Monday, 26 June 2017

Sometimes simple is better.

Recently I ended my love affair with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII, swapping it for the Nikon D7100. I was pining for a DSLR again, and although I now do miss the mirrorless experience (more specifically the evf), I still think it was the right move to make. Just not with the D7100. Let me explain…

Many reviewers still claim that the Nikon D7100 (D7200) is the best DSLR you can buy (in terms of features for the price), and I can’t say that I disagree. It’s got everything but the kitchen sink thrown into a very well made, solid, yet compact(ish) camera. Sure, the buffer could be better. But that’s about where the complaining ends. And I expected to love using it, after enjoying cameras like the D200 and D300 which share a very similar design aesthetic. Trouble is, I didn’t enjoy using it – at all. In fact, I found it confusing and difficult to use. And this is from someone coming from the menu nightmare on the Olympus!

I don’t know what it is – I really don’t. But I just couldn’t get my head around navigation of the D7100. Every time I used it, I would find myself fumbling to access or change the most basic of settings. This came to a head recently when I went to take some photos of my daughter and her friends before their senior ball. It was tricky lighting, I’ll admit – inside, at night, with only the camera’s pop-up flash, and everyone anxious to get going to the ball. So not the easiest of shoots. But even so, it’s something that I should have handled without breaking a sweat.

Except I didn’t handle it – at all. Every shot I took looked grossly over-exposed on the back of the camera, while I frantically tried to dial back the exposure compensation on both the camera and the flash. Nothing seemed to be working, and so I forged on regardless, thinking that I could pull ‘something’ decent out later in post since I was shooting RAW. I was wrong. They are all practically useless. The first few are ok, but it goes down-hill swiftly from there.

I went home after this abysmal fiasco and had to do it all over again with my son who was also going to the ball. Perfect exposures – every time!? I still have no idea how or why it went so terribly wrong at one moment, and so easy the next. Just no idea. And that freaks me out. And the D7100 freaks me out because of it. So I have sold it. And it was probably the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make selling a camera kit. The D7100 and I did not become friends.

In the time-honoured tradition of breaking up, I’d just like to clarify that it’s not you (D7100), it’s me. I’m the one with the problem. I’m sure you will go on to have a beautiful relationship with someone who will look after you and know how to treat you right. I wish you nothing but the best, and I’m sure you’ll both be very happy together.

Me? Well, rather callously, I’ve already moved on. And, not wanting to flog this break-up analogy to death (but I’m going to anyway), I’ve gone back to an old flame. They say the first love is always the best. My first love was with Canon. I already ‘own’ a well-used Canon 50D with 10-22mm lens (on permanent loan from a friend who has gone full-frame), and I have managed to pick up a really mint 40D body for a steal on-line ($180NZ). It’s probably the third time I’ve owned this camera (as well as the 20D and 30D), and that should tell you something.

I guess many will read this and see the move from a 24MP Nikon D7100 to a 10MP Canon 40D as a HUGE step backwards. And maybe it is? But I’ve said this in my blogs often enough – and I’ll quite happily say it again – it’s NOT about megapixels! And, depending on the type of shooting you do, it’s also NOT about high ISO noise performance either! I’ve always said that, for me, the sweet spot with megapixels is about 10 to 12. Plenty enough for a crisp A3 print. I hardly ever crop in to my images. Coming from the film days, I have had the mantra of ‘compose in-camera’ firmly ingrained in my psyche. I don’t need (or want) 24MP. To be honest, all those megapixels make me nervous (yeah, I know – weird).

The Canon 40D with Grip. My 'Goldilocks' DSLR
The 40D (and 50D) is ‘my’ sweet-spot for a DSLR. The Goldilocks of cameras if you will. Not too big and not too small. Just right. As well as having 10MP, the 40D; shoots at 6.5fps with a decent buffer (I like to shoot sports occasionally), has a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body (great for landscape work), takes CF cards (I still prefer them over the flimsier SD cards), has excellent battery life (a relief coming from mirrorless), has live-view with exposure simulation, grid lines and a histogram readout (surprisingly better than the D7100 implementation), exceptional ergonomics (Canon’s control wheel and joystick are ingenious), and no video modes to get in the way (I ain’t a video guy). Everything I need, and nothing I don’t.

So no, I don’t see it as a step backwards at all. I see it as a positive affirmation of the kind of gear I like to use, to create the kind of images I like to make. Also, the great news for me is that the ‘older’ gear is always cheaper – leaving more money for what really matters – lenses.

If you really want to see a distinct improvement in your photos, then spend more money on glass and less on your camera body. Unfortunately, this equation has been flipped on its head over the last decade with the proliferation of cheap, plastic, do-it-all, slow, low-quality zoom lenses. Yes, they look pretty, and yes, they are sharp enough. But they have computer-designed everything to within an inch of its life, resulting in bland ‘good enough’ image quality. The ‘you get what you pay for’ advice is never truer than with camera lenses. I’ll take a nice piece of glass on a 40D over a cheap plastic zoom on a 1Dx any day of the week – and so should you.

As already mentioned, I have the use of a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f3.5-4.5 USM that will work perfectly for landscapes. Now the hunt is on for a good mid-range lens to compliment the 10-22 (something like a 24-105mm f4L), a longer telephoto (maybe the 70-200mm f4L), and a Canon Speedlite (the 430 EX II) to make the kit complete. I think I’d like to buy EF (rather than EF-S) lenses to allow a future upgrade path to full-frame (remember the EF-S 10-22 is just on-loan), as well as for complete compatibility with my Canon EOS 1 film camera (which won’t take EF-S lenses). Not sure my budget will stretch to all of the above, but I’ll give it a good go.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Post-production post Photoshop: ACDSee Ultimate 9

I've finally done it! I've cut the digital umbilical cord (so to speak) and no longer have Adobe Photoshop on my home computer. Or any other Adobe CC product for that matter. No more InDesign, no more Illustrator, no Premier Pro.... nothing. I'm almost breaking out in a sweat just thinking about it!

