Monday, 18 September 2017

Castle Hill, a Concert, and the iPhone 5s

For Father's Day this year the family got together and brought me a new (slightly used) iPhone 5s. My Samsung S3 was becoming increasingly unreliable (turning itself off on a regular basis), so I'd been making noises about a 'new' phone for quite a while.

It also happened that a friend recently upgraded to the iPhone 6s, and was no longer using his 1 year old iPhone 5s (in mint condition). So a deal was done, and we both came away very happy.

I've written on this blog before about not being interested in the cutting edge of cellphone technology. For a start I don't have the budget for it. And secondly, I'm a pretty conservative phone user. I basically use them for texting, the occasional call, and for listening to music on :-) So I don't want the latest or greatest mobile phone. My first cellphone was an iPhone 3, which I absolutely loved. My next phone was the Samsung S3 which I purchased new, since it was about 3 generations old at the time. Another great phone - but it was Android, and I did miss the iOS experience. So I've moved back to Apple again with the 5s and, once again, I'm loving it.

Castle Hill. iPhone 5s. Shot from a moving vehicle.
Exactly one week ago (as I post this) I was lucky enough to be offered a ticket to the Midnight Oil concert in Christchurch. My brother-in-law (thanks Hamish) had a friend pull out at the last minute, so he asked me if I'd like to go instead. I didn't need asking twice!

Because the concert was on a week night, the family decided I would catch the shuttle service to Christchurch from Greymouth and go on my own. Bit of a blokes night out. I traveled very light, basically just a change of clothes and a toothbrush. I certainly didn't consider taking my OM-D E-M1 with me, although I did suspect that there might be a few photo opportunities. Enter the iPhone 5s.

Midnight Oil video screens at Horncastle Arena, Christchurch
I'm not going to bang on again in this post about how a camera phone is no substitute for a 'real' camera - I've made myself very clear on the subject on numerous occasions quite recently. But hey, I had a new iPhone 5s in my pocket, so wasn't I just a little curious about the quality of its camera? Of course I was.

In terms of its camera, the iPhone 5s uses a 1/3" 8MP sensor - which just so happens to be exactly the same specs as the Samsung S3. Is the camera's performance the same then? Short answer - yes. Practically identical. Which is to say, not that great (imho). I know for a fact that the 'newer' generation of iPhones like the 7 (and now 8) have excellent cameras on them - my daughter has the iPhone 7Plus and the photos she gets using her phone are quite impressive indeed. Unfortunately (although not surprisingly), the camera on the iPhone 5s is not in the same league.

Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil. iPhone 5s
Is it unusable as a camera? Well no, of course not. And maybe given the circumstances (a very dark, in-door concert, at night), it actually did a fairly impressive job. At least I thought it did when I reviewed the images after taking them on the little 4 inch screen. The reality is a little different when you look at them on a 21" monitor however.

Midnight Oil, Horncastle Arena, Christchurch. iPhone 5s
There was a good crowd for the concert, although it wasn't packed (not surprisingly on a Monday night). There was plenty of space, and no one was banging into you from the sides or behind - so holding the phone steady was relatively easy. It was also fairly easy to get a good view. We were about 15 meters from the front of the stage without having to push and shove to get there, and probably could have gotten even closer had we wanted to. The touch-to-focus function worked very accurately in low light, although I suspect the high contrast offered by the stage lights helped in this regard.

The 'Oils' in full voice! iPhone 5s
Pinch to zoom (digitally) did help to get even closer to the action, although at a cost. The images taken zoomed in are even softer and more overtly 'digital' looking than those shot at 'normal' focal length (of around 30mm in full-frame camera terms). I won't be printing them out and hanging them on the wall anytime soon (or ever), but as low-res images for the blog (or as wallpaper for my phone) they work just fine.

Dump Trump! Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett as political as ever...  iPhone 5s
Am I disappointed in the images I got from the concert then? Actually no - not at all. I'm really quite happy with them, all things considered. As I said earlier, this wasn't about photography, this was about enjoying a concert. And enjoy the concert I most certainly did!

You can see in some of the photos above that many other concert-goers had their phones out, capturing and recording the event for posterity. And while I can kind of understand why they do it, it also drives me crazy! Yeah, I know - I did it too (although not in video). But over the course of a two hour concert, I took maybe 20 photos on my phone - mostly at the start, and then a few at the end. Many others had their phones out over 50% of the time, experiencing this larger than life event through a 5" screen. Seriously people?

