On Light Part 1

I have wanted to do for a while, a series of essays on light.

Light is obviously photography. The two are intertwined and it is fair to say light defines an image. I would like to look at light in images, both good and bad as to dwell on only the good robs us of creative options and opportunities. 

When photographing in Japan, the light can often be muted and gentle, but a little lacking in drama. Towards the middle of the day, the sky is often a colourless haze, especially from the perspective of a Tasmanian photographer used to strong and more angled light. Early and later, depending on the time of year will usually add more contrast and for a short while, that contrast and deepened colour becomes a revelation.

Walking In Light.

"Walking in" light is that magical last or first half an hour of sunlight, filtered by atmospheric conditions that often adds a golden yellow or orange glow. It is sometimes called the "golden hour", but this is probably even more specific as it pertains to a strength of light, combined with a direction of movement, away from the lightand against the flow of traffic, specifically applicable to street photography.

Kyoto's main shopping drag is ideally aligned to the sunset version of this light (and sunrise I guess, but I have not been going in the right direction at that time in the morning).

There is plenty of movement at this time of the day, especially on work days.

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Metering can be tricky, but I find that more drama comes from metering for the sunlit areas, even if that risks loosing the shadows. The OMD sensor and meter combination seems ideally suited to a little under exposure in aperture priority with precious few lost files. Because the primary light is quite strong, the exposures are well within do-able range for quality, depth and capturing subject motion (ISO 400, f4 to 5.6, 1/250th or there about). Autofocus is also assisted by the added contrast, but these images were captured using zone focus.

Still strong in black and white

Still strong in black and white

The portico's and bus shelters also add to the complication and interest of the light.

Even mundane compositions take on a level of brilliance.

Even mundane compositions take on a level of brilliance.

Colours just "pop".

Colours just "pop".

Others appreciate the last of the light as well.

Others appreciate the last of the light as well.

Subjects are framed by shafts of light, surrounded by deep shadow. Notice the shadow selfie? I am on the left.

Subjects are framed by shafts of light, surrounded by deep shadow. Notice the shadow selfie? I am on the left.

Every image, and many more (some spoiled by my own shadow!), were taken over a 10 to 15 minute period with an OMD and 17mm. 

On Perspective and naturalness

Photography offers a lot of tools and ideas to help you express your vision. The process of applying these seems to follow a pattern;

We start out with a simple kit, using probably just the standard lens for a while, later trying the second zoom that came in the kit and as we grow in confidence more and more good images are produced.

Next we explore the other lenses that are often recommended by a salesman, discovered on a blog or in a book or maybe at a course. These are usually a wide angle (zoom), something for close ups (macro), a fast lens (50mm) and possibly a longer lens. Careful shopping may even net a lens that does 2 of those jobs in one. 

Exploring the merits of a new macro lens.

Exploring the merits of a new macro lens.

This is the period where extreme, often signature looks become dominant. I have seen many budding photographers (I am sure I was one of them) who adopt with glee the super shallow depth of field, super wide, extremely close or very long and compressed looks as their own. 

Gear, technique and knowledge are suitably honed, often to the detriment of all other styles. The birder or sports fan carries a long tele and maybe a standard zoom just in case. The landscape specialist often tends towards the wide or super wide and again something middle of the road for back up, while the portraitist may settle on a single prime lens for the bulk of their work. Which ever direction they take, the style they are cultivating can be equally defining and restricting.  

Possibly the last stage for many is to specialise in one or two areas, but also rekindle some semblance of their "jack of all trades" or everyday kit, often in the form of another camera format or style. Changing work process can free up thinking allowing more creativity and an occasional holiday from well trod routine.

This photographer will have seen enough to state truthfully what their preferred focal length range is and why. They know that the only way to come to this conclusion is to do the work. Hundreds of hours of composing thousands of images and some times pressure to perform are the best ways to "find your voice" artistically. Any serious and successful artist will tell you, talent gets you started, but only hard work counts in the long run. 

So, what happens if one day you discover that the only style you like is "Natural".

I am not there, but I think this is where I am headed. At some point in the transition from film to crop frame digital I grew averse to the exaggerated wide angle perspective. I only found this out when wide angle lenses were nearly impossible to find for crop frame cameras and I realised I did not miss them. It felt like something must be missing, broken even. When I went full frame, I actually disliked the regained width, although my 35L was far too big to be a 50mm, I still preferred it that way. I tried to get back on board with wides, but each time I tried, my images felt flat. Same old wide angle look, that only a few years before was a staple technique.

Recently I have started to notice again in a negative way, telephoto compression. Am I just sick of looking at far too many images over the years? Is familiarity and the loss of mystery stealing the wonder, or am I simply looking for premium composition and subject matter presented in it's purest form? Maybe I am paying the price for not having a specialty. 

Taken with a 50mm lens.

Taken with a 50mm lens.

What ever the reason, I am finding it harder and harder to justify the use of any lens wider than a 17mm (35mm equiv.) or longer than a 45mm (90mm equiv.). The gentle and comfortable angle of our vision produced by a 35mm (not our full peripheral vision, that is an optical marvel, something like two fisheye portrait lenses that is beyond us) or the equally harmonious slight compression of a short telephoto 70-90mm, that mimics our eyes magnification are where I feel most comfortable. I am sure the odd, slightly longer lens will slip in, but I have nothing wider, so no straying there. Maybe a normal lens panoramic? Still not sure what my issue is with the Olympus 25mm?

Olympus 45mm. Natural compression, plenty of (practical) blurring and good close focus (6" tall model).

Olympus 45mm. Natural compression, plenty of (practical) blurring and good close focus (6" tall model).

I may yet get a 20mm panasonic, simply for the angle of view and the Pana colour (different to the Olympus and missed for it's added variety), but nothing wider entices and the 75-300, although I love it, is starting to loose it's appeal. 

What is your focal range of comfort?

On Yellow pages and lost data

For the last couple of days my site has been playing up. I would start a post and all looked normal, but if I tried to upload external files or save the post, a message would come up saying "error, you are not logged in". On contacting the service provider they very promptly told me it was a fault at their end and the next day all was well.

It got me thinking on a subject that came up recently directly related to and at the same time completely opposed to this. 

On inspecting some of my collection of photographic books, I discovered slight yellowing around the edges of the pages in some of the older books. Furious internet searching informed me that it is in some part inevitable, although still unfortunate that some of my older and most precious books have suffered poor storage at some time in their fairly long lives.

Too hot, Too cool, Too moist, wood de-gassing, bad luck, there are many ways books can be effected by their surroundings, so short of sealing then away in acid proof plastic, I will just have to live with the reality that they will age, but probably better than I will.

I purchased a lot of my favourites over 30 years ago* when I was just getting the photography bug. Many have been in a dozen or so different rooms in five different houses over their lives and I know some of those environments were less than ideal (nothing too irresponsible, but my wife and I had a thing for old houses and all that they entail).

So, they were bought in my 20's, are a little battle weary in my 50's and I will probably still find them fulfilling in my 70's.  basically I am ok. Even the prints I did 6 years ago on my great little Pixma 9000 mk2 Canon printer are holding up well, though they are not printed in the more "archival" print process of pigment inks. Most of these have been superseded by better prints or better images anyway, so the extra effort and expense of archival printing would have been wasted. 

Now the ironic bit.

As much as the condition of my books stressed me at the time, the reality set in the other day that everything committed to digital is far more fragile than anything printed. Sounds obvious really, but two things are always on the mind of anyone who deals with data stored in the cloud or on hardware, They are longevity and security (just ask the American electoral authorities).

This website could vaporise tomorrow if the service provider folds. The images on my hard drives all rely on devices with moving parts and format support for life. No device we buy today has a realistic life span of more than 5 years and that is if they cannot entice you before that. Nothing is free of batteries, updates or without built in obsolescence pending and do we really but that all those airport and bank glitches are not man made! No wonder kids of today are drawn to "retro" things, nothing in their world is certain for more than a year or two.

Dads old Kodachrome slides or lab prints in the box under the bed will out last any domestic and most industrial digital devices operational now!

My books look as solid as mountains in comparison.

Something to ponder.

A nice pic full of symbolism of sticks fighting relentless water and stuff. You get the idea.

A nice pic full of symbolism of sticks fighting relentless water and stuff. You get the idea.

 

*Sam Abel, Adams, Weston, Kenna, Wolfe, Rowell, Haas etc.

On 50 being the new 40. A quick review of the Olympus 25mm f1.8

Not my age (well yes, my age), but looking at the Olympus 25mm as the true replacement for the still missed 20 f1.7 Panasonic and moving on. The real need is to partner the 17mm that I am very pleased with in the semi wide street environment role.

So the role of a partner lens to the 17mm? More snap or "modern" smooth bokeh, more compression, more glow. 

I just love the 40mm focal length. Been there and done that several times in various formats, but either the camera system did not fit or the lens proved problematic. In the case of the Panasonic, it fell through the cracks when the more practical 17mm Olympus proved time and again that it delivered, especially in focussing options. 

Yes, the stellar 20mm has only one relatively minor flaw. Slow autofocus and relatively stiff and un-marked manual focus operation, two things the 17mm does better.

Now to be clear; there is no room in my bag, nor any need for a 40mm focal length between a 35 and a 50. My feeling is the 40mm is the ideal lens to have instead of the other two*, but not as well as. Why clutter the thinking process up with too many choices that are really only a matter of perspective change by degrees?

Buying the 25mm F1.8 (50mm equivalent) seemed a no brainer at the time. Reviewers were giving it a big tick even when compared to the Panasonic 25 f1.4 (I had two of these over a couple of years, but they did not stick), and with a better price/size/functionality, I just grabbed it when it came out. 

The problem is, the 20mm's sharpness, angle of view (a less distorting 35mm really) combined with a highly portable pancake design. It is not really a better lens optically than the 25mm Olympus, but it renders differently and is poor in application compared to the 17mm. 

So the question is can I forget the 20mm and use the 25mm I have had now for 3 years, but used little in that time.

The 25mm has become a filler lens. You know, the one you feel better having, but have to find an excuse to use. I struggle with it, but cannot work out why. In truth there is nothing to complain about. It handles well and has always delivered, but what is wrong? 

In the spirit of finding a reason to use it, in probably it's best application as the "one lens, lens", I grabbed it, and only it, for a road trip today, intending to decide the issue.

First, is it sharp?

As you can see from the first two images above, crops included, even wide open it is professionally sharp and the background is perfectly smooth. The last image stopped down to f5.6 is effortlessly sharp hard into the corners. All images are with my standard work flow from RAW EM5 images.

Is it problem free?

No, not totally, but easily fixed. The above image, also wide open has some expected situational CA that took only a little fixing (see crops). Not much else to complain about. Unlike the 17mm, which tends to loose contrast wide open, this one keeps it's punch.  

How about Bokeh?

The first two images are at f1.8 (that is her own hair on her nose, shedding for summer), showing front/back Bokeh and good focus accuracy. Perspective aside, there is a longer lens look to these shots. The third image is at f4, showing nice gentle transition, the fourth is at f2.8 harmoniously taming chaos and the last at f5.6 showing how forgiving it is when DOF is limited by circumstance or physics. The 17mm is better at holding out of focus information, but this lens offers the opposite look, snappy and defined.

Conclusion; Nice on the eye overall, with that same 20mm "snappy" look. It also has better close focus with a more natural perspective than the semi wide. This is the opposite look to the 17mm, ideal.

And finally colour and contrast.

Looking at the images above, the colour is rich (less like the 17mm, more like the 75mm) and contrast is on the strong end. The colour from the 20mm is more like the 17mm, so less reason to add it next to that lens.

Problem solved?

Not sure.

The real issue I think is the 25mm (50mm e.) lens is to me is a short portrait lens, where the 20mm is an environment lens.  Relaxed and inclusive, without the slight distortion the 17mm, the 20 (40) is the ideal "everywhere" focal length. The 50mm is not and traditionally never was the perfect compromise lens** (approximately 42mm is technically the standard on a full frame camera). The 50mm is actually the first of the natural rendering portrait focal lengths, so it is probably the correct foil for the wider than standard 17mm.