This is a pretty big deal for someone who has used Photoshop since the very early days. I have been a graphic designer for most of my working life (the last 32 years), and have invested most of that time to learning, using, and even teaching the suite of Adobe software products. They are, after all, the industry standard.

When I started my own graphic design business 10 years ago, my first major outlay (after the computer), was the Adobe Creative Suite. I wouldn't have even considered running a design business without it. And to be honest, I still wouldn't. But I don't run a design business anymore. As a 'home' user, or hobbyist, I now have to justify to myself (and my wife), what I use for software and, more importantly, how much it costs.

Maybe I'm showing my age, but I hate - and I mean HATE, the subscription model of software ownership. I know I'm swimming against the tide (don't worry, I'm used to that), but I just like to know that when I spend the money, I 'own' the software. It might make sense for businesses to 'lease' or subscribe monthly, but as a home user I just want to buy a product outright. But that's just me.

I was fortunate for the last year to be classified as a 'student' since I was enrolled in an on-line course through work. As part of the course, I qualified for the entire Adobe CC (Creative Cloud) Suite at a ridiculously cheap monthly fee. I signed up, knowing it was only going to last for the year, and knowing that after that year I was going to have to cut the cord and look for something else. I just can't afford the monthly fee that Adobe is charging for the whole Suite.

Well, the year is up. And today (as I write this) I ended my Adobe subscription and deleted the whole suite from my computer. And I should be freaked out. I should be worried. I'm a photographer for crying out loud. What's a photographer going to do without Photoshop?

First of all relax.... take a deep breath. There is life without Photoshop, and it comes from ACD Systems. I would recommend any photographer, with or without Photoshop, take a very serious look at ACDSee's Windows based (sorry Mac users) Ultimate software. I have Ultimate 9, but everything I am about to say also applies to their latest version - Ultimate 10 (which, not surprisingly, adds some newer features).

ACDSee Ultimate is very aptly named software. It's an incredibly powerful image viewer, organizer, RAW processor, and image editor - all in one! It incorporates individual programs like Adobe's Bridge, Lightroom and Photoshop into a single, seamless package. And it does so at blinding speed, all within an excellently designed UI. The designers and engineers at ACDSee should be incredibly proud of what they have accomplished with Ultimate 9. It is a truly outstanding piece of software!

As someone who has lived and worked within the Adobe eco-system for so long, I don't say that lightly. I really wasn't looking forward to ending my subscription to Adobe CC. But finding ACDSee Ultimate 9 has been an absolute revelation for me. In many ways, I find it better, faster, and stronger than anything Adobe could offer for my photography.

First, of course, is the fact that you can purchase the software outright - at a very reasonable price. You can also choose the subscription based model if you wish - or not. The choice, thankfully, is yours (and please, ACDSee, keep it that way).

Manage Mode - ACDSee Ultimate 9
Second, I prefer the way ACDSee uses your own computer hard-drive to manage, view and arrange the files. No database-driven library a-la Lightroom. I dislike the way Adobe's Lightroom creates its own library. I just never fully trusted it. Yes, the photos were there, until they weren't for some reason, and then heaven help you trying to get the library to sync properly again! I just love the simple, straight forward, logical, and yet effective way that ACDSee handles your images. It just makes sense.

Photo Mode - ACDSee Ultimate 9
If you really want to take image cataloging to the next level, try out the 'Photos' view, which gives you thumbnail images of all the photos in your folders. These can be arranged by day, month or year - and hovering over a thumbnail will give you a slightly larger view of the image. A single click will take you into the chosen images folder, while double-clicking will send the image directly into 'View' mode.

View Mode - ACDSee Ultimate 9
Navigating all makes perfect sense, and doesn't take long to get used to. View mode is nice and clean, with a film strip for the selected folder, and large view for the selected image. Simple metadata for the image is always displayed (I like this feature a lot), and moving through images is lightning fast. ACDSee made their name initially in Digital Asset Management (DAM) software, and it really shows in Ultimate 9, offering a wealth of different organizational tools and structures.

Develop Mode - ACDSee Ultimate 9
But where ACDSee really shines for me, as a photographer looking for a Photoshop replacement, is in the Develop and Edit Modes. Develop Mode is Ultimate 9's RAW processing engine. And what a fantastic engine it is! I have compared ACDSee Ultimate 9's RAW output against several of the top RAW processing programmes, and ACDSee was a clear winner in my book. It easily beats Lightroom for colour reproduction, especially in the warmer reds, oranges and yellows. Develop Mode has a rich and satisfying feature set, with all the controls you would expect from a RAW processing engine. Lighting, colour and lens controls are all there, as well as curves, split toning, healing, cloning, sharpening and noise reduction. It is, of course, all non-destructive - attaching a script to the RAW file that moves with it if ever the file changes location on your computer. RAW processing software simply doesn't get better than this.

Edit Mode - ACDSee Ultimate 9
Finally, Ultimate 9's one-two knock-out punch is its inclusion of Edit Mode. What Develop is to Lightroom, Edit is to Photoshop. Layers, adjustment layers, masks, blend modes, crop, rotate, resize, repair, dodge and burn, skin retouching, sharpening, clarity, brushes - it all there, and more! It even has a few tricks up its sleeve; like Pixel mapping that masks particular areas through color and tone - as well as smart brushes (in Ultimate 10) that make selections magically, also through color and tone.