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Punakaiki Blowholes with the Canon 40D

My run of good weather on the weekends is continuing, despite a very wet week and a very stormy Friday. I had resigned myself to a wet weekend spent indoors (catching up on some film scanning), however a quick look at the forecast on the interwebs late on Friday night suggested otherwise. Saturday looked promising, with some clouds around - always an exciting prospect for a landscape photographer after a passing storm front.

I decided to try my luck and head out Saturday morning - but where? A quick check of the sunrise and high tide times (sunrise was at 7.20am and high tide was 8.20am) and my decision was made for me - the blowholes at Punakaiki.

I've photographed on the West Coast for a very long time (about 20 years), but I have never managed to be at Punakaiki at the right time of day (high tide) to capture the blowholes in action. With a bit of planning, and a lot of luck, I was determined that this was about to change...

Punakaiki Blowholes at Sunrise. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm f3.5/4.5. 1/160th @f5.6, ISO 800. 0.9 Cokin Grad
I arrived at Punakaiki at 7.00am - 20 minutes before sunrise. The 10 minute walk to the blowholes meant that I was setting up my tripod 10 minutes before sunrise and a full hour before high tide. After such a stormy week with torrential rain, I was hoping for an aggressive incoming tide to create lots of action at the blowholes. I wasn't dissapointed.

Smoke on the Water. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm f3.5/4.5. 1/125th @f8, ISO 800. 0.9 Soft Grad
Having used the Olympus OM-D E-M1 for my last few outings, I decided this time to give the Canon 40D DLSR some love. I also thought that the 10-22mm ultra-wide lens would give me a better view of the blowholes than the Olympus 12-50mm. The Canon at 10mm gives a traditional field of view of around 16mm, which is very wide. Whereas the Olympus at 12mm achieves a traditional 24mm angle of view. So the Canon will get me wider - right?

Unfortunately, no. I also decided to shoot with the Cokin 0.9 Soft Graduated ND filter on the lens, to even out the exposure and tone down the sky - which it did brilliantly. But it also meant that I couldn't zoom the lens all the way out to 10mm because I was getting some of the filter holder visible at the edges of the frame. Doh! Best I could do was to start the lens at around 15mm which, when you add the x1.6 crop factor of the 40D, becomes a... 24mm field of view. Exactly what I would have achieved with the Olympus at 12mm (which doesn't show the filter holder on the edges of the frame). Oh well, never mind...

Punakaiki Blowholes. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm f3.5/4.5. 1/400th @f8, ISO 800. 10mm focal length
I did, however, get a chance to shoot at the lenses full 10mm ultra-wide range a little later in the morning. To begin with I shot on a tripod, at the same location, for about an hour and a half to capture full tide. Once I knew I had the shot(s) I wanted, I then removed the camera from the tripod, took the filter off the lens, and moved around to a viewing platform so I could shoot down and into the blowholes. At 10mm this has exaggerated the perspective, creating a dramatic image. Since it was later in the morning, with a bit more light, hand-holding the wide angle wasn't an issue. Shooting at ISO 800 gave me a fast enough shutter speed, and the extra weight and bulk of the 40D provided a stable base to shoot from.

Chimney Pot, Punakaiki. Canon 40D with Canon 10-22mm. 1/800th @f5.6, ISO 800. 14mm focal length
I had a fantastic morning at Punakaiki and am thrilled that I have finally - after 20 years - managed to capture the blowholes in all their glory. I also enjoyed using the 40D and Canon 10-22mm, even though I couldn't use the ultra-wide end of its range most of the time. Then again, I'm not really an ultra-wide kinda guy. I've always thought that 24mm is plenty wide enough for most circumstances, with an ultra-wide lens presenting more problems than it solves. It can be dramatic (as in the shot of the blowholes mentioned above), but it also means a bit more work in Lightroom to eliminate the distortion and vignetting inherent in these types of ultra-wides.

