photography and might affect my ability to judge and work on the images more objectively. Second, and this reason greatly helps the first one, thanks to my friend Andrew Lee I now have a Leica M9 with a Summicron–M 2/35 ASPH lens hanging around my neck for a week or so. I expect it to be a fascinating experience, be it utterly positive, outright negative or anywhere in the middle. My first impressions report will be posted in due course.
10 October 2010 » Expedition to Western Sichuan: what worked and what did not
I am now back from the trip to Western Sichuan and thought I would let you know what worked and what did not on the expedition. I do not want to bore you with the details of the itinerary and, in brief, I first flew to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province, and then photographed in and around the locations marked in red on the map below. Apart from that, we also did quite a bit of shooting while traveling from one destination to the next.
First of all, a few words about that "something new" I decided to experiment with while on the trip. Basically, I wanted to try to post live updates to share my experience of shooting and just being in one of my favourite places in the world, as well as whatever I would happen to think about while on the road. But of course, you know what they say about best laid plans, and before I continue writing about my little experiment I have to talk about compact cameras again.
I should have kept my fingers crossed when I wrote in the previous post that my Panasonic Lumix LX–2 point–and–shoot was still working perfectly well. Believe it or not, the camera gave up the ghost on me on the very first day of shooting. The joystick at the back of the camera became irresponsive, and I could not change any settings anymore. I still could shoot in P mode, but at the time when the failure happened a +2 exposure compensation was dialed in and shooting in P mode would have resulted in gross overexposure. Sayonara, LX–2.
I suppose digital point–and–shoot cameras are not designed to last longer than a couple of years of fairly active use. In the future, it will be prudent to change such cameras once in two or three years, regardless of whether they are still working or not. Also, as much as many of us look down upon point–and–shoots for various (perfectly legitimate) reasons, once the LX–2 was gone I had come to realise how indispensable compact cameras are for what we use them for. Although I did not need it for serious shooting, I intended to use it to visually document various aspects of the trip that were not related to fine art photography, and not having done so is very regrettable (the only record of the trip that I have is written notes and several short videos on my iPhone).
This discouraging development meant that I was not able to post any images together with whatever I had to say about the progress of the trip, and simply writing about places most people have never heard of did not seem to make sense. Apart from that, there was not really that much time in the evenings to write daily updates, because cleaning gear, rearranging stuff and preparing for the next day took quite a bit of time. In the end, I decided to scrap the idea of posting live updates.
As if these failures were not enough, one of my Hasselblad film backs broke down on the second day of the expedition: it seemed to take longer than usual to wind film to the first frame, and by about eighth frame winding film felt a little too loose, as if there was no film in the back. Naturally, I could not take the risk of continuing using the apparently broken back. I always carry two film backs with me—to have a backup, be able to shoot two different types of film, or have two backs pre–loaded with the same type of film when time is too tight to change film after each roll—and so used the other back after I discovered the problem. Lesson? Equipment failures do happen in the field and, even though you might think that it is not going to happen to you, having backups (especially on important trips) is of paramount importance.
One of the things one learns over a longer period in photography, which is also one of the more difficult things to master, is knowing when not to photograph. There are many things that are attractive yet not necessarily photogenic, or that do not lend themselves easily, if at all, to producing satisfactory photographic work. When we come across such things our first reaction is to pull out a camera and shoot away. What we should do instead, however, is "photograph" them with our memory. On this trip there were very many beautiful yet, from where I stood, not photogenic scenes; with the LX–2 no longer working and the Hasselblad not exactly being a camera for spontaneous use, it was easy not to photograph them. Instead of photographing, I looked intently at the scenes trying to take in as much of them as possible.
How did things go with the Hasselblad/Zeiss Tele–Tessar 5.6/350 lens? Not exactly how I expected but, nevertheless, quite well. I did not use the lens as often as I thought I would—as is the case with most of my photography, the 80mm and the 150mm lens were used most of the time. And I did not produce any masterpieces with the lens, either. However, I did take several photographs with it that I am quite fond of. I also liked how the lens handled in the field. On the one hand, it is very light given its focal length and size (1350 grams; being a Tessar design, it has only four glass elements), so it was not too much of a burden to carry. On the other hand, I really liked how the optic complemented my other lenses. Could I have done without it on the trip? Probably yes. Was I right to borrow and take it with me? Most certainly yes (as one companion photographer put it, there is no such thing as too long a focal length when photographing in Ngawa).
Quite interestingly, I used every piece of equipment that I brought with me. Moreover, I used some techniques and combinations of gear that I do not use often or did not envision to need. For instance, a few times I used the 350mm lens with a 1.4X tele–converter, which was equivalent to shooting with a 500mm optic. As another example, on one occasion I used tilt and shift movement of the Hasselblad Flexbody camera at the same time while having a Graduated Neutral Density filter attached to the front of the lens. As yet another example, when photographing Tibetan temples in Ngawa I used my old and tried photographic approach whereby I would first construct a preliminary composition and then wait for people to fill it in thus completing the scene. It was great to stretch my photographic skills again.
Hasselblad 503CW camera with Tele–Tessar 5.6/350 lens and 1.4X tele–converter
Although the technical failures mentioned above were very unfortunate and even annoying, they nonetheless did not interfere with serious shooting. There were many exciting photographic moments and photographing was as rewarding as it gets. I should also note that whereas photography was the main objective of the expedition, there is always so much more to such trips to remote and culturally rich places. In this respect, I loved every bit and moment of the trip, too, including the parts that many would consider hardship: long hours on bumpy roads (but many of those roads go through beautiful valleys), simple (yet very authentic) meals, getting up very early and having to pack every day, you name it. All things considered, it was a period of perfectly uninterrupted and enriching flow.
27 September 2010 » A few rambling comments on photo gear
Photokina has come and gone, and we have been awash with releases, demonstrations and announcements of development of various photographic equipment. It has been fascinating to watch it all but, to be honest, there were not too many items that aroused my genuine interest. This is not to say that there were not any interesting products; rather, this indicates in what direction I am moving as a photographer.
As expected, Canikon, et al., continue to tirelessly produce ever more powerful, feature–rich, complex computers in the shape of their mid–range DSLRs (alas, no high–end DSLR announcements this time—the inevitable buzz would have been quite a bit of entertainment). I looked through the specs of the Canon D60, Nikon D7000, Sigma SD1, etc., and, even though I was impressed, it was in a decidedly detached manner.
Recently I have been lending my Nikon D700 to a friend increasingly often, partly because I do not shoot with it that much yet still want the camera to see as much use as possible while it is still current, and partly to sort of get it out of sight to make my equipment choices easier. Given how I tend to photograph these days, this is probably a sign that I am slowly moving away from big honking 35mm DSLR cameras. Granted, there are situations where the D700 is the best tool for the task at hand and I will use it when necessary. This being said, such cameras are not of as much interest to me anymore, and I am quite certain that I will not upgrade when the successor of the D700 finally surfaces.
At the moment I am more interested in compact cameras with large censors (preferably APS–C) that could complement my Hasselblad V–series medium format system. The new Samsung NX100 looks very intriguing, but I would not call the timing of its introduction exactly favourable. Most photographers tend to be either early adopters or fence sitters and, as far as compact cameras with large sensors go, the former jumped on the bandwagon as soon as the Panasonic GF–1 and the Olympus EP–1 were announced. At the same time, those of us who are slightly more patient will likely wait until after Canikon finally make an entrance. And when they do, the emotional luster will probably have worn off the NX100.
The Fujifilm X100 looks really exciting at first glance, too. At closer examination, however, I see a "RAW" button at the back of the camera and yet cannot find a dedicated ISO button. Something tells me that the camera's user interface might be, let's say for now, idiosyncratic. Autofocus and high ISO performance remain to be seen, too. And of course, the camera will be available starting from early next year only, so it is pointless to consider buying it in the nearest future anyway.
I will be traveling in Western Sichuan Province, China (yes, again—just cannot get enough of the place) from 29 September for ten days on a dedicated photographic expedition. Such events always serve as the perfect excuse to buy new gear. Being disinterested in new DSLRs and still sitting on the fence with respect to compact cameras with large sensors, I thought of at least upgrading my now–ancient Panasonic Lumix LX–2 digital point–and–shoot (I cannot believe I have used it for almost four years!). The Canon PowerShot S95 looks like the ticket and I have had a long, hard look at it. In the end, however, I resisted the gear acquisition temptation—although the S95 is a better camera, the LX–2 still works and does everything I need a point–and–shoot for perfectly well.
So what equipment am I taking on the upcoming trip? You probably expect to hear about a fancy camera or a new digital back but, at the risk of disappointing you, I will simply be using my Hasselblad V–series system with (loads of) film. This being said, there is one interesting piece of gear that I will have at my disposal—I have borrowed a Zeiss/Hasselblad Tele–Tessar CF 5.6/350 lens for this trip, which is a pretty exotic lens in my book; it will be needed to photograph distant vistas and remote Tibetan villages. Only a couple of years ago I would have probably gone and bought the lens; now, however, I am much more rational about gear acquisition and use. Although I do need the lens for the trip, it is a specialty optic that I do not have much need for otherwise. This, basically, is my approach now: research the subject, analyse what equipment will be needed to photograph it, start with your existing standard kit and then borrow or rent any special gear that might be necessary. Getting mature, I guess.