If this is really the case and I suppose it really is, it means that all of my wide work, such as I do, will be handled by a capable enough little 17mm.  

* Olympus and Panasonic obviously agree as neither does a cluttered range of focal lengths in their offerings, the clutter comes when you combine the two. Panasonic goes 14 replaced by 15, 20, 25 while Olympus is 12, 17 replaced by 17, 25.

**I assume it became the standard lens because it has a more natural perspective and being a gentle-short portrait lens, with the main subject often more important to many hobbyists, that still offers the user a good enough general purpose option. Minolta used to offer a 58mm as their standard lens. Most medium format makers still sold a closer to 40mm equivalent as their standard lens through the film era.

Perfect Pair

It is not often that you find a combination of two items that offer far more together than they do individually. This is called, I think super-additivity, a phenomenon where the combining of two or more ingredients creates a whole, greater than the sum of it's parts.

The Olympus Pen F and 17mm are, to me, a good example of this.

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The 17mm has become my go to standard (and wide angle) lens. I have little use for anything wider and tend to think of the 25mm as a short telephoto, so the 17mm, mixed reviews withstanding, is my "everything else" lens, from a portraitist's perspective.

It's main task is what I personally define as traditional street photography, natural (emphasis here) candids of people in sometimes complicated, multi faceted street scenes. Not street portraiture, that holds no appeal for me.

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Why it does this so well is a combination of the format's forgiving depth of field and the lens's even more forgiving bokeh. The lens transitions from in to out of focus areas very naturally and gently. The ability to shoot at wider apertures, without the more modern styled and severe sharp/soft fall off that so many newer lenses tend to deliver is a great benefit. I am not afraid to use this lens at f2.8 or even wider for images that require a feeling of depth and layering. Indeed, the bokeh, when at it's most obvious, is attractive and natural. With full frame format or even another lens* in M43 format, I would seldom use an aperture wider than f5.6 and even then lean heavily towards f8-11.

Although not the sharpest or least aberration prone lens wide open in the corners, it still nailed focus wide open in the corner. Notice how the curtains in the back ground still show coherent form, almost as much as Miss Daisy's front paws.

Although not the sharpest or least aberration prone lens wide open in the corners, it still nailed focus wide open in the corner. Notice how the curtains in the back ground still show coherent form, almost as much as Miss Daisy's front paws.

Bokeh is, to me important, but it is not the only benefit the combination offers.

The manual focus/auto focus operation is also brilliant. The Pen F's bright and clear viewfinder, mated to the 17mm lens's forgiving nature allow me to manually focus, often without any peeking needed. I have not before been able to mimic the laser matt focus screen look from my film days which allowed me to manually focus subjects off centre, even in the corners. Being able to view the whole frame evenly, no distractions, with the left eye watching "outside the frame", effectively making the camera invisible, is ideal. 

Split prisms and centred viewfinders annoyed as they tend to "focus" (eh!) my attention on the focussing process, not the scene in front of me, much the same as AF. 

AF when used is super fast and accurate.

I tend to use the focus by wire option for MF, leaving the clutch manual focus on it's pre set of 5' so I can instantly shoot near without thinking and I find the focus ring in it's normal position with MF override applied to be smoother and lighter to the touch (I can focus with my little finger!). This is one if the nicest and most relevant manual focus experiences I have had in a long time*.

The button on the front of the body activates peeking if needed (white and mild). This does two things. The button is suited to this job as the finger needed to activate it is usually not doing anything else and the button tends to get pushed occasionally by accident, especially with the grip fitted and peeking activation does no harm.

Other things that I like;

The feel is identical from both lens and camera. Cool metal, tight operation and seamless fit. It feels great in the hand, although I still prefer the OMD bodies with longer lenses (mainly the centred viewfinder placement).

The screen can be folded away creating a truly retro, immersive experience. If your desire is viewing with the eye or shooting from the hip using zone focus or "guestimation" then both of these styles will be practiced, used and improved. If there is a screen option also, then there is one more complication, another choice and another convenient excuse to avoid developing superior skills. I actually like the flip out screen because it is a pain in the ass and I don't feel the need to use it!

Utter silence if needed.

Very nice mono. Similar tonal crunch to the Sony NEX7 and very responsive to processing.

A ten second conversion of above.

A ten second conversion of above.

Good metering and better highlight recovery. I tend to shoot the OMD EM5 mk1's a little under exposed because their shadows are robust and quite clean, while their highlights (although better than my Canon's when I switched) can get a little lost. The Pen F gets exposure spot on more often and the highlights have about one more stop of detail. This seriously reduces fiddling before capture.

The only things I do not like are the over tight exposure comp dial, but I have also found it (see above) less needed and the lack of a comfortable button under the thumb for AF to give the instant option of AF NOT connected to the shutter button (I liked the idea of AF on the front function button, but it does not seem to offer the option).

There are many refinements in menu and button placement compared to the comparatively geriatric OMD's, but most are lost on me as I have adapted to the older cameras, so I will leave these thoughts to others. Apparently the jpeg files are very good also, but I don't like being locked into limited options by compressed files, so again, look to others for an opinion here.

Could the lens be better? I am sure it could. Most things can be improved, but I would not like any improvements that reduce the existing powers of the lens. 

How about the camera? Little things, already worked around. Maybe weather proofing (for both), but Oly cameras and lenses have always shown superior weather sealing even with the non proofed gear (that is to say, they like getting wet about as much as I do).

*The Panasonic 20mm, although looking sharper is guilty of being the polar opposite to the 17mm in both handling (slow AF and tight and "blind" MF) and unforgiving bokeh. It made a nice snap shot lens, producing very sharp looking shots, but was useless for my street work method.

on the types of sharpness

We often (too often?) use terms like sharpness or resolution when describing the qualities of an image. I suppose then a discussion on the types of sharpness is warranted.

This is tough to explain well, but is based on my own perceptions over the last few years, especially when trying to define the differences between Fuji, Canon, Sony and M43 sensors and lenses for my own needs.

What do I mean by the types of sharpness?

Many years ago I had a discussion with an experienced dark room technician about the best choices in enlarger lenses available (35mm format).

He felt the Schneider 50mm f2.8, was too "brittle" sharp. He said it was harsh and unforgiving.

The Nikkor 50mm was "simple sharp". It provided a clear and defined image, that lacked a delicateness he preferred for detailed landscape prints, it was better suited to portraits.

The Rodenstock was just right (said Goldie Locks). It was delicate, but forgiving. Perfect for high quality enlargements that stretched to the limit 35mm negs.

These comments stayed with me. 

I think that now, more than in the past, the character of sensor and lens combinations can be explained using similar terms. In the film era, a lot of things were fixed and consistent, but in the digital era, many things can add variation and as sensor technology reaches a point of sufficiency, this character is what separates them.

For example, my poison of choice is Olympus. I would characterise their sensors as providing "simple sharpness".

EM5 and 17mm from a Fuji/Olympus show down. The camera and lens are good examples of "simple" sharp. There is actually more detail in the flower centre than in the Fuji image below.

EM5 and 17mm from a Fuji/Olympus show down. The camera and lens are good examples of "simple" sharp. There is actually more detail in the flower centre than in the Fuji image below.

Part of the simple character of the Olympus images comes from the natural colour warmth of their sensor (their character), part from depth of field rendering and part from the lenses. The Pen F is less like this, but still has this character. It reminds me of a really clean and sharp 35mm slide image.

This is the Fuji XE-1 and 23mm comparison image. This is what I would call "delicate" or "glassy" sharp. Some of this comes from tonal separation and white balance, but it is hard to prise out what comes grudgingly.

This is the Fuji XE-1 and 23mm comparison image. This is what I would call "delicate" or "glassy" sharp. Some of this comes from tonal separation and white balance, but it is hard to prise out what comes grudgingly.

Fuji in contrast provides glassy or delicate sharpness. The viewer tends to become less aware of sharpness as a component of the image, it just is. This is closer to a medium format film image, not in real enlargeable quality, but feel. The actual fine rendering is often smoothed away, but the perceived clarity is extraordinary, almost defying or transcending terms of quality. I found out after taking the above image that the whole morning the camera had been set to small jpeg. This looks to have added to the delicateness of the file.

There is smooth sharpness. Both of the above brands can achieve this, but the best I have used is Canon.

A Canon image crop from last year. This is a "smooth" sharp image. The impression of detail is strong but looking closely, edge acutance (contrast) is not strongly defined. One of my main drivers for switching to Olympus a few years ago was a strong (maybe too strong) reaction to the clearer sharpness I was seeing. Something I over estimated was it's importance. One of Canon's qualities is image smoothness. I later came to miss and spent a long time trying to extract from the EM5 files, not difficult technically, but I resisted on principal.

A Canon image crop from last year. This is a "smooth" sharp image. The impression of detail is strong but looking closely, edge acutance (contrast) is not strongly defined. One of my main drivers for switching to Olympus a few years ago was a strong (maybe too strong) reaction to the clearer sharpness I was seeing. Something I over estimated was it's importance. One of Canon's qualities is image smoothness. I later came to miss and spent a long time trying to extract from the EM5 files, not difficult technically, but I resisted on principal.

Finally is busy or detailed over edge-acutance sharpness. The Sony NEX 7 and the little clutch of primes I had with it was great at this. This is simply the result of lots of pixels, supported or not by lenses of equal capability.

Busy sharpness is the type I like the least, but cannot really fault it. This type of rendering is the result of high resolution sensors, often supported by lenses that cannot keep up or strong filtering that tends to soften the very detail the sensor is capable of rendering. Already old fashioned, the brands that offered this recently are now moving to a harder sharpness as a result of reducing or removing filtering from their sensors to address customer demand. High pixel count cameras with basic zoom lenses provide this in spades.

NEX 7 and the under rated Sony 35 f1.8 wide open. 

NEX 7 and the under rated Sony 35 f1.8 wide open. 

Plenty of smooth and natural detail, after a little work, but not bitingly sharp (does it need to be?).

Plenty of smooth and natural detail, after a little work, but not bitingly sharp (does it need to be?).

This rendering seems to really suit mono images as the busy details show up naturally as great mid range or "micro" contrast.

This rendering seems to really suit mono images as the busy details show up naturally as great mid range or "micro" contrast.

Brittle or Hard (also delicate and glassy) sharpness is reliant on cleanness of image, high edge contrast (acutance), often at the expense of finer details. Manufacturers aim for this in their jpeg images, using contrast and sometimes over sharpening to add obvious punch. These images are often near noiseless, but can push reality a little and can easily go too far. I love this type of sharpness if it comes off. It reminds me of medium format "effortless" film sharpness and it prints well., when done badly, it just looks "digital". Fuji jpegs show their true quality here. 

A similar crop of the same eye as above taken with a Fuji in jpeg mode and the 60mm macro wide open (different light though).

A similar crop of the same eye as above taken with a Fuji in jpeg mode and the 60mm macro wide open (different light though).

A heavy crop of another eye image from a Fuji XE-1 and 60mm macro (jpeg). Smooth, clean and glassy. This was also my ideal when shooting Canon. The differing light and therefore different processing show how hard it is to get consistent results.

A heavy crop of another eye image from a Fuji XE-1 and 60mm macro (jpeg). Smooth, clean and glassy. This was also my ideal when shooting Canon. The differing light and therefore different processing show how hard it is to get consistent results.

Simple sharpness is usually the result of low or no low pass filtering on the sensor and an image shot in RAW mode. Often lower contrast, especially in controlling highlights, thus reducing brilliance but increasing naturalness. These images can show good micro contrast and are good for strong contrast subjects such as metallic surfaces. I often think of this as "American" sharpness as it reminds me of the Kodak film images from the 80's and 90's that I grew up with. This type of sharpness shows us that perceived sharpness is not reliant on lots of pixels. EM5's with 17, 45, 12-40, 20mm Panasonic and 75-300 are all strong here as well as older sensors like the one in my 10D Canon.