Eventually I would like to get a wider lens for the OM-D E-M1 - probably the Zuiko 9-18mm f4/5.6ED, which equates to an 18-36mm focal length in traditional film terms. I know that many 'serious' landscape photographers opt for the Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8 PRO, but at twice the price, and with an extra 2mm at the wide end that I probably wouldn't use, I think I would be better served with the Zuiko 9-18mm. It also happens to share the same 52mm filter thread as my other lenses, which simplifies things in terms of filter holders etc. In the meantime, if I want ultra-wide, then I guess I'll be reaching for the Canon 10-22mm and 40D. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Landscape photography with the Olympus OM-D E-M1: Part 3

We have had an incredible run of gorgeous, clear, sunny Saturday mornings here on the West Coast in the last month. After working all week, and with a busy weekend ahead, I'm finding it exciting and energizing to plan where I will be to take photos as the sun rises on another glorious Saturday morning. This week I headed in-land, to Lake Brunner, Moana.

Kahikatea Grove - Te Kinga. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 1/10th @f6.3, ISO 200. 0.9 ND Soft Grad
First off I went to the settlement of Te Kinga - one of my favourite places to shoot. Sunrise was scheduled for 7.40am, and the above image was taken at about 7.30am - 10 minutes before sunrise. I've been having fun using filters (see last post), and had decided that I was going to make good use of them to extend the exposure and smooth out the water.

Kahikatea Grove Long Exposure. 8 seconds @ f6.3, ISO 200. Cheap plastic ND+16 (-4 stops) filter
I love the way the long exposure has flattened out the water and produced nicer reflections, but I hate the strong colour cast and the way that it's sucked all the definition and colour out of the trees themselves. Compare the colour in the first image with the second - taken with a cheap plastic ND filter, and you'll see what I mean. Damn! I guess that means I am going to have to spend some serious money to get a decent ND filter after all.

Winter Sunrise - Te Kinga. Olympus E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 1/10th @f8, ISO 200. Polarizer & 0.9 Soft ND Grad
Having established that I couldn't use the ND filters, I decided to just stick with the Cokin 0.9 soft grad, in conjunction with a Cokin circular polarizer. The polarizer was cutting out 2 stops of light, giving me slightly slower shutter speeds anyway, so I just went with that combination. Cokin are also considered a 'cheaper' alternative to the likes of LEE and NiSi filters, although they do offer a more 'premium' grade glass filter. Their 'Nuances' range of ND's are every bit as expensive as the LEE Big and Little Stoppers (-5 and -10 stop neutral density filters), so I may have to start saving my pennies for a Cokin -5 stop ND (since I already own the filter holder and lens adapters).

Te Kinga Jetty & House Boat. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50 EZ lens. 1/100th @ f6.3, ISO 100. Polarizer
Once the sun was up, I moved around to the jetty to take some pictures of the lake bathed in early morning light. I kept the circular polarizer on the lens to intensify the blues of the lake and sky and was able to ditch the tripod and start shooting hand-held. I moved around the jetty trying out various compositions, but ended up preferring this vertical image with the jetty used to lead the eye into the image, where it then moves to the houseboat.

I prefer to keep my images as simple as possible - I guess that's my 'style'- (if I have a style), and when I'm composing an image it's usually more about what I leave out than what I include. I often have this internal dialogue when I'm shooting that discusses what I should or shouldn't be including before I take the photo. I guess I also look for strong leading lines and am a firm follower of the golden mean (and rule of thirds). All pretty standard stuff...

Te Kinga Frost. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-500mm EZ. 1/320th @f6.3, ISO 100. Polarizer
I am also trying to be a bit more spontaneous with my photography as well.What does that mean? Often when I go out to shoot, I'm quite single-minded and have certain images already in my minds-eye that I'm going to get. I've driven past literally hundreds of beautiful photos and not stopped to take them because they weren't 'what I was looking for'. But I'm trying to stop more often when I glimpse something out of the corner of my eye - and the above photo is one such image. Driving out of Te Kinga to get to Lake Brunner, the 'old me' would have simply kept on driving past a scene like this because a 'lake' shot was the next on my list. But the 'new' me stopped and took the photo. And you know what - the new me is glad I did. It might just be my favourite image from all the ones I took that morning.

Lake Brunner - Moana. Olympus OM-D E-M1. 1/100th @f8, ISO 100. Polarizer
I did eventually make it to Moanna and get my lake shot - and yes folks, I think it's now official: I'm obsessed with jettys! Although honestly - what's not to like? General theme of all my images in the last month; a) they are very blue, and b) they have a jetty in them. Easy....