So instead of buying any new gear I thought of what new and unconventional I can do with the equipment that I already have. I did manage to come up with something that I am going to try, but I am not going to tell you what it is now. Do not get me wrong—I do not mean to be ostentatious and simply am not sure whether it is going to work, both technically and aesthetically. It would be embarrassing to announce something and then fail to deliver, so please bear with me and stay tuned.
13 September 2010 » It might get loud
If you are interested in music you might be aware of a recent documentary called "It might get loud". It features Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2 and Jack White of The White Stripes, who get together to explore the history of the electric guitar and share their playing approaches. I have finally managed to get my hands on it (try finding the DVD in or shipping it to China!) and had to watch it twice before I could finally exhale and exclaim, whoa, man! Yes, it is that great.
The documentary speaks to me on many levels and, being a photographer, I was also amazed that there are so many passages that could be quoted, paraphrased or interpolated and have as much relevance to photography and creative life in general as they have to music. Imagine three accomplished photographers who shoot anything from self–made pinhole cameras to top end, top dollar medium format digital setups discussing the processes that they have used and experiences that they have had—what could be more revelatory and inspirational for an aspiring photographer? Here are a couple of random quotations to give you an idea:
Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Opportunity does not do anything for creativity. Yeah, it makes it easier, and you can get home sooner, but it does not make you a more creative person. That's the disease you have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.
And to offer an alternative view on the role of technology:
I am very interested in what hardware can do to an electric guitar sound. I love effects units. They've always pushed music forward.
30 August 2010 » Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZF lens review
My review of the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZF lens is now online. To be honest, it is getting increasingly difficult to describe optical qualities of lenses in a way that would adequately indicate the degree of differences in their performance. It is easy to slam a dog of a lens or praise a clearly outstanding optic; it is when performance of two, or even more, lenses is fairly close that finding the right words to describe the minor differences becomes very challenging. For example, of and by itself the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZF is a great optic. However, the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/21 ZF.2 has slightly less distortion, slightly less vignetting, and is slightly more resistant to flare. So even though both lenses are of highest optical quality, the latter is a wee bit better than the former. How do you signify such differences in two separate reviews that do not compare the lenses directly?
Photographers considering buying one of the Zeiss super wide angle lenses will probably ask the question of whether they should get the 18mm or the 21mm lens. Here, I am afraid, there is no simple answer. As mentioned above, the latter is better optically—not massively yet, if you look very closely, clearly so. The former, however, is wider and quite a bit smaller. So does one go for a slightly better performance at the cost of increased bulk and a narrower angle of view, or does one opt for a smaller package and a wider angle of view at the cost of optics being a touch less than perfect? To answer this question one needs to thoroughly consider his priorities with respect to the overall qualities of individual lenses, as well as how each lens fits into his existing lens system.
Night walk, Shanghai
Nikon D700 camera and AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D lens
23 August 2010 » Star trails, again
Regular readers may recall that I am a big fan of star trails photography. Photographing star trails is very easy if the conditions are right. In particular, you should be under a moonless and cloudless sky in a place that, ideally, has no ambient lights; furthermore, finding a suitable foreground subject is of great importance, too. Such conditions are quite difficult to come by for city dwellers but are easier to find in rural areas. And you are bound to have a chance to photograph star trails sooner or later if you travel for photography regularly. The key is to keep looking out for suitable conditions and be ready to photograph—chance favours the prepared mind.
I have photographed star trails in various parts of China and now, for the first time, in Russia. This time around I had it easy—I did not have to spend several hours out in the cold or sleep in a dusty yurt in the middle of nowhere; instead, all I had to do was stick my camera out the window, release the shutter and go to the land of Nod.
Star trails, Moscow suburbs
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/50 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
Three hour exposure at f/4
19 August 2010 » A couple of (random) thoughts on straight photography
Lately I have been very fond of what is known as "straight" photography. What is straight photography? Well, as the name suggests, it is when you pick up your camera and photograph what happens to be before you at the moment. As Paul Graham put it in his brilliant essay "Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult", "It's the view of this pen in my hand as I write this, it's an image of your hands holding this book, drift your consciousness up and out of this text and see: it's right there, across the room – there... and there". Despite its seeming easiness, however, straight photography is as difficult as any other genre of photography.
As I have been looking at and thinking about straight photography it came home to me how different the difficulties inherent to straight photography are from those pertaining to other prevalent types of photography. In case of most popular genres of photography the difficulties are primarily related to logistics; in straight photography, they are mostly about aesthetics.
Take, for example, landscape photography. Aesthetically, we have a fairly good idea what constitutes a good landscape photograph. In particular, we expect to see a picture of a striking subject—a grand lake, an impressive glacier, a dramatic mountain, etc.—that we do not see in our daily life. Next, we expect to see it in an unusual or beautiful light that does not last long and is not seen often (which is why the time right after sunrise and prior to sunset is precious for landscape photography). Of course, we expect decent composition, too. And finally, we expect the scene to be captured with immaculate technique, so that such things as unsharp foreground, blown highlights, rough tonalities, etc. do not distract us. From the other side of the equation, as photographers we know what has to be done to produce a decent landscape picture: we have to hone our photographic technique, research and find the right place to photograph, and then travel to that place at the right time; once we are at the right place at the right time and provided luck is with us, too, we need to use all necessary gear and techniques to capture the beautiful moment appropriately. Is landscape photography difficult? Hell yes. All things considered, though, logistics constitute a considerably larger portion of the difficulties than aesthetics, because aesthetics have been largely defined by several generations of landscape photographers before us.
The same holds for a number of other popular types of photography. Wildlife? Place, time, gear and technique. Sports? Place, time, gear and technique. Aesthetics, of course, matter here a lot, too; but if you have not got logistics right, no depth of aesthetic perception will save the day.
With straight photography, on the other hand, logistics are relatively easy—after all, you photograph what there is right there before your eyes at this particular moment. Granted, you still need to understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and focus, as well as a number of other nuances. However, straight photography generally does not require as much logistical preparations as, say, landscape photography. Most of the time you do not have to travel to exotic destinations and chase light—your neighbourhood in ordinary light will suffice.
Aesthetics of straight photography, however, are much more difficult to pin down. This, in my opinion, is primarily due to the fact that there are no "standard" aesthetic expectations—by the very definition of straight photography anything at any time in any light can be a subject of straight photography. Thus, you have to have a good idea as to what and why you are photographing; furthermore, you cannot expect that everyone will appreciate your photographic vision for the same reason of the loosely defined aesthetic anchor.
Although on the surface you photograph what happens to be before your eyes, it does not mean that straight photography is random—we do make aesthetic choices and they are more difficult because, as mentioned above, there is no standard starting point and no standard criteria of evaluation; you have to define that point. Nonetheless, if you look closely at good straight photography, there is always something undeniably attractive in it, and it is seeing, capturing and appreciating that something that makes straight photography so difficult.
In other words, straight photography is straight only in the sense that there often is no apparent main subject in striking light that immediately draws your attention and makes you exclaim "wow"; otherwise, straight photography is anything by straight. Then again, though, who said that all photography has to be striking, screaming and forcefully grabbing attention? Just as beauty does not require a red tie and green socks to exist and be noticed, photography can be simultaneously low key and deeply expressive, too.
So what is straight photography about? Well, I do not know, really. Some of the photographs that I like fall into the category of visual poetry; others contain things that, at closer examination, tell a much deeper story than what they seem to convey at first glance; yet others attract me by evoking complex psychological associations and connections. And of course, some photographs can have multiple layers filled with all these traits.
I have started trying my hand at straight photography, too. As expected, I find that logistics are fairly simple most of the time; it is seeing something unusual and meaningful within ordinary arrangements of mundane things that is really challenging. Below is one of my feeble attempts at straight photography, and home page photograph has been updated with another one. As one of my friends commented when seeing the image below, "it looks pretty ordinary". That, indeed, might be the case; to my eye, though, there is a bit more to the image than what first meets the eye.
Old Beijing apartments, entrance
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film
5 August 2010 » RSS feed fixed
Several readers have written to let me know that RSS feed of this page does not seem to work properly. I have now completely revamped it and the feed should work flawlessly from now on (for one thing, it has even been validated by W3C). If you have had any problems with receiving updates, please delete the original feed in you RSS reader and subscribe again by clicking on the orange icon on the right of the page's title.
On another communication–related note, from tomorrow on I will be mostly off line for a couple of weeks (but still photographing, thinking and, if the muse cares to tag along, possibly writing). My apologies if I am unable to promptly reply to email during this period.
