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What's New 2013

31 December 2013 » Images from Western Sichuan, part 5: Waterfalls of Jiuzhaigou

On the last day of the year, last images from Sichuan. I hope that 2013 treated you well and wish you and your families to have a healthy, prosperous and photographically rich 2014!

 
Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #11
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #12
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #13
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #14
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


28 December 2013 » Images from Western Sichuan, part 4: Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou

Today I am posting images from Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou that were taken during my trip to Western Sichuan Province, China in October. As you might have already guessed, the previous post was a result of my visit to the valleys and summarises my impressions: while the places are stunning, they are crowded and exploited to a degree where one simply becomes speechless and can only shake his head in disbelief. The experience of being there was painfully distressing; it was also quite contradictory: I kept asking myself whether I really wanted to be a part of this brazen mistreatment of nature. Instead of working on abstract landscapes, perhaps I should have photographed the harm that mass tourism can bring about. Something to think about for the future.

 
Huanglong Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Huanglong (黄龙) #1
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Huanglong Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Huanglong (黄龙) #2
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #2
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #3
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #4
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #5
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #6
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #7
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #8
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #9
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #10
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

I will post several last images shortly, after which I can finally present the edited and sequenced portfolio of photographs from the expedition.


11.12.13 » Photography: the act of intangible appropriation

The question of why we photograph has been asked since the invention of photography. While the answer may be more or less straightforward in case of journalism, product photography and other types of photography where there is a clear purpose for producing images, it is much more elusive where personal photography with no predefined specific use is concerned. Why do we photograph landscapes, wild animals, or places we visit as travellers? You often hear about artistic intent, self–expression and other noble intentions. The answer, however, is likely to have other variables as well: while these harmless motives may all be a part of the "why" equation, intangible appropriation is what often drives us to make images in the first place.

 
Jiuzhaigou Valley, Sichuan Province, China
 

Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) #1
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

If you think about our first reaction to—or general attitude towards—the objects that we photograph, it is fascination. It is not a coolheaded desire to know or understand them: when we research an object in depth, it is usually to know how to photograph it better. And it is not a rational intention to contribute to the object's development or preservation: these purposes are better served through means other than photography (although photography can and has served to preserve, it is an exception rather than a rule). More often than not, we are driven by irrational, emotional attraction.

The most natural, human reaction to a fascinating object is to appropriate it. But of course, you cannot bring a mountain back home, you cannot catch a lion and keep it as a pet (how impractical would that be?), and it would be unwise to marry a beautiful person you see in the street even if she or he agrees to it right on the spot. Quite satisfactorily, though, taking a picture of an object of fascination gives a sense of having taken a part of it with you* (likewise, with the use of photography one can associate himself with events he cannot be a part of directly). Thus, by taking a picture of an object of fascination we appropriate it, even though intangibly. Which at the end of the day is a perfect compromise for all involved: the photographer is satisfied emotionally, while the object is not appropriated physically.

By intangibly appropriating an object through the use of photography with artistic intent, we beautify it and create an enhanced—or, at least, alternative—version of reality**. By sharing and spreading the enhanced version of reality, we foster further intangible appropriation of the object: more people become aware of and fascinated with it, want to witness it in person, and consequently appropriate it intangibly through the means of photography. Moreover, real–life perception of an object can be greatly influenced by its enhanced versions—to the extent that people start to believe that the cumulative enhanced presentation is what they experience in person, even though it may contradict their actual experience.

Naturally, there is nothing wrong with the photographic act of intangible appropriation as long as it does not result in tangible consequences. It is a subtle line, however, and tangible consequences are usually noticed when they are already irreversible. Post too many artistic photographs of a beautiful mountain valley on the Internet and people with no artistic intent start flocking in the valley to intangibly appropriate it with the rudimentary purpose of associating their mugs with the beauty of nature. Mass tourism will follow, and the valley will end up being shamelessly milked and prostituted to gain profit***. Just as photography can serve to preserve, it can foster humiliation and degradation.

Granted, most serious photographers do not mean any harm; moreover, one photographer cannot cause harm on a large scale even if he puts his mind to it. Most of us are sophisticated beings, and what we intangibly appropriate through the act of photography is used for sophisticated and selfless purposes: we contemplate, juxtapose, interpret and entwine the resulting inklings with our inner selves; we create abstract connections and realities that otherwise would not exist. In this sense, photography is a rare undertaking wherein one plus one equals three—or more. However, it is not as pure and harmless a pursuit as it may seem: multiple independent harmless efforts may cumulatively result in unintentional disservice.

We need to be aware of that.

*Is this why in some cultures it is believed that taking a picture can steal or harm the object's soul?

**"Reality" is meant as the most likely direct experience of encountering the object in person.

***I mourn for you endlessly, Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou.


29 November 2013 » Images from Western Sichuan, part 3: Tangke Township

Continuing with the images from the recent trip to Western Sichuan Province, today I am posting photographs from Tangke Township (唐克乡). It is known as the place where The Yellow River makes "the first of its nine turns" (黄河九曲第一弯). Of course, it is not meant literally; it has a more complex cultural and historical background, but I will call it that anyway. It is also the place where White River and Yellow River come together.

One thing I should note is that I am posting more images from Sichuan than I usually would—for two reasons. First, I would like to give you a better idea of what the place is like. Second, I would like to see—and hopefully show you—how editing and sequencing can make a set of images stronger. The photographs I am posting here include some weaker ones; also, they are posted more or less in the order that they were taken, which is not necessarily the best sequence for presenting them. I believe that once I edit out the lesser images and rearrange the sequence of the better ones, the final portfolio will have a stronger impact than what you see here.

 
Tibetan Temple Suoge, Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Tibetan Temple Suoge (索格藏寺) #1
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

When making this image I used the technique that I developed quite some time ago: I carefully chose perspective and lens, meticulously constructed the composition and set exposure; then I waited for something to occur to make the image work better, which usually is some action passing through the constructed composition. You may think that you are bound to wait for ages, but in my experience things change and happen much sooner than you think they would—just as they invariably do in life in general. In this particular case I did not have to wait too long before the two monks entered the scene.

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Tibetan Temple Suoge, Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Tibetan Temple Suoge (索格藏寺) #2
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens (tilted), Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

When we choose which lens to use we usually consider perspective and field of view. Sometimes, however, our choice of lenses is dictated by... light. I spent a few hours on and around this hilltop looking at possible angles of view and compositions, but the possibility of using a wide–angle lens did not even cross my mind: there was no interesting foreground whatsoever. When the light of low sun hit the ridge, though, the whole scene changed and suddenly a wide–angle lens seemed to be the best option.

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The First Turn of the Yellow River, Western Sichuan Province, China
 

The First Turn of the Yellow River (黄河九曲第一弯)
Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

Most photographers who take pictures of this scene tend to isolate the landscape from the foreground to make it look more "natural", or even wild. To me, however, the landscape is inseparable from its cultural surroundings because in my view they are interdependent; thus, I specifically included the houses in the foreground in the composition. I was lucky to see chimney smoke at the time of making the image, which in my mind creates an even stronger connection between the landscape and its inhabitants.


27 November 2013 » Update: Savouring palladium prints

Regular readers may recall the article on palladium printing that I wrote a while ago. If you are interested in alternative processes in photography, a reader has written to suggest a process that does not require humidification of paper:

Hello, Oleg,

Humidification of paper is no longer necessary for printing with the noble metals. I know, because I invented the formulas that use ascorbic acid in combination with pretty much any double ferric oxalate (generally, ammonium ferric oxalate or lithium ferric oxalate). If you follow this link, you will have the sample chapter from my book on my dry print out processes for gold, gold–platinum, platinum, and the Ziatype variations (palladium, palladium–platinum, palladium–gold, and palladium–platinum–gold).

