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What's New 2011

31 December 2011 » Year–end ramblings

So, another year has come and gone, evaporated like morning dew before you barely had time to finish savouring your morning cup of coffee. As I always do in the end of each year, yesterday I sat down—as you might have guessed, with a glass of wine in front of my speakers—to look through the calendar and make a brief summary of the year. Photographically, and otherwise, it was a pretty good one; although I did not quite manage to finish drinking the coffee, it did have a fine flavour. Particularly, I went on two spectacular photographic expeditions, undertook several minor–yet–interesting shoots, had a couple of magazine publications, enjoyed companionship of old, beloved equipment and indulged a little in using new gear. All things considered, not too bad at all, and I hope that it was a good year for you, too.

I have a liking for drawing lines and having fresh starts, and the end of year is always a good time to clear the plate and move forward with slightly lighter luggage. I thought I would take this opportunity to offload a few things, so that tomorrow brings a feeling of turning a page over—please see below. Of course, the feeling of turning a page over will be rather symbolic or even illusional, but sometimes imaginary is more consequential than the so–called real.

Throughout this year I continued photographing old quarters of Shanghai—not as often and consistently as I wish I did, but, nonetheless. Have a look at the progressing series here (the latest photographs can be found on page four).

Landscape photography and Chinese philosophy—scito te ipsum, a short essay that I wrote a few years ago, was published in the December issue of README magazine, a monthly lifestyle publication that is produced in Guangzhou, China. Quite interestingly, the image on the left was taken with a Nikon F100, and the one on the right was shot with a Mamiya 7II.

 
 
 

You know how sometimes a thought crosses your mind, you find it interesting, and write it down; afterwards, however, it fails to lead to something bigger and ends up a lonely scribbled sentence or two somewhere in your computer, mobile phone, or notebook. Although you know that it has no possible continuation, somehow it seems worthwhile enough to keep. And over a longer period of time such disconnected, lonesome thoughts tend to accumulate. Here are several such reflections related to photography that occured to me earlier this year:

  • Looking at online images instead of high quality prints is akin to listening to big band jazz music over AM radio instead of savouring it live.

  • The problem with photography in general and cameras in particular is that unlike, say, musical instruments, something more or less recognisable comes out of them each time you press the shutter release button. That is the key source of the misperception that photography is easy.

  • Looking at the best paintings in a great museum most photographers are likely to think, "I wish I was present at and photographed such a scene". At the same time, I believe that looking at some of the best photographic work painters are likely to think, "I wish I imagined and painted something like this".

  • Some works of art are like stepping–stones; others are like huge islands that you have to cross on foot.

  • The highest praise in landscape photography is when someone looks at your work and utters, "Man, this picture does not even look like a photograph".

  • In the long run, buying whatever toys your children might want is cheaper than them afterwards continually buying expensive photo gear throughout their lives.

  • Sipping 10 year old Laphroaig I think about what was happening in my life 10 years ago, and what pictures I was taking, as this whisky was being made. This in turn makes me wonder what things are brewing and being born now that I do not know of at the moment, but that will be a part of my life in 10 years. What photographs will I be making in 10 years?

 
 

Flying somewhere over Europe
Canon PowerShot S95 camera

All indications are that next year I will go through some big, perhaps even drastic, changes—the kind of positive transformations that are not a choice, but rather something that you are lucky to experience once in a long while, and something that would be foolish to let slip through your fingers. As things stand, the changes will likely have an impact on every aspect of my life, including photography. It will be interesting to see what subjects I will be photographing, in what manner, and with what gear. Although it seems logical to think that our photographic style and the gear that we use should be consistent with the general pace of our lives, I think the opposite might be true: we tend to use spontaneous style and fast gear when things are slow in life, and we need meticulous approaches and slow gear while in the midst of an on–going roller–coaster. The way I see it, this seems to be the best way to keep everything in balance and sane. My intention is to use this approach, but life more often than not corrects our plans, so we shall see how this will unfold.

At any rate, I am looking forward to what next year will bring and, meanwhile, wish you and your families to have a healthy, prosperous and successful 2012!

9 December 2011 » Fujifilm X100: the end of the road

I have been promising (to myself, at least) to write a long piece on why the X100 is a great camera—and I have been stubbornly refusing to think that it is not. Well, I am afraid it is not going to happen. I have given the X100 the benefit of the doubt and the utmost of my patience, but, even after four months of use, it still refuses to get out of the way and simply let me photograph. Instead, it childishly and capriciously makes everything about itself, and most of my energy is spent fighting the camera, not making great images.

Our relationships with cameras are often akin to those with human beings: there is only so much energy that you can put into a relationship, and if the relationship consumes more energy than it generates, it is only a question of time when the well runs dry and apathy sets in. Thankfully, though, time gradually puts everything in its right place, and it has shown that, although the X100 most certainly is a character, it also clearly shows traits of an energy vampire (and that the camera perhaps needs to visit a psychiatrist). Reaching a dénouement by depleting one's energy is a costly way out, but sometimes it is the only possible exit. I have run out of energy fighting the X100, and the time to bid the camera adieu has come.

The X100 could have easily been a real winner, but it ended up being only a massive tease—something nearly impossible to resist visiting, yet something incapable of convincing you to stay for the long haul. To me, the X100 has also put a bad mark on other Fujifilm cameras, because I have every reason to suspect that the X100's eccentricity runs in the family. In particular, the X10 looks every bit as impressive and tempting on paper as the X100 did before I bought it, but I am not going down that road—as the saying goes, a good woodsman has only one scar on him. I will continue buying loads of Fujifilm film, but I am through with Fujifilm digital cameras for the foreseeable future.

So, now that the X100 has been relocated to the past in my world, what is next? I have yet again thought long and hard and, although the soon–to–be–available Sony NEX–7 looks nearly impeccable, I am going to give the Olympus EP–3 a try instead. I mentioned previously that I was quite fond of the idea of the EP–3, and my decision to choose it over the NEX–7 is twofold. First, I am really tired of the sluggishness of the X100 and want to have the most responsive operation possible in this class of cameras. Second, the E–mount lenses currently offered by Sony are just not my cup of tea: I do not intend to use zoom lenses, and in the realm of pancake (or, at least, reasonably small) optics Sony has only one lens that, unfortunately, is in the wrong focal length for me. Cameras and sensors come and go, but great optics stay and matter most.

I will be sharing my experience shooting with the EP–3 when I have enough experience with the camera.

P.S. Did I ever mention that I sometimes use cameras to metaphorically talk about life in general?

4 December 2011 » W. Eugene Smith and music

For the lovers of the photographic work of W. Eugene Smith, here is an uncannily striking account of a certain period of his life from the biography of Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley (page 258):

In 1957, Overton sublet part of his sublet to photographer W. Eugene Smith. He was a celebrated photographer who had recently left Life magazine and taken on a project to create a massive photo essay of Pittsburgh. With the support of grants, he took some 13,000 images and selected the very best for the essay, but failed to come to an agreement with either Life or Look magazines. Broke, dejected, and suffering from manic depression exacerbated by heavy drinking and Benzedrine, Smith took refuge in loft and its musical culture. Like David X. Young, Smith loved jazz. He was also an audiophile as obsessed with capturing life and history on tape as he was with celluloid. He wired the place with microphones and constantly ran his reel–to–reel recorder. As a result, he not only documented these incredible jam sessions at the loft but the entire scoring and rehearsal process leading up to Monk's Town Hall concert.

Small—and fragile—world, I have to say.

26 November 2011 » A quick film vs. digital comment

Yesterday was one of those days when I spend several hours in front of my speakers with a wine glass in hand and mobile phone switched off; volume turned to ten o'clock, I savoured a considerable amount of music. At one point I happened to consecutively listen to Béla Bartók's Sonata for two pianos and percussion and Streichquartett No. 4, and it occurred to me that this combination perhaps could be a musical analogy to the supposedly long–dead film vs. digital debate: while the former composition is perfectly devoid of any string instruments, the latter, as the name suggests, features two violins, a viola and a violoncello. The only question I kept pondering was which one would be representative of film, and which of digital. When I woke up this morning, though, I realised that the question was inconsequential: strings or no strings, it was Béla Bartók's world to the core, which was exactly what I wanted to experience. And the same holds true in photography: as long as you successfully capture your world and say what you have to say, it does not really matter whether it is on film or in zeroes and ones.

24 November 2011 » Fujifilm X100: yet another glitch?

My apologies if you are becoming bored with the posts regarding the X100, but just when I thought I was done grumbling about the downsides of the camera, yet another glitch has crept up and seized my attention. And, it may very well prove to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Here is what is going on. When you point the camera at a subject it shows live view of the subject, suggested (or adjusted) exposure and corresponding histogram. Once you half–press the shutter release button, focus is achieved, histogram disappears (why, Fujifilm, why?) and you can take a shot. Quite often, however, at the same time as focus is achieved and histogram disappears, the view in the EVF and on the LCD screen becomes noticeably brighter, and I mean by approximately one stop or sometimes even more, not just slightly. If you continue and take a shot, the shot ends up exposed in accordance with the brightened view. As histogram is not shown after the view becomes brighter, you can no longer know where you are at with respect to exposure, and more often than not such images end up overexposed and ruined. While this does not seem to occur in Program mode, in A and S mode it occurs most of the time.

I have not seen this issue reported elsewhere, so I cannot be sure whether it is a general firmware problem, if my camera has gone over the brink and needs to be serviced, or if this is a user mistake that I, having read the manual and used the camera for over three months, still cannot figure out. Either way, I have to say that the charm of the X100 is starting to quickly wear off giving way to weariness and indifference; concurrently, that Olympus EP–3 is looking more and more attractive with every passing day (recent financial woes of the company notwithstanding). Next week I will be taking the X100 on a non–photographic trip, so we shall see if I still can make peace with the camera...

 
 

Night walk, Shanghai #2

To keep thing at least a wee bit positive, the above photograph was taken with the X100 at ISO3200—image quality delivered by the camera is something else indeed.

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

19 November 2011 » What else is bad about the X100?

I find it rather curious that I started sharing my thoughts on the X100 with mostly negative commentary: first I mentioned a minor yet real image quality issue and then discussed the camera's viewing extravagancy. Why is this so? Is it because it is always easier to bitch and complain, not to mention the fact that it seems fashionable to bash the X100 on the Internet? Or is it because I wanted to get the negative aspects out of the way first and leave the positives for last? I am not sure, but certainly hope it is the latter. At any rate, now that I have gone down the bitching path it makes sense to go all the way and clear the plate for desert. Without more ado, here goes:

  • Card write performance is dreadful: it takes about five seconds to write a RAW file, and during this time you cannot change most button and menu dependent settings. Thankfully, though, you can continue shooting while file(s) are being written.

  • In manual mode histogram, LCD and EVF show what would be captured if you use the exposure determined by the camera, not the one you set manually; the deviation of manual exposure from the exposure determined by the camera is only indicated on the exposure compensation scale, which does not really tell you much as you do not know how far off the exposure determined by the camera is from what you are trying to achieve. Thus, the only way to see how manual exposure is going to fare is take a shot and review the image. As mentioned above, though, card write speed and, consequently, initial image review is frustratingly slow. If you switch image review on then the shot image will be shown on the LCD screen almost instantly, but without histogram or any other information. This renders manual mode mostly impractical. Fujifilm really should have a look at how manual exposure is implemented in some of the better compact cameras.