Adobe is such a formidable giant in the image editing industry, it seems almost unthinkable that a 'serious' photographer would use (or choose) anything else. Yet there are many good reasons why a 'serious' photographer, or someone looking to take their photography to the next level, should look elsewhere for an image editing program. As someone who has taught Photoshop to beginning photographers for years, I know how intimidating Photoshop (and Lightroom) can be. It has grown over the years to be something of a Frankenstein's monster of a program, with maybe 20% of content that photographers actually need, and 80% that simply confuses people.

This is where ACDSee Ultimate 9 really shines. It's got everything you need, and practically nothing you don't. All in a slick, unified, logical and useful package. It's a seriously impressive combination of well designed, cleverly organized and satisfyingly intuitive software programs for the modern photographer. If you don't have Photoshop, and are looking for a DAM, RAW development and photo editing package, then you have to try ACDSee Ultimate 9 (now 10). And if you do have Lightroom and/or Photoshop, but are struggling to learn how to use it, then boy do I have the solution for you! Do yourself (and your images) a favor and download the trial of ACDSee Ultimate 10. I think you'll like what you find. I know I do.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Alas poor Olympus, I knew it well...

I've gone nuts. Stark raving mad. Seriously. How mad you ask? So crazy, that I'm swapping my Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII for a Nikon D7100! I'm leaving micro four thirds and going back to a DSLR! Something that I have said many times on this blog that I would never do. In fact, I've also been one of 'those' guys who has smugly claimed that the SLR is dead. See, I told you I was crazy. But as always, there is some method to my madness.

My OM-D E-M5 MkII all boxed up to send away!
Right away I want to state, for the record, one more time, that I LOVE my OM-D E-M5 MkII. It is, has been, and always will be, a fantastically capable camera that is a joy to use (mostly), and a glowing testament to why mirrorless is the future of photography. I do still believe that to be true. So why am I going 'backwards' (some might say) to a DLSR?

Actually, it all has to do with shooting film. Yep, that's right - actual 35mm film. Bear with me while I explain...

I have another blog; filmisback.blogspot.com where I post about just that - shooting film again. And this year (2017), I've been doing a lot of exactly that. And enjoying it immensely. So much so, that I have dubbed 2017 'The Year of Film". I'll be shooting a lot more of it over the course of this year, and hopefully on into the future. This doesn't mean that I will stop shooting digital though - far from it. I plan to continue enjoying both mediums. And therein lies the crux of my decision to change from Olympus gear to Nikon.

My 'new' Nikon gear
I'm not a professional photographer (although I have been in the past), so my 'budget' for photography is extremely limited. I've written about this often on the blog. Whenever I start accumulating gear, it gets to a point of critical mass, where I have to step back and really think seriously about how I can maximize my kit. Fortunately, I have also been blessed in 2017 with some amazing gifts. I have literally been given a Pentax SV, Bronica ETRS medium format 6x45, and Nikon F4s. I have also recently acquired a Canon EOS 1 film camera for a song - all of which has helped to rekindle my passion and interest in film photography again.

That's a lot of different systems all at once - Pentax, Canon, Nikon, Bronica - and, of course, my Olympus digital gear. Probably too many different systems if I'm honest. Which, of course, got me thinking. I intend to use the EOS 1 and Nikon F4 as much as possible - they are just such amazing cameras and I actually feel somewhat honored to own them. I am 50 this year (don't tell anyone), and when the EOS 1 and F4 were first released (around 1989) I was 22. As an aspiring professional photographer, in my early 20s, the F4 and EOS 1 were cameras that I could only dream of owning. And now I do. It may be almost 30 years later, but the thrill of owning the best pro film cameras of that era hasn't waned. And they are every bit as thrilling to use as I thought they would be.

Two film legends - the Nikon F4 and Canon EOS 1.
I have a very good friend who owns some serious Canon 'L' glass, that I can borrow whenever I want (as long as she's not using it), so the need to outfit the Canon isn't pressing. But the Nikon is a different story. Luckily the F4 came with a Nikkor 24mm f2.8 and a Nikkor 70-210mm f4/5.6, but that's it. And as I discovered recently at a Rodeo, the 70-210mm isn't quite 'fast' enough if I'm shooting low ISO film. So I'd like some faster glass for the F4 to bring it up to speed with the Canon - especially if I can't actually borrow my friends lenses for whatever reason.

If I want some more lenses for the F4, wouldn't it be good ( I mused), if those lenses could also be used on a digital body - thereby doing double-duty? Problem is, my digital gear is Olympus micro-four-thirds. You can see where I'm going with this now, right?

As much as I love my Olympus OM-D, I have also always loved Nikon's DLSR's. Have done since I bought my first digital camera, the Nikon D70. The D300 is still one of the best cameras I've ever owned, and I only sold it to stay with Canon because I chose full frame (with the Canon 5D) over APS-C (with the D300). I'm definitely sad to see the OM-D E-M5 Mk2 go, but I'm also very excited about getting my new acquisition, the Nikon D7100.

On the very day that I was contemplating the possibility of letting go of the Olympus for a Nikon, a guy on a New Zealand Photography Facebook page posted his Nikon D7100, with grip, 50mm f1.8G Nikkor and Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 Di LD (IF) Macro. He was looking to move to a mirrorless system, and would consider a straight swap. I replied and said I was interested - told him what I had - and it snowballed from there.