Here is the quintessential formula. You will notice not only is no humidification of paper required, but I specify DRY paper. With my formulas, humidity serves no purpose other than to introduce uncertainty into the process.

1. Prepare a small volume of a 2% solution of ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

2. Prepare 10 ml of ammonium ferric oxalate or lithium ferric oxalate. I prefer lithium ferric oxalate because of its higher contrast than ammonium ferric oxalate.

3. Add 8 drops of 2% ascorbic acid to the 10ml of the double ferric oxalate. Agitate the bottle for 5 to 10 seconds.

4. For an 8x10 print, count into a shot glass 12 drops of this lithium ferric oxalate+C (or of ammonium ferric oxalate+C). I refer to them as LFO–C and AFO–C, respectively, in my book.

5. Count 12 drops of 15% potassium palladium chloride OR of lithium palladium chloride into the shot glass.

6. Swirl to mix.

7. Remove from its packaging a sheet of DRY paper suitable for printing with palladium. I prefer Arches Platine, though Rives BFK, Revere Platinum or Bergger Cot 320 are also fine. Pretty much any paper agrees with palladium...

8. Brush the solution onto the paper.

9. Set the sensitized paper aside in a dark, dry place for 15 to 30 minutes, until it is dry to the touch.

10. I always place a sheet of 2 mil mylar between my negative and the paper.

11. Expose to a UV light source.

12. When the print exhibits the desired density, immerse it in a tray of ice cold water. This minimizes any initial darkening.

13. After 5 minutes, proceed with clearing the print as you would normally.

Regards,
Richard Eugene Puckett


23 November 2013 » Images from Western Sichuan, part 2: portraits from Waqie Township

On the way from Ngawa to the next destination we stopped in small township called Waqie (瓦切乡). It is known for its "stupa forest", which is literally packed with Tibetan stupas and prayer flags; some Tibetan ceremony was under way when we arrived. The place seemed so authentic and bearing so little influence of modern life that it appeared completely out of time; it sort of gave me a taste of what it was like when Western travellers first started discovering Tibet and its culture. It was impossible not to reach for your camera and photograph, but this was when my Hasselblad 503CW camera and the lens got jammed. The few images below is all I managed to bring back.

 
Waqie Township, Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Waqie Township #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Waqie Township, Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Waqie Township #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

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Waqie Township, Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Waqie Township #3
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film

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Waqie Township, Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Waqie Township #4
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film


16 November 2013 » Images from Western Sichuan, part 1: Ngawa at dawn

The first photographic location of the recent expedition to Sichuan Province, China, was Aba County, which is known as Ngawa in Tibetan. Administratively, it is located in Western Sichuan; geographically and culturally, however, it belongs to Eastern Tibet. Add to that a relatively high altitude and the quality of light that it entails, and the place easily ranks "fascinating" photographically.

I photographed Ngawa—from exactly the same spot, actually—in the past. Quite strangely, though, this time I could not quite recognise the place at first. Time has passed since I visited last, and things have naturally changed. This may partly explain why I could not recollect the place at once, but still I have to say that passing of time is one of the strangest phenomenon man ever experiences in a lifetime. Looking at time as the forth dimension of space–time continuity is one of the ways to make sense of it; it may be difficult to wrap one's head around this idea at first, but it certainly is better than nothing.

Photographs capture a particular location at a given time—or a slice of time in a particular location, if you will; as such, they belong to space–time continuity, too. As light, weather conditions, emotions, expressions and physical condition of objects change with every passing moment, it is impossible to revisit a place and retake a given image*. And herein lies the mystery of photography; it is the flip side of the very same time coin: just as we are unable to comprehend passing of time, we cannot fathom the notion of time being stopped and captured.

*This explains why these folks were bound to fail.

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Ngawa (Aba County), Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Ngawa at dawn #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Ngawa (Aba County), Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Ngawa at dawn #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Ngawa (Aba County), Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Ngawa at dawn #3
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film

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Ngawa (Aba County), Western Sichuan Province, China
 

Ngawa at dawn #4
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


12 November 2013 » The trip to Sichuan

I returned from the expedition to Western Sichuan Province, China a few weeks ago, but things did not slow down in terms of travelling and otherwise. Looking back at the month of October, I was home for only about a week and in one month managed to travel to Taiwan, Sichuan and Singapore. I truly enjoy this bouncing around the world, but there are bound to be downsides to such a busy schedule—prolonged silence at this Web site being one of them.

In a way, I am glad that I had to put aside everything that happened during the trip to Sichuan for a while, as it gave me an opportunity to look at it without the buzz of the immediate emotional response to the experience, sort of filtering out what was just noise, and what really was of consequence. As is nearly always the case, no trip is perfect and no expedition can be totally fruitless. The journey to Sichuan was no exception.

To a large degree, what and how I photographed was shaped by a major equipment failure (as it turned out, though, it was both a curse and a blessing: it certainly seemed to be a curse at the time, but looking back at it now I realise it was more of a blessing). Cutting to the chase, on the second day of shooting my Hasselblad 503CW camera body and the 80mm lens got jammed. I have no idea how or why this happened: I was simply shooting, not changing lenses or anything else. I tried fixing it with a small screwdriver that I spent an hour finding, but that did not lead anywhere. This essentially put the inseparable combo together with my sleeping bag, leaving me with the Hasselblad Flexbody camera and 50mm, 150mm and 250mm lens (roughly equivalent to 26mm, 75mm and 125mm in 35mm format).

 
Hasselblad Flexbody camera
 

Photographing autumn colours with Hasselblad Flexbody camera and CFi 4/150 lens

Being all of sudden forced to solely use a view camera* takes quite a bit of an effort to adapt to quickly. To me, however, it was only a question of managing expectations as I am quite proficient with the camera, and I managed to adjust very quickly: my muscle memory swiftly took control of the camera and my mind promptly turned into a slow, perceptive mode of photographing. As a result, compositions were carefully constructed, exposure was meticulously metered, Graduated Neutral Density filters were used whenever necessary, and I did a lot of the tilt–and–shift dance to control depth–of–field or geometry of the image—or both. Once I got into the rhythm, I really, really savoured using the rig. And I think it shows in the pictures.

Ricoh GR camera was at my disposal at all times, but to my surprise it did not see as much use as I anticipated. I let things go with the flow to see what my natural, reflexive choices in terms of using equipment would be, and the digital camera that was used more than the Ricoh was... my iPhone 5. When I came across scenes that had artistic potential, I used the Hasselblad; otherwise, iPhone 5 was easier to use and perfectly sufficed to photograph things of lesser significance. I am sure you understand the "easier to use part"; and as to iPhone camera being sufficient for things of lesser significance, when was the last time you used an image made with your secondary camera for something so significant that its image quality was not good enough? In all honesty, it has never happened to me. And of course, using the iPhone I could immediately share snapshots from the trip with friends and family.

ThinkTank Airport Commuter camera backpack is as good in the field as I expected: very well made, ideal size for my needs, not over–padded, perfect zipping front pockets. The devil is in the detail, though, and there is always room for improvement: the cable lock pocket should open in the opposite direction so that the cable comes out in the direction of the main zipper, not the other way around. You may think that I am being too picky, but these things do make a difference when using gear extensively in the field.

Aside from the unfortunate gear failure and mostly uncooperative weather, the expedition was fantastic. I shot 28 rolls of film (mainly Fujifilm Velvia with a few rolls of Provia 100F) and, having now sorted through them, have kept 108 slides**. I hope to start posting images from the trip, possibly with various thoughts, in the nearest future.

*As you may know, operation of the Hasselblad Flexbody camera is similar to that of large format cameras; while it is more fluid in some aspects, it is nonetheless similarly fiddly and time consuming.

**If you shoot digital, can you imagine keeping only 108 images from a week–long expedition? And yet this number seems excessive to me: anyone would be very lucky if 108 images from his entire photographic career are kept by posterity.