  • Buttons need to allow at least some degree of customisation, which, as it is, is pretty much non–existent with the sole exception of the Fn button found on the top of the camera. For example, I really wish I could use the RAW button at the back of the camera for something other than switching between RAW and JPG format (Auto ISO control comes to mind first). As I (and, I reckon, many photographers for whom this camera is intended) only shoot in RAW format, this button is mostly dead in the water.

  • The X100 shows luminance histogram only; there is no RGB histogram. Do we need to remind Fujifilm which year it is? Give us live RGB histogram in the X200, pretty please with sugar on top!

  • Autofocus is okay in daylight, but becomes unreliable and haunted by hunting when photographing in dim conditions. And, overall, the camera is not hugely responsive.

  • Battery life leaves a lot to be desired. Consider buying and carrying extra batteries—yes, I mean more than one—a must.

  • The lens, generally, is of very high quality. However, flare is very poorly controlled—in this respect, it is the worst performer that I have ever seen among prime lenses.

You might be surprised that the list has only seven items, as cons lists in other reviews of the X100 tend to be quite a bit longer. The thing about drawbacks of the X100 is that, objectively, one can make a really long list; subjectively, however, its length will depend on your shooting style and what features you use often. The issues that I have mentioned have been consistently—and persistently—getting in the way of my daily shooting. At the same time, I have not commented on drawbacks related to the features that I use seldom, as well as on the issues mentioned in various reviews that I find mostly rhetorical. If you are contemplating buying an X100 you should consider all drawbacks outlined here and in other reviews; once you start using the camera, though, your personal list will most certainly be unique and characteristic to you only.

11.11.11 » Fujifilm X100: the curse of viewing extravagance

I have been using the X100 for almost three months now and, in all honesty, it has been somewhat of a love–and–hate relationship. On the one hand, there is so much to love about the camera, and I will write about this eventually. On the other hand, however, there is something persistently nagging about the X100 that has a taste of subdued, never ending frustration. It has been widely suggested that the camera's user interface is not well sorted out, and this critique indeed points in the right direction. However, as it does not really explain much I have been trying to identify what it is exactly in the user interface that is the source of the frustration. At long last, I think I have put my finger on it. But first of all, let's consider what it is not about.

To begin with, this frustration is not about access to crucial controls—if anything, it is exceedingly well implemented due to the use of traditional knobs and wheels. You have direct access to shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and, via the Fn button on the top of the camera, ISO settings. My only gripe in this respect is that Auto ISO control is separated from ISO settings and accessible through menus only. I have learned to live with this, though.

Second, it is not about menus. True, they are not exactly logically arranged and consistent—for example, I have no idea why Fujifilm engineers had to place Auto ISO control on the third page of the Setup menu, or why custom Display settings are in the Shooting menu. Nonetheless, the menus have a fairly simple structure—four pages in the Shooting Menu and six pages in the Setup menu—and finding what you need is mostly straightforward. Besides, you will not need to use the menus all that often after you set up the camera the way you intend to normally use it. Come to think of it, Auto ISO control is the only item that makes me dive into the menus more often than I like.

So if access to crucial controls and the menus are not the culprit, then what is the cause of the irritation? As it turns out, it is an overabundance of viewing options that are often illogically entwined. Let me explain.

   

As you know, the X100 boasts an innovative viewfinder that is actually home to two viewfinders—an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) and an Optical Viewfinder (OVF). The EVF and the OVF offer very different viewing and composing experiences (the former is 100% precise and the latter is 100% imprecise with respect to framing), which is why I consider them as two separate viewfinders; and the icing on the cake is that both viewfinders can show abundant—and customisable—shooting information. In other words, photographers who regard composing with the use of an LCD screen as holding a baby with a smelly diaper shall rejoice. At the same time, those who do not mind holding babies can enjoy using the high resolution LCD screen at the back of the camera. Thus, we have three viewing options so far: two viewfinders and the LCD screen at the back of the camera. So far, so good.

If you want to change between the viewfinders and the LCD screen depending on how smelly the diaper is, you have three options: shut the LCD off and use the viewfinders only, shut the viewfinders off and use the LCD only (strictly speaking, you cannot shut the OVF off; you can only shut off the gridlines and information shown in it), or employ the eye sensor so that the viewfinder turns on when you put your eye to it and the LCD is used when you do not mind the diaper. Switching between the two viewfinders is done by a lever on the front of the camera, and switching between the viewfinders and the LCD is done by the View Mode button at the back of the camera. The snowball has started to roll down the hill and we already have five possible viewing options: just EVF, just OVF, just LCD, EVF + LCD and OVF + LCD.

What is shown on the LCD screen and in the viewfinders is not static. By using the DISP button at the back of the camera the LCD view can be changed from shooting information shown on a black background to Standard view and further to Custom view. The same button is used to switch the information shown in the viewfinders on and off—separately for the EVF and the OVF, i.e., if you switch viewfinder information off in the EVF, it is not automatically switched off in the OVF. The snowball continues to roll and is speeding up.

Suppose you want to see one set of information on the LCD screen and a different (say, less cluttered) set of information in the viewfinders. Is this possible? Sort of. The trick is that the information shown in the Custom view of the LCD display and in the EFV is the same, so if you choose something different to be shown in the OVF vis–à–vis the LCD screen, then the information shown in the EVF and the OFV will not be the same. To put it differently, if you want to have the same information in the OVF and the EVF, then the LCD will have to show the same information, too.

If you are still with me, suppose you want to make things a little simpler by using the viewfinders only for shooting and the LCD screen only for browsing menus and reviewing images. That is fine if you are using the OFV; however, once you switch to the EVF, the menus will be shown... in the viewfinder, not on the LCD screen. And, oh, just for amusement, you can even have a combination of a blank OVF and shooting information displayed on the LCD screen against a black background (how did I get and what am I doing here, please?)!

The snowball is still far from stopping rolling—I could continue and bore you to death, but I think you get the point. Quick: given what has been outlined above, can you list and count all viewing modes and their possible combinations? I bet you will have to at least scratch your head as I, for one, still cannot. Each time I pick up the camera after not using it for a few days my mind comes to a grinding halt as I attempt to figure out where I was in terms of viewing settings last. And once I figure that out, it often takes quite a bit of an effort to get to the viewing mode that I want to use next.

Now, to be fair, most of the viewing features that Fujifilm came up with in the X100 are truly innovative and welcome. However, the overall package does not have to be so counterintuitive and needs to be significantly streamlined. Having a (viewing) choice is always a good thing, but having too many unsorted and inconsistent options can very quickly become burdensome. This, indeed, is the trap the X100 has fallen into. And most amusingly, it could not be more ironic: while most current compact digital cameras suffer from lack of viewfinders or viewing inadequacy, the X100 is afflicted by viewing extravagance.

7 November 2011 » Screaming colours—addendum

It is interesting how differently the notion of encountering screaming colours has resonated with some of you. Whereas some found the idea consistent with their own experience, others happen to view it in different light. In particular, my friend Tom Willekes has offered an alternative perspective:

I object to your term "screaming colors", though not violently.

Colors sing. Complex classical compositions, jazzy improvisations, and bluesy sadness. They can rock hard with a loud beat, or softly with a slow ballad. They can be cacophonous, with little cohesion, or provide intricate interwoven threads of melody.

Of course, the conductor is mother nature and her great ball of fire; the star of the performance.

But they don't scream. At least, to me.

Very eloquently said indeed.

3 November 2011 » Screaming colours

Sometimes I encounter wild, screaming colours that inevitably divert my attention from whatever my mind is occupied with at the moment and change the music playing in my head. A typical example would be when you witness a fleeting yet absolutely spectacular sunset while, say, heading home from work. In such instances you are rarely in the position to use the colours to their full potential even if you have a camera with you; moreover, we often fail to produce excellent work even when we encounter such colours on a photographic outing—the subject that hosts the colours may be wrong, suitable composition might be difficult to come up with quickly, you name it. But I always take a shot—or four—anyway, because as far as I am concerned great colours, both screaming and subtle, more often than not create inner connections, and any inner connection is rhyme and reason enough to take a picture, no matter how flawed the resulting image will be.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Screaming colours #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

While on the subject of colours, I could never understand why some photographers are so concerned about colour accuracy. Product photography aside, colours should be accurate in relation to how we perceive a scene, not how it is measured by our tools, and the means that technically distort reality most are often the ones that reflect our aesthetic vision best. The four images above are precisely the case in point—even though Velvia 50 is perhaps the least accurate film with respect to colour reproduction, no other medium, film or digital, could have captured the scene closer to how I remember seeing it.

 
 

Screaming colours #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

1 November 2011 » Adobe Camera Raw and Fujifilm X100 RAW files: conversion issues?

I have finally started closely looking at the RAW (.RAF) files I shot during the past couple of months with the Fujifilm X100 camera as well as doing some printing, and after converting a handful of RAW files in ACR my attention was almost immediately drawn to a strange rendering whereby some—i.e., not all—smooth lines and edges have exceedingly strong zigzag appearance at micro level (or pixelation). It probably will be easier to illustrate than to explain in words, so here are a couple of fairly typical examples:

 
 
 

The above are the original images and below are small crops shown at 100% magnification—note that they were not capture–sharpened. The excessive pixelation I am talking about is not very obvious yet, but it is discernable if you look closely.

 
 
 

Once the images are capture–sharpened, though, the zigzag appearance of some of the smooth edges and lines is apparent (see below). I can see the pixelation in various files but cannot quite pin down when and where exactly it occurs—sometimes I see it in the areas where I do not expect to encounter it, and I often do not see it where I think it is likely to appear. Once I finish working on the files and sharpen them for final output, the pixelation becomes even more obvious and, indeed, impossible not to notice.

 
 
 

The above crops were capture–sharpened in Adobe Camera Raw using the settings that I generally find most satisfactory. To make sure the excessive pixelation is not a result of improper sharpening, the below crops were converted in Adobe Camera Raw without applying sharpening and then capture–sharpened in Photoshop using PixelGenius PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in, a sharpening tool I fully trust and use on a regular basis. As you can see, the result is slightly different but shows the same problem.

 
 
 

Finally, to ensure that this is not a question of image quality of the X100, the below crops were processed in Silkypix, the RAW conversion software that came with the X100 (please disregard the difference in contrast and colour rendition—I did not want to spend too much time making the output from ACR and Silkypix look the same in terms of these attributes). No sharpening was applied in Silkypix, and the crops were capture–sharpened in Photoshop with the use of PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in. It is important to note that no matter how I massaged the images in Silkypix the excessive pixelation never occurred. (To be honest, I do not like the conversion results I got with Silkypix, but this might have to do with me not knowing the software well enough.)

 
 
 

Now, the important question is whether this is just futile pixel–peeping, which I always try to avoid, or if the excessive pixelation can affect image quality of real–life photographs. Having done some test printing, my conclusion has been that the answer will depend on how large you print. In moderately sized prints (original files printed at 300dpi in my tests) the pixelation is mostly invisible. However, it becomes noticeable at close examination if you print at 240dpi, and clearly visible if you print at 180dpi. Thus, this issue needs to be addressed if you intend to produce large prints.