Since changing to mirrorless, I have to say that I haven't really kept up with the latest DLSR models. But when I checked out the D7100 brochure, I got rather excited! And really, what's not to like? A 24MP sensor, with no low-pass filter, excellent low-light performance, a x1.3 crop mode that gives 15MP files at 7fps (about 5.5fps otherwise), dual SD card slots, decent video and an outstanding 51 point autofocus system rounds out an impressive list of features. The Nikkor 50mm f1.8G will be a great lens, while the Tamron 70-200 f2.8 has somewhat mixed reviews. It's said to have very good image quality, even at f2.8 (bonus), but a somewhat slow and noisy autofocus system?

Tamron 70-200mm f2.8
Ironically, I've made the decision to move back to a Nikon DLSR at a very interesting time for the Japanese camera manufacturer. About a week ago they made an announcement of 'Extraordinary losses' (their words), which, they said, would lead to 'fundamental company-wide restructuring' (again, their words). 1000 workers were let go, their new digital compact line was scrapped, and many saw this as the beginning of the end for the camera company. However, just today (as I write this), Nikon have released some details about what the fundamental restructure might look like. And it actually bodes well for photographers. They are apparently going to concentrate on mid to high-end DLSR's, lenses and mirrorless, with fewer models in the future. Sounds good to me.  

I love photography as a hobby. I love creating images. But I am also a camera enthusiast. I love using, and owning, different cameras. As much as I've said things like 'never again', or 'finally this is it', I've actually come to understand that I just can't help myself. I like the fact that I've owned and used a tonne of different cameras, from every major manufacturer. I love that I've owned (and therefore used) a Canon 1D Mk2, a 5D, a 30D, 40D and 50D, as well as a Nikon D2x, D70, D200, D300 and now D7100. And I also love that I owned an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk2. It is an amazing camera, and I shall remember it well... 

Emily's stay in Hospital. A photo essay.

I’ve written a bit recently about my reluctance to take ‘real’ photos on a smart phone. I know I’m swimming against the tide somewhat – just look at any event anywhere in the world and you will find more people capturing images and footage on their phones than with dedicated cameras. I’ve even heard of news agencies that have sacked their photographers and given reporters iPhones because that’s ‘good enough’ now for photojournalism. Sigh….

But even I can concede that sometimes your cellphone is the only image capturing device you will have on you. This was certainly the case for me recently, when my daughter was in hospital.

Grey Base Hospital Entrance. Samsung S3
Surprising as this may seem, my first thought when she was admitted to hospital wasn’t “great, a photo opportunity”. Far from it. I was more concerned for her as a parent, and photography was the furthest thing from my mind. But, as anyone who may have spent some time in hospital can attest to, there can be an awful lot of waiting around not doing much. And it’s then, as a photographer, that my mind begins to contemplate the photographic possibilities. It’s also then, however, that I realise I’ve only got my phone on me.

Admitted to Barclay Ward. Samsung S3
As a 17 year old, in pain, and in hospital not looking her radiant best, I know my daughter isn’t going to be thrilled when Dad whips out the camera to start taking photos. But I also know (I hope), that when she’s 30, with kids of her own, she might look back and be glad that there are some photos of her when she was 17 and having surgery for the first time. I know I would. So I tried to be as discreet as possible, take as few images as possible, but still try to tell a little story with the images as best I could.

Drip Fed. Samsung S3
I guess this is where shooting with a smartphone does actually come in handy, since people are now so used to everyone having them out at all times. You’re not ‘the photographer’ with a bag load of gear. You’re just Dad, with a cellphone. Non-threatening. Non-evasive. Or so I thought.

Most of the time I got away with snapping the occasional shot here or there. But in one instance, late at night, after her surgery when the nurse was recording Emily’s vitals, I took a couple of shots and the nurse heard the shutter sound that the S3 makes. She literally stopped what she was doing to look at me, and then drilled me about whether she was in the photo or not, and how patient and nurse privacy was important. My wife jumped to my defense to explain that I was a photographer and was just trying to record the moment for our daughter – but I don’t think the nurse was convinced?

Hospital Property. Samsung S3
So maybe this whole ‘everyone takes photos with their phone’ culture is a curse as much as it is a blessing? For a start, I wasn’t taking photos of other patients, I was taking a photo of my daughter. And yes, maybe the nurse did happen to be in the frame, since she was the one interacting with Emily at the time. But I also have photos of my son’s first haircut when he was five – and guess what, the hairdresser just happens to be in some of them. I have photos of Emily’s last day at kindy, with teachers and loads of other children in them. Are we really at the stage where we have to ask each and every person permission to take their photo if they happen to be in an image we are about to take of a family member?

Before Surgery. Samsung S3
I have heard of photographers (specifically men), taking photos of their own children, being confronted at parks and playgrounds by other parents demanding that they stop taking photos because their own children might be in them. This happens a lot in the U.K. for some reason. But it was really the first time I had ever experienced it myself. It certainly made me more wary of taking anymore photos, and fortunately it was towards the end of Emily’s stay in hospital. But it has also left the photo essay feeling a little incomplete, since I didn’t get any photos of her leaving the hospital to round-out the story.

Going for Walkies before Surgery. Samsung S3
After the nurse incident, I tried to find a setting on the S3 that could lower the shutter noise, or better still remove it completely (it’s just for ‘show’ after all). It was only later that I realised that if you turn the volume off on the phone, the shutter sound doesn’t happen either. Doh!