Lake Brunner Reflection. OM-D E-M1. 1/80th @ 88, ISO 100. Polarizer
See what I mean about everything I shoot being blue at the moment? Even the boat is blue! I wanted to make sure I got all of the tree and its reflection in the vertical image - so yes, that means a lot of blue sky and a lot of blue lake - enhanced even more by using a polarizing filter. In fact, it pays to be careful when using a polarizer, because you can occasionally got too far with it and make blues turn almost black. Just keep spinning the filter and watching the effect in the viewfinder of your camera. And remember, you can dial the effect down as well as up.

Shoe Fence, Moana. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 1/500th @ f5.6, ISO 100. Polarizer
My last images of the morning were more of the spontaneous variety. On the way home I saw this fence, laden with shoes, and thought it would make a great shot, but kept on driving! So the new me told the old me to turn the car around and take some darn photos! So I did. And once again, I'm glad. The complementary blue and green, with the leading lines on the fence posts and wire, mixed in with the colour and shapes of the shoes, makes for a quirky and compelling image. And a great way to end another successful landscape shoot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fun with Filters

As a serious landscape photographer you'd think that I'd have an equally serious arsenal of filters. A polarizer, LEE Big & Little Stopper (-6 and -10 stop neutral density filters), plus a good selection of hard and soft graduated ND filters - at the very least!
Cokin 'P' Series Holder with Graduated ND filters
Well yes, I do have a polarizer, and a 0.9 (-3 stops) soft grad - both of the Cokin 'P' variety. But that's it. And if I'm honest, I don't even use them very often either! And that's generally down to laziness. Yes folks, I admit it, I'm a fairly lazy photographer. If I can get away with it, I won't use a tripod. I won't use a filter. Heck, I will even try not to use any accessories (like remote releases). I won't even use a polarizer even when I know it would be beneficial for the final image! Why not? Because, well, it's just too much of a hassle. You've got to get it out of the bag, set up the filter holder, fiddle around with adapter rings, etc... You get the point.

Laziness aside for a moment, the 'other' issue I have with filters is the expense. Have you seen the price of the LEE Big Stopper! Over $200NZ for one filter! Buy the Big Stopper, Little Stopper and a couple of hard and soft grads, plus the filter holder and adapter ring for your lens and your looking at well over $1000NZ. And I'm not just picking on LEE. Filters from Cokin and NiSi are similarly priced. When we start talking that amount of money, I start thinking of lenses not filters.

Yet having said all of that, I've been thinking very seriously lately about using filters a lot more in my photography. Why the change of heart? Well, it has a lot to do with the landscape photography vlogs I've been watching on Youtube lately. They all - and I mean ALL - make great use of filters (as well as tripods and cable releases), and I'm beginning to think there might just be something to all this fiddling about before you taker a photo (I jest - but just a little).

So I'm turning a new leaf this year. No more lazy landscape photographer. I've already got a Polarizer and a soft grad ND, so I'm halfway there with the filters. I'm seriously considering getting a 10 stop ND filter to go with them, for long exposure photography (probably a Cokin 'Nuances' 1024), but in the meantime I've dipped my toe in the water already with a recent internet purchase.

A whole set of 'ND' filters for the Cokin P system
If you use the Cokin 'P' (for Professional - I kid you not) square filter system like I do, then you will find a lot of cheap Chinese rip-off filters for sale on the interwebs. You will, of course, get what you pay for. And for practically a tenth of the price of the 'real deal', you can't really expect much. But then again, they must do something - right? If I'm going to pay $200+ for one filter down the road, then I'm going to damn well make sure I like using it! So what better way to practice than on the cheapy stuff first. And you can't get much cheaper than $25NZ for 7 no-name ND filters that a guy was selling recently on Trademe. I snapped them up, knowing full well that they were going to be flimsy, plastic (the more expensive filters are made from either resin or glass), horribly inaccurate in terms of neutral colour, and probably worse than useless. But I also figured that if I enjoyed using them, and wished I had better ones, then I would know that any serious money spent down the track would be well worth it. That's the theory anyway.