If you are an X100 user and have encountered this issue, know of its causes, or have found a way to circumvent the problem, then I would love to hear from you.

Update: in the Resolution section of his Fujifilm S5 Pro review Thom Hogan reported on a very similar, if not the same, image quality issue: "What you won't like is that every now and then a diagonal component in your shots will render with some stair stepping." Although the S5 Pro and the X100 use different types of sensors (Super CCD and EXR CMOS, respectively), both cameras clearly show the same problem. This most likely has to do with the fact that the original pixel array is rotated 45° to improve vertical and horizontal resolution.

27 October 2011 » A few thoughts on photographing in a desert

Having now travelled to Badain Jarain desert twice, I find that photographing in a desert is a very challenging undertaking that stretches rules and approaches we take for granted and automatically rely upon in other types of landscape photography. The challenges are multitudinous, and I thought that it might be of interest to some photographers to briefly consider the most formidable ones.

To begin with, photographing in a desert is very challenging physically. Any desert is a grand place, and it really comes home to you only when you start moving around in one. To get a noticeable change in perspective you have to change your position much more than when photographing landscapes of lesser grandeur, which is not easy—walking in sand is more strenuous than on a hard surface and, to add assault to injury, Badain Jarain is a very hilly desert. Temperature differences between day and night are quite considerable and you have to carry extra clothing in the field. Add to that water, snacks and other miscellany and your load ends up markedly heavier than just the gear alone. Where you would normally run around checking out various perspectives and possible compositions, in a desert you tend to think twice before you go looking what is behind this hill or that slope, or how the perspective would change if you go up or down a little bit.

Personally, I am absolutely fascinated by the notion of desert in general and sand in particular. The idea of having myriads of discrete yet evenly sized, immaculately clean and incorruptible particles that somehow have a common will and ideology seems exceedingly neat, or even theological. But the practical downside of this phenomenon is that sand particles invariably invade your photographic equipment regardless of how desperately you try to protect it. While you can take some measures such as using several camera bodies so that you do not have to change lenses, or using protective plastic bags, etc., I found that such measures are negated by the inconvenience that they impose. I ended up giving in to the pervasiveness of sand and deciding to clean my gear after leaving the desert.

 
 

Sand signatures #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

Finding compelling compositions in a desert is unusually difficult, because you do not have the abundance of pictorial elements that you can normally employ in other types of landscape photography. Indeed, the only physical ingredients that you have at your disposal are the sand and the sky, and thus you have to heavily rely on more intangible elements such as lines, shapes, patterns, tonal gradations, etc. As a result, you invariably turn—or, at least, try doing so—to abstract photography, because photographing a desert in a documentary fashion quickly becomes a monotonous and repetitive exercise. And as you know, abstract photography requires rich imagination and is not one of the easiest genres.

Light has unique and often strange qualities in a desert, too. In other types of landscape photography we most often photograph in the first and the last hour of the day while the light is soft and warm. This principle works in deserts, too, but not nearly as often. Early light can give sand dunes an unhealthy, heavy, brownish rendition, which I do not find particularly attractive. At the same time, midday light that we usually regard as harsh and unappealing can give the same dunes very subtle, light–coloured, almost ethereal rendering. And naturally, this can be further complicated or enhanced by varying atmospheric conditions. All things considered, you cannot just follow the usual rules—you have to critically assess ambient light in an unbiased manner at any time of the day.

 
 

Camel family portrait
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, CFV–39 digital back

Although photographing in a desert might seem quite predictable, you have to look out for any unusual elements and visual effects that might make an unexpected appearance—for example, a herd of camels coming out of the blue to have a group portrait taken without a prior arrangement (the picture above was actually taken on my first trip to Badain Jarain—I overlooked it at the time but it made me smile when I looked at it again yesterday; I reckon the camels somehow knew that I was using a 39MP digital back and simply could not pass up the opportunity of getting a high resolution family portrait).

In short, photographing in a desert can be challenging, rule stretching or even frustrating; nonetheless, if you keep in mind the above points and maintain a flexible attitude, it is more than likely to offer a great learning experience and be a lot of fun!

23 October 2011 » Notes on the trip to Gansu and Inner Mongolia

I have returned from Inner Mongolia and Gansu, China, and, in contrast to the expedition to Xinjiang in June, the trip was one of the most coolheaded photographic undertakings that I have ever had (I have to emphasise the photographic part, though—for example, one hour and a half drive across Badain Jarain desert was far from coolheaded and gave me at least a year's dose of adrenalin). There was quite a bit less immediate excitement, and I shot noticeably less, too. For what seems to be the first time in my life, there were instances when I would get up early, take a hike or climb a hill, wait for sunrise, take a couple of shots with one of my digital cameras, and leave nearly perfectly listless—without even showing my Hasselblad, the main camera, the light of the day. On this ten–day trip I shot 18 rolls of 120 film and, having now sorted through the slides, retained only 60 images (I realise that you might find this dry statistic boring, but I find it fascinating how sometimes our most ambitious intentions get filtered out into half a page of scribbled lines).

Why did this happen? It is possible that I did not manage my expectations well. Or, maybe, I photographed there before, and some places are not well suited to be explored twice. It might also have to do with my newish tendency to think in terms of large format (i.e., if I were shooting with a 4X5 camera, would I take my time setting it up to photograph this particular scene?). Or, perhaps, my mind simply was off to the Moon, where it occasionally goes of its own will, and I was not perceptive enough. Either way, to paraphrase the U2 song, some trips are dry, some trips are leaky.

What was quite intriguing, though, is bringing a Hasselblad V series system, a Fujifilm X100 camera and a Canon S95 point–and–shoot on the same trip and see how they would interact (if, of course, you allow that cameras can "interact", which they most certainly do in my book). Quite surprisingly, the result was not exactly what I expected.

Remaining the king of the hill of serious photographic intentions, the Hasselblad was used for most shooting. As my previous experience showed many times, the S95 complements it nearly perfectly, and this time around was no exception. The S95 is the kind of camera that knows its virtues well and is smart enough to be humble; thus, it both commands respect and is predisposed to fit in in almost any companionship. The X100 commands respect, too, but it does not blend in all that well: it requires your full attention—not exactly demandingly yet clearly and assertively—and is not suitable to be used alongside other cameras; it is a loner of a camera that just does not take companionship well. As a result, it ended up being the odd man out. Thankfully, though, both the Hasselblad and the X100 are cultured enough to behave civilly: one politely agreed to stay in the camera bag whilst the other was out contemplatively looking at the world (but, as already mentioned, the Hasselblad did most of the looking). The S95, on the other hand, chose to tag along with the Hasselblad, either because of the previously formed habit, or because it felt that hanging out with another digital camera was no fun. Smart move, I have to say—the S95 is not facing an immediate retirement anymore.

 
 

The Great Wall at Jiayuguan #1, take two
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

As to the photographs from the trip, I have been looking at the slides not entirely quite sure what to make of them. As planned, I have brought back a dozen or so new images for the Dead Tree Dance series. Apart from that, I have a few mostly uninspiring pictures from Badain Jarain desert and a whole lot of colourful images of Populus euphratica trees against autumn blue sky. Looking back at it now, photographing the trees—and I actually photographed the colours, not the trees—was probably the only time when I felt truly connected with the subject and inescapably compelled to photograph it, despite the fact that it did not have a suitable anchor to keep it from flying off into the stratosphere.

I will be sharing a few more images later, so please stay tuned.

23 September 2011 » Moving on

As I am preparing for the next photographic expedition, it is time to finalise the Xinjiang theme and move on. To do so, I have posted a final gallery of my favourite landscape images from the trip (you might be surprised which images I have chosen and how few of the originally posted pictures I have retained), as well as a page with a dozen cultural snapshots. The latter were taken with the Canon S95 point–and–shoot camera and are meant to give you a slightly better idea as to what Xinjiang is like.

My next expedition will be to Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia, China, i.e. mostly the same places where I photographed exactly two years ago. You will probably ask why I would go to the same place twice, and the answer has multiple layers. Photographically, my experience has been that, unless you are very lucky, it is nearly impossible to produce a meaningful and conclusive body of work from a place by travelling to the location only once. In particular, I hope to improve and expand the Dead Tree Dance series—I am very fond of it but feel that it is not quite finished yet. On a more general level, this is how I, for reasons unknown to me, tend to approach most things in life: I am fairly picky about what I choose, and the things I choose have to really touch a cord with me; once something is chosen, however, I dedicate a lot of time and energy absorbing it—until I get to the point where I feel that it has been thoroughly digested. That is why I keep going to the same places for photography, read the same books numerous times, and listen to the same music over and over again. In other words, I am naturally predisposed to go deep, not wide, be it a good thing or bad.

For those of you who are not familiar with China, here is a broad look at where I am going:


And here is a more detailed view of the travel plan (I will fly to Lanzhou and then travel by land):

 
 

Equipment–wise, not much is new: I am taking my complete Hasselblad V series system with a few dozens rolls of film (this time, however, I will be shooting Velvia 50, not Provia 100F). On the digital side of the equation, I will be bringing both the Fujifilm X100 and the Canon S95 camera, which, as in the past, will be mainly used to visually document non–photographic aspects of the trip. I intend to primarily use the X100, but am not sure if one prime lens will suffice, i.e., I am taking the S95 "just in case" and as a backup. Something tells me—and something is right most of the time—that after the trip the S95 might be facing an early retirement, as I have not used it once ever since I bought the X100 .

10 September 2011 » Recent favourite quotation

Let us face it: the lazy photographer assumes that the technique will solve all problems and that a careless, non–reflective and non–anticipatory attitude is all that the new photographer has to use as input and that any shortcomings of the picture are the consequence of failures of the engineer and technician to compensate for inadequacies of the photographer. (...) The modern photographer seems to demand fault–free technical equipment to compensate for their own inadequacies.

—Erwin Puts of TAO of Leica


7 September 2011 » My first large–sensor compact camera

Last month I went on a non–photographic trip and, although photography was of secondary consideration, I still envisioned the possibility of having some quality photography time. As much as I like the Canon S95 camera that I had been using for over half a year, I was hoping to bring back images of higher quality than the S95 could deliver (especially at higher ISO settings). Thus, I finally decided to take the plunge with respect to large–sensor compact cameras and, as you might have gathered from the post of 4 August, had become a proud owner of a Fujifilm X100 (yes, this also means that I have bid sayonara to Nikon for the foreseeable future). The decision to choose this particular camera did not come easily, and so I thought I would share with you how my thinking process unfolded.

   

Large–sensor compact cameras have been around for a while now, and potential buyers have some very competent choices. When choosing one product among multiple alternatives I usually first decide what I do not want (or cannot afford), thus narrowing down my options. Following this rule, I first dismissed Samsung NX series as the brand is not exactly known for its long history in photography (but this, quite possibly, only reflects my ignorance and biases, not the quality of the products). Next, I passed up Sony NEX series because I am not a big fan of the camera ergonomics, not to mention that the reportedly funky user interface is a no–no for me. Finally, I wrote off Panasonic GF series as I personally do not welcome the direction the company has taken with the latest iteration of the series, i.e. weirdly shaped camera bodies with fewer and fewer direct controls of crucial functions. Thus, I was left to choose between Olympus EP–3 and Fujifilm X100 (if I have failed to mention any other brand or camera it only goes to say that it is not inspiring enough to have left a lasting impression on me).