Another tight crop (different age, same subject) from An Olympus with 45mm f1.8. Simpler, but detailed, less forgiving of blemishes etc. (the colour is due to very different lighting). High levels of noise reduction can create a smoothness, without reducing detail too much, but the delicateness of other sensors is missing unless a very hard sharp lens is used like the 75mm.

Another tight crop (different age, same subject) from An Olympus with 45mm f1.8. Simpler, but detailed, less forgiving of blemishes etc. (the colour is due to very different lighting). High levels of noise reduction can create a smoothness, without reducing detail too much, but the delicateness of other sensors is missing unless a very hard sharp lens is used like the 75mm.

As tight a crop from a full body RAW original image, using the 75mm and in the past the Pana-Leica 25mm. This is half way between Olympus hard (lens) and simple (sensor) soft. On later examination, maybe this one was pushed a little hard.

As tight a crop from a full body RAW original image, using the 75mm and in the past the Pana-Leica 25mm. This is half way between Olympus hard (lens) and simple (sensor) soft. On later examination, maybe this one was pushed a little hard.

Other factors obviously have an effect here. Processing is capable of mimicking some looks from one brand to another, but this is often fighting the natural rendering, trying to substitute one for another rather than playing to the natural strengths the system offers. The sharpening radius tool for example is useful for creating finer or bolder edge sharpness. Often jpeg sharpening is heavy handed, using wider/harsher radii as this forms a stronger impression of sharpness, but is unnatural looking on close inspection. Fuji and later model Olympus cameras manage delicate sharpening in jpegs, much closer to a well processed RAW image.

The pair of images above (roughly 200% crops) show the difference in sharpening between a jpeg on the left (EM5 -1 sharpening and NR off) and RAW (basic pre set and a little brush work over the hair). the impression of most jpegs is they are sharper, but the fine detail is often lost to illusion and can feel forced. Notice how the RAW just looks more natural and could tolerate a lot more sharpening.

The full jpeg (EM5, 75mm f2), showing the impression of snappy detail. This would print up well to fairly large sizes, with the print medium helping to smooth perceived harshness. No doubt the designers want their jpegs to deliver high satisfaction to casual viewers, leaving RAW mode for pickier types. 

The full jpeg (EM5, 75mm f2), showing the impression of snappy detail. This would print up well to fairly large sizes, with the print medium helping to smooth perceived harshness. No doubt the designers want their jpegs to deliver high satisfaction to casual viewers, leaving RAW mode for pickier types. 

The closest I can get with my kit to "delicate/hard" sharp is with my 75 or 40-150mm on the Pen F. The best "simple" sharp I get is from my EM5 and 12-40, 17mm* and the Panasonic 20mm combinations. That is not to say one combination is measurably sharper than the other, but rather, one has finer visual resolution at 100%, on screen, while the other offers a clear and more straight forward image without (literally) fine, hair splitting detail. Ask a model which they would prefer at a shoot?

Printing tends to blur the differences and I find, larger screen viewing exaggerates differences. 

Sharpness is a measurable and often measured thing. Anything that can be measured often has to be measured for us to accept a difference, but maybe we should look at our less mathematical, more visceral response rather than take the test charts word for it.

*I really struggled to accept the 17mm lens in it's role as my primary wider lens, due mostly to poor reviewers comments, especially when compared on the test bench to any of the longer primes in the Olympus stable. I now consider it to be one of my most stable lenses, delivering over and over. Using it has allowed it's strengths to show through. They are different strengths to the 75mm, the 45mm and the 25mm, but are no less relevant.

It looks to me that in wider lenses, Olympus has concentrated on the qualities an image will show over the full frame (focus transition, micro contrast and smoothness) and as the lenses get longer, they concentrated on snappier rendering to better suit the likely subject matter. Both my 17/75 and 12-40/40-150 pairings show these characteristics.

My thanks to Meg and Tom for the use of their eyes and ears.

 

 

On Friends, travels and a natural eye

This post is a review of a photographers work. The photographer in question would not consider herself a "true" photographer, but I do. In a time when titles and labels often mean more than they should, she is a prime example of the true meaning of a gifted amateur.

I have known Peta Frost for a long time. She was a work colleague and friend of my wife's on and off for more than 20 years, and has always kept in touch.

Now semi retired allowing her to succumb fully to the effects of her travel bug, Peta is showing a natural photographers eye, curiosity fuelled and sensitivity moulded. A natural eye is a great gift. My wife also has a great eye, possibly tainted by too much exposure to me, but strong none the less.

My first contact with Peta's image making came in the form of a little Canon compact camera, purchased from the shop I was working at several years ago. This went to Morocco, a favourite destination and came back laden with great images. She stretched that little camera as far as it would go and then some. It was clear to me, she had more potential than the camera could service, an ideal situation really (I have sold plenty of cameras over the years that are never going to be fully stretched or even fully understood by their owners). 

This is often a tipping point for active photographers. Many a time, a customer or friend would upgrade from the camera that gave them so much satisfaction, only to be disappointed that their flash new camera not only fails to make their images noticeably better, but that added complication has stolen their comfort zone away**.

Very National Geographic 1960's, this image has been processed to bring out the mood and depth it showed, using the cameras short comings to full advantage. A great example to me of what emotion and character can do more powerfully than sterile perfection.

Very National Geographic 1960's, this image has been processed to bring out the mood and depth it showed, using the cameras short comings to full advantage. A great example to me of what emotion and character can do more powerfully than sterile perfection.

The next trip would be to Norway in the winter, pretty much semi darkness at best. This would be beyond any normal compact. Peta was in luck though, as I was just starting to come to terms with a one brand kit, choosing Olympus, primarily because of the size of my investment in their gear and the work flow I had developed. The best Fuji I owned was actually the cheapest (XA-1), so we made a mutually beneficial deal. I found a good home for the camera and Peta got the ideal upgrade.

The Xa1 is the little camera that could. It does not have the unusual and problematic (at the time of production especially) Fuji sensor and processor combination, but rather the normal Bayer type. The Fuji colour was intact, along with the sharpness, but no strangeness in processing. It was also ridiculously good in low light. I still wonder why Fuji pushed their more exotic sensor so hard, when this more conventional one delivered everything the other could, without the quirks?

Peta now had a camera that would allow her to express herself with fewer limitations*, so after a couple of brief lessons on how to get the most out of it (mostly the use of exposure compensation for best utilising the "what you see is what you get" benefit of mirrorless cameras) she was away.

I have to admit to being surprised at the quality of images coming back. The compositions were mature and those of a photographer, not a tourist. Peta's photographic interests tend to follow story telling images, often devoid of clutter (people) or with people included if that is the compositional element that is intended. 

The little camera came up trumps also, getting out of the way and providing clean and colourful images in some challenging light.

I think this one was taken from a moving vehicle!

I think this one was taken from a moving vehicle!

We processed some of the top images together in Lightroom, but they did not need much work. The Fuji jpeg files really are spot on. 

Then off to Morocco again, but this time with the Fuji.

The thing that stands out to me about Peta, when she talks about her images is the emotional connection she shares with her subjects. Refreshing after all of the tech talk.

The thing that stands out to me about Peta, when she talks about her images is the emotional connection she shares with her subjects. Refreshing after all of the tech talk.

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The above images were mined from her impressive library. Some have been gently processed in Lightroom, some by Peta in a different, more generic programme and some are as shot.

Peta has taught (re taught?) me, to appreciate the results and the story, not to obsess about what took the image, but more the why and who of the image. Part of me wishes I could unlearn a lot of what I know, releasing some pressure of expectation and the restrictions often inherent in accumulated knowledge (sometimes called analysis paralysis), expanding my ability to see freely, with an open and generous eye.

I am grateful to have shared Peta's journey a little bit and helped in some small way to contribute to it. David Vestal, one of my favourite photo philosophers once said something along the lines of "You can't teach someone to be a good photographer, you can only guide them on their own path". Pretty sure that is not word for word, but you get the idea.

                                                                       *

* The more I talk about and use cameras, the more I come to realise that a camera does not have the capacity to expand a photographers ability to see images, only to hold it back through technical limitations. Camera limitations have always been the hard ceiling that photographers have had to combat, so much so they often determining fashions in image making and viewing (National Geographic and Kodachrome for years were the assumed way to look at colour images). The current crop of cameras are lifting that ceiling, freeing us all to express ourselves without having to learn the "secret sauce" just to get the job done.

**Rant, un related to To above photographers work; I remember once having a customer in tears after stuffing up a wedding with a brand new 5D mk3, set in the wrong AF setting for the whole day (continuous servo with the left hand focus points only activated, fiddled with because they had read how fast the AF was, but could not work out how to undo their settings), sporting a new, fast zoom, left wide open for more bokeh (grrrr), shot in RAW without any upgraded software loaded or any understanding it was even needed (frightening when your wedding images won't open and you don't know why).

The perfect back up (old faithful crop frame body, a 500D if I remember with a simple AF system and slower lens-providing lots more depth of field) had already been sold off to a friend, leaving the customer with the new monster to fight and no plan B. The traps of upgrading had been fully explained before purchase, but like a dear in the headlights the new camera promised the customer improvements unmeasured. Well done that marketing dept.!

On the influence of other photographers part 1.

We are all influenced by our surroundings. The choices we make and the paths we follow almost always have a precedent in our memories, otherwise the very idea of taking an image with a camera would probably not occur to us. 

On a superficial level, deciding who your "hero's" are (hate that over used and often in appropriate term), can help you decode the why of your own technique. It is never helpful to simply copy others, but it is nearly impossible to be inspired by someone else's work and then completely remove those memories from your mental library when working your self.

I am going to, as a mental exercise for myself, look at those image makers that I like and try to de-cypher their influence on me. 

Sam Abel

The work of less well known, quietly spoken National Geographic photographer and editor Sam Abel came at a formative time for me. He arrived fully in book form, mentioned I think in a magazine article (popular photography some time in the '80's?), way back before the internet anyway. The article talked about his method of composing from "back to front", making sure that all of the elements of an image work toward the whole (see my book review also). At the time, the term bokeh was not (invented) in our photographic consciousness, but the back-front thing started me looking at the frame as a whole, reaching it's logical fulfilment when I became bokeh aware (or, maybe like most image makers, I was already, I just didn't know what I was responding to).

Maybe a bit Abelish? No real attention to the back ground except to make sure it was in focus enough to contribute and an awareness that depth of field was compositionally required or desired.  Definitely not as deliberate, but the "filmy" colour and location remind me of his work a bit.

Maybe a bit Abelish? No real attention to the back ground except to make sure it was in focus enough to contribute and an awareness that depth of field was compositionally required or desired.  Definitely not as deliberate, but the "filmy" colour and location remind me of his work a bit.

Lots of depth, but no real strength in subject. Not really Abel?

Lots of depth, but no real strength in subject. Not really Abel?

His quote "I believe in the staying power of the quieter image" became a sort of mantra and a confirmation of my own philosophy, that quiet observation and minimum intrusion is the path I am most comfortable with and that it gets the images I like the most.

What have I learned from him; His use of light and depth to make simple looking, but deeply complicated compositions definitely influenced how I see and how I think between shoots, but I cannot confess being a master of his technique. I am aware, more than ever after writing this, that I need to re visit his philosophy as my own style has drifted towards the shallow depth of field portrait style to my own detriment. Backgrounds are key and often forgotten.

Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna came to me later in my early years, towards the end of the film era and after the influence of the classic American greats (Adams etc) and the National Geo "big book" photographers (Art Wolfe and Jim Brandenburg). What he shows us is that anything can be photogenic, even the ugly and mundane. A bit of stone path, the stacks from a power station, a swing set, a lone tree in the snow or a wooden fence, taken sometimes after dark or in strong mist with long exposure technique, using what ever grain and character is provided by film. He only works in black and white 35mm or medium format film with mechanical cameras, but can make a work of art out of nothing really. Ugly and boring are no excuse, look harder with an open mind.