Going into Theatre. Samsung S3
In terms of the images themselves, I wanted to make them look a little less ‘digital’, so I converted them to black and white and added grain (noise) in Photoshop. It gives the images a more ‘filmic’ look to them, especially the slightly blurred ones shot in low-light that were noisy to begin with. In the end, despite them being phone images, I’m actually rather pleased with the way they turned out.

Vital Signs after Surgery. Samsung S3
In the end, I suppose, it is what it is. A ‘record’ of some of Emily’s time spent in hospital when she was 17, and had her first surgery. They are hopefully something she will look back on later in her life and be glad that her Dad bothered to take some photos? We shall see…

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Sunset on an OM-D EM-5 MkII

In my last post I pondered the oft quoted 'best camera is the one you have with you' line of reasoning in relation to using my Samsung Galaxy S3 to take sunset photos. My argument (and I'm sticking to it), is that unfortunately the 'best' camera is often the one you don't have with you, and you have to settle for second (or third) best.

Blaketown Tiphead Sunset. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ. F6.3 @ 1/320th. ISO 400
Why do we spend large amounts of money on camera bodies and lenses? Why do we (some of us at least) agonize over different systems, kit configurations and accessories? Even if we aren't hung up on image quality to the extent of 'pixel peeping', why is it that many of our photography decisions have to do with technical considerations like noise, sensor size or chromatic aberration?

From Cobden to Blaketown. OM-D E-M5 MkII with 12-50mm EZ. F6.3 @1/200th. ISO 400
Maybe it's because in this digital age, these are the things that are more easily quantifiable? Let's not talk about composition, or subject matter, or story telling - these are far too subjective and ephemeral topics. Much easier to compare low-light images, sensor formats or lens characteristics. With all the agonizing over IQ or individual sensor pixel density (is that a real thing?), it's a wonder we have any time for actual picture making at all!?

Cobden Breakwater Sunset. OM-D E-M5 MkII with 12-50mm EZ. F6.3 @1/400th. ISO 400.
Or maybe, just maybe, these things really are important? And by that I mean individually important. Subjectively important. Important to me. Let me explain what I mean...

Photography is a visual medium. We are visual artists. We like to be visually creative. And so, just like a painter who chooses their paints carefully, we  - as artists - like to choose our tools carefully too. I've heard people say that some photographers spend too much time worrying about the gear and that painters never get together and talk about the brushes they use. Really? I guess these people have never spent much time with painters? All the artists I know have their favorite brands of paint/brushes/paper/canvas that they swear by (and that they have sometimes taken years of trial and error to perfect). So much so that they will almost refuse to use anything else. Does it mean that they can't paint with something else? No, of course not. But does it also mean that they should just paint with anything because surely anything will do?

Grey River Sunset. Olympus OM-D EM-5 MkII with Zuiko 12-50mm. F6.3 @ 1/20th sec. ISO 400
As a photographer, I have my own set of criteria for how I want my 'tools' to perform. I know the level of noise that I am comfortable with at certain ISO's. I have a sensor size and megapixel number that I am happy with, and certain tolerances within which I want my lenses to perform. I've come to these quality decisions from years of trial and error with different systems and configurations, to the point where I now have a set of expectations of how I want my images to turn out with the tools I've chosen. When I use tools that I know will produce an image inferior to my set of (subjective) criteria, then I feel a slight disappointment at the final result. Even if only from a qualitative standpoint.

Freedom Campers, Cobden. OM-D E-M5 MkII with 12-50 EZ. F6.3 @ 1 sec.(hand held) ISO 800
Let me be very clear  - my criteria for acceptable IQ is NOT your criteria. You must find you own. The trouble comes with photographers who try to force their own set of criteria onto others, as if it was some kind of law. "You must have a full frame sensor or you're not a real photographer. You must have at least 40 megapixels or you're not a real photographer. Your images must all be noise free at ISO 640,000  or your camera's no good" - blah, blah, blah....

Kingsgate Hotel at Sunset. OM-D EM-5 MkII. F6.3 @ 1/6th sec. ISO 800
I'd like to end by saying that my image criteria isn't set in stone. It's a fluid, evolving and changing thing - and technology plays a large part in this. A few years ago I couldn't have conceived of hand-holding a sharp image at 1 second. But thanks to the OM-D EM-5 MkII , I can. I was also a full-frame snob for a very long time (yes, one of those). But not anymore. I am also finding that the older I get, the less things like noise and megapixels seem to matter.

And yet they do matter. And I know that they matter when I use my smartphone as a camera and am somewhat unhappy with the results. In a way that I am not unhappy with the results I get from my OM-D EM-5 MkII.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sunset on a Samsung S3

A week ago (as I write this) was my wedding anniversary (19 years). To celebrate, Joanna and I decided to order pizza and go somewhere to sit and watch the sun set. We've had a pretty terrible summer this year, but it just happened to be a nice evening, so we wanted to be outside enjoying the evening as much as possible.

Cheeky Seagull. Samsung S3 camera phone
We wanted to eat the pizza while it was still hot, so didn't want to travel far. I decided to drive to the Blaketown tiphead, a popular spot for spending an evening watching the sea roll in along the Grey River.

As we sat in the car and ate pizza, a seagull perched itself on the bonnet of the car and watched our every more. It seemed the most interested in my bread roll - which I was more than happy to share with him since it had been baked solid!

Because this was a social outing, and not a recreational one, I didn't have my camera with me :-(  But, of course, I did have my phone. So I was able to get a shot of the cheeky seagull, with the reflection of the brown paper bag that contained the bread roll clearly visible in the lower right of the photo.