3 August 2010 » Film vs. digital—the question of "character"
Do you have any subject comment on image "character"? You mention image quality, but not character.
What I'm getting at is the oft heard refrain from film aficionados that "film has character" while "digital is clinical". Implying that digital images have no character of their own; merely recording a scene in a very literal (perhaps flat) way.
In your experience with the CFV–39 (or even the D700) would you state that digital is indeed clinical? Or, is it not something that you've taken notice of?
This, indeed, is a very interesting question that I did not cover in the review. It took several days to put my thoughts together on the issue and, since other photographers might be interested in this subject, too, I decided to reply to Tom's email by way of a post here.
First off, let us get obvious out of the way: film does indeed have character. Quite interestingly, though, we did not hail this notion much before the arrival of digital capture, which perhaps indicates that we now use this collective term that is comprised of various qualities of film to withhold the digital assault—and even launch a counterattack. If we use "character" as our main defence strategy, does it mean that images captured with digital cameras have no character whatsoever? As I will argue below, not exactly.
Many photographers wax poetic about film having character (I do that quite often, too, and will try to avoid it here as much as I can); very few of us, however, go further to explain what exactly that character is. Although some aspects of film's character might indeed have a poetic touch to them, it would serve us well to analyse what that character is comprised of. While doing so, we can examine whether the elements of film's character have counterparts in the world of digital capture, and whether the latter can rightfully claim to have character, too.
(To avoid the risk of turning this post into a full–blown dissertation that never gets finished, I will restrict the discussion to colour films, RAW capture, base ISO settings, and artistic pursuits only.)
In my mind, film's character is mainly comprised of the following three elements: colour rendering, image texture, as well as dynamic range and, related to it, shadow and highlight handling. Let us have a closer look at each of them.
As every photographer who has ever shot film knows, every emulsion offers unique colour rendition. More specifically, each film's colour rendering was fine–tuned by its producer in a non–linear manner to achieve a certain look. And it is much more subtle than just being saturated to a lesser or greater degree—for example, both Fujifilm Velvia 50 and Kodak 100VS are highly saturated transparencies, but they could not look more different. This non–linearity is also the reason why the look of a given film is so difficult, if not impossible, to imitate; you will not get the look of Velvia by simply taking a flat digital capture (more on this below) and cranking saturation all the way up. When we choose a specific film, we already know what look we would like to get; we actually aim for that specific, inimitable look. Thus, the final appearance of an image is mostly predetermined by the chosen type of film.
When talking about digital capture, on the other hand, we generally discuss colour accuracy. Colour balance is set at the point of shooting only symbolically; it is normally adjusted and fine–tuned in post processing, which requires considerable skills and time investment. Moreover, when using digital cameras we usually optimise shooting for data gathering, which is a bit akin to flying an aircraft by instruments. For example, we expose to the right, and that does often result in flat captures where colour rendition is of secondary consideration (this is demonstrated in the example below; for comparison, current home page photograph was shot on Velvia 50 and nearly perfectly matches the original transparency). So can we talk of digital capture having character in terms of colour rendering? No, I would not say so. For the final image to have a unique or specific look in terms of colour, you, the photographer, should have character—and, quite often, some serious post processing skills.
Out of camera (ahem, back) capture, exposed to the right to optimise data gathering
Does this mean that there are no differences in colour reproduction between various digital cameras? No; there are differences. Here, however, I do not have sufficient technical expertise and can only attribute them to complex wizardry of camera hardware, firmware and computer software. So far my overall impression has been that, although the CFV–39 does not have an immediately obvious character in terms of colour rendering the way film does, I, nonetheless, generally like what I can massage out of the files created by the back. At the same, I could not say the same about the Nikon D700—the colours produced by the camera are competent, but I do not like them.
Then there is image texture. As you know, film has grain by definition; very importantly, grain is random in nature and varies in apparent size and appearance from film to film—it can be genuinely fine and almost imperceptible or coarse and noticeable at first glance. Now, one might like visibility of grain in photographs or not, which is a matter of personal preferences and taste; crucially, though, film grain, even when not immediately noticeable, creates a certain texture in printed photographs thus further shaping the character of images shot on film. Also significantly, I really like how scans from film yield themselves to sharpening (both capture and output).
Digital sensors, of course, have no grain the way film does. Instead, they have pixels and a number of factors that influence appearance of texture in photographs, two of which are digital noise and the effect of anti–aliasing filters. Most current cameras are very good at dealing with the former at base ISO and produce very clean images; the latter, however, is what differentiates digital cameras greatly. To wit: the D700 has an anti–aliasing filter that robs quite a bit of sharpness and produces unnatural smoothness that borders on plasticity and is not easy to deal with. Now, the files produced by the D700 are, again, competent, but I do not like them that much at close examination. Of course, the problem may simply lay with my post processing skills, but that is beyond the point, because I can get what I really like with film and the CFV–39 (which does not have an anti–aliasing filter) much easier and faster.
Finally, let us consider the issue of dynamic range and shadow and highlight rendering. Just as with colour reproduction, dynamic range of different films varies greatly—between roughly five stops (Velvia 50) and well over 10 stops (colour negative film); likewise, every emulsion has a unique toe and shoulder signature and thus reproduces shadow and highlight tones in a unique fashion. This further contributes to the character of images shot on film.
With digital capture, however, things are quite different. I would argue that digital cameras do not have character in this respect because they are linear devices. Again, we optimise data gathering when shooting, and do not aim for a specific look. We only need to ensure that highlights are not blown out and let shadows fall where they will. Thankfully, both the CFV–39 and the D700 boast very, very decent dynamic range. To paraphrase myself, for the final image to have a unique or specific look in terms of appearance of shadow and highlight tones, you, the photographer, should have character—and, quite often, some serious post processing skills.
By now you might have already noticed a trend in my way of thinking about this subject: when shooting film, you choose an emulsion that will give you the look that you intend to obtain. Moreover, every film will come not only with its own character, but also with a psychological baggage—what reputation it has, what kind of work has been shot on it, by whom, etc. Once a film is chosen, the look of the final images is mostly predetermined. With digital, on the other hand, the character should be defined by the photographer to a far greater degree.
Do I mean to say that digital capture has no character whatsoever? Not exactly. After all, colour rendering varies, bit depth varies, pixel quality varies, noise signatures vary, and so on. All these differences do translate into varied appearances of final photographs, which in turn translate into "digital character". Indeed, images produced by the CFV–39 and the D700 have quite different looks. This being said, their character (and digital character in general) is more shallow, feeble and indecisive than that of film.
So, to finally answer Tom's question, images captured with the CFV–39 do have a likable character, although its nature is entirely different from that of film—they do not give you any specific colour rendition, unique look of texture, or distinctive handling of shadows and highlights; instead, their character is embodied in an incredible confidence in what they offer, which especially stands out when you bring a camera such as the Nikon D700 into consideration. The character of the CFV–39 is certainly less intimate and personal than that of film, but it is strong; it is the difference between a caring lover and a highly professional partner. Just do not ask me what I would choose if I could afford the CFV–39!
20 July 2010 » Photoshop disservice
Last weekend I happened to be in Beijing and was invited to have dinner at an old friend's home. There were several people whom I had never met before and, naturally, we talked about various harmful topics you usually discuss with new acquaintances. When the discussion came to traveling in China, I gave a few advices on possible destinations and, to support them, suggested to have a quick look at some of the images in the gallery of this Web site. None of the guests were photographers and they were quite impressed with some of the photographs. After viewing a dozen images or so, however, a punch was thrown in the shape of a weighty question: were all these images photoshopped?
I had to pause for a few seconds and think about the question. Technically speaking, yes, all images on this Web site were processed in Photoshop to some degree; thus, it would not have been entirely accurate to declare that they were not photoshopped. At the same time, however, it would not have been correct to simply say that they were photoshopped either, because the term more often than not implies excessive image manipulation. At first I thought of explaining that when I scan slides or negatives the main priority is to extract as much information from the originals as possible, which almost always results in flat reproductions that require "normalisation" and further fine–tuning in Photoshop. I, however, realised that this explanation would probably be too technical and simply answered that yes, I do use Photoshop, but the images on the Web site are true to the original transparencies.
This sort of answered the question, but I could clearly sense an inerasable aftertaste hanging in the air—ah, he used Photoshop—and it seemed to have taken away from the photographs' merit. The images did not seem as impressive anymore.
Now, I was not surprised or upset by this minor incident because, on the psychological level, it is perfectly understandable and perhaps should even be anticipated. The following quotation from a book on evolutionary psychology, "The Moral Animal", explains this phenomenon exceedingly well:
Indeed, in the social psychology laboratory, people not only tend to attribute success to skill and failure to circumstance; they tend to reverse the pattern when evaluating others. Luck is the thing that makes you fail and other people succeed; ability works the other way around.
(As a side note, I highly recommend this book, even though I have to also forewarn you that some of the things you will learn about human nature will be shockingly, even scarily, unflattering.)