His style has been copied a lot in the film and digital eras, especially in the last few years due to advances in digital cameras, so his work can look to some like just another in a crowd of many, but consider this; I bought his 20 year retrospective book over 20 years ago. When he emerged, there was nothing like his work except much older images taken with view cameras on glacially slow film stock through necessity. The most notable of his contemporaries is Michael Levitt, who uses a similar style shot on large format film. 

Not in the same league and technically flawed (see my previous post about sharpness), but taken with lessons learned from his work.

Not in the same league and technically flawed (see my previous post about sharpness), but taken with lessons learned from his work.

What I take from his work is; simplicity (emphasis on minimalism in composition and tones), clarity of vision, not accepting technical limitations, but embarrassing them and then doing the work required to hone these can make a great image out of almost anything. he stresses the value of post production in the darkroom, so in a way he is the natural grandfather to the photoshop era. Many (not all) of the colour photographers of his day shot slide film stock and very few processed their work, leaving it to lab technicians and printers, but the black and white masters were the ones who followed the process all the way through, like we do today.

Probably a bit more along the lines of creative manipulation. Taken as a bright and sunny day image.

Probably a bit more along the lines of creative manipulation. Taken as a bright and sunny day image.

So endeth part 1.

On sharpness and reality

I am as guilty as any blogger of using the words sharpness, resolution and detail too many times in a week. Part of the obsession some of us have with quality, that is perceived, numerically or visually measurable quality, comes from the it's elusiveness in our early years.

Photography went from "weird science" to controllable hobby in a relatively short time (if you call a human generation short), but it went off like a bomb when it did take. All were in agreement; the technical side of photography was as much a part of the whole as any other part, allowing gear nerds, working pros, experimental or classical artists and enthusiasts to share the same journey, if taking different paths.

The second great wave of quality obsession came with the digital emergence. Starting from scratch, but with a  pre determined quality bar to aim for and tools readily available for determining value, we jumped in with both feet, measuring micro differences between lens X and sensor Y, until the differences needed better equipment than our own eyes to even see those differences.

So, what is sharpness and is it that important?

Photographically, sharpness is the ability of the end product to convey a perception of clarity and definition using true edge and/or micro contrast (Canon's Lens Work publication explains this best, showing the differences between contrast and resolving power).

All sharpness is an illusion. The flat surfaces used to view images have no actual sharp edges, you cannot cut yourself on them (ok, a smashed screen or a nasty paper cut can disprove that point). The impression of sharpness comes from the clarity and strength of contrast used to show transition from one tone or colour end point to a neighbouring one. 

In a dark room, this was called acutance and was often a chemically created phenomenon, so I guess it had actual substance, but even if digitally created the effect is the same. The sharpening tool in your processing suite is simply exaggerating the strength of the transition point between two areas, which is why over sharpening looks so bad as it is creating a clearly false (oversized) edge rather than a better defined edge.

How do we see sharpness?

Simply put, we are tricked into seeing it. Viewing distance is important, display media and viewer expectations also, but trickery is the name of the game. If you decide that "perfect' sharpness is your goal, that is sharpness so pure and definable, you cannot perceive the point where it is no longer sharp, them you have to stop looking before you exceed your point of maximum acceptable perception. That is, you must decide when you no longer want to look any further (closer), because eventually, if you get close enough, you will see the point of un sharpness.

Very big prints from 50mp full frame cameras will have a realistic resolution limit, that is not far past 16mp m43 sensors in real terms. Neither is perfect, but either is capable of producing fine art work to reasonable sizes. The reality is, M43 is not a revolutionary "catch up" leap to bigger sensor size quality through some exclusive, advanced technology. There is no magic juice. What has happened is a new wave of very sharp* sensors and supporting lenses has coincided with "already enough" quality and is acting more like a reality call than a real quality shift.

*Anti aliasing filters removed or reduced from the sensor path, increasing perceived sharpness.

Ming Thein did an exercise a couple of years ago where it tried to get unrealistic and impractical "loupe viewable" sharpness on a print. The process needed 36mp's, perfect technique and multiple passes of very fine ink droplets from a pro printing press onto carefully chosen paper to render that much detail and even then paper size was limited to small gallery sizes only. In his own observations he basically said no one will care except other photographers interested/obsessed by quality. It is all about viewing distance, expectations and delivery.

Example; look at your TV. look at it from across the room. Decide there how sharp the picture looks. Then get closer and closer, until the actual pixels making up the picture are more obvious than the picture itself. Some time in the middle, you will feel the image has become possibly sharper, but gradually unsharp. Next the actual pixels start to look sharp, but as you get even closer, those pixels loose their sharpness also. A couple of times on the journey you are happy with your perception of clarity and a couple of times not.

Another example, closer in relevance to the subject at hand.

The image below was taken with care a few years ago with a crop frame SLR, sporting plenty of pixels, a solid wood tripod and a better than average lens. 

Eos 550D 15-85mm at 85 f8, at about 30 seconds. Important to remember here that in print, this looks sharper as the paper texture and physical ink work together. 

Eos 550D 15-85mm at 85 f8, at about 30 seconds. Important to remember here that in print, this looks sharper as the paper texture and physical ink work together. 

Up to reasonable sizes (11x14 inch) and equally reasonable viewing distances the image looks sharp and contrasty in print, especially on more precious, heavy matt-fibre paper. Viewers have responded well to this series of colour and mono images, but the dirty secret is, none of the images were very sharp.

Their response was to the colours and tones, the location and the composition. If I had managed better technical quality would it have really mattered to the average viewer or would that simply have made me happier with the image?

I have narrowed the culprits down to vibration from the quite heavy sea crashing on the beach at the feet of the tripod (amazing what a long exposure can hide), possibly combined with the tripod very slowly sinking into the soft sand and maybe a less than brilliant lens (some obvious CA issues), but either way, the whole evening was less satisfying than desired. At first I thought I had left the stabiliser on. Never a good idea when using a tripod, but that would have been too easy.

A crop of the above.

A crop of the above.

Technique was tried and tested, gear should have been ok, but the images lacked any real "bite" at 100% on a screen, so most of the perceived sharpness came from added contrast, print stock selection and by limiting size.

Another example of perceived sharpness compared to actual sharpness below.

Taken with an ancient Pen 25mm from the 1960's, shot wide open, where it's not at it's best, the image looks soft and muddy.

The second image has had contrast added to it globally (clarity and darkened blacks) and specifically to the camera body (the brush tool with slightly increase clarity, de hazing and contrast). All of the clarity you see comes from applied contrast. Reasonable sharpness was there, just hidden. The lens actually showed a little more 3D pop than the newer lens it was compared to and slightly unusual (old school) bokeh.

The lesson learned here is; actual sharpness is only part of the story.

Olympus and Panasonic M43 cameras are very satisfying in the sharpness department. What I used to think was pretty good is now base line and exceptional has become the norm. So what? The elusive smoothness I loved from my Canon cameras and the glassiness of the Fuji's, turned out to be less fine detail resolution with contrast increasing perceived sharpness.

The newer raft of sensors are very clear, but Fuji and Canon in particular are aiming for a more holistic quality. What the Olympus cameras can supply is a choice between ridiculous sharpness for it's own sake or a deliberate scaling back, allowing other factors to come forward. The choice is great, it just took me a while to get over the "sharpness at all costs" thinking and use it.

An example of lush smoothness, brilliance and biting sharpness from with an EM5 and 75mm. Yes, you can have it all if you are careful.  

An example of lush smoothness, brilliance and biting sharpness from with an EM5 and 75mm. Yes, you can have it all if you are careful.  

M43 users have a tendency to be a bit defensive of their little sensor, revelling in the many comparisons done, often between full frame and M43 cameras. They usually show little practical difference between the formats in real terms, but we need to stop obsessing and concentrate on the whole process more. It is true, that the gap has been bridged, to the point that M43 users need to look over their shoulder at the surprising 1" sensor pack nipping at their heels, so move on and create with what ever camera is your chosen poison, it does not matter.

What does it mean to me?

When image quality was a far less controllable thing, image makers used all of the short comings of the medium to their advantage. A little movement blur, well crafted grain patterns, controlled colour failure, deliberate cross processing or processing errors and many other stretched technical realities were embraced (I remember first looking at Robert Capa's processing ruined images of the D-Day landings, thinking how he really got emotion and chaos across. I wonder if more perfect images would have had the same impact?).  

EPM2 45mm f1.8 1/20th f8

EPM2 45mm f1.8 1/20th f8

It is a shame that I feel I am running the risk of losing my feel for image imperfectness. The image above was a mistake (a street grab using city landscape settings). It is also my favourite of hundreds taken on my last trip to Melbourne. Ironically, if I had managed to capture it as I intended, it most likely would have become another of my many so-so street images.

On one level, I am grateful for the wonderful quality available now to all of us for relatively little cost, but I am personally at a cross roads. Do I want to loose what is left of my experimental, curious photographer brain, concentration on perfection always or do I need to stop upgrading, settling for my almost perfect cameras, but allowing some small hint of the wonder of miss-takes in. Maybe a compact pushed too hard, a film camera (oh the expense!), use the old manual focus Pen 25mm lens moreor even use a down graded model sometimes, just to keep up the hunger and awareness of how lucky we are.  

I  just sold my EPM2 and kit lens. They are excess to needs and produce much the same images as my other gear. They were basically too good and did not add anything different to my kit. Even cheaper alternatives can lack a point of difference. Maybe I should ?

Sharp images are a thing no doubt.

Sharp images are not the only thing.

 

On Colour and preferences

I have stated before, many times, that I like Canon colour. My early years were spent with Fuji Velvia slide film and then Canon in digital. The transition seemed natural to me. Strong, clean and vibrant colours make my heart sing. Can they go too far? Yes, easily as it turns out, but given the choice between cool and dull or bright and brilliant I will go as for to the latter as is realistic.

Olympus cameras (EM5's in particular) produce strong colours no doubt, but they lacked the depth and mystery I was used to in Canon camera's files and could look a bit dark and dull. Sometimes the very discovery of how the Canon's interpreted colour was a revelation. Deep purples in shadows, cold blues contrasting with warm and "happy" reds, yellows and oranges, lush greens and blues sharing the image almost aggressively. 

Sometimes hard to control, but never dull (let me say though, the RAW files are as flat as flat, but the colours that come out when pushed are what we are talking about).

I experimented with the files from the OMD's over a couple of years, but never really felt that the under layer of colour was there. Sure, if the image started warm and had strong and contrasty colours it could look fantastic, but was it as fathomless as the Canons?

The break through!

The bottom of Lightroom's development panel has a section I had never really looked at. It is the Camera Calibration section. I suppose in hind sight, the hint was in the name.

Camera calibration allows you to fine tune the colour palette of your camera's files to best suit your preferences, by adjusting not the saturation or vibrancy of the surface colours, but the base layer of the colour. It is in effect the ability to but a "tint base" into paint, rather than a "white base".

How do you use the sliders? Well I cannot explain technically (too lazy to find out, I am sure someone can break it down) , but here is what happens. If you push the Blues slider up to about +20-40 saturation, the file gets warmer (highlighting yellows). Not warmer like white balance warm, but it adds contrast and enhances the perception of the yellow/blue difference. If you do the same for the Greens slider, orange and green hues do the same.

The images below are identically processed except the one on the right has +20 green and +40 blue added. The feeling I get is one of more exciting colour, without over saturation or white balance shifts. Contrast and definition seem to be enhanced also.

 

Testing this again with an image I posted the other day (the left one), I only added +15 green and +25 blue to the right image, deepening the skin colour warmth, making the blue jacket stand out and putting some warmth in the dress. The red light in the back ground is also richer and the white/green ones have more colour in them. basically, the shot is snappier, warmer and more pleasant to view. 

The beauty of this control setting is it has the same dramatic, but subtle and natural effect as using the brush tool to sharpen, not the heavy handed global slider.

I have not had much luck with the Red control, but Olympus files are strong their and I also have not played with the hue controls, but with just a little touch in the green and blue channels, the "Canoniness" has come out.

I should say though, that the Pen F is not needing the same treatment. The jpeg's it produces are pretty close to the same, even a bit over the top without care taken. It is the EM5 and the early 12mp sensors in the Pen cameras that need the above work.