Blaketown Sunset Reflection. Samsung S3 camera phone
While we watched the waves crashing around the rocks on the Cobden side of the tiphead, behind us, on the Blaketown side, things were starting to get colourful. The waves were taking on a golden yellow colour, and a quick glance behind us explained why. For the above image I literally opened the car door, stood up and took a shot of the golden sky behind us. The reflection is the sunset reflecting off the roof of the car.

Cobden Tiphead from Blaketown. Samsung S3 camera phone
This is the view we were concentrating on as the sunset was developing behind us. You can see the waves crashing against the Cobden tiphead (very mesmerising). It was high tide, so many of the crashing waves were so big they were spraying over the top of the rocks. The sky has a slight orange hue to it, but nothing like what was happening 180 degrees west.

Blaketown Sunset. Samsung S3 camera phone
Pivot 180 from the position that the Cobden Tiphead photo was taken, and this was the other side of the coin - a glorious sunset over Blaketown. We haven't had many of these this summer, but fortunately for my wife and I, we had decided to go out on the right night. Unfortunately, I didn't have a 'real' camera with me :-(

Blaketown Tiphead Sunset. Samsung S3 camera phone
I'm not one of these 'The best camera is the one you have with you" disciples. What a load of rubbish. I get the gist of the idea, but I don't believe it. The 'best' camera I have, unfortunately, was the one I'd left at home that night :-) And so I had to 'make do' with a smartphone camera. And that is really how I look at these images. I like them as photos, they captured something of the scene I saw in front of me, but they are second-rate images compared with what I could have captured with the OM-D EM-5 MkII. And that's just how it is.

Blaketown Tiphead Golden Sunset. Samsung S3 camera phone
The S3 camera is a decent performer at about 8MP, although it is obviously a very small chip, and doesn't have a huge dynamic range. The above image is ok, but has some blocked shadows and blown highlights. Without shooting in RAW, there's really not much else I could do. The phone itself has a very basic +/- exposure slider, which only seemed to 'approximate' some exposure compensation either way. Again it's ok, but a photo I would have much rather shot in RAW to pull out as much dynamic range as possible.

Under a Blood Orange Sky. Samsung S3 camera phone.
When you use the zoom function on the S3 (a digital zoom), things go from bad to worse. Most people are aware that a 'digital' zoom isn't really zooming anything - it's just enlarging the pixels to make the image appear bigger. Trouble is, when you enlarge already very small pixels, you just start to get digital mush. And that's really what I got with the above image. I'd be lucky if I could print a passable 6x4" print from it. The native (unzoomed) files are better, probably resulting in a passable 5x7" or maybe 8x10" print if you didn't look too close. But I could almost guarantee that they would 'look' digital.

Breaking Wave - Blaketown Sunset. Samsung S3 camera phone
So I'm unhappy with all the images -right? Well no, not really. Sure, I wish I had taken them on a 'better' camera. And yes, I would rather they were taken in a raw format to pull more detail out in post. But I still think they are lovely images - and a wonderful souvenir of a great night out with my wife. In fact, I love the above image - Breaking Wave-Blaketown Sunset. It's one of the best images I've shot in a long while (IMHO).

There are some people who carry around a 5D Mk3 with them everywhere they go, so that the 'camera they have with them' just happens to be the best camera they own. That never has been, and never will be, me. I like to turn photography off occasionally. Sometimes I'm in photography mode, other times I'm not. Sure, there have been moments in my life when I've regretted not having a camera on me (less and less now we all have smart phones). But I'm also enough of a realist to understand that some moments will (and should) pass us by without being recorded for posterity. I HATE going to an event and seeing thousands of people glued to their phones instead of enjoying the moment. It just doesn't make sense to me. Put your phone in you damn pocket (or better still leave it at home) and just enjoy the damn concert for crying out loud!

The Blue Hour - Blaketown Sunset. Samsung S3 camera phone
 I suppose I could 'upgrade' to a better phone with a better camera - but that's not really the point. As capable as they are, I don't want to take photos with a cellphone - at least not as my primary means of taking a photo. Phones are still (for me at least) primarily for texting and making calls. And cameras are for taking photos. Sometimes, however, beggars can't be choosers. And the only camera you will have on you, just happens to be in a phone. So be it...


Friday, 10 February 2017

52 Week Project - Week 3

Blaketown Sunset - "Red". Samsung S3
Week three of the 52 Week Project and the subject is 'Red'.

The more perceptive of you will realise that I'm a little (lot) late with the third installment - it's actually more like week 6!

No excuses - but I'm also not going to beat myself up about it either. I have had a few people join me on this project (thanks Bryn and Grace) a little late, so I've stopped to let them play 'catch-up'. We are probably back on track now - and anyway, who said that the 52 weeks of the Project had to be consecutive?! :-)

Is my contribution this week really red? Or is it more orange? Or maybe Orangey-Red? There's definitely a big spike in the red channel of the histogram (if that's anything to go by) - and that's good enough for me.

This is actually another phone shot, taken a few evenings ago when I just happened to be out to witness another glorious West Coast sunset (more on that next post). If not for this chance encounter with a beautiful sunset, I probably still wouldn't have a 'Red' image?

I can tell already that the 'creative' component of theses projects is going to represent the biggest challenge to me. Why is that? Am I not a very creative person? Do I not think very creatively when it comes to photography? Or have I got into a rut from 25 years of shooting? I guess projects like this are designed to get you thinking more creatively than you otherwise would have to if you concentrated solely on landscapes or portraits (not to say that you can't or shouldn't be creative with either of those subjects).