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For the Italian readers of this Web site, the Landscape photography and Chinese philosophy—scito te ipsum article has been translated into italiano here.


12 October 2013 » Photographic Gods smile at last

This year has been a bit tough on me in terms of photographic adventures: so far I have not gone on one single dedicated photographic trip. Not that I have not tried, mind you. During the Chinese New Year in February I planned to travel to Western China, but the short time available and the expense involved rendered it meaningless. In May I had more time on my hands, but other participants could not make it. In June I planned a trip and even bought air tickets, but fell sick with measles and the whole plan was aborted. As they say, oh well.

 
Oleg's trip to Sichuan in October 2013 - map 1
 

My luck seems to have changed with the arrival of autumn, and in two hours I will be stepping out the door to go on a dedicated photographic expedition in Western Sichuan Province, China. As regular readers may recall and you can tell from the Gallery, I have travelled in this part of the world numerous times. I am going there yet again, though, because it is simply one of the best places on Earth for landscape photography; it also gives me the feeling of being in a remote and yet familiar and comfortable location, akin to a childhood memory. To give you a rough idea as to where I am heading, the map above puts the area on the globe while the map below shows terrain and details of the concrete places where I will be photographing.

 
Oleg's trip to Sichuan in October 2013 - map 2
 

In terms of equipment, not much is new: I am taking my complete Hasselblad V–series system with 30 rolls of Velvia 50 slide film and Ricoh GR as my main compact digital camera to document the trip visually. My Sony RX100 is coming along as well, but only as a backup*.

Wish me good luck—and light—and I will be seeing you on the flip side!

*I know that I have not finished my review of the Ricoh GR, but let me jump ahead of myself and declare this: the only reason to prefer the RX100 over the GR is the zoom capability; as I am not a zoom kind of person, this consideration is of no consequence to me. Also, the GR actually does have a zoom of sorts: with the latest firmware update (v2.03) the crop function gives you the focal lengths of 35mm and 47mm in addition to the native 28mm; if you argue that you lose megapixels when cropping, well, the RX100 does not always deliver 20MP of resolution either—at some lens settings you get far less than that.


1 October 2013 » Update 2: RAW files are not raw?

I do not mean to waste your—and my—precious time on this, but I have been further looking into this issue and it seems it is not that simple. In particular, when I look at files taken with the Canon S95 camera in Lightroom, the Lens Correction panel shows lens profile available for the camera, and turning the panel on and off allows to see corrected and uncorrected images. At the same time, the panel does not show lens profiles available for the Sony RX100 and the Ricoh GR; furthermore, in case of the GR Lightroom shows uncorrected results, while in case of the RX100 Lightroom shows corrected results. This means that either Adobe do not have lens profiles for the cameras (either of its own or provided by the camera manufacturers), or that lens information is embedded in files in such a way that Lightroom cannot—or does not care to—access it properly. At the same time, however, DxO can read lens profiles of all these cameras and shows uncorrected images if you want.


Sony RX camera uncorrected image at 28mm
 
Sony RX camera uncorrected image at 28mm

Distortion of the Sony RX100 lens at 28mm (equivalent):
uncorrected (left) and corrected (right) results from DxO

But the question that I have really been pondering is, should we really care about this stuff if we are happy with corrected results? Do we really need to see uncorrected images and assess lens quality independently of the sensor it is attached to and the software used for conversion? And do we really need to know whose "fault" it is that uncorrected images cannot be seen in some software? I think the answer is that as long as any additional knowledge serves to improve your photography, then it is worthwhile. I may want to learn about performance of a newly acquired lens or camera, but there is a line beyond which useful knowledge becomes pure geekery. I think I am approaching that line with this RAW dilemma—it is about time I get a life and concentrate on photography instead!


26 September 2013 » Ricoh GR camera: ergonomics and usability

In my view, image quality of modern digital cameras has improved to the point whereby ergonomics and usability have become equally important differentiating factors. Apart from combining decent image quality with adequate usability, compact cameras also have to remain, well, compact. Achieving a balance between usability and compactness, however, is not an easy task as they tend to be mutually exclusive: good ergonomics usually require sufficient space for a proper camera grip and large buttons, which unavoidably impedes pocketability, and vice versa. Quite impressively, designers of the Ricoh GR have achieved an unusually good equilibrium between these factors.

  Ricoh GR camera  

Ricoh GR camera (image courtesy Ricoh)

In the class of cameras the GR belongs to compactness can roughly be equated to pocketability: if a camera can be unobtrusively carried in one's pocket, it is compact. After carrying my Sony RX100 and the Ricoh GR side by side for a while, I have come to the conclusion that the main factor defining a camera's pocketability is its overall depth.

 
Sony RX100 vs. Ricoh GR
 

Ricoh GR (left) vs. Sony RX100 (right): length and thickness

At first look the Ricoh GR appears notably larger than the Sony RX100. A close examination reveals, however, that the Sony is thicker back–to–front*, while the Ricoh is considerably wider—the camera body is extended on the right–hand side in relation to the centre of the lens. As counterintuitive as this may sound, the Ricoh is actually more pocket–friendly than the Sony: it is thinner and thus less noticeable in your pocket. Think of it as carrying an egg (the RX100) vs. a bar of chocolate of roughly the same weight (the GR) in your pocket.

 
Sony RX100 vs. Ricoh GR
 

Buttons: Ricoh GR (left) vs. Sony RX100 (right)

I reckon it is the consideration of this notion that allowed Ricoh engineers to combine good ergonomics with compactness. On the one hand, the extension of the GR's camera body does not add to perception of extra volume in your pocket (camera depth does that); on the other hand, it allows for a proper rubberised grip at the front and sufficient space to place buttons at the back of the camera. As a result, Ricoh GR is as pocketable as any other compact camera, feels very secure in your hand, and has large, well–spaced buttons with very good tactile feedback. Bravo, Ricoh**.

The GR feels much lighter in person than product images may lead you to expect. Camera body is made of magnesium alloy and plastic; while it feels adequately sturdy, quality of the fit and finish is nothing to write home about. The back panel of my sample creaks slightly when pressed. The ring cap (an accessory that is put in place around lens barrel when conversion lens or lens hood is not used) feels cheap, wobbly and does not fit the lens barrel firmly. Nonetheless, overall build quality of the GR gives a feeling of a solid, albeit somewhat utilitarian, consumer product.

Functionality of the buttons is very well thought out and the camera is sufficiently customizable. Apart from having direct access to Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, Exposure Compensation, AEL/AFL, C–AF and even DOF preview, a total of 26 functions can be assigned to each of the Fn1 and Fn2 button at the back and Effect button on the left–hand side of the camera. On top of that, pressing the ADJ. lever at the back of the camera brings up five user–selectable icons, each of which can be assigned various functions, too. Sadly, though, each of the items under the control of the ADJ. lever can only be assigned 13 functions, and some of the features I want to place here are not available (35mm crop or Self–Timer, for example).

Front element of the lens is fairly small and sufficiently recessed into the lens barrel, which serves to protect it from smudges or accidental scratching; in my book, it also makes the use of the accessory lens hood mostly unnecessary. When extended, the lens does not protrude too far from the body, so that the camera still exudes the feeling of compactness and secure handling when it is switched on.

Start–up and shut–down time is quite snappy for a camera of this type: it is not exactly instantaneous, but it is clearly and significantly faster than that of the Sony RX100. This fact alone makes the GR a much more usable camera—you naturally reach out for it simply because you know you can take a shot faster. Once switched on, operation of the camera is very brisk, too, and does not get in the way of photographing.

The LCD screen is of high resolution and strikes you as very bright, detailed and contrasty—indeed, it is perfectly usable in direct sunlight. The display, however, is made of plastic and scratches fairly easily. Also, it is a bit over–sharpened to my taste. And another weakness lies in the implementation of image magnification: according to the manual, "The maximum magnification of enlarged view differs depending on the size of the image." This means having high–ratio, quick magnification if you shoot in JPG format; when shooting RAW, however, the camera simply enlarges the unmagnified on–screen image producing a pixelated, coarse view of a part of it. One obvious workaround is to shoot in RAW+JPG, but it comes at the cost of wasting card space.