I have always been attracted to the Olympus EP–series cameras, but the first two iterations seemed somewhat undercooked in some crucial areas. The EP–3 has apparently addressed the issues its predecessors were criticised for and finally delivered what the original camera, the EP–1, promised to be. To make the EP–3 even more enticing, Olympus have also introduced a couple of prime lenses in the focal lengths that I favour a lot (equivalent to 24mm and 90mm in 35mm format). And talking about lenses, I still own an old Soviet 1000mm f/10 lens, which I, at least in theory, could use on the EP–3 via a Nikon F–mount adaptor. Although I would not expect to shoot with this monster of a lens often, it would certainly be useful for the times when things get stale and boring. All things considered, I could build a wicked kit around the EP–3.

Fujifilm X100 is a very impressive camera, too, albeit in a totally different—almost mysterious—fashion. On the one hand, it is said to have some very solid foundations: direct analogue access to vital controls, superb image quality, outstanding lens (that offers my desert island angle of view, no less!), unique hybrid viewfinder, excellent build quality, etc. On the other hand, however, it is also reported to have numerous drawbacks: autofocus is not exactly fast and manual focus is not well implemented, user interface is inconsistent and menus are a labyrinth, operation and file write speed is on the slow side, and so forth. And of course, there is also the issue of committing to one single focal length—while I remembered the numerous times when in the past I would go on walks and non–photographic trips with nothing but my Nikon D700 and a 35mm lens attached to it, I could not be sure that I could live with one prime lens on my camera at all times.

Now, when you have such a fat fly in the ointment it inevitably tends to spoil the whole works. In case of the X100, however, the fly seems to change shape, size and degree of transparency depending on which angle you look at it from, as well as who is looking—and, amusingly, attraction of the camera somehow remained almost intact despite the existence of the fly. I read many reviews of the camera, but, very strangely, still could not make heads or tales out of what the camera actually is. Seriously. As if I had not read anything at all.

I spent a lot of time pondering all of the above but still could not make up my mind as to which camera to buy. Ultimately, it was thinking about what shooting approaches and experience each camera would impose that made me choose the X100. In this respect, the EP–3 and the X100 are at the opposite end of what one can expect—while I could almost completely imagine what using the EP–3 would be like, I could not envision how inspiring or discouraging shooting with the X100 would in reality be. Picking the EP–3 would be like meeting a nice yet somewhat mediocre person whose company you are likely to enjoy, but who is unlikely to bring anything fundamentally new into your life, let alone changing its course. Choosing the X100, on the other hand, would be like meeting a genuine yet not entirely known character—someone you might end up hating, yet who has the potential of truly enriching your life.

In the end, I decided to take the risk and go with the X100, because stretching established habits while trying something not entirely predictable is always a worthwhile exercise. And if worse comes to worst and the fly really turns out to be the unpleasant creature many claim it is, I can always return to the safety of mediocrity.

We shall see if the gamble pays off.

31 August 2011 » Flat tyre

In case you are wondering why I have been quiet for such a long time, well, I have lost the USB flash disk where I kept all work in progress—articles, Web site updates and miscellaneous thoughts. Stupid as it may sound, yes, all of it was stored on one tiny piece of silicon wrapped in plastic that could be—and was—easily lost. In my defence, I chose this approach because I happen to use multiple computers and never know where I will continue writing next time. This style was quite natural to me, but, as a result, the disk was constantly being relocated between business suits, back pockets of my jeans, various bags and wherever not. Come to think of it, it is a miracle I did not lose it earlier—I should have seen it coming.

I sort of tried recovering lost files with Time Machine, but as it turned out Time Machine apparently does not take care of removable media (you can tell from this embarrassing revelation how much of a computer geek I am). Although none of the writing could even remotely approach bearing any significance, losing it all, just like that, was quite a bit dispiriting. It made me feel as if I have had a flat tyre on a trip that, on a personal level, has certain hopes and expectations. While not a major disruption, such incidents do drain your energy. But then again, time heals even losing love, so I am sure I will get over this far more trivial episode rather sooner than later.

I thought of rewriting the lost words, but some of them were too long in the making to recreate without a considerable energy boost. This being said, I will have to rewrite the update that was prepared for mid–August, because it might lead to other discussions later. The only question is how long it is going to take, as well as in what shape it will re–emerge—you know what they say about stepping into the same river twice.

At any rate, lesson learned—for the time being I am keeping multiple copies of the files that I have created from scratch, and later on I will make use of Apple iCloud or another solution that serves the same purpose.

Home page photograph has been updated with one more image taken in Xinjiang Province, China in June.

UPDATE: I have looked at a number of solutions and for the time being have settled on DropBox. It is free for up to 2GB of storage and works like a charm!

4 August 2011 » Software notes

Upgrading to a new, latest and greatest computer operating system nearly always guarantees that something will get broken, and that some things might become irrevocably unusable. When a couple of weeks ago I installed Mac OS 10.7 "Lion" I did anticipate that something would go awry; this being the second decade of the 21st century, however, I did not expect that so many things would go wrong.

First of all, "Lion" no longer includes or supports Rosetta engine, which in the previous version of the OS allowed running on Intel Macs applications written for PowerPC Macs. This essentially means that now you can use Intel–native software only, and that all old software has to be flushed down the toilet. In my case, the software that came with the ColorVision Spyder2 monitor calibration system was written for PowerPC Macs, and so I now have to throw away a perfectly usable piece of gear and replace it with a new one.

Next, photo gear manufacturers usually take some time to update existing software so that it becomes fully compatible with a new OS. Although some software might not be crucial thus allowing us to reluctantly wait for updates, some applications might make existing—and even new!—equipment function not as optimally as it can and should. For instance, the software used for upgrading the firmware of the Fujifilm X100 camera currently will not run under Mac OS 10.7; in other words, if you have upgraded to "Lion" you cannot upgrade the firmware of the X100 at the moment (and as you might know, this is a very crucial firmware update).

Some companies, of course, are better than others in this respect. For example, Nikon apparently are not one of the better ones, and Thom Hogan has already criticised how they are dealing with this issue (see the post of July 20). Thom has also pointed to Epson suggesting that they have dealt with the matter more professionally. Indeed, the driver of my Epson 4880 printer is compatible with "Lion" and I could start printing right away. However, not all is roses with Epson, too—whereas the printer driver appears fully functional under the new OS, none of the printer utilities is. I wrote to Epson tech support regarding this problem, and they advised to "keep checking back on our site for further 10.7 updates".

In short, it is always a pleasure to explore and use a new operating system; indeed, given the massive marketing hype that all major new software usually comes with, upgrading often seems irresistible. However, one should determine the time of upgrading on the basis of a realistic evaluation of indirect costs and possible interruptions in the existing workflows.

2 August 2011 » Final images from Xinjiang

Today I am posting last three images from Xinjiang, thus more or less concluding the subject. I am still going to spend some time re–scanning and printing the best images, as well as preparing a final gallery to post on the Web site at a later date, but this will mostly be done "behind the scenes". You might have noticed that altogether I have posted 20 pictures, and the final gallery will probably include only a dozen images. Those who are only starting in photography will most likely think, what, this is all you have got? Those, however, who have been in photography for a while, will know that I actually was quite lucky to have brought this number of decent photographs from one trip.

 
 

Talede sunset

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Xiate Grand Canyon (夏特大峡谷)

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, 2–stop Graduated ND filter, 4–stop ND filter
Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Sayram Lake

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film


29 July 2011 » Images from Kalajun Grassland (喀拉军草原)

Before the trip to Xinjiang I never suspected that grasslands come in all shapes and sizes, both literally and metaphorically. While Bayanbulak Grassland mostly made me stare into space and hear Monk's version of "荒城の月" echoing at the back of my mind, Kalajun Grassland enveloped me in some kind of distant warmth, something akin to a soft recollection from childhood, from a time when music had not yet taken the role of the only inseparable companion.

 
 

Kalajun Grassland #1

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens (tilted), 2–stop Graduated ND filter,
Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Kalajun Grassland #2

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens (if I remember correctly, tilted),
2–stop Graduated ND filter, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Kalajun Grassland #3

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens (tilted), Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Kalajun Grassland #4

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Kalajun Grassland #5

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film


20 July 2011 » To shoot or not to shoot (and images from Bayanbulak Grassland)

Suppose you are on a landscape photo tour, arrive at the shooting location earlier than expected—say, in early afternoon—and the plan is to stay and photograph until after sunset. You first walk and look around a bit, consider possible shooting angles and even try a few compositions. The question then is: do you start shooting now, when the light is still supposedly not ideal, or do you exercise restrain and begin photographing later in the day when the sun is closer to the horizon? After the expedition to Xinjiang I have come to the conclusion that one should start photographing right away, but do so sparingly.

Arriving at Bayanbulak Grassland (八音布鲁克草原; point D on the map shown in the post of 4 July below) I was immediately taken by the elegant beauty of the place. Light was constantly changing as moody clouds traversed the sky, and so was the look of the landscape. It was nearly impossible to resist starting photographing straight away, and not only did I give in, but I allowed myself to get carried away and shutter happy (film is the cheapest part of such trips, so I could afford the luxury of wasting a few frames). Take, for example, the Bayanbulak Grassland #6 photograph below: I have images of mostly the same scene at different hours of the day. Whereas this is not a bad thing per se and even though I do like some of the earlier variations, the best photographs were taken towards the end of the day when light was much softer and warmer; in fact, Bayanbulak Grassland #6 is the last image. Although I do not regret getting down to business as soon as I arrived at the grassland, I certainly should have photographed more selectively.

Then towards the end of the trip we stayed and photographed at Sayram Lake (赛里木湖). The place did not immediately strike me as particularly attractive, the sun was a bit too high in the sky, and light was not exactly favourable for landscape photography. I did, however, notice some very interesting, poetically subtle, patterns on the surface of the lake that were nearly perfectly complemented by the gorgeous blue sky. Being the wise man that I delude myself to be, I thought to myself that the lake and the patterns were not going anywhere, and so I would photograph them later when light is not as harsh. But of course, together with the wind that apparently formed them, the patterns disappeared in a blink of an eye—literally, gone with the wind. And you know how it is with the images that we think we envisioned but failed to capture—in our mind, they get more beautiful day by day. Although it most likely would have turned out to be a mediocre picture, I certainly should have made at least one exposure while I could.

In short, unless you live south of the border or west of the sun, there is always a middle ground.