On getting off the hamster wheel

Reviews. I have been reading camera and lens reviews for over 30 years. Before digital it was a three pronged attack, camera/film/lens, now it is a different fork, just as pointy,  sensor/lens/ programme, but the rhetoric is still the same;

You will be able take better photos than you do now with camera "X".

You will be able to take (by inference) the same images as photographer "Y" with afore mentioned camera 'cos he uses one.

All previous images are sub par, because they were not taken with super camera "X" (by however small the improvement).

How do they make their case, proving beyond doubt that their conclusions are indisputable? Numbers. Lots of numbers. On graphs, charts and sometimes just floating out there on their own, unqualified. How many of us actually do the following when looking at these numbers; know what they mean technically, know what they mean in relation to other numbers representing other cameras etc. or know what they mean in real terms, in the field and off the printer?

The problem is the language never changes. 

I have been around cameras for a long time. I have seen AF take over from MF, Fuji slowly dominate Kodak (in film) and digital take over from film. Has everything that has come before been for nothing? Is everything from here on only good until the next great thing? Obviously not as the only images that can excite us, the only images that can teach us, are the ones taken on "old" cameras and formats. I would even go far as to say that images taken before the turn of the century, almost all on film, are the most influential available. In fact, I am constantly surprised at how many new books are about old photographs, processes and photographers.

I have purchased 3 or 4 books in the last few months on the photographer's work that inspires me and they are all retrospectives dating back to as long ago as the 1950's. Even new works by the best, most influential and current fine art photographers were more often than not shot on film (example tome Thames and Hudson's Image Makers Image Takers, full of the greats of contemporary fine art photography, very few working exclusively or even at all in digital). 

I will confess my hypocrisy. I have been taken in by the image quality of the Pen F, but not from a numerically quantitive way, but simply "by eye". It has a quality that comes easily to it that I find similar to some older digital cameras and some film images I have used, not something I have never seen before (The EM5's remind me of 35mm and the Pen F of medium format film). It can take an image easily that is in a style I like, but it will not do it better than Canon Full frame cameras or medium format film cameras I have owned or even (likely) good compact cameras of the near future. It simply takes an image I like for reasons different to the ones I also like from the EM5's, Fuji "X" series or various Canons.

Pen F 45mm. The Pen has a "quality is not an issue" look like medium format film had.

Pen F 45mm. The Pen has a "quality is not an issue" look like medium format film had.

EM5 mk1 17mm. An example of the more "organic" look of OMD files. Almost old fashioned film looking, but with added digital smoothness (if you want).

EM5 mk1 17mm. An example of the more "organic" look of OMD files. Almost old fashioned film looking, but with added digital smoothness (if you want).

I am glad I have the pen as it has added another arrow to my quiver, easing some of the limitations my "one look" forced on me, but it has also strengthened my appreciation of the older cameras and their role in the future.

I must admit, I still sometimes childishly bristle at uneducated and often biased statements claiming that bigger sensors and only bigger sensors are capable of high quality results (the same statements were made when they only sported 12mp sensors which was apparently tons of quality when it was all that was available). Even top end compacts can now match pro cameras from only 5-6 years ago in image quality and direct comparison of the much loved Nikon D700 to even an early M43 camera is very revealing. I am not going to defend my weapon of choice, but simply say it is more that enough for me and my image needs and the needs of most others (if not, how did we function in the past?).

We must stop this bland and sterile "quality" hunt, because we are loosing sight of real quality. It is not in the technology. That just lets the ideas out in a form that is close to what we visualise, which in turn is based on our expectations of what any device can realistically produce. Sure there was a time when good quality was not assured (sub 1mp cameras with poor/slow handling and features), but that time is long past and if you stuck with film, your "bar" never changed. The measurable differences between cameras "X" and "Y" are now so slight, that it would be nearly impossible to show them (after judicious processing) on something as simple and as relevant as a large piece of quality printing paper. 

To be able to tell, we must be equipped with better internal measuring devices, perfect memories and blessed with perfect judgement. We are not, so even experts have to compare huge prints, or 200% screen grabs of test charts, just to see the fine differences. Ask yourself which images move you the most, then look at them critically. Are they perfect in every way?

Ironically, one of the articles that caught my eye recently was published by a printing expert why compared prints measured in feet, not inches taken by M43 and full frame cameras. His conclusion was; you can (always) tell the difference if you look hard enough, but that in itself is often self defeating. There will always be a better camera, but often enough camera is close to hand. Keep chasing better and you will never be satisfied, because it will always be coming tomorrow.

The same qualifications, measurements and conclusions are repeated, time after time since the latter part of the last century. Newer is always better and you must have it. Nothing from the past can be considered. Here is an eye opener for you. Grab a copy of American Photo mag or similar from the 1990's. Look at the adds and compare the language, the images and tone to a current add. Rubber stamp copy most likely except in the specific technical terms.

Reason for rant?

A couple of articles on some blogs I follow, who are still falling into the review trap got me un settled. Not gear unsettled, but industry. Fine, talk about cameras, but not in dry, better or worse numerical values. Maybe in more or less suitable to a particular task or what the user liked/disliked. My fault for looking. There are plenty who do review without test values etc, but the reality is, the most visited sites are the number crunching ones.

I ask, when will it stop? Camera makers want to sell cameras, but the industry has reduced itself to comparison of numbers to help qualify more abstract ideas and with anything, when short cuts are taken, they become habits of convenience. I don't think the manufacturers are overly happy about it, but they are dancing to tune of reviewers (The Nikon D5500 is an example of a perfectly good camera with nothing new to offer forced into a world of new is better). 

Why have mobile phones taken over 90% (or more) of photography for the common man? Because they are fun, they show a strong quality increase each generation (like DSLR's a few years ago), they are often enough and they are always with you. 

Camera makers need to give us a reason to buy a better camera. Added complication is not that reason. One thing I passively hate about the Olympus cameras, that I find otherwise so affirming, is their ridiculously over loaded menus. Massive and largely useless feature sets with their need (like all of the others) to offer that "one unique thing" each model. How is it a camera can offer lots of new, but never really get on to of the noted problems of previous models? Problems with button placement and feature depth can often be solved with....less.

I often wonder how much easier teaching photography would be if the camera sold stuck to the basics. Training often requires as much advice about what to turn off/ignore as what to use and how.

Many years ago I sold top end Hi Fi gear. It came in two types. Very simple and beautifully crafted Euro style, sometimes with only 2-3 dials and buttons or the super complicated, all the bells and whistles Japanese monsters with far too many things that can go wrong with them. The Japanese often mimicked the European models in asperations, but could never leave out the swathe of extras that lost the point of the exercise..listening to the music. Guess which type I preferred? Oh for a simple and pure NAD style camera (mobile phone/TV/etc.)! I think it was called the Pentax K1000.

Are there better cameras out there than mine? Technically yes, there always will be, but in proportion to camera history, very few as it turns out.

Are there good images made by less advanced cameras? The majority were.

Are there better photographers out there than me? Oh yeah, lots and lots.

Is there anyone better at being me, where I am am, with my camera than me? No, never.

On being real

I look at a lot of street photography. It is the thing I am most interested in, generally speaking, when I go looking for inspiration.

I am exhausted. Exhausted by clever framing of people in front of well placed signage, oddly composed angels, tricky geometrics, stern third world or homeless people's, portraits, subjects looking down the lens, a little off centre with a crusty wall behind and I am tired of rainy windows, shadows, silhouettes and reflections. I loved these looks when I first saw them*, but that was a while ago and all those that came after just fall flat with me. 

Street photography is a broad and hard to quantify art form, but it must not fall into a sameness that will tarnish it's value.

In my last post, I stated that my "style" was often based on interactions of people. I will go a bit further and say, that my style is actually just humble reality. It is an image that transcends trickery, ignores fads. It is timeless, but of time. I want to see real interactions, not cold abstractions of people glancing off the composition. I want life in it's true form or the beauty of simple things seen honestly, quietly. I want happiness, not despair and I want to see the genuine humour shared by two people, not the observers ironic humour stolen from their actions. I don't think it is necessary to interact personally with my subject, in fact I prefer not to, but I need to see their humanity.

Pen F 17mm

Pen F 17mm

One of the reasons a lot of the huge crop of current street photographers were not included as examples when I posted "On (pre) visualising foundations", is because they do not inspire me to match or better them (once, but not any more!). I don't think I am better than these guys, I just do not see any point in doing what they do as it does not satisfy me. The better exponents of the end of last century and some contemporary artists who quietly observe, understand and treasure their subjects are the ones I respond to, but please, no more copy-cat juxtapositions. 

What am I going to do about it? Try my hardest to ignore these image making habits and see higher than the base grab or the "set and wait" shots, so hungrily hunted by others. I want to see first and foremost the people I am photographing doing real things, not their abstract impression inserted into an environment as tools for humour and/or coincidence. Heaven forbid I do it just to show how clever I am.

This look will not last. It is a style of it's time and destined to be tagged as such. Just like the aged Polaroid look or cartoony HDR it will fade. Apart from that, the simple act of clever, reflex image making is going to take a huge hit soon. When technology nullifies skill**, only subject relevance and respect for that subject will matter. 

There are no cliche's in honesty.

Had enough? Fair cop, me to.

Travel well.

*Saul Leiter, David H Wells, Jan Meisner, Sam Abel etc.

** There are already 6K (18mp) cameras shooting at 30fps and "reversing to the previous # of seconds", buffer capture cameras already available and this only going to become more common. Editing will be the future push.

On finding your voice

I have little to say specifically on how you should (or not), find a style or a look that is identified as you. It is not that I do not believe in a personal style, but i do not believe in forcing or faking it.

Whenever I have touched on the subject, it has always been with the caveat of natural evolution and inspiration as the key.

Basically, you will develop a style or a look, by doing, not by intending to do.

If I look at my own work and try to find something that is mine, not mine only, just mine at the exclusion of other things for me, then I guess it is human interaction, often positive, but not always, in my street images.

I like and am often amused by the coincidental images of wall art framing a foreground person cleverly, or lines ending on one plane and continuing on another, or colours forming strong collisions of shape and the knowing portraits of third world people against a ragged wall but I cannot confess to wanting to emulate them. The thing that constantly draws me and this shows in my image library, is human interaction.

Japan is a great source of inspiration. On our first trip, I must admit to having made many assumptions based on stereo types that were on the whole wrong. As expected the people of Japan are private, polite and respectful, but they are also generous and very demonstrative around friends and family. Even quirky.

Not sure. Flirting? Maybe a bleeding nose (or maybe one on the way)? A failure in many ways due to terrible framing, but a good example.

Not sure. Flirting? Maybe a bleeding nose (or maybe one on the way)? A failure in many ways due to terrible framing, but a good example.

Recurring themes from the first trip to Japan were umbrellas and laughter. On subsequent trips, light hearted and playful images became the norm. The people are affectionate and genuine and this hits a chord with me every time.

Possibly not Japanese, but the theme is the same. The compositional imperative for me was the emotional content. The girls, shoulder craving head came first, then the stronger friends support and later I noticed the contradictory happy face in the back ground to add some irony.

Possibly not Japanese, but the theme is the same. The compositional imperative for me was the emotional content. The girls, shoulder craving head came first, then the stronger friends support and later I noticed the contradictory happy face in the back ground to add some irony.

Even this image, with no overt interaction, hints at other emotional connections, through a positive phone conversation, worry, possibly due to being lost or unsure and a contemplative, controlled and serious face for work. Without these emotions, they are just three (slightly misplaced) visual pillars.

Even this image, with no overt interaction, hints at other emotional connections, through a positive phone conversation, worry, possibly due to being lost or unsure and a contemplative, controlled and serious face for work. Without these emotions, they are just three (slightly misplaced) visual pillars.

Is this limited to Japan? No, of course not, but I have found that different environments force a different dynamic. In Melbourne for example, my images are often based on light and geometry, less about people and I find that irony, even negativity become visual tools. there are exceptions, but the emotion often comes from assumptions and hints rather than being laid bare.