Long exposure with ND16 + ND8 + Polarizer. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. 30secs @f11, ISO 100
Long story short - I've only had them for a couple of days, but I'm having a blast! And surprisingly, the results actually aren't half bad (with a couple of caveats). The above image is a 30 second exposure made in the middle of a very bright day, and the cheapo plastic ND filters combined with my Cokin P circular polarizer have done a decent job. And the colour cast is actually pretty minimal - especially compared to a 'Tian Ya' ND filter I also have which has a horrible brown sepia cast to it.

Cobden Beach at Midday. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/250th @ f11, ISO 100. No filter
Above is the 'control' image - the shot of the beach with no filter. This gave a reference point for how the colours should look once I started adding filters.

With Polarizer. 1/60th @f11. ISO 100
Simply adding the Cokin circular polarizer improves the image dramatically. It also has the added benefit of slowing the shutter speed by 2 stops.

With ND16 (-4 stops). 1.6secs @f11, ISO 100
Adding the ND16 neutral density filter has again slowed  the shutter down, now to the point of blurring some of the movement in the waves. In terms of a colour cast, it's introduced a very slight magenta tint to the white clouds, but overall not too bad.

With ND16 + Cokin 0.9 (-3stop) soft ND Graduate. 1.3 secs @f11. ISO 100
Adding the Cokin 3 Stop soft grad has helped to lower the density in the highlights, especially in the clouds (obviously) - but hasn't effected the overall shutter speed too drastically. Again,colours are looking pretty good.

ND16 + ND8 + Polarizer. 30secs @f11, ISO 100
Remember that caveat I mentioned earlier. Well, here it is in all its glory! That's some pretty serious flare spots. And they were present on quite a few of the images I took using the plastic ND filters. A lot - but not all. This was a very extreme torture test, in very bright conditions, at the time of day that I wouldn't normally be shooting at. So the nasty flare stuff doesn't really surprise me at all. Also, on closer inspection, lots of tiny bits of fluff and lint had adhered themselves to the plastic filters which probably didn't help matters.

Same as above, yet without the strong sun flares....
A quick clean, another shot done with the same settings - and viola, a different result. To be honest, I did clone out one lone flare spot in the sky, and a few are creeping into the top of the frame, but it's nowhere near as bad as the previous shot - with a simple clean!

So did I have fun with my new plastic ND filters? You betcha! Will I use them again? You betcha - can't wait. Except next time I won't try them under such torturous conditions. This lazy photographer may be turning a new leaf. Watch this space...

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Second landscape shoot with the OM-D E-M1

It's winter here in NZ at the moment, and what a wild and wet winter it's been. The West Coast of the South Island normally bares the brunt of any storm that passes through, although this winter we've been left relatively unscathed (fingers crossed). The weather man predicted a fine weekend (after a fairly wet week) and I didn't need any further convincing to head out with the E-M1 again.

My favorite area to shoot landscapes is around Hokitika - a half an hour drive from where I live in Greymouth. Not only is it the location of my favorite lake (Mahinapua), but it also has several other 'must visit' attractions (Lake Kaniere, Dorothy Falls, Hokitika Gorge and Sunset Point - to name a few). So that's where I headed this morning - first stop Lake Mahinapua.

Lake Mahinapua Sunrise 2017. Olympus E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/4s @ f8, ISO 200
Sunrise was 7.50am, and I arrived at 7.30 to a frosty, but perfectly clear morning (with not a cloud in the sky, unfortunately). The jetty at the lake is a perfect focal point for leading the eye into an image. I usually shoot it from further back, since it's built in an 'L' shape jutting out into the lake. But this time I decided to concentrate on capturing just the end of the jetty. I composed the photo to highlight the jetty itself and not the sky, since the day was cloudless, and I set the E-M1 on a tripod. The morning was perfectly still, so a shutter speed of 1/4s was enough to give me smooth water with perfect reflections. I used an ND grad to darken the sky a little, and also tried some with a polarizer and ND filter to slow the shutter speed to around 2 seconds. Job done. Next stop, Lake Kaniere.

Hans Bay, Lake Kaniere. Olympus E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/640th @ f7.1 - ISO 200
It's been a few years since I shot at Lake Kaniere, so I was looking forward to getting some new images of the area with the OM-D E-M1. Overall I'm pleased with the calm, clean images I was able to take, although I would still have preferred some clouds in the sky. The final result is nothing spectacular - just a 'nice' image. I will need to go back and capture some more moody, atmospheric light. It could also be a better sunset rather than sunrise location? It has potential, I just haven't visited it at its best.... yet.