Have I been 'creative' in my interpretation of 'Red' as a subject? If I'm honest with myself, then 'no', I haven't been. I've just taken a shot of a beautiful sunset that just happens to have red tones in it (lucky for me). That's not to say that I wasn't thinking about other ways I could interpret the colour red - because I have been, a lot. In the end though, nothing really sparked my interest, and the above shot was taken and posted almost out of sheer desperation.

And maybe that's also what these projects/challenges are good for. Exposing weaknesses. Shaking us out of habits and ruts. Blowing the cobwebs, slowly but surely, out of the creative corners of the brain. If I can achieve that this year, then the challenge will have been worth it.

Friday, 13 January 2017

52 Week Project - Week 2

Traditional Landscape. Ilford Delta 100
It's week two of the 52 Week Project, and this week the theme is 'Traditional Landscape'.

The brief says to: "Shoot a beautiful landscape and share it with the world. Find a nice foreground and don't forget the sky."

The image I've shot for the project isn't my 'normal' approach to landscapes. For a couple of reasons....

I want to try and 'push' myself a little with these weekly challenges, and try to create something out of the norm for me. Otherwise what's the point - right? So for a start, the photo is obviously in portrait orientation - whereas I would normally automatically default to landscape orientation for, um, a landscape 😉

The other obvious departure for me is the use of black and white. I love black and white images, but I almost always think in glorious technicolor when I think of landscapes. I tend to reserve black and white for portraiture or documentary style work. But I didn't really have a choice this time, since the shot was taken on B&W film. Ilford Delta 100 to be exact.

We've had a shockingly wet and miserable summer here on the West Coast, with very little chance to go out and take glorious colour images. Even so, my wife and I still try to go for a morning walk every day, (in the rain) and one morning this week it looked like it might be clear for an hour while we walked. So I loaded my Yashica 230AF with Ilford Delta and headed out to see if I could at least get some photography done.

There's a farm just down the road where we live, and I have often wanted to stop and take some photos of the cows in the field. I was in luck this morning, as the herd was grazing close to the road where we walk. I loved the mist rolling over the hills, and the cows - true to their inquisitive nature - looked up to watch us pass by. I took about three shots and moved on. Two were in landscape, and one was in portrait orientation - and I liked the portrait one best.

Is it a 'beautiful' landscape? I think so. Is it a 'traditional' landscape? Maybe not - although I do get quite a Gainsborough or Constable feel from the picture. Did I find a 'nice foreground'? I love the cows staring back at the viewer (very cow-like behavior), and the way the centrally placed cow is  exactly in the middle and front-on, while the second cow is profile and off to the side. And finally - did I 'forget the sky'? Well, it's not your classic blue sky with puffy clouds landscape - but I love the mist rolling in over the hills. It transports me immediately to the same dull, drizzly morning of the walk. It wouldn't evoke the same feel with puffy clouds. So yeah, I think I nailed the brief. What do you think?

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Charming Creek Walkway, Ngakawau Gorge

Over the Christmas/New Year break we had planned as a family to do a few local walks (weather permitting). So we jumped at the chance to join some friends who were going on the Charming Creek Walk, half an hour north of Westport, in the Ngakawau Gorge (pronounced 'Nock-a-war').

Fortunately we chose the right day to go as the day dawned beautiful and clear (we've had a lot of rain this summer). It was, in fact, too clear, with harsh light that followed us around all day.

Charming Creek Daisy: Celmisia Morganii. OM-D E-M5 MkII
The track is an easy walk, with only a very gradual incline following old rail lines to a stunning waterfall about an hour in. Along the way, and depending on the time of year that you visit (December/January is ideal) you will come across the Charming Creek Daisy (celmisia morganii) growing along the side of the track. This highly localised species of daisy is found only in the Ngakawau Gorge - and grows abundantly along the Charming Creek walkway.

The Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm EZ f3.5/6.3 has a 'macro' setting on the lens that I find myself using quite a lot. It's obviously not 'true' 1:1 macro, but it allows for decent close-focusing at the 50mm end of the range, where the f6.3 aperture allows for a decent depth of field. The lenses 'bokeh' (out of focus background) is quite smooth and natural, making for some very pleasant 'macro' flower shots. My son Josh doesn't have this functionality with his 14-42mm kits lens and he really missed this on the walk. He seems naturally drawn to macro-type photo opportunities, so a dedicated macro lens (the 60mm f2.8 or 30mm f3.5) is the top of his lens wish list.

Tunnel exit. Charming Creek, Ngakawau Gorge
The Charming Creek Railway was a privately owned line built in 1912 by brothers George and Bob Watson, sawmillers from Granity. The original line was wooden and was worked by horses. It ran as far as Watson's Mill in the Charming Creek Valley. In the 1920s the line was upgraded to steel and rail tractors were introduced. Bob Watson established the Charming Creek Westport Coal Company in 1926, and from 1929 up to six coal trains used the line daily. By 1942, at the height of its operation, the Coal Company employed 69 men and produced 43,385 tonnes of coal. The line closed in 1958, after which wood and coal was trucked by road to Seddonville.

This sense of early New Zealand pioneering history is evident all along the Charming Creek walk. Old rusting train parts and the ever-present steel tracks that cut through the forest and tunnels, remind you of the walks historical significance every step of the way. Yet, as impressive as the history is, the crowning jewel of the Ngakawau Gorge has to be the impressive Mangatini Falls.

Mangatini Falls, Charming Creek Walkway, Ngakawau Gorge. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with 9mm fisheye bodycap lens
On the other side of a suspension bridge, about an hour's walk in, Mangatini Falls can be heard long before it is seen. The rumble and roar of hundreds of tonnes of water makes for an impressive sound as you approach the falls - and the view does not disappoint. There are tracks that lead down for a more up-close-and-personal view of the falls, or you can take in the full vista from a lookout along the track.