What did surprise me, though, is the pervasiveness of the notion, even among non–photographers, that Photoshop is a magic wand that allows one to effortlessly turn a piece of visual crap into an eye candy. If in the past great photographs sometimes were attributed to nice, expensive cameras (this is a great picture—you must have a nice camera!), now they tend to be credited to Photoshop.
Photographers do try to differentiate between image normalisation and manipulation, even though the boundary between the two is often blurred. For non–photographers, however, all that seems to matter is the fact that Photoshop was used, and the only difference might lay in the degree of discounting of the artistic merit. If you try to explain that you use Photoshop in a judicial manner to normalise images, the reaction is likely to be the skeptical, if not cynical, yeah, sure, of course. And if, God forbid, you are able to turn unappealing captures into compelling photographs with the use of Photoshop (which is an admirable skill in my book), then you are excluded from the ranks of artists forever.
Is not it ironic that the tool that revolutionised photography and that we all have come to rely upon so greatly (unless you do wet darkroom printing from negatives, of course) can also be, and is, easily used by our fundamental psychological underpinnings to diminish our efforts, cast a shadow upon our earnestness, and ultimately devalue our photographic work? In this sense, the existence of Photoshop has done us all a disservice.
14 July 2010 » Redefining my living space
I mentioned in one of the previous posts that I recently moved to a new apartment. During the past decade I have relocated so many times that I have become quite efficient at it—I will not be able to rescue everything if the building is on fire, but give me a few hours and there will not be much that I will regret leaving behind. Moreover, I have developed a certain sequence in which the moving process unfolds. For example, most important things are packed (and then unpacked) in the beginning and in the end—the first to be taken care of is my photo equipment, and the last to be unplugged is my hi–fi system; once in the new place, the hi–fi is assembled and powered up prior to doing anything else, while photo gear sees the light of the day last to ensure that it directly goes where it will normally be stored (a dedicated anti–humidity cabinet, which is an absolute must in most of Southern China).
First half of the moving process (i.e. packing and actually moving) went as usual and according to my unwritten standard operating procedures manual. Unpacking and arranging things in the new place, however, was an exercise that I had never had the luxury to experience before: I decided to slow down and savour the process of carefully considering how I wanted to arrange my new living space. And so I took my time reflecting on every detail that would influence how, when and what I do when I am at home.
For a while I almost had no furniture in the new apartment (I was just about to admit that this partly happened due to imperfect planning on my part but, on second thought, I am not quite sure if the sloppiness was not subconsciously intentional to avoid giving up the process halfway). At one point all the furniture that I had in the living room apart from a massive inbuilt bookshelf was one single chair. Sitting on it in front of my hi–fi listening to "Kind of Blue" felt akin to shooting a subtle, nostalgic sunset with a simple mechanical camera and a prime lens. And I spent quite a bit of time on that chair, mulling over various details related to the new home, and not only.
In the previous apartment I had a spare room that I could have dedicated to photographic pursuits. However, other priorities prevailed at the time and the room was used for other purposes; as a result, I located my digital darkroom in the fairly large living room—a decision that to a great extent defined my lifeflow while at home. In particular, I tended to spend a lot more time in front of my Mac Pro than I probably should have. Unless you have a specific task to complete, spending unnecessarily long hours in front of your computer monitor serves the same purpose and is as futile as watching TV.
Priorities, however, change, and after spending a few days on that chair I decided to have a dedicated digital darkroom in the new apartment; a few other things were changed, too, but I am going to skip this part as it is not related to photography. On the one hand, having everything related to photography in one designated room gives me a sense of consolidation and purposefulness, thus enhancing my focus on photography. On the other hand, I know that I should be there only if I need to do something specifically related to photography (or this Web site), such as sorting digital files from a shoot, arranging and scanning slides, working on complex images that require a lot of computing power, printing photographs, you name it; otherwise, I should not be in front of that monitor. This clearcut separation allows me to better use the time that otherwise would most likely be unnoticeably wasted.
As the process of organising my stuff unfolded it dawned on me that composition is everywhere, that it is inseparable and can be learnt from every aspect of your life. It is in how you arrange books on your bookshelf, how you put the clothes in your wardrobe, how you arrange your shoes at the entrance of your home, and how you put your toothbrush in the glass. It is all related. Put differently, composing a photograph is not all that dissimilar to arranging things in one's home, albeit the former seldom allows for the time to sit around and contemplate, and thus has to be done on a more intuitive level.
(The above paragraph reminded me of the part in the Pink Floyd's movie "The Wall" where Pink, after smashing everything in the hotel room there was to trash, partly calms down, returns to his creative calling and, still half shaken, starts laying out an abstract artistic composition on the floor using the broken pieces of various stuff that he has just destroyed. I have always admired and envied that episode.)
So where am I if I am not in the digital darkroom? Most likely in the living room, on my comfy sofa, with a much more balanced choice of things to do. Here, I am also much closer to my music, right in front of my mean speakers. Music plays when I am in the digital darkroom, too, but it reaches me after traveling around a few corners thus losing quite a bit of delicacy. And of course, a glass of wine or single malt feels more fitting in a living room—we (well, most of us) never took booze into darkrooms in the days of film and the taboo has quietly accompanied us into digital darkrooms of today.
The process of redefining my living space has been almost finished by now, although some minor details that have been stubbornly eluding my imagination and decisiveness remain to be taken care of. To my surprise the undertaking was much more exploratory, inventive and thoughtful than I anticipated. I recommend giving it a try if and when such an opportunity arises.
29 June 2010 » Publication in Kyoto Journal
I am very pleased to announce that one of the photographs that I took last year in Gansu Province, China is featured on the cover of the current issue of Kyoto Journal. There are literally gazillions of photographs readily available from the Internet and other sources and having one of your images chosen for a cover is never a mean feat.
22 June 2010 » Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZF in Casa Oleg
Lens testing can be a number of things for me. Most often it is a lot of fun associated with anticipation of what each particular lens will show. Sometimes lens testing can also serve as an antidepressant or a way to pass the inevitable periods of dry spell when you do not have the energy to be impressed, cannot finish writing one single sentence or even bother to move a finger. You know, however, that you have been doing too much testing when you start noticing chromatic aberration of your glasses or of the bottom of the glass when you drink water.
Over the long run, when you have reviewed a sufficient number of lenses, you develop a knack whereby you can have a pretty good idea about a lens' optical qualities after taking it for a half hour walk and then reviewing the files on your computer screen for another thirty minutes (this is more complex and takes longer with zoom lenses, though). In other words, you learn what and where to look for to reveal the essence of an optic.
I now have a Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZF lens for testing and took it for a walk on last Sunday, even though it was a dreary, grey day with rain drizzling on and off. I will post a complete review of the lens when it is ready but here is the upshot: it is very sharp (not as sharp in the farthest corners wide open as the Carl Zeiss Distagon 2.8/21 but sharper than many lenses); as expected, the lens shows very strong vignetting at f/3.5; chromatic aberration can be seen around very contrasty edges but is not massive; finally, the lens produces insignificant (predominantly pincushion) distortion that has a complex signature. Stay tuned!
Yellow distortion (image cropped at the top)
16 June 2010 » Photographic wisdom measured in kilograms?
I get asked this question quite often, mostly by my non–photographer friends and acquaintances who do not realise how sensitive the subject is: what do you do with all the prints that you produce? Putting sensitivity aside, it is a fair question—after all, there is only so much wall space, and only so many people will be wiling to buy—or take, when you are in the mood of offering them for free—your prints. And the question weighs even more heavily on those who give in to the temptation of printing large (as if printing large makes you a better photographer).
I have done quite a bit of printing over the past several years; I have also gone through the phase of making big prints (thankfully, though, I have long backed away from it). I have sold a few prints and given away a number of photographs, too. Most of the pictures that I have printed, however, have accumulated into a nice, massive pile—a pile that is way too large to fit into a shoe box. I suppose only our predecessors had the luxury of keeping all their photographs in shoe boxes. One could say that, given the latest printing technologies and relatively low cost of printing, we have grown accustomed to indulging in disregarding modesty.
Most of the time the pile sits there unnoticed. Granted, you are sort of aware of its existence but usually not conscious enough of it to ask yourself as to why or for what purpose it exists. Recently I moved to a new apartment, for the umpteenth time, and could not avoid facing my pile of prints again. In an attempt to justify its existence, if not exactly to find a meaningful purpose in its presence, I started sorting through and looking at the photographs. As it turned out, the experience was more interesting than I anticipated—for one thing, it did not simply end in disappointment that painstakingly producing the prints was nothing but an exercise in futility.
I am a proponent of distancing oneself from one's own work, mostly by not seeing or thinking of it for a while, to see the forest for its trees. I had not seen most of the prints long enough so that I almost had a detached viewer's perspective. To my great surprise, many of them carried very different messages than what I remember being on my mind right after printing them.