Manual focus implementation is somewhat unrefined: there is no usual focus peaking whereby areas in focus are marked in, say, red colour; furthermore, although there is image magnification via the Focus Assist function, it offers detailed enough magnified view only when magnification uses the entire screen (when only a region of the screen is used for magnification, the magnified view is too pixelated to be of use). Autofocus is reasonably snappy and very accurate in good ambient light, but focus acquisition can be rather unreliable with lots of hunting in less than ideal lighting conditions. One well thought out detail is that autofocus options include such useful features as fixing focus at infinity or to a preset distance ("Snap focus").

Menus are a bit of a mixed bag. On the up upside, they are fairly simple and straightforward without unnecessary clutter or features. The downside, however, is that naming and implementation of some items is such that you cannot figure out what or how they do without reading the camera manual (and even then you will have to do a bit of figuring out on your own). The camera did not pass my "use without camera manual" test, and I have downloaded the manual to my iPhone for future references. Nonetheless, the good news is that once you set up the camera how you intend to use it most of the time, there is mostly no necessity to dive into menus often.

In what seems to have become a habit among some camera manufacturers, Ricoh GR does not come with a dedicated battery charger—the battery can be charged in–camera only. Boo, Ricoh! As was the case with the Sony RX100, I bought an inexpensive Pisen charger that plugs directly into the socket and works like a charm.

Battery life is okay: having gone through several compact cameras, my impression has been that I can take roughly the same number of images with the GR that I would expect to take with the other compacts that I have used. Not bad, but it does mean that you need to buy extra batteries. Speaking of which, I tried looking for original Ricoh batteries but they seem scarcer than gold, so I ended up buying two extra batteries made by Pisen (at about USD8 each).

Ricoh GR clearly is a camera designed for photography enthusiasts: it does not have a myriad of scene modes while boasting a number of truly useful photographic functions. I am particularly fond of the following (in no particular order):

  • Depth–of–field preview with a dedicated button just as on a DSLR.

  • Built–in Neutral Density (ND) filter—handy when you want to use wide apertures in bright ambient light. Implementation of this function, however, is rather confusing: in the Shooting Menu you can set the function to "On" to have it permanently switched on, and, otherwise, to "Off". Setting it to "Off", however, does not mean switching it off for good: in the Setup menu you further have two options: "Manual" if you want to turn it off permanently, and "Auto" if you want it to be switched on automatically when exposure is outside the linked range. Why not simply have three options in one place, "Always on", "Auto" and "Off"? Go figure.

  • TAv mode: you set the desired Shutter Speed and Aperture, and the camera adjusts ISO setting to achieve optimal exposure.

  • Bulb and Time options in Manual Mode for long exposures (up to 320 seconds at ISO settings of up to ISO3200).

  • Interval shooting.

  • Well–implemented 35mm crop and useful aspect ratios (2:3, 3:4 and 1:1). 35mm crop in combination with the 1:1 aspect ratio produces the same field of view as my Hasselblad 503CW with the 80mm lens (and no, it does not bother me that this leaves me with only 6MP) smiley.

All things considered, Ricoh GR offers superb ergonomics and very well thought out, photographer centred functionality in a pocketable form factor. There may be a few rough corners here and there, but they are far from dealbreakers. Once again, bravo, Ricoh!

*With the addition of a tilting LCD screen, the depth of the Sony RX100 Mark II has been further increased by 2mm.

**I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is where Sony RX100 really falls short, with its tiny buttons, fiddly operation and slippery flatness instead of a grip.


18 September 2013 » Recent favourite quotation

Write drunk; edit sober.

 
Evevry Night by Sun Xiaoye
 

—Ernst Hemmingway (text) and 孙小野 / Sun Xiaoye (sculpture)


14 September 2013 » Update: RAW files are not raw?

I mentioned in my review of the Sony RX100 camera that RAW files produced by the camera were likely "cooked", i.e. that the camera silently corrected them for distortion, vignetting and colour fringing: when looked at in Adobe Lightroom, RAW files appeared nearly perfectly devoid of these aberrations at all focal length settings, which is a technical impossibility for a camera of this type. I am now observing the same behaviour with the Ricoh GR.


  Adobe Lightroom v.4.4  

As it turns out, the culprit is not Sony or Ricoh—it is Adobe. RAW files of both camera manufacturers actually contain original uncorrected data and all pixel data is intact; at the same, Sony and Ricoh also include in RAW files lens profiles, so that RAW converting software can use them to deliver results that are corrected for the above mentioned aberrations (and, quite possibly, other things such as noise, etc.). The issue with Adobe Lightroom 4 (and now 5) is that it automatically applies lens profile imbedded in RAW files when viewing and converting images, thus by default delivering corrected results. Quite annoyingly, this behaviour cannot be changed—even if you switch the lens correction panel off. Apple Aperture is reported to do the same. Some software, however—DxO is one example—allows switching lens correction off and can show uncorrected results, so that you can easily toggle between "before" and "after" images and look at original RAW data. Additional discussion can be found here.

As mentioned in the review, the question is whether this is a good thing. Naturally, such automatic corrections can be of great help for the photographers who simply concentrate on the aesthetics of their images and do not want to deal with lens aberrations. After all, the probability of producing better results than what Lightroom can deliver on the basis of embedded lens profiles is rather low. Nonetheless, for the more nosy of us this issue means having to (also) use other converting software, because with Lightroom we are essentially locked into corrected results without any options. As to myself, while I do not welcome Adobe's approach as I do want to see original RAW data when testing new equipment, I am certainly not going to abandon Lightroom.


8 September 2013 » Ricoh GR camera in house

Despite all the reasoning that I gave in the post of 18 July regarding resisting buying new cameras, I went out and bought a Ricoh GR camera*. Just as I came up with a number of solid motives why we should resist buying new gear, I made up an equal number of equally compelling reasons why I had to buy the Ricoh GR. To name a few, DPReview gave the camera a "Gold Award"; Lloyd Chambers, who more often than not is a harsh critic, has been praising the camera tirelessly; the notion of an APS-C sensor in such a compact package was intriguing and had to be explored; any serious photographer has to see for himself the output from a large sensor without an anti–aliasing filter—preferably at a low cost of camera ownership. And on top of that, a unique non–photographic trip was upcoming—given its potential, I wanted to get the best image quality available in pocketable form factor.


 
I love Shanghai - image taken with the Ricoh GR camera
 

I love Shanghai

Ricoh GR camera

Although this may appear as a massive contradiction and inconsistency, it actually makes perfect sense and represents fairly typical human behaviour: logic and reasoning always are slaves to subtle yet strong irrational subconscious motives. While our decisions are nearly always based on the latter, human discourse is based on the former. As used in daily life, logic and reasoning are rather simplistic, and contradictory notions can be easily and equally defensible. Subconscious motives, on the other hand, are usually far more complex to sniff out, not to mention to catch and reveal; furthermore, even if you do manage to pin them down, their intricacy and inconsistency usually throw us back to logic and reasoning to keep things sane. Also quite crucially, we often do not want our subconscious motives to be revealed, and we use the pervasive acceptance of simplistic logic and reasoning to conceal them. But what is funny about me buying the Ricoh GR, it is that both pros and cons equally apply: I could have easily—and should have logically—done without it, and yet my reasons for buying the camera actually make it a perfectly tenable and worthwhile purchase. Ain't subconscious a bitch?