 
 

Bayanbulak Grassland #1

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Bayanbulak Grassland #2

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Bayanbulak Grassland #3

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Bayanbulak Grassland #4

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Bayanbulak Grassland #5

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Bayanbulak Grassland #7

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

17 July 2011 » When you go too far

Sometimes going too far is the only way to know where the limit is and where you should stop. I had so much fun shooting and post processing "The Yellow Mountain panorama" (see the post of 17 February below), as well as enjoyed looking at the printed panorama so immensely, that somewhere at the back of my mind I started thinking, can I push this further? While on the way to Kuqa Gorge we encountered an incredible scene with a long Danxia formation and some dramatic clouds over it, which seemed like a perfect subject for a panorama—and an opportunity to push what I previously did further. It took six frames to cover the entire formation, and here is the image that I have now produced:


Passing storm

Hassleblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens (shifted 15mm),
Really Right Stuff panorama kit, 2–stop Graduated ND filter,
six frames of Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film exposed at f/16 and 1/60 seconds

Although it might seem attractive at first glance, I have clearly gone over the brink and the panorama is largely impractical. First, it is too long. I cannot show it in enough detail on the Web site, and viewing a real–life print would be a strange experience—the print would be too long to see enough detail from a distance where you can see it in its entirety, and you would have to move along it to see its entirety in enough detail. Second, it pushes the boundaries of what can be done in post processing. Each slide was scanned at only 2400ppi, but my eight–core Mac Pro computer took about seven minutes to stitch the panorama; further, I could not save the unflattened stitched TIFF file because it was larger than 4GB. Once flattened and cropped, the working PSD file with all the usual adjustment layers was 1.35GB in size, and image size in pixels was 25447 by 5089. Imagine what I would have to deal with if I scanned the slides at, say, 4000ppi!

If I crop the panorama on the sides it becomes more manageable, although even then I am not sure it works. I am still pondering whether I should make high quality scans and print it, but, regardless, going this far has been a lot of fun and next time I envision a panoramic image I will know where to stop.


Passing storm—cropped


15 July 2011 » Images from Kuqa Gorge

Continuing with the images taken on the trip to Xinjiang in June, the photographs in this post were captured in the area surrounding Kuqa Gorge (天山库车大峡谷; point C on the map shown in the post of 4 July). By the time I got there odd associations had already started to take shape, and I was thinking about relative perspectives: if you move fast enough, sunset is a permanent circumstance; the length of a year is entirely different when one is six and sixty; duration of time is absolutely imperceptible when you photograph star trails in complete darkness...


 
 

Blue in green

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

All blues

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, 2–stop Graduated ND filter, 4–stop ND filter,
Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

 
 

Last light

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

13 July 2011 » Images from Pamir Mountains

As is almost always the case after returning from a major photographic expedition, one is presented with two titanic tasks: first, sorting through all the images brought back from the trip and selecting the best ones (indeed, being one's own editor is a tough job in any creative field); second, presenting the chosen images in a coherent manner and hopefully building a meaningful body of work.

As far as the first task is concerned, over the years I have developed a workflow that generally works well, and it boils down to approaching the process of selection in multiple passes. For instance, on the expedition to Xinjiang I shot 33 rolls of 120 film (i.e., almost 400 frames), and after three passes of sorting through the slides I have retained 144 images. Next, I am going to choose and scan with my Epson 4990 flatbed scanner roughly one third of the slides. Approximately half of that will be posted on the Web site, and about 80% of the posted images will be re–scanned with a top–end scanner (Hasselblad Flextight X5) at high resolution and printed. In the end, I hope to have a dozen of decent photographs in the final trip gallery. As you can see, each selection is made from increasingly smaller number of images, so that in the end you arrive at crème de la crème (if you have any crème to begin with, of course). The only drawback of this approach is that it is somewhat time consuming; this being said, though, I am not sure if the process can be sped up, because the problem is not that of dealing with a big number of files or slides; instead, it is of making a large number of aesthetic decisions.

The task of presenting images, however, does not seem to have a general solution that can be used at all times, because images from each individual trip vary greatly in number and quality, as well as in how well they go together. Thus, a new approach has to be found quite often (which, on the upside, sometimes results in coming up with new creative ideas). In my experience, an approach to presenting a set of images starts to gradually emerge as one begins selecting the best pictures, but it might go left or right and up or down as the process unfolds.

Since the types of landscapes that I photographed in Xinjiang differ quite considerably, it seems logical to start posting the chosen images in small groups united by the location where they were taken or similarity of the scenery; later I can see where this initial approach will lead. Thus, today I am posting a couple of images from the Pamir Mountains (that is between points A and B shown on the map in the previous post).

 
 

On the way from Kashgar to Muztagh Ata

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

A panorama of Muztagh Ata

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens (shifted 10mm), 2–stop Graduated ND filter,
Fujifilm Provia 100F film (three shots stitched into panorama)

 
 

Stone city, Tashkurgan

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/50 lens and Fuji Provia 100F slide film

To be honest, I did not attempt to shoot much while travelling in the area. I photographed there fairly extensively in year 2008, and this time around the weather was not as good and we had much less time. What I did do after coming back from the trip, though, is revisit the photographs taken on the previous expedition, and the last image above was actually taken three years ago (but for some reason I overlooked it at the time). I realise that posting old pictures together with new ones might seem a bit lame, but I am just playing it by ear and it seems to make sense in this particular case. I do have some new interesting images to post, so please bear with me and stay tuned!

4 July 2011 » Back from Xinjiang

I have now returned from Xinjiang and, wow, the expedition was an absolute blast. Every aspect of the trip was as exciting as it gets, and I will go as far as to say that it was the most exhilarating trip that I have ever gone on. The range of landscapes that I travelled through was enormously wide—from grand mountains of the Pamirs to Gobi desert to Danxia landforms to grasslands and prairies to dramatic snow peaks of deep gorges—and photographic opportunities were abound.

We covered nearly three thousand kilometres often travelling on very rough roads and, as I expected, unexpected things did happen—at times it actually was quite a bit of an adventure. One of the windows of our Toyota Land Cruiser was smashed by an excavator on a closed mountain road, and other minor accidents occurred, too. The road to one of the major shooting locations near Tekes (特克斯) was flooded, so we had to turn back and call it a day. As it turned out, several counties we had to drive through were closed to foreigners (namely, Xinyuan County (新源县), Gongliu County (巩留县) and Nileke County (尼勒克县); do not ask me how this problem was circumvented, though ). Finally, the route had to be further changed to deal with other issues as well as optimise shooting opportunities, and it ended up as shown in the map below. Fortunately, though, none of this had any major impacts on photography and, as mentioned above, overall the trip was absolutely brilliant.



You might have noticed that none of the problems that we encountered mentions photographic gear, and, indeed, in terms of equipment everything worked exceedingly well. The Hasselblad CFi 5.6/250 lens came in as useful as I thought it would—it offers enough telephoto reach for distant landscapes and, given its focal length, is reasonably light and compact. As I reported in the review of the lens image quality that it delivers is superb, too, so I am keeping the lens for long–term use.

The Canon S95 camera also proved to be a great companion—with two caveats. First, the short battery life can be really problematic, as even two batteries do not last a full day of travelling and serious shooting. Thankfully, though, I knew of this issue and brought three batteries (the batteries are small and carrying a few of them is not too much of a burden). Second, what I found really frustrating when using the camera day in and day out is the longish time the lens takes to telescope out and retract when you switch the camera on and off. This issue has me thinking about compact cameras with large sensors (and non–retracting lenses) again, and now that Fujifilm have released a firmware update for the X100, as well as that Olympus have launched the E–P3 and a couple of seriously attractive lenses, I finally have some very compelling options to consider.

Google Maps on the iPhone turned out to be an invaluable tool. While travelling from one location to the next I could precisely check how far we had gone, what geographic features surrounded us at any time and what terrain lay ahead, which gave me a much better understanding of the route in general and each individual site in particular. The only caveat was that the battery of my year and a half old iPhone 3Gs barely lasts a day, so I had to use it sparely. I imagine that an iPad would have been very useful on such a trip, as its battery would have lasted much longer and looking at maps on a larger screen would have been more convenient, so I have some thinking to do in this regard, too.

July is likely to be a slow month in terms of photography at this side, so I am going to take my time working on the images shot in Xinjiang. Home page photograph has been updated with one of the first photographs taken on the trip, and I will be sharing more images (and, possibly, various thoughts and comments) as I continue working on them.

14 June 2011 » The Loneliest Monk goes to Xinjiang

So, later this week I will be heading to Xinjiang Province, China on a dedicated photographic expedition—for the third time. The place is absolutely spectacular for photography (and not only!), but I am keeping my expectations low—as any experienced photographer knows, there are way too many things that can go wrong in the field. Some of them we can anticipate and prepare for (e.g., equipment failures), others we can only hope for (e.g., adequate weather or absence of unforeseen developments). Having prepared as well as I could and keeping my fingers crossed, I hope that the trip will go smoothly.

For those of you who are not familiar with this part of the world, here is a broad look at where I am going:


And here is a more detailed view of the travel plan (I will first fly to Kashgar):



As far as equipment goes, I am taking my entire Hasselblad V system (two camera bodies, two film backs, four lenses and miscellaneous accessories); apart from that, I will bring along my Canon S95 compact camera, which I intend to use to visually document non–artistic aspects of the trip. This combination worked very well on previous expeditions, and you know what they say about fixing something that is not broke.

So, wish me good light and I will be "seeing" you in July!

P.S. What's with the title of this update and Thelonious Monk in particular? Not much, really; it is just that I am taking this book on the trip. I am not sure if I mentioned this before, but I always welcome an opportunity to create odd associations—the odder the better. On this trip, I will be watching and photographing exceptional landscapes, listening to jazz, reading about Monk and his life, eating Uighur food and speaking only Chinese. When you put these completely unrelated, in some ways perhaps even contradictory, ingredients together and let them simmer for a few days, they are bound to interact in unknown ways and create unthinkable associations, or even new universes. Associations are powerful, complex and lasting creatures, and, like a mean cocktail, you can only have one at a time. But when the right time to fix one comes, you have to make sure that you savour it to the fullest.

11 June 2011 » Hasselblad Sonnar CFi 5.6/250 lens review

I realise that this will be of interest to very few people, but I thought I would let you know that I have just posted a review of the Hasselblad Sonnar CFi 5.6/250 lens. With all the recent talk about my lack of interest in photographic gear, you will probably ask why all of a sudden I would come up with a review of yet another lens. The answer is simple: I am going to use the lens on the upcoming expedition and I had to test it prior to the trip to fully understand what I can expect from it. And once I figured out all aspects of its performance, putting my observations and conclusions in writing was easy—and therapeutic.

31 May 2011 » Sayonara, Nikon

I am in the process of preparing for a major photographic expedition that I will undertake in June (more on that later), and I took this opportunity to critically review what equipment, how and for what purposes I have been using during the past couple of years. I could go into detail, but the long and the short of it is that my main rig has been—and will remain for the foreseeable future—a Hasselblad V–series system, and that I need a relatively compact (yet high quality) digital camera to go with the Hasselblad, as well as to be used on non–photographic trips. To wit, a big honking DSLR such as the Nikon D700 just does not fit into how I pursue photography anymore; whereas it might be a great choice as a main camera, it is too formidable to serve as a secondary camera or for non–photographic outings. And so—drum roll, please—I have now sold all my Nikon gear. As in, every single piece of Nikon gear that I had. As shocking as it might sound, I am no longer a Nikon shooter.

So, how does it feel to be a long time Nikon user who suddenly does not have a single piece of equipment that has the brand name on it in his home? To be honest, to me this is not about Nikon, or any other camera brand for that matter; rather, it is about actually using equipment and doing it justice: although some photographers enjoy owing, or even collecting, various cameras and lenses, I feel burdened if a camera or a lens simply sits on a shelf collecting dust. I am sure the next owner of my Nikon D700 (and the rest of the kit) will use it more than I did, and this makes me feel relieved.

