Friday, October 19, 2007

Sigma have let me down!

Ok, I had decided on my lens line-up. It was going to be:

1. Sigma 20mm f1.8
2. Sigma 24-70 f2.8
3. Sigma 100-300 f4

A good solid lineup that covered the entire focal length range and interestingly standardised my filter needs (all 82mm). But Sigma let me down. I searched and I searched and I couldnt find the 100-300 anywhere. Finally I ordered it from adorama becausse they thought they could get one out of Sigma with a definite order - but no luck. 5 weeks of waiting and nothing - Sigma just couldnt be bothered.

So thats it. The order is cancelled, Sigma has been benched and I'm now going to buy the Carl Zeiss 16-80. Sorry Siggy, you had your chance.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lens Marketplace as at Sep 07

I posted a file some time ago which had a lens database showing old Minolta, new Sony, Canon and Nikon lenses, and more importantly their prices.

I've taken that one down now as it is out of date and needed a few corrections. The principal changes are:

1. I've incorporated the three new Sony lenses and shown the recent price drops.

2. I've factored in the price of hoods in those Canon lenses where they arent provided.

3. I've moved some of the lenses around to try and better reflect their actually market positioning.

Lens Database as at Sep 07

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Confessions of a digita photographer 3

I wasn’t going to write anything else on this topic unless asked a direct question but a post was made on the Dyum forum recently that has inspired me to return to the keyboard and break my promise. That was a statement by Dynaxdude that: “The only difference between a SLR and a DSLR is the recording medium.”

This is simply wrong. Show me an SLR that can take 400 shots without pause. Show me the SLR that can change film sensitivity on the fly. Show me the SLR that can give me a histogram of the shot I have just taken. Show me the SLR that can show me the picture I have just taken.

I suspect that Dynaxdude’s response to me will be a paraphrase of what was written in his post, that these are bells and whistles that do nothing to change the essence of taking a photograph. But this is wrong – at least for me.

I’m going to jump to a completely different area of endeavor for a second to illustrate my point – bear with me please. Consider the Head Up Display (HUD). A HUD is a composite projection of flight data onto a plane, focused at infinity, into the pilots field of view. For many years after they were first introduced these were considered to be a nice extra that made some boutique functions easier (especially those related to shooting stuff). HUDs were certified as secondary flight instruments, that meant you could fly with it turned off, could disregard it etc.

More recently however this is changing. The HUD is being regarded as a primary flight instrument, the one instrument you must have operating or the mission is off. In this sea shift there was little change in how the HUD worked or the data it provided. What has changed are the users. When the HUD was developed and introduced every pilot was trained and gained their experience on traditional instruments so when this new technology came along it was simply grafted onto a pre-existing training and operational concept. A pilot learnt to scan the “T” of his instruments and refer to the HUD occasionally for specialist purposes.

A few decades on and we now have people running flying schools who underwent their introductory training in aircraft (and/or simulators) with HUDs, these people are also writing the specifications for new aircraft, defining the standard operational procedures, assessing trainee aptitude etc. As the people that use the HUD have changed the use of the HUD has changed. And the way aircraft are designed and flown has changed. Now pilots fly the HUD and scan screens occasionally in response to cue. Instruments aren’t arranged in the classic “T” any more.

Sticking with the aircraft theme, similar changes in Flight Management Systems, navigation, communications etc have fundamentally changed what it takes to be a pilot of a modern aircraft. Hands and feet skills are slowly becoming less important while systems management and monitoring and pattern recognition are increasingly essential.

Returning to photography the same revolution is currently underway. I titled this thread “Confessions of a digital photographer” for a reason. I am a digital photographer. Having the ability to take hundreds of photos, review my shots, check the histogram etc isn’t an extra to me it’s a fundamental part of the process of taking a photo. I routinely take a shot just to review it on the screen and gauge how I want to meter the next one. I rarely (though action shots or ones I plan to subject to HDR treatment are exceptions) bracket my shots as I find one shot, a quick review and the next one I generally get right. As a guy who has grown up with technology the 2.5 inch screen is a meaningful and useful, not a “postage stamp”.

Further, as a digital photographer, this statement just does not make sense to me:

“So processing and workflow aside: what's the difference between taking photographs with en electronic recording medium versus a chemical recording medium?”