Canoe Creek Walk. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/40th @ f5.4 - ISO 800. 30mm
Just before the turn-off to get to Hans Bay at Lake Kaniere, there is a small (15min) walking track that follows Canoe Creek to the lake. The track winds through lush native forest and is well maintained with wooden walkways that cross over the creek in several places. These paths curve through the bush and form fantastic leading lines through any composition. They also remind me a little of the jetty's that jut out into the lakes themselves. I'm a sucker for a jetty in an image. I can't go past a jetty without photographing it! Just look at the images that accompany this post!

Deadwood - Lake Kaniere. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/60th @ f6.3 - ISO 800. 36mm
At the end of the Canoe Creek walk you come out the the shore of the lake and can walk around to a sheltered inlet that has an otherworldly feel to it. Very spooky and Jurassic Park-like. The carcasses of fallen trees litter the bank and cast these amazing reflections into the water. It's dark, it's cold and it's eerie - and you could easily imagine a dinosaur (or an orc) emerging from the forest. I took several images I liked at this location - all hand-held with an ISO of 800 to keep the shutter speed reasonably high. Yes, I could have set the camera up on the tripod - and maybe I should have? But with the ibis (in body image stabilisation) of the E-M1 and no real need for a long shutter speed, you can get away with hand-holding most of the images as long as you're ok with shooting at ISO 800 (and I am). I may go back soon and shoot at the same location with my medium format Bronica on ISO 100 film, in which case I definitely will need a tripod.

Sunny Bight, Lake Kaniere. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ. 1/1600th @ f5 - ISO 200. 23mm
My final destination for the morning was a picnic spot at the other end of the lake from Hans Bay - Sunny Bight. More clear blue skies, more still calm water, more beautiful reflections - and more jetty images! :-)

I found a small jetty that I was able to access from the car park, and this time decided to place it dead-centre in the lower third of the frame - for the classic jetty-leading-into-the-frame shot. I think it works compositionally by 'grounding' the viewer in the scene and leading the eye into the symmetrical view of the reflected mountains in the upper third. The jetty itself could maybe do with being a touch lighter - although i also like the way it almost 'emerges' from the bottom of the frame?

All-in-all I had an amazing morning shooting around two incredible lakes. I started out on a tripod in the very early morning light at Lake Mahinapua, and ended up hand-holding for the rest of the morning at Lake Kaniere since I was shooting with decent shutter speeds, filter-free. The compact, yet solid form factor of the OM-D E-M1, with its incredible ibis, encourages photography that is unencumbered by a tripod, although you obviously have to be careful when light levels drop or you're purposely wanting long exposures.

Some may look at micro-four-thirds as something of a 'lesser' format compared to full frame, or even APS-C? Yet for landscapes, I think they actually have more benefits that negatives. They are smaller and lighter, which if you are tramping distances is definitely a positive. They have increased depth of field at all apertures - great for landscape photography. And image quality from the 16 to 20MP image sensors is perfect for an A3+ sized print. What more do you want? Seriously....?    

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Quick and Dirty Monitor Calibration

Colour management and calibration is one of those mystic arts. As photographers it's something we know we should be doing, but most of us never do. And lets face it, most of the time we get away with it. Modern LCD monitors are very good right out of the box, and computer software programmes (like Photoshop) apply ICC profiles automatically that help us get the best out of our gear without even having to think about it. I bet most of you don't even know what ICC profiles are - do you?

As a graphic designer who supplied files to different clients and commercial printers, I used to own a very expensive set of colour calibration tools. Dirty little secret time - I hardly ever used them. There's just so many variables when you really get involved with colour management (time of day, workspace surroundings, type of paper if your printing etc), that it's just easier to put it in the 'too hard' basket and forget about it. And as I've already mentioned, today's technology does a lot of it for us anyway.

Having said all that, I am still skilled enough to be able to tell if my monitor calibration is a bit 'off'. And this was certainly the case with my Asus monitor for my home desktop system. I built my own computer last year, and the monitor was unfortunately one of the last items on my list. I was running out of money fast, so purchased a cheap, second-hand monitor. Not ideal, but the best I could do. It's certainly not a bad monitor, but it's probably something I should be upgrading sooner rather than later.