Does this mean that I exclude the possibility of using Nikon gear ever again? No, of course not. I have no axe to grind with Nikon, and if the company produces something that I am genuinely interested in, I will be happy to use Nikon equipment again. Come to think of it, there actually is a chance for Nikon to win me back in the near future, as I am still in the market for a compact mirrorless camera with a large sensor. Were I to buy such a camera today, I would most likely go for the newly announced Panasonic G3—not because of the brand or this particular camera model, but on account of the very attractive pancake lenses that the system boasts. Nonetheless, I am willing to wait a little longer until Nikon finally comes out with their offer in this market segment. So, Nikon, I hope to catch you on the flip side, but until then—sayonara.

19 May 2011 » Interest in equipment and photographic motivation

Continuing on the subject of interest in photographic gear, another reader has written to suggest that photographers often do not have sufficient motivation to go out and photograph, and this is where interest in photographic equipment or technique helps a great deal: give me a new camera or lens, or let me experiment with a new technique, and I will be out the door shooting as soon as I have a spare moment. This rings true at first and most photographers have experienced such moments; this seems to be particularly the case when one is in the early stages of developing as a photographer. At closer examination and over a longer period of time, however, interest in equipment turns out to be an unreliable, or even misleading, source of photographic motivation. Let us see why.

To begin with, any new gear requires at least some time to become familiar with, and before that happens it almost always gets in the way of taking pictures. Even such seemingly simple things as, say, tripod ball heads need some practice to avoid fumbling with them in the field. No matter how exciting the gear, using new, unfamiliar equipment on a new project or on an important trip is always a bad idea. Whereas exploring and mastering new gear can be a lot of fun of and by itself, it is a dubious source of motivation for producing photographic work. And of course, by the time you can use a new piece of equipment fluently, the thrill of using it might already be gone. Will you still go out and shoot then?

Further, any photographic endeavour is about creating a visual story, and the story we want to tell should dictate what gear we should use. However, when motivation comes purely from using new gear, we essentially start at the wrong end: we begin with the gear and then try to come up with a plausible story. Granted, a new exciting piece of gear might coincidentally be suitable for the story one has in mind, but the pitfall is that if there is no other motivation other than the new gear, then one's narrative will only last as long as the gear remains exciting, and the story is likely to end abruptly together with the excitement. In reality, photographic motivation from using new equipment often results in arbitrary shooting for the sake of shooting as opposed to purposefully producing preconceived results; whereas one might be lucky enough to produce some nice, or even great, individual images, he is unlikely to produce a coherent and meaningful body of work. It is probably possible to channel the motivation derived from using new gear towards specific, project–oriented goals, but this requires quite a bit of self–discipline, and self–discipline is what photographers who considerably rely on such motivation tend to lack (mind you, I am as guilty of this as the next photographer!).

Finally, what happens if one starts losing interest in new—and old—gear altogether as I discussed in previous posts, and the words "equipment" or "technique" and "exciting" no longer go together? If there is no other, more lasting source of photographic motivation, then one's interest in photography is, well, kaput. Obviously, completely relying on motivation that stems from interest in new gear or technique is a very slippery slope; thus, it can only serve as a secondary, supplementary source of one's interest in photography.

What, then, should be the primary, more reliable source of photographic inspiration? In my experience, long–lasting motivation in photography can only come from genuine interest in subject matter (subject matter is meant in a very broad sense here). Indeed, no matter how excited one might be about his gear, if he is not passionate about the subject of his photography he is unlikely to know it well enough to photograph it successfully. And besides, if one is not truly interested in what he is attempting to photograph, then why photograph it at all? In my case, it is fondness of the places I photograph that has been making me return to and photograph them time and again, often with different cameras and lenses, and relatively dispassionately about what gear is used on each particular trip.


 
 

Children of Batuohe

I would return to this place again and again, with any decent camera

Most of us start in photography "specialising" in and photographing nearly everything—from macro to portraiture to landscapes to weddings—and, in the beginning, we tend to be shutter happy; this, of course, is perfectly fine, because as is often the case with so many things in life, you do not know what you truly like unless you experience it. Nonetheless, photographers should spend gradually more time paying attention to and thinking about what subject matter truly interests them, as well as studying that subject matter (e.g., if you are fond of a certain type of flowers, you might want to figure out where they grow and when they bloom). In the long run, if you are passionate and knowledgeable about your subject and, on top of that, occasionally get further inspired by using new gear, then that is a killer combo that will keep you motivated for a long, long time. In other words, interest in equipment and technique can serve as motivation in the beginning of one's photographic path; if, however, you wish the path to be long, that motivation should mainly come from interest in the subject matter.

9 May 2011 » Further thoughts on interest in photographic equipment

A couple of weeks ago a long–time reader of this Web site sent me an email to basically say that his relationship with photographic equipment has more or less been following a path not entirely dissimilar to mine (see previous post). This lead me to further think about this issue as well as realise that, as far as one's attitude towards gear is concerned, there might be more general tendencies, and so I decided to post a modified version of my reply to the reader here.

(I have to note that I did read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and am not a fan of oversimplified classifications and theories. Thus, the purpose of this post is not to impose unnecessary categorisation; rather, it is meant to briefly examine how immensely different our interest in equipment can be, as well as let you stop for a minute and think what your relationship with your cameras is and where it is heading.)

To begin with, I would venture to say that, from the standpoint of how much one cares for photographic equipment, there are two opposite groups of photographers that clearly stand out: those who love their gear and those who could not care less about it. Photographers in the former group enjoy using various equipment, change cameras and lenses often, like latest and greatest stuff and, very importantly, never get tired of the flow of photographic equipment that goes through their hands. From a certain perspective I envy such photographers, because they tirelessly pour energy into trying and using various gear, and this energy never seems to dry up. Being enthusiastic and upbeat about something—about anything—is always a good thing.

At the opposite end of the spectrum we have photographers who could not care less about photographic gear; they capture images with whatever tools they happen to have. As an example, I have a friend who is embarking on her first personal exhibition and, having seen some of her photographs, I reckon that the exhibition is likely to offer some very interesting work. And guess what? She has not owned what most photographers would consider a serious camera for years. Instead, she has been shooting with her iPhone, Polaroid instant cameras, or whichever camera she can borrow from friends and acquaintances at any given time. She sort of understands that she probably needs to get a good camera for long–term use and pay more attention to the technical side of photography, but gear is just not her thing. Regardless, she greatly cares about photography and has developed a very keen photographic eye.

And then there is a vast middle ground between the two groups mentioned above. It is a continuum that has no discrete values, like a gradual transition from black to white (do not ask me which one is which, though), and one can be anywhere in it. Some photographers might lean towards the first group, some towards the second, and some might be smack in the middle. One's position, however, is not a dot, but rather more like a cloud, because one can have varying degrees of interest in different types of gear.

In case of some photographers interest in photographic gear remains more or less constant over time; others, however—and I seem to fall into this category—start closer to the first group and gradually drift towards the second group; here, where one begins, where he ends, and how fast he moves is a very personal matter. In some extreme instances, one might start loving gear and end being totally disinterested in it; more often, though, the changes are less drastic. Also quite interestingly, if a photographer's interest in photographic gear changes over time, it always moves from the first group towards the second and never in the opposite direction (or, at least, I have never heard of such instances).

So, where are you at?

22 April 2011 » The scare and the review

Recently I have been getting the scare that I am no longer interested in photography. You know, the kind of scare that you are no longer in love, when you agitatedly pace around the room repeating to yourself, it cannot be. Why? Because I find myself increasingly disinterested in photographic gear. In the past, I would go to my favourite photo gear mall, take my time wandering around, drool over possibilities, and think to myself with immense satisfaction that I was close to comprehending why women love window shopping*. Nowadays, I go to the same mall in an attempt to revive that photogearical exaltation, but the moment just does not come. As the song goes, the thrill is gone.

But the scare does not stop there. I am also less and less interested in minute differences in, say, performance of different cameras at high ISO settings or nuances of field curvature signatures of competing lenses. It is not that cameras and equipment in general do not matter—sometimes they really do—it is that I do not seem to care that much anymore. If in the past I would be happy to test and review any lens or camera that came my way, these days I am much more reluctant to spend my time playing with new gear. Geez, I have even happened to heretically think of selling my Nikon D700—not because I am smart enough to get rid of the camera at the point where you reach the best balance between getting as much out of it as possible and selling it before its secondhand price starts to plummet—but simply because I have not used it in way too long. And, oh, did I mention that I do not own a single zoom lens anymore?

But wait, it gets better—I feel that a new trend is appearing. My Hasselblad Flexbody, a camera that does not even look like a camera, used to be a special–use tool and serve as a backup to my main camera, the Hasselblad 503CW; now, however, the 503CW and the Flexbody are at the verge of switching their roles. Heck, how often and where can I realistically expect to use this awkward camera?

All of this is not a good sign. Have I lost interest in photography yet am afraid to acknowledge it? Am I gradually distancing myself from the medium, and do so starting with gear? Is this how it is going to end?

When I think about it calmly, though, I realise that I am not disinterested in photography—far from it. Being interested in photo gear and being fond of photography are two entirely different things. I have played with enough photo gear and sufficiently—yet inconclusively—learnt what matters for my photography, and that includes the gear that I use. Maybe I have arrived at the point where I can finally let go of the camera and actually concentrate on photography. Indeed, being mostly disinterested in photo gear might be where photography begins, not where it ends, and where it finally becomes something truly special, intimate and cherished, not something used for bragging rights or abused with gazillions of indiscriminate exposures and truckloads of gear.

Nonetheless, the reason I say "mostly disinterested in photo gear" is that there are still some pieces of equipment—their choice being admittedly idiosyncratic—that tickle my curiosity. With this as an update on my current attitude towards photo gear and a rambling preamble, my review of the AF–S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G lens is now online.

*There is absolutely nothing wrong with this phenomenon; it is just that most men, including yours truly, tend to lack the ability to comprehend it.

22 March 2011 » First impressions of the AF–S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G lens

35mm–ish has always been one of my favourite focal lengths, and I have been extensively using the AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D lens on my Nikon D700 and the CFE 2.8/80 lens (roughly equivalent to 40mm in 35mm format) on my Hasselblad 503CW. If I had to live with one lens for the rest of my life, I would choose this focal length. When in September 2010 Nikon announced the AF–S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G lens, it naturally aroused my interest. The lens has apparently been in very high demand and is still difficult to find today. My friend Andrew Lee, however, somehow managed to get what seems to be one of the first lenses available in Shanghai, and thanks to him (as well as his love affair with the Leica M9, which has temporarily put all other camera brands out of his mind), I now have a chance to savour test–driving the new lens.

I have done some shooting with the lens over the last (rainy) weekend and have to say that f/1.4 in a lens of this focal length is absolutely addictive—the combination of the mildly wide angle of view with shallow depth of field produces a unique look, not to mention that the smooth–at–first–glance bokeh (the look of out–of–focus areas) makes it even more attractive. Heck, I have been shooting the lens wide–open only and so far have not found the strength to shake off the addiction and stop the lens down!