It doesn’t make sense to me because, for me you can’t put processing and workflow aside in the digital realm. To us, the idea of taking your raw files, sticking them on a disk and giving them to a lab to “process” is just wrong, if I did that it wouldn’t be my photo when I printed it. To me as a digital photographer my computer is part of the DSLR system and has fed back to affect my photography. What hardware and software I have changes the photos I take. What I can do with layers and curves informs me of what exposures I’ll set. How I can remove bits of extraneous scenery with cloning feeds back to determine how I frame the shot etc.

Increasingly I’m finding this is automatic, again it’s not a add-on to my thinking, it is core processing done in the background and doesn’t intrude into my consciousness when I’m looking thru the viewfinder. In responses to my initial email a number of film guys and girls have stated that they find film brings them closer to the subject as they aren’t distracted by reviewing photo’s, checking histograms etc. They enjoy the slower pace of film and the need to change rolls and wait (days) to see the results. They are like the pilots suited for and trained in a classic steam cockpit confronted with the modern glass one. They can use the new systems but will tend to fall back on their ingrained habits unconsciously thus many of the new tools will actually be hindrances to them.

Ultimately I would say that if you don’t see a difference between and SLR and a DSLR you aren’t using one of them right – or at least to their full potential.

I hate film because I am fundamentally a digital guy (when it comes to photography) to me what others see as character I see as fatal flaws. Others aren’t digis and use film – what I see as core features they see as diversions, that’s cool. And there is the difference between most film and digital photographers – respect.

As I read through this thread and the corresponding “film-digital-film” one I see virtually no instances where digital photographers are critical of film photographers or their methods. Film itself cops a bagging but not those who use it. Film photographers have no such respect. Terms like “dabble”, “point and hope for the best”, “impatient”, “lacking confidence”, etc are routinely bandied about by film guys about those of us who prefer digital.

We might use totally different ways of getting to the final image (and they are totally different if you are doing them right) but in the end its about the image. I hate film, but I have never derided those how love it. All I ask is for the same respect in return.

PS - I dont apologise for writing a long post.

Confessions of a digital photographer 2

A little bit of time has passed and the thread has pretty much run its course so I figured I have one of two choices, I could let it pass quietly into the night or I could try and round it out with one last message.

I have decided for the latter principally to to put my thoughts on the record with respect to responses from my topic starter. The responses to my first, wide ranging, post have extended the scope of the discussion still wider, so I won’t try and address everything that has been raised. Instead I will focus upon two key, and related observations.

The first was that my post was an attack on film and therefore naturally inspired a defence of that medium. The second was that I had gone overboard in using the word “hate”. So was I intending to attack film as a medium used by other people generally? Absolutely not!

The whole intent of my post was to expose my feelings towards film. Far from being a general attack, my post was intensely personal. Doing a quick word count, in an essay of just over 1100 words, I used the word “I” over 70 times. “I” was the most common word used in the piece for a very deliberate reason, as was the use of the word “confession” in the title. The dictionary meaning of a confession is “acknowledgement or avowal; admission or concession”. It was written in that spirit. I was admitting my dirty little secret, I was going public with my feelings on the medium many loved and cherished. I wasn’t intending to launch an argument (though I suppose in retrospect that was inevitable), in fact I explicitly noted that my piece was part of a story, not an argument. Perhaps I should have started "Forgive Dyxum for I hav sinned........"

So why did I use the word hate? Isn’t that deliberately inflammatory? I used the word hate because, frankly, its how I feel. Perhaps I didn’t explain my feelings enough in my piece but the clues were certainly there, particularly in the following passage: “From 17 to 37, twenty years, I reckon I have maybe 100 photos, that’s it. (I have managed to fill in a fair few of these gaps by going through my parents albums fortunately).” What happened during those 20 years? I met friends and lost them. I got married, had three children, travelled the world, learnt to scuba dive and ski. I flew in choppers and jumped out of planes. I raced sailing boats and took up building cars. All of this was covered by about 100 photos. I don’t have the record of those events I might because film was such a painful thing (for me) to use. As I finished my piece: “The truth is film kept me away from photography”

It isn’t logical, it isn’t fair, it doesn’t make sense but I blame film for not having been able to enjoy photography for all those years. In those circumstances I don’t think “hate” is to strong a word. Do I also blame myself? Do I wish I had been able to get through the difficulties of using film – absolutely. I am certainly willing to bear part of the blame, returning to a theme earlier – that’s why I titled this a confession. Anyway that’s it – nothing more from me on this topic (unless someone asks a direct question, ignoring those is just plain rude.)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

I reckon most camera testing gurus are wrong!