The ease of shooting locally nets a few interactive images. We are more aware of cameras, but are also gentler moving at home. The markets at Evandale and Salamanca in Hobart often give me similar images to Japan, full of "small town" familiarity.

Plenty to laugh about here apparently.

Plenty to laugh about here apparently.

There is interaction at home, even with clothing.

There is interaction at home, even with clothing.

Being a stranger in Japan gives me a naive ability to "steal" away shots without having to understand them. At home I tend to shy away from overt emotional displays as I often find it too intrusive to watch/photograph or, due to my over familiarity, I do not see in the same way the connections the Japanese show.

What ever the reason, happy or sad, loving or not, emotion and connection fuels my eye when shooting street images.

That is my style.

On kit upgrades.

I promised myself I would not be thinking about gear this year. Maybe if I get stuck in, it will go away quickly.

My problem (as I see it), is that my best "work" camera is simply not the camera I want to waste on work, and my work horse cameras are better suited to the street photography I do for myself.

The Pen F is beautiful and clearly designed for street and cultural photography. It's looks must be weighed against the lack of weather proofing and the manufacturing detail is also at odds with the lack of knock around robustness (like a top end SUV, you bought it to use, but really don't want to scratch it). The camera offers smoother low ISO results and about one stop of real improvement over the EM5 in the high ISO range. The electronic shutter also provides a real benefit for landscape work. The biggest improvement for me though is in the jpegs. They are very good and offer the colour palette my main client likes, making work flow and consistency better.

Simply put, it provides the upgrade I would like in file quality for a work camera, but it is a shame to waste it on work. It's like driving my hobby, retro car project to work.

The EM5's on the other hand are the ideal workhorse cameras as there are three of them and they are built to take (and have taken) a knock or two without ruining their average beauty. The silver one probably looks a little cooler with it's scars.

What they are best at photographically for me, is street and travel. The slight file quality increase is mostly irrelevant to this style and the handling/size/speed is fine (the on/off switch under the shooting thumb is better than the left hand dial on the Pen). I also like the old school "film contrast" look they can give and there is the not insignificant factor of street photography damage. The fast and loose style can lead to drops, things banging together and even other peoples aggression. I also connect better with them, probably through familiarity, but I really do find the shutter and feel, more to my liking.

Do I get an EM1 mk2 to add focus tracking and the ruggedness a work camera needs (with the possible benefit of working exclusively in jpegs also) or just use the Pen in the work role and use the OMD's as street shooters?

Can I really justify using the Pen for Portraits and landscape only, EM5's for street/travel and a Mk2 just for "other" work?

Can my work flow incorporate the OMD's more into work without loosing the convenience and quality the Pen offers?

Do I really want to have a surplus Pen and/or 3 redundant OMD's in my kit when the EM1 Mk2 takes over all of their roles?

After a couple of days using the kit extensively, the answer came easily. The Pen is my portrait and landscape camera (as purchased). The look and operation, combined with the primes is perfect. All other duties can be handled by the newer OMD EM5 and the older two for street.

Pen F 45mm at f2.2

Pen F 45mm at f2.2

On (pre) visualising foundations

What do we think of when we photograph? I don't mean the process, but what are the base, the foundations of our expectations when we point a camera at a subject.

Nobody alive became a photographer without some awareness of other images. Every image in our visual history either fades, becoming part of their "culture noise" or they stick and become the louder voices, the voices that drive and inspire them.

Do I know and can I express my "base" to my satisfaction? Not sure. 

The guiding thing(s), that is the first things that come to mind, even before the "composition*" stage of image making and I guess it is probably the root of recognising "connection*", must be the goal of "completion*" and be there before even "concept*", the little flash of base inspiration (that often abandons me when I am nervous) that makes you photograph in the first place is;

Memories of organised, clean perfection of a subject done beautifully.

Here are some of the examples that will come to mind in different circumstances, giving me clear constraints, expectations and I suppose limits. 

Example 1;

The National Geographic, documentary style "real life scene" with perfect light and balanced composition. Always showing real people doing real things, highlighting a time and a place with interaction and perfection in compositional timing, these images are to me the pinnacle of real and relevant photography (as long as their reproduction does not become fanciful). They are what it was always about, capturing history, but with compassion, relevance in place and time and style, avoiding fashions and falsehoods. I tend to prefer colour, often with strong contrast, but there are exceptions. There are many, many examples in my physical and mental library (fewer now that some have come clean about their habit of setting their images up!). Bill Allard's "Benedetta Buccellato", Sam Abell's "Riders from Cornwell Ranch" and Fred Herzog's "Man with Bandage" as well the works of Nathan Benn, Ernst Haas, Peter Turnley, Kate Kirkwood, Ken Tanaka, Saul Leiter and Jan Meisner (etc. etc.). Technical perfection is relevant, but not all important, as the subject should transcend the process, indeed most of my favourites were taken on early colour film.

Only used in comparison because of the colours and feel. Not in the calibre of those mentioned.

Only used in comparison because of the colours and feel. Not in the calibre of those mentioned.

 

Example 2;

The perfect natural, rural or urban, semi abstract, landscape detail. Tightly framed and often black and white and sometimes produced in square format to further constrain cleanly, even rigidly. All of these measures are helping to define harmony in chaos. An example of this would be the works of Adams (especially in colour!), Michael Kenna, Michael Levin, John Sexton or Cole Thompson. Technical competency is important here as every tiny detail will be noticed and it should be.  

Again showing only my weakness in this demanding area. I do not pay anywhere near enough attention to this form, but the images that swim in to my head as I go to compose are surely there to do more than just frustrate!?

Again showing only my weakness in this demanding area. I do not pay anywhere near enough attention to this form, but the images that swim in to my head as I go to compose are surely there to do more than just frustrate!?

Example 3;

Strong, clean, (smooth) sharp images of small, unimportant items that are shown as they are rarely seen. This is anything from simple still life images of real things, to events and some landscapes. They all have one thing in common, they must be real, not studio set ups as these leave me cold, falling into the realm of advertising. These are the considered or "quiet" images, in contrast to the busy, people fuelled images from example 1. Sam Abell's "Straw Hat", "Hagi Japan" and Okefenokee Swamp", Eggleston's "Untitled, Glass in Aeroplane" are some that come to mind when the process starts. Technique is important here, but not extreme technical perfection, as they retain some of the "found" subject feel of the images in example 1, allowing the viewer to pay into the story.

Well, something like this.

Well, something like this.

Nobody's story is the same. This posting has helped me to recognise the real and specific images that come to mind, often automatically (habitually?) and usually unbidden when I choose to take an image. I have found that often the act of taking an image for a client can undo this process as pre conceptions are destined to disappoint, but I think what happens is your image catalogue grows and includes both images from your "love" collection and your "required" collection, allowing a good working compromise. At least I hope this is what happens.

Do these images restrict my growth as a photographer, stereo typing my style or are they all individual stairs in a journey, each supporting the next as I rise? 

*The 4 "C's" highlighted in a previous post.

On my thought processes when choosing lenses for the day

This is going to be an odd post. It is not a lens test, nor advice for choosing the right lens for the job, but rather my own thoughts about a lens when I pick it up and use it. 

These are honest thoughts. As honest as I can be with myself about a crucial part of the creative process. I will rate them from 1 to 5 for results/confidence.

Starting from the wide end.

12-40 f2.8 Pro. This lens leaves me in two minds.                                                                            

If I am using it for landscape work, I have no issues with it what so ever. I know it is a good performer into the corners and across the range and can produce "A" grade images with care. Stopping down is good for depth of field, but not overly necessary for sharpness. The lens post processes well, supplying a feeling of an un moulded image, waiting for finessing. 4.5/4            

Old school sharp and clear, like medium format film.

Old school sharp and clear, like medium format film.

As a work or general lens, I like it at the long end, but have little practical use for the wider end. I have a problem with wide angle lenses, use them sparingly and always feel they add too much clutter to a composition. 17mm (35mm) is my usual wide limit, but you never know when your client will ask for a group shot at close quarters. This lens still gives me the jitters a bit. I feel focus issues are more common with it (feel, don't know for sure), especially on the non firmware updated OMD bodies (yeah, I know..) and the bokeh it displays, pleasant enough for portraiture, exaggerates these misses. It looks to wash out some images when shot into the light, but I may be being harsh. I also feel it is sharper at close distances, but that tends to go for many lenses due to atmospheric conditions etc.  3.5/3.5

Edit. It turns out that the images I have liked most from this lens have been jpegs taken on the Pen F. The built in corrections for the lens look to my eye to be near perfect and I will be using jpeg/RAW files together until I am sure Lightroom can do as good a job as the Olympus engineers.

Sharp, smooth, colourful and good blurring. Nothing to complain about, so why no connection?

Sharp, smooth, colourful and good blurring. Nothing to complain about, so why no connection?

17mm. Great for the job it is designed for.                                                                                        

For street photography, where composition, timing and subject relevance outweigh sheer quality, this lens is ideal. I would like it to be a little better performing across the frame for landscapes, but I am sure I would manage (it's a lot better than my Canon 17-40L). The lens "feels" sharp in it's rendering, especially in the way it's bokeh transitions, a lovely mix of micro contrast snap with good coherence. It's accurate and super fast in focus and smooth in operation and the MF markings are a must for zone focussing. It took a while, but I am more than comfortable with it, indeed it is one of the three lenses (all primes) that I rely on. Part of my need for the above zoom comes from this and the 12mm lens's supposed weaknesses in the corners.   4/4.5

Harmonious and consistent depth of field rendering, even wide open. Notice how the case stands out sharply when you look at it directly, but the out of focus areas still hold their own in harmony with it. This is very old fashioned and competent bokeh rendering, much like many Leica lenses have.

Harmonious and consistent depth of field rendering, even wide open. Notice how the case stands out sharply when you look at it directly, but the out of focus areas still hold their own in harmony with it. This is very old fashioned and competent bokeh rendering, much like many Leica lenses have.

25mm. The must have?                                                                                                                      

This one is a confusing lens. I feel like it should be more than just the stable "nifty fifty". The focal length is just not used much unless I make myself. I often go out with it alone, deliberately trying to become comfortable, even reliant on it, and it tends to be my "one lens" option. I must confess, if I lost it I may not replace it or I may go back to a Leica 25mm that I feel has more character (flaws) and perceived snap (micro contrast), but then I would most likely get the Pana 20mm (but I have the 17mm..oh crap, too confusing). It is very sharp at all apertures (with a little CA wide open), contrasty, has some genuine sparkle and a good close focus, so I should not complain and I even feel the slight regret at selling the Leica is wholly unfounded as the lens has less erratic behaviour. It is most often used as a faster backup for the 12-40 for work or as the fourth and least used lens in my all prime street kit (i.e. not used enough). My wish is to use this lens instead of the 17mm as I feel the 50mm equivalent is more dramatic for street, but the 17mm is so good at getting the image. I do however always use it for night shooting, because of it's contrast and brilliance. I think it is good enough that I would not bother with the 25 f1.2 super lens for 5x as much. 4.5/3.75

A sparkle filled, "glowacious" lens, versatile, capable and....not used as much at it should be.

A sparkle filled, "glowacious" lens, versatile, capable and....not used as much at it should be.

45mm. This is my warm-fuzzy.                                                                                                            

I love this lens. I cannot even say I use the focal length that much, but I love this lens. A bit like the 25mm, the focal length tends to one that I make myself use, but I never regret when I do and it is a no brainer when used with the 17mm on another body for street shooting. If I could only have one portrait lens, this would be it. It shares both the warmth, lush colour and contrast of the 75-300 zoom and the genuine and very grown up sharpness of the better Olympus lenses. I also find the focal length more versatile and cleaner (more decisive) to use than the 25mm, which often leaves me neither close or far enough away. My only wish would be for better close focus like the Panasonic. 4.5/5

Bright, brilliant and lush.

Bright, brilliant and lush.