The optic is a massive chunk of a lens—at first I thought that Andrew mistakenly brought a zoom lens instead. When mounted on the D700, the lens nearly makes the camera nose–dive when you carry it on your shoulder or around your neck; the camera–and–lens combination most certainly crosses the line of being suitable for casual shooting and is not the first thing you think of when you go out for a walk and want to take a camera with you. With this said, though, the lens is very well built and gives a sense of purposefulness; furthermore, the camera–and–lens combination balances well in hand despite the bulk and heavy weight. The image below shows the relative sizes of the AF–S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G (in the middle) and the AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D (on the right)—as you can see, the former is significantly bigger. Just for fun, I have also included the Hasselblad CFi 4/150 lens, which is one of my favourite lenses in medium format; to me, it represents the maximum size and weight of a lens that I still feel comfortable working with.

 
 

The lens incorporates a Silent Wave Motor that, at least in theory, should provide fast and silent autofocus with instant manual focus override. However, I have read in some reviews that autofocus of the new lens is "pretty fast but not instantaneous", and that "the AF speed is not overly fast and certainly slower than the high end f/2.8 professional zooms". In my experience not only is this true, but I have to come out and say that autofocus is plain slow for a pro–calibre lens. How slow, you ask? Using the lens for the first time I raised my eyebrows in disbelief that autofocus of a professional AF–S lens mounted on the D700 could be so slow. I cannot measure or express the speed of autofocus numerically, but suffice it to say that the AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D, which is focused in the old–fashioned way with the use of a mechanical screw, seems a bit snappier. This being said, AF–S focusing is indeed quieter, and this does disguise the slowness of the lens' autofocus to a certain extent (psychologically, we tend to perceive silent focusing as fast and noisy as slow; in reality, however, there is often no correlation—the latest silent technologies can be slow, and noisy old lenses still can hold their own much better than the marketers would have you believe).

As to the other aspects of the lens's performance, my quick preliminary tests indicate that it is very sharp, has very strong vignetting at f/1.4, produces insignificant barrel distortion of a simple signature, and is not free from chromatic aberrations. I still have a bit of time to use and test the lens and will post a full review in due course.

15 March 2011 » Further comments on the Canon PowerShot S95 camera

As regular readers might recall in the end of last year I bought a Canon PowerShot S95 compact digital camera. At the time I made quick high ISO performance tests and was quite impressed with this aspect of the camera's performance. Although I have been using the S95 regularly since it became a part of my photographic arsenal, I am not going to write a review in the traditional sense—I am sure that those interested in the camera have already read comprehensive overviews and comparisons over at DPReview.com, et. al. Instead, I would like to comment on various aspects of its performance that I found standing out, curious or annoying in real–life shooting.

   

Some photographers have written in disdain that camera body design of the S95 is akin to that of a bar of soap. Considered out of context this might be true; however, the whole point of this camera is having RAW capability with complete photographic control in a truly pocketable package. In my view, the S95 is currently the only camera that has achieved this design objective, and the alternatives offered by the competition (Panasonic LX–5, Nikon P7000, etc.) are not in the same league in terms of pocketability because of the overall bulk (the Nikon) or the protruding lens (the Panasonic). The S95 is truly small and pocketable—sometimes I even forget which pocket I left it in! From this perspective, I personally very much welcome the "bar of soap" design.

To at least partially address the handling compromises ensued by the "bar of soap" design, the body of the S95 boasts a rubberised coating that improves and reassures handling of the camera; another important benefit of the coating is that it does not attract fingerprints, so that, unlike cameras with metal body surfaces, the S95 always looks clean. Despite the improved handling, however, it is nearly impossible to use the camera with one hand. When photographing landscapes I often carry tripod in my left hand while keeping a compact camera in a right pocket so that it is ready for quick or casual shooting. The S95 has changed that habit—I have to put tripod down to take a shot or use the camera for pre–visualisation of a scene.


 
 

The benefit of having a camera in your pocket—image taken with the Canon S95
while flying somewhere over Northern China

User interface is very well thought out and allows exercising complete photographic control without delving into menus too often. In fact, I had to extensively peruse the menus only once when initially setting up the camera the way I intended to use it; after that was done I could mostly forget about the existence of the menus altogether. User interface is simple and straightforward enough, too—to the point that I figured out how to use the camera almost without reading the manual (this being said, I still do turn to it every once in a while to clarify some finer points). Not all is perfect, however—there are two important aspects of photographic control that I found poorly implemented.

Being a camera for serious photographers the S95 offers overexposure warning during playback, and overexposed areas of an image flash in Detailed Information Display playback mode. The problem, however, is that image area in this playback mode is only slightly larger than a forth of the area of the screen, which is too small to show overexposed areas accurately, as well as for smaller overexposed areas to be noticeable (or even shown). This is further exacerbated by the fact that overexposed areas flash in an animated manner, which, contrary to the intent, makes them more difficult to see. I would certainly prefer no–frills flashing of overexposed areas in full–screen images.

The second poorly implemented feature is the Auto ISO function. The S95 allows choosing the maximum ISO sensitivity between ISO400 and ISO1600, which is fine and as expected; however, instead of setting the slowest acceptable (minimum) shutter speed as is done in most cameras, the S95 offers you to choose between Fast, Slow and Standard "rate of change". I have no idea how this "rate of change" came about or what it means, and the manual has nothing to say about it, too. Nonetheless, a simple test indicates that the camera starts increasing ISO sensitivity at a relatively fast shutter speed in "Fast" rate of change, at a slower shutter speed in "Standard" rate of change and at a yet slower shutter speed in "Slow" rate of change. This appears to further depend on the current focal length setting, as well as the camera's seeming preference not to go beyond ISO800 too soon. In the end, it is difficult to guess what shutter speed and ISO setting the camera is going to use in a given situation. In my view, this is not the best possible implementation of Auto ISO function, and, at the very least, Canon should have properly documented it to know what exactly the camera is doing. Personally, I prefer to set maximum ISO sensitivity to ISO640 (my initial tests indicated that ISO800 was usable with care, but having had more experience with the camera I have now backed off to ISO640); further, since image stabilization of the S95 is quite impressive, I use "Slow" rate of change most of the time. In this particular combination the camera's minimum shutter speed is 1/15 seconds at all focal length settings.


 
 

Canon S95: handheld at 1/5 seconds and tack sharp!

The S95, generally, is fast and responsive, and I am particularly impressed with how swift shooting in RAW format is for a compact camera. Quite strangely, though, the camera is not equally responsive in everything it does—some aspects of its operation seem snappier than others. The difference is not huge, but one can clearly feel it, especially over a longer period of using the camera. Psychologically, the snappier aspects of operation (e.g., browsing menus or changing settings in a given shooting mode) create an expectation as to what overall speed and responsiveness shall be. However, when you run into something that is slower than expected (e.g., changing between shooting PASM modes, changing focal lengths, etc.), it tends to be quite annoying, especially when you are tying to shoot quickly.

Battery life, well, leaves a lot to be desired—I get about 200 exposures with a fresh, fully charged battery without using flash. Consider buying and carrying a spare battery an inescapable necessity. Then again, though, this is not surprising given the size of the camera and the battery.

The lens, while not perfect, is very good for a compact camera, especially given that it is fairly fast (f/2 at the wide end and f/4.9 at the long end). Vignetting and flare do not normally present any problems. Although you can see some softness in the corners at some settings, it is not a major issue and the lens is generally plentifully sharp. Chromatic aberration can be very noticeable in some instances, but it is of the lateral kind and thus can be effectively dealt with in post processing if you shoot RAW. Distortion can be very pronounced, especially at the wide end at close distances, but it tends to have a relatively simple, mostly non–curved, signature and thus can mostly be corrected for, too. In short, most of the optical imperfections can be dealt with in post processing.

At lower ISO settings and if exposure is properly taken care of, image quality is very, very impressive; I think that it easily rivals image quality produced by some cameras with larger sensors. When dealing with compact cameras photographers tend to be mostly concerned with and first look at image noise characteristics. As previously mentioned, when shooting with the S95 I unreservedly use ISO640 (and ISO800 if necessary); furthermore, I like the look of the noise produced by the camera, as well as how it cleans up in post processing.

As it turns out, the Achilles' heel of the S95 is not noise—it is the rather narrow dynamic range and very limited highlight headroom in particular. In my experience, the S95 tends to blow highlights very easily, and they often cannot be recovered in post processing even if you shoot RAW. I have seen this occurring even in relatively low contrast scenes and when images were overall well exposed. In fact, over the longer period I have become more concerned with this issue than that of noise. I would rather err on the side of underexposure and, as a result, dial in a minus compensation often enough that it has almost become a habit. The tendency of the S95 to blow highlights must be watched out for.


 
 

Canon S95: watch out for those highlights

In the final analysis, and despite the nitpicking concerns outlined above, I have to reiterate that I have been immensely enjoying using the S95—it is small, well built, fast and produces images of very high quality if used with care. I carry it with me most of the time, and, to be honest, I am no longer certain I need a compact camera with a large sensor. Highly recommended!

10 March 2011 » Publication in the Practical Photography magazine

I thought I would let you know that one of my star trails images has been published in the current issue of the Practical Photography magazine (March 2011). This is nothing major—the photograph is only a part of a long article—but, nonetheless, a publication is a publication. PDF version of the page can be found here.

 
 

6 March 2011 » Recent favourite quotation

Rules are foolish, arbitrary, mindless things that raise you quickly to a level of acceptable mediocrity, then prevent you from progressing further. Several of the most well–known rules—the rule of thirds, the rule of avoiding a horizon in the center of an image, the rule of having an image read from left to right, the rule of not placing the center of interest in the center of the image, and so many others—are undesirable constraints with no validity.

—Bruce Barnbaum, “The Art of Photography”


4 March 2011 » Mac Pro woes and boons

I have used my 2008 eight–core Mac Pro computer for almost exactly three years now and, generally, have been very happy with it. It is truly beautifully built, offers a lot of flexibility in terms of system expandability and, even though it has been superseded twice, still feels more than adequately powerful for the most demanding tasks I can expect to use it for (for example, working on 4GB layered files in Photoshop as mentioned in a previous post).

Recently, however, the optical drive of the computer started to act funky: it would not read some CDs and DVDs (in particular, the Photoshop CS5 Techniques for Photographers tutorial that I have been watching), and the door of the drive at times would not open at all. Luckily, my three–year AppleCare protection plan was still valid for about two weeks, and I so I called Apple support.

Although I ended up spending almost an hour on the phone talking to Apple tech support and they asked me to do a couple of simple procedures to ensure that it was not a software problem, they arranged for an Apple support engineer to come and fix the drive on the following day. I sort of expected that the visit would not go smoothly, because some DVDs could still be read, but, to my pleasant surprise, the engineer simply changed the drive without even checking it or asking a single question. Nice!

After the optical drive was replaced, however, the drive door still would not open. As you might know, Mac Pro computers have two optical drive slots, and so we could simply move the drive to the other slot. However, the idea of having a failed slot while the computer was still under warranty did not sit right with me, and I asked if it could be repaired. To which the engineer nonchalantly replied, "Sure, no problem, but there is one minor caveat: we will have to replace... the entire chassis of the computer".

No need to say that I was startled at first, but then I thought that taking the guts of the computer out and putting them into a new body would be a helluva lot of fun to watch, as well as a good opportunity to clean the insides of the machine (you would not believe how much dust desktop computers collect over a longer period of time). "Okay, I am game", I said after a few seconds of hesitation.