 
A view of Shanghai from an old slaughterhouse - image taken with the Ricoh GR camera
 

A view of Shanghai from an old slaughterhouse

Ricoh GR camera

But what is done is done, so enough rhetoric. Sceptical about the widespread praise of the camera and yet fully open to positive discoveries, I have been giving the Ricoh GR ample opportunities to show off its capabilities, including on that unique trip mentioned above, which was to Hanoi, Vietnam. The camera is often in the company of my Sony RX–100** as I continue mulling over and attempt to pin down some of the finer points of what works in compact camera usability and what does not. I will eventually share my detailed impressions of the GR's performance, but I am going to say for the time being that so far I love what I am seeing. With a few manageable exceptions, most aspects of the camera's performance feel... solid. I do not know how else to put it, but I think you know what I mean.


 
Old church staircase, Hanoi - image taken with the Ricoh GR camera
 

Old church staircase, Hanoi

Ricoh GR camera

What I would like to mention at this time is not strictly related to the Ricoh GR, but rather to the notion of APS–C sensors in compact cameras in general. Most notably, while such cameras appear compact, they are not point–and–shoots. First, after using compact cameras with tiny sensors in an offhand way for years, the Ricoh GR straightens me out and makes me take care of my shooting technique to get sharp results. After a few hundred shots and seeing enough blurry images, I have set the slowest shutter speed of the Auto–ISO function to 1/30 seconds—and even then I have to take great care of handholding the camera. Second, the nearly–infinite depth of field of tiny sensors is gone and I have to be aware of the issue as with a full–blown DSLR. On the upside, however, I have been greatly enjoying using shallow depth of field again, which was previously unimaginable in compact cameras.

At any rate, more to come soon—stay tuned!

*Why not a Coolpix A? Nikon do not seem to have pushed it as far as Ricoh have, and smug brand overpricing does not sit right with me. And why not a Sigma DP1 Merrill? No matter how good a sensor, there is only so much grief a photographer can take in terms of camera usability.

**I realise that putting the Sony and the Ricoh side by side is worse than comparing apples and oranges, but this is a real choice that I face: now that I own both cameras, which one do I put in my bag when I go out? And as it turns out, comparing the incomparable can yield useful knowledge.


29 July 2013 » Update on camera bags

Finding a suitable camera bag perhaps is one of the most impossible tasks in photography, which is why many photographs end up using several bags—and some a lot more than just several bags. I shared my experience of using camera bags a few years back but, quite predictably, my camera bag usage has been constantly evolving.

Taking on from where I left off in the previous article, the zipper of my Lowepro CompuTrekker Plus AW backpack irreparably broke down shortly after I wrote the article, and I replaced it with a ThinkTank Airport Acceleration v2.0. At about the same time I also sold my ThinkTank Speed Freak shoulder/waist bag, because it turned out to be too small for a shoulder bag and too big for a waist bag. The changes, however, did not stop at that.

I continued trying other options and, while I do not consider myself a bagaholic, at one point I realised that I inadvertently became a victim of camera bag creep and accumulated an immodest number of bags—to be exact, eight. Time has come to bring the situation back under control, and so I recently sold* the following:

  • Lowepro Nova 4. This was my first shoulder camera bag. I used it quite a bit when I just bought it, but during the past several years it stayed in the closet for so long that I nearly forgot about its existence. As I mentioned before, shoulder bags are just not my cup of tea.

  • Lowepro Stealth Reporter 500 AW. This was my second shoulder bag. Again, I am not in favour of shoulder bags, not to mention that, fully loaded, it has accessibility issues and is too heavy to lug around as it puts asymmetrical pressure on your body.

  • Billingham Hadley Large Camera Bag. To be honest, I have no idea why I bought this bag. Looking back at it now, the decision was completely irrational—I just wanted it. But then again, how many decisions in our life are rational? Having so far irrationally bought only one bag, it is not that bad in my book. I used the bag a few times, never got to really like it, and it stayed in the closet most of the time.

  • ThinkTank Airport Antidote. This backpack served me really well and accompanied me on numerous photographic expeditions from mountains near Tibet to Kamchatka peninsula in Russia. However, two drawbacks really annoyed me: first, it is over–padded for my needs; second, I got really tired of the unzipping stretch front pocket.

  • ThinkTank Airport Acceleration v.2.0. This bag was a bit of a miscalculation on my part. On the one hand, I wanted a bigger backpack than the Airport Antidote, but this backpack turned out to be too big: fully loaded, it really weighs you down (if you do not intend to fully load it, you may as well use a smaller bag). On the other hand, although design of the front pocket was improved, it still remained largely funky and impractical. I used this bag two or three times only.


  ThinkTank Photo Airport Commuter camera backpack  

ThinkTank Airport Commuter camera backpack
(image courtesy ThinkTank Photo)

After offloading these bags I felt relieved that they no longer took the space in my closet and that, more importantly, other photographers could make a much better use of them. And here is what I am left with for the time being:

  • ThinkTank Airport Commuter. While this backpack is similar in size to the Airport Antidote, it is less padded and thus has more space inside. It also has perfect zipping front pockets—at long last! On top of that, lots of small details have been improved, too, thus making it an even better thought out product. I am yet to use it in the field, but given my previous experience I have every reason to believe that it is the best backpack for my needs that I have ever used.

  • A cheap Benro backpack that has two compartments—the one at the bottom holds your camera kit, and the one at the top is designated for usual stuff. I am sure you know the kind. I like this type of backpacks for short and/or casual outings and was prepared to buy the best camera of this kind available in the market. Quite ironically, though, it was only this cheap Benro backpack that could be configured to take non–DSLR camera systems. Go figure...

  • Lowepro Photo Runner. I bought this waist bag after selling the ThinkTank Speed Freak. Quality of materials is so–so, and I had to modify it slightly by cutting off supporting straps, which I found totally unnecessary. Again, I am prepared to spend the money to get the best camera bag in this class, but the Photo Runer is the most suitable waist bag for my needs that I have seen so far.

While I feel quite comfortable with the above combination, optimising one's collection of camera bags is an endless quest, so you can count on me writing another update in a few years.

*As I have mentioned a number of times, buying quality gear pays off in the long run. Selling these bags generated enough cash to buy the Airport Commuter and savour a few bevvies!


25 July 2013 » Recent favourite quotation

Great photographs consist of hundreds of choices made by the photographer, some during capture, some during processing. There is no "reality" in photos because of that. None. Starting with when you choose the shutter release through to where you point the camera and how you set it, every decision you make narrows "reality" down to something you saw and wanted to capture. It's your vision, not reality, that is captured.

—Thom Hogan


18 July 2013 » Resisting buying new cameras

It is interesting how over a longer period of time life may go in waves of opposite interests and intentions. For instance, you may practice photography for a while, lose interest in it, but then regain it after some time. Or you may give up on film, start shooting digital, and then go back to film after a while. A number of years back I was quite a bit of a gearhead, but then two years ago lost all interest in equipment. Now my interest in photo gear seems to have perked up again, taking me back to where I started and completing a full circle.

However, when an old wave revisits your life and your thinking turns 180 degrees, you seldom step into the same river. Although I have regained interest in photographic gear, I am not interested in the same equipment I was enthralled by before. If in the past I was mostly attracted to 35mm cameras and lenses, at this point in time I have no interest in this class whatsoever. Perhaps it is because I finally realise that I will never practice sports, wildlife or journalism photography, and that a 35mm DSLR is simply not the most suitable tool for me. Or maybe, it reflects the reality that once–pervasive 35mm DSLRs are increasingly becoming niche tools. And of course, it could be both.

Now my interest in equipment has switched to compact cameras with large sensors and lenses for such cameras; on top of that, I am mostly intrigued by anything and everything non–mainstream and unconventional. As my Sony RX100 was sorting things out with its Maker and I was preparing for a trip to Russia, I salivated over the choice between Ricoh GR, one of the Sigma Merrill cameras and Fujifilm X–Pro1 with a Zeiss Touit lens or two. Being a serious photographer, I cannot go on any trip without a proper digital camera, right?