Recently there have been a few people on dyxum stick their heads above the parapet and have a go at producing comparisons of cameras, lenses, flashes etc. Many of these testers have been roundly abused and their efforts trashed. The common theme from self anointed test experts has been that the people conducting these tests had wasted their time by trying to use their cameras as they normally would instead of in a precisely controlled and identical way.

I have been uneasy about the way I have seen people testing and reviewing cameras for some time but there is nothing on tv right now so I figured I’d spend a few minutes putting my thoughts on paper (well on disk to be more accurate).

I am relatively new to photography but I have been involved in testing complex systems in one form or another for most of my career. Over the years I have been involved in the testing of cars, trucks, plant, aircraft and surveillance and control systems and my experience tells me that the accepted wisdom of how to test cameras is completely wrong.

Over and over I read people dictating how a test is to be conducted – use exactly the same speeds, exactly the same ISO values, exactly the same apertures, develop using the same software, same sharpness settings etc. Sorry but that simply isn’t a meaningful test.

Imagine you were testing cars over a standing quarter mile, would you specify that both cars had to be launched at precisely the same engine speeds, that you had to change gears at the same revs, etc? Of course not. You would conduct a few test runs to determine the ideal launch and gear shift points for each car and then run each car in their optimum configuration. Then after each car had given up the best times they could achieve you would truly know which was the fastest. That is a meaningful test.

If I was testing a radar, the characteristics of the target, its position, velocity vector, RCS would all be identical but I would configure each radar in the manner that best suited it. If one radar performed best at higher frequencies and other a lower frequencies and I would use each differently were I to purchase them what would be the point of forcing each to operate at an artificial common frequency. All I would be ensuring would be that my testing was a waste of time.

Cameras are precisely the same. When testing cameras we should design the tests to ensure each camera produces the best image the camera can in a given situation. All that needs to be kept constant is “the shot”, ie the scene and the lighting. Just about everything else should be up for grabs. One camera might have great inherent noise characteristics meaning you can ramp up the ISO and make a shot relatively easily. Another might not have such great noise characteristics but you might be able to get around this by “over” exposing and then winding back the exposure in processing. That one camera might have required a little more work in a given situation is worthy of comment surely, but that is all, ultimately any meaningful test must be designed to ensure each competitor was configured and used to yield the best possible results. To do otherwise is to pretend that there is only one way of taking a shot, only one way to develop it, only one way to present it.

We know this is not true, so why would we persist in running tests that, by definition, have no relevance to how we would actually use our cameras?

I think we need to stop thinking that camera tests need to follow the same old tired formula of here is a scene and here are comparisons of iso x, y, and z. That test really does not help me at all. It leaves so many questions unanswered. Instead a good test should say here is a scene, this is the best shot we could get from camera x and this is how we got it, this is the best we could get from camera y and this is how we got it. This is a real world test with real world application.

What do others think?

I know a lot of people on dyxum place great stock in the so called “scientific” method of test, I’m really interested in why would you test that way? Do you really restrict your use of your equipment to the highly restrictive regimes you advocate for your testing?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tamron Workshop 13, 14 July 07

On the weekend of 13/14 July 07 I attended a photography workshop sponsored by Tamron and run by Roy Toft, a professional nature photographer. This was my first ever photography lesson/workshop so Roy isn’t up against a great deal of competition when I say it was the best photography workshop I’ve ever been to.
But more seriously it was really good and I’d highly recommend the to anyone. I learnt a lot, but more than anything found myself energised by being around someone who so obviously loves what they do and after many years working at the highest levels of this craft is still learning and trying new things.
So what happened. Well the workshop began on a Friday night at Robi’s camera center in Tacoma. This was a pretty basic slide and talk show with Roy talking briefly about what he does but then launching into a selection of photos he had taken on a recent trip to Costa Rica. In talking about the photo’s Roy was completely candid about how they were taken and went into considerable detail concerning the problems each shot posed and how he set the shot up to overcome them.
Many (possibly all?) of Roys trips appear to double up as workshops where he takes amateurs out into the field with him and teaches them to shoot birds, bears and monkeys with real birds, bears and monkeys. I think it is this experience of teaching amateurs like me while also trying to do a professional shoot that gives Roy a special insight into the mistakes amateurs make. I know that just about everytime he said “One thing I see a lot of amateurs doing ……” I found myself nodding. The next day at the shoot I tried to follow his tips as much as I could and I found that I was a) enjoying my photography more, and b) getting some better photos (not all better but I’ll talk about that later).
So, I’ve got about ten pages of tips but I haven’t got my journal with me but here are a few of the things Roy said that really struck a chord with me:

1) Don’t feel you are cheating if you are using a long lens for nature photography. For animals in trees a long lens is actually preferable as it will lessen the angle between you and the animal and cut down on the number of butt shots you bring home.