I suspected that the monitor itself was set a little 'hot', and that I was over-compensating with the blacks when I processed an image. Whenever I took an image file from my home system into work (where I have a set of very nice Dell monitors), the image was a bit too dark. Since I don't have any of my colour calibration tools anymore, I did what any red-blooded modern man would do - I Googled 'free monitor calibration software'.

There are, of course, several options out there. But the one I decided to try was Natural Color Pro (only for Windows). It's a free download, and is actually a monitor calibration programme for Samsung monitors, but it will work on any brand. It takes you through six easy steps; allowing you to fine tune brightness, contrast, gamma (red, blue & green) and lighting conditions, before spitting out an ICC profile it applies to your computer.

The six steps are very easy to follow, and while it might be a bit too basic for the hard-core colour management gurus among us, it actually did a really good job of fixing the problem that I was aware of already. My monitor was indeed far too bright, and I had to lower the brightness way down from my original setting.

Once the profile was loaded, I went into Lightroom and looked at some of the images that I had edited recently. It was instantly obvious that I had been too heavy-handed with the blacks and shadows. The histograms were a bit of a giveaway as well (all bunching up on the left), which is partly what eluded me to the problem in the first place. Now that my monitor has been 'calibrated' I'm seeing so much more detail in the shadows, and my histograms are making much more sense!
Colour management is one of those topics that can make grown men run screaming from a room in fear. It's not for the faint of heart - but it's also something that, as photographers, we do need to be aware of. If you have a feeling that your computer monitor isn't displaying colours accurately, then some type of monitor calibration routine might be worth a crack. It doesn't have to be onerous. Maybe a simple - free - programme like Natural Color Pro might just be the answer?  

Monday, 24 July 2017

First landscape shoot with the OM-D E-M1

I have had the Olympus OM-D E-M1 for about a month and hadn’t really used it out in the field yet. I planned to rectify that this past weekend, and fortunately it seemed that we were going to get some clear weather here on the West Coast – even though the rest of the country was experiencing some of the worst (wettest) weather on record!

Despite this predication, the day dawned cloudy and grey. I hadn’t planned on getting up before sunrise anyway, but when I looked out on grey skies I almost flagged the whole idea. Fortunately I decided to go out anyway, although I also decided to not travel very far (only 5 minutes down the road) since it didn’t look very promising.

My local beach (Cobden) has a track that leads up to a lookout over the coast (an area known as Point Elizabeth). You can stop at the lookout and take in a great view of the coastline, or you can continue through to Rapahoe beach on the other side of the Point. It had been a long time since I had visited the lookout on the Cobden beach side, so that’s where I decided to shoot. I figured that even if the images weren’t any good, the walk would be worth it.

Lowepro Sling 100AW
My ‘landscape’ kit has evolved since getting the E-M1. It now consists of the E-M1 body with grip attached (I could get away with not using the grip, but prefer the ergonomics it brings to the camera, as well as the extra battery life), Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/6.3 EZ, and Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200mm f4/5.6. This is a super light-weight kit, and fits easily into a Lowepro Sling 100AW camera bag (with room to spare). I also carried a Manfrotto tripod with the Vanguard SBH100 ball head. The Vanguard SBH100 is a new edition that I purchased recently (second-hand), simply because I wanted to pass on my previous ball-head (Benro BH-1) to my son Joshua. The Vanguard isn’t necessarily a better ball head, although its recommended capacity (20kgs) is slightly more than the Benro (16kgs). Both, however, are more than I will need for my mirrorless or DLSR set up.

The Zuiko 12-50mm f3.5/5.6 EZ is my main landscape lens (at the moment), given that it starts at a very respectably wide 24mm (my favourite wide angle focal length). Landscapes require a larger depth of field, with smaller apertures (of around f8 to f16), so the relatively ‘slow’ variable aperture of the 12-50mm isn’t a big deal for landscapes. Actually, it’s a bonus, since a micro-four-thirds sensor exhibits a greater depth of field natively. The depth of field achievable at f5.6 with the E-M1 is the same as f11 on a full frame sensor using the same focal length (i.e 24mm). So you can get greater depth of field without having to stop down as much as you would on a full frame system.
Panasonic Limix 45-200mm f4/5.6