There were photographs that almost looked as somebody else's work, which now feels as if I was not entirely true to myself at the time I chose and worked on them. There were several pictures printed three or four times, identically the same, at immodestly large sizes; I felt perplexed at first but then remembered the infatuation of the moment—although long faded, I could recollect the connection again. There were several versions of the same print, which indicated an aesthetic indecision at the point of working on the images; now, however, I could easily choose the best version. There were prints from my Panasonic LX–2 digital point–and–shoot, and they looked nowhere nearly as bad as the age of the camera or its sensor size would suggest. There were many test prints, which I obviously felt were worth keeping at the time but now got rid of without giving it a second thought—they have served the purpose of producing and cementing ballpark knowledge and finally could be let go of. I could go on with the list of fascinating discoveries, but I think you get the point.
Having taken my time looking at the prints I realised that I do know a couple of things about photography—what works and what does not, what matters and what can be disregarded—a knowledge that cannot be bought or explained in a couple of hours. Holding the pile of prints in my hands, which weighed in at a few kilograms, I still could not adequately answer the question in the beginning of the post. However, I did not seem to need to look for an answer anymore, because, on a metaphysical level, the pile had transformed into photographic knowledge and, however shallow, wisdom. I cannot imagine arriving at where I am today without all the printing that I have done.
22 May 2010 » Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/21 ZF.2 lens review
My review of the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/21 ZF.2 lens is now online. In short, it is a spectacular optic and easily one of the best performers across various brands at this focal length. Its only real drawback is very strong vignetting at f/2.8, but then again many ultra wide angle lenses have this quality. If you need a lens of this focal length for nature or landscape photography and do not mind the bulk (and the price tag), I recommend the lens without reservations.
17 May 2010 » Less is more
In the end of last year I bought a Hasselblad CFE 4/40 IF lens. It is a super wide angle optic in medium format and costs an arm and a leg. Why did I buy it? Looking back at it now, I think because I wanted it (as opposed to needing it). I had used my Hasselblad V series system for a number of years and there was only one situation when I felt that I needed something wider than the CFi 4/50 lens, which is equivalent to roughly 26mm in 35mm format; that was when I photographed volcanoes of Kamchatka last year. I think what really triggered the buying decision was that the lens is a remarkable performer—it can arguably be considered the pinnacle of Zeiss lens design—and I had to have it. Some things are such that you cannot let go of them until you have lived the dream.
Technically, the lens is absolutely spectacular. Believe it or not, it is brutally sharp, centre to corner, starting right from f/4. I could not detect any immediately obvious chromatic aberration and, although image circle of the lens is very small (when used on the Hasselblad Flexbody, it cannot be shifted even one millimetre), its vignetting signature is far from bad. It shows noticeable distortion, but "noticeable" is meant by fairly high standards; besides, distortion has a simple signature and can be easily dealt with in post processing.
Adding the optic to my usual three lens setup (50mm, 80mm, and 150mm), however, brought nothing but confusion. First, the CFE 4/40 IF is quite large and heavy; adding it to my usual kit made me use a larger camera bag, which became too heavy to lug around. Second, the focal lengths of 50mm and 40mm just do not go together well in my experience—there is some kind of friction between them; I do not know what it is but I felt it very strongly when carrying the two lenses at the same time. I reckon the essence of that friction is in whether you use one lens or the other when you want to shoot wide, and none of the lenses wanted to be left in the backpack. The CFi 4/50 is a much better general purpose wide angle lens whereas the CFE 4/40 IF is more of a specialty optic; the latter, however, is so outstanding that you have to use it. Picking one lens over the other was tough most of the time, and I hate being in the middle.
Recently I had to sell the CFE 4/40 IF for financial reasons. Well, not exactly, perhaps—I actually wonder if using the money elsewhere was an excuse to get rid of the lens. And now that it is gone and I am back to my basic three lens setup, I feel relieved and perfectly focused (pun unintended) again. Less, indeed, sometimes is more.
12 May 2010 » Mirrorless cameras—the battle heats up... or does it?
As anticipated, Sony have dropped the other shoe in the shape of the NEX–3 and NEX–5 mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. There is a lot to immediately like about them and it is very impressive how many things Sony seem to have gotten right. APS–C sized sensor and apparently exemplary image quality? Check. Small, magnesium alloy camera body (NEX–5)? Check. 3.0 inch, 920,000 dot tilt–flip screen? Check. If, however, you have already sensed that there is a but coming, you are right.
But, what's with the user interface? DPReview have written regarding the PASM modes of the cameras that "most common control settings (ISO, for instance) are scattered throughout the slightly perverse multi–tiered menu". At the same time, Cnet.com have reported that "the Sony NEX–5 seems optimised for the point–and–shoot upgrader; not necessarily because it's easier to use than any other or that it's priced particularly low, but because it's full of constraints that will probably bother enthusiasts a lot more than snapshooters". This seems to mean that, in the long run, serious photographers are likely to find the cameras frustrating to use, which is a deal breaker in my book.
What I completely fail to grasp is why there is so little differentiation between the NEX–3 and the NEX–5. I am not a marketing specialist but, the way I see it, Sony could have targeted the lower end model at point–and–shoot upgraders while designing user interface of the higher end model for serious photographers who need a lot of control and easy access to main settings; this would have allowed them to sell to two different markets. I also do not know much about software development and it is possible that designing two different user interfaces would have been cost prohibitive; still I have to say that the way Sony have positioned the two cameras does not make sense to me. Serious DSLR users who want a small, serious camera with a large sensor apparently were not on Sony engineers' (or, more likely, marketers') mind when they envisioned the cameras.
Another thing that bothers me is that Sony have announced one prime pancake lens, two (massive in relation to the size of the camera bodies) zoom lenses, and no lens road map. Are we going to see more fixed–focal–length pancake lenses? It is difficult to commit to a system without such knowledge.
At any rate, let us wait and see what in–depth reviews will say about the Sony NEX cameras. Do not count on me being an early adopter, though. And, oh, will someone wake Canikon up, please?
11 May 2010 » Fixed–focal–length (prime) vs. zoom lenses
I wrote my prime vs. zoom lenses article a few years back and, very interestingly, this theme has seen a bit of resurgence on the Internet as of late. In particular, Ken Rockwell has written a piece that sounds very similar to my thoughts on the subject, and Nathan Jones of The Photon Fantastic, a Web site that I highly recommend visiting regularly, has shared his thoughts here. In short, all three of us favour prime lenses.
I still had a couple of zoom lenses in my arsenal when I wrote the article, but that was then and this is now and I no longer own zoom lenses (apart from the lens on my digital point–and–shoot camera, where I have no choice). I use prime lenses for everything, even on my Nikon D700 when shooting social events. On the one hand, I never feel restricted by not using zoom lenses even in most dynamic situations; on the other hand, I have encountered numerous circumstances where certain photographs would not have been possible had I used slowish (f/2.8 or slower) zoom lenses. As an example, below is a photograph from a social event that I attended recently. It was taken with a Nikon D700 camera and an AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D lens at ISO3200, f/2 and 1/20 seconds. Using a slower lens would have significantly degraded quality of the image, or even ruined it—I would have had to either use a higher ISO setting and get a much noisier image, or shoot at a slower shutter speed and get an unsharp picture because of camera/subject movement. And of course, blurred background afforded by the fast aperture is a tremendous bonus.
Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar...
The preference for prime lenses partially explains my recent interest in Carl Zeiss ZF.2 lenses, too. Also, when I finally come to buy a mirrorless camera system, my intention is to use fixed–focal–length pancake lenses only. I do not mean to say goodbye to zoom lenses forever as one never knows what the future holds, but, at least for the time being, they are just not my cup of tea.
29 April 2010 » AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D vs. Carl Zeiss Planar 1.4/85 ZF
I have just posted a AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D vs. Carl Zeiss Planar 1.4/85 ZF comparison. I fully expected both contenders to perform more or less equally well yet to my great surprise discovered that, optically, the Zeiss is a better lens. Thus, the choice for potential buyers boils down to the optical performance vs. autofocus issue—if what you are after is the ultimate image quality, get the Zeiss; if, however, you must have autofocus and optical performance is of secondary consideration, then get the Nikkor.
I now also have a Carl Zeiss Distagon 2.8/21 ZF.2 for testing (this lens is great fun!) and my review will be published some time in May.
24 April 2010 » My ideal mirrorless camera—update
My comments on the ideal mirrorless camera apparently have resonated among quite a few readers, which suggests that at present this is a topic du jour in photography and that the concept of mirrorless cameras has gathered quite a bit of a momentum. It seems that I am far from the only one who is waiting to have more options before pulling the trigger on buying the first mirrorless camera.
My friend Edwin over at CameraHobby.com happened to be thinking of the same subject and would add quiet operation and in–camera image stabilisation to my wish list. I agree with him and these two items are a welcome addition to the ideal mirrorless camera. At the same time, DPReview.com have just published a review of the Olympus EP–2, which is one of the popular choices in the mirrorless camera segment today; to me, this camera demonstrates what I do not want—the combination of a low resolution screen, complicated menu system and various operational quirks certainly constitutes a deal breaker.