40-150 Pro. My reliable work horse.                                                                                      

From a rocky start (re boxed and siting at the door for return), this lens has recovered to become my work horse lens. It was originally purchased for landscapes and will regularly do this work, but as a low light tele for sport and stage work it has really come into it's own. The shock of strong CA at the wider end and a strange "fuzzy" softness that shows up in strong light (possibly focus-Bokeh related) are being accepted in light of it's lightning fast AF, overall sharpness and versatility. I do not like the slight "ringlet" bokeh in all circumstances, but that gives me a reason to use my primes. 4/4  

A bit of old school micro contrast at ISO 3200!

A bit of old school micro contrast at ISO 3200!

75mm f1.8 This is my "hot" spot.                                                                                                          

I never regret using this lens. Some say it is a little long to be useful. My wish would be for it to have been slightly longer (100mm f2?), allowing me to get away without the big pro zoom. There is nothing to criticise, except it's habit of making me unsettled with other lenses (like Hi Fi gear, the whole tends to be judged by the possible performance of the strongest, but is limited to the actual performance of the weakest part). The 17mm is supposedly far below it in objective performance, but I think they make a good pair, the 45mm renders quite differently giving me options in look and the 25mm is technically close, often accompanying it as the fast support to my zooms when working. When I tested sharpness against the big zoom at 75mm, it was too close to pick, but the bokeh, speed and size of the 75mm makes it my preferred option. 5/5

Luxury shot with luxury, at f2.

Luxury shot with luxury, at f2.

75-300. The slow poke with some real punch.                                                                                                  

How is it, my cheapest zoom, and nearly my cheapest lens, with such extreme specifications for it's pricing is one of my favourites? it is so cheap that I have sold and re bought it without feeling gutted (a similar story to my 70-200 F4L Canons, I had 3!). It has terrific perceived sharpness and is in real terms very sharp at the short end through to 200mm and pretty good at the long end. It is really long, pulling of shots, I have never been able to do without a monster lens and even though it is slow in aperture, it has good bokeh rendering and beautiful colour. There is not really a weak area in the package except average grade build quality.  4/4.5

Seriously? From a cheap zoom.

Seriously? From a cheap zoom.

14-42 kit (manual zoom type). Not rubbish.

I like this lens. I like that it promises nothing, but delivers plenty. If I am travelling really light, it gives me a decent wide angle to go with the 45mm as the fast long option.

Wide open at the long end, no crop.

Wide open at the long end, no crop.

Lenses are funny things. You buy them intellectually and/or lustfully, but only after using them for a while can you really tell if you like them. I am generally happy with the balance of my kit for the first time in a long time. It is not perfect, but it is probably as close as I can expect from one brand alone (something that I could not do with Canon in 2013, but could do now) and is more than I need really. Unlike my Canon days though, I feel no guilt about my excess as nothing cost more than it should (except maybe the 25mm?), it can all be carried and all lenses deliver.

So, how do I rate them in my head as I go out the door?

Will only leave behind if there is really no use for it (landscape); 75mm.

Will only leave behind if using pro zooms for work/landscape; 17mm and 45mm.

Always taken for work/landscape otherwise left behind; 12-40 and 40-150.

Will leave behind unless needed specifically; 2575-300, 14-42.

 

What could I survive on, if it was just for me?

The 75, 17 and 45 would get me through (and maybe the 25). This is the 1 camera mated to 1 lens kit (Pen F + 17mm, OMDn + 75mm, OMD + 25mm, OMD + 45mm each set up for best use of their respective lens).

 

And what would I buy if money was really no object?

The primo kit would be 12mm Leica, 42.5 Leica, 75 and 300 primes. 

 

 

 

On workflow and software choices

I would like to share my thoughts on sticking to Lightroom, after a year of research and occasional experimentation with other programmes.

Software is now an equal partner in the photographers image making process. Once, your choice of film medium decided whether you would share the image making with a darkroom (black and white) , a lab (print film) or accept the end product as taken (transparency film). There were exceptions, but they were at the pointy end of the business.

Processing is now the second step of an interconnected two step process. If the photographer does not post process, they are either committed to jpeg shooting, which is not impossible given the excellent processing engines now found in most cameras, or they are ignoring the elephant in the room. That elephant is the inescapable fact that a RAW image is designed to be processed. Until processed it is a half baked cake or in film shooters terminology it's a roll of exposed film, without the development choices being made and processing completed.

Sometimes an image is only viable after heavy post processing and sometimes the images only needs the slightest push to be considered finished. If I were to put a numerical value to my images from capture to processing, it would go something like this.

image grade 1. Ouch. Off to the electronic bin. Poorly conceived, executed and deleted on sight.

image grade 2-4. Not a good effort, but maybe the best that I could do at the time. Poor technically, but may have some value after a lot of work. Rarely is the work done and the image is usually dumped after import unless it is an important or unrepeatable file. If the image is worth the effort, requiring Herculean efforts and some out of the box thinking, it may still be bordering on gimmicky effects.

image grade 5-6. Close, but far from perfect. An average image. Good subject matter with some cropping or exposure manipulation to get it close. Post will make something of this, maybe something good.

image grade 8-9. Great subject supported by everything coming together, a good day at the office. This is as good as I can do and is vanishingly rare. Post processing adds icing to the already good cake. 

image grade 10. Never happens. History has provided us with many of these and they are often less than perfect technically. What they do have is context and composition that transcends all other factors.

What post processing must do is bring an image, no matter where it sits in the food chain up to at least a 6. 

My feelings on the difference between Lightroom, Pro 1, DXO (assuming they are well used) is that certain images can vary by maybe a full 1 value, but often it is less and to get that full 1. To get the benefit, all of them must be used in the same work flow. Not practical.

What I found is that work flow is the difference between bothering or not. Lightroom fills me with excitement and anticipation because everything I need, including features I rely on that the others do not offer, is in one place or is a direct plug in to Lightroom. it is a comfort thing, but when I asked myself what could I live without, Lightroom had too many things that I rely on.

Below are some examples with values attributed based purely on my own perceptions.              I obviously don't use this rating system as I go, but if my more abstract thinking was to be numerically graded in retrospect, these numbers feel pretty close.

A poor 2, only saved by the subject matter and the difficulty of returning to the location.  After post I would give it a 6 in the right circumstances, say as part of a series.

As above, a poor grade 3 image, lacking contrast and connection to the subject. After processing, maybe a 6 for effort or to some people, especially on seeing the print an 8.

Lots of promise here, maybe a 4-5. The image is slightly soft, but the framing was the best of a set. After post, a strong 8.

With memories of the American mid 20th century masters in mind, I rated this series as probably a 6 in my head. The resulting images (as a set) probably got a 7 over all. Cliched, but consistent. Good office adornment.  

Part of the above set, but my favourite. the original is a good 6 and I was torn between a colour or mono edit. To fit with the rest, it got the Silver FX treatment and maybe shifted to a 7. 

This one came out of the can with an excited 6 as the capture did not do the actual event justice (I was a second or two late to get the best natural light). The edit jumps it to maybe an 8 and is closer to my perception of the light as I saw it just seconds before. Maybe something between the two images would be better on comparison as the subtlety in the clouds is lost.

What I am getting at here, is that any post processing will add substantially more to an image than the differences between similar programmes. Sometime you will want the noise reduction of DXO, or the in built upload corrections of Pro-1, but if any of these programmes is used to the best of their capacity, then real differences are minimal. Workflow on the other hand is crucial to get right as it directly effects productivity and circumvents future issues.

When reading reviews, I would often find myself screaming at the reviewers comments on one feature or another as they completely overlooked an available fix provided by the programme and focussed on a simple comparison of a single slider. In fairness, most pointed out that there were other options available and an experienced user would know some tricks to get things done, and many stated that any of these programmes would do the job, but blanket statements based on initial upload "looks" were pointless and misleading.

On organising luck

I have a confession.

When shooting street photos, I rely on luck as much as control.

Most street photographers will identify with this, the thrill of everything coming together in layers that cannot be planned, but can be planned for. cameras do not go out and take images themselves, but there is only so much the photographer can do. Like sport photography, you can control the framing, the shutter fire and other creative steps, but not what will happen.

I once wrote a post on the difference between "making and taking" a photo. The two styles both require preparation and practice, but they both also rely on luck to some extent. Sometimes my efforts are rewarded more than others. I used to put this down to just good and bad days or to the results experiments with different gear configurations or technique. I do not know.

These things must have some bearing, but luck comes when I just let it flow.  I honestly cannot say that I have known the results of many of my stronger shots until after a shoot when the are uploaded. I can also say with confidence though, that my compositions have a level of conscious control, being aware of a "middle distance"* view of the elements coming together, forming a balance that triggers an intuitive need to push the shutter button.

Some compositions have hidden additives that make up the extra layer depth that sets them apart, others are very much the sum of their parts, no more, no less. I am getting better over time, so practice is definitely a contributing factor.

Very much deliberate, this is the third in a fast set, that failed to net the decisive composition before one lady dropped her arm. The composition that caught my eye had all three women shading their eyes, but two were obscured. In response to the women converging and loosing the original composition, I rebalanced automatically with the two men on the left. It still kind of works on a basic level, but lacks the clarity of composition needed. 

Very much deliberate, this is the third in a fast set, that failed to net the decisive composition before one lady dropped her arm. The composition that caught my eye had all three women shading their eyes, but two were obscured. In response to the women converging and loosing the original composition, I rebalanced automatically with the two men on the left. It still kind of works on a basic level, but lacks the clarity of composition needed. 

When luck adds the extra element, you must take it humbly. No, you did not fully understand what you had, but you made it happen by controlling everything up to that point. Maybe on some level intuition does add awareness, like the moment you catch a ball. Do you really think about every micro movement that makes up the catch or, just let instinct take over?

This image was captured for pleasing shape the two adults gave to the framing of the girls face, on a morning of better than normal good luck. The T-shirt, adding the extra two sets of eyes looking at the girl, making everyone look as if they are waiting for some profound decision, could not have been planned.

This image was captured for pleasing shape the two adults gave to the framing of the girls face, on a morning of better than normal good luck. The T-shirt, adding the extra two sets of eyes looking at the girl, making everyone look as if they are waiting for some profound decision, could not have been planned.

I believe if a photographer is well organised, always looking for solid compositions and shoots with freedom and instinct, then they will often reap the rewards of any good luck coming their way. I have noticed that if I am a bit rusty, or too excited about my location, there is little the cosmos is willing to supply. It is only when I can relax and simply see in an environment that is rich with subject matter, that the rest falls into place. Self consciousness tends to drop away also when you are in "the zone".

Much as the image above, the line of active people caught my eye, offering possibilities. The timing of the shutter fire was deliberate with the look a dash of luck.

Much as the image above, the line of active people caught my eye, offering possibilities. The timing of the shutter fire was deliberate with the look a dash of luck.

Organisation is partly getting your gear sorted and partly getting your head sorted. If you have a too many things going on at different distances and with different compositional tools (cameras or lenses), you will see lots of images forming, but never get them in time. There is little more unsettling than thinking of images forming in front of and having the extricate a lens from the bottom of a bag, or turn on a camera and change settings. Cap off, hood on, camera on standby and all settings sorted first. Composition and shutter release are all you will get time to do. Think ahead and learn to anticipate what is changing around you.

The best I can do is a camera on a strap (preferably with a flip screen for waist high viewing), a manually pre focussed, 17mm lens and settings that are capable of giving good results with one hand operation and without hesitation. A second body is in my left hand set to centre point AF with a 45 or 75mm attached. I would be lying if I said these can be controlled equally and that my thoughts/vision/attention is truly double barrelled, but as the environment changes I can adapt without loosing flow, using one of my two preferred techniques (close and layered or tight detail). I will sometimes deliberately switch to the other camera/lens combination to look differently at things, but usually I let the world in front of me determine what feels right.

The above images were taken within minutes of each other using the "two cameras" technique. The first is with a 17mm at waist height, using the flip screen to compose, the second is with the left hand body up to the eye using a 75mm and the last, back to the 17mm again. This particular afternoon I had a high success rate, getting over 20 images that I genuinely like. In the tighter side streets, the 17mm ruled, but out on the wider boulevard, honours were even.