Even though when I think of landscape images I automatically think ‘wide’, there is still a place for a telephoto lens in any landscape photographer’s bag. Not long after getting the OM-D E-M1, I also purchased a Panasonic Lumix 45-200mm f4/5.6. This is another ‘slow’ variable aperture lens, which again, doesn’t bother me for landscape photography. It also doesn’t bother me for sports and action, as long as there is a decent amount of light. I don’t imagine it will be a great indoor sports lens, but outside during the day it should cope just fine. Especially if my previous experience using the Olympus 40-150mm f4/5.6 kit lens is anything to go by. That lens is super sharp and worked perfectly when I used it to shoot motor-cycle street racing (see the post here). The Panasonic 45-200mm f4/5.6 isn’t said to be quite as sharp as the Olympus, but it does give the extra reach, which may come in handy for sports.

Given what I’ve already said about only thinking ‘wide’ when I shoot landscapes, means I often don’t even take a telephoto with me on a landscape shoot. But since micro four thirds gear is so small and light, it’s no big deal to carry one with you, even if you don’t end up using it (the same can’t really be said for DSLR gear). I’m so glad that on this occasion I did, because I ended up using it more than the 12-50mm – much to my surprise.

Cobden from Point Elizabeth track. Olympus E-M1 with Lumix G 45-200mm. 1/50th @f5.6, ISO 100 - 200mm
The initial track starts with a very steep gradient up the side of the cliff before you get into the bushwalk itself. The top of this incline offers stunning views looking back to the suburb of Cobden and the distant mountains (one of which in New Zealand’s famous Mt. Cook, Aoraki). I had almost decided not to go and photograph because of the weather, but when I reached the top of the incline and looked back towards Cobden I was greeted with a fantastic view with some decent light. I shot a few wide images with the Zuiko 12-50mm, but it was only when I decided to attach the Panasonic 45-200mm and zoom out all the way to 200mm that I got the image that I wanted. The telephoto lens has compressed the perspective within the scene, making it seem like the mountains, township and coastline are a lot closer to each other than they actually are. They now appear almost ’stacked’ on top of each other, whereas in reality they are obviously separated by a great distance.

Relieved to have captured at least one image I was happy with already, I continued on to the lookout. The sky continued to remain overcast, even though it was trying to clear in the east. The track itself didn’t offer up any photo opportunities, although a dedicated macro photographer would have probably had a wonderful time exploring the numerous flora. My destination, however, was the wide open vista of the Point itself.

Coast from Pt. Elizabeth lookout. Olympus E-M1 with Lumix G Vario 45-200mm. 1/320sec @f6.3, ISO 100 - 45mm
At the lookout I switched back to the Zuiko 12-50mm to capture the wide shot that I had come to take. Yet once again, it wasn’t really working for me. The light wasn’t right for capturing the whole vista. I zoomed the lens to 50mm and in doing so simplified the scene for a more pleasing composition, but I still felt that I could simplify even further. So once again, out came the Panasonic 45-200mm for landscape duty.

Rapahoe from P. Elizabeth. Olympus E-M1 with Lumix G Vario 45-200mm. 1/2000th @ f6.3, ISO 200 - 55mm
Once I isolated the subject and concentrated on the interesting light that was developing in the east, I had a much stronger image. All I had to worry about then was the strong contrast and tricky dynamic range of the early morning light. Presently I don’t have any ND filters for the E-M1, so I decided to bracket my exposures instead. The E-M1 has its own HDR mode, but I decided to do this myself later on in Lightroom. So I took advantage of the bracketing feature built into the camera and shot a series of 5 bracketed images in 1 stop increments (-2, -1, normal, +1, +2). This gave me detail in the shadows and the highlights, and a decent starting point for processing the final HDR image back in Lightroom.

Rapahoe from Pt. Elizabeth B&W. Olympus E-M1 with Lumix G Vario 45-200mm.  Shot 1:1 format
At the beginning of the day, it didn’t look like it was going to amount to much. In fact, I almost didn’t bother going out to take photos. But I was desperate to start using the E-M1, so I went anyway. And I’m very glad that I did. I got some OK images that I am reasonably happy with. I also got some much needed exercise. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, I began to discover the importance of using a telephoto lens for landscape photography. That’s valuable experience that I can take with me to improve my photography in the future. Worth getting out for I reckon!?