But then reality kicked in. First, buying a camera to essentially replace my nine–month–old–yet–already–in–the–repair–shop RX100 did not sit right with me—although digital cameras are consumer electronics, the notion that it may be acceptable to use a camera for less than a year insults my intelligence. Second, we should avoid buying compact cameras when possible, because they are the worst money spent in photography: as mentioned in previous post, they are replaced with newer (but not necessarily better) models faster than you can master them, they are not built to last, and their resell value is close to zero. Finally, while it may be fun to play with some eccentric gear, another compact camera is unlikely to improve quality of my photographic work.

As a side note, the more expensive, pro–grade equipment is actually cheaper in the long run. I spent a lot of money on my Hasselblad system, but I have used it for almost a decade and the average cost per year is not all that high, not to mention that it has a considerable resell value. As another example, a friend of mine owns about 70 carefully selected lenses (mostly Nikon, Leica and some rare brands converted to mainstream mounts) and reckons that their value has been consistently going up. And he does not waste money on compact cameras. Smart, if you ask me.

 
Summer 2013 #1
 

Summer 2013 #1

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Kodak Portra 400 film

In the end I survived this outburst of GAS, simply bought more film (this time Kodak Portra 400), and packed my Hasselblad 503CW with one lens and light meter; as always, my iPhone faithfully came along. I did not shoot that much—only two rolls—but just thinking about aesthetics instead of settings was blissful. And I took a picture that truly speaks to me—in fact, it is the best image that I have taken this year so far*. I am not sure that buying a new camera would have helped me achieving that.

*Some of you will probably shrug off the image in this post and ask many questions along the lines of "what is the subject?", etc. Well, sometimes images are about things subtle and metaphorical, not subjects and rules.


27 June 2013 » How reliable are compact cameras?

As I reported in my review of the Sony RX100, one of the major disappointments about the camera is that the buttons are too small and fiddly. As it turns out, they are also mechanically unreliable: after only nine months of use and a couple of thousand exposures, the playback button of my RX100 has stopped responding. On top of that, the camera turns on out of its own will and remains powered up until the battery is completely drained. Perhaps it sees photographic opportunities when I am not paying attention, but I would rather it did not.

Come to think of it, my first compact camera, Panasonic LX2, broke down on me in the middle of a major photographic expedition when I was really counting on it. My second point–and–shoot, Canon S95, started showing signs of giving up its ghost prematurely, too. And now my third compact camera has clearly indicated that it needs to see a shrink; as it has not even started going through any dramatic experiences (read serious shooting), I can only guess it runs in the blood.

Although I am far from a believer in conspiracy theories, I have come to seriously suspect that compact cameras are designed to not last longer than two years. Indeed, why would they be when on the average they are replaced with newer models every eighteen twelve months or so? And if you reckon that I am just unlucky, I prefer to think that I cannot be so unfortunate. Either way, while I am not going to go as far as treating compact cameras as feminine hygiene products, I will be less trustful of them from now on.


19 June 2013 » On image aspect ratios

I realise that this post will be highly controversial, but I have been meaning to rant about one particular image aspect ratio for a long time. It has skilfully eluded the wrath of my keyboard to this day, but the time has finally come to let it off my chest. Like a splinter in my eye, it started nagging me when I shot with a Nikon SLR for the first time, and it still bothers me today as I use my Sony RX100. As you might have already guessed from the cameras I have just mentioned, that splinter is the 2X3 aspect ratio: I totally hate it. And I never use the word "hate" lightly.

There is something fundamentally wrong and unbalanced about the 2X3 aspect ratio. It is neither here nor there for portraits, it is neither here nor there for landscapes; indeed, I cannot think of any type of photography that would naturally call for this image aspect ratio. To me, it is akin to a shirt buttoned the wrong way. Or putting on a chequered shirt with a striped tie. Or wearing brown shoes and a black belt. It just does not work and makes me cringe.

While there are pictures that can comfortably live within the 2X3 aspect ratio, I find that it is too awkward to be imposed onto most photographs. Images with the 2X3 aspect ratio more often than not seem compositionally contrived, as if there is unnecessary space or not enough space to put all elements in the most balanced manner. Such images seem to scream, "Crop me!" Which is exactly what happens to most of my images taken with cameras that have sensors (digital or analog) with this aspect ratio.

I do not like using cameras that have sensors with the 2X3 aspect ratio. Although in theory one can crop images to any aspect ratio after the fact, the reality is that aspect ratio of the viewfinder or LCD screen greatly influences how we compose images in the field. If there are two identical cameras with the 2X3 and any other aspect ratio, even an unconventional one, I would pick the latter on any given day. Any camera is a compromise, though, and I bought the Sony RX100 (and other camera with the 2X3 aspect ratio in the past) only because the overall package was compelling enough.

If you think that I am biased against the 2X3 aspect ratio because I have been shooting square images for too long, that is not the case. In fact, I am perfectly fine with any other aspect ratio. On the long–ish side, 6X12 or 6X17? Love them. On the square–ish side, 6X7 or 4X5? Just brilliant. Somehow, it is only the 2X3 aspect ratio that inescapably irritates me. As if it was specifically designed to trigger this reaction in me.

 
Nanxun, Spring rain #1
 

Nanxun, Spring rain #1

Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFE 2.8/80 lens and Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Speaking of square format, while perhaps it is as visually screaming as 2X3, it is nowhere nearly as offensive. You can easily imagine someone cropping any other aspect ratio to square, but have you ever heard of anyone specifically cropping any other aspect ratio, including square, to 2X3? I seriously doubt it. Using square is a conscious aesthetic choice; using 2X3 usually means blindly following what the camera maker has imposed onto you (or it means prioritising maximising image area over image aesthetics).

The 2X3 aspect ratio screams, "35mm (D)SLR!" (one can argue that it shouts "6X9 medium format", but the probability of it being the case is very, very low; historically, the 2X3 aspect ratio is firmly associated with the 35mm format). There is nothing wrong with 35mm cameras per se, but I find it intrusive when aspect ratio stands out and clearly reveals what kind of camera was used. Even square images do not give away what tools they were taken with, because, as mentioned above, they could have been cropped from any other aspect ratio (and again, no one ever specifically crops to 2X3).

Other visual art forms and paintings in particular support my resentment towards the 2X3 aspect ratio. Go to any art museum, look at the work of the masters of the past, and count how many paintings have the 2X3 aspect ratio. As regular readers may recall, last year I spent quite a bit of time in Madrid visiting Museo Nacional del Prado many times. I thought about this issue at the time, and I specifically looked for paintings with the 2X3 aspect ratio. I could not find any. Not a single one. Now, think about this: the painters were not restricted by image aspect ratios in any way whatsoever; how come, then, that none of them ever used this particular aspect ratio?

The answer might actually be quite simple: historically, the 2X3 aspect ratio is a purely technical convenience that came about without much consideration of aesthetics or any reference to the history of visual arts. I suppose I have to be thankful that triangles or ovals were not technically handier.

So what is the point of this post? Do I realistically expect the 2X3 aspect ratio to become less prevalent? No, of course, not. It is just that a number of readers have mentioned this issue in the past, and I thought I would make everyone a bit more aware of the elephant in the room. At worst, this can confirm to the photographers who feel the same way about the 2X3 aspect ratio that they are far from alone. At best, I hope that this will make us all more conscious of what image aspect ratios we choose and why.


23 May 2013 » Why iPhone 5 cannot replace my compact camera

I am a minimalist by nature and always try to simplify and reduce the number of tools that I use, both photographic and otherwise. For example, before smartphones became widespread I used to carry around a mobile phone and a standalone music player. This had a number of obvious inconveniences: carrying two devices took more space, required keeping an eye on two different batteries, as well as implied using two separate charges. So when the first iPhone was announced, I was ecstatic: I could significantly simplify my on–the–go life without compromising functionality or quality of the sound.