A reader has also written to suggest that an alternative to the perfect mirrorless digital camera could be... wait for it... a compact film camera. This is a really neat idea and an example of thinking out of the box. There is a number of compact film cameras available at fairly reasonable prices. For example, Minolta TC–1 seems to be a gem and an all–time classic. Although I do realise that not everyone would be prepared to shoot film, it is a perfectly viable option for those who feel comfortable working with the "old" medium.
22 April 2010 » My ideal mirrorless camera
I went on a short trip over the last weekend and, although it was not a dedicated photographic outing, things somehow fell into place allowing me to see and think photographically. I brought the Nikon D700 with the 35mm lens with me, which is the smallest serious kit in my camera arsenal at the moment, but it turned out to be too much to lug around given the non–photographic nature of the journey. I ended up leaving the camera at the hotel and now regret it—I can still see in my mind's eye the images that I could have taken.
There is often a difference between being photographically acute and carrying photo gear—the former does not necessarily require the latter and the latter does not guarantee the former. Carrying photo gear yet not seeing photographically is understandable and we all have done it—the muse cannot be summoned whenever you want. Failing to have a decent camera when inspiration comes, however, is not excusable and any serious photographer should be ready for such moments. Now, I did have my iPhone with me but, despite all the bravado regarding iPhone–style photography on the Internet and claims that your camera does not matter a jot, I am of the opinion that iPhone simply does not cut it as a camera if you take photography seriously.
This predicament made me think about mirrorless cameras again as they offer image quality comparable to that of serious DSLRs but have much more manageable weight and size. A camera such as the Panasonic GF–1 would have been perfect on this trip. I, however, have been holding back from purchasing one of the mirrorless cameras available now because we are more than likely to have many more options in this segment before the year is out. The Panasonic GF–1 looks great (so does the Olympus EP–2, but the widespread reports of the glacial speed of its autofocus have turned me completely off), but I want to wait and see what the offerings from Sony, Nikon and, hopefully, other camera makers will be. Buying the first mirrorless camera is more important than it seems at first—you do not just buy a camera; you buy into a camera system. This has far reaching implications and should be thought through carefully.
On the train back to Shanghai I thought of the missed photographic opportunities and how a mirrorless camera would have saved the day. I also mulled what my ideal mirrorless camera would be like and, interestingly, came up with the list of key features quite quickly, as if the issue had been stewing at the back of my mind for a long time. Here is what the perfect mirrorless camera would have in my version of the best of all possible worlds (in no particular order):
Size, weight and build quality in the ballpark of the Panasonic GF–1 or Leica X–1;
3.0", 920,000 dot OLED display; anything smaller in size or resolution would be disappointing;
12MP APS–C sensor found in the Nikon D300s;
Speedy autofocus—not as fast as in serious DSLRs but certainly faster than in point–and–shoot cameras of today;
Fast start up and responsive operation;
RAW capture with a RAW + JPG option (JPG quality and size should be user customisable);
A comprehensive Auto ISO feature;
Highlight warning and large, transparent live RGB histogram;
Simple, clean menu system that does not require a cheat sheet or scratching one's head to get to frequently used items;
Dedicated buttons for or, at least, easy access to Exposure Compensation and ISO settings;
Fast (f/2 or faster) fixed–focal–length pancake lenses (16mm, 24mm and 60mm, please);
Dedicated, old–fashioned Shutter Speed and Aperture dial with A, S, P and M mode implemented in a manner similar to the Leica X–1;
Fairly large buffer for continuous shooting that clears quickly.
Unfortunately, we do not happen to live in the best of all possible worlds and, even though I think I am not asking for too much, I realise that the mirrorless camera that I will end up buying will not have at least some of the above; at the same time, it will most likely boast numerous things that I do not need. Nonetheless, I am certain that we will have very competent options and, as they say, it is a great time to be a photographer.
15 April 2010 » Fujifilm Astia 100F vs. Provia 100F
Occasionally I get into the mood of wanting to try new films—maybe to explore what alternative colour reproduction might bring to my images, or, perhaps, to indulge in a bit if visual freshness, or, possibly, to simply reconfirm my previous, long–lasting choices. I have been interested in Fujifilm Astia 100F colour slide film for a long time—it is said to have "subdued colour reproduction" and, at least in theory, might be a possible substitution for the Fujifilm Provia 100F, the emulsion that has been my standard choice for when I need neutral, realistic colours. So one sunny Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago (I might add in passing that Sunday afternoons have been a rarity in Shanghai for quite a while—or so it seems) I mounted the CFE 4/40 IF lens onto my Hasselblad 503CW camera, grabbed a couple of film backs and went out for a walk.
I shot twelve harmless (as in without any aesthetic merit) scenes with both Provia and Astia and, looking at the slides side by side for the first time, was very surprised how pronounced the differences between their colour reproduction were—see the examples below. On a technical note, the four slides were scanned and then judiciously adjusted in Photoshop as one shot; I cropped, resized and sharpened them for Web presentation only after all adjustments were done. Thus, the examples below at the very least preserve relative colour rendition of the two films; on my freshly calibrated Apple Cinema Display they look very close, if not identical, to what I see when looking at the original slides on my light table.
Fujifilm Provia 100F
Fujifilm Astia 100F
Fujifilm Provia 100F
Fujifilm Astia 100F
The first thing that I notice is that Astia boasts much warmer colour reproduction; compared with it, Provia has a very noticeable green–and–blue tint. I like how Astia renders yellows and reds—they have a lush look to them; greens, on the other hand, look somewhat muddy. Thinking back of the actual scenes, I would say that what Provia shows is much closer to reality (having said that, photography has never been about reality, so this consideration is mostly irrelevant). As far as dynamic range is concerned, I do not see any meaningful differences and would say that Provia is on a par with Astia (for some reason I expected Astia to have a wider dynamic range). Both films also boast superfine grain: Astia and Provia have RMS of 7 and 8 respectively; I seriously doubt that the difference will be noticeable in real–life photographs of even very large size. So far so good—both films, although quite different, seem to be very competent performers. Before I continue, however, I need to digress a little and talk about the importance of... the sky.
They say there are three things one can stare at endlessly: flowing water, open fire and someone counting money. As to me, I can endlessly stare into the blue sky, preferably with some humble, distant feather clouds. I can do so because, well, it is endless, both literally and allegorically. And the amazement of the allegoric part is that something seemingly so plain and ubiquitous as the blue sky can be a perfect visual match for various types of music, which in turn represent endlessly various states of mind. One day—or moment—it is "Speak to me / Breathe", the next it is "Flamenco Sketches", then it is "Speak Low", and so on—all visually united by the same good old blue sky (with subtle feather clouds, thank you). No matter what disposition I am in, I look at the blue sky and always see a reflection of that disposition, hear an echo embodied in the music of the moment coming back at me.
Probably trying to reverse–engineer this connection and incorporate music into my photographic work, I venture to include a sky—any reasonably meaningful sky—in every photograph, if possible. To me, inclusion of a sky also allows for much more room for interpretation and serves as an objective counterbalance to subjective emphasis. Here, however, I seem to disagree with many photographers with whom I have discussed this topic. Many of them prefer to be more focused and exclude the sky unless it is a crucial component of a composition. To me, however, inclusion of the sky and its quality remain imperative.
With the importance of the sky now properly disclosed, I have to say that I simply dislike what Astia does to it. Just look at the colour of the sky in the photographs above—can you even call that a sky? Sorry, nice try, Astia, but... thanks but no, thanks. Now, I am sure that there are applications where Astia shines—portraiture is said to be one—and that there are situations where its colour rendition is the perfect choice. However, the way it renders the blue sky precludes it from becoming my general–purpose, use–anytime film. If Provia 100F is to be dethroned, it will have to be done by some other film.
10 April 2010
In my review of the Hasselblad H3DII–50 camera system I mentioned several problems that I encountered while using the camera in the field. I have now received a reply from Hasselblad that addresses some of them and added an update at the end of the review.
7 April 2010
Recently I have been distracted by various things and not able to do or think much photographically. Or maybe—cause and effect relationships can be very tricky—it is one of those prolonged dry spell periods when you find it impossible to take your camera off the shelf or finish writing one single meaningful sentence; at such times, "distractions" come in handy as plausible excuses. The question is how you get out from such periods, and the answer never comes easily. It might seem simple after the fact or when it is not you who is stuck, but it is always a pickle when you are in the midst of it. Also, what got you out of the rut once most likely will not help next time. You have to find a way to refuel your passion in a new way each and every time. What I have been thinking about most, however, is what got me into the rut in the first place—presuming it is a rut and not a temporary overdosage of life's trivia. Understanding why something happens is already half of a solution.
Nonetheless, I have finally managed to finish writing my impressions of the Hasselblad H3DII camera system and the article is now online.