Above is the view from the track, taken with the 9mm fisheye bodycap lens. Again, the conditions were quite harsh, with very bright highlights and deep shadows. I exposed for the highlights as much as possible, letting the shadows go black. Later, using ACDSee's Ultimate 9 software, I pulled out as much detail from the shadows as I could while still making it look natural.

I could have maximized the dynamic range by using the HDR function on the OM-D E-M5 MkII, or set up on a tripod and taken five exposures that covered a complete range of exposures. But to be honest, I didn't even think of using the in-built HDR function, and didn't have a tripod for bracketing exposures. Shooting in RAW, and knowing I could pull detail out of the shadows later on as long as the highlights were ok, was my best option. And it worked fine - although at ISO 800 the shadows are a little noisy.  

Fern frond. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Olympus 40-150mm f4/5.6.  F6.3 @ 1/60th sec, ISO 400
Because a lot of the day was spent shooting macro in the shade - hand-held - my ISO hovered around 800. I will take the E-M5 MkII up to 1600 without too much concern for noise, although it is definitely there at the higher ISO's. The great feature of the OM-D's is their incredible IBIS (In Body Image Stabilisation) that can give you two or even three stops to play with, so you can wait longer before having to increase the ISO.

The fern frond above was taken at 1/60th of a second with the 40-150mm lens zoomed all the way out to 150mm. This makes it the equivalent of a 300mm focal length on a full-frame system. Conventional wisdom would claim that the shutter speed should be at least equal to the focal length if you want a sharp image - which would have meant shooting at 1/500th sec on a film camera.  Shooting at 1/60th instead has given me three extra stops (1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th) to play with, allowing me to lower the ISO to 400. The resulting shot therefore has less noise, and is plenty sharp enough.

A family of Photographers. Charming Creek Walkway
Despite the overall harsh lighting conditions, we had a fantastic time, and took some great photos along the Charming Creek Walkway. It's one of the most spectacular (and easy) walks on the West Coast, and well worth doing if you are ever lucky enough to be in this part of New Zealand.

I'm certainly going to do the walk again soon - hopefully on a slightly more overcast day. I've got an 8-stop ND filter which I think would be perfect to play with in places along the track, and at the waterfall itself. Nicky, a friend and fellow photographer who came with us on the walk, used her 10-stop ND for some water images and got some beautiful results. Can't wait to give it a go myself.   

Saturday, 7 January 2017

52 Week Project - Week 1

2017 is here - so it's 'that' time of the year. The time to make those pointless (maybe) New Year's resolutions that you will break before you're even through January. Most of us do it every year - and most of us don't follow through on any of them...

So this year, instead of making new year's resolutions, I thought I would just make a new year's commitment. Isn't that the same thing? Isn't it just semantics? Maybe. Only time will tell. But this time around, my wife and I have made the same commitment; to be more intentional in being creative this year. For me that means a photography project, and for my wife it means more quilting projects. We are going to try and help each other with this commitment - and it will also mean being a lot more deliberate with our 'spare' time not being taken up with mindless activities like watching TV.

Confession - I'm hopeless when it comes to photography projects. Last year I decided to make portraits on medium format film of notable people in my town. Never happened. In 2012 I had an idea for a project - 12 cameras in 2012. I'd shoot every month for a year with a different old film camera, and turn the results into a book. What a great idea! Never happened. And then there was my pathetic attempt at a 365 photography project. It lasted about two weeks before I was so stressed from having to take a photo every day that I vowed and declared to never attempt a 365 project ever again! So I'm not going to.

But what I am going to do - which I hope (pray) is a bit more achievable, is a 52 Week Photography project. One photo a week, on a particular subject, designed to get you thinking creatively. More achievable than a 365 project? I certainly hope so. And added together with my new year's commitment to be more creative, I'm hoping that I'm on to a winner?

Selfie. Samsung Galaxy S3 with SketchGuru app. (Print filter)
I found a 52 Week Photography project on the web at Dogwood Photography's website, which outlines the subjects for all 52 weeks, and looked achievable (on paper at least). It's broken down into three main areas that keep repeating; portrait, landscape and artistic. Week 1 is a Self Portrait.

SketchGuru App (halftone filter)
While waiting for my wife to get some groceries, I decided to do my first weeks project sitting in the car. I have a few photo apps on my phone that I've never used, so thought this would be the ideal time to give them a go. One app in particular - SketchGuru - looked promising, so I fired it up, pointed the phone back at myself, and had a play. I had a lot of fun, and it was a great way to kill half an hour while I waited in the car!

So that's week 1 under my belt. Only 51 more weeks to go! 😊  Hopefully I can stick at it for that time, although I'm sure there will be some weeks that will be touch-and-go. I'm feeling pretty good and relaxed about it at the moment though, and actually pretty excited about this year's creative possibilities. I will post my 'final' shot for the week, every week, on this blog. So if nothing else, that should give me 52 posts on the blog for 2017! If I make it to the end, it will be great to look back on a year's worth of photography challenges and the images that this will produce.

Do you have any photography projects on the go for 2017? Are you interested in doing the 52 Week Challenge that I'm doing? The great thing about the 52 week challenge is that you can start it at any time - not just at the start of a new year. I've just done it that way so that it falls neatly within the same year. But you don't have to. If you're keen to do the same project, click on Dogwood Photography's name and a link will open that will take you directly to the project page. I'd love to hear from you if you start doing the challenge - or if you are doing something different? Drop me a line in the comments section below and let me know.