The next day the same chap came over again, this time dragging along a massive box with a new chassis for my Mac Pro. As I expected, watching the insides of the computer being gradually moved into a new case was something else, and, at the risk of repeating myself, Mac Pro is as beautiful inside as it is outside. Quite interestingly, the chassis also includes some crucial components of the computer (fans, for example), and those were replaced, too.

Once all the insides were cleaned and moved into a new, spotless chassis with working optical drive doors, I genuinely felt that I had just gotten myself a new computer. Granted, I might want to have more computing power in a year or two (even though now I cannot imagine what I can possibly use all that power for), but that can be addressed by adding more memory (I currently have "only" 6GB installed) and switching to fast solid–state drives. In short, I am good to go for at least another three years!

22 February 2011 » Recent favourite quotation

I believe that each artist, like everyone else, has strong views about the world: what it is, what it should be, and how it could be improved. As such, I think that most artists are not so much searching for the truth, but searching for a proper method of expressing the truth as they see it.

—Bruce Barnbaum, “The Art of Photography”


17 February 2011 » The Yellow Mountain panorama

I do not photograph panoramas often and generally find composing in square format very natural and easy. A few years back I did consider buying a panoramic camera, but medium format panoramic cameras tend to be very bulky and heavy. Given how seldom I shoot panoramic images, buying and carrying a dedicated panoramic camera did not make much sense to me.

Every once in a while, however, I encounter scenes that just cannot be crammed into square composition and call for shooting panoramas, either with the use of a dedicated panoramic camera or, in my case, by using the stitching technique. In one of the mornings in the Yellow Mountain earlier this month I came across exactly such a scene: although I tried making a few square compositions and even made a few exposures, I knew that the strongest way of rendering the scene would be with a panoramic image. As the photograph below attests, that indeed was the case.


The Yellow Mountain panorama
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens (shifted 15mm),
Fujifilm Provia 100F film (four shots stitched into panorama)


Technically, shooting the panorama and its post processing were quite challenging. I did not bring any panorama gear on the trip, and making sure that both the base of the tripod and the camera were perfectly level was quite fiddly. I also could not move the camera back in relation to the tripod head to ensure that camera rotation was around the nodal point of the lens; nonetheless, I used a short telephoto lens and so figured this would not be too much of a problem. On the upside, I used the Hasselblad Flexbody camera body, which allowed shifting the lens: by appropriately shifting the lens downwards I could have a nearly ideal composition across the entire panorama while still rotating the camera in a perfectly horizontal plane. In the end, although the shooting technique was not perfect, I managed to get sufficiently good results that allowed creating a panorama of very high quality.

Working on the panorama in Photoshop took a lot of processing power, and it was one of the rare occasions when my eight–core Mac Pro computer had to use all the juice it could muster. The image is comprised of four 6X6 shots that were scanned with a Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner at 3200ppi in 16–bit mode, and each scan weighs in at about 280MB. Once you stitch them in Photoshop the layered panorama file is—dig this—nearly 4GB in size! After I flattened the panorama layers, cropped the image and added all the usual adjustment layers (cleanup, levels, curves, colour balance, etc.), the working PSD version of the image had a "more reasonable" size of 1.15GB. After all the work was done, the folder with the original scans and all the working files weighed in at 7.13GB—and that is just one photograph!

You will probably ask why on earth I would need such massive files. The answer is very simple, really: I have produced a 40cm by 133cm print at 360dpi, and the image quality is immaculate in every sense of the word—you really have to see it to believe, and I really wish I could show you the print. Image quality and fine detail in particular is absolutely crucial in landscape photography, and it often takes such huge files to get it. So as not to sound too snobbish, though, current Home Page photograph was taken with a Canon S95 digital point–and–shoot camera .

One more point. Photographers often say that the relatively low resolution of modern digital cameras can be overcome by stitching. This, of course, is true, but many of us tend to forget that stitching can be done with film just as easily!

13 February 2011 » The Yellow Mountain trip fiasco

Whenever we go on a photographic trip we expect to bring back some great images. Of course, you say—why would we go otherwise? However, there are so many things that can go wrong and ruin our expectations. To mention just one denominator, weather is one of the key factors that greatly influence our photographic endeavours. The "worst" weather often a time is best for photography, and the "best" weather is nearly always our worst enemy. The last variety is what I had during the trip to the Yellow Mountain earlier this month: four days of straight, uninspiring sunlight.

Looking at weather forecast I knew that I would not be able to photograph much, but I was still hoping that the Yellow Mountain would pull its voodoo magic again and, as it did numerous times in the past, mockingly laugh at scientific attempts to predict its mood. Alas, my hopes were in vain and I could realistically photograph for half an hour before sunrise, half an hour after sunrise and then, later in the day, for half an hour before sunset; this amounted to about an hour and a half of photography each day. I also photographed star trails every night, but that did not work out well, too, because there was too much light pollution and, on the last night, clouds started creeping in at the horizon. Although I shot a few rolls of film, I have kept only 23 slides. No matter how you slice it, photographically, the trip was a fiasco.

 
 

The moment you start photographing the hotel you stay in you know it has gotten pretty bad

Thinking of this letdown, one of the main differences between professional and amateur approaches in photography lies in that professionals travel to a particular destination at a time that is best for photography, whereas us folks with daytime jobs tend to go on photographic trips when we have holidays and are free of various obligations, which rarely coincides with the best time for photography. In the past I waited until the weather was right to photograph in the Yellow Mountain and only then travelled there; this time around I slipped and went during a holiday disregarding the weather. I suppose I was hoping that, just this once, I would be able to get away with it but, as it turned out, it was foolish of me to just "hope". Lesson learned.

So what do you do when you are already in the field but photographic opportunities are lukewarm at best? I ended up indulging in the following:

  • Read the book that I brought with me while drinking coffee at the hotel;

  • Scour the place for possible new locations for sunrise, sunset and star trails photography;

  • Walk around and "photograph" the place with my memory, not cameras, imprinting it in my mind, not on film;

  • Listen to Bitches Brew while sitting on one of the numerous tops of the mountain;

  • Stare into space while gazing at one of the magnificent views.

Not having much to do I kept doing this repeatedly and, somewhat unexpectedly, over the course of four days it amounted to quite a bit of quality time with myself. Come to think of it, quality time with oneself is probably as hard to come by as exhilarating photographic moments, so in the end the trip was not a complete disaster. It often serves well to be open to and accept what life puts on your plate.

 
 

Heaven full of stars
Earth full of fireworks
Between heaven and earth
I capture invisible trails


25 January 2011 » Cokin vs. Singh–Ray filters

Importance of filters in photography is a debatable issue: whereas some photographers could not care less about them, others find their use crucial. Those in favour of using filters do not necessarily use the same kinds of filters: some might use colour correction filters, some are fans of polarisers, and yet others are big on neutral density (and their graduated variety) filters. And of course, many photographers use various combinations of these types of filters, as well as other filters not mentioned here. What filters one uses—or does not use—ultimately depends on the types of photography he practices as well as personal preferences.

Over the years I have used most major types of filters. Colour correction filters did not stay long in my camera bag because slight colour casts can be dealt with in post processing in a much more flexible and subtle manner. And as I mentioned previously, not long ago I gave up on polarisers, too—I never liked their effect on the blue sky (to be entirely honest, I found it nauseating), and I do not shoot autumn foliage or similar subjects often enough to warrant carrying a polariser at all times. At the same time, it is Neutral Density (ND) and Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters that I find absolutely indispensable for landscape work.

Neutral density filters simply reduce the amount of light that reaches film (or digital sensor), thus allowing using a slower shutter speed at the same given aperture. If you are shooting, say, a waterfall and would like to have a blurred effect to create the effect of moving water, your shutter speed will have to be not faster than 1/15 seconds (and usually quite a bit slower than this). If you came across the waterfall on a sunny day and use an ISO100 film, then the exposure will have to be 1/60 seconds at f/16. However, 1/60 seconds is too fast to produce the effect of moving water, which means that you will need a three–stop ND filter to get you to 1/8 seconds at the same aperture setting (although you can further stop down to f/22, I would rather shoot at f/16 or even f/11 to avoid image degradation caused by diffraction). Whereas some photographers might use several ND filters of different densities to precisely control shutter speed, I generally find that one four–stop ND filter suffices.

GND filters, on the other hand, are the ones that I use most. There are often situations where the difference in brightness between two parts of an image (normally foreground and the sky in landscape photography) is too great for film to capture both: if you correctly expose the foreground the sky will be washed out, and if you appropriately expose the sky the foreground will be too dark. GND filters are designed to manage the difference in brightness so that both foreground and the sky can be captured without loss of detail. Basically, GND filters darken one part of an image while leaving the other part as it is.

It is of paramount importance that the neutral density filters that you use, both graduated and otherwise, are actually colour neutral: although the name suggests that they should be colour neutral by definition, in reality it is not necessarily the case. I first bought a set of Cokin filters, and, as I mentioned a few times in the past, they produce a very strong magenta cast. Although it can be at least partially removed in post processing, seeing it in slides and then spending a lot of time removing it can be very, very aggravating.

I will be travelling to The Yellow Mountain in early February again (for the sixth or seventh time—this might sound excessive, but I can assure you that I do have reasons for travelling there yet again). My previous experience in The Yellow Mountain indicates that I am more than likely to use GND filters, and so I finally decided to bite the bullet and bought a set of Singh–Ray filters in Cokin P size. Singh–Ray filters are not cheap to begin with; moreover, they are not available in China, and the cost of shipping and import duty further increased their cost. I, however, had gotten to the point where I was ready to pay more to finally have filters that would not cause the pain of having to deal with ugly colour casts.


 
 

Cokin vs. Singh–Ray filter

Singh–Ray filters are clearly better thought out than their Cokin counterparts. First, they are longer, which allows positioning the graduation line in the farthest corners of the frame. Second, they have rounded corners, which makes it easier to insert them into filter holder. But most importantly, they are colour neutral (or, at least, nearly so). The quick–and–dirty test shots below were exposed to correctly reproduce foreground; in the first image no filter was used and the sky is somewhat washed out; the image in the middle was taken with a Cokin three–stop GND filter—notice the strong magenta cast in the sky; finally, the image on the right was taken with a Singh–Ray three–stop GND filter.


 
 
 
 

In short, save yourself unpleasant surprises and subsequent frustration—avoid Cokin filters like the plague!

UPDATE: While on the subject of filters, I have completely rewritten my Photographic filters article.

10 January 2011 » Housekeeping notes

I am having a bit of a slow start this year, mostly because I have been doing some housekeeping on the Web site. Although these things are mundane, take more time than I wish they did and mostly do not result in new content, they have to be done every once in a while. Among the chores that are worthy of mentioning, I have revived the Disappearance of old Shanghai series, created a separate gallery for the images taken in Western Sichuan in October 2010, as well as posted some of the more worthwhile posts of last year as separate essays with links to them on the Essays and Reviews page.

Speaking of old Shanghai, I still continue working on the theme when time and weather permit, and some of the more recent photographs can be found here. Below is an image that was taken last week; it was a pleasantly surprising exploration of a familiar place, and I really wish the photograph was taken with a better camera than the Canon S95 that I had at my disposal.

 
 

Old Shanghai, January 2011

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