I find myself in a similar situation in terms of compact cameras now: I have my iPhone with me at all times, but, despite the fact that it boasts a fairly decent camera, I continue to religiously carry the Sony RX100 with me. I envision a day when I will be able to let go of dedicated compact cameras, but before it happens, both the camera and the software in my phone need to be significantly improved.

Perhaps it is just me, but I take a lot of photographs in less–than–ideal light and need much more decent high ISO performance than what iPhone 5 offers. On the upside, its lens has a relatively fast fixed aperture of f/2.4 and maximum ISO setting of 3200*. However, its longest shutter speed is only 1/15 seconds and once you go beyond ISO200 image quality is, well, beyond rough. As a result, I see much more of that roughness than I wish I did.

Next, I need some sort of RAW capture—any sort, really, be it DNG or some proprietary Apple format. I suspect that one of the reasons why we do not have it is that we would be shocked beyond belief by the raw image quality before noise reduction and other niceties are applied, even at the base ISO (which is ISO32).

Finally, I need control over exposure settings. Although some of the more advanced iPhone applications boast truly useful features, even the best of them do not allow reining key exposure variables. As mentioned above, iPhone 5 has a fixed aperture of f/2.4, which is good in the sense that this important factor is under control. However, so far I have found no way to set shutter speed and ISO setting manually (or, at least, via ISO priority or shutter speed priority auto exposure). As an example, Pro 645, which is arguably the most sophisticated photo application intended for serious photographers, boasts such features as live histogram, spot metering, AF and AE lock, etc.; however, even this piece of software is at the mercy of what iPhone thinks is the best combination of shutter speed and ISO setting.

 
Boeing 747 - Approaching Shanghai
 

Approaching Shanghai

The image above is a good, even though perhaps a bit extreme, illustration. I first tried to use my iPhone, but could not get the picture—or, indeed, any picture. The Sony RX100 struggled in the auto–everything mode, but switching to manual exposure and using focus peaking allowed me to get the shot (ISO1600, f/1.8, 1/5 seconds).

All things considered, as much as I love the camera in my iPhone 5 we still have to wait a few generations of smartphones and software before we bid adieu to our serious compact cameras.

*All numbers in this post come from reviewing metadata of a large number of images taken in various lighting conditions, not any published specifications.


6 May 2013 » CameraHobby 2.0

Regular readers of this site may recall that in the past I uploaded and shared several photography–related newsletters produced by my friend Edwin Leong (#1, #2 and #3); Edwin used to run the CameraHobby site and was the owner of NikonLinks Web site for a number of years. Well, I am writing this post to spread the great news that, instead of continuing with periodic newsletters, Edwin has now started a new blog: The Photo Tech Geek.

 
CameraHobby.com
 

Yesteryears

Having run this Web site for nearly ten years, I perfectly understand Edwin's sentiments in going from the CameraHobby site to a prolonged break in publishing to the newsletter format and now to The Photo Tech Geek blog. On the one hand, such sites are often run by enthusiast photographers who have daytime jobs, families and numerous other commitments. It takes a lot of energy to continually and consistently create new content and, given various obligations, sometimes there simply is not enough zest. On the other hand, our feelings about our own work change and fluctuate, sometimes on a daily basis, and almost always over a longer period of time as we mature. The question of whether what we are doing is worthwhile can be a frequent guest. There are always ups and downs, and I can easily see how it may be tempting to call it all quits during one of the greater downs. At the same time, however, the inseparable trait of any creative person is that there are bound to be times when he experiences the irresistible urge to express what he feels, either through words, visual images, or any other medium. In this sense, I knew that Edwin's work would surface again somewhere, sometime.

Welcome back, Edwin.


2 May 2013 » Recent favourite quotation

I don't think that writers or painters or filmmakers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form; they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I don't think that any genuine artist has ever been oriented by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was.

—Stanley Kubrick (via Photographs on the Brain)


30 April 2013 » Bye bye, Flickr

I have now used my Flickr account for a few months, which is long enough to have a good taste of it is, and what it is not. In short, I have decided to close the account and use this Web site only to share images in the future. I thought I would share with you some thoughts and observations, which partially explain my decision. Before I do, though, I would like to re–post several images that I originally shared on Flickr.

 
Image: Important decisions, 12 April 2013
 

Important decisions, 12 April 2013

...

 
Image: Mood
 

Mood

...

 
Image: Tuesday
 

Tuesday

...

 
Image: Beijing, January 2013
 

Beijing, January 2013

...

 
Image: New Year flowers
 

New Year flowers

...

 
Jing'an Temple in snow
 

Jing'an Temple in snow

  • From all the images that I took during the period of using Flickr (landscape work aside), only six have been posted here; these photographs are quite representative of what kind of photography I want to do when I am not shooting landscapes. Come to think of it, this number is consistent with the pace at which I tend to create worthwhile photographs in general; moreover, I am fairly certain that this number would have been the same if I shot film all this time. This leads me to the conclusion that, just as the number of keepers does not really depend on what medium or camera we use, using any particular platform—or multiple platforms—for sharing your images is not going to improve the quality of your work.

  • This has always been true in photography, but I think it cannot be repeated enough: we need to edit, edit, edit. The ability to immediately upload any and all images mostly serves to propagate trash. Which is why the workflow of shooting film was—and still is—advantageous in this respect: it has many stages that effectively place garbage where it belongs, not in public places. Flickr sort of helped me with editing as I put pictures out in the open and looked at them over a longer period to decide if I wanted to keep them; however, I am not convinced that editing should be done at the expense of innocent viewers' attention.

  • Using one platform for sharing images may easily lead to using multiple platforms—after all, more is better, right? However, using multiple platforms quickly transforms sharing into marketing, which in turn quickly becomes a totally different game that devours a lot of time and energy. Life is too short not to stay focused, and we need to pay close attention to how we use our resources. Personally, I prefer to spend my time on photography, not marketing.

  • Four out of six photographs above were taken with the iPhone, and I have also noted that the number of images I snap with the camera in my phone has been growing exponentially over the past couple of years. No matter how you slice it, cameraphonegraphy is a fact of life that is here to stay regardless of how retrograde our initial reaction to it may have been. And I actually welcome it—as far as I am concerned, it is only an additional photographic tool offered to all of us for free (well, sort of). It is up to us to decide if or how we use it; at the same time, it is our responsibility to use it sensibly and avoid propagating photographic pollution.

  • Despite their controversial nature, I realise that I do like Instagram–style filters in some instances. If used with taste and care, they can help to mask the bluntness of the naked reality thus taking our images away from technically correct depiction and closer to how reality registers in our minds. Thinking about what I would miss most after closing my Flickr account, filters came to my mind first; in fact, filters were the only thing that I thought of. But of course, this is not a big deal as similar effects can be added using other means.

  • If you already have a personal Web site you need to consider how you use the content that you create, to promote your own site or let other commercial online enterprises thrive using your content for free.

This year I seem to be concentrating on exploring connectivity of photography, so you may naturally ask what is next for me now that the Flickr page has been turned. There still are a few social networking tools that peak my curiosity (witness the link to my Twitter feed above), but, having seen what I have seen, I do not expect any major miracles here. I increasingly realise that, in the grand scheme of things, the fundamentals of creativity and personal expression always remain the same; you may choose and fine–tune how you travel from point A to point B, but the purpose of your journey and destination will not change.

At any rate, I will be sharing my further thoughts in due course.


2 April 2013 » Recent favourite quotation

If and when I have to shoot digitally, I always shoot to card and never show anyone. I usually give myself a day or two before I look at the session. It's the same thing you would do with film, you shoot your film, it goes to the lab the next morning and you get it back that afternoon. That space in time between [taking the photograph] and looking at it after is a really important thing. It's kind of like counting to ten when someone makes you really mad. If I said something awful to you and you just counted to ten, your reaction would be different than just [snaps fingers].