17 March 2010
As you might recall, in the end of last year my friend Edwin of CameraHobby.com and I decided to make a small experiment for me to ascertain whether there is any difference between Epson canned profiles and custom profiles created with the use of one of the better colour management packages. The experiment that looked quite simple and straightforward in the beginning, however, turned out to be a bit of a nightmare and lead to uncover that even some of the best software companies still cannot get their act together to conclusively figure out colour management issues.
The workflow of the experiment unfolded as planned. Edwin uses Eye One Photo, which is X–Rite's pro–oriented colour management package, and sent me by email the Eye One colour charts. I printed them with my Epson 4880 printer following Edwin's instructions (basically, that no colour management should be applied in the entire printing pipeline so that the charts show the printer's uncorrected output). I then sent the charts to Edwin by post; once received, he created custom profiles for the two types of Epson paper that I used and emailed them to me. Shortly after that I started doing some printing to see if there are any differences between the canned and Edwin's custom profiles.
I quickly discovered that, indeed, there were differences; moreover, they were massive—the prints produced with the use of the custom profiles simply looked wrong. Edwin and I spent some time trying to figure out what had gone wrong and, when we were almost ready to give up, came across this article that explained the nature of the problem. In short, it is as follows: "If you are using an Epson printer and Apple computer with the latest operating system, the latest version of Photoshop (CS4) and one of the latest Epson drivers, you cannot print a file with no color management."
Luckily, the article also offered a workaround. I was still interested in doing the experiment and proposed to Edwin to try again using the suggested solution. At around that time, however, Ctein over at The Online Photographer published an article suggesting that Apple... broke printing in Snow Leopard. In particular, "Snow Leopard has a bug in it that screws up rendering if you're using a version 4 ICC profile (this bug appeared in MacOS 10.6.2; it didn't exist in 10.6.1). That's going to be any profile that's been generated recently."
There might be a workaround for the second problem, too. I, however, think that this has gone way too far and, as far as the absolute majority of photographers are concerned, colour management is completely screwed up in the latest and greatest OS. It is very surprising that very few people have cried foul about the issue, especially given how popular Apple are with the photographic community. I seriously doubt that there would be such silence if Microsoft had done something similar.
So much for curiosity—it will have to wait until the issue is completely resolved by Apple and, possibly, Adobe and Epson. Meanwhile, I am very happy that the old Epson profiles work without a hitch and that this conundrum has not influenced my photographic work.
11 March 2010
My Pingyao portfolio, which includes a whooping number of 22 images, is now online. The reason I say "whooping" is that having more than a dozen images in a photographic series is a very bold statement, as well as a not entirely modest claim to meaningfulness. After all, in our age of very limited attention span, how many people can you realistically expect to finish looking through such a monstrous number of images? One must have a very strong sense of purpose and completeness to implicitly demand the attention that most would not readily grant.
Being aware of the above, I still purposefully posted 22 images. The rationale for my stubbornness is that there are no accidental photographs in the series—each picture was carefully chosen to serve the dual purpose of depicting the place from a certain angle and supporting the balance of the sequence, which is very important to presentation of a body of work. Considered of and by themselves, many individual images will probably seem trivial; however, it is the entire chain that matters, not individual links, even though some of the links might rise above mediocrity.
I realise that many of you will perceive the series as nothing more than a plain, literal record of the middle of nowhere (keep in mind, though, that this particular nowhere happens to be the cultural rooting of the place that is unmistakably evolving into the centre of the universe for the upcoming couple of centuries). Regardless of this, I visited Pingyao a number of years back, without a camera at the time, and have always wanted to have at least a plain, literal record of it. To that extent, I am already very happy about the series.
To me, however, the series is more than just a plain, literal record of Pingyao. It probably is not immediately obvious but I think I have managed to capture at least some of the poetry of the place. True, perhaps only a tiny fraction of it, but, to my eye, it is undeniably there, which is not too bad for a three day adventure. And most importantly, I still feel the connection with the place and see it in the photographs. Never mind if you do not—photography is a very personal undertaking and, as far as I am concerned, I have accomplished the task—not exactly brilliantly or with flying colours, but, on a personal level, still fairly satisfactorily.
So I suppose I will simply let the series say what it has to say and let the rest fall where it will, even if it ends up being a visual landfill in the eyes of some viewers.
24 February 2010
Pingyao, as I expected, offered great photographic opportunities. It, however, is not a place that takes you by colourfulness or visual freshness. Instead, it is a place where you have to take your time exploring it and feel its slow, subtle rhythm. It does not open up unless you slow down and accept its pace. Once you do, however, you will be surprised how much poetry there is, literally around every corner. And speaking of poetry, my friend Albert with whom I went on the trip, wrote a short poem in Chinese about our adventure:
Fragrant liquor, simple cuisine—seeing old friend
Merrily tipsy amidst spring dreams, we are lost in ancient town
My photographic technique was consistent with the pace of the place. At first I started using the HC 3.5–4.5/50–110 zoom but it felt plain inappropriate. Also, the lens is very heavy and slow, so that shooting hand–held at ISO50 was mostly unrealistic anyway (given my previous experience with the CFV–39 digital back, I did not want to shoot at higher ISO settings). I then figured that if you start using a tripod you might as well as take one step further towards thoughtfulness and meticulousness. In the end, 99% of shooting was done with the HCD 4/28 lens and the HTS 1.5 tilt–and–shift adaptor, lens shifted most of the time (even when photographing people). I was also taking notes on using the system in the field as I photographed and have two pages of comments that I now need to expand into a first impressions report.
I have started working on the images shot in Pingyao—slowly, carefully, sort of from afar—to keep the pace of the place and not accidentally get disconnected with its poetry. Something tells me that the final images will be quite different from the look and the style that I produced in the past. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.
We all know that hard drive failure is not a question of if but rather when; many of us, however, tend to think that it is not going to happen to me. Well, last night the master hard drive that held all original RAW files and high resolution scans crashed. Thankfully, everything was properly backed up with the use of Time Machine and it is restoring the files onto a new 1TB hard disk that I bought today as I am writing this update. I have to say, though, that I felt quite nervous before I restored the most important files as for several hours there was only one copy of the files. Imagine the horror of losing several years' worth of photographic work... Time Machine is great and all, but I am now going to look into multiple drive backup solution.
14 February 2010
Next week I will be photographing in Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China (山西省平遥) and have a Hasselblad H3D camera system on loan from Hasselblad Shanghai for the trip; the system includes the following:
H3D camera body
50MP digital back
Two lenses (HCD 4/28 and HC 3.5–4.5/50–110 zoom)
HTS 1.5 tilt–and–shift adaptor
I have had the system for a couple of days now and, since there is another assignment that has to be completed before the end of the month, I have already had a chance to shoot with it. I immediately noticed that the camera is very user friendly—I figured out how everything works within about ten minutes without reading the manual (which I do not have anyway). If you are not a novice in photography and cannot figure out how a camera works without a manual, it is the fault of the manufacturer, not yours. Generally, the H3D gives the impression of a solid professional tool—it seems to have everything that a serious photographer might need and, thankfully, is not clogged with useless features (with the sole exception of the tiny inbuilt flash, perhaps).
50MP is a helluva lot of resolution, quite likely more than most of us can realistically use. Dig this: using my 17" printer, I cannot print original files without downsizing them even at 360dpi—unbelievable! To put it differently, you will see much more detail in the files than you can see when looking at the subject with your bare eyes. Were I to buy a medium format digital back with my own hard–earned moola, I would most likely opt for a 39MP back.
I have also done quick–and–dirty tests of the lenses and, to cut to the chase, they appear first rate. The 28mm lens has a very large image circle (it can be shifted 18mm) and thus exhibits minimal light fall–off; it is already plentifully sharp centre–to–corner at f/4; although the lens shows complex distortion, its degree is minimal (the assignment that I mentioned above includes some architectural shots and I used the lens with the HTS 1.5 without problems). The zoom, on the other hand, does not perform as admirably wide–open but seems to be a fine lens once stopped down. Its real drawback is that it is huge—when I mounted it on the camera for the first time I instantly thought that were I to own the system I would certainly use prime lenses only (but that is only me, of course). In short, I expect all H series lenses to be very fine.
Battery life, however, does not seem adequate. Half a day of shooting in Shanghai in mild temperatures (just above 0° Celsius) and approximately 70 exposures depleted one fully charged battery. I hope that three batteries are going to last a full day in Pingyao, where temperatures are quite a bit lower than in Shanghai. Just in case, I will be taking the Hasselblad Flexbody camera with one lens and a few rolls of film with me.
I have the H3D system for a short period of time only and thus will not be able to write in–depth reviews of each piece of gear that I have. Nonetheless, I will share my initial impressions of the system later this month.
9 February 2010
Nikon today announced two new lenses—the AF–S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED and the AF–S Nikkor 16–35mm f/4G ED VR. At long last, Nikon have gotten around to producing lenses that truly expand our photographic options and promise to appeal to a large audience of serious amateur and professional photographers.