You must decide on your own needs, but remember the most important thing. Be able to take your image instantly. If you cannot, you will be limited to slow moving or static subjects or posed images.

* A martial arts term for being calm and seeing all, but nothing specifically, by looking "in the middle distance" between you and what is around you.

On Lightroom practice part 1

Lightroom has become my "all I need" programme. Are there better programmes for certain image manipulations? Yes, absolutely, but there is no programme that I am more comfortable with (not a big computer nerd, I do struggle sometimes), or one that is more complete as a work flow or that overall handles my Olympus files any better.

I thought I might share my work flow with interested readers as I know the learning curve for all of these programmes can be slow and frustration. The things I will talk about will be Olympus biased, but are applicable to all cameras, just a bit differently.

I am not an expert, but get what I want/need out of the programme, always learning as I go. Things marked with an * are often used in a series of presets and applied on import or in batches sometimes after, although I am tending to start from clean, unprocessed images or my "gentle" preset more these days and use the more aggressive pre sets only to try different looks (to add your own preset just process how you want it, then hit the "+" symbol at the top of the presets bar).

From the top, but in the order I use. Note; the surrounding area of the screen around the image is set to black for web processing, but white for print processing, do a right click to change it as suits.

The (Quick) Global controls.

Temperature and Tint. Adjust these as needed, remembering to also use them creatively, not just as correction tools. The cool Fuji look and Canon colour brilliance can be achieved with a very small little bit of blue (but there is a better way).

Colder tones usually do not sit well with viewers, but can add mood and mystery.

 

Exposure and Contrast. The relationship between the exposure, contrast and the more specific tonal controls below them is important. My usual habit with Olympus files is to adjust the finer controls first, using the exp/cont controls to balance these, unless the image is in need of drastic repair.

*Highlight and White controls. I adjust the white control up a bit (+30/50) as this brightens colours and increases vibrancy over all and the Highlight control is then applied to control the blow out (as low as -80). I love the Fuji brilliance and this helps give me that look as opposed to the more natural and muted Olympus highlight look, when appropriate.

*Shadows and Blacks. Like above I tend to drop the Blacks down to increase depth and richness of both the dark regions and colours, compensating by increasing the Shadow control (+20-50), then the Exposure and Contrast is looked at to better balance any inconsistencies. the blacks slider is also a good control for "de hazing" a flat image, but now they have a specific de haze slider. the effects are slightly different however. I find that the combination of the Black and White sliders go a long way to the Canon look/colours I am used to.

The image below has deepened blacks, increased whites, with reduced highlights and a little blue added in camera calibrations (see below).

Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation. These are usually left alone, with the occasional push or pull of the global Clarity control and maybe a +10-20 Saturation as needed. I used to use these more, but prefer to use the brush control or specific colour controls now.

*Split Toning Control. I did not use this much before unless I was doing a mono image, but recently I was shown the benefits of a gentle shadow or highlight tone control to change the density and feel of the image's base colours. warming or cooling down shadows and highlights is one of the more powerful tools when changing the fundamental look of the image, adding depth to the colours. I find Olympus images can sometimes look a bit thin and clean, where Canon often adds depth in highlights. The Canon look benefits from cooler shadows and warmer highlights.

The Precision Controls. These controls are more precise, cleaner and less file intrusive (I.E. better), but more time consuming and harder to use properly.

Tonal Curve. For more precise tonal controls, the tone curve tool can be used, but I find often that the extra effort is not warranted. It is said by Lightroom experts that the Tone curve tool is cleaner and more precise, so if you are wanting the very best, use this and not the global fixes above.

Colo(u)r Sliders. Anything is possible here! Want Canon Reds or Purples, Fuji Skin tones or Olympus Blues, they are all found here. Other side of the same sword though is too much choice. I use a lot of pre sets here, starting with them if I am after a certain look, otherwise adjusting a bit (+/-10-20) is plenty, using both Saturation and Luminance controls in tandem. be aware of the difference though between the camera calibration colour sliders and these. The calibration settings will fundamentally change the base colours, often enough to make the image look like it is from a different camera brand, where the colour sliders allow you to tweak specifics better. Olympus files need little in the way of colour if the above controls are used as the Whites/Blacks/Contrast sliders tend to control colour "pop", but changing one Colour slider can make a huge difference and does not effect other colours. if you want to guarantee the colour you are adjusting is correct, use the little bullseye spot (top left of the colour box) and actually pick the colour out on the image, using the mouse to increase/decrease the setting.

The Brush tool. About now or sometimes earlier I will use the brush tool to increase the "snap" of the image. The brush tool is your ultimate control for very specific, localised manipulation. Noise, clarity and sharpness, saturation and many other features allow very powerful, repeatable and controllable changes. The big advantage of the brush is that it allows editing on an area without forcing the same editing on the rest of the image. Starting with a gentle +05-20 in contrast, clarity, sharpness and a little vibrance (occasionally - exposure also), I will brush over the eye catching parts of an image. It is like a veil has been lifted. I then might do the reverse to less important parts of the image that I want to drop away. This controls the look of DOF (Bokeh), the focal point and increases micro contrast, making small sensor cameras look like full frame ones.

*Lens Corrections and Transform. Rarely used, you know when you need to. The CA control used to be better (easier), but is good enough to get rid of any and all CA that my lenses occasionally cough up. I have started to use the de fringe setting on the brush tool here also as it looks to be stronger and faster.

Sharpening. This is low on the list because it is not often needed with Olympus or Fuji images, is capable of being destructive if over used, is not as good looking as the brush tool and is often not that important to image quality when other manipulations are completed. The sharpening tool is powerful, but easy to get wrong. Less is more. The radius and masking sliders are less well understood, but are the key to natural looking sharpening. Use the Option/Alt key when applying sharpening to help gauge the effect (the screen turns negative grey and highlights just the effected areas). 

Effects. I usually use a touch of vignetting to constrain the edges, but again less is more. if the image is a portrait this is a good emphasising tool.

Camera Calibration. This one is a bit of a revelation to me. When hunting for the secret mixture to get my Olympus files to look like other brands files, I discovered two things. The camera calibration settings, especially the blue saturation slider and split toning colour images controls. these are very powerful on a deeper level than normal manipulations. Increasing the regular red colour slider compared to the red calibration slider is like garnish on a meal as opposed to changing the base recipe. The calibration controls will change the fundamental colour palette of your camera.

The blue slider will add pop to portrait images, by intensifying the contrast between cooler and warmer tones, making the warmer tones look stronger.

The above images are firstly the base image with a preset called "gentle" with only basic noise and sharpening settings, the second image has added blue through the camera calibration slider, notice the added warmth in the skin and finally the blue adjusted only in white balance giving the image an overall cold look.

The above image shows a basic work flow. A preset called "Olympus Bright" was first applied, that generally lightened and brightened the image using more exposure, whiter whites and deeper blacks and adding camera calibration blue with a little sharpening. The brush tool was then used to first, remove some unwanted detail in the shadows that the preset exposed and then it was applied to for extra clarity and contrast to faces. The boy in front looks slightly sharpened by the application of clarity.

Don't be afraid, or ashamed of post processing. It is as much a tool as any camera setting and allows you to show your vision as you want it seen. Where you stop is entirely up to you, but don't think that the path of the purist does anything but sell you and your images short. Even Ansel Adams spent hours in the dark room to perfect his images. Nothing came out of the camera magically perfect.

On Kits

Recently my kit settled down into two supporting outfits, designed to purpose.

Kit 1  

Landscape

Lowe Pro, pro tactic 350 back pack for day trips or an Inverse 100* if using a proper back pack.

Pen F set to (C1) lowest ISO, electronic shutter with delayed, touch release. C2 is set up for high res imaging. This is the ideal for longer lens work so it usually has the 40-150 f2.8 attached. This lens is as sharp as I have at f4-8 through its range and across the frame. The standard collapsable hood is used because of it's convenience when using filters etc. The resulting files are as big and robust as 5D mk2 files, with the bonus of a much gentler shutter release, longer range and lighter weight.

The 12-40 is in the bag or optionally I add;

OMD EM5n (later firmware) set to (myset1) lowest ISO and delayed anti shock which is enough smoothness for the attached 12-40 f2.8. Both lenses have excellent close focus, allowing me to skip a macro lens. This body supplies weather proofing. Myset 2 is set for sport.

ND 10 stop for the 12-40 and ND 6 stop for the long lens, a stepping ring to use them both on the 12-40 and Polarising filters for both lenses. A small TTL flash is added for macro or fill work.

Both cameras have their ideal landscape/tripod work settings set in their custom settings allowing me to set and forget, use other settings and jump back as needed.

My tripod selection these days is a shadow of my past with an incomplete Manfrotto 190/small Gitzo ball head and a light weight Velbon Sherpa, but they are plenty for these gentle little cameras. I am not totally convinced these tripods can do the job in high res mode.

So simple and effective. Note the lack of a macro lens as both lenses have good enough close focus performance.

So simple and effective. Note the lack of a macro lens as both lenses have good enough close focus performance.

*

Work (add to the above)

A Domke F802 satchel and Tenba insert (holds everything!) with or without external matching pouches.

Add a second OMD EM5 in place of the Pen F, the 25 f1.8 and 75 f1.8 lenses and a pair of Yong Nuo flashes with controller for a quick studio option. This OMD is set up for flash (myset1) and sport (myset2) . The 40-150 gets a fixed metal hood to allow it to be "at the ready" and stand on it's own on the ground or in the F802 bag.

Looks a lot, but when loaded the whole rig just looks like a slim lap top bag with full pockets.

Looks a lot, but when loaded the whole rig just looks like a slim lap top bag with full pockets.

Kit 2  

Street

Filson Camera bag (pictured) in winter or Domke F3x in summer, both bags are waxed for weather proofing and there are plenty of other options for this small kit.

EPM-2 with the 17mm f1.8. ISO is either set to automatic with 400-1600 as default range, shutter priority used and the lens set to MF/5 foot. This one is on a 30" Gordy strap as the walking grab shot set up. This camera is small, unassuming, has better shut off's than the other cameras making it hard to bump and the on/off button is on top so all functions can be used by thumb.

OMD EM5 (Silver-less serious looking than black) set (myset1) as above mounted with the 45mm f1.8. This one has a left hand wrist strap and is the candid portrait camera, often using the rear screen at waist height.  

Basic, but effective. The bag is too big, but it is not just for camera gear.

Basic, but effective. The bag is too big, but it is not just for camera gear.

*

Travel (add to the above)

The Tokyo porter (pictured) or Filson bag is used, the Filson for a more travel, less photo or winter trip, the Porter as a summer/street bag. The Porter has a little strap clip to hold the camera's leather strap in place that can also be put on the Domke.

The 75-300 is always taken and the solid 14-42 thrown in as a wide angle option just in case.

Note the small strap clip that holds the camera strap secure and straight. This bag hold heaps, so it is ideal for shopping day trips.

Note the small strap clip that holds the camera strap secure and straight. This bag hold heaps, so it is ideal for shopping day trips.

Too much? probably. The fact is I could function (and have) with either kit for most tasks, but the OMD cameras in particular are a resource I have grown fond of and want good longevity out of. I also like my kits to be set up and ready to go for specific tasks (nothing freaks me out more than pulling a kit together at short notice). The Pen Mini, that cost me $200 S/H is a bonus as each frame it takes, saves me one from the EM5's and the Pen F was bought for a needed feature set. The butchers bill for all of my cameras, with reductions, second hand and swaps is about $4000 au. As for lenses, well, what would I sell? I hate letting good glass go and each has it's place (I just don't carry it all at once).

The future is probably an all purpose EM1 Mk2 to go with the Pen F, but not for awhile.

* The Inverse has it's waist straps removed (unpicked), allowing it to be attached to an actual back pack's waist belt.

** This kit is stored in the pro tactic, which is also used for travelling on a plane as it is an excellent foot rest.