2) When shooting animals on the ground however get as low as you can. Sitting over a lion and shooting down turns it into a cat, shooting down on a wolf turns it into a dog. While we don’t all get to shoot lions and wolfs the principle applied generally. Shooting down on animals reduces them, shooting at their level or up empowers them (and by extension your pictures).

3) When shooting wild animals don’t rely upon stumbling across them as you are both moving. Do your research, figure out where they are likely to be, get there early, sit still and wait. Consider using a blind. This will avoid a whole memory card of startled looks and butt shots as the animal is surprised and then runs. An animal going about its business naturally is a much better subject than one terrified into stillness.

4) White sux as a lens colour when trekking thru the scrub.

5) Shooting snakes with a 14mm lens is really dangerous.

6) The success of a day is measured in the quality of your best shots, not the quantity of animals you’ve bagged. If you get a good animal be prepared to really work the situation with different angles, different lighting. Be prepared to spend a 100 shots on snakes head to get the one perfect shot with his tongue out (for example). Don’t see an animal, get a shot away and think “bagged that one – moving on.”

7) Be prepared to play around a little. Great images aren’t just technically great, in fact sometimes the technical side is a little off, but they must create a great mood, convey a feeling, an ideal. We should be trying to capture the character of the animal.

8) While subject is the first consideration, background comes just behind. The difference between a good and great photo is often just the background.

9) Just because you can fill the frame with a monkeys face doesn’t mean you should. Be prepared to step back a little and try and put the animal in context.

10) Don’t feel you have to capture the whole animal. Figure out what you want the photo to say and show then work on what matters.

In addition to these general tips Roy passed on a wealth of more technical information which I’ve written down but haven’t got with me such as ideal shutter speeds for creating panning shots with flying birds, how to plan for the use of flash for freezing motion, etc.

Anyway, the Saturday was mostly spent at a wildlife reserve in Olympia (Nisqually Wildlife Refuge). There we tried to find animals to try out our new techniques. Unfortunately wildlife was a little thin on the ground however everything worked out when the group found a trail teeming with thousands of baby frogs and the odd salamander. In a flash the workshop turned into a very helpful lesson in how to do Macro in the field.

After that we went into the Olympia Farmers market for some food and more general photography practice then back to the store for general chat, handing out raffle surprises etc.

Something I have left out was that as the event was sponsored by Tamron a rep came along with 5 great trunks full of goodies for us to play with. In essence he had several copies of every just about every Tamron lens for every mount we could simply sign out and play with in the field. Unfortunately I came away from this needing another lens – bugger.

All in all a great day and a bit. On the strength of this day I would strongly recommend your check out Roy Toft’s website and I know I will now be trying to convince my wife we need a weeks holiday in Alaska with the bears in 2008.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What I've been up to Jul 07

Ive not posted for a few days, I've been too busy actually doing things to get time to write about doing things. What have I been doing?

Well first, I was not careful enough a few months ago and moved my photos around without maintaining the connections between the files and their photoshop locations as registered in my catalog. Do you know how long it takes to reconnect 18,000 photos? About two weeks, working 2 or 3 hours a night 4 to 5 nights a week. But thats done now.

Next, I've just attended a photography workshop and getting myself ready for that and then actually doing it has consumed much of my time over the past days.

So all in all I havent had time to really think too much.

I'll post a review of the workshop soon.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sony and the DSLR Lens marketplace

We are (apparently) on the cusp of the launch of a new range of lenses from Sony. This, the delays in Sony's release of new cameras and their stated aim to become one of the big players in the DSLR game has made me wonder how the current range of Sony lenses stacks up against the big two, Canon and Nikon.


Red cells indicate sony price over their rival (number percentage over).

Green cells indicate Sony price under their rival (number percentage under).

Note there are a lot more reds than green.

DSLR Lens Marketplace

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Confessions of a Digital Photographer - I hated film (and still do).