It is no coincidence that I mentioned the 24mm f/1.4 lens first—it is the lens that will be of most interest to those who often shoot in dark ambient light and yours truly among them. I recently have been photographing quite a few social events in rather dark venues and have to say that fast lenses are still very much needed despite the insane ISO values that we now take for granted. Even though my Nikon D700 can go up to ISO12800, I am quite reluctant to go above ISO3200 because of the image quality issues and thus set it as the maximum ISO value when I use the Auto ISO function. Even at this ISO setting and f/1.8, I often find myself at shutter speeds around 1/20 seconds, and so the extra bit of aperture speed is very much welcome. Also equally important, the combination of the wide angle of view and the fast aperture will produce a very unique look that is impossible to imitate with other lenses.
The 16–35mm f/4 zoom, on the other hand, will most likely appeal to landscape and travel photographers who use Nikon 35mm equipment as their primary system. Most photographers will applaud the inclusion of Vibration Reduction (more is always better, right?) but, to be honest, I am not as enthusiastic about it. VR does not completely replace fast apertures and/or good quality high ISO performance—although f/4 with VR will do the trick for still subjects, it is not going to cut it for anything that moves. Due to this, many photographers might still prefer the old Nikkor 17–35mm f/2.8 as it is one stop faster. Also quite interestingly, the new lens is not that much cheaper or lighter than the old zoom—did Nikon exchange one stop of aperture speed for VR? And of course, it remains to be seen whether the newcomer is better in terms of optical performance. In short, I would not be writing off the Nikkor 17–35mm f/2.8 just yet.
Home page photograph has been updated with another image from the January trip to The Yellow Mountain that I like.
1 February 2010
My comparison of the 28mm lenses from Nikon, Zeiss and Leica is now online. I often read or hear that Zeiss design and produce some of the best lenses and that Leica optics are unsurpassed. This, however, is often stated in general terms and finding out where exactly, and by how much, Leica and Zeiss lenses are better than optics from other brands was absolutely fascinating.
28 January 2010
As you most likely already know, Apple have announced the iPad. My reaction? Sitting at my almost two year old but still fairly state–of–the–art eight–core Mac Pro, with a MacBook Air lying somewhere around the apartment, I realise that all I really need is a piece of paper, a pencil and something worthwhile to say.
Rumours are that Nikon will bring about a storm with new announcements in early February. Whatever it will be, however, all I really need is being smart and lucky enough to be in the right place, at the right time with any decent camera system, digital or film.
21 January 2010
Yesterday in Shanghai there was the first—hopefully not the last—concert of Boris Grebenshchikov, one of the founding fathers of Russian rock music. It was absolutely brilliant and I feel sorry for those who missed it.
Boris Grebenshchikov in Shanghai
As usual, I was shooting with my Nikon D700 and, on a technical note, have to say that the camera's matrix metering performed very poorly in this kind of lighting—it grossly overexposed and I ended up dialing in -1 compensation. Looking at the RAW files now, I should have shot at -1.7 to better preserve highlights. No matter how smart cameras get they still have no way of knowing what you are after.
19 January 2010
My friend Andrew Lee, who is an avid Nikon shooter, uses Leica R series lenses converted to Nikon F mount alongside his extensive collection of Nikkors. He happens to own the Leica Elmarit–R 2.8/28 lens and has lent it to me to add to the other two 28mm lenses that I currently have at my disposal. So I now have three lenses to juxtapose—AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8D, Carl Zeiss Distagon 2/28 ZF and Leica Elmarit–R 2.8/28—and am in the process of comparing them in terms of all the aspects that I usually consider when testing lenses.
Why am I doing this? Simply out of curiosity and for my own educational purposes. First, there is a massive price difference between the lenses (the Nikkor costs USD260, the Zeiss is priced at USD1030 and the Leica goes for around two grand—if you can find it, that is), and I am interested to see what the monetary differences translate into in relation to their optical performance. Second, I want to see what the design priorities of the three venerable lens makers were when they conceived the lenses.
I will let you know all the details in due course but, to spill the beans, my initial impression has been that, optically, the Leica is a better performer than the other two contenders; at the same time, I am not sure yet that I would spend the extra to get the Zeiss instead of the Nikkor. Stay tuned!
12 January 2010
I have lost count how many times I have traveled to The Yellow Mountain (Anhui Province, China). I do remember, though, that I first photographed there with the Nikon F100, which should give you an idea how long ago that was, then with the Nikon F6 (another time indicator), and later with the Hasselblad V system. The place is notoriously difficult to photograph and after all the trips I only have ten worthy images in The Yellow Mountain Gallery. Plain sunlight is no good, rain does not cut it, and fog is not enough—it has to be a voodoo combination of all these elements to bring out the magic and hear Bitches Brew playing.
I had a few days of holidays around New Year's Day and thought it would be great to get away from the rat race of Shanghai and spend some time in a quiet place thinking about, sorting through and pinning down various stuff in my mind; an opportunity to do some photography at the same time would be very much welcome, too. I had been keeping an eye on the weather in The Yellow Mountain from early December and, as it had been snowing a lot there this winter, I immediately thought of visiting the place again. Knowing how capricious the mountain is, however, I had no photographic expectations—just give me a chance to slow down and think calmly and I am a happy camper; if I also happen to bring back one or two worthy images, it would be icing on the cake. So off to The Yellow Mountain I went.
As I suspected, the weather was appalling for photography—it was changing between flat sunlight, wet snow, drizzling rain and dull fog in a mockery fashion, and the magic seemed to have left the mountain. To make things worse, I made the mistake of bringing too much gear with me, which slowed me down both physically and aesthetically. Generally, I am an advocate of the minimalist approach and do not take anything unless I am positive it is going to be crucial. This time around, however, I wanted to try out a new camera backpack and it turned out to be too big for my own good, as the extra space made me give in to the temptation of bringing a few extra items that I did not really need. The Yellow Mountain is anything but flat—if you are not hiking downhill you are certainly climbing—and carrying too much equipment is the last thing you want to do. So there I was, lugging too much stuff in uninspiring light, almost ready to accept that the photographic part of the trip was going to be a failure.
Good things, however, often happen when you least expect them. Towards the end of the last day I must have been lost in thought, or simply tired of hiking, and did not immediately notice that the weather had shifted—favourably, for once. It did not exactly change, but something in the atmosphere was no longer the same—the light had a different quality to it, the sky had clearly changed its mood, and I heard Pharaoh's Dance starting playing at the back of my mind. All of a sudden my camera bag became light as a feather and I rushed to where I envisioned would be a great spot for photography at that time of the day. As expected, there came the moment when you tell yourself to slow down and not waste film shooting the same scene over and over again yet consistently fail to listen to your own experienced advice. That moment was indeed exhilarating (as was savouring Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin on New Year's Eve on the top of the mountain) and abundantly made up for the previous days of visual boredom—have a look at the current home page photograph.
As you might recall, I mentioned in the end of last year that I currently have access to Carl Zeiss ZF lenses. The Distagon T* 2/28 is now mounted on my Nikon D700 and I have started putting it through its paces. My point of comparison will be the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8D, which I tested recently and was not very happy with its performance on a full–frame DSLR. A 28mm lens would be my first choice if I wanted to use only one general purpose wide–angle lens, so let us see if the Zeiss lens is a solid enough performer for those who favour this focal length. More on this in the near future.
Distagon T* 2/28 lens (image © Carl Zeiss)
5 January 2010
One sunny day in December I was savouring a late afternoon no–foam caffelatte in one of the cafés that I frequent. The place was nearly empty, and apart from me there was only one visitor—a young, attractive woman sitting five or six tables away. Intermittently switching between reading a book, doing something on her computer and writing notes in a notepad, she was anything by idle. The title of the book was not legible from where I was sitting but one word on the cover was in an immodestly large font and asked to be noticed—"style". Hmm... style? Curious, I peered at the cover and read the full title—"The Elements of Style". Even more intrigued, I googled the book on my iPhone, read what it was about and... ordered it on the same day.
The little red book is now with me more often than any other book or magazine, and I wish I had learned of its existence much earlier. That said, what, when and how we get to know in life is often an unexpected surprise when it occurs yet makes perfect sense when you look back at it. Everything comes in due time, I suppose.
The last part of my Nikon D700 camera review, Miscellaneous notes and conclusion, is finally online. It only took me slightly over a year to finish the review.
I have been very critical of how Epson have been managing the printer driver and firmware issue and here is yet another example of the company's inconsistent approach: a reader recently pointed out that the latest driver version for the Epson 4880 printer is 6.55 (released on 11 June 2009) and the printer's latest firmware is B0288B (released on 10 February 2009); the driver and the firmware can be downloaded from the Epson Europe Web site. The Web site of Epson USA, however, still has driver v6.12 (posted on 18 September 2008) and firmware B01483 (posted on 4 September 2008) as their latest offerings. Again, there is no information on the differences between the older and the newer versions of the drivers and the firmware or explanation as to what the newer versions have addressed and/or added. Will this ever change?