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; 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.