Norman Jean Roy


30 March 2013 » Random thoughts on connectivity, continued

During the past couple of months I continued photographing and experimenting with tools that offer drastically different types and degrees of connectivity. Namely, I have been using an iPhone 5, the most widely and deeply connected camera, the Sony RX100, a compact camera that is connected to the extent that now–traditional digital workflow fosters connectivity, and a Hasselblad V series system, an old–fashioned mechanical film camera that is perfectly disconnected. It has been quite fascinating to look at connectivity beyond the first timer euphoria and try to understand how it relates to and influences the inherent essence of each of these tools.

 
Image: Nanxun, Spring rain #2
 

Nanxun, Spring rain #2

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

As I was using the three cameras alongside each other at one point I realised that to make sense of connectivity we need to consider it in a broader and more encompassing sense. In particular, aside from the technical question of how quickly we can spread an image around the globe, which is technical connectivity, we also need to consider aesthetic connectivity and how it pertains to technical connectivity.

What do I mean by aesthetic connectivity? Simply put, it is whether and to what degree an image reflects one's vision and connects to his inner self. In my mind, aesthetic connectivity must be a precondition to technical connectivity: what is the point in sharing with others an image that has failed to connect to you? Furthermore, the relationship between the two is inverse: in my experience, the easier the technical connectivity, the less there is aesthetic connectivity, and vice versa. For some reason, technical connectivity tends to fail fostering aesthetic connectivity, or may even harm it.

As an example, last month a friend and I went roaming through and photographing ancient villages in Southern Anhui Province, China (the image above is not from the journey, though). Looking at the photographs from the trip, images taken with the Hasselblad, although far from being masterpieces, clearly are more aesthetically connected and stand out in a number of ways: they are much better thought out, more carefully composed and, if not exactly boasting decisive moments, taken at the right moments in time. Photographs taken with the RX100 are notably more offhand, but at least they are correctly exposed at the optimal f–stop and ISO setting. And images taken with the iPhone are, well, careless snapshots at the mercy of what iPhone software thinks is best; while some of them "came out" quite alright, it was more due to luck than preconceived intentions. And technical connectivity, of course, was the opposite: iPhone photos could be shared immediately (but were not: they were not aesthetically connected enough to bother with technical connectivity); images from the RX100 took a couple of days after the trip to be ready for sharing, and slides from the Hasselblad took significantly longer to prepare. Notably, it is only the images shot with the Hasselblad that truly deserve subsequent technical connectivity (I hope to share them later).

Apart from the apparent inability to inspire aesthetic connectivity, another problem I see with mobile connectivity in general and the iPhone in particular is that there are too many social networking platforms that are not too dissimilar yet different enough to be mutually replaceable. Each platform connects to different groups of people in slightly different ways, which I suppose is a good thing if you are trying to reach out to as many people as you possibly can. This, however, raises the question of what content one should feed to different channels. Do you feed the same content to all channels? This approach does not seem ideal to me, because at least some of your contacts overlap over different platforms. Do you then feed different content to different channels depending on the audience? Sounds like a good idea, but can you consistently produce enough worthwhile content for all the channels you choose to use? Or do you simply feed all channels with any and all content you can come up with?

To be honest, I do not know what the best strategy is. Moreover, I find this overabundance of platforms quite confusing and the subtle yet persistent pressure to feed them quite tiresome. What I do know, though, is that I am very reluctant to feed all platforms with any content at any cost, because it often means feeding them with indiscriminate garbage. What's more, I am becoming increasingly tired of photographing my food, drinks, feet, keyboard, and other similar subjects that iPhone's camera apparently has an inbuilt magnet for. I feel I start to miss aesthetic connectivity, and I simply cannot afford allowing technical connectivity to thrive at the expense of aesthetic connectivity.

But of course, this is nothing new and simply takes us back to the old wisdom: content is king and quality trumps quantity. As it has always been, quality content is what ultimately matters, and it can only be created via achieving aesthetic connectivity. Technical connectivity can be of great help and our digital cameras have to be connected, but we need to place our priorities adequately and not confuse means with ends. And as a means, technical connectivity has to be used with care and in moderation.


22 January 2013 » Thoughts on camera connectivity

I have been using my newly bought iPhone 5 as a camera together with the latest Flickr application for over a month now, and I have to say that being able to share images in a simple and straightforward manner is totally addictive. And not only that—it is also inspiring. Carrying my Sony RX100 alongside the iPhone suddenly makes the latest–and–greatest compact camera feel like a dinosaur—something very solid yet completely out of time.

It is after using iPhone 5 as a connected camera that I realise how backward the now–traditional digital workflow has become. While a typical digital camera does not allow to directly share images, the number of ways you can do that with a smartphone is mind–boggling. I know I am a bit late to the party and so far have only tried the Flickr app and sending images via iMessage or Viber; nonetheless, it is obvious to me that this is the future—and the future is already here. Having to connect the camera to your computer, download images and do at least some sort of processing before you can share anything truly impedes our creativity and enthusiasm about photography. Indeed, it is a wonder that camera makers still do not seem to realise the importance of connectivity. Soon enough connecting your camera to a computer will be as awkward as dropping film at a local lab and waiting for hours before you could see the results once was.

 
A nice meal. Connected.
 

A nice meal. Connected*.

Historically in photography, we have always been ready to give up a bit of quality for convenience. We switched to smaller and smaller formats as soon as they became good enough, and digital capture mostly killed film even before its quality was on a par with the analog medium. Convenience always wins, and I envision that the next major leap in this regard will come in the shape of connectivity.

In this day and age digital capture without connectivity is as inconvenient as 35mm film once was vis–à–vis digital capture. While the now–traditional digital workflow reduced the shoot–to–show time from days to hours, connectivity combined with mobile software now reduces it from hours to minutes. All of a sudden, the traditional digital workflow has become a time–consuming impediment. And whereas there still are reasons to shoot film despite various inconveniences associated with it, soon there will be no reason to use digital capture without connectivity. The reason mobile phones are overtaking low–end compact cameras is not only that they are good enough in terms of image quality, always with you and allow carrying one device less; it is also because they are connected.

Of course, there are numerous instances when connectivity is of a decisively secondary consideration. It does not matter to me when I do serious landscape work in the mountains, and you would not care about it if what you have in mind is meticulous image post processing. However, for "civilians"—and even the most serious photographers are "civilians" on some level and at certain times—it may be a major consideration that trumps megapixels, camera controls and the power of proper image editing software. And if your argument is using a slow, contemplative shooting approach where connectivity might actually be detrimental, you may as well go all the way and shoot film ;-).

One thing that we will obviously need is simple yet powerful applications on our image capturing devices. The latest version of Flickr app already offers fairly comprehensive image editing and sharing features, and I think this is where camera manufacturers will find themselves in a tight spot: given their track record, they simply will not be able to come up with adequate mobile applications of their own. This will create the pressure to abandon their existing UI and adopt existing mobile OS and popular applications such as those of Flickr, Instagram et al. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to take the plunge and remain creative and competitive.

In short, if you think the dust has settled and the digital revolution is over, think again. I believe it is far from finished and we are going to see some really interesting changes in the near future. Connectivity is already knocking on our doors, loud and clear, and there will be other game–changing innovations. As we have been saying for over a decade now, what an exciting time to be a photographer!

*I wrote most of this post using Pages on my iPhone while having a meal in Shanghai Brewery. I was sending pictures of the food to my better half via Viber as it was being served. At the same time, the images were automatically uploaded to my Dropbox account from my iPhone and further onto my computer at home once I switched it on. Of course, I could have instantly shared them on Flickr, too. All nearly perfectly connected. And there is no reason our digital cameras should not work the same way.

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