Ok, some background. Cars were my first love. As I travelled on public transport going to and from work or as I sat in meetings that were going nowhere I would doodle lists of my top five cars. Top five Italians, top five Germans, five best years in American automotive history, best five cars I could ever expect to own, that sort of thing. One thing you would have noticed on my list (I will put them on my website one day) was that few, if any, of my ‘top five cars’ was new. In fact, the very newest car I would buy if I won the lottery is probably a mid 80’s Lancia Intergrale.

There is just something about old cars that I love. They are more tactile, less anodyne (in all its meanings).

But despite all this romantic longing for the automotive past, I never, ever pretend my old cars were as good as the newer ones. As an engineer there were things I simply could not ignore. The simple facts are that new cars are designed to far higher standards, built from far better materials, and manufactured to far closer tolerances and to much more exacting quality standards.

I have always loved my old cars but respect the ability of the new.

Which bring me to photography and film.

I grew up with lots of cameras in the house. When I was a teenager my parents bought me a camera hoping I would take it up as a hobby. I think I shot half a dozen rolls of film before I decided that photography blows. What do you mean it will take days to find out if the photo worked? What do you mean the light has changed and I have to change film half way thru a roll? Why are my photos either yellow or blue and why cant I change them. Here is the image I want to capture – sorry it went while I was phutzing around with a dozen technical issues. Will I take two shots just in case, nah I have to save some film – damn it didn’t work, I should have taken a second shot.

From 17 to 37, twenty years, I reckon I have maybe 100 photos, that’s it. (I have managed to fill in a far few of these gaps by going through my parents albums fortunately).

Then at 37 (three years ago) I discovered digital photography and I have taken perhaps 8000 images. I love it, everything film did to turn me away from photography is gone. I can check my shots worked, I can improve shots on the fly, I never need to worry about taking more photo’s, I only shoot raw so white balance isn’t an issue, I can print quality color photos at home, I can have prints in any shape I want, I can add text, drawings, create collages, story boards, slideshows.

And the quality is whatever I want it to be. I can control color, detail, sharpness, tone and texture. All this and I am using essentially an entry level camera, a pretty standard home computer, the cheapest software I can find and a very basic inkjet printer. I will be upgrading my camera, printer and software and I cant imagine the results I’ll get then.

Just about every review I have read of cameras as a tool has stressed one point, that the less the operation of a camera intrudes into the relationship between the photographer and the subject the better. And by this measure digital has film skun, spitted and served with gravy.

But the best handling camera (or imagery system if you include computer, printer, scanner, software, tablet etc etc) is next to useless if its photos aren’t up to snuff. Do digital photo’s match the quality of film. This is tricky as we are now in the realm of aesthetics and this is difficult to judge. There is also the issue of whether I will ‘allow’ the digital manipulation of an image captured on film (is this a film image or a digital one – I think its digital?). I will put it this way, I read that people think digital images render skins that look plastic – I simply don’t see it no matter how hard I look. People say that digital pictures may look sharp but actually lack detail – again I have looked and looked for this and I just don’t see it. I just don’t see the differences, everything I have seen shows me one thing that with a digital camera and half decent software I can produce an image that match of anything film can achieve.

If you really disagree remember that virtually every photo you see today in print is a digital image. It may have been captured on film initially but buy the time we see it the photos have been through the Analogue to Digital conversion, compressed, reformatted and printed.

So then it all comes back to the performance of the imaging package and like I said before that isn’t a contest, it’s a rout with film running hard to avoid being steamrolled..

My father had a lovely old Pentax SLR (which I have inherited and is winging its way to me right now). I also have a beautiful 59 Pentax Asahi Screwmount and a petite old Canon rangefinder. I occasionally sit and play with these cameras and wonder what it would be like to shoot with them. I’ve dry shot them each about 1000 times and got close to actually taking a photo, but every time I have stopped short. Why – film. As soon as the thought of using film crosses my mind the old cameras go back up onto their shelf, the Alpha comes out of its case and I am happy again.

I love driving my Lancia, I’m trying to buy another mid 70’s Fiat and am searching for a decent 69 Buick Riviera. I know that a new car would be more reliable, have better performance, use less fuel, be safer etc etc. But I just want my old stuff.

So I understand and respect peoples desire to keep shooting film. But I felt the need put an alternative view.

The truth is film kept me away from photography, digital brought me back – sorry